Jamaica's Morant Bay Rebellion: brutality and outrage in the British empire

Richard Huzzey investigates how the brutal massacre following Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion created a schism in British opinion over the role of colonialism...

This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

An illustration of the Morant Bay Rebellion on 11 October 1865. The demonstration resulted in bloodshed when troops guarding the court opened fire on the crowd. (Getty Images)

One hundred and fifty years ago, British soldiers stood among thousands of burned homes in Jamaica, surveying the battlefield they had created. At least 400 Jamaicans lay dead, many of them hanged in reprisals after the fighting had finished. The use of martial law to authorise these deaths quickly became the most infamous part of Britain’s response to the ‘Morant Bay Rebellion’ that shocked the island in October 1865.

A celebratory letter from one soldier to another recorded “the splendid service” of “shooting every black man who cannot account” satisfactorily for his activity. The colony’s governor had not only authorised brutal force against the areas in disruption, but he had also directed sweeping revenge against the communities and individuals who defied his rule. In the subsequent months and years, cultured Victorians back home in Britain would use these events to debate the finer legal and philosophical points of what empire meant for liberal and conservative principles.

The tensions that sparked the rebellion and its brutal suppression had been building since slavery was finally abolished in the British West Indies in 1838. Though now freed from slavery, black Jamaicans found themselves pushed to work for low wages in the sugar fields of former masters. Those who wanted to strike out on their own were harassed by the Jamaican colonial assembly’s laws that punished vagrancy or ‘squatting’. Though the assembly was elected by a black majority, since the property qualification for voting was fairly modest, the requirements for candidates ensured that only a few wealthier black or mixed-race Jamaicans could play a part in government. For the most part, the wealthy white owners of sugar estates remained in charge, and tried to prevent any redistribution of land to their former slaves.

Seven months before the rebellion, black Jamaican workers had articulated their grievances to their queen respectfully and peaceably. On 25 April 1865, the workers from Saint Ann parish petitioned Victoria about their “great want at this moment from the bad state of our island soon after we became free subjects”. They went on to outline the ways in which, following their emancipation from slavery 27 years earlier, black Jamaicans had found colonial authorities set against any efforts at independence, especially when it came to farming for themselves.

The colony’s governor, Edward Eyre, reluctantly forwarded the petition to the monarch. He found the response from the British Colonial Office much to his liking. He widely distributed this ‘Queen’s Advice’, which told her petitioners that, as in the rest of the empire, workers’ prosperity depended upon them working harder to make “the plantations productive”. This, the message suggested, would allow West Indian proprietors to match the wages “received by the best field labourers” in Britain.

 


Edward Eyre, governor of Jamaica at the time of the rebellion. (Princeton University Library)

In early October 1865, a leading black resident of Saint Thomas parish, Paul Bogle, led protests against the court settlement of a land dispute. Efforts to arrest him and others escalated over subsequent days, and on 11 October he marched on the Morant Bay courthouse. Soldiers opened fire and, in the aftermath, he was caught and executed; many hundreds of others were killed in the fighting and reprisals that followed.

Bogle’s political mentor, George William Gordon, was a wealthy member of the island’s elected assembly, son of an enslaved mother and a Scottish slave-owning father. But that did not spare Gordon from guilt by association. He had agitated on behalf of poor Jamaicans, raising exactly the same issues of prejudice that sparked Bogle’s defiance. Governor Eyre ordered Gordon’s arrest; he was taken into the area under martial law to be hanged without the usual burdens of proof in a civilian court.

When news of the rising reached British newspapers, many readers would probably have sided with the governor. Just a few years earlier, in 1857–58, Britons had broadly supported the punishment meted out to Indians rebelling against the East India Company. However, as news of Eyre’s actions filtered across the Atlantic, black Jamaicans appeared in a more sympathetic light. Gordon had used the hours between condemnation and execution to write a letter to his wife. She passed it to Louis Chamerovzow, secretary of the British Foreign and Anti-Slavery Society, who published the letter. Gordon was embraced as a Christian martyr to Eyre’s butchery during the “very questionable” period of “military despotism”.

By December 1865, some of the most famous lights of Victorian British society were dividing into clear factions. Drawing together abolitionists, lawyers and leading authors, an organisation calling itself the Jamaica Committee denounced Eyre – not his victims – as the real threat to the British empire. The savagery of the military response and the manipulative extra-legal killing of Gordon, the governor’s long-term political critic, offended these men’s faith in the benevolence of British rule. Sceptics were not satisfied with the Royal Commission sent to Jamaica by the Liberal government in early 1866 to investigate. When it reported in early June, the government removed the governor but avoided any legal sanctions against him.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill played a leading role in sharpening the committee’s response. He was incensed at “an infringement of the laws of England” and “acts of violence committed by Englishmen in authority, calculated to lower the character of England in the eyes of all foreign lovers of liberty” and likely to “inflame against us the people of our dependencies”. Mill and his ellow Liberal MP John Bright hoped to launch and finance a private prosecution against Eyre for what they saw as his murder of Gordon. In July 1866, when moderate members flinched at this suggestion, Mill took over as chairman of the Jamaica Committee and the money was raised from supporters including biologists Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin, geologist Charles Lyell and historian Goldwin Smith. Most of these intellectuals were publicly identified with the Liberal party and some, such as Mill, sat as MPs.


The cotton tree where the rebels assembled immediately before attacking Morant Bay courthouse. (Princeton University Library)

Support for the governor

A similarly distinguished group of Eyre apologists arrayed themselves against this committee in a “war of representation”, as one eminent historian has described the public debates. From August, the author Thomas Carlyle chaired the Eyre Defence Fund, to raise money for the costs of legal representation for the governor. More than a decade earlier Mill had crossed swords with Carlyle, his former mentor and friend, in the periodical press. They had argued over the reasons why the West Indian sugar colonies had not prospered after emancipation, Carlyle blaming the freed people and Mill their tyrannical government. Now Carlyle employed his pen to defend Eyre and criticise the government, which “instead of rewarding their governor Eyre, throw him out the window to a small loud group” of “rabid Nigger-Philanthropists, barking furiously in the gutter”. This cause – if not the aggressive language – drew support from literati such as Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley and Alfred (later Lord) Tennyson.

How did such Victorian intellectuals justify their sympathy with Eyre? We might point to three general influences. First, they included some of the most passionate champions of workers against free-trade industrialists; men such as Carlyle and Dickens had previously attacked middle-class philanthropists as too interested in American slavery or African civilisation rather than with the plight of workers in Britain. Second, Carlyle and his admirers, including Kingsley, venerated a cult of manly leadership and prized authoritative rule, allowing them to interpret the governor’s actions accordingly. Third, the sharp power of a belief in racial superiority led Eyre’s defenders to trust a white governor’s judgment and doubt the trustworthiness of people of African descent.

This is not to say, however, that the critics of Eyre were anti-racists or anti-imperialists. Their criticism of violent repression rested on the damage done to Britons’ claims to superiority and benevolence in ruling “subject and dependent races”. They did not fundamentally disagree with the Queen’s Advice, issued by a Liberal government, which had dismissed the tensions over land and labour law in Jamaica. Far from sympathising with the rebellion as epitomised by Paul Bogle, Mill and his colleagues focused on the use of martial law and the opportunistic murder of George Gordon. Mill, whose part in the controversy may have helped him lose his seat in the 1868 election, would later recall that “there was much more at stake than only justice to the Negroes” but “whether the British dependencies, and eventually, perhaps Great Britain itself, were to be under the government of law, or of military licence”.

After arguments in the press and in the courtroom, the prosecution of Eyre finally faltered in 1868. The governor’s reputation remained tarnished, though, and he lived the rest of his life in private, surviving on his government pension. Those who deprecated Eyre’s methods did not fundamentally disagree on questions of empire – Mill and his allies looked to liberty, not authority, as their tool, but they still saw black people as pupils in civilisation rather than equals. The clash of celebrities quickly became the focus of journalistic (and later academic) attention on Morant Bay. Black Jamaicans – except, perhaps, the respectable George Gordon – faded from the attention of Britons.

A century and a half after the rebellion and the foundation of the Jamaica Committee, this Victorian controversy offers important lessons for our understanding of empire and liberal thought. Eyre’s response underlines the role of violence, actual or threatened, behind British colonial rule. The murder of hundreds of Jamaicans has often been listed alongside the cruelties of the Amritsar Massacre in India (1919) and the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (1952–60) as exceptions to the ‘rule of law’ in the empire, but violence lurked in the foreground of imperial governance. Gordon is now immortalised in the National Heroes’ Park of Jamaica, and Paul Bogle is commemorated alongside him – reminding visitors of the broader struggle in post-emancipation Jamaica, as well as Eyre’s most famous victim.

 

How the rebellion split Britain's leading lights

Supporters of the Jamaica Committee, backing Eyre's prosecution:

John Stuart Mill
Mill a utilitarian philosopher and MP for Westminster, advocated on behalf of a range of liberal causes such as women’s rights. He was well known thanks to writings such as On Liberty. However, he supported colonialism as a force for civilisation.

Charles Darwin
Darwin became known for his evolutionary theory, expounded in On the Origin of Species (1859). He and fellow naturalist TH Huxley supported Eyre’s prosecution. Some researchers believe that his family’s support for abolitionism inspired his interest in biological difference as a way to prove the common humanity of all races.

John Bright
Bright had established himself as a national figure during the campaign to repeal the Corn Laws, which triumphed in 1846. A staunch free trader, he shared scepticism of imperial and military power with fellow ‘Manchester School’ politicians. A radical Liberal MP for Birmingham at the time of Eyre’s trial, he would become a cabinet minister in William Gladstone’s 1868 Liberal government.

Thomas Hughes
The Lambeth MP was famous as the author of Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), which offered young Britons moral lessons about manly responsibility and childish tyranny. He joined the Jamaica Committee after championing the Union during the American Civil War (1861–65), when he warned that the Confederacy was fighting for slavery rather than national self-determination.

 

Defenders of the governor’s response to the uprising:

Thomas Carlyle
One of the most celebrated essayists and controversialists of the age, Carlyle criticised the exploitation of factory workers and posed the ‘Condition of England’ question about the dehumanisation of the poor. However, he also venerated a “genuine aristocracy” of great men who could, historically and in the future, rule authoritatively for the common good.

Charles Dickens
The author drew attention to the plight of the British poor in his popular serialised stories such as Oliver Twist (1837-39), but he did not extend that sympathy to black Jamaicans. Though he criticised slavery in his American Notes (1842), he was strongly influenced by his mentor, Carlyle, in mocking philanthropists who sent charity to Africa while ignoring suffering at home.

Rev Charles Kingsley
Kingsley was regius professor of modern history at Cambridge University but also famous for his novels Westward Ho! (1855) and The Water-Babies (1863). Initially reluctant to speak publicly in favour of Eyre, he found himself opposed to Hughes and Darwin, who had been his allies in previous public controversies.

Richard Huzzey is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Liverpool, and author of Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (Cornell UP, 2012). He is a member of the Centre for the Study of International Slavery.

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