In 1865, British-controlled Jamaica faced an economically-driven revolt that altered its history.
Though slavery had been abolished in the British empire during the 1830s, emancipation had not come with land reform. Ex-slaves and their descendants remained desperately poor. Indeed, Britain’s near-simultaneous liberalization of the sugar trade had cratered prices for Jamaica’s top export — and with it, cratered most of the Caribbean economy.
To a petition early in 1865 for access to crown lands to relieve these dire conditions, Queen Victoria had extended a familiar classic of cruel and condescending economic catechism: shut up and work.
“The prosperity of the Labouring Classes, as well as of all other Classes,” quoth the piece that would be published as “The Queen’s Advice”,
depends, in Jamaica, and in other Countries, upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly, or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted, and for so long as it is wanted; and if they would use his industry, and thereby render the Plantations productive, they would enable the Planters to pay them higher Wages for the same hours of work than are received by the best Field Labourers in this country; and as the cost of the necessaries of life is much less on Jamaica than it is here, they would be enabled, by adding prudence to industry, to lay by an ample provision for seasons of drought and dearth; and they may be assured, that it is from their own industry and prudence, in availing themselves of the means of prospering that are before them, and not from any such schemes as have been suggested to them, that the must look for an improvement in their condition; and that her Majesty will regard with interest and satisfaction their advancement through their own merits and efforts.
So your average Jamaican fieldhand’s “merits and efforts” became so much dry tinder accumulating, just waiting for the spark. (Note: Princeton has an album of photographs from this period here.)
In October 1865, flint struck steel with the prosecution of a poor black laborer for trespassing onto unused land.
The ensuing protest mushroomed into the Morant Bay rebellion: a scuffle with police, leading to proscriptions, leading to a more confrontational mob, an outnumbered and trigger-happy militia, and a full-fledged riot that seized the town of Morant Bay and proceeded to attack nearby plantations.
Dreadful reports, more terrifying for their scantiness and uncertainty, went abroad in those days, of “atrocities revolting to human nature.” That’s the New York Daily News, which ran a letter from Kingston, Jamaica, reporting “the whites who have fallen into the hands of these savages have been doomed to slaughter without distinction of age or sex. They tear out the tongues of their victims, cut off the breasts of women, strangle and mutilate little children.”*
Fearing a Haiti-like general revolution, Jamaican Governor Edward John Eyre — once an Australian explorer, which is why you can find his name on a New South Wales wine label — bloodily crushed the uprising.
Hundreds were put to death, either summarily in the field or after proceedings that would have wanted twice the deliberation to rise to the level of perfunctory. Hundreds more, including pregnant women, were flogged. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time without a demonstrable alibi ready to hand was liable to be worth a body’s life.
We note over the next five days two famous cases and three obscurities that may give a sense of how things were in those days — though Morant Bay depredations could in fact sustain several numbing weeks in these pages. For instance, a missive dated October 19 reports in passing the capture of “a number of prisoners from the rebel camp. Finding their guilt clear, and being unable either to take or leave them, I had them all shot. The constables then hung them upon trees, eleven in number.”
Oct. 20, 1865: William Grant
Oct. 21, 1865: An unnamed Obeah man
Oct. 22, 1865: Johnson Speed
Oct. 23, 1865: George William Gordon
Oct. 24, 1865: Paul Bogle
One officer** who showed excessive (read: any) exactitude for process was ordered in writing to emulate a comrade “doing splendid service … shooting every black man who cannot account for himself.”
Nelson at Port Antonio hanging like fun by court martial. I hope you will not send any black prisoners.
All this “fun” would put Governor Eyre in the eyre of a storm back in the home country.
These executions — but most especially that of colonial assemblyman George William Gordon — had little or no color of law, and spurred many English liberals to demand Eyre himself be prosecuted for murder. Nor was this merely an elite predilection: English working classes then in the midst of their own push for representation rallied in support of the Jamaicans, even burning Gov. Eyre in effigy. British Tories and propertied Jamaicans called Eyre a hero.
Ultimately, this furious “Eyre Controversy” proved insufficient to generate an actual criminal procedure against an agent of the empire, which would have entailed clearing a very high bar indeed. Recourse to the civil courts produced a landmark 1870 decision, Phillips v. Eyre whose upshot was to validate a law Eyre had the Jamaican assembly hastily enact retroactively legalizing his behavior and thereby rule out the prospect of a tort claim.
That Jamaican assembly was spooked enough that in 1866 it renounced its own power and made Jamaica into a Crown Colony directly governed by its British executive.
But if the need of the moment was to suppress the uprising, the need of history was to celebrate it — and the hero for posterity would not be Governor Eyre. The Morant Bay insurgents, a bare few of whom we will meet over the next days, have been valorized as slave rebels even if they weren’t quite literally slaves, and generally occupy an honored place in Jamaica.
* Cited in London Times, Nov. 13, 1865 — by which time the actual revolt was well over.
** That reluctant officer complied with his orders, but threw himself into the sea when recalled to England for subsequent the parliamentary inquiry.