On this date in 1865, Baptist deacon Paul Bogle was hanged at the Morant Bay courthouse for his part in that locale’s eponymous rebellion.
Third World’s “1865 (96 degrees in the shade)” celebrates Paul Bogle: “Today I stand here a victim the truth is I’ll never die”
Bogle helped lead of the protests-cum-riots that became that rebellion.
Baptists played an essential role in the affair, which has led some to call it the “Native Baptist War”. And indeed, Baptism had long intertwined with underclass resistance: Jamaica’s most famous slave rebel, Samuel Sharpe, was also a Baptist deacon. A previous royal governor in Jamaica had once warned that “the worst evil which hangs with a menacing aspect over the destinies of this island is the influence exercised with baneful effect by the majority of Baptist missionaries.”
From the standpoint of the powerful in Jamaica and Britain, 1865 would vindicate that warning.
A (white) Baptist missionary named Edward Underhill had penned a January 1865 letter bemoaning the miserable condition of most Jamaicans and starkly disputing received wisdom that blacks were just too lazy to work: “The simple fact is, there is not sufficient employment for the people; there is neither work for them, nor the capital to employ them.” (Underhill later wrote a book on the events, The tragedy of Morant Bay, a narrative of the distrubances in the Island of Jamaica in 1865.)
Underhill’s letter got into public circulation and as a result there were a number of “Underhill meetings” perhaps comprising an “Underhill movement” on the island in 1865 — essentially a going social campaign that rooted deeply in Jamaica’s native Baptist communities. Though “native Baptists” is a vague term, it distinguishes not only black from white but, in the words of Mary Turner, a whole “proliferation of sects in which the slaves developed religious forms, more or less Christian in content that reflected their needs more closely than the orthodox churches, black or white.”
William Gordon had switched his religious allegiance to native Baptist and was known to speak at Underhill meetings: that’s part of what got him hanged.
Likewise, our day’s focus, Paul Bogle, was a native Baptist minister, in the St. Thomas-in-the-East parish — and it was the protest of Bogle and his supporters against an unjust prosecution that started the whole rebellion off.
Statue of a militant Paul Bogle (that’s a sword in his hands) outside the Morant Bay courthouse where all the trouble started. (cc) image from dubdem sound systems.
There was, accordingly, an immediate reward out on Bogle’s head, and an immediate demonization in the respectable English press. There, he was “the notorious Paul Bogle,” in the words of one letter to the editor (London Times, Nov. 18 1865), in whose Baptist chapel rebellious “panthers” wantonly “drank rum mixed with gunpowder and the brains of their victims.”
By the time that letter had been dispatched, Bogle’s purported orgies had long since been interrupted: captured by Maroons, he was delivered to custody, instantly tried, an hanged that very day in a batch of 18 rebels.
A horror to Victorian planters, Bogle has won the reverence of posterity as a freedom fighter and national hero.
Paul Bogle on the (now out-of-circulation) Jamaican two-dollar bill.