On this date in 1865, the creole politician Samuel Clarke was condemned and immediately executed under martial law in the crackdown following Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion.
A carpenter from the parish of St. David, Clarke was a political activist — the kind of gadfly whom like Tony Moilin in the Paris Commune “a prudent and wise Government must rid itself when it finds a legitimate occasion to do so.” And the post-rebellion British crackdown was just such a “legitimate occasion” … well, sort of.
“Persons were tried and put to death under martial law for acts done, and even for words spoken, before the proclamation of martial law,” complained John Stuart Mill. “A peasant, named Samuel Clarke, was hanged some days after the proclamation of amnesty, for words spoken two months before the proclamation of martial law, his only specified offence being that he had, at that time, declared with an oath that a letter signed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies was a lie.”
Like the more celebrated white politician George William Gordon, Clarke was seized from outside the martial law zone and brought into it so that he could be prosecuted for “subversion” that consisted of merely having liberal opinions.
According to Swithin Wilmot (“The Politics of Samuel Clarke: Black Creole Politician in Free Jamaica, 1851-1865,” Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1/2 (March-June, 1998), a key source for this post), Clarke first became obnoxious to elite planters in the early 1850s when he mobilized black ex-slaves to capture one of the parish seats in the colonial assembly. Clarke would serve a month in prison for an election day riot that claimed the life of a poll clerk. But a few months after his release, “the small settler voters … pronounced their own verdict on the conduct of their black political leaders” by giving Clarke and his party a clean sweep at the 1853 elections and a stranglehold on local politics in St. David.
Clarke himself did not meet the property qualifications to contest a seat in the colonial assembly, but his faction had the votes to control these seats — and Clarke himself became a militant levelling voice whom white elites regarded as a demagogue, forever inciting “the people to be rude and insolent to their employers.”
The bloody year of 1865 finds Jamaica facing an economic crisis thanks to trade liberalization and Clarke provocatively denouncing the “Queen’s Advice” directed at the restive lower orders (“The prosperity of the Labouring Classes … depends … upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly, or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted”) as “a lie, a damned red lie” and complaining of a regressive levy that “The taxes were only made for the Black man and not the White, there was one law for the Black man and one for the White man.”
In the wake of October’s Morant Bay black rising, these statements would be read in a most incendiary light by Governor Edward John Eyre — but they were made before that rising, and Clarke did not take part in the rebellion. As with Gordon, his standing political commitments simply became retroactively seditious.
A few days after the riot at Morant Bay … [Clarke] was told a warrant was out for his arrest. He at once gave himself up to the authorities, and was handed over to the military at Uppark Camp. While there, he was told by an officer of superior rank he would be hanged, although he had not been engaged in the riot, because he was one of the “ringleaders” of the people … Mr. Eyre personally directed that Clarke, with a number of other prisoners who had been arrested in Kingston, out of the martial law district, for the same crime of having attended the Underhill meetings, should be sent to Morant Bay for trial; and he was so sent, on or about the 1st of November, many days after Mr. Eyre had himself declared the rebellion to be subdued, and had issued a so-called proclamation of amnesty.
Clarke was put upon his trial on the 3rd of November at Morant Bay before a Court-martial, of which Lieutenant Brand was president, and it is unnecessary to say more than that the sentence was death. The only witnesses examined were the Custos Georges, McLean the Vestry Clerk, and a reporter called Fouche, who gave evidence as to Clarke’s speech at the Underhill meeting in Kingston. The evidence disclosed no circumstances of participation in the riot by word or deed, and related solely to Clarke’s words weeks even months before martial law was proclaimed.
Within an hour of the trial Samuel Clarke was on the gallows, the proceedings of the Court-martial and the sentence having been “approved and confirmed” by General Nelson. At this very time General Nelson had himself apparently begun to sicken at the work, he having already hung upwards of 170 persons, including seven women. He accordingly represented to General O’Connor that he had doubts about trying the remainder of the Kingston prisoners by Court-martial for words spoken before the proclamation of martial law. The General agreed with him, but although the same doubt applied most conspicuously to the case of Samuel Clarke, it did not save him from his doom …
Before his trial Mr. Clarke was flogged by order of Provost-Marshal Ramsay, and among the prisoners forced to witness the execution were his brother, Mr. G[eorge] Clarke.* (Source, which also has a full transcript of the trial)
* George Clarke was the son-in-law of another prominent martyr of these days, the Baptist deacon Paul Bogle.