Posts filed under 'Jamaica'

1865: Samuel Clarke, Jamaican radical

Add comment November 3rd, 2017 Headsman

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.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Jamaica,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1917: Herbet Morris, British West Indies Regiment deserter

Add comment September 20th, 2017 Headsman

At dawn on this date in 1917, 17-year-old Jamaican soldier Herbert Morris was shot in a courtyard behind the town hall in the Flemish town of Poperinge.

He’d volunteered the year before, 8,000 kilometers away from the terrible trenches, to cross the Atlantic and stake his life for the 6th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment but in the end it was the guns of his own countrymen who would fell him.

Like numerous front-line troops, Morris became disordered by shellshock, and despite a generally commendable service record, routed during a bombardment to be discovered days later wandering at Boulogne. With that (non-capital) precedent already to his name, Morris’s second desertion on August 20 met a very much harsher response.

When on active service deserting His Majesty’s Services, in that he, in the Field on the 20th of August 1917, when warned for duty, in the neighbourhood of the front line absented himself from his detachment until apprehended by the Military Police at Boulogne on the 21st of August 1917.

-Morris’s death sentence, endorsed by Douglas Haig, 15 September 1917

“I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of guns,” Morris explained to his very brief court-martial, unavailingly. “I reported to the Dr. [sic] and he gave me no medicine or anything. It was on the Sunday that I saw the doctor. He gave me no satisfaction.” Two character witnesses from his unit comprised the entirety of his defense.

During the week between Morris’s hearing and his Field Marshal Haig-confirmed sentence, a violent mutiny by British Empire troops in Etaples, France shook the high command. Nobody can say if it was determinative for Morris’s fate, but it cannot have weighed in favor of leniency.

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1773: Lewis Hutchinson, “the most detestable and abandoned villain”

1 comment March 16th, 2015 Headsman

Two inconsistent versions of a mass-murderer’s moniker in this American colonial news dispatch* can hardly detract from the horror of Jamaica’s first serial killer. The Scots emigre Lewis Hutchinson owned an isolated estate along the only byway connecting the north and south sides of Jamaica.

“The Mad Master of Edinburgh Castle” sought the most dangerous game in this creepy defile, and as many as 40 or 50 passing travelers might have become his prey when they came calling in need of a bed for the night at his sinister donjon.

Extract of a letter from Kingston, in Jamaica, April 1.

The 16th of last month was hanged at Spanish Town, one James [sic] Hutchinson, the most detestable and abandoned villain, that ever disgraced the human species.

He was a naive of North-Britain, and had a pen in Pedro Valley, in St. Ann’s parish: when any of his neighbours cattle strayed on his lands, he always secured them as his own, and by that means had acquired a little fortune, and it is imagined that many people had been murdered by him for demanding their property, and this conjectue seems but too well founded as you’ll observe in the sequel.

A Mr. Callender (whose land joined Hutchinson’s) had lost a Jack-ass, and seeing him in this wretch’s pasture, went to him and requested that the Ass might be turned in the highway, when he would take care he should trespass upon him no more.

Hutchinson told him this command should be immediately complied with, and when Callender had turned his back and was going away, the villain took a gun, and killed him on the spot. A man then lying sick at Hutchinson’s hearing the report of a gun, crept out of his bed, asked what firing that was, and said, I believe you have shot the man that I heard enquiring about the Ass.

The villain replied, go instantly to your bed, or I’ll serve you the same sauce.

The sick man however in the evening, found means to get privately out of the house, and immediately lodged a complaint, upon which Hutchinson, was apprehended, and by the information of one of his negroes, the place was discovered where he had conveyed the head of Callender, and where near 20 other human skulls were found, the body was thrown into a cockpit (as is here called) a place deemed inaccessible, being down a perpendicular rock, that had been split by an earthquake, or so formed by nature, the bottom of which could not be discerned, hanging however upon a point of the rock which jetted out, the unfortunate man’s body was seen, and well known by his cloaths; by some daring contrivance, a person went down a considerable length, and discovered a great number of human bones, but no skulls, so that it is to be supposed, this merciless villain had always taken off the heads of those he had murdered, in the same manner he did with poor Callender.

At his trial, he had several of our most eminent council to plead for him, and during the whole time for his commitment to his execution, he behaved with the greatest insolence, he employed the whole day before he died, in writing, and told the people he had made his own epitaph, and left a 100l. to have it engraved on his tomb stone. It is long and ill wrote, but he concludes it in these words, speaking of the Courts and Jury,

Their sentence, pride, and malice I defy,
Despise their power and like a Roman die.

Lewis Hutchinson, hanged at Spanish Town the 16th of March, 1773, aged forty years. — Thus was the world rid of this detestable and most execrable monster.

* It was printed many places; the Salem, Mass. Essex Gazette of May 25, 1773 is the specific one I’ve transcribed from.

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1865: Paul Bogle

Add comment October 24th, 2012 Headsman

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.

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1865: George William Gordon, Jamaican politician

Add comment October 23rd, 2012 Headsman

“No incident of the dreadful story” of Morant Bay, wrote Edward Underhill, “produced a more painful impression than the arrest, trial, and execution of Mr. G.W. Gordon” this date in 1865.

The son of a white planter and a mulatto slave, George William Gordon was an able businessman and became a Jamaican assemblyman.

In that capacity, he was a vocal critic of British colonial maladministration, an advocate for blacks, and a political foe of Jamaica’s governor, Edward John Eyre. He’d already had government commissions canceled because of his politics.

Gordon had nothing to do with the Morant Bay outbreak. He was away from the disturbance altogether, in Kingston, when it broke out.

But he was regarded by many white elites as a class enemy, and Eyre did not intend to miss this opportunity to eliminate him. A few years later, a French tribunal would express the rationale as it cracked down on the Paris Commune: guilty or no, “a prudent and wise Government must rid itself [of troublemakers] when it finds a legitimate occasion to do so.”

Accordingly, Gordon was arrested by civil authorities in Kingston — he actually turned himself in when he heard there was a warrant out on him — and then transferred into the hands of the drumhead military tribunals that were operating in the conflict zone, obviously with the intent of terminating a gadfly.

This extra-legal act is discussed in greater detail here, but the long and short of it was tartly summarized by no less than the sitting Lord Chief Justice:

[Kingston authorities] were not the ministers or apparitors of the martial authority, and did not possess the power to take up Mr. Gordon for the purpose of handing him over to the martial law. Nevertheless, they did it. They did it by the exercise of the strong hand of power, because it was thought that a conviction could not be got at Kingston. It was altogether unlawful and unjustifiable. To Mr. Gordon it made the difference of life or death.

Gordon, in his last letter to his wife, took it all in an understandably contemptuous stride:

General Nelson has just been kind enough to inform me that the court-martial on Saturday last has ordered me to be hung, and that the sentence is to be expected in a hour hence, so that I shall be gone from this world of sin and sorrow.

I regret that my worldly affairs are so derranged: but it cannot be helped … I never advised or took part in any insurrection. All I ever did was to recommend the people who complained to seek redress in a legitimate way … It is however the will of my heavenly Father that I should thus suffer in obeying His command, to relieve the poor and needy, and to protect, as far as I was able, the oppressed …

do not be ashamed of the death your poor husband will have suffered. The judges seemed against me; and from the rigid manner of the Court, I could not get in all the explanations I intended. … It seemed that I was to be sacrificed.

Much of what Governor Eyre did in those desperate days skirted, at best, the edges of what might be legally colorable. But at least those instances, in the main, were directed at people alleged to have been actual rebels or rioters. Eyre could safely expect wide latitude where the security of the realm was at stake.

In Gordon, however, there was a man whose crime was nothing other than to have sympathized with the real and crushing plight of the lower orders and advanced their cause politically. Eyre’s magistrates made that fact alone into sedition, and twisted the rules of their own courts-martial to pin it on Gordon.

Given the exceptionally lawless nature of this scenario — and Gordon’s own visibility as a colonial elite — his became the lightning-rod case for English liberals incensed at Eyre’s behavior. John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and others demanded Eyre’s prosecution for the affair, Thomas Huxley writing for the faction,

the killing of Mr. Gordon can only be defended on the ground that he was a bad and troublesome man; in short, that although he might not be guilty, it served him right.

I entertain so deeply-rooted an objection to this method of killing people — the act itself appears to me to be so frightful a precedent, that I desire to see it stigmatised by the highest authority as a crime.

It can hardly surprise the reader, versed as we are by this late date in official impunity, that not Eyre nor any lieutenant was ever thus stigmatised.

While Eyre evaded due punishment, Gordon could not escape the plaudits of posterity. He’s been honored as a Jamaican National Hero, and the very building where the present-day parliament sits is called the Gordon House in his honor.

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1865: Johnson Speed, arson bystander

Add comment October 22nd, 2012 Headsman

The line between a snap military tribunal with a preordained outcome, a summary execution in the field, and simple murder blurs over in this affair where the word of any armed man in a British uniform had virtual color of law.

This account of one poor sod flogged within an inch of his life and then summarily shot when his captor soldiers took it into his heads that he might have had something to do with some fire comes from Illustrations of Martial Law in Jamaica: Compiled from the Report of the Royal Commissioners, and Other Blue Books Laid Before Parliament.


On [October] the 22nd four white soldiers were taken by Mr. Christopher Codrington to his house at Rose Garden, where they had dinner. When they returned in the evening to David Mayne’s shop, at Long Bay, two constables were there with two prisoners, James Sparkes and Johnson Speed.

They tied the former to a tree, and gave him 100 lashes.

They then tied up Johnson Speed, and gave him eighty-five lashes, when the cat broke.

One of the soldiers ran into the shop and brought a horsewhip, but another one interfered as it was not a thing to beat a man with. Another looker-on was here asked whether Johnson Speed had done anything during the disturbance, and he replied that when Mr. Hinchelwood’s house was burning Speed was there. Then the soldier said, “Where is my rifle?”

The man cried out, “Lord, I don’t do nothing, and I am going to dead.”

The soldier fired, but his rifle had no ball in it, or he had missed. He loaded the gun afresh, and hit the man in the middle of the back as he was tied to the tree. Another one went up, as he dropped writhing to the ground, and put a rifle to his ear and blew out his brains. These were soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of H. M. 6th Regiment of Foot. Mr. Christopher Codrington, a Justice of the Peace, was present.


The above is one of the very last accounts in a tome heavy with atrocities destined never to be punished in this world.

It seems apt both for the subject matter of this site and for laying bare the biases of the source to include the very last few paragraphs that follow.


David Burke was shot at Manchioneal. The soldiers ordered him to go before and point out rebels. “He was a big stout young man,” said a witness, ” and he walked quite lumber-like, and they said he was a rebel too, and shot him dead”.

Andrew Clarke was shot in his own house, at Manchioneal, under the following circumstances, as described by his widow :—

I was sitting with the baby, and I saw a black soldier, and he asked Andrew Clark, “Where are all the men’s goods you have ? Please bring them out.” Clarke said, “I have been sick three months, and I did not interfere.” The soldiers searched and found nothing. Then I was sitting down, and three soldiers came in, and a man named Saunders came in with them, and I explained that it was John Murray’s house, and the soldier dropped him, and he dropped on his side and bawled for mercy. The soldier told me, “Take yourself right out,” and I came out, and another soldier said, “Put another bullet into that fellow’s head,” and they blew out his brains. They burnt the house with fire from the kitchen.

These are samples of the scenes enacted in the beautiful island of Jamaica under pretence of repressing disturbances. My task has not been undertaken in vain if it tends to deepen the resolve of my countrymen to resist at all hazards, the preposterous pretensions of Colonial Governors and military officers, to deal with human life and property as they please, without responsibility to the laws which bind society together, or to the nation which places the sword in their hands for the purposes of justice and mercy.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Jamaica,Occupation and Colonialism,Rioting,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1865: An unnamed Obeah man

1 comment October 21st, 2012 Headsman

From William James Gardner’s (public domain) A History of Jamaica:

On the 21st a circumstance occurred which created much controversy. A reputed Obeah-man was tried by court-martial and convicted. One of the favourite assertions of these people has been that “Buckra can’t hurt them.” Colonel Hobbs directed him to be placed on a hill-side, about four hundred yards from the firing party. The bullets caused almost instantaneous death, and it is stated that the effect on the minds of the prisoners was so great, that the colonel felt at liberty to release a considerable number then in his camp, many of whom were heard to say they never would believe in Obeah again.

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1865: William Grant, evidently a ringleader, a persuader, and adviser

Add comment October 20th, 2012 Headsman

The account below of a forgotten saddler hastily attainted a participant “in the background” in the Morant Bay rebellion comes from Illustrations of Martial Law in Jamaica: Compiled from the Report of the Royal Commissioners, and Other Blue Books Laid Before Parliament.


Another victim was William Grant, saddler, of Morant Bay. The following record of the proceedings in his case is probably unique in the history of judicial or quasi-judicial investigations :—

October 20th, 1865.
Drum-head Court Martial.

President:—Lieut. H. Brand, E.N.
Members:—Lieut. Errington, K.N., Ensign Kelly, 4th W.I.R.

William Grant, charged with being one of the ringleaders and originators of this rebellion.

The Provost sworn states :—

About four or five days ago I was informed that this man was the originator and founder of the party who raised the rebellion, that he was not likely to be seen himself, but makes the others. He keeps a saddler’s shop, where the secret meetings took place. On the road from St. Thomas-in-the-East to the Guinness (Ginnep) tree, where placards had been posted, calling secret meetings, I searched the house of Chisholm, also a confederate, and in the presence of Mr. Jones, E.A., I took a blue card, as an admission ticket to a Society of Friends, printed William Grant, Founder. That card I sent to the Governor.

The prisoner Duncan Stuart, in his defence, when called upon by Captain Astwood, voluntarily made this statement. He had previously made it in the presence of Mr. Miller, J.P., whose signatures I here produce. “Grant called Bogle at Dr Alveranga’s, and said, ‘Don’t pull this down, wait a little, don’t join with the Volunteers, when you see what they do, run in.’ Grant said, ‘Now is the time to vindicate.’ ”

Mr. Miller, Justice of Peace, for St. Thomas-in-the-East, sworn:—

That statement was voluntarily given and sworn to before me.

Geo. F. Judah, Sergeant-Major of Volunteers:—

I gave the prisoner my rifle to repair on the morning of the riot, and he has kept it, and I have never seen it since.

The prisoner in his defence merely states that he never knew anything about the riot before it actually broke out. He has acknowledged to having corresponded with Mr. Gordon, but that, he states, was quite private, about some land.

This man was evidently a ringleader, a persuader, and adviser, and did his utmost to keep in the background and push the ignorant on to rebel.

Found Guilty, October 20th, 1865. Sentence, Death.

H. Brand, President,
Lieutenant E.N.
Approved and confirmed,

A. A. Nelson,
Brig. Genl. Commanding Field Force.

[The proceedings of the Courts-martial were retained by the Commissioners, and they refused to exhibit them to the Counsel for the parties complaining of the measures of suppression. General Nelson and others were therefore not cross-examined in reference to these trials.]

The first witness, Ramsay, the Provost-Marshal, told the Court only of what he had been informed — the great crime of the prisoner apparently being that he was the founder of a Society of Friends, and had actually a blue card of membership in his house.

The witness, Duncan Stewart, was not called. He had already been tried and was under sentence of death, and was duly hanged the same evening along with Grant. (See List). A so-called statement of this man was produced in writing. It will be noticed he spoke only of “Grant” having used certain words. Three Grants were hung at Morant Bay, and a William Grant was convicted by a Special Commission at Kingston, while the Royal Commissioners were sitting, and sentenced to penal servitude for life. It is clear from the evidence then given that the William Grant alluded to by Duncan Stewart was the one who was then sentenced. John Dickenson, on being examined by the living William Grant at that trial said:— “There was a William Grant, a saddler, who is hung. You are left. You are the man.” (No. 355 of Papers laid before the Royal Commissioners by Mr. Eyre).

Ramsay had evidently a strong interest in the conviction of this prisoner. He sent the following letter to Captain Luke, on 16th October, 1865:— “I also personally apprehended William Grant, the founder of the Society of Friends. I hope I may not be thought seeking for pecuniary benefit alone in claiming the rewards for information against G. W. Gordon at large, seizure of Chisholm, Grant, and Miles.”

Brand, the President of the Court-Martial, seems to have felt the evidence was weak, and he supplemented it by the following statement of his own. “This man was evidently a ringleader, a persuader, and adviser, and did his utmost to keep in the back ground and push the ignorant on to rebel.” The Judge having thus convinced himself, by his own conclusive testimony, adds “Found guilty. Sentence, death,” and, as a matter of course, the experienced officer of Her Majesty’s Service, who was the revising officer, adds:—”Approved and confirmed. A. A. Nelson, Brig.-Genl., Commanding Field Force, Morant Bay, 20th October, 1865.”

It is unnecessary to add that in the list of the executed is to be found the name “William Grant, under date of the 20th October. Charge, ringleader of rebellion!”

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Daily Quintuple: The Morant Bay rebellion

Add comment October 20th, 2012 Headsman

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.”

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Daily Doubles,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Jamaica,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries

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1799: Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas, anti-slavery insurrectionist

Add comment December 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Portuguese Jew Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas was publicly hanged in Kingston for attempting to incite a slave revolt in the British colony of Jamaica.

Here in a revolutionary age, probably no insurrection could terrify Europe’s ancien regimes like the Haitian Revolution.

History’s most successful slave revolt, the rising that seized Saint-Domingue from the French conceivably threatened — if it should spread — the entire material foundation of Europe’s colonial exploitation, and the racist intellectual superstructure that justified it.

This nightmare of crowned heads was also the dream of the epoch’s visionaries, and the subject of a struggle whose victims included Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas among many, many others.

Domingue if I do

An insurrection of Caribbean slaves against European exploiters had obvious appeal to their brethren groaning at the bottom of the Atlantic economy. In “Saint Domingue in Virginia: Ideology, Local Meanings, and Resistance to Slavery, 1790-1800″ (Journal of Southern History, Aug. 1997) James Sidbury explores the (to whites) nerve-wracking arrival in that U.S. state of both news and refugees from revolutionary Saint-Domingue.

In 1793 Willis Wilson complained to Governor Lee of the “defenceless situation” of the town of Portsmouth, whose militia lacked arms and whose streets contained “many hundreds [of] French Negroes” including, Wilson had been “inform’d,” many who “belong[ed] tothe insurrection of Hispaniola.” … a commander at the state arsenal of Point of Fork — located on the James River west of Richmond and southesat of Charlottesville — reported dangerous “conversations amount the “people of colour” … “particularly since the Arrival of the French from C[ap] F[rancois],” Saint Domingue.

While these currents carried along Gabriel Prosser and a young Denmark Vesey, they also swept up men who were not slaves at all.

Isaac Sasportas, the nephew of a prominent Charleston trader (said trader’s 200-year-old home still stands there), was himself a wealthy Caribbean shipper who in the 1790s seems to have taken a nearly professional interest in revolution. After trying and failing to re-ignite a rebellion in Dutch Curacao, he started zeroing in on Haiti’s next-door neighbor, the brutal British sugar colony of Jamaica. Distinguished as it was by a running history of slave revolts, it was a natural target for the fin de siecle‘s savvy revolution-exporter.

Sasportas landed there in 1799 under cover of his gadabout-merchant act to reconnoiter British defenses and make contact with the island’s maroons.

Diplomatic L’Ouverture

The Haitian Revolution’s progress through the 1790s and into the first years of the 19th century was itself a complicated political process entailing the realest of realpolitik. Here was a colony surrounded by rival empires’ outposts, whose home country was itself engulfed in revolution. This could, and did, cut a lot of different ways.

Legendary national liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture agreed to work with the French revolutionary government in April 1793 to repel the inroads of Brits, who smelled an opportunity to swipe the lucrative colony. Alliance with the French (L’Ouverture’s black regiments served under French colors) came in exchange for the French recognizing emancipation. Win-win.

But the script had flipped by the last years of the decade.

Toussaint L’Ouverture reveals to British officer Thomas Maitland papers from the French representative d’Hedouville.

In 1798, the British were evacuating their Saint-Domingue enclaves … and L’Ouverture, now the Bonaparte figure of a somewhat autonomous polity, had to maneuver it regionally vis-a-vis its neighbors.

Fomenting slave rebellions willy-nilly was not on his agenda. Indeed, “one could even describe Louverture, in the diplomatic field, as an active impediment to the spread of emancipation.”*

So far was the former slave L’Ouverture from anti-slavery firebrand that in 1798-99 he made arrangements with the slave powers Britain and the United States, helping them oppose the French. And when the French envoy went to work on the grab-Jamaica scheme with Sasportas as an agent — Paris now being the one to smell an opportunity to steal a rival’s colony — L’Ouverture found it expedient to play along whilst quietly tipping the British to the whole plot. In effect, L’Ouverture shopped Sasportas.

Louverture could have used his newfound power to advocate independence and emancipation across the Caribbean; he decided otherwise.

Napoleon Bonaparte and other French leaders hoped that Louverture would turn Saint-Domingue into the centerpiece of a revolutionary French empire in the Americas. With an army of twenty thousand veteran black soldiers, Louverture could have threatened France’s enemies in North America, most notably British Jamaica and the United States. But Louverture declined the offer, choosing instead to sign secret treaies of nonaggression and commerce with these two countries in 1799 …

That same year, the French agent Roume drafted an ambitious plan to use part of Louverture’s army to invade British Jamaica. After the landing, Roume redicted, Jamaica’s slaves would revolt and join local maroons and Dominguian liberators on a victorious march to Kingston. Dominguian troops would become heralds of freedom, France would acquire a lucrative colony at little cost, and the expedition would deal a mortal blow to British commerce. Louverture acquiesced in public, but in private he notified British and U.S. authorities of Roume’s bellicose plans. England subsequently captured France’s secret agent in Jamaica, a French Jew named Isaac Sasportas, and the entire venture foundered. Having apparently concluded that an expedition would divert key troops and resources that were needed to secure his power base in Saint-Domingue, Louverture chose to sacrifice the Jamaiacans’ freedom on the altar of his own ambitions. Jamaican slaves would remain in bondage until 1834.

– From Haiti: The Tumultuous History — From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation

Haiti the Game

Whether one rates it as dextrous statecraft or unconscionble betrayal, L’Ouverture’s maneuvering to maintain a scope of action for himself and his fledgling nation would continue until 1802. It featured brutal continuation of Haiti’s cash crop plantation economy — now worked by cultivateurs supporting black elites, instead of slaves supporting French elites — rough suppression of labor protests, high-minded assertion of racial equality, and unsentimental diplomatic skullduggery shifting arrangents among France, Britain, and the U.S. He even bought slaves to regenerate the half-island’s labor force, decimated by years of warfare.

In the end, this Bonaparte of Haiti was undone by the Bonaparte of France** in 1802, with the full support of the British. During a lull in those nations’ hostilities, they found frank agreement that “Toussaint’s black empire” was to neither’s liking — and “We both want to destroy Jacobinism, especially that of the blacks”.† L’Ouverture played the diplomatic game very adroitly, but he had no card to match a mutual agreement of white privilege among his opposite numbers.

Toussaint L’Ouverture died of pneumonia in a French dungeon … but his countrymen rallied against the French incursion and completed the Haitian Revolution. Its independence day is January 1, 1804.‡

* Philippe R. Girard, “Black Talleyrand: Toussaint Louverture’s Diplomacy, 1798-1802,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jan. 2009

** Napoleon’s wife Josephine was herself of Caribbean aristocratic stock: she grew up on her family’s sugar plantation in Martinique.

† Prime Minister Henry Addington, as quoted in The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804. Thomas Jefferson, fretting “another Algiers in the seas of America,” also kinda-sorta went along with the idea, although Jefferson was at least equally concerned about a potential French resurgence keyed by its unruly Caribbean base; for America, this politicking set up the Louisiana Purchase, and that transaction was considerably facilitated by the French failure to re-establish control in Haiti after arresting L’Ouverture.

‡ In one last warped expression of colonialism — and a dreadful preview of the ruinous debt peonage more familiar to our present day — Haiti had to pay “reparations” to France for the loss to the French empire of itself, Haiti. It made these payments until 1947. France has no plans to repair the reparations.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Espionage,Execution,Haiti,Hanged,History,Jamaica,Jews,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Spies

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