“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.
[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.