Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
On 11 October 1865 Paul Bogle led between two and three hundred black men and women into the town of Morant Bay in the parish of St Thomas in the East, Jamaica. They came armed to challenge the power of the white planter class, hoping to precipitate a general rebellion throughout the island. The rebels were confronted by a small force of militia who opened fire, killing seven people, but were promptly overwhelmed. By the end of the day the rebels had killed 18 people, officials and militia, and taken control of the town. In the days that followed some 2,000 rebels roamed the countryside, killing two white planters and forcing others to flee for their lives. What had provoked this outbreak?
Jamaica had always been a centre of black resistance to slavery. The first slave revolt had taken place in 1673, less than 20 years after the British had taken control of the island. According to one historian, in the 18th century there was a slave outbreak on average once every five years, as the blacks fought back against their oppressors. The most serious, 'Tacky's Rebellion' of 1760, took six months to put down. The Great Slave revolt of 1831, after which 344 slaves were executed, dealt slavery in the West Indies its death blow. On 20 August 1833 slavery was abolished in the British colonies.
Yet it was the slave owners who were handsomely compensated for the loss of their property and not the slaves for their years of exploitation, servitude and oppression. The ex-slaves found themselves living in increasing poverty in a country still controlled by the white planters, the former slave owners. In the Jamaica of the 1860s the burden of taxation fell overwhelmingly on the poor, wages were being cut, there were people starving and disease was rife. People were forced to steal to survive with the result that between 1861 and 1865 the number of people imprisoned rose from 283 to 710, most for crimes against property. In St Thomas in the East, for example, magistrates sentenced Robert Donaldson to 60 days hard labour for stealing a piece of cane worth three pence, and Thomas Bower to 90 days hard labour for stealing a length of rope. There was great bitterness against 'White Man's Law', against the way the planters and their agents maintained law and order. There was, moreover, a widespread fear that the planters intended to restore slavery. Many peasants looked to the overthrow of planter rule and the division of the plantations as their only salvation. It was this that led Paul Bogle into rebellion.
The revolt did not spread. Instead, the governor, Edward Eyre, responded with the most ferocious repression. As far as he was concerned the blacks had no legitimate grievances: 'I know of no general grievance or wrong... the peasantry of Jamaica have nothing to complain of.' The rebellion was a reversion to savagery that threatened white planter domination throughout the West Indies and that consequently had to be put down by terror.
Troops were sent to hunt down the poorly armed rebels. They pacified St Thomas in the East by massacre. Despite the fact that they met with no resistance, the rebels having dispersed, the soldiers shot or hanged everyone they came across and burned down over 1,000 houses. According to Edward Underhill of the Baptist Missionary Society, the parish 'was treated as an enemy's country in time of war, and subjected, with scarcely a pretence of discrimination between guilt and innocence, to military execution'. According to the official figures, 439 blacks were killed in the repression, 354 executed after 'trials' that ranged from the whim of an individual officer to the judicial lynching of an official court martial. Paul Bogle was, of course, among those hanged. The opportunity was also taken to settle accounts with a troublesome opposition politician unconnected with the rebellion, George William Gordon, who despite the lack of any evidence against him was tried and judicially murdered.
Over 600 men and women, including pregnant women, were flogged with the cat, receiving up to 100 strokes. To increase the severity of the punishment the cord strands of the cat were twined with wire. According to one official, the soldiers were flogging people 'for looking sulky or for speaking a hasty word or for nothing at all'. Many also received long prison sentences.
The rebellion was decisively crushed, drowned in blood, and the black population was effectively cowed. The massacre caused an outcry in Britain, with the execution of Gordon exciting particular outrage. This controversy seriously embarrassed the British establishment. The ruling class rallied to Eyre on the basis of a quite explicit racism. Joseph Hooker, a friend of Charles Darwin, made clear that Eyre's conduct was fully justified because 'the negro in Jamaica...is pestilential...a dangerous savage at best'. Among the intellectuals supporting Eyre were Thomas Carlyle, Charles Kingsley, Lord Tennyson and Charles Dickens. Some historians have seen the so-called 'Governor Eyre Controversy' as a crucial episode in the rise of modern racism in Britain.
When Eyre returned to Britain in August 1866 he was welcomed at Southampton by his well to do admirers who held a public banquet in his honour. This was picketed by a large working class crowd who jeered and jostled those attending the 'feast of blood'. At a protest meeting that same evening, one of the largest working class meetings ever held in the city, Eyre was condemned as a murderer, and his conduct was compared with the government's banning of the Reform League demonstration in Hyde Park that same year. Both the Jamaican rebels and working class radicals faced the same enemy. Twice Eyre was to be charged with murder, but the cases were never proceeded with.
Unfortunately he escaped justice.