Issue 245 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
11 October 1865
In 1865 a rebellion in Jamaica shook the British Empire. The British ruling class and the Jamaican planter class behaved in the most vicious, repressive and hypocritical manner. But the rebels and the British working class showed the value of international solidarity.
The rebellion started because the 500,000 slaves who had been emancipated in 1834 were denied land rights. These had been originally won by a massive anti-slavery campaign in Britain and by the slaves who led the Baptist Wars in Jamaica. The slave owners were forced to release the slaves and the Baptist church bought the land and gave it to the freed slaves. But the slave owners controlled the local state and they sought to retain power. They did this through a type of legislation similar to the English enclosures acts and by tax laws aimed at forcing former slaves to work on the plantations. This was intended to turn the slaves into agricultural workers, expected to work for less than the equivalent of 1p per day. Meanwhile the planters set about devastating the infrastructure of the island by measures such as reducing the number of doctors available to blacks by 75 percent. To receive medical treatment you had to work on a plantation.
The freed slaves then petitioned Queen Victoria for land rights. The insulting reply from Her Majesty was that the only solution for their problem lay in working for wages 'steadily and continuously'. Their salvation lay in their 'industry and prudence'--this callous and vicious response to the starvation of the freed slaves was penned by the governor, Edward Eyre, the son of a Victorian clergyman who detested anybody stepping out of their so called station in life.
The freed Jamaicans refused to recognise the court's rulings on the land or the militias. In one free village, the village of Stony Gut, a black Baptist preacher led a march to the courthouse demanding the right to be heard. The magistrate, who was 'shocked and shaken,' demanded that the court be cleared. The crowd then seized control of the court, taking a policeman hostage and beating him until he handed over the keys to the prison. They freed all the prisoners who were being held for non-payment of taxes on the land.
In response the magistrate sent militias to Stony Gut to arrest all those who had been involved. But the villagers were prepared and organised an army that proceeded to defeat the militias. They went on to burn down the courthouse with the magistrate in it. The rebellion spread across the whole of St Thomas parish, involving up to 2,000 people at its height. They sacked the plantations, killing planters, militia men and black collaborators, but saving a planter who was sympathetic to their cause.
The preacher who led the rebellion was named Paul Bogle. He had been born free, the son of a slave, and had organised in the only place that blacks were allowed to organise, the Baptist church. He was one of only 104 blacks allowed to vote. This was the most radical organisation on the island: one of Bogle's sermons was on the success of the North in the American Civil War. Bogle took his fiery sermons to churches across Jamaica, calling for a fight for equality. He was a supporter of William Gordon, a radical member of the Jamaican parliament who was also a Baptist minister.
There have recently been portrayals of the British Empire as somehow benign, but the response to the rebellion was vicious: 400 people were hanged, including Bogle and Gordon, (who wasn't even there). A further 600 were flogged, and 1,000 homes were burnt to the ground. Edward Eyre declared martial law. We can gain a flavour of his response by the message he sent to Colonel Thomas Hobbes of the 6th regiment describing the execution of suspected rebels: 'I adopted a plan which struck immense terror into these wretched men far more than death, I caused them to hang each other. They entreated to be shot to avoid this.' Paul Bogle was hanged on the British ship HMS Wolverine. When he was murdered, he quoted the 1831 slave leader Sam Sharpe: 'I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery.'
When the news of the atrocities reached Britain there was a storm of protest. Britain divided into two camps: for or against Eyre. Eyre was turned into a Tory icon. In his favour were such notaries as Charles Dickens, the historian Thomas Carlyle and Charles Kingsley. Against Eyre stood John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin.
But the great fear of the imperialists was the way that news of the rebellion was seized by the British working class. The reform movement supported the rebellion, organising meetings, letters to the press, deputations to the secretary of state. The stalwarts of the anti-slavery movement mobilised support across the country. In September 1866 Eyre's effigy was burnt at a reform demonstration on Clerkenwell Green.
The rebellion may have started in Jamaica, but it fed into the Reform Act in Britain. It shows how black slaves were part of their own liberation. It also shows that the fight against racism has always been an integrated movement of black and white people.
As a result of the Morant Bay rebellion, the planter's parliament was dissolved, governor Eyre never worked again and black Jamaicans got land rights as a birthright. But more importantly, we saw how workers across international borders can make great gains as they stand together.