October 24, 1865
Paul Bogle was born into slavery in Jamaica sometime between 1815 and 1820. After slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean in 1838, he was among thousands of Jamaican freedpeople who, in search of independence from the grinding demands of plantation labor, relocated to their own independent freeholds. Bogle, along with black artisans and small farmers, settled at Stony Gut, a hilly area in St. Thomas in the East, bordering Spring Garden and Middleton sugar estates and about three miles from Morant Bay. With his freehold of around five acres on which he raised livestock and cultivated sugar, cotton, ground provisions, and tree crops, Bogle was better off than the majority of laborers who still had to look to the estates for their livelihood.
Bogle's dynamic leadership role in the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion, a protest against poor economic and social conditions in Jamaica, indicated that, although he had limited formal education, he was literate, articulate, and occupied an important position among the freedpeople in the parish of St. Thomas in the East. As a taxpayer, he qualified for the highly restrictive property franchise, and he supported George William Gordon, a radical, free, colored (of mixed European and African ancestry) man who challenged the political hegemony of the plantocracy in the parish. Indeed, it was largely because Bogle mobilized the small freeholders from Stony Gut and other postslavery settlements that Gordon was elected to the Assembly and to the Vestry, the unit of local government, in 1863.
Paul Bogle remained steadfast in his support for Gordon, despite the political machinations against him by the magistrates and the governor, Edward Eyre, who was severely criticized by Gordon for his incompetence in dealing with the island's affairs, particularly his neglect of the hardships that confronted the people. In early 1865 the relationship between Gordon and Bogle was further cemented when Bogle was ordained by Gordon as a deacon in the mainly black Native Baptist Church, which had a more radical agenda on social issues than the European directed religious groups on the island.
In August 1865 in Morant Bay, Paul Bogle addressed a public meeting, which Gordon had organized in support of other meetings that concerned the social and economic hardships faced by the people. Issues included the high taxation on imported staples when a series of droughts and floods had ravaged local provision growing and the denial of political rights. The meetings also protested against the insensitivity of the political administrators, who blamed the people's poverty on their supposed indolence and mocked their requests for access to unused lands held by the Crown. Bogle led a delegation of small farmers from the meeting to Spanish Town, a distance of nearly forty miles, to present their grievances, but the governor refused to meet with them.
In September 1865 social relations in St. Thomas in the East became more strained when the planters secured the transfer from the parish of Thomas Witter Jackson, a colored stipendiary magistrate who had opposed the corrupt rulings of planter magistrates against the laborers. Through the network of Native Baptist chapels in St. Thomas in the East, Bogle organized meetings that highlighted the chronic injustice in the lower courts, as well as the vexed issue of access to land that would have empowered the people who received low and irregular wages on the estates. After Lewis Miller, Paul Bogle's cousin and coreligionist, was brought before the court in Morant Bay on October 7, 1865, for trespassing, the issues of land and justice were fused. Bogle led his followers into Morant Bay as a show of solidarity with Miller. Before Miller's case was heard, Bogle and others prevented the police from arresting another man whose comments had interrupted the court. Two days later, the police went to Stony Gut with a warrant for Bogle's arrest. They were resisted, however, and on October 11, 1865, Paul Bogle led his followers, some armed with sticks and machetes, into Morant Bay where, after sacking the police station, they clashed with the militia outside the courthouse where the Vestry was meeting. Eight of Bogle's followers were shot and killed before the militia was overpowered. The courthouse was set on fire, and eighteen from the militia and magistracy were killed escaping the burning building.
The governor declared martial law, and the rebellion was brutally suppressed. More than four hundred people were hung, including Gordon and Bogle. Several hundred others were indiscriminately whipped, and many of the villages were burned.
In 1965 the Jamaican government elevated Paul Bogle to the status of a national hero for his struggles against the oppression of the colonial state in the early postslavery period.
swithin wilmot (2005)