Gordon, George William

views updated

Gordon, George William

c. 1820
October 23, 1865

George William Gordon, the son of Scottish planter Joseph Gordon and a slave woman whose name is unknown, was born into slavery around 1820. Gordon's father kept him nominally in servitude until the general Emancipation Act freed slaves in 1834, encouraging his interest in books and figures and sending him as a teenager to live with James Daly, a businessman in Black River, Jamaica. Gordon mastered commerce, and by 1842 he was a successful merchant and produce dealer in Kingston.

In 1844, Gordon entered public life, winning a seat in the Jamaican Assembly for the parish of St. Thomas in the Vale. Ironically (given his later career) he contested the seat as a defender of the Established Church, against the sustained campaign of the Baptists and other dissenters who advocated its disestablishment. At the same time, Gordon benefited from the support of the planters in the parish where his father, who was also a member of the Assembly, had connections to coffee and sugar properties. Although the younger Gordon strongly supported the planters' immigration proposals in the Assembly, he, given his own slave background and his very close attachment to his mother, strenuously opposed proposals of the 1840s to reintroduce whipping. Further, in 1848 and the following year, Gordon joined other coloureds of the Assembly in their "nationalist" opposition to the planters' reckless retrenchment strategies to effect the restoration of protection for colonial produce. This stance cost Gordon the planters' support, and he declined to seek re-election to the Assembly in 1849.

Gordon returned to the Assembly in 1863 for the parish of St. Thomas in the East, with the solid support of Paul Bogle and other small freeholders. They looked to Gordon as a genuine spokesperson for their interests, and he launched a broadside against the administration of Governor Edward Eyre and the local Magistrates in the parish who, with Governor Eyre's unqualified support, victimized Gordon in an attempt to silence his strident criticisms of their administration and of the established church.

Nonetheless, Gordon continued to speak out vehemently against injustice and the political elites' disregard and contempt for the peoples' hardships, which were worsened by the dramatic decline in the sugar industry (a primary source of employment) and the ravages of drought and floods that destroyed provision crops. It was clear for all but the blinkered that people were starving and ground down by high taxation on imported food, the supply and cost of which was further affected by the American Civil War.

In 1865, Gordon's speeches in the Assembly and at public meetings focused on the deteriorating social state of the island and the failure of the Assembly and the Governor to address the matter. Against Gordon's passionate protests, legislators instead approved the reintroduction of whipping for predial larceny, at a time when many were starving. Furthermore, when the Crown neglected the peoples' plea for access to tracts of unused crown lands and the local administration cruelly dismissed poverty as the result of laziness, Gordon's speeches at public meetings in various parts of the island pointed to the absence of work, low wages, injustice in the courts, the denial of political rights and the general insensitivity of the political administration. Gordon organized one such meeting in Morant Bay in August 1865, where his political allies, including Paul Bogle, echoed his sentiments and applied them to the corrupt local administration of that parish. Planters in the vestry at Morant Bay had frustrated Gordon's efforts to expose the inadequacy of their poverty relief, and later prevented him from taking up an elected post as churchwarden because he was not a practicing member of the Church of England, even though the small freeholders had elected him. These tensions boiled over into the Paul Bogle-led rebellion in Morant Bay on October 11, 1865, and despite the absence of dispassionate evidence linking Gordon with its planning or execution, Eyre blamed his most determined political detractor's speeches and political associations for inspiring the rebels. Accordingly, Eyre had Gordon arrested in Kingston and transported to Morant Bay, where he was tried under martial law, found guilty of high treason, and was hanged on October 23, 1865.

One hundred years later, in 1965, the Jamaican Government elevated George William Gordon to the status of National Hero for his passionate advocacy for the poor in the immediate post-slavery period of Jamaican history.

See also Bogle, Paul; Morant Bay Rebellion


Bakan, Abigail. Ideology and Class Conflict in Jamaica: The Politics of Rebellion. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.

Curtin, Philip D. Two Jamaicas: The Role of Ideas in a Tropical Colony, 18301865. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1955.

Heuman, Gad. "Post-Emancipation Protest in Jamaica: The Morant Bay Rebellion, 1865." In From Chattel Slaves to Wage Slaves: The Dynamics of Labour Bargaining in the Americas, edited by Mary Turner. Kingston: Ian Randle, 1995.

swithin wilmot (2005)