Morant Bay Rebellion
Morant Bay Rebellion
The Morant Bay Rebellion broke out in southeastern Jamaica on October 11, 1865, when several hundred black people marched into the town of Morant Bay, the capital of the predominantly sugar-growing parish of St. Thomas in the East. They raided the police station and stole the weapons stored there, and then confronted the volunteer militia that had been called up to protect the meeting of the vestry, the political body that administered the parish. Fighting soon broke out, and by the end of the day the crowd had killed eighteen people and wounded thirty-one others. In addition, seven members of the crowd died. In the days following the outbreak, bands of people in different parts of the parish killed two planters and threatened the lives of many others. The disturbances spread across the parish of St. Thomas in the East, from its western border with St. David to its northern boundary with Portland.
The response of the Jamaican authorities was swift and brutal. Making use of British troops, Jamaican forces, and a group of Maroons (runaway slaves) who had been formed into an irregular but effective army of the colony, the government forcefully put down the rebellion. In the process, nearly five hundred people were killed and hundreds of others seriously wounded. The nature of the suppression led to demands in England for an official inquiry, and a royal commission subsequently took evidence in Jamaica on the disturbances. Its conclusions were critical of the governor, Edward John Eyre, and of the severe repression in the wake of the rebellion. As a result, the governor was dismissed, the political constitution of the colony was transformed, and its two-hundred-year-old assembly was abolished. Direct rule from London—known as Crown Colony government—was established in its place.
In the months following the outbreak, and in the period since, there has been considerable debate about the origin and nature of the disturbances. The governor and nearly all the whites and browns (or coloreds, meaning those of mixed racial ancestry) in the colony believed that the island was faced with a rebellion at the time. They saw it as part of an island-wide conspiracy to put blacks in power. This was not a surprising view in light of the Haitian revolution at the end of the eighteenth century and the massive 1831 slave revolt in Jamaica. Equally important, Jamaican society was demographically skewed: the overwhelming proportion of the population was black, while whites and people of mixed race formed only a small segment of the population. For the whites and browns of Jamaica, the governor's actions in putting down the rebellion had saved the colony for Britain and preserved them from annihilation.
At the same time, there was a different perspective of the outbreak, especially in Britain. The outbreak was perceived by some as a spontaneous disturbance, a riot that did not warrant the repression that followed in its wake. John Stuart Mill (one of the leading liberal philosophers of the nineteenth century) and others formed the Jamaica Committee, hoping to bring the governor to trial in England and thereby establish the limits of imperial authority.
The evidence suggests that the outbreak was indeed a rebellion, since it was characterized by advance planning and by a degree of organization. The leader of the rebellion was Paul Bogle, a small landowner living in Stony Gut, a mountainous village about four miles inland from Morant Bay. Bogle, along with other associates, organized secret meetings in advance of the outbreak. At these meetings, oaths were taken and volunteers enlisted in expectation of a violent confrontation at Morant Bay. The meetings were often held in native Baptist chapels or meeting houses; this was important because the native Baptists provided a religious and political counterweight to the prevailing white norms of the colonial society.
Bogle was careful to take into account the forces that would be arrayed against him, and he attempted to win over the Jamaican Maroons. Moreover, Bogle's men were carefully drilled—when they marched into the town of Morant Bay to confront the vestry, their first target was the police station and the weaponry stored there.
It is significant that the rebellion took place in St. Thomas in the East. One of the parish's representatives to the House of Assembly was George William Gordon (1820–1865), a colored man who had clashed with the local vestry and was ultimately ejected from it in 1864. Gordon had also grown increasingly close to the native Baptists in St. Thomas in the East and to Paul Bogle, a deacon of the church. In fact, Bogle served as Gordon's political agent in St. Thomas in the East. This identification with the native Baptists marked Gordon as a religious and political radical, but he was also a very popular figure in the parish. His expulsion from the vestry led to a bitter court case, which was scheduled for a further hearing when the Morant Bay Rebellion broke out.
This was not the only grievance of the people in St. Thomas in the East. Their stipendiary magistrate, T. Witter Jackson, was also a highly respected figure. As a neutral magistrate appointed by the Crown, Jackson, who was colored, was perceived as an impartial magistrate and very different from the planter-dominated magistracy. Yet a month before the outbreak of the rebellion, parish officials engineered Jackson's transfer out of St. Thomas in the East.
There were also other problems which created bitter feelings among the populace of the parish. Many people in the parish believed that it was impossible to obtain justice in the local courts. Since almost the entire magistracy was dominated by planters, it was often the case that employers were judging the cases of their employees. High court fees also made it very difficult for laborers and small settlers to pursue cases in court. One of the grievances of the crowd at Morant Bay, and in the rebellion generally, was the lack of justice in the parish. For example, when asked the reason for the rebellion the day after the events at Morant Bay, one of the members of the crowd at Bath claimed it had broken out "because the poor black had no justice in St. Thomas in the East … there was no other way to get satisfaction in St. Thomas in the East, only what they had done" (Heuman, p. 268).
For the blacks in the parish, there was at least one other alternative that some of them had tried. In several parts of the parish, blacks had organized their own courts. These "people's courts" were held in districts not far from Morant Bay, and offenses were punished by fines and by flogging. Such alternative courts seem to have existed in other parts of the island as well, providing further evidence of the dissatisfaction of the people with the administration of justice.
Another source of difficulty for the people of St. Thomas in the East was the issue of wages, particularly the low wages provided on the sugar estates of the parish. There were also serious complaints about the irregularity of payment for work on the estates. A missionary reported that his parishioners believed that they were "not paid regularly on some of the estates, that their money was docked, [and] their tasks were heavy" (Heuman, p. 268). Two of the prominent figures killed at Morant Bay, Custos Ketelhodt and Rev. Herschell, had experienced problems with their laborers over this issue. At Ketelhodt's estate in the parish, there were complaints about low pay for the workers. Many of the people who worked on the estate came from Stony Gut and the surrounding villages. Given the lack of redress in the courts, the concern about wages figured prominently among the grievances of the crowd at Morant Bay.
In addition to these issues, there was also the problem of land. More specifically, there was a belief that the provision grounds away from the estates (the land that peasants and laborers used to grow their own crops) belonged to the people and not to the estates. The people's view was that they should have this land without paying rent. It is likely that Augustus Hire, one of the planters killed in the days following the outbreak at Morant Bay, was a target of the crowd because of his stance on this issue.
These problems over land, justice, and wages need to be seen in light of the wider problems affecting Jamaica as a whole, as well as the specific history of the colony. A significant aspect of Jamaica's history has been the large number of rebellions and conspiracies, especially during the slave period. The most important of these occurred in 1831 and was instrumental in the emancipation of the slaves. Slaves in the 1831 rebellion made use of the structure of the missionary churches and chapels to organize the outbreak.
After the abolition of slavery, the tradition of protest persisted. Riots continued in the post-emancipation period (including in 1848, for example) because of a rumor that slavery was to be reimposed. The Morant Bay Rebellion can therefore be seen in the context of a long history of protest in Jamaica.
The economic problems that afflicted Jamaica during this period, especially in the 1860s, also contributed to the rebellion. Sugar was the economic mainstay of the island's economy, but it underwent a steep decline in the decades after emancipation. Partly because of the loss of a protected market in Britain in the 1840s, and partly because of the relatively high cost of producing sugar in Jamaica, many estates failed. By 1865, at least half of the sugar plantations that had operated in the 1830s no longer existed.
In the 1860s, Jamaica's economic situation worsened considerably. The American Civil War had the effect of dramatically increasing prices for imported goods, including foodstuffs, and a series of prolonged droughts devastated the peasants' provision grounds, further adding to the cost of food. The output of sugar was also reduced, and work on the dwindling number of estates became harder to find.
Jamaica's problems in 1865 were highlighted by a letter from Edward Underhill, the secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society in England, to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. In the letter, Underhill complained about the dire situation in Jamaica, pointing especially to the starving condition of the peasantry. For Underhill, there was no doubt about "the extreme poverty of the people," which was evidenced "by the ragged and even naked condition of vast numbers of them." The Colonial Office forwarded Underhill's letter to Jamaica, where it was widely circulated, and meetings were held all over the island in the spring and summer of 1865 to discuss the letter. These meetings were heavily attended by blacks, and therefore often dominated by members of the opposition to the local administration. Dissidents such as George William Gordon traveled from parish to parish, speaking at these gatherings and highlighting the oppression of the population. Some of the language he was reported to have used worried the authorities. In one parish, Gordon was alleged to have encouraged the people to follow the example of Haiti—in effect, to institute their own Haitian Revolution.
In St. Thomas in the East, Paul Bogle and other leaders of the rebellion were organizing meetings at which people expressed their grievances, especially over the issues of land, justice, and wages. At these meetings, oaths were administered to willing adherents. Those who refused to swear the oath were not allowed into the meetings. These oaths were similar to the cries of the mob at Morant Bay and elsewhere: "Color for color; skin for skin; cleave to the black." There was a clear antiwhite and antibrown feeling among the crowd at Morant Bay, although the people agreed to save any black or brown person who joined them. There were also many subsequent reports of men engaging in military drills and preparing for "war."
Faced with an unyielding government and ruling class, Bogle and his allies saw no solution to their grievances. They were concerned about the lack of justice in the parish and the problem of access to land and to work. They were supported by an African-oriented religion, and they believed they had allies in Britain and in Kingston, and the atmosphere was rife with arguments about white oppression of the blacks. Fearful that they might even be re-enslaved, the people marched into Morant Bay.
Bakan, Abigail. Ideology and Class Conflict in Jamaica: The Politics of Rebellion. Montreal and Kingston, Jamaica: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.
Curtin, Philip D. Two Jamaicas: The Role of Ideas in a Tropical Colony, 1830-1865. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1955.
Heuman, Gad. The Killing Time: The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.
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, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1995.
Holt, Thomas C. The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
gad heuman (2005)