October marks the 151st anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion. The Rebellion at Morant Bay on October 11, 1865, in St. Thomas-in-the-East is a significant event in Jamaican history. In its aftermath, important changes in colonial representation occurred.
The 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion is a watershed episode in British Caribbean history. Between October and November 1865 Governor Edward Eyre issued orders for the execution, beating and unlawful incarceration of over one thousand free men and women. These atrocities were a panicked response to a struggle for justice in the parish of St. Thomas, in the East, that was organized by members of the colony’s peasant majority denied their full rights after freedom from slavery in 1834.
The horrific actions of the government dramatically transformed colonial Jamaican politics. Across the Atlantic events in Jamaica figured prominently in debates on race, freedom, the future of emancipation societies, imperialism, and resistance.
In 1865, Jamaica faced devastating drought and challenging economic conditions that were felt most severely by the emancipated population.
On October 7, 1865, a black man was tried and imprisoned for trespass on an abandoned plantation, which incited anger among the population. When a protester from the village of Stony Gut was arrested, his fellow protesters broke him free from the prison.
Among the protesters, Paul Bogle later learned that arrest warrants against himself and 27 others had been issued for rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police. On October 11th, Bogle marched with a group of protesters to Morant Bay and having arrived at the courthouse was met by a volunteer militia who opened fire on the group. The protesters retaliated and seized control of the town. In the days that followed some 2,000 black rebels roamed the countryside as panic ensued.
Women also played crucial roles in organizing the revolt. In addition to planning many of Paul Bogle’s undercover meetings, women like Caroline Grant are recalled for their active involvement during the raids and fighting in the rebellion. In the Reports of the Commissioners in 1866 – ordered by the British parliament after the event – a witness to the melee testified that, “Caroline Grant attacked me. She commanded others to kill me. She had a volunteer sword.” Grant had been singled out by a policeman at Morant Bay as an active participant in the attack on October 11, 1865, and that she ordered fleeing men to return to the scene of action. The bravery of Caroline Grant has gained her the title ‘a queen of the rebels’ in Jamaican history.
Governor Edward Eyre sent government troops to quell the unrest and apprehend Paul Bogle. The troops’ vicious attack resulted in the deaths of 439 blacks and 354, including Paul Bogle, were arrested and later executed, often without just trials. Hundreds of men and women were imprisoned.
George William Gordon, a landowner and politician who had been critical of the governor and his policies, was later arrested on the basis of the governor’s suspicion that he was involved in planning the rebellion. Despite his innocence, Gordon was seized in Kingston and transferred to Morant Bay where he was tried under martial law and executed.
Eyre returned to Britain in August of 1866. A Royal Commission investigated the details of the rebellion.
Governor Eyre was suspended, and the Commission found that the disturbances had their immediate origin in a planned resistance to lawful authority; but that the punishments inflicted during Martial Law were excessive; that the punishment of death was unnecessarily frequent; that the floggings were reckless, that the conditions at the Bath station were positively barbarous; and the burning of 1,000 houses, wanton and cruel. Eyre was recalled and dismissed from the Imperial Service.
In the wake of the Morant Bay Rebellion, the Jamaica Assembly renounced its charter and Jamaica became a Crown Colony.
The new governor, Sir John Peter Grant, was appointed to oversee the implementation of structural changes which among others included the building of the Rio Cobre irrigation scheme and the Marescaux Road reservoir, the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital and the Kingston Public Hospital were established, and the militia was replaced by the establishment of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.
The struggle of peasant farmers which began with the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 would advance to the widespread labour uprisings of 1938 and the modern Trade Union Movement in Jamaica which had its birth in a period of grim economic and social conditions marked by high unemployment and distressing living conditions reminiscent of those described during that tragic time in Morant Bay.