The Morant Bay rebellion

Published on March 19th, 2012

The Morant Bay rebellion began on October 11, 1865, when Paul Bogle led 200 to 300 black men and women into the town of Morant Bay, parish of St. Thomas, Jamaica. The rebellion and its aftermath were a major turning point in Jamaica’s history and generated a significant political debate in Britain. Today, the rebellion remains a symbol of national pride in the island.

Slavery ended in Jamaica on August 1, 1834, with the passing of the British Emancipation Act, which led to emancipation on 1 August 1838 – the date on which former slaves became free to choose their employment and employer. On paper, former slaves gained the right to vote; however, most blacks remained desperately poor, and a high poll tax effectively excluded them from the franchise. During the elections of 1864, fewer than 2,000 black Jamaicans were eligible to vote out of a total population of over 436,000, despite outnumbering whites by a ratio of 32:1. A two-year drought preceding 1865 made economic conditions still worse for the population of former slaves and their descendants, and rumours began circulating that white planters intended to restore slavery.

In 1865, Dr. Edward Underhill, Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society of Great Britain, wrote a letter to the Colonial Office in order to express Jamaica’s current poor state of affairs. This letter was later shown to Jamaica’s new Governor, Edward Eyre, who immediately tried to deny the truth of its statements, and Jamaica’s poor blacks began organizing in “Underhill Meetings.” In fact, peasants in St. Ann parish sent a petition to Queen Victoria asking for Crown lands to cultivate as they could not find land for themselves, but it passed by Eyre first and he enclosed a letter with his own comments.

The Queen’s reply left no doubt in the minds of the poor that Eyre had influenced her opinion – she encouraged the poor to work harder, rather than offering any help. George William Gordon, a wealthy mulatto politician, began encouraging the people to find ways to make their grievances known. One of his followers was a Bapist church deacon named Paul Bogle. Following the massacres of Europeans during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British population on Jamaica, as in many other British colonies, was fearful of a black uprising.

Rebellion and response

On October 7, 1865, a black man was put on trial and imprisoned for trespassing on a long-abandoned plantation, creating anger among black Jamaicans. When one member of a group of black protesters from the village of Stony Gut was arrested, the protesters became unruly and liberated the accused man from prison. When he returned to his home, Bogle learned that he and 27 of his men had warrants issued for their arrest for rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police.

A few days later on October 11, Bogle marched with a group of protesters to Morant Bay. When the group arrived at the court house they were met by a small volunteer militia who panicked and opened fire on the group, killing seven black protesters before retreating. The black protesters then rioted, killing 18 people (including white officials and militia) and taking control of the town. In the days that followed some 2,000 black rebels roamed the countryside, killing two white planters and forcing others to flee for their lives.

The White planter population feared that the revolt would spread to the rest of Jamaica and Governor Eyre sent government troops, under Brigadier-General Alexander Nelson, to hunt down the poorly armed rebels and bring Paul Bogle back to Morant Bay for trial. The troops were met with no organized resistance but killed blacks indiscriminately, many of whom had not been involved in the riot or rebellion: according to one soldier, “we slaughtered all before us… man or woman or child”. In the end, 439 black Jamaicans were killed directly by soldiers, and 354 more (including Paul Bogle) were arrested and later executed, some without proper trials. Paul Bogle was executed “either the same evening he was tried or the next morning.” Other punishments included flogging for over 600 men and women (including some pregnant women), and long prison sentences.

Gordon, who had little – if anything – to do with the rebellion was also arrested. Though he was arrested in Kingston, he was transferred by Eyre to Morant Bay, where he could be tried under martial law. The speedy trial saw Gordon hanged on October 23, two days after his trial. He and William Bogle, Paul’s brother, “were both tried together, and executed at the same time.”

Consequences in Britain

When news of the response to the rebellion broke in Britain it generated fierce debate, with public figures of different political affiliations lining up to support or oppose Governor Eyre’s actions. When Eyre returned to Britain in August 1866, his supporters held a banquet in his honour, while opponents at a protest meeting the same evening condemned him as a murderer. Opponents went on to establish the Jamaica Committee, which called for Eyre to be tried for his excesses in suppressing the “insurrection.” More radical members of the Committee wanted him tried for the murder of British subjects under the rule of law. The Committee included English liberals, such as John Bright, Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Huxley, Thomas Hughes and Herbert Spencer. An opposing committee, which included such Tories and Tory socialists as Thomas Carlyle, Rev. Charles Kingsley, Charles Dickens, and John Ruskin, sprang up in Eyre’s defence. Twice Eyre was charged with murder, but the cases never proceeded.

While some historians have argued that the Morant Bay uprising was no more than a local riot, in its wake the Jamaica Assembly renounced its charter and Jamaica became a Crown Colony.

The Morant Bay Rebellion in Popular Culture

At least four Jamaican authors have created works in which the Rebellion figures prominently. H. G. de Lisser, longtime editor of the newspaper, The Gleaner, wrote a novel entitled Revenge, which was published in 1918 by the press of the newspaper. This tale is not in print today. Roger Mais, best known for his Rastafarian novel Brother Man, wrote the play George William Gordon. Named for one of the community leaders who was executed following the Rebellion, the play was first staged in 1938. Lastly, Vic Reid (Victor Stafford Reid) devoted a novel to commemorating the Rebellion, publishing New Day in 1949.

The second album of reggae artists Third World featured the title track 1865 (96° In The Shade), a song that described the events of the Morant Bay rebellion from the point of view of Paul Bogle and George William Gordon:

“You caught me on the loose, fighting to be free, now you show me a noose on a cotton tree, entertainment for you, martyrdom for me… Some may suffer and some may burn, but I know that one day my people will learn, as sure as the sun shines, way up in the sky, today I stand here a victim–the truth is I’ll never die.”

The Morant Bay Rebellion is a setting in the novel James Miranda Barry by Patricia Duncker, and is featured in a chapter of the novel Caribbean by James Michener.

As a Jamaican culture hero, Paul Bogle is referenced in many works of reggae culture, most notably, dancehall performer Gerald Levy’s stage name was “Bogle” (also “Mr Bogle” and “Father Bogle”).

Third World produced a song about Bogle’s execution. Other artists to have named and written songs in tribute to Paul Bogle include Lee Scratch Perry and a co-production between The Aggrovators, and the Revolutionaries

Bogle is mentioned in songs by Bob MarleyBurning SpearBrigadier Jerry,The CimaronsSteel PulsePrince Far ILauryn Hill and General Trees.

In ‘So Much Things to Say,’ by Bob Marley & The Wailers, subsequently covered by Lauryn Hill, Marley mentions Bogle in the same breath as Marcus Garvey and states, “I’ll never forget no way they turned their backs on Paul Bogle, so don’t you forget no youth who you are and where you stand in the struggle.”