24 October 1865
Today in 1865, Paul Bogle, a Baptist deacon and the leader of a workers revolt in Jamaica known as the Morant Bay Rebellion, was hung by the British. He had demanded justice, equal voting rights and fair treatment for the island’s black population. Bogle’s last words were addressed to the governor Edward John Eyre: ‘Today I stand here a victim, but the truth is I’ll never die.’
It is estimated that between 500 and 1,500 black Jamaicans were killed during the brutal repression of the rebellion. Many were shot on sight, while 353 were executed following summary court martials, of whom some were made to hang each other and others used as target practice for the troops. Another six hundred blacks were flogged, including pregnant women and one man convicted of merely travelling without a pass, who received fifty lashes and a three year prison sentence. A hundred others also received jail sentences and over one thousand homes were burned.1
When, on 17 November, Edward Cardwell, Secretary of State for Colonies, was informed of the governor’s reign of terror, he wrote to Eyre, reassuring him of ‘my high approval of the spirit, energy and judgment with which you have acted in your measures for repressing and preventing the spread of insurrection.’2 However, a week later news reached England of the summary hanging of a wealthy mixed race Jamaican businessman, George William Gordon, who had represented Morant Bay in the House of Assembly.
Everyone knew that he had no involvement with the rebels whatsoever. Gordon was executed merely because he had repeatedly asked awkward questions about the poor and the rights of black workers. This blatant injustice as well as the scale of the executions divided elite opinion in Britain. Many prominent writers and intellectuals, such as Charles Dickens, Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle, supported the governor, claiming that he had no option in the circumstances other than to take ruthless action to pacify the colony. However, public unease over the scale of the retribution and its arbitrary nature forced the government to reluctantly suspend Eyre and recall him to London, where despite attempts to charge him with murder, he escaped any penalty and was awarded a state pension in 1874.3 Eighty eight years later, when Jamaica finally attained its independence, George William Gordon and Paul Bogle became national heroes on the island, but their brave dissidence and defiance are rarely mentioned, let alone commemorated, in Britain.
- John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A people’s History of the British Empire, Bookmarks Publications, London, p. 39, Ian Hernon, Britain’s Forgotten Wars: Colonial Campaigns of the 19th Century, The History Press, Stroud, 2007, p. 95 and Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, Abacus, London, 1995, p. 193.
- Edward Cardwell cited in Ian Hernon, op. cit., p. 97.
- Ian Hernon, op. cit., pp. 98-100, Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, Jonathan Cape, London, 2007, pp. 148-149 and Lawrence James, op. cit., p. 193.
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