24 October 1865
Today at sunset 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 been arrested only a few hours earlier when his hiding place, a thicket where he was found reading a hymn book, was revealed by a twelve year old boy.1 Seventeen other leaders of the uprising, including Bogle’s brother, Moses, were tried before military courts and executed together on the same day from hastily erected bamboo gallows.2
The 43 year old preacher was the son of Cecilia Bogle, a free woman, and had been appointed as a deacon eleven years earlier. Bogle regularly used his church at Stony Gut in St. Thomas parish to hold meetings on political issues, during which he had demanded justice, equal voting rights and fair treatment for the island’s black population. His last words, moments before he was hung, were addressed to the governor Edward John Eyre: ‘Today I stand here a victim, but the truth is I’ll never die.’
The uprising was sparked by the arrest a supporter of Bogle who was protesting the conviction of a local black man on 7 October for having farmed a tiny plot of land on a long abandoned sugar plantation. He was almost immediately freed by other Bogle supporters, who then fended off another attempted arrest on 9 October, this time of Bogle himself. On 11 October, Bogle led a protest march to the Morant Bay courthouse, where there was deadly clash with a volunteer militia, resulting in the death of 7 protesters and several militia men.
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. The Daily Telegraph described with pride the merciless retributive justice, informing its readers that
‘No time was lost in preceding with the business, and at each five minutes condemned rebels were taken down under escort, to await their doom… These courts were conducted with marked military discipline; only three of the rebels brought before them escaped death.’3
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.4
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.’5 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 Gordon had no involvement with the rebels whatsoever. He 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. The governor insisted in a despatch to the Colonial Office that
‘It was necessary to make an example which, by striking terror, might deter other districts from following the horrible example of St. Thomas in the East,’ adding that ‘the negro is a creature of impulse and imitation, easily misled, very excitable, and a perfect fiend when under the influence of an excitement which stirs up all the evil passions of a race little removed in most respects from absolute savages.’6
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 1874.7 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.
- The Kingston Gleaner cited in The Dublin Evening Mail, 18 December 1865, p3.
- The Jamaica Morning Journal cited in The Glasgow Morning Journal, 2 December 1865, p. 2.
- ‘The Negro Insurrection,’ The Daily Telegraph, 30 November 1865, p. 5.
- 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.
- Governor Eyre to The Rt. Hon Edward Cardwell, MP, 8 December 1865, cited in ‘The Negro Insurrection,’ The Daily Telegraph, 8 February 1866, p. 5.
- 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.
Please feel welcome to post comments below. If you have any questions please email firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2020 Alisdare Hickson All rights reserved