Morant Bay rebellion

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Statue of Paul Bogle in Morant Bay, Jamaica

The Morant Bay rebellion (11 October 1865) was a protest march against widespread poverty in Jamaica, where most of the freed slaves did not qualify for the vote, and conditions had been worsened by floods, cholera, smallpox and a long drought.

When police tried to arrest a man for disrupting a trial, a fight broke out and a warrant was issued for the arrest of Baptist preacher Paul Bogle, who led a group of protestors to the courthouse in Morant Bay. In the ensuing disorder, martial law was declared in the area, and troops were ordered to hunt down the rebels. Bogle was seized and hanged, along with politician George William Gordon, arrested in Kingston where martial law did not apply.

This caused a fierce debate in England, with some protesting about the unconstitutional actions of the governor Edward Eyre, and others praising Eyre for his firm response to a crisis. The rebellion remains controversial, and is frequently debated by specialists in black and colonial studies.


Slavery ended in Jamaica on 6 August 1834, with the passing of the British Emancipation Act, which eventually led to full emancipation on 1 August 1838 after four years of apprenticeship – 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 enfranchisement. During the election 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. Prior to the rebellion, conditions in Jamaica had been worsening for ex-slaves. In 1864 there were several floods which ruined many crops, whilst 1865 marked the end of a decade in which the island had been overwhelmed by plagues of cholera and smallpox. A two-year drought preceding 1865 made economic conditions worse for the population of former slaves and their descendants. These conditions led to several bankruptcies in the sugar industry, widening the economic void.[1] Consequently tensions between white farmers and ex-slaves increased, 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 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 church deacon named Paul Bogle.

Keeping the Haitian Revolution in mind, the British population in Jamaica, as in many other British colonies, was fearful that the Jamaicans, like the Haitians before them, would seize control of Jamaica.

Rebellion and response[edit]

On 7 October 1865, a black man was put on trial and imprisoned for trespassing on a long-abandoned plantation, angering black Jamaicans. During the proceedings, James Geoghegon, a black spectator, disrupted the trial, and in the police's attempts to seize him and remove him from the courthouse, a fight broke out between the police and other spectators. While pursuing Geoghegon, the two policeman were beaten with sticks and stones.[2] The following Monday arrest warrants were issued for several men for rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police. Among them was Baptist preacher Paul Bogle.

A few days later on 11 October, Mr. Paul Bogle marched with a group of protesters to Morant Bay. When the group arrived at the court house they were met by a small and inexperienced volunteer militia. The crowd began pelting the militia with rocks and sticks, and the militia opened fire on the group, killing seven black protesters before retreating.

Governor John Eyre sent government troops, under Brigadier-General Alexander Nelson,[3] to hunt down the poorly armed rebels and bring Paul Bogle back to Morant Bay for trial. The troops met with no organized resistance, but regardless they killed blacks indiscriminately, most 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."[4] Other punishments included flogging for over 600 men and women (including some pregnant women), and long prison sentences, with thousands of homes belonging to black Jamaicans were burned down without any justifiable reason.

George William Gordon, a Jamaican businessman and politician, who had been critical of Governor John Eyre and his policies, was later arrested by Governor John Eyre who believed he had been behind the rebellion. Despite having very little to do with it, Gordon was eventually executed. Though he was arrested in Kingston, he was transferred by Eyre to Morant Bay, where he could be tried under martial law. The execution and trial of Gordon via martial law raised some constitutional issues back in Britain, where concerns emerged about whether British dependencies should be ruled under the government of law, or through military license.[5] The speedy trial saw Gordon hanged on 23 October, just two days after his trial had begun. He and William Bogle, Paul's brother, "were both tried together, and executed at the same time."

Consequences in Britain[edit]

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 mass murder. More radical members of the Committee wanted him tried for the murder of British subjects, such as George William Gordon, under the rule of law, stating that his action under martial law were in fact illegal. 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 defense. 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 House of Assembly renounced its charter and Jamaica became a Crown Colony.

The Morant Bay rebellion in popular culture[edit]

At least four Jamaican authors have created works in which the Rebellion figures prominently. Creole H. G. de Lisser, long-time editor of the newspaper The Gleaner, wrote a novel entitled Revenge, which was published in 1918 by the press of the newspaper but is now out of print. 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, V. S. 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."[6]

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.


  1. ^ Holt, Thomas (1992). The Problem of Freedom: Race,Labor and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 263. 
  2. ^ Holt (1992), p. 295.
  3. ^ "Alexander Nelson" at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  4. ^ "The Jamaica Prosecutions. Further Examinations of Colonel Nelson and Lieutenant Brand", The Illustrated Police News: Law-Courts and Weekly Record (London), 23 February 1867: 1.
  5. ^ Semmel, Bernard (1962). The Governor Eyre Controversy. London: MacGibbon & Kee. p. 128. 
  6. ^ Mel Cooke, "Story of the song - Third World keeps '1865' current", Jamaica Gleaner, 20 January 2008.

Further reading[edit]

  • Black, Clinton V., History of Jamaica, London: Collins Educational, 1958 (esp. Chapter 17 "Morant Bay Rebellion"). ISBN 0-00-329345-9
  • Semmel, Bernard, The Governor Eyre Controversy, Macgibbon & Kee, 1962. Also published as Jamaican Blood and Victorian Conscience. The Governor Eyre Controversy (1963), and as Democracy versus Empire: The Jamaica riots of 1865 and the Governor Eyre controversy(1969).
  • Brathwaite, Edward, and Phillips, Anthony, The People Who Came: Book 3, Jamaica: Longman Caribbean, 1988.
  • Fergusson, James, The Story of the Caribbean People, Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1999.
  • Holt, Thomas C. 1992. The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938; see chapters 7-8 for full description.
  • Heuman, Gad. "The Killing Time": The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica, Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.
  • Honychurch, Lennox. The Caribbean People. Nelson Thornes, 2006.
  • Kostal, R. W. A Jurisprudence of Power: Victorian Empire and the Rule of Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Robotham, Don. "The Notorious Riot": The Socio-Economic and Political Bases of Paul Bogle's Revolt, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, Jamaica, 1981.

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