Hard times fell on Jamaica, and few people were prosperous on the island. Circumstances worsened until, perhaps not surprisingly, the islanders rebelled.
To truly understand what happened, it's important to know about two of the key players in this historic rebellion. George William Gordon, a mulatto, was charged with encouraging and inciting the rebellion, while Jamaica's Governor Edward John Eyre was "credited" with putting it down.
Gordon was the son of a slave woman and her master. His father taught him to read and keep accounts. Beginning at the age of 10, Gordon lived with his godfather and learned to keep a business - a skill which he put to good use in his adult life. He quickly built up a small amount of wealth, sending all three of his sisters to Europe for their education. He married a white woman who was the daughter of an Irish editor.
When Gordon's father fell on hard times, it was Gordon who helped him out. By this time his father had married and had a legitimate family, whom Gordon sent to England when they decided they wished to return.
Gordon was an an apt politician and was elected to the House of Assembly in the same political party as the well-known politician Jordon. The political party was concerned with the well-being of the middle class on Jamaica. Gordon was also heavily involved in religion, and established a number of independent Baptist churches.
In 1862 a new Governor was again appointed to Jamaica. Britain had sent Edward John Eyre, a man who had proved himself an able leader in Australia, New Zealand, Trinidad, and the Leeward Islands. However, he had a few well-known flaws. His belief in the Anglican church was strong, and he hated all dissenters, including Baptists. He was stubborn to a fault as well, pursuing an idea even if it was proved to be a poor one.
Perhaps the personality flaw most detrimental to his post in Jamaica was that he only associated with the white ruling class. He had no interest in or sympathy for the mulatto and black population of the island who made up the majority of Jamaica's people.
By 1863 Eyre and Gordon shared an enmity that led to further troubles for both men. The Jamaican people, too, were feeling a rising sense of hopelessness about getting help from Governor Eyre.
By 1865 the conditions on Jamaica were truly poor: Unemployment, low wages, and droughts were just a few of the problems islanders faced. In February of that year, Dr. Edward Underhill, Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society of Great Britain, wrote a letter to the Colonial Office in which he drew attention to the problems that Jamaica was facing.
This letter was shown to Eyre, who attempted to contradict the dire conditions mentioned in the letter. In so doing, he gave the letter a lot of publicity. So-called "Underhill Meetings" sprang up to protest Eyre's claims that island conditions were not so bad. Gordon himself led a meeting in May in Kingston, during which he urged people to cooperate to make their grievances known.
Peasants in St. Ann drew up a petition to be sent to Queen Victoria, but sent it to Eyre first. They complained about the drought, the lack of work, and the lack land to cultivate, even asking for Crown lands to work. Though Eyre did forward the petition, he included comments of his own.
In return, the island was given what has become known as the "Queen's Letter," in which the Queen recommended that the poor work hard as a solution to their problems. While Eyre saw it as a victory for his way of thinking, most of the poor realized that the Queen would not have written so strongly against them if Eyre had not influenced her opinions. Gordon again encouraged the people to make their grievances known.
Paul Bogle, a deacon appointed by Gordon at a church on St. Thomas parish, began to organize a rebellion with the help of his brother and another preacher, James Maclaren. They had lost faith in the local courts, and rumors suggested they had even set up their own court system. However, it is unclear whether Gordon even knew of these activities, let alone encouraged them.
Gordon led a meeting that August at Morant Bay. From this meeting Bogle and Maclaren were appointed to walk to Spanish Town to see Eyre and give him the complaints of the people. When they arrived, Eyre refused to see them. After this, Bogle held secret meetings and began to drill his men, even gaining the help of the Maroons of Hayfield. Gordon was ill at this time, but was still working to send a deputy to England to plead their case.
On October 7th Bogle marched into town with 200 men, armed with weapons including sticks and guns. Morant Bay was crowded with people from the country for the market day, and magistrates were also there for the court day. Bogle said he was there to watch the trial of one of his followers.
Later, after he had returned home, Bogle learned that he and 27 of his men had warrants issued for their arrest with the charges of rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police. Though police came three days later to arrest Bogle, some 250 people came to his rescue and tied up the police.
The police were released and soon the Governor was asked for military aid. Bogle and his men intended to come into town the next day and blow through the city of Morant Bay. Rioting began, buildings were burned, and prisoners were set free. Martial law was declared in the county, and prompt action quickly quelled the riot.
Though Eyre immediately suggested that the riot had resulted from Gordon's agitation of the people, he made no formal charges against Gordon until after he had visited the area of the outbreak.
Eyre issued a warrant for Gordon's arrest at the encouragement of Dr. Louis Quier Bowerbank, Kingston's Custos. Bowerbank found a map of Kingston with certain corners marked in Gordon's office. He believed that these were locations of planned attacks on Kingston for the 15th.
Hearing of these charges, but not believing that anything would come of them, Gordon turned himself in. His only request was that he be allowed to stop to tell his wife goodbye. Though he could have received a civil trial in Kingston, Eyre had him transferred to St. Thomas, where martial law was still in force and those involved in the rebellion were being flogged and hung on minimal evidence.
Gordon was charged with treason and sedition for his association with those who rebelled. Gordon's trial took place on October 21st and his execution was to take place two days later, though he was not told of his fate until an hour before the hanging. He asked to see a friend, a minister from Morant Bay, but was not granted this last request. The only allowance that Gordon received was permission to write to his wife. Bogle was caught that same day and also hanged.
Though all signs of the rebellion disappeared within a week, martial law continued long afterward, and more than 430 men and women were shot or hung in the process. More than 600 men and women were flogged, and more than 1000 homes destroyed.
Eyre called together the Assembly in early November, claiming that there were plans to turn Jamaica into a second Haiti, an all-black society. He called upon the Assembly to surrender its constitution and make way for a strong government in order to avoid this scenario.
Though a small group fought against the surrender of the constitution, Eyre had his way in the end. Jamaica became a Crown Colony, and the constitution style government that islanders had fought so hard to maintain was a thing of the past.
Just a few months later, in January of 1866, there was a growing demand in England to learn the truth about the rebellion, and a Royal Commission was sent to gather evidence. Though Eyre was commended for his prompt response to the resistance, he was held responsible for the severity of that response, as well as for Gordon's trial and execution.
Eyre was suspended as Governor during the investigation and was recalled to England afterward. There he was dismissed from service, and Sir John Peter Grant became Jamaica's new Governor.
The rebellion at Morant Bay signaled the end of one of the harshest periods of history in Jamaica. The Crown Colony style of government did help to alleviate many of Jamaica's problems.
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