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Morant Bay Rebellion

On the day of the outbreak at Morant Bay, 11 October 1865, 22 civilians, including the custos (the chief magistrate), and volunteers were killed. and 34 wounded; under martial-law 439 were put to death (354 by sentence of courts martial—the rest shot by soldiers, sailors or maroons). In addition there were 147 put to death after martial-law ceased. One thousand "houses,' some of them very flimsy in character, were destroyed. It is interesting to note that this was the last occasion when regular troops e fired with ball or shot on rioters in the British West Indies.

No disturbance in the West Indies since the days of Emancipation caused half so much excitement or gave rise to half so much acrimonious correspondence, publication and litigation as that which occurred in Jamaica in 1865, what is usually known as the "Morant Bay Rebellion." These Jamaica disturbances engaged public attention in England for nearly three years, and caused an excitement quite unprecedented. The parliamentary papers relating to the case are voluminous, consisting as they do of eight separate publications and covering in the aggregate no less than 2,336 pages. Apart from the official enquiry, which is of course judicial in tone, the publications ranged over the whole subject of negrophobia or negrophilia — of abuse of governor Eyre and of his defense.

George Price's work was written with the object of showing that the royal commission did not investigate political events connected with the government which caused the outbreak. It speaks of the "vicious system of the Colonial Office" and attacks governor Eyre with considerable virulence. The author had been a resident in the island for many years and a member of the executive committees of Governors Sir Henry Barkly, Sir Charles Darling and Edward Eyre; he had also had a seat in the legislative council of the island, and had been custos of St. Catherine. The Addresses to governor Eyre consisted of presentments from grand juries, and addresses from the two legislative bodies, the parishes, the public, the peasantry, volunteers, ministers of religion, foreign (St. Vincent), individuals, and the ladies of various parishes — 37 in all.

The title-page of "The Reign of Terror" sufficiently explains the scenes it describes and the spirit in which it was written. The author, Bleby, was a Wesleyan minister who resided seventeen years in the island. The excuse for the violence of his language must be sought in the horrors he depicted.

In 1862 Eyre was appointed acting governor of Jamaica, and in 1864 he became governor, when the post was no "bed of roses." The American war had raised the price of the necessaries of life; and the example set by the neighboring blacks in Haiti and St. Domingo, in setting np 'black republics' had made the situation with which Eyre had to deal very difficult. The island was not prosperous, and the governor was at variance with the House of Assembly in which the black population was then represented.

On 7 Oct. 1865, in the planting district of Morant Bay in the county of Surrey, about five-and-twenty miles east of the capital, Kingston, some blacks successfully resisted the lawful capture of a black criminal. On the 9th the police were forcibly prevented from arresting the chief rioters.

On 11 October 1865 the 'Morant Bay rebellion ' broke out, the court house of the district was burned, and at least twenty Europeans were killed and others wounded. The riot, which was believed to have been premeditated and organised, spread rapidly, and between 13 and 15 Oct. many atrocities were committed on the whites in outlying districts. Eyre, always prompt and selfreliant, called to his assistance all available naval and military officers, militia, European civilians, loyal blacks, and maroons. On 13 October, relying on a local statute, he held a council of war and proclaimed martial law throughout the county of Surrey except in Kingston. During the next eleven days he broke the back of the riot.

Undoubtedly the riot, or rebellion, was a very serious one in its actual results, and still more in its possible consequences, and but for its prompt and energetic repression, it might have spread into a general insurrection in an island where the blacks outnumbered the whites by at least 50 to 1 [by one estiamte]. Though the original design was confined to a small portion of St. Thomas-in-the-East, the disorder rapidly spread over an extensive tract of country. Martial law was proclaimed on October 13th throughout the county of Surrey, except Kingston, and tranquillity was restored. Then followed courts-martial and punishments.

George William Gordon, a black member of the legislature, who was long notorious for violence of speech and was believed to have instigated the rebellion, had been forcibly taken from Kingston (where martial law was not in force) into the zone of martial law at Morant Bay. There on 21 Oct. Gordon was tried by a court-martial presided over by Lieutenant Herbert Charles Alexander Brand, R.N. [q. v. Suppl. ITJ, and being convicted he was sentenced to death. The next day being Sunday, the execution was deferred till Monday. Eyre, who was away at Kingston, was informed of the facts; and he — though not required to do so in the case of a sentence by court-martial — confirmed the sentence. Gordon was hanged on the morning of the 23rd. He had friends, and apart from the question of his guilt or innocence of a capital offence, these at once denounced the legality of Eyre's act in allowing the man to be taken within the zone of martial law for trial and punishment by an ill-constituted court martial and executed in haste and on evidence wholly insufficient.

Till the expiration of martial law, on 13 November, 608 persons were killed or executed, 34 were wounded, 600, including some women, were flogged, and a thousand dwellings, mostly flimsy leaf-built huts, were destroyed. Afterwards other culprits were tried and punished under the ordinary law of the colony — in some cases even by death.

Eyre was recalled and was most bitterly attacked by a large section of the English people headed by John Stuart Mill, and defended by another led by Carlyle: and he successfully underwent more than one legal prosecution. He retired on a pension into private life, and never sought, even in the face of the greatest hostility, to justify his actions to the world. He died at Tavistock on the 30th of November, 1901, aged 86. "He did many good and brave things, and atoned for the one error of his life by a silence so dignified and so prolonged."

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Page last modified: 25-05-2017 13:54:50 ZULU