Revolts after slavery

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Colonial oppression continued after the abolition of slavery - and so did the struggles against it. Brian Richardson commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica.

We are encouraged to believe that history is made by Great White Men. It is they who are responsible for the rise and fall of civilisations, for technological advances and the development of art and culture. Black people are generally restricted to walk on parts.

That was quite literally the case in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winning biopic Lincoln. At the outset two black soldiers are seen pleading with their leader to abolish slavery. There is no sense of them fighting for their own emancipation.

The reality was very different. Slavery didn’t simply disappear because of the sterling efforts of Abraham Lincoln or William Wilberforce. Instead it was undermined by hundreds of courageous uprisings.

As CLR James, the great Trinidadian Marxist and author of The Black Jacobins, a wonderful history of the Haitian revolution, observed, “The only place where negro revolts did not take place was in the pages of capitalist historians.”

Nor did slavery’s abolition bring an end to colonial oppression. The struggle continued. As we celebrate Black History Month, it is fitting that we commemorate the 150th anniversary of a brave example.

Most accounts suggest that Jamaica was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1494. By 1655, when Britain defeated the Spanish and seized it, the native Arawaks who inhabited the island long before Columbus had been extinguished.

Subsequently slaves were imported mainly from the Gold Coast and Nigeria and what followed has been characterised by Jamacian historian Leonard Barrett as “one long tale of sad intrigue, human suffering, lawlessness and immoral profit”.

Sugar production was a major source of those profits. By the early 19th century Jamaica was producing over 100,000 tonnes, 22 percent of the world’s supply. This could only be achieved by the most brutal oppression. Barrett continues:

“Slavery in Jamaica lacked any vestige of humanity. A handful of greedy planters held absolute power over thousands of slaves. Only through violence could such complete domination by a minority be initiated and perpetuated.”

But where there was repression there was also resistance. One example of this, a mass uprising led by a charismatic orator Sam Sharpe in 1831-32, is widely credited with hastening the abolition of slavery in 1833.

However, colonial oppression dragged on as the handsomely compensated former slave-holders continued to rule. Further protests were inevitable, the most dramatic of which was the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion.

It was led by the black Baptist preacher Paul Bogle, who had recruited a group of volunteers in the parish of St Thomas. On 7 October they marched to Morant Bay whereupon Bogle entered the courthouse.

A fight ensued during which two policemen were apparently “roughed up”. This led to a warrant being issued for the arrest of Bogle and others.

Instead of hiding, Bogle figured that he could spark an uprising. He led some 200 to 300 men and women back into town on 11 October whereupon they again fought with the local militia.

Seven volunteers died in the skirmish but far worse was to follow. The British Governor-General Edward John Eyre declared martial law and mobilised the Warwickshire Regiment to crush the uprising. They responded with ferocious savagery killing 439 people and razing 1,000 homes.

A letter written by “EB”, a Warwickshire corporal, highlights the scale of the brutality:

“By theire surprise we slotered all before us; we left neither man or woman or child, but we shot down to the ground… I never see a site like it before as we had taken them prisoners by a hundred a day — we saved them for the next morning for to have some sport with them.

“We tied them up to a Tree and give them 100 laishes, and afterwards put a shot into their heads, and we taken the king of the rebels and hung to the yard arm of one of the British men-of-war ship.”

The “king rebel” was captured on 22 October and executed two days later. In total 354 rebels were subjected to summary justice including George William Gordon, a mulatto (mixed race) landowner and dissident politician.

Gordon had handed himself in. He was almost certainly not involved in the rebellion but was linked to Bogle via his Native Baptist Church.

The repression caused an outcry in Britain which ranged opponents of Eyre including John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley against his supporters such as Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens and W M Thackeray.

When EB’s letter was published by John Bright’s Morning Star it added to the controversy.

Injustice prevailed as Eyre was exonerated and welcomed back to Southampton in August 1866 with a public banquet. It was not all plain sailing, however. The “feast of blood” was picketed by a large working class crowd.

His failure notwithstanding, Bogle is an official “National Hero” in Jamaica today and for many years his statue stood outside the courthouse in Morant Bay.

Meanwhile our leaders continue to insist that Britain’s world historic civilising mission has been to export “democracy, a commitment to the rule of law and a sense of fair play”.