In memory of a National Hero
History…a look back in time, words and phrases that are in the yellowing pages, distant memories - but beyond those chapters and books, it is a compendium of events, some fortunate, others unfortunate, that defines a country’s present in some form or manner.
As Jamaica celebrates and recognises her heroes it is time to retrospect the sacrifices made by her sons and daughters in the path of attaining freedom from colonial powers.
We roll the clock back to 1820, to Mavis Bank in rural St. Andrew where the birth of George William Gordon was being celebrated.
Born to Joseph Gordon, a Scottish Planter, and an enslaved woman, William was the second of eight children and is said to have exhibited extraordinary traits from a young age.
His father took keen interest in the traits that his son exhibited and decided to take a keen interest in his education, William was sent to live with his godfather, James Daly, a businessman in Black River and completed his education, though he was mostly self-educated.
By the time he was 16, Gordon started his own business and he went on to become successful and respected business man, he was also a land owner, shop keeper, produce dealer, preacher, politician, social worker and philanthropist.
He was an Anglican but was baptised into the Baptist Society by Rev. J.M. Phillippo, founder of Jamaica’s first Free Village. Gordon later became a leader of the Native Baptist Movement and began building several churches at his own expense, ordained Ministers and was an active evangelist.
When he was 23, Gordon was elected to the house of Assembly for St. Thomas, where he owned a substantial amount of property and became known as ‘The Voice of the People’.
Soon he became very vocal in his opposition and became very critical of the colonial rule. In particular, he was disapproving of Governor John Eyre.
Advocate for the poor
Gordon advocated for poor Jamaicans of African descent and coloured people. He organized and educated people about their rights and the importance of voting in Jamaica. He also emphasized the fact that voting was one way in which the small man could become more significant because of the power he wielded with a vote.
Being a landowner, he also encouraged Jamaicans to own as much land as they could and informed them of their rights to work for better wages. He also advocated for a fair justice system for the people of Jamaica and counselled people on self reliance, importance of being entrepreneurial when other leaders were dissuading Jamaicans, urging them to give up their dreams about self employment.
After emancipation, the law stated that any free man was allowed the right to vote but the majority of the black population did not qualify as they could neither read nor write or afford the high fee that was required to vote.
When he saw that many had no land to farm, Gordon subdivided his own lands and sold farm lots to them as cheaply as possible. He also organized a system through which they could sell their produce at fair prices.
Under the rule of Governor Eyre, things were not the most congenial – there was a clear lack of access to education and a majority of the population was left with little or no opportunities to be educated. There was little to no public infrastructure, and almost non-existent access to healthcare. Job opportunities were scarce, which led to hardships and people were struggling to even have access basic amenities.
These socio economic conditions worsened, which led Gordon to encourage the people to protest against the appalling conditions in which they were living in – these protests later led to the Morant Bay Rebellion on October 11, 1865.
Gordon was accused of instigating the rebellion with Paul Bogle his associate as a deacon in the Baptist church.
It all started on October 7, 1865 when Bogle and his supporters attended a trial of two black men from Stony Gut who were arrested and put on trial and imprisoned for trespassing on a sugar plantation. News of this verdict angered the people who took to the market square and retaliated. They resisted the authorities and the police officers who resorted to beating the protestors, who were severely beaten and were forced to retreat.
Sentenced to death
An immediate retaliation ensued, the crowds turned violent, started hurling sticks and stones, set the court house on fire. The ruling authority’s response was brutal, unleashing an all out offensive against the protesting public – it is said that over 400 hundred black residents were killed and many persons were caught and flogged.
Meanwhile, George William Gordon was branded as one of the leaders who instigated the uprising, and despite any evidence against him, Governor Eyre ordered him taken from Kingston to Morant Bay where martial law was in force.
Gordon was sentenced to death and hanged from the yardarm of HMS Wolverine at Morant Bay on October 23, 1865.
Before the sentence was carried out, Gordon was given a chance to write a parting letter to his wife.
Following is the excerpt of the letter:
My beloved wife,
General Nelson has just been kind enough to inform me that the court-marshal of Saturday last has ordered me to be hung and that the sentence is to be executed in an hour hence; so that I shall be gone from this world of sin and sorrow.
I regret that my worldly affairs are so deranged; but now it cannot be helped. I do not deserve this sentence for I never advised or took part in any insurrection. All I ever did was to recommend the people who complained to seek redress in a legitimate way and if in this I erred or have been misrepresented, I do not think I deserve extreme sentence. It is however the will of my Heavenly Father that I should thus suffer in obeying His command to relieve the poor and needy and to protect as far as I was able, the oppressed. And glory be to His name; and I thank Him that I suffered in such a cause. Glory be to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; and I can say it is a great honour thus to suffer for the servant cannot be greater than the Lord.
I can now say with Paul, the aged, “The hour of my departure is at hand and I am ready to be offered up. I have fought a good fight; I have kept the faith; and henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me”. Say to all friends an affectionate farewell; and that they must not grieve for me, for I die innocently. Assure Mr. Airey and all others of the truth of this. Comfort your heart.
I certainly little expected this. You must do the best you can and the Lord will help you; and be not ashamed of the death your poor husband will have suffered. The Judges seemed against me and from the rigid manner of the Court I could not get in all the explanation I intended. The man Anderson made an unfounded statement, and so did Gordon; but his testimony was different from the deposition. The Judges took the former and erased the latter. It seemed that I was to be sacrificed. I know nothing of the man Bogle’s [ ]. I never advised him to the act or acts which have...
.. brought me to this end. Please write to Mr. Chainerovzow, Lord Brougham, and Messers. Hecknell and Du Buisson.
I did not expect that, not being a rebel, I should have been tried and disposed of in this way. I thought His Excellency the Governor would have allowed me a fair trial, if any charge of sedition or inflammatory language were partly [fairly?] attributable to me; but I have no power of control. May the Lord be merciful to him.
General Nelson, who has just come for me, has faithfully promised to let you have this. May the Lord bless him and all the soldiers and sailors, and all men. Say farewell to Mr. Phillips, also Mr. Licard, Mr. Bell, Mr. Vinen, Mr. Henry Dulasse, and many others who I do not now remember, but who have been true and faithful to me.
As the General has come I must close. Remember me to Aunt Eliza, in England, and tell her not to be ashamed of my death. Now my dearest one, the most beloved and faithful, the Lord bless, help preserve and keep you. A kiss for dear mamma, who will be kind to you and Janet. Kiss also Annie and Janet. Say goodbye to dear Mr. Davidson, and all others. I have only been allowed one hour; I wish more time had been allowed. Farewell also to Mr. E.C. Smith, who was sent up my private letter to him. And now, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all.
Your truly devoted and now nearly dying husband.
Singed G. W. GORDON
I asked leave to see Mr. Parnther, but the General said I could not. I wish him farewell in Christ.
Remember me to Auntie and Father. Mr. Ramsay has for the last two days, been very kind to me. I thank him.
The words penned by Gordon are heart-wrenching, but the letter reminds us that he did not die in vain. The Morant Bay rebellion turned out to be one of the key turning points for both Jamaica’s political and economic enhancement.
Due to international outcry over this brutal response by this vicious and heavy handed response in addressing the rebellion, Governor Eyre was dismissed by the British government and Jamaica became a crown colony being governed directly from England.
The change in the administration of the island translated into a step towards improvement in living conditions, as new legislation was put in place.
In memory of George William Gordon and his fearless fight for justice, brotherhood and peace, and his service to Jamaica and her people the Jamaican Parliament building was named in his honour - George William Gordon House (or Gordon House as it is referred to) - on October 27, 1960.
Gordon was one of three persons conferred with the Order of the National Hero in 1969 along with Paul Bogle and Marcus Garvey as per the second schedule of the National Honours and Awards Act.
In 1969, when Jamaica converted its currency to a decimal system – Gordon’s image was featured on the ten-dollar note, which is now a coin.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” once said Nelson Mandela; George William Gordon lived that life till the end.
We salute all the heroes across the world, some well known, and a majority unsung, who have, and continue to make sacrifices to make this planet a better place to live in.
firstname.lastname@example.org | Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica.