We are not far from our colonial past
The atrocities committed by the military, militia and Maroons 150 years ago this week in putting down the Morant Bay Rebellion were widespread across St Thomas and Portland: 354 persons were executed by court-martial; 50 shot without trial; 25 shot by the Maroons; 10 "killed otherwise"; 600 flogged; 1,000 homes burned. It is almost as if they forgot that Jamaicans were no longer slaves.
We should not forget the details of this episode in our history. Let us take a little look back at three incidents.
Col Thomas Hobbs, the commander of British forces in St Thomas, received the following order from Lt Col Elkington, the deputy adjutant-general: "Hole is doing splendid service with his men all about Manchioneal, and shooting every black man who cannot account for himself. (Sixty on line of march). Nelson is at Port Antonio, hanging like fun by Court-Martial. I hope you will not send in any prisoners. Civil law can do nothing ... Do punish the blackguards well."
John Gorrie, a Scottish attorney and newspaperman on assignment in Jamaica, wrote in 1867: "The troops arrived on the 14th, consisting of 120 men of the 2nd Battalion of H. M.'s 6th Regiment, under Colonel Hobbs, and the disturbances were then if not before at an end. On Sunday, the 15th, the troops arrived at Monklands, and began burning the houses of the people who had fled in terror at the approach of the soldiers".
The Rev Henry Bleby, Methodist missionary in Jamaica at the time, wrote: "This Colonel Hobbs shot thirteen men at Monklands, all at once, thinking no doubt it was capital sport to make a battue of his fellow men. He had a trench dug, and made the unfortunate men kneel with their backs toward it. The soldiers drawn up for the purpose fired at the sound of the bugle, or the word of command. Some, not killed, cried out with pain; and the soldiers ordered them with brutal curses to shut their mouths, or they would blow their brains out. They gave two or three who were wounded a close shot to finish them. Even after this, one George Rankin remained alive. The soldiers were in the act of throwing the earth into the trench to fill it up, covering both the living and the dead, when Hobbs gave orders that the pickaxe should be used to finish Rankin".
The Report of the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the rebellion makes the following reference to this case (page 23): "A further charge of cruelty is also made connected with the execution of [the] persons at Monklands, who were placed kneeling in a line in front of the trench prepared for their interment. One of these prisoners showed signs of life after the firing party had discharged their rifles, and it is said that a pick-axe was then used to strike him dead."
In the aftermath, Col Hobbs began to behave strangely: "His mind became unhinged; he was examined by a board of medical officers and declared of unsound mind." He was ordered back to England, and after boarding a ship, threw himself overboard and drowned.
Gorrie wrote again: "At Harbour Head, the Maroons entered the house of John Noble. He was a sick man, and had been lying in his house many years. They ordered him out. He said he could not go, and they shoved him out, and tied him to a tree and shot him, leaving word that he was not to be buried. Brisco, the Captain of Maroons, said he was tried for the crime of having a son who was a rioter, and that he was the receiver of the goods".
Gorrie went on: "The Maroons went to Nutts River, to the house of Robert Bailey. His wife was at the door, and the man who led them bade her good evening, as he was a neighbour and knew her. He asked for her son, William Bailey, and she said he was in the house sick with fever. The Maroons entered the house and shot the young man as he lay sick on his bed. They then caught the father, and made him turn his face towards them, and shot him down in the yard along with another person called Robert Walker. They burned down the house, and took away the clothes of the two murdered men, and everything that was in the place."
Would I be forgiven if I saw similarities between these incidents and the actions of the Jamaican security forces since Independence? Who can forget the Green Bay Massacre, the Orange Street Fire, the Tivoli incursion, the killings at Braeton and Kraal?
When will a leader of national hero stature arise who will take Jamaica in a different direction?
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development scientist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.