Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Martin Henry | Bogle and Morant Bay: Bible and ancestral spirits

Published:Sunday | June 25, 2017 | 6:00 AM

Last week, this column journeyed to St Thomas, specifically its capital, Morant Bay, to take a critical look at the plan to turn the Goodyear factory lands on the edge of the town into a new town centre.

The immediate reason for staying on, with a foray into Stony Gut, is Clinton Hutton's masterly book, Colour for Colour, Skin for Skin: Marching with the Ancestral Spirits into War Oh at Morant Bay. Hutton has done what more PhD scholars should do: convert his doctoral thesis (1992) on the Morant Bay Uprising into a popular book (Ian Randle Publishers, 2015, the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay Uprising).

In true PhD fashion, the blurb of the book says that Dr Hutton's work "deconstructs the ideological, cultural, philosophical, economic, social and political rationale for the uprising by formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants and its violent suppression by the colonial forces and articulates its significance in the development of a national black consciousness. This consciousness and fight for freedom and justice, he argues, has strengthened over periods of Jamaica's short history, evidenced by the emergence of Garveyism and Rastafari, the 1938 labour riots, and articulated in Jamaican popular music, and more recently, the resurgence of Revival worship."

Quite a spread. But what captured and held my attention most was the study of Paul Bogle, the man, his religion, and what St Thomas people called the 'Morant War', which Bogle led on the black peasant side. The Hutton assessment is substantially different from the Devon Dick stance in The Cross and the Machete: Native Baptists of Jamaica - Identity, Ministry and Legacy (2009), and in several subsequent newspaper pieces written in defense against every little perceived attack such as the alternative views of the story that I have raised from time to time.

Bogle's beliefs, practices, and his actions are matters of dispute like the iconic photograph said to be him and which every schoolchild can recognise among the National Heroes but which does not match the surviving physical description of the man and which has been also identified as someone else.

St Thomas - and the rest of the country - was ripe for rebellion in 1865 as the people, 27 years after 'Full Free', saw the quest for freedom and personal independence blockaded by the colonial authorities and hardships and vindictive oppression multiplying.

While Bogle himself, born in slavery, had acquired land and was relatively well off, the wealth of St Thomas did not trickle down to the ex-slave labouring peasant class. St Thomas-in-the-East, much smaller than the present parish since St David to the west was added, was the third in the island in the production of sugar.

The dominance of sugar and the lack of economic diversity meant that there were only two main social and economic groups in sharp tension: planters and the estate labourers called "estate's Negroes", trapped on the estates under harsh conditions with poor compensation for labour. It was widely the practice, for example, for the estates to retain a week's wages to force labourers to return to work and from which deductions would be made for absences.

But St Thomas-in-the-East had some other important qualifications to be the tinderbox for rebellion against the prevailing order. Hutton identifies "the dominance of the spiritual, religious and political role of a more African-centred movement over the masses and the relatively weak influence of dissenting British missionaries ... ." A dominance that prevails up to today.

Hutton locates Bogle squarely in this "more African-centred movement". He treats only lightly, as most other analysts do if mentioned at all, the presence of Free Africans in the East of the parish and their role in fomenting unrest.

 

WAR AND RECREATION

 

Another key factor in St Thomas rebelling was the emergence and presence of leadership and organisation - Bogle and his lieutenants, and George William Gordon as political representative in the House of Assembly and a vigorous agitator for improving the condition of the people of St Thomas.

It was Bogle who led the deputation on foot to Spanish Town, the capital then, 45 miles away, to try to see Governor Edward Eyre and to present the grievances of the people. The governor refused to receive them. The deputation had been composed at a public meeting in Morant Bay on August 12, 1865. Bogle and his lieutenants would subsequently write to Eyre requesting protection from "mean advantages that has (sic) been taken of [the people] ... which protection, if refused," would compel them "to put our shoulders to the wheel as we have been imposed upon for a period of 27 years".

The failure of the deputation to get audience with the Governor "shifted the political gear", Clinton Hutton writes.

Bogle spoke in an unknown tongue during an oath-taking ceremony, which police officers sent to arrest him but detained overnight were forced to observe. Hutton believes that this language was likely to have been Ki-Kongo, taken to St Thomas-in-the East by Central African-speaking indentured labourers, some of whom were recognised at Stony Gut by the policemen who had gone to arrest Bogle two days before the outbreak in Morant Bay.

The oath-taking involved the use of cutlasses, still used in Revival and Kumina, symbolising, in Hutton's view, the Ogun-type spirits, which were being invoked in preparation for war and recreation. Ogun, the agent of destruction and creation.

On that fateful march from Stony Gut to Morant Bay, prepared for confrontation, Bogle and his followers paused under a huge cotton tree just before they entered the town; "conferencing with the ancestors", Hutton surmises and every Jamaican understands.

Bogle, married, reputedly had several concubines. Hutton describes his Native Baptist religion, not mainstream Baptist: "the largest organised group of worshippers in Jamaica led by black men not sanctioned by, or operating under the supervision and authority of European missionaries or missionary societies." Hutton sees in Bogle's religion, like Alexander Bedward's later on, the weaving together of "African ancestral orders and rituals" with the European.

On the day Bogle was executed, a Gleaner Special Correspondent removed his Christian hymnbook from his pocket, reflecting the mix seen in Revivalism, Zion, and Poko-Kumina, all of which sprang out of the Great Revival of 1860-61 that started out strictly Christian.

There is no doubt that Paul Bogle created a military structure linked to his Afro-European church organisation. He courted the support of the Maroons, who would turn against him in the Uprising and side with the authorities, capturing and delivering Bogle himself to them. Two columns of marchers entered Morant Bay from different directions on the afternoon of October 11, 1865, one led by Paul Bogle himself, the other by his brother Moses. Moses Bogle "entered Morant Bay at the head of his column brandishing a pistol".

In the Hutton account, Paul Bogle was a religious leader in the Jamaican Afro-European syncretism tradition who organised his people for physical confrontation with the authorities in the quest for justice when they could take no more. In his rework of his thesis for popular publication, over several pages, Clinton Hutton challenges Devon Dick's absolute Christianisation of Bogle, his religion, and his actions in the 'War' at Morant Bay, making these actions pacific, that is, of peaceful intent. "In Dick's conceptual and theoretical approach," Hutton writes, "he absolutised the Christian references in the Bogle movement and minimised, marginalised, or ignored its African/African diaspora references."

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.