Paul Bogle (1860s)
Louis Marriott, Contributor
LITTLE, IF anything at all, is known of Paul Bogle's early life. He was a native of the parish of St Thomas, alternating residencies between Spring Garden and Stony Gut. He may be presumed as having been largely self-educated, like many other black leaders during his time.
A Baptist deacon, he had a long and cordial relationship with George William Gordon, who prospered from extensive landholding in St Thomas and was also a vestryman - local government representative - in the parish vestry. Unlike Gordon, the mulatto son of a white slavemaster and one of his father's black slaves, Bogle was in all probability of humbler origin, perhaps himself a slave. In a long series of letters exchanged between them, Bogle showed much deference to Gordon, who was not only a St Thomas vestryman, but also a member of Jamaica's legislative Assembly.
Whereas the peace-loving George William Gordon always encouraged poor, black disadvantaged Jamaicans to make their grievances known while he stood as their champion at the bar of public opinion, Bogle's stance was more aggressive, tending towards confrontation.
A Sunday Gleaner feature article contributed by the Jamaica Information Service (JIS), published on October 19, 1969, the eve of the first National Heroes Day, included the following description of Bogle that first appeared in the Colonial Standard of October 18, 1865, when a reward of two thousand pounds was offered for the capture of Bogle: "Paul Bogle is a very black man, with shiny skin, bearing heavy marks of smallpox on his face, and more especially on his nose; teeth good, large mouth with red and thick lips; about five feet eight inches in height, broad across the shoulders, carries himself indolently and has no whiskers ... ."
Anti-black Governor Eyre
Edward John Eyre, the British colonial governor sent to preside over Jamaica's administration, was patently anti-Black and detested the poor and disadvantaged people's champion, the mulatto legislator George William Gordon. When Gordon protested against ill-treatment and injustice meted out to the poor, Eyre abused his power by having Gordon dismissed as a justice of the peace and St Thomas vestryman (local government councillor). Newly arrived from Australia, the governor did not understand the great economic suffering and the appalling social conditions that were the lot of the majority of the population, still suffering the after-effects and seeking to distance their lives from the legacy of slavery. Eyre delighted in severe and humiliating punishment for black people who erred. Through his friends and supporters in the Assembly he secured legislation prescribing harsh punishment, such as flogging for stealing fruits and vegetables for relief from hunger.
90 miles to Spanish Town and back
In August 1865, Gordon presided over an open-air meeting in Morant Bay. An outcome was a decision to send a deputation led by Bogle to deliver a petition to Governor Eyre at King's House in Spanish Town. At the end of the deputation's 45-mile trek, Eyre refused to see its members. After Bogle's return to St Thomas, the rhetoric on both sides became more and more angry. On October 7, 1865, Bogle led a group to the Morant Bay courthouse to listen to the trial of a colleague. They carried sticks and cutlasses, but were peaceful until one of the group shouted at a participant in the trial. The police tried to arrest the man, but he was shielded away by Bogle and others.
The local militia was sent to Stony Gut, where it destroyed the village but was unable to locate Bogle and his close followers, who had fled. Bogle sent a petition to Eyre reaffirming his loyalty to Queen Victoria and calling for protection from the Queen's representative in Jamaica. Eyre's answer was to send troops to St Thomas to bolster the militia's forces.
Having had no direct response from the governor, on October 10, 1865, Bogle led a group that marched to Morant Bay to confront the parish administration with their demands. The local militia lined up at the courthouse. The magistrate ordered the militia to fire into the crowd. Bogle's mob set fire to the courthouse and other parts of the town. Some 18 whites were killed and 31 injured. Eyre immediately declared martial law and sent large detachments of soldiers to the parish. The disturbances were quelled within 10 days. The black population of St Thomas paid an enormous price. Their fatalities and casualties ran into thousands, with wanton killings, floggings and destruction of homes by fire.
During his reign of terror, Eyre spuriously implicated George William Gordon, who was battling serious illness in Kingston during the violent events in St Thomas. According to Eyre, "All this has come of Mr Gordon's agitation. He had not only been mixed up with the matter but was himself through misrepresentations and seditious language addressed to the ignorant black people the chief cause and origin of the whole rebellion." Court-martialled, swiftly and unjustly tried and convicted of treason and sedition, Gordon was hanged, like Bogle and his fellow activists.
End of oligarchy's misrule
The racist local oligarchy, which had misruled Jamaica for so long, apparently frightened by the spectre of a triumphant future rebellion with dire consequences for itself, surrendered control, paving the way for the more humane regime of crown colony government that would endure from 1866 to 1944.