Icon of the Decades: George William Gordon (1850s)
Louis Marriott, Contributor
IN ABOUT 1820, a black female slave on the Cherry Garden Estate in St Andrew gave birth to a son of her white Scottish slave owner, Joseph Gordon, a lawyer who had come to Jamaica to look after the business of a number of absentee landlords and had himself become, over time, a very significant landowner, a member of Jamaica's legislative Assembly and custos of St Andrew. Joseph Gordon and his slave mistress named their newborn 'coloured' baby George William Gordon.
With little help from his father, as a young boy, George William Gordon set about teaching himself to read and write. At the age of 10, he was dispatched to live in Black River with his godfather, James Daley, a St Elizabeth businessman. The young Gordon soon proved himself an asset and, in particular, a valuable bookkeeper in Mr Daley's business.
Remarkably, at the age of 16, he left Black River for Kingston, where he set up himself in business, opening a store that prospered so well that his father soon came calling on him for help. Joseph Gordon had fallen on hard times. He had lost some of his parcels of land, with others - including his beloved Cherry Garden - poised to go as well. He had married a white woman and sired three 'legitimate' white children by her; first a girl and then female twins. The daughters would not fraternise with their mulatto half-brother. Nevertheless, George William Gordon, an avowed Christian, gave massive help to his father and family. He had done so well for himself through his land-dealing and other businesses that he was able to rescue the Cherry Garden estate. He sent his twin half-sisters to be educated in England and France; and later the elder sister as well. In 1845, George William Gordon married a white Briton, Lucy Shannon, the daughter of an Irish editor.
Beginning his Christian journey by being brought up as an Anglican, Gordon became disenchanted with the Anglican Church, whose congregations were more typically supportive of slavery and the dehumanising treatment meted out to the poor and disadvantaged - overwhelmingly black - people of Jamaica. Moreover, a high proportion of Anglicans were intolerant of dissent.
Gordon was more comfortable with the Presbyterians, and later the Baptists. He started an independent Baptist church and built a chapel in Kingston where he often preached. He also helped to set up chapels in other parts of Jamaica. He never adopted the title of Reverend, but ordained a considerable number of deacons, including Paul Bogle. As a Baptist, he came into contact with the likes of William Knibb, Thomas Burchell and James Phillippo.
Being a successful businessman and compliant taxpayer, Gordon had the right to vote. But for a man self-evidently conscious of his extraordinary ability and great compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society there was clearly an important place for him in the transformation that was destined for Jamaica, in which the Baptist missionaries were playing a leading role. Gordon's church work had brought him closer to people at the base of the society and with their circumstances and problems. In his land dealings he often favoured them by subdividing parcels of his idle land and selling or leasing to them at discounted prices. He was always conscious of the brute force of injustice in society and of the unyielding intransigence of those who hold the reins of power in the unjust society.
His rejoinder was: "A ruler who does not assuage the sword with justice becomes distasteful, and instead of having the love and respect of the people he becomes despised and hated."
When the tyrannical Governor Edward John Eyre and George William Gordon, by then a member of the legislative Assembly and St Thomas vestryman (local government representative), were locking horns in the 1860s, many cited the above words of Gordon as prophetic.
Eyre's dishonest, vindictive and murderous intervention in the climactic events of 1865, calculatedly resulting in the execution of the peaceful Gordon by hanging, must rank among the most disgraceful acts in the history of British colonialism. More than a decade earlier, George William Gordon, a founding director of the Jamaica Mutual Life Assurance Society, had proven his monumental honesty and compassionate concern for the needy when he filed a legal injunction preventing his fellow directors from winding up the company and thus avoiding paying death benefits resulting from the calamitous cholera epidemic of the 1850s.That superb public example of sincerity and integrity would be difficult to equal, let alone surpass.