Forgotten history - Memories of the Morant Bay Rebellion
Published: Sunday | October 18, 2009
Verene A. Shepherd, Contributor
ANOTHER NATIONAL Heroes Day is almost here and so I thought that I would share with the public the contents of a file I came across at the British National Archives last year, a file that has relevance for the commemoration of the tragic events at Morant Bay in 1865.
Buried in the correspondence of Sir Anthony Musgrave, Governor of Jamaica from 1877-1883, is a request to the Colonial Office (upon the recommendation of Puisne Judge, Justice Alan Ker) for the reduction or reversal of the sentences of 11 Jamaicans who were still serving time in 1880 for their part in the Morant Bay Rebellion. The 11 comprised eight who had received life sentences and three (two women), who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison. Who remembered them? I think that most of us just assumed that the activists had all died - killed by the suppressionist forces or the harshness of prison life. But here was a request in 1880 for leniency towards some of those who had survived the suppression!
In his November 16, 1880 letter to the colonial secretary for transmission to the governor, Mr Justice Kerr stated: "I have for some time past been of the opinion that the interests of administration of justice do not require their further detention, and that the prerogative of mercy might even with beneficial effect be exercised towards them. I believe their prison conduct has been good." Governor Musgrave's initial reaction, conveyed through Actg Colonial Secretary E. N.Walker, (November 25, 1880), was to ask Justice Ker to review carefully Sir John Peter Grant 's remarks on each prisoner. If after doing so he still felt that clemency was called for, then the request would be forwarded to the secretary of state, the Right Honourable The Earl of Kimberley.
The document titled Morant Bay Rioters Still in the General Penitentiary which contained a profile of the prisoners in 1878 - age, gender, health, initial sentence and Sir John Peter Grant's remarks - is interesting and an extract is summarised below. I have added columns 2 and 4 to the original for comparative purposes to demonstrate how young most were at the time of the rebellion and their age at the time of the clemency request.
Justice Ker duly reviewed Grant's notes but maintained that while Grant may have had ample justification for his decisions, his opinion "that the clemency of the Crown might be beneficially extended to these prisoners remains unaltered".
He went on to review the distressing economic and social conditions and the injustices in St Thomas which had pushed the people to protest, pointing out that "redress was not to be had for the most outrageous wrongs: wages were withheld for months, or never paid at all by some of the managers and overseers of estates; and therefore the most influential persons in the parish were among the most brutal specimens of humanity that have come under my notice".
He lamented that the very clergy which should have "succoured the weak" had sided with the oppression, so "that in such circumstances an ignorant and uninstructed population should raise a disturbance and that murder should be committed in the process, who can wonder? It was simply a proclamation to the world that their sufferings were past endurance."
Kerr also considered the 1880 social and political climate unconducive to a similar armed protest. In his view, Jamaica had changed significantly since the abolition of the old representative system of government, rendering the environment unsuitable for another Morant Bay. In other words, the prisoners posed no danger to social stability and could be sent back to their parish (November 25, 1880).
On December 6, 1880, Governor Musgrave duly wrote to the secretary of state supporting Kerr's plea and specifying the details of the request: those who were sentenced to life should have their sentences reduced to 20 years and those who has received a 20-year sentence should be freed. This act of clemency he proposed to take place on the next Queen's birthday. Musgrave reiterated: "I agree with Mr Kerr that clemency might now be shown to the comparatively few remaining prisoners and with the sanction of your lordship I would propose to remit the remainder of the terms of 20 years, and to reduce the life sentences to terms of 20 years
"This reduction will at least open a prospect of final pardon to this latter group of prisoners, which they do not now see, while the most heinous character of their offences will still be marked by their detention for a longer time than the others; and still further remission will yet be hereafter possible if they should deserve it for good conduct, or it should be expedient on other grounds". He ended his letter by saying that "It would not, however, be a matter of regret to me if your Lordship should be of the opinion that a free pardon may without impropriety be extended to all the 11 prisoners".
The request was denied by the Colonial Office. The secretary of state's views were transmitted to Governor Musgrave in a letter dated January 11, 1881: 'After carefully considering the reports by Sir J. Grant upon the cases of each of these prisoners enclosed in your dispatch, I regret that I am unable to concur with your thinking that all sentences may properly be reduced." Kimberley added that "the practice in this country is that life sentences shall be brought up for consideration after 20 years", and those serving life had done 15 years. He promised, though, that after the other three who were serving 20 years had served three quarters of their sentences, then perhaps they could be released.
Let us reflect on this piece of Jamaican history as we remember the contributions of the people of St Thomas to Jamaica's freedom journey, not just those of Paul Bogle and George William Gordon; for they did not struggle alone.
Verene A. Shepherd is professor of history at UWI, Mona.
NAME AGE IN 1865 AGE IN 1880 SENTENCE SIR J.P. GRANT'S REMARKS (summary)