The more things change...
Next month will see the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion. Some historians claim that the word 'rebellion' is too strong, for it really was more like a riot, while others elevate the struggle by calling it the Morant Bay War. I suppose we will debate this as the weeks wear on.
I have long drawn parallels between then and now.
Although emancipation had taken place 30 years earlier, the structure of Jamaican society - ruled by planters and merchants - had hardly changed. The Jamaica House of Assembly was almost exclusively planters and merchants (the private sector), as it had been since 1664. They passed laws to suit their class and to disadvantage the majority, most of whom had been their slaves. The magistrates and justices of the peace were almost exclusively planters and merchants as were the prosecutors and jurors. Poor black people did not stand much of a chance in the courts.
And that is where the Morant Bay Rebellion began: with courthouse injustice. On October 7, 1865, Paul Bogle and his followers were in Morant Bay and saw an assault case tried. The defendant was fined and ordered to pay costs. One Charles Geohagen shouted to the defendant to pay the fine but appeal the costs. Costs were a long-standing grievance, being always large and often ingeniously augmented by the court clerks for their own profit. Geohagen was arrested, but was rescued by Bogle and his band. The struggle continued outside and became a free-for-all fight with the police, who were overpowered but unharmed.
Two days later, a police party went to Stony Gut with warrants for the arrest of Bogle and 27 others for rioting. Residents overpowered the police and sent them back to Morant Bay. On October 11, Bogle and 200 men marched into town to present their grievances to the parish Vestry, which was in session. As they approached, the custos left the Vestry meeting and began to read the Riot Act from the courthouse steps. A shower of stones and broken bottles rained down, and some militiamen were hit. The custos gave the order to open fire, and all the militiamen fired at once, killing about 10 people. The crowd retaliated with sticks, stones and machetes. The militia, with no time to reload, sheltered under the courthouse. Several buildings were set ablaze; eight militiamen, a policeman and seven others, including the custos, were killed. In all, 29 whites were killed and 34 others seriously injured.
The response of Governor Eyre and the plantocracy was brutal: 354 persons executed by court-martial; 50 shot without trial; 25 shot by the Maroons; 10 "killed otherwise"; 600 flogged; 1,000 homes burned. Eyre took the opportunity to jail several of his critics. Sidney Levien, a Jewish newspaperman from Montego Bay, had blamed Eyre for the outbreak. In an editorial, he recalled repeatedly warning Eyre of the consequences of raising taxes and ignoring the views of the people: "But when the Governor and his advisers take upon themselves to make their will the law of the land and that law is cruelly obnoxious to the people - when the Governor and his advisers run riot in their abandonment of practice and propriety - the lower classes become equally callous on their part and riotous in their way. A government that sows the wind must expect to reap the whirlwind."
There was outrage in Britain over the excessive use of force by agents of the State, while the planters lobby supported Governor Eyre. British society was divided. A Royal Commission of Enquiry was held in Jamaica, which exposed the brutality of the security forces towards the people. In England, a committee was formed to prosecute Eyre.
Jamaican society was also divided along class and colour lines. Many white and brown Jamaicans regarded Eyre as a hero, having put those uppity black peasants in their place. As Eyre's carriage made its way to the wharf from which he was to depart Jamaica for the last time, his supporters lined the streets, waving and cheering. Others were at the wharf to bid him farewell. The Morant Bay Rebellion - and the official response to it - exposed the unsustainability of direct rule of Jamaica by planters and merchants - which really was a class war. As more black persons obtained land and the right to vote, the complexion of the parish vestries and the assembly was darkening. Soon, black people would take over!
The planters and merchants saw the handwriting on the wall and voted the House of Assembly out of existence, opting instead for direct rule from London. In that way, the private sector preserved its power and influence indirectly, for London would support them over the peasants. London replaced the elected vestries with appointed parochial boards.
Even though today, Jamaicans enjoy universal adult suffrage, Jamaica's political apparatus is controlled indirectly by the private sector, which funds the political parties.
Today, Bogle and Gordon are National Heroes, but if we are honest, we would see that they did not really profoundly change the system.
The Tivoli Commission of Enquiry might well expose the brutality of the security forces against poor black people and the unsustainability of present-day political arrangements; but it is hard to see how that will lead to any real change. Our system of minority rule is too deeply entrenched.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and human rights advocate. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org