Morant Bay Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the Morant Bay Rebellion, a group of Jamaicans rose up against their British colonizers, killing officials and burning property. Inspired by Baptist teachings as much as by colonial racist oppression, the rebellion represented an attempt to make the British deliver on their promises of emancipation, but it was quickly suppressed and in the end merely strengthened the status quo.

Summary of Event

The British parliament’s emancipation of slaves throughout the British Empire British Empire;slavery in 1833 did not end the exploitation and subjection of African Jamaicans by the British. Whites continued to dominate the island by restricting to themselves the privileges of full citizenship, such as voting and landholding. In 1865, the recognition of this persistent inequality—worsened by drought Droughts;Jamaican —was combined with Baptist religious fervor, resulting in an attempt to avenge British injustices. Accordingly, on Wednesday, October 11, 1865, Paul Bogle, a Baptist preacher of African descent, marched on the courthouse in Morant Bay with about three hundred supporters. They burned down the building and then killed local white officials and planters who had stood in their way. Morant Bay Rebellion (1865) Jamaica;Morant Bay Rebellion Baptists;in Jamaica[Jamaica] Bogle, Paul Gordon, George William Eyre, Edward John British Empire;and Jamaica[Jamaica] [kw]Morant Bay Rebellion (Oct. 7-12, 1865) [kw]Bay Rebellion, Morant (Oct. 7-12, 1865) [kw]Rebellion, Morant Bay (Oct. 7-12, 1865) Morant Bay Rebellion (1865) Jamaica;Morant Bay Rebellion Baptists;in Jamaica[Jamaica] Bogle, Paul Gordon, George William Eyre, Edward John British Empire;and Jamaica[Jamaica] [g]Central America and the Caribbean;Oct. 7-12, 1865: Morant Bay Rebellion[3870] [g]British Empire;Oct. 7-12, 1865: Morant Bay Rebellion[3870] [g]Jamaica;Oct. 7-12, 1865: Morant Bay Rebellion[3870] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 7-12, 1865: Morant Bay Rebellion[3870] Ketelhodt, Baron von Herschell, Victor

On the next day, October 12, the rebels moved on to the nearby town of Bath, attacking manor houses en route until they met reinforcements from the colonial militia. The insurrection then ended almost as soon as it had begun, but Governor Edward John Eyre’s subsequent, bloody overreaction, intended to repress any further dissent, ironically led to the abdication of the Jamaican planter class. The British crown then became the direct ruler of the island.

The eastern part of Jamaica had witnessed resistance against the British long before Bogle took up arms. Sugar and slavery required a constant influx of laborers, many of whom tried to flee to the mountainous interior if given a chance. Maroons, Maroons, Jamaican Jamaica;Maroons escaped slaves from the first generations, had fought to establish their own autonomous region there by 1739. Western areas of the island also witnessed rebellions against slavery during the eighteenth century, but it was not until the Baptist wars of 1831-1832 that a serious island-wide threat to British rule precipitated emancipation.

Ironically, the maroons who fought so early for their own freedom were used by the British to catch other fugitives and then to put down further revolts, including that in Morant Bay. They provided much needed support for the thin layer of white British residents on Jamaica, who were outnumbered by people of color by a ratio of nearly 30 to 1. By the early 1860’s, it was the power of Baptist missionaries Missionaries;in Jamaica[Jamaica] and the growing popularity of the African interpretation of the Baptist religion that continued to erode the hegemony of the planters, already weakened by emancipation and competition from other sugar producers.

E. B. Underhill Underhill, E. B. , the secretary of the Baptist Baptist Missionary Society Missionary Society in England, unwittingly set the stage for the riot in Morant Bay and the repression that came on its heels. Following a visit to Jamaica in 1859-1860, Underhill became concerned about the freed peasantry’s underemployment, lack of food, and lack of political power. He wrote a detailed report in January, 1865, to the secretary of state for the colonies, complaining about those issues. The secretary forwarded the letter to Governor Eyre, who then forwarded it to magistrates, planters, and clergy, hoping for a vigorous rebuttal of the allegations. Instead, someone leaked the letter to Jamaican newspapers, which, in turn, published it and generated a firestorm of debate.

Colonial officials responded predictably to the newspaper story. They denied that there was any problem and blamed blacks for their own poverty and despair. The missionaries were the only white constituent group to verify Underhill’s view, and they sponsored a series of public meetings to agitate for reform. These meetings attracted a wide array of individuals not used to participating in politics, including middle-class mulatto professionals as well as hungry peasants and field laborers from the countryside.

The so-called Underhill meetings might have vented all of these groups’ discontent without anyone resorting to violence had not African Jamaicans always viewed division among whites as a cue to attempt to overthrow their oppressors once and for all. Under the circumstances, an uprising was inevitable, but the setting for the rebellion when it came was seemingly unlikely. The parish of St. Thomas-in-the-East, which included Morant Bay, had seen little Baptist missionary Missionaries;in Jamaica[Jamaica] outreach, because the planters there had actively discouraged such outreach. Underhill himself estimated that 80 percent of the parish was not Christian in any sense of the word. It was one of the last places to hold an Underhill meeting, which had to be conducted outside when the local magistrates declared that the courthouse would never be available for such a purpose. Most critical to the actual outbreak of disorder, however, were the born-again conversions of two leaders in the parish, Paul Bogle and George William Gordon.

Gordon laid the egg that Bogle hatched. Bogle was one of the peasant freeholders who were rich enough to qualify to vote and who had put Gordon, a mulatto planter, into the Jamaica Assembly in 1863. Gordon had become a Baptist just before he was elected and ordained Bogle as a lay preacher in the African Baptist tradition. Gordon had echoed the concerns of Underhill before the publication of the latter’s letter. Encouraged by Gordon, Bogle had helped to organize the Underhill meeting at St. Thomas-in-the-East.

The St. Thomas-in-the-East meeting sent a delegation to Morant Bay, but the governor refused to meet with this delegation. Bogle was a member of the delegation, and after the governor’s refusal to meet with him, the game plans of Bogle and Gordon seem to have diverged. Gordon wanted to continue peacefully to appeal their case up the governmental hierarchy, all the way to Queen Victoria. Bogle, however, wished to focus only on the colonial authorities, whom he was prepared to confront by any means necessary.

The Morant Bay Rebellion began on October 7, 1865, when the local court convicted Bogle’s cousin, Lewis Miller, of trespassing, because he had allowed his horse to feed on the grounds of an estate that already was sublet to local peasants. This ruling did not go unchallenged; even before the guilty verdict, a crowd of around 150 peasants and laborers that included Paul Bogle had edged into the courthouse and was prepared to disrupt the otherwise routine proceedings. Even though Miller himself had pleaded guilty, Bogle insisted that the defendant would not pay the fine and would officially appeal his conviction. A confrontation ensued in which Bogle and others prevented a man accused by police of inciting a riot from being taken to jail.

Magistrates issued warrants for the arrest of Bogle, his brother, and other identified ringleaders of the impertinent crowd. When the police went to execute these warrants on October 10, another crowd beat the constables back and temporarily arrested the officers instead. The next day witnessed Bogle’s march on the courthouse, which only turned violent when members of the colonial militia fired on the protestors, killing seven. The troops were badly outnumbered and quickly withdrew, leaving the vestrymen to have their fates decided by those they had mistreated. The courthouse was symbolically burned and the most oppressive of the white authorities—such as Baron von Ketelhodt, Ketelhodt, Baron von the chief magistrate, and the Reverend Victor Herschell Herschell, Victor , the curate of Bath—were killed. For about twenty-four hours, Bogle’s group effectively ruled Morant Bay, until they left for nearby Bath and met the militia reinforcements directly.

Governor Eyre then overreacted. Worried that the rebellion might develop into another Haitian Rebellion or Sepoy Mutiny—both events in which European were killed by subject peoples—he instituted martial law in the entire county of Surrey, outside Kingston. Troops were allowed to shoot on sight any person of color whom they suspected of being subversive. While no exact number of those killed by the militia was kept, 354 people were executed after quick, perfunctory “trials,” and an additional 85 people were recorded to have been shot or hanged without a trial. Paul Bogle was one of the latter: He was tracked down and murdered. George William Gordon, who knew nothing of the events of October 7 and October 11, was hanged after a show trial. Many others who had nothing to do with the melee at the courthouse, including women and children, were beaten and whipped, and nearly one thousand peasant homes in the vicinity were arbitrarily demolished.

Significance

The Morant Bay Rebellion was slightly successful, in that the planting class and its assembly, which had long oppressed African Jamaicans, was replaced by direct Crown rule of the colony. Governor Eyre’s repression drew a mixed yet spirited response in Great Britain itself, with advocates for the working class seeing him as the devil incarnate. Indeed, agitation stemming in part from the Morant Bay Rebellion helped persuade Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli to coopt any further working-class dissent by extending the franchise to workers with the Reform Bill of 1867.

Such gradualist paternalism also marked the change in leadership in Jamaica itself. In 1866, Governor Sir John Peter Grant Grant, Sir John Peter began increasing slightly the land redistribution granted to squatters, as well as the funding of roads, schools, and other needed infrastructure. Blacks blamed Eyre for the bloodshed, but they absolved Queen Victoria and her family, who, by the end of the nineteenth century, were seen as the Great Emancipators. Ironically, in that sense, the Morant Bay Rebellion tended to strengthen the racial hierarchy on the island, at least until the late 1930’s, by removing the planters and their assembly from power.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bakan, Abigail B. Ideology and Class Conflict in Jamaica: The Politics of Rebellion. Quebec: McGill-Queens University Press, 1990. Within a Marxist framework, this book compares the Morant Bay Rebellion with the Baptist wars of 1831-1832 and the strikes of 1938-1939.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeRose, Michelle. “’Is the Lan’ I Want’: Reconfiguring Metaphors and Redefining History in Andrew Salkey’s Epic Jamaica.” Contemporary Literature 39, no. 2 (Summer, 1998): 212-237. This cogent analysis of an epic poem from the 1970’s testifies to the prominent status of the Morant Bay Rebellion in the making of Jamaican nationalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heuman, Gad.“The Killing Time”: The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994. Provides the most accurate narrative of the rebellion and the subsequent repression it triggered.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, Thomas C. The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Places the Morant Bay Rebellion within the wider context of British imperialism from emancipation to Bustamente.

Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire

Sepoy Mutiny Against British Rule

British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1867

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