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Overview of Morant bay Rebellion.....

Presented at the Tribute to the Martyrs of the Morant Bay Rebellion and Jamaica's National Heroes, October 11, 2012, Emancipation Park, Kingston

Today is the 147th anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion which is a very important event in our history. It was a day when things came to a head between the African Jamaicans and the colonial authorities in Morant Bay. It was just 27 years and 2 months after the Africans in Jamaica had won their battle against their enslavement by the British, with the support of some missionaries and others who joined the abolition movement.

The former enslavers were compensated (got reparations) for the loss of free labour which had allowed them to amass profits and enjoy a lavish lifestyle on the backs of the Africans. The former enslaved Africans were not compensated (got no reparations) for the nearly 400 years of unpaid labour extracted from them and their ancestors under the most brutal and murderous conditions, not to mention the holocaust of the Atlantic Slave Trade. After leaving the plantations empty-handed, the Africans had to go back to work for the same enslavers or rent land from them for cultivation. Rent was high, prices were high and so was taxation. The living conditions were inhumane. A drought between 1864 and 1865 made the conditions even more unbearable. Indian and Chinese people were brought in to work as indentured servants, so unemployment was high among the Africans. Only about 60,000 Africans were employed at the time of the rebellion. Although the ratio of Africans to Europeans in the population was 32 to 1, very few blacks had the right to vote because they were mostly "property-less" and penniless. Out of 436,000 Africans, only 2,000 could vote.

A visiting Baptist missionary, Edward Underhill, had written to the colonial government about the conditions, and the government turned a blind eye.

In April of 1865, the people sent a petition to the queen seeking her intervention to reduce taxes and to lower the rates they had to pay to lease land. Her terse and unsympathetic response was: "The prosperity of the labouring class depends upon their working for wages steadily and continuously at times when their labour is needed and so long as it is wanted." In July, 1865 Governor Eyre triumphantly circulated 50,000 copies of the queen's response. He was so consumed with his contempt for the former enslaved people that little did he know that he was adding fuel to the fire.

Deacon Paul Bogle (who was educated, had land and could vote) and George William Gordon (a mulatto landowner and politician, and a Baptist church leader who had made Paul a deacon) advocated changes to improve conditions of life for the Africans. George William Gordon wrote to the colonial government but only earned Eyre's ire. In August 1865, Paul Bogle and some supporters walked 45 miles from Stony Gut to Spanish Town to seek a meeting with Governor Eyre who refused to meet with them.

On October 7, two men from Stony Gut were tried at the courthouse in Morant Bay for trespassing on long abandoned property by tying out their animals to eat the grass and shrubs. A large group of incensed people from Stony Gut, including Paul Bogle went to the courthouse where one of them, Geohagen, protested during the court session against the injustice of the arrest and trial, and he was arrested. He was rescued from the custody of the police by the crowd and there was a hostile confrontation between the police and the people.

On Monday, October 9, warrants were issued for the arrest of Bogle and some of his supporters and police were sent to Stony Gut to apprehend them. Hundreds of people surrounded Bogle and prevented his arrest. Bogle sent a message to the parish council via the police, who had come to arrest him, that they were going to march to the courthouse on Wednesday, October 11 to continue to press their demands for change.

Angered by the contempt shown by the colonial government and the monarchy, in response to their calls for more employment, reduction in taxation and rent, punctual payment of wages, withdrawal of unreasonable demands by employers, lower prices, and better living and social conditions, approximately 400 people led by Paul Bogle marched to the Morant Bay courthouse where the parish council was meeting. On their way they seized some of the weapons from the barracks to prevent their use against them and to defend themselves if the need arose. Members of the crowd threw stones at the courthouse. The first one was a woman, also, named Geohagen. The militia which had been summoned in anticipation of the march, fired shots into the crowd, killing 7 people. This further enraged the people and in the battle that ensued, there were deaths and injuries on both sides and the courthouse was set ablaze. The Custos Von Ketelhodt was one of the persons who died after he was beaten during the confrontation.

What followed the event was a brutal reign of terror by the colonial government led by Governor Eyre who had been dismissive when several peaceful attempts were made to get him to address the conditions of the people. Stony Gut and Paul Bogle's chapel were destroyed. Paul Bogle was caught and handed over to the authorities by some maroons and he was hanged. The colonial government had sought the assistance of the maroon militia before the rebellion when it had become clear that something was about to erupt. George William Gordon who was in Kingston at the time and was not involved in the rebellion was arrested and taken to St Thomas where he was tried under martial law and hanged. About 400 people (men and women) were killed and over 600 were injured (some flogged) by the colonial government with complicity from some maroons. Over 1000 homes and farms were completely destroyed by fire.

A group called the Jamaica Committee which was formed in Britain called for an investigation in to the actions of the colonial government. A Commission of Enquiry was carried out and as a result of the findings, Eyre was removed and some measures were taken to address some of the concerns of the people.

The slogan under which the Morant Bay Rebellion martyrs fought and died was "FULL FREE!" which the nation is still challenged to achieve as economic independence has not yet been attained. We need to seriously discuss this and other significant events in our history along the trajectory from resistance to slavery to the present time and identify the lessons to be learnt from them as we go forward.

Speech given by Hope Mcnish.

Carlos Daley holds an executive certificate in Strategic management and business evaluation from Harvard University and a Masters in Financial Management from the University of Maryland.
Category: The Patriot

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