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The Road to Morant Bay: Politics in Free Jamaica, 1838–1865

Wilmot, Swithin

Swithin Ridgeway Wilmot

Journal of Caribbean History




Morant Bay Rebellion


Increasing hardships during the decade and a half after 1850 diminished the freed peoples' optimism that had accompanied their emancipation. Cholera and smallpox epidemics left several families destitute. Britain's free trade policies undermined coffee and sugar plantations that were challenged by high costs and outdated methods, and their closure deprived labourers of regular employment and depressed wages. The planters, despite the growing pool of landless and dependent labourers, expanded government subsidized immigration schemes so that by the 1860s the planter class was regaining the command over labour that enslavement had provided. Soaring prices for imported staples, because of the American Civil War which coincided with protracted droughts, followed by floods that undercut local food production, increased the state of desperation among the people who were poor and hungry. As the social and economic crisis deepened, the local white and coloured (persons of mixed European and African ancestry) political elite feuded over office and status and neglected relief measures, while Governor Edward Eyre was incompetent and insensitive to the peoples' sufferings. He dismissed criticisms and callously manipulated the unfortunate "Queen Advise" to mock the poverty of the people.It was against this islandwide background of protracted hardships that over four hundred men and women, freed people and their descendants, in the parish of St Thomas in the East, exasperated by the partisan and oppressive administration of justice, low and irregular wages, simmering disputes over access and ownership of lands and political squabbling which undermined black civil rights, marched to Morant Bay on 11 October 1865.Even though the hardships were islandwide, it was only in St Thomas in the East that bloody confrontation took place between the people and the state. To better understand why this was so, we must look to the dynamics of the relationship between Paul Bogle, a black freedman, small settler and political organizer, and George William Gordon, a free coloured merchant and planter, populist politician and vehement critic of Governor Eyre and Baron Maximillian Von Ketelhodt, the Custos of St Thomas in the East, a white sugar planter and Eyre's political ally.The adversarial and confrontational politics in St Thomas the East before the Morant Bay rebellion reflected significant political changes in post-slavery Jamaica that are generally understudied, and these will be addressed first so as to set the context and the background to the fateful events of 11 October 1865.For much of the slave period up to 1830, a voter or a holder of public office had to be male, propertied, protestant and white. However, with the momentum building for slave emancipation, the white planters solidified their class interests by strategically reaching out to the wellto-do free coloureds and Jewish merchants who, although having significant property in slaves, were barred from politics and public offices because of their colour and religion, respectively. In December 1830, the Assembly enacted legislation that extended civil rights to male free blacks and free coloureds, and six months later to the Jews. With full freedom in 1838, former enslaved males also attained civil rights, though restrictive property qualifications barred most from exercising the franchise. Thus, over a period of eight years the formal political landscape in Jamaica was altered to include men who had been excluded prior to 1830 because of their colour, ethnicity or enslaved status.Furthermore, significant changes in land ownership patterns after 1838 had a profound impact on electoral politics in the island. Whereas in 1840 there were 883 registered freeholds of less than 10 acres, by 1845 there were 20,724, and it was estimated that about one-third of the formerly enslaved population had relocated from plantation residences to post-slavery villages and settlements, and several black and coloured artisans and small settlers qualified for the franchise.


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