In August 1865, Baptist Deacon Paul Bogle – supported by George William Gordon, a wealthy mulatto member of the National Assembly – led a 87-kilometre march from St Thomas to Spanish Town to protest to the island’s governor, Edward Eyre, over legal inequity, which invariably supported white landholders over small farmers who struggled to find decent land to cultivate. A generation after emancipation, living conditions for Jamaica’s black population remained abysmal, with food shortages, lack of access to property and high taxation, and it was only a matter of time before people registered their grievances. After being turned away, the marchers returned to St Thomas with plans to create a “state within a state” at Stony Gut, Bogle’s home village. Worried by the force of the uprising, the police had two of Bogle’s supporters arrested on trumped-up charges of assault and trespass. On October 7, Bogle and his men marched to Morant Bay in military fashion and disrupted proceedings by surrounding the courthouse. Despite the protest’s peaceful nature, the authorities issued a warrant for Bogle’s arrest – yet the police were thwarted by the sheer power of numbers and forced to swear oaths that they would no longer serve public officials.
The colonial authority’s response
Undeterred, on October 10, eight more policemen set out for Stony Gut, but again they underestimated Bogle’s support and were quickly overpowered and forced to swear allegiance to him. Back in Morant Bay, they impressed the seriousness of the situation on then-Custos Baron Von Ketelhadt, who promptly arranged for one hundred soldiers to set sail aboard the HMS Wolverine from Kingston. On October 11, Bogle and his men again marched into Morant Bay, raided the police station for arms and attacked the courthouse where the council was meeting. Eighteen soldiers and council members were killed as frustrations erupted; the courthouse was burnt to the ground, and arms, gunpowder and foodstuffs were taken from the town’s shops. Unrest quickly spread, and the government troops aboard the Wolverine arrived too late to quell the disturbance when they put ashore on October 12. Fearing that the whole country would soon be engulfed, the authorities gave free rein to the army, and the protesters were crushed with brutal ferocity. A staggering 437 people were executed, another six hundred men and women flogged, and over a thousand homes razed to the ground. Bogle evaded capture and fled to the hills, where he remained undetected for several days. In Kingston, Governor Eyre declared martial law in St Thomas and wrote a warrant for the arrest of George William Gordon, who was hanged outside the Morant Bay courthouse on October 20. There was nowhere for Bogle to hide; he was captured at Stony Gut on October 23 and went to the gallows two days later. His last words quoted slave leader Sam Sharpe from 1831: “I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery.”
Jamaica after the rebellion
The rebellion marked a key political and social watershed for Jamaica. Governor Eyre was immediately recalled to England and stripped of his position, and the island came under direct rule from Britain until reforms in education and the legal system could be put into place – policies that never would have got past the local elite. Though progress for the poor was still painfully slow, Bogle’s defiant legacy ensured that Jamaica remained relatively peaceful until well into the next century. The Jamaican government eventually recognized Paul Bogle (and George William Gordon) as National Heroes, and monuments to them stand in National Heroes Park in Kingston.