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Today is the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay rebellion which began on this date in 1865, when Paul Bogle led 200 to 300 black men and women into the town of Morant Bay, parish of St. Thomas in the East, in Jamaica. The rebellion and its aftermath were a major turning point in Jamaica’s history, and also generated a significant political debate in Britain. Today, the rebellion remains a topic of debate in certain circles, and is frequently mentioned by specialists in black and colonial studies. However, it is not widely known outside those circles.

Slavery ended in Jamaica on 6 August 1834, with the passing of the British Emancipation Act, which eventually led to full emancipation on 1 August 1838 after four years of apprenticeship – the date on which former slaves became free to choose their employment and employer. On paper, former slaves gained the right to vote. However, most blacks remained desperately poor, and a high poll tax effectively excluded them from enfranchisement. During the election of 1864, fewer than 2,000 black Jamaicans were eligible to vote out of a total population of over 436,000, despite outnumbering whites by a ratio of 32:1. Prior to the rebellion, conditions in Jamaica had been worsening for ex-slaves. In 1864 there were several floods which ruined many crops, whilst 1865 marked the end of a decade in which the island had been overwhelmed by plagues of cholera and smallpox. A two-year drought preceding 1865 made economic conditions worse for the population of former slaves and their descendants. These conditions led to several bankruptcies in the sugar industry, widening the economic void. Consequently tensions between white farmers and ex-slaves increased, and rumors began circulating that white planters intended to restore slavery.

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In 1865, Dr. Edward Underhill, Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society of Great Britain, wrote a letter to the Colonial Office in order to express Jamaica’s current poor state of affairs. This letter was later shown to Jamaica’s Governor Edward Eyre, who immediately tried to deny the truth of its statements, and Jamaica’s poor blacks began organizing in “Underhill Meetings.” In fact, peasants in St. Ann parish sent a petition to Queen Victoria asking for Crown lands to cultivate as they could not find land for themselves, but it passed by Eyre first and he enclosed a letter with his own comments.

The Queen’s reply left no doubt in the minds of the poor that Eyre had influenced her opinion – she encouraged the poor to work harder, rather than offering any help. George William Gordon, a wealthy mulatto politician, began encouraging the people to find ways to make their grievances known. One of his followers was a church deacon named Paul Bogle.

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Keeping the Haitian Revolution in mind, the British population in Jamaica, as in many other British colonies, was fearful that the Jamaicans, like the Haitians before them, would seize control of Jamaica.

On 7 October 1865, a black man was put on trial and imprisoned for trespassing on a long-abandoned plantation, angering black Jamaicans. During the proceedings, James Geoghegon, a black spectator, disrupted the trial, and in the police’s attempts to seize him and remove him from the courthouse, a fight broke out between the police and other spectators. While pursuing Geoghegon, the two policeman were beaten with sticks and stones.[2] The following Monday arrest warrants were issued for several men for rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police. Among them was Baptist preacher Paul Bogle.

A few days later on 11 October, Paul Bogle marched with a group of protesters to Morant Bay. When the group arrived at the court house they were met by a small and inexperienced volunteer militia. The crowd began pelting the militia with rocks and sticks, and the militia opened fire on the group, killing seven black protesters before retreating.

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Governor John Eyre sent government troops, under Brigadier-General Alexander Nelson, to hunt down the poorly armed rebels and bring Paul Bogle back to Morant Bay for trial. The troops met with no organized resistance, but regardless they killed blacks indiscriminately, most of whom had not been involved in the riot or rebellion: according to one soldier, “we slaughtered all before us… man or woman or child”. In the end, 439 black Jamaicans were killed directly by soldiers, and 354 more (including Paul Bogle) were arrested and later executed, some without proper trials. Paul Bogle was executed “either the same evening he was tried or the next morning.” Other punishments included flogging for over 600 men and women (including some pregnant women), and long prison sentences, with thousands of homes belonging to black Jamaicans burned down without any reason.

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George William Gordon, a Jamaican businessman and politician, who had been critical of Governor John Eyre and his policies, was later arrested by Governor John Eyre who believed he had been behind the rebellion. Despite having very little to do with it, Gordon was eventually executed. Though he was arrested in Kingston, he was transferred by Eyre to Morant Bay, where he could be tried under martial law. The execution and trial of Gordon via martial law raised some constitutional issues back in Britain, where concerns emerged about whether British dependencies should be ruled under the government of law, or through military license. The speedy trial saw Gordon hanged on 23 October, just two days after his trial had begun. He and William Bogle, Paul’s brother, were both tried together, and executed at the same time.

When news of the response to the rebellion broke in Britain it generated fierce debate, with public figures of different political affiliations lining up to support or oppose Governor Eyre’s actions. When Eyre returned to Britain in August 1866, his supporters held a banquet in his honor, while opponents at a protest meeting the same evening condemned him as a murderer. Opponents went on to establish the Jamaica Committee, which called for Eyre to be tried for mass murder. More radical members of the Committee wanted him tried for the murder of British subjects, such as George William Gordon, under the rule of law, stating that his action under martial law were in fact illegal. The Committee included English liberals, such as John Bright, Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Huxley, Thomas Hughes and Herbert Spencer. An opposing committee, which included such Tories and Tory socialists as Thomas Carlyle, Rev. Charles Kingsley, Charles Dickens, and John Ruskin, sprang up in Eyre’s defense. Twice Eyre was charged with murder, but the cases never proceeded.

While some historians have argued that the Morant Bay uprising was no more than a local riot, in its wake the House of Assembly renounced its charter and Jamaica became a Crown Colony. A thorough overview can be found in Gad Heuman’s “The Killing Time”: The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica, (Knoxville,1994).

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Ackee and saltfish is a traditional Jamaican dish served for breakfast or lunch. The ackee fruit was imported to the Caribbean from Ghana before 1725; Ackee or Aki is another name for the Akan or Akyem people. Its botanical name is Blighia sapida, honoring Captain William Bligh who took the fruit from Jamaica to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, in London in 1793, and introduced it to science. Because parts of the fruit are highly toxic, there are shipping restrictions when being imported to countries such as the United States. You can get it canned online, as here, for example: http://www.amazon.com/Linstead-Market-Ackee-19oz/dp/B002SM5K62

To prepare the dish, salt cod (soaked overnight to eliminate most of the salt) is sautéed with boiled ackee, onions, Scotch Bonnet peppers, tomatoes, and spices, such as black pepper and paprika. It can be garnished with bacon and tomatoes, and is usually served alongside breadfruit, hard dough bread, dumplings, fried plantain, or boiled green bananas. Ackee and saltfish can also be eaten with rice and peas or plain white rice.