Morant Bay Rebellion and the police

Morant Bay Rebellion and the police

Michael Burke

Thursday, October 11, 2018

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TODAY is 153 years since the Morant Bay Rebellion. In a real way, Paul Bogle, by leading the rebellion, put Jamaica on the road to self-government, which finally came in 1944. Even in 1865 there was talk about Jamaica ruling itself; although, most ironically, the House of Assembly voted itself out of existence. They found it very difficult dealing with the tyrannical governor, Edward John Eyre.

The assembly had limited powers and the colonial governor could veto everything. So Jamaica became a crown colony, which meant being ruled directly by England for 79 years between 1865 and 1944. After 'full-free', in 1838, the ex-slaves left the plantations to farm the hillsides. This, in turn, caused a severe economic decline in Jamaica as there was far less sugar for export. The estate owners formed a delegation and sailed to England to negotiate with the English merchants.

The Jamaican estate owners asked the English to accept a higher price for sugar, because workers were not slaves anymore and had to be paid a wage. The first set of East Indians to arrive in Jamaica came in 1845, and they also had to be paid a wage by law. The English decided to drop Jamaica as its source of sugar and, instead, bought sugar from Cuba, which was still in slavery and therefore could offer a cheaper product.

As sugar declined and many estate owners migrated to Australia, there were fewer taxes that could be collected. So, even in the most unlikely event of the colonial Government wanting to offer financial relief to the poor ex-slaves who farmed the often rocky hillsides, there were no funds to do that as revenue was limited following the decline of sugar.

The colonial Government instituted toll roads, but these were abandoned in 1859. They also had a market tax, a mule tax, and a cartwheel tax — all designed to frustrate the ex-slaves and force them to return to the sugar estates. But all of that was to little avail, as many ex-slaves drove their horses through the toll roads without paying. The other taxes were very hard to collect without the necessary personnel to do collections at that time in our history.

While the protest march from Stony Gut led by Paul Bogle was about injustice in the court in Morant Bay, it was really the straw that broke the camel's back. There were severe drought conditions and there was hunger in St Thomas. Paul Bogle led a delegation by foot for 45 miles from Stony Gut in St Thomas to Spanish Town to see Governor Eyre. The governor, whose residence and office was in Spanish Town, as it was then the capital of Jamaica, refused to see the delegation.

So the local riot (called the Morant Bay Rebellion) took place on October 11, 1865. Governor Eyre had more than 900 people rounded up and slaughtered — the mass grave of which is beside the old Morant Bay Courthouse. There was a Royal Commission of Enquiry and Governor Eyre was sent out of Jamaica. A new governor, St John Peter Grant, was appointed and he made quite a few improvements.

The changes made by Governor Grant included the building of the Rio Cobre dam, the Marescaux Road Reservoir (opposite The Mico University College), the Kingston Public Hospital, the mental asylum (now known as Bellevue Hospital) and what was then called a modern police force. New crops were introduced to Jamaica, such as bananas in 1866. Later, other fruits were introduced such as mangoes and citrus. But in 1865 these things had not yet taken place.

Nearly four decades ago before he went into politics, Deacon Ronald Thwaites said on the old Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation's call-in programme Public Eye to a caller that, “The police force came about after the Morant Bay Rebellion to ensure that black people never again rise up against the white estate owners.” He was perfectly right.

And when National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang said recently that the police force came about to protect property owners, he was also perfectly right. It is true that the police force lacks a clear mission statement. While the training has changed in terms of modern technology, it certainly has not changed the mentality of the police, nor has it taught the police force what its proper role should be.

I believe that those police who took offence to certain statements of Dr Chang lack an understanding of our history. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has itself to blame for this. It was during a JLP Government, under the leadership of Edward Seaga as prime minister, when Dr Mavis Gilmour was minister of education, that history was made a non-compulsory subject.

Sociology should be informed by history, and we need to stop this nonsense of acting as if both subjects are not interrelated. What is the good of history research just for the sake of history research? But how do we change the police force without changing the society from which the police are drawn? I went to the forum at The University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI) recently with a view to asking this question.

Unfortunately, the meeting at The UWI came to an end before I got my chance to ask the question from the floor. I did not trust the texting of the questions as that would give Chang and company an opportunity to select which questions they wanted to be answered.

I have read the news that Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips has announced that if the People's National Party forms the next Government there will be a ministry of social transformation. In my opinion, this is where everything should begin.

One could be tempted to sing “Seek ye first social transformation/of Jamaican people/and all these things shall be added unto us…” In my opinion, one of the things that would be “added unto us” is a transformed police force. True, one has to start with children, but we need to do some crash courses in proper values and attitudes for adults including and especially the police force.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or

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