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'Comfort your heart' — requiem from George William Gordon

Lance Neita

Sunday, October 14, 2018

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One of my favourite heroes is George William Gordon. In flights of fantasy I see him walking up to the dais tomorrow to accept his country's highest national honour from Governor General Sir Patrick Allen. His shoulders would have been broad and his head held as high as those other most-deserving Jamaicans who receive their honours beside him.

In another time, and another place, he would have been promptly executed by the governor. In real life, the then governor of Jamaica, John Eyre, hated his guts. It was Eyre who blamed Gordon for the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion, and it was Eyre who personally arrested Gordon and had him sent to the gallows.

Gordon's role was not fashioned by any accident of history. Like the other heroes and freedom fighters who died at the hands of their colonial masters, he deliberately took the road he trod knowing well that it could lead to his incarceration and inevitable death.

He was a gentleman who had an absolute passion for helping the poor. Unlike Paul Bogle, Samuel Sharpe and Nanny of the Maroons, he was not a physical fighter or a warrior in the true sense of the word. But he was just as brave and outspoken when it came to standing up for the downtrodden.

George William Gordon, the son of a slave woman and a white plantation owner, the Scotsman Thomas Gordon. had been a successful businessman and landowner, as well as a vestryman and justice of the peace, and he was twice elected to the Jamaica House of Assembly. He was married to a white woman, Mary Jane Perkins — a widow and the former proprietor of a girls' school in Kingston.

He was driven by an amazing social conscience. As a member of the House he used his position to highlight the sufferings of the people and worked unceasingly on their behalf. Bogle and he were miles apart, both in physical distance as well as at social levels, yet he threw in his lot with the hero of Stony Gut, and in so doing earned the hatred not only of the governor but of his peers, who derided and jeered as he spoke out on behalf of the poor.

And poor they were. Jamaica today has no idea of the conditions which faced the ordinary people in the 1860s. It was a period which saw the ex-slaves living for the most part in abject poverty. Conditions were almost as bad as they had been during slavery, and a two-year drought prior to 1865 widened the already miserable conditions.

In January 1865, Edward Underhill, the secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, sent a letter to the Secretary of state for the colonies in Britain describing the awful conditions under which the black masses lived in Jamaica. His letter was widely circulated and a series of meetings, known as Underhill meetings, was held, some of them chaired by none other than George William Gordon himself.

In his newspaper, The Watchman, which he published, Gordon would call on people, particularly in St Thomas where he had property, to come out and meet. One such publication read: “You who have no sugar estates to work on, nor can find other employment, we call on you to come forth, even if you be naked, come forth and protest against the unjust representations made against you by Mr Governor Eyre and his band of custodes.”

Things were moving on.

On October 11, 1865, several hundred men and women, mostly armed with sticks, stones and machetes, marched from Stony Gut to Morant Bay. They proceeded toward the courthouse, where a meeting of the vestry was being held. As the crowd approached, the custos, Baron von Ketelhodt, emerged on the balcony of the courthouse and ordered the crowd to disperse. But they responded with cries of “War, war!” Von Ketelhodt began to read the Riot Act, but was promptly killed when the crowd began throwing stones and attacking the militia.

The Riot Act is still in existence, but only a brave justice of the peace or resident magistrate would dare to read such again under such circumstances.

The soldiers opened fire. The protesters retaliated with more violence, causing the remaining militia members and officials to take refuge inside the courthouse. The protesters set the courthouse on fire, pursuing and killing many of those who tried to escape.

The event was followed over the next several days by attacks on several neighbouring estates. The authorities reacted on the basis of the fear that the rebellion was likely to spread across the entire island.

From his seat at King's House Governor Eyre declared martial law. The troops who arrived at Morant Bay on October 12 quelled the violence there after a few days. Eyre then authorised extensive reprisals and, over a 30-day period of martial law, government troops — with the help of contingents of Maroons — killed 439 people; flogged 600 others, including many women; and demolished or burned at least 1,000 houses. The killings also included many executions after summary courts martial in the field. There were stories of sick or elderly men who were pulled from their homes, which were subsequently looted or destroyed, or shot while running away from the troops or Maroons.

The punishment for those captured in the aftermath of the rebellion was flogging, death, or both. One butcher, who was forced to whip, said he whipped from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. Incredibly, the bloodthirsty Eyre sat in a chair nearby and watched all the beatings and the hangings.

Gordon of course had come to Eyre's attention long before this event. Gordon was a vocal critic of Eyre's policies. He was once forcibly ejected from a vestry meeting on the orders of Eyre.

In one of his first acts after declaring martial law, Eyre decided to hold Gordon responsible for inspiring the rebellion. He was arrested in Kingston and transported by ship to Morant Bay on October 17, escorted by Eyre himself. After arriving on October 20, Gordon was imprisoned in the police station. While in prison he was physically abused and threatened by soldiers and sailors.

During the court martial, Gordon was denied the opportunity to consult with counsel. At the time of his arrest and during his court martial Gordon asserted that he had no advance knowledge of the rebellion; he had been ill for several weeks and could not have been involved in planning the uprising — a fact later affirmed by his physician, who was never summoned to testify at the court martial. The court martial found Gordon guilty of high treason and sedition and sentenced him to death.

He was executed by hanging from the central arch of the courthouse, along with 17 others, early in the morning on the following Monday, October 23, after having been given only one hour's notice of his impending execution.

On a historical note, in June 1965, 100 years after the uprising, skeletal remains believed to be those of the martyrs were found in trenches at the back of the courthouse. The archaeologist Ray Fremmer claimed that there were, altogether, 186 bodies — 179 men and seven women — buried in 12 trenches.

Fremmer said that Gordon's body lay with 18 others which were interred on October 23, 1865, and Bogle's with 13 others, including Moses Bogle, James McLaren, and James Bowie on the following day.

The letter Gordon wrote to his wife from his prison cell the night before his death is a literary gem which deserves compulsory reading and recitation in our schools. It is a testimony to the hallmarks of true heroism and makes Gordon stand out as a leader and martyr. Honesty, strength, and compassion are breathed into every word.

“All I ever did was to recommend the people who complained to seek redress in a legitimate way; and if in this I erred, or have been misrepresented, I do not think I deserve the extreme sentence. It is, however, the will of my Heavenly Father that I should thus suffer in obeying His command to relieve the poor and needy and to protect, as far as I was able, the oppressed.”

Gordon had a special word of love for his wife. “Comfort your heart. I little expected this. You must do the best you can, and the Lord will help you; and do not be ashamed of the death your poor husband will have suffered.

“I thought His Excellency would have allowed me a fair trial, but I have no power of control. May the Lord be merciful to him…I have only been allowed one hour. I wish more time had been allowed…May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all. Your truly devoted and now nearly dying husband.”

Comfort your heart. In a country where foul murder continues to stalk the land, the last words of this gentle giant are an inspiration.

Lance Neita, with thanks to Sarah Winter's On the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica and the Governor Eyre-George William Gordon Controversy. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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