Jamaica’s colonial legacy: 50 years on from independence


Although 2012 is the 50th year of Jamaican independence, one cannot relinquish the colonial ties from the vibrant, robust beating heart of the young nation. Colonialism is ingrained into the nation’s history, politics and collective identity. Jamaica was the jewel of the British Empire throughout the 18th century thanks to a burgeoning sugar industry that was founded on African indentured slavery. The 19th century however, is a tale of shifting paradigms in the empire and the breakdown of governance.

Despite the fact that my research does not acutely study the consequences of the acting Governor, Edward John Eyre, declaring martial law on September 11th 1865, the parish of St. Thomas has an integral position within the context of my research. Rather than simply just offering a narrative of the Morant Bay rebellion and the repression of the Negro population throughout St. Thomas that ensued, I have attempted to blend 19th century intellectual and political colonial history to make sense of how the declaration of martial law by Governor Eyre was justified on racial grounds.

Morant Bay Rebellion

 On the afternoon of the 11th October 1865, a group of armed Negroes led by the Baptist member Paul Bogle set alight the courthouse of St. Thomas after confrontation with the militia. The fire resulted in the death of the parish magistrate and the death of seventeen other officials and militia. Upon hearing the news of a Negro insurrection Governor Eyre declared martial law on the town of Morant Bay. A state of arbitrary military rule was to reign over Morant Bay and the parish of St. Thomas for a total of thirty days, resulting in the death of 450 Negroes, 600 coloured people regardless of sex or age being flogged and up to 1,000 dwellings were levelled to the ground.

Empire in the 19th century

The nineteenth century provided numerous colonial examples which bolstered the view of anthropologists, parliamentarians, scientists and the public on the inherit savagery of the coloured races. The likes of the British West Indies, New Zealand, Canada, India and Africa were all sites throughout the nineteenth century where colonial insurrection took place. None other had a more enduring impact on the British imagination than the Indian Mutiny of 1857, whereby, horrific articles saturated British newspapers for months after the incident, describing the death of hundreds of their fellow countrymen at the hands of the natives.

19th century overview of Jamaica

There are two dates within Jamaica’s nineteenth century history that had a profound impact on the events leading up to the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865. Firstly, August 1838, whereby, slavery as an institution was officially abolished throughout the colony. Secondly, the July 1846 Sugar Duties Act, which introduced increased tariffs on Jamaican sugar exported to Britain. Post-emancipation society in Jamaica witnessed a startling demographic shift, with a large-scale exodus of Negroes moving off the sugar estates and purchasing small plots of land. The depletion of human labour, which low-cost production of sugar relied upon heavily, inflamed hostilities between the estate owners and the Negroes. The disenchantment of the emancipated Negro fell on deaf ears to the island’s assembly that consisted of white, fervent racists who were formally or informally linked to the sugar estates.

19th century British rhetoric and the construction of racial discourses

The rhetoric that structured British notions of race was not solely metropolitan in origin, nor was it strictly colonial. Concepts of Britishness, race and the ‘other’ were a seemingly porous, two-way dialect of metropolitan and colonial rhetoric, which formed without a distinct origin in one sphere, but nonetheless, permeated the intellectual and public realm of both colony and the metropole. The unification of liberal and scientific rhetoric was to have an enduring effect on the contours of mid-Victorian discourses surrounding race.

Racial Determinism

“Difference implies superiority, and superiority leads to predominance.” – Brenda McKay, George Elliot and Victorian Attitudes to Racial Diversity, Colonialism, Darwinism, Class, Gender and Jewish Culture and Prophecy.

Mid-Victorian discourse surrounding race throughout the 1860s, was influenced by the robust brand of racial determinism herald by the British Anthropological Society, particularly its founder, James Hunt. The society centred the idea of race specifically on the physical differences of man, thereby, classifying man into distinct species, according to their anatomy. European superiority over the Negro of Africa, along with the coloured races that populated the world, was based on an ethnocentric critique of a distinctly non-European history of moral progression and civilization. Hunt and his colleagues racial classification, which was imbued in liberal traditions, was further bolstered by empirical evidence gathered by scientists on the variations of man.

Liberal prose on the issue of race

“I am not sure that this distress is a bad thing. The idleness of the peasantry needs an exemplary punishment. It may do something to open their eyes.” – Sir Frederick Rodgers commenting on the plight of the Negro in Jamaica. Quoted in Douglas Hall, Free Jamaica, 1838-1865: An Economic History.

‘John Stuart Mill’s ‘Representative Government’ was published in 1861, outlining the array of legitimate modes of government, based upon ‘political antecedents’. The latter is resolutely influenced by the European tradition of governance and morality. In the context of the British West Indies, the Negroes of Jamaica had a history steeped in the unruly state of barbarism. As such, they lacked the self-determination necessary for representative government; legitimising the British divine right to governance.

The scientific contribution: the evolution of man

“The natural barbarity of blacks: It was Africa, hitherto dormant that had broken out in their natures.” – The Times, November 18

Published in 1859, Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origins of Species’ placed an inherit value on the digressions of man, based upon his mental capacities. By linking the man of his time, with that of a singular ancestral being, Darwin proposed man was situated on an evolutionary spectrum; progressing from a primitive state of existence to that of civilised. Members of both the scientific and political body who advocated Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, thought the likes of such a mental organisation would lead to the continual reproduction of the highly developed species, and the decrease or in some cases, extinction of the primitive.

Governor Eyre: A product of the time

It is within the quintessential mid-nineteenth century discourses of race that governor Eyre’s reprisal must be contextualised, in order to grapple with the declaration of martial law and the brutal repression of the Negro, which ensued. 

2 comments on “Jamaica’s colonial legacy: 50 years on from independence

  1. maddielb says:

    When study in undertaken of the actions/decisions an individual made, every effort needs to be taken to understand the political and social contexts in which these decisions were made. It is clear from your research that the actions of Governor Eyre in regard to the Morant Bay Rebellion were the result of 19thC discourse about race, man, government etc.

    I found the subheadings in this article useful in dividing up the main sources of evidence you discussed. There were clearly a number of texts/ways of though which led (if indirectly) to Eyre’s actions following the Morant Bay Rebellion.
    Well done.

  2. ryanspinks12 says:

    It would be an extremely superficial analysis to place the reaction of Governor Eyre as purely a cause and effect relationship. Yes, the declaration of martial law may be viewed as a response to the increasingly hostile black emancipated population throughout the British West Indies in the 19th century. However, the 19th century witnessed the birth of an increasingly racialised critique of the Negro, it was through this ethnocentric lens that the rebellions were looked upon. Within this context, a critique, or legitimisation in regards to Governor Eyre, was the foundation to which the brutal repression of the Negroes in the parish of St. Thomas took shape.

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