No Law at All

Stephen Sedley

  • A Jurisprudence of Power: Victorian Empire and the Rule of Law by R.W. Kostal
    Oxford, 529 pp, £79.95, December 2005, ISBN 0 19 826076 8

On 11 October 1865, a crowd of poor black Jamaicans burned down the Morant Bay courthouse and killed 18 people, most of them white and one the local chief magistrate, who had just had them fired on by soldiers after a reading of the Riot Act. The governor of the island, Edward Eyre, on the advice of his military commander and his law officers, decreed martial law in the county where Morant Bay lay, but excluded the town of Kingston. Although the uprising was put down within a week, in the month that passed before the decree expired the military was allowed an orgy of shooting, flogging and more or less arbitrary executions. The Cornhill Magazine put the number of deaths at 439 and of floggings at 600.

If this had been all, there would probably have been a transient fuss in England, after which Eyre’s career would have continued to flourish. The largest controversy provoked at home by the Indian Mutiny seven years earlier had been about Charles John Canning’s attempts as governor-general to rein back the brutality of the military reprisals. A slave revolt in Jamaica in 1831, seven years before formal emancipation, had been visited with hundreds of executions, albeit after some form of trial, without provoking a major domestic outcry. Governors of other colonies – Demerara in 1824, Cephalonia and Ceylon in 1848 – had faced parliamentary inquiry and, at least in the latter instance, censure for their violent suppression of unrest; but none had ignited the degree of public passion generated in and after 1865 by the suppression of the Morant Bay rising.

The controversy was not about whether there had been a necessity for martial law to be invoked at Morant Bay: there almost certainly had. It was ostensibly about the unnecessary duration of the decree and the abuse of the powers it created; but neither of these features distinguished it from the measures adopted in response to other such risings. What gave the outrage a focus was that Eyre had personally authorised the arrest in Kingston of a man named George Gordon, and what today would be called his extraordinary rendition to Morant Bay. Arriving there on a Saturday, Gordon was given an instant trial without access to counsel and hanged two days later – the military commander felt it was not right to hang people on a Sunday – from the surviving arch of the charred courthouse. All of this was done with Eyre’s express approval.

Without question Eyre, who was swiftly relieved of his post, had overreached himself in relation to Gordon. His excuses were feeble: he had heard ‘little facts’, he told the local Royal Commission that had been set up within two months of the rising, which convinced him that Gordon had been the ‘prime instigator’ of the insurrection. More candidly, he later told the Colonial Office that he feared that Gordon, if left alive, would be a focal point for further trouble. In this he was probably right. Gordon, born in 1820, was the child of a wealthy white planter and a black slave. He inherited substantial land holdings and became a member of the legislative assembly, elected by the island’s handful of landowners. By the 1860s, however, with the decline in Jamaica’s economy accelerated by drought and the effects of the American Civil War, Gordon was in debt and in open political conflict with the white planters about the need for agrarian and social reform. When Eyre, an experienced colonial administrator, arrived as acting governor late in 1862, Gordon became one of his many problems. But Gordon was not simply a difficult local planter. Through his conversion to Native Baptism he had become closely associated with the black preacher and reform agitator Paul Bogle, whose attempted arrest had sparked the rising and who was to suffer the same fate as Gordon.

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