Monday, May 30, 2011

June 2, 1868 --- The Jamaican Rebellion

A special grand jury refuses to indict Edward Eyre, the former British governor of Jamaica, who had harshly crushed a bloody insurrection in October, 1865. For over two years since, Eyre's handling of the rebellion had been subject, in the words of one of his strongest supporters, Thomas Carlyle, to an "insane uproar." So divisive had the issue become that The Saturday Review wondered "Are we henceforth to be separated, as a nation, into negrophilites and anti-negroites?"

When the rebels attacked the courthouse in Morant Bay, 18 people were killed. Initial press reports reaching London detailed barbarous acts of cruelty; rebels drinking rum from the skulls of their victims, etc. Declaring martial law, Eyre put down the rebellion in a month; over 400 were executed, among them the Rev. George Gordon, a black member of the House of Assembly. While Gordon's rhetoric was inflammatory, there was little evidence tying him to the rising. When the hysteria cleared and the first reports were discounted, questions were raised at the Colonial Office. A hasty inquiry cleared Eyre but he was recalled to England.

A newly-formed "Jamaica Committee," headed by John Stuart Mill, demanded Eyre be tried for Gordon's murder. While some attacked Eyre for being "hostile to the Negro," others of his critics chose rather to emphasize conduct which they called "unEnglish." As the scientist Thomas Huxley put it, "English law does not permit good persons, as such, to strangle bad persons, as such." The radical Reynold's Newspaper thought he belonged among "the bloodstained minions of the murderous despots of continental Europe."' Inevitably, an Eyre Defence Committee was formed, chaired by Carlyle who praised the Governor as a "faithful, valiant, wise and manful representative of the English Government." Dickens, Tennyson and Ruskin also lent their names to Eyre's cause.

In the end, some of Eyre's officers were tried, but he was not. He repeatedly maintained, "During a state of warfare ... many things must always occur which are to be deplored, but which are as impossible to foresee as to prevent." Freed by the grand jury, Eyre retired to Devon to escape what he called, "malignant and monstrous calumnies."

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