Inspired by the lyrics of a favourite song, Sue delves into the history behind the music and explains the significance of the the song ‘1865: 96° degrees in the Shade’ by the reggae group Third World for the 24th October.
24th October 1865 marks the day when Paul Bogle was executed for his part in the Morant Bay Rebellion (a.k.a Freedom War), where hundreds of men and women marched on Morant Bay courthouse to protest at the injustice and corruption that was devastating the island of Jamaica. Paul Bogle was born around 1820 to an enslaved mother. He became a baker and later a freeholder in Stony Gut, St. Thomas-in-the-East parish. Aged about 32, he became a preacher in the Native Baptist Church and built a chapel in Stony Gut, St. Thomas-in-the-East.
In 1865 emancipation was undermined by lack of political rights and representation, lack of justice, education, and need for improved wages and productive land for the freed labourers and smallholders. Suffrage was limited by property, gender, and literacy. In the elections of 1864, of a population of over 436,000, fewer than 2000 black men could vote, where the black population outnumbered the white population by approximately 32:1.
Following full emancipation in 1838, approximately one third of the formerly enslaved population had moved from the plantations to small villages and settlements; crippling taxation on property such as horses, mules, roads and wheels kept the working classes in poverty. In 1865, smallholdings and provision grounds (land away from estates for growing subsistence crops) were devastated by drought. Because of Britain’s free trade policy, sugar was no longer profitable; this, along with state-sponsored indentured labour from abroad, and the higher costs of imports since the end of the American Civil War, meant starvation and penury were rife. The House of Assembly passed new laws that enabled magistrates (usually landowners – employers sitting in judgement on employees) to summarily sentence whippings and imprisonment to those accused of larceny, without recourse to jury trials, and the prison population increased accordingly.
The situation came to the notice of the British Government when, in January 1865, Edward Underhill (secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society) wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, concerning the extreme distress experienced by the formerly enslaved population of Jamaica. Governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, was sceptical of Underhill’s assertions, and shared the view held by many in the House of Assembly that poverty was the result of indolence. A letter known as “the Queen Advise” from Henry Taylor, British Secretary of State for the Colonies and purporting to be from Queen Victoria was widely shared across Jamaica: “…the prosperity of the Labouring Classes as well as of all other classes depends in Jamaica, and in other Countries, upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted, and for so long as it is wanted, and that if they would use this industry, and thereby render the Plantations productive, they would enable the Planters to pay them higher Wages for the same hours of work than are received by the best Field Labourers in this Country… and they may be assured that it is from their own industry and prudence, in availing themselves of the means of prospering that are before them, and not from any such schemes as have been suggested to them, that they must look for an improvement in their condition.”
After Underhill’s letter, public meetings were held to discuss the implications of its contents. The people used it as an opportunity to make petitions to the Queen, often published in the island press, the only way for the majority to have their voices heard and to challenge political corruption. One man who spoke up for the disenfranchised majority was George William Gordon, son of a slave and a plantation owner, who later freed him. He was a Native Baptist Deacon and member of the House of Assembly – and the most prominent and outspoken critic of Governor Eyre.
The radical politics of Gordon worried the authorities, wary of what had happened in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), with self-freed slaves uprising in successful revolt against the French colonisers. Eyre, apprehensive and responding to rumours of unrest requested that two men of war were sent to Black River, Montego Bay and Lucea – suggesting to the commodore that a little gun practice by the ships would be “useful in letting the Peasantry know of their presence”.
“Excellency before you I come with my representation, You know where I’m coming from”
Paul Bogle was a vigorous political organiser among the freeholders in his area, and his steadfast support of George Gordon had enabled him to be elected into the Assembly. Gordon arranged for Bogle to address a meeting in Stony Gut in August of 1865, where he addressed taxation and the denial of rights, and the insensitivity and mockery contained in the “Queens Advise”. A delegation of small farmers, led by Bogle, walked the 40 miles to Spanish Town to petition Governor Eyre, but he refused to see them.
In September, Paul Bogle held a series of meetings to draw attention to court injustice, as well as the issue of land access; unused plots needed by freeholders and labourers alike, held by the Crown. Later that month Lewis Miller, a relative of Bogle’s, was tried for trespass on an abandoned sugar plantation and Bogle led a delegation to Morant Bay in solidarity. They prevented another man from being arrested in the courthouse. Two days later the police had a warrant for Paul Bogle’s arrest. The people of Stony Gut resisted; on October 11th, Paul Bogle led some 400 people from Stony Gut to Morant Bay. They sacked the police station and confronted the militia; eight of the protestors were shot and killed in the fight. The courthouse was burned and eighteen people died escaping the flames. The people took control of the parish for two days, until the authorities retaliated.
“You caught me on the loose, Fighting to be free”
Governor Eyre declared martial law; in the ensuing crackdown over 400 people in the parish of St. Thomas-in-the-East were killed outright. Many more were whipped and houses and settlements were razed, including Paul Bogle’s chapel and the settlement of Stony Gut. In total 300 people, including Paul Bogle, were arrested. George Gordon, who played no part in the protest at Morant Bay, was transported from Kingston, where martial law was not in force, to Morant Bay. He was tried for treason and executed on 23rd October. Paul Bogle, also tried under martial law, was hanged the following day. In the aftermath Governor Edward Eyre convinced the elected Assembly to dissolve; Jamaica became a Crown Colony ruled by appointment from Britain, thus diminishing the growing political influence of elected people of colour like George Gordon.
As news got back to Britain, a controversy emerged over how Governor Eyre handled the events. The Jamaica Committee, set up by John Stuart Mill included in its members Charles Darwin, Thomas Hughes, Thomas Henry Huxley, Henry Fawcett, and Charles Lyell. They called for the prosecution of Eyre for the murder of George Gordon. In response to this, Thomas Carlyle set up the Eyre Defence and Aid Committee, whose members included John Ruskin (who did the majority of the administrative work), Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, and John Tyndall. The defence committee argued that Eyre had acted promptly to restore calm. Legal wrangling went from the criminal to the civil courts. Eyre was finally exonerated in the court of the Queen’s Bench. The government covered Eyre’s court fees and he was awarded the pension due to a retired colonial governor.
“Today I stand here a victim, the truth is I’ll never die”
In 1969, Paul Bogle and George William Gordon were named among the first National Heroes of Jamaica, for their place in the fight against slavery and colonial oppression.
Thanks to Tony Wright for the generous use of his album cover art for 96° in the Shade by Third World.
Many thanks to Cat Coore and Third World for the use of lyrics (in italics) to 1865: 96° in the Shade., the reason I wrote this piece. https://www.thirdworldband.com/