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Contributor: James Ogunleye
Jamaica: Remembering the Heroes of St Anne

When Britain seized control of Jamaica from Spain in 1655, it inherited a people that were going through the process of ?negronisation? - that is, a people that were being stripped of their names, their language, their culture and what was left of their knowledge of self. Working to Columbus? script, the British soon completed the job and, by 1833 - the year of emancipation, a complete negro had been made out of the African people. But then everyone except White Jamaica knew that the island was sitting on a volcano which, in time, was bound to erupt.
October 11, 1865, 32 years after the emancipation of the enslaved, that eruption occurred and the White overlords came face to face with the fury of a long-oppressed people. It all began early that year, when peasants in the parish of St Anne, east of Jamaica, fired a petition to Queen Victoria of England, begging her let some of her land (as head of colonial Jamaica all land belonged to her) to them. The land was to be used for co-operative farming which would guarantee the payment of rent on the land. Since it was not in the interest of White Jamaica to see an economically-independent Black people, the Queen?s reply (written on her behalf by the Colonial Office) was one of insensitivity.
Elsewhere in the parish of St Thomas, Black people tried to liberate themselves by squatting on some of the lands that the Queen had refused to allow them to rent. These squatters were soon arraigned before the magistrates - and were given harsh sentences. That came as no surprise. Black people could not have got justice from the judicial system because the magistrates were also prominent local planters whose interest the Queen was trying to protect in the first place.
On Tuesday October 11, 1865, the peasants, led by Paul Bogle, a lay preacher and land owner, sent word round the parish of St Thomas that Black folks should gather at the court house at Morant Bay, to protest the innocence of a peasant who was standing trial. In no time the peasants had massed at the court house and made frantic efforts to present their grievances before the Vestry meeting began.
Before the peasants could see the magistrates, however, the police opened fire, and all hell broke loose. The peasants fought back and, In the ensuing violence, killed the chief magistrate, Baron Von Kettleholdt, and 15 others. For the first time after the emancipation, White folks were confronted by a people that were ready to stand up for themselves.
For ex-soldier Edward John Eyre, the Jamaica governor and a man with unbridled disdain for Black people, it was time to put his military experience into practice. He imposed martial law in Morant Bay, mobilised the local forces and summoned reinforcements from Canada, the Bahamas, Cuba and Barbados.
With martial law strictly in force, the military went on a shooting spree, killing people on sight. By October 26, some 600 Black people had either been shot dead or executed; another 600 - mostly women - were flogged and more than one thousand huts and houses belonging to the protesters were burnt to ashes. The martial law in the eastern region lasted 30 days and so did the official reprisals.
Having brutally crushed the rebellion, Eyre went for the ring leader - Paul Bogle. With military precision, Bogle, who was in hiding, was captured and hanged. But Eyre still had another man on his list: Goerge William Gordon, a wealthy ?mulatto? and champion of Black rights. Gordon was a thorn in the flesh of Governor Eyre. He was a member of the House of Assembly and had used every opportunity in speeches to the House and in public to attack the condition of the Jamaican peasantry. He was therefore understandably a target for Eyre.
Shortly before the martial law ran its full course, Eyre ordered the arrest of Gordon in Kingston. But because the martial law did not prevail in Kingston, the crafty Eyre ordered that Gordon be ferried to Morant Bay to be court-marshalled. He was sentenced to death for ?opening the eyes? of the peasantry and hanged within hours.
News of the revolt reached England and greatly divided the British public. On 30 December, the British government was forced to appoint a Royal Commission of Enquiry to get to the roots of the rebellion. The Commission?s report to the House of Commons on 18 June 1866 was, however, a whitewash. It rubbed salt into Black people?s wounds by praising Eyre for the ?skill, promptitude and vigour which he manifested during the early stages of the insurrection . . . ? The report also praised the military and naval personnel who crushed the rebellion.
The score, as usual, was one for the White folks and nil for the oppressed Black people. But, as we mark the 131st anniversary of the Jamaican revolt and as we remember the heroism of the peasants of Morant Bay, we must rededicate ourselves to the continued struggle for the total liberation of Black people worldwide. We must do this not only for the memory of the slain St. Thomas? peasants, but also the 270 million souls that the Black race lost to slavery, the mother of all holocausts.
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