‘Liberty of Person, Liberty of Land’: repair and making of Paul Bogle’s Jamaica

The Gleaner presents the first in the new monthly guest column, ‘Reparation Time’, in association with The Centre for Reparation Research (CRR) at The University of the West Indies. The mandate of the CRR, established by The UWI in 2016 at the request of Heads of Government of CARICOM, and launched officially in October 2017, is to engage in research and advocacy that will advance the case for reparatory justice against former colonial powers.

Each month, the CRR will call on its wide network of scholars and collaborating entities to contribute to this process. Prof Clinton Hutton, a member of the CRR’s Network of Scholars, kicks off the series with an article focusing on the Morant Bay War of 1865, more evidence of the justification for the call for reparation from Britain.

October is Heritage Month in Jamaica, a month in which we honour our National Heroes and bring attention to their struggles for justice and nationhood. This article turns the spotlight on the travails of Rt. Excellent Paul Bogle and his supporters.

Indeed, yesterday, October 24, marked 155 years since the British colonial authorities and their allies executed Paul Bogle, his brother Moses Bogle, his 23-year-old secretary, James McLaren and others in Morant Bay and surrounding districts. Overall, according to the official figures, 439 persons were executed mostly by hanging, although other reports put the number killed at some 1500. The killings in St. Thomas-in-the-East did not end until November 1865.

Hundreds had their backs reduced to ‘raw meat’ by the whip and the rituals of its administration perfected in almost 200 years of British enslavement. The British and their supporters burnt over 1,000 houses, churches and mills belonging to the people. They plundered the people’s crops, such as coffee, and animals like horses and other belongings such as money and jewellery.

Twenty-seven years after slavery was abolished in Jamaica, war broke out at Morant Bay between the formerly enslaved and former enslavers, who, while it was no longer legal for them to hold people in slavery, never lost their power over the colonial state and the economy. They continued to rule, guided by the culture, values, attitude, psychology and philosophy of enslavers. The problem with this state of affairs was that the formerly enslaved Africans were objectively and subjectively unwilling to live in a state of existence that was ostensibly free, but, in the main, indistinguishable from slavery.

Their challenge was to define, articulate and make freedom differently from how the British colonial authorities and the planter-merchant alliance and allies deemed Blacks in freedom to be. For the former enslavers, their philosophical hero, Thomas Carlyle, framed well their ideas of Black existence, post-emancipation in his pamphlet, ‘The Original Discourse on the N***r Question’. In this pamphlet, Carlyle made clear the position of Blacks vis-à-vis Whites in emancipation:

[N]o black man, who will not work according to what ability the gods have given him for working, has the smallest right to eat pumpkin, or any fraction of land that will grow pumpkin, however plentiful such land may be, but has an indisputable and perpetual right to be compelled, by real proprietors of said land, to do competent work, for his living.

But the poor black men of St Ann, who petitioned Queen Victoria in 1865, had a much different vision, feeling, desire, and thought of freedom from Carlyle and the former enslavers who prized his every word. In their petition, they stated;

“We are blessed with a good Island, but we require a much larger extent of cultivation. If our most Gracious Sovereign Lady will be so kind to get a quantity of land, we will put our hands and heart to work, and cultivate coffee, corn, canes, cotton and tobacco, and other produce. We will form a company for that purpose, if our Lady Victoria our Queen will also appoint an agent to receive such produce as we may cultivate, give us means of subsistence while at work.

We your humble servants will thankfully repay our Sovereign Lady by instalments of such produce as we may cultivate (Taken from Thomas Harvey & William Berwin 1867. Jamaica in 1866, p. 103).”

Edward Cardwell, the colonial secretary, responded angrily to this petition in a Carlyle-like tone, as if implying that ‘you n***s don’t know your place’:

“[T]he 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 as long as it is wanted, and that if they use this industry and thereby render the Plantations productive, they would enable the Planters to pay them higher Wages than are received by the best Field Labourers in this country [England] (From Harvey & Berwin, p.40). “

These petitioners apparently did not know their place. For, they who were no longer a commodity/capital, wanted from Victoria a reasonable amount of capital, i.e. land, on which to apply their emancipated labour in a dignified and free manner, to cultivate for themselves coffee, corn, canes, cotton and tobacco, items which they were forced to cultivate for white people without pay during slavery. In their petition, emancipated labour became an expression of freedom and freedom personified when it was aligned with, or married to, or reunited with men and women who were separated from their ancestral lands, made property, and forced to work without pay from generation to generation. The embodiment of this expression of freedom was the small class of own-account persons who emerged after slavery was abolished. They included persons such as the St Ann petitioners and Paul Bogle and almost all of his deputies, who constituted the leadership of the Morant Bay uprising.

Wellwood Anderson, inspector general of immigration and a proprietor who claimed ownership of the disputed Middleton property in St Thomas-in-the-East, revealed a similar expression of freedom from the men and women who were contesting his claim to the Middleton property. According to Anderson, the people told him ‘that the Queen had given them the place when she gave them freedom, and freedom would be of no use if they had their lands and house’ c (Royal Commission 1866, p.566).

The colonial secretary’s response to the St Ann petitioners was ordered printed and put up around the island by Governor John Eyre. However, it did not have the intended effect. It led to many mass meetings around Jamaica, known as the Underhill Meetings or Underhill Conventions, named after the English Baptist minister, Edward Underhill. Underhill had organised non-state Christian denominations to enquire into the condition of the formerly enslaved, from which an 1865 report, titled Dr Underhill’s Letter: A Letter Addressed to the Rt Honourable E. Cardwell with Illustrated Documents of the Condition of Jamaica, was prepared and sent to the colonial secretary.

It was these Underhill meetings, to an important degree, that provided the permissive context for the Morant Bay war. It was in one of these meetings in St Thomas-in-the-East that Paul Bogle’s secretary, James McLaren who spoke, called for the land to be distributed to the people without them having to pay for it since they earned it. He further stated that, although he was not born in slavery, he was still a slave because he could not take care of his family. What he was alluding to here was that slavery imposed poverty on his parents and their ancestors and emancipation had not changed it. His generation was chained to this historic poverty.

In their struggle to reshape Jamaica to serve their interest after slavery, there was an implicit zone of repair advanced by the people to unite emancipated labour with the ownership of capital/land as the basis for making freedom. It was so with the people of St Ann who petitioned Queen Victoria. So, too, the people of St Thomas-in-the-East who were in conflict over land with Wellwood Anderson, or James McLaren making a speech at an Underhill meeting. Moreover, the people advanced a slogan which summarised this aspiration: ‘Liberty of Person Liberty of Land’. For this, the British hurled a ‘reign of terror’ on the people to keep them in their place.

This terrible episode in Jamaica and wider diaspora history requires attention by the British State! It is truly ‘Reparation Time’!

– Clinton Hutton is a retired UWI professor of Caribbean Political Philosophy, Culture & Aesthetics. Send feedback to: reparation.research@uwimona.edu.jm

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