‘Mercy in a Massacre’

The pro-Southern, pro-slavery sentiment that had taken hold of Liverpool and seeped out to the mill towns of Lancashire during the first two years of the American Civil War would not have surprised Frederick Douglass. Soon after arriving for his second speaking tour, in late November 1859, he sensed a new mood in Britain. He noted that since his visit in the 1840s sections of the British population had become conspicuously more racist in their attitudes towards black people and notably less sympathetic to the plight of the American slave. Douglass put this alarming change down to the importation into Britain of what he described as ‘American prejudice’, a mindset which he found to be particularly entrenched in Liverpool; a city which long before the Civil War was firmly on the side of the South and the Southern slave owner. However the chill wind that so disturbed and disappointed him in 1859 had blown in from the West Indies rather than from the Mississippi Valley.

By the late 1850s it had become acceptable, if not exactly respectable, in Britain to openly and publicly question whether the abolition of British slavery had been a successful enterprise and the right decision. Increasing numbers of people felt able to make public assertions about the capacities and humanity of black people in terms that many would have found unacceptable in the 1830s and 1840s. Patriotic pride in abolition and continuing anti-slavery sentiment remained defining elements of British political and cultural identity, as would be shown by the surge in support for the North following Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, but by the middle of the century abolition and philanthropy had a growing army of vocal detractors, and new and highly virulent strains of ‘scientific racism’ were gaining ground. In the opinion of these new sceptics abolition had been a mistake because the whole endeavour had been based upon a mistaken set of assumptions about the nature of Africans. Proponents of this standpoint pointed to the West Indies, where there had been a precipitous decline in the economic fortunes of the plantations in most of the former slave colonies – especially Jamaica. The waning prosperity of the sugar islands was a consequence of numerous factors, most notably the removal of the preferential tariff protections behind which the slave-owning planters had long sheltered. Exposed to the open market, many British producers found it impossible to compete with the sugar producers of Cuba and Brazil – where cane sugar was still produced by enslaved Africans. In addition, decades of over-planting during the boom years of the sugar economy had left the soil exhausted, and in the case of Jamaica her economic decline had begun even before the end of the eighteenth century. The faltering profitability of Jamaican plantations had been reflected in the compensation offered to the planters for slaves on that island, which were valued at around £44, around 38 per cent of the value ascribed to slaves in Guyana, where prime estates built on fresh soil were capable of generating far greater profits. Wiser heads had seen the decline of Jamaica coming decades earlier and had sold up. Those who had remained were in the market for a scapegoat on which to pin the blame and exercise their frustrations.

An alternative interpretation of events in the West Indies saw everything through the prism of race, arguing that the plantations were no longer so profitable because from the moment they were emancipated the former slaves sank into idleness and moral corruption – exactly in keeping with the true nature of Africans. Advocates of this way of thinking suggested that without coercion, the whip and the regimentation of plantation life Africans refused to work – for their former masters or for their own betterment – and that their innate idleness was ruining their prospects and those of their former masters. The white plantation owners, some of whom had returned to Britain when their estates had failed, were repeatedly portrayed as the victims of abolition. From the 1840s onwards they had lobbied energetically, presenting their case before Parliament and in the press. To whoever would listen they repeated their mantra: abolition had ruined their businesses because without slavery the ‘blacks’ simply would not work.1

All of this, it was said, had been foreseen in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by pro-slavery writers like Edward Long, but those sober warnings, made by men who had lived among Africans and had claimed to know their true nature, had been drowned out by the hysterical clamour of the abolitionists. William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Thomas Fowell Buxton and their like had, it was claimed, been wrong about slavery and wrong about the character, capacities and humanity of the African. Promoters of this new, darker, supposedly scientific racial interpretation of the recent past asserted that the central message of the abolitionists had been disastrously flawed; the African was neither fully a man nor a brother. Not only had Britain ruined her own colonies by believing otherwise, she was actively engaged in spreading this false philosophy around the world.

The first apostle of this new racism was the critic and essayist Thomas Carlyle, a hugely influential figure in the mid-nineteenth century whose writings helped set the tenor of his times, influencing novelists as much as scholars and philosophers. In 1849, less than a decade after the World Anti-Slavery Convention and eleven years after emancipation in the West Indies, Carlyle published an essay in Fraser’s Magazine entitled ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question’. At that time Carlyle judged that his views were so controversial that it was prudent to publish the essay under a pseudonym, and from behind the veil of anonymity he laid out his views on slavery, the decline of the West Indies and the inner nature of Africans. In part the ‘Occasional Discourse’ was an unoriginal regurgitation of the familiar, well-worn arguments deployed by the pamphleteers of the pro-slavery lobby half a century earlier. Like them Carlyle camouflaged his profound contempt for black people behind a passionately expressed – and in his case far from disingenuous – declaration of compassion for poor white people, particularly the Irish. Their sufferings, Carlyle suggested, were no less severe and much more important than the rights and lives of inferior, racial outsiders. Like a number of the writers who had trod the same intellectual pathways before him Carlyle also maintained that slavery had not been as brutal and inhumane as the abolitionists had suggested and that conditions on the slave ships of the Middle Passage had been nowhere near as atrocious as figures like Thomas Clarkson had suggested. Carlyle then took a moment to interrogate the mission of the West Africa Squadron, asking if a ‘blockade [of] the continent of Africa itself . . . along the extremely extensive and unwholesome coast’ was a sensible policy given that, as Carlyle put it, the ‘nefarious populations’ of Cuba and Brazil ‘will not, for love or fear, watching or entreaty, respect the rights of the negro’.2 But it was in analysing the situation in the post-emancipation West Indies that Thomas Carlyle was at his most venomous and vitriolic. Brushing aside the effects of tariff reform and global competition, he heaped all blame for the economic misfortunes of the sugar islands onto the heads of the former slaves. All of the islands’ difficulties were a consequence of the racial inferiority of the Africans and the refusal of their allies among the missionaries and abolitionists to accept that incontrovertible reality. At the core of his argument was a rabid denouncement of the former slaves whose ultimate crime was to have attempted to attain some degree of communal and economic independence.

The phenomenon that so outraged Carlyle had begun almost immediately after abolition. When freed from bondage at the end of the hated apprenticeship system in 1838, around half of the four hundred thousand former slaves abandoned the plantations – the scene of crime of slavery – and set off to establish small farms of their own. In 1832, before emancipation, there were 2,014 freehold farms in Jamaica, by 1840 there were 7,848.3 As most of the prime land was in the hands of the former slave owners these new settlements tended to be in the hills or on marginal land away from areas of white control. These independent black settlements were on occasions attacked by whites and the philanthropists of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society attempted to assist the former slaves found these ‘free villages’ by raising funds, much as they would do in 1865 to help the freedmen of the American South.

Carlyle characterized these free villages as ‘pumpkin farms’. He saw the fact that the former slaves had abandoned the plantations upon which they had been whipped and beaten not as evidence of their desperate desire to be economically independent but as proof of their intrinsic and essential laziness. Rather than endure hard and disciplined labour on plantations, they had fallen back into what Carlyle ridiculed as a form of basic subsistence agriculture, a way of life that enabled them to spend the bulk of their time in idleness. In the crudest racialized terms Carlyle derided the former slaves as ‘pumpkin-eating Quashees’, and with the abolitionists also in his sights he described the West Indies as islands upon which ‘our beautiful black darlings are at last happy; with little labor except to the teeth, which, surely, in those excellent horse-jaws of theirs, will not fail’.4

In truth the poor black people of Jamaica had worked industriously to forge their new settlements, clear and cultivate their plots and establish a market-garden economy, the remnants of which exist in Jamaica to this day. Carlyle chose to close his eyes to that reality. By abolishing slavery, he contended, the British had broken one of the immutable laws of nature. In language that still has the capacity to shock, over one and a half centuries later, he asserted that black people were, in his words, a form of ‘two legged cattle’, and in freeing them from slavery and sparing them from the whip the critical relationship between master and slave, higher-people and lower-race, had been ruptured. In one of his most infamous passages he spelt out how the laws of race and nature, as he saw them, had been contravened by the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. As if speaking directly to the free black people of the West Indies, he wrote, ‘my obscure black friends . . . You are not “slaves” now; nor do I wish, if it can be avoided, to see you slaves again; but decidedly you will have to be servants to those that are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you – servants to the whites, if they are (as what mortal can doubt they are?) born wiser than you. That, you may depend upon it, my obscure black friends, is and was always the law of the world, for you and for all men; to be servants, the more foolish of us to the more wise; and only sorrow, futility and disappointment will betide both, till both, in some approximate degree, get to conform to the same.’5

The position that Carlyle articulated in 1849 was condemned by some. The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote a scathing riposte and one commentator in the United States suggested that the essay ‘would do credit to a Mississippi slave driver’.6 But, four years later, when he re-published the essay in pamphlet form, Carlyle judged that the mood had turned against abolition and against the former slaves to such an extent, that he felt able to claim authorship and – most tellingly – make a change to the title. The 1853 pamphlet was entitled Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question. That change of word – as the historian Catherine Hall has pointed out – both reflected and contributed to the hardening of attitudes and the rise of new forms of racism on both sides of the Atlantic.7

On 24 November 1859, the day that Frederick Douglass landed in Liverpool to begin his second tour of Britain, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species went on sale to the public.8 The religious scandal that erupted soon after the publication of Darwin’s masterwork has had the effect of disguising the fact that to many of Darwin’s contemporaries – scientists, philosophers and politicians – his theory of evolution by natural selection was largely in keeping with observations that were already being made and social theories that were already in the ascendancy. The intellectual movement that became known as Social Darwinism – of which Darwin himself was not an advocate – offered potential explanations of the mechanisms that were at work behind phenomena that others had identified. For example, many of those who supported Carlyle’s views on the inner nature of Africans had begun to suggest that black people were uniquely suited, or adapted, to labouring in the tropics. Long before the publication of On the Origin of Species it had been suggested that Africans were natural slaves because they were supposedly stronger and more vigorous than other races yet lacked the gifts of intellect and invention that might have made other forms of work appropriate. Others contended that black people felt pain less acutely than other races, which was surely a trait that further demonstrated their unique suitability for slavery. Slavery was also a fitting institution for Africans as they supposedly would only work when compelled to do so. Slavery was therefore a system appropriate to both their physical make-up and inner nature. The writer Anthony Trollope spoke for many when, after a short trip to the West Indies in 1859, he resolved that black people were an inherently ‘servile race’ lacking in initiative and enterprise. ‘The negro’s idea of emancipation’, wrote Trollope, ‘was and is emancipation not from slavery but from work. To lie in the sun and eat breadfruit and yams is his idea of being free.’9

It had also been noted that unlike some of the aboriginal peoples that Europeans had encountered on the frontiers of their expanding empires, Africans tended to survive contact with whites. It was therefore suggested that for millennia supposedly ‘doomed races’ like the Tasmanian aboriginals – almost exterminated within fifty years of the arrival of Europeans on their island – had held their regions of the globe in trust, in providential anticipation of the eventual arrival of the higher white race. No longer needed, now that the ‘higher’ white race had arrived to take up its birth right these fragile peoples seemed to the Reverend and amateur ethnographer Frederic W. Farrar to ‘disappear from before’ European civilization, ‘as surely and as perceptibly as the snow retreats before the advancing line of sunbeams’.10 The more sturdy and resilient Africans did not melt away in the face of Europeans. They had therefore surely been brought into existence to act as servants to the whites. If the natural and inevitable fate of the Tasmanians was their extinction at the hands of British farmers and convict settlers then the evident and unavoidable destiny of the African was perpetual slavery. It was Carlyle himself who most clearly articulated this theory in 1867, writing that, ‘One always rather likes the Nigger; evidently a poor blockhead with good dispositions, with affections, attachments – with a turn for Nigger Melodies, and the like – he is the only Savage of all the coloured races that doesn’t die out on sight of the White Man; but can actually live beside him, and work and increase and be merry. The Almighty Maker has appointed him to be a Servant.’ Unable to resist another tangential swipe at the abolitionists he added, ‘Under penalty of Heaven’s curse, neither party to this pre-appointment shall neglect or misdo his duties therein.’11 While much of this could be explained as a divine plan in which God had assigned specific roles and tasks to the various races of mankind, Social Darwinism appeared to offer an alternative scientific explanation for the same distorted observations. It was not a prerequisite for beliefs but another strand to them.

The urgent intensity of Social Darwinism led to a revolution within science and schisms within scientific movements and institutions, as enthusiastic converts to the new and rapidly developing Darwinian world-view sought to break free from older, more conservative and morally cautious voices – which on some questions included Charles Darwin himself. In the study of race and human difference these divisions came on top of existing disagreements over the origins of mankind. In January 1863, the month that the Emancipation Proclamation came into legal effect in the Southern states, a faction of the Ethnological Society of London broke away and established the Anthropological Society of London. Its founders were all eminent men: the Africa explorer Richard Burton, the poet A. C. Swinburne, the anthropologist Dr James Hunt and Henry Hotze, who was the editor of the pro-slavery pro-Confederate newspaper The Index, and arguably the leading propagandist for the Southern cause in Britain. There is evidence to suggest that Dr James Hunt may also have been a paid agent of the Confederacy during the Civil War.12 The members of the Anthropological Society of London were predominantly men who believed in polygenism, the theory that the various human races are so anatomically and intellectually divergent from one another that they constitute different and distinct species, with either no common ancestor or one so distant as to be irrelevant. Many were advocates of the pseudoscience of phrenology – the utterly erroneous but fashionable belief that the dimensions of the various features of the human skull were indicators of the intellectual capacities of both individuals and races. The society was openly and adamantly hostile towards abolitionism and anti-slavery and its members were mockingly condescending towards missionaries, deriding them for working among African peoples whom the anthropologists believed could not advance or be ‘civilized’. In one needlessly provocative gesture the society publicly taunted the Christian Union by displaying, in the front window of the premises opposite them, an articulated skeleton of a so-called ‘savage’.13

In private the members of the society gave full flight to their fanatical anti-theism and rampant racism. A group of members centred around Richard Burton formed the ‘Cannibal Club’, an all-male dining club that met in the private banquet room of Bartolini’s Dining Rooms off Fleet Street. Its official symbol was a mace that had been carved to resemble the head of an African man, his jaws gnawing at a human thighbone.14 To entertain his fellow diners the poet Swinburne composed a ‘cannibal catechism’ that lampooned the rites of the Church. The activities of the Cannibal Club have long been the subject of both lurid speculation and academic study but what seems clear is that it was bacchanalian, fanatically antagonistic towards Christianity and fixated with sex, male sexuality and pornography. Its supposed function was to provide its members with a space in which views and theories that were generally regarded as socially unacceptable could be aired and debated. Given the venomous nature of the beliefs that members of the society were willing to openly state and publicly promote, in academic papers and in speeches, we can only speculate as to the opinions so controversial they had to be kept in the private circle of their hedonistic dining club.

In 1863 key members of the London Anthropological Society, including Dr Hunt, travelled north to attend the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Newcastle upon Tyne. During the event, which ‘the good people of Newcastle’ somewhat optimistically dubbed the ‘wise week’, Hunt presented a paper, entitled ‘On the Physical and Mental Character of the Negro’. The paper laid out Hunt’s view that Africans were a separate species, closer to apes than Europeans.15 Hunt’s paper was not out of step with others that were delivered during the conference. He was preceded on the podium by John Crawfurd, a former colonial governor and another convert to polygenism, whose lecture was entitled ‘The Comixture of the Races of Man as Affecting the Progress of Civilisation’. Dr Hunt’s paper was a fulsome denouncement of the intellectual abilities of Africans. Serving up an old dish reheated, he suggested that while African children showed intellectual promise in their early years a form of intellectual lethargy soon overtook them, inhibiting and restraining their later development. Numerous pro-slavery writers had said much the same in the late eighteenth century. Speaking as a scientist rather than a slave-owning propagandist, Dr Hunt explained that, ‘In the West Indian Islands it has frequently been observed that all the Negroes in places of trust which require intelligence have European features. Negro children are precocious; but no advance in education can be made after they arrive at the age of puberty – they still continue mentally children.’ He added that as adult Africans were so lacking in invention and initiative ‘the present slave-holders of America no more think of rebellion amongst their full-blooded slaves than they do of rebellion amongst their cows and horses.’ This remark, the newspaper reports of the meeting tell us, was met with ‘hisses’ from the audience. Hunt then went on to discount all reports of intelligence and talent among black people, claiming that ‘civilized blacks are not pure negroes, but in nearly every case they have European blood in their veins’. Any skills, capacities or aptitudes that a black person might demonstrate, Hunt submitted, could therefore be put down to the white blood that surely flowed in their veins. What Hunt called the ‘full-blooded, woolly-headed, typical negro’ was in all cases and at all times a being without intellectual gifts.

In the hope of injecting some wisdom and some balance into ‘wise week’ the Newcastle journalist W. E. Adams and his employer Joseph Cowen – both supporters of the Union and American abolition – had arranged for a smattering of dissenting voices in the audience. With the help of George Holyoake, another Newcastle newspaper man and a pioneer of secularism, they had asked William Craft, the African American anti-slavery speaker and fugitive slave, to attend the meeting and confront Dr Hunt. William Craft had been living in Britain with his wife Ellen since the early 1850s.16 Both were powerful speakers and had toured extensively on the anti-slavery circuit. In 1863 William Craft had, by chance, recently returned from a trip to Dahomey, a state that was undergoing major convulsions following the death – some sources say assassination – of the infamous slave-trading King Ghezo. Craft was a gifted and celebrated public speaker and a dangerous debating opponent, and the prospect of a public confrontation between a famous scientist and an equally well-known African American abolitionist drew an expectant audience.

The conclusion of Dr Hunt’s speech, the newspapers inform us, was ‘received with mingled cheers and hisses’.17 William Craft then rose to respond. He began by rejecting Hunt’s suggestion that the physical attributes of Africans were markers of any innate inferiority, remarking that, ‘The thickness of the skull of the negro had been wisely arranged by Providence to defend the brain from the tropical climate in which he lived. If God had not given them thick skulls, their brains would probably have become very much like those of many scientific gentlemen of the present day.’18This quip elicited much laughter and applause. Craft then denounced Dr Hunt’s paper as a debasement of science motivated by a desire to legitimize old racial prejudices. When confronting Hunt on his claim that black children made no ‘advance in education’ after puberty he brought up the case of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, whose very public wedding had taken place just one year earlier. Craft recommended that Dr Hunt, ‘refer to the instance of the little girl brought to this country by Captain Forbes. This child was presented to the Queen, who had her carefully educated. When she grew up she mingled in good society, and interested everyone by her proficiency in music, and recently she had been married to a commercial gentleman of colour at Lagos.’19 At the conclusion of his rebuttal the crowd was said to be loudly applauding the fugitive slave.

Momentarily wrong-footed, Dr Hunt and his supporters found their composure and responded with a toxic mixture of anger and ridicule. Feeling the need to account for William Craft’s evident eloquence and intellect, as well as denounce his arguments, Dr Hunt confronted him on his own racial background. ‘Anyone at all acquainted with the subject’, Hunt suggested, would be able to deduce from the oration he had just delivered that Craft ‘was not a pure Negro’, although Hunt feared that ‘there were many present who were deluded with the idea that he was’.20 Even some weeks after the gathering in Newcastle, supporters of Dr Hunt felt compelled to labour this point: a letter to the President of the society by one Dr Philip Carpenter demanded that it be recorded that ‘Mr. Craft is not an African but an American gentleman, having been born in the Southern States of America.’ The Journal of the Anthropological Society itself regarded William Craft’s identification of himself as ‘an Englishman of African parentage, unfortunately born in America’ as ‘not quite satisfactory, as Mr. Craft knows himself that one of his parents is a Euro-American, and the other he has never alleged to be of really pure African blood’.21

After explaining away his opponent’s talents and oratory Dr Hunt then accused him of meeting ‘scientific argument’ with ‘poetical clap-trap’, and ‘worthless assumptions’. Hunt concluded that he would ‘leave his scientific friends to judge of the value of Mr. Craft’s remarks’.22 While the Honorary Secretary of the society Mr Carter Blake warned that unless Craft could explain ‘the seal which nature had impressed on the physical character of the Negro, his breath was all spent in vain when he contended for the equality of the African and European races.’23 Using the sort of twisted reasoning that would not have disgraced a witch-trial, William Craft, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Frederick Douglass and all other notable and celebrated black figures were dismissed as either beneficiaries of their European heritage or mere aberrations. Dr Hunt was not alone when he called upon his countrymen to recognize ‘the absolute impossibility of applying the civilisation and laws of one race of man to another’.24

The tiny town of Morant Bay, capital of the parish of St Thomas in east Jamaica, is as much a backwater today as it was in 1865. Far from the wealthy hotels and busy tourist beaches of the north coast, it is Jamaica’s poorest parish. The gnawing, remediless poverty that hangs over St Thomas has long been a push factor that has scattered its people across the world. Successive generations have emigrated to Britain and the United States, abandoning the cane fields and struggling sugar estates, with their crumbling great houses, austere relics of slavery. St Thomas is one of the last parts of Jamaica in which vague traces of the African cultures that were carried to the island by the former slaves still survive. In rural St Thomas the Kumina funeral rights are still performed. On the death of a relative family members and friends gather together in the home of the deceased. For nine days and nights those who knew the dead man or woman visit the home, which is symbolically transformed into the ‘dead yard’. During this ‘Nine Nights’ ceremony they gather around the body, laid out and iced, to appease the ghost or ‘Duppy’ of the deceased. On the ninth and final night, the Duppy is asked to leave. Only then is the body buried. Failure to follow this custom, some believe, will result in the spirit of the dead re-emerging to ‘ride’ the night and stalk the places it knew in life.25 These traditions, that survived their passage from Africa, morphed and changed in Jamaica under the crushing heel of plantation slavery, and offer solace to the people of St Thomas, many of whom feel neglected by their rulers in Kingston and held in suspicion by the authorities. The roads to St Thomas are among the worst in the country and the parish was the last part of the island to be able to offer school places to all its children. Some of the people of St Thomas believe they are neglected because they are warily mistrusted by the authorities. The suspicion among some is that this distrust stems from an event that took place in St Thomas a hundred and fifty years ago. Although few people outside Jamaica or beyond the Jamaican diaspora have ever heard of Morant Bay what happened there, and what spilled out into the villages of St Thomas in late 1865, is known to all Jamaicans. Like slavery itself memories of the Morant Bay Uprising – also known as the ‘Morant Bay War’ – remain an open wound and a burning grievance.

The story began six months after the end of the American Civil War when a crowd of local black people marched on Morant Bay. They attacked the police station, took possession of a small arsenal of weapons and confronted the local volunteer militia. Later there were outbreaks of violence in the surrounding parishes, but the trouble spread no further. The uprising had been led by a charismatic Baptist lay-preacher named Paul Bogle.

Blood had been spilt, including that of white people, government property had been destroyed and the law contravened, and a rigorous reaction from the colonial authorities was inevitable. However, what had taken place was still a small event in a backwater region of an island colony that, by 1865, was of little real importance to the vast and sprawling British Empire.26 When the reaction from the colonial authorities came it was so brutal and disproportionate that by the end of the year events in Jamaica had scandalized Victorian Britain, driven the cultural and intellectual elite of the empire into two hostile camps and exposed the full virulence of the new scientific forms of racism. Britain’s relationships with black people in the West Indies, in Africa and in Britain itself, for the rest of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, were influenced by the racial debates that exploded out of the Morant Bay Rebellion and its brutal aftermath.

The causes of the rebellion had been put in place decades earlier. Although slavery had been abolished black Jamaicans had remained powerless and impoverished. The population of the island in the 1860s comprised around 14,000 whites and around 430,000 black people – former slaves and their freeborn children. There was also a small mixed-race community of so-called Creoles, and up in the hills lived the Maroons, the descendants of runaway slaves. Although the black population were the overwhelming majority they had almost no political voice. In the election of 1863 only 1,457 people on the entire island met the property qualifications required to vote, and the Jamaican Assembly was controlled by a white elite made up of the same old families and plantation owners who had run the island before emancipation.27 There were a smattering of black and mixed-race officials in minor positions but the white elite were in a position to wield their political power without serious challenge and use it to pass laws beneficial to their interests. During the period of so-called apprenticeship, 1832–38, they had pushed through vagrancy laws and other measures designed to confine the former slaves to the plantations upon which they had been enslaved, or inhibit their ability to travel beyond their local parishes – laws that were not dissimilar to the later Pass Laws of Apartheid South Africa. Other measures had been passed that were intended to restrict free black people’s access to farm land. The price of land was exaggerated, extortionately high land rents were charged and systems of credit were developed that looked suspiciously like forms of debt slavery.

The white population were protected by a garrison of 900 soldiers but their presence did little to liberate them from their fears. The whites were troubled by lingering memories of the Jamaican slave rebellion of 1831–32 (also known as the Baptist War). Others were haunted by the more distant spectre of the Haitian Revolution, the legendary and successful slave rebellion of the early nineteenth century that was still within living memory, if only just. The Haitian Revolution dwelt in the minds and lingered in the nightmares of white populations across the English- and French-speaking West Indies. Slaveholders in Brazil and Cuba had their own bleak history of slave risings and repression to fully occupy their sleeping hours.

The disruption to global trade and the unnatural fluctuations in world commodity prices caused by the American Civil War were felt among the poor black people of Jamaica almost as acutely as among the mill workers of Lancashire. Despite its verdant fertility so much of the colony had been turned over to the production of sugar that Jamaica, by the middle of the nineteenth century, was heavily reliant upon imported American foodstuffs. Their cost had increased enormously during the war, as had cotton clothing, a basic essential on a tropical island. Between 1859 and 1865 the cost of living in Jamaica rose by around 60 per cent.28 These adversities had fallen upon Jamaica when she was already reeling from a succession of seemingly biblical disasters. A three-year drought had devastated parts of the island while a succession of floods had washed away crops elsewhere. These misfortunes had been accompanied by plagues of smallpox and cholera.29 But the distress caused by the American Civil War merely added to economic difficulties whose roots were in the employment crisis that had confronted Jamaica ever since 1838.

This island, upon which slaves had once been driven by the whip to work around the clock, keeping boiling-houses fed with raw cane under the light of flaming torches, had by the 1840s been plunged into unemployment and underemployment. By the 1850s and 1860s economic push-factors not dissimilar to those that would encourage Caribbean immigrants to head to Britain and the United States in the twentieth century were already at play. As the soil grew thin and unproductive the wealthier plantation owners returned to Britain, leaving their estates untended but still out of bounds to poor, landless black families. Work became scarce and what little there was on the surviving plantations was back-breaking and low paid. The only alternative was subsistence agriculture in independent farms and villages, and the majority of Jamaicans would have far preferred to farm for themselves, but this was only possible if land could be bought or rented. Yet as the situation grew more desperate in the 1850s and early 1860s the Jamaica Assembly and the Colonial Office in London went out of their way to inhibit the availability of land on Jamaica. When black people attempted to settle on empty Crown lands, which were owned by the state, or form settlements on abandoned sugar plantations they were classified as ‘squatters’ and taken before the magistrates or driven off. By the 1860s reports were coming in from Jamaica of hundreds of people taking to the roads, wandering for miles between the villages and plantations in search of work. Landless, poor Jamaicans were known to walk thirty-five miles for a single day’s work on a distant plantation. Their plight and their desperation mirrored that of the mill workers of Lancashire during the same years.

By the mid-1860s the situation in Jamaica was this: a free people who were blithely and routinely accused of being congenitally lazy were being prevented from gaining access to the land upon which they might demonstrate their industriousness and self-reliance, as well as provide for themselves and their families. At the same time West India landowners whose businesses had failed were returning to Britain and pinning responsibility for their financial failure on the former slaves. Behind all of these sweeping assertions and unthinking stereotypes were old racial myths that now mixed and fused with new strains of racial thinking.

In April 1865 the landless poor of St Ann’s parish in the north of Jamaica attempted to break the impasse by drafting a petition which they hoped to send to Queen Victoria herself. ‘The humble petition of the poor people of Jamaica and parish of St Ann’s’ outlined their plight and described how high food prices had left them hungry and the cost of cotton clothing had left ‘numbers of our people half naked’. Worst of all, mass unemployment had left them without hope. The petitioners requested access to Crown lands upon which they might forge new free communities, demonstrate their capacity for work and become productive farmers. The Crown owned huge tracts of land on Jamaica, which included upland areas that had never been settled and prime farm land on former sugar estates that had failed to pay their quitrents and thus been forfeited. As the petitioners explained, what they sought was the opportunity to ‘put our hands and heart to work, and cultivate coffee, corn, canes, cotton and tobacco, and other produce.’ They proposed to ‘form a company for that purpose, if our Gracious Lady Victoria our Queen will also appoint an agent to receive such produce as we may cultivate, and give us means of subsistence while at work.’ The petitioners proposed that the profits generated by their labour would allow them to pay for their land. They were not expecting it to be gifted to them and they assured their monarch that they, ‘will thankfully repay our Sovereign Lady by instalments of such produce as we may cultivate. Your humble servants is [sic] willing to work so that we may be comfortable’. The authors of the petition understood their times. The petition was steeped in the language of self-help, self-improvement and the Victorian cult of work. Just two years earlier, on the same day that Darwin had published On the Origin of Species, the same publishers had released Samuel Smiles’ book Self Help, a manual for self-reliance that perfectly caught the spirit of the age. Channelling that zeitgeist the Jamaican petitioners explained that ‘If our Gracious Sovereign will be pleased to grant our request in a few years time our Sovereign Lady Queen will see the improvement of our Island, and the benefit that your humble servant will derive’.30 The petition was signed by a hundred and eight of the people of St Ann’s, most of whom were only able to sign with an ‘X’.

The peasant-based agricultural economy that the free black people of Jamaica were proposing might well have been the answer to the island’s economic plight. However the governor and the men of the Colonial Office were wilfully blind to their proposition and incapable of envisaging Jamaica’s future as lying outside the production of sugar on great estates. Their priority was to maintain on the island a large pliable landless workforce ready to be deployed once the sugar economy began to revive – a day which never came. All other alternatives, especially those that involved some degree of black autonomy, were discounted out of hand and what little investment that was in the island went into providing new roads linking the great estates to one another and to the ports.

It is testimony to the power of mid-Victorian racial stereotypes that the governor and the Colonial Office were incapable of recognizing that the petition of the poor black people of St Ann’s amply demonstrated them to be fully in possession of all the character traits and moral virtues that they were alleged to lack. The Jamaican poor had proposed to the government a well-thought-through plan for economic revival that might well have provided the island with an alternative to the perpetually ailing sugar industry. The business plan contained within the ‘Humble Petition’ was a long-term proposal for what we would today call economic diversification, and was founded upon a firm understanding of the market economy, the workings of credit and the time value of money. It was also predicated on the commitment of the people of St Ann’s to hard work, delayed gratification and self-sacrifice. All of this was seemingly invisible to those in power, who portrayed this appeal as evidence of the unwanted influence of the Baptist missionaries and as a naive and grasping demand for welfare and free land made by an undeserving people.

Long before the petition reached Queen Victoria it passed across the desk of Governor Eyre, who appended to it a note that reinforced the myth that black economic distress had its roots in the racial inferiority and immoral and imprudent habits of the former slaves, and not in the economic difficulties that had assailed much of the post-emancipation West Indies. The petition and Eyre’s dismissive note were then dispatched to the Colonial Office, where Henry Taylor, head of the West India Department and a close friend of Thomas Carlyle, drafted a response on behalf of the Queen. In the most condescending terms this told the poor black people of St Ann’s that their prosperity depended upon them abandoning their dreams of land and independence and returning to the plantations where their labour would, supposedly, ‘thereby render the Plantations productive’. In what was perhaps the most callous and patronizing passage it informed the poor that, ‘they may be assured, that it is from their own industry and prudence . . . that they must look for an improvement in their condition; and that her Majesty will regard with interest and satisfaction their advancement through their own merits and efforts.’31 Eyre was so inordinately satisfied with the response that he ordered fifty thousand copies to be printed. He had them distributed across the island under the title ‘the Queens advice’. They were posted in public places and instructions were given that they were to be read aloud from the pulpit and at public meetings. Many Jamaicans rightly suspected the advice came from British officials and not from the Queen herself. The Anti-Slavery Reporter, the house magazine of British anti-slavery, denounced the document, suspecting that, ‘The writer of the Queen’s Advice must have been under the immediate teaching of a member of the West India body, full of the inveterate prejudices of his class, and glad of an opportunity to reiterate planter theory, that the negro in Jamaica has nothing to complain of, and that the West-India planter is the best and fairest of task-masters.’ The magazine conceded that ‘although there may be cases of indolence – as there are in all communities – the Jamaica labourer is at all times willing to work for fair wages, regularly paid.’32 Yet whoever the author of the response, it was evident that a formal and respectful approach by a desperate people to the legitimate authorities had been met with insouciance and condescension. The official response not only rejected their pleas, it implicitly reinforced the racialized assumption that the poverty of the former slaves was a consequence of their own inherent indolence.

Throughout the summer of 1865 the crisis continued, thousands were unemployed and the magistrates continued to enforce evictions of those accused of squatting abandoned estates and empty farm land.

The event that ignited tensions in Jamaica occurred in early October, when a court case over the eviction of a man who had been farming on an abandoned estate led to a minor disturbance in the court house at Morant Bay. This led to charges being issued for the arrest of the lay-preacher Paul Bogle and a number of other men. When the police came to the village of Stony Gut to make their arrests they were attacked by the local populace. This act of rebellion quickly escalated, the white militia were called up, troops were mobilized and the next day the two sides confronted one another at the court house. The crowd threw stones at the militia, the Riot Act was read and then suddenly the soldiers opened fire, killing seven people. After the initial shock of the salvo receded, a wave of anger overtook the crowd, who attacked and burnt down the court house killing eighteen whites including the local magistrate, the Anglo-German Baron von Ketelhodt. The events of the Morant Bay Rebellion remain legendary in Jamaica and have been described in detail elsewhere; what concerns us here is the response of the governor to the scandal that followed.

On the day of the killings in Morant Bay, the Governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, declared martial law. Ships were sent from Kingston to evacuate the white population of the town and the surrounding estates and soldiers were dispatched to the region. The troops arrived the following day and within three days had put down the unrest in the parishes around Morant Bay. Within a week they had pacified the whole region and this violent but relatively minor rebellion was effectively over. However, from 12 October onwards exaggerated and fanciful reports of what had happened in the east of the island were sent to the governor who, rather rapidly it seems, convinced himself that Morant Bay was the opening act in a general rising of the black population. Eyre was urged on in his paranoia by sections of the white population. He evidently became entrapped in a mindset in which all other interpretations of the violence were discounted. At its height it has been estimated that the number of people involved in the disturbances around Morant Bay totalled between fifteen hundred and two thousand. Accepting the higher figure and presuming that all those involved were actively engaged in rebellion, this was less than half of one per cent of the total black population. Yet Eyre, within the first few days of the rebellion, concluded that the black population of Jamaica were engaged in a ‘systematic conspiracy’.33 When no evidence of this conspiracy could be found, Eyre made do with rumour. When later pressed to provide evidence for his conspiracy theory he explained, in a dispatch to London, that ‘It could not be expected that there should be any documentary evidence amongst the negroes themselves of a conspiracy to overthrow the Queen’s authority, and to massacre the white and coloured people of the Island, nor could it reasonably be supposed that people like the negroes should have established any very complete organisation, or have made any perfect arrangements to act in combination.’34 In his most expansive fantasy Eyre convinced himself that an island-wide war of ethnic cleansing had been planned. His paranoia was a reflection of his views of black people much more than it was an analysis of the information he was receiving in the governor’s mansion. Utterly persuaded that a race war would spread across the island if not immediately and decisively checked he launched a campaign of extraordinarily and utterly disproportionate violence and retribution.

For six weeks units of the West India Regiment, accompanied by the local militia, were let loose upon the rural population of St Thomas parish. Additional troops were drafted into the island and the Maroons – who sided with the British – were armed, equipped and deployed to the areas under martial law. In an orgy of bloodletting 439 black Jamaicans were killed. Sick men were dragged from their homes and shot and as events spiralled out of control soldiers deployed to east Jamaica, some of them hardened veterans of the Indian Mutiny, were given the opportunity to express their individual sadism. Six hundred men and women caught by the troops were flogged; some men were lashed with wire whips, leaving them with egregious injuries. In addition to these crimes against the person over a thousand homes were burnt and men and women who had worked themselves out of absolute poverty, having left the plantations penniless and homeless, were again reduced to destitution.

While individual officers were later said to have acted illegally and beyond their orders what took place in Jamaica during October and November 1865 was not a case of military excess, in which soldiers or their officers slipped the bonds of official control and ran out of control. As well as the atrocities and arbitrary killings in the fields and villages there were calculated and deliberate acts of judicial murder. Hundreds of people were arrested and put on trial. Of them around three hundred and fifty were hanged, including Paul Bogle, who was caught by the Maroons and executed the next day. The highest authorities were not only fully aware of these excesses; they directed them. Of those summarily executed the most shocking case was that of George William Gordon, a wealthy, mixed-race Baptist who was a member of the Jamaica Assembly and a close associate of Paul Bogle. Gordon was also a man whom Eyre considered a political enemy, and the governor was directly involved in his arrest and trial. Gordon was arrested in late October in Kingston, which lies thirty miles from the areas under martial law. But in one of the most outrageous incidents the governor had him transported to Morant Bay by ship, and personally accompanied it. There, within the zone which fell under martial law, Gordon was put on trial. Eyre had it seems been determined to hold Gordon personally responsible for the rebellion. The trial was riven with procedural irregularities and Gordon was denied counsel. After a hearing that lasted only six hours he was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. Two days after his arrest Gordon was hanged from the central arch of the court house; a very public killing intended to humiliate the dead man and intimidate his supporters.

This six-week rampage of killing and destruction, which left a great scar across the east of Jamaica, was brutal even by the standards of the mid-nineteenth century. The governor of a British colony oversaw the killing and executions of hundreds (some unofficial sources suggested perhaps a thousand) of the people he had been appointed, supposedly, to protect. At least a thousand homes were destroyed, most of them belonging to innocent people. Eyre’s actions had clearly been excessive and some questioned if they had even been legal.

News of the rebellion reached Britain in mid-November 1865. Initially Governor Eyre was congratulated by his superiors at the Colonial Office for his prompt action. In the light of those initial reports the conservative press supported not only the governor’s actions but the racial suppositions that had informed and inspired them. On 13 November The Times ran an article that concluded that events in Morant Bay had demonstrated that it was ‘impossible to eradicate the original savageness of African blood.’ For ‘as long as the black man has a strong white Government and a numerous white population to control him he is capable of living as a respectable member of society. He can be made quiet and even industrious by the fear of the supreme power, and by the example of those to whom he necessarily looks up. But wherever he attains a certain degree of independence there is the fear that he will resume the barbarous life and the fierce habits of his African ancestors.’35

Some observers considered it highly significant that this explosion of black racial violence – which is how many were determined to view events in Morant Bay – had come just seven months after the United States had passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. Those in Britain and America who during the Civil War had suggested that the liberation of the enslaved peoples of the American South would result in a racial conflict fought on a continental scale believed that in Jamaica they had seen a portent of things to come. Most worryingly the rebellion had occurred on an island upon which the black population had been slowly and gradually emancipated, through a system of apprenticeship that British politicians of all political stripes had arrogantly suggested the Americans would be wise to copy. If, as it was now insinuated, the inner nature of black people was so barbaric that even former slaves who had been gradually introduced to freedom through the intermediary stage of apprenticeship were capable of rising up and attacking the white population, then even the most apocalyptic predictions of war and chaos in the post-war South had not been overstated. The London papers noted that when news of the Morant Bay Rebellion reached the South alarm spread through the white population, which now prepared itself for a ‘general insurrection’ from among the freedmen.36

However, in the second half of November and early December, as more details of what had happened in Jamaica filtered back to Britain, an alternative picture of events began to emerge. The notion that Governor Eyre had saved the island from a hellish racial conflagration was exposed as a fiction. Days after the first accounts of the rebellion reached London new reports arrived on ships that had left Jamaica during the retribution that had followed. These fresh accounts described the brutality with which the rebellion was suppressed and contained shocking details of the arbitrary killing of unarmed civilians and of summary executions following military hearings that were little more than show trials. As reports containing these details began to appear in the press and circulate around the corridors of power the mood changed. The government was particularly concerned to learn of the circumstances leading up to the execution of George William Gordon, which even when viewed from a distance of three thousand miles appeared highly dubious. As eyewitnesses returned to Britain, and the reports from the Jamaican newspapers were reprinted in British publications, it became evident that the actions of the rebels – if that is indeed what they were – did not match the patterns expected if they had been engaged in a ‘systematic conspiracy’ to foment racial conflict and seize the island from the whites. As the Spectator magazine noted on 18 November, ‘These men, it is clear, were not prosecuting a crusade against the white race, but taking vengeance on persons whom they chose to think their political enemies. Even the massacre at Morant Bay, a sufficiently bloody affair, did not begin till after the mob had been fired on from the court-house and blood so spilt by the besieged, and even then the two physicians’ lives were spared, and many instances of attempts on the part of the faithful negroes to save individual lives among the upper class are related, while no instances of outrages on women and children are given at all.’37

The extent to which, even at this early stage in the scandal, the country was divided over Morant Bay and the actions of Governor Eyre is illustrated by an article that appeared in The Times on the day that the Spectator had concluded that the black people of Morant Bay were evidently ‘not prosecuting a crusade against the white race’. The leader writer of the paper chose not to question Eyre’s version of events and was firm in his belief that ‘the noble governor of the island’ had ‘deemed it necessary to act, in the recent emergency, with promptness and decision, knowing, from his experience, that hesitation would have been fatal.’38 After all, thundered The Popular Magazine of Anthropology, ‘the decisive measures taken by Governor Eyre’ were informed by his ‘most thorough insight into the negro character.’ He had presided over an island that, as Eyre himself had said, had been ‘sleeping on a volcano’. In a dispatch that was dutifully quoted, Governor Eyre had claimed that ‘One moment’s hesitation, one single reverse, might have lit the torch which would have blazed in rebellion from one end of the island to another.’39

The Times was then the semi-official organ of conservative opinion and was therefore hugely influential. It was this newspaper that had staunchly supported the South during the Civil War. Eyre had apparently saved not just Jamaica but the whole of the British Caribbean from descending into a rebellion that might have led to the creation of a new Haiti. Jamaica was, as the article explained in ominous tones, only ‘a day’s sail’ from that ‘Black Republic.’ The Times did not attempt to piece together timelines or compare official dispatches to other sources in order to determine whether the reported actions of the so-called rebels fitted with the accounts offered by the governor. Confident in Eyre’s judgement, his understanding of the ‘negro character’ and the wisdom of his actions, The Times concluded that ‘The rebellion of the negroes comes very home to the national soul’. Although what had taken place in Jamaica was a mere ‘fleabite compared with the Indian mutiny, it touches our pride more and is more in the nature of a disappointment.’ In the tone of injured suitor the writer considered the rebellion of former slaves to be a greater injury to Britain than the Indian rebellion because it was a greater betrayal. ‘Jamaica is our pet institution. Its inhabitants are our spoilt children. We had it always in our eye when we talked to America and all the slaveholding Powers. It seemed to be proved in Jamaica that the negro could become fit for self-government; that he could be a planter, a magistrate, a member of the Legislative Assembly; that he could preach and pray with unction and even decorum; that he could behave like a gentleman, and even pay taxes.’ While her external appearance seemed to have suggested that this great project of British moral philanthropy and racial improvement was progressing well, on the inside Jamaica was rotten. The plantation owners, The Times recalled, had repeatedly warned the British people that ‘the negro was incurably idle, intractable, insolent, that he needed a strong master, and was incapable of either self-control or gentle management . . . But very little of this came out.’ The Jamaica planters, who were of course the former slave owners, had not been listened to when they had counselled the nation on the true nature of black people, and now Britain was paying the price for her refusal to accept their forewarnings. The rebellion, The Times suggested, was a catastrophic blow for those who believed in the ‘grand triumphs of humanity, and the improvement of races, and the removal of primeval curses’.40

The Times was far from alone in adopting this tone of weary resignation and feigned injury. Newspaper reports and private letters from 1865 and 1866 repeatedly refer to a sense of ‘humiliation’ among those who were determined to view the rebellion as an explosion of black racial violence. To them the free black people of the island had embarrassed Britain and made fools of the abolitionists. According to their line of thinking the ‘blacks’ had been indulged and pampered. The belief, propagated by the abolitionists and the missionaries, that they could be advanced, civilized and made respectable had blinded the country to their true racial character. All the while, as Britain had preached to the Americans and the Royal Navy had pursued the slave ships of other powers, the ungrateful former slaves had been slowly sliding backwards, the evidently thin veneer of civilization unable to conceal their true nature and atavistic barbarism. That at least 793 people lay dead in their graves across east Jamaica, and that hundreds of Jamaicans had been left homeless and physically scarred by a wave of almost random, militarized retribution, made little impact upon the minds of the outraged and humiliated. The conclusion of many British observers was that the British were the true victims of the rebellion.

While The Times and other newspapers, which included The Bee Hive, the journal of the trades union movement, supported Governor Eyre’s prompt action in putting down the rebellion the full picture was emerging of the six-week orgy of violence that had followed. The reports from Jamaica grew ever more shocking and new questions emerged. Had the initial proclamation of martial law been legal? Even if it was, had the powers provided under martial law been exceeded? Had the killings of unarmed men in the villages been extra-judicial? Had the trials of the men found guilty of treason and subsequently executed followed due process? Why had George William Gordon been shipped into the zone of martial law from his home in Kingston? Most troubling of all, had the rebellion been the island-wide insurrection Eyre had convinced himself that it was? Among the many troubling reports was a dispatch from a ‘special correspondent’ of the Jamaica Standard that was reprinted in the Spectator. It described how innocent men caught up in the dragnet of the army and the militia were subjected to arbitrary and collective punishments. Some of them, the report claimed, had been exposed to the whims and personal vindictiveness of individual British officials. Describing the retribution that had followed the initial violence and focusing on one infamous case it noted that ‘as nothing could be proved against a lot of supposed rebels, except that they were “stragglers”—does he mean vagrants ?—thirty of them were only lashed to a gun, and catted with fifty lashes each on the bare back. Among these rebels “was George Marshall, a brown man of about twenty-five years old, who, on receiving forty-seven lashes, ground his teeth and gave a ferocious look of defiance at the provost-marshal. He was immediately ordered to be taken from the gun and hanged,” and he was hanged. If this is true, it was most likely a worse crime in the sight of God than that of the rebels themselves.’41 It was apparent the reputation in question was not only that of the Governor of Jamaica but that of the British Empire.

The reports that had emerged from Jamaica were so profoundly shocking that a coalition of those demanding an official inquiry was quickly assembled. The Jamaica Committee coalesced around the figures of the abolitionist Charles Buxton and the eminent philosopher John Stuart Mill. They were supported by a group of notable figures, many of them leading lights of the Ethnological Society, who had been abandoned and ridiculed by James Hunt and Richard Burton two years earlier when they had broken away to form the Anthropological Society of London. This grouping included Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. They were joined on the committee by the philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer, the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays Thomas Hughes and John Bright, the radical Rochdale MP who had done so much to promote the Union cause and support the Lancashire mill workers during the American Civil War. Indeed most of the members of the committee had been involved in campaigning for the North during the Civil War. The Jamaica Committee pressured the government to launch an inquiry and later demanded that Eyre be put on trial. Some believed that the charge against the governor should be murder.

In December 1865 the Colonial Office established the Jamaica Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate Eyre’s conduct and the governor was relieved of his duties. In April 1866, after fifty-two days of hearings held in Spanish Town, the Commission published its conclusions. In a report that was over five hundred pages long the Commissioners found that ‘the punishments inflicted were excessive.’ The floggings and beatings were ‘positively barbarous’, and was the burning of a thousand homes were ‘wanton and cruel’.42 Eyre was dismissed and ordered back to Britain, but on his return, far from being ostracized, was feted and lionized by his supporters. Despite being found guilty of outrageous breaches of authority and his actions condemned in the most forthright manner by a Royal Commission, Eyre was painted as a national hero and defender of the white race. Those who had committed themselves to defending his actions in the first few weeks of the scandal remained unmoved by later evidence and even by the conclusions of the Royal Commission. Banquets were held in his honour, newspaper and magazine reports portrayed him as the victim of conspiracy led by what one publication called ‘pseudo-philanthropists’, ‘political demagogues’, ‘evil-minded men’ and ‘worthless persons without either character or property to lose’.43 The divisions around the scandal ran so deep that a dinner in Southampton held in Eyre’s honour was picketed by protestors and there were disturbances in the street.44 Further demonstrations against him took place in London and the governor was even burnt in effigy in Hyde Park.45

Those who supported the former governor formed themselves into the Eyre Defence Committee. This movement was led, perhaps inevitably, by Thomas Carlyle. What to modern eyes seems incongruous is that in the age of the scientific racism it was not the scientists but the novelists and poets who defended the massacres in Jamaica and the pseudo-scientific racism that was deployed to defend Eyre’s actions. On the Eyre Defence Committee were some of the most eminent of the Victorians: Charles Dickens, the poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Matthew Arnold and Charles Kingsley, author of The Water-Babies and Westward Ho!. Also supporting Eyre was John Ruskin, the critic and virtual arbiter of artistic taste in mid-Victorian Britain.

Throughout 1866 the two groupings confronted one another in a battle for public opinion. The Eyre Defence Committee raised at least £10,000 and its list of supporters swelled to over thirty thousand individuals. Those who sided with Eyre included numerous members of Parliament, several bishops and members of the aristocracy. In July 1866 the Jamaica Committee brought a lawsuit against Eyre. John Stuart Mill, in a statement published in the Daily News, explained that behind the suit lay their determination ‘to establish, by a judicial sentence, the principle that the illegal execution of a British subject, by a person in authority, is not merely an error which superiors in office may at their discretion visit with displeasure or condone, but a crime which will certainly be punished by the law.’46 Shocked at the level of support for Eyre, John Stuart Mill and the other members of the Jamaica Committee considered themselves obliged to use the law to ‘uphold the obligation of justice and humanity towards all races beneath the Queen’s sway’.47 Beyond the issue of race the members of the committee also regarded the prosecution as an essential defence of basic civil liberties. They were deeply concerned at the way in which martial law had been extended and used to convict and condemn civilians in Jamaica, disturbed by the highly dubious nature of many of the trials and regarded George William Gordon as a political prisoner who had been put to death after a perfunctory and politically motivated trial. When this private prosecution failed, the committee, the following year, sought a warrant for the arrest of Eyre to stand trial charged with being an accessory to the murder of George William Gordon. Eyre was tried in 1868 only for the jury to find there to be insufficient evidence to convict. At the conclusion of his final prosecution the Spectator made a stark admission as to how little value some in Britain had come to place on the lives of black people. In an article entitled ‘The End of the Jamaica Prosecution’, it summarized the three years of the Morant Bay scandal and concluded that Britain had been willing to ‘pardon him, because his error of judgment involves only negro blood’, his actions would have ‘otherwise been in our nation’s eyes simply unpardonable.’48

The Morant Bay Rebellion devastated a community of free black people in the rural east of Jamaica; the army and militia left what witnesses described as ‘eight miles of dead bodies’.49 The scandal that followed, the so-called Jamaica Prosecution, exposed the deep fault lines that ran through mid-Victorian Britain demonstrating with graphic clarity that the abolitionist, anti-slavery consensus that had been a fundamental feature of British politics and culture during the 1830s and into the 1850s was over, and that new and toxic forms of racial thinking had emerged. The opinion to which Thomas Carlyle had, in 1849, been reluctant to attach his name were, by 1866, widely held and increasingly legitimized by the men of science.

In November 1865, the Popular Magazine of Anthropology, in an attempt to rise above the increasingly hysterical clamour of outrage, offered an appraisal of how, after the disaster of Morant Bay, Britain ought to regard her colonial mission. Although the newspaper refused to ‘join in the outcry against attempting the improvement of such races as the negro’ it was of the view that in light of the supposedly barbaric behaviour of the free black people of Jamaica there was now a new ‘necessity of re-opening the whole question’. Britain’s future treatment of black people should from now on ‘start with this premise, that if the improvement of races is to take place, it must be conducted calmly on scientific principles, apart from philanthropic sentimentality.’50 The same publication claimed that while ‘The revolution in Jamaica has come like a thunderclap upon the English people’, it had not surprised ‘those who have made even a partial study of the psychological character of the negro’. To the authors of the magazine the ‘Negro Revolt in Jamaica’ had perhaps finally woken the British from their long-held misconceptions about the nature of the African. ‘For the last half century’, the magazine asserted, ‘the negro has been an idol to the masses of the British public, and all classes of society have refused to listen to any depreciation of this chosen race . . . Nearly all classes in England have . . . agreed that the negro is a being very little (if at all) inferior, either mentally or morally, to the European. Men of science, even, have joined in the same chorus, and . . . come forward to defend this fashionable idol from any assaults his dignity may have sustained at the hands of the few who have declined to swell the strain of adulation.’ Finally, however, in the members of the Anthropological Society of London and their supporters there was ‘a small party in England, which within the last three years . . . has done something to stem this current of popular delusion’.51 During those three years since its foundation they had attracted a growing list of members, including Governor Eyre himself. As the Morant Bay scandal expanded, and the Royal Commission investigated the governor’s actions, Dr James Hunt and the society rushed to defend their disgraced colleague.

In February 1866 the society held a meeting at St James’s Hall in London. The gathering was originally scheduled to take place at a venue in St Martin’s Place, off the Strand, but ‘the demand for tickets of admission was so great that it was found necessary to secure [the larger] St. James’s Hall’. The main speaker at the meeting was Bedford Pim, an Arctic explorer and officer in the Royal Navy, whose father had served in the West Africa Squadron and died of yellow fever off the African coast while taking part in an anti-slave-trade patrol. To a room packed with supporters of Governor Eyre, Pim delivered a long paper entitled ‘The Negro at Home and Abroad’. In the published account of the meeting Pim confessed that ‘When the news of the Jamaica rebellion arrived in this country I felt that at last my countrymen, whether they liked it or not, were brought face to face with the negro, and that a clear view of his peculiarities should be laid before them, so as to assist in properly handling this most important subject, whether politically or religiously, in such a manner as to aid in settling the question. The only scientific tribunal before which this could be done with effect was that vigorous and fearless body, the Anthropological Society of London, whose labours will be better appreciated when it is understood that the numerous races composing our vast empire can only be governed properly by studying their anthropological characteristics.’52The negro was to be understood in anthropological terms but there was to be no debate over the actions of Governor Eyre. ‘One thing is certain’, Pim proposed, ‘a public servant of whom any country might be proud — “one of the very finest types of English manhood” — has been deposed and degraded for making the safety of his trust the supreme law.’53

Among those who were asked to comment on the Eyre Scandal was Winwood Reade. A racial theorist, Africa explorer and philosopher-mystic, Reade was one of a new breed of imperialists. He was heavily influenced by Social Darwinism, and knew Darwin personally. But by the 1860s the two men’s views had radically diverged. Reade had become aggressively dismissive of the Christian morality that informed abolitionism and that animated what Pim called the ‘negrophilists of Exeter Hall’.

Speaking to the society, Reade admitted that he had ‘more experience of the savage than of the semi-civilized or missionarized negro’, into which category he placed the black population of Jamaica. But he had no doubt that the punitive expeditions and exemplary violence that he had witnessed in the colonial wars of Europe’s expanding African colonies offered lessons for the future. Rapidly gaining a reputation as an African ‘expert’, Reade suggested that recent events in Jamaica, and Governor Eyre’s murderous response to the Morant Bay disturbances, had to be understood within that wider colonial context. What Reade had seen of how the French controlled their territories in Senegal and what he had witnessed of British actions in Gambia led him to conclude that the utmost severity was necessary when dealing with black people: ‘in the Senegal . . . the French were feared and respected . . . in the late Badaboo war the English had shown great indulgence to their enemies, while the French had always acted upon the contrary principle . . . We spared them from benevolence; they supposed that it was from fear.’ Summing up, Reade’s advice when dealing with black people in Africa or the West Indies was this: ‘if you must fight with natives, kill them down. Kill them down not only for self-protection, but from a philanthropic principle. It seems paradoxical to say so, but there may be mercy in a massacre . . . had not Governor Eyre shown such prompt severity, we should now be sending out troops to save white men’s lives, instead of a Commission to sit upon black men’s carcases.’54

The beliefs that Winwood Reade expressed in 1866 were identical to those he had published two years earlier. In 1864 he gave his dark imagination full rein when considering how his principle of philanthropic massacre might be applied to the peoples of Africa. In his book Savage Africa, Reade accepted that he would inevitably be ‘blamed by ignorant persons’ when he stated that ‘if war is waged against savages, it must be a massacre’. Yet in his view, ‘Cruel as this maxim may appear, it would, if followed out, be the cause of less misery and blood shed afterward.’55 The misery that Reade sought to avoid and the blood he was determined to safeguard was that of white settlers, no massacre of the Africans was too extreme and no war of extermination too vast if it was undertaken in the spirit of ‘self-protection’ of the white race. In the closing chapter of his long and rambling book Reade called upon Europeans to accept his assertion that as the white race expanded across the African continent the African peoples themselves ‘may possibly become exterminated’. This process might be the result of philanthropic murder but deeper forces were also at work. The extinction of Africans would come as it was in accordance with the ‘beneficent law of Nature, that the weak must be devoured by the strong’. In chilling terms Reade foresaw a not too distant future in which ‘young ladies on campstools under palm-trees will read with tears “The Last of the Negroes”, and the Niger will become as romantic as the Rhine.’56

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