One cannot talk about Jamaican history without mentioning George William Gordon, a vocal critic of British colonial administration and an advocate for blacks who was hanged over some violent disturbances in the town of Morant Bay, the capital of the predominantly sugar-growing parish of St. Thomas.
The Morant Bay Rebellion broke out in southeastern Jamaica on October 11, 1865, when several hundred black people marched into the town of Morant Bay to protest unfair living conditions.
Gordon was arrested over the demonstration that killed many although it was Paul Bogle, one of the deacons ordained by him who was actually behind the protest.
Gordon was born in 1820 to a white planter and a mulatto slave and through his own efforts, including teaching himself how to read and write, as well as accounting, he became a successful businessman and landowner.
He would eventually become a member of the Jamaican body of legislature, the House of Assembly, and an open critic of the colonial administration.
In 1831, the Baptist War, one of the numerous Jamaican uprisings against colonial power and the largest slave uprising in any of the British-owned Caribbean islands, had accelerated the demand for abolition. Thus, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in August 1833 and came into force on August 1, 1834, yet only slaves below the age of six were really emancipated.
According to records, other slaves aged six and over were reassigned a status of “apprentices,” a condition they were bound to until 1838 to 1840.
Also, even though Britain had abolished slave trade, the Black majority population were still not given equal treatment and were going through harsh economic times and suppression. Slave owners, according to the Slavery Abolition Act, were also awarded compensations for the loss of their “property” but the ex-slaves received nothing.
Under the criminal legislation passed between 1839 and 1840, former slaves were, in theory, entitled to vote but in reality, a poll tax ensured that only 2,000 Black Jamaicans out of a total population of over 436,000 were eligible.
There were instances of floods, droughts, and epidemics, as well as, reports that the white plantation owners were thinking of bringing back slavery.
“Dismayed at the plight of the former slaves, Dr Edward Underhill of the Baptist Missionary Society of Great Britain, wrote to the Colonial Office asking for some action to be taken to alleviate the misery of the Jamaican population. The letter was intercepted by the Governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, who denied its accuracy. In St Ann parish, peasants, unable to afford land, wrote to Queen Victoria herself, asking if they could be given Crown lands for cultivation. Again, this letter was intercepted by Governor Eyre, who added his own comments and remarks before forwarding it to London. Queen Victoria’s reply was unhelpful, advising poor Jamaicans to work harder,” writes the University of London in an article entitled “Paul Bogle, George William Gordon, and the Morant Bay Rebellion, 1865.”
Gordon’s Native Baptist churches had then become the meeting place for people to discuss their unfair situation and Bogle, who was a wealthy landowner, would subsequently organise a protest march to the Morant Bay courthouse over the above factors and the unfair imprisonment of a local man.
During the protest, some of the large black population threw stones at the militia, who opened fire on them, killing several. The black protesters subsequently set the courthouse ablaze, killing scores of officials.
Gordon had nothing to do with the disturbances as he was even said to be away when the incident occurred. But since many white elites viewed him as a class enemy, they found this as an opportunity to get rid of him. Governor Eyre, one of his major political foe, did not waste time as he ordered the arrest of Gordon and Bogle.
Gordon was taken by ship from Kingston to Morant Bay, tried and hanged on October 23 while Bogle was hanged the following day.
Prior to his execution, Gordon’s final words to his wife in a letter read:
“General Nelson has just been kind enough to inform me that the court-martial on Saturday last has ordered me to be hung, and that the sentence is to be expected in a hour hence, so that I shall be gone from this world of sin and sorrow.
“I regret that my worldly affairs are so deranged: but it cannot be helped … I never advised or took part in any insurrection. All I ever did was to recommend the people who complained to seek redress in a legitimate way … It is however the will of my heavenly Father that I should thus suffer in obeying His command, to relieve the poor and needy, and to protect, as far as I was able, the oppressed …
“do not be ashamed of the death your poor husband will have suffered. The judges seemed against me; and from the rigid manner of the Court, I could not get in all the explanations I intended. … It seemed that I was to be sacrificed.”
Their deaths, alongside the brutality of Eyre’s suppression of the revolt, with hundreds of Jamaicans killed by soldiers and many others executed after trials, generated a heated debate in Britain and a Royal Commission was sent to Jamaica in 1866 to investigate the rebellion.
Eyre was suspended from his position as Governor, recalled to England, and in the end dismissed. Jamaica, instead of being ruled by a local White plantocracy, became a Crown Colony, governed directly from Britain.
Gordon has since been honoured in Jamaica as a national hero. In 1969, when Jamaica issued new currency, he was featured on the ten-dollar note (now a coin).
He has also been mentioned in so many reggae tunes including “Innocent Blood” and also “See them a come” by the reggae band Culture. The song “Give Thanks and Praise” by Roy Rayon, “Prediction” and “Born Fe Rebel” by Steel Pulse, “Silver Tongue Show” by Groundation and “Our Jamaican National Heroes” by Horace Andy also give praises to the preacher, social worker and philanthropist.
In 1960 the Parliament of Jamaica moved into the new Gordon House, named after the activist and politician.