Counter-Revolutionary Jamaica: Contesting Freedom after Slavery

By Gordon Barnes

The revolutionary process of the Baptist War (see Part 1 — Revolutionary Jamaica: Interpreting the Politics of the Baptist War) was met with a reactionary, counter-revolutionary social process in Jamaica. This was evinced by the widespread violence against slaves in the aftermath, as well as with the institutionalization of the apprenticeship system. Laid out in the Slavery and Abolition Act of 1833, apprenticeship was meant to lessen the burden of emancipation for the planters whilst simultaneously easing the former slave into “citizenship.”[1] In effect, this meant that apprentices would be obligated to perform the same services as they had under slavery, were denied freedom of movement, and could still be transferred as movable property (so long as familial relations were retained). After emancipation in 1834, all slaves six years of age and younger were to be freed. All other slaves would remain as apprentices for four to six years, with field laborers and other predials to remain apprenticed until 1840. The former slaves were mandated to work 40.5 hours per week (almost always for their former master) without remuneration. Apprentices were afforded the opportunity to generate income by working up to an additional 13.5 hours per week for wages, which could be saved for manumission, though planters often charged exorbitant amounts. Planters and other slave owners were to be compensated with £20,000,000 (upwards of £900,000,000 in 2016) split amongst them.[2]

During the period of apprenticeship, planters, colonial magistrates, and other elites could no longer punish laborers arbitrarily since court trials were required under the new laws. This, however, did not restrict the plantocratic elite from exacting brutal punishments. Often, the penalties for apprentices who transgressed the will of their master were akin to—if not more ferocious than—those during slavery.[3] Workers were only protected within the limits of the plantation production model, the profits of the planter class being revered above all else.[4] Though the system ended two years early, it served to reassert the ostentatious power formerly wielded by the plantocracy under slavery.

Despite the violence of apprenticeship, laborers often resisted, fueled by the memory of the Baptist War and did so both during and after this period. Various smaller manifestations illustrative of a Jamaican revolutionary process occurred in this period up until the revocation of the power of the Jamaica Assembly in 1865 and the island becoming a Crown Colony. Notable amongst these flash-points were the alleged conspiracy of a labor uprising in August 1848, the Falmouth Riots, and the Westmoreland Toll Gate attacks, both in 1859. The zenith of revolutionary processes in Jamaica, however, was the Morant Bay Rebellion. Social tensions came to a head in October 1865. The Rebellion, organized by Paul Bogle (a predial laborer), and involving George William Gordon (a colored man and member of the Jamaica Assembly) with other agricultural workers in leadership roles, sought to target those at the head of Jamaican society.[5]

In October 1865, at Morant Bay in the Parish of St. Thomas in the East, Jamaica, a man was arrested for “trespassing” on a long abandoned plantation. Some days after the arrest and courthouse fracas, a group of predial laborers drafted a petition to the Colonial Governor, John Eyre. They requested that the British colonial government protect their colleague from an unjust judicial system that would see him suffer corporal punishment for the most minuscule of infractions. Furthermore, they pressed the issue that they, as a class, were “ill-treated” by the plantocracy, and demanded protection from Eyre in the wake of widespread legal and police injustice. They also aired their grievances relating to the paltry remuneration for their labor which had persisted in spite of the cessation of the apprenticeship system. Eyre, responding through a proxy, promptly told them to go through “proper channels” to air their grievance and to get back to work in the cane fields.[6]

On October 7, at the trial of the man in question, the laborers (many the descendants of former slaves) demanded his release. When the judge and court officials refused, the indignant laborers threw stones and “rioted,” but were eventually beaten back by the police. The following day at a meeting of the vestry, Baron von Ketelhodt, Custos for the parish, signed an arrest warrant for some twenty-odd persons for rioting and disturbing the peace. When the police came to Stoney Gut, the village in which the majority of them resided, they were beaten back with stones, cutlasses, and pikes. By 11 October, von Ketelhodt, attempting to placate the growing anger of the laboring classes, read the Riot Act at the Morant Bay courthouse. The people who had assembled to hear the Custos address them, including some of the original petitioners, refused to listen to him, and overpowered the militia presence in the town. They burned the courthouse and killed von Ketelhodt, cutting off his fingers as trophies.

Eyre had already sent a detachment of one hundred troops prior to von Ketelhodt’s death, and by the time they arrived, sixteen “gentlemen” had been killed and at least eighteen others injured. The planters provided detailed and horrific accounts of the violence perpetrated prior to the arrival of the first batch of Eyre’s forces, of which there would be hundreds more over the following weeks. The Morant Bay Rebellion had commenced. By the end, some two to three thousand laborers had risen up in arms against the planter and colonial bureaucratic elite. They were eventually defeated, but their political activism provided an impetus for challenging waning planter power. Jamaican planters, on the other hand, expressed the conviction that “negro rebellion” was tantamount to a war of extermination aimed at whites.[7] Despite the language deployed by planters and other elite groups to categorize the violence as a riot and an unthinking orgy of violence, there were political goals central to those laborers involved. Moreover, these goals were articulated to legitimize the freedom of ex-slaves and their descendants not under the auspices of the colonial state, but via their own conceptualizations.

What’s more is that the colonial militias, in conjunction with other forces, not only quashed the rebellion but crushed all resistance, including much more passive manifestations of resistance to ruling class dominance.[8] In fact, Eyre was tried in Britain for abuse of power and the suppression of the rebellion widely condemned amongst the British public. At its apogee, the rebellion, while highly localized, galvanized resistance across the island in the form of open disregard for the martial law instituted by Eyre, strikes, and military drilling in order to “bring rebellion” to other corners of the island.[9] By the time Bogle, Gordon, and other principal leaders were captured and executed on 24 October, over 700 blacks were dead (a little under half being summarily executed) and over 600 being flogged, whipped, put in the stockade, or forced to run the treadmill. This level of suppression, markedly greater proportionally than that enacted after the Baptist War, is evidence of both the heightened paranoia amongst the plantocratic elite and the potential social transformations the revolt engendered.[10]

Like their forebears, the leaders and participants of the Morant Bay Rebellion acted out a revolutionary process. Though it was materially on a smaller scale, the ideological ramifications were massive. The plantocracy and some sectors of the metropolitan and non-planter elite viewed the rebellion as a failure of the experiment in freedom for black Jamaicans.[11] On the other hand, the participants in the rebellion quickly went beyond a call for better pay and improved treatment. They advocated the immediate reversal of recent attempts to oust or expel them from their small plots.[12] Thus the rebellion had a distinct goal of land reform, though it was not posited in that terminology. Again, as during the Baptist War, revolt had a revolutionary component, even if it failed at that time to achieve a revolutionary outcome as the Baptist War had three decades earlier.

Gordon Barnes is a doctoral candidate and Presidential MAGNET Fellow in the History Program at the Graduate Center, CUNY. His dissertation, tentatively entitled “The Crisis of Freedom: Violence and Elite Ideology in the Post-Emancipation British Empire, 1810-1870,” examines the transition from slavery to freedom in Jamaica and Mauritius and the ways in which organized slave and subaltern violence, as well as fears of such, influenced elite politics and ideology around questions of labor regimentation, immigration, and social formation. You can contact him via email at or tweet him @grb_jr.

Title image: Barrington Watson, The Morant Bay Rebellion, 1964.


[1] The National Archives, Britain (Hereafter TNA), NDO 4/32, An Act for the Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of Manumitted Slaves; and for compensating Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of Such Slaves, 28 August 1833.

[2] See, Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[3] James Williams, A Narrative of Events, Since the First of August, 1834, An Apprenticed Labourer in Jamaica, ed. Diana Paton (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 5-6.

[4] Diana Paton, No Bond But the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 55.

[5] Gad Heuman, ‘The Killing Time’: The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1994), 7-9.

[6] TNA, CO 137/393, Jamaica Despatch 257.

[7] Charles Buxton M.P., The Case Against Governor Eyre Collected from Official Documents (London: Proceedings of the House of Commons, 1865).

[8] Henry Bleby, The Reign of Terror: A Narrative of Facts Concerning Ex-Governor Eyre, George William Gordon and the Jamaica Atrocities (London: William Nichols, 1868).

[9] TNA, CO 137/394.

[10] Hueman, ‘The Killing Time,’ 97-109.

[11] Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 307.

[12] Gale L. Kenny, Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 182.

Suggested Reading:

Abigail Bakan, Ideology and Class Conflict in Jamaica: The Politics of Rebellion (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990)

Mavis Christine Campbell, The Dynamics of Change in a Slave Society: A Sociopolitical History of the Free Coloreds of Jamaica, 1800-1865 (Plainsboro: Associated University Press, 1976).

William A. Green, British Slave Emancipation: The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment, 1830-1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).

Douglas Hall, Free Jamaica, 1838-1865: An Economic History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959).

Gad Heuman, ‘The Killing Time’: The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1994).

Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Diana Paton, No Bond But the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

Don Robotham, ‘The Notorious Riot:’ The Socio-Economic and Political Bases of Paul Bogle’s Revolt (Kingston: Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1981)

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