In the aftermath of the Morant Bay rebellion that broke out on 11 October 1865, the Governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre, ordered extensive and harsh reprisals against Black Jamaicans in the county of Surrey under a period of martial law lasting from 13 October to 13 November. Eyre’s actions provoked widespread controversy among intellectuals, politicians, and the general public in Britain. The Jamaica Committee was organized in December 1865 to monitor the government’s response. After a Royal Commission investigation of the rebellion and its aftermath, Eyre was removed from his post and recalled by the Colonial Office. Led by John Stuart Mill, the Jamaica Committee undertook three attempts between 1866-68 to prosecute Eyre for murder and abuse of power for his role in sanctioning the court martial and execution of George William Gordon, a former slave and Jamaican politician who was accused of fomenting the rebellion. Repeatedly, English grand juries refused to indict Eyre or convict his subordinates. The question of the constitutionality of martial law raised by the Jamaica Committee’s prosecutions implied that taking sides for or against Eyre’s actions was fundamentally an expression of political views about the legal limitations on the use of force in imperial governance. Defending the importance of the constitutional principles at stake in the Jamaica Committee’s unsuccessful prosecutions of Eyre, Mill articulated the duty to uphold the rule of law as a fundamental principle of modern citizenship. The question of the extent of Gordon’s rights as a “fellow-citizen” within the British Empire, however, remained unresolved.
Multiple events in Britain’s relations toward its dominions played a role in shaping public opinion on the political implications of the incidents in Jamaica. The debates over whether Eyre exceeded his authority in imposing harsh reprisals against Black Jamaicans appear in hindsight as a kind of cultural referendum on the aftermath of the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of Britain’s colonial slaves in 1833-34. Widespread poverty and a decline in sugar production in the British West Indies during the period following emancipation had been interpreted by many Victorian commentators as “a consequence of the inadequacy of free black labor,” a view implying that Jamaican peasants were largely at fault for their own difficult circumstances (Lorimer 125). In an important early study of the Governor Eyre controversy, Bernard Semmel argued that contemporaries also drew connections between the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica and other significant conflicts involving revolt against British colonial rule or violent agitation for political rights, including the Indian Mutiny of 1857-59, working-class demonstrations in favor of electoral reform that culminated in the Second Reform Act of 1867, and the raids by Irish republican Fenians in 1867. In sympathizing with Eyre, a member of the Victorian public may also have expressed a more general approval of the use of force against rebellious colonial subjects. According to literature scholar Christopher Herbert, in the aftermath of the massacres of British civilians during the Indian Mutiny and the brutal retaliation by British troops that followed, “The British disillusionment of 1857 expressed itself . . . not in a disavowal of imperialism but in a sharp retreat from the philanthropic reformist ideas that had furnished the moral rationale of British governance [of India] since 1830. . . . Henceforth, the British raj was to be a rule of sheer despotic control and of political expediency” (56-57).
Mid-Victorian scientists and politicians increasingly correlated perceived hierarchies in “progress” or level of civilization with racial differences, in support of the idea behind imperial rule that “the inferior coloured races” required the paternalistic oversight of the more civilized European races (Lormier 148). As Douglas A. Lorimer explains, “Faced with a violent conflict between white British authority and black rebellion in Jamaica, and inundated with endless reports on the events of October 1865, the mid-Victorians remained hopelessly divided over the character of the Negro and the significance of the uprising at Morant Bay, . . . for beneath [their] disagreements about race lay conflicting views about their own domestic political order” (188). In addition, anti-slavery sentiment, which in the period leading up to the emancipation of Britain’s colonial slaves had “implied a positive commitment to abolition and active involvement in the campaign,” by the 1860s was viewed by many Victorians as “tinged with hypocrisy, a mere self-indulgence in the emotions” (Lorimer 113). Thus the abolitionists’ support for Gordon’s cause and the Jamaica Committee’s prosecution of Eyre exerted a weaker influence in swaying public opinion due to the overall decline of the movement’s appeal and recruiting efforts (Lorimer 117).
Despite the wide-ranging debate over the appropriateness of Eyre’s response, the facts of Eyre’s actions were not under dispute, since they had been extensively documented in a lengthy report by the Jamaica Royal Commission, formed by Lord Russell’s Liberal government in December, 1865 to investigate the causes, events, and aftermath of the rebellion. On 11 October 1865, a large group of several hundred Black Jamaican men and women, most of them armed with some kind of weapon, marched in formation into Morant Bay in eastern Jamaica. Some of the protesters had traveled many miles from their home villages in the surrounding district of St. Thomas in the East. They first attacked the police station, where they obtained a few weapons after stabbing and beating (but not killing) three Black police officers. They then proceeded toward the Morant Bay court house, where a meeting of the vestry was being held. The marching column was joined by a less organized crowd of Black peasants who had converged from separate directions. As the crowd approached, the head magistrate, or Custos, Baron von Ketelhodt, emerged on the balcony of the courthouse, which was protected by a group of volunteer militia. He ordered the crowd to disperse, but they responded with cries of “War, war!” Von Ketelhodt began to read the Riot Act, but when the crowd began throwing stones and attacking the militia, the soldiers opened fire. The protesters retaliated with more violence, causing the remaining militia members and officials to take refuge inside the court house. The protesters set the court house on fire, pursuing and killing many of those who tried to escape. Von Ketelhodt was killed along with seventeen others, and another thirty persons were injured. Several houses belonging to prominent figures associated with the vestry and town authorities (Black and Colored, as well as whites) were burned, although there was no significant looting of property. When the Morant Bay events were followed over the next several days by attacks on several neighboring estates, the authorities reacted on the basis of the fear that the rebellion was likely to spread to the entire island.
Governor Eyre received news of the rebellion on 11 October, and declared martial law in the county of Surrey, excluding the parish and city of Kingston, on the 13th. The troops who arrived at Morant Bay on 12 October quelled the violence there after a few days, and in the rest of the district, after a week (Kostal 12-13). Intent on preventing a wider rebellion, Eyre then authorized extensive reprisals: over a thirty-day period of martial law, government troops with the help of contingents of Maroons (a longstanding community of escaped slaves who had declared their loyalty to the government) killed 439 Black Jamaicans, flogged 600 others, including many women, and demolished or burned at least 1,000 houses and huts (see also Kostal 12-14). The killings also included many executions after summary courts martial in the field. Historian Gad Heuman details the killings of sick or elderly Black Jamaican men who were pulled from their homes, which were subsequently looted or destroyed, or shot while running away from the troops or Maroons (113-45). In addition to Gordon, several other prominent political critics of Eyre, including Black politicians and ministers and a Jewish journalist, as well as political and professional associates of Gordon, were arrested either without charge or on charges of sedition and held in detention under harsh conditions during the period of martial law. Some of these political prisoners were flogged before being released on writs of habeas corpus, and one was executed after a court martial (Heuman 151-58). Over 100 persons were sentenced to prison terms, some as long as twelve years, without regular judicial procedures (Heuman 166).
Eyre justified the extremities of martial law to the Jamaican legislature by claiming that the island had almost become, and still was in danger of reverting to, “a second Haiti,” and 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 the other; and who can say how many of us would have lived to see it extinguished” (qtd. in Heuman 98). Thus the specters of the Haitian revolution and Jamaican independence as a state governed by a Black majority seem to have intensified the violence of the reprisals by the authorities. After martial law was lifted, the Jamaican legislature passed an Act of Indemnity exempting Eyre and the military officers and civilian officials under his authority of all legal liability for their actions. In the pressure of these ongoing imprisonments and reprisals under martial law, Governor Eyre, with the approval of the Colonial Office in London, convinced a majority of the members to vote to abolish the Jamaica House of Assembly, a move that facilitated the centralized administrative control of the island and that safeguarded the political influence of the planters. In 1866, Jamaica became a Crown Colony under a Governor and a nominated Council of six officials, a change in government that effectively ended the direct political participation of Black and mixed-race Jamaicans until the country’s independence in 1962 (Heuman 159-60).
There were many immediate causes of the Morant Bay rebellion, including a riot several days earlier over a set of court cases involving trespass by Black Jamaicans on land owned by whites and disputes over the collection of rents. When police were sent to arrest the rioters, led by the Black landowner, farmer, and Native Baptist deacon, Paul Bogle, they were met with resistance and turned back, an event that led to the calling up of the volunteer militia that had been in place at the Morant Bay court house (Heuman 406). Another event that increased political tensions had occurred in September, when a deputation to the Governor of impoverished peasants from St. Thomas, after a trip of forty-five miles to Spanish Town, was dismissed without seeing Eyre, who later sent a letter advising that they should seek redress from the justice system—the very cause of their grievances (Haldane 164-65). Heuman also explains the rebellion as following on a series of outbreaks of post-emancipation resistance by Black Jamaicans in the 1840s and 50s to conditions of poverty and disenfranchisement, and as an expression of their fear of re-enslavement. This fear was not baseless, since during the 1850s, when plantation owners found fault with actions of the Jamaica government, they often publicly articulated their desire for Jamaica to join the United States as a slave state (Heuman 38-39). Black Jamaicans’ grievances after emancipation also included their unjust treatment by a judicial system presided over by white magistrates who were often plantation owners; high taxation and low wages on the plantations; and lack of access to land to lease at reasonable rates for independent farming, which many preferred to low-wage labor on the plantations (Heuman 40-41; Lorimer 125). These circumstances were part of landowners’ concerted pressure on Jamaica’s former slaves to continue working on large plantations after emancipation (see Holt).
The 1850s and early 1860s were a period of growing poverty and unemployment among Black Jamaican peasants due to the decreasing price of sugar, several cholera outbreaks, loss of access to Southern United States markets during the Civil War, high import duties on agricultural supplies, and increasing population (Heuman 44-48). When food supplies became scarce, starving peasants had recourse to theft, a development that was met by the imposition of more punitive measures against larceny by Eyre’s administration in 1864, leading to a growing number of prisoners in Jamaica’s jails (Heuman 45). In January 1865, Edward Underhill, the secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, sent a letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies describing the dire poverty, unemployment, and denial of rights to Black Jamaicans that he had witnessed during a trip to the West Indies in 1859, conditions which he feared would lead to the political and economic collapse of the island (Heuman 45). Underhill’s letter was forwarded to Governor Eyre, who in turn distributed it to religious leaders and judicial officials around the island, asking for their views. The publication of Underhill’s letter in the Jamaica Guardian on 21 March resulted in the organization of public meetings, known as “Underhill meetings,” around the island and the writing of several petitions. One of these, addressed to the Queen by the poor residents of St. Ann parish, asked for low rents on Crown lands so that they could form a company and sell their own produce. Eyre forwarded the petition to the Colonial Office with a dispatch disparaging the effect of the Underhill letter in encouraging discontent and disobedience among Jamaican peasants (Heuman 48-9). This petition to the Queen was answered in a document that became known as “The Queen’s Advice,” but that was written by Henry Taylor, the head of the West India department of the Colonial Office. Widely disseminated around the island on Governor Eyre’s orders, “The Queen’s Advice” dismissed the peasants’ complaints and ignored their economic initiatives, admonishing the people that their “prosperity . . . depends in Jamaica, and in other Countries, upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted, and for so long as it is wanted,” and that “it is from their own industry and prudence, in availing themselves of the means of prospering that are before them, and not from any such schemes as have been suggested to them, that they must look for improvement to their condition” (Heuman 54-55). Many of the Baptist missionaries who organized the Underhill meetings refused to believe that the Queen herself had authorized this response (Heuman 55). Taylor and the Colonial Office had evidently sided with Eyre’s view, based in common Victorian racial stereotypes about the former West Indian slaves, that the Underhill communication had exaggerated the distress in Jamaica, and that, in addition to drought, the Black population’s distress had been, in Eyre’s words, “induced by the genial nature of the climate, the facility of supplying their wants in ordinary seasons at comparatively little exertion and their natural disposition to indolence and inactivity, and to remain satisfied with what barely supplies absolute wants” (qtd. in Heuman 54).
George William Gordon, who chaired several of the Underhill meetings during the spring and summer months, referred to the St. Ann’s petition and the so-called Queen’s response in the newspaper which he edited, The Watchman and People’s Free Press, and in several proclamations that he had printed and distributed in St. Ann and St. Thomas in the East, in order to encourage public attendance at further meetings and protests. Despite the attempt by several Custos to cancel Underhill meetings during August and September by forbidding the use of the local court house, they were nevertheless held outdoors (Heuman 58-9). In response to the cancellation of one of these meetings, scheduled for 29 July, a publication attributed to Gordon was published calling his constituents to attend the meeting outdoors: “You who have no sugar estates to work on, nor can find other employment, we call on you to come forth, even if you be naked, come forth and protest against the unjust representations made against you by Mr Governor Eyre and his band of Custodes” (Heuman 57). This proclamation was deemed as seditious and used against Gordon at his court martial, but in his 1933 defense of Gordon, The Myth of Governor Eyre, Sydney Haldane, Lord Olivier, who was Colonial Secretary in Jamaica from 1900-1903, argued that Gordon’s “incitements to free-speaking and demonstration applied exclusively to the programme of the meeting announced for the approaching 29th of July, and do not admit of being represented as prescribing any ulterior operations or developments subsequent to that date” (Haldane 161, 164). At another of these outdoor Underhill meetings in early September, Gordon was reported to have compared the situation of Jamaica to that of Haiti, although he denied having done so at his court martial, and the report may be traceable to his political opponents (Heuman 59).
These conditions of political instability caused by economic hardship, combined with the persistence of Governor Eyre and the Jamaican judicial authorities, as well as the Colonial Office, in adopting an authoritarian and paternalistic approach to the grievances of Black Jamaican peasants and Colored politicians alike, produced a highly unstable political and social situation in the months leading up to the Morant Bay rebellion. Gordon had not been a political radical during the 1840s and 50s; instead he seems to have been a dedicated reformer, visiting hospitals, prisons, and churches throughout Jamaica in his role as a justice of the peace and advocating for improvements, as well as drafting a bill for the better treatment of East Indian migrant workers in the Jamaica Assembly (Hart 13-14; 23-27). However, after Eyre’s appointment as Temporary (Acting) Lieutenant-Governor in early 1862 and his elevation to the governorship in April 1864 (Dutton 231), Gordon became a vocal critic of Eyre’s policies. In 1862, as the result of an inspection, Gordon sent a complaint to the Attorney General about neglect and unclean conditions at the Morant Bay prison, reporting the death of a pauper who had been locked in a latrine on the orders of a local Anglican rector. Eyre viewed Gordon’s letter as an attack on the Anglican Church, and ordered that Gordon be dismissed as vestryman and justice of the peace, despite an investigation proving that Gordon’s complaint had been justified (Roberts 35; Hart 33-34). The Colonial Office learned of Eyre’s summary dismissal of Gordon, an action which was followed by Gordon’s forcible ejection from a vestry meeting, but refused to intervene in order not to undermine Eyre’s authority; instead the Duke of Newcastle, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies, counseled Eyre to listen to Gordon’s grievances (Hart 40; Haldane 105-6). Gordon’s popularity persisted, however, and he was elected in 1863 as Member for St. Thomas in the Jamaica Assembly, where he continued to voice harsh criticisms of Eyre. In a speech of 28 October 1863, Gordon expressed outrage at Eyre’s public assurances that Jamaica was experiencing “good health” and an “increasing” population: “I ask, how dare the Governor to make this statement when the Coolies [East Indian immigrant laborers] who have been brought here are dying about the streets of Kingston, when parties are refused admittance into the public hospital and are left to die in the highways? . . . I know that starvation and misery are in the land, and I feel indignant that the Governor should assert that there is ‘average prosperity.’” Gordon concluded that “there will be no progress, no improvement, so long as Lieutenant-Governor Eyre is here and governs as he has governed during the last eighteen months” (qtd. Hart 57-58). While Gordon’s criticisms were particularly harsh and pointed with respect to Eyre’s neglect of the poor, Eyre’s tenure in the governorship was controversial, and his reputation as an administrator also suffered from a scandal in 1863 over the inadequate planning and financing of a tramway from Spanish Town to Old Harbour and Porus, which was never completed (Haldane 53-88).
Through his membership in the Native Baptist Church, Gordon was also associated with Paul Bogle, a primary leader of the Morant Bay rebellion; this connection was particularly incriminating for Gordon. In one of his first acts after declaring martial law, Eyre decided to hold Gordon responsible for inspiring the rebellion, making him an example to prevent its spread to other areas of the island. The action on which the Jamaica Committee focused most specifically in its attempts to hold Eyre personally and criminally liable for the severity of the reprisals under martial law was the execution of Gordon, who was arrested in Kingston, where martial law was not in force, and then transported to Morant Bay on 17 October—having been escorted on board ship personally by Eyre. After arriving on 20 October, Gordon was imprisoned in the Morant Bay police station by Brigadier-General, Alexander Abercrombie Nelson, a former Colonel who had been promoted to lead the reprisals against the rebels. While in prison, Gordon was physically abused and threatened by soldiers and sailors. His court martial before a panel appointed by Nelson, consisting of two naval lieutenants (one of whom, Herbert Brand, would later be prosecuted by the Jamaica Committee) and an inexperienced ensign took place the following day (Heuman 146-51).
During the court martial, Gordon was denied the opportunity to consult with counsel, though he was able to summon witnesses in his defense and to cross examine witnesses against him. At the time of his arrest and during his court martial, Gordon asserted that he had no advance knowledge of the rebellion; he had been ill for several weeks and could not have been involved in planning the uprising, a fact later affirmed by his physician, who was never summoned to testify at the court martial (Kostal 140-41). The court martial found Gordon guilty of high treason and sedition and sentenced him to death. He was executed by hanging from the central arch of the court house, a particularly shameful and public death, along with seventeen others, early in the morning on the following Monday, 23 October, after having been given only one hour’s notice of his impending execution (Heuman 150). Gordon used the short time prior to his execution to write a letter to his wife, asserting his innocence and denying any involvement with Bogle in planning the events at Morant Bay, but also indirectly defending the justice of their cause: “All I ever did was to recommend the people who complained, to seek redress in a legitimate way; and if in this I erred, or have been misrepresented, I do not think I deserve the extreme sentence. 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” (Gordon 2). Gordon also attempts to console his wife: “Comfort your heart. I little expected this. You must do the best you can, and the Lord will help you; and do not be ashamed of the death your poor husband will have suffered” (Gordon 2). The contents of the letter were transmitted to the author and secretary of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, Louis Chamerovzow, who published it in a pamphlet on 30 November along with an account of Gordon’s arrest and execution. Asserting that “No unprejudiced person can read Mr. Gordon’s last letter, without having the conviction of his innocence forced on his mind,” Chamerovzow attests that Gordon died as a Christian “martyr” and expresses his hope that the letter’s release to the public will be effectual in “obtaining justice for his memory” (Gordon 4).
The publication of Gordon’s letter was part of a larger surge of concern among politically reformist intellectuals and politicians over the extreme violence and therefore the questionable legality of Eyre’s resort to martial law. When news of the events in Jamaica reached London in late October 1865, prominent M.P.s such as Lord Brougham and Henry Fawcett, and members of abolitionist and dissenting religious associations such as the Anti-Slavery Society and the Peace Society, expressed their concern to government about the legality of Gordon’s execution, the harshness of the reprisals, and the extended period of martial law (Lorimer 186-87). After reading Eyre’s own dispatches to the Colonial Office, William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord John Russell’s Liberal government, confidentially expressed on 17 December to Edward Cardwell, the Colonial Secretary, his grave doubts about Eyre’s actions: “I write as one who has no confidence whatever in Eyre’s political judgement, exercised within the atmosphere of the so-called ‘rebellion.’ It is quite right to abstain from pre-judging him officially; but the papers he himself sent us, are so condemnatory as in their collateral effect to reduce his authority to nil” (qtd in Lorimer 185). The government responded by suspending Eyre from his governorship in early December 1865 and dispatching a Royal Commission of Inquiry to Jamaica to investigate Eyre’s actions. After reviewing the testimony of more than 700 witnesses over the course of 51 days, the Commission issued a report to Parliament on 18 June 1866, finding that Eyre had responded with “skill, promptitude and vigour” in quelling the rebellion. But the Commission also concluded that martial law had been imposed for too many days, and that the punishment of death was “unnecessarily frequent,” floggings in particular areas had been “positively barbarous,” and the burning of so many homes had been “wanton and cruel” (qtd. in Heuman 170). Responding to the arrival of the report, the government upheld the Jamaica Assembly’s Act of Indemnity but accepted the Commission’s view that the state of martial law should have been lifted much earlier. Eyre was relieved of his post as Governor and retired without a pension; government hoped that this “recall with blame” would quiet the mounting criticisms of his conduct.
Responses in the British press varied from incensed condemnation of the rebels, to cautious concern for injustices perpetrated against Black Jamaicans by West Indian planters, to outrage and warnings about colonial excesses, according to the political leanings of particular newspapers (Lorimer 182-88). When details of Gordon’s court martial were published in January 1866, the editorial pages of the conservative Morning Herald defended Eyre’s implementation of summary proceedings followed by execution, arguing that Gordon was “a political agitator, who, by secret appeals and intemperate harangues . . . incited to violence a mass of ignorant men.” The liberal-leaning Daily News characterized such conservative defenses of martial law as politically retrograde: “Last summer . . . nobody would have believed that there were people . . . presenting at all points the appearance of Englishmen who deliberately approve of hanging persons without trial.” This equation of political dissent with treason in Gordon’s case amounted to “the justification of the utter subversion of law in the name of conservatism” (qtd. in Kostal 139-40).
Eyre defended his actions by asserting that “the whole outrage [by the rebels] could only be paralleled by the atrocities of the Indian Mutiny” (Eldridge 151). Recently elected M.P. for Westminster, John Stuart Mill, however, saw such claims as only the latest in a series of unacceptable justifications of executive abuse of power in the colonies. In an October 1866 letter, Mill wrote,
I am not on this occasion standing up for the Negroes, or for liberty, deeply as both are interested in the subject—but for the first necessity of human society, law. One would have thought that when this was the matter in question, all political parties might be expected to be unanimous. But my eyes were first opened to the moral condition of the English nation (I except in these matters the working classes) by the atrocities perpetrated in the Indian Mutiny, and the feelings which supported them at home. Then, came the sympathy with the lawless rebellion of the Southern Americans in defense of an institution which is the sum of all lawlessness, as Wesley said it was of all villainy—and finally came this Jamaica business, the authors of which, from the first day I knew of it, I determined that I would do all in my power to bring to justice if there was not another man in Parliament to stand by me. (qtd. in Dutton)
Mill saw his leadership of the Jamaica Committee as an extension of his plan, while a Member of Parliament, to “reserve myself for work which no others were likely to do” (Autobiography 210).
Formed under the chairmanship of Charles Buxton, M. P., who later ceded his role to Mill, the Jamaica Committee membership included radical liberal and reformist politicians and lawyers such as John Bright, Frederic Harrison, and Edmond Beales, and abolitionists such as Louis Chamerovzow and Frederick William Chesson. Prominent writers and intellectuals also joined, including the brothers Leslie and James Fitzjames Stephen, Thomas Hughes, author of the popular novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), philosopher T.H. Green, economist and Liberal M. P. Henry Fawcett, and Oxford historian Goldwin Smith. The Jamaica Committee also received the support of a eminent scientists, including Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, Sir Edward Frankland, and Herbert Spencer (see Semmel 56-80; Lorimer 180-81). The majority of the Jamaica Committee (excepting Buxton, who resigned but remained a critic of Eyre) strongly believed that the government’s response was insufficient and that Eyre and two of his military officers who supervised the systematic summary floggings and executions, Lieutenant Herbert Brand and Colonel Alexander Abercrombie Nelson, should be tried for murder.
While its legal actions focused on Gordon’s murder, the Jamaica Committee’s public statements emphasized its opposition both to Eyre’s abuse of executive prerogative and flouting of due process, and to the government’s subsequent decision to settle the matter independently of the courts or Parliament. In a statement published in the Daily News in July 1866 explaining the Jamaica Committee’s reasons for bringing suit against Eyre as private citizens, John Stuart Mill argued that the Royal Commission’s inquiry into the events, subject only to the oversight of the executive, could not substitute for a constitutionally guaranteed judicial process which alone could legitimately determine “the principle that the illegal execution of a British subject 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.” The Jamaica Committee also wanted to test in a court of law “the jurisdiction of courts of martial law . . . to have it determined by authority whether the law which these courts assume to administer is really law at all, or sanguinary license which the law will repress and punish.” “Public justice,” in Gordon’s case, demanded a prosecution of Eyre in order both to “uphold the obligation of justice and humanity towards all races beneath the Queen’s sway” and to defend all citizens from the threat of “impunity to the crime which is the most dangerous of all to the community—the crime of a public functionary who abuses the power entrusted to him to compass, under the forms of justice, the death of a citizen obnoxious to the government” (Mill, “Statement of the Jamaica Committee” 422-27). Mill aligns the urgency of the constitutional questions raised both by Eyre’s actions and the government’s avoidance of a judicial ruling on their legality with the upholding of due process in the administration of empire, while also alluding to the humanitarian aim of defending the rights of Black Jamaicans whose emancipation from enslavement had taken place only three decades earlier. In calling Gordon “a citizen obnoxious to the government,” Mill also casts him as a political prisoner rather than a dangerous agitator.
Eyre’s actions also garnered many vocal supporters. Thomas Carlyle became a leading figure in organizing the Governor Eyre Defence and Aid Committee and in recruiting other prominent figures to support Eyre’s cause publicly and to defray his legal expenses. Eyre’s supporters included many conservative establishment figures, a long list of peers, military officers, and bishops (Lorimer 181). Carlyle was a likely figurehead for the pro-Eyre forces, since he had already become influential (and notorious) as an advocate of authoritarian governmental policies toward the “lower races.” In his pamphlet, “The Nigger Question,” originally published in 1849, Carlyle stereotyped former Jamaican slaves in the figure of the lazy, pumpkin-eating “Quashee,” who “if he will not help in bringing-out the spices, will get himself made a slave again (which state will be a little less ugly than his present one), and with beneficent whip, since other methods avail not, will be compelled to work” (376). Carlyle’s racist characterization of Black Jamaicans, indirect advocacy of their re-enslavement, and his warning that that they could turn on the white inhabitants with the result that Jamaica could go the way of Haiti became common refrains in both the West Indian press and in Colonial Office correspondence about Jamaica in the 1850s and 1860s, echoed, as we have seen, by Eyre in his dispatches in response to the Underhill meetings and also his public defenses of his actions after the rebellion (Harrawood 280-81; see also Holt 262-309).
In a letter to the writer Charles Kingsley, who had attended a banquet at Southampton in honor of Eyre’s return to England in August 1866 (Semmel 89), Thomas Henry Huxley alludes to Carlyle’s backing for Eyre as indicative of the political mindset of Eyre’s supporters more generally. Huxley argues that the “hero-worshippers who believe that the world is to be governed by its great men,” whether by persuasion or by violence, will side with Eyre, while on the opposite side are those who despise any form of “idolatry . . . as essentially immoral” and “who look upon the observance of inflexible justice as between man and man as of far greater importance than even the preservation of social order” (qtd. in Semmel 122-3). For Huxley, taking sides in this debate involved a political choice between, on the one hand, personifying power and protecting public safety at the risk of a deeply problematic psychological attachment to political absolutism, and, on the other, upholding the rights of individuals as the basis of a just constitutional order. Huxley implies that a measured governmental response to political activism and even unrest according to the due process of law, whether at home or in the colonies, is essential in order to preserve a just society.
For his part, Kingsley justified his alignment with Eyre in a letter to a more sympathetic correspondent: “I have followed the sage of Chelsea‘s [Carlyle’s] teaching, about my noble friend, ex-Governor Eyre of Jamaica. I have been cursed for it, as if I had been a dog, who had never stood up for the working man when all the world was hounding him (the working man) down in 1848-9, and imperilled [sic] my own prospects in life in behalf of freedom and justice. Now, men insult me because I stand up for a man whom I believe ill-used, calumniated, and hunted to death by fanatics” (Kingsley 235). Working-class solidarity with the oppressed Black Jamaicans was made manifest in a meeting protesting and competing with the official welcoming meeting for Eyre at Southampton, as well as in several subsequent public protests against Eyre in London (Lorimer 195). Despite his prior history, then, by publicly supporting Eyre, Kingsley had “stood up” on the opposite side of this issue from many of the working men he had supported.
The Eyre controversy did not map onto a neat split between men of letters and men of science, however. While John Ruskin actively supported the Eyre Defence Committee by attending its meetings, and other literary men such as Alfred Tennyson and Charles Dickens gave donations and lent their names to Eyre’s cause, philosopher T.H. Green and author and Liberal M.P. Thomas Hughes were both members of the Jamaica Committee. While Darwin, Huxley, and Lyell supported the Jamaica Committee, eminent physicist John Tyndall was a supporter of Eyre. Following Carlyle, Tyndall advocated that clear racial distinctions should be applied to reach an appropriate understanding of which categories of British subjects were entitled to due process protections: “We do not hold an Englishman and a Jamaica negro to be convertible terms, nor do we think that the cause of human liberty will be promoted by any attempt to make them so” (qtd. in Hume 281). Tyndall implies not only that the races are separate species, but also that Eyre’s violent suppression of the Morant Bay uprising was legitimate on that basis, as long as such impositions of martial law are restricted to Jamaica, and, by implication, other imperial territories with white minority populations (Semmel 125-26). By characterizing (despite historical evidence to the contrary) martial law as an exceptional measure not to be taken in England, Tyndall sought to refute the Jamaica Committee’s argument that the government’s condoning of Eyre’s actions undermined the constitution. Tyndall’s assumption that citizenship could be based on race also indicates that such views had come to seem intellectually respectable since the heyday of British abolitionism in the late eighteenth century and early decades of the nineteenth century (see Lorimer). In Huxley’s terms, Tyndall reveals his deepest political commitment to a social order based in human inequality, defined according to racial differences.
Support for Eyre’s actions was not only an indication of views on race, but also could stem from an identification of the leaders of the Jamaica Committee with the political goals of such organizations as the Reform League and the London Workingman’s Association. Members of the Reform League assembled in large numbers to demonstrate for a major extension of the suffrage to working men at Hyde Park on 23 July 1866; some park railings were broken when demonstrators were locked out of the park. Fears of such working-class “insurrections” at home led to greater public support for more authoritarian colonial policies (Semmel 81-5). In contrast, publications supporting political reform, such as Reynolds’s Newspaper, made the case that the threat of authoritarianism within Britain was all too real, as the harsh measures against the Irish Fenians, including public executions (Semmel 133-34), had already demonstrated: “without a sweeping measure of reform, justice is in abeyance, law a mockery, and judges the mere tools of the ruling classes within any serious contention between Government and enslaved people; and . . . nothing hinders the Tories from doing to the working classes in London as Eyre did to the blacks in Jamaica, but the wholesome apprehension on the part of the Tories that it would be perilous to certain coroneted but incapable heads now entrusted with the government of the greatest empire on the face of the earth” (qtd. in Eldridge 155).
In a series of letters published in the Daily News between November and December 1866, Jamaica Committee member and barrister Frederic Harrison also sounded the alarm about the grave constitutional issues raised by Eyre’s and his officers’ non-judicial executions and punishments of Gordon and other Jamaican citizens. “What makes this cause so critical,” Harrison declares, “is this very fact, that the bulk of English society positively desires to lodge in the hands of the Executive latent and indefinite prerogatives, which it was the boast of our forefathers to have destroyed” (4). Harrison discounts the argument that such harsh measures would never be used within Britain: “That they are meant to maintain our vast unresting empire is the very purpose we dread” (6). He nevertheless asserts his confidence that when Eyre and his subordinate officers are brought to trial “the thinking public of England . . . will see that there is yet a great question at stake between the Executive and the subject; subjects, it may be, beyond seas, and of another race, but fellow-citizens with us in the British realm.” Anticipating what he fears to be the general public’s desire to withhold the category of citizen from Black Jamaicans and other non-English imperial subjects, Harrison asks rhetorically, “If they are not [citizens], what are they? If they have not this law, what law have they?” (6).
The Jamaica Committee pursued its prosecutions of Eyre after several unsuccessful legal cases in Jamaica. In 1866 the Jamaican courts had undertaken a series of attempts to hold certain civilian authorities and officers legally accountable for their unnecessary brutality during the period of martial law. Defying the instructions of the presiding judge, a Jamaican grand jury refused to indict Provost Marshal Gordon Ramsay—a former inspector of police whom Eyre had put in charge of floggings, executions, and imprisonments during the period of martial law—on a charge of murder (Heuman 137-38, 174). The same outcome occurred in the case of John Woodrow, whom a grand jury also refused to indict on a charge of excessive flogging of women (Heuman 175). An ensign and a military surgeon were both prosecuted in Jamaica for shooting prisoners without trial, but they too were acquitted (Heuman 175). In the wake of these failures, and responding to the absence of such official prosecutions in England, the Jamaica Committee “instituted no fewer than three private criminal prosecutions in English courts (two for murder) against Edward Eyre” (Kostal 16), and one private prosecution of Nelson and Brand. The first prosecution of Eyre at Market Drayton, Shropshire in March 1867 ended in Eyre’s discharge by a panel of “well-to-do gentlemen” justices of the peace. This decision sparked cheers and the ringing of the city church bells, followed by similar celebrations in neighboring villages and, later, even in London (Semmel 149). In the meantime, the Jamaica Committee was also pursuing the prosecutions of Colonel Nelson and Lieutenant Brand. On 10 April 1867, Nelson and Brand appeared before a Middlesex grand jury in London’s Old Bailey criminal court. In a detailed charge, or analysis of the pertinent law, lasting almost six hours and delivered in front of an audience of aldermen, lawyers, politicians, and journalists, the Lord Chief Justice of England, Sir Alexander Cockburn, recommended that Lieutenant Brand and Colonel Nelson be indicted for Gordon’s murder and ruled that martial law was inimical to English constitutional principles. In the conclusion to his charge, the Lord Chief Justice conjured up Gordon’s helplessness in facing his court martial: “All I can say is, that if, on martial law being proclaimed, a man can lawfully be thus tried, condemned, and sacrificed, such a state of things is a scandal, and a reproach to the institutions of this great and free country; and as a minister of justice, profoundly imbued with a sense of what is due to the first and greatest of earthly obligations, I enter my solemn and emphatic protest against the lives of men being thus dealt with in the time to come” (Cockburn 165). The grand jury, however, determined that there was “no true bill,” and dismissed the charges, in effect ignoring the instructions of the highest judicial official in the country (Semmel 151-55; see also Kostal 322-41).
The Jamaica Committee sponsored a second prosecution of Eyre in the Middlesex county jurisdiction of London on the charge of Gordon’s murder, brought in the names of John Stuart Mill and the liberal politician, Sir Henry Taylor,; the case came to trial in May 1868. This prosecution also ended in dismissal by the presiding judge, based on the precedent of Nelson and Brand’s acquittals by the Middlesex grand jury. In the face of this second failure to indict Eyre for murder, the Jamaica Committee leadership resorted to a third prosecution under the Colonial Governors Act (first passed in 1700, and amended in 1802 under the title Criminal Jurisdiction Act), which made colonial officials accountable to the Court of King’s Bench for crimes committed “beyond the seas” (Kostal 380). In this case, Eyre was to answer charges “of issuing an illegal proclamation [of martial law] and of committing various acts of oppression against British subjects” (Kostal 387). The initial hearing, on 15 May before a London magistrate, over Eyre’s summons on these charges finally resulted in a decision sending the case to a grand jury that would decide on Eyre’s criminal indictment, and also made public for the first time as evidence in a court of law numerous specific instances of death and injury resulting from Eyre’s prosecuting martial law over an extended period (Kostal 389). In response to the summons to appear before yet another Middlesex grand jury, Eyre declared to the court, “I have only this to say, that not upon me, but upon those who have brought me here, will fall the disgrace, that a man who has served his country faithfully for twenty-six years, and for twenty years in positions of high responsibility, is now, after two years and a half of the unceasing and most rancorous persecution, about to be committed to a felon’s dock for having discharged his duty faithfully to the best of his ability, and irrespective of personal considerations, saving indubitably a great British colony from ruin, and the people from massacre, or worse than massacre” (qtd. in Dutton 379). Despite Eyre’s protestations, the decision to proceed to a grand jury produced an acknowledgement from The Times, which had been highly critical of the attempt to prosecute Eyre, that the Jamaica Committee had been acting in good faith to gain a ruling on the legal standing and limitations of martial law (Kostal 390).
Though the subsequent hearing before the grand jury on 2 and 3 June 1868 resulted in a heated public disagreement over the constitutionality of martial law between a Queen’s Bench judge, Sir Colin Blackburn, who presented the charge, and Lord Chief Justice Cockburn (see Kostal 373-415), once again the charges brought against Eyre were dismissed on the basis that he had acted appropriately within his powers as Governor to suppress a dangerous armed rebellion. Eyre’s supporters immediately began to pressure the House of Commons to pay Eyre’s legal expenses and give him a new government appointment, presenting a petition to this effect with more than 10,000 signatures. But the Conservative government, wary of alienating working-class voters enfranchised under the new rules of the 1867 Reform Act, declined to undertake such a controversial public commitment (Semmel 172).
Eyre continued to incur substantial legal expenses, however, as the result of two further civil suits undertaken against him by two British citizens and Jamaican political reformers, Alexander Phillips and Dr. Robert Bruce, for “assault, battery [flogging], and false imprisonment” during the period of martial law (Kostal 432-33). Begun in 1867 and fostered behind the scenes by the Jamaica Committee, these civil suits were first tried before the Court of Queen’s Bench in January 1869 when Phillips, a Black Jamaican, received the decision from Lord Chief Justice Cockburn that there was no remedy at law available to him via English courts for Eyre’s actions: Phillips’s right to sue Eyre had been nullified by the Act of Indemnity passed by the Jamaica Assembly (Kostal 442-45). Phillips’s appeal of this ruling was argued in early February 1870 before the judges of the Exchequer Chamber, and decided in June of that year. The ruling by a single Justice, James Shaw Willes, upheld the Lord Chief Justice’s decision that the Jamaica Assembly’s Indemnity Act was a valid act of legislative sovereignty throughout the empire (Kostal 446-49). According to legal historian R. W. Kostal, “the lawsuit was ultimately counter-productive”: “Now it had been established by a court of high authority that colonial legislatures had sovereign jurisdiction to pass laws which might legitimate even the worst excesses of martial law, and shield its worst offenders. It was also beyond dispute that a colonial legislature could prevent the victims from seeking recourse to justice in the mother country. British citizenship, in other words, was now officially divisible” (450).
That the Jamaica Committee did not prevail against Eyre in the court of Victorian public opinion also provides one further, important reason why it also failed to win these indictments or to convict Eyre (Kostal 371). Throughout the controversy over Eyre’s first trial, the editorial columns of Punch and The Times declared that the majority of the British public viewed Eyre’s prosecution, with its drawn-out fight among leading Victorian intellectuals over the constitutional import of Eyre’s actions, as unseemly and extreme (Semmel 149-51). In his Autobiography (1873), Mill describes the outcome of the Jamaica Committee’s efforts to hold Eyre accountable as a mixed one:
It was clear that to bring English functionaries to the bar of a criminal court for abuses of power committed against negroes and mulattoes, was not a popular proceeding with the English middle classes. We had however redeemed, so far as lay in us, the character of our country, by shewing [sic] that there was at any rate a body of persons determined to use all the means which the law afforded to obtain justice for the injured. We had elicited from the highest criminal judge in the nation an authoritative declaration that the law was what we maintained it to be; and we had given an emphatic warning to those who might be tempted to similar guilt hereafter, that though they might escape the actual sentence of a criminal tribunal, they were not safe against being put to some trouble and expense in order to avoid it. Colonial Governors and other persons in authority will have a considerable motive to stop short of such extremities in future. (219).
In pointing to the partial success in legal terms of the Jamaica Committee’s efforts to restrain colonial administrators, Mill also defines the duty to uphold due process and the rule of law as a fundamental principle of modern citizenship. The Jamaica Committee had also shown that the courts could be used, short of the desired verdict, to make a political argument. Staking out this position, however, was linked to a tactical retreat from identifying the defense of the rule of law too closely with the defense of the equal rights of “negroes and mulattos.” Mill’s unconcern about the approval of the “English middle classes” nevertheless registers the practical difficulty of convincing English juries of Eyre’s and his subordinates’ possible guilt. Mill’s principled position regarding citizenship also does not seem to have translated into a compelling political platform, since he lost his parliamentary seat representing Westminster in the election of 1868, in part as the result of a concerted campaign against his re-election by Eyre’s supporters (Semmel 173).
The Jamaica Committee’s tactics also exposed the ongoing conflict between the rule of law as a constitutional principle applying within Britain and the exigencies of governing a disenfranchised populace in the colonies that undermine the rule of law. Because its public efforts and judicial arguments had focused on constraining and penalizing Eyre’s abuse of power, rather than asserting Gordon’s rights as a Jamaican citizen, the Jamaica Committee’s articulation of the violation of Gordon’s due process rights under martial law remained inchoate. Although Gordon’s case seemed to invite a more fundamental reevaluation and potentially new political conception of his status as a political prisoner, as a “fellow-citizen” of empire, and even, in retrospect, as a subject of human rights, such emergent understandings did not gain significant legitimacy or support, either in legal or political terms. Mill’s sense that the Jamaica Committee’s actions against Eyre constituted the “redemption” of Britain’s reputation for justice seems directed beyond an immediate domestic audience toward an international audience of Britain’s colonial subjects. Some Jamaica Committee members also seem to have perceived their efforts as an attempt to “obtain justice for the subject races” in opposition to widespread sympathy in Britain for the South during the United States Civil War (Semmel 166). This kind of vindication would amount to a restoration of the prestige of the English common law by distinguishing it from what Mill had characterized as the United States Constitution’s “defense of an institution [slavery] which is the sum of all lawlessness” prior to the Civil War (qtd. in Dutton). Nevertheless, despite the rulings on the illegality of martial law produced by the Eyre prosecutions, British colonial administrators would continue to use their power to impose martial law repeatedly in subsequent decades, and through the first half of the twentieth century, in order to quell rebellions against British rule in many locations beyond British shores, including India, Ireland, and Kenya (see Halliday; Hussain; Toye).
In 1872, Gladstone’s Liberal government compensated Eyre for his legal expenses, fulfilling without enthusiasm the previous Conservative government’s unofficial promise to do so (Knox 896). The subsequent Conservative administration restored Eyre’s government pension in 1874, but assigned him a “second class” rate of £750 per year based on his shortened service (due to his recall from Jamaica) (Heuman 174). George William Gordon’s reputation in Jamaica deteriorated, at least as far as official historical sources were concerned, in the decades following his execution (Jacobs 5-12). However, with the strengthening of Jamaican aspirations to independence in the 1940s and 50s, Gordon could be recuperated as a “nationalist leader” (Roberts 32). Gordon and Paul Bogle were declared official National Heroes after Jamaica’s independence in 1962 (Heuman 185-86). A joint monument to their memories can be found in National Heroes Park in Kingston, and a statue of Paul Bogle by sculptor Edna Manley was erected outside the Morant Bay court house in 1965.
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
published May 2012
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RELATED BRANCH ARTICLES
 Thomas Henry Huxley, letter to Charles Kingsley, 8 November 1866, emphasis in original.
 In the following narrative of the Morant Bay rebellion, I rely on Heuman’s detailed account, which is based closely on the testimony gathered by the Jamaica Royal Commission investigation. For the contrasting view that the events at Morant Bay on 11 October 1865 should be considered a riot and not a rebellion, see Hart. To consider the event in historical terms as a rebellion brings out its organized and planned aspects, as well as its political message. However, for supporters of Governor Eyre at the time, to call the uprising a “rebellion” rather than a “riot” also implied the legitimacy of Eyre’s actions in taking extreme measures to contain it.
 Eyre to Cardwell, 6 May 1865, Edward Cardwell Papers, Public Records Office, National Archives, London.
 For a further detailed discussion of Gordon’s court martial and the responses to a published report of the proceedings by various newspapers in January 1866, see Kostal, 134-45.
 Gladstone to Cardwell, 17 Dec. 1866, Gladstone Papers, British Library, emphasis in original.
 Morning Herald, 29 Jan. 1866, 4; Daily News, 25 Jan. 1866, 2.
 John Stuart Mill, letter to David Urquhart, 4 Oct. 1866.
 Thomas Henry Huxley, letter to Charles Kingsley, 8 Nov. 1866, emphasis in original.
 Charles Kingsley, letter to Mr. T. Dixon, 27 Oct. 1866, emphasis in original.
 From “Report of a Meeting of the Eyre Defence Committee Held at Willis’s Rooms.”
 Reynolds’s Newspaper, 5 Aug. 1866, 4.
 Eyre was living in Shropshire, a county at the border of England and Wales, at the time of the hearing. He would not enter the jurisdiction of Middlesex in London, for fear of his case being heard before a grand jury with politically reformist views (Semmel 146-47).
 I analyze this failure of the Jamaica Committee’s prosecution of Eyre to galvanize public discussion or legal consideration of Gordon’s status as a political prisoner, and to gain wider sympathy for the violation of his human rights, in my book project in progress, A Judgment on Behalf of Humanity: Habeas Corpus, Human Rights, and the Novel.
 John Stuart Mill, letter to David Urquhart, 4 Oct. 1866; in Dutton, 347-48.