Martial Law

Sarah Winter, “On the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica and the Governor Eyre-George William Gordon Controversy, 1865-70″

Sarah Winter, “On the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica and the Governor Eyre-George William Gordon Controversy, 1865-70″

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.