Rebellion, self-government and independence


Thursday, October 11, 2012    

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Today is the 147th anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865. It was a local riot but rumour and panic exaggerated it into being called a rebellion. In many respects the year 1865 was the beginning of the fight for self-government and political independence.

At that time there was talk about self-government, especially from the middle class. There was even talk about independence (referred to as seceding from Britain), especially from the planter class who made up most of the limited number of people entitled to vote. So the fight for political independence lasted 97 years.

The irony is that while the talk about self-government and independence was going on in 1865, the House of Assembly voted itself out of existence due to frustration. Jamaica would remain a crown colony until 1944 when self-government was granted.

In January 1865, Edward Underhill, who was a Baptist minister living in England, sent a letter to the British Secretary of State about the deplorable conditions in Jamaica. A copy of the letter was published in the newspapers. This evolved into the so-called Underhill meetings in Jamaica. National Hero George William Gordon presided over many of those meetings.

But while the planter class wanted self-government and independence, they did not want universal adult suffrage where every adult would have the right to vote. So self-government was perceived by the masses as a return to slavery.

The Morant Bay Rebellion was about the plight of the peasant farmers in St Thomas at that time. It was a protest against what was perceived as injustice in the courts. Earlier, Bogle led a deputation to the governor by foot, distance of 45 miles from Stony Gut in St Thomas to Spanish Town (then the capital of Jamaica) where the governor lived in those days.

As Paul Bogle led the march from Stony Gut, they surprised the guard at Poor Man's Corner and took away the guns. Where did they learn that strategy? Did they learn it when the refugees of the Haitian war of independence arrived in Jamaica before and after 1804? I have often argued that gun violence in Jamaica goes deep in our history which some politicians unfortunately carried to a more dangerous level.

On the actual day of the Morant Bay Rebellion, which was led by National Hero Paul Bogle, George William Gordon was not even in St Thomas, yet he was hanged. Bogle was also hanged. Over 900 people were killed and buried in a mass grave beside the Morant Bay Courthouse.

As a result of a Royal Commission of Enquiry, Governor John Eyre returned to England in disgrace. His successor was Sir John Peter Grant, who put in

much-needed reforms, mainly in the area of infrastructure such as the Kingston Public Hospital, the Asylum ( known as Bellevue), the Rio Cobre Irrigation Scheme and the Marescaux Road Reservoir. He also saw to the establishment of a modern police force.

In the 20th century, self-government for Jamaica was part of National Hero Marcus Garvey's manifesto when his People's Political Party sought office in 1929. It was intensified in 1935 with the establishment of the National Reform Association (NRA) in 1935.

The NRA was the forerunner of the People's National Party which was launched on September 18, 1938. It was established in the heat of the labour riots led by National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante, who formed the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union in May 1938.

National Hero Norman Manley would be the first president of the PNP which would lead the fight for self-government and political independence. Bustamante, who was originally a member of the PNP, would go on to found the Jamaica Labour Party on July 8, 1943.

In the 1930s Bustamante was against self-government, calling it slavery. Was his labelling of self-government as slavery a throwback to what was believed from 1865 onwards? Perhaps!

Universal Adult Suffrage and self-government came in December 1944. There was a West Indies Federation with a federal parliament based in Trinidad between 1958 and 1961. Jamaica voted to secede in a referendum in September 1961 and moved towards full independence on our own, which came on August 6, 1962.

In the last 50 years of independence, we have developed our infrastructure. Our athletes and certain "brand-name" products have done us proud. But we are yet to develop the economic independence that Norman Manley said would be the mission of the generation after him. Incidentally, I was in the National Arena when Norman Manley said that on November 10, 1968, just 15 days before my 15th birthday.

Of even greater concern to me is that we are in many respects still steeped in mental slavery. Indiscipline caused by children with absent parents is a throwback to slavery, but not yet corrected. Despite this, the University of the West Indies continues to separate totally the disciplines of history and sociology. This should stop. Sociology should be informed by history.





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