Sigh! No one remembers old George Gordon
December 30, 2015 was the occasion of the George William Gordon’s bicentennial. There was a wreath-laying ceremony at the George William Gordon monument at National Heroes’ Park. The event was quickly put together by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission at my request after realising that our nation’s leaders had failed to recognise that December 27, 2015 marked the bicentennial of the baptism of our national hero, the Right Excellent George William Gordon.
The baptismal records for the parish of St Andrew in the year 1815 state that he was approximately three months old at the time he was baptised into the Anglican church. This puts his actual birth date somewhere around September 1815. Gordon, whose birthday was unknown even to him, was born to an enslaved Afro-Jamaican named Ann, whom records suggest may have “belonged” to the Rattray family of the day. His father, Joseph Gordon, was a Scottish planter who acted as attorney for several other plantations such as the Rattrays’, and therefore had occasion to make frequent visits there on business that undoubtedly grew to include getting to “know” the enslaved Ann in the biblical sense.
Joseph Gordon, whether reluctantly or not, eventually recognised his mulatto child, who was christened with his surname and grew to be a very intelligent young man with great aptitude for business. Self-educated, he eventually took over his father’s business and property as his own wealth increased.
George Gordon added William to his name perhaps in recognition of William Wilberforce — an independent British MP and Christian evangelist — whose efforts helped bring victory for the anti-slavery/abolitionist legislators in 1807 around the same time that he left the English church into which he had been baptised, opting instead to join the Baptist Church and later the Native Baptist congregation that had been established on the island in 1783 by George Lisle, the first American missionary.
Lisle, an emancipated African-American, had established the First African Baptist Church in the state of Georgia before fleeing the American Revolution with the British in 1782. Arriving in Jamaica, he established himself at racecourse in Kingston, where the novelty of a black itinerant ex-slave preacher attracted considerable attention. Out of this movement, half-a-century later, came Daddy Sam Sharpe and the Christmas Rebellion/Abolition, also known as the Baptist War which, ironically, began on December 27, 1831, the 16th anniversary of George Gordon’s baptism.
The execution of Samuel Sharpe by the State would not have gone unnoticed by Gordon as, indeed, they not only foreshadowed his own life, but had profound effects on life in Jamaica as then known. George William Gordon was 19 years old when slavery was abolished in the British Empire. Already free and literate, the legislation undoubtedly still brought some joy and comfort to Gordon, who had negro blood and family. However, its most profound effect on him may have been to encourage his belief in and ambition to effect change through the legislative council. If so, it is fitting that our House of Parliament now bears his hallowed name.
Gordon’s affiliation with the native (read: black) Baptist Church did not gain him much favour among the plantocracy that dominated the Legislative Council post-Emancipation. The predominately Anglican assembly, led by the governor, perhaps saw in Gordon the betrayal of their ultimate plans to continue to dominate and control the slave colony through their progeny. After all, the concept of creating a mulatto class as a buffer zone between the European “master” class and the African “emancipated nee enslaved” class was practised throughout the “discovered” world from Australia to America.
Gordon’s advocacy on behalf of the negro race at the time sent a frightening signal to the establishment of the day and, given his wealth and stature, made him a dangerous man in the eyes of those who feared being overrun by the “natives”. Emerging from St Elizabeth, where he had cut his teeth in business, George William Gordon extended his land holdings into the parish of St Thomas and entered the House of Assembly as that parish’s representative in 1844.
When his progressive views and lobbying efforts on the part of the former slaves were opposed by the Assembly he lost his bid to retain his seat after serving just one term. Gordon then turned his attention to organising the masses through the native Baptist Church, founding chapels in Kingston, St Andrew and St Thomas and ordaining deacons, such as Paul Bogle — later national hero. In St Thomas, Gordon used the church to organise the black masses encouraging and facilitating their purchase of land and payment of property taxes that made them eligible to vote. Quite frankly, Gordon may well have invented the concept of the political garrison when he increased his voters’ list and his margin of victory to re-enter Parliament as the MLC for St Thomas in 1863.
In 1865, the year the United States of America emancipated her own enslaved Africans, George William Gordon paid the ultimate price for fighting to free his own race in Jamaica. The English wife on his arm could not hide the colour of his heart, and the legislative council, challenged by the cunning of this to-be national hero, sought to make an example of him. Gordon was executed by the State following the Morant Bay Rebellion, 150 years ago. He was 50 years old and the only legislator in the history of our country to face capital punishment. Following his execution, the British Government moved to suspend self-rule in the island for almost three decades, perhaps to cleanse the House of any residual effects of Gordon’s ultimate betrayal of his father’s class. There would not be another negro legislator in Parliament until Alexander Dixon represented the parish of St Elizabeth in 1899 and the Bahamian Dr Robert Love represented St Andrew in 1906.
In 1925, four decades before he was declared our first national hero, Marcus Garvey wrote, “George William Gordon [is] entitled to halo of martyrdom with no less glory than that of the martyrs of any other race.” Like Gordon and his final letter to his wife and family 60 years before him, Garvey penned those words from a prison cell. They formed a part of his greatest thesis on the negro race, entitled ‘African fundamentalism’. In it Garvey encouraged us to canonise our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honour black men and women who have made their distinct contribution to our racial history.
Our first national hero certainly would have admonished us for allowing the bicentennial of one of our martyrs and national heroes to have gone by without so much as a whisper. The year 2015 not only marked the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion, but also saw Jamaica being visited by four heads of states (USA, UK, Japan and Venezuela) three of whom laid wreaths at the World War memorial at National Heroes’ Park just feet away from George William Gordon’s memorial. Given that the fourth head of state, President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, visited the island to open the Simon Bolivar Centre downtown on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Latin American liberator’s exile in Jamaica, some questions need to be asked of the Ministry of Culture.
Why had we forgotten the bicentennial of the birth of one of our own national heroes? Is Jamaica continuing to punish old George Gordon for siding with the negroes? Alas, not even the esteemed members of that high house that bears his name seem to be knowledgeable of the fact that 2015 marks the bicentennial of George William Gordon’s birth. But perhaps we are making a mountain out of a mole hill; after all, our historians still use a picture of the African-American inventor Thomas Jennings to depict Paul Bogle and our journalists and educators still refer to Marcus Garvey’s UNIA as the “United Negro” and not “Universal Negro Improvement Association” that it is. Maybe the devil is in the details, after all. Happy New Year, Jamaica.
Steven Golding is president of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and professor of Garveyism at the Hydel Group of Schools.