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he official report of the Jamaica Commissioners — Mr. Russell Gurney, Recorder of London, and Mr. J. B. Maule, Recorder of Leeds — who were sent out, with Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Storks as the acting Governor of that island, to investigate the circumstances of the negro insurrection at Morant Bay, St. Thomas-in-the-East, and the severities or cruelties alleged to have been practised by Governor Eyre or by his subordinates in October last, has been printed and laid before both Houses of Parliament. It may be useful, on this occasion, to refer to a special map of the island, which we have engraved, showing the exact position of Morant Bay, and the neighbouring districts, which were the scenes of those deplorable transactions.

Jamaica. Click on map to enlarge it. You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Hathi Trust Digital Library and The University of Michigan Libray and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. — George P. Landow

The opinions, however, which the Commissioners have formed respecting the behaviour of Mr. Eyre, and of the military officers and others employed in the suppresion of the revolt are of more urgent interest. The Commissioners find that the total number of persons who were put to death under martial law amounts to 439; the total number of dwellings burned to 1000; and the number flogged, although uncertain, cannot have been less, the Commissioners think, than 600, many of them being women. Their conclusions are, in brief, as follow: — That the disturbances were owing to a planned resistance to lawful authority; that the causes leading to it were manifold, but were principally a desire to obtain land without rent, want of confidence in the legal tribunals in disputes affecting the negroes, personal hostility, and a wish for the death or expulsion of the whites; that, although the original design was conceived in the parish of St. Thomas, it spread with singular rapidity over the island, so that had more than a momentary success been obtained by the insurgents a fearful loss of life and property would have attended their suppression; that praise is due to Governor Eyre for the skill, promptitude, and vigour which he manifested during the early stages of the insurrection, to the exercise of which qualities its speedy termination is, in a great degree, to be attributed; that the military and naval operations were prompt and judicious, but that the continuance of martial law was longer than necessary; that the punishments inflicted were excessive; that the punishment of death was unnecessarily frequent; that the floggings were reckless, and at Bath positively barbarous; and that the burning of 1000 houses was wanton and cruel.

The Commissioners, placing themselves in the position of the Government of Jamaica in the month of October, forbear to blame it for the protraction of the rule of martial law: but they observe that, from and after the 30th of that month, when the Governor had formally declared that the rebellion was subdued, that the leaders of it had been punished, and that the people of the district were desirous to return to their allegiance, “there could be no necessity for that promptitude in the execution of the law which almost precludes a calm inquiry into each man’s guilt or innocence.” The Commissioners consider that from that date no more courts-martial shonld have been held, but that prisoners in custody should have been handed over to the ordinary tribunals. The twining of wire into the cats and the flogging of women by the authority of courts-martial and Captain Hole are acts which must be “reprobated.” The Commissioners decline to express an opinion as to the charge of shooting three men by a detachment under Ensign Cullen, or as to the charge of the shooting of Gray by Staff Assistant Surgeon Morris, as the evidence was so conflicting; but they represent that, for the sake of the character of the service, further inquiry should be made. The case of Provost-Marshal Ramsay, against whom so many charges of flendish cruelty have been brought, is mentioned; but the Commissioners decline to make any remark on his conduct, became he has yet to stand his trial on a charge of wilful murder. Referring to the extraordinary number of executions by order of courts-martial, the Commissioners say that, in the great majority of instances, the evidence justified the finding of the Court; but, in others, the conviction was not justified by any evidence appearing in the proceedings. Five persons were convicted on the unconfirmed testimony of a man who was himself sentenced to death as a spy. Two men were admitted to give evidence against one another of alleged confessions mutually exchanged, and in several cases men were sentenced to death and executed upon mere affidavits.

Considerable space is given to the case of Mr. Gordon, and his relations with Paul Bogle and the other negroes at Stony Gut are minutely investigated. The opinion of the Commissioners is summed up in the following passage:—

Although, therefore, it appears exceedingly probable that Mr. Gordon, by his words and writings, produced a material effect on the minds of Bogle and his followers, and did much to produce that state of excitement and discontent in different parts of the island which rendered the spread of the insurrection exceeding probable, yet we cannot see, in the evidence which has been adduced, any sufficient proof either of his complicity in the outbreak at Morant Bay or of his having been a party to a general conspiracy against the Government. On the assumption that, if there was, in fact, a widespread conspiracy, Mr. G. W. Gordon must have been a party to it, the conclusion at which we have arrived in his case is decisive as to the non-existence of such a conspiracy.

The Commissioners discredit the story that the blacks were going to rise at a future time, and attach no importance to the reports of drillings and threatening letters.

With the Commissioners’ report, which is dated Spanish Town, Jamaica, April 9, is printed a despatch from Mr. Cardwell, the Colonial Minister, dated June 18, addressed to Sir Henry Storks. In this despatch Mr. Cardwell expresses the general concurrence of the Government with the conclusions at which the Commission arrived. He reviews the circumstances under which Governor Eyre maintained the duration of martial law to its utmost statutory limits; but, with the strongest disposition to make every possible allowance for his difficulties, he expresses his full agreement with the Commissioners that, by the Governor's act, the people were deprived for a longer period than was necessary of the constitutional securities for their lives and property; that convictions were procured on insufficient evidence; that the punishment of death was unnecessarily frequent; that the floggings were reckless and barbarous, and the burning of houses wanton and cruel. “Her Majesty’s Government have arrived at these conclusions with the greatest concern; they are desirous of recognising every consideration which can extenuate the condemnation it necessarily involves. But their principal anxiety must be to prevent the recurrence in any future case of proceedings like those which they have disclosed. It appears to them to be evident that even in the first excitement of the disturbances, and still more at some later period, if martial law was to be allowed to continue, instructions ought to have been issued to the officer to whom the actual conduct of the operations was intrusted, which would have rendered such an abuse of power impossible.” Her Majesty’s Government do not impute to Mr. Eyre any personal cognisance of the severe measures adopted, but inasmuch as it was his bounden duty to restrain them within the narrowest limits, and to inform himself of what was being done, they “cannot hold him irresponsible either for the continuance or the excessive severity of those measures.”

Of Mr. Gordon’s case Mr. Cardwell says that her Majesty's Government concurs in the opinion that “the evidence on which he was convicted was wholly insufficient to establish the charge on which he took his trial.” The proper course would have been to arrest him on considerations of public safety, and reserve him for trial before a regular tribunal. But his trial by court-martial, and his execution by virtue of the sentence of that court, are events which her Majesty’s Government cannot but deplore and condemn.”

Mr. Cardwell states that copies of the Commissioners' report, with the evidence, have been communicated to the War Office and the Admiralty, who are the proper judges of the conduct of the officers engaged in the recent transactions. Sir Henry Storks is to cause careful investigations to be made into the cases of civilians. “Great offences ought to be punished,” and the Queen’s Government will rely on the Governor for that purpose, and await his report of what he has done.

The despatch concludes with the following reference to the position of Mr. Eyre: — It will be evident from what I have already said that her Majesty’s Government, while giving to Mr. Eyre full credit for those portions of his conduct to which credit is justly due, are compelled, by the result of your inquiry, to disapprove other portions of that conduct. They do not feel, therefore, that they should discharge their duty by advising the Crown to replace Mr. Eyre in his former government; and they cannot doubt that, by placing the new form of government in new hands they are taking the course best calculated to allay animosities, to conciliate general confidence, and to establish on firm and solid grounds the future welfare of Jamaica.


“The Negro Insurrection in Jamaica.” Illustrated London News 48 (23 June 1866): 618. Hathi Trust Digital Library version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 26 December 2015. The text above was created from the page images in the web version with ABBYY FineReader.

Last modified 29 December 2015