The British Government let the poor carry the public services for nearly a hundred years. Before 1865 it was content to lecture the House of Assembly. After 1865, although Governors reported on the tax structure from time to time, the Colonial Office did not go beyond the hand-wringing of the impotent. The British Government reserved its largest gestures for propping up the plantation economy. When the policy of free trade had severely damaged that economy, the government guaranteed in 1848 the interest on a large loan which the planters could use to import labourers to work on the sugar estates. Again, when the inept financial management of the Assembly had made Jamaica practically bankrupt, the British Government in 1854 guaranteed a loan of half a million pounds sterling to restore the country’s public credit.
If one assumes that two communities, such as those in Jamaica after emancipation, whose lives and history are extensively intertwined, are better integrated, and if one also assumes that societies are the better for being self-governing and democratic, the years between 1838 and 1865 were largely wasted.
The British presence frustrated both processes. The whites did not accept political responsibility for the whole society. They catered to their own interests. They resented the British for emancipating the slaves and for changing British commercial policy from imperial protection to free trade. They resented the blacks for refusing to work on the plantation at all, or for working there only when it suited them.
The services, notably education and health which the society needed after emancipation, were scarcely provided for out of local funds. The administration of justice particularly in the courts of petty sessions, was dominated by the white community and the property owners. Injustice flourished.
The blacks were for the most part excluded from the political system. And of those who qualified by virtue of property, many stayed outside. The black community also opted out of the plantation economy wherever possible. This process meant a search for land to buy or squat on, and the beginnings of the drift to the towns. Immediately after emancipation, those who lived in the free villages shared a communal existence, even though it was one made rudimentary by poverty, and paternal by close missionary supervision. But progressively, the rejection of the life of an estate casual labourer meant living in isolation. And after about 1845, there was a falling away of that interest in church membership and school attendance which had marked the early years after emancipation. Some of the people had begun to opt out of the cultural system as well.
In the five years before the riots at Morant Bay, the society was marked by a certain restlessness. The religious revival had involved its devotees in a long march around the island. Their provision grounds untilled, they poured out their energies, physical and emotional, in repeated acts of devotion. Their unrestrained fervour indicated how sick the society was. The American Civil War had brought to all an economic depression, worsened by a succession of floods and droughts on provision grounds. To some it also brought the fear of invasion.
A section of the white community began to advocate the abolition of the representative constitution in its present state. The meetings held after Dr. Underhill’s letter to the Secretary of State became public, criticised the House of Assembly for wasting taxes and demanded not its abolition, but its reform. In 1859 there was prolonged rioting in Sav-la-Mar and in Falmouth. The rioters in both instances were tried with results which on the evidence, seem equitable.
We may learn from these riots and from the Assembly’s debates on the future of the constitution what dangers threatened the society. We can also see how they might have been averted. If one part of the society had not been able to look for help overseas, if it had no choice but to find its own solutions within the society, it would probably have responded, even at so late an hour, by providing political remedies. Indeed, had a more balanced judgement presided over the Jamaican administration in 1865, would Ramsey and Hobbs and the Maroons have been let loose over seven hundred square miles of eastern Jamaica? As it was, Eyre had his bad judgement reinforced by those who themselves sought the solution for the ills of the society overseas. Eyre unleashed an alien force at Morant Bay and two months later opened the door to alien political authority. Who remembers the Falmouth rioters? Who would have remembered the Morant Bay rioters? We remember them because as Eyre himself wrote, “The retribution has been so prompt and so terrible that it is never likely to be forgotten”. Since so many were innocent, the act of October 1865 was not retribution, it was murder. Ought we not to remember Morant Bay in greater measure for the many who suffered, rather than exaggerate the achievement of the few who rioted?