We wrote earlier that although the evidence with which we are familiar did not allow us to say in what ways social attitudes and social relations changed as a direct consequence of the riots, it did allow us to discuss whether the political changes after 1865 were directly due to the riots.
It may be said in support of the argument that the loss of the old constitution was a direct consequence of the riots that one of the accounts usually given of this event is that “the English took it away.” And when it is so stated, it is implied that the English took the constitution away because the Morant Bay riots showed them that the society was unable to govern itself, that it was not fit for self-government.
About the British Government’s policy, it need only be said that although the Colonial Office would have liked the constitution changed or abolished, the policy of waiting for Jamaicans to change their own constitution had been accepted by the Secretary of State in July 1865 as the only feasible policy. The constitution could not be touched in any way by the Minister simply acting in the name of the Crown, and exercising the Royal Prerogative. It could only be changed by the Imperial Parliament; and after the experience of 1839 no British Government would lightly have gone to the House of Commons with a bill for suspending the Jamaican Constitution.
The decision not to use the Imperial Parliament meant that change could only come from the Jamaican Parliament itself. But even so, the British Government adopted the policy of keeping quiet and waiting hopefully for the deed to be done, because it feared that to give public encouragement to those who wished for change would cause such widespread resentment in the society that it would make it doubly difficult to get a majority for change in the House of Assembly.
Another explanation given for the change of constitution is that the white members of the House of Assembly panicked after the riots, fearing that they were about to be massacred by the blacks, and accepted Eyre’s invitation “to immolate the constitution on the altar of patriotism”. This explanation has the merit of looking for the reason for change in the local society, but it does not fit the information we have of the final session of the House of Assembly. It is true that the Assembly passed very quickly all the repressive laws which Eyre had prepared for them. But not the bill to change the constitution. That the members took at their leisure, trading concessions among themselves, and producing a hodgepodge of a law which changed the constitution, but left political power in the bands of the white community.
The constitution was not changed by the British. It was changed by Jamaicans. They changed it after the riots, but not because of the riots. They did not intend to change representative government for crown colony government. They were tricked into this by Eyre.
We have already elaborated on the first two assertions, we now turn to the others. Was the constitution changed by the House of Assembly because of the riots? Notice first that the desire to change the constitution existed before the riots. Notice also that this desire was felt and expressed by a variety of groups. The question then is why was the constitution not changed before? Is it because a majority did not exist in the Assembly for change before the riots, but was produced by the riots?
A majority existed for the abolition of the existing constitution, or as it was sometimes said, for the reform of the constitution. But for how long before 1865 it is difficult to say. What did not exist was a majority for a constitution to replace the old one. For crown colony government, there was hardly a vote. The 1865 Session of the Assembly ended without a majority for any definite form of government. It was Eyre’s triumph that he got the second amending act through a much depleted House of Assembly. Before we elaborate on Eyre’s role, let us look at the attitudes expressed before Eyre took a hand.
We have to guess in the absence of precise information, but we guess that the largest group was the one moved by the desire to put the representative constitution out of reach of the black population. They argued that now was the time. The numbers of Negroes qualified to vote had grown, was growing and would soon be such as to allow them to control the legislature by electing black members. There were other motives for changing the constitution. Some thought that for its institutions to work well they had to be staffed by a greater number of able men than the island could supply. Others thought that as a device for making the old constitution more efficient, the Executive Committee had failed; it had been the cause of faction and of party. It had been the source of corruption. Their remedy was to give the executive offices to Englishmen appointed by the Secretary of State. At the Underhill meetings, yet another group expressed its opinions. The black propertied tax payers criticised the Assembly for waste and they warned it that if it persisted in its old habits it would be abolished.
Before 1865 the abolitionists were unable to agree on what was to replace the old constitution. This was not simply a division between those who wished to let the British have a bigger role in politics and administration and those who did not. It was also due to factions among the whites. The division was crudely between those who had, however timidly, worked for an integrated society, and those who were against them for this act of collaboration. Such men, angry both against the British and the blacks, wished to hoist the constitution above the reach of propertied Negroes, abolish the Executive Committee and keep the British out of Jamaican politics.