August 12 was the 150th anniversary of Paul Bogle’s long march from Stony Gut to Spanish Town. Forty-five miles! Bogle led a delegation to King’s House, located then in the Old Capital. He wanted to meet with Governor Eyre to make his case on behalf of the suffering people of St Thomas. It was a mere 31 years after the declaration of Emancipation. And the legacy of enslavement was bitter.
Black people were free in theory. But, in fact, we were still imprisoned in the old, exploitative colonial system. Whites firmly held on to power, manipulating politics to suit themselves. Blacks could vote; but only if we could afford to pay the criminally high poll tax. In the 1864 elections, not even 2,000 of the 436,000 black people could afford to vote!
Nature also conspired against poor people. Cholera and smallpox ravaged Jamaica. In 1865, the effects of a two-year drought made matters worse. Work became scarce as several plantations went bankrupt. Economic prospects for black people were grim. There were rumours that we were going to be enslaved again.
I suppose Paul Bogle wished to discuss all of this with the governor. But Eyre refused to see him. He was a man with a very hard heart and too much power. Eyre’s father was a clergyman, which just goes to show that a religious upbringing is no guarantee of basic decency.
Eyre became governor of Jamaica in 1862 and seems to have had nothing but contempt for the ‘natives’. George William Gordon, a brown Jamaican who defended the rights of the black majority, enraged Eyre with his outspoken condemnation of the governor’s racist policies.
‘ADDING PRUDENCE TO INDUSTRY’
Before Bogle tried to meet with Eyre, a group of concerned citizens from St Ann had sent a letter to Queen Victoria, routed through the governor. They wanted to rent Crown lands at an affordable cost. Missis Queen sent a malicious response. Eyre gleefully made 50,000 copies, which he distributed far and wide. It was even read in church.
Here’s an excerpt: “… The prosperity of the Labouring Classes, as well as of all other classes, depends, in Jamaica, and in other Countries, upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly, or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted, and for so long as it is wanted; and if they would use this industry, and thereby render the Plantations productive, they would enable the Planters to pay them higher Wages for the same hours of work than are received by the best Field Labourers in this country; and as the cost of the necessaries of life is much less in Jamaica than it is here, they would be enabled, by adding prudence to industry to lay by an ample provision for seasons of drought and dearth; and they may be assured, that it is from their own industry and prudence, in availing themselves of the means of prospering that are before them, and not from any such schemes as have been suggested to them, that they must look for an improvement in their condition; and that her Majesty will regard with interest and satisfaction their advancement through their own merits and efforts.”
In other words: Unu fi work out unu soul case fi next to nutten; an gwaan tek di lickle monkey money weh di planter dem a pay; so di planter dem can mek plenty money an gi unu back lickle bit. An unu fi band unu belly an save some a di lickle money fi when trouble tek unu; because tings inna Jamaica no cost so much like inna England; an stop bodder-bodder mi bout gi unu Crown land fi rent. An mi wi well glad fi see how unu a go mek it pon unu own.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and this sounds a lot like what Mme Christine Lagarde might say to Minister Peter Phillips if im was to lost im pass go aks her fi gi wi a ease up wid di whole heap a money wi owe IMF. Austerity is the name of the game.
Paul Bogle died for the cause of black empowerment. So did George William Gordon. How many of our politicians today, whether PNP or JLP, would put their lives on the line for their constituency? How many would walk 45 miles to make a case on our behalf? How many of them could walk 45 miles? Or even 4.5 miles?
Quite a few of our politicians are so fat they just couldn’t make it. They are living high on the hog. Throw mi corn, mi no call no fowl. I think we should establish gut guidelines for politicians. Beyond a certain size, they would just lose the work. By the way, the gut in Stony Gut is not the same as big gut. The first is a narrow passage; the second is a huge channel.
On the anniversary of Bogle’s march, our present governor general, Sir Patrick Allen, met with a delegation from St Thomas. He couldn’t make up for Eyre’s wickedness in both failing to listen to Bogle’s appeal and brutally suppressing the Morant Bay Rebellion. But Sir Patrick did admit that the parish has long been neglected. Even now! And that took guts.