Morant Bay, Jamaica, scene of the Negro Insurrection

Morant Bay, Jamaica, scene of the Negro Insurrection.

An official narrative of the revolt of negroes and massacre of white people, in the district of Morant Bay, or St. Thomas-in-the-East, at the eastern end of the island of Jamaica, has now been published, in the shape of a despatch from the Governor of Jamaica, Mr. Edward John Eyre, addressed to Mr. Cardwell, the Secretary for the Colonics.

It appears that, on the 7th of October, while the magistrates at Morant were trying the case of a negro accused of some trespass, a mob of negroes, armed with bludgeons and accompanied by a band of music, broke into the Courthouse, beat off the policemen, and rescued the prisoner. Two days later the magistrates issued a warrant for the apprehension of twenty-eight of the rioters, at a village called Stoney Gut, three or four miles from Morant. The negroes resisted the execution of this warrant, assembling in large numbers, armed with guns, cutlasses, pikes, and bayonets. They caught and ill-treated three of the policemen, putting them in handcuffs, and administering to them an oath upon a bible which they hnd ready, binding them to desert the whites and join their party. Next day Baron von Ketelholdt, a naturalised German settler, who was chief of the local magistracy, wrote a report of these events to Governor Eyre, at Spanish Town, who immediately sent to the military and naval commanders at Kingston and Fort Royal, desiring them to be ready to give assistance if required.

Left: The Town of Morant, Morant Bay, Jamaica. Right: The Governor’s House, Spanish Town. . [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Meantime, on Wednesday, the 11th, about four in the afternoon, the negro insurgents made that attack upon the magistrates and other gentlemen at Morant which was attended with the dreadful atrocities wo related last week. The only defensive force available consisted of the volunteers from the adjoining district of Bath, who had been sent for in great haste. When the negro mob appeared in Morant these volunteers, under command of the Deputy Clerk of the Peace, Mr. Cook, were drawn up in line before the Courthouse. Baron von Ketelholdt stood on the steps and exhorted the people not to enter the square, and promised that if they had any grievance to complain of it should be redressed. They, however, persisted in coming into the square, upon which the Riot Act was read, and the volunteers fired into the mob, doing great execution; but before they had time to reload a rush waa made on them, and they were overpowered and obliged to take refuge in the Courthouse along with the magistrates. Part of the mob seized the police barracks and appropriated the arms and ammunition found there ; the others, smashing the windows of the Courthouse, and, failing the ability to enter it, set it on fire, which compelled its evacuation. The mob then slaughtered almost every man they found in the building: Baron von Ketelholdt: Captain Hitchins, who had commanded tho volunteer company; Mr. Walton and Mr. Arthur Cook, magistrates; the Rev. Victor Herschel, a clergyman, and several others; while Mr. Stephen Cooke, the clerk of the peace, escaped by hiding under the floor, and another gentleman was let off because he was a medical man. The most barbarous and wanton cruelties were perpetrated. The curate of Bath, the Rev. V. Htrschel, is said to have had his tongue cut out whilst still alive, and an attempt is said to have been made to skin him. One person, Mr. Charles Price, a black gentleman, formerly a member of Assembly, was ripped open and his entrails taken out. Another gentleman, Lieutenant Hall, of the volunteers, is said to have been pushed into an outbuilding, which was then set on fire, and kept there until he was literally roasted alive. Many are said to have had their eyes scooped out; heads were cleft open, and the brains taken out. The Barons fingers were cut off and carrird away as trophies by the murderers. Some bodies were half burnt others horribly battered. Indeed, the whole outrage could only paralleled by the atrocities of the Indian mutiny. The women, usual on such occasions, were even more brutal and barbarous than the men. The only redeeming feature of this massacre is that, so for as we learn, no ladies or children had been injured. The negroes having committed these outrages at Morant, then marched to several of the neighbouring plantations, and did what mischief they could; the planters, with their families and servants, taking refuge in flight.

Left: Head-quarters of officers and sailors at Morant Bay,. Right: The temporary courthouse at Morant Bay. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The news of these outrages soon reached the seat of Government at Spanish Town; and on the evening of the 12th his Excellency the Governor held a council of war and at once proclaimed martial law throughout the whole county of Surrey, except Kingston, stating in the proclamation that there was reason to expect that the outrage and felonies in St. Thomas-in-the-East might extend to the neighbouring parishes in the same county. The Governor sent on a express to Sir James Hope, Admiral of the station, and her Majesty ship Urgent was sent to Barbadoes for spare troops. The French Steamer Caravelle was placed at the disposal of the Government, and went to Morant Bay with the Governor, the Attorney-Genera Brigadier Nelson, and a staff of militia officers sufficient to constitute a court-martial. Simultaneously with this, troops were sent over the mountains to check any advance of the people from the disturbed district, and a proclamation was issued to the Maroons, or population of the mountain districts, calling on them to display their loyalty and take up arms. Mounted volunteers were brought into requisition regular and irregular corps, and all were vieing in their zeal to hunt down the insurgents.

Left: The Hordley Estate, Morant Bay. Right: Kingston. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The ladies, women, and children at Morant Bay were fetched away as soon as possible by H.M. ship Wolverine, which brought them safe to Kingston on the morning of the 12th; but much anxiety was still felt as the fate of a large party of defenceless persons who had shut themselves up in the Courthouse at Bath with a very slender guard; and others remained at the Hordley estate, the Plantain Garden estate, and elsewhere, in a situation of great peril till the arrival of some troops, a detachment of the 1st West Indian Regiment, under Captain Lake, brought them deliverance on the 13th. These refugees, numbering about a hundred altogether, were taken on board the gun-boat Onyx on the 14th, and conveyed to Kingston Many of the unfortunate people hud suffered great hardships and run great risks, some having been for days and nights in the cane fields or in the woods, without food or clothing, save what they had on, and subject to all risks which exposure at night in a tropical country entails. All were come away without any other possessions than the clothes they wore. The weather was extremely wet, and the little gun-boat, though a refuge from the rebels, could not afford to such a crowd either adequate shelter from the weather or accommodation of any kind suited to the requirements of delicate women and children.

At daybreak on the 15th, the Wolverine, with the Governor and troops on board, went round to Port Antonio, and arrived there about eleven o’clock, just in time to save that settlement from the rebels, who were burning buildings and destroying property about twelve miles to the eastward, and had already threatened to come in and destroy Port Antonio that very day. A large number of the principal inhabitants had taken refuge on board an American barque, the Reunion, Captain Tracey, which had taken them out to sea, but returned to Port Antonio when the Wolverine arrived. No time was lost in disembarking the troops, and by noon a strong detachment of the West India regiments (negro troops) was on its way, under Captain Hole, 6th Regiment, to meet the rebels, reported to be at Long Bay, twelve or in that district and in that of Manchioneal, to which the troops were to move in accordance with an arrangement concerted between Governor Eyre and Brigadier Nelson. Having made all necessary dispositions for the occupation of Port Antonio, expresses were sent off to Kingston and Morant Bay with the information; and the party stationed at Morant Bay was ordered, in co-operation with the party expected from Newcastle up the line of the Blue Mountain Valley, to march by night upon the stronghold of the rebels at Stoney Gut, about four miles inland, so as to arrive about daybreak, and capture or cut off the enemy. This movement was effectually put in execution; upon which Governor Eyre remarks: —

“It was now clear that by the rapidity of our movements we had got ahead of the rebellion, which, breaking out at Morant Bay, had preceded rapidly along the south-east, east, and north corner of the island. By occupying Port Antonio in time, we had not only saved that district from destruction, but we had met and stopped the further progress of the rebellion twelve miles east of it. We had indeed accomplished some most important results in a singularly brief space of time. A military post was established at Morant Bay, and another at Port Antonio, whilst the centre of a line connecting the two was occupied by the friendly Maroons. The greater portion of the rebels were therefore hemmed in within the country east of this line. The spread of the relellion westward was stopped, and if no independent outbreak occurs in any other part of the island we shall have the disturbed districts under control, and can at leisure deal with and punish the insurgents, At the same time, all the helpless and unprotected ladies, children, and other refugees, have been got in and saved. All our most important work being thus done, and the troops comfortably established in their barracks, we had for the first time a night of quiet and rest, on the night of Sunday, the 15th of October.”

The Outbreak in Jamaica: Maroon Town, Blue Mountains.

A detachment of the 6th Royals, under Colonel Hobbs, having gone up into the country from Port Antonio, found Stoney Gut already deserted by the insurgents, and occupied by the troops from Port Morant. Colonel Hobbs then proceeded towards Mocklands — a position some distance inland, on the line of the Blue Mountain Valley. In reporting this movement, the Governor states that Colonel Hobbs “had seen and shot a good many rebels, as well as captured some prisoners.”

At daybreak on Monday, Oct. 16, a court-martial sat to try prisoners, and twentv-seven were found guilty and hanged. Governor Eyre did not think it requisite to extend the proclamation of martial law to Kingston; but he observes, “There was one very important point to be decided upon. Throughout my tour I found everywhere the most unmistakable evidence that Mr. George William Gordon, a coloured member of the House of Assembly, had not only been mixed up in the matter, but was himself, through his own misrepresentations and seditious language addressed to the ignorant black people, the chief cause and origin of the whole rebellion. Mr. Gordon was now in Kingston, and it became necessary to decide what action should be taken with regard to him. Having obtained a deposition on oath that certain seditious printed notices had been sent through the post-office directed in his handwriting to the parties who have been leaders in the rebellion, I at once called upon the Custos to issue a warrant and capture him. For some little time he managed to evade capture, but, finding that, sooner or later, it was inevitable, he proceeded to the house of General O'Connor and there gave himself up. I at once had him placed onboard the Wolverine for safe custody and conveyance to Morant Bay. Great difference of opinion prevailed in Kingston as to the policy of taking Mr. Gordon. Nearly all coincided in believing him to be the occasion of the rebellion, and that he ought to be taken, but many of the inhabitants were under considerable apprehension that his capture might lead to an immediate outbreak in Kingston itself. I did not share in this feeling. Moreover, considering it right in the abstract, and desirable as a matter of policy, that whilst the poor black men who had been misled were undergoing condign punishment the chief instigator of all the evil should not go unpunished, I at once took upon myself the responsibility of his capture.” By a postcript, we learn that Mr. Gordon was tried by the court-martial at Morant Bay, sentenced to death, with the deliberate approval of the Governor, and executed on the 23rd. These are the latest accounts from the island.

Our Illustrations consist of a general view of Morant Bay ; a view of Port Morant, with the ruined Courthouse, from a sketch by Mr. Cyprian Bridge, R.N.; and a view of the Hordley Estate, taken by Messrs. J. S. Thompson and J. Tomford, photographers of Falmouth, Jamaica. They will be regarded with painful interest in connection with this sad affair.

Related material


“The Negro Insurrection in Jamaica.” Illustrated London News 47 (15 November 1865): 509 (image), 518-19. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 23 January 2016.

“The Outbreak in Jamaica.” Illustrated London News 47 (2 December 1865): 528 (image), 528-29. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 23 January 2016.

Last modified 23 January 2016