Edward John Eyre

Eyre arrived in Jamaica in March 1862 and found himself in a difficult situation. The colonists complained that they were being governed by a man who was socially insignificant. Moreover, Eyre was a poor man in a rich man's job; the governor's salary had been cut from 10,000 to 5,000 pounds, and Eyre received only half that amount as a temporary official acting until the governor's return. To make matters worse, Jamaica was facing serious economic and political problems. Its sugar economy had suffered a dramatic decline in the wake of emancipation, and sugar production in the 1860s was less than half what it had been thirty years previously. Many ex-slaves had moved off the plantations to work on their own land; from the planters' perspective, this had created a labour shortage on the island. The Jamaican house of assembly was divided into factions, consisting of representatives of the planters on the one hand and of coloureds, Jews, and more urban interests on the other.

Once in Jamaica, Eyre almost immediately ran into trouble with the most outspoken and radical coloured politician on the island, George William Gordon. Gordon had grown increasingly concerned about the problems of the poor at about the same time that he was shifting his religious affiliation to the Native Baptists. As a magistrate in Morant Bay, he reported to Eyre about the death of an ill and poor man who had been sent to the local gaol, where he had died. Gordon's complaint concerned the illegal imprisonment of the man and the filthy state of the gaol. Eyre rather impulsively censured Gordon and removed him from the magistracy. Although the Colonial Office supported Eyre's actions in this case, it also applauded Gordon's attempt to improve conditions at the gaol and chided Eyre for not carefully examining the evidence.

This case established a pattern for Eyre. He became embroiled in a series of political difficulties, culminating in a motion of no confidence in him passed by one of the factions in the house of assembly. But the motion had the opposite effect from that intended. Faced with a challenge to its prerogative, the Colonial Office promoted Eyre to the governorship of Jamaica in April 1864. It was no coincidence that Eyre was a strong supporter of Colonial Office plans to reduce the powers of the house of assembly and, ultimately, to transform the legislature into a largely nominated body.

The following year, 1865, proved to be calamitous for Jamaica and for Eyre. In March he received a letter forwarded by the Colonial Office from Edward Underhill, the secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society in England. In the letter Underhill claimed that the freed population was in a deplorable state and blamed the Jamaican house of assembly for inept and biased legislation. Underhill also pointed to the deteriorating economic conditions in Jamaica and to the effects of the terrible drought which the island was suffering. The Underhill letter led to a series of island-wide meetings, many of which supported the allegations. More importantly, they helped to inflame the political atmosphere in the colony. During the summer Eyre received reports of a possible conspiracy in western Jamaica. He ordered two men-of-war to be sent to the threatened area. But the rebellion instead broke out two months later on the other side of the island.

On 11 October 1865 several hundred black people marched into the town of Morant Bay, the capital of the predominately sugar-growing parish of St Thomas in the East. They pillaged the police station of its weapons and then confronted the volunteer militia which had been called up to protect the meeting of the vestry, the political body which administered the parish. Fighting broke out between the militia and the crowd, and by the end of the day the crowd had killed eighteen people and wounded thirty-one others. Seven members of the crowd died. In the days which followed the outbreak, bands of people in different parts of the parish killed two planters and threatened the lives of many others. The disturbances spread across the parish of St Thomas in the East, from its western border with St David to its northern boundary with Portland.

On learning of the outbreak, Eyre acted immediately. He dispatched troops to Morant Bay, declared martial law in the eastern part of the island, and travelled to the affected area to supervise operations. For Eyre the whole island was at risk; he believed that the rebellion was aimed at exterminating the white and brown population and that it had to be suppressed forcefully. Making use of the army, Jamaican forces, and the maroons (formerly a community of runaway slaves who were now an irregular but effective army of the colony), the government vigorously put down the rebellion. In the process nearly 500 people were killed and hundreds of others were seriously wounded. Many of these people were killed without trial and others were flogged indiscriminately.

Eyre concluded that his political enemy, George William Gordon, was behind the rebellion. Gordon was a political ally of the leader of the rebellion, Paul Bogle, who was a Native Baptist deacon in St Thomas in the East. Accordingly, Eyre had Gordon arrested in Kingston, which was under civil jurisdiction, and transferred to Morant Bay for court martial. He was found guilty, a sentence which Eyre approved before Gordon was hanged. It was this act which inspired much of the subsequent opposition to Eyre in Britain. Eyre also made use of the rebellion to achieve a long-term aim: he succeeded in convincing the house of assembly to abolish itself and allow the crown to take full responsibility for the colony.

Once news of the rebellion and the nature of its suppression reached England, there were calls for Eyre's removal from office and for an official inquiry. The government established a royal commission under Sir Henry Storks, then governor of Malta, to investigate the outbreak and took evidence in Jamaica on the disturbances for nearly three months. Its conclusions were critical of Governor Eyre and of the severe repression in the wake of the rebellion. Eyre was dismissed. However, when he left Jamaica in the summer of 1866, he had become immensely popular among the white inhabitants of the island.

Eyre's reception in England was violently varied. The Jamaica Committee, headed by John Stuart Mill, sought to have him tried for murder as well as high crimes and misdemeanours. Its counterpart, the Eyre Defence Committee, included Thomas Carlyle and other leading figures who believed that Eyre had saved Jamaica for the empire. In a series of prosecutions the Jamaica Committee failed to have Eyre indicted; similarly, a number of civil suits brought against Eyre by people who had been injured or lost property during the rebellion also failed. The controversy brought colonial matters to the forefront of public debate and is an interesting if somewhat misleading touchstone of attitudes to empire in mid-Victorian Britain.

Despite his acquittal, Eyre was never offered another post in the colonial service. He even had difficulty gaining a pension. In 1872 the government did agree to defray his legal expenses, and a year later it finally granted him a pension. Eyre eventually moved to a remote house, Walreddon Manor, near Tavistock, Devon, where he lived almost anonymously with his family until his death there, on 30 November 1901 at the age of eighty-six. He was buried at St Andrew's Parish Church in Whitchurch, Devon, on 4 December.

Top Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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by Stephen Luscombe