Religious inf luences on the Morant Bay Uprising
TODAY, I deliver a lecture at the Institute of Jamaica on the religious influences on the Morant Bay Uprising. An appreciation of this perspective is important because it helps us to understand more accurately what happened and it tells what was the main motivation behind the protest.
The religious influences on the protest were largely neglected until Clinton Hutton, a political scientist, in his PhD thesis (1992) posited that Paul Bogle’s approach was to use the Bible for political and ideological objectives in order to justify black opposition to the racist colonial social systems and institutions. Hutton also believes that African religious expressions such as Myalism, Kumina and Convince influenced the protest. And, in Hutton’s recent book (2015) he argued for the influence of ancestral spirits based on an oath-taking ceremony described by policeman James Foster [p. 149.] Of significance also was the authorities’ execution of Arthur Wellington, a reputed obeah man among the people of Somerset. Colonel Hobbs said the execution was to dissuade the people of the folly of their belief in obeah.
Sutana Afroz, a former UWI lecturer, argued for a Muslim influence.
W.J. Gardner, missionary, had speculated that ‘the superstitious regard which so many of the early Christian converts had for that day [Friday], and which the Native Baptists in some places still retain, may be traced to the influence of these people [Muslims].’ However, no evidence emerged from the trials of Paul Bogle or George William Gordon, their public hangings, their letters or the JRC Report that anyone was a Muslim, and there was also no mention of the word Islam or the Koran.
In 1865, Stephen Cooke, Anglican clergyman, testified that while he was exhorting the congregation not to attend the Underhill Meeting, about 120 persons of African ancestry who were normally attentive to him quietly walked out. David East, president of the Calabar College, was against the actions of the Native Baptists while praising Governor Eyre. The Anglican leadership aligned themselves to Eyre’s action. The missionaries in Jamaica had no direct supporting influence on the protest.
Several witnesses testified that when the protesters marched into Morant Bay on October 11, it was accompanied by music, dancing, singing and merrymaking. The nature of the celebration was consistent with a march for justice or anticipation of victory in the name of God.
After the march, Bogle returned to Stony Gut and there was a service in the chapel in which he gave thanks to God that he ‘went to this work’, and that God had succeeded him in ‘his work’. Bogle believed that he was ‘appointed instrument in the Lord’s hand’. The prayer after the event and the feeling of being an instrument of God were signs that Bogle and his followers were influenced by the Christian faith.
Henry Bleby, a missionary, said that acts of violence were committed against the ‘unarmed and unresisting people’ leaving ‘a multitude of widows and fatherless children without a shelter’. Another person identified only as H. R. stated the military authorities engaged in a ‘carnival of torture and slaughter’. After this massacre, the surviving people gathered at the location where a Native Baptist chapel stood before it was destroyed by the authorities, and held a worship service. George B. Clarke addressed the congregation, saying, ‘My friends, all the wrongs which so many of us have suffered unjustly at the hands of the authorities and soldiers — I know I speak your sentiments as well as my own when I say we freely forgive, as well as all who have injured us in any way.’ The Native Baptists displayed a forgiving spirit in spite of the carnage experienced.
It was the hermeneutic of liberation of the Native Baptists’, that is, their reflection on their lived experience in the light of the scriptural teaching on equality and justice (as they understood it), that shaped the nature of their practised resistance.
They tried peaceful means at first but never ruled out resistance. The glue that held the movement and protest together was the strong Christian faith of the Native Baptists.
Jamaica is crying out for such an understanding and practice of the Christian faith.