Slavery and Revolution


Magna Carta to Morant Bay

By Christer Petley |

This seems to be a year of multiple anniversaries in British history. If last year was all about the First World War, this year sees the centennial commemorations of Agincourt, Waterloo and Magna Carta, and—of course—of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica.

Sir Robert Worcester, chairman of the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Committee has called the document signed by King John at Runneymede in June 1215 ‘the foundation of liberty, the end of divine rule by kings’, the foundation ‘of the rule of law, and the beginning of human rights’. It is undeniable that the signing of Magna Carta—part of a process by which the English monarchy tried to make peace with a set of rebellious Barons (landed elites with their own private armies)—was an important moment in English history. It was an episode in which the power of the monarch was questioned, when a king chose to make concessions to his subject. As such it is often interpreted as a part of a process of democratisation—particularly by those who want to see that process as a peculiarly British one. In that vision, the voice of the people against the great and the powerful is heard with increasing force through the centuries and the rights and liberties of the people gradually enshrined into law.

The difficulty, of course, is that the Magna Carta was a limited and temporary agreement in a feudal struggle between elites. Elected parliaments let alone democratic political principles were not yet dreamed of. Those keen to position Magna Carta in the history of the rise and progress of British democracy are, however, inclined simply to ignore such difficulties. Taking issue with troublesome historians and lawyers who have tried to understand Magna Carta in its thirteenth-century context or trace its actual juridical legacy, the Conservative Eurosceptic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg suggests that the real significance of Magna Carta lies elsewhere than in the detail: in ‘how important it’s become in our national legend’.

This is a candid admission of how Magna Carta has been referenced and mobilised as part of different British political folklores. Throughout the centuries Magna Carta has carried a heavy symbolic weight in various political narratives—by those resisting royal power, those seeking to extend parliamentary authority, those calling for electoral reform or those defending British legal and political structures from foreign threats (real or perceived). In the eighteenth century, it was a touchstone for abolitionists. For instance, in May 1789, as Wilberforce sat in a friend’s house in the village of Teston, penning his first long speech in Parliament against the slave trade, Hannah More told him that she hoped that Teston would turn out to ‘be the Runnymede of the negroes’—the birth-place of a ‘great charter of African liberty’.[1] Magna Carta has been a symbol of liberty and of Britishness that may be mobilised in in various contexts to do different sorts of political work.

The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica is another event that shoulders a heavy burden of symbolic meaning. And one persuasive way of making sense of the events of 11 October 1865, and of their aftermath, undermines several of the myths surrounding Magna Carta. Morant Bay and the response to it by the British imperial state in Jamaica saw the denial and reversal of English liberties in the Caribbean.

The rebellion began with a march, led by Paul Bogle, a former slave who was a smallholder from the village of Stoney Gut in the hills of the parish of Saint Thomas in the East. This began as a vocal demonstration for the interests of humble labourers and peasants against the oppressive power of the planter class; it ended in a violent clash with the local militia and the murder of several leading white landowners, including the chief magistrate. Extreme dissatisfaction among ordinary Jamaicans with the difficulties of surviving and securing justice in a society that was supposedly free but still profoundly unequal helped to fuel the uprising that spread across eastern Jamaica in the days that followed, before it was brutally repressed by the colonial government under Governor Edward John Eyre. Bogle was among the black Jamaicans tried and executed by a military court.

In the aftermath, the rule of law was denied to the hundreds of victims of arbitrary justice, meted out without due process in the district of the uprising. The victims included George William Gordon, a vocal critic of the governor and of the planters, who Governor Eyre held responsible for inspiring the uprising. Another upshot of the events of October 1865 was that the Jamaican Assembly decided to abolish itself. A representative institution—a local parliament that for two centuries had modelled itself on the House of Commons in England—ceased to exist. White assemblymen feared that a representative legislature provided a platform for black and mixed-race politicians: what had once been seat of white power and for the defence of white colonial liberties, they now perceived as a risk to their privilege and security. Instead, Jamaica was to be ruled until the 1940s as a Crown Colony—directly from London and without a legislature chosen by the local population.

The colonies have, conveniently, often been left out of cosy whiggish legends of British liberty. That particular folklore of political progress is reserved for the British Isles, with the focus squarely on England. But generations of historians, working from different directions and in different traditions, have presented us with a more accurate and broader conception of British history. Notably, J. G. A. Pocock and Bernard Bailyn called on historians to look at linkages between the British Isles and at the British Atlantic world.[2] More recently, Kathleen Wilson and other proponents of the New Imperial history have explored the imperial and global links that forged modern Britain.[3] Catherine Hall—working in that New Imperial mode—has highlighted the stark contrast between the extension of representative politics in Britain (where in 1867 the Second Reform Act doubled the English electorate) and the retreat from representative politics in Jamaica, where racist politics in the aftermath of the Morant Bay Rebellion denied the very rights extended to white Englishmen to black Caribbean men.[4]

This historical work makes the road between Runneymede and twenty-first century political and legal structures look less straightforward, and—perhaps predictably—it underscores the apparent incompatibility—or at the very least the profound tensions—between predominant nationalistic founding myths in Britain and in postcolonial Jamaica.

Those tensions are reflected in the practices of memorialisation—and of forgetting—in the district of the Morant Bay Rebellion in the parish of Saint Thomas. Branching off from the main coastal route in Saint Thomas is a narrow road. About a hundred yards up, before it leads into the mountains, you can turn onto a yet smaller dirt track—single-story homes on one side, an electricity sub-station behind a chain-link fence on the other. There is a rusted car without its wheels; the track opens into a patch of ground too small to call a field. This is where you can find Simon Taylor. A plaque still reads:

Here lie the remains of

the Honourable SIMON TAYLOR:

a loyal Subject, a firm Friend, and an honest Man:

Who after an active Life,

during which he faithfully and ably filled the highest Offices

of CIVIL and MILITARY duty in this island,

died April 14th. 1813,

Aged 73.

The grave stone speaks the truth, in a way, but its overall presentation of the deceased is a lie. It is a ‘white lie’: a set of half-truths that adorn almost any kind of obituary, presenting its subject in a good light—positive qualities and achievements, omitting flaws. It is also a more sinister type of ‘white’ fiction about the natural integrity of Simon Taylor, a leading member of his self-styled ‘master race’, with its loudly proclaimed civilising benevolence, its supposedly inherent ability to govern and rule. There is a bitter contrast between the high-flown words of a pompous epitaph and the life of the man it celebrated.

The grave site is dilapidated, and finding it is not easy. The place is anonymous—unmarked on maps, unmentioned in tourist guides. The plaque that remains formed one part of what was once an impressive monument—an ornamental tomb bearing sculpted images of the family’s coat of arms which were supported by two carved leopards, ‘chained and collared’ with the motto ‘in hoc signo vinces’: in this sign you will conquer.[5]

Taylor was once the richest inhabitant of Jamaica, one of the wealthiest men in the British empire and an extremely influential politician. He dominated the local legislative assembly and helped orchestrate the white Jamaican defence of slavery against the abolitionists in Britain. Subsequent historians have reckoned that he ‘may have exercised greater influence in Jamaica, and for a longer period, than any other individual’. As a sugar planter in Britain’s most important colony, Taylor’s political standing in the British empire bore more weight than that of elites from other colonies. Locally, he was of as much consequence in Jamaica as, say, a man like Thomas Jefferson in Virginia or John Adams in Massachusetts.

Just like Hannah More, Simon Taylor had a sense of the importance of Magna Carta as a touchstone of British liberty, but he saw things very differently to her. Taylor led the parish vestry at Morant Bay, and presided over courts there as Chief Magistrate—the institutions that Bogle and his supporters attacked in October 1865 because they were, in practice, bastions of white privilege, iniquity and injustice. Taylor also served throughout his adult life as a member of the Jamaican Assembly, and, as Jack Greene and others have shown, planters like him were among the most vocal proponents of British liberty.[6] The Jamaican Assembly fought hard in the eighteenth century to assert its power against the crown, the planter historian Edward Long describing it as ‘the epitome of the house of commons’ and the act of 1728 which gave it financial independence as ‘our great charter’.[7]

Planter-politicians from Jamaica were just one part of a transatlantic culture that connected British liberty with Magna Carta—part of an extended polity that needs to be understood, as Steve Pincus has recently argued, ‘not as a nation state with subordinate colonies but as an imperial state’.[8] References to the charter were fundamental to the constitutional debates of the American Revolution, and to the framing of the American Bill of Rights. (It is that association that led to a memorial to Magna Carta at Runnymede, paid for by the American Bar Association). Before and after the American Revolution, British colonial slaveholders invoked Magna Carta—and the principles of British liberty—in their constitutional defence of slaveholding, pointing out, for example, that the Great Charter of 1215 did not apply to feudal serfs and could not therefore be applied to enslaved people: just one of many manoeuvres slaveholders used to try to defend their own liberty while presenting enslaved people as property—as something other than British subjects protected by the rule of law.

Nowadays at Lyssons there is no longer a plantation; no carved leopards; no coats of arms. But the traces that Simon Taylor’s life has left behind, including those half-truths on a marble memorial and the ideas that he and his class mobilised in defence of slavery, are tenacious and nagging reminders of the fact that the planter class and all that they stood for still haunts Jamaica. Taylor is, or was, as Vincent Brown has recently argued, a sort of founding father of modern Jamaica.[9] Yet it is understandable that he is now forgotten there. Memorialising people and events in the landscape typically entails some kind of celebration—and most Jamaicans of the twenty first century feel disinclined to extend this to someone like Simon Taylor, whose main economic achievements were won through the murderous exploitation of enslaved people and whose political endeavours served to defend slavery and its exclusive racial privileges.

In Saint Thomas, Taylor’s old parish, it is instead Paul Bogle who is remembered. At the village of Stoney Gut, up in the hills behind the parish town at Morant Bay, there is a visitor centre and small park dedicated to Bogle’s memory. In 1969, over a century after his death, the government of Jamaica, independent from British rule since 1962, made Bogle one of the first three Jamaican National Heroes—a formal honour in recognition of his role as leader of the Morant Bay Rebellion. A plaque, created and erected by the Jamaica National Trust Commission, near to Bogle’s birth-place in Stoney Gut reads:











During the twentieth century, Bogle emerged as a central part of the Jamaican national myth. He is remembered not only in the parish of Saint Thomas, but across Jamaica, as a standard bearer for the common sort of Jamaicans—black men, women and children like him who were born into slavery or into postemancipation poverty. Bogle is one expression of what Kamau Brathwaite called ‘the collective memory of the people’ within a Caribbean-wide historical narrative of a popular struggle against the plantation system—against the plantocracy—in conflict therefore with men like Taylor and with the things that men like Taylor stood for.[10] As such, the Morant Bay Rebellion works as a sort of Jamaican Magna Carta—a defining or foundational moment in a national legend. Stoney Gut is a site like Runnymede. It symbolises, or stands for, the counter-culture nurtured by ordinary Jamaicans who were prepared to stand up to white oppression.

Simon Taylor and Paul Bogle symbolise two groups that shaped this district—and the wider island—during the nineteenth century: the white plantocracy and the freed people. They are representatives of what Philip Curtin once described as ‘two Jamaicas’—of racist oppression and of black resistance.[11] It is difficult to see how memorialisation of these two groups could be reconciled into a coherent national narrative. Bogle is a popular figure, in both senses of the word. His story resonates with large numbers of people, and he represents, or performs the role of, a surrogate for the masses—for ordinary Jamaicans. Taylor has none of that appeal. To suggest celebrating his contribution to the development of Jamaica would be contentious to say the very least.

Perhaps he is best left where he is. But Taylor and men like him not only made the West Indies, they shaped the modern world. The shadow of the plantation system in the form of racist oppression and inequality (including class division) persists—In Saint Thomas, in Jamaica and across the Atlantic in Britain. To challenge those legacies we need to find a way to remember and make sense of people like Bogle and events like Morant Bay. But we also need to reckon with a man like Taylor—a man who talked a lot about freedom, who believed in the idea of Magna Carta as a foundation for British liberty, but who practiced slaveholding. A critical evaluation of Magna Carta, and of Morant Bay, requires that we shed light on the ideas of those who believed that their freedom rested on the denial of that right to others—part of a process that might help us to understand the roles that both of these iconic events have played in entwined narratives of freedom and resistance on either side of the Atlantic.

Christer Petley, October 2015


[1] William Roberts (ed), Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Hannah More (1836) (2 Vols), Vol 1, 432.

[2] J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History 47/4 (1975): 601-621; Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (2005).

[3] Kathleen Wilson, The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century (2002).

[4] Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 (2002).

[5] J. H. Lawrence-Archer, Monumental Inscriptions of the British West Indies from the Earliest Date (1875), 297-8.

[6] Greene, J. ‘Liberty, Slavery, and the Transformation of British Identity in the Eighteenth‐Century West Indies’, Slavery and Abolition 21/1. (2000).

[7] Edward Long, The History of Jamaica (1774), Vol 1, 11.

[8] Steve Pincus, ‘Reconfiguring the British Empire’, The William & Mary Quarterly 69/1 (2012).

[9] Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (2008).

[10] Quoted in David Lambert, ‘“Part of the Blood and the Dream”: Surrogation, Memory and the National Hero in the Postcolonial Caribbean’, Patterns of Prejudice 41/3-4 (2007)

[11] Philip Curtin, Two Jamaicas: The Role of Ideas in a Tropical Colony, 1830-1865 (1968).