The Governor Eyre Controversy
By David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart
In the previous columns, we showed how 19th century economists and evangelical Christians made common cause in the fight against those who argued that blacks were inferior and thus deserved to be enslaved. It was this position that led Thomas Carlyle to brand economics the “dismal science.” He claimed that any science that began with the assumption that blacks were human, and thus entitled to make their own decisions about when to work, and for whom, could only be called dismal. On the other side were classical economists like John Stuart Mill, who believed that slavery was wrong and that all men deserved liberty.
Slavery had been abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Nonetheless, it was very much alive and well in the American South when Carlyle fired his first salvo attacking black emancipation in 1849. As we have seen in Part 2, J. S. Mill responded so quickly because he feared that the progress of American emancipation might be impeded by Carlyle’s prestigious position in the literary world. Even after the American Civil War ended in 1865, there was uncertainty about whether, as a practical matter, blacks had the same rights as other citizens of the Empire. The real meaning of the Carlyle-Mill debate became clear to all during the “Governor Eyre Controversy” of 1865.
The Eyre Controversy
The controversy was triggered by a seemingly trivial event in the British colony of Jamaica. A contemporary witness wrote:
On Saturday the 7th October, 1865, a court of petty sessions was held at Morant Bay. A man made a noise in the court, and was ordered to be brought before justices. He was captured by the police outside, but immediately rescued by one Paul Bogle and several other persons, who had large bludgeons in their hands, and taken into the market-square, where some one hundred and fifty more persons joined them also with sticks: the police were severely beaten. … On Monday, the 9th, warrants were issued against Paul Bogle and twenty seven others for riot and assault on the Saturday.1
On Wednesday the police came to enforce the warrants. Stones were thrown at the police. Then the shooting began. The island’s Governor, Edward James Eyre, took command. Eyre imposed martial law and called in the army to restore order. By the time the army was done, over 400 Jamaicans were dead, and thousands homeless. Britons were horrified by the methods of state terror, including flogging with wire whips and the use of military courts to deny civilians their rights.
George William Gordon was a free colored land owner. Born to a slave mother and a planter father who was attorney to several sugar estates in Jamaica, he was self-educated and became a landowner in St. Thomas, and a Member of Parliament.
Among the dead was George Gordon, a Baptist minister and member of Jamaica’s legislature. Although Gordon, a civilian, was nowhere near the original disturbances, he was arrested, tried in military court, convicted and hanged. In a letter written to his wife just before he was hanged, Gordon proclaimed his innocence:
General Nelson has just been kind enough to inform me that the court-martial on Saturday last has ordered me to be hung, and that the sentence is to be expected in a hour hence, so that I shall be gone from this world of sin and sorrow.
I regret that my worldly affairs are so derranged: but it cannot be helped…. I never advised or took part in any insurrection. All I ever did was to recommend the people who complained to seek redress in a legitimate way… It is however the will of my heavenly Father that I should thus suffer in obeying His command, to relieve the poor and needy, and to protect, as far as I was able, the oppressed….
do not be ashamed of the death your poor husband will have suffered. The judges seemed against me; and from the rigid manner of the Court, I could not get in all the explanations I intended. … It seemed that I was to be sacrificed. I know nothing of the man Bogle. I never advised him to the act or acts which have brought me to this end. Please write Mr. Chamerovzow.2
Louis Alexis Chamerovzow was the Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, and was one of the leaders of the British anti-slavery movement. When he learned of Gordon’s death, he and his colleagues in England formed the Jamaica Committee to protest the Governor’s actions and demand an investigation. The members of the Jamaica Committee included a host of worthies not usually associated with evangelical Christianity, including Charles Darwin and T. H. Huxley. As head, the members unanimously chose John Stuart Mill. On the other side, it is no surprise that the Eyre Defense Fund was led by none other than Thomas Carlyle, aided and abetted by John Ruskin.3
Thus, the two sides lined up just as a reader of our earlier columns would predict:
Pro-Eyre: Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Alfred Tennyson.
Anti-Eyre: John Stuart Mill, John Bright, Henry Fawcett, J.E. Cairnes, Herbert Spencer, T.H. Huxley, Charles Darwin.
Early reaction to the Eyre controversy—as evident in the cartoon from Punch‘s rival, the popular culture magazine, Fun—echoed the controversy we have discussed in our first two columns. The “Black Question,” is a reference to Carlyle’s Essay on the Negro Question (see Part 1). The ‘Punch cartoon’ uses a Dickens character to echo the claim that treatment of blacks as ‘Man and Brother’ occurred at the expense of whites.
Putting Theory into Practice
It’s understandable how British intellectuals would divide on Governor Eyre’s actions. By it’s not at all clear why Eyre himself ordered such harsh measures. It’s especially puzzling given his earlier record as a colonial administrator: he was made Governor because he had remarkably civil relations with the aboriginal people of Australia.4 So why did he react so violently against what was, by all accounts, only a minor skirmish?
Eyre’s defenders argued that his actions showed the beneficial influence of the work of Carlyle and others in exposing the foolishness of treating blacks as “man and brother.” Here are the thoughts of James Hunt, the moving spirit of British racial anthropology of the day: “We were at first not a little astonished at the decisive measures taken by Governor Eyre: measures which could alone have resulted from a most thorough insight into the negro character.”5 Carlyle would be quite a bit blunter:
“Truly one knows not whether less to venerate the Majesty’s Ministers, who, instead of rewarding their Governor Eyre, throw him out the window to a small loud group, small as now appears, and nothing but a group or knot of rabid Nigger-Philanthropists, barking furiously in the gutter ..”6
Eyre himself blamed those he called the “pseudo-philanthropists” of Exeter Hall, the home of the British evangelical movement, for the massacre. In response, the Treasurer of the Anti-Slavery Society, G. W. Alexander, reacted against Eyre’s attacks on Exeter Hall:
I am sorry to perceive the terms which the Governor of Jamaica has thought fit to use with regard to certain religious bodies in the country, and those whom he calls pseudo-philanthropists. I think it is exceedingly unbecoming in the Governor of a Colony thus to stigmatize persons who had been, it was true, instrumental in procuring the abolition of slavery in the British West-India colonies; and, I hope, in leading to the abolition of slavery throughout the world.7
In our previous columns, we have [noted] images of violence against colored friends of the dismal science (for example, Ruskin as St. George). The hatred aimed at political economists and evangelicals seems to have taken hold in 1865. Here we find Governor Eyre himself blaming the evangelicals for the insurrection. And of course Carlyle thought their role in the revolt exposed them as rabid dogs.
Continued disgust with the coalition’s role in the Eyre controversy explains the Cope’s Tobacco’s Painting [as noted] in Column 2, … depicting the friends of anti-slavery as insects. That painting centrally targets both evangelicals and political economists as deserving violence. Another detail, from the poster made from the painting, illustrates John Ruskin trampling an evangelical who has let go of a small paper reading “Political Economy“. Noting the imagery of the period, we know the person being trampled is an evangelical from his style of dress, including his broad-brimmed hat, and the small label reading “Cant”. Cant, or religious hypocrisy, and its synonym, humbug, were common period references belittling the evangelical movement.
Jamaican Economics: “The Queen’s Advice”
To the modern reader, the whole Eyre controversy is a bit puzzling. Why did this colonial challenge facing the governor of a small island in the Caribbean engage the passions of the English so deeply? Why did political economists get involved in what appears to be what we would call today a civil rights issue? The answers can be found in the underlying economic forces at work on the island and their implications for a wider set of issues.
Early in 1865, before the Jamaican violence occurred, a petition was put forward in Jamaica lamenting conditions for the working poor. The response was the notorious “Queen’s Advice.” According to the Anti-Slavery Reporter, which printed the petition and the response; the “Queen’s Advice” gave “rise to a great amount of angry feeling, because it was felt to cast direct and unmerited censure upon the peasantry.” (February 15, 1867) The “Advice” made the case that for Jamaica to prosper, Jamaicans needed to work harder. Here is an excerpt which echoes Carlyle’s economic views:
I request that you will inform the petitioners that their petition has been laid before the Queen, and that I have received Her Majesty’s command to inform them that the prosperity of the labouring classes, as well as of all other classes, depend, 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 that if they would use their 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. … (p. 27)
The Anti-Slavery Reporter attacked the “Queen’s Advice” with standard economic doctrine. People work when they are rewarded. They do not work for the masters of mankind just because they are the masters:
although there may be cases of indolence—as there are in all communities—the Jamaica labourer is at all times willing to work for fair wages, regularly paid. The writer of the “Queen’s Advice” must have been under the immediate teaching of a member of the West India body, full of the inveterate prejudices of his class, and glad of an opportunity to reiterate planter theory, that the negro in Jamaica has nothing to complain of, and that the West-India planter is the best and fairest of task-masters. Capricious, or non-continuous labour, is the result of capricious and irregular payment of wages, or of no payment at all. People do not care to be industrious for the exclusive benefit of those who employ them; and in no county in the world is the labour question in so anomalous and unsatisfactory a position as it is in our West-India colonies, and Jamaica especially … (pp. 28-29)8
The response continued with an elegant public choice account of Jamaican legislation, tracing the benefits that had flowed to the plantation owners:
When they could no longer command stolen labour, they regulated wages, not according to the rule which governs their rate in other countries, but according to some arbitrary standard of their own, while by their one-sided legislation they placed it practically out of the power of the aggrieved labourer to appeal against injustice when it was done to him. They next taxed the community at large for the introduction of foreign labour, and as the working classes paid most in indirect taxes, they were thus compelled to contribute the larger portion of the cost—incidental and direct—of importing coolie labourers to compete with their own in the market. (p. 29)
The blacks of Jamaica may no longer be slaves, but without true economic freedom neither they nor the Jamaican economy can thrive.
Liberty, Economics and the ‘Rule of Law’
We have seen in our first column that Carlyle linked Exeter Hall to the “dismal science” because of the common concern of evangelicals and economists for black emancipation. By the time of the Eyre controversy, this strange coalition of economists and Christians has matured in unexpected ways. The above excerpts from the Anti-Slavery Reporter expound eloquently on the power of free markets. At the same time, the economists are arguing for the importance of the rule of law. Here is a letter from John Stuart Mill from December of 1865 emphasizing the importance of the rule of law:
“Dear Sir,—I highly applaud the course which your Society has taken on the horrors committed in Jamaica, and if I were in England I should attend the meeting on Tuesday.”
“There is little danger that a Government, containing such men as some of the present ministers, will defend or uphold the savage deeds which have been perpetrated, or absolutely screen the perpetrators. But there is always danger from human weakness, there is danger lest the sympathies of a Government, with its agents, should enable the guilty to get off with mere disavowal and rebuke, or some almost nominal punishment. I earnestly hope that the nation will not allow justice to be thus trifled with, but will insist on a solemn judicial trial of the Governor of Jamaica, and of all under his orders who have been guilty of hanging or flogging alleged rebels without trial.”
“The commander of one of Her Majesty’s ships, if his ship is lost, though no one accuse, though no one even suspect him of being to blame, must, by an inexorable rule, be tried by court-martial, as if he were the guiltiest of men, that a competent judicial authority may determine whether he has committed any offence. And shall the authors of deeds which scarcely any conceivable excuse that could be made for them would prevent from being a lasting disgrace to the country, not be subjected to a similar ordeal?”
“To those who object that men ought not to be judged without a hearing, I answer, that we do not judge them; we demand that they should be judged.”
“I am, Dear Sir, “Yours very sincerely, “(Signed) J. S. Mill” (page 2)
The spirit of Mill was at Exeter Hall. Later as head of the Jamaica Committee he would speak for it. In the same issue of the Anti-Slavery Reporter contains a “Suggestion Concerning Jamaica” which argues that the coalition of political economists and Evangelicals “is quite worthy of serious attention.” (p. 19)
But, T. H. Huxley says it with even greater simplicity, three years later in a letter on the Jamaican Committee in the Pall Mall Gazette:
“unless I am misinformed, English law does not permit good persons, as such, to strangle bad persons, as such. On the contrary, I understand that, if the most virtuous of Britons, let his place and authority be what they may, seize and hang up the greatest scoundrel in Her Majesty’s dominions simply because he is an evil and troublesome person, an English court of justice will certainly find that virtuous person guilty of murder. Nor will the verdict be affected by any evidence that the defendant acted from the best of motives, and, on the whole, did the State a service.
Unless the Royal Commissioners have greatly erred, therefore, the killing of Mr. Gordon can only be defended on the ground that he was a bad and troublesome man; in short, that although he might not be guilty, it served him right.
I entertain so deeply-rooted an objection to this method of killing people—the act itself appears to me to be so frightful a precedent, that I desire to see it stigmatised by the highest authority as a crime.”
So in the middle of the 19th century we have the two great threads of modern political economy, the rule of law and the power of free markets, coming together in the name of justice. These two threads would continue to be woven together in the political economy of the twentieth century and in our own time as well.
How did the Eyre Controversy conclude? Ultimately, Eyre was recalled from Jamaica and an investigation did indeed take place. There was a Royal Commission which praised Eyre for his prompt action and then denounced the cruelty and the over-frequent executions. The Jamaica Committee decided to prosecute Eyre for the murder of Gordon. Despite the passion and eloquence of Mill and Huxley, the jury refused to indict.
- Colonial Standardquoted in the The Anti-Slavery Reporter 13 (December 1, 1865), p. 282.
- Anti-Slavery Reporter 13 (December 1, 1865), pp. 297-98.
- Bernard Semmel, The Governor Eyre Controversy,London, 1962.
- Malcolm Uren, Australian Explorers: Edward John Eyre,Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1964.
- [James Hunt], “On the Negro Revolt in Jamaica.” The Popular Magazine of Anthropology1 (1866) p. 16. Hunt’s appreciation of Carlyle is clear from [James Hunt], “Race Antagonism.” The Popular Magazine of Anthropology 1 (1866), pp. 25-6. We will encounter Hunt and racial anthropology again in future columns.
- Shooting Niagara: And After?London, 1867, p. 14.
- The Anti-Slavery Reporter13 (December 1, 1865), p. 306.
- The “Queen’s Advice” is given in Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom,Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, 1992, pp. 277-78 which is properly linked to Carlyle’s “Negro Question” at pp. 280-83.
Article from econlib.org