The Wrong Side of History

Posted on 10/12/2015
By Commonwealth Foundation
Centenary Morant Bay Rebellion, photo by Mark Morgan

I wonder if my white-ish face will be welcome at this march. It is the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay rebellion, a war waged by black peasants in the post emancipation years against the white planters who refused to see their suffering. Paul Bogle was a Baptist deacon who led an army of men and women to the Morant Bay courthouse, where they were met by the militia and ordered to disperse. In the ensuing violent confrontation, eighteen officials, including the Custos, were killed, along with seven rebels. The retaliation ordered by Governor Edward Eyre was swift and terrible. Martial law was declared, hundreds were executed, many without trial, and over 1,000 homes were burned to the ground. Our walk will end at the burned out court house where these events unfolded and there will be a reading of the 469 names of those who died as martyrs. In the circumstances, I am surprised that any names were recorded, but the English like their records.

I’m with two friends, Carol and Jeanette. We leave the main coast road at the entrance to the town of Morant Bay and wind our way up to Spring Garden, where there is a football field for parking. It’s a cool, humid morning and people look sleepy. The Kingston people come in cars; the ones from St. Thomas walk. There are farmers in overalls, Rastafarian men in bright robes, women in Kente cloth wearing elaborate headties, even a man in a European suit and tie.

We ask at a nearby house if we can use the bathroom before the march and the woman at the front door readily agrees. Her bathroom is full of buckets – she has had no piped water for a week. She apologises to us for not tidying up; we tell her it does not matter.

The march starts, somewhat raggedly. I want to call out: but this is not Stony Gut! We have to do it right, we have to start from the right place. Stony Gut is just up the road – one of the villages razed in 1865. I want to see what is there now. I don’t say anything.

The march sets off. We are brought to a stop twice, once so we can assemble behind a banner and a second time for a marching band, which has arrived late. The band strikes up “When the saints go marching in” and I understand why armies have marching bands, but I want silence and solemnity, perhaps the slow beat of old drums.

I was born in Jamaica, and I’m light skinned and green eyed. For most of my life, I believed I was not descended from a plantation family. My paternal great grandfather was a Baptist missionary from Scotland, I told those who asked. I knew almost nothing about my mother’s family, only that her father was English, died when she was young and left many debts. Then, last year, I was contacted by a New Zealand film company doing a television series called DNA Detectives and they had traced the roots of celebrity chef Ray McVinnie to our family. Sitting at the Liguanea Club with my newly discovered cousin, I learned that, indeed, my mother’s ancestors had been plantation owners.

My five-times great grandfather was David McLean, the son of a Portuguese Jew called Hananel d’Aguilar and an enslaved West African woman named Nancy McLean. Hananel owned a tobacco plantation at Mason Hall in St Mary on Jamaica’s north coast, and he spread his seed with enthusiasm – having at least ten children with three different women on the island, as well as six children with his wife in England. Hananel freed David McLean in 1792, when he was only nine months old. Two years later, he freed David’s mother, Nancy, and provided a bond of 500 pounds for her support. Nancy’s manumission papers describe her as a “mustee” so she must have been light skinned. David grew up and married Mary Ann Kentish, who was also the child of a white plantation owner and an enslaved African woman. I imagine these people’s faces as overexposed photographs, becoming paler with each generation.

As we walk down the road from Stony Gut to Morant Bay, I see a large blue and white sign advertising road repairs by a Chinese engineering firm – these signs are all over Jamaica, the road works long completed, the roads already reverting to their customary potholed state. The sign says “Middleton.” I am walking through what was David McClean’s plantation in the parish of St. David, now St. Thomas.

We are on the grassy flood plain of the Morant River, cleared long ago. Plantations needed a source of water and I see a hand painted sign saying River Road. There’s no real town, no settlement, and I wonder if I’m in the right place. I can’t stop to ask, but I know David McLean’s eyes saw the hills of this river valley when he woke up in the morning. This was where he lived, he and his wife and their nine children, and the slaves he himself came to own. You can find his name in the British Legacies of Slave Owning Project – in 1835, he had 45 slaves at Middleton and he was paid 925 pounds Sterling 19 shillings and pence in compensation for their loss.

The road flattens and we begin to enter Morant Bay. Because we stopped to talk to a journalist, the march is well ahead of us. I start to tell David McLean’s story to Carol, who is walking with me. I want to come back another day to find where he is buried, I say. He’s buried in the old Anglican church in Morant Bay. There’s an old church, she says, pointing. Let’s look. It’s starting to rain anyway.

The brick ruin is situated within the grounds of the St. Thomas infirmary, but no one objects to our visit. The graves are cracked and overgrown and only a few headstones can be read. I find one with the date 1822 so I know the timing is about right. I scrape the dirt off some graves – I know he is here. But I do not find his grave. I am angry with the authorities who let places like this fall into ruin, obliterating what they signify. I also feel the turning circle of generations; there is comfort in the thought that nature reclaims humanity’s creations, ignoring its hubris and cruelties. David McLean is nothing now.

He was murdered in January 1851. At the time he was the Clerk of the Vestry, essentially the senior position on the local planning authority for St. David. He was also the Coroner. This period was a time of ferment in Jamaica, 13 years after emancipation. Only male landowners could vote. The plantations were failing – in the parish of St. David, now St. Thomas, 70% of the sugar plantations had been abandoned by 1854. Blacks were slowly acquiring land, which gave them the ability to vote for black people to become vestrymen. There was widespread starvation among the aspiring peasantry, there had been drought, floods and outbreaks of cholera. Food prices had risen due to the American Civil War. The response of the authorities was to raise taxes on the workers and reduce them for the planters – between 1840 and 1865, taxes on clothes, saltfish, herring, mackerel, donkeys, horses and canoes were increased or introduced, while duties were removed from plantation supplies, taxes were reduced on plantation lumber and rice and only roads leading to Great Houses or plantations were repaired under the Main Road Act of 1857. In this atmosphere of desperation and unfairness, David McLean figured prominently in the successful rigging of votes in an 1851 election in favour of a white landowner from Kingston. He was stoned and beaten to death by irate voters. According to University of the West Indies historian Dr. Swithin Wilmot, he was Jamaica’s first casualty of election violence.


By 1865, Middleton Plantation was owned by W.M. Anderson, Esq. and had been abandoned for many years. Some of it had been subdivided and sold. A man named Lewis Dick moved onto a section of the old plantation and he was arrested for trespass. The people of the communities near to Middleton considered the old plantation theirs. Lewis Dick was convicted by the courts in Morant Bay and Paul Bogle, along with other emerging black leaders, objected. A warrant was issued for the arrest of 28 people, including Bogle. When the police tried to arrest Bogle at Stony Gut, a crowd routed them. This and other trespass cases in the context of widespread starvation and landlessness were precipitating events for the Morant Bay rebellion.

It starts to rain in earnest while we are still some distance from the courthouse. We consider sheltering in a gas station – but I’m hot and I don’t mind getting wet. When we get to the crowded square, the rain eases. The courthouse is a facade – a monument – built on a small hill. There are cannons at the back, looking out to sea. Weapons of war and conquest are so easily preserved, I think. There’s a monument to those who were killed in the rebellion, where the last bones were recovered in 1965. The men and women who were shot or hanged were buried in a mass grave.

The sun is out now and I long for a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice in a cool, dim place. I sit under a calabash tree near one of the cannons and I look out to the sea which brought the Spanish and English ships. I hear drumming starting and slowly the morning takes on the atmosphere of a street festival – people selling ganja, grater cake, peanuts, Irish moss drinks, coconut water. I go in search of Jeanette and Carol.

At the front of the court house, Rastafarians in robes of red and black and yellow wave flags and the drumming goes straight to my blood. A man stands right next to me, in army green robes, he’s fierce, he holds a cane cutlass, the kind with the squared off end, and our eyes meet. He does not smile or nod to me. The reading of the names of those who were murdered starts, including the manner of their deaths – shot, hanged, flogged, unknown. It is “unknown” that bothers me most.

On the way back to Kingston, we drive down a faint track through a canefield and I think about how this crop has persisted despite its terrible history. We come to the St. Thomas coast, not the white sand beaches and calm waves of other parts of Jamaica – this coast is wild and rough and mostly still unspoiled. Jeanette wades into the surf in her clothes and plays in the waves and Carol sits on a piece of driftwood under an almond tree. I stare out to sea and try to make sense of it all.

What does this all mean for me, a Jamaican on the wrong side of history, still here, still privileged, with this heritage, in this year, the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay rebellion? I feel no impulse to hide my ancestry. Nor do I feel shame. What I feel is sorrow that modern Caribbean people sprang from genocide, conquest, forced displacement and slavery. I feel the strongest of bonds to this land where my history and its history have unfolded, old connections to its people in all their banality, cruelty and heroism.

It all happened here. I am the descendant of a slave owner and a man born in slavery who became an owner of slaves. The New Zealand TV company sent my DNA for testing – I am Northern European and West African, as are most Jamaicans – only the percentages differ. I want to ask: who is white and who is black? Where is home? I expected the roughly 10% of my DNA to be West African – but there was a tiny percentage from East Africa too, which I take to be evidence of the ancient origins of human beings, a testament to the length and breadth of our journeys. I want to talk about these bloodlines with other Jamaicans. I want to find these places, all of them, Mason Hall where Hananel d’Aguilar first lived, Duckworth where May Ann McLean was in 1831, and surely, even a single stone from the foundations of David McLean’s family house survived somewhere near that Middleton sign?

Choice exists only in the present. There were other choices that were possible in the post emancipation era, choices to educate and bestow land on the former enslaved, to right two-hundred-year-old wrongs, but we did not make those choices. The Great Houses have crumbled, but so have the small farms and Jamaica is rapidly urbanizing. It is still a violent place, a country of manifest unfairness and inequality. Standing on that St. Thomas beach, the wind in my face, my clothes almost dry, I wonder: can we make different choices now?

Back in the car, we share our food. And I’m glad I marched from (almost) Stony Gut to Morant Bay in memory of those who fought for a better life against my ancestors. It was a symbolic act, yes, and it cost me nothing, but it feels important to acknowledge those who fought and died, to remember their origins, their sacrifice and to do it here.

On the return journey to Kingston, the sky clears completely. For now, the rain is done.

Morant Bay Landscape
Morant Bay, St. Thomas, Jamaica. Photo by Dubdem e FabDub

Diana McCaulay

Writer In Residence; Commonwealth Writers; Diana McCaulayDiana McCaulay is an award winning Jamaican writer and environmental activist, resident in Kingston. She has written two novels, Dog-Heart (2010) and Huracan (2012), published by Peepal Tree Press in the United Kingdom. Both novels met with critical acclaim and have broken local publishing records.