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Jamaica’s National Heroes: George William Gordon

George William Gordon was born in 1819 to a slave mother and a planter father. In 1834, the year slavery was

George William Gordon
George William Gordon

abolished (on August 1st), he was elected to the House of Assembly for the parish of St. Thomas. He was 23 years old. Gordon was also a leader of the Native Baptist Movement.

The termination of slavery brought freedom and the right to vote but the majority of the black population did not qualify as they could neither read nor write or afford the high fee that was required. Seeing that many had no land to farm, Gordon subdivided his own lands and sold farm lots to them as cheaply as possible. He also organized a system through which they could sell their produce at fair prices. Gordon built several churches at his own expense and ordained ministers.

When a severe drought worsened economic conditions for the people and rumors of a return of slavery began circulating, Gordon urged them to protest. As a result of his activism, Gordon developed a reputation as a critic of the colonial government and in particular, Edward John Eyre, Governor of the island.

Eyre denied the terrible conditions the people lived in when in 1865, the secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society of Great Britain, Dr. Edward Underhill, wrote to the Colonial Office in protest on their behalf. Eyre also sent his comments with another letter that was sent by farmers in the parish of St. Ann asking Queen Victoria for Crown lands to cultivate as they could not find lands on their own. The Queen’s reply that they should work harder made it clear that Eyre had influenced her.

Jamaican $10 note bearing the image of George William Gordon
Jamaican $10 note bearing the image of George William Gordon

On October 7, 1865, Paul Bogle, a Baptist deacon, led men and women to the Morant Bay Court House to protest the issuance of warrants for the arrest of several men of the area and the general conditions under whish people had to live, Gordon was not in St. Thomas and had no knowledge of the protest.

That fact notwithstanding, he was arrested and charged for complicity in what is now known as the Morant Bay Rebellion. He was court martialed illegally and, despite a lack of evidence, convicted and sentenced to death. Gordon was executed on October 23, 1865, Paul Bogle a day later.

The execution of Gordon and Bogle and nearly 500 others caused an uproar in Britain. Those who sided with Eyre, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson and others, noted his decisive action in stopping the rebellion and restoring order. John Stuart Mill, who was against Eyre, created the Jamaica Committee, which included Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and others. They called for Eyre to be tried for murder. He was charged twice but the cases never went to trial.

As a result of the rebellion, Jamaica became a Crown Colony.

In 1960, the House of Assembly, now the Parliament building, was named George William Gordon House (Gordon House) his honor.

In 1965, Gordon was accorded highest honor Jamaica bestows, that of National Hero.

In 1969, his image was placed on the Jamaican $10 note, now a coin.

Several groups such as Culture, Steel Pulse and Third World 1865 96° in the Shade have paid tribute to him in their music.