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date: 22 October 2021

Jamaica Committeefree

(act. 1865–1869)

Jamaica Committeefree

(act. 1865–1869)
  • R. W. Kostal

Jamaica Committee (act. 1865–1869), was formed on 19 December 1865 to finance and co-ordinate remonstration against the ruthless suppression under martial law of a violent uprising among the black peasantry at Morant Bay, Jamaica. On the intercession of Jamaica's colonial governor, Edward Eyre, scores of alleged rebels had been subjected to court martial, brutal corporal punishment, and summary execution. Among the executed was George Gordon, a leading Jamaican assemblyman and landowner. The first meeting of the Jamaica Committee was organized by the leading evangelical activists and philanthropists of Exeter Hall, London, notably, Louis Chamerovzow, Charles Buxton, and Frederick Chesson, working in alliance with the radical parliamentarians John Bright, Peter Taylor, and Thomas Hughes, the barrister and president of the Reform League Edmond Beales, and the ubiquitous Unitarian champion of reform causes, the solicitor William Shaen. The radical barrister and labour activist Frederic Harrison, his friend the historian E. S. Beesly, and the Scottish barrister John Gorrie also attended the first meeting and ultimately assumed important roles in the committee's work. Upon electing Buxton to the chair, and Taylor and Chesson as executive officers, the committee passed resolutions calling for a thorough public inquiry into the use of martial law in Jamaica, and for the criminal prosecution of wrongdoers.

The first tangible action of the Jamaica Committee was to dispatch John Gorrie to Jamaica to monitor the work of three royal commissioners (Henry Storks, Russell Gurney, and J. B. Maule) sent to Jamaica by Earl Russell's government to investigate the causes of the Morant Bay uprising and the circumstances of its suppression. At its second general meeting the Jamaica Committee resolved to retain the barristers Edward James QC and James Fitzjames Stephen to draft a memorandum of law concerning the legality, or otherwise, of the proclamation and implementation of martial law in Jamaica. In January 1866 the JamesStephen memorandum (Case: ex parte Jamaica Committee) was published as the first of a series of pamphlets that came to be known as the Jamaica Papers. The JamesStephen memorandum contended that while 'the suppression of revolts by military force was undoubtedly legal' the 'subsequent punishment of offenders' by drumhead courts martial undoubtedly was not (Kostal, 51). The punitive measures taken by Eyre and his senior military officers in the field were in fact grave criminal transgressions that might be prosecuted in England under English criminal law. The memorandum concluded that Edward Eyre and his field commanders were legally culpable for a long list of serious, in some instances capital, crimes. Armed with this credible legal opinion, the Jamaica Committee resolved to press the Russell government to prosecute Eyre and his subordinates for the torture and murder of George Gordon and other British subjects under the false authority of martial law.

When the Jamaica royal commission issued its final report in June 1866 the Russell government cashiered Edward Eyre but declined to assign legal responsibility or initiate criminal prosecutions. By this time John Stuart Mill, MP for Westminster, who joined the Jamaica Committee upon his return from France in January 1866, had begun to assert himself as its dominant personality. It was Mill's conviction that the Jamaica affair raised an issue of fundamental importance. As he recalled, 'The question was, whether the British Dependencies, and eventually, perhaps, Great Britain itself, were to be under the government of law, or of military licence' (Mill, 281). Within the Jamaica Committee Mill became closely allied with John Bright in proposing to finance, commence, and sustain the private criminal prosecution of Edward Eyre for the murder of Gordon. After an acrimonious general meeting on 9 July 1866, Mill and Bright prevailed over those committee members (led by Charles Buxton) who believed that the prosecution of Edward Eyre for murder was a dubious course morally, and, in any event, doomed to fail. When the prosecution initiative carried the day, Buxton resigned the chairmanship and Mill was elected in his place.

The Jamaica Committee now vigorously advanced its prosecutorial mission, fortified by the personal and financial support of a long list of mid-Victorian luminaries, including Thomas Huxley, Charles Lyell, Goldwin Smith, and Henry Fawcett. Although he did not take an active role, Charles Darwin also subscribed to the Jamaica Committee fund. Over the next two years Mill proved unyielding in his determination to dedicate the entire resources and prestige of the Jamaica Committee to the criminal prosecution of Edward Eyre and the military men who had committed atrocities in Jamaica under the banner of martial law, this insidious 'arbitrary power—the rule of force subject to no legal limits' (Kostal, 168). In Mill's view the Jamaica atrocities, if they were not decisively condemned in the high courts, represented a perilous threat to British liberty and constitutionalism.

When Eyre arrived in Southampton in August 1866 his many influential supporters in England (Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin prominent among them) were so much alarmed by the prospect of his criminal prosecution that they organized the Eyre Defence Committee. Carlyle was elected to the chair, Ruskin his second. They were joined (among others) by the novelist and historian Charles Kingsley and his brother Henry Kingsley, the historian J. A. Froude and the explorer Sir Roderick Murchison. Alfred Tennyson and Charles Dickens both pledged their names and financial support, as did the physicist Sir John Tyndall. When soon thereafter Carlyle became too ill to carry on as chairman his place was taken by the Conservative politician and former naval officer Henry John Chetwynd Talbot, eighteenth earl of Shrewsbury.

In January 1867, unable to locate Edward Eyre, the Jamaica Committee commenced the private criminal prosecution of two military men recently returned from service in Jamaica, the army officer Alexander Abercromby Nelson, and the naval officer Herbert Brand. Nelson and Brand had been members of the court martial that had condemned and hanged George Gordon in October 1865. The prosecution brief was accepted by James Fitzjames Stephen, who began proceedings against Nelson and Brand at Bow Street on 6 February 1867, the presiding magistrate directing the case to the Middlesex grand jury. Meanwhile, in March 1867, the Jamaica Committee tracked down Edward Eyre to a country residence near Market Drayton, Shropshire, and commenced criminal proceedings before the county's rural magistracy. On Eyre's behalf the defence committee retained Hardinge Giffard QC (later Lord Halsbury), a steadfast Conservative. When he opened the prosecution Stephen startled observers when he complimented Eyre as a brave man who, although he had plainly broken the law, had acted honourably in the face of perceived emergency. When Eyre was ultimately discharged by the magistrates, Stephen fell out of favour with the Jamaica Committee. Mill was especially perturbed that Stephen had publicly praised the very man who had been appropriately censured and now prosecuted for having overseen the illegal execution of Gordon and many other innocents. The friendship between Mill and Stephen, once close, was irrevocably damaged by this incident.

In April 1867 the grand jury of Middlesex heard the Jamaica Committee's case against Nelson and Brand. The Jamaica affair was a cause célèbre, and no less a judicial eminence than Sir Alexander Cockburn, lord chief justice of the queen's bench, interceded to put the charge. Before taking the bench Cockburn had established a leading place on his assize circuit (western) and in parliamentary politics (reform whig). He was notoriously fond of the grand occasion. His long and convoluted charge to the grand jury in The Queen v. Nelson and Brand, nearly six hours in delivery, denounced the doctrine of martial law as anathema to Britain's ancient commitments to liberty and the rule of law. Cockburn sternly condemned the 'startling proposition' that the invocation of something called 'martial law' might immunize an official of state from the strictures of law and legal accountability. In Cockburn's view the court martial operated by Nelson and Brand had had no legal authority to try or execute George Gordon, a civilian who had surrendered to the authorities. Although Cockburn's charge was not free of equivocation, he urged the jurors to indict Nelson and Brand for the murder of Gordon. Unmoved by Cockburn's charge, the grand jury refused to find a bill of indictment, and Nelson and Brand returned to their military duties.

The legal travails of Edward Eyre, however, were not over. Once again Mill prevailed on his colleagues to press ahead with new criminal charges. In February 1868 the Jamaica Committee, this time advised by the barrister and former solicitor-general (under Lord Russell) Sir Robert Collier, started a second prosecution of Eyre for murder. When this initiative was rebuffed on technical grounds, still new criminal charges were proffered against Eyre for malfeasance of office under the Colonial Governors' Act. In April 1868 criminal process was issued by a London magistrate, and on 2 June The Queen v. Eyre was sent to the grand jury of Middlesex. On this occasion the jury was charged by Sir Colin Blackburn of the queen's bench. While the criminal charges differed from those proffered against Nelson and Brand, the legal character and import of martial law remained at the core of the case. From the outset of his charge it was clear that Blackburn's comprehension of these issues differed markedly from those of his chief justice, and he provided the grand jury with ample reasons to decline indictment. This they did. But not only had Blackburn's charge deviated from Cockburn on the law governing martial law, but Blackburn also intimated that its legal propositions had been previously reviewed, and indeed endorsed, by the chief justice. In the aftermath Blackburn's charge so infuriated Cockburn that he took what was widely regarded as the unprecedented step of denouncing it at the next sitting of the queen's bench. While the Jamaica Committee had again failed to secure the criminal indictment and trial of Edward Eyre, it had succeeded in causing a serious rift in the nation's premier common-law court.

Blackburn's charge in The Queen v. Eyre was a serious blow to the Jamaica Committee, and to J. S. Mill's personal prestige as its leader. The principal goal they had striven for—a decisive court precedent limiting the ambit of martial law—continued to elude them. In July 1868 the committee published a final statement justifying its dogged, and what many observers believed vindictive and self-defeating, persistence in its criminal prosecutions of Edward Eyre. Admitting that it had not succeeded in all its aims, the committee pointed to the grand jury charge of Chief Justice Cockburn as 'a lasting barrier against the encroachment of martial law and its upholders on the rights and liberties of British subjects' (Kostal, 417).

The affairs of the Jamaica Committee were unceremoniously wound up in the spring of 1869. Some of the remaining money was voted to Frederick Chesson to cover his out-of-pocket expenses. The remainder was given over to William Shaen to help defray the legal expenses of Alexander Phillips, a black Jamaican who had commenced civil litigation against Edward Eyre for torts committed against his person and property during the suppression of the Morant Bay uprising. In the result, however, this litigation too proved unsuccessful. But while the Jamaica Committee failed in its attempt to establish a decisive precedent concerning the illegality of martial law, it succeeded in engendering the Victorian era's most prolonged and fertile debate concerning military and political power and the rule of law.


  • J. S. Mill, Autobiography (1873)
  • B. Semmel, The Governor Eyre controversy (1962)
  • C. Hall, ‘The economy of intellectual prestige: Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and the case of Governor Eyre’, Labour/ Le Travail, 22 (1989), 167–96
  • R. W. Kostal, A jurisprudence of power: Victorian empire and the rule of law (2006)