Roots | George William Gordon

Irie Magazine | Roots | George William Gordon

George William Gordon

October 23, 1865

George William Gordon (1820 – October 23, 1865) was a wealthy mixed-race Jamaican businessman, magistrate, and politician, one of two representatives to the Assembly from St. Thomas in the East Parish. He was a leading critic of the colonial government and the policies of Jamaican Governor Edward Eyre.

After the start of the Morant Bay rebellion in October 1865, Eyre declared martial law in that area, directed troops to suppress the rebellion, and ordered the arrest of Gordon in Kingston. He had him returned to Morant Bay to stand trial under martial law. Gordon was quickly convicted of conspiracy and executed, on suspicion of having planned the rebellion. Eyre’s rapid execution of Gordon on flimsy charges during the crisis, and the death toll and violence of his suppression of the revolt resulted in a huge controversy in Britain. Opponents of Eyre and his actions attempted to have him prosecuted for murder, but the case never went to trial. He was forced to resign. The British government passed legislation to make Jamaica a Crown Colony, governing it directly for decades. In 1969, the Jamaican government proclaimed Gordon as a National Hero of Jamaica.

Gordon was elected from St. Thomas-in-the-East parish as a member of the House of Assembly. He earned a reputation by the mid-1860s as a critic of the colonial government, especially Governor Edward John Eyre. He maintained a correspondence with English evangelical critics of the colonial policy. He also established a Native Baptist church, where Paul Bogle was a deacon. Although this was unknown at the time, in May 1865 Gordon attempted to purchase an ex-Confederate schooner with a view to ferrying arms and ammunition to Jamaica from the United States of America.

In October 1865, following the Morant Bay Rebellion led by Bogle, Governor Eyre ordered the arrest of Gordon, whom he suspected of planning the rebellion. By order of Eyre, Gordon was transported from Kingston, where martial law was not in force, to Morant Bay, where it was. Within two days Gordon was tried for high treason by court-martial, without due process of law, sentenced to death, and executed on the 23rd of October.

The execution of Gordon and the brutality of Eyre’s suppression of the revolt, with hundreds of Jamaicans killed by soldiers and more executed after trials, made the affair a cause célèbre in Britain. John Stuart Mill and other liberals sought unsuccessfully to have Eyre (and others) prosecuted. When they were unable to get the cases to trial, the liberals worked to bring civil proceedings against Eyre. He was forced to resign from office but never went to trial.

In the 20th-century aftermath of the labor rebellion of 1938, Gordon came to be seen as a precursor of Jamaican nationalism. The play George William Gordon (1938) by Roger Mais was about his life.

In 1960 the Parliament of Jamaica moved into the new Gordon House, named for the politician.

In 1969, Gordon and Bogle were each proclaimed as Jamaican National Heroes in a government ceremony at Morant Bay.

In 1969, Jamaica converted its currency to a decimal system, and it issued new currency. Gordon was featured on the ten-dollar note (now a coin).

George William Gordon is mentioned in the song ‘Innocent Blood’ and also ‘See them a come’ by the reggae band Culture. He is noted in the song ‘Silver Tongue Show’ by Groundation, ‘Give Thanks and Praise’ by Roy Rayon, ‘Prediction’ and ‘Born Fe Rebel’ by Steel Pulse, and ‘Our Jamaican National Heroes’
by Horace Andy.