King's College London
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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

Edward Underhill

Title page, from: Edward Bean Underhill. A letter to the Rt Honourable E Cardwell, with illustrative documents on the condition of Jamaica and an explanatory statement. London: Arthur Miall, [1865] [FCO Historical Collection F1886 UND]Title page, from: Edward Bean Underhill. A letter to the Rt Honourable E Cardwell, with illustrative documents on the condition of Jamaica and an explanatory statement. London: Arthur Miall, [1865] [FCO Historical Collection F1886 UND]Jamaica’s sugar industry, already in financial trouble, all but collapsed following emancipation. The worldwide price of sugar was falling, many planters were heavily in debt and, faced for the first time with the need to pay their workers a full wage, they were often unable to keep their businesses running, let alone invest in modernisation.

Moreover, estate labour was hard to come by; many former slaves did not wish to continue working on the estates, preferring to grow their own crops on their own land, settling as rural subsistence farmers in the hills, where new villages sprang up. The planters hoped that immigration might solve the labour shortage, but attempts to attract European immigrants to Jamaica were largely unsuccessful.

The decline in the sugar industry combined with a rising population, lack of investment by the British government and increasing pressure on land for cultivation to bring the island to a crisis point in 1865.

A former Oxford grocer, Edward Underhill was secretary to the Baptist Missionary Society. On a visit to Jamaica he became deeply concerned at the plight of much of the black population. In the pamphlet on display, an open letter to the colonial secretary, Edward Cardwell, he compiled data on poverty, wages, crime and unemployment levels.

He also suggested measures that could improve the lot of the poor: political representation, investment in roadsand basic services and modernisation of agricultural production to provide crops for export.

Underhill’s letter was publicly denounced by the governor of Jamaica, Edmund Eyre, who later accused him of inciting revolt. In October 1865 an armed crowd led by a local Baptist preacher, Paul Bogle, marched to Morant Bay, the capital of St Thomas parish, and rioting broke out. Eighteen persons (magistrates, Maroon volunteer force soldiers and white planters) were killed by the rioters.

Eyre put down the unrest with brutality; 600 men and women were flogged and over 400 executed or otherwise killed, including the prominent Baptist minister, George Gordon, who was in Kingston at the time but was taken to Morant Bay to be court-martialled and hanged.

In Britain there was considerable outrage at such harsh reprisals. A royal commission was appointed to investigate Eyre’s handling of the crisis and he was dismissed from his post. The British government subsequently adopted many of Underhill’s recommendations; roads were built and smallholders were encouraged to cultivate the banana as an export crop, a development which was to pave the way to increased prosperity.

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