Chapter 10. Dissenters and Insurrection in Westmoreland

uring the last quarter of the eighteenth century, members of nonconformist sects had been increasing in number in Britain. The majority of their leaders viewed slavery as immoral, and, in many instances, the members became part of the Anti-Slavery Movement, which was growing in momentum. In a widely-read pamphlet, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had said that slavery was “the execrable sum of all Villainy.” It followed that the British West Indian colonies with their large slave population, which up to this point had not heard the Christian gospel, would be an obvious mission field for both Baptist and Methodist Dissenters. In 1754, a few Moravian missionaries had started work on some estates in the parish of St Elizabeth and in Westmoreland on Mesopotamia estate, where there were 300 slaves. However, only “a very small portion”, says Monk Lewis in 1815, “were Christian converts.”

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In 1783, George Liele, a remarkable freed black man who was born in Virginia, and was literate, came with his family to Jamaica. Previously, he had been a licensed preacher in Georgia. His employer, Col. Kirkland, a British officer, who was evacuating British troops to Kingston at the end of the war with the Americans, allowed the Lieles to travel with him. Later, Liele began his mission, preaching on the race course in Kingston. One of his converts was Moses Baker, a free mulatto, also literate. Baker eventually went west to minister to slaves on properties of a Mr Vaughan near Montego Bay. It was through the appeal of Baker, now elderly, that the Baptist Society in England eventually decided to send missionaries to the island, where already some 8,000 persons had become Baptist in the intervening years, since Liele and Baker had begun their ministry. A young Baptist couple, the Rev John Rowe and Mrs Rowe. who arrived in Montego Bay on February 23, 1814, were sent to work with the aging minister.

Native Baptists, including women, had been making converts whereever they went.

10.1 George Liele Among them, a leader was often referred to as a “Daddy.” There was a tendency in some

of their groups to look for direction, not only from the Bible, but also from “the dream.”

The other group of nonconformists which was to have a great influence on Jamaica in the period leading up to the abolition of slavery was the Methodists. The Rev Thomas Coke, who was the first Methodist minister to arrive in the island, began his work in Kingston in 1789 and later ministered in Port Royal, Spanish Town and the parish of St Thomas-in the-Vale. Much of their ministry in the towns concentrated on free blacks and coloureds. By 1831 the Methodists had missions in Hanover at Ramble, one of their earliest stations, and at Lucea.

Dissenting missionaries from the time of Liele, Baker and Coke had never been popular with the Establishment in Jamaica and every impediment was put in their way, both legal and bureaucratic, to impede and frustrate their efforts to communicate with the slaves. As early as 1815, Monk Lewis, in his Journal from Cornwall, Westmoreland, wrote that he wished to have nothing to do with the Methodists and was quick to blame them for a slave disturbance that had occurred in St-Thomas-in-the-East.

When in 1823 the British government promulgated a new policy for the amelioration of the slaves, the old colonies like Jamaica took great exception to the ruling, even threatening to align with the United States where slavery was still firmly established. As Philip Curtin, the historian, points out, “The planters were so busy defending slavery that they failed to plan for freedom.” The abolitionist movement in Britain, however, was insistent and with the retirement of William Wilberforce from Parliament, Thomas Fowell Buxton, who was equally adamant to the cause of abolition, took his place.

In 1824 news would have filtered through to the people of Westmoreland of what had taken place in the adjoining parish of Hanover where a revolt took place on four estates – Argyle owned by Neil Malcolm, and Silver Grove, Golden Grove and Ramble owned by William Hudson Heaven. The authorities took the uprising very seriously and four companies of the 92nd Regiment were sent by warship to Savanna-la-Mar on stand by. The uprising was speedily put down by the militias of Hanover, St Elizabeth and St James, as well as the forces of the Western Interior Regiment. Within a month of the suppression of the

Argyle Rebellion, as it came to be called, all its leaders were executed.

10.2 Baptist Missionary Group – William Knibb third from left standing, Thomas Burchell fourth from left standing.

The Baptist minister the Rev. William Knibb and his wife. from Kettering, Yorkshire, England, had been in Jamaica for some time teaching in Kingston and preaching in Port Royal. The couple’s health, however, had not been good and they were happy to accept the kind invitation of the Burchells, another Baptist couple, to spend some time in Montego Bay, and so in September 1827, the Knibbs went to Montego Bay, which William found to be “the most interesting station in the island.” Returning to Kingston, William Knibb continued to teach until he resigned his post in September 1829 and went to help the new mission station in Savanna-la-Mar, which Thomas Burchell had just started. At the service of dedication on June 7 there had been 23 founding members. Before that, Burchell had started Fullersfield, the first Baptist mission in Westmoreland.

Knibb had a house in Great George Street; but he had only been there a short time when he received his call to start a mission in Falmouth. In the week after Easter 1830, when he had gone to make arrangements for his move to Falmouth, he got word that some of his church members in Savanna-la-Mar had been arrested.

In his book, Knibb, ‘the Notorious,’ 1803-45, Philip Wright has provided us with an account of the trial, which William Knibb had hurried back to Savanna-la-Mar from Falmouth to attend. The accused were brought before two Justices of the Peace, one being David Finlayson, Custos of the parish and Speaker of the House of Assembly. They were being charged under the clause of the Slave Code which prohibited slaves from preaching or teaching without a licence.

Richard Pessoa told the magistrates that on Easter Sunday, and several previous evenings, he saw meetings of slaves and free persons “engaged in preaching, teaching, and singing psalms and hymns” in Knibb’s house and they made great noise and disturbance to the annoyance of the neighbours, keeping it up until nine or ten o’clock each night. The persons present were one white woman, five free coloured women and six slaves, one of whom was Samuel Swiney, a Baptist deacon. Mary Vanhorne had taken the most active part in the service, officiating as minister and giving out the hymns after which followed prayer, alternately by Sam and Diana Swiney. The statements of Pessoa were confirmed by his witnesses.

For the defence, Knibb produced three witnesses, including his next-door neighbour, and the head constable of the parish who said that they had been “troubled by no noise.” Mr Aaron Deleon, described as a respectable man of colour, told the magistrate that he had given his slave, Samuel Swiney, permission to attend the meeting but his statement was brushed aside angrily by Finlayson, who said that permission had not been given in writing and so was of no account.

The question was, could Swiney’s utterances at the meeting be construed as preaching? Pessoa had stated that he had made incoherent expressions such as “O Lord, Lord God, Jesus my Saviour, O God et cetera” but Finlayson was determined to construe the words as preaching as he had said it “out of his head and not out of a book.” At a point when he pronounced Swiney guilty of preaching, William Knibb intervened to explain that among Dissenters extempore prayer was customary, whereupon Finlayson became more furious and threatened to take away Knibb’s licence. He and his colleague then convicted Swiney of preaching and teaching “at improper hours in the evening to slaves and free persons.” Swiney was sentenced to two weeks of hard labour in the workhouse, and 20 lashes.

On the following morning most of the inhabitants of Savanna-la-Mar must have come out to see the spectacle of Samuel Swiney being flogged. Knibb recounted the scene as follows:

There he was, a respectable tradesman, though a slave, stretched indecently on the ground, held firmly down by four slaves, two at his hands and two at his feet. The driver was merciful or every lash would have fetched blood. “O what have I done,” was the only exclamation which escaped from his lips, accompanied by a moan extorted by the pain. He was raised from the ground, chained to a convict and immediately sent to work. I walked by his side down the whole bay, to no small annoyance of his persecutors. Amidst them I took him by the hand, told him to be of good cheer, and said loud enough for them all to hear, ‘Sam, whatever you want, send to me and you shall have it.’

News of the incident occasioned the Governor of to remark that Mr Knibb had turned the sentence of the magistrates at quarter sessions “into a triumphal procession through the streets of Savanna-la-Mar.”

There was a growing belief among black and coloured people in western Jamaica that freedom had been granted by the authorities in Britain and that the planters were keeping them enslaved. Among the large Baptist congregations, this belief was reinforced by the fact that a ticket system had been introduced by the Baptist ministers; those in regular attendance at meetings were ticket holders and this many equated with a ticket to freedom. There were some slaves who believed that the Rev. Thomas Burchell had gone to England to fetch their “free paper.”

“Daddy” Sam Sharpe, a slave, who was a deacon and preacher in the Baptist Church, had met with various slaves at Retrieve estate – a strategic spot in St James; in close proximity to the parishes of Hanover and Westmoreland – and had planned that right after the Christmas holidays, when crop was to start, a strike would be staged and no one would go back to work unless they were paid. The taking of life and the destruction of property appears not to have been in the original plan.

There had been many rumours of uprising and in Kingston at Headquarters House, Sir Willoughby Cotton, chief of the forces in Jamaica and a veteran of the Peninsula War in Spain and Portugal, was already on the alert to send soldiers by sea to the west, to Montego Bay.

The first sign of unrest had been an incident in St James on December 16, 1831, involving William Grignon, and a woman stealing cane at Salt Spring

10.3    Former Savanna-la-Mar Baptist Church in flames

estate, north east of Montego Bay. His attempt to have the woman whipped turned into a hostile demonstration against him.9 On December 27, the great house at Kensington, south east of Montego Bay, was burned down, the owners barely escaping. By New Year’s Day some 14 estates were torched. In the early days of the uprising, the insurgents had the upper hand. At first, the fighting was around Belvedere and Montpelier in St James; in the second phase, Greenwich in Westmoreland became the rebels’ stronghold. The strategy of the authorities was to try to contain the rebellion in the county of Cornwall and Cotton himself sailed in HMS Sparrowhawk accompanied by the Blanche with 300 soldiers of the 33rd and 84th regiments. Naval craft with detachments of regulars were sent to Black River and Savanna-la-Mar. Martial law was declared, and the militia of all four parishes of the county of Cornwall went on active duty.

Sitting in 1992 on the verandah at Chester Castle with its spectacular view of gently rolling countryside, the late Ian Cooke, told the interviewer several family stories of the rebellion. His great grandfather, Thomas McNeel, who hailed from Whitehorne in Galloway, Scotland, was Custos of Westmoreland and member of the militia. Besides owning the Caledonia property in Westmoreland, McNeel was also the attorney for several estates in the parish.

Ian Cooke pointed out a chapel in the distance and the pass through which the rebels came to attack the great house. He told how the slaves broke into the rum kegs, drank off all the rum and marched on the great house after they had burned the trash house. The butler who saw them approaching, cried out “My silver, my silver,” rushed into the house, wrapped up the family silver in table napkins and ran away and hid it in a cave. Thus the family silver was saved, but the Chester Castle house, which was at that time owned by the Hiltons, relatives of the Cookes and McNeels, was burned down by the rebels and the driver beheaded.

Ian Cooke also recounted the story passed down to him through his ancestors of how on Christmas Eve 1831, an old slave, on Caledonia estate, came to Thomas McNeel and said:

“Squire, I have something to tell you, the Caledonia slaves are planning to rise, they are planning to kill you, your wife and your children and burn the house as a signal for the slaves in Westmoreland to rise.”

‘Ring the slave bell’, ordered Thomas McNeel. The bell was rung and the slaves gathered together to be addressed by him.

“I hear that you are supposed to rise in rebellion and that you are going to burn my house and there is nothing I could do to stop you. But as we speak there is action being taken in England that assures your freedom. My advice to you is to go home, for if this thing occurs which you plan there will be grave sorrow. Go home and do nothing. Your freedom is assured.”

This happened at 4.00 p.m. on Christmas Eve and the slaves gave their word and not a property belonging to Thomas McNeel, said Ian Cooke, was torched during the rebellion. And the message of the drums went out as far as St Elizabeth to Enderslie, 25 miles away, that nothing should touch the property of the McNeels. “And so our lands were saved,” concluded Ian Cooke.

Grignon, now in the role of Colonel of Militia for Cornwall, complained of the lack of support from the Westmoreland militia who were supposed to be advancing up the road from the south with their firearms but had not changed their clothes for four or five days. As the tight order of social precedence on the estate carried over into the militia, their servants were carrying their change of clothes and had been blocked off by the rebels. Grignon and his men fell back along the road towards Montego Bay and occupied the sugar works at Montpelier. In an engagement with two companies of the rebels, who were led by Captain Johnstone and Charles Campbell, who was killed on the spot, the militia held their ground, but in the morning, after a council of war, decided to retreat. This meant that the road to the south was cut and the interior abandoned to the rebels.

10.4    Estate and works on fire 1832 – Adolphe Duperly

The Maroons were ordered to cover the Great River from Chesterfield to Duckett Spring so that the Company of Robert Gardiner, a rebel leader, could be prevented from entering Westmoreland. At Knockalva, Anthony Whitelocke fought against the rebels while St Elizabeth’s regiment, along with a company from Westmoreland, moved up to Struie. Here at Struie still stands a lone monument to Obed Bell Chambers, late Private of the Light Infantry Company. It was erected in his memory by the officers and men of the 6th Battalion. The stone dated 3rd (?) Jan 1832 reads:

Obed Bell Chambers fell to an Ambush of Rebellious Slaves

near this spot by whom the deceased was cruelly butchered.

A brave life here (?)

And died a Soldier and an honest man (?)

Bernard M. Senior, who had property in the west, and was in the St James militia, claimed in his account of the rebellion that there were allegations of widespread rape of white women. One case was established without doubt. Senior tells at length of “an enterprising and spirited young man,” Lyndon Howard Evelyn, a custom officer, and hence exempt from joining the militia, who was responsible for rescuing a number of white women who had been kidnapped and hidden in an abandoned sheep-fold in the woods  some 16 miles away from Savanna-la-Mar. Evelyn’s company of 25 men had been sanctioned by the authorities to assist wherever needed: to protect the town, and private property, escort prisoners or scour the woods for rebels.

In the second phase of the insurrection, the rebels gathered in great force at Greenwich Hill in Hanover but later moved to Cow Park, a more strategic place in Westmoreland. It was the property of a Mr J. Whittingham.

Driven into the mountain strongholds, the rebels for a time were in control in St James of a number of estates. In Westmoreland, Prospect, the former residence of Col. Angus McCail, also became a rebel stronghold. from which parties went out into the New Savanna Mountains burning Welshpool, Woodstock, Darliston, Clantarf, Hopewell, Richmond Hill, and many other estates. Robert Gardiner (also spelt Gardner) first Lieutenant to Daddy Sharpe, was their leader. Wearing a uniform with a cocked hat, he exhorted. the rebels to remain steadfast at all costs. Eventually, the combined forces of the regiments, militias and Maroons scattered the rebels at Cow Park.

Bernard M. Senior provides a full, if biased, account of negotiations which took place between the rebel leader, Robert Gardiner and Thomas McNeel, who got a message from Gardiner asking him to come alone to a lonely spot in a wood and meet with him. McNeel’s fellow planters warned him not to go, but disregarding their advice he went. Seeing Gardiner’s sword lying on a wall, McNeel placed his there also. In the ensuing conversation which was very forthright, Gardiner asked if he could be guaranteed a pardon for himself and his colleague, Captain Dove, if they handed themselves over to the authorities. McNeel explained that he himself had no power to grant Gardiner a pardon for that rested solely in the hands of the Governor, Lord Belmore, who was in Savanna-la-Mar at that very moment. Dove and Gardiner were taken to the gaol in Savanna-la-Mar. and were brought before Lord Belmore, but many weeks elapsed before the trial. During this time the Anglican minister, the Rev Stewart, interviewed and interrogated Gardiner on several occasions. Belmore returned to Kingston and by June had left the island for Britain. Eventually, Dove was sentenced to the hulks on the River Thames in London and Gardiner was executed in Savanna-la-Mar.

10.5  “Interview between Gardiner (the Rebel Chief) and Lieu McNeel at the entrance of a wood”

What transpired in those intervening weeks between Robert Gardiner’s arrest and execution will never be known. Another story related in 1992 by Ian Cooke of Chester Castle, Hanover concerning his great grand father, Thomas McNeel. may fill in some of the gaps. Although this fragment of oral history relates to a rebel called Quaco/Quakoo, it leaves room for us to ponder on his identity.

“Squire,” said one of Thomas McNeel’s slaves to him one day, “Quaco send you a message.”

He went on to tell McNeel that Quaco said that if on such and such a date and such and such a time he came unarmed and unaccompanied to the place where the four roads cross in the Cornwall Mountains that he, Quaco, would surrender.

The other planters warned McNeel not to go but he said, “Yes, I know him, and if he says that he wants me, I am going,” So McNeel rode to the spot on the date specified and arrived at the appointed time. There was dead silence and all of a sudden, the bush parted and there stood Quaco.

“Morning, Squire,” said Quaco and the woods erupted with armed men, “I have decided that I am going with you to Savanna-la-Mar.”

Ian Cooke continued his story, “Thomas McNeel assured Quaco of his fair trial. When they reached “Sav” there was no trial as martial law had been declared and Superintendent Quarrell had Quaco hanged. Because the word of McNeel had been broken by Quarrell, the European people would have nothing to do with the Quarrell family and eventually they left the island. ”

Ian Cooke’s version is corroborated by R. F. Williams, who in his biography, R.F. Looks Back, says that he learnt from his cousin Percy Cooke of Bethel Town that Tom McNeil Snr was told that “if he would ride alone and unarmed to Quacco’s camp in a very rough place behind Knockalva, Quacco would stop further raiding, come with McNeil and surrender on the understanding that he, Quacco, would be given a free pardon. McNeil did as requested but warned he could guarantee no more than promise to say a good word for him to the government. Quacco came back with McNeil and surrendered and was handed over to Quarrell who was head of the police in the district, and who had previously owned Q Cottage. Quarrell then proceeded to have Quacco tried and hanged in spite of McNeil’s pleading.” R.. F. Williams was told by Percy Cooke that his uncle, Thomas McNeil, told him that planters and negroes alike, were so indignant with Quarrell’s action that he was boycotted by everyone and had to leave the country. Today, at Kew Park great house, are two bronze wagon-wheel boxes which are now used as door stops for the living room. On each are deeply incised letters “R Q.” “These items,” writes R. F. Williams, “are all that remain of the Quarrells.”

At Enfield, once the property of the Williams family, two bullet holes now in a doorframe of the new Enfield house, were once in the doorway of the old bungalow, and are said to be the ones made by the bullets that killed Lieutenant Patrick Madget, whose tombstone is within one hundred yards of the house.

The rebellion had the support of the great majority of slaves in St. James and Hanover, and considerable support in western St Elizabeth, and some parts of Trelawny. In upper Westmoreland there was also strong slave support. Before his return to Headquarters, the Commander in Chief of the forces, Sir Willoughby Cotton, toured the estates between Montego Bay and

Savanna-la-Mar and was satisfied to see that in many places slaves were back at work, and on some estates had continued working as usual throughout the disturbances with black drivers in charge without a single bookkeeper or overseer present. In spite of Cotton’s urging, the white men were slow to return to their posts, being engaged more to their liking with the militia.

Returns of loss of property and damages were compiled and sent to the House of Assembly.

For the parishes of the County of Cornwall the costs in pounds, shillings and pence were as follows:

Parishes Estates £ s d
St James 104 611,990 0 0
Hanover 40 395,29 15 0
Westmoreland 35 23,847 0 0
St Elizabeth 20,528 9 7
Trelawny 4,960 7 6

By April 1832, the uprising had been more or less suppressed. Sam Sharpe surrendered sometime in April and was incarcerated in the gaol in Montego Bay. His trial took place on May 19. Found guilty, he was sentenced and shortly after midday on Wednesday, May 23, 1832, he was hanged in the square in Montego Bay that now bears his name.

The Sam Sharpe Rebellion has been referred to as the Jamaica Baptist War and individuals like Bernard Senior were extremely hostile towards Thomas Burchell and William Knibb, who they saw as the first cause of all that had happened in December 1831 and the early months of 1832. Angry planters seemed determined to take the law into their own hands to crush the dissenting missions. They welcomed the formation of the Colonial Church Union which in the summer of 1832 passed a number of resolutions in defiance of government authority. The Union was actively wrecking chapels and pulling down houses.

There were occasions when Dissenters inadvertently got caught up in the insurrection. One unfortunate incident involved the young Baptist minister, the Rev Mr Francis Gardner, who had taken over from Mr Knibb in Savannala-Mar. On December 27, 1831, having set off to Montego Bay to greet the Rev Burchell on his return from England, Gardner was stopped by a group of rebels and in his anxiety to appease his captors he gave them money and may have given the impression that he approved of their actions. A slave named Philip reported him and based on this accusation, he was arrested. On another occasion Gardner found himself in gaol with William Knibb based on Samuel Stennett’s false statement that he had heard Burchell and Gardner inciting the slaves to rebel. Gardner did not remain long as minister in Savanna-la-Mar, he was driven out and the church burnt down.

In 1832 the Rev Kingdon came to take Gardner’s place in Savanna-la-Mar, but one night in August a mob was at his door battering it down. Baptist ladies upstairs threw boiling water from the windows, shots were fired, one or two people were hurt and arrests were made. The Rev Kingdon and his family were hustled away in a canoe and his Baptist followers had to go into hiding in the morass. When Governor Mulgrave, who was on tour of duty in the west, arrived in Savanna-la-Mar, he was surprised to find the Colonial Church Union’s flag flying over the gaol. A detachment of troops was quickly sent for to remove the offending flag and restore order and authority.

The Rev John Hutchins and his wife arrived in 1834 in Savanna-la-Mar and it was to them that the Knibbs sent their eleven-year-old son, William, to board. for a year. Mr Hutchins set about erecting another church but it stood for only one year before being burnt down again. It was rebuilt in 1840.

And so it was that the Dissenters survived both insurrection and persecution, emerging more respected and confident in their stand which they had taken against the institution of slavery. In 1845, in his forty-third year, William Knibb died at Kettering, Trelawny. In the decade following the insurrection the church membership of the Baptists grew from about 11,000 to 30,000 with some 21,000 inquirers, while the Methodists increased from 12,000 to 23,000.

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