Tax Revolt in St. Mary’s, Jamaica

The Spectator of brought some somewhat stale news (brought by “mail steam-ship… with papers from Jamaica to ”) of a tax revolt:

The riots against the collection of taxes in the parish of St. Mary’s, Jamaica, reported by the last steamer, have been suppressed. At one period those rebellious proceedings assumed a formidable appearance, and so many as 500 men armed with sticks and bludgeons were collected together to prevent levies for taxes. A sergeant of Police and several men were severely hurt in one of the frays. Information had been sworn against twenty-four persons implicated in the revolt, and warrants of apprehension were issued.

So I hunted around for more information about this revolt, and found a bunch in Copies or Extracts of Correspondence Relating to the General Condition of the Island of Jamaica, of Earlier Dates than the Despatches Included among the Papers Printed by Her Majesty’s Command (1849).

Here, for example, is a letter dated from Henry Walsh, who identified himself as “Stipendiary Magistrate:”

I have the honour to acquaint you, for the information of his Excellency the Governor, that on the custos of St Mary’s making known to me that the police sergeant and his men were assaulted and beaten near Elgin Town in this parish, where they were endeavouring to execute a warrant for the apprehension of certain parties said to have committed an assault on Mr. Richard Rigg, deputy collector of taxes, and others, on , when they were levying for certain rates, I immediately proceeded to the place specified as the scene of assault (about 20 miles from Port Maria, in the neighbourhood of Guy’s Hill), for the purpose of getting correct information on the subject, and of seeing the population and dissuading them from further acts of violence, and they were reported to be in an exceedingly excited state; on my arrival here this day, I went to Elgin Town and Rose-street, and conversed with about 100 people, who assembled on hearing that I was in the neighbourhood, amongst whom, I believe, there were several of the parties against whom warrants have been issued, on the affidavits of Mr. Rigg and the police; the people were very respectful to myself, but, with considerable excitement, alleged several grievances, a note of which I annex; I am persuaded that amongst these people there is no disaffection towards the Government, beyond their disinclination to pay the tax on their rented land, as also their determination not to submit to the execution of the warrant issued for their apprehension; I do not consider our available policemen equal to enforce the warrant, and I think it to be my duty to venture this opinion; and I beg respectfully to submit further, that the utmost caution should be observed in the execution of this warrant, the neighbourhood of Guy’s Hill being thickly populated by an easily excited people, who are not much under religious influence.

Here is Walsh’s “Note of the Grievences alleged by the People”:

  1. That they have never paid taxes for rented land, and it was part of their agreement with Mr. [acting colonial governor George Henry Frederick] Berkely that the estate should pay the taxes.

    N.B. — It is understood that the taxes of Goshen Estate have always been paid to the parish of St. Ann’s, in which parish the greater part of Goshen Estate is situated.
  2. That they have never received any notice that these taxes were payable.
  3. That when Mr. Rigg and the police came to Rose-street, on , and broke open the house of Thomas Henry, he, Mr. Rigg, took out a pistol, loaded it, and threatened to shoot the people who had collected.
  4. That they had no knowledge of the appointment of Mr. Rigg as collector of taxes.

An letter from Governor C.E. Grey to the British Prime Minister tried to sum up what had happened, and noted that the government planned to make considerable concessions to the resisters. Excerpts:

It is a matter of great satisfaction to me that the mischief was arrested before it had made more progress. If the police of the district and the Goshen cottagers had been left to themselves, there would have certainly been a continued resistance and a spreading tumult; and if judicious emissaries had not afterwards succeeded in tranquillizing the fears ot the Negroes, they were prepared to betake themselves to the woods and mountains, and I am informed they had actually begun to remove their goods, stock, women and children.

By the good management of two or three persons, and the steady and judicious conduct of the officer commanding the detachment of troops the people were ultimately induced to submit themselves to the magistrates, and as it appeared there had been great indiscretion and irregularity in the proceedings of the collecting constable, the whole affair is likely to terminate in a rightful decision as to the liabilities of the cottagers to the taxes or assessments, which gave rise to the disturbance, and in the moderate punishment of a few individuals for the assaults on the police force, for which they have been indicted at the assizes which are now going on in this town.

No political feeling of any sort has been involved in these occurrences, but they make me fear that if the present system parochial assessments according to value should be made to press heavily and in a galling manner on the occupiers of small tenements and holdings of land, there will be frequent irritation amongst them, and permanent discontent and growing disaffection to the Colonial Government.

Tax collector Richard Rigg gave a deposition (conveniently, to his father, Henry Rigg) on , giving his view of what happened:

On , I went to Goshen Estate, in the parish of St. Mary, for the purpose of collecting taxes, I found that I was unable to proceed in consequence of being unacquainted with the parties and localities; I returned home, but previous to leaving I saw Mark Bloomfield, John Gordon, and Robert M‘Cormick, three parties that were owing taxes; I asked them for their amounts, and which they refused to pay, and stated that they would see how I could make them; I told them that I would return on for the purpose of levying on those parties who refused to pay the amounts that they owed. On , I attended at Gayle-market for the purpose of selling a levy that I had made for taxes, when a man named William Graham came up to me and said, that if I come to Rose-street to levy for taxes, that I would never leave there alive. William Graham resides at Rose-street, and owed taxes. In consequence of the threat and certain other information that I received, I sent over to the police station at Fellowship-hall, and requested the corporal in charge to send me two or three policemen to co-operate with me in the discharge of my duties as deputy collecting constable. On , I met privates Thomas Taylor and James Pearson, of the Ⅰ. division of police, and who informed me that they were sent by their corporal to assist me; I had two servants with me to assist in the removal of any levies that I might have made, one was named Frank Bowen, and who was mounted on a mule, and the other was William Burke, and who was riding a mare; we proceeded on to Elgin Town, which is about a quarter of a mile from Rose-street, when a man named George Riley, came out of his house to the road-side and asked my name; I told it to him; he asked if it was I that was collecting taxes, I told him yes; he then asked if I had an account against him, I told him that I could not tell, but would look, if he would tell me his name; he would not tell me his name, but told me to call over the names of the people that owed taxes, and that when I came to his name he would tell it to me; I then read over the names, but he answered to none of them; I immediately put the book in my pocket, and was riding off, when he said, “Oh, never mind my name, you go on to Rose-street, they are all ready for you there, the first levy that you make will be the last; they will murder you before you leave the place.” We rode on to William Henry’s house, against whom I had an account for taxes for ; I went up to the door and called for William Henry, but no one answered, I placed my hand against the door, and which, being fastened only by a slight latch, flew open; I entered the house and levied on two chairs, a table, two boards, a bench, and three bitts; the three bitts I handed to my servant Frank Bowen, and the other articles I put outside by the door, and proceeded to write a notice for the sale, when I observed an immense number of people coming in front of the house, and a large number stationing themselves on both sides of the road, all armed with sticks, and many of them with large stones in their hands; they immediately commenced to fire stones at us, one of which, as large as my two fists, struck me in the back; at the same time they called out that they would see how I would remove that levy, and that before we should move it, they would murder us all, and that we had best send to our friends for our coffins, as we should not leave the place alive: we immediately mounted our horses and commenced to look for the means of making our escape, when they made a general rush upon us with their sticks, and commenced to beat us, at the same time pelting us with stones. Two men laid hold of my bridle, when a large stone which was thrown at me, caught my horse on the back, close by the saddle, and caused him to spring in such a manner that he cleared himself from the parties that had hold of the bridle; I put spurs to him and gallopped through the crowd as I best could; as I was going along the parties ranged on the road-sides fired stones, and tried to lick me off my horse with their sticks, and others calling out to knock me down and murder me. In making my escape I saw my servant, Frank Bowen, knocked off his mule by William Gordon and Lewis Nugent, who commenced beating both him and the mule in the most unmerciful manner. The mule, saddle and bridle was left in their possession, as Frank Bowen had to run for his life, and I have not seen either since. Among the parties present I recognized John Gordon, William Graham, Mark Bloomfield, Robert M‘Cormick, George Riley, and Edward Francis; when the mob first came up they must have amounted to about 200 men, all armed with the sticks that I speak of; when we escaped, they must have amounted to fully 400 men, women, and children; I consider that I was fortunate in escaping with my life.

Thomas Taylor, one of the policemen who accompanied Rigg, also gave a deposition that gave pretty much the same set of facts, in the same order, and often using the same phrasing. He added that he personally had been attacked: “I tried to get through the crowd and get away, when a man named John Gordon struck me on the left side a violent blow with a heavy stick; I received two other violent blows on my back and shoulders, but I cannot tell who it was that struck me; finding that my life was in danger, I put spurs to my horse, and galloped away.” Frank Bowen gave a brief statement as well, giving his statement that Rigg’s deposition was “substantially true and correct.” Rigg’s father, on hearing his son’s testimony, issued a warrant for the arrest of those who had assaulted his son and company.

On , police serjeant Robert Menzies Anderson gave a deposition about his attempt to execute a warrant in the district . Excerpts:

…as we arrived at Luckey Hill church, I heard the alarm of shells blowing in four different directions; we proceeded to Goshen-gate, when I saw a crowd, in number amounting, to the best of my knowledge, to about 500 men and women, armed with sticks, cutlasses, and stones. I called out to them in a peaceable manner, saying that I did not come there to quarrel with any of them, that I only wanted to speak to them; when a man by the name of John Gordon said, “We don’t want to speak to you; he is the serjeant, lick him down, we know him;” I immediately gave orders to the men that were in the rear to retreat, as we would not be able to do any good; and in the act of returning, John Gordon came up and gave me a severe blow on the left side with a large stick, he also gave me another blow on the left hip; I nearly fell off the horse, when catching up myself to gallop away from the crowd, another man, whose name I do not know, attempted to lick me, the blow missed me, and caught the horse I was mounted on; the crowd followed us in a most violent manner; they shortly overtook private George M‘Kay, whom they struck with a stick, giving him a severe cut on the crown of his head, and several other severe blows on the right arm; the man who struck M‘Kay I do not know; Richard Murphy and Bryan Hume were also severely beaten. … John Godron, of the parish of St. Mary, appeared to be the ringleader; when we retreated, I distinctly heard John Gordon say, “We know you to be the serjeant,” and “you, Taylor, Pearson, and Grant we will kill.” Private M‘Kay was so severely wounded, that I was obliged to call on Dr. James Donald to attend him; he dressed his wounds. The wounded men, from the effects of their hurts, were unable to travel further than Fellowship Hall Station

A report about Henry Walsh’s visit to the area, by one A.D. Cooke, included these observations:

The Rev. Mr. Campbell, the Scotch minister, accompanied Mr. Walsh, and after conversation and entreaty on their parts, could effect nothing, the people showing every determination to meet with force any body that might be sent against them, either for the purpose of raising taxes or taking any of the men against whom warrants are out. The deposition of the serjeant of police, herewith sent, is found to be by no means an exaggerated statement; and we have the best information that the 10 men narrowly escaped being killed.…

There are only 12 men fit for duty in this parish; two severely wounded, and the rest of the little corps laid up with illness.

…I swore in about 30 special constables ; but am sorry to say many of these took the oaths with much reluctance, and others refused altogether. The present situation of this parish, therefore is, that a large and densely populated district of it is out of all control, and the authorities are totally devoid of the means of enforcing obedience to the law.

Cooke requested that the Governor send in “a company of the military [and] a portion of the police force of Spanish Town and St. Thomas-in-the-Vale.”

Another letter sent on from J.H. Steventon, “Curate of St. George’s, Guy’s Hill,” to police inspector Bennett, read in part that:

…I saw the people on Goshen Estate, and judging from what I saw and heard, I should say that if a party of police should again be sent down there, they will meet with the most determined resistance if they attempt to enter the dwelling of the people, or to arrest those who committed the late outrage upon the former party sent down there… If I might suggest any thing to you upon the subject, it would be that every means should be taken to convince them that they are resisting a legal claim, as at present they seem to think that they are unjustly taxed and ill-treated.…

Police inspector Bennett dashed off a letter to the inspector-general to complain about illness in his ranks (“For myself, I have two large biles on my seat, which prevents me from either riding or walking”) which was preventing him from taking stronger action in response to the assaults on his troops.

On , the Governor’s office responded, saying that help was on the way in the form of 25 additional police officers and a detachment of military troops. He recommended patience, saying that it would be best not to respond in any way until this overwhelming force was ready to act, and anticipating that while the government was increasing its forces, the rioters would be dissipating theirs. “The law must be vindicated, and guilty parties must be punished, but it is of little importance whether that is done to day or a fortnight hence.” Furthermore, he made this extraordinary concession:

The Governor thinks it is the more desirable to proceed in this orderly course of action, because there seems to be a little doubt whether there has not been some irregularity, or at least novelty, in the levy of taxes which it has been attempted to make in Goshen; and if matters should be carried to extremities, it would be lamentable to find, when it might be too late, that there had been any ground on which the people had a justification for their resistance.

The governor had seen the statement of grievences earlier quoted, or something like it, and he’d gone to the trouble to ask people in other districts whether there was anything to the claim that renters were not liable for the hereditament tax on the land they rented. They confirmed that this was so in their districts. “The Governor requests therefore, that… your Honour will make an exact inquiry into the imposition of the tax, and the lawfulness and regularity, and consistency with custom and usage, of the levy which Mr. Rigg attempted to enforce…” He also seemed to imply that they should not make any further enforcement attempts until this inquiry is complete.

A report from the commander of a local regiment said that although the 100 troops are “well armed and accoutred; many of them are raw recruits, and never fired off a gun in their lives until within the last six months… they principally consist of the labouring class, and could not be relied on with any certainty, if called out against their immediate friends and neighbours…” Also:

I have had information from the disturbed district at Goshen this morning; they have scouts out along the road, with shells to give notice of the approach of the police or any other force that may be sent against them; when they can collect, within less than an hour, a body of 1,000 men from the neighbouring townships and estates, all ready prepared for the worst.

A follow-up letter from Henry Walsh to the Governor, dated , included the results of his own investigation. Excerpts:

I am afraid that it will be ascertained that Mr. Rigg, Deputy-Collector of taxes, did not furnish the people with a copy of their accounts agreeably to the [law], previous to breaking into Thomas Henry’s house; as also, under the same [law] (if they were amenable to the tax), it is questionable whether St. Mary’s had a right to lay the tax on them, as the greater part of the estate is in St. Ann’s, and the estate of Goshen has always paid the tax to the parish of St. Ann’s; on the whole, Mr. Rigg acted most injudiciously.

However, A.D. Cooke, who decided to take charge of the official inquiry, quickly rebutted this in a letter :

The lands are in Saint Mary; they have given these in as tax-payers in Saint Mary, and they have paid these taxes for several years back. Mr. Shaw, who was attorney for Goshen, informs me that the parties renting during his management were distinctly informed that they would have to pay taxes, and he got the same written off the taxes of the general estate; I have just looked into the parish books and find the ringleaders have of themselves given in an account of their taxable property to the vestry, they consequently are looked upon as coming under the [law].

A letter to Cooke from the Governor’s office on said that “there is a grave question, whether Mr. Rigg was authorized to make the levy… and consequently whether he was not a trespasser on the occasion of his attempting to make the levy” and that this must be determined before any proceedings can be taken against those who resisted him. The Governor had appointed a Mr. Dakyns to conduct an independent inquiry (somewhat pointedly dismissing Cooke’s appointment of himself to do the job), with the understanding that he was trusted by the resisters and that he might be able to convince them that an impartial inquiry would solve their problems and that they could go back to being law-abiding.

Henry Walsh wrote to the Governor on to give his updated appraisal. He said that the resisters were repentant of their assaults on the police, but that it was increasingly clear that Rigg had exceeded his legal authority when he was on his levying mission. A follow-up from Walsh, dated said that in fact 16 of the 24 people indicted had voluntarily surrendered to Walsh, who had himself put up bail for them.

T.H. Dakyns sent in his first report to the governor on . He expressed confidence that the people had calmed down in the face of his inquiry. He also gave his initial take on their grievance:

With regard to the taxes I would beg your Excellency’s attention to the written statement of Mr. Seller, one of the Justices of the Peace, and one of the Assessors for St. Ann’s, which Mr. Myers took; and I think the perusal of it will convince that St. Mary’s parish has established no right to the taxes; that the taxes in dispute as payable by the tenantry have been already paid by the proprietors of this estate to the parish of St. Ann (which a reference to the receipt of the collecting constable would show), and that there is reason to believe that even the common forms prescribed under the Acts were not complied with, when Mr. Rigg, junior, ventured upon the settlement to break the gate of one tenant, to force open the door of the house of another, and that in his absence, and to arm himself and his assistants against the people with pistols, which he loaded in their presence.

This extreme indiscretion of conduct (which I am credibly informed can be proved), during the period of what are termed the holidays of is in my humble opinion the origo mali of the whole of this unfortunate affair.

Next comes the second act, which I cannot but characterize as equally indiscreet, the issue of a warrant to apprehend 24 men from among a population smarting under a sense of wrong committed upon them, and that to be executed by a force of only nine policemen on a market-day. Surely Mr. Rigg, senior (himself, as I am told by good authority, interested in a pecuniary point of view in the matter of the collection of the taxes), might have foreseen the result.

Presuming that warrants must issue against those who are described as having attacked the police when endeavouring to execute the warrant of Mr. Rigg, senior, it will be difficult to make such persons understand that they have been guilty of a graver offense than that of Mr. Rigg, junior, in breaking open a house, and his other acts of violence, or that the one offence is punishable summarily before the magistrates; whilst, on the other hand, the people, or perhaps more properly, the individual directly aggrieved, may be left to seek a remedy by an action of trespass against Mr. Rigg; and, in effect, the body of the people, who are also aggrieved by his conduct, left without the means of obtaining what they term “satisfaction.”

He warns that if this is the result of the proceedings, the government will have to give up hope “of inculcating in the minds of the people a reverence for the laws and constituted authorties.” Instead, they will “return to their homes sullen and disappointed, with a regret that they had not pursued their own course, which was to secrete themselves in the woods, and thus evade the police, probably for months, instead of being satisfied that there is the same means of redress open to all classes of Her Majesty’s subjects.”

He was also the first to note the odor rising from the fact that the tax collector and the judge who then took the testimony about the assaults on the collector and his posse and who issued the warrants against the resisters were son and father — though he doesn’t explicitly say this, he refers to the two as “Mr. Rigg, junior” and “Mr. Rigg, senior” throughout his letter in what I interpreted as a pointed manner.

Unfortunately, the documentation gives out here without showing us how the inquiry turned out or how (or whether) the government decided to proceed against either Rigg or those who put up a fight against him.

browse«»
Find Out More!

For more information on the topic or topics below (organized as “topic → subtopic → sub-subtopic”), click on any of the ♦ symbols to see other pages on this site that cover the topic. Or browse the site’s topic index at the “Outline” page.