Record

CodeNA7248
Dates1815-1901
Person NameEyre; Edward John (1815-1901); governor of Jamaica
SurnameEyre
ForenamesEdward John
Epithetgovernor of Jamaica
ActivityBorn at Hornsea, Yorkshire, on 5 Aug. 1815, was third son of Anthony William Eyre.
Edward was educated at the Louth and Sedbergh grammar schools. Intended for the army, he chafed against the delay in gaining a commission. At seventeen he took money, which had been deposited as purchase money, and emigrated to Australia. He arrived in 1833, and engaged in sheep farming, at first in New South Wales and then in South Australia on the Lower Murray river.
Becoming magistrate and protector of aborigines, he in 1836 began a series of adventurous journeys through the unknown sand deserts of the interior. He was the first of the ‘overlanders,’ that is he first found a way by which to drive livestock overland from New South Wales to the new settlement at Adelaide. The most memorable of his journeys was that on which he, with white and native companions, started from Adelaide on 20 June 1840, and, all but one of his companions dropping off by the way, forced his own way, with a dogged tenacity of purpose and readiness of resource, round the head of the Great Australian Bight, through a region so utterly desolate and torrid as almost to preclude the passage of man, and with but a single companion, a native, reached King George's Sound on 13 July 1841. .
In 1843 he received the founder's medal from the Royal Geographical Society. Perhaps the most noticeable thing in Eyre's career in Australia was his exceptional kindliness, combined with firmness, toward the aborigines.
Eyre revisited England in 1845, and in 1846, chiefly because of his success in handling natives, was appointed lieutenant-governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey being governor. He held the office till 1853. From 1854 to 1860 he was governor of St. Vincent, and in 1860-1 he acted temporarily as governor of the Leeward Islands.
In 1861 he went to Jamaica to act as captain-general and commander-in-chief during the absence on other duty of Sir Charles Darling. In 1864 Darling definitely relinquished the appointment, and Eyre was confirmed as governor of Jamaica. There his experiences gave him a terrible notoriety.
The negroes of Jamaica, not long been emancipated from slavery, outnumbered the white population by something like twenty-seven to one and were seething with discontent, stirred by agitators, against the few European residents. The American war, moreover, had raised the price of the necessaries of life; and the example set by the neighbouring negroes in Haiti and St. Domingo, in setting up ‘black republics’ had made the situation with which Eyre had to deal very difficult.
On 7 Oct. 1865, in the planting district of Morant Bay in the county of Surrey, about 25 miles east of the capital, Kingston, some negroes successfully resisted the lawful capture of a negro criminal. On the 9th the police were forcibly prevented from arresting the chief rioters. On the 11th the ‘Morant Bay rebellion’ broke out, the court house of the district was burned, and at least twenty Europeans were killed and others wounded. The riot premeditated and organised, spread rapidly, and between 13 and 15 Oct. many atrocities were committed on the whites in outlying districts. Eyre called to his assistance all available naval and military officers, militia, European civilians, loyal negroes, and maroons. On 13 Oct.he proclaimed martial law throughout the county of Surrey except in Kingston. During the next eleven days he broke the back of the riot. Meanwhile George William Gordon, a coloured member of the legislature, who was long notorious for violence of speech and was believed to have instigated the rebellion, had been forcibly taken from Kingston (where martial law was not in force) into the zone of martial law at Morant Bay. There on 21 Oct. Gordon was tried by a court-martial and being convicted he was sentenced to death. Eyre, who was away at Kingston, was informed of the facts; and he confirmed the sentence. Gordon was hanged on the morning of the 23rd. He had friends, and apart from the question of his guilt or innocence of a capital offence, these at once denounced the legality of Eyre's act in allowing the man to be taken within the zone of martial law for trial and punishment. Till the expiration of martial law, on 13 November, 608 persons were killed or executed, 34 were wounded, 600, including some women, were flogged, and a thousand dwellings, mostly flimsy leaf-built huts, were destroyed. Afterwards other culprits were tried and punished under the ordinary law of the colony.
The vast majority of the Europeans resident in Jamaica were warm in their gratitude to Eyre. On 17 Jan. 1866 the legislative assembly voluntarily dissolved itself and abrogated the old popular constitution, leaving it to the home government to administer the island as a crown colony. Meanwhile the news of the riot and its manner of suppression reached England, and at first evoked approval of Eyre's prompt action; but presently passionate clamour arose from a large party, by which Eyre was held up to execration as a monster of cruelty. In turn another section of the public, with almost equal violence, made Eyre their idol. Lord Russell, the prime minister, surveyed the conflict with judicial impartiality. In December a royal commission of inquiry, consisting of Sir Henry Storks, governor of Malta, Russell Gurney, and John B. Maule, then recorder of Leeds, was sent to Jamaica, and Eyre was temporarily suspended from the governorship in favour of Storks. The commission arrived in Kingston on 6 Jan. 1866 and sat from 23 Jan. to 21 March. On 9 April 1866 the commission reported that Eyre had acted with commendable promptitude and had stopped a riot which might have attained very serious dimensions, but that he had subsequently acted with unnecessary rigour, that Gordon's alleged offence of high treason was not proved, that there was no evidence of any organised conspiracy, and that many of the court-martials were improperly conducted. The House of Commons unanimously endorsed the findings of the commission. Lord Russell's government thanked Eyre for his promptitude, blamed him for excess in subsequent reprisal, and recalled him from his government.
Eyre arrived at Southampton on 12 Aug. 1866, and was publicly entertained there by his supporters, including Lord Cardigan and Charles Kingsley, on the 21st (cf. Trevelyan's Ladies in Parliament, 1869). But for the next three years his opponents, whom Carlyle styled a ‘knot of nigger philanthropists,’ maintained unceasing warfare upon him (cf. Carlyle, Shooting Niagara: and After, Crit. and Miscel. Essays, London, 1899, v. 12). The ‘Jamaica committee,’ with John Stuart Mill as chairman, supported by Huxley, Thomas Hughes, Herbert Spencer, and Goldwin Smith, resolved on the prosecution for murder of Eyre and his chief associates in Jamaica (27 July 1866); and in September an equally influential committee, with Carlyle as chairman and Ruskin and Tennyson among its subscribers, undertook his defence. Eyre's effigy was burnt at a working-class meeting on Clerkenwell Green, and liberals and radicals lost no opportunity of denunciation. On 8 Feb. 1867 Brand, who had presided over the court-martial on Gordon, and Colonel (Sir) Alexander Abercromby Nelson, who had confirmed the capital sentence, were committed for trial at Bow Street on a charge of murder. Eyre had retired to Adderley Hall, Shropshire, and was brought before the local bench, who dismissed the case on 27 March.
Finally, at the instigation of the Jamaica committee, a negro named Phillips brought a civil action for damages for false imprisonment against Eyre (29 Jan. 1869). Eyre pleaded the act of indemnity passed by the local legislature and obtained a verdict. Mill, in his ‘Autobiography’ (pp. 298-9), justified the part which he took in the attack on Eyre, but the hostile agitation was so conducted as to create an impression of vindictiveness. Carlyle's conclusion ‘that Eyre was a just, humane, and valiant man, faithful to his trusts everywhere, and with no ordinary faculty for executing them’ was finally accepted. On 8 July 1872, after discussion in the House of Commons, the government ordered payment of Eyre's legal expenses from the public funds. In his speech at Bow Street Eyre made a very dignified protest, and after the bill had been thrown out by the grand jury he published a defence in a letter to the newspapers. It is, however, impossible to understand the quiescent attitude of Eyre throughout the tragic crisis, unless his very remarkable habit of self-reliance, as shown in the story of his Australian journeys, is taken into account. Although he was not offered further public employment he received in 1874, from Disraeli's government, a pension as a retired colonial governor.
From Adderley Hall, Shropshire, Eyre removed to Walreddon Manor, near Tavistock, where he continued to live in seclusion. There he died on 30 Nov. 1901, and there he was buried. He married in 1850 Adelaide Fanny Ormond, daughter of a captain and had four sons, all in the government service, and a daughter. His widow was awarded in 1903 a civil list pension
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