Long before modern-day Jamaicans inhabited the parish, other peoples moved among the forests and grasslands of St. Thomas. The history of human settlement in the parish stretches back as far as 650 AD when the Taino people reached our shores.
Archeaologists have unearthed Taino settlements at Spanish Wood, Retreat, Belvedere, Cambridge Hill and Yallahs. But little is left of these early settlers apart from their graves, some pottery and the refuse they left at their dump sites.
With no form of writing, much of what is known of the Tainos comes from accounts of early Spanish explorers.
The Spanish first reached Jamaica in 1494 when Christopher Columbus reached the North Coast. Effective Spanish colonization began in the early sixteenth century.
The Spanish arrival had a devastating effect on the Tainos. The forced labour policy of the Spaniards disrupted their society while new European diseases decimated their population.
The Spanish occupation of the island lasted just over a century and a half, during which Jamaica remained an unimportant colonial outpost. It lacked the large quantities of precious metals that would have made it attractive to many Spanish settlers.
Jamaica was used largely to provide fresh produce for passing ships as well as a source for hides and lard to Cuba.
Evidence of the country’s economic role can be seen in the settlement pattern of the parish. The first Spanish settlers in St. Thomas established cattle ranches at “Morante” (later to be called Morant Bay) and at Ayala (now Yallahs).
“Morante is a large and beautiful hato (ranch), being four leagues (20 kilometers approx.) in length, consisting of many small savannahs and has wild cattle and hogs in very great plenty,” General Robert Venables said about Morant Bay, the year his army conquered the island for England.
With a small population and weak defences, Spanish administration collapsed within a week of the arrival of the English army on May 10, 1655. The local Spanish administration surrendered the island, and many colonists fled, but armed resistance continued for another five years, relying on the support of freed slaves, and the backing of the authorities in Cuba.
Still, after over a century and a half, the Spanish left no enduring mark on the parish apart from a few place names.
The English established a system of military government to stave off the threat of Spanish attempt to recapture the island, but this threat gradually diminished.
One year after the English conquest in 1655, residents of other colonies were invited to settle in Jamaica. Small numbers of settlers from New England, Bermuda and Barbados took up the offer. St. Thomas proved most successful in attracting settlers when in December 1656, Major Luke Stokes, Governor of Nevis, along with his family and some 1600 other colonists, settled in the Morant Bay area.
In a matter of months, two-thirds of the colonists (including Major Stokes and his wife) died of fevers. Stokes’ children survived to become the owners of large plantations at Stokesfield and Stokes Hall.
St. Thomas was also the site of the most serious attempt of a foreign power to take the island from the English. Jean du Casse, a French buccaneer who was also Governor of Santo Domingo, landed a force of over 3,000 men at Morant Bay in 1694.
For over one month, Ducasse and his party destroyed plantations, burned sugar mills, murdered colonists and kidnapped hundreds of slaves. Although the bustling harbour of Port Morant was guarded by Fort Lindsay on Morant Point and Fort William on the other side, these proved ineffective against du Casse.
With a fleet of three warships and 23 transports, du Casse dominated the seas around the island. After ravaging the parish he embarked his men on the small fleet and sailed for Carlisle Bay in Clarendon where stiffened resistance eventually forced him to withdraw his forces from the island.
In later years, bands of Maroons settled in the St. Thomas mountains and eventually joined with those in Portland thus forming the “Windward Maroons.” They would play a critical role in the events that were to unfold.
The history of St. Thomas is now most popularly associated with the events of 1865 – events which led to Jamaica’s irascible Assembly being dissolved and the island’s status being changed to that of a Crown Colony.
George William Gordon, a member of the local Assembly, was an advocate for improvements in the conditions of the peasantry. A mixed-race businessman, his actions were bitterly resented by the white plantocracy, which saw its position being threatened by drought, as well as low world sugar prices and high import costs due to the ongoing US Civil War.
With tough external market conditions, plantation owners wanted to keep the local labour force firmly in line and dependent on plantation work. With rising unemployment and a disgruntled black peasantry, the ruling elites had the full backing of Governor Edward John Eyre in enacting harsh legislation against petty offences.
Additionally, the entire judicial system of the island, except for the Supreme Court, was in the hands of prominent citizens, rather than trained lawyers. So the peasantry also had to deal with a justice system in which their interests were not served.
Paul Bogle, a Baptist deacon from the district of Stony Gut, led a group of people from the surrounding areas to the then capital, Spanish Town, petitioning the Governor for an improvement in the conditions of the peasantry.
Bogle’s delegation had to trudge 65 kilometres back to Stony Gut, as no official would see them. Bogle, who had originally received strong support from Gordon, then began to train his followers in the use of arms. After several disturbances occurred, a warrant for his arrest was issued.
The ultimate clash came on October 11, 1865, when a riot in front of the Morant Bay Court House resulted in the killing of the Custos and fifteen others. This has come to be known as the Morant Bay Rebellion.
Martial law was declared by the Governor, and the warship, the ‘Wolverine,’ dispatched to Morant Bay from Kingston. The Morant Bay Rebellion led to a week of killing and house burnings under the cover of martial law.
Over 430 men and women were executed under the martial law provisions. Scores of others were murdered without the benefit of trial by bands of Windward Maroons operating on behalf of the colonial government.
George William Gordon, who was not in the Parish at the time of the uprising, was illegally taken aboard the Wolverine and carried to St. Thomas where the martial law provisions applied. After being tried and sentenced to death, he was hanged in front of the Morant Bay court-house. Bogle was also hanged on the same day, and both bodies thrown into a mass grave behind the building.
As a result of the atrocities carried out by the colonial forces under his authority during the Morant Bay Rebellion, Governor Eyre was relieved of his post and recalled to England. There he was tried, convicted and dismissed from the Colonial Service. A striking statue of Paul Bogle stood before the Morant Bay Courthouse, a testimony to Bogle’s fight for freedom.
Under pressure for Britain’s Colonial Office and terrified of further peasant uprisings, the Legislature surrendered the Constitution of the island. Jamaica to become a Crown Colony, ruled by a British appointed Governor rather than the local Legislature.
One positive result of the change brought about by the Crown Colony Rule was a rationalisation of the parish structure of the island to improve administrative efficiency and cut costs. The modern-day parish of St. Thomas emerged in 1867, from a combination of the parish of St. David and St. Thomas-in-the-East. Morant Bay emerged as the joint capital while the St. David capital, Easington, shows few signs of its former prominence.
Those events of over a century ago have made Paul Bogle and George William Gordon National Heroes to modern Jamaicans and made Stony Gut and Morant Bay names which stir powerful emotions.