An Irish overseer’s account of the Jamaican slave revolt (1831-’32)

According to his autobiography, Benjamin McMahon was born in Ireland and migrated to South America in 1818 to enlist as a soldier in Simon Bolivar’s army of liberation. In 1819 he left this station and migrated to Jamaica where he worked as a bookkeeper and overseer. He lived there for eighteen years and was employed on twenty four different plantations. Dr. Karst de Jong’s doctoral thesis on The Irish in Jamaica during the long eighteenth century (2017) includes a case study of McMahon.

De Jong analysed McMahon’s account as one aimed at an abolitionist audience and he traced how “his experiences at the lower echelons of white settler society illustrated the Irish presence in the plantation economy and their relationship with the institution of slavery in the early nineteenth century.” This included gaining employment on Jamaican plantations due to making connections with Irish planters, speculators and settlers, and also missing out on work on one occasion because of anti-Irish prejudice. McMahon even claims that he experienced a brief period of unemployment in early 1820s after his critical views of how slaves were treated became known. By the time he left the colony in the mid-1830s and began to write his autobiography he clearly despised the planter class and was avowedly anti-slavery. McMahon’s narrative, paradoxically for one formerly employed as an overseer, is an anti-slavery one throughout, and his account of the slave rebellion is thus wholly sympathetic, despite the fact that he was part of the militia which brutally suppressed it.

Jamaica, December 1831

Hopewell Estate, Trelawney.

The first day I was able to leave my room, and appear at dinner, was in the Christmas week ; it was the awful period at which the rebellion (as it was called) broke out. Shortly after sitting down to dinner, we were startled by the sound of a horse galloping into the yard; the rider instantly entered, calling out,

“The negroes are up in rebellion, and are burning all before them in St. James’s and Hanover; every man must immediately join his company.”

This intelligence was like an electric shock on our company; a dead silence followed for several moments; all pale and ghastly; eating our dinner was out of the question, but I could not help laughing at their agitation and cowardice. At last, all prepared to go down to Falmouth, and the overseer ordered me to join them, aU though scarcely able to walk from my room. The negroes were very attentive to me, assisted in my preparations, and lifted me on my horse;
when I rode away, they took charge of my clothes, &c. during my absence. Change of air and good nourishment very rapidly restored me to health.

Martial Law, 1832.

I shall not pretend to enter into a minute account of the rise and progress of the fatal insurrection amongst the slaves at this period, but will briefly mention some of the principal incidents which occurred under my observation, and some which came to my knowledge from the most authentic sources. On Friday, the 30th of December, three companies of the Trelawney regiment, to which I was attached, were ordered up to Good Hope Estate, about eight miles from Falmouth; here they mounted guard. On the very first night I had an opportunity of witnessing the courage of the valiant heroes of the militia, who were as bold as lions when torturing the poor slaves with the whip.

I was a sentry on guard, and about ten o’clock at night a crash was heard near the guard-house: the instant it took place the officers, who were standing outside near me rushed into the guard-room, terribly alarmed, and bolted themselves in, leaving me alone outside! After this there was a profound silence for nearly fifteen minutes. I went to the place whence the noise proceeded, and I found it was caused by a drunken comrade, who had tumbled against a rotten paling, which had given way under the weight of his body! Such is the courage of tyrants, when apprehending the revenge of their persecuted victims!

On Sunday, New-year’s day, martial law was proclaimed, and we were ordered up to Golden Grove Estate that same night. In endeavouring
to go there by a shortcut, the night being exceedingly dark, we lost our way; and after stumbling over one another for some hours, we were obliged to return, and take the main road. It was a providential circumstance that this detention occurred, because it was settled that we were to have surrounded the negro houses, and in that case the slaughter of the innocent and defenceless people would have been tremendous. As it was, we did not reach the estate till daylight.

As we approached, I observed them running out of their houses in great confusion; the militia then rushed forward, and commenced firing in every direction on the unarmed and unresisting negroes, men and women, old and young, indiscriminately. The ground was fortunately exceedingly uneven, which favoured the escape of the people. One of the head drivers, who had
been protecting his master’s property all night, was shot through both thighs; another man, who was going to his work with a hoe on his shoulder, was shot through the head, and fell dead on the spot. Two or three others were reported to have been shot, but I saw none but these two. So wild and ungovernable was the fury of the militia-men in seeking to destroy the poor negroes, that, in their haste and confusion in running about the negro houses, firing in all directions, it was a miracle they did not kill one another. Some of the poor people rushed down to the overseer’s house, and claimed his protection. He behaved very properly, remonstrated with the cowardly ruffians, and succeeded in stopping the carnage.

It must be remarked, that the negroes on Golden Grove had committed no offence, they had taken no part in the insurrection, but had been quietly
pursuing their labours ; but they were suspected of some intention that way, on a mere idle rumour of the evening before. By this outrageous act they were driven into the woods. After this exhibition of folly and wickedness, we returned to Good Hope. That night Captain Brown, our commanding officer, in a drunken fit visited the guard-room, and put us through our manoeuvres in a place scarcely large enough to hold us.

He addressed us as follows

“‘ Men! we have got a challenge from the rebels. Men! won’t you follow me? Men ! won’t you die with your captain? Your captain will die with you! Now, prime and load — make ready — present — fire! Now, port arms — charge bayonets!”

On this the men rushed with their bayonets to the opposite side of the room, and ran their bayonets through the window, and smashed the panes of glass. These drunken freaks were common throughout the disturbed district, and at
these times a score of resolute men would have been able to destroy a hundred of these braggart militia-men. The next morning we were marched to Bunker’s-Hill, and surrounded the houses at day-break. There was only one man in the negro village, and as he came out the whole company fired at him, and killed him on the spot. An old woman scarcely able to crawl was found, and dragged before the captain, who demanded where the negroes had gone, &c. She declared her ignorance, on which this Captain Brown took his sword, and laid on the poor old woman with all his strength, using the flat side of his sword. After this we passed through several estates, which we found deserted, and we came to Dromily Estate, where the alarm was given that there were rebels in the Cane-piece.

The militia was formed into line, and a rustling being at the moment observed in the canes, a volley was fired, by which several cattle, which were the cause of the alarm, were shot. We were then ordered to search the Cane-piece: while I was engaged in this duty, I found a stout able negro, with a cutlass in his hand, crouching down among the canes. No one being near, I said to him in a low tone, “lie down where, you are, and do not move, I won’t touch you, but if you attempt to come near me with your cutlass, I’ll shoot you.” The
poor man expressed his gratitude in dumb show with his hands ; immediately afterwards several others of the militia passed close to where the man lay, but did not see him. I pretended that I heard a noise in another direction, so as to
draw them off, and thus the poor fellow escaped. After this fruitless search, the head ranger of the estate was called, and asked where the people were concealed. He pointed out a place where he supposed they might be; we marched to the spot, but found no one ; it was not to be expected that the people would remain to be butchered in cold blood.

The valiant militia then fell upon the poor ranger; the officers beat him with their swords, and several of the men in the most brutal manner struck the man with the butt end of their muskets, and smashed his head and face, the poor fellow calling out, “ O Lord! I beg you will shoot me one time !” He
was not, however, quite killed then, but was afterwards taken to the bay, and hanged. After this we again returned to Good Hope. Every day afterwards we were sent on short excursions amongst the neighbouring estates, to find out any of the poor blacks to put to death, but without effect; they knew that no mercy would be shown, and therefore kept out of sight.

Some days afterwards we were ordered to march to St, James’s. We came to Barrett-Hall estate, the property of Mr. Speaker Barrett. In approaching the estate we met a man on the road, who became terrified at our appearance,
and jumped over a wall to escape; the whole company immediately fired upon him; he was struck but rose again, and ran, bleeding ; again he fell, rose up again, and several times fell and rose, running a few paces each time — the militia still firing on him.At length, one of the troopers sprang over the wall, went up to the poor creature, and began to hack and chop him with his sword, but without killing him; when finally, one of the others finished the brutal tragedy, by shooting him through the head.

None of the people on Barrett-Hall had left the estate. They were all called out, and ranged in a row, the men separate from the women. The major (Dr. Neilson) demanded of the head driver, who it was that pulled down the Proclamation that had been posted on the door of the works. He denied any knowledge about it. Major Neilson then ordered the company to direct their pieces at the driver, and if he offered to move, to blow his brains out. Neilson then addressed the gang, and said,

“If they did not point out the man who had done it he would shoot them from right to left…’’

and turning to the driver once more, he demanded “who it was” the driver immediately pointed out a fine handsome young fellow as the delinquent. In
an instant Neilson gave the fearful order —

“take that fellow to the rear, and shoot him.”

He was seized, and had just time to call out, ‘’O, Lord, massa, don’t kill me,” when just as he passed the rear rank, a blood-thirsty wretch, named Watson, anxious to be foremost in the work of death, levelled his gun close to my breast, the muzzle within six inches of the poor man, and fired; the ball passed through his wrist, then into the mouth and through the back part of his head, and he fell dead without a groan!

The scene that followed beggars description. The poor slaves were overwhelmed with terror; some threw themselves on their knees, and raised their hands to heaven, under the impression that the slaughter of the whole was intended; the women and children screamed fearfully, and the whole
of them in the most piteous manner begged that their lives might be spared. After some fierce threats of vengeance in case of any thing going wrong, we were drawn off, and returned to Bounty -Hall.

On the way we were divided into small parties hunting for negroes — it reminded me of a pack of harriers on the scent after hares. We met with no one on whom to gratify the planter’s thirst for blood. The next place we visited was Leyden Estate, where we slept for one night. Next morning, when preparing to march, one of the privates named Donald McDonald, was missing— be had gone to the negro-houses for the purpose of plunder, &c. While there, he met with a woman, whom he deliberately shot through both legs, at her own door — he then robbed her of various articles, such as gold rings, &c. This infamous outrage was committed with perfect impunity. McDonald is now head-constable at Falmouth, at a salary of £300. a year.

These robberies upon the poor negroes were common throughout martial law. On one occasion our company visited Georgia Estate, which was quite peaceable, the rebellion never having spread thus far. The militia called there to see if the people were at work, and found them all right. Notwithstanding this, they deliberately killed one of the men, and destroyed all the pigs, poultry, &c. that they could find, in the most wanton manner; they then commenced ranksacking the negro-houses, and robbed the people of their clothes, and every valuable thing they could carry away. One of the privates found in the house of one of the tradesmen eight doubloons (£42.) in gold, and took possession of it. Lieutenant Neilson (who was afterwards my
overseer) heard of it, and had it taken from the private: what Neilson did with it I know not, but it was never restored to the poor slave.

From this time to the end of martial law, the incidents which occurred were not such as require minute description. We were sent out every day in small parties to look for negroes, but they had retreated to the woods, and kept
out of our way. One day a man was observed concealed in a high tree; he was killed by a shot, without a word being spoken to him. On the following day, in our march we fell in with five men, who ran off the moment they perceived us: the whole company fired on the fugitives, and destroyed two of them. Three days before the termination of martial law, I got leave of absence to return home, as the overseer Kennedy had died of fever since I left the estate.

I will now mention a few facts which, although I did not witness them, were related to me on the most unquestionable authority. At the commencement of the insurrection, when all the white people left the estates, a person named Jones, an engineer tradesman on Chester Castle, who was sadly addicted to liquor, was left drunk in his room. The rebels came to the estate, surrounded the buildings and set fire to them. While they were burning, Jones was discovered, and was dragged out unhurt; some of the people called out, “don’t hurt him, he never trouble poor nega!” They got him his hat, his arms, ammunition and accoutrements, and delivered them up to him, without
abstracting a single cartridge.

He could scarcely walk, he was so drunk ; but they led him to the gate and pushed him outside, and told him to go and join the other white people, for if he stopped with them, it might cause him to be suspected. When he reached the militia station, his comrades were speculating on his probable fate, predicting that the negroes would to a certainty destroy him, perhaps with cruel torture!

On another occasion a white carpenter was in the interior, and had no means of joining his company without coming in contact with the rebels, and therefore dare not make the attempt; in this state he was met with by Dehaney, the captain of the rebels, who was acquainted with him. Dehaney not only protected him from injury, but escorted him through bye paths, and delivered him safely to his company, afterwards returning to his own party to carry on the warfare. Yet this poor man after being taken, tried by court-martial, and condemned to death (execution following sentence within a few minutes), when he requested to be allowed to appease the gnawings of hunger before going to the scaffold, and while eating a piece of bread in perfect calmness, the executioner was ordered, by some of the officers, to drag him away before he had finished the morsel.The man went up to Dehaney with the rope, on which was a running noose, and throwing it over his head as if he had been a horse, pulled it with a violent jerk, saying, “ Come away with you!” and thus dragged him out of the courthouse, to the scaffold in front of the building. This piece of heartless brutality created a loud laugh amongst the gentlemen assembled.

I will close this account by relating a scene which occurred on the last day of martial law. The company to which I had been attached was returning home — I had already left them. They stopped on Flamstead estate for the night, and divided themselves into parties among the cane-pieces, stopping in the few huts that remained unburnt. One party, in approaching a hut, met with five negroes coming out of it; two of them were shot dead, the others escaped. Another party fell in with a fine young man, about twenty years of age; they took him prisoner, and told him at the peril of his life to tell where the rest of the people were: he said they were scattered up and down everywhere, looking for officers to give them protection. They took him with them to the hut they were going to occupy, and made him get up the fire and cook for them; after which they made him sleep in the hut along with themselves, sentries keeping guard, and patrolling through the cane piece at night.

Next morning at day-break, the poor fellow was called out of the hut by a private named Wilkinson who immediately made a deadly plunge at him with his fixed bayonet, with the intention of running him through the body. The young man sprang aside, and laid hold of the gun by the muzzle. The instant he did so, Wilkinson fired; the ball entered his hand obliquely, and passed upwards, tearing up the arm as far as the shoulder, where it passed out. The poor fellow thus wounded, still clung to the gun with a death grasp, calling out, ‘Massa don’t, don’t kill me — don’t kill me — this death too hot.”

As Wilkinson could not extricate his gun he called out to Lieut. Dalrymple, who was coolly looking on without interfering, to lend him a pistol, to shoot the man; Dalrymple refused to do this, but he lent him his sword, with which Wilkinson commenced cutting and slashing with one hand while holding the gun with the other — still the man did not fall; at last another private named Coultard came up and ran his bayonet through the man’s heart! immediately
after this, this same Coultard, in going through another part of the cane piece, met one of the serjeants with a prisoner under his charge without saying one word, Coultard lowered his musket, rushed upon the man, and drove his bayonet through his body.

The scenes here depicted will convey to the reader a faint idea of the horrid butchery that prevailed for several weeks, in all parts of the parishes of St. James’s and Trelawney.

I may here just observe, that from all I could gather from the negroes themselves, as well as others, the overt acts of rebellion, such as firing the estates, &c., were almost exclusively confined to a few runaways, who had for years been living in fastnesses in the interior, where they had been driven by murderous persecution, and that the great mass of the slaves on the estates, who were denounced and treated as rebels, had merely left the estates to avoid being murdered by the savage and reckless militiamen. All that was designed, by the people on the estates, was to lay down their hoes and strike work.

It is a great consolation to me to reflect, that, throughout the rebellion, although I was in the midst of such scenes of carnage, I never once pointed a gun at a negro, nor ever hurt a hair of one of their heads. All my inclinations, in fact, were to have joined with the unfortunate people, had I seen the smallest chance of success….[…]….

After martial law, the planters observed no limits in their barbarity to the slaves. Their labours were increased, and the most fearful punishments followed the most trivial offences, often no offence at all. The condition of the people was infinitely worse than before ; and had not the British public stepped forward to put an end to the system, I am certain the slaves would have been driven to repeat the attempt to break their yoke, and perhaps with far more disastrous consequences.

I discharged myself from Hopewell, and became so disgusted with the planting line, that I made up my mind to leave it altogether. I commenced a little business on my own account, near Stewart’s Town ; but, as I had only a
small capital, it was soon sunk in speculations, and as the planters in the neighbourhood were entirely against me, I was unable to succeed. I pass over the succeeding years up to the middle of 1836, during which space I was in various capacities, struggling to obtain a livelihood.

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Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi https://ko-fi.com/liamhogan

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Liam Hogan

Liam Hogan

Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi https://ko-fi.com/liamhogan

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