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The Power of "Retributive Justice": Punishment and the Body in the Morant Bay Rebellion, 1865 Open Access

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On Wednesday October 11th, 1865, a group of malcontented men and women in Jamaica, a British colony, began a rebellion whose aftershocks echoed well beyond the confines of Morant Bay, the small town where it started. Although the initial rebellion lasted for just a few days, its brutal suppression and the implications that it held for the British Empire sparked a controversy that touched on some of the deepest fissures in British society at that time. At its heart, the rebellion highlighted the contested notions of power within the British imperial system. In Jamaica, disenfranchised local peasants rebelled to challenge a political system that excluded and oppressed them. The recently appointed governor of the island, Edward John Eyre, ordered a military force to decisively suppress the rebellion as a statement of his strength and as a testament to the power of the British government he saw himself representing. In both Britain and Jamaica, leading political figures used this event as touchstone to promote their personal agendas and assert their authority, whether real or imagined, over their opponents. As these rival forces clashed around the events in Jamaica in 1865, they represented a maelstrom of competing forces which sought to claim power during a time when British hegemony was being tested. Additionally, these struggles for power occurred within discussions of race and gender which undergirded British thought during the nineteenth century. The uniquely racialized and gendered experiences of the men and women who took part in the rebellion, many of them former slaves, thus demonstrate the changing dynamics of power in Jamaica during this time and offer an important lens to view this event.

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