I was very saddened to hear the news today that William "Bunny Rugs" Clarke, the husky-voiced lead singer of internationally popular reggae band Third World, had died of leukemia at his home in Florida. He was 65.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Third World and in particular for the beloved cult classic song '1865 (96 Degrees In The Shade) which is a dramatic and musically powerful retelling of the historical events of the October 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion, headed by Baptist deacon and preacher Paul Bogle who led an armed group against the British authorities in Jamaica with his attack against the town of Morant Bay.
The scene that the song dramatizes is such a central one in Jamaican history. The band identifies with Bogle, the main figure in the insurrection. Even though this is a song that looks at history, it achieves exactly what the best reggae songs do: it brings history home. The song is based on a historical fact, but it is never overt: at no point does it mention Bogle or Morant Bay. The year is the major clue to the poem’s meaning. The listener has to do some work.
Although the rebellion failed, as "1865 (96 Degrees in the Shade)" makes clear, Bogle's actions reverberated across Jamaican history, sparking further revolts until the island finally won independence. Bogle is considered one of Jamaica's greatest heroes and he is forever memorialized by the song which is among Third World's most popular..
Now for some important historical context. Slavery ended in Jamaica on August 1, 1834 with the passing of the British Emancipation Act, when exactly four years later former slaves became free to choose their employment and employer. On paper, former slaves gained the right to vote; however, most blacks remained desperately poor, and a high voting fee effectively excluded them from the franchise. During the elections of 1864, the ratio of black Jamaicans to white was 32 to 1, but out of a population of over 436,000, fewer than 2,000 were eligible to vote, nearly all of them white. According to a great post on 100 Songs From The Golden Age of Reggae:
George William Gordon (picture below) a wealthy bi-racial member of the Jamaican National Assembly, was the son of a black slave woman and a wealthy British plantation owner. Gordon's father, like many other British colonial elites lived most of the time in England also sired second surrogate families with native Jamaican women, unknown to their families back in Britain. Gordon was his father's common law heir under Jamaican law.
Gordon was considered a troublemaker by Edward Eyre, the newly appointed colonial governor of Jamaica because Gordon's high profile activities on behalf of disenfranchised newly freed slaves. Gordon had assisted a group of former slaves draw up and circulate a petition to Queen Victoria asking her to bequeath a small amount Crown owned land in the bush of St. Ann's Parish for the local landless farmer to cultivate as they could not find land for themselves. At least, the Queen's worthless land would produce some tax income for the Crown and provide a means of living to many wretchedly poor Jamaican citizens who had no other means of survival.
For the newly installed British colonial governor Eyre (picture above), it was unthinkable that a group of uppity "maroon negroes" would have the comeuppance to ask Queen Victoria's permission to cultivate a few hundred acres of the vacant undeveloped land in a remote colonial town 4,000 miles from Buckingham Palace. Eyre immediately regarded Gordon as a political enemy with a subversive agenda.
On October 7, 1865 a black man was put on trial and imprisoned for trespassing on a long-abandoned plantation, creating anger among black Jamaicans. The black man was nothing more than a squatter using part of the property of an abandoned plantation to plant a subsistence crop for his family's needs. When one member of a group of black protesters from the village of Stony Gut was arrested, the protesters became unruly and freed the accused man from prison.
Governor Eyres and the local constabulary suspected that Gordon and one of his proteges, Paul Bogle (picture above) a deacon at a local black Baptist church, were the key organizers of the protest and the subsequent prison break. Bogle soon learned that he and 27 of associates had warrants issued for their arrest for rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police.
The historical record doesn't confirm whether either Gordon or Bogle were involved in any of the events up to that point but it's likely that Gordon wasn't involved and Bogle probably was. It's an undisputable fact that Bogle was firmly in command of a large contingency of protesters who marched on the Morant Bay courthouse, four days later.
When the group arrived at the Morant Bay court house, they were met by a small volunteer militia (ie.. vigilantes) who panicked and opened fire on the group, killing seven black protesters before retreating. The black protesters then rioted, killing 18 people (including white officials and militia) and taking control of the town. In the days that followed some 2,000 black rebels roamed the countryside, killing two white planters and forcing others to flee for their lives.
Eyre sent government troops to hunt down the poorly-armed rebels and bring Paul Bogle back to Morant Bay for trial. The troops were met with no organized resistance but killed blacks indiscriminately, many of whom had not been involved in the riot or rebellion: according to one soldier, "we slaughtered all before us… man or woman or child".
In the end, 439 black Jamaicans were killed directly by soldiers, and 354 more (including Bogle) were arrested and later executed, some without proper trials. Other punishments included flogging for over 600 men and women (including some pregnant women), and long prison sentences. Bogle was lynched and hung without a trial, moments after the British troops took him into custody. Gordon, who had little - if anything - to do with the rebellion was also arrested. Though he was arrested in Kingston, he was transferred by Eyre to Morant Bay, where he could be tried under martial law.
Ever the politician, Eyre saw a public hanging of Gordon as a high profile opportunity to assert his authority as the newly appointed governor of Jamaica. A kangaroo court convicted Gordon of sedition and treason in two days, but Gordon wasn't informed of his sentence until an hour before his hanging.
Gordon was paraded through the streets of Morant Bay and led to the his hanging by a contingency of 10,000 soldiers. And presiding over the surreal and carnivalesque events was none other than the portly Governor Eyre dressed like a British dandy attending a night at the opera.
People from all over the island attended the grotesque spectacle and the narrator of the story in the song, '96 Degrees in the Shade' is none other than the condemned man, George William Gordon. The lyrics to the song are very close to the same final words of Gordon as he stood before Eyre. Gordon even began his remarks with a polite remark about the stifling humidity of the October day.Bogle's final defiant words to Governor Eyre as faithfully sung by Third World in the song were: "Today I stand here a victim but the truth is I'll never die."
96 degree in the shade,
real hot in the shade (repeat)
said it was 96 degrees in the shade
ten thousand soldiers on parade
taking i and i to meet a big fat boy
sent from overseas
the queen employ
Excellency before you i come
with my representation
you know where I’m coming from
you caught me on the loose
fighting to be free
now you show me a noose
on the cotton tree
entertainment for you
martyrdom for me
96 degrees in the shade
real hot in the shade
some may suffer and some may burn
but i know that one day my people will learn
as sure as the sun shines, way up in the sky
today i stand here a victim the truth is I'll never die
As sure as the Sun shine
Way up in the sky,
Today I stand here a victim -
The truth is I'll never die...