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Inspector Thomas and Sergeant-Major Johnson arrived at the Montego Bay police station close to 4 a.m. Sunday morning, April 6, 1902. Like the calm after a storm, it was eerily quiet. The station's broken windowpanes and the many bricks, stones, conch shells and bottles scattered in the station's courtyard spoke of earlier chaos. Inspector Thomas hurried inside to assure himself of the safety of Montego Bay's Sergeant-Major and constables. All reported that they were fine if a bit shaken up.
Some of the inspectors, including Herbert Thomas of Lucea, began to suspect that what happened the night before was only a small taste of what was to come. Others, including the Inspector General, convinced themselves that the worst was over and that order would be maintained.All remained quiet during the day and church services proceeded smoothly. Adjutant Simons of the Salvation Army who worked amongst the poor in the community, took it upon himself to address the crowd that had begin to gather once again. Although he is said to have been attempting to place himself over the crowd "in the hope of diverting attention from the police" he staged a march to the tune of "Onward Christian Soldiers" (as cited in Bryan, 1991, pg. 273). When loud roars and bugle calls could be heard approaching the town centre, Inspector Thomas was ordered to investigate. He wound up walking towards a mob of some 2000 angry people and promptly took refuge in the police station arriving there only a few minutes before the mob. The marchers managed to again attack police officers on beat, rain attacks on the police barracks and even assault the Inspector General.
Police whistles added to the din of angry voices. Stones began to fly and many of the police officers on duty in front of the station were wounded, forced to retreat inside and regroup. Inspector Thomas remembers: "Finding that some of the men had begun to fix their bayonets I immediately ordered them to desist, and showed them how to use the butt end of the carbine...By this time I had unlocked the big gate which was used to allow vehicles to enter the yard and I suddenly flung it open taking the mob completely by surprise and charging right into the heart of it with the butts of the carbines. The streets was immediately strewn with the wounded and the crowd temporarily disbursed...." (as quoted in Black, 1984, p. 38).
By the time the Inspector General arrived at the police station, his white jacket stained with blood and his arm hanging limply at his side, twenty men had been wounded, some seriously, including Inspector O'Toole of Falmouth who had been carried in unconscious due to a blow on his temple from a brick. The Inspector General who knew he had barely escaped with his life, ordered Inspector Thomas to gather all police constables who were able into an armed party to clear the streets and town square, firing if necessary.
Thomas did as he was told. "The street," he remembered, "was so strewn with missiles of various kinds which were also rained up on us as we marched along that men were tripping and falling every three or four yards, and we did not dare leave any of them on the road, or they would assuredly have perished at the hands of the mob....Seeing no prospect of otherwise putting an end to the disturbance, and as our numbers were being steadily depleted by casualties I myself being the only officer not yet disabled I gave the order for independent firing. Some twenty-five shots were fired altogether and the effect was magical...." The mob (many of whom believed that blank cartridges were being used) were stunned when the bullets began to fly.Within three minutes, Thomas noted, "the square was clear while a terrified silence prevailed."
The Montego Bay Riots had ended but the security forces were taking no chances. On Monday April 7, the H.M.S. Tribune docked in Montego Bay from Port Royal thereby increasing Montego Bay's peace-keeping force to 750 armed men. The Acting Governor Mr. (later Lord) Olivier also arrived by special train as did a company of the West India Regiment (WIR). A reinforcement of 100 police had also been sent to replace the wounded. Of the four officers and 70 other ranks engaged, police casualties were upwards of 50% of their numbers. Two of the rioters lost their lives and some 24 were injured. A meeting of the privy council was held and a Commission appointed to investigate the entire affair.
"Not since Morant Bay has there been such a rising against constituted authority," claimed the Daily Telegraph newspaper. The Commission's conclusion was that the riots were as a result of hostility to the police. Inspector Thomas of Lucea believed they were related to a tightening of police control after years of laxity because Montego Bay, lightly policed and suffering from high rates of unemployment, had become "the most rowdy and disorderly town in the island."Yet the Jamaica Advocate, editorializing on the events of April 5 -7 1902 placed the blame for the riots on the Government's recently instituted land taxation policy in its attempt to deal with a severe economic depression: "Chronic irritation and discontent which have for some time existed among the poorer classes as the consequence of the grinding, crushing, weight of the takes which they are unable to pay, and of the prosecutions which have been recently instituted against them for not being able to pay" (as cited in Bryan, 1991, p. 274). About a week or so before the riots there had been many attempts to collect taxes. Many had been brought before the Resident Magistrate for non-payment. Many also objected to the manner in which they were treated concerning the payment of taxes often arrested or threatened rather than summoned and unable to pay and unwilling to go to prison.
a move that foreshadowed happenings during another set of April riots
almost 100 years later (the gas riots in Kingston of April 1999), the
Government, alarmed by all that had taken place, decided to put the
tax proposals on hold for at least a year. History, it seems, does have
a way of repeating itself.
Coming June 3: This series explores the History of Port Antonio.
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted May 20, 2002
Copyright 2001. Produced by Go-Jamaica.com