"And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, let thy seed possess the gates of those which hate them." (Genesis XXIV, 60).
THE TOLL GATE RIOTS OF 1859
JAMAICA'S FIRST toll roads did not arrive with Highway 2000. They appeared over a century and a half earlier, around 1838. The history of tolls themselves stretches back much further, all the way to Greek mythology, where Charon the ferryman, charged a toll to carry the dead across the river Acheron. In their writing, Greek scholars Aristotle and Pliny referred to the use of tolls in Asia and Arabia. According to the Arthasastra, a Sanskrit political treatise, tolls were also said to have existed in 4th century India. Today many countries use tolls as a means of revenue collection including China, Canada, France, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Austria.
A toll road is one whose use is monitored by the payment of a fee, generally collected by a toll authority i.e. the government. There are also toll bridges and toll tunnels. Tolls were generally manned by toll keepers who lived in toll cottages adjacent to the toll payment location and were charged with collecting funds.
Tolls first appeared in the United Kingdom during the 17th Century when the term turnpike came into use. A turnpike was originally a gate on which sharp pikes were placed as a defense against invading cavalry, although for Americans it simply means a toll road. The British meaning evolved to define the pike or stick that was raised when a toll was paid. Prior to the creation of toll gates, roads in England were mainly poorly maintained dirt tracks with every adult inhabitant of a parish required to work four days each year on the roads using their own tools. The increased use of wheeled vehicles, however, destroyed the upkeep as soon as the work had been completed. In general, the king, monasteries or the aristocrats who owned the relevant land, were responsible for road maintenance. As a result, not much was done to ensure road quality.
With the advent of tolls came a new venture the Turnpike Trust. Appointed by Parliament as a result of a 1706 act, the trustees could erect tolls at their discretion. The idea was that the trustees would borrow money to effect road repairs although there were no road constructions standards to adhere to and then repay it over time through the tolls collected. Although it seemed a simple and efficient system to put designated bodies in charge of road maintenance, the reality was that these debts were rarely repaid while the trusts were simply renewed as needed.
By the mid-18th century, turnpikes had been built on the thirteen main roads from London, and in the next few years, close to 400 more were established. By 1825 over 1,000 trusts controlled some 25,000 miles of road in England and Wales many of which linked major towns.
Trusts and tolls were challenged by the advent of the railway in the later 19th century, with the last British trust disappearing in 1895, giving way to a road maintenance system overseen by county councils.
In America, toll roads began in the late 18th century connecting different states. They peaked in the 19th century and were taken over by highway departments in the early 20th. Post-World War II new and improved toll roads were built in the United States heralding the streamlining of the interstate highway system.
Frustration peaks, toll riots begin
According to historian Frank Cundall, around 1838 a law was passed to ensure the maintenance of Hope Road the road leading from Montgomery Corner in Liguanea to the junction of the Hope and Hog-Hole Rivers. Montgomery Corner is now known as Cross Roads. The rates were noted as:10 pence on every wheel, horse, mule, cattle and horned stock,
5 pence on every ass, sheep, goat or pig
(as cited in Virtue, G., 1980).
This was the first instance of tolls being paid in Jamaica although during this period more and more taxes were levied on the peasant class. Peasant carts began to be taxed eighteen shillings per year and the taxes on food and clothing were increased twelve-fold. The funds collected were used to provide additional services for the plantation owners. Naturally, unrest began to simmer and the toll gates were simply another log on that fire. (Sherlock and Bennett, 1998, 252-253). Just like today, tolls were disliked for the wait at the toll gates and also for their cost.
Some years later in 1851 a Board of Commissioners of Highways and Bridges was appointed to take control of the toll gates. Some toll gates were placed at strategic locations on roads leading to Savanna-la-Mar. This meant, however, that many people had to pay tolls each time they went to collect water. In February 1859, the people could take no more. They rioted. For three nights protestors tore down the toll gates. During the next few months the riots spread throughout Westmoreland. The Falmouth Post described the participants who destroyed the toll-keeper's house and toll gates at Savanna-la-Mar as "ruffians, some dressed in female attire." The Westmoreland police were unable to cope with this challenge they could neither identify the protestors nor control their actions.
Reinforcements had to be sent in from Hanover, Trelawny, St. James and St. Elizabeth. Yet none of this served to stop the people's objection to tolls.
Even when some protestors were brought to trial, large such large crowds of supporters gathered that it was deemed prudent to adjourn the proceedings. By 1863, toll gate legislation had been repealed and the commissioner was ordered to sell the toll houses (Virtue, G., 1980).
THE 'REBECCA RIOTS' AND WELSH INFLUENCE
The fact that these protestors dressed in women's clothing could potentially be a link between Jamaican and Welsh history. On May 13, 1839, following a particularly harsh winter and poor harvest in west Wales, Welsh farmers reacted to the increased number of toll gates and the increased tolls charged. Supporters dressed in female clothes attacked the toll gates and the toll houses. This was the first of a series of what became known as the 'Rebecca Riots'. Dressing as women ensured protection of their identities and the biblical symbolism gave their actions a spiritual calling: "And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, let thy seed possess the gates of those which hate them." (Genesis XXIV, 60).
'Rebecca' and her 'daughters' continued their attacks (by this time some industrial workers had joined the 'Rebeccaites') through the early 1840s, receiving support in the press and censure from law enforcement officials. There was no police force in west Wales at the time. The area relied instead on a cheaper alternative, the use of special constables and the military if necessary. The toll riots became increasingly violent and troops were called in to restore order.
It didn't work. The rioters were
simply emboldened and marches to
petition magistrates soon followed. The Government was forced to take these matters seriously. Promises were made but they didn't quell the energy to strike out against not only tolls gates but any who had offended by increasing rents, tithes, etc. Soon, however, they were subdued by the presence of large
numbers of troops. The moderating influence of the Non-Conformist Chapels who supported the cause but did not condone the violence, and the commissioners sent to look into the accounts of the Turnpike Trusts also helped to stop the riots in West Wales. Arrests were made but by this time the momentum had spread to the south east. Eventually, with the use of force, 'Rebecca' and 'her daughters'
were also silenced for a time
although sporadic outbreaks continued throughout the 19th century in west and north Wales. Eventually some of the 'Rebeccaites' were brought to trial some were convicted and sentenced to time in Australia. The commissioners made recommendations that road boards be established in each county to control the roads. In a strange twist of fate,
this led to parts of Wales, for a time, having the honour of having the best road system in Britain (www.angelfire.com/ga/Bob Sanders/REBECCA.html, www.
WORD OF THE 'REBECCA RIOTS' SPREADS
Given the significant press the 'Rebecca Riots' received in the United Kingdom, it is easy to believe that word of these actions could have reached the English colonies with Jamaica being no exception. The timing of the Westmoreland Toll Gate Riots also lends credence to the theory of a Welsh connection. Interestingly, the Welsh rioters were a mixture of educated middle class and poor working class, who received some media support. The Jamaican Westmoreland rioters were mainly peasants but they too seemed to have received support from media commentators if not from the mainstream press itself. Consider The Falmouth Post 's description of the rioters which reveals bitter contempt: "The demolition of the toll gates in the parish of Westmoreland the pulling down of toll keepers' houses and the threats held out to persons in authority by a lawless desperate rabble are events which have resulted from mischievous speeches which have appeared from time to time in the columns of newspapers owned by persons who are always boasting of their patriotism and friendship to the people." (as cited in Virtue, G. 1980).
Unlike the Welsh situation, however, the Jamaican Westmoreland Toll Riots led to the abolition of all toll gates in 1863. Perhaps the strongest reminder of this period in our history is the town of Toll Gate, Clarendon. In addition, one historian, writing in The Gleaner in the 1960s, points to tolls as having helped to spearhead the practice of people carrying heavy loads on their heads.
According to him, a toll gate was believed to have stood at the archway of the old fort at Rockfort. Recognising that pedestrians were exempt from paying tolls, with the ingenuity that has come to characterise Jamaicans, it is believed that people took to carrying loads in straw baskets on their heads and passing through a separate space in the fort that was just narrow enough to allow passage. Thus, these pedestrians managed to carry loads and avoid any payment (as cited in Virtue, G. 1980).
The 'Rebecca Riots' and the Westmoreland Toll Gate Riots of 1859 are both testimony to the spirit of resistance found amongst people in two countries whose histories share a similar theme of protest. The Welsh have long fought against English control and the Jamaican peasants, following Emancipation, demanded their say in how the country was to be run. It is no surprise that the Morant Bay Rebellion was to follow the Toll Gate Riots in just a few short years.
Sources: Senior, O. (2003). The Encyclopedia of the Jamaican Heritage. Kingston - Twin Guinep Publishers, Sherlock, P.and Bennett, H. (1998). The Story of the Jamaican people. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, Virtue, G. (1980, January 13). "Toll Gate Reminder of old traffic system". The Jamaica Gleaner. p. 2., www.angelfire.com/ga/BobSanders/
* If any readers have information regarding the development of aviation in Jamaica please email Rebecca Tortello at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted December 5, 2005
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