Letter on Jamaica Committee

Pall Mall Gazette (October 1886)

Sir–I learn from yesterday evening's Pall Mall Gazette that you are curious to know whether certain "peculiar views on the development of species," which I am said to hold in the excellent company of Sir Charles Lyell, have led me to become a member of the Jamaica Committee.

Permit me without delay to satisfy a curiosity which does me honour. I have been induced to join that committee neither by my "peculiar views on the development of species," nor by any particular love for, or admiration of the negro–still less by any miserable desire to wreak vengeance for recent error upon a man whose early career I have often admired; but because the course which the committee proposes to take appears to me to be the only one by which a question of the profoundest practical importance can be answered. That question is, Does the killing a man in the way Mr. Gordon was killed constitute murder in the eye of the law, or does it not?

You perceive that this question is wholly independent of two others which are persistently confused with it, namely– was Mr. Gordon a Jamaica Hampden or was he a psalm-singing fire-brand? and was Mr. Eyre actuated by the highest and noblest motives, or was he under the influence of panic-stricken rashness or worse impulses?

I do not presume to speak with authority on a legal question; but, unless I am misinformed, English law does not permit good persons, as such, to strangle bad persons, as such. On the contrary, I understand that, if the most virtuous of Britons, let his place and authority be what they may, seize and hang up the greatest scoundrel in Her Majesty's dominions simply because he is an evil and troublesome person, an English court of justice will certainly find that virtuous person guilty of murder. Nor will the verdict be affected by any evidence that the defendant acted from the best of motives, and, on the whole, did the State a service.

Now, it may be that Mr. Eyre was actuated by the best of motives; it may be that Jamaica is all the better for being rid of Mr. Gordon; but nevertheless the Royal Commissioners, who were appointed to inquire into Mr. Gordon's case, among other matters, have declared that:–

The evidence, oral and documentary, appears to us to be wholly insufficient to establish the charge upon which the prisoner took his trial. (Report , p. 37.)

And again that they:

Cannot see in the evidence which has been adduced, any sufficient proof, either of his (Mr. Gordon's) complicity in the outbreak at Morant Bay, or of his having been a party to any general conspiracy against the Government. (Report , p. 38.)

Unless the Royal Commissioners have greatly erred, therefore, the killing of Mr. Gordon can only be defended on the ground that he was a bad and troublesome man; in short, that although he might not be guilty, it served him right.

I entertain so deeply-rooted an objection to this method of killing people–the act itself appears to me to be so frightful a precedent, that I desire to see it stigmatised by the highest authority as a crime. And I have joined the committee which proposes to indict Mr. Eyre, in the hope that I may hear a court of justice declare that the only defence which can be set up (if the Royal Commissioners are right) is no defence, and that the killing of Mr. Gordon was the greatest offence known to the law–murder.–I remain, Sir, your obedient servant, Thomas H. Huxley


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University