Joseph R.


November 23, 1999

A Policeman's Lot Is Not a Happy One at Home and Abroad


Edward John Eyre (1815-1901) was a great builder of the British Empire. After a career as a magistrate in Australia, where an occasional lake is named for him (occasionally there's water in it), Eyre served as Lieutenant Governor of New Zealand, Governor of St. Vincent, and Governor of Jamaica. The last place is where he ran into trouble. In October 1865, Eyre presided over the violent suppression of what was taken to be an organized "Negro insurrection" against colonial rule.

Slavery had been abolished in Jamaica some thirty years earlier, but not everyone was happy with the resulting society. The 13,000 whites – out of a population of 440,000 – lived in constant fear of a revolt like that in Haiti (1791-1804). Many blacks, understandably tired of gang-work on plantations, even as free men receiving low wages, "squatted" on land in the hills, where they raised crops to support themselves. Rather than seeing this as a creative instance of Lockean homesteading, the British authorities lectured these would-be peasant farmers on their proper role in the market economy, which was to work for their former masters. When that didn't work, soldiers burned the squatters' villages from time to time, to encourage them to enter the real market – as defined by the authorities and the planters.

Out of the 440,000 people in Jamaica, 1,903 had the right to vote under the strict property qualifications of the day. Unlike mainland North America, the small number of whites had allowed the emergence of a colored or mulatto bourgeoisie – people of mixed race, some of whom were lawyers, officials, merchants, and even planters. These property-owners could vote and were the backbone of the Town party, as opposed to the white planters' Country party. A prominent Town party member of the Jamaican assembly was George William Gordon, a radical Baptist, who set himself up as the defender of the 50,000 or so squatter-farmers in the hills and became a violent and reckless critic of Governor Eyre – to his own cost.

So what is one to do in such a situation? Give one-man one-vote instantly to everyone? Probably not. On the other hand, greater attention by the authorities to their own rhetoric about free markets might have helped, even if it involved giving squatters title to Crown lands. After all, the Queen wasn't using any of this land. But enough about ideal social reforms.

What actually happened was different. Governor Eyre was already infuriated and alarmed by Gordon's attacks on him and his administration. A minor incident on October 7, at Morant Bay, led to reports that the blacks "had risen," and Eyre dispatched troops. The "rebels" miraculously disappeared in advance of the troops, a circumstance as economically explained by the hypothesis that no real rebellion existed as by the notion that the "rebels" were markedly fleet of foot. The authorities soon found a solution to this problem. As historian Bernard Semmel puts it: "Rebels – a 'rebel' was any Negro who had not fled before the troops came – were hanged or flogged. No organized opposition of any kind was encountered, however."1


In the end, the troops burned a thousand homes, killed 400 some blacks, and flogged many others. If there was any terrorism here, it was, perhaps, entirely the work of the alarmed colonial authorities. Worse luck, Governor Eyre had Gordon, his foe and critic, removed to a district where martial law had been declared, where Gordon was duly court-martialed and executed.


These things happen, I suppose, and wouldn't want to advise folks who already have an empire on how to run it. Nor do I wish to give the impression that I imagine that these things are only done by white colonialists. No, what is interesting, it seems to me, is the political fallout in Britain itself and the argument over the nature of empire and English law, which followed. Critics of the Governor's actions established the Jamaica Committee and called for Eyre to be tried for his excesses in suppressing the "insurrection." More radical members of the Committee wanted him tried for the murder of British subjects under color of law. The Committee was a stellar assembly of English classical liberals, including John Bright, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley, and Herbert Spencer, among others. An opposing committee, which included such Tories and Tory socialists as Thomas Carlyle, Rev. Charles Kingsley, and John Ruskin, sprang up in Eyre's defense.

Several attempts at convicting Eyre failed and he lived peacefully enough after a few years of legal trouble. The debate itself is very interesting, however. Huxley observed "that English law does not permit good persons, as such, to strangle bad persons, as such." Thus, whatever objections might be made to Gordon's character and conduct, his execution by Eyre was a crime under the law. Frederic Harrison, another Jamaica Committee member, wrote that "English law is of that kind, that, if you play fast and loose with it, vanishes.... What is done in a colony today, may be done in Ireland tomorrow, and in England hereafter...."2

Eyre's defenders claimed that the Governor deserved nothing but praise for handling a bad situation with manly firmness and resolution. They returned again and again to the savagery and barbarity of Britain's colonial subjects. They laughed off the suggestion that arbitrary rule abroad could have any affect on rule at home, although arbitrary rule at home was apparently not a problem to them, either.

The high point came for the anti-Eyre forces in April 1867, when Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn issued a lengthy "charge" to grand jurors looking into the acts of two of Eyre's subordinates. He stated that in a "settled" colony such as Jamaica, English law applied in full and that the concept of "martial law" was completely foreign to it. The jurors, much of the press, and most of the public thought otherwise.


Time and again, critics of empire have warned that arbitrary and authoritarian methods of rule employed in the colonies will come back to haunt the inhabitants of the home country. This seems to be true. Many people who can remember the 1950s will have noticed a certain trend in U.S. police work, which first became noticeable in the 1960s. Instead of John Wayne and a few conventionally armed deputies conducting the arrest of an accused criminal, or one caught in the act, as civilian upholders of law and order, we see oddly uniformed characters proceeding with absurdly overwhelming force, tanks, helicopters, etc., making up "rules of engagement" as they go. In short, we see domestic police aspiring to be an army engaged in colonial pacification or the utter elimination of a public enemy.

Now this trend toward the militarization of American police work probably grew out of a number of circumstances, including the "civil unrest" – to use a delicate phrase – of the 1960s and early '70s. It also runs neatly parallel to the willful destruction of genuine local self-government, such that the word "federal" now refers to its opposite: consolidated, centralized, national. But it was the expansion of the American Empire under cover of the Cold War that made the elimination of real federalism feasible. With this came the "need" to root out dissent from the Cold War, or the "hot" wars to which it sometimes led, and hence the "need" for post-constitutional national police and intelligence agencies to oversee the American sheep. The precise role of the Vietnam War in encouraging the militarization of American police deserves some serious research, if that isn't already under way. At the moment, I can't "prove" the relationship suggested here. Perhaps, the Cold War only created an "atmosphere" – a "climate of hate" perhaps? – which helped the process along.


So what has this got to do with old Governor Eyre? Just this: imperial overlords must govern arbitrarily their colonies and protectorates. There is a constant flow of personnel and ideas between the bureaucracies in the colonial boondocks and those in the metropolitan center. That benign institution, the Pennsylvania State Police, apparently was modeled on the Philippine Police set up in "our India," and the Philippine Police in turn owed something to the example of the Royal Irish Constabulary.3 Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr., headed the New Jersey State Police, but in another incarnation helped bring down that weepy fellow Mossadegh in Iran so that the Shah could do whatever he did for several decades. And, later, his son restored "democracy" to Kuwait, which had never had it – and by some reports still doesn't.

Ultimately, the flow of ideas from the imperial to the domestic bureaucracies is the most worrying. A few tanks and bazookas in the hands of Andy of Mayberry wouldn't be all that threatening. Not unless Andy and his kind take on the military mindset in which "Go down there and arrest that fellow" is replaced by "The target is acquired." If your local police chief ever worked for the School of the Americas – bringing bad government to Central America more efficiently – you should fret a little.


Reporting on the Jamaican "uprising" of 1865, a Captain Ford wrote: "This is a picture of martial law. The soldiers enjoy it, the inhabitants here dread it. If they run on their approach, they are shot for running away."4 Just so. Martial law, in other words, is no law at all, but a sort of domestic declaration of war. We had some experience with Captain Ford's predecessors in the 1770s and 1780s. One result was a Constitutional and political culture which was quite a bit more serious about separating civil rule and military power than it was (allegedly) about separating religion from public life. The Posse Comitatus Act was supposed to nail this down. That the Mutant Ninja SWAT Team and Imperial Lancer mentality has eroded these principles and the law in recent decades can be seen in an excellent Cato Institute report by Diane Cecilia Weber.5 So don't just take my word for it.


The evidence of militarization is all around us, although I shall not be so callous as to use that terrible phrase about "jackbooted thugs." Presidents spread semantic confusion by pretending that full-scale wars are "police actions." The "war" on drugs bids fair to leave us with no Bill of Rights at all and no security for anyone's property except for paid-up contributors to the Republican and Democratic parties – those "rival gangs of political speculators," as Frederick Engels called them. I won't even mention the cases of Waco and Randy Weaver6 except to say that I'm not mentioning them – yet. There are strong reasons to believe that arbitrary government at home is pushed along by empire abroad. That is a high price to pay for being that last remaining superpower, for the right to export "democracy" (whatever that might be) by violent and criminal means to those who don't want it or understand it, or for the Open Door. Like the essayist Robert Benchley, I'd settle for the Half-Ajar Door Policy and more freedom at home.

[1] Bernard Semmel, Democracy versus Empire: The Jamaica Riots of 1865 and the Governor Eyre Controversy (Garden City, N.Y., 1969), p. 51.
[2] Ibid., p. 128 and p. 137.
[3] Mike Brogden, "An Act to Colonise the Internal Lands of the Island," International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 15 (1987), p. 185.
[4] Semmel, p. 15.
[5] Diane Cecilia Weber, "Warrior Cops: The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments," Cato Institute Briefing Papers, 50 (August 26, 1999).
[6] But see the excellent book by contributor Alan Bock, Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Irvine, Ca., 1995).

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Tuesday on

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