Wed | Feb 26, 2020

Anthony Gambrill | The governor who turned a dispute into a war

Published:Sunday | January 26, 2020 | 12:23 AM
Governor was Alexander Lindsay, sixth earl of Balcarres

The governor was Alexander Lindsay, sixth earl of Balcarres and governor of Jamaica from 1794 until he resigned in 1801. The immediate cause of the dispute was the flogging by a slave at the Montego Bay workhouse of two Maroons accused by two white landowners of stealing pigs.

As it was, the Trelawny Town Maroons were already unhappy with the terms of Cudjoe’s treaty of 1939, which had ended a first Maroon war. When a deputation of six Maroons brought their grievances to the British, they were seized and imprisoned on the orders of the new governor, the Earl of Balcarres.

Ignoring the advice of the planters and fearing uprisings inspired by the Haitian revolution, he decided to take action, writing, “I must either strike at the Maroons, and cut the very root of the rebellion or that this valuable colony was for ever gone.”

Like his grandfather and father before him, Alexander Lindsay was destined to become a ­military man. He entered the army aged fifteen as an ensign, purchasing – as was the practice at the time – a captaincy following two years of study at the University of Gottingen in Germany.

He next took part in the American War of Independence, now a major. It was during the Battle of Ticonderoga that 13 bullets passed through his uniform, miraculously leaving him with only minor wounds.

Following the British surrender at the Battle of Saratoga, he was imprisoned for two years, regaining his liberty in 1779. By the time he was appointed governor of Jamaica at the age of 44, he had been promoted to the rank of major-general.

While the Trelawny Town Maroon took up arms, not all Maroons gave their support. In fact, the Leeward Maroons of Accompong sided with the colonial authorities.

It’s not surprising since when the Accompong Town delegation went to Trelawny Town in an attempt to persuade its inhabitants to surrender their leader, Captain Chambers, had his head cut off.

The British, under Colonel William Fitch with a force of Accompong fighters, set off to attack Trelawny Town. He was to ignore the advice of his trackers and led them into an ambush in which 18 of his men died. In the first two weeks of the conflict, the Trelawny Town Maroons killed 65 British soldiers without any Maroon losses.

Martial law had been declared, and the governor, bolstered by his military experience, took command in the field in western Jamaica. Fortunately, he was able to engage the services of 400 British soldiers who should have been on the way to Santo Domingo. Four hundred slaves from plantations that had been ravaged joined the uprising.

The Maroons, presumably in anticipation of a conflict, had wisely stocked 18 months supply of provisions. Inevitably, the British launched a scorched-earth strategy. Governor Balcarres had written to his sister that “… the Trelawny Maroons (are) possessing a country of inconceivable strength; a district abounding in ground provisions, (and) were a force formidable in this country.”

Despite being taught to work together in twos on foot, the British failed to succeed in overcoming the Maroons, whose locale was the Cockpit Country. They had the advantage of fighting in familiar, and for the British, daunting terrain employing guerrilla warfare. It was only when their provisions were exhausted and the governor had imported a hundred hunting dogs with their keepers from Cuba did they give us the struggle.

Their misfortunes were not to end here. Major-General George Walpole had persuaded the leader of the Trelawny Town Maroons to surrender on condition that they were not to be deported. The governor reneged on this promise. In June 1796, three ships carrying 600 Maroons with soldiers to guard them were landed at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Some later migrated to Sierra Leone.


So ended a costly six-month war in which 400 British troops supported by twice this number of local militia unsuccessfully took on substantially fewer Maroons. In the aftermath, two events took place: Major-General Walpole, who had a high regard for the Maroons, disgusted that the governor and house of assembly had broken faith with the Maroons, refused a sword of honour and resigned his commission in the army.

Walpole had earlier written to Lord Balcarres, “If Palmer or Parkinson (the Maroon leaders) should refuse the terms (of surrender), which I think they will, you will never conquer them.”

For his part, the governor was severely criticised in Britain for his heavy-handed reaction, turning a dispute into a war, for recruiting Cuban hunting dogs and deporting the Maroons after they had been promised immunity.

While he had resided in Jamaica, he had acquired plantations known as Balcarres and New Orange in St Andrew, Marshall’s Pen, and Martin Hill in Manchester. He arranged with a British business associate to provide slaves for hire to the British army. His son was able to use the wealth derived from his father’s Jamaican enterprises and with the compensation arising from Emancipation invested in a thriving coal company in Britain.


At a function held for the handover of Jamaica’s governorship from the Earl of Balcarres to her husband, General George Nugent, Lady Nugent noted in her journal that she wished “he would wash his hands …(as) he had the propensity to dip his fingers into every dish.” He was notorious, in her eyes, for the fact that he had a pet pig who accompanied him and “… goes grunting about to everyone for a titbit at meals.”


- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to