'History is Complicated Business': Allabough Lecture Explores How Historical Narratives Evolve

As part of this year's Robert F. Allabough 1934 Memorial Lecture, Matthew Smith of University College London considered how "our contestable national identities" are shaped by public attitudes and emotions.

"History is complicated business. It is of the past, but it never really remains there," Matthew Smith of University College London said as part of this year's Robert F. Allabough 1934 Memorial Lecture, an annual lecture series hosted by the Department of History

A distinguished historian of Caribbean nationhood, Smith serves as a professor of history at University College London and as director of its Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, which illuminates slavery's role in shaping British history. 

In his Nov. 7 lecture at Dartmouth, Smith explored how "our contestable national identities" are remembered and revalued by public attitudes and emotions through the case study of a 19th century rebellion by Black Jamaicans.

As part of his residency at Dartmouth, Smith also led a seminar with history honors students. 

Paul Musselwhite, an associate professor of history and the organizer of this year's Allabough Lecture, got to know Smith while directing last fall's history Foreign Study Program at University College London. 

"Professor Smith's research cuts to the heart of debates about the memory of slavery and the construction of nationhood, both in the Caribbean and Britain," Musselwhite says. "His meditations on the relationship between history and memory were extremely valuable to our current cohort of majors undertaking historical research at a time of contested public memory in the U.S."

The Morant Bay Rebellion occurred in Jamaica on October 11, 1865. Led by Black Jamaicans, the rebellion responded to widespread injustice and poverty on the island. Despite the ending of formal slavery three decades prior, poor Black Jamaicans continued to bear the burdens of smallpox and cholera outbreaks, successive droughts and floods, and increasing prices of goods caused by the Civil War. 

"The roots of Morant Bay lie in the incompleteness of emancipation," Smith said. 

The rebellion started like any other protest, but quickly escalated. A confrontation between the protesters and the local militia turned bloody, and nearly 20 people, most of them white, were killed. The protesters then proceeded to burn down Morant Bay's courthouse. The rebellion stretched across the parish for the next five days before the governor of the island, Edward John Eyre, declared martial law for a month. Nearly 400 Black Jamaicans were executed and hundreds of homes were burned to the ground by military forces before British troops and local allies squashed the protests. 

The leader of the protest, Paul Bogle, and the representative of the parish in the Jamaican House of Assembly, George William Gordon, were among those executed by Eyre's military forces, sparking fierce debate in both England and the United States. While some people in England viewed the actions of Eyre as unconstitutional, others regarded him as a hero, claiming that he had "saved" the colony. In the US, Southern slave owners interpreted the events as a foreboding of a dangerous world of Black violence after slavery. 

Smith highlighted the ways in which successive generations of Jamaicans have come to understand the Morant Bay Rebellion. "Major political changes in Jamaica had sharp repercussions in the cultural sphere," Smith said. Fueled by the rise of labor movements and Jamaican nationalism, there was renewed interest in the rebellion. For example, several films, books, and live performances retold the story of the rebellion, reflecting changing perspectives on the early decades of emancipation in Jamaica. 

"No other event in Jamaican history has had more appeal to this sort of re-creation than Morant Bay," said Smith. 

In his scholarship, Smith studies these representations of Morant Bay not just to understand the rebellion itself, but to consider Jamaican history as a whole. 

"Through consideration of how the contexts in which revised narratives of the rebellion concerted reconstruction of that story, we learn a great deal about what happened in Jamaica over the past 150 years," he said.

"Each successive generation makes sense of the past with an understanding of what it means to them, their world, and the social interactions they observe."