Although slavery had long since been abolished in Jamaica, most black people on the island remained poor and disenfranchised. The existing system of government had effectively been rigged to ensure continued white dominance. Inevitably, there were grumblings of discontent, compounded by a succession of failed harvests. The situation on the island was tense in the extreme, and it was just a matter of time before some kind of uprising took place.
Edward John Eyre, the English governor, was in total denial about the full scale and extent of the many serious economic and social problems engulfing Jamaica. He ignored the islanders' grievances, concerned that any concessions, no matter how mild, would encourage Jamaicans to make further demands. The unwillingness of the colonial authorities to deal with the natives' concerns served to increase tensions still further, making it more likely that violent disorder would break out.
And so it did. The proximate cause of what came to be known as the Morant Bay rebellion was the conviction and imprisonment of a black man for trespassing on a disused sugar plantation. This proved to be the last straw for many, and an insurrection soon took shape. The authorities initially seemed taken aback by the sheer scale of the resistance. A poorly-armed, poorly-trained militia proved itself incapable of dealing with the increasingly violent disorder, so Governor Eyre declared martial law and called in government troops to put down a rebellion that was rapidly getting out of hand.
The soldiers acted with ruthless savagery, indiscriminately slaughtering black men, women, and children, whether or not they had anything to do with the rebellion. Once the uprising had been successfully put down, over 400 people lay dead, most of them wholly innocent of any crime. The authorities then embarked upon what some described as a campaign of legal terror, flogging, imprisoning, and hanging those suspected of taking part in the rebellion. In most cases, there was no evidence of guilt whatsoever; the authorities simply wanted to make an example and discourage others from getting any ideas about starting a similar uprising in future.
In political terms, the Morant Bay rebellion led to the suspension of what little self-government Jamaica had. The abolition of the House of Assembly was followed by the imposition of direct rule from Britain. Jamaica became a Crown Colony and the vast majority of its people were now even further away from taking control of their own affairs than they had been prior to the rebellion.