The Journal of Caribbean History: Volume 46, Issue 2

Article 2
Buckra Justice: The Vicissitudes of the Court System and the Role of Judges in Post-Emancipation Jamaica (1834–1865)

Jonathan Dalby


A few weeks before the outbreak of the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, peasants in the parish of St David complained that “in our courts of justice favouritism is rampant . . . there is a law for the rich and a law for the poor”. Reinforced by a succession of scholarly works whose primary focus has been on other matters, this is the image of the post-emancipation judicial system in Jamaica that has been passed down as the prevailing orthodoxy. In many respects, and particularly in the lower courts, this interpretation is broadly accurate. But in the superior courts, it is argued in this paper, such a view is sufficiently wide of the mark to be misleading. This paper examines the careers of a number of assize court judges and their interpretations of the law in the many criminal cases that came before them, concluding that the most prominent among them saw at least part of their role as one of protecting the interests of the poor against those of the rich. In this respect, the period 1834–65 represented almost a “golden age” for the radical and liberal imperialist agenda in Jamaica.