A judicial maverick: John Gorrie at large in the Victorian Empire

Chapter 5
A judicial maverick

John Gorrie at large in the Victorian Empire

Bridget Brereton

This chapter is devoted to the judicial career of John Gorrie (1829–92), an unusual jurist who served on the bench of several colonies in widely different areas of the empire, whose biography I published in 1997.1 In the chapter I seek to highlight both the experiences of this remarkable man as a peripatetic colonial judge, and the value of judicial biography as a tool for drilling down to reveal the ways in which British justice and conceptions of the rule of law were reproduced, reinterpreted and resisted in colonial circumstances, as well as the implications for the much vaunted claims for the rule of law, including judicial independence, in multiracial possessions.

Gorrie was a Scottish advocate with strikingly liberal views. As a young man in Edinburgh and London, he had been deeply influenced by the British antislavery and free trade movements, and he became engaged with colonial issues when he went to Jamaica after the Morant Bay Rebellion (1865) to represent some of the victims of the governor’s brutal reprisals before the commission of enquiry there. Between 1870 and 1892 Gorrie served as judge or as chief justice in Mauritius (1870–76), Fiji, where he was also the first judicial commissioner on the Western Pacific High Commission (1876–82), the Leeward Islands (1883–86) and Trinidad and Tobago (1886–92). Mauritius, the Leewards and Trinidad were long-established colonies whose labouring people were descendants of enslaved Africans or Indian indentured immigrants and whose white elites were accustomed to calling the shots, political and legal. Fiji and the Western Pacific were on the frontier of British/Australasian expansion in the 1870s.

In all these colonies, Gorrie attempted both to uphold the equality of all the Queen’s subjects before the law, and to protect the interests of the ‘poor and the powerless’ when up against the local notables in the courts. Though the Colonial Office supported him to a perhaps surprising extent, and for a long time, he faced unrelenting hostility from the various colonial elites, who finally (in Trinidad) secured his suspension from office just before his death in 1892.

As a PhD student examining the social history of Trinidad in the last third of the nineteenth century, I had been immersed in the lively, contentious and far from reverent newspapers produced in the colony at that time.2 From February 1886, when Gorrie first took his seat on the bench as chief justice of Trinidad, to 1892 when he died in England, having been suspended from office by the governor, the island’s newspapers were full of his doings, on and off the bench. It was rare to find an issue of a local paper, during this period, with no mention of Gorrie, and much more likely to find one with several letters, articles, reports or editorials about him. This contrasted with the years before 1886, when the newspapers had rarely mentioned his predecessor.3

What was it about this colonial jurist that inspired such obsessive interest, such fierce criticism and unrestrained admiration, from the island press? It seemed clear that, with some exceptions, it wasn’t his actual rulings that agitated people; nearly all the commentators agreed that he was a learned and competent judge. Rather, it was his tendency to strain conventional courtroom procedures in order to help poor and uneducated suitors and defendants, and (above all) his actions outside the courtroom and his marked tendency to frank expressions of opinion, his obiter dicta, from the bench. John McLaren shows, in his magisterial comparative study of colonial judges who got into trouble in the nineteenth-century empire, that this was nearly always the case with those who took strong progressive political or social stands in the colonies in which they served.4

In Trinidad – and in Tobago, which was joined to the larger island in January 1889, so that Gorrie became chief justice of the new colony of Trinidad and Tobago – he was clearly a very ‘political’ judge. Though he didn’t sit on the Legislative Council, since the Colonial Office had decided that chief justices should no longer have ex officio seats on colonial executive or legislative councils, he participated in several political movements and events, and often took the lead in ostensibly non-political affairs that nevertheless attracted much public notice, such as organizing the Queen’s jubilee in 1887. Gorrie gave speeches everywhere, and never resisted the temptation to air his strong views in public, both on and off the bench. And it was soon obvious to me that he early came into conflict with powerful local elites, ensuring a great deal of hostile press coverage – but, conversely, he came to be seen as a hero by those writers and editors who claimed to speak for the ordinary people, and, indeed, as a champion by those people themselves. A British colonial judge had become, as far as I could make it out, the first authentic popular hero in Trinidad and in Tobago by the time of his death.

All this was more than enough to secure my interest. Gorrie appears several times in the book that emerged from my doctoral thesis, and I also published an article about his time in Trinidad.5 But I was intrigued by what I read which made it clear that Gorrie had had a long career of colonial service before coming to Trinidad, the posting that turned out to be his last. He had a past, and his enemies made sure that it was known in Trinidad even before he arrived. Over the next few years, the local newspapers published material about his earlier career, and Gorrie himself gave public talks, reported in the press or published as pamphlets, about his adventures throughout the world. I thought a study of his whole career might be both interesting, and useful, in the context of the history of the Victorian empire.

Since, however, this was something of a diversion from my central research interests – the social history of the post-slavery Caribbean – I might have shelved the project indefinitely, if not for a stroke of luck. My article on Gorrie came to the notice of two of his descendants: Judy Allen, a direct descendant who is a professional writer, and Jean Ayler, descended from his brother, who is the Gorrie clan’s unofficial historian and genealogist. Both encouraged me to undertake the project. Judy made available to me many family papers, photographs, documents, and unpublished writings by Gorrie.6 Jean shared her extensive materials on the clan and its Scottish roots, and then proceeded to act as my (unpaid) research assistant in the UK, reading, photocopying, transcribing and mailing innumerable documents held in British libraries or archives (including the many, long letters from Gorrie to the secretary of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, F. W. Chesson, and lengthy extracts from his diary).7

To write the biography of a peripatetic jurist moving around the empire, I needed to cast my net widely in the search for sources. The family papers and the Gorrie-Chesson correspondence were a good start. I felt sure that the press in Gorrie’s earlier colonies would have been as fascinated (and appalled) with him as in Trinidad, and so it proved. I read newspapers from Jamaica (for his time there in 1866 appearing before the Commission of Enquiry into the Morant Bay Rebellion and its repression), Mauritius, Fiji, Queensland and Auckland (for his activities on the Western Pacific High Commission), the Leeward Islands (papers from Dominica, Antigua, St Kitts, the main islands making up the group) and Grenada and Barbados (for views on Gorrie while he was in the Leewards and in Trinidad). Most of these I consulted in the Newspaper Library of the British Library at Colindale.8

Of course, a combative and controversial jurist such as Gorrie, who often became involved in politics and policy, was sure to appear frequently in the Colonial Office (CO) records. At Kew, in the then Public Record Office, I consulted the main series for Mauritius, Fiji and the Western Pacific, the Leewards and Trinidad and Tobago for the Gorrie years – perhaps 150 in all of those bulging leather-bound volumes so familiar to historians of the empire. I found memoranda, papers and letters by Gorrie himself; reports and comments about him, from his various governors and from many indignant personages who’d been insulted or criticized by him; and, of course, the minutes by the CO staff as they tried to decide how to deal with their troublesome judge.9

McLaren correctly points out that after the catastrophes of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, the CO increasingly expected loyalty to empire and government from judges in the multiracial crown colonies, and was less likely than in the earlier decades to tolerate those who upset the apple-cart. Yet I was impressed that the men in the CO supported Gorrie time and time again in his many conflicts with entrenched elites, governors, officials and many others – while privately expressing exasperation at his lack of tact, his quick temper, and his tendency to meddle where he ought not. Moreover, they appointed him to increasingly important posts, from Mauritius on. As McLaren also notes, the CO men might appreciate a judge, such as Gorrie, who was experienced, talented, incorruptible and hard-working; and, despite their concern for stability, they accepted the need for balance and might even consider a strong, fearless judge to be useful in some colonies. As the influential Under-Secretary at the CO, Sir Robert Herbert, minuted just before Gorrie was sent to Trinidad: ‘[He] is a strong judge… In the West Indies it is generally a good thing to have a Chief Justice who does not care for popularity.’10

Some parliamentary papers were relevant, especially the voluminous report and evidence of the Jamaica Royal Commission (1866).11 The reports of local commissions, especially in Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago, illuminated aspects of Gorrie’s work and influence.12 Published contemporary accounts of the colonies, memoirs and travel books, helped to give me a sense of the landscape, flora and fauna, people and settlements of the places where Gorrie served, especially those about which I was largely ignorant, such as Fiji and (to a slightly lesser extent, because it was so like Trinidad) Mauritius.

My first stroke of luck, in terms of data collection, had been the generous support and help from two members of Gorrie’s family. My second was the vanity and self-absorption of Sir Arthur Gordon (later Lord Stanmore), Gorrie’s principal patron after 1870. Gordon was governor of Mauritius during Gorrie’s time there, and he secured Gorrie’s appointment as the first substantive chief justice of the new colony of Fiji, where he had gone as governor in 1875. For a decade, in Mauritius but especially in Fiji, the two men worked closely together. Gordon was the son of a prime minister and scion of a great Scottish aristocratic family, Gorrie a ‘son of the Manse’ who’d grown up poor and struggled to qualify as an advocate and earn a living. But they shared basic political principles and ideas about colonial administration, and in Fiji, Gorrie became the governor’s main legal adviser and legislative draftsman. In both colonies, at a time mercifully before the telephone, they exchanged hundreds of letters, drafts and memoranda. And nearly all of these, in both directions, were privately printed by Gordon in eight huge volumes, a key source for the sections of the biography dealing with Mauritius, Fiji and the Western Pacific.13

In following Gorrie through his empire wanderings, I needed to put him in the context of these different colonial settings. My familiarity with the nineteenth-century history of the Caribbean made me comfortable with his time in Jamaica, the Leewards and, of course, Trinidad and Tobago. I was new to the history of Mauritius, Fiji and the Western Pacific. I read as widely as I could, both contemporary published accounts of different kinds, and many scholarly secondary works. I soon found out (as of course I should have known) that Mauritius in the 1870s was remarkably similar, in its social, demographic, economic and political structures, to Trinidad – only situated in a different ocean. Not so with Fiji which, when Gorrie was there in the 1870s and early 1880s, was on the cusp of development as part of European expansion in the Western Pacific.

Though the main narrative focused on Gorrie’s colonial career, I wanted to understand his intellectual formation: he absorbed progressive views and principles as a young man and stuck to them all his life, even when they had become distinctly unfashionable in imperial circles. He was Scottish – he spoke with a broad Fife accent all his life, though he left his native land in his early thirties – and his father was a minister in a small breakaway Presbyterian sect, based in Fife, known as the Relief Church. The traditions of this church were liberal and broad-minded. So too were the traditions of Edinburgh University in the 1840s and early 1850s, when Gorrie took courses in the arts and Scottish and Roman law. Scottish universities were more democratic and egalitarian in their ethos and procedures than their English counterparts at this period. Like many Scottish undergraduates, Gorrie supported himself during his ten or eleven years as a student at Edinburgh University by working in paid jobs: clerking in legal offices, and newspaper journalism. It was as a young student in the Scottish capital that he first practised his gift for writing clear, vigorous, robust prose, and acquired a love for the world of journalism which stayed with him all his life.

Gorrie was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates – called to the Scottish Bar – in 1856, at the age of twenty-seven; he was never called to the English Bar. His familiarity with the Scottish legal tradition, still in the 1850s mainly based on Roman and continental principles, stood him in good stead when he was appointed to Mauritius, with its essentially French civil code and legal procedures.14 It may well be, however, that his grounding in Scottish law made him something of an ‘outsider’ in comparison with English barristers who worked in the colonies, and meant that he had a rather different relationship to English legal culture, less reverential, more inclined to criticize and challenge its flaws and inequities.

As a young student and then advocate in the Scottish capital, he participated fully in the liberal political movements of the 1850s. He absorbed the antislavery ethos of the liberal Edinburgh middle class, and with it a sense of the essential equality of all mankind which remained with him even when ideas of the inherent superiority of Europeans became much more fashionable. He took part in municipal politics on the side of the radical wing of the Liberal party, and identified himself with the Cobden/Bright faction which favoured free trade and extension of the franchise. He had links with the city’s trade unions and helped to raise a volunteer company of artisans. When he left Edinburgh for London in 1862, his worldview – his radical politics, his broad-minded religion, his social egalitarianism, his belief in social and political activism – had already been formed, in Fife and in Edinburgh.

In London between 1862 and 1869, Gorrie supported himself mainly by journalism, working for the liberal/radical newspaper the Morning Star

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