Peter Espeut | Why not absolve Bustamante, too?
All of the seven persons Jamaica now lauds as national heroes made serious challenges to the political system in their day and defied the colonial authorities of their time. The series of Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and People's National Party (PNP) Jamaican governments since Independence has not sought to declare persons to be national heroes who have bucked the corrupt political system they have created, which involves garrisons, electoral fraud, non-transparent and questionable party funding, and the degradation of the natural environment. To do so would be to admit their own decadence and malfeasance.
Debate on a bill to absolve certain national heroes and their supporters of criminal liability began in the House of Representatives last Tuesday. If passed, the legislation titled 'The National Heroes and Other Freedom Fighters (Absolution from Criminal Liability in Respect of Specified Events) Act, 2017', will absolve national heroes Sam Sharpe, George William Gordon, Paul Bogle, and Marcus Mosiah Garvey, as well as their supporters, sympathisers, and participants by association, and other freedom fighters, of criminal liability arising from their participation in "acts of liberation with moral justification". According to a Jamaica Information Service (JIS) press release, the Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Olivia 'Babsy' Grange, who piloted the bill, said that the objective is to "redeem and restore the dignity and integrity of those who suffered much".
I must confess that I do not understand this at all.
First of all, I do not accept that the "dignity and integrity" of Sam Sharpe, George William Gordon, Paul Bogle, and Marcus Mosiah Garvey has suffered one iota from their arrest, trial, and conviction by the racist and oppressive imperial powers of the day. Rather, I believe that they wear their travail as a badge of courage and honour, and I don't know why we would want to take that away from them.
Baptist deacon Sam Sharpe called for a peaceful general strike after the Christmas holidays of 1831. It developed into a rebellion in which 14 whites were killed. In putting down the rebellion, more than 200 slaves were killed, and in reprisal, the colonial authorities executed more than 300 slaves, including Sharpe, after summary trials.
That is our history, and Sam Sharp deserves his honour for calling a strike to end slavery and for rebelling against the evil slave system. His trial and execution make him a martyr deserving of public adulation. What is the Government saying? That he didn't deserve his conviction, and so he is being pardoned and exonerated?
Baptist deacon Paul Bogle and companions peacefully protested against the corrupt court system run by ex-slavemasters after Emancipation, revealing that nothing much had changed. He led a band of brave men who liberated a man from an unjust judgment in the Morant Bay Courthouse. The custos read the Riot Act, and the militia fired on the crowd, killing seven people. Many hundreds of Jamaicans were tried and sentenced to death by summary court martials. Paul Bogle was hung with his Bible under his arm.
WHAT'S THE POINT?
Paul Bogle did not die in vain as the whole episode resulted in the end of the power of the planter-dominated House of Assembly and some improvement in the conditions of poor Jamaicans. What is the point of expunging the conviction of Paul Bogle more than 150 years later? That false conviction is the source of his honour today, and his dignity and integrity will not be advanced in any way by doing so.
Baptist deacon and assemblyman George William Gordon, on the other hand, is totally innocent of any involvement in the Morant Bay Rebellion, either in the planning or the execution. He was a public critic of the governor, who used the opportunity of martial law to dispose of him. Gordon was illegally arrested in Kingston (where there was no martial law), transported to Morant Bay by ship, and tried and summarily executed. He would justifiably benefit from a pardon because he was innocent, and frankly, does not deserve the honour of national hero.
National Hero Marcus Garvey was convicted in Jamaica on a charge of contempt of court because he referred to judges as corrupt. He served a prison sentence. His constituents did not consider that conviction important as he subsequently won his seat, unopposed, on the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation in 1930. Possibly, his conviction by the colonial judicature made him more popular. Why now expunge the record of this anti-colonial fighter?
And yet the criminal record of Alexander Bustamante is not to be expunged. In 1938, he was detained for calling for widespread strikes, and on September 8, 1940, under wartime powers, Bustamante was imprisoned at Up Park Camp for incitement to riot after he addressed a group of longshoremen on the Kingston waterfront. He was released 17 months later. This leaves Busta's record as a political martyr intact.
Is not what Busta did an "act of liberation with moral justification"? Why exonerate the others and not him?
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a development scientist.
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