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‘Freedom fighter’ Monk given historic pardon

Freedom Fighters: from Monk to Mazumbo, by Ira Philip (File image)

A pastor jailed more than a hundred years ago after he wrote about the unfair treatment of Jamaican workers in Bermuda was granted a posthumous pardon by the Governor yesterday.

Government House confirmed that John Rankin had pardoned the Reverend Charles Vinton Monk — thought to be a

modern-day first for a British Overseas Territory.

Mr Rankin said: “Posthumous pardons are only granted in the most exceptional of cases.

“After careful consideration, I am satisfied, however, that in exercising his freedom of expression, the Reverend Monk was seeking to serve the public interest.

“That fact, together with the likely truth of what he wrote and the evident procedural irregularities in the trial, justify the grant of a pardon in this instance.”

Mr Monk was imprisoned for libel in 1903 after he exposed poor conditions endured by people brought to the island to work on the Royal Naval Dockyard.

The pardon came after David Burt, the Premier, told the House of Assembly in June last year that he had asked the Governor to consult the Advisory Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy about the possibility of a pardon for the pastor and journalist.

Mr Rankin said: “This is an historical case and we can recognise today that the act for which the Reverend Monk was convicted was an act of courage in drawing attention to the unacceptable working conditions to which the Jamaican nationals in Bermuda were being subjected.

“Today is an opportunity to acknowledge Reverend Monk’s work in seeking to remove an injustice which was then taking place.”

Mr Burt last night said the pardon was a “significant and historic decision”.

He said: “The injustice of Mr Monk’s trial and the actual injustice he was determined to expose make this decision a landmark recognition of the importance of the rights of workers and of a free, responsible media.

“Today, the legacy of a tireless journalist shines even brighter. The late Ira Philip recorded this story and his work has been proven invaluable.”

Power to grant a pardon is delegated to the Governor under Section 22 of the Constitution after consultation with the advisory committee.

A Government House spokeswoman said last month that Mr Rankin had “carried out extensive research” after he received the request to pardon Mr Monk.

The American-born pastor was in charge at the Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in Somerset near the end of the 19th century.

Work crews were brought to Bermuda from the West Indies — particularly Jamaica — in 1902 to complete work on the Dockyard extension.

A report in the National Museum of Bermuda’s MariTimes magazine said that riots against working and living conditions broke out on Ireland Island in June that year.

Several Jamaican people were arrested and eight claimed to be the ringleaders were jailed for up to six months.

An editorial by Mr Monk in The New Era newspaper demanded better working conditions and the pastor blamed the deaths of two workers on the building contractor, which filed a charge of false and defamatory libel against him. A second piece on the subject led to a criminal libel charge brought by Reginald Gray, then the Attorney-General.

Mr Burt told MPs last year: “Instead of accepting the truth of the obvious state of the workforce, the rampant disease and dangerous working conditions at the site, the principals of the company saw to it that Monk was arrested and charged with criminal libel.”

He added then: “A review of the case indicates that the whole affair was laced with shocking bias.”

The House heard the pastor was unrepresented in court after his counsel died the day before the trial date — amid speculation he was poisoned.

Sir Brownlow Gray, the trial judge, was the father of the Attorney-General, who prosecuted the case, and the pair were also related to the assistant justice.

The Crown called just two witnesses compared to more than 100 called to defend Mr Monk’s reports.

The MariTimes article, published in 2011, said: “Despite the many witnesses who corroborated Monk’s claims about conditions on the work site, he was found guilty on December 16, 1903, fined heavily and jailed for four months.”

An account of the trial was given in the book Freedom Fighters: From Monk to Mazumbo, written by Mr Philip.

A writ signed by Mr Rankin yesterday said that he granted “free pardon to the Reverend Charles Vinton Monk in respect of his conviction for criminal libel in the Supreme Court on 16 December 1903”.

The pardon came as the UK and Canadian governments co-hosted a Global Conference for Media Freedom in London.

The event was said to be “a major milestone” in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s campaign “to protect journalists doing their job, and to promote the benefits of a free media worldwide”.

To view the writ of pardon, click on the PDF link under “Related Media”