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Burt urges pardon for freedom fighter

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David Burt, the Premier (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

A pastor thrown into jail after he wrote about the unfair treatment of Jamaican workers in Bermuda more than 100 years ago could be granted a pardon.

David Burt, the Premier, told the House of Assembly yesterday that the case against the Reverend Charles Vinton Monk, who was locked up for libel after he exposed the poor conditions endured by people imported to work on the Royal Naval Dockyard, was rigged.

Now he has asked the Governor to grant a posthumous pardon in a move welcomed by church leaders.

Mr Monk, an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister and journalist from the United States who was based in Somerset, was found guilty of criminal libel in the early 1900s after he highlighted the conditions of workers brought from the West Indies to extend the base.

Mr Burt said: “During his tenure, he witnessed harsh and terrible conditions imposed on Jamaican workers brought to Bermuda to work in the construction of the Royal Naval Dockyard.

“In keeping with the doctrine of the AME Church and its commitment to social justice, Reverend Monk took to writing about these conditions and exposed the company responsible for them in the hope that this would bring about a change to the benefit of the workers.

“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.”

The Premier said Mr Monk was jailed “for simply reporting the truth”.

He added: “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 original trial date — amid speculation he was poisoned.

Sir Brownlow Gray, the trial judge, was the father of prosecutor Reginald Gray and the pair were also related to the assistant justice, while the Crown’s two witnesses compared to more than 100 called to defend Mr Monk’s reports.

The House heard the Premier, with the approval of the Cabinet and backed by the AME Church, has asked the Governor to consult the Advisory Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy with a view to granting the pastor a “full and free posthumous pardon”.

Mr Burt said: “Some may say ‘why this and why now?’. To that, there is a simple answer, Mr Speaker: ‘It is never too late to do the right thing’.”

The Premier said the case was brought to the attention of the modern public by the late Ira Philip in his book Freedom Fighters: From Monk to Mazumbo.

Mr Philip later said the conviction could “only be characterised as a miscarriage of justice”.

Reverend Nicholas Tweed, pastor of St Paul AME Church, thanked the Premier for “having both the historical understanding of the importance of this case and also the moral courage to correct a historic wrong”.

He added: “Seldom in the life of a community do we have the opportunity to correct historic injustices.”

He added the move represented “the best of what we can hope to become and I hope that it will be utilised, as the Premier said, as a teaching moment to begin teaching our children and the rest of the island about the importance of our history and also to develop the courage to change those things that need to be changed about our history so we can move forward in a productive and beneficial way for the common good.”

Mr Burt did not rule out similar applications in the future.

He said: “For anyone who has been observing this government for the past 11 months, we are not afraid of using the mandate which we were given by the people of this country and where there are things that need to be changed, we will press forward and do that.”

A Government House spokeswoman said: “The Governor will consider the request in line with his responsibilities under the Constitution.”

Recovered story: The front cover of Ira Philip’s book, From Monk to Mazumbo, which details the court case against Reverend Charles Vinton Monk