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Conduct Of Rev J Smith At Demerara—Petition From London Missionary Society

Volume 11: debated on Tuesday 13 April 1824

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rose to present a petition from the London Missionary Society, formed for the propagation of Christianity in heathen and other unenlightened countries, composed of ministers of various dissenting denominations. It complained of the trial, proceedings, and sentence against the Rev. J. Smith, who it was but too well known had been a Missionary from this Society at Demerara. He did not intend to enter into any statement of the case, or to make any remarks that might lead to discussion, or call for animadversion, because such a course would be in the highest degree inconvenient and improper, on a matter so painful and important, before the House was fully in possession of all the facts connected with it. The delay in the printing of the trial had been such, that it was not yet in the possession of the members of the House. Another opportunity would be afforded for debating the question. He therefore not only abstained himself, but he suggested to other members the fitness of not entering into any premature discussion. In justice to the petitioners, he owed one single observation to them; it was, that he believed them to be worthy and excellent persons, liable, like all others, to be deceived, but incapable of practising intentional deception. On their part it was his duty further to state, that it was their most anxious wish to separate the object they had in view from all ques- tions respecting legislating generally for the colonies. Their sole purpose was, to vindicate the security and liberty of their own missionaries in every part of the British dominions, engaged in the performance of a duty strictly religious.

said, he did not rise to oppose the reception of the petition. He concurred entirely in what had been just said on the impropriety of premature discussion, but he was bound in justice to express his regret, that this petition, stating facts, drawing inferences, and terminating in a prayer founded upon reasoning, had been presented, before the House was in a situation to form a judgment on the case. If, therefore, in compliance with the suggestion of the hon. and learned member, he now abstained from entering into any details, it was most distinctly to be understood, that be was not thereby to be precluded hereafter from pointing out the extreme inaccuracies with which the petition abounded. He concurred also in what had been said as to the character of the petitioners. No doubt they had no wish to deceive; but, on the other hand, he was called upon to express his firm belief, that, on some points, they had been grossly deceived. He doubted also, whether they had exercised a sound discretion in the course they had pursued. The petition, which purported to be the Petition of the treasurer, secretary and directors of the Loudon Missionary Society, was then read; setting forth, "That the petitioners are the officers of a Society established in 1795, including clergymen and members of the Established Church, and ministers and laymen of different denominations among Protestant Dissenters; that the sole object of that Society is, to spread the knowledge of Christ among heathen and other unenlightened nations; that to accomplish their object the society send pious and self-denying men to those regions where the population need religious instruction, and at an expense exceeding 30,000l. per annum support those missionaries amidst labours which pure benevolence alone can induce them to sustain, and which human praise can never repay; that the Christian motives which prompt those exertions render the society most circumspect as to the characters of the persons whom they depute, and that they might refer with cordial satisfaction and devout gratitude to many of their missionaries, some of whom have, under the blessing of God, civilized barbarians and evangelized the idolatrous, whilst others have by their literary labours, especially in the translation of the Holy Scriptures, reflected honour on their country, and become the benefactors of large portions of the world; that the Dutch-ceded colony of Demerara was selected in 1807 for a missionary station, at the request of respectable persons resident therein, and because the neglected state of a large slave population excited their compassion; and their judgment has been since confirmed by official documents, which declared that catechists and teachers' were required to instruct that population in the elementary principles of the Christian faith;' that notwithstanding this declaration from the highest authority in the colony, special circumstances connected with Demerara have rendered the duties of missionaries peculiarly arduous and perplexing, and have occasioned difficulties which no other West-Indian colonies, in an equal degree, present; but many of these obstacles were surmounted by a patient continuance in well-doing:' and chapels have been built, where numerous congregations of negroes assembled for public worship, and those lessons of religion and morals, and civil subordination, were inscribed on their memories and their hearts, which many and long-continued sufferings have been unable to efface; in the end of 1816, the rev. John Smith was sent to Demerara: his station was at a chapel in the plantation called Le Resouvenir on the eastern coast; the confidence in his excellent principles, and other qualifications, led the society to select him for that appointment; but this estimate of his worth and fitness did not induce them to omit those especial instructions and cautions which their ordinary regulations, and a conviction of the difficulties connected with that station, especially required; the following instructions were therefore given:— In the discharge of your missionary duty you may meet with difficulties almost peculiar to the West Indies or colonies, where slaves are employed in the culture of the earth and other laborious employments. Some of the gentlemen who own the estates, the masters of the slaves, are unfriendly to their instruction; at least, they are jealous lest by any mismanagement on the part of the missionaries, or misunderstanding on the part of the negroes, the public peace and safety should be endangered. You must take the utmost care to prevent the possibility of this evil; not a word must escape you in public or private which might render the slaves displeased with their masters, or dissatisfied with their station; you are not sent to relieve them from their servile condition, but to afford them the consolations of religion, and to enforce upon them the necessity of being "subject, not only for wrath but for conscience sake." Romans, xiii. 6; 1 Peter, ii. 19. The holy gospel you preach will render the slaves who receive it the more diligent, faithful, patient, and useful servants; will render severe discipline unnecessary, and make them the most valuable servants on the estates; and thus you will recommend yourself and your ministry even to those gentlemen who may have been averse to the religious instruction of the negroes. We are well assured that this happy effect has already been produced in many instances, and we trust you will be the honoured instrument of producing many more.—To those instructions the petitioners believe that the rev. John Smith paid duteous and willing respect, although many acts of unkindness towards himself, and of illegal restriction and harshness towards the negroes who attended on his ministry, rendered implicit and uniform obedience no easy task; in that situation, surrounded by difficulties which Christian ministers in England have never known, which exist in an equal degree perhaps in no other West-Indian colony, the rev. John Smith continued his humble and indefatigable ministry until August last; incessant occupation in an unhealthy climate had in the mean time much impaired the health of Mr. Smith, and medical advisers had prescribed his speedy return to Europe, or his removal to a more salubrious air, and that advice for the preservation of his life he intended to obey; but in August, last, events occurred which interrupted the execution of that purpose, and have pressed him down prematurely, to the grave; on August the 18th there was a commotion on several plantations on the eastern coast; the slaves on the plantation where Mr. Smith resided, and several slaves particularly connected with his chapel, were engaged in that commotion; it appears to have been rather a riotous assemblage than a planned rebellion, and within a very few days it was easily sup- pressed; many negroes were shot and hanged, though little, if any, injury had been done to any property, and though the life of no white man was voluntarily taken away by them; suppliants, rather than accusers, the petitioners do not desire to develope the remote orimmediate causes of an event which they deplore, but they entreat permission to state, upon the information communicated to them, that peculiar and unwarrantable cruelties towards the slaves, that Sunday labours illegally compelled, that capricious interruptions and impediments thrown in the way of their religious duties, and especially that a long and inexplicable delay to promulgate the directions transmitted from his Majesty's government favourable to the negro population, and well known amongst them to have arrived, were causes sufficient to account for the effect; at the commencement of the commotion martial law was proclaimed, and a nondescript martial law was continued, not only for days, or for weeks, but for several months, after all commotion had subsided, and until the 19th of January last; this sad though brief disturbance, appears to the petitioners to have afforded an opportunity for the manifestation of the adverse and injurious feelings of many colonists, directed equally against the efforts of religious societies, against the paternal purposes of a gracious king, and against the recorded desire of the British parliament, to mitigate the sufferings of the negro population, and to improve their condition, by means which Christian instruction and education might supply; but those objects of displeasure to the colonists were distant and inaccessible, and it was on Mr. Smith, an innocent and unprotected victim, that they chiefly poured the torrent of their wrath; to the petitioners also it appears, after deliberate and careful inquiry, that his majesty's lieutenant governor allowed the sentiments of those persons to operate on his conduct, and that he has thereby been persuaded into acts which the petitioners ever must lament: on August 21st Mr. Smith was taken from his house; his private journal, and all his papers, were seized; and, notwithstanding his ill health, he was kept closely imprisoned, prohibited from all intercourse with his friends, precluded from correspondence with this society, and exposed to such treatment as is unknown to English prisoners, whatever be their crimes; martial law was continued, and his imprisonment endured: nor was it till October 13th, a period of nearly two months, that his trial was begun; all these proceedings were by the special order of his excellency the lieutenant governor and commander-in-chief; against Mr. Smith on his trial appeared the colonial Fiscal as his accuser; among the officers who composed the court was Mr. Wray, president or principal judge, of the colonial court of justice, introduced as a military officer; the charges were four, and are already among the papers laid upon the table of the House; on those charges the House will form its judgment; but the petitioners are advised that they are charges not imputing any offence legally cognizable by the court to which they were submitted; charges which no British tribunal, civil or military, could lawfully entertain, and which, if they involved any violation of the colonial laws, should by those laws alone have been tried and determined; the long interval between the apprehension and trial of Mr. Smith had been zealously employed in finding matter of accusation against him, the trial of some slaves had been proceeded in, and means had been taken to prevail on those slaves to become his accusers, in the hope of preserving their lives, defences which they neither wrote nor understood were put in as their own, not exculpating themselves but accusing Mr. Smith of crimes which no evidence had supported, and imputations which only party spirit could invent, were industriously circulated; after all these investigations, after publication of the entries made by Mr. Smith in his private journal of his feelings and his thoughts, and after all the calumnies which the colonial press could circulate, there appeared not any evidence, even to support those charges that were so anomalous and strange; it was, however, by a court martial that he was tried, and of high treason he was indirectly accused, without any of those protections against that accusation which not only the merciful laws of England, but even the colonial laws themselves supplied; he was tried by a court-martial, and the evidence of slaves was thereby introduced, the assistance of an advocate to speak on his behalf was thereby refused, and. the means of appealing from an unjust sentence were thereby precluded; of the evidence given on this trial a judgment will be formed by the House; but to the peti- tioners it has appeared that much of that testimony was truly frivolous, and that the remainder affixes neither to the motives nor to the conduct of Mr. Smith any political or moral guilt; during the progress of the trial, impartiality was not preserved, and hearsay evidence was received against Mr. Smith, while he was not allowed to produce the same species of evidence in his defence; for six weeks, from October the 13th to November 24th, the trial of Mr. Smith, struggling with a dire disorder, was prolonged, and at length a sentence was pronounced which found him guilty of the charges, but with certain exceptions, which not only extenuate but nullify some of those charges, and as to all the charges he was recommended to mercy, as though any mercy could be deserved by a man, and that man the minister of peace and of religion, who, amid a slave population, had really abused his high and righteous office, and had really excited that population to treason against the state; after that finding, and such recommendation to mercy, and after such trial by such tribunal, and with his knowledge of the malady which the confinement and sufferings of Mr. Smith had greatly increased, the petitioners would have expected that his excellency the lieutenant governor would readily have manifested the mercy it had been judged fit to recommend, and by allowing Mr. Smith to leave the colony, would have preserved his life; but the petitioners have, with grief, to state that his excellency preferred to order Mr. Smith to confinement in the common prison, and to transmit the proceedings to England for the consideration and ultimate decision of his majesty thereon; on the perusal of those proceedings his majesty's government thought proper to remit the punishment of death, but they appear to the petitioners to have given an approval of the finding of the court, by directing that Mr. Smith should be dismissed the colony, and should enter into recognizances never to return; the petitioners can conceive and can respect motives which may have induced a decision disappointing to their hopes, but all the information they have collected and all the legal opinions they have obtained, tend to confirm their belief, not only of the legal but perfect moral innocence of Mr. Smith, and that the proceedings against him were as unconstitutional as incorrect; in this judgment they are supported by communi- cations from the colony, which evidenced that the effect of Christian principle and Christian instruction had been never more benignly manifested than in the proceedings of the slaves even during the commotion, by their abstinence from outrages usual on such occasions, and by their declarations that they were taught not to take away human life; the testimony of Mr. Arrindell, the advising advocate of Mr. Smith, and of the rev. Mr. Austin, the government chaplain to the garrison, and a minister of the established church, to this effect, are contained in the following extracts from their letters, the former of whom had stated, 'It is almost presumptuous in me to differ from the sentence of a court, but, before God, I do believe Mr. Smith to be innocent; nay, I will go further, and defy any minister of any sect whatever to have shewn a more faithful attention to his sacred duties than he has been proved, by the evidence on his trial, to have done:'—while the latter, in a private letter to a friend, had written, I feel no hesitation in declaring, from the intimate knowledge which my most anxious inquiries have obtained, that in the late scourge which the hand of an all-wise Creator has inflicted on this ill-fated country, nothing but those religious impressions which, under Providence, Mr. Smith has been instrumental in fixing, nothing but those principles of the gospel of peace which he had been proclaiming, could have prevented a dreadful effusion of blood here, and saved the lives of those very persons who are now, I shudder to write it, seeking his life:—in these, their disappointments and conclusions, the petitioners have been further sanctioned by vast numbers of their countrymen of all religious denominations and who partake their sorrow and surprise; with such convictions, therefore, justice and mercy, justice to their injured missionary, and mercy to all other missionaries and Englishmen throughout the world, did not allow the petitioners to neglect any appropriate means to obtain not merely a remission but a reversal of his sentence, and his thorough acquitment from all guilt; the petitioners had accordingly informed Mr. Smith of their willingness to assist by all means in their power in supporting an appeal against the sentence should he think fit to make one; a memorial to his majesty's government had also been prepared, and legal proceedings against his excellency the lieutenant governor and the commander in chief at Demerara had been advised; but many of their wishes have been ended, and they have been filled with anguish, by intelligence, that on the 6th February last, before the decision of the government could have arrived, such injuries and such imprisonment had accelerated the desolations of disease, that death had liberated the sufferer from the prison-house, and that the name of another martyr had been inscribed on the records of the Christian church; under such circumstances, to the parliament of their country the petitioners prefer their complaint; they perceive that it is not merely the memory of Mr. Smith, nor the relief of his widow, that are involved in these transactions, but that they involve the security of those who survive in every colony, and many important questions universally interesting, of constitutional right; new establishments in the West-Indian colonies for the education and religious wellfare of the slaves are also at last wisely proposed, and new assurances, therefore, become needful for their protection, and for the protection of all Christian missionaries who now labour, and who may hereafter labour, in those ungenial and long-neglected lands; and to the petitioners it appears that redress for the evils that are past, as well as the present protection and future security they seek, can by the House be best or alone bestowed; the petitioners therefore pray, That the House will institute such inquiries, or direct or adopt such measures, as may best tend to obtain the revision or rescindment of the sentence passed on Mr. Smith, and also will adopt such measures as shall ensure needful protection to Christian missionaries in every part of the British empire throughout the world, and will afford such further relief as shall seem meet to the humanity, wisdom, and justice of the House."

Ordered to lie on the table.