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Jamaica's first treason/felony trial featuring the Rev Claudius Henry

Tuesday, December 10, 2013    

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IT was a brief paragraph in the Star newspaper in 1960 that led to the defusing of what many regarded as a ticking time bomb.

And when the dust cleared, the people of Jamaica were startled to learn the following:

* Four British soldiers of the Royal Hampshire Regiment (then encamped at Up Park Camp) were ambushed and shot, two fatally, in bushes near an abandoned Rastafarian camp in the rugged and treacherous terrain of Sligoville, St Catherine.

* An unspecified amount of arms and ammunition, including a sub-machine gun, was retrieved from alleged mercenaries who had been hiding in an area regarded as one of the most rugged and mountainous pathways in Catherine.

* Four men — Reynold Henry, son of Rev Claudius Henry, reputed head of the African Reform Church; Al Thomas; William Jeter; and Howard Rollins, all United States nationals and members of the US Marines — were taken into custody by a military and police unit from a house at Orange Grove, two miles out of Sligoville.

* Rev Claudius Henry (now deceased) referred to as "Repairer of the Breach", and who led a Rastafarian sect, had been taken into custody and with him, his reputed wife, Edna, and fourteen other members of the cult;

* The then West India Regiment, with supporting officers from the British Army still resident in Jamaica and members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force — making a total of 400 military personnel and 100 policemen — were part of what was described at the time as an all-out counter-attack on "the enemies of the State". Along with the others, they also took into custody Elridge Morgan, a Jamaican by birth, and another American national named David Ambrister. These men were alleged to have entered the country with the intent "to overthrow the government of the day".

This was the first treason/felony case recorded in Jamaica at the time. According to the prosecutor, the enacting law came into effect in 1869 and there never was a treason felony case since then. The jury, therefore, were making history by sitting on the instant case. To facilitate this trial, the dock of the No 1 Home Circuit Court had to be extended.

But, before this sensational trial reached the Home Circuit Court, following the report in the newspaper, my news editor, the late L K Sutherland, assigned me to interview Rev Claudius Henry at his Rosalie Avenue headquarters. It was an assignment I would never forget.

We arrived there about 10:30 am. The driver deposited me in front of a large gate of steel with a small inner gate, reversed as if he had seen a ghost, and took off in a cloud of dust. I was on my own.

Putting on a bold front, I knocked on the gate with a small stone. I heard the pulling of a bolt that echoed. As the inner gate opened, a voice enquired of my mission. I replied that I was sent by the newspaper to interview Rev Claudius Henry. The voice said: "Come!" I pushed my head in and straightened up to find myself staring into the barrels of seven rifles. The men behind the guns were bearded and wore dreadlocks. Heavy puffs of smoke were exhaled into my confused face. The smell of ganja was unmistakeable.

"Forward!" commanded one of the seven. I felt a gun sticking me in the small of my back. I moved mechanically in the direction to which I was guided. I was too numb to even feel afraid. Sitting in a large chair as if he had been enthroned was the Rev Mr Claudius Henry. He was robed in white and he held a staff or rod in his right hand. He had two men standing beside but slightly behind him. The one to his right was later identified as Calvert Claude Beckford aka 'Thunder' who, according to testimony given by a witness during the treason-felony trial, "would roll no more".

It later emerged that, among three bodies unearthed from an abandoned Rastafarian camp at Red Hills in St Andrew, following the capture of the fugitives, was 'Thunder'. The other two dead men were Gerald Scott and R McDonald. But I will come back to that.

For the next ten hours I was to undergo the most rigorous questioning covering my personal and professional life, the lives of my colleagues at the newspaper — especially the writer of that paragraph in the Star — his home address, telephone number, where he dined and had drinks, etc. All my answers were taken down in writing. Of course, I knew not where my colleagues lived, dined and drank. After about four hours of grilling it was 'Thunder' who announced: "The woman is a spy. We have to get rid of her."

My heart sank. I had been standing all that time; now I looked down at my feet as if imploring them to run for my life. But 'where could I run?' I asked myself.

Viewing the Black Jesus

Suddenly, the reverend gentleman spoke. "No! No! Let me deal with this," he said. Those were the first kind words I had heard in almost five hours. Then he offered me a seat. I was weary hungry, thirsty, but above all, fearful. 'Thunder' was not at all pleased with how Rev Henry was handling the matter, and he said as much. It was clear, however, who was in charge.

The premises were full of chanting Rastafarians clad in black uniforms. There was singing and dancing and smoking and the beating of drums. A lot of arms were visible. In all of this, all thoughts of an interview left my head. I tried to remain calm, but all I could think of was my safety and getting out of there alive.

I answered a few more questions posed by Rev Henry as politely as I could. Then he asked me if I would like to be taken on a tour of his inner sanctum to see the Black Jesus and his mother, Mary. I was happy to do so. Thunder again objected, but to no avail. And so, I was taken inside. I beheld the most exquisitely adorned altar in black and gold and at the top, looking down majestically, was a carving in wood of the Black Jesus. On a pedestal nearby was a similar carving of the Virgin Mary. Black scented candles glowed dimly as we tiptoed to other rooms where I saw breathtaking pieces of sculpture reminiscent of Africa and African culture.

I would have liked to ask the reverend gentleman a multiplicity of questions, but the fragility of the moment did not lend itself to such risk-taking. We returned to the porch. I was left sitting there for what seemed like an eternity. I could hear voices inside; it appeared to me as if my fate was being decided.

What was troubling me, though, was that no one from the newspaper had bothered to check to see what had happened to me. Day turned to night. I was guarded all around. I just sat there and prayed for deliverance.

Then finally, Rev Henry, accompanied by Thunder, joined me on the porch. He advised me that I was being released on condition that nothing I had seen or heard would be reported in the newspaper, or reported to any of my colleagues or family members. Of course, I agreed. I was also advised that I would be watched closely from henceforth.

Well, the armed guards were instructed to open the inner gate and set me free. I was wearing 4" high stilettos but, once outside, I never stopped running until I reached the Denham Town Police Station. One shoe heel left me and I never missed it till I reached the station. The police called my office and a driver was sent to fetch me.

The editor, the late Dr Theodore Sealy, saw red when he heard the story. The news editor came pretty close to losing his job.

A Cause célèbre

The Rev Mr Claudius Henry, his wife Edna and fourteen others were taken before the court having been charged with three counts of treason/felony. During that long drawn-out trial that followed months after my adventure, Rev Henry, from his position in the prisoner's dock, was to remind me, on more than one occasion, that he it was who had spared my life that memorable Saturday.

At a later trial, his son Reynold Henry and the others, who were charged with several counts of murder, were also tried, convicted, sentenced to death and hanged on the gallows at the St Catherine District Prison.

Justice Herbert Duffus, later chief justice (now deceased) and a jury sitting in the No 1 Home Circuit Court heard all about the plot which the prosecution alleged was hatched in order to overthrow the Government of Jamaica. Marshalling the case for the prosecution was Crown Counsel Huntley Munroe (later QC and director of public prosecutions) and associated with him was attorney L L Robotham, later puisne judge (both now deceased).

The defendants — Rev Henry, his wife and fourteen followers — were represented by Peter Evans, an Irish barrister-at-law practising in Jamaica at the time. Arising out of the case, Evans was subsequently charged with perverting the course of justice, tried in the Home Circuit Court and sentenced by the late Justice Waddington to nine months' imprisonment at hard labour. His appeal was subsequently allowed, but by then he had already served most of the sentence. On his release from prison, he left Jamaica and returned to his homeland.

The treason felony case was a cause célèbre. The area around the Supreme Court was cordoned off. Armed soldiers and police personnel were everywhere. Visitors to the court, witnesses and all were thoroughly searched before entry could be gained. It was a time of high security alert; the Government was taking no chances.

At the end of a 19-day trial, the jury retired for 68 minutes and returned a unanimous verdict of guilty against the 57-year-old Rev Henry, his wife, and twelve of his followers on all three counts of the indictment.

Before passing the longest sentence on Henry himself — that of 10 years imprisonment at hard labour on each count, the sentences to run concurrently — Justice Duffus told him: "It is clear and clear beyond any doubt that the persons charged attempted to influence the Government of this country, properly constituted, by highly unlawful means. It is also clear and clear beyond any doubt also in my mind, that the chief instigator and promoter is you, Claudius Henry, a man who called himself an appointed prophet of God, a man who threw scorn on all other religions in Jamaica, who heard his counsel say 'Never scorn any man's religion'."

The judge described the sentence as "moderated and merciful".

The 14th accused, 27-year-old ice cream vendor FitzAlbert Brooks, was convicted on the first of the three counts only, and sentenced to three years' imprisonment at hard labour. The others received sentences ranging from three to five years. Edna Fisher, Henry's reputed wife, received a sentence of three years' imprisonment at hard labour, but died in prison before completing her sentence.

As for Reynold Henry and his cohorts, the seven-day manhunt by the military and police ended in their capture at Orange Grove in St Catherine. The hunt was under the command of Lt Col David Smith and Major Dunstan Robinson, Commissioner of Police L P R Browning, ACP A Gordon Langdon, later police commissioner (all now deceased).

Reynold Henry and the other three American nationals had fallen asleep on the floor of the house of a rural shopkeeper, who told police later that they had come to his place demanding food and drinks which he was forced to supply. He testified at the trial that he managed to leave after they fell asleep and he contacted the police. A watch was placed on the house.

On the early morning of July 26, 1960, a military and police unit descended on the house and ordered the four men to "come out with your hands up!"

The court was told that Rollins "stirred" then reached for a sub-machine gun which was lying beside him on the floor. He was shot and injured; later he was taken by ambulance to the Kingston Public Hospital. Further evidence revealed that, as the soldiers and police entered the room, Henry reached for a weapon and was struck down with the butt of a rifle by a soldier. He and the other three were taken to the Central Police Station where they were detained.

Three counts of murder were laid against Henry, Elridge Morgan, Al Thomas, William Jeter and Howard Rollins in relation to the deaths of Thunder and the other found by the security forces in a grave at the abandoned Rastafarian camp in Red Hills.

Also charged with these three murders were Titus Damons, Rupert Gabbidon, Henry, Rollins, Jeter, Thomas, and Donald Harper, another US Marine, who were all charged with the murders of the two Royal Hampshire soldiers — Brian Metherell and David John Philpott.

Reynold Henry, Donald Harper and Titus Damons were additionally charged with being in possession of a firearm without a licence.

All these accused were charged with treason felony under S 4, Chapter 390 of the Treason Felony Law in that they "with other persons unknown, did on May 11, 1960 and on divers days before and after, within the island of Jamaica, maliciously and advisedly endeavour to excite or stir up persons to commit acts of insurrection by force".

Murder victims made to dig their graves

David Coore (later QC) appeared for Donald Harper; Gladys Morrison for Jeter and Rollins; W B Wilkie (later puisne judge) appeared for Thomas; Basil Rowe for Damons; W B Frankson for Reynold Henry and H O B Fernandez McCartney for Lawrence Rechberg (all of these defence counsels are all deceased).

The gripping trial was told by a witness who was present at the execution-style killing of the three Rastafarian cultists, that Reynold Henry, who had at that time taken over control of the cult from Beckford ('Thunder'), ordered each of the deceased to dig their own graves. As each one dug his grave, he was ordered to "jump in". Then he was shot through the head and other Rastafarians, including the witness were ordered to "throw earth".

After the three men were killed, he (the witness) was next in line to be executed. Suddenly, he said, Reynold Henry, looked at him and told him he could go. He waited for an opportune time and escaped. He made a report to the police. This witness was put under the Witness Protection Programme and given safe passage out of the island at the conclusion of the case.

The first four US nationals captured by the security forces, along with Elridge Morgan, David Ambrister et al and charged with the murder of the two British Hampshire soldiers were also tried. Rollins was tried separately, convicted and sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of the proprietor of the popular club and bar known as Champion House at the corner of Lyndhurst Road and Maxfield Avenue, St Andrew.

During the earlier treason felony hearing, the court heard evidence from several witnesses including Charlton Nunes, a mechanic. He testified that he had first visited 78 Rosalie Avenue about 9:00 am on December 5, 1959. He saw about 200 to 300 people moving about in the yard, among them Rev Claudius Henry. He took note of two men at the gate, an oven at the back of the yard, and a window from which food could be bought. Some of the people were dressed in blue/black uniforms.

Some time later that morning, Henry called a meeting. He said he had an announcement to make. He spoke of a report in the Star newspaper. The report was about activities going on behind the gate of 78 Rosalie Avenue.

The reader said: "They had been worrying about their activities at the church. Go and tell the commissioner of police that he is late as the church was declared an army camp and no police was allowed from now on."

Nunes testified that Rev Henry also spoke, telling the gathering that he had been preparing to hold a public meeting but had to cancel because of the report in the newspaper. Henry said further: "(Norman) Manley's government is preparing 14,000 white soldiers to fight us, but that their blood would run" as he had machine guns to fight them.

Advising members of his church, not to be afraid, the witness said, Henry then spoke of his recent trip to the United States and added that they thought he had gone to see his wife, but little did they know that he had been to Russia and to see the "King of Kings".

Henry also spoke of "his boys from abroad" about whom, he said, the government was worrying themselves; but it was what the boys were carrying Government should worry about. Government was also be concerned about the long boots the boys were wearing but, said Henry: The boots were to trample the dead."

After announcing the unveiling of what he called "the Black Man's flag", witness testified further, Henry told members of his church: "Go and tell the Government we have slipped out of their hands."

Cross-examined, witness said he had gone there because he was anxious to go back to Africa; the movement was responsible for attracting him to the church.

Immigration officer and sergeant of police, Frank Alfred Davis (later SSP, now deceased) told of going to 78 Rosalie Avenue, accompanied by two police officers on the morning of November 30, 1959. There, he saw Rev Henry, his son Reynold and US citizen, Mitchell Swaby. He told Reynold Henry and Swaby that he was sent by the acting chief immigration officer to tell them that they were to report at police headquarters the following day to be interviewed.

Witness informed the court that four persons, including Reynold Henry and Swaby had arrived in the island from the United States on November 28. Claudius Henry objected to the request, while Reynold shrugged his shoulders and said he would like to meet the acting chief immigration officer. Then, according to the witness, Rev Henry ordered him to "leave his yard" and to tell the immigration officer "to come himself".

But shortly after, Rev Henry invited Nunes inside his church where, he saw photographs of the Black Christ, the Black Virgin Mary and Haille Selassie, whom Rev Henry acclaimed to be his god. He also showed him pictures of slaves whom he said had been beaten and killed in the United States.

The witness related how the Rev Mr Henry got into a sudden rage and, in a high tone of voice, said: "It is our time now, and if we don't get what we want, blood will flow. We will not stop until every Black man is dead. They bothering me too much. I am going to train an army strong as a lion, and any white man or black man who tries to stop me is going to be killed. We are going to free Africa and go home."

It was the prosecution's case that:

Henry and his followers and other persons unknown on December 5, 1959 encompassed, devised and intended to excite insurrection against the government of this island. The defendants preached a doctrine calculated to intimidate and overawe the government and they sought to do this by overt acts as set out:

One, that Claudius Henry and 15 of his followers, contrary to Section 3 of the Treason Felony Law, Chapter 390, with other persons unknown as aforesaid did maliciously and advisedly meet, propose, treat, consult, conspire, and agree by themselves with force to subvert, overawe and intimidate the Government of Jamaica; two, that the defendants and other persons unknown as aforesaid did bring or cause to be brought to and have at 78 Rosalie Avenue, a quantity of explosives, firearms and lethal weapons with the intent to use the same in the accomplishment of their said object of subverting, overawing and intimidating the Government of Jamaica; and, three, that they with other persons unknown, as aforesaid, did cause to be printed and written a document purporting to elicit the aid and advice of a foreign country to overthrow the government of Jamaica; and four, that the defendants and other persons unknown as aforesaid, in breach of the Treason Felony Law section 4, Chapter 390, did cause to be written and printed a document calculated to stir up and cause an insurrection in Jamaica with the intention to subvert, overawe and intimidate the Government of Jamaica."

The prosecution relied on a number of documents exhibited in court as well as evidence from witnesses. Among the documents were one headed: "Standing In the Gap" and another setting up what was called a "Council of Righteous Government". Also there was the letter written to the Commissioner of Police and members of the government stating: "I may be forced to invade the church." These, the prosecution referred to as publications of overt acts and took note of the cult's reference to Castro as "Fidelissimo Castro".

The defence claimed that 78 Rosalie Avenue was a citadel just like the Salvation Army and referred the court to Psalm 149 V.6 which reads: "Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand;" to which the prosecution responded that the defence should have gone on to verse 7 which reads as follows: " Let the double-edged sword bring vengeance upon them and bring death."

The defence also claimed that some of the weapons found in their possession were used for fishing, the others were for worship and to be shipped to Africa when the time came. Each accused denied having any intention to overthrow the Government of Jamaica.

Claudius Henry did admit that two of the documents were inflammatory.

Justice Duffus before passing sentence noted: "This is the first trial of its kind as far as I know of in the history of this island." He mentioned that from as far back as 1935 he had come in contact with the Rastafarian movement, through a man named Leonard Howell, whom he said, had assumed exactly the same role - as self-appointed prophet - as Henry was now assuming, to take the people of the country back to Africa.

He continued: "It is my view this doctrine has been allowed to spread. It has been allowed to spread and take hold of the poor, illiterate people of Jamaica. It is wicked. A wicked doctrine and the people that prey on the unfortunate, illiterate persons like a number of you persons here, persons with poor education, I can have no sympathy for them whatever."

Only four of the 15 persons, Rev Henry included, responded when asked if they had anything to say why the sentence of the court should not be passed:

Edna Fisher, 52, fish vendor said she did not understand the counts. She wished to prove her innocence.

Justice Duffus: "I'm afraid it's too late for that."

Lascelles Stone, 19-year-old sales clerk: "God and Israel will remember your judgment."

Wilfred Brown, 36, peanut vendor: "Not before I get back to Africa."

Cecil Moore, hawk-and-pedlar: "Love and Justice."

Next week: The lack of legal representation in a case of murder due to non-payment of attorneys' fees

Sybil E HIbbert is a veteran journalist and retired court reporting specialist. She is also the wife of Retired ACP Isadore 'Dick' Hibbert, rated among the top Jamaican detectives of his time. Send comments to allend@jamaicaobserver.com

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