Beleaguered law officers

Stabroek News
April 22, 2000

The early colonial period boasted some truly cantankerous legal officers. There was Harkenroth, for example, Berbice's very first legally qualified Fiscal - a kind of combination attorney-general, public prosecutor and chief of police. A work-shy and irascible man, he seized the opportunity when the 1763 Uprising broke out to hide on a boat moored in front of Fort Nassau, taking all the official colony papers with him. No one could get him to attend the meetings of the council which he was legally obliged to do, and when he was finally brought forcibly in front of the Governor and Councillors he was in no mood to indulge their criticisms. Pressed on his lack of commitment to duty and for some account of the disappearance of the colony papers, he delivered what is undoubtedly the best-known sound-bite of the revolt. "I can't get enough for myself and wife," he snapped at his interrogators, "and I don't propose to stand here and be shot at for twenty guilders a month."

It was his critics, however, who had the last word. He was subsequently arrested on his arrival in Amsterdam and was taken to court by the directors of the company which owned Berbice.

Then there was the Fiscal of Demerara, Van Berckel, who held office in the early nineteenth century, and whose considerable legal talents had not always been employed in the impartial pursuit of justice. At one time or another, various allegations had been levelled against him, including murder, taking bribes and permitting the sale of rum in quantities prohibited by law. No stranger to pungent forms of expression, he was suspended under the administration of Governor Bentinck both for dishonest practices and disrespectful language. Unperturbed by this setback, he got himself reinstated by the very Court of Justice on which he normally sat.

Van Berckel was not, however, a popular man, and in 1810 a number of his critics decided on direct action. They broke into his house with the presumed intention of either injuring or killing him. The Fiscal did not wait to uncover their real motives, and promptly decamped, leaving his wife to face the invaders. Popular suspicion for this act was directed towards a group of Scotsmen, but despite the large reward offered for information, no one would come forward. It was Charles Waterton, who commemorated the incident, tongue-in-cheek, with some Latin verse, a partial contemporary translation of which runs:

In dead of night when all was wrap'd around In misty darkness and in sleep profound, A furious mob with wicked purpose bent To our first magistrate's large mansion went, And fiercely entered with a vile intent.

Van Berckel's public career came to an end after he attacked Thomas Frankland, the newly appointed President of the Court of Justice (a kind of Chief Justice), a post which he himself had hankered after. He complained that the new President had been twice convicted before the Court, first for perjury and then for contempt. For his part, Frankland alleged that the perjury charge had been based on a paper which Van Berckel had forged. An inquiry into the charges and counter-charges revealed a veritable mountain of legal dirty washing, and the matter ended with the dismissal of both of the officials involved.

Frankland's immediate successors did not do too well either. President Rough, in particular, was extremely unpopular, and was the victim of vituperative articles in the press as well as graffiti depicting him suspended from gallows chalked up on the walls of Georgetown's buildings. On October 13, 1821, a huge procession targeting him moved off down Main Street. It was headed by someone named Johnstone, sitting astride a white horse and carrying a palm leaf. The first, we are told, symbolized purity, and the second victory. He was followed by an "illuminated car" carrying Rough's enemies who displayed a transparency reading "Justice Revived." They also carried an effigy of the President which it was their intention to burn outside his office, but they were thwarted in this by the Fiscal. In the end, they contented themselves with songs and speeches in front of the Governor's house, and rowdyism in front of Rough's.

At least modern law officers have nothing worse than the media to contend with.