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Momodou Posted - 02 Jul 2019 : 23:01:51
By Dembo Fatty

In our history classes and even in the design of our syllabus, we hardly talk about women who influenced our lives or even stood for anything great. Our lessons are mainly about a few men like Francis Small, Jawara, Sanjally, Pierre Njie, Sir Farimang, Jahumpa and lately Dibba.

But hardly were we taught about great women who helped prick our conscience and stood against colonial domination. That was then until now. I intend to introduce you to one such Gambian lady named Marie Susan.

In the year 1871, Marie was arraigned in court for an offence but in defiance, she refused to speak English in court and was sentenced to two days in jail in contempt. I am not a law student, but I am scratching my head if one can be forced to speak in a language one does not want to. After all, the court had interpreters.

To me, this was judicial activism and the bench should not be used as such. Marie had had enough and stood her ground at a time when women were almost non-existent in political or leadership positions. She was tired like Rosa Park was and was not going to give up her seat but in the case of Marie, she was tired of the abuses of authority especially from Chief Magistrate who she probably knew a lot about and decided to exercise her rights to speak in a language of her choosing.

Her woes were not over. In prison, she was forced to shave her head on the orders of the Chief Magistrate Jackson even when Marie pleaded on the grounds that because her sentence was for just 48 hours, it was not necessary to shave her head but her plea was not taken into consideration. It was a common act in those days to shave the heads of prisoners on health grounds but it was largely to humiliate them while in prison.

Interestingly, the Chief Magistrate who sentenced Marie to jail was the same Mr. Jackson who would be accused of raping young girls in Banjul two years later. You connect the dots.

Marie’s head was shaved by the Matron of the prison one Elizabeth Gray who in her defense said she was forced by the Prison Officers to shave Marie’s head.

Marie Susan’s lawyer W. Chase Walcott , described the incident as “an indignity, nay a cruelty she had to submit to being in the power of the gaol authorities” and that he would file charges of false imprisonment and “gross assault to the person.”

This incident may look small to someone today, but in 1871, to dare this enough in defiance, tells a lot about the person of Marie Susan. It is these small acts of defiance that would lay the foundation for others like Francis Small and the rest to stand tall after the ground had been levelled and the powers to be challenged enough.

In my opinion, she is my Gambian Rosa Parks who defied the colonialist and the judicial system in exercising her right to speak the language she wants to speak in court. Even accused persons have rights. This to me is the foundation of the drive towards independence.

We are tall today because we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and our women had lead their own forms of protests which we have refused to recognize. Time to rewrite the story of our journey towards independence.

For further reading available at the national Archives:

1. CSO 1/28 Kimberly to the Officer Administering the Government of the West African Settlements August 14, 1871.
2. CSO 1/29 Elizabeth Gray to Governor Anton June 21, 1871.
3. CSO 1/29 W. Chase Walcott, Advocate Attorney to Anton March 15, 1871.

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