Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, John (1790-1824)

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SMITH, JOHN (1790–1824), missionary, son of a soldier killed in battle in Egypt, was born on 27 June 1790 at Rothwell, near Kettering in Northamptonshire. All his education he derived from occasional attendance at a Sunday school. At the age of fourteen he entered the service of a biscuit-maker in London named Blunden. His master dying in 1806, Davies, his successor, took him as an apprentice, and assisted him to improve his education. Under the influence of the Rev. John Stevens he became earnest in matters of religion and zealous for study. He was accepted by the London Missionary Society, and in December 1816 was ordained as successor to John Wray at Le Resouvenir, near Demerara or Georgetown, in British Guiana. He arrived at Demerara on 23 Feb. 1817, and in his first interview with the governor, Major-general John Murray, the latter threatened that if he taught any negro-slave to read he should be banished. Notwithstanding the undisguised hostility of the white population, he laboured among the negroes with considerable success. In August 1823 his health broke down, and he was recommended by his doctor to leave the colony. On 18 Aug., however, a rising of the negroes took place, and three days later Smith was arrested for refusing to take up arms against the negroes. He was tried by court-martial on the charge of having promoted discontent among them. On the worthless evidence of terrorised slaves he was found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged. His execution was postponed until the pleasure of the home government should be known. But he was confined in the meantime in an unhealthy dungeon, and died there on 24 Feb. 1824. His wife Jane, whom he married about the time of his ordination, died in 1828 at Rye in Sussex. They had no children.

When the news of Smith's imprisonment reached England, popular interest was aroused. The publication of the documents connected with the case by the London Missionary Society intensified the excitement, and upwards of two hundred petitions on his behalf were presented to parliament in eleven days. On 1 June 1825 his trial was debated in the House of Commons. Lord Brougham brought forward a motion condemning the action of the Demerara government, and asserted that ‘in Smith's trial there had been more violation of justice, in form as well as in substance, than in any other inquiry in modern times that could be called a judicial proceeding.’ After an adjournment, however, the motion, which was opposed by government, was negatived by 193 to 146.

[Wallbridge's Memoirs of the Rev. John Smith; Gent. Mag. 1824, ii. 281; Speeches delivered in the House of Commons regarding the proceedings at Demerara, Edinburgh, 1824; Minutes of Evidence on the Trial of John Smith, London, 1824; Statement of the Proceedings of the Directors of the London Missionary Society in the case of Rev. John Smith; Missionary Chronicle, March 1824; The London Missionary Society's Report of the Proceedings against John Smith, London, 1824; The Missionary Smith, London, 1824; New Times, 11 April 1824; C. Buxton's Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, pp. 138–40; Edinburgh Review, xl. 244; Eclectic Review, 1848, ii. 728; Blackwood's Mag. June 1824.]

E. I. C.