Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Riotous Assembly?

In 1929, the government of the Nyasaland Protectorate passed an Ordinance to Establish a Code of Criminal Law.  Bear in mind that this was a government that would today be considered authoritarian and un-democratic.  Subjects in Nyasaland (today Malawi, a small and densely-populated country in Central Africa which runs the length of a lake of the same name—itself the southernmost of the Great Lakes which stretch down the Rift Valley) were already contesting colonial rule, and 1915 had seen a small revolt led by John Chilembwe aggressively put down by the colonial authorities (in 1918, Nyasaland’s Legislative Assembly passed a bill banning “inflammatory literature”).

One section of the Ordinance designed to enforce colonial law and order read as follows:

“When an unlawful assembly has begun to execute the purpose for which it assembled by a breach of the peace and to the terror of the public, the assembly is called a riot, and the persons assembled are said to be riotously assembled.  Any person who takes part in an unlawful assembly is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment without hard labour for one year.  Any person who takes part in a riot is guilty of a misdemeanour.

“Any magistrate or, in his absence, any police officer of or above the rank of assistant superintendent or any commissioned officer in the military forces of the Protectorate, in whose view twelve or more persons are riotously assembled, or who apprehends that a riot is about to be committed by twelve or more persons assembled within his view, may make or cause to be made a proclamation in the King’s name, in such form as he thinks fit, commanding the rioters or persons so assembled to disperse peaceably.  If upon the expiration of a reasonable time after such proclamation made, or after the making of such proclamation has been prevented by force, twelve or more persons continue riotously assembled together, any person authorised to make a proclamation, or any police officer or any other person acting in aid of such person or police officer, may do all things necessary for dispersing the persons so continuing assembled, or for apprehending them or any of them, and, if any person makes resistance may use all such force as is reasonably necessary for overcoming such resistance and shall not be liable in any criminal or civil proceeding for having, by the use of such force, caused harm or death to any person.

“If proclamation is made, commanding the persons engaged in a riot, or assembled with the purpose of committing a riot, to disperse, every person who, at or after the expiration of a reasonable time from the making of such proclamation, takes or continues to take part in the riot or assembly is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for five years ... Any person who, being riotously assembled together, unlawfully pull down or destroy or begin to pull down or destroy any building, railway, machinery or structure are guilty of a felony, and each of them is liable to imprisonment for life.

“All persons are guilty of a misdemeanour who being riotously assembled, unlawfully and with force prevent, hinder or obstruct the loading or unloading, or the sailing or navigating of any vessel, or unlawfully and with force board any vessel with intent to do so”.

Based in part on a British law dating from the early eighteenth century, Nyasaland’s Ordinance is a good example of what it looks like when an unrepresentative and undemocratic government tries to quash dissent.  The language is sufficiently elastic that virtually any political gathering could become a Riotous Assembly, subject to an almost indiscriminate use of force.  It also rendered any industrial action (already banned) illegal.

Authoritarian governments, parties and people have a long history of using the threat of disorder—even when it only exists in their fevered imaginations—as a justification for using violence to suppress political dissent.  Republican Party candidates are currently accusing demonstrators in the United States of rioting, of attacking the police (really?!), and of consisting of people who the British would have called ‘undesirables’ (such people, incidentally, could be banned from Nyasaland if they were European and could not read or write; if they were thought likely to rely on state resources; if foreign governments deemed them undesirable; and if they were undesirable on “economic grounds” or “habits”, among other reasons). 

Knowing how such laws and language have been used in the past we should, today more than ever, be wary when people begin to be criticised along similar lines, and when politicians and governments advocate restrictive legislation or the further limitation of rights.


Ordinances, Nyasaland Protectorate.  1929.  British Library: CSC.21

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