A history of hunger strikes: From the suffragettes to Guantánamo

From Russia in 1880 to Bobby Sands in 1980 and Guantanamo in 2013, hunger strikes have been used by prisoners with no other method of protest available to them. David Barnett delves into the history of this method of civil disobedience

Monday 10 December 2018 10:36
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A couple walks past a mural of Bobby Sands in the Falls Road, Belfast. Republican Sands died in prison in 1981 after a 66-day hunger strike
A couple walks past a mural of Bobby Sands in the Falls Road, Belfast. Republican Sands died in prison in 1981 after a 66-day hunger strike

When Falklands veteran Gus Hales wanted to complain about the way he felt he had been treated by a charity dealing with soldiers suffering from PTSD, he employed a weapon that has been a staple of the arsenal of protest for almost 150 years: the hunger strike. Mr Hales, 62, of Brecon, Powys, conducted his protest outside the headquarters of the Combat Stress charity, which he says improperly discharged him from its care in 2015. He conducted a two-week hunger strike in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, later vowing to continue but then forced to stop due to health issues.

But while his actions might not have resulted in the satisfactory outcome he was looking for, it did achieve one of his aims – getting publicity for his cause. Which, ever since hunger strikes became a widespread method of civil disobedience, has been the aim and usual result of such protests.

Before looking at the history of hunger strikes... what exactly are they? Obviously, it’s the refusal of food, but what happens to your body if you starve yourself?

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