If there is one thing everyone knows about Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington it is that he won the 1815 Battle of Waterloo bringing the era of Napoleon to a close. Debates over whether his victory (albeit facilitated out by the Prussian General Blucher) was a benefit or a curse are fun but gain little. Good or bad are less relevant than the historical fact. But here are some other things less well known about Wellington.
From 1797 Wellesley served in India rising to the rank of Major-General. He returned to Britain in 1804 having amassed a fortune of £42,000 the time, consisting mainly of prize money from his campaign. Prize money was mainly a naval matter, but existed in the British and other armies as the proceeds of plunder especially when a town or city had been sacked. So in effect it was theft from the local population, but in reality Wellesley was only playing a part in the systematic ransacking of India during the less than glorious British Empire.
Move forward ro 1819 and Arthur Wellesley was Duke of Wellington, part of the Government led by Lord Liverpool. On August 19th a crowd variously estimated at being between 60,000 and 100,000 had gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to protest and demand greater representation in Parliament. The subsequent overreaction by Government militia forces in the shape of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led to a cavalry charge with sabres drawn.
The exact numbers were never established but about 12 to 15 people were killed immediately and possibly 600-700 were injured, many seriously. For more information on the complex serious of events, go to this British Library resource and this campaign for a memorial. Wellington fully supported the brutal repression and consequently the incident became known as ‘Peterloo’ as a mocking play on his victory four years earlier. As a result he was despised in many places (especially Manchester!) being spat at and physically attacked on the streets.
He was unrelenting and when the first Great Reform Bill was presented to the House of Commons in 1831 Wellington and the Tories worked to prevent its passage. As a reprisal his residence at Apsley House was targeted by a mob of demonstrators on 27 April 1831 and again on 12 October, leaving his windows smashed. Iron shutters were installed (hence Iron Duke!) in June 1832 to prevent further damage. His attitude was unsustainable and being removed from office shortly after the Bill was passed in 1832 by Earl Grey’s administration.
There is, however, a somewhat ironic twist. One positive act which Wellington carried out was Cathiolic Empancipation in 1829, giving catholics full rights in Britain and Ireland. But as the establishment was (and still largely is) protestant in nature that too is less well publicised!
In 1687 the great English astronomer Edmund Halley (of the comet fame) sent an inscribed copy (image left) of Isaac Newton’s freshly published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica to Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Director of the Paris Observatory. Think about this for a moment. A copy of the most important thesis of the day (the foundation of Gravitational Theory and Mechanics) by an English scientist sent to an Italian scientist working in a French observatory. This pattern repeats itself decade after decade, century after century, right back to the dawn of civilisation. Indeed one theory of archeology now views Stonehenge as the epicentre of a Britano-Near European network.
Now, I am as proud as anyone of our great history of Shakespeare and Shelley, Newton and Darwin, Turner and Constable, Stephenson and Brunel, Locke and Hume. I am also proud of the work the establishment wants to forget, by Tom Paine for example or James Harrington or Algernon Sidney. But in this post I want to place the work of these greats in context, as part of progress viewed as relationships cultivated with colleagues throughout Europe and beyond. They are classed as some of the greatest luminaries, but not exceptional in the sense that they stand apart from other greats. It is the relationships which count as much as anything.
Magna Carta was part of a pan-European movement….
My Halley-Cassini example dates from the 17th Century when the Age of Enlightenment was getting under way. But I want to briefly travel further back to 1215 and the iconic Magna Carta. A mountain of literature has been generated by the Great Charter along with some grandiose claims. For example, it is purported to be the birth document of democracy, which it isn’t and a protector of liberties, but only for some. What is important is that it placed limits on the king’s power which was subject to the law. But charters were common in early medieval Europe both individually in terms of personal wills and in more general terms through the granting of rights and privileges to groups of people such as towns and cities. Some included promises of protection and justice by a King but the most important charters were issued by the Pope as Papal Bulls.
Of importance was the so-called “Statute of Palmiers‘ issued three years earlier than Magna Carta in 1212 and the earliest constitutional document of France. Issued by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (his son, also Simon, is more well known to us as playing a crucial role in the founding of Parliament), the Statute was sealed and guaranteed by six French bishops. It includes more than fifty clauses, prohibiting the sale of justice, dealing with the rights of heirs and widows, and promising not to enforce military service from his tenants except in return for pay. Through de Montfort and others the Statute of Palmiers was known in England and covers much the same ground. But in turn, Magna Carta influenced Europe. For example, the Golden Bull (a Bull was a kind of seal, by the way) of 1222 was a charter issued by King Andrew II of Hungary under duress from his nobles. Like Magna Carta this was one of the first examples of constitutional limits being placed on the powers of a European monarch. So though Magna Carta was unique in scope and ambition it was fully in keeping with developments elsewhere.
….while the Age of Enlightenment was truly international collaboration.
Now back to my first example. The Age of Enlightenment was a supreme example of natural philosophers, political thinkers and artists collaborating across international boundaries, this time including North America. For example, American founding father Benjamin Franklin visited Europe frequently and contributed actively to scientific and political debates here, returning with the latest ideas to Philadelphia. Vital to the development of the Age of Enlightenment was a separate but associated phenomenon which has been termed the Republic of Letters. It started in the literary sphere and was initially a purely intellectual exchange consisting of a network of thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke. The Republic of Letters was facilitated by more efficient transport in the Seventeenth Century and secure postal services grew rapidly New associations such as the Royal Society provided centres where ideas could be presented and promulgated. Similar societies sprang up in France and Germany and were vital in helping local intellectuals contact like-minded thinkers elsewhere in the Republic of Letters
The political and social transnational effects were cataclysmic. The English Revolution of 1642-1649, combined with the work of emigrant Englishman Tom Paine was a vital influence on the American Revolution which in turn hugely influenced events in Europe during the French Revolution. In science the aforementioned Edmund Halley travelled all over Europe before influencing Newton’s decision to publish his ideas on gravitation which changed the course of science, helping to bring about our modern world. English and Scottish thinkers were crucial participants, but were dependant on ideas gathered through the relationships with workers in other parts of the world.
So what is my point? It is not to belittle the contributions of British (or English/Welsh/Scots/Irish in earlier eras) thinkers and politicians to world developments. But much of the rhetoric of the British press in papers such as the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun is now devoted to an exceptionalist view of Britain as being unusual or extraordinary in every way. It is tied to an agenda which I drew attention to in an earlier post. For individuals a sense of exceptionalism damages personal relationships and the same is true of nations. This can only harm our position with the rest of Europe and the world which can only do us (and them) harm. Ironically one of the conscious aims of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters was a measure of independence from Governments and overbearing authority (partly why it was called a Republic). Whatever the outcome of Brexit and the current sweep of neo-conservative nationalism it is vital not to lose sight of the crucial role of transnational relationships, no matter how brilliant or able the individuals of particular countries prove to be. Mutual respect is vital, relationships matter!
Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we!
Percy Bysshe Shelley presents the British establishment with a conundrum. While acknowledging him as one of Britain’s greatest poets his reputation must be carefully marshalled to hide the devastating commentary he delivered on political and social conditions (as Graham Henderson points out here). For Shelley’s radical successors the situation is simpler – just pretend that they never existed. Such a poet was Chartist Gerald Massey born 1828 in Hertfordshire.
‘A strong feeling against the British aristocracy….’
The titles of some of Massey’s poems such as The Red Republican (also the name of a publication) and The Last of the Queens and the Kings leave us in no doubt of his aims. Shelley had died in Italy in 1822 (at the tragically young age of 29), well before the rise of Chartist activity from the mid-1830s. But being born almost 40 years later, much of Massey’s work is placed firmly in the cauldron of that political and social movement, with his early poems published from the mid-1840s onwards. The penalties for such activity could be severe, the Treason Felony Act being passed by Parliament in 1848 with the express purpose of increasing the chances of a guilty verdict being delivered against those tried for advocating the abolition of the monarchy. A long prison term or transportation to Australia was a real possibility!
Massey came from impoverished beginnings and a scant education in a ‘penny-school’ meant that he was virtually an autodidact. He was to engage in a wide range of literary activities aside from poetry including journalism, theology, histotian and criticism. But just as with Shelley my aim is not to analyze his work as an academic exercise but to consider what insights his work holds for radicals and republicans today. The great American poet and essayist Walt Whitman was in no doubt about the aims of Massey’s poetry when in 1855 he observed:
I have looked over Gerald Massey’s Poems ― They seem to me zealous, candid, warlike, ― intended, as they surely are, to get up a strong feeling against the British aristocracy both in their social and governmental political capacity.
‘Put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust’
Good People, put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust, Who grind your hearts in mammon’s press, your faces in the dust, Trust to your own stout hearts to break the Tyrant’s dark, dark ban, If yet one spark of freedom lives, let man be true to man, We’ll never fight again, boys, with Yankee, Pole, and Russ, We love the French as brothers, and Frenchmen too, love us! But we’ll join to crush those fiends who kill all love and liberty, Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we.
We can learn much from thisverse alone. The themes are similar to those which exercised Shelley, the people are good and monarchs are not worthy of trust. The term merchant-princes is telling and points to the autocratic nature of mid-Victorian trading companies with their lack of accountability and democratic control. This was the era when the activities of the British East India Company (EIC) were finally being acknowledged as a danger to even the British government (it was nationalised in 1858 and finally dissolved in 1874). As I mentioned in this post the EIC was an effective forerunner and model for many of todays multinational Corporations who present such a danger to us. In the far less deferential 21st century, however, even the eager consumers of the products of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple would regard trusting those organisations as a little naive! Massey’s work is essentially internationalist in tone reflecting Tom Paine’s sentiment in his comment My country is the world which was to find expression in the realisation of the proto-socialist movements in the 1820s and 1830s that the problems faced by the people had a commonality throughout Europe.
This blog post is very different from usual. Normally I present thoughts about freedom and equality; republican ideas jostle with reports of political events I have attended. I will admit that some posts deal with particularly obscure and arcane bits of our constitution I find irksome or dangerous. But in the week where we commemorate 50 years of the Aberfan disaster in South Wales I want to relate a few personal reflections and impressions, however fleeting and vague.
When the disaster occurred on 21st October 1966 I was a 5 year old living in Tredegar at the head of the Sirhowy Valley about 10 or 11 miles away from Aberfan. The mines had been worked out in my area but with the South Wales Area NCB maintenance operations still going strong in the town and Pochin service colliery still operating a few miles down the valley, mining was still the main focus. The human memory is a peculiar thing and it is easy to fall into the trap of false consciousness, of memories which are invented but have all the appearance of reality. So trying my best to eliminate those I am left with precious few recollections. As you may expect for a 5 year old the memories are impressionistic rather than of specific situations or events. Whenever I think back to that day the overwhelming feeling is of darkess and anxiety. I can remember nothing of the morning in my little primary school a few hundred yards up a hill from where I lived, but I do recall the afternoon being disrupted with myself and my schoolmates being brought together in the hall. I was allowed to stay up later than normal that evening by my mother, probably until about 8 or 9 o’clock. Two memories are very clear. Firstly listening the news updates on the radio with my mother doing her best to explain what happened. The second seems peculiar. But I remember my mother fishing my father’s wellington boots out of the cupboard to warm them by the fire!
I shall explain the last memory first. Soon after the news started spreading men started arriving to start digging. Because of the nature of the disaster much of the relief relied on sheer musclepower rather than machinery. From the mines and steelworks in the area men were literally finishing their shifts, throwing clothes and tools into cars and setting off for Aberfan. My father was an electrician at Ebbw Vale steelworks on an afternoon shift which finished at 10pm. He never went. Long before he got home there were so many people at Aberfan that they were getting in the way of the professional disaster relief teams and mine rescue crews who had arrived from Merthyr Vale colliery.
Looking back the impressions of darkness and anxiety are understandable. Anxiety I picked up directly from the emotional state of my mother who identified immediately with the loss of children about the same age as myself. The darkness was of two kinds, physical and psychological. As a young child I had no real sense of death. My maternal grandmother, my last remaining grandparent, had died of cancer in 1966 and my idea of death was that people simply left and you never saw them again. The physical sense of darkness came out of the conditions of valley life. The rain which had caused the tip at Aberfan to become unstable would have cast a late autumn gloom over the South Wales valleys for days prior to the event. Living in a valley with the hillsides creating a very high horizon, the lowering clouds would mean that evening drew in early and I can recall days when it hardly brightened at all. Secondly, being allowed to stay up late in mid autumn, a bright kitchen with windows shrouded in darkness is understandable, I do not remember my dad coming home at 10 o’clock in his little Austin A35 car. I guess I simply fell asleep.
I make no claim for these fleeting and faded recollections, apart from a desire to contribute something personal to the commemoration of this week. Maybe that is just egotism, so please excuse my indulgence. I simply offer them as my humble tribute to the 116 children and 28 adults who went to school that day just as I did but never came home. I also dedicate them to another group, those children of Aberfan who did survive that day and remain haunted by awful memories and feelings of guilt. Maybe some historian in the future will find these words of use but I doubt it, insubstantial as they are.
Much later I acquired sense of profound injustice at what happened that day and subsequent events. That will wait for another blog post.
When I was 11 years of age I had a wonderful history teacher. We studied the Anglo-Saxons and he did his best to give us an idea of what it was like to live about 1,500 years ago. It was compelling stuff but sadly it did not last. By age 14 I had given up on history, my early inspirational teacher being replaced by a boring and lifeless one who made us learn facts and dates by rote. It would be many years before I started to realise that to understand our present situation we need to understand where we have come from. I also realised that the history I wanted to grasp was not the history taught in schools or on the TV and there were few monuments to the events I found significant. I learned quickly about the way in which the establishment controls the historical narrative. I wanted to understand the fight to be a free citizen, the struggle for liberty, the campaigns for equality and a fair wage. But the overwhelming narrative was about monarchs, wars, generals and empires. It was easy to find out why the Duke of Wellington was a hero of Waterloo, but not that he was despised in many places and physically attacked on the streets for his repressive attitude and support for the 1819 carnage in Manchester at the Peterloo Massacre. Many people have heard of Abraham Lincoln, but far fewer of the Englishman William Wilberforce who fought a long and courageous campaign to abolish the British slave trade in 1807. So why the blatantly one sided treatment of history?
The Necessity of Controlling the Historical Narrative
It turns out that there are a number of reason. Firstly it goes against the still prevalent so-called Whiggish theory of history. Briefly this says that the social history of first England and then Britain is one of gradually increasing liberty being handed by the government to the people at the point when they have developed the sophistication to handle the responsibility. ‘Don’t worry’, this narrative reads, as we are on a one-way journey to freedom. The reality is very different. Freedoms have been fought for and won, not benevolently bequeathed us by a kindly establishment. Here are just a few of the more prominent examples. The Thirteenth Century Magna Carta was signed because the barons threatened (yet another) bloody civil war; the autocracy of kingship was ended in the Seventeeth Century as a result of an armed Revolution; the increased franchise and social developments of the nineteenth century took place because the government feared another revolution following the growth of popular movements such as Chartism. But it was not a one way trip and freedoms could be taken away!