When thinking about history we often hold two parallel definitions: History is both the sequence of events which we believe to have happened in the past and also the attempts of historians to interpret and reinterpret those events in order to gain new understanding of the past. When historians seek to reinterpret the past they unavoidably bring their own interests and contemporary concerns to those past events, this, as Christopher Hill pointed out, is not problematic as current interests can stimulate new directions and new avenues for historical study and new questions for historians; for example, the growth of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s stimulated a expansion in interest among historians in the role of women within history. Hill warned that although contemporary concerns can create new questions for historians they should take care to avoid finding contemporary answers .
To examine the way in which different historians writing at different times and with different political interests have used the same historical evidence to come to widely different conclusions it is useful as a case study to examine the way in which the history of the British colonel and war hero turned revolutionary conspirator and condemned traitor, Edward Despard has been examined and interpreted by different historians and suggest how those historians’ own political and historical approaches have affected their interpretations.
It is fair to say that, beyond the efforts of a few modern social historians who have specialised in the study of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the story of colonel Despard, his conspiracy and trial is today almost completely unknown. However at the time of his trial Edward Despard was a most notorious and reviled traitor whose sorry end was an example and warning for all who conspired against the natural order which was broadcasted from pulpit and chapbooks across the country . Despard’s death mask, fashioned in wax and lit in lurid light was a centrepiece of Mme Tussauds’ early travelling waxworks show (ironically this was destroyed in the fires lit during the insurrectionary rioting in Bristol that accompanied the introduction of the 1832 reform act).
The decline of political agitation following the failure of the Great Chartist demonstration of 1848 and the increase of prosperity in Victorian society had convinced elements of the ruling class of the safety of extending the franchise and this allowed the development of a stable and confident new trades union movement (and its accompanying bureaucracy) this in turn assisted the development of a new historical discipline of labour history, which pursued a very definite ideological agenda, a distinct English working class tradition, uninfected by violent foreign ideologies from which sprang a uniquely English socialism that was grounded in Methodism not Marxism, its forerunners were the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who had endured their transportation with pacifistic Christian stoicism rather than the armed direct action of Luddites or ‘Captain Swing’s’ rick burners, their ancient inspiration the patrician cautiousness of a Quintus Fabius Maximus rather than the servile insurrectionism of a Spartacus. These new labour historians adopted a ‘Whig’ approach to the ‘Forward March of Labour’ in which a slow, but inevitable, evolution towards the ‘promised land’ allowed no room for insurrectionary adventurers.
In order to explain the trials and repression that undoubtedly did take place and still maintain this image of a docile and pacific lower order these Fabian historians emphasised the role of the immense army of informers employed by the state, and maintained that men such as Oliver the Spy, exploited the gullibility of frightened magistrates by fabricating most, if not all, of the conspiracies. Those who were caught up in these conspiracies were either the innocent victims of the agents provocateurs, or were deluded or deranged mavericks .
The formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain under the inspiration of the Bolshevik revolution may have challenged the basis of Fabian gradualism in politics, but the Comintern’s crude and formalistic Marxism continued with the same essentially ‘inevitablist’ approach to Labour history; albeit one in which a ‘disciplined’ proletariat could be marched onto the field of History and off again as required. Thus Raymond Postgate’s and G.D.H. Cole’s book The Common People dismissed such uncomfortable and unruly expressions of working class rebellion as the Luddites or the Despard’s conspiracy as ‘desperate’ or as receiving ‘microscopic’ support, as simply juvenile extravagances before the class was able to learn its ‘proper’ place in the long march to a labour victory in 1945.
The first historian to seriously examine Despard and the conspiracy around him was the distinguished historian Sir Charles Oman. A stalwart of the establishment, and a militant conservative in both politics and in history, Oman was a history professor at All Souls’ where he also served for sixteen years as one of the university MPs . Oman received his knighthood for his work in the foreign office press office during the Great War.
It was whilst working there that Oman got the opportunity of attending the trial of the Irish rebel (and former British consul) Sir Roger Casement, it was during the trial he recounts that he was first reminded of what he considered as a comparable act of treason from a servant of the crown; that of Colonel Despard.
Later historians have cited Oman as being dismissive of Despard as being “of marginal historical importance” , however, Oman wrote his essay in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, and had witnessed the radicalisation which had been created by that war: the Bolshevik uprising, the toppling of the royal houses from half of Europe, and the threat caused to the very heart of the Empire by industrial unrest, internal sedition and the armed rebellion in Ireland. Oman used this recent History to reassess the threat that Despard’s conspiracy presented to the crown and for four reasons concluded that that threat was real.
Firstly, the Irish threat; Despard, like Casement, was connected to a wide ranging and real Revolutionary movement in Ireland. On his return to the British Isles from Honduras Despard was in contact with Wolf Tone and the United Irishmen, for which he was interned by the Pitt govt. During the uprising, Tone’s uprising in 1789 had been defeated but the UI and their British offshoot the United Englishmen remained active and as Emmett’s uprising in 1803 showed they remained a real force. There were clear parallels between the conspiracies of Tone, Emmett and of Despard with a revolutionary insurrection planned to take place in concert with a French Invasion.
Secondly, Despard sort to organise his rebellion among the rank and file of the Grenadier Guards, stationed at that time in the city of London, outlandish it may seem to have attempted to ferment mutiny within the British army in the heart of the Capital, but Oman pointed to both contemporary and more recent history to take the threat very seriously. He drew direct parallels between the mutinies that had presaged the fall of the Romanov and Hohenzollern dynasties and Despard’s plans and described Despard’s conspiracy as aiming to constitute a “soviet of soldiers and workmen” . He also pointed out that less than 3 years previously the British had faced their greatest crisis of the entire revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars; when the ‘wooden walls’ that had protected Britain’s shores from invasion had collapsed when mutinies at Nore and Spithead had left the country undefended for a month and caused panic within the establishment.
Oman acknowledged that the conspiracy that Despard had gathered around him were far too weak to be capable of to have been able to challenge the establishment, however this did not necessarily negate its threat to the establishment, Despard expected that the seizure of the Tower, with its cache of arms, and the capture or killing of the King would be the spark that would trigger a wide ranging uprising, both in London and across the Industrial North. Oman showed that Despard was convinced that the industrial regions were ripe for rebellion, and whilst believing that Despard and his co conspirators were the most desperate and impatient of the “British Jacobins” , he rejected the assertion of Whig and Labour historians that Despard was a lunatic. Oman noted that, less than 20 years before Despard’s conspiracy was hatched, London had for 8 days been at the mercy of the Mob which although roused by a sectarian firebrand, Lord Gordon, to oppose catholic emancipation, had taken on the distinct character of a class uprising which terrified both establishment and radical politician alike. This, Oman said, made Despard’s plan a realistic one in the terms of the day.
Oman completed his work on Despard by saying that: “there can be no doubt that he was a typical British Jacobin, and a most dangerous personage.”
Oman, when beginning his work about Despard, writes that he was reminded of the case whilst attending the trial of Sir Roger Casement (in 1916), however the references within the essay itself to Bolsheviks and Soviets suggest that it was in fact written much later. If that is the case there is a possible explanation for what directed Oman toward reviving the memory of the “unfortunate Colonel Despard”.
The senior officer in charge of the Home front in 1916, and thus the officer responsible for both the capture of Roger Casement and the suppression of the Easter Rising was Major General Sir John French, who later during the Irish war of independence was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In that role French was responsible for the formation and deployment of the infamous ‘Black and Tans’, and thus made himself the number one hate figure and target for the nationalist forces. One of the more famous of these, living in the shadow of French’s residence in Dublin Castle, was French’s older sister- Charlotte Despard. Charlotte French had married Maximillian Despard in 1870 and, following his death in 1890 had become active in philanthropic works in London’s East End, her work rapidly radicalised her and she became prominent in socialist and suffragette politics and on the outbreak of the first world war had joined with Sylvia Pankhurst on a resolutely anti war and socialist platform. Charlotte was a supporter of both Bolshevik communism and of the Independence movement in Ireland . The tension between the general and his rebellious sister was common knowledge (Sir John refused to speak to his sister ever again) and may well have stimulated Oman’s interest in a previous errant member of the Despard family.
Charlotte Despard was unable to long to enjoy Ireland’s freedom from British rule, Connolly’s prediction that a divided Ireland would cause “a carnival of reaction north and south” was proved true and Charlotte who had been disheartened by Irish nationalism in the fraternal bloodletting of the civil war, and placed her hopes in communism. She was forced to flee Dublin in 1933 when a catholic mob attacked her home and found shelter in the British ruled north.
The next Historian to take seriously the conspiracy of Colonel Despard was the Marxist historian Edward Thompson.
Thompson had joined the Communist Party in 1942 whilst at university, influenced by reading Christopher Hill’s Marxist analysis of the English Civil War, and by the example of his older brother, Frank, a party member and SOE operative who died whilst fighting alongside the partisans in Bulgaria. Thompson became a member of the Communist Party Historians group, which brought together Historians like Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Leslie Morton and Eric Hobsbawm . The revelations in Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ of the crimes of Stalin’s rule combined with the shock of the Russian Intervention that crushed the workers uprising in Hungary shattered Thompson’s loyalty to the party and convinced him of the necessity to restore the human element to socialism, which he believed Stalinism had jettisoned.
Thompson also sought to refashion a Marxist approach to history that reject the mechanical and “inevitablist” form of history that had become common among Marxists, instead he adopted a humanistic interpretation of Marxism that took its inspiration from the early Marx: “History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth”, it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.”
In his classic work, The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson sought to challenge the various ‘orthodoxies’ which had dominated the writing of labour and social history; the Fabian orthodoxy, that saw the mass of the poor as passive victims of laissez faire, awaiting their far sighted saviours (like Francis Place), the orthodoxy of the “empirical economic historians” who saw the poor as data in statistical series, or finally; “the ‘pilgrim progress’ orthodoxy, in which the period is ransacked for forerunners-pioneers of the welfare state, progenitors of a Socialist Commonwealth or (more recently) early exemplars of rational industrial relations.” Of this orthodoxy, Thompson said; “only the successful (in the sense of those whose aspirations anticipated subsequent evolution) are remembered. The blind alleys, the lost causes, and the losers themselves are forgotten.” Thompson’s history was about how real men and women reacted both individually and collectively to the birth pangs of the industrial revolution and how those reactions; accommodation, collaboration or resistance, contributed to the development of a distinct working class consciousness.
For Thompson Despard was a Janus figure, who through his association with Jacobin conspirators looked back to an eighteenth century form of radical practise, and in his links with the new secret underground in the industrial North, the “Black Lamp” , presaged a new, working class and collective resistance movement, which Thompson linked directly to the industrial direct action of the Luddites a decade later.
Thompson’s work was highly influential it: “...redefined the subject matter of social and labour history, and pushed open more than one door of historical closure.” And a generation of historians, many of whom had been Thompson’s students were inspired to deepen and expand on his work. When they did so they were affected by the political events around them and this was reflected in their work. Marianne Elliott efficiently refuted the attempts by critics who attacked Thompson’s work on Despard and questioned whether there was sufficient, or indeed any, evidence for these nationwide conspiracies. Writing in the aftermath of strikes which had destroyed power sharing at Stormont and had brought down the Tory government of Edward Heath Elliott could easily demolish Dinwiddy’s argument that there was no connection between trade union activity and radical and subversive politics.
The escalation of the civil right movements into the armed struggle in the six counties created a renewed interest in the history of the previous nationalist movements in Ireland this led Marianne Elliott and Roger Wells to reassess both Despard’s and Emmett’s roles as parts of a far wider conspiracy of which neither of whom where the true central players but whose capture fatally weakened the overall plot.
The struggles for social equality and against discrimination by women, black people and gays were amongst the most significant outcomes of the revolutionary upsurges of 1968. These struggles highlighted and inspired historians to study and explore previously ‘hidden histories’, establishing new historical disciplines.
Two American former students of Thompson, Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, took inspiration from these new avenues of study and taking as their starting point Marx’s comment about capitalism being born from ‘blood and filth’ and Raymond Williams’ work on the financing of the industrial revolution through the slave trade Rediker and Linebaugh examined the lives and the communities of those at the front line of the Atlantic ‘Triangular trade’.
Rediker and Linebaugh found that all along the Atlantic coast communities of “...dispossessed commoners, transported felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban labourers, soldiers, sailors and African slaves” formed a multiracial and polyglot “many headed Hydra” of resistance to the attempts of the emerging imperial states to impose order on the Atlantic trade.
Linebaugh and Rediker’s Despard was at the centre of this ‘Motley crew’, extending his story outward from London and Ireland to the West Indies and Central America. It was there, at the source of the Slavocracy’s wealth, whilst fighting against French and Spanish alongside black former slaves and white former American revolutionaries, that Despard learnt both his egalitarianism and met his wife, the African- American Catherine Despard.
Linebaugh and Rediker rescued Catherine from the shadows into which she has been thrust; they showed that beyond the snobbery of the Despard family who described Catherine as ‘the deluded woman who calls herself a wife’ Catherine was a stalwart fighter and organiser in her own right, coordinating the campaign for the release of Despard and the other Habeas corpus prisoners, and later, during Despard’s trial impressing Nelson so much that he successfully petitioned for her to receive an officer widow’s pension ( which was withdrawn after Despard’s inflammatory speech at the scaffold, which Catherine was believed to have conspired with Edward in authoring.
Rediker and Linebaugh showed the links between Irish and American revolutionaries, the London mob, and slave rebellions in the Caribbean and placed the Despard’s at the very heart of them.
When the radical movements of 1968 began to run out of steam in the late 1970s through a combination of economic uncertainty, rising unemployment and ‘the crisis of militancy’: in which both the annoying failure of the revolution to materialise, and the inexplicable refusal of the workers to accept the leadership of the ex-student vanguard led many of those who had formed the central organisation of ‘the movements’ to conclude that in order to ‘make a real difference’ it was necessary to pursue their careers by going to work in social welfare agencies, Social Democratic local government or into the academy.
Separated from the struggles that did exist, and increasingly acting as the point of contact between the state dole and the needy poor, these former radicals found increasingly that they were more in sympathy with the state than with surly and ungrateful ‘proles’. However, in order to retain the illusion of radicalism both in academia and local government the left became increasingly preoccupied with identifying and challenging the language of oppression rather than the oppression itself. In their role as both petitioners for, and distributers of, state aid they encouraged the development of a ‘victim culture’ in which the poor, the needy, the oppressed were seen not as active agents in their own liberation but as helpless and voiceless victims awaiting the advocacy and largesse of professional carers.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc deepened the radicals disillusion with any progressive alternative to capitalism and accentuated their love/hate relationship with the liberal state. For them, the state was both the defender of the suffering created by capitalism’s crimes; of war, imperialism, racism, poverty, etc. and the only hope of relieving some of that suffering.
The most recent study of the life of colonel Despard is firmly rooted within this political current; for Mike Jay, author of The Unfortunate colonel Despard: hero and traitor in Britain’s first war on terror (2004) Despard’s story has immediate resonance with today’s ‘war on terror’; like the inmates at Guantanamo Bay, Jay’s Despard was an innocent victim of an all powerful state, martyred for being different and to justify state terror. Jay rejects all the previous historians who have examined Despard’s case and asserts that Despard, who suffered years in jail and a horrific death for his beliefs, did not really want the revolutionary overthrow of the state and whose cause was actually met by the passing of the Reform Act in 1832! Jay has further claimed that Despard was in fact “better characterised as patriotic and strongly conservative” . Although Jay happily ransacks the work of the social Historians he rejects all of their conclusions as in his view “E.P. Thompson et al” sought to “crudely” incorporate Despard into a direct line of working class resistance and “Chartism/ socialism/ Marxism” (which shows that even if Mike jay has actually read any Thompson, he has certainly not understood him!).
Instead Jay returns to the method of the nineteenth century patrician Fabian historians in seeing the masses as essentially passive and helpless victims, at risk from the spies and machinations of the all powerful state, but whose only relief was, and is to place ones trust in the liberal humanity of that same state. His attempt to shoehorn contemporary political parallels into the Despard story leaves Despard stranded out of time.
It might be argued that to compare Mike Jay with the other historians who have studied Despard is unfair- after all he isn’t a professional historian and his work is designed as a piece of popular non-fiction. However Jay’s book is the most readily available work on the subject, available in a paperback edition and copies are found in many libraries, and it displays perfectly the warning made by Christopher Hill: “It is right and proper that historians should ask new questions, and such questions may well be stimulated by happenings in our own society. I see no harm in this so long as our answers do not derive from the present.”
Each of the other historians, even if one can disagree markedly with their interpretations or conclusions, increased our understanding and have brought us new insights into the period. Jay, on the other hand, by dismissing the work previously done so that he can mould the facts to fit his own contemporary world view, hides the reality and brutality of the times and in doing so diminishes the courage and achievements of both Edward and Catherine Despard.