Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The debate on Wilberforce (update)

I'm afraid we're going to get a lot more of articles like this in today's Guardian.

Yes, of course due recognition should be given to the many other abolitionists whose names are now far less well known than Wilberforce's. If Wilberforce had been able to read the article he would have completely agreed with this argument and only asked why his brother-in-law, James Stephen (great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf incidentally) should have been excluded. It was Stephen who devised the winning strategy that got the abolition bill through parliament.

As for Wilberforce being a member of the 'Tory Anglican establishment'. Well, he never claimed any party label and it is only retrospectively that he can be described as 'Tory'. He was of course an Anglican, as were all members of Parliament in this period. The slave trade could only be abolished by act of Parliament and therefore the bill could only be put forward by an Anglican. In the same way, women could only be given voting rights from a male Parliament!

Yes, Sir Samuel Romilly introduced the bill, but that was a diversionary strategy so that the bill wouldn't be too much associated with Wilberforce. In his speech Romilly paid a glowing tribute to Wilberforce as the man who had done more than any other to bring about abolition. This of course is not to belittle the heroic work of Wilberforce's friends, colleagues and allies.

But there are some letters in today's Guardian (including one from Melvyn) putting a more measured view.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Hogarth: francophile?

There's an interesting review in today's Telegraph of Robin Simon's Hogarth: France and British Art. For all his strident John-Bullishness, Hogarth was greatly indebted to French art.

Friday, February 23, 2007

More on abolition

There is a good article in this week's Economist on the abolition of the slave trade.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Britain and the slave trade

This post owes a great deal to Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (Picador, 1997). See here for a time-line of slavery and abolition. See here for an excellent website on slavery and abolition.

Here are a couple of typically bland items from the 20 November 1762 issue of Felix Farley's Bristol Journal.
‘Arrived at Virginia, the Hector Chilcott, last from Angola, with 512 slaves.’
‘Tuesday died in Queen-square Mr King, Commander of a Ship in the African Trade.’
In 1698 the Royal African Company lost its monopoly and the trade was thrown open. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht awarded Britain the contract (asiento) to import slaves to the Spanish Indies. The government sold the privilege to the South Sea Company. A torchlight procession through London greeted the news of the grant. In addition to its requirement to carry 4,800 slaves annually for 30 years it had to pay the Spanish king thirty-three and a half pesos in silver for each captive delivered safe and sound. The South Sea Company agreed to buy in Africa the slaves required from the Royal African Company; take them to Jamaica where the ‘weakest’ would be eliminated; then carry the prime slaves to the Spanish market. The new South Sea Company established factories at Barbados and Port Royal, Jamaica for the shipment of slaves onwards to the Spanish ports (Cartagena, Panama, Veracruz, Buenos Aires, Havana).
The South Sea Company survived the Bubble of 1720. Between 1715 and 1731 it sold about 64,000 slaves to the Spaniards. In 1720 nearly 150 ships were engaged, mostly from Bristol and London, but a few also set out from Liverpool and Glasgow. The Royal African Company also revived its fortunes.

By the early eighteenth century Bristol had overtaken London as the main base for dealing in slaves. Between 1721 and 1730 the British carried over 100,000 slaves to the Americas: of these nearly 40,000 went to Jamaica, over 20,000 to Barbados, about 10,000 to mainland colonies such as South Carolina and nearly 50,000 to British Caribbean colonies. Between 1723 and 1725 about 56 ships a year left London; 34 left Bristol and 11 Liverpool. Between 1728 and 1732 Bristol was sending nearly 50 ships to Africa, sending well over 100,000 slaves on them. Merchants from Bristol were also pioneers in the business of carrying slaves to Virginia and in moving slaves from one North American colony to another.

Bristol’s pre-eminence lasted barely 20 years. In 1726 Defoe called Liverpool ‘the Bristol of this part of England’. The Mersey basin was deeper than the Avon and Frome, the rivers on which Bristol was built. The first recorded slave ship was the Liverpool Merchant of 1700 which carried 220 slaves to Barbados. By 1740 it was sending 33 ships a year to Africa. Thereafter the total grew. The Isle of Man was a warehouse of smuggled goods which enabled Liverpool merchants to evade duty. (They also provisioned for the journey in Kinsale in order to avoid tax.) While Bristol merchants tended to remain faithful to safe old anchorages in the Gold Coast and Angola, the Liverpool merchants struck out anew to seek Africans in Sierra Leone, Gabon and the Cameroons. In 1753 four families had private carriages in Liverpool; three were owned by slave merchants. Unlike Bristol, the Liverpool slavers were the founders of dynasties: the Leylands, the Cunliffes, the Bolds and the Kennions. Penny Lane is thought to have been named after the slave trader James Penny. The facade of the Liverpool Exchange carried the heads of Africans with elephants in a frieze and one street was commonly known as ‘Negro Row’.

See here for Liverpool's 2007 commemoration of the slave trade.

Jamaica had by now over overtaken Barbados as the prize colony. In 1712 her production of sugar already exceeded that of Barbados. The richest planter, Peter Beckford, owned at his death (1735) nine sugar plantation and was part owner of seven more. His son William, Wilkeite MP for the City, was the most powerful businessman in the City and was twice Lord Mayor.

The plantations
From a Board of Trade report presented to George I in 1721 it is possible to build up a picture of Britain’s colonies and plantations. What emerged clearly was that the Caribbean islands (St Kitts, Barbados, Jamaica) were of greater commercial value to Britain than mainland North America. North America provided 26 % of Britain’s imports and took 49% of her exports; the Caribbean 74% and 52%. However the white population of the West Indies was only 32,000 as opposed to 234,000 in North America.

In the first decade of the 18th century slaves began to be imported in substantial numbers onto the North American mainland in order to counter an acute labour shortage. Over 3,500 slaves were carried to South Carolina between May 1721 and September 1726. In 1732 there were in that colony probably 14,000 white people and 32,000 blacks: the first time a black majority was registered in an English colony on the mainland. Their task was to clear the cypress swamps and plant and harvest rice. Advertisements for ‘prime slaves’ and ‘strong, stout, hearty negroes’ were soon seen everywhere. From 1723 ships from Newport (RI) carried rum to Africa in exchange for slaves.

In the middle of the 17th century it became clear to English colonists that sugar was commercially the greatest asset to be drawn out of the West Indies. In Britain per capita consumption of sugar rose from c. 2lb per annum in the 1660s to 13 lb per annum in the 1720s. English commerce was integral to the West Indian sugar economy by shipping slaves from West Africa to meet the huge demands for labour on the plantations. Between 1720 and 1729 British vessels took on board some 243,000 slaves in Africa and delivered c. 211,000 to America.
On the sugar islands the shortage and high cost of white labour created the demand. In West Africa local authorities made available a plentiful supply at an attractive price. The numerical balance on the sugar islands shifted dramatically and in 1722 there were 11 slaves to every free white in Jamaica. Conditions were extremely harsh, but it was harsh for all peoples - neither whites nor blacks reproduced themselves demographically.
Approximately one fifth of the population of the thirteen colonies were slaves.

Imports to Africa
The cargo most generally carried was cloth, which the Africans liked to wear untailored, wrapping the cloths around them. Perhaps 85% of English textile exports went to Africa before 1750 and over 40% during the following twenty years. Metal goods were also valued. Cowrie shells from the Maldives served as a unit of currency in west Africa. From the middle of the 17th century weapons were sold as West Africans developed a taste for muskets. Gunpowder was also popular. Alcohol was an increasingly valued commodity. West Africans had their own palm wine but came to enjoy European spirits, with rum replacing brandy by the end of the 17th century.

The slave traders
Over the period 1761-1807 the slave trade yielded an average of just under 10% on invested capital.

The typical slave trader was interested in all kinds of commerce as well as slaves. John Brown of Providence was also concerned with whaling to make spermaceti candles. He had a splendid mansion in Providence and was also a noted philanthropist - he founded Brown University.

Many of the Bristol slavers had houses in Queen Square, the first Georgian square in the city. Successful slave owners and merchants would often buy substantial country properties or invest in art. John Pinney, who owned a slave plantation in Nevis, built this house in Great George Street from the profits. It is now the Georgian House Museum and contains an exhibition showing the lives of the slaves on the plantations.

John Pinney's son, Charles, nearly married William Wilberforce's daughter, Elizabeth, until she came to see that the marriage would have been impossible. Charles became Mayor of Bristol and in 1834 he received £20,000 in compensation for the loss of his estates.

Most slave voyages were financed not by individual merchants but by partnerships, with six or more merchants participating.

All Christian denominations were involved in the slave trade. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had inherited the Codrington estate in Barbados. The slaves had the word 'Society' branded on them. Many Christians justified this involvement on the grounds that they were ‘redeeming an unhappy people from inconceivable misery’.

A typical slave ship would not have been a specialist vessel but a typical wooden cargo vessel. A high proportion of the British slave ships were naval prizes, the rest were built in British shipyards. The typical European slave ship would have been less than 200 tons burden. Such a ship, however, had to be armed because of the danger of pirates - though this decreased as the seas became safer in the 18th century. All ships were insured, often internationally.

Ordinary seamen were usually young men of low achievement and aspirations, who faced a life of poor pay, vile conditions and danger. The former slave trader turned Evangelical clergyman, John Newton declared: ‘There is no trade in which seamen are treated with so little humanity.’ At least a fifth of the crew usually died.
Slave mortality in the crossing fell from perhaps 15 to 20% at the beginning of the century to round 10% or less after 1783. But this varied greatly from voyage to voyage.
Bristol Journal, Sat 15 Jan, 1763: ‘The Oldbury, Watkins, is blown up on the Coast of Africa, with near 500 slaves on board.’
The Somerset Judgement
Most black slaves in England had been brought back by sea captains. Their status was legally uncertain. Some had been legally emancipated. Dr Johnson's servant, Francis Barber, had been freed by his previous owner, Colonel Bathurst; similarly a black valet in the service of Sir Joshua Reynolds. But slaves were often put up for public sale in Bristol and Liverpool.

Granville Sharp, then a junior clerk in the Ordinance Office (grandson of an Archbishop of York) took up the case of James Somerset, who had been brought to England by his master, Charles Stewart of Boston, in 1769. He escaped in 1771, was recaptured, then put on board the Ann and Mary, whose captain was John Knowles, bound for Jamaica, where he was to be sold.

The case came before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield on the Court of Kings Bench. Mansfield decided that there was no legal definition as to whether there could or could not be slaves in England. After procrastination, he decided the case on the ground that slavery was so odious that nothing could be suffered to support it except positive law. Somerset therefore was freed. There was general rejoicing among the many blacks present at the hearing. However in 1779 Mansfield stated that his judgment went no further than to determine that the master had no right to compel the slave to go into a foreign country. Little changed in the Caribbean and Africa, yet the judgment affected public opinion. 1779 saw the last known sale of a slave in England (in Liverpool).

Opposition grows
In 1774 John Wesley, who had seen slaves sold in Georgia, published his Thoughts on Slavery:
‘I would to God it [the slave trade] may never be found more: that we may never more steal and sell our brethren like beasts; never murder by thousands. Oh, may this worse than Mohammadan, worse than pagan abomination be removed from us for ever. Never was anything such a reproach to England, since it was a nation, as the having a hand in this infernal traffic.’
He struck a new note in his prediction that the time for repentance would soon come for England.

In 1780 with the war with Britain coming to an end, Pennsylvania abolished slavery; though the law applied only to future generations and delayed freedom for any slave until they had reached the age of 28. Between 1780 and 1804 similar acts of gradual or qualified emancipation were carried through in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Upper and Lower Canada.

In 1783 William Cowper’s poem Charity denounced the slave merchant who ‘grows rich on cargo of despair’.

In June 1783 a Quaker anti-slave-trade petition was presented to the Commons. It argued, in a fusion of Christian and Enlightenment thought, that the trade was inconsistent not only with Christianity, but also with humanity, justice and the natural rights of mankind generally.

The case of the Zong
This was a Liverpool slave ship. Its master was Luke Collingwood, its owners William Gregson and George Case, Liverpool merchants. In September 1781 it sailed with 442 slaves from São Tomé off the west coast of Africa. In between Jamaica San Domingue (Haiti) the ship lost its way, water became short, and many slaves died or became ill. Collingwood called together his officers and said that if the slaves on board were to die naturally the loss would be that of the owners of the ship; but if on some pretext affecting the safety of the crew they were to be thrown alive into the sea it would be the loss of the underwriters. Therefore 133 slaves, most of whom were sick and not likely to live, were thrown into the sea.

When the ship returned home the insurers disputed the captain’s claim. The owners therefore brought a suit against the insurers, demanding to be paid £30 for each slave, and were backed in King’s Bench; the underwriters then petitioned the Court of the Exchequer. In allowing the case to go to another court, Lord Mansfield remarked that the jury had to decide whether the slaves were thrown overboard from necessity
‘for they had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard)'.
By this time Collingwood was dead. The barrister for the owners argued that
‘So far from the charge of murder lying against these people, there is not the least imputation - of cruelty. I will not say - but [even] of impropriety’.
However Granville Sharp tried to prosecute the murderers in the Court of Admiralty but failed. The Solicitor-General, John Lee, deplored his ‘pretended appeal to humanity’, and declared that a master could drown slaves without ‘a surmise of impropriety’. But public opinion was turning. Sharp now had the support of most of the bishops, most notably Beilby Porteus, bishop of Chester. 1783 was the last year in which the Liverpool Quaker timber firm of Rathbone and Son supplied timber for the African trade. Even in Liverpool, therefore, opposition to the trade was building up. This was four years before Wilberforce took up the cause of abolition.

The elephant in the room

The 24 March 2005 issue of Country Life had a fascinating article on the very welcome renovation of Danson House in Bexleyheath. The author, Chris Miele reports the following facts without comment:
'In 1753, the estate of John Styleman let the Danson property to John Boyd of Boyd and Company, a family business that had been founded on West Indies sugar plantations and subsequently acted as agents for other Leeward Islands plantation owners.
Boyd’s father Augustus was a resourceful man who left Northern Ireland to seek his fortune and found himself managing a sugar plantation on St Kitts.

He married into the local elite and became a planter.

Sugar was then unbelievably profitable – on an acre-for-acre basis, 20 times more valuable than arable land in the Home Counties.'
Miele doesn't explain how Augustus Boyd 'found himself' managing a sugar plantation! Nor does he think it necessary to explain why sugar was so profitable. To understand why it was such a profitable cash crop we need to look at another man with Kent and St Kitts connections, the Revd James Ramsay (1733-98).

Ramsay was a Scotsman, who went to London to train as a surgeon. In 1755 he entered the Royal Navy as assistant surgeon on the Arundel, commanded by his fellow Scotsman, Charles Middleton and stationed in the West Indies. In 1759 he went on board an infected slave ship. In 1762 he left the navy, returned to England and was ordained by the bishop of London.

He returned to St Kitts in charge of two livings, and what he saw there made him the bitter enemy of the planters. In 1781 he was finally forced from the island because of their hostility. He was presented to the livings of Teston and Nettlestead by Sir Charles Middleton, the local patron.

In 1784: at Lady Middleton’s urging, he wrote An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies, one of the first publications of what was to become the abolitionist movement.

The type of sights Ramsay would have witnessed are described in Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains (Macmillan, 2005). Chapter 4 is called 'King Sugar' and it makes very harrowing reading.
'Cultivating and harvesting the crop was brutal work. If you were a field hand, you planted cane shoots in holes or trenches you dug by hand, often in marshland where the air was dense with mosquitoes. At harvest time you carried huge heavy bundles of cane to the mill. You then fed each bundle twice through powerful vertical rollers that squeezed out the juice, which flowed into large copper vats in the boiling house, where it was simmered, strained, filtered, and allowed to crystallize into sugar. ... Slaves ... had to work in the mill or boiling house four to six hours on alternate nights in addition to a full day in the fields. Their clothes soaked with joice, they often lay down to sleep wherever they were, too exhausted to walk to their huts. ... At night flames from the boiling house fires were visible to ships at sea.'
I'll spare you the details of the accidents to slaves operating unguarded machinery.

Slavery and the slave trade (general)

This post tries to put the slave trade into a wider context. The subject of the European involvement in the slave trade is a vast one and there are many excellent web sites.

Aristotle had divided human beings into two kinds: the masters and the slaves, and he argued that freedom and slavery were ‘natural’ rather than man-made conditions. It is important to realize that up to the nineteenth century slavery was the normal condition of society, though northern Europe was the exception to this rule.

In the Middle Ages in England and France slavery was replaced by serfdom (unlike chattel slaves, serfs had some property rights) and by the fifteenth century even serfs ceased to exist in England. But in the rest of the world slavery continued. It flourished in the Mediterranean in both Christian and Muslim societies. The Arab conquests of North Africa revived the old Roman slave trade; the nomadic Arabs of the southern Sahara traded in slaves with the black African societies of West Africa.

The European Slave Trade
According to Hugh Thomas (The Slave Trade, 1997, 23 ff) the slave trade took a new turn on 8 August 1444 when Portuguese seamen landed 200 African slaves near Lagos on the south west point of the Algarve. These slaves had been seized rather than purchased by a Portuguese raiding party. They were Muslim Azanaghi, some of whom converted to Christianity. From 1444 onwards, more and more kidnappings took place, though the Portuguese soon came to buy rather than kidnap slaves.

The Spaniards were the next nation to enter the slave trade. By the early 16th century the native Indians were in rapid decline possibly more through overwork than disease. For example, in Hispaniola (Haiti), one of the first European settlements, the local population collapsed from 4 million to 100,000. It has been estimated that the smallpox epidemic which spread through the Caribbean might have killed up to 90 million people. (James Walvin, Questioning Slavery, 2.)

Confronted with a labour problem, King Ferdinand gave authority in 1510 for fifty slaves to go to Hispaniola and Santo Domingo to work in the gold mines. The decrees did not specify that the slaves should be Africans though there is no doubt that Africans, though already in Europe, were intended. Further licenses granted rights to carry African slaves to the Americas. Soon ‘the complete collapse of the population of the Caribbean changed the African slave trade to the Americas into a major enterprise’ (Thomas, 96). The slaves worked in the mines and in the newly established sugar industry.

In the 1530s the Portuguese conquered Brazil and Africans were imported to work in the sugar plantations. By the end of the century Brazil was Europe’s main sugar supplier, with about 120 sugar mills along the coast in 1600 (Thomas, 135).

In the second quarter of the 16th century about 40,000 slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas. The figure may have reached 60,000 by 1575 (Thomas, 114). By this time the Spanish market had eclipsed the Portuguese, who were able to make this dramatic progress thanks to their trading connections in West Africa (James Walvin, 1996, 3-4). Between 1600 and 1620 the African slaves were coming to eclipse the native Indian slaves.

In the sixteenth century Spain and Portugal ‘assumed that they could together retain the Atlantic as a private lake’ (Thomas, 153), but French, English and later Dutch ‘pirates’ posed continual challenges. In 1525 a French ship anchored north of the River Congo and from the 1530s captains from Dieppe were continually harassing the Portuguese. In 1562 John Hawkins captured at least 300 blacks in the River Sierra Leone and (illegally) sold them in Hispaniola. In 1600 the Dutch, who were still fighting Spain for their independence, secured half the carrying trade between Brazil and Europe and were trading for slaves along the Guinea coast. By 1641 they had displaced the Portuguese on the African coast through force of arms and commercial dealings with Africans (Walvin, 7).

Some 11 million Africans survived the Atlantic crossing – the largest forcible migration in human history.

King Sugar
In the seventeenth century the northern Europeans established their own colonies in the West Indies. The Caribbean was converted into ‘the archipelago of sugar’ (Thomas, 188), manned by African slaves. In 1619 twenty Africans landed in Jamestown, Virginia, carried by a Dutch man-of-war, to work in the tobacco plantations.

In 1624 the Dutch established slaves in their colony of New Amsterdam. At first the legal status of Africans in America was poorly defined, and some, like European indentured servants, managed to become free after several years of service. From the 1660s, however, the colonies began enacting laws that defined and regulated slave relations. Central to these laws was the provision that black slaves, and the children of slave women, would serve for life.

Throughout the first half of 18th century, France and England battled for control of the Guinea Coast. In Lower Guinea, Britain’s main adversary was the Dutch. But when the Dutch Company was liquidated, the British soon gained control of the entire Ivory, Grain, and Gold Coasts. By the mid-18th century, Britain had full control of West African trade. In addition, the British won the asiento, the sole license to ship black slaves from Africa to Spanish controlled territories in America, in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. British dominance in the slave trade began a new period of change in the European/African relationship.

What work did slaves do?
There were few jobs that were not done by slaves. They were barbers and nurses, doctors, cow-keepers, messengers, clerks, cooks, shoemakers, butchers and jewellers. (Walvin, 42) But most slaves – women as well as men - toiled in the fields. On Sundays they could work on their own plots. This was encouraged by the owners on the grounds that it made them more contented. By the 1820s slaves in the British colonies were growing more of their own food than was provided by their owners (Walvin, 142).

In the Caribbean the extremely labour-intensive economy was geared to sugar, with the French West Indian islands being the largest sugar producers.

After 1793 cotton was the great slave crop in the United States. In 1790 the South was producing 3000 bales a year, by 1810 178,000 and more than 4 million by 1860. It was America’s greatest export. On the large estates slaves worked in gangs supervised by overseers.

The greater plantations also had large numbers of domestic slaves, mainly women. This made them a prey to the sexual attentions of their male owners. Yet their knowledge of family secrets and their care of the children could give them a degree of power within the households.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

New biography of George III (updated post)

Today's Telegraph has a review of a new biography of George III by the amazingly prolific historian, Jeremy Black. It paints a largely sympathetic portrait of the king.

There is a second Telegraph review here.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

John Wilkes: a nineteenth-century parallel.

In the 1880s Charles Bradlaugh was not allowed to take his seat as MP for Northampton, because as an atheist he refused to take the parliamentary oath. He was re-elected four times (just like Wilkes!) and eventually won the right to affirm.

Crime and the Law

This is a very well-researched subject among historians of the eighteenth century. Our knowledge is in the process of being transformed by the wonderful Old Bailey website. Do visit!

To social commentators like Henry Fielding the key cause of crime was not poverty but ‘luxury’ - a word which symbolised the dangerous aspirations of those who sought material possessions and ‘diversions’ above their station. The gin epidemic, for example, was seen as a cause not a consequence of poverty. The growth of crime was the obverse of the consumer revolution: (a) increasing expectations (b) increase in volume and range of goods in circulation.

One strategy against crime, especially highway robbery, was the bill of exchange. But watches, silk handkerchiefs or even wigs could be stolen from individuals with relative ease from the swelling number of shops. The word shoplifting was first used in 1680.

Patterns of crime

During the first half of the century the incidence of crime appears to have been fairly stable. In the second half of the century, perhaps because of population pressures, crime began to rise, particularly in the towns. The overwhelming majority of crimes were against property. Contemporaries believed they were living in the midst of a crime wave.

The pattern of indictments for Surrey and Sussex shows a correlation with economic pressure; indictment levels matched wheat prices and the trade cycle. Indictments also rose after wars with the demobilization of large numbers of soldiers. This also reflects the gender and age structure of those indicted - young unmarried men. During wartime (with the removal of young males) women made up a larger proportion of those indicted.

Crime tended to be most prevalent and threatening in and around London. It was often the work of gangs and habitual offenders.

The great fictional criminals are Moll Flanders and Macheath.
The Beggars’ Opera (1728) was arguably the most popular play of the 18th century. Boswell saw the play on 19 May, 1763 two weeks after witnessing the execution of Paul Lewis.
In 1724 the thief and escapee, Jack Sheppard was hanged. He is believed to have been the model for Macheath. After his second escape from Newgate and his subsequent recapture, many ballads were published about him. There were many ‘historians’ of his life and his portrait was painted by Sir James Thornhill. He received many distinguished visitors while in prison. He was used as a mouthpiece to denounce the hypocrisy of society. This glorification of the highwayman is especially associated with the Walpole era.

Sheppard was captured by the thief-taker, Jonathan Wild. Wild was by origin a buckle-maker from Wolverhampton. He then became a pimp, a brothel-keeper and finally a receiver of stolen goods. Posing as a ‘thief-taker’ he set up an ‘Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property'. He apprehended wanted felons with a posse of assistants for the reward. The felons he passed on to trial were his victims, set up by him. In 1725 one of his own gang, Blueskin Blake, whom he had betrayed, attempted to cut his throat. Wild was convicted of taking a £10 reward for the return of some lace whose theft he had arranged, and hanged.

Dick Turpin (1705?-1739) was convicted at York for horse-stealing and hanged in 1739. He became a popular hero after Harrison Ainsworth’s romance Rookwood (1834).

The law
Britain was a politically decentralized state, in which the sources of political and legal action remained parochial. Local law enforcement was in the hands of the magistrates (increasingly clergy) and the Quarter Sessions.

The Glorious Revolution established the principle of an independent judiciary and of regular meetings of parliament. English law was regarded as superior to all other systems. Torture was not allowed, legal proceedings were public, trial by jury was common, habeas corpus acted as a safeguard for liberties, and the judges were not subject to political intimidation.

It is a truism that the Revolution made the world safe for property - which was the only guarantee of full citizenship. But it is also true that the non-propertied saw the law as the guarantor of their interests as well. Gentlemen formed the smallest group of prosecutors; 14-18% of prosecutions were initiated by labourers or servants. Some historians (especially of the ‘Warwick school’ associated with E. P. Thompson) have emphasized the importance of ‘social crimes’ such as poaching and smuggling, which were not popularly regarded as crimes. But these were also big businesses, and although there was much sympathy for individual small-time highwaymen, smugglers and poachers, most Britons believed that the law protected all. There was widespread revulsion at the murder of a customs officer by a gang in 1749.

The administration of the law
Those who administered the law were local unpaid amateurs. Magistrates heard cases and took it upon themselves to discharge suspects or to send them for trial. Parish constables, who were responsible for arrests, were either appointed or elected annually. These people had to live in the community. Consequently a third of those prosecuted for crimes against property in Surrey between 1736 and 1753 were acquitted.

The Bow Street Runners: London presented a different pattern from the rest of the country. In an anonymous shifting population, the parish system was no longer effective as a unit of law and order. Felons were arrested by means of a general ‘hue and cry’ or through the action of professional thief-takers such as Jonathan Wild.

In 1748 Henry Fielding was appointed justice of the peace in Westminster. On December 9 1749 (in the same year that his Tom Jones was published), he moved into the large house in Bow Street (near the current Covent Garden opera house). The ground floor of the house served as his court room. Bow Street was next to the parish of St Giles where 30,000 people lived in cramped, unhealthy circumstances, and to the hundred of Drury - the theatre district around Covent Garden square which was notorious for its bawdy houses. In order to deal with crime, Fielding set up a band of six constables. Initially nicknamed Robin Redbreasts, on account of their scarlet waistcoats, they were soon known as the Bow Street Runners. Their functions included serving writs, detective work and arresting offenders. At first they worked for reward money, but they were later given one guinea a week plus a bonus for each successful prosecution.

When Henry Fielding died early in 1754 at the age of 47 his place was taken by his blind half-brother John who was principal magistrate for Westminster from 1754 to 1780 and pursued criminals with a religious zeal. His “runners” would pursue felons across the country and became widely feared, albeit they may have been little better than those they pursued. Fielding never tired of talking up the merits of his runners and was a tireless propagandist for the idea of a national police force, but his efforts were met with the familiar concerns about civil liberties and financial costs of such a scheme. He was knighted for his efforts in 1761.

In 1792 an Act of Parliament (the Middlesex Justices Act) established seven more offices on the Bow Street model and enabled the Bow Street office to be called on by other parts of the nation, laying the basis for the future Scotland Yard.

The penal code

The 18th century penal code is notorious for the high number of capital statutes. In 1688 there were about 50, by 1800, 200. A statute of 1698 made the theft of goods worth more than 5/- a capital offence. The Black Act of 1723 created 50 capital offences. Most of the Acts were specific: laws against damaging Fulham Bridge (1725), Westminster Bridge (1736) and forging an entry in the North Riding Land Register (1735). But people were usually executed for very traditional offences - forgery, sheep-stealing, theft from shops and warehouses. In fact there were probably fewer executions in the 18th century than the 17th. One reason for the huge number of capital offences lay in the conceptual poverty of English law. There was no overall criminal code or general definitions of offences so separate statues were required for separate crimes.

Trials lasted ½ an hour on average and the same jurors would hear many causes. But c. 1700 it became the practice to take a verdict at the end of each trial instead of requiring jurors to hold several cases in their heads at once. Juries acquitted over 1/3 of all prisoners.
By the time of George I the Crown began to engage lawyers regularly in certain kinds of case. From the 1730s defence council was also increasingly employed though this was technically forbidden in cases of felony. By 1800 counsel was commonly retained.

By the end of the century 200 people a year were executed in England and Wales alone. The number sentenced to death was far higher. Between 1770 and 1830 7000 men women and children were executed out of 35,000 sentenced. But the figures varied wildly from year to year.

Many judges sought strenuously to use mediation and negotiation and did not automatically reach for the most severe punishment. At the end of the quarter sessions the assize judges decided who of those they had sentenced should be reprieved. For those they did not spare, there was always the prospect of a royal pardon. The number pardoned increased from around 50-60% in the early to mid-18th century to c. 90% in the early 19th. Pardon was an assertion of the terrifying majesty of the law. But it was also a genuine attempt to take individual circumstances into account, such as the condemned person’s good record. Recent evidence suggests that judges weighed up the evidence very conscientiously.

Only a small proportion of those executed were murderers: in London and Middlesex only 10% of those executed between 1749 and 1771. Of the rest, 43 had been convicted of burglary and 31 of highway robbery. The law as theatre The cult of Tyburn was highly ritualised: the judge’s black cap, the triumphant procession to the gallows, the sympathy of the crowd, the ballad sales. There was a flourishing ‘confession’ literature.

In 1783 the Newgate Act ended the procession to Tyburn. As fashionable estates developed north of Oxford Street and close to the Edgware Road local landowners petitioned for the removal of the gallows and Newgate was decided on as the new venue. The Newgate gallows was built with a ‘drop’ though this does not seem to have shortened the progress.

In 1718 and 1719 Acts were passed which extended the use of transportation and placed the administrative arrangements to effect the sentence on the county or borough authorities concerned, whether the sentences were passed at Assizes or Quarter Sessions. Transportation was to be for seven years for offences without benefit of clergy and for fourteen years for those condemned to death and pardoned on condition of transportation. In the 50 years following the Acts some 50,000 convicts were transported to the American colonies. This rapidly became the preferred penalty for property offences.

With the revolt of the American colonies the government resorted by an Act of Parliament of 1776 to holding would-be transportees in the ‘hulks’, old moored ships. But these could have held only c. 60% of those under sentence of transportation, which left several thousand kept in gaols. From 1787 transportation was resumed – but to Australia (and ended in 1840).

Before the end of the 18th century prisons were primarily places of safe custody for those awaiting trial, or awaiting punishment in the form of execution of whipping, or in custody until fines, fees or debts were paid or sureties found. Until the end of the century prisons were run by the gaolers as a commercial enterprise, prisoners paying fees to the gaoler and also paying for their board and lodging if they could afford to. Gaolers made additional money selling liquor to their prisoners. But though local prisons were run for profit, they were provided for by the local authorities. In county gaols the prisoners were the sheriff’s responsibility and he appointed the gaoler. County justices were empowered to levy rates to give poor prisoners a small daily allowance of bread and beer. With the loss of the colonies, imprisonment became more popular. In 1776 only 653 persons were imprisoned (almost 60% were debtors). Most prison sentences were short. The prisons were county gaols or houses of correction. By the 1780s over 50% of men convicted on non-capital offences in Surrey, had received terms of imprisonment, in about 25% of the cases accompanied by a whipping.

The 1770s and 1780s saw the enthronement of imprisonment as the new key sentencing option. Solitary confinement was not seen as cruel but as a means to force the offender to reflect on his crime and repent.

The prisons came under attack from the reformer, John Howard, who from the 1770s exposed the dirt and disease in his reports on the State of the Prisons. But some of the conditions he described were temporary, due to the overcrowding following the end of transportation and from the greatest crime wave since the 1720s. The trend to incarceration was not reversed with the dispatch of the first transportation ships to Botany Bay.

By the end of the century c. 70% of non-capital offences were punished with imprisonment. Popular shaming rituals began to be replaced by forms of correction which occurred out of the public gaze and which at least some reformers believes should produce repentance and rehabilitation rather than merely serving to punish and deter.

Was the law an instrument of social control?
This is an over-simplification. Most litigation was introduced by private individuals against people of roughly the same standing. The law was used overwhelmingly by the broad middling orders of society against each other, rather than being used by the propertied elite against the rest. In the Essex Quarter Sessions between 1760 and 1800 over 20% of prosecutions for felony were brought by labouring men, and the lesser middling orders like tradesmen and artisans contributed 30-40% more. Trial by jury meant that verdicts in many cases were delivered by men of middling orders. By the end of the 18th century the ‘innocent until proved guilty’ principle had made its appearance.

Criticisms of the law
However, this did not prevent many criticisms of the law’s abuses. In 1735 the barrister William Hay (1695-1755) deplored what he claimed to be the execution of more persons for theft in every six months in London than for offences of all kinds in most other countries over three years. In 1767 an English translation popularised the pleas of the Italian jurist, Cesare Beccaria (1738-94) for consistent, predictable and non-retributive punishment. Critics viewed public executions with great distaste as degrading spectacles. The growth of sensibility allowed for a greater emotional identification with those who were executed.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Middlesex elections

The Rockingham ministry (1765-66)
At the beginning of 1765 the king was ill with pains in the chest and a feverish cold – possibly an early onset of the porphyria that was later interpreted as insanity. He continued unwell until the spring, by which time his relations with the Grenville ministry had broken down almost completely - particularly when they accused him of continuing to allow Bute to interfere. Lord Chesterfield:
‘He shows his Ministers all the public dislike possible, and at his Levée hardly speaks to any of them, but speaks by the hour to anybody else.’
The king wrote of his government being composed of ‘insolent’ men and said that the world might well suppose that England was at such a low ebb that ‘no administration [could] be formed without the Grenville family.’

In May George resolved to dismiss Grenville from office and turn to his uncle the duke of Cumberland. Cumberland tried to bring Pitt in, but he refused. In July the man chosen to replace Grenville was Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, a great Yorkshire landowner and political patron, and now head of the former Newcastle party. In effect, the great Whig families were back in office. The great (though temporary) achievement of Rockingham’s ministry was the temporary solution of the American crisis with the repeal of Grenville’s Stamp Act (of which more later), though in the teeth of much parliamentary opposition. His relationship with the king deteriorated and he resigned (with some relief) in July 1766.

The Chatham Ministry (1766-68)
The new government was nominally headed by Pitt the Elder now ennobled as earl of Chatham. But he accepted only the position of Lord Privy Seal, which did not carry executive responsibilities and the First Lord of the Treasury was Augustus Fitzroy, 3rd duke of Grafton. Chatham’s decision to take a peerage seriously undermined his repuration as the 'great commoner', and created a sensation. It had the added disadvantage of leaving the ministry without a strong voice in the Commons, apart from the rising star Lord North, who became Chancellor of the Exchequer in September 1767. By this time Chatham was ill with nervous exhaustion and was in Bath for much of the time. On the great issues of his ministry, America and India, he had little to contribute.

Lord Rockingham became (in effect) Leader of the Opposition. He gathered round him a group of discontented Whigs and his private secretary was the Irish writer Edmund Burke (1729-97), who became MP for Wendover in 1766 and quickly established himself as a dominating speaker in the Commons. The Rockinghamites formed ‘the core of a revived Whig party’ out of the old Newcastle connection.

In the summer of 1768 Chatham retired and was replaced by Grafton (who had long been in effective charge of the administration).

The Middlesex Elections
Grafton’s premiership was dominated by America – and by John Wilkes.

1768 was a general election year. On 6 February Wilkes was back in London where he enrolled as member of the Joiners’ Guild and waited for the dissolution of Parliament. On 11 March Parliament was dissolved. Wilkes then issued his election address, basing his campaign on the issues of ‘general warrants and the seizure of papers’. On 16 March he presented himself as a candidate for the City of London. The polling took a week, but in spite of many enthusiastic demonstrations, he came bottom of the poll.

But this humiliation was promptly forgotten in the excitement caused by his declaration that he would stand for Middlesex, where the election was due in only five days. This was a serious challenge to the two sitting members, George Cooke (a Chathamite) and Sir William Beauchamp Proctor (‘country’ - usually voted for the opposition), who had expected to be returned unopposed. The two men promptly sank their political differences to form a joint interest and to arrange the transport of voters to the poll.

Although most of the electorate, which comprised c, 2,500 freeholders, lived in and around London, polling would take place in the county town of Brentford, ten miles to the west of the City. From 24 March Brentford was festooned in blue (Wilkes’s colour). Wilkes himself arrived in the town. The campaign was masterminded by an Election Committee that met regularly at the Kings Arms Tavern and the Mile End Assembly Rooms. In Brentford, Wilkes promptly secured most of the public houses for his friends, helped by the local influence of John Horne, who was parson of New Brentford. 12,000 handbills were distributed, advertising where supporters of Wilkes could find 247 carriages provided for their transport to the poll.

The election took place on Monday 28 March. Coaches were sent off singly as soon as they were full; then blue cockades were distributed and cards printed ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ were handed out. The returning officers were the two sheriffs elected for the City, Richard Peeres and William Nash. They prepared 15 poll books, one for each division of the county and set up booths at Brentford Butts. On the journey to the polls, coaches from London conveying voters for Wilkes’s opponents often had their windows smashed and the slogan ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ painted on them. Later it was to be claimed that hundreds of voters had been intimidated from polling. However, there was little violence at the poll itself in spite of the provocation of banners being displayed with ‘No Blasphemer’ and ‘no French Renegade’. Voting took place for several hours during the afternoon. When the votes were counted next morning, the result was Wilkes, 1,292, Cooke 827 and Proctor 807.

Success was achieved by a cocktail of superb organization and popular enthusiasm. The majority of Wilkes's votes came from outside the City: Westminster and the rural parishes to the north and west. In this highly urbanized county the bulk of the electorate were shopkeepers and artisans. The gentry, clergy, office-holders and merchants voted overwhelmingly for Wilkes’s opponents.

‘Since the fall of Lord Chatham, there has been no hero of the mob but Wilkes’.
Though he refused even to be chaired, the victory was accompanied by much disorder. Brentford was illuminated on Monday evening. The French ambassador’s coach was stopped and he was made to drink to ‘Wilkes and Liberty’. Inhabitants of the Strand and Fleet Street were forced to light up. The duke of Gloucester and Lord Bute had their windows broken. The Austrian ambassador, who refused to drink to Wilkes, was taken out of his coach and had ‘No. 45’ chalked on his shoes. The lawyer Alexander Wedderburn wrote,
‘The mob has been made sensible of its own importance. ... A Jack Straw or a John Wilkes are but the instruments of those whom they seem to lead’.
But the return of Wilkes had only added a political dimension to an already tense situation. The winter had been harsh (the Thames had frozen over) and economic recession had produced social distress and unrest. During the Middlesex election, soldiers stationed at the three London barracks of the Tower, the Savoy and the War Office were put on alert, and contingency plans were made to call on all troops within 60 miles.

The disturbances died down but the next threatening day was 20 April when Wilkes was due to attend court at King’s Bench.

On 19 April the cabinet met and the decision was taken to expel Wilkes as soon as Parliament should meet on 10 May; this was in the expectation that the Court of King’s Bench would decide against him.

On 20 April, Wilkes attended court before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield who freed him on a technicality. That evening the coal-heavers in Shadwell rioted: ‘Wilkes and Liberty and coal-heavers for ever!’

On 21 April the warrant was made out for Wilkes’s arrest. But it only applied to Middlesex and Wilkes had gone to visit a friend in Surrey!

On 27 April, Wilkes delivered himself into custody. Lord Mansfield rejected his application for bail and he was committed to the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark. However, his coach was intercepted by a mob when crossing Westminster Bridge. The crowd turned it round, moved the horses, and pulled it into the City, taking Wilkes to the Three Tuns in Spitalfields. Wilkes had to escape in disguise and make his own way to prison. He was to remain there for two years, a visible martyr to the cause of liberty.

The St George's Fields Massacre
The immediate result was an increase in disorder. 10 May, a crowd of at least 15,000 assembled at St George’s Fields. Troops of horse and of soldiers from the 3rd (Scottish) regiment of Foot Guards were dispatched to the scene. When one of the Surrey magistrates ordered the removal from the prison wall of a ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ poem, the hostile reaction led another JP to read the Riot Act. He was felled by a piece of brick. He gave the order to fire, Ensign Murray and three grenadiers pursued the assailant. They shot dead William Allen in his father’s cow-shed, mistaking him for the rioter. The Riot Act was read a second time. Foot soldiers were now reinforced by horse guards. They were ordered to fire into the crowd and killed six, including a woman orange-seller and a man on a passing haycart. The next day a coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of murder against the ensign and soldiers. They were held in prison for a week and then released on bail; because of conflict of evidence, none was found guilty at the subsequent trial in August. The massacre led to widespread riots; 500 sawyers in Limehouse demolished a windmill designed to saw timber.

Wilkes re-elected
On 12 May the Lords voted an Address of Thanks to the King; the Commons did the same, 13 May. Fear of disorder temporarily united them.

On 18 May, the ministerialist MP Colonel Henry Luttrell moved,
‘that the proper officer of the Crown do inform the House why the laws were not immediately put in force against John Wilkes, an outlaw, when he returned to the Kingdom’.
The government’s dilemma was encapsulated in a letter from Newcastle to Rockingham:
‘We must be either governed by a mad, lawless Mob, or the peace be preserved only by a military force; both of which are unknown to our constitution’.
But Rockinghamite MPs, including Burke, were among those visiting Wilkes in prison.

On 8 June, Wilkes’s outlawry was reversed on a technicality. On 9 June, a jury granted him damages against Lord Halifax, the Secretary of State who had issued the general warrant.

On 18 June Wilkes sentenced to ten months in prison for the North Briton and twelve months for the Essay on Woman, the sentences to run consecutively. For a while interest in him dropped, as Parliament was preoccupied with the growing American crisis.

On 5 June the Middlesex MP George Cooke had died. On 7 June, the Wilkite John Glynn announced his candidature. On 8 December, the poll was disrupted by violence. When the poll was resumed on 14 December, Glynn defeated Proctor. This showed that the Wilkites now had a hold on the seat.,

By the Christmas recess no final decision had been taken on whether to expel Wilkes from Parliament. The cabinet was divided, with some unwilling to make him a martyr.

On 3 February 1769 the Commons voted 219/137 to expel Wilkes.

On 4 Feb: Wilkes announced that he would stand again for Middlesex.

On 16 February, he was returned unopposed.

On 17 Feb the Commons moved 228/89 that since Wilkes had been expelled earlier he was ‘incapable of being elected a member to serve in this present Parliament’.

On 16 March, Wilkes re-elected; on 17 March he was again disqualified by the Commons.

On 20 March, he was readopted. On 24 March, Colonel Luttrell resigned his seat (Bosinney) in order to stand for Middlesex.

On 13 April, Wilkes defeated Luttrell by 1143 votes to 296.

On 15 April (Saturday) a very noisy House of Commons resolved 197/143 that Luttrell was the MP for Middlesex. From the disquiet at this overturning of the wishes of the electorate stemmed the beginnings of the parliamentary reform movement.

Wilkes’s Later Career
Wilkes was released early in 1770, to considerable rejoicing. His career now assumed new directions. In America he became a heroic symbol of liberty. In 1771 he was elected Sheriff of the City of London and began a campaign to secure the reporting of parliamentary debates. Fearful of a stand-off with the printers and the powerful interests in the City of London, the North government tacitly conceded defeat and after this newspaper reporting of parliamentary debates was established.

Wilkes was elected Lord Mayor in 1774. In the same year he was elected to Parliament for Middlesex, where he supported the American colonists and defended the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’, championed the reform of Parliament and advocated greater toleration for Catholics and Dissenter. On 21 March 1776 he made the first ever motion for parliamentary reform, urging the transfer of seats from rotten boroughs to London, the more populous counties and the new industrial towns. The motion was defeated without a vote.

Later in life he became a pillar of the establishment! He helped put down the Gordon Riots in 1780 and in 1782 when Rockingham became Prime Minister, the record of his expulsion was expunged from the records of the House. He left Parliament in 1790.

The Pressure for Reform
Wilkes was not an orator or a major political thinker. He played to the gallery, used mockery and satire and identified himself with English rights and liberties. His support extended far beyond London and Middlesex to the port towns, and a number of industrial regions. Membership of ‘Wilkite’ clubs seems to have been drawn mainly from the middle ranks of urban society: small merchants and manufacturers, wholesalers, innkeepers, retailers, and craftsmen. In the metropolis they included the Spitalfields weavers, the coal-heavers and day-labourers from the east end.

Wilkes was not really a radical, but radicalism arouse from the ranks of his supporters. In February 1769 a number of London merchants, lawyers and other professional groups formed the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights. (Its first task was to settle Wilkes’s massive debts.) During the Parliamentary summer recess, opposition politicians the Society organised an extensive petitioning campaign, involving abut 20 of the 40 counties and some boroughs. The common theme was the implicit threat of the Middlesex Elections case on the rights of electors. But the movement also developed a broader agenda: shorter parliaments and a redistribution of seats. Some of the members of the Society came to adopt a radical view of the Glorious Revolution, emphasizing the right of resistance and placing Wilkes in the long line of Whig heroes, including Hampden, Sydney, and Russell.

In January, 1770, Grafton resigned, having lost the support of the Chathamites, and Lord North became premier. He was faced with two considerable problems: the growing movement for parliamentary reform and the crisis in America.

Edmund Burke
In May 1770, Burke published his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, though this was badly timed as the Wilkes agitation appeared to be subsiding. The Thoughts were seen as transcending immediate concerns. They were penned self-consciously as the manifesto of the Rockingham Whigs. In contrast to the prevailing view that party was ‘faction’, Burke saw it as the means of restoring integrity to public life because it would allow policy to be moulded by convictions and ideals:
‘Party is a body of men united for promoting by their joining endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle on which they are all agreed.’
He also declared, in a now frequently misquoted statement:
‘When bad men combine, the good men must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’
For the 18th century these were a bold and controversial statements. Burke displayed no personal animus against George III or even against Lord Bute. What was at stake for him was not the personality of monarch or politician, but the whole system of secret influence that had subverted the integrity of successive ministries. He thus developed a conspiracy theory that passed into the mainstream of Whig thought and provided them with a doctrine that sustained them in a long and hard fought war against executive power. (Conspiracy theories also became an ingrained habit of Burke’s mind – he was to develop still more when the French Revolution broke out.)

In 1774 Burke was elected MP for Bristol, though he was to fall out with his constituents over his support for the Americans. His Address to the Electors of Bristol expounded the now widely quoted principle of representative government:
‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
This doctrine was to have a long life – but it showed that fundamentally Burke was no Wilkite or radical. He had little in common with genuine radicals such as the historian Catharine Macaulay, sister of the Wilkite Alderman Sawbridge.

By 1774 the reform movement was petering out. However it was revitalized by the crisis in America.