Black Lives Matter: a very personal view

This blog is normally concerned with the police courts of nineteenth-century London. It may therefore seem a world away from the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that are echoing around the globe. But my research touches on inequality and oppression in so many ways that I see so many connections to current debates on prejudice, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment that I feel that to stay quiet is impossible. So this blog post is going to be a little different, and I make no apology for that.  

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The killing of George Floyd was a disgrace, an outrageous act, an example of oppression, and one that demonstrated that for some people black lives really don’t matter. There can be no justification for Floyd’s killing just as there can be no justification for the hundreds of black lives that are taken every year by over zealous and, let’s admit it, often institutionally racist, police forces.

Before we think that this is an American issue, or even an old one, let’s remind ourselves that these killings have taken place in the UK, a country that our Prime Minister swears is ‘not racist’. Not everyone in the UK is racist, not every institution is either, but racism is endemic in Britain and so I find it completely understandable that acts of violence have resulted from the groundswell of anger that followed the news of Floyd’s killing.

On Sunday 7 June 2020 protesters in Bristol hauled down the statue of Edward Colston, an eighteenth-century merchant who owed his huge personal wealth to slavery, and dumped it into the Avon.

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The removal of Colston’s statue was not an eradication of history, it was history.

Colston’s statue was only erected in 1895 when his links to slavery were well known. In recent decades there has been a local campaign to remove his statue and rename Colston Hall. This campaign has been ignored and so it is no surprise to me that events in the USA sparked protesters here to react as they did to years of frustration.

The destruction of the statue has been condemned as ‘criminal damage’ and as an attempt to ‘eradicate history’.

It may, technically, be the former; it most certainly is not the latter.

Moreover, the actions of those involved have to be seen in historical context. History is not static; it is not somehow encased only in the monuments left behind by our ancestors, it is changing every day.

Which is why we need historians (those we have and future ones) to research, write, explain, and interpret that history.

Let us take the history of protest as just one example of the collective history of humanity over the past few thousand years. If we take the long view we can immediately see how ridiculous and insulting it is to dismiss Sunday’s ‘rioters’ as ‘criminal’.

Pretty much all of the rights we cherish in this country and throughout the world were won not given. These include the right to free speech (something championed by Far Right activists as much as those on the Left of politics); the freedom to practice whatever religion (or none) we choose.

To which we can add the right to political representation, and the right (of nations) to self-determination; the more modern rights to sexual freedom, gender equality, to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of race or disability.

Protest is not a recent invention.

History reminds us that people have protested about all sorts of things for as long as records exist  (and presumably longer). I work on the period 1700-1900 and there are plenty of examples in my area of individuals, communities, and groups protesting about access to common land, to food resources, the right to vote, the right to form a trades union, and against the forcible examination of the female body, to name but a few.

There have been notable eruptions of popular rebellion against oppression: most particularly given the current news agenda, in the Caribbean against slavery. Too often the emancipation of slaves has been credit to a handful of well-meaning white men (like Wilberforce) and to the neglect of the black actors (named and unnamed) who contributed to it.Unknown

The actions of the enslaved have often been written out of history, and the efforts of white men lauded instead. 

And we can see the role that violent direct action has played in winning votes for women, LGBTQ rights, and in winning freedom from oppressive regimes in Europe and elsewhere.

It would be lovely if protest was always gentle and respectful of property and persons. If governments would listen and consult with the oppressed and the exploited. History teaches us that they don’t; the reality is that for change to happen persuasion has to take place. Why should the rich and powerful conceded any of their wealth or privilege to those they control unless they fear the consequences of not doing so?

But power is very rarely given away, it is taken.

And before we get too precious about the violence that we’ve seen on the streets of Britain and America in reaction to the killing of George Floyd (and allowing for the fact that much of that violence cuts both ways – police ‘brutality’ and the ‘criminality’ of the activists), let us again remind ourselves of how states like the US and UK came into and have maintained their existence.

The USA was born in conquest. British, Spanish, Portuguese and French invaders (or settlers, discoverers if you prefer) brutally subdued the native indigenous peoples and seized their land. Then in 1776 a violent revolution took place and white colonial Americans overcame the lawful English government and (with the help of the French) established their own republic.  They continued to build a nation using slave labour imported (violently) from Africa.

The British state is even more rooted in violence. England was born from dynastic wars reaching back to the 700s or earlier. Britain only exists because English armies subdued the Scots and Welsh and Irish. The British Empire (‘overwhelmingly a force for good’ apparently) was really a product of violent land grabs in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, maintained by gunboat diplomacy and periodic warfare.

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The British Empire’s response to a national uprising in India was brutal

We owe our place in the world to violence: destructive, exploitative, nationalistic, imperialist, violence often justified on the basis that we (I mean white Britons) were members of a ‘superior’ race with a ‘civilizing mission’.

I could go on but I think the point is made.

Nowhere on earth has peaceful protest been the ‘norm’ for effecting change. Everywhere the nations that exist valorize violence in their national history. Yes, we might rightly laud the battle for freedom on D-Day, or the sacrifice of 60,000 British lives on day one of the Somme, but let’s not forget that war is the ‘extension of diplomacy by others means’ and power is equated to force.

If the marginalized fight back (or others take up arms on their behalf) we can hardly be surprised, nor, I would argue, can we deny them the rights and privileges that our ancestors won for us.

Black Lives Matter is a movement born of hundreds of years of exploitation and the frustration of the denial of equality and, in some cases, basic human rights. I cannot condemn them or those that support them, and can only hope that, as historians, we are part of the solution not a part of the problem.

 

An incredible story as a nonagenarian hero applies for help from the Lord Mayor

Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: 'Situation of HMS 'Bellerophon'

Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: ‘Situation of HMS ‘Bellerophon by William Joy

On Saturday 27 June 1840 the Mansion House Police court was held enthralled as a very old man told his life story in the hope that he would get some support form the City coffers. Isreal Furmen was 91 years of age – impressive in 2019 and even more so the mid nineteenth century – and he was down on his luck. He told the incumbent Lord Mayor of London that he was a native American Indian who had been living in Wales for several years after previously serving with the British Royal Navy.

He had to leave Wales, he said, because he have been implicated in ‘Frost’s treasonable outbreak’ (the Chartist rising in Newport) even though he claimed to have wanted nothing to do with and had been ‘compelled’ to join the rebellion. The Newport Rising in November 1839 had ended in the death of 22 or more Chartists as they attempted to seize the Westgate Hotel in Newport and were fired on by troops stationed there.

The rising was organized and led by John Frost but was probably doomed to fail. Rumours of the rising had alerted the authorities and many of those involved had mixed feelings about the revolt. Chartism itself was divided on the merits of using ‘physical force’ to achieve its laudable aims of enfranchising all men and introducing (amongst other things) a secret ballot to the voting process.

John Frost was one of several Chartists arrested and sentenced to death as traitors after the rising but was spared and sent to Australia. He was pardoned in 1856 and returned to Britain. He died in 1877 at the ripe old age of 93.

His fellow nonagenarian, Israel Furmen now told the Lord Mayor he had first gone to Bristol then travelled up to the capital. On arrival in London he’d applied to the Whitechapel parish for relief but had been set to ‘break stones at a penny a ton’. Despite his age he’d had a go but because he was slow they cut his pay. He only wanted to get back to America and his people. He then outlined his life story in the hope that the Lord Mayor help him. His story was quite amazing.

Furmen claimed to be the son of an India chief and to have been apprenticed to a blacksmith in Philadelphia when he was 15 (in 1764). In 1776 he had fought against the British in the American War of Independence, but had later switched sides to fight the rebels. After the war he’d gone to Europe and visited France and Spain. He said he was in Paris and saw Louis XVI being guillotined.

He signed up as a sailor for the Americans and served aboard a brig named Pelly where he was later capture by the British and pressed into the Royal Navy.  That was in 1794 and he served until 1816. This meant, he explained, that he had been on board the Bellerophon at Trafalgar under captain John Cooke, who died bravely in the encounter, one of 27 men of that ship that died that day.  However, the Bellerophon is probably most famous for being the naval vessel that took the formal surrender of Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo. If Furmen’s account is to be believed he was present at that key moment in history as well.

Not only was he present at Trafalgar (where he was badly wounded) Furmen also said he had served at the battle of Copenhagen and at Flushing, and had been in the same sick bay at Lord Nelson. This then was a man with a knack for being in the right (or perhaps wrong) place to see history unfold before his eyes. He had been captured twice by the French but had escaped and finally ‘retired’ to Wales to live out the rest of his days in peace. That was until John Frost and his Chartist rebels decided to coopt him into their ranks of course.

He said his Indian tribe was ‘very long-lived’ and (as proof) added that just 10 years earlier he had received a letter from his father, who was still alive. He was also very strong and proved this in court by performing ‘several difficult feats of agility, to the surprise of all present’.

In 1840 the Morning Chronicle reported this case without comment or embellishment but can we take the facts at face value? It is entirely possible that a man born in 1749 could have witnessed history at such first had as he claimed, but is it probable? I expect that is what the Lord Mayor had to decide. The Bucks Herald added that Furmen was accompanied by his wife (39) and their three-year-old child.

In none of the papers could I find the outcome to this case but I imagine that Furmen’s story (real or imagined) was such a rich and compelling one that someone reading it would have paid him for the rights to publish it in full. If so then even if the City didn’t find it in their hearts or pockets to pay his passage back to the USA some speculative London printer would have.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 29, 1840; The Bucks Herald, Saturday, July 04, 1840]

P.s A man named Isreal Furmen was indeed implicated in the Newport Rising and appears in the records at Newport Reference Library. He is also mentioned in a treatise on longevity published by John Charles Hall in 1841. I can’t find a crew list for the Bellerphon in 1805 or 1815 but perhaps others can?

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

Stark contrasts as privilege triumphs on the back of human misery

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Elizabeth Avery had committed a very common crime in early Victorian London and received a very usual sentence for it. When she was brought before the Queen’s Square Police court on 25 June 1837 (just five days after the queen acceded to the throne) she was accused of stealing a silver spoon. The theft was discovered when Elizabeth had attempted to pawn the item and the ‘broker had become suspicious.

The spoon belonged to Philip John Miles, the sitting Conservative MP for Bristol who kept a house in London as many provincial members did. Miles owed his position to wealth and his money derived from banking and his family’s sugar plantations in Jamaica. Until 1833, Miles, like many rich and powerful men in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, was a slave owner. The honourable member for Bristol (who had previously held seats at Westbury and Corfe Castle) was a millionaire in his day and had acquired the slaves he had owned indirectly, as his bank took possessions of them when their owners defaulted on their mortgages.

Slavery had been finally abolished in 1833 after a long campaign and owning slaves was now illegal (the trade itself had been banned in 1808). But it left the thorny question of compensation. Not for the enslaved of course, but for the men that would have to give up their ‘property’, such was early nineteenth-century logic. A project at University College London reveals that around 10-20 of Britain’s wealthy elite have links to slavery in the past; ours was an economy built on the forced labour of millions of African slaves – something we might remember more often.

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Philip John Miles did very well out of the compensation scheme that was enshrined in law in 1837 (by a parliament in which he sat of course). His son became a baronet who also sat as a Tory at Westminster. Throughout his political career he never once had to contest an election and only resigned his seat so his son could ‘inherit’ it.

This son, Sir Philip Miles (2ndbaronet), also pursued a career in politics and was a little more active than his father or grandfather. He was more ‘liberal’ than either, even supporting votes for some women in 1884.

The Miles’ then were a wealthy, privileged family who handed that wealth and influence down to their children so they could enjoy the benefits that it brought. Contrast this then with Elizabeth Avery, who stole a spoon from John Miles’ dinner table. She was the daughter of a charwoman – a lowly servant who had worked for the family for 14 years, doing their laundry. Avery regularly went to see Mr Harding, a pawnbroker on York Street, Westminster, sent by her mother to pledge things so they could pay their rent and feed themselves.

On the night the spoon was lifted John Miles had thrown a lavish party and the Averys had come round to clear away the lined to wash. Elizabeth must have been tempted by the huge array of silver on show and, having seen such things in the pawnbrokers and knowing they could be transformed into money, pocketed it.

She was only seven years old after all.

In court Mr White the sitting magistrate, having heard the case against Elizabeth (presented by Miles’ butler and the pawnbroker’s assistant), called for the girl’s mother. He admonished her for sending her daughter to a pawnshop, saying that she ‘most probably would not have stolen the spoon had she not known a method of disposing of it’. In order to emphasize his message and the lesson he wanted Mrs Avery to learn he sent Elizabeth to prison for seven days.

So, for taking a spoon from the table of a man who owed his possession of it to a trade in human beings a little girl of seven, raised in poverty, was condemned to spend a week away from her mother in the squalid conditions of the Westminster House of Correction.

While the Miles family prospered I wonder what happened to the Averys? I suspect that Mrs Avery may have lost her job cleaning linen for the Miles household. That would have thrown a poor family into crisis and Elizabeth may have been forced to turn to some form of crime to survive thereafter. Many of London’s prostitutes started that way, and in 1842 a teenager called Elizabeth Avern, alias Avery, was convicted of stealing a boot valued at 29d.

Of course it may have been a different Elizabeth Avery but the court noted she had a previous conviction and as a result they through the book at her. She was sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia. Transportation was a form of forced migration, which effectively enslaved those condemned to work for the British state as it built its empire ‘down under’.

I suppose that is what we might call poetic ‘injustice’.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, June 26, 1837]

A case of mistaken identity in a tunnel, or a very adept thief?

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Mr Richard Chorley of Seymour Place , Bryanston Square (an elegant address in Westminster) was traveling back to London on the Paddington train from Taunton. At Bristol a respectably dressed young woman seated herself next to  Chorley and ‘leant against his side’.

As the Great Western train entered a tunnel shortly after Bristol Mr Chorley had placed his handkerchief on his knee. It was early in the morning (about 4 o’clock) and much of the carriage was asleep. When the train emerged from the tunnel the handkerchief was gone, someone must have taken it and Chorley suspected his neighbour.

Her name was Miss Maria Williams and Chorley asked her directly if she had removed it. She denied it but on arrival at Paddington he handed her over to the authorities to be searched. Nothing was found but he was convinced she had something to do with the theft.

The next day Chorley and Miss Williams were in the Marylebone Police Court where he charged her with sealing his property. The railway had its own police and one of them (Chillman, No’ 13) appeared to give his evidence of having searched her to no effect. Miss Williams told the court that there were ’25 to 30′ persons in the carriage she and Chorley has shared, so anyone of them might have taken his item.

She protested her innocence and complained at the way she had been treated, as well she might. The magistrate discharged her but she hinted darkly that she might be seeking compensation for the trouble she had suffered at Mr Chorley’s hands.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 22, 1845]