Forced aboard a merchant ship in New Orleans: an echo of modern slavery on the high seas

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New Orleans, c.1841

John Burns was a steward on board a merchant ship named the Rio Grande. He’d sailed with it to New Orleans in 1849 where he’d gone ashore with a fellow crew member who had been taken ill. He took temporary lodgings in a boarding house and made plans to collect his pay packet in the morning. This was normal: sailors often collected their pay onshore, being paid at a shipping agent’s office.

However, this was also when they were vulnerable to thieves and fraudsters who knew they were likely to have been carrying fairly large amounts of cash. In London the Ratcliffe Highway and its associated dockland was notorious as an area where prostitutes would inveigle seaman into bars, get them drunk, take them upstairs and rob them (or assist others in their robbery). I’m fairly New Orleans presented very similar hazards to the unwary.

As Burns left his lodgings to collect his money two men seized him and forced a drink down his throat, which ‘rendered him insensible’. Having dragged him they manhandled him on board a ship called the Ashley, which was run by Alfred Greg. The two men were what were known as ‘runners’ or ‘crimps’; in effect they acted as a press gang for merchantmen, forcing men to serve as seaman against their will.

We are probably all familiar with the concept of the press gang as it operated in the eighteenth century, forcibly enlisting men and boys into the Nelsonian navy but this was nearly half a century later and in a foreign country. In 1849 New Orleans was, as it is today, the largest city in Louisiana, the 18th state of the USA. In 1849 something like half of Louisiana’s population were enslaved and it is hard to think of what happened to Burns as anything other than enforced labour by kidnapping.

Burns tried to explain to the master (Greg) that he was no sailor, just a steward with no experience of seamanship but he was ignored and set to work. He was promised $35 and the ship sailed to England, docking in London in April. When he asked for his pay he was told he’d already been paid, but he’d never seen ‘a halfpenny of it’. Instead the master had paid all the money to the two men that had pressed him.

Perhaps this was a common scam, akin it seems to me, to modern slavery where men and women and kidnapped and forced to live and work in terrible conditions by criminal gangs. The steward had the sense to get away from the ship and present him himself at the Thames Police court where he obtained a summons against Greg. A few days later the master was in court to hear Burns testify against him. Two other crew members turned up to confirm his evidence and Mr Yardley (the magistrate) said it was evident that a ‘gross and scandalous fraud’ had been committed.

However, it doesn’t seem like he was able to do much about it, perhaps because the crime (of kidnapping) had happened outside his jurisdiction. He could – and did – insist that John Burns was paid however, and would remand the master in custody if necessary until the sum was handed over.

The story served as a cautionary tale for others travelling to ‘foreign’ parts to not get taken unawares by unscrupulous captains in search of a crew.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 23, 1849]

‘Iron filings clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’: some of the things found in a very British cup of tea

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I am writing this on Monday and at this point we still don’t know what is going to happen with regards to Brexit. As it stands though, unless the PM has managed to persuade enough MPs to back her deal, we are still scheduled to leave the European Union at 11 o’clock tonight.  We joined the EU (or rather the European Common Market as it was then) on 1 January 1973 after a referendum was held to test the public’s desire to enter or not.  Today we may leave on the basis of another such referendum, or we may not.

I thought it might be interesting to find out what was happening in the Metropolitan Police courts 100 years before we joined the European club. After all in March 1873 Britain was a very different place. Instead of being a declining world power we were THE world power, an empire upon which ‘the sun never set’. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for almost 36 years and had been a widow for 12 of those. William Gladstone was Prime Minster in his first ministry and he was opposed at the dispatch box by Benjamin Disraeli who he had beaten by 100 seats in the 1868 election. Oh what Mrs May would give for a majority of 100 seats, or any majority for that matter

Britain was stable, powerful, rich and successful in 1873 and Europe was a collection of individual nation states of which republican France, under Adophe Thiers, and Germany, (under Kaiser Wilhelm I and his able chancellor Bismark), were dominant. Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire represented the old guard  by comparison. No one was talking about a European union in 1873 but the slide to European war (in 1914) could already be predicted by those able to read the runes.

1873 in Britain saw the opening of the Alexandra Palace in London, and Londoners watched in horror as it burned down a fortnight later. The Kennel Club was created in April , the first of its kind in the world. Another first was the opening of Girton in Cambridge, as an all female college.

220px-Elizabeth_Garrett_Anderson,_MElizabeth Garrett Anderson (right) also became the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Association, an honor she retained uniquely for almost 20 years. In Africa British colonial troops went to war with Ashanti king, ostensibly because of the latter’s continued trade in human slaves.  Mary_Ann_Cotton

On the 24 March Mary Ann Cotton (left) , one of history’s most unpleasant murderers, was hanged in Durham goal for the murder of her stepson (and the presumed murder of three former husbands); her motive was to cash in on their life insurance money.

Over at Clerkenwell Police court things were a little less dramatic as a tea dealer named Brown was set in the dock before Mr Barker, the incumbent police magistrate. James Neighbour, the sanitary inspector for St Luke’s, testified that he had purchased tow sample of tea from Brown’s shop and had taken them away for analysis. Dr Parry certified that both had been adulterated.

The adulteration of food was common in Victorian Britain and the authorities were keen to prevent it, not least because of the risk it posed to the health of population. Dr Parry’s verdict was that one sample of tea contained ‘iron filings and clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’ while the other was made up of ‘tea dust’ and ‘small fragments of wood’ as well as all the other substances found in the first one. The tea was described variously in signs in the shop window as ‘capital’ and ‘noted’ mixtures but they were very far from it.

However, when pressed the doctor would not or could not say that the tea was ‘injurious to health’, it just wasn’t what it was advertised to be.  Whether it had been adulterated by the defendant or had arrived in that state from China was also something he couldn’t comment on with authority.  This led Brown’s defense lawyer (Mr Ricketts) to argue that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against his client. Mr Barker disagreed. He said it was self-evident that the tea dealer either knew his product was adulterated with ‘foreign matter’ even if he hadn’t adulterated it himself. This was done, he declared, to bulk up the actual tea and cheat the customer. Had it been dangerous to health he would have fined him £20 but as it was not he let him off with a £10n and ordered him to pay the inspector’s costs.

Of course one of the things the EU protects is our consumer and environmental rights, through its stringent laws on trade. Indeed one of the fears some have is that if we open ourselves up to a genuine free market we might have to accept products (such as bleached American chickens) that would not pass EU food standards. We might also note that in 1873 that Britain dominated world trade and that most trade passed through British ports, making money and creating work as it did so.  But in 1873 we had an empire and a navy that was the envy of the world.

Today not only do we longer have an empire but we also have a navy that has been stripped back to the bare bones, to the extent that we only have one aircraft carrier and that is unable to launch the sort of planes we have available. In 1873 we were the major power in the world, truly GREAT Britain. In 1973 we joined a trading community to ensure our future prosperity. In 2019 we may be about to leave that club having grown frustrated with its attempts to evolve into something that resembles a United States of Europe rather than the trade club we signed up to.

Who knows where we go from here and whether this will prove to be a smart move or a disaster that will haunt us forever. History will judge us, and those that made the decisions that led us to this point.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 29, 1873]

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]

Tables turned as a complainant becomes the focus of complaint

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Mr Selfe was the presiding magistrate at the Westminster Police court in June 1863 and he was not a man to be trifled with. So when James Cowen appeared not once but twice in his court to complain against another local man for criminal damage he was dismissed with a flea in his ear.

Cowen ran an ‘establishment called Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in Greycoat Street, Westminster. It isn’t clear what sort of place (shop, beer house, cafe, or club) this was but the name suggests that Cowen was politically motivated in some way. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel had a powerful anti-slavery message and in 1863 America was in the middle of its bloody Civil War.

James Cowen described himself as a ‘medical reformer’ and on his best visit to the court on Saturday 13 June he complained that John Theophilus Rowland had broken a board he was exhibiting outside his premises. Cown produced the damaged board and gave it to Mr Selfe to examine.

The reaction of the magistrate was not the one Cowan hoped for however. Mr Selfe read the words on the board (which were not recorded by the reporter) and declared that he was amazed that Rowland hadn’t broke it over the complainant’s head! The message it carried apparently defamed the British royal family and, in Selfe’s opinion, Rowland was quite right to get angry and smash it up. He dismissed the charge and the accused.

Cowan could (and probably should) have left it there but he didn’t. A few hours later he was back at Westminster to ask the magistrate if he would help him to bring a case to the court of Queen’s Bench.

He stated that ‘no man a right to prevent the expression of his political opinions, and he would certainly make an application to the Secretary of State upon the subject’.

Mr Selfe was scathing in his response and dismissal of the idea. While he was entitled to take his case wherever he wished he didn’t think it would get very far. He told Cowan of a recent case where ‘a person had exhibited an offensive caricature in a shop window which a relative had destroyed’. The man brought an action for damages which was dismissed, and he thought that this one would be as well.

However, ‘a man who insulted the public by the exhibition of an outrageous and disgusting placard could not complain of its destruction’, and once again James Cowan was sent packing from the Westminster courtroom with his tail between his legs.

If only we knew what the sign had said…

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 14, 1863]

Blasphemy, Race and Empire collide as an undertaker appears before the Southwark court.

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I am often reminded of how tremendously ignorant I am of some aspects of history. Most of my  study has been concerned with Britain and Europe and the world conflicts that involved them. I studied some American history to A level and some aspects of colonial history as part of my undergraduate degree, but for the last decade or so I have been firmly rooted in the period between about 1750 and 1900 and rarely stray much beyond London.

So until I read about him today I’d never heard of John William Colenso (1814-1883) or his important influence on African history. Colenso was born in St Austell in Cornwall where his father lost money in the mining industry when a sea flood deluded the works. After several false starts Colenso eventually took a career in the church and in 1853 became the first Church of England Bishop of Natal in what is now South Africa.

Throughout the 1850s Colenso travelled around Zululand meeting its people and writing up his experiences. Unlike many colonial travellers and officials Colenso was sympathetic to the cause of Africa rights and equality and this brought him plenty of criticism from the church and colonial authorities and eventually led to his removal from office in 1863.

And this is where he came across my radar, appearing (albeit not in person) in the Southwark Police court in April, in a case heard by Mr Combe the sitting magistrate.

As the newspaper report noted:

‘An elderly Scottish gentleman entered the court to complain of a blasphemous placard placed outside the shop of an undertaker’. The notice declared “Colenso right and the Bible wrong’, and the complainant wanted it taken down immediately. It was, he said, ‘full of blasphemy’ as it denied the truth written down in the scriptures.

At first Mr Combe was reluctant to get involved in this, as he didn’t think he had any jurisdiction to interfere but the Scot was instant. The magistrate sent a warrant officer out to fetch the placard and ask the undertaker to attend to explain himself.

Once the offending message and the undertaker’s men ( a Mr Antill) were present Combe asked him whether he was aware what it said. Antil was, he explained that he related to a series of lectures due to be given over the next six Sunday evenings. We don’t learn what the lectures were about but given what I now know about Bishop Colenso I think I might make an educated guess.

Colenso was a polygenist, in other words he believed that mankind had evolved from more than one initial source. The Bible, of course, states that man descends from Adam and Eve. Science and history made it hard, Colenso argued, to accept that all races were descended from the same single pair of human beings. Instead he suggested that God had created several races, but all of them were created equal. As with others that held this belief he argued that monogenism lay at the heart of racism and slavery.

The Colenso controversy sparked huge religious debate in Britain and southern Africa in the 1860s and we can see from this small snippet in the news that this manifested itself even in daily life in the capital of Empire.

Mr Combe asked the undertaker if he had gone to these lectures. Yes, he had, Antill replied, and he ‘took considerable interest in them’ which was why he’d put out the placard to advertise them to others.

The magistrate told him he’d committed an offence by ‘exposing such a blasphemous’ notice. It was ‘not at all respectable for a tradesman to allow it, and more especially an undertaker’.

Mr Antill apologised and said he would not put it out again in the future and left with a warning that if he did he could expect to be punished for it. The unnamed ‘Scottish gentleman’ thanked the magistrate and left the court, his mission accomplished. One wonder what he would have made of Darwin’s Origins of Species, which had been published just 4 years earlier in 1859. Religion and science were locked in an intellectual debate throughout the second half of the nineteenth century with evolution and God’s role in it firmly at the heart of that debate.

That debate continues still, as does the question of racial equality and the rights of peoples. Colenso was a friend of the Zulu people and supposedly argued against the war that broke between Cetshwayo and the British state in 1877. After the Zulu’s had been defeated Colenso agitated on the defeated kings behalf and successfully got Cetshwayo released from imprisonment on Robben Island. His continued challenge to authority and exposure of racism at the heart of the imperial project did nothing to endear him to politicians and senior clergy at home but it earned him the title of Sobantu (father of the people) amongst native Africans in Natal. He died in Durban in 1883, aged 69.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, April 24, 1863]

The ‘artful urchin’ and the 8th Baronet; a contrast in mid Victorian fortunes

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Sir Alexander Grant had a long lineage. In 1852 he was 69 years of age and would die two years later. Grant had served as an MP for various constituencies until the early 1830s and had acceded to his family baronetcy in 1825. Grant had made his money in the West Indies, as a plantation owner. Whether he was an advocate of slavery or a campaigner for its abolition is unknown to me, but either way he profited from the trade and had a smart address in London at Portman Square.

Thomas Dwyer, by contrast, has no known lineage. In 1852 he was just 12 years of age but already had a criminal record for picking pockets. We don’t know where he lived or who his father or mother was; he may have had none and probably slept where he could on the street, in doorways, or any form of rough shelter. Thomas had no stated trade (and clearly no inherited wealth) and we don’t know what happened to him after he briefly made the pages of the newspapers in February 1852.

Sir Alexander was walking on Duke Street, by Manchester Square (in the wealthy West End) when a man tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see a man holding a young boy firmly by the hand and preferring him a handkerchief.

‘This boy’, the man declared, ‘has stolen your handkerchief’. He handed the lad and the hankie over and then walked off.

Sir Alexander seized the boy (Thomas Dwyer) and marched him off to find the nearest policeman, and gave him into custody. A day or so later the pair were reunited in the Marylebone Police Court.

PC Steel (33C) testified to receiving the prisoner and stated that the boy had pleaded for leniency and begged ‘that he might be forgiven’. He added that the ‘young delinquent’ had previously been prosecuted for a similar offence and, when caught, was found to wearing a black silk ‘kerchief (‘nearly new’) around his neck.

Sir Alexander complained that he lost at least six handkerchiefs to thieves like Thomas while walking the streets of the capital. There was no inclination to leniency from the bench that day and Thomas Dwyer was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment at hard labour, and to be privately whipped on one occasion.

These were the very different fates that resulted from the accident of birth. Alexander Grant had his life mapped out for him; from birth to his education (at Cambridge), then a successful business enterprise from his inherited money, to a position of power and influence in parliament, to a quite retirement in a fashionable quarter of London. Thomas Dwyer was born into poverty and stayed there; even his attempts to survive (by stealing small items of value from those way above his social status) were thwarted and ultimately ‘rewarded’ by punishment which would have made it more difficult to survive in any other way in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 19, 1852]

George Carter ‘sticks it to the man’ and receives some sympathy from the bench

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George Carter was tired.

In fact he was so tired that he felt he needed, and deserved, a holiday. Sadly for him his employer, the North London Metropolitan Tramways Company thought otherwise. Workers had no statutory right to any holiday before 1938, and even that (one week a year) was hard fought and well below the minimum the Trades Union Congress had campaigned for. By contrast today the law states that ‘almost all workers’ are entitled to 28 days of annual leave.

The only way George Carter could get the rest he felt he required was to effectively quit his job, or at least stop working for a while. So on the 1st November 1875 George, who worked as a conductor collecting the fares on the trams, met with his supervisor and told him he was taking some time off. Mr Thomas Bradley, his inspector, said he found have to place someone else on his route and demanded he hand over any outstanding fares.

Carter was holding onto £3 15s 6d of the company’s money but he wanted to know what would happen if he left to have his well-earned break. Would he be discharged, he asked? If so he was going to keep the money.

At the Worship Street Police Court, where Carter appeared to answer a summons from the tram company, it was revealed that it was company policy to extract a £5 deposit from all the conductors prior to them starting their service. Presumably they were a distrustful lot and didn’t like the idea of their staff walking away with their money. Mr G. H Smith, the manager of the company, had  declared that he would be sacked and his wages and depots forfeited. It was this that had prompted the summons and the court case.

So inspector Bradley already had George’s money, indeed he had more than the £3 15s he was demanding he hand over. Moreover the tram company’s employees were forced to sign a document that made the bosses the ‘sole judges in any dispute’ and gave them power ‘to order the forfeiture of the deposit-money and all wages due’. Even in a world with zero-hour contracts and firms like Uber this was a terribly uneven distribution of power between employers and employees and the magistrate was appalled by it.

‘it was ‘very one-sided’, Mr Hannay said, ‘putting the men in the position of slaves without hope of redress in a court of law’, and it had been remarked upon a number of times in that court.

But there was nothing in law to stop the tram company setting the rules as it had; trades unions hardly operated  effectively in the period and it wasn’t until later in the century that they began to flex their muscles with any real hope of success. So all George Carter could do was withdraw his labour and hope to be reemployed at a later date by someone, if not his current employers.

Mr Hannay opted out of the debate; he said he had no power to adjudicate here and so dismissed the summons. As far as he could see the company had Carter’s £5 and he was hanging on to a ‘lesser sum’. If they wanted to pursue him for the fares he retained then they would have to do so in the county court, at their own expense. It wasn’t exactly a victory for the ‘little man’ but it was reported as an example of sharp practice by an employer than many people reading this would have been family with.

Whether that inspired them to look for alternative forms of transport in the future is questionable, but the publicity was hardly good for Mr G. H. Smith and his company were tainted by it, just as Mike Ashley’s appearance in front of the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee in July 2106 did nothing for the reputation of Sports Direct.

Trades Unions get a lot of stick, much of it well deserved. But we should remember that every single right that workers have today – to holidays, sick pay, pensions, safe conditions at work, training, and equal opportunities, have been extracted from the capitalist class by determined workers backed by union representatives. It is not for nothing that nearly every Conservative government since the second world war has attempted to curb the power of the unions in some way or another. Despite their claims of ‘one nation Toryism’ the Conservative and Unionist Party represent the ‘haves’ (like G. H. Smith) rather than the ‘have-nots’ (like George Carter).

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 14, 1875]