Before dawn on 21 February 1803, the day of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard’s execution, London’s entire armed forces were on full alert. Every member of the Bow Street, Queen Street and Hatton Garden militias, along with numerous petty constables from the outlying boroughs, was placed on duty in ‘all the public houses and other places of resort for the disaffected’. Around the execution site, the roof of Surrey County Jail in Southwark, a detachment of Horse Guards cavalry took up positions among a cordon of foot soldiers two deep. The infantry at the Tower and at the Knightsbridge barracks were mobilised and the head keeper of the jail was issued with explosive-packed sky rockets to be let off in case of any disturbance.
At 5 a.m. the bell of St George’s Church, Southwark, began tolling and spectators started to stream silently towards it through the dark and freezing streets. By the time it stopped an hour later, every vantage point around the jail was packed solid. The impending execution had dominated the news all week. Rumours abounded that Despard and those sentenced alongside him for high treason, a charge he denied, were being tortured for their confessions or were to be granted a last-minute reprieve. The Southwark police magistrate had expressed grave concerns about the public mood, reporting that the question on the people’s lips was ‘when are these poor men to be murdered?’ It had proved difficult even to find labourers willing to erect the scaffold.
Despard and his confederates were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the grim medieval punishment that had by this time barely been carried out in living memory. In response to public protest, or perhaps to the private plea of Admiral Lord Nelson, a former comrade in arms who had provided glowing personal testimony at Despard’s trial, the magistrates had announced that ‘the taking out and burning their bowels before their faces, and dividing the body severally into four parts’ would be waived. But there had never been an execution for high treason without the ‘drawing’: dragging the condemned to the scaffold on a carriage without wheels. On this occasion, the packed streets made it impossible, and the authorities were in any case not minded to test how the ominously silent crowds would respond. Instead, as dawn broke over the high walls of the prison, a procession assembled in the enclosed yard: a small cart attended by the sheriff of Surrey; a fully robed priest; the keeper of the jail solemnly holding a white wand; and the executioner, bearing a drawn sword. Despard, in a dark greatcoat and boots, bare-headed, without wig or powder, was led out, his hands bound with rope. He burst out laughing – ‘Ha! ha!, what nonsensical mummery is this?’ – as he was seated backwards on straw bales and bumped around the cobbled yard until it was deemed that the drawing had been completed. The sentence was never passed again.
When he ascended the gallows, Despard was permitted to address the people, with the warning that any ‘inflammatory or improper’ sentiments would result in the platform being immediately dropped. He addressed the crowd as ‘fellow citizens’ and maintained calmly that, after a lifetime of loyal military service to his country, he was being executed for a crime of which ‘I solemnly declare that I am no more guilty than any of you who may now be hearing me.’ Cautioned by the sheriff, he signed off with the hope that ‘the principles of freedom, of humanity and of justice, will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and every principle inimical to the interests of the human race.’
‘This calm declaration of a dying man was so well calculated to do mischief,’ wrote Robert Southey, who was among the crowd that morning. It convinced Southey that ‘revolution must inevitably come, and in its most fearful shape.’ Many had arrived at the same conclusion. Through the 1790s, war with France had ground towards a costly and destructive stalemate and economic hardship had fuelled mass petitions and protests. The prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, had responded with draconian emergency measures, banning public meetings and prosecuting dissent as seditious libel. In 1796 a crowd of protesters – Despard among them – had besieged his home in Downing Street shouting ‘no war, no Pitt, cheap bread’ and smashing his windows with stones; Pitt had justified his repressive policies to William Wilberforce by saying that ‘my head would be off in six months were I to resign.’ The following year, a mutiny over starvation rations and unpaid wages swept the British navy, paralysing the war effort. Poor harvests in 1799 and 1800 led to food riots, and it was reported in the House of Commons that ‘the walls of the manufacturing towns throughout the kingdom were too small to contain the quantity of sedition that was written on them.’
By 1803, however, the plot in which Despard was alleged to have played a leading part – to assassinate George III, occupy the Tower of London and block the mail coaches from London as the trigger for a nationwide insurrection – seemed implausible, even incredible. Despard had recently been released to a hero’s welcome after three years’ imprisonment without trial under Pitt’s emergency powers, having been caught up in a police raid in 1798 when the Irish Rebellion broke out. Then, it had seemed all too credible that a London uprising might be planned in conjunction with Irish paramilitary elements, and perhaps with the support of the French Directory. But by 1802, Britain and France had ceased hostilities under the Peace of Amiens, Ireland had been dragooned and incorporated into the United Kingdom by the Acts of Union, and Napoleon had demonstrated his lack of interest in the Irish cause by sailing to Egypt, where his fleet was destroyed by Nelson in the Battle of the Nile. For the first time in years, the threat of insurrection was in abeyance. The threat that Despard represented was by no means clear.
Later, as the spectre of revolution receded and continued receding over the course of the 19th century, Despard’s treason and execution faded from memory. In Britain’s confident imperial narrative, it became a footnote: by the 1920s the historian H.W.C. Davis could refer in The Age of Grey and Peel to a ‘hare-brained and desperate plot’ that was ‘hardly possible to explain except on the supposition that [Despard’s] mind was disordered’. It was only restored to historical importance in the 1960s, in particular by E.P. Thompson, who insisted in The Making of the English Working Class that Despard’s trial and execution were ‘an incident of real significance in British political history’. Within the revolutionary tradition that Thompson traced, Despard marked a pivotal point, the birth of the ‘illegal tradition’ of physical force. But the man himself remained an anomaly: a curious postscript to the 1790s radicalism inspired by the French revolution and Tom Paine, or an early harbinger of the next generation’s struggle for political reform.
Despard’s cause was illuminated from a new direction by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000), which devoted a chapter to his formative adventures in the Caribbean and Central America together with his wife Catherine, a free woman of colour from Kingston, Jamaica. Despard’s political opinions, they showed, were moulded by conflicts of which most Britons were unaware. In his new book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, Linebaugh expands the frame around the Despards still further, using the couple as the focal point for a survey of the geopolitical moment during which the world lurched towards its modern configuration. A British revolution never happened, but the wider world of 1800 ‘from Port-au-Prince to Naples; from Jamestown, Virginia to Paris; from Cape Town to Seringapatam’ was consumed by ‘“Sturm und Drang” – coups d’état, rigged elections, complots aristocratiques, plots, whiffs of grapeshot, insurrections, revolutionary journées, riot, revolt, revolution’. Despard’s story unfolded at the inflection point of multiple revolutions: industrial, democratic and military. The period also witnessed, climate studies now suggest, the birth of the Anthropocene. In Linebaugh’s framework the common denominator is the forced enclosure of the commons, which at that moment was transforming societies from Haiti to Peru, Ireland to native America: a ‘red round globe hot burning’, in William Blake’s phrase, making sense of Despard’s plea from the gallows for ‘the interests of the human race’. The Despards, in turn, exemplify the resistance to enclosure and the roots of a tradition visible today from the Occupy movement to the Zapatistas to Standing Rock.
When Despard was executed, England was in many respects a foreign country to him. His family was Anglo-Irish, and he had grown up in Mountrath, in the middle of Ireland, in an austere culture of Protestant observance and military discipline. He was the youngest of seven brothers, six of whom survived infancy; the oldest inherited the family estate and the rest entered military service. Edward Marcus left home for the military academy at Dublin Castle and arrived in Jamaica as a 21-year-old lieutenant in 1772. He remained in the ‘torrid zone’ of the Caribbean, making only two brief visits home, until he was forty.
His early service was shaped by a permanent state of emergency against slave uprisings. There were 200,000 black slaves on the island and 12,000 whites, a ratio that was changing the nature of the British colonial project. Previous colonies in America and Canada, composed mostly of white emigrants, had been consensual and cheap to run; the Jamaican slave system was coercive and expensive. Sugar created staggering wealth, but the logistics of producing it were pushing Britain out of a network of trading colonies and into a multiracial empire maintained by force. Sugar wealth exacerbated tensions between the plantation owners, represented politically by the Jamaican Assembly, and the British army, which was tasked with defending their interests. Like the American colonists, the assembly members chafed at the mother country’s trading monopoly and the taxes imposed by the 1765 Stamp Act. But they would never push towards independence as the Americans had done: without the British navy, their island would be defenceless against both their own workforce and the predatory French and Spanish fleets. When the British governor proposed sending Despard’s regiment to join the war against the American colonies, the assembly objected and threatened to take their complaints directly to Whitehall. The governor reconsidered, and Despard spent the next three years surveying and repairing the island’s fortifications instead.
In 1779 Spain declared war on Britain and Despard was finally called to military action. His first campaign was an ill-conceived raid on the Spanish territory of the Mosquito Shore, the sparsely populated, piratical and disease-ridden coast of Central America. Together with another dynamic and untried young officer, Horatio Nelson, Despard took effective charge of the expedition, capturing a Spanish jungle fort, occupying it throughout the pestilential rainy season and destroying it just as the enemy advanced to reclaim it. Nelson was invalided out and nearly died; Despard emerged as a hero from a debacle in which almost 80 per cent of the two thousand-strong British force lost their lives.
In 1783 the Treaty of Versailles established peace between Britain and Spain. It also created a British enclave at the mouth of the Belize river, where a community of British planters and mahogany traders known as the Baymen had illegally but tenaciously settled themselves, some since the 17th century. The Bay of Honduras settlement, as it was now designated, would also become home to the Shoremen – British-affiliated mixed communities of indigenous Indians, freed slaves and Irish indentured labourers who subsisted as loggers, traders, brewers, fishermen and smugglers in the lawless hinterland. Unusually for a British officer, Despard was liked and respected by these Shoremen, many of whom had fought under his command. He was promoted to colonel and appointed superintendent of the Bay (which would later become the colony of British Honduras, and in 1981 the independent nation of Belize).
Despard and the Baymen threw themselves into negotiating an arrangement between the new settlement and the British government, the first such attempt since the disastrous rift with the American colonies. It was, on its modest scale, a blueprint for a new constitutional balance between Britain and the wider empire. It proposed self-government for the Bay via a local assembly like that of Jamaica, which would be responsible for regulating trade with Britain and collecting duties for the Crown, in exchange for a guarantee that the British army would enforce their rights when required. There was little of the traditional language of divine authority or oaths of binding loyalty. Military protection would be contingent on the enclave’s compliance with tax and trade terms, and consent was made explicit on both sides.
As the Shoremen drifted into the settlement, however, the new constitution came under strain from several directions. The Baymen, who had long been used to parcelling up land and logging rights among themselves, refused to respect the new borders negotiated with the Spanish or to allow the new arrivals any land to settle on. Despard, whose direct orders from Lord Sydney, the home secretary, were to accommodate the Shoremen ‘in preference to all other persons whatsoever’, decided to section off the south side of the river for a new settlement, divided into housing tracts to be allocated by ballot. The Baymen complained that the land was theirs; Despard replied that if they had previously occupied it they had done so illegally. One of the first lots was awarded to a recently arrived free black man called Joshua Jones, who demolished an old shed standing on it. The magistrates elected by the Baymen arrested him for destruction of property and a standoff ensued, which Despard ended by placing a hand on Jones’s shoulder in the crowded courthouse and pronouncing: ‘I declare this man free in the king’s name.’
The Baymen were obliged to concede; they were, however, past masters at using their economic leverage to influence the British government. They bombarded the Home Office with letters alleging that Despard was destroying the mahogany trade by commandeering their property and handing it over to ‘a set of men of colour calling themselves the people of the Mosquito Shore’. Their petitions hit the mark. When Lord Sydney took the matter up with Despard, he expressed his doubts about whether ‘free negroes, however valuable in point of character’ should be ‘considered upon an equal footing with people of a different complexion’. Despard was surprised by this objection, because he thought the answer was obvious. ‘It must be governed by the laws of England,’ he replied, ‘which know no such distinction.’
Despard was perfectly correct that there was no colour bar in British law, but the world was turning in a way that made the informal emergence of one inevitable: by the 1820s the Bay of Honduras would have seven legally distinct castes based on skin colour. Back in London, Lord Sydney was replaced as home secretary by William Wyndham Grenville, Pitt’s cousin and his ally in managing colonial policy more directly by means of the prime minister’s influence over matters of tax and war. For Grenville, the Bay of Honduras settlement was first and foremost a valuable source of mahogany, and the justice of its internal administration of little interest. He abolished the new constitution, suspended Despard from his post and summoned him back to England.
Despard arrived in London in 1790 with Catherine and their young son. The response to this mixed race marriage is hard to gauge. It was highly unusual at the time, yet goes almost entirely unmentioned by both admirers and detractors: it seems that nobody wished to be the first to pass judgment on it. Catherine, however, demonstrated that it was a marriage of equals, becoming a powerful advocate for her husband’s cause and his most constant defender during the last phase of his life.
Grenville initially demanded that Despard put his version of events in writing. The resulting 500-page manuscript characterised the Baymen as an ‘arbitrary aristocracy’ who were protecting their own interests and treating the Shoremen as second-class citizens. Despard buttressed his argument with the results of the magistracy election in which he had stood shortly before he left, winning a resounding majority on an unprecedented turnout. But the cause of electoral representation struck no chord with Grenville: he had bought his own seat in Parliament and had served as a minister for Irish affairs without being persuaded that Catholics should have the right to vote. Despard’s remonstrances devolved into disputes over unpaid expenses which led in 1792 to his imprisonment for debt in the King’s Bench prison in Southwark. There, Despard read Paine’s Rights of Man and realised that his attempt to secure equal rights and representation in the Bay of Honduras was paralleled in Britain’s own movement for political reform. On his release in 1794 he joined the London Corresponding Society, a network formed in 1792 to campaign for universal suffrage. He was conspicuous in what was largely a working men’s organisation, particularly since he joined at the moment when most of its gentlemen members had been frightened away by the government’s vicious prosecutions of Paine and other high-profile reformers. Despard’s long absence from Britain and his political inexperience all conspired to make him less attuned than his fellows to the risks he was running. It’s likely that he also joined the United Irishmen, founded in 1791 by Wolfe Tone, a Protestant like Despard whose organisation aimed to transcend sectarian divisions in the pursuit of Irish independence.
In 1796, when Pitt’s ‘Gagging Acts’ criminalised political societies such as the LCS and the United Irishmen and forced them underground, the Despards disappeared from view. The chief sources of information on their subsequent movements are the reports of Home Office informers, according to whom they were moving lodgings every few months: St George’s Fields, Soho, Berkeley Square. The Home Office files are demonstrably unreliable on many points – in E.P. Thompson’s pungent assessment, ‘each word must be critically fumigated’ – but they suggest that Despard was involved in a co-ordinating committee that linked the LCS via the United Irishmen to the underground network of Irish volunteer militias known as the Defenders. This is corroborated to some extent by the memoirs of Francis Place, the reformer and future Chartist, a friend and admirer of Despard who was concerned by this time that elements within the LCS were committing themselves to reckless insurrectionary plots.
In May 1798 United Irish militias took to the streets of Dublin and halted mail coaches to the provinces as a signal to join the rising. In London, Despard was promptly arrested along with several of his LCS confederates and confined in Coldbath Fields prison in Clerkenwell alongside dozens of suspected Irish revolutionaries, naval mutineers and other ‘English Jacobins’. Charges were awaited with great interest but none materialised: Pitt extended his emergency powers by suspending habeas corpus. Catherine agitated very effectively for Despard’s release, together with the independent MP Sir Francis Burdett, whose campaign against the abuses in Coldbath Fields – ‘England’s Bastille’ – launched his wildly successful insurgent campaign for the parliamentary seat of Middlesex. In 1801, after Pitt’s resignation, the suspension of habeas corpus was finally allowed to lapse and Despard emerged from prison without – in legal terms, at least – a stain on his character.
Pitt’s successor, Henry Addington, concluded the Peace of Amiens with France in 1802, and Britain emerged blinking from the fog of war. But Despard’s business was apparently not finished. He went to ground once again, and Home Office informers began to connect him to a conspiracy among disaffected members of the armed forces demobilised and stationed in London. On 16 November 1802 he was arrested in a raid on the Oakley Arms in Lambeth, in the upstairs club room with a group of labourers and soldiers, three of whom were found to be carrying illegal oaths headed ‘Constitution: The Independence of Great Britain and Ireland. An Equalisation of Civil, Political and Religious Rights; an ample Provision for the Heroes who shall fall in the Contest’. Despard was once again taken into custody and this time was charged with high treason.
The trial was held in Surrey County Court and was prosecuted by the attorney general, Sir Spencer Perceval (destined ten years later to become the only British prime minister to be assassinated, not as the planned result of a conspiracy but by a merchant convinced he was owed government compensation). The verdict would not only be on the contested figure of Despard himself, but on the government’s emergency powers and the credibility of the revolutionary threat that had been invoked to justify them. The Lord Chief Justice’s office screened the jury pool for their political opinions and selected eight members judged ‘good’, three ‘bad’ and one ‘doubtful’. Nelson’s poignant testimony grabbed the headlines: ‘We slept many nights together in our clothes upon the ground. In all that period of time no man could have shown more zealous attachment to his sovereign and to his country than Colonel Despard did.’ Nonetheless, the prosecution was able to stitch their informants’ reports into a case that Despard had, however deludedly, believed the moment to be ripe for revolution. The plot they outlined was implausible on its face: if a full-scale revolution was intended, why was there no evidence connecting Despard with known French or Irish conspirators? In the end, catching him in a pub in the company of working men and renegade soldiers carrying illegal oaths proved enough to convict him.
As the days ticked down to his execution, Despard remained inscrutable. He insisted on his innocence, and together with Catherine drafted a petition for mercy to the king, all the while rebuffing government attempts to force or trick a confession from him. Linebaugh is not the first scholar to have combed the sources and concluded that ‘we are never going to know the facts of Despard’s conspiracy for certain.’ Despard may have been attempting to disarm a rash attempt at insurrection; he may have been betrayed by agents provocateurs; he may have convinced himself that the revolution was indeed at hand. If the government hoped that his execution would scatter any conspiracy that had been gathering in the shadows, they were proved right. When his severed head was raised with the time-honoured cry, ‘This is the head of a traitor,’ the crowd, Southey reported, broke their silence to hiss at the executioner. But they departed as silently as they had arrived.
There was still the funeral to come, which the government anticipated as another potential flashpoint; the Times, noting the United Irish tradition of using funerals as a display of strength, feared that it might attract ‘a tumultuous assemblage of persons’ on a scale not seen since ‘the example of Lord George Gordon’s rioters’ in 1780. In the end it was modest, a hearse and four carriages, with some five hundred mourners lining the streets. The only unscheduled incident came just as the coffin was being closed, when a young French woman called Marie Tussaud rushed forward to make a cast of Despard’s face. Within the month his death mask was on display in her waxwork collection, underlit by sinister blue light; it became a founding and long-standing exhibit in her ghoulish ‘Separate Room’, which Punch later dubbed ‘the Chamber of Horrors’.
The Despards, Linebaugh writes, were ‘comrades seeking to change the world of enclosure and exploitation’. In this expansive view, they can be seen as ‘colonial subjects who lost their bid to put humankind on a different path, a road not taken’. However his story is framed, Despard’s fate seems overdetermined by the character traits he displayed throughout his life: his exacting sense of personal honour and public duty, combined with a streak of political naivety, a willingness to face death, a stubborn refusal to incriminate others, and a conviction that he had seen the future more clearly than most.
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