Friday, 22 May 2020

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: St Helena, March 1820

Front cover, "The political house that Jack built", 1819

In March 1820 a naval surgeon named McKenzie arrived on St Helena with a copy of the The political house that Jack built. (1) This pamphlet which was published by William Hone in the wake of the August 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, was to run to several editions and sell 100,000 or so copies.

McKenzie had, so he claimed, intended to show the pamphlet to Sir Thomas Reade, before giving it to an English resident on the island. Unfortunately he left it in a shop, and two British army officers found it and reported him to Sir Hudson Lowe.

Lowe immediately sent McKenzie aboard his ship and held him prisoner for 7 days, threatening to send him back to England and force him out of the Navy. Luckily for him there was no ship leaving for England, and so at the end of his confinement he was able to beg Lowe for forgiveness and secure his release. (2)

Hone was a fierce defender of the freedom of the press who had faced three separate trials on three days in December 1817, one of which was for libelling the Prince Regent.(3) He was acquitted in each trial, to great popular acclaim. Henceforth he was regarded as almost immune from prosecution whilst other radical journalists frequently found themselves in prison, and William Cobbett exiled himself in North America to avoid the same treatment.

Ruffians are abroad

William Hone was a friend of Hazlitt, and like him and many others did not subscribe to the Loyalist narrative about Napoleon. One of his earlier pamphlets had been Buonaparte-phobia (1815), which satirized the exaggerated anti-Napoleonic language of The Times , whose editor was henceforth referred to as Dr Slop.

The frontispiece of The "Political House that Jack Built" (top) carried a cartoon of Wellington, putting his sword on the scales of justice. The Waterloo man, as Hone described him, had been recruited into the Cabinet in late 1818, and his appointment was seen as a sign that the Government was prepared to use military force to put down those calling for reform. The Manchester massacre seemed to confirm this, and it almost immediately became known as "Peterloo".

These are THE PEOPLE all tatter'd and torn,
Who curse the day wherein they were born,
On account of Taxation too great to be borne,
And pray for relief, from night to morn;
Who, in vain, Petition in every form,
Who, peacably Meeting to ask for Reform,
Were sabred by Yeomanry Cavalry, who,
Were thank'd by THE MAN, all shaven and shorn,
All cover'd with Orders--and all forlorn;
The Man of course was the Prince Regent, a Whig in his youth, who had turned against his former political friends and had publicly thanked the troops who broke up the reform meeting in Manchester.

George Cruikshank's caricature of the Prince Regent

THE DANDY OF SIXTY, who bows with a grace,
And has taste in wigs, collars, cuirasses and lace;
Who, to tricksters, and fools, leaves the State 
and its treasure,
And, when Britain's in tears, sails about 
at his pleasure:
Who spurn'd from his presence the Friends of his youth,
And now has not one who will tell him the truth;
Who took to his counsels, in evil hour,
The Friends of the Reasons of lawless Power; 

In the poem Hone looked to leading Whigs to save Reform from Wellington and the repressive Tory Government:

This WORD is the Watchword--the talisman word,
That the WATERLOO-MAN's to crush with his sword;
But, if shielded by NORFOLK and BEDFORD's alliance,
It will set both his sword, and him, at defiance;
And assist its best Champions, who then dare invade it?

It is no wonder that a pamphlet such as this was not welcomed on St Helena at this time. Lowe and Reade were fierce Loyalists, determined to keep opposition newspapers off the island and especially from Longwood House, and naturally suspected anyone who showed any Whig or worse still Radical sympathies. On St Helena where the Governor's word was supreme, there was no recourse to the law to protect press freedom or individual liberties.
1. Jack was a synonym for John Bull. "This is the house that Jack Built" is a traditional English nursery rhyme.
2. The Morning Chronicle, May 20, 1820.
3. See also this post on Hone.


Hels said...

I did a lot of British history as an undergraduate and postgraduate student, but I didn't hear anything about Peterloo until decades later.

Thank you for the information about the Prince Regent who had been recruited into the Cabinet in late 1818; his appointment was rightly seen as a sign that the Government was prepared to use military force to put down those calling for reform. I note the quick passing of the repressive 6 Acts :(

The Manchester massacre was inevitably a nightmare. Thanks for the link

John Tyrrell said...

I think you mean Wellington!