Monday, 26 December 2011

British Radicals and the Captivity of Napoleon: Smithfield 1819

Meeting at Smithfield, London, 22nd July 1819

"Napoleon I esteem the most illustrious and eminent man of the present age, both as a profound statesman and a brave and matchless general. Although he never appeared to evince so sincere a desire as could be wished to promote the universal liberty of man to the extent that I contend, and have always contended for, yet, when I reflect upon the period in which his energetic mind was allowed to have its full scope of action, and when I recollect the powerful armies and fleets that he had to contend with, and the phalanx of tyrants who were at various times leagued together against him, I am disposed not to examine too nicely and with too critical an eye the means that he used to defend himself against their unceasing endeavours to destroy him, and to restore the old tyranny of the Bourbons.' - Henry Hunt, radical leader(1)

The social struggles in England after the Napoleonic wars provide an important background to the captivity of Napoleon. Whilst the fear of revolution was never far from the minds of the loyalist classes, for those who were campaigning for reform, Napoleon was like them the victim of a corrupt, unrepresentative and repressive government, and Waterloo not a great national victory but a setback for the forces of liberty at home as well as on the continent.

On July 22nd 1819 a meeting in favour of parliamentary reform presided over by Henry Hunt, and attended by 40,000-50,000 people took place at Smithfield in London. This followed a meeting in Birmingham on 12th July, at which Sir Charles Wolseley had been elected as "legislatorial attorney and representative" and had been instructed to take his seat in the House of Commons - a promise he made to the gathering but wisely did not keep!

As well as what was probably interpreted as rather a threatening resolution on parliamentary reform,
"That from and after the 1st day of January 1820, we cannot conscientiously consider ourselves as bound in equity by any future enactment which may be made by any persons styling themselves our representatives other than those who shall be fully, freely, and fairly chosen by the voices of the largest proportion of the members of the state."
the Smithfield meeting also criticised the imprisonment of Napoleon:
"That this meeting unequivocally disclaims any share or participation in the disgraceful and cowardly acts of the boroughmongers, in placing the brave Napoleon a prisoner, to perish upon a desert island, shut out from human society, and torn from his only son, whilst he is exposed to the brutal insolence of a hired keeper".

The Smithfield meeting passed over peacefully, but it undoubtedly alarmed the authorities, and a similar meeting held a few weeks later in St Peters Fields Manchester, was brutally suppressed by the Manchester Yeomanry, and was henceforth to be known as the Peterloo Massacre, in ironic reference to Waterloo.

Henry Hunt who had presided over the Smithfield meeting, was along with other leaders arrested at Manchester and found guilty of intending disaffection and hatred of the king and constitution, and subsequently spent two and a half years in gaol.

Henry "Orator" Hunt (1773 – 1835)

In his memoirs, written whilst in gaol, Hunt compared his plight to that of Napoleon,
I am not ashamed of being accused of endeavouring to imitate the brave and persecuted Napoleon, who is writing his memoirs during his imprisonment on the barren rock of St. Helena.

He is, like myself, a prisoner, and imprisoned by the same power; only in his case they have not even the forms of law to justify them in his detention. He is a prisoner upon a barren rock, but I have not the least hesitation in pronouncing him to have been, both in the cabinet and the field, as to talent and courage, unrivalled in the pages of modern or ancient history. Neither the reformers nor the people of England had any share in sending him to St. Helena, nor ought they in fairness to participate in the disgrace of his detention.

In my humble judgement, the greatest fault he ever committed was, in having too good an opinion of the justice of the boroughmongers, and relying upon the liberality of their agents, so far as to be betrayed into that net which now surrounds him.


1. Memoirs of Henry Hunt, Esq, Written by himself, in his majesty's jail at Ilchester, In the county of Somerset (London 1820) Volume 1 pp xvii-xviii


Hels said...

Very interesting post!

"Napoleon was like them the victim of a corrupt, unrepresentative and repressive government". Agreed.

But are you saying that the 40,000-50,000 people who were at the Smithfield meeting in 1819 were there to protest, at least in part, against the British handling of Napoleon?

I could not understand why adoring British crowds rushed to catch sight of Napoleon as he "held court" on the ship's deck each evening in Plymouth. I had assumed it was Napoleon's fame that drew the crowds, not their concern for a repressive British government.

Art and Architecture, mainly

John Tyrrell said...

A very interesting question. I think it is impossible to say what the ordinary people who turned up at this and other similar meetings in 1819 felt about Napoleon, but there is no doubt that he had a lot of supporters in England, among whigs as well as radicals.

Presumably the leaders of the protest would not have brought up the resolution about Napoleon had they thought it would be divisive. I believe incidentally that the same resolutions were due to be brought to the Manchester meeting, but obviously they never got that far!

My feeling is that for many the treatment of Napoleon was an important symbol: had he been an hereditary monarch he would never have been treated like that.

You obviously appreciate just how repressive England was at this time: press gangs; transportation; the hanging capital of Europe (twice as many hanged in London in 1800-1830 as in 1701-1750); many more of course transported to the colonies; as late as 1820 traitors had their heads hacked off and held up to the crowds. Apparently the crowds who attended public hangings left no doubt at their displeasure when radicals and protesters were hung. (see Gatrell: The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868)

Time I stopped!