“This wide-ranging, intricate, penetrating analysis provides fascinating insight into the origins of our society.”
“Evokes and contextualizes moments of crisis and possibility in the past with a vividness that casts new light on our own time.”
—Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell
“Poetic and moving, this is the work of a historian of genius, rich in detail, powerfully written, and animated by a passion for justice.”
—Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch
From the connected events of the American, French, Haitian, and failed Irish Revolutions, to the Anthropocene’s birth amidst enclosures, war-making global capitalism, slave labor plantations, and factory machine production, Peter Linebaugh’s new book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning throws, readers into the pivotal moment of the last two millennia. Taking its title and cover image from William Blake, the book traces the revolutionary aspirations as exemplified in the lives of Edward and Catherine Despard, and even Blake.
In the below excerpt, Colonel Edward (Ned) Despard speaks from the gallows, where he was publicly hanged and decapitated in London before a crowd of 20,000 for organizing a revolutionary conspiracy to overthrow King George III. His black Caribbean wife, Catherine (Kate), helped to write his gallows speech in which he proclaimed that he was a friend to the poor and oppressed.
On Monday, 21 February 1803, with the hangman’s noose loosely around his neck, Edward Marcus Despard stepped to the edge of the platform, high up on the roof of Horsemonger Gaol, south of the river Thames in Surrey. He addressed the crowd, estimated at twenty thousand, that had been gathering from all over London since early morning. At four o’clock, drums called the Horse Guards to assemble; they rode sentinel at the bridges and principal roads. At five o’clock, the bell of St. George’s began to sound and tolled for an hour. Sir Richard Ford, the chief magistrate of London, had an uneasy night sleeping next to the jail. Leaflets had been circulated calling for an uprising to halt the executions. It had been difficult to find carpenters willing to build the scaffold. Constables were ordered to watch “all the public houses and other places of resort for the disaffected.” The jail keeper had been issued a rocket to launch as a signal to the military in the event of trouble. It was a tense moment when Despard stepped forward to speak:
Fellow Citizens, I come here, as you see, after having served my Country faithfully, honourably and usefully, for thirty years and upwards, to suffer death upon a scaffold for a crime which I protest I am not guilty. I solemnly declare that I am no more guilty of it than any of you who may be now hear- ing me. But though His Majesty’s Ministers know as well as I do that I am not guilty, yet they avail themselves of a legal pretext to destroy a man, because he has been a friend to truth, to liberty, and to justice
[a considerable huzzah from the crowd]
because he has been a friend to the poor and to the oppressed. But, Citizens, I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate, and the fate of those who no doubt will soon follow me, 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.
[a warning from the Sheriff ]
I have little more to add, except to wish you all health, happiness and freedom, which I have endeavoured, as far as was in my power, to procure for you, and for mankind in general.
The speech was a joint production with Catherine, who had been in and out of his cell for days, carrying papers and helping him with the writing of his petition of mercy. Despard spent his time writing, at one point asking for an amanuensis. The attorney general, Percival (a future prime minister), wrote Lord Pelham, the home secretary, “that so intensive and voluminous a correspondence cannot be upon his own private business.” Despard would have known, Percival wrote, that “he cannot be certain that she will not be searched any day and have the papers taken from her.” He concluded, “His past Habits have been such as fully to justify any suspicion of mischievous intention and plotting on his part, and therefore . . . he shall not be permitted to send any more papers out of prison by his wife or by anyone else unless he shall submit them to the Inspection of some person who may be trusted.” Sir Richard Ford, the evening before the hangings, wrote to Pelham that “the crowd is now dispersed, but I have ordered all my men, a hundred in number, to stay up all night. Mrs. Despard has been very troublesome, but at last she has gone away.”
The government was afraid of “equalization.” To prevent oratory on its behalf the sheriff interrupted, demanding that inflammatory words not be used. What else might he have said? This is the link to the revolutionary commons. It is the combination from the famous triad of two of its elements, equality and fraternity, which compose one meaning of the commons.
As it was, the speech was quickly reproduced: in The Times the next day, which is one thing, but also in leaflet form in Wolverhampton, which is quite another. Its printer, an Irishman named John English, was arrested. Despard’s is a carefully wrought speech in a tradition developed by the United Irish, who whenever possible turned the tables on their prosecutors.
The Gentleman’s Magazine published a different version, including a statement veering on a claim of innocence: “I know that from having been inimical to the bloody, cruel, coercive, and unconstitutional measures of Ministers, they have determined to sacrifice me under what they are pleased to term a legal pretext.” The conclusion is also different: “Although I shall not live to experience the blessings of the godlike change, be assured, Citizens, that the period will come, and that speedily, when the glorious cause of Liberty shall effectually triumph.”
We can make four observations about the speech. First, the speech is a continuation of the struggle, with active participation by the multitudes, who crammed the lanes and avenues to bear witness. Second, he twice addresses the crowd as “citizens,” the egalitarian and revolutionary mode of address that levels the distinctions of “Sir,” “My Lady,” “Your Majesty,” “Madame,” “Your Excellency,” and so on. Originating among the French Jacobins, the word had by this time become international. It is both egalitarian and democratic in that it also lays claim to self-government. Citizenship did not mean loyalty to the state per se; it had two other meanings—allegiance to humanity and to the revolutionary project. Third, it is a rhetorical production relying heavily on triads: a triad of accomplishments (“served my Country faithfully, honourably and usefully”), a triad of vices (“triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion”), and three triads of virtues (“the principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice,” “a friend to truth, to liberty, and to justice,” and “health, happiness and freedom”). These last remind us of the triad that rang through the epoch beginning in 1789, namely, fraternité, égalité, and liberté. Constantin Volney explained in his revolutionary manifesto The Ruins of Empire (1790) that égalité ought to precede liberté, since the former is the basis for the latter, and from “the minutest and most remote branches of government [égalité ] ought to proceed in an uninterrupted series of inferences.” These triads of oral knowledge were prompts for debate and discussion. Years later, when Frederick Engels identified this year as the one when the division, as he saw it, between utopian and scientific socialism occurred, he fell into a similar triad. For him, love, liberty, and loyalty were a triad implying classless and mutual commons. . . .
. . . Despard was one of seven who suffered a traitor’s death on the gallows. The others represent the struggling working people in various parts of England and Ireland: the textile workers of the western counties; the degraded artisans of London; the dockers, lumpers, and soldiers of London; the spalpeens of Ireland, the orphans in the factory mills. In the first census of 1800, they had become numbers, whose dwellings were identified and enumerated in Horwood’s great map of 1799 London. Looking back from 1827, William Blake wrote,
“Since the French Revolution Englishmen are all intermeasurable by one another: certainly a happy state of agreement, in which I for one do not agree.”
Within days of the mass execution a single-sheet broadside costing two pence was broadcast about London’s streets and chapels. It is confused, ambiguous, and pretentious in the way that unconventional literary efforts may seem to be; nevertheless, amid its apparent incoherence is a powerful subtext. A torn and soiled copy is preserved in the National Archives, having been scooped up by authorities at the time for study. Presented in a jumble of type sizes and littered with typographical doodads, it was called “A Christian Effort to Exalt the Goodness of the Divine Majesty, even in a Memento, on Edward Marcus Despard, Esq. and Six other Citizens undoubtedly now with God in Glory.” With its declaration of “citizens” resting in “glory,” the title mixes revolutionary and Christian phraseology. It begins by citing the Oakley Oath to form a new constitution; it alludes to Ireland and to George Washington; it stresses the butchery of the decapitation; it compares Despard to Job, to St. Stephen (stoned by Paul), and to Uriah (slain by King David); it characterizes England’s wars as wars against republics. Subtitled “An Heroic Poem: in Six Parts,” it is formally heroic in its use of poetic couplets and in its content. The second half presents an astonishing and nearly incoherent cry against enclosures and cattlemen before concluding with hints that the evidences at the trial were purchased with government money. A prose footnote quotes the political agronomist and encloser Arthur Young and implies that the landed gentry deny cottagers even a cow or a pig. The fifth part of the poem is a commentary on Oliver Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” the most well-known poem against enclosure of the commons produced in the eighteenth century. Written by an Irishman, it teaches that colonial policy prefigures domestic policy. So with an air of the sacred, the broadside connects the Despard insurgency with the struggle for the commons. We can understand why government took an interest in it.
When I described Catherine’s role in mercifully mollifying Despard’s death sentence to the labor history seminar at the University of Pittsburgh, Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, was moved to write a poem.
“For Catherine Despard, ‘the Mysterious Wife,’ on the
Signing of the Crime Bill, September 1994”
Hanged yes, but not quartered, Not that, not that horror,
Spare him that agony,
Let him be condemned as a traitor, Yes, yes, let that stand
For he made his choice
And would want the world to know, He would want it said of him
That he was a friend to justice That he was on the side of truth That he was of the common man.
He will die, not anxious to end his life
But not unwilling to assert beliefs
And thinking that his death
And news of the cause for which he died
Will light a fire in the hearts of men
And women nurture flames with their clustered hands: Many will look up to the scaffold and his dangling corps And walk away with their heads held high.
A monumental history, packed with a wealth of detail, Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and CLosure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard, presents a comprehensive chronicle of the resistance to the demise of communal regimes. Peter Linebaugh’s extraordinary narrative recovers the death-defying heroism of extended networks of underground resisters fighting against privatization of the commons accomplished by two new political entities, the U.S.A. and the U.K., that we now know would dispossess people around the world through today.