I wasn’t greatly enthused by first sight of the current issue of The Times Literary Supplement. The cover seemed to promise all things feminist and African. Within, though, are two reviews of history books. Both have, if looked at properly, Irish implications. We’ll perhaps come to the second later.
The first (page 26) is a review by Professor Marianne Elliott. If that name doesn’t ring bells, it should. She is one of those scholars who created at Liverpool University the highly-influential Institute of Irish Studies. Here she is taking large lumps out of Peter Linebaugh’s 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. That ponderous title alone suggests something OTT, more Mills and Boon than product of a respectable academic press. The book seems to be account of the lives of
Edward Marcus Despard and his Jamaican wife Catherine, daughter of a freed slave. Despard was a minor member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, whose career in the British army had takeneito Jamaica, Nicaragua and, in 1786, to British Honduras, as its military superintendent. In Central America he took up the cause of the indigenous people and fell foul of the Baymen, or loggers. Recalled to England in 1790, he became involved with the English and Irish “underground”, was twice arrested, and executed inLondon in 1803 for his part in the so-called Despard Conspiracy (allegedly to overthrow the British government).
On the basis of this review I shall not be rushing to buy the book.
And yet … ‘the Despard Conspiracy’. I had an echo lodged in a disused braincell, but I needed a refresher.
The Oxford Companion to Irish History is no great help:
Despard, Col. Edward Marcus (1751-1803), born in Queen’s County, a naval hero executed 21 February 1803 for an alleged revolutionary conspiracy in London. His activities, long dismissed as a wild personal venture, are now seen as part of the clandestine plotting still kept up, despite defeat in the insurrection of 1798, by the United Irishmen and their radical allies in Great Britain, with possible links to Robert Emmett’s venture later the same year.
It is unsigned. That, to me, feels little more than a place-marker, waiting to be amplified by developing scholarship. Which may explain why, although I must have heard of the ‘Despard Conspiracy’, I wasn’t up to speed.
The DNB doesn’t quite concur with Professor Elliott:
In June 1786 Despard took up an appointment as superintendent of Honduras. Though he handled relations with the Spanish authorities well he was notably less adept as a civilian governor. His unswerving support for settlers displaced from territories recently ceded to Spain (many of whom he knew from San Juan and the Black River) led him into repeated conflict with the established British settler community, who complained repeatedly to London of his ‘visible Spirit of Self-importance and uncontrollable Domination’ (TNA: PRO, CO 123/6, 21 Feb 1788). Events culminated in his annulment (June 1789) of the colony’s police and magistracy; Despard ruled by direct decree until, suspended on half pay, he was ordered to return to Britain, where he arrived in May 1790, accompanied by his African–Caribbean wife, Catherine, and their son James.
What comes before and after that DNB snippet is interesting.
There is a link to his older brother, John Despard, another of the colonial administrators who sprang from the lower echelons of the Ascendancy class, and rose through army connections. Much of John’s service had been in the American campaigns, and he was duly rewarded with O/C the Cape Breton colony. Time and circumstances put him running the reception committee for 25,000 Scots evicted by the Highland Clearances.
From the DNB we find Edward Marcus as an engineer with Nelson, capturing Fort San Juan (1779) from the Spanish (annepisode plundered by CS Forester for Hornblower) , running the occupation of Roatan and the Honduran island (1781), at the defence of Jamaica against the Franco-Spanish assault (1782). Then something of interest:
Despard headed an expedition of Jamaican settlers, assisted by British artillery, to recapture Spanish-occupied Black River territory in south-western Jamaica. For this he received royal commendation and was made a colonel of provincials.
In June 1786 Despard took up an appointment as superintendent of Honduras.
As if someone higher up has spotted Despard ‘deals well with the locals’.
Back in Britain, after the Honduran problem:
Despard had to wait until October 1791 to learn that, while complaints against him were dismissed, he was not to be reinstated as superintendent of Honduras. In pursuit of compensation he grew increasingly irascible, while the combination of enforced idleness and grievance against authority led him to both the London Corresponding Society and the overtly revolutionary United Irishmen (UI). He quickly became an intimate of the leading United Irishman and French secret agent William Duckett and in 1797 was reported to be co-ordinator of a proposed rising in London planned to coincide with one in Ireland and a French landing there. In 1798 Despard was pivotal in negotiations between the United Irishmen and a broader conspiratorial group, the United Britons, to foment simultaneous English and Irish risings to assist a French invasion. When O’Connor and O’Coighley, the principal leaders of the conspiracy, were apprehended in February, while hiring a boat to take them to France, habeas corpus was suspended and further arrests followed. Despard’s was predictably among them.
Despard seems to have been aware that the revolutionary threat had been contained by the government when, in June 1799, he petitioned for his release in return for voluntary transportation. Among political prisoners at this time he seems to have received the harshest treatment—’more like a common vagabond than a gentleman or State Prisoner’, complained his wife, Catherine (TNA: PRO, HO 42/43)—and Sir Francis Burdett made Despard’s case the centre of a campaign against the ‘English Bastille’.
Alas! At that single bound our hero was not yet free.
He retreated to the family stamping ground at Camross, seemingly convinced to stay out of politicking. But, get this:
… in February 1802 he returned to London at the behest of the UI leader William Dowdall. After the collapse of the Irish rising of 1798 the United Irishmen had reconstituted itself as a small, centralized military body. Though Britain was now at peace with France food shortages and industrial unrest created a climate in which talk of revolution flourished. Despard now concentrated on enlisting the support of militant Irish labourers and guardsmen stationed in Windsor and London but intelligence sources also show him to have been in contact with Irish and French emissaries during the summer. Disaffected guardsmen tried to force the issue with a rising on 6 September but Despard restrained them, arguing that such action could be effective only if it coincided with an Irish rising and a French invasion; but then, on 16 November, Despard was arrested at the Oakly Arms, Lambeth, apparently planning a coup d’état to coincide with the opening of parliament later that month.
Much of that sounds remarkably familiar. In the subsequent trial, the prosecution pulled its punches, reluctant to reveal the sources of intelligence, and particularly protective of any evidence against:
a significant number of London Jacobins in the conspiracy, of whom the motley dozen soldiers and workmen tried with Despard were far from typical.
Instead Despard was depicted as:
a psychotic maverick who had enticed a small band of unfortunates into supporting a futile plot.
That was when synapses closed; and I realised where Despard had appeared in my past reading. He gets incidental references in EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.
The rest of Despard’s story follows a predictable pattern:
… the only incriminating evidence found at his arrest was a printed card calling for ‘the independence of Great Britain and Ireland. An equalization of Civil, Political, and Religious Rights; [and] an ample Provision for the families of the Heroes who shall fall in the contest’. An oath of allegiance to the United Britons was appended. Identical cards circulated in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Such points led Edward Thompson to argue, in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), that Despard was the leader of a nationwide revolutionary conspiracy […] His arrest was simply an opportunist move by a government acting on fragmentary evidence.
As far as I can see, that is how the notion of an overarching plot, led by Despard, remained current. Though Marianne Elliott (I now see) made an earlier effort at resurrecting Despard’s memory in her Partners in revolution: the United Irishmen and France.
Despard’s defence was circumspect, wishing perhaps not to incriminate others but also aware that the prosecution case was uneven. He enjoyed wide popularity and Nelson himself gave evidence as to his good character: ‘no man could have shewn more zealous attachment to his Sovereign and his Country’. Though finding him guilty the jury recommended mercy ‘on account of his former services’. The government, however, was not inclined to clemency. Whatever the truth of the conspiracy an exemplary verdict had been secured and punishment was enacted accordingly. On 21 February 1803, having taken leave of his wife and refusing all religious consolation, Despard was drawn on a hurdle to the Surrey county gaol, Newington, where, before a crowd reportedly of 20,000, he delivered from the scaffold a speech that was loudly cheered. Along with six co-conspirators he was hanged and his corpse decapitated, whereupon the executioner held up the head, declaring: ‘This is the head of a traitor’. His widow received the remains, which on 1 March were buried in the churchyard by St Paul’s Cathedral.
In my humble opinion Edward Despard is another victim of the nationalist struggle:
- Is there any Irish memorial of him, or to him?
- Perhaps I should take time out to trace any genealogical link between him and Charlotte Despard ((1844-1939, née French), the pacifist, socialist, suffragette, and Irish nationalist, sister of Sir John French, through her husband, Maximilian Carden Despard (1839–1890).