Chartists: O'Brien, Jones, Cooper

Four years before Hibbert’s untimely death, a fiery young Irishman named James ‘Bronterre’ O’Brien arrived in London. He was to play a key role in the first national working-class movement of Chartism. He was not only one of the greatest Chartist speakers, but perhaps the one most trusted by working people. The People’s Charter demanded universal male suffrage, secret ballots, annual parliaments, pay for MPs and abolition of property qualifications to stand for election and equal electoral districts.84 Bronterre, as he was known, probably on account of his thunderous oratory, was a middle-class man from County Longford. He had passed the TCD Classics exams with flying colours and, as an undergraduate, won prizes in both Classics and science.85 Although he went to London to further his studies of law, he was already radicalised, becoming the editor of The Poor Man’s Guardian in 1832 and campaigning for a free press.86 In 1840 he was convicted of making a seditious speech in Manchester and spent 18 months in Lancaster Prison.

It was not until 1849 that he began publishing the 21 journal articles that became The Rise, Progress and Phases of Human Slavery,87 an unjustifiably neglected book in which he brings his expert knowledge of Classics to bear on contemporary politics and economics (Figure 13.4). He argues that ancient slavery was in some circumstances ways less bad, because ‘direct and avowed’, than the condition of the Victorian working class, ‘hypocritically masked under legal forms’, which he defines as unjust agrarian, monetary and fiscal laws.88 O’Brien’s work remains important if only because Karl Marx, who arrived in London in 1849, told Engels he was ‘an irrepressible Chartist at any price’;89 Marx’s own theories were certainly influenced by O’Brien’s theorisation of exchange in relation to the equivalence of ancient slaves and the 19th-century proletariat, the value of

FIGURE 13.4 Title page of James O’Brien’s The Rise, Progress and Phases of Human Slavery (1885), reproduced by courtesy of the British Library. Reproduced by courtesy of the British Library.

labour, the concept of hidden bondage, and the workings of ideology which maintain class divisions.90

Bronterre’s commitment to the working class never lessened. Even after the waning of Chartism, he opened the Eclectic Institute in Denmark Street, Soho, London, which served a useful purpose in the early stages of the Adult Education Movement, earning him the soubriquet ‘Schoolmaster O’Brien’ on account of his services to the self-education of working men.91 An unrepentant admirer of the French revolution, in 1857 he acknowledged his own frustration in his Miltonic ‘An elegy on the death of Robespierre’, in which a group of workmen, after the parliamentary revolt of 9th Thermidor 1794, address the shade of Robespierre on how other ‘godlike benefactors of our race’ have been spurned and die miserably: Aristides, Socrates, and numerous Roman republicans.92

The other classicist Chartist well known to Marx was Ernest Jones, whom Engels regarded as the only educated Englishman in politics ‘entirely on our side’.93 Born in Berlin in 1819, the son of an army major and the daughter of a major Kent landowner, Jones received his excellent classical education at a prestigious school in Hannover and moved to London at 19. He came into a fortune through his marriage; it was going bankrupt in 1844 and his own precipitation into poverty that turned him into a passionate Chartist. His first collection of poetry, Chartist Songs, published in 1846, was popular amongst the working class.94 He was arrested for seditious behaviour and unlawful assembly, enduring two years’ imprisonment; in 1850 he said to a crowd in Manchester, ‘I went into your prison a Chartist, but... have come out of it a Republican’.9’ After his release, Jones assisted on George Harney’s socialist newspaper Red Republican. His long poem The Neu> World, discussed below pp. 407, puts his classicist’s grasp of ancient history to extended use. But his lectures often used arresting classical images, too: ‘Everyone knows that Capital ... is the offspring of Labour, and yet that Labour is the servant of Capital; nay! that the latter, reversing the legend of old Saturn, has been destroying its Creator’.96 When arguing against private education, he stated that

The schools of the rich, directly or indirectly, pervert the minds of the young—the great leverage of future oppression is planted in the brains of poor men’s children. That is the “foot of space” whence the Class Archimedes hurls down liberty—this ought to be counteracted.97

Chartists from poorer backgrounds, aware of earlier radical uses of the ancient world, enjoyed rousing quotations from antiquity. When William Lovett and James Watson drew up their Declaration of the National Union of the Working Classes in 1831, one of the epigraphs was ‘That Commonwealth is best ordered when the citizens are neither too rich nor too poor—THALES’.98 Chartists often struggled to teach themselves the classical languages. Joseph Barker, born in Bramley, Leeds in 1806, was the son of a handloom weaver and at the age of 9

forced to go to work himself. But he would prop up books by his jenny gallows to read while he worked as a spinner, and at 16 started teaching himself Latin and Greek. He became a Chartist activist later." Gilbert Collins was a Chartist bank clerk who taught himself Greek but could not afford the books from which to learn Arabic. The famous Chartist poet Thomas Cooper recalls that during the years 1836-1838, when he was working as a journalist in Lincoln, the two became friends partly because they ‘had an equally strong attachment to the study of languages. Collins had learned Latin at school, and had taught himself Greek, and had translated for himself the entire Iliad and Odyssey. Of the Greek Testament, he had a more perfect knowledge than any one I ever knew’.10“ The pair decided to teach themselves Arabic. Another local friend, George Boole (a shoemaker’s son who had learned Latin from a kindly local bookseller and went on to become the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College, Cork, later University College Cork) discovered their plan. He laughed at them, pointing out that they would need to acquire Richardson’s Arabic dictionary,101 which was quite out of their reach, costing at least 12 to 15 pounds.102 Mortified, the pair ‘felt ashamed of our thoughtlessness, and laid the project aside’.103

But Latin and Greek were more accessible through cheap second-hand textbooks. Although, as we shall see in Chapter 20, he had little formal education, Thomas Cooper, the self-styled Chartist Rhymer, had taught himself almost as much Classics as O’Brien or Jones. This is most apparent from his epic poem The Purgatory of Suicides, written in the early 1840s in Stafford Gaol, where he was imprisoned as a Chartist after being convicted of sedition.104 The Purgatory of Suicides impressed not only its Chartist readership but Carlyle, Benjamin Disraeli and Kingsley.10’ The first six stanzas of The Purgatory of Suicides are, he says, a poetical embodiment of a speech he delivered in 1842 to the colliers on strike in the Staffordshire Potteries, as a result of which he was arrested for arson and violence.106

In book I, he is imprisoned and dreams of a voyage of death and meeting the souls of suicides; there is a sort of constitutional debate which draws on Herodotus Book III and Cicero’s Dream of Scipio. Some of the ancient dead involved share characteristics with Chartists. They include Oedipus (who solved the riddle), the patriotic Athenian heroes Aegeus, Salaminian Ajax, Codrus, and the tragic national heroines Dido, Cleopatra, and Boadicea; others are less admirable (Nero and Appius).107 In book IV, there is a dialogue between Sappho and Lucretius and an assembly of suicidal poets summoned by Lucan. Vicinus thinks that Cooper was indulging in shameless self-promotion by displaying his classical knowledge,108 while Sanders suggests that the poem can ‘be read as an attempt to democratize “elite” knowledge ... The fact that Cooper provides explanatory footnotes for a number of his protagonists increases the education value of the poem’.109 But they overlook Cooper’s creative dialogue between ancient India and Greece. The voice of India, in the mouth of the sage Calanus, transcends time and space, in a manner reminiscent of the choruses of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and Hellas, to prophesy global liberation and universal suffrage.

Calanus is found in several ancient sources for Alexander the Great’s activities in India, including Plutarch’s Life of Alexander and Arrian’s Anabasis 7.1.5-3.6. He was frequently praised by ancient philosophers and Christians including Ambrose for his self-control and bravery in the face of self-death.110 In an essay entitled ‘Every Good Man is Free’, the Alexandrian Jewish scholar Philo (c. 20 все to 50 ce) had cited Calanus as an outstanding example of the true freedom enjoyed by every good man. Philo records that when Alexander tried to coerce him into leaving India and travelling with him, Calanus pointed that he would become a useless specimen of‘barbarian wisdom’ for the Macedonian to display to the Greek world if he allowed himself to be forced to do anything against his will (Philo, 9.14.92-6). Cooper puts the idea of Calanus as a spokesman for true spiritual freedom to innovative political use.

Calanus is introduced in book II in order to provide a climax for a list of various Greek sages. Calanus tells the Greeks Empedocles and Cleombrotus of his utopian vision of the future—a spiritual allegory for the Chartists’ vision of a levelled and democratic society:

The time will come, О Hellene! when the sun

Shall look upon a world no more o’errun With slaves to sensualism; when haggard Spite, And frowning Pride, and Envy pale shall sun Truth’s glorious beams .

He says that the strong will end up seeking to break bread for weeping orphans, and

Knowledge, the great Enfranchiser, is near!

Yet, though their bonds the wide world’s helots break, They seek not in their tyrants’ blood to slake A thirst for vengeance ...t12

That an ancient Indian sage should be selected to lecture ancient Greeks on the topics of feeding the destitute as well as enfranchising and educating the wide world’s ‘helots’ reveals Cooper’s intuition that British commercial interests in India were linked to the predicament of the working classes internationally. Cooper—an outstanding working-class intellectual—has read his ancient Greek sources on Alexander and Calanus significantly ‘against the grain’.

The lowliness of Cooper’s origins makes remarkable the detail of his knowledge of ancient history, as well as the topical appropriation to which he subjects that knowledge. Cooper was not only committed to universal male suffrage and agitation on behalf of the poor, but on an international level he was opposed to imperialism: one of his most inflammatory speeches, delivered at Hanley in the Potteries in August 1842, begins with a catalogue of‘conquerors, from Sesostris to Alexander, from Caesar to Napoleon, who had become famous in history for shedding the blood of millions’. He described ‘how the conquerors of America had nearly exterminated the native races’. He excoriated ‘British wrongdoing in Ireland’.113 For the working-class activist Cooper, then, the ancient Brahmins of India, as filtered through ancient historiography and biography, represented a mystical fount of ancient knowledge of the post-imperial international utopia to be ushered in by the Charter. Cooper made Calanus, an ancient Indian, lecture an ancient Greek/Macedonian conqueror on social justice. Cooper had, of course, never been anywhere near India, however clear his understanding of the link between the class system in Britain and the oppression of indigenous peoples in her colonies.114

Cooper also lectured to working-class audiences at the City Chartist Hall in London, in which he popularised ‘the magnificent themes of the Athenian democracy’, and in late 1848 he spoke on the transition from ‘legendary’ to ‘historical’ Greece at the Hall of Science in City Road.115 He uses ancient sources and is also familiar with the first volume of George Grote’s History of Greece, which appeared in 1846. He was not the only Chartist routinely to use Athens and Rome as comparands on the lecture circuit. John Collins defended the Greek and Roman republics at a meeting of the Leeds Reform Association, because it was advocating household suffrage rather than universal male suffrage and the rest of the Charter’s demands.116 In Wales, Henry Vincent drew a dark picture of the invariable fall of proud empires which oppressed their poor, such as Rome, and his Monmouthshire audiences applauded loudly when he described the final victory of the northern barbarians who dashed ‘the haughty usurper’ down. Athens provided an even better example, because he could speak at length on her achievements, and St. Paul’s visit, as well as describing how she became ‘degraded’ when she lost her love of liberty.117

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >