Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Chartism: A Global History—a review by John A. Hargreaves

Chartism: A Global History and other essays, Richard Brown, Authoring History, 2016, 324 pp., £10.96, paper, ISBN 1534981438
This volume of essays written partly, the author reveals, as a response to a student enquiring in 2003 ‘What impact did Chartism have on the rest of the world brings the word total of the series of six volumes of which it forms part to 850,000 words. Few if any individual historians have ranged so widely and encompassed so many dimensions of the Chartist movement than Richard Brown. Moreover, like so much of Richard Brown’s work it combines a pedagogic enthusiasm with cutting edge research engaging particularly with the global resonance of the movement, an aspect of Chartism that had not previously been ‘the subject of serious consideration’. The author revisits and develops in the opening chapters of this volume of essays his previous consideration of ‘the nature of Chartism as it looked outwards to Britain’s colonies’, exploring how Chartist ideas spread across the globe. It also considers how and to what extent Chartism influenced ‘the critique of Britain’s place in the world and particularly how far Chartists and Chartist ideas influenced the definition of colonial rule within and by white-settler colonies in opposition to colonial rule as seen from the Colonial Office. It provides extended, detailed studies of Chartism and North America and Chartism in Australia, whilst recognising that the three decades after 1830 saw widespread rebellion against British colonial rule from the Canadas to New Zealand and from India to South Africa and Australia where there was ‘an upsurge of anti-colonial protest as indigenous peoples and colonial settlers sought to assert their “rights” against the overweening authority of coercive and largely unaccountable colonial states’.
In the remainder of the book, Brown provides an up-to-date perspective upon ‘issues that have been persistent themes’ in understanding the genesis and impact of this absorbingly fascinating movement, encompassing ‘historiography, women, radicalism and Chartism’, Chartist leadership, and Chartism and the state, re-affirming the continuing value of the groundwork of F.C. Mather in exploring the reaction of the government to Chartism. He also considers how Chartism has been viewed through ideological prisms ranging from late-nineteenth century socialism to twentieth-first century Welsh nationalism and remembered in memorials, literature, drama, sculpture and public art such as the Newport Mural unveiled for the 150th anniversary of the rising of 1839. In contrast to the centennial discussions in 1939, which had focused upon whether the event should be commemorated at all and the question of whether it was ‘an accidental riot or a rebellion’, in 1989 ‘the Charter was no longer controversial and the emphasis was on the benefits the commemoration brought to the town in terms of the potential economic boost from tourism’. ‘Ironically’, the author concludes ‘the rebellion was being given a capitalist slant by generating civil pride’.
Finally, the cover, like all the preceding volumes in the series features a distinctively atmospheric painting by the romantic artist J.M.W. Turner, though its particular relevance here is perhaps less self evident than in some of the illustrations selected for the other volumes, most notably the Welsh sunset of 1838 on the cover of one of the companion volumes Chartism: Localities, Spaces and Places, The North, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The illustration on the cover of the volume under review is Petworth Park with Lord Egremont and his dogs c 1828 and distinctly pre-Chartist. Given that one reviewer of Franny Moyle’s recent biography of Turner has observed that there is ‘no evidence that Turner was ever distracted by politics’ it is perhaps more tenuous in other respects also, though implicitly it may have been chosen because it depicts a representative of an ancien regime landed aristocracy in a world about to change a decade later as a result of the People’s Charter.

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