This interview was originally published on the Chartist Ancestor blog but, although it is referred to on the revised website, there is no direct link to it.
Mark Crail: Three Rebellions is a monumental work of over 1,100 pages. What inspired you to write it – and how long did it eventually take?
Richard Brown: The inspiration for the book came from a comment made by a sixth form student in 2004 who asked, I think to get me off the subject of the Plug Plugs, ‘I don’t suppose Chartism was exported was it?’ It was one of those off the cuff comments that gets you thinking. In truth, I didn’t really know the answer but remember saying that as many people emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the 1840s and 1850s, they would have taken their beliefs with them and that presumably Chartist principles would have been part of their intellectual baggage. What began as an off-hand remark led me to spend the next four years exploring the question. I found that, although there was a widely held assumption that Chartism had played a role in the democratising of the Australian colonies, little had been written on the subject from a global perspective. It was this that led me to explore the issue of rebellion in the colonies to see how far Chartist ideas contributed to the development of colonial reformist and radical thinking. I did much of the research, drafting ideas and working out the structure for the book in my final two years of teaching when I was increasingly relieved of worrying about the next educational initiative. Once I retired I was able to focus on the writing that took about eighteen months.
Mark Crail: Your book deals with events that took place on three separate continents and spread over a period of nearly two decades. What is the common theme or central argument that makes sense of bringing them together in a single book?
Richard Brown: The reasons why I chose to consider three rebellions in different parts of the British Empire fall into two categories. First, in each of three areas there were tensions between the colonial authorities and the ways in which they wished to govern and reformers who sought a greater say in the ways in which they were governed. Secondly, it was the abject failure by the authorities to recognise the depth of anger on the part of reformers and its unwillingness to introduce some form of responsible government that led to rebellion. Violence was born of frustrated dreams turning individuals such as Papineau, Mackenzie, Lalor and John Frost from supporters, even if critical, of the existing system of government into increasingly radical individuals who concluded that ending the existing despotism of the colonial state, if necessary by direct action, was justifiable. It is this which is central to the book and brings together South Wales, the Canadas and Australia into a common political and constitutional context. Once I had decided this, then the structure of the remainder of the book fell into place. Before explaining the causes of the rebellions, they needed to be placed within a chronological context. After the rebellions had failed, their aftermaths, links and how they were and are remembered needed to be considered. Finally, I wanted to place the rebellions within some sort of overall framework and this forms the basis of the final chapter.
Mark Crail: Is this a book aimed squarely at specialist historians, or is it accessible to a wider readership? What would you hope non-specialists would take away from reading it?
Richard Brown: As I see myself as a teacher as well as a historian, I would hope that my book will appeal to both specialist historians and to a more popular readership. I’ve always believed that a good story is the best way to engage people with the past and this is a great story. It has its heroes and villains and its martyrs to the cause. It raises questions about ‘what if the rebellions had succeeded?’ It is also about how people remember the past and how the past is constructed and reconstructed across time. The events happened but the ways in which we see them today is very different to how they were regarded by contemporaries. Through reading the book I would hope that non-specialist readers would know about rebellions in Canada and Australia as well as in Newport and that they would recognise that though the rebellions ended in failure they played a critical role in the development of the democratic systems of government that we have today and that people were then as now prepared to stand up and fight for the democratic principles in which they believed against the heavy-handed dictats of the state.
Mark Crail: In closing the book you talk about the tension between heritage and history and to the later interpretations we put on Chartism (and the Canada and Ballarat rebellions), what part do you think the growth of interest in family history has played in that?
Richard Brown: There is no doubt that the growth of interest in family history, especially through the Internet, has played a seminal role in the burgeoning development of interest in and understanding of people’s heritage. I remember talking to a history lecturer who saw this as a ‘dumbing down’ of his subject and that the heritage of the past was history itself. Though his second point may be debatable, his view of ‘dumbing down’ missed the point big time. The study of history has always had its populist dimension and family history is part of this search for understanding where we are now by seeking to understand where we’ve come from. It was for that reason that I included the chapter on remembrance in the book. If history is simply what happened without considering how what happened impacts on us today and how our view of events changes, then it is simply a good story but little more. The key to the development of the subject is establishing the connections between the past and the present, not in a pedagogical sense of learning lessons, but as an essential part of understanding what humanity is and was.
Mark Crail: Finally, as a history teacher, you will doubtless have ended up covering everything from the Romans to the fall of the Berlin Wall. What brings you back time after time to Chartism? Have your students been particularly drawn to the period – or is it just we obsessives?
Richard Brown: My interest in Chartism and those who supported the Charter comes from two sources. First, I was brought up as a Liberal radical in a family with a long tradition of political activity. My father had fought, as a teenager in the Spanish Civil War and then against Hitler from 1939 though to 1946 (he always said his war did not end until he had finished the process of denazification in Germany). His mother, my paternal grandmother came from a very political family. Her sister was a suffragette; her brother a trade union official. As I was growing up, I was told stories (fascinating to an eight year old, though rarely fully accurate) about the emergence of the labour movement and of the need to fight injustice wherever and whatever it was. My own political apprenticeship was served in the student protests against Vietnam in the mid-60s and continued during the next four years at university. Then teaching rather than politics, a decision I never regretted. Secondly, I was brought up in a village where there had been major riots in 1816 after which my great-great-great-great uncle had been hanged for sedition. Weaned on the tales of his sacrifice (in fact it appears he was in the wrong place at the wrong time), I turned both to history and to the question of what motivated people to act in the ways they did. Was it need, greed or circumstance? How far were people driven by ideals and principles or was pragmatism the key to understanding people’s experiences? Studying Chartism ticked all the right boxes for me...and if that’s obsessive, then and I’m certain my students would agree, I’m a dyed in the wool obsessive!