Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Three Rebellions: Foreword


This Foreword was written by John Rule in mid-2009 and was included in the first edition but I decided not to use it in the second edition that came out in 2017.  It seemed less appropriate then as John had unfortunately died in the interim.  Re-reading it recently, I decided to include in on my blogs in part as a tribute to a historian of rare ability and also because it seemed more relevent to me at the end of 2020 than it had three years earlier.

'Three Rebellions Canada 1837-1836, South Wales 1839 and Australia 1854 is indeed an ambitious study telling its story in around a thousand pages of description and analysis supported throughout with illustrations and maps. It would take a determined reader to read and digest a work of such substance from cover to cover, although one hopes many will do so. The book has, however been constructed in ways that support different approaches to its reading by treating each rebellion separately but with a consistent division into chapters and headed paragraphs within them linked to a front-placed twelve-page table of contents and detailed index.  The three rebellions have been well chosen. All were in different ways a consequence of British imperial rule, although the nature of that rule was obviously felt in different ways and through different forms of pressure. The outcome of these challenges to British imperial authority was in each case defeat. That is why they were ‘rebellions’. Had these armed direct actions achieved significant constitutional change in their own time, then history would have come to record them as ‘revolutions. To echo a famous phrase of E. P. Thompson, the rebels if failing in their own time ‘still need rescuing from the enormous condescension of posterity’.

            There is at least a measure of irony in noting that progress to democratic constitutional government was to be more rapid in Canada and Australia than in Britain. In all three cases of rebellion, sections of the local working class - iron workers and coalminers in Newport; agricultural and related workers in the two Canadas, and gold diggers at the Ballarat confrontation in Victoria - were the main source of support.  All three rebellions had local economic grievances, some of which like the campaign against Chinese immigrants to the goldfields were hardly progressive.  Violence was present to a degree in each case, both by the rebels and delivered in the form of reactive repression by the authorities.  At Ballarat in 1854 of 150 diggers who refused to surrender their defence of the now celebrated Eureka Stockade, twenty-five were killed and thirty wounded by the charging troops of whose own number four were killed and eleven wounded.

            All this seems rather negative, Brown however is eager to stress the positive contributions made by the rebellions. Reform was advanced by what can be viewed as a ‘Peterloo effect’ by analogy with the Manchester reform meeting in 1819 at which cavalry troops charged the reformers.  Like the Peterloo massacre, later reformers celebrated these three rebellions, so dramatic that it could not be forgotten by reformers or authority.  An Australian poet later celebrated the heroism at the Eureka Stockade as among the most significant moments for the subsequent achievement of radical democracy in Australia:


Yet ere the year was over,

Freedom rolled in like a flood:

They gave us all we asked for

When we asked for it in blood.

      What was being asked for?  As Richard Brown argues essentially it was the kind of state and constitution sought by the Chartists. At a mass meeting of 10,000 gold miners a Reform League was established and pledged to agitate for a fair and just representation; manhood suffrage; no property qualification for the legislative councils; payment of members; and short duration of parliament.. These demands were of course those of the Charter for which John Frost had led his Welsh rebels at Newport fifteen years before.

            During several decades of leading the subject’s teaching Richard Brown found the time and energy to produce around fifty writings and broadcasts over a wide range of historical subjects.  Many of these contributions are concerned with the teaching of history as an Advanced Level subject; others are textbooks including, for example, a two volume history published in 1991, Economy and Society in Modern Britain 1700-1850 and Church and State in Modern Britain 1700-1850. This was followed by more specialist works on radicalism, revolution and reform and in 1998 on Chartism. He tells us that this last subject became his special interest as a teacher and as a scholar. It is not then surprising that it was to an ambitious project involving the great nineteenth-century working-class movement that he has dedicated the time bestowed by his recent retirement. Richard Brown has written a well documented, thoroughly argued and especially interesting book.'


Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Interview on first edition of my Three Rebellions

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!