• sootallures

From Nailsworth to Montego Bay

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

A Performative Game of Two Halves:

Half the First:

At first glance, it might seem an improbable leap

From Newgate Prison, and William Pitt’s spies,

From the febrile atmosphere of London

In the early years of the French Revolution

(‘No War! No Pitt! No King!’),

And the year of the naval mutinies

On the Nore and Spithead in 1797

(‘The Floating Republic’),

To Shortwood Baptist Church, and Nailsworth,

And thence to Montego Bay, Jamaica.

But let’s give this leap a second glance,

And so, reveal a hidden radical landscape,

And a hidden colonial one, too.

The minister there in the early nineteenth century,

One William Winterbotham,

Had done time in Newgate between 1793 and 97,

Incarcerated after sermons deemed near seditious:

‘First of all, government originates with the people.

Secondly, The people have the right

to cashier their governors for misconduct.

Thirdly, The people have a right to change the form of their government if they think it proper to do so.’

‘The people make the laws and the laws were made for kings.’

William Winterbotham was well known in London,

After his transportation from Plymouth,

And consequent imprisonment:

William Godwin would visit Newgate,

Tom Paine would reference William’s writings,

While outside in the streets, Thomas Spence,

And his revolutionary Spencean comrades,

Would take Paine’s political radicalism much further,

With their slogans all over London’s walls and pavements: ‘No Landlords, you Fools!’

And where ‘that Jacobin fox’, John Thelwall

‘The most dangerous man in Britain’,

Would entrance audiences with his oratory.

William became minister at Shortwood in 1804,

Perhaps attracted by the area’s artisanal radicalism,

Perhaps attracted by the area’s nonconformist conscience,

Perhaps entranced by Citizen John Thelwall’s visit

To the area in the summer of 1798,

And consequent lyricism:

‘…For I must leave ye, pleasant haunts! brakes, bourns,

And populous hill, and dale, and pendant woods;

And you, meandering streams, and you, ye cots

And hamlets, that, with many a whiten’d front,

Sprinkle the woody steep; or lowlier stoop,

Thronging, gregarious, round the rustic spire …’

William would be pastor here for twenty-five years.

He was buried in the churchyard in his sixty-sixth year,

After a ministry that not only looked to the heavens,

But also asserted the need for free trade,

Rather than corn laws that kept food prices high,

And inflated aristocratic landlord profits;

After a ministry that asserted the need

for an extension of the vote,

Rather than the Prince Regent’s approval

of the JP’s actions at Peterloo in 1819;

After a ministry that asserted the need

For the abolition of slavery

Rather than merely the abolition of the slave trade.

Attendance at Shortwood Baptist Church grew and grew:

A Pilgrim’s Progress up the hill to the Celestial City.

And there, in the burgeoning congregation,

One Thomas Burchell,

Just five years old when William arrived.

But so inspired by the developing and enveloping Word,

That his Pilgrim’s Progress would take him

Across the Black Atlantic archipelago

And thence to Montego Bay, Jamaica;

A Baptist missionary, but, abolitionist, too,

Not just promoting chapels and schools

And free villages for the enslaved,

But also campaigning for abolition,

And while Lord John Russell contemplated the vote,

As the United Kingdom tottered on the edge of revolution

In ‘The Days of May’ in 1832,

Thomas Burchell’s Baptist colleague,

Samuel Sharpe, would face execution

In a summary wave of judicialized racialised hangings,

And worse,

After the so-called ‘Baptist War’.

No white Baptists were executed.

You can find Samuel’s image on a Jamaican bank note;

You can find a memorial to Thomas in Nailsworth,

At Christ Church,

And at Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington.

Perhaps we should take that bank note,

On a journey from Shortwood to Stoke Newington,

Remembering the ideas of Priyamvada Gopal

In her Insurgent Empire,

Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent:

‘…establishment mythology … the selective elision of key stands …

Such accounts … draw on a longer tradition of Whig historiography’

Whereby a beneficent and omniscient British ruling class,

And/or a reforming Christian conscience

Confer freedom upon nations and reform for peoples -

Interpretations that not only omit the impact

Of lower-class pressure at home,

And not only omit the demands for freedom across the globe,

But also omit the impact of anticolonial protest across the globe

Upon British dissent within the metropole.

I conclude with these words from Priyamvada Gopal:

‘we explored the possibility that Britain’s enslaved and colonial subjects were not merely victims of Britain’s imperial history and subsequent beneficiaries of its crises of conscience, but rather agents whose resistance not only contributed to their own liberation but also put pressure on and reshaped some British ideas

about freedom and who could be free.’

Half the Second:

The Felicific Calculus

I can still picture the Whigs in my old schoolbooks:

How they triumphed with the ‘Great Reform Act’,

How a welter of reforms followed in the 1830s,

How they were the godfathers of the Liberals,

How they were such a contrast with the Tories …

This was the stuff of school days and beyond.

And then there was Jeremy Bentham,

And his disciples, ‘The Philosophic Radicals’,

Devotees of his ‘modernising’ proposals,

That would help fashion a new society,

Not based upon aristocratic tradition,

But based upon rational bureaucratic order.

The philosophy was simple and to the point,

The fundamental, guiding principle?

Individuals are motivated

By a desire to maximise pleasure,

And, correspondingly, minimise pain:

‘The felicific calculus’.

Governments should only intervene

In the economy and society,

If in the pursuit of pleasure,

Individuals cause pain to others,

And that intervention should be rational,

Systematic and bureaucratic.

And that’s Benthamism in a nutshell.

And the school textbook writers, and beyond,

Gave textbook lessons on how the Whigs

Were influenced by this Utilitarian philosophy –

The textbook example, being, of course,

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

Conditions inside the workhouse to be

Worse than from the worst paid job outside.

This was the so-called ‘workhouse test’,

Or ‘lesser eligibility’ as it was also termed,

Individuals would maximise pleasure,

By avoiding entry into the workhouse,

Thereby, of course, cutting spending on the poor,

Maximising pleasure, of course, for the rich,

And maximising misery for the poor.

Now the textbooks didn’t always highlight

These class-based domestic inconsistencies,

And they certainly ignored that focus,

When looking at the abolition of slavery:

Slave owners who had caused untold pain,

Received £20 million in compensation,

The equivalent of £17 billion in today’s terms

(The interest on which we have only just stopped paying),

Which must have given them untold pleasure,

While slaves who had suffered that untold pain,

Merely received a deferred freedom.

And here is the hub and nub of the matter:

The felicific calculus only applied

To anyone with white skin.

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