Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Bread and Arsenic: Citizenship from the Bottom Up in Georgian London

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Bread and Arsenic: Citizenship from the Bottom Up in Georgian London

Article excerpt

Jonas Hanway died on September 5, 1786. For his services to Britain, he was laid to rest under an elaborate memorial in Westminster Abbey, the first to honor a man for his philanthropy. (1) Hanway was best known for his Marine Society, which rehabilitated street urchins and trained them for careers at sea, thus at a single stroke reducing crime and helping the perpetually undermanned Royal Navy. His funeral procession was preceded by 25 well-dressed Marine Society boys bearing colored flags, a fitting tribute to Hanway's four decades of commitment to Britain's "nursery of seamen" in an era of nearly continuous warfare with France. This issue remained important to Hanway in his old age; in 1784, he expressed concern about the skilled maritime laborers lost with the independence of the thirteen American colonies. (2) Yet Jonas Hanway spent the last months of his life directing a new philanthropic project which ran contrary to the stated objectives of the Marine Society. Hanway's Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor began by providing outdoor relief to London mendicants--about half of whom had sea experience, either in the Royal Navy or the British merchant fleet--but ultimately Hanway advocated a resettlement project as the best form of "relief." With the financial backing of the British government, several hundred of the Black Poor were shipped to Sierra Leone, a hazardous new settlement on the west coast of Africa, where most of them died within two years of arrival. (3) Why did Hanway--who built his reputation around the principle that Britain could not afford to waste a single person--throw away these trained seamen and war veterans? Hanway's first biographer, his devoted longtime assistant John Pugh, had an answer. Writing in 1787, Pugh described the Committee's work as a charitable endeavor but also as a way of preventing the "unnatural connections between black persons and white; the disagreeable consequences of which make their appearance but too frequently in our streets." (4)

In Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, Linda Colley advanced what is now a famous argument: A British identity was available to a wide variety of marginalized or insecure groups who proved their patriotism--and found empowerment--through their contributions to the nation's war effort. She showcases an 1822 painting by Sir David Wilkie, "Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo" which portrays--in Colley's words--"a mass British patriotism transcending the boundaries of class, ethnicity, occupation, sex, and age." Wilkie's carefully contrived representation of Britons sharing a moment of imperial pride included a black soldier, along with identifiably English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh veterans. (5) Colley's critics have suggested that this putative "big tent" was really a cover for empire and little-Englandism, rewarding conformity and collaboration at the expense of outsiders (notably Irish Catholics). (6) However, recent scholarship has actually taken the Colley thesis beyond where she ventured herself, addressing the appeal of Britishness to Irish Catholics and Francophone Canadians. (7) The reward for patriotic service was a rough-and-ready inclusiveness around the edges of the conveniently undefined category of "Briton." In recent years, a number of historians and literary critics have followed Colley's lead; the conventional wisdom today seems to be that Britishness was about behavior, not birthplace or bloodline. (8)

If this is true, a black war hero should not have been a contradiction in terms. Yet if Britishness was so permeable and malleable, how do we explain Jonas Hanway's evident double standard? In this article, I will demonstrate that the Sierra Leone resettlement project reveals important weaknesses in the "big tent" position. However, one area where Colley's model seems quite apt is the way that Britishness was improvised or articulated from the bottom up, by a variety of competing, self-interested agents. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.