Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Peterloo Massacre and Percy Bysshe Shelley's Mask of Anarchy

 

This infamous Manchester massacre, a traumatic event in British history took place on the 16th August 1819. The massacre is believed to have involved 18 deaths and injuries to as many as 700 protesters, who paid the price for exercising their democratic rights and freedom of assembly. Peterloo involved the assembly of a large crowd of citizens at St Peter’s Field in Manchester since renamed St Peters Square. Where over 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti poverty protestors  had gathered, amid growing poverty and unemployment, mainly from the Corn Laws that artificially inflated bread prices at a time when only 2% could vote.
The key speaker was a famed orator by the name of Henry Hunt, the platform consisted of a simple cart, and the space was filled with banners emblazoned with mesages calling for - Reform, universal suffrage,and equal representation. Many of the banners poles were topped with the red cap of liberty- a powerful symbol at the time.However, local magistrates peering out a window from a building near the field panicked at the size of the crowd, and proceeded without any notice to read the Riot Act, ordering the assembled listeners to disperse. It would almost certainly have been the case that only a very few would have heard the magistrates. The official'guardians of the peace' then promptly directed the local Yeomanry to arrest the speakers. The Yeomanry could be described as a kind of paramilitry force with no training in crowd control and little in the way of proper dicipline similar to the riot police that ran amok at the Battle of Orgreave during the miners strike of the 1980's. On horseback they charged into the crowd, and pierced the air with cutlasses and clubs. Many in the crowd believed the troops had drunk heavily in the lead up to the assault. In the melee, 600 Hussars who had initialy been held in reserve, were ordered to attack unarmed civilians, with brutal consequences.The massacre was named ‘Peterloo’ in ironic comparison to the battle of Waterloo, that took place four years earlier.
The government of Lord Liverpool backed up the public officials and the actions of the troops and was adamantly unwilling to apologize for the appalling violence.The event would usher in a series of draconian laws that further restricted the liberties of the population.It would lead to the suppression of public expression of opinion, debate , gathering and dissent.The populace did not decline into apathy, however. A large public outcry ensued, and an effort was made by various reformers to document the truth of what had occurred in the center of Manchester on that fateful day. Peterloo led directly to the formation of one of Britain’s leading progressive newspapers, down to the present day, the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian). The aftermath of the event would in itself unleash a wave of public anger and protests, which eventually was to lead to the Great Reform Act of 1832, which led to limited suffrage and to today's parliamentary democracy.It also gave rise to the Chartist movement, and the strength of the Trade Union movement. We should never forget on whose shoulders we today stand, a reminder that what rights that we have today were hard one.
In Italy, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley heard of the horror and his outraged response was  to compose his powerful political  91-verse poem, The Mask of Anarchy. The word anarchy then meant something quite different to how we view it today, Shelley used it to describe the chaos of tyranny, in which no one but the very few who own and control society can plan their lives for themselves.The Mask of Anarchy recounts a nightmare in which the three Lords of the Tory Cabinet parade in an awful possesion, murdering and deceiving while Britain dissolves into anarchy. He rouses the people to free themselves from their oppressors, by supplying them, among other things, with a powerful definition of freedom.
He begins his poem with the powerful images of the unjust forms of authority of his time: God,  the King and Law, and he then imagines the stirrings of a radically new form of social action. The poem mentions several members of Lord Liverpool's's government by name: the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh who appears as a mask worn by Murder, the Home Secretary,Lord Sidmouth., whose guise is taken by Hypocricy, and the Lord Chancellor,Lord Eldon whose ermine gown is worn by Fraud.The crowd at this gathering is met by armed soldiers, but the protestors do not raise an arm against their assailants:

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,

And that slaughter to the Nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular;
A volcano heard afar.

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many - they are few."       


Shelley’s friend and publisher, Leigh Hunt did not publish the poem until after Shelley’s death fearing that the opinions in it were too controversial and inflammatory. The Masque of Anarchy  has been described as “the greatest political poem ever written in English” by people such as Richard Holmes. It inspired Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience which in turn influenced the anarchist writings of Leo Tolstoy.Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Many years later it reminds us that Poetry can serve to inspire and motivate people and change and influence ideas. It is one of the most powerful tools we have. Peterloo ever since has become a rallying cry for the working class and radicals, a symbol of the vile nature of the ruling class . The lessons that they draw from it remain as valid today as ever.A timely reminder that our rights have been won by others and must be constantly defended.A time to pause and to consider this significant moment in history when our working class ancestors were  slaughtered whilst peacefully protesting for basic civil rights that we take for granted today.

Full text of the poem can be found here:-

http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/PShelley/anarchy.html 


                                 Print of the Peterloo Massacre published byRichard Carlisle
                                 

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