Friday, August 13, 2010

Almost the Waterloo of Democracy

Back in June Marissa posted the story of Waterloo, where Napoleon was finally defeated. Thousands of soldiers on both sides lost their lives that day. But August 16 marks another day when many nineteenth century people bled for their ideals, and not in a war.

England had been struggling for some time to hold back much-cried-for reforms. The revolutions in America and France and rebellion in Ireland had frightened the aristocratic politicians to their cores. What if the great unwashed masses rose up in England too? Every orator calling for changes in government was seen as a potential enemy, set on toppling Parliament. But the general population liked listening to a good debate, and men like the radical reformer Henry Hunt toured the country, speaking from hastily built platforms in village squares. Nearby communities often massed under colorful banners and matched to the square to hear the orators speak.

On August 16, 1819, people from all around Manchester, England, marched into St. Peter’s Fields, a small square there, to hear Orator Hunt. They came in groups of tens and hundreds and even thousands: men, women, teens, and children. Eyewitnesses say the atmosphere was like a county fair: bands playing, people singing, banners waving. By the time everyone had arrived and happily greeted each other, more than sixty thousand people packed the square.

What they didn’t know was that at least some of the houses overlooking the square held government agents, from local magistrates to Parliamentary representatives. What those agents saw looking down into these happy masses terrified them. Determined to end the demonstration, they ordered the 15th Hussars (a cavalry unit stationed in the town) and the local yeomanry (also on horseback) to disperse the crowds.

Shortly after Orator Hunt began to speak, and all eyes were focused on him, the cavalry units arrived at the back of the group. But instead of ordering the people to leave, they rode into the masses, trampling people and slashing with their sabers. Chaos erupted. People tried to escape but were hemmed in on all sides by others. Women and children pled for mercy and were give none. Within a few minutes, over 600 were wounded (100 of them women) and a dozen lay dead.

A vicar from a nearby town was watching from a window of one of the houses. He said:

“Shrieks were heard in all directions, and as the crowd of people dispersed the effects of the conflict became visible. Some were seen bleeding on the ground and unable to rise; others, less seriously injured but faint with loss of blood, were retiring slowly or leaning upon others for support.”

Orator Hunt was driven from the platform, beaten by the constables who arrested him, and stuck over the head with a stick by one of the military commanders. The newspapers reported the acts as shameful and dubbed the event the Peterloo Massacre. People all over England decried the savagery.

And what did their government do? Parliament and the Prince Regent commended the magistrates for their quick thinking in dispersing the “dangerous” group of unarmed men, women, and children, then enacted even tougher laws to prevent things we take for granted: free speech and freedom to assemble. It would not be until 1832 before more radical thinkers were finally able to reform Parliament and the electoral system in England.

And we worry about bad luck on Friday the 13th!

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