Monday, 7 March 2011

Cosmopolitan Chartist

PLAQUE commemorates John Frost,
William Jones and Zephaniah Williams,
who were sentenced to be hung, drawn and
quartered for part in Newport rising.
This was commuted to transportation,
to Van Diemen's Land.
They left from spot on right.

Did authorities fail to get a "Fourth Man"?

A look at the Life and times of Major Bartolomiej Beniowski, who called himself 'The Cosmopolitan Chartist'.

In November 1839, the colliers and iron workers of South Wales marched on Newport to free political prisoners and sieze the town. They were defeated, and three of their leaders were transported to Van Diemens Land. (Tasmania). For a time the authorities sought a mysterious Pole behind the rising. Major Bartolomiej Beniowski.. David Urquhart, a Tory ex-diplomat who had suborned some radicals, and whose diplomatic writings later impressed Marx, claimed Beniowski was a Russian agent. Beniowski nearly. throttled him outside the Carlton Club.

A Jew, and a Polish revolutionary, Bartlomiej Beniowski would have been a most unlikely agent for the Tsar. He was born near Grodno in 1800 and studied at the University of Wilno, where he met followers of the Polish patriot Adam Mickiewicz. He joined the Russian Army's Lithuanian Corps as a medical officer.

In 1830, the July Revolution in Paris spread to Belgium.
In November, hearing that Tsar Nicholas I intended to send Polish troops to suppress the Belgians, cadets at the Warsaw infantry school mutinied and the Polish insurrection began. At the battle of Kuflow on 25 April 1831, Beniowski rode over to the Polish side. He became a captain, then a major in the Polish lancers.

Polish landowners feared the revolt might awaken the peasantry. Polish capitalists, linked bv business to the nobility and by the 1822 customs agreement to Russia, were against it. A modest: agrarian reform bill was blocked in the Sejm (parliament). Impoverished Polish peasants saw no reason to die for their landlords, and some attacked the manors instead.

Jews made up one tenth of Poland's popula:tion:. " Orthodox rabbis said Jews should not be soldiers. Others feared that a distinct Jewish unit might perpetuate segregation. But in December 1830, Sinai Hernisz, student at the Warsaw rabbinical college. appealed to the Polish commander General Chlopicki, for permission to form a Jewush regi­ment. Chlopicki replied that Jews had no civil rights, and could not be in the army. He had already sent an emissary to St Petersburg to offer a negotiated surrender.

Kosciuszko, leader of Polish patriots in 1794, recorded: 'When Warsaw fought a bloody battle, the Jewish inhabitants rushed to arms, came brave­ly to grips with the enemy and proved to the world that whenever the cause of humanity can be advanced they do not know how to spare their lives...' Jozef Berkowitz, whose father Berek Yoselowitz had led Jewish troops with Kosciuszko urged Jews to enlist again.

"We cannot allow Jewish blood to mingle with the noble blood of Poles,' insisted General
Franciscjek Morawski . 'What will Europe say when she learns that in fighting for our liberty we have not been able to get along without Jewish help?"

"The national army must be animated by a single emotion, by a single enthusiasm and, if possible , it must confess the same the present life-or-death struggle what we need is a people of the same blood, of the same breed."

The Sejm decided Jews should not be called up but could pay four times more tax. However thousands of Jews did enlist. There were two battalions in the Warsaw city guard, at first confined to craftsmen and property-owners. In September, with the Russians at the gate, the poor, including Jews, were armed with pikes and sent to the trenches.

'Wherever there is oppression..'

After their defeat, Polish patriots regrouped abroad. Aristocrats remained preoccupied with 'breeding' and estates.. But Adam Mickiewicz declared "Our homeland is whenever there is suffering, for wherever in Europe there is oppression of freedom and people are fighting to become free, they are fighting for our homeland, we must all join in the battle.'

Beniowski went to Paris, and studied military science. He persuaded Joachim Lelewel's Polish committee to adopt Jewish emancipation. On 3 November, 1832, appealing 'to the Israelitish people' to support Poland's freedom struggle, it promised full equality, adding: 'Should they insist on their right to return to Palestine, Poles will help them to realise their desire.'

In 1836 Beniowski came to Britain. A Literary Association of the Friends of Poland had been founded by the poet Thomas Campbell and Lord Dudley Stuart. There was also a Polish Democratic Society. Stanislaw Worcell had launched Lud Polski, Polish People, among exiled Polish soldiers at Portsmouth, advocating a socialism of rural communes.

The 1832 Reform Act, passed after huge agitation, had enfranchised the middle class but given nothing to the workers. The London Working Men's Association (LWMA), formed in 1836, called for universal suffrage, secret ballot, abolition of property qualifications, equal constituen­cies and annual parliaments - what became known as the People's Charter. It advocated peaceful,legal petitioning.
Like Worcell, Beniowski joined the LVVMA. But he was soon attracted to the more radical London Democratic Association (LDA). Its membership card pledged: 'Our rights - peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must', adding: 'He that hath no sword let him sell his garment and buy one.' To the six points of the People's Charter, the LDA added a free press, repeal of the Poor Law, an eight-hour day, public education, support for workers in struggle against capitalists; social equality and 'general happiness'.

'No man is too poor to unite with us,' the Democrats declared, 'on the contrary, the poorer, the more oppressed, the more welcome.'

Their allies were the 'physical force' Chartists of the industrial north and Wales. LDA branches spread from the East End around London. Elizabeth Neesom formed a Female Democratic Association. A police report named two Poles who had joined the LDA, Martha Schellvietinghoff and Major Beniowski, described as 'tall, well-looking, slim.'

On 13 April 1839, the London Democrat published the first of three articles bv Beniowski, analysing the Polish revolution. He wrote:

Sixteen millions of labourers of this fertile .and once free and democratic land have been, for centuries. deprived of the most undoubted rights on account of their constituting the 'unattachable bone and flesh prop­erty of a few thousand swindling or military aristocrats, called nobles.

Another portion of the Polish people, numbering four millions of highly intelligent, industrious and peaceable human beings have been continually despised, insulted, and trampled upon for the specious reason either of their adhering to the religion of their forefathers, or of their being foreigners of ten centuries 'only' standing in Poland.
I mean the unhappy sons of Jacob...

In the next issue Beniowski continued:
Polish 'representatives' may pronounce it shameful and disgusting to accept millions of Israelite brains, arms and pockets, even as a material against Muscovite aggression, but surely one need not be a Marat or a Robespierre to understand that four million people exas­perated by all kinds of extortion and oppression, and brought up to the highest pitch of despair by a Nicolaien press-recruiting, is as fine a revolutionisable material as ever existed.
(London Democrat, 20 April 1839)

And in the issue after that:
The peasantry did not join them ... Some of the peas­ants and soldiers joined Muravief because the word lib­erty was pronounced, but the bulk of the people did not take any part in the proceeding, because he did not employ the means calculated not to be misunderstood by slaves. Liberal speeches, republican catechisms, and Bible performances may create an excitement, and even stir up a few men to join you in the hope there will be something more substantial. But as long as you do not convince slaves, to the touch, that you really mean their liberty, in this life, you will carry with you but small numbers.
(London Democrat 27 April 1839)

Beniowski also wrote a series On Military Science:

The military science is simply that which teaches you how to maim and kill as many of your enemies as possi­ble, and also how to protect yourselves against a similar propensity of your opponents. If those who first reduced this 'glorious' wholesale murder to rules had no end in view but to gratify the beastly passions of the few, they were abominable monsters, whom it would have been the duty of every honest man to smother.

But if their intention was the defence of the enslaved, oppressed and starving millions, is oppose the claims of incomprehensible rights, mankind ought to erect altars to their memory. In this last case the science of killing and destruction is the most useful and necessary of all the sciences, one which, if universally known to the people at large , would prevent homicide at all. Unhappily this terribly sublime knowledge is not to be attained without difficulty...

(London Democrat, 27 April, 1839.

The Friends of Poland were friends of the aristocracy led by Prince Adam Czartoryski (sic). Lord Dudley Stuart advised Poles 'not to look to the establishment at once of that sort of government which they most wish, but to set about the establishment of that sort of government which appears most practicable, and...will enlist the support of the other governments of Europe. Let them not care at first if the government should be less liberal than they could desire'.

The British government consulted the Friends of Poland on which exiles to deny relief fund payments. In June 1839 Home Secretary Lord Russel stopped Beniowski's £40 allowance.

The Spirit of Revolution

The Chartists 'monster' petition, with a million signatures, was reiected bv Parliament "The spirit of revolution is strong and increasing," General Sir Charles Napier warned Russell on 16 July, 1839.

Chartists in the Newcastle area clashed with police and troops. There was incendiarism in Birmingham. On 12 August miners from the north-east began what they hoped would become a general strike. There were three days of fighting in Bolton. But the movement around the country was neither uniform nor united. Order was restored after 10 days.

On 14 September the Chartists' national convention broke up after reversing its support for a 'national holiday' (i.e general strike). The Chartist left was torn between disillusion and determination on insurrection. A police spy reported a conspiracy headed by three LDA members: "Joseph Goulding, the Brick Lane baker Joseph Williams, and the Pole, Major Beniowski.

According to Mark Hovell, Beniowski was sent to South Wales to drill men and survey the terrain. On 3 November 1839, goaded bv the imprisonment of Henry Vincent, 1,000 Chartists marched overnight on Newport. Arriving late. tired and wet, they confronted well-armed government troops who killed 24 and wounded 40, driving them out of the town. Chartists who had gathered in Newcastle dispersed, when they heard the news.

In Wales, more troops were drafted in to hunt down Chartist leaders. The London Chartist William Cardo, who was under Urquhart's influ­ence, was captured on 15 November. He claimed there was a Russian plot, and that a Polish emi­grant would 'have the command in the mountains in Wales'.

An anonymous letter claimed Beniowski had been sent with 138 Ib of ball cartridge from London
via Bristol. The Newport magistrates appealed to the government to send someone who could recog­nise the Pole. Meanwhile the Home Office received information about 'a deep and dangerous conspira­cy' being hatched in London.

On 16 January 1840, the Welsh Chartists John Frost, William Jones and Zephaniah Williams were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. That night, acting on information, police raided a meet­ing at Bethnal Green Trades Hall seizing several armed Chartists. Some LDA leaders were arrested, but Beniowski was among those who escaped.

Risings broke out in Bradford and Sheffield. Extra troops were alerted in London, and fireboats were made ready on the Thames after rumours that shipping would be fired. Chartists themselves spread rumours to tie up troops before the risings in the north. On 27 January the sentences on the Welsh leaders were commuted to transportation. Nothing came of talk about rescuing them. Rumours had Beniowski at various places in the north. Bv March, most of the Chartist leaders were in prison.

Unshaken fidelity to the cause

As the economy improved, working-class energies shifted into trade unionism, and the Chartists learned patience and organisation. In 1842, industrial and political militancy merged in a general strike and 'Plug Riots' in the north-west. (So called because bands of strikers pulled out the plugs from mill boilers to make sure they remained closed) Trades union delegates meeting in Manchester adopted the People's Charter.

In Septemer 1844, George Julian Harney, the Deptford-born 'physical force' Chartist who had become editor of the Northern Star, brought Polish, German and English radicals together in the Society of Fraternal Democrats.
"National prejudices have been , in all ages, taken advantage of by the people's oppressors to set them tearing the throats of each other, when they should have been working together for their common good. This society repudiates the term 'foreigner', no matter by, or to whom, applied."

At a public meeting in August 1845, Harney introduced "a man who had been
infamously calumniated" and "suffered terrible persecution even from some of the Chartists themselves," but who had shown "unshaken fidelity to the good cause". Bartolomiej Beniowski said he had been 'cruelly slandered' but his accusers had "never offered to prove their accusations."
Beniowski taught languages at his home in Bow Street. using new methods, studied phrenology, and published two books on phonetics which advocated spelling reform. His tempestuous life thus entered a quiet chapter. He died on 29 March 1867, That year, industrial working men were given the vote under the Second Reform Act, introduced by Disraeli.

Peter Brock found it 'fitting that the name of a Polish democrat be coupled with the military side of the only English (sic) armed insurrection of the nineteenth century'. Reuben Ainsztein observed-. 'It is typical of Jewish historiography that one search­es in vain for his name in the standard Jewish ency­clopedias.'

Our rights did not come with the Magna Carta. but from the struggles of past generations of working people and of heroes like Frost, Harney, and Beniowski. the 'Cosmopolitan Chartist'. We owe it to future gener­ations to remember them. And now, we are entering a period of struggle when we shall need their inspiration.

(first published in Jewish Socialist No.33, Spring 1995)

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