Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Charles James Napier: Chartist general? Book review

The Chartist General: Charles James Napier, the Conquest of Sind, and Imperial Liberalism by Edward Beasley (Routledge 2016)

I picked this book up somewhat doubting the central claim of its title. Was the army commander charged with containing the Chartist threat in the North of England in 1839-40 himself sufficiently sympathetic to the cause to be considered a Chartist?

General Charles James Napier
I put it down considerably better informed about the life of this interesting if rather unsympathetic figure, but little more convinced than when I started.

Professor Beasley, a historian at San Diego State University, has written a thorough and comprehensive account of Charles Napier’s life and career, and in doing so has made a convincing attempt to reconcile the very different reputations Napier acquired during his periods of command in England and in India.

Here, Napier has long enjoyed a reputation as a man with much sympathy for the poor and for the demands made by the Chartist movement, and he is rightly credited for the restraint he showed at one of the most dangerous times in the Chartist era. In Sind, meanwhile, he became notorious as a cynical and bloodthirsty imperialist and burner of villages.

Charles Napier was born to a well-connected Protestant Ascendancy family and as a teenager witnessed the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798. He joined the army at an early age, and became a lifelong soldier, seeing active service and acting as a military governor in outposts of the empire.

In the first of these roles, as governor of Cephalonia from1822, Napier proved himself to be an active, interventionist and sometimes idiosyncratic ruler whose sympathies lay with the poor rather than the privileged - an enlightened despot, but a despot all the same.

He did much to improve life with an extensive road-building programme and an innovative and effective famine relief programme. But after eight years as Resident, Napier was eased out of Cephalonia by his commanding officer. While home in England on what he had considered a temporary break, he was replaced.

Napier never forgave what he regarded as a personal slight and launched a one-man crusade to clear his name and regain his office - a campaign which only served to make him appear both obsessive and lacking in judgement.

Butwhen not campaigning on his own behalf, Napier took a lively interest in radical politics, attending meetings, writing books and even at one stage considering a parliamentary career.

Then suddenly in 1839, he was recalled from the reserve list and given command of the army’s Northern district. No documents survive suggesting a reason for his selection, but Beasley speculates credibly that Napier’s known radical sympathies may have helped.

Napier asked himself whether he would be prepared to fire on his fellow countrymen if the circumstances called for it. He concluded that he would, to defend order and the constitution, and planned how he would deploy cavalry and infantry to the best effect and the least loss of life.

He knew that while across the North, musket balls, pikes and caltrops were being turned out in their thousands and guns were cheaply available, even the vast numbers of Chartists who might turn out in a general rising would stand little chance against well-armed and drilled regular troops.

On taking up his command in spring 1839, however, Napier discovered that the army was shambolic. The Home Office had no idea where troops were stationed, some local commanders admitted their barracks were indefensible, and few had any idea of the extent of Chartist support in their area.

Napier moved swiftly to bring some order to the chaos, consolidating his forces and reassuring himself that the 5,000 to 6,000 men and 18 guns he could deploy would be sufficient to deal with any Chartist uprising.

Throughout the summer, Napier’s policy was to calm the situation. This he did by providing reassurance to jittery magistrates while ensuring that his troops were a strong and visible presence. At the same time he avoided provocation or confrontation.

When the long-anticipated Chartist rising eventually came in December 1839, its spark was in Newport, South Wales, well outside Napier’s district, while plans for a wider rising which would have set Bradford, Sheffield and other major towns alight across the North came to little.

In other hands, the outbreaks of violence, the displays of arms and drilling of Chartist militias and the monster meetings of 1839 and on into 1840 could have turned into something more serious and threatening. It was to some degree Napier’s calm good sense which kept the peace.

When Napier eventually handed over his Northern command and left England for a new posting in Sind, the frantic workload of the early days had settled into a more humdrum routine of military administration.

By this stage, too, Chartism itself had fallen quiet. It would remain so for another two years, during which time the civil power - largely in the shape of new police forces – had been strengthened to meet the challenge.

The course of history would, of course, have been rather different had Napier followed through on his radicalism and made contact with the network of Chartist leaders planning an armed uprising in the winter of 1839-40.

In the event, only the Chartists of Newport attempted to see the plan through, while pivotal figures in the North of England realised the futility of the rebellion in the face of overwhelming odds, and the unrest fizzled out.

It would be an interesting counterfactual exercise to speculate on how events might have turned out had Napier thrown his military weight behind “the people” rather than “Old Corruption” - or at the very least made clear his intention to hold his forces back from any intervention.

But then, as Beasley, himself says, Napier was interested in reform AND order. He would not under any circumstances have brooked the messy and unlawful business of revolution.

And, as the author concedes, while Napier favoured giving all men the vote, he also assumed that this would result in people like him coming to power. The idea that the electorate might choose someone else never seems to have occurred to him.

In writing this book, Beasley has a wider aim in mind than to satisfy the interest of those of us who are preoccupied with Chartism.

Nonetheless, this is a useful addition to the relatively small body of work dealing not with the Chartists themselves but with the response of the state to the threat they posed (most notably Neil Pye’s The Home Office and the Chartists).

Napier was not a Chartist, but an old-fashioned radical - old-fashioned in the sense that his style of radicalism was being rendered obsolete by the Chartist movement itself. But The Chartist General is well worth a read both for what it adds to the story of the state and Chartism, and for the light it shines on Napier as an individual.

Buy The Chartist General: Charles James Napier, the Conquest of Sind, and Imperial Liberalism by Edward Beasley.

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