Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Peterloo and the Fight for Freedom

Yesterday, August 16, was the 192nd anniversary of The Peterloo Massacre. On that date in 1819, in St. Peters Field, Manchester, England, 60,ooo peaceful demonstrators gathered to protest the Corn Laws, the poor economic conditions, lack of suffrage and other social problems. The main speaker was the famous political orator, Henry Hunt. The local magistrates became frightened at the size of the crowd and read The Riot Act, but in a crowd of that size, few heard it. The local Yeomanry were ordered to disperse the crowd and they rode through, hacking at the people with their sabers. The crowd panicked and Hussars were also called in to restore order. In the end, 18 protesters were killed, including a woman and child, and as many as 700 were seriously injured.

Speakers and organizers were arrested (though ultimately charges of high treason were dropped), but also arrested were journalists who reported on the event and published their accounts in newspapers.

As appalling as it might seem to the Western World now, freedom to protest, freedom of speech and of the press, were outlawed in 1819. Earlier episodes of social unrest convinced Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, that revolution was in the wind. (Remember, the French Revolution would have been fresh in the minds of the British Peerage). Parliament passed the Gag Acts suspending Habeas Corpus, banning seditious meetings and the printing of seditious documents. This meant anyone could be arrested and held without charges, and it meant the limiting of free speech and a free press. Quite extreme measures. After Peterloo, as the episode became known, Parliament passed the even more repressive Six Acts.

Even so, many historians consider Peterloo a turning point in the fight for freedom and political reform in Great Britain. The horror of the government attacking peaceful citizens changed public opinion and ultimately led to the right of the citizenry (alas, men only for several years) to vote.

In my last book, Chivalrous Captain, Rebel Mistress, social protest played an important part in what kept my hero and heroine apart and what ultimately gave them their happy ending. My latest book, the last in my Three Soldiers Series, Gallant Soldier, Beautiful Enemy has a French connection. It is available now from eHarlequin and will be in bookstores and other online vendors by Sept 1.

What books have you read which involve the Peterloo Massacre? It would make great drama!

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