“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’
– Radical priest John Ball to English peasants, 1381
It’s unlikely that many TV viewers will remember that veteran Welsh actor, Vincent Regan, played Colonel Edward (“Ned”) Despard in the show Poldark, which is based on the novels of Winston Graham, and that traces the life and times of a British soldier during the time of the American Revolution. Ned Despard is a minor character in the TV series that ran on the BBC for five seasons, and, while it won some applause, a reviewer in the Guardian noted that in the final episode, “There were times when as a viewer you just didn’t know whether you were coming or going.” Historian Peter Linebaugh, a contributor to CounterPunch, has made Despard into a kind of major minor figure in his tome Red Round Globe Hot Burning (University of California Press; $34.95). The book is subtitled “A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons & Closure, of Love & Terror, of Race & Class, and of Kate & Ned Despard.”
The title comes from a poem by William Blake, who wrote “They inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,/And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning/Till all from life I was obliterated and eraded.” Linebaugh think that Blake’s image might refer to the war between France and England, or the rebellion of slaves in Haiti, or the industrial revolution, or the planet Earth itself on fire. The image also suggests torture and death, which Ned Despard experienced as a prisoner, held without bail and identified by government informers as a conspirartor in a plot to foment rebellion by seizing the Bank of England, the Tower of London and assassinating King George III. A jury found Despard guilty of high treason. The Lord Chief Justice sentenced him and six other men to be hanged, drawn and quartered. After public protest, the drawn-and-quartered part of the punishment was removed. On February 21, 1803, before a crowd of at least 20,000, Despard was executed on the roof of the gatehouse at Horsemonger Lane Gaol. So much for British civilization.
Linebaugh uses Despard and his wife and comrade, Catherine (“Kate”), as signposts of a sort in an epic tale about life in Europe and in the Americas at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, with special attention to the revolutionary changes that turned the world upside down, transformed relations of property and labor and touched every aspect of rural and urban existence. Ned and Kate were an odd couple, indeed. He was born in Ireland in 1751, and for a time was a loyal son of the British Empire. She was probably born in what is now Belize. She has been identified variously as Creole and Jamaican. Linebaugh calls her an “intrepid African-American revolutionary,” who apparently vanished from “the archival record into historical silence.”
He went looking for her grave, and, while he didn’t find it, he says that he did find “some expressions of the causes for which she lived.” Those causes are the subject of his book, along with the social and economic conditions that prompted Ned and Kate to become lovers and rebels, and in Linebaugh’s eyes, heroes for our time who would not be driven apart by all the powers of the state.
Red Round Globe Hot Burning offers unconventional biography and unconventional history. Linebaugh goes where biographers and historians are often taught not to go: to places where there are no archival records and where a writer has to be inventive and imaginative. In the last chapter of his book, the author asks what Kate and Ned meant when they expressed the desire that “the principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and every principle inimical to the interests of the human race.”
Linebaugh is especially curious about the phrase, “the interests of the human race.” He wonders what Kate and Ned had in mind and suggests that, “we can conjecture or speculate.” He adds that “though frowned on by historians, speculation is essential when documentary evidence is slight,” and that “to speculate is to gain knowledge of the soul.” In this book Linebaugh occasionally suggests what might have been or what could have been. He doesn’t fictionalize, as Edmund Morris did in his 1999 book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. Linebaugh doesn’t have to fictionalize. His material is fictional enough as it is. The real historical figures who appear in this book—Toussant L’Ouverture, Gracchus Babeuf, Sally Hemings, the Marquis de Sade and Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as Ned and Kate—could be characters in a novel set against the backdrop of the global movement of capital and labor from Ireland to Haiti.
There are times when a reader doesn’t know for sure if the author is coming or going, and whether his story is moving forward or backward, but Linebaugh usually provides big signs that make it clear where his characters are headed and why the forces of history unfold as they do. Few tomes are as much fun to read. On almost every page there are memorable phrases, such as “coal brings an end to human happiness,” “the French Revolution opened prisons, while the English counterrevolution built them,” and “plantation workers produced calories for factory workers”—with help from dock workers. Linebaugh calls factories places “where humans were consumed,” soldiers “dealers in death,” and a commodity “that form of wealth separating desire from possession.”
The author hasn’t just speculated and conjectured. He has also mediated and reflected and combed history for timeless quotations that appear in his text, such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s question, “Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?” which she asked in 1798 but that a latter day feminist, socialist, communist or humanist might ask in 2019. Linebaugh doesn’t offer the John Ball quotation that appears at the top of the piece, though he might have. It’s right up his alley.
Red Round Globe Hot Burning ought to be assigned reading for history graduate students from Harvard to Berkeley and beyond. For the rest of us, who can choose what to read or not to read, and who won’t be tested on our understanding of the text, Linebaugh’s love story calls out passionately and asks freely, “Won’t you open these pages and see a world you’re missing?”