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Say Their Names!

Albion Rose by William Blake.

Benjamin Bowsey, John Glover, and the Delivery of Newgate, 6 June 1780

We might say that there were two ways of understanding broad, social phenomena including whole social systems. We can understand them by their structure or we can understand them by their origin. This goes for capitalism and the class struggle inherent to it. When we speak of ‘systemic racism,’ for example, we might examine its brutal or subtle complexities across social life – patriarchy, family, schools, housing, work, shopping, play, art, science, what-have-you – and then determine how such structures are functional, or not, to the accumulation of capital. Or, we might investigate historical origins, how various social institutions (say, the prison) or economic behaviors (say, the labor market) are created and might form patterns across time. The durability of structures, if not their form, can be a function of time. Temporality always, necessarily implies an end. This latter mode of investigation provides depth to the freedom struggle. These thoughts come to mind with the police murder of George Floyd and the demonstrations and riots protesting it in particular and the racist criminal justice system in general.

This Saturday, 6 June, will be the 240th anniversary of the “delivery of Newgate” when a London crowd, led by two Afro-Americans named Ben Bowsey and John Glover, opened the doors of England’s largest and most feared prison, Newgate, and released its prisoners, more than a hundred of them.

It was a legal term, “the delivery of Newgate,” referring to the royal commission of appointed judges to bring to trial those who were detained in prison on felony charges (such as stealing a handkerchief). In that era of popular sovereignty (“all men are created equal”) the people acted as though they possessed this commission among themselves and accordingly took direct action, not in the name of the King or Law, but in their own name, the people. Hence, the slogan “say his name” and the response, “George Floyd,” is an iteration against anonymity and against forgetting. The slogan “say his name” and the response, “George Floyd,” is an affirmation of dignity and an assertion by huge assemblies of people, across hundreds of cities, all over the world of the possibility of a new dispensation.

The Gordon Riots of 1780 were only the largest of many, many forms of 18th century rioting, over food, over turnpikes, over machines, over excise taxes, over the press gang, over poaching, over enclosures, &c. Evidence of these tumults or insurrections lay quiet under the dust and cob-webs of history’s basement, until a generation of social historians in the 1960s, inspired by the municipal rebellions in the USA, descended to bring them back into the clear light of day.  Unlike the haughty attitudes of class superiors who called the protestors, “criminals,” “thugs,” or in the Marxist lingo of the day “lumpenproletarians,” these social historians practicing history from below showed the rioters to have been wage-earners, young apprentices, mothers hungry to feed their children. Moreover, they learned that these common people were motivated by age-old concerns of social justice which had also laid buried in the basement of time.

It is often noted that only seven prisoners were released from the Bastille when it was stormed on 14 July 1789 in contrast to the hundreds, perhaps a thousand, released from Newgate and other London prisons nine years earlier. Yet the Gordon Rots are forgotten while the Bastille became a national holiday.  What is the difference?  One led to revolution, the other to counter-revolution.  Yet even this reply is not quite sufficient to explain the importance of Ben Bowsey and John Glover in unlocking those gates of hell.

The workers in England had been all about pleasing their “betters” with deference, forelock tugging, bowing and scraping. Most were repressed, compliant, silent, servile, and slavish. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903) W.E.B. DuBois described the condition as follows: “To-day the young Negro of the South who would succeed cannot be frank and outspoken, honest and self-assertive, but rather he is daily tempted to be silent and wary, politic, and sly; he must flatter and be pleasant, endure petty insults with a smile, shut his eyes to wrong; in too many cases he sees positive personal advantage in deception and lying. His real thoughts, his real aspirations, must be guarded in whispers; he must not criticize, he must not complain. Patience, humility, and adroitness must, in these growing black youth, replace impulse, manliness, and courage. With this sacrifice there is an economic opening, and perhaps peace and some prosperity. Without this there is riot, migration, or crime. Nor is this situation peculiar to the Southern United States, — is it not rather the only method by which undeveloped races have gained the right to share modern culture? The price of culture is a Lie.”

In England migration, riot, and crime were the options for the peasants, plebeians, and poor people. The human impulses of creativity and the aspirations to knowledge and betterment, were, like the souls of the black folk described by DuBois, repressed or perverted. Capital punishment and the prison kept the English commoners below stairs or in the gutter. The delivery of Newgate threatened the entire social structure, including the so-called labor market which depended on installing in the factory and in the plantation division between white folk and black folk and between paid and unpaid labor.

Two things stand out.  First, the freedom struggle against slavery produced Atlantic, or world-wide, heroes against incarceration, or avatars of liberty.  Second, they acted in solidarity with poor and oppressed people regardless of race or ethnicity. They belonged to communities whose backs were against the wall.

Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover were former American slaves. Bowsey was probably from Virginia arriving in London in 1774. Glover was probably from Massachusetts and may have played a part in Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. They were two African American men who got the keys, led the crowd, and opened the gates of hell.  I mean Newgate and the other London prisons on 6 June 1780.  Hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand, were freed. The bourgeoisie was terrified (you see it as late as 1859 in Charles Dicken’s lurid whitewash, A Tale of Two Cities).  The bourgeoisie rebuilt prisons making them more secure and they changed the whole theory and technology of lock-smithery. Twenty-five were hanged for their participation in the riots, including Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover. Two women were hanged: Laetitia Holland for having two petticoats in her possession that used to belong to the wife of the Lord Chief Justice and Charlotte Gardiner, “a negro,” who led a march against a dockside public house taking two brass candlesticks from it. She was sentenced on July fourth.

These men and women challenged the Lie that the poor, the working class, had to perform in order to live. One lie was property and the other lie was prison. One of the youngsters opening up Newgate on 6 June 1780 was an engraver who’d completed his apprenticeship that day, William Blake. He expressed his vision of the deed with this image alluding to John Milton’s poetics – “Albion rose from where he labour’d at the Mill with Slaves.”

The property regime and its disciplinary scheme of the prison are two sides of the same coin of capitalism, a coin which was minted, so to speak, at the end of the 18th century. These were two structures whose interlocking functionality is obvious. They are also temporal structures which commenced in the 18th century and whose disfunctionality must terminate in this century. “Shut Shit Down” is one slogan of our day, another must become “Abolish Prison.”

Say their names! Ben Bowsey, John Glover!

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Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com

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