Catherine Despard, Abolitionist

Peter Linebaugh

I am an abolitionist. Abolition is a plot against racial capitalism which is all capitalism, not just some of it. It is a plot in a narrative sense. It is a plot in which the arc of change is always going resolutely towards freedom. It is a plot in a geographic sense. It is a plot in which we aim to make all space, not just some space, free in two senses. Free in the sense it cannot be alienated which is to say it cannot be sold by anybody to anybody, and free in the sense of non-exclusion—no boundary, no border, which would keep somebody in or keep somebody out. —Ruth Wilson Gilmore, on Rustbelt Abolition Radio

February 21st is special. On this day in 1803, Colonel Edward Marcus Despard was executed in London as a traitor. His comrade and partner, Catherine, was among the thousands who witnessed the hanging and decapitation. She had helped him in the days preceding to write the address which he delivered from the gallows. He explained that he was a friend to the poor and oppressed and trusted that “the principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny, and delusion.”

He was Irish. Just a couple years earlier Ireland’s political independence was extinguished with the creation of the U.K. She was an African American who came from Jamaica or Honduras. They were abolitionists in the senses explained by Professor Gilmore, that is, they bent the arc of change towards freedom, and they crossed boundaries and borders. Racial capitalism was changing by increasing its spaces and increasing its numbers.

The mode of production shifted from exploiting slaves producing sugar (this had led to the victory in Haiti in 1803) to a mode of production exploiting slaves who produce cotton (Louisiana Purchase of 1803 which opened up the Mississippi lands and river). English textile factories required Irish labor especially in women and children to spin and weave the cotton. Labor was bought and sold, or alienated. The steam-engine and the cotton [en]gin[e] alienated labor in a second sense by turning it into punishment.

Slaves were kidnapped from Africa; proletarians in England were created by Enclosure Acts designed to take their commons. The number of enclosure acts of 1803 had never been exceeded; the number of slaves embarking on British ships had never been as numerous as in 1803. Slaves in the cotton belt increased their productivity thanks to “pushing system,” which maintained discipline by the technology of the whip. The factory proletariat in England was disciplined by the penitentiary which was a new architectural system of forced labor and solitary confinement. Like many efforts to systematize and hide cruelty it was called “reform.” The products of the cotton picker and the cotton spinner were carried by the sailor; and the cotton picker and cotton spinner were kept in line by police. This interlocking system of discipline, production, enclosure, and mechanization met resistance: in 1797 the sailors mutinied; in 1798 the United Irishmen rebelled; in 1800 Gabriel Prosser led a huge slave revolt in Virginia.

The interlocking economic system was made possible by new political systems, namely the U.S.A. (1789) and the U.K. (1800), both ruled by circles of landlords, merchants, and bankers. Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in the U.S.A. as the land itself was surveyed into squares. In the U.K. acts against assembly and acts forbidding trade unions were passed in addition the acts enclosing the commons. Bankers sealed the U.S.A./U.K. “special relationship” of land robbery and slavery.

Ned Despard was imprisoned five years earlier in 1798 without trial in one of the first penitentiaries, Cold Bath Fields in London. He was confined in a solitary cell of six by seven feet, and forced to subsist on bread and water, without pen, ink, paper, or books, and to sleep on a plank with wind, rain, and snow blowing through the window bars. He was one of many. Catherine sprang to his aid.

She visited him, delivered food, and carried messages. She wrote letters to the press describing his conditions. She spoke to the odious governor of the prison; she wrote the sly chief of the secret service; she appealed the evangelical chief magistrate; she petitioned the Home Secretary and future prime minister. She buttonholed members of Parliament. She worked with the wives of other political prisoners. Her efforts bore fruit. Some prisoners escaped, demonstrations were held outside its walls. The authorities were frightened of her. They impugned her intelligence and denied her literacy: a woman’s writing was no good, people of color could not write. When they could not attack what she was saying they disallowed it by condemning her spelling “mistakes” and her grammatical “errors.” How do you like that?!

Remember Catherine! Be an Abolitionist! Bend the arc of freedom!

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