The Peterloo Massacre was a landmark event in British history. Yet rather than an exceptional act of brutality that took place within an insular, island past, Peterloo must be understood within an imperial system. In an era when the British Empire was rapidly expanding, violence was readily used on colonial subjects abroad. What was startling about Peterloo, however, was that the British government was now openly using these methods on its own people; the violence of Empire had come home.
On 16 August 1819, 60,000 protestors congregated in St Peter’s Field in Manchester to demand suffrage and democratic rights. This great assembly had come from all across Lancashire, with every intention of peacefully protesting. Marchers were drawn from a diverse working class including prominent women’s groups, like the Stockport Women’s Reform Society, as well as Irish Catholics and black radicals pulled to England through the global chains of Empire. An observer watching through a window described ‘large bodies of men and women with bands playing and flags and banners…It seemed to be a gala day with the country people, who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives…’ As they marched into Manchester the brass bands played God Save the King and Rule Britannia.
Protest leaders saw no contradiction between their demands and the values of the country, so much so that the group that had initiated the march called themselves the Manchester Patriotic Union. The myth of Britain was steeped in notions of its placid and civilised history, removed from the turbulence that marked its European neighbours. In the early nineteenth century the Magna Carta and the individual rights of the ‘free-born Englishman’ were venerated as ideological symbols of the nation in all its liberty and glory. In reality, Britain was dripping with blood, yet these violent methods of control were deployed on foreign subjects. Newly emerging ideas of racial difference and British superiority were used to justify massacres in distant colonial lands.
Yet in Manchester the protestors were met with the violence of the yeomanry, men of property on horseback armed by the government with sabres. Fearing revolution, the Manchester magistrates gave the green light to attack a peaceful protest, killing 18 and injuring hundreds more. This was described the following day by the pro-government newspaper, the Manchester Mercury, as the ‘necessary ardour of the troops in the discharge of their duty’.
The Peterloo Massacre shattered illusions in the fair-play of the British government. The ‘free-born Englishman’ was in reality, strictly constrained by a highly authoritarian government. Satirical drawings in the press hammered home this point, with one drawing of the massacre entitled The Massacre of Peterloo! Or a Specimen of English Liberty. Protestors began to ask, were not the rights to politically organise, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly central to the values of Englishmen?
This was powerfully expressed by the great black revolutionary Robert Wedderburn who, in the era of Peterloo, punctured the patriotic belief in British liberty. Describing himself as the ‘descendent of an African slave’, he drew huge crowds for his oratory on the tyranny of slavery and the heroism of slave rebellions. Wedderburn went further than many British abolitionists in his radicalism and would often draw links between slavery in the colonies and exploitation within the cotton mills of England. He sharply noted that though ‘Britons boast of the perfection of their free government and excellent constitution’ they are ‘ignorant of what political liberty is’.
In the aftermath of Peterloo, the ‘free government’ was unmasked for all to see; the massacre dramatically exposed these hypocrisies within the nation. The ‘blood hounds’ of Manchester, as the local yeomanry were commonly referred to, were rewarded by the government for their action while the reform leaders were imprisoned. As the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley put it, so dear was power to these British tyrants that they would leave no path to freedom ‘but through their own blood’. An observer in the Liverpool Mercury inquired ‘whether or not Englishmen may be cut down for meeting to discuss their rights and opinions and whether we are in future to recognise our country as an England or an Algiers?’ The violence of colonialism, it became clear, was not something separate to English life but woven through it. As Wedderburn argued, those with power who had made their riches from colonialism and the stealing and selling of hundreds of thousands of Africans ‘like cattle, in the market’, were the same enemy also willing to unleash violence against its own people.
Those who had orchestrated and supported the massacre in Manchester did their best to erase the memory of the event. But, ordinary people continued to remember the violence of the British state through a range of commemorative objects, some of which appear in the new exhibition Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest at People’s History Museum in Manchester. The Skelmanthorpe flag is perhaps one of the most powerful of these and reads ‘Truth and justice pouring balm into the wounds of the Manchester sufferers’. Here, the movement for democracy openly drew from the abolitionist movement. On the flag you can see the image of a slave on his knees looking towards the all seeing eye of god and asking ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ This well-known biblical quote, used in the propaganda of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in Britain, was now transferred to remember the dead of Peterloo and the demands of universal suffrage.
The words and objects of Peterloo continued to be used as symbols of protest against state violence and oppression in Britain and beyond. The Skelmanthorpe flag was paraded at mass meetings including a Chartist rally at Peep Green in Yorkshire, attended by an estimated quarter of a million people. For the Chartists, Peterloo was a lesson on the violence they were up against by a state that had enslaved and pillaged much of the world already. A century later, a similar lesson was drawn by the anti-colonial leader Gandhi, who often quoted Shelley’s Peterloo poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ as inspiration in opposing the British Empire. Now with our new exhibition, People’s History Museum hopes to once again link the struggles for democracy in Britain with resistance worldwide. In the bicentenary year of Peterloo, we remember that Peterloo was bound up in a global system. Blood stains the long path leading to the suffrage of the British people and colonial subjects across the world.
Shirin Hirsch is a historian based jointly at People’s History Museum and Manchester Metropolitan University. She tweets @ShirinHirsch. People’s History Museum’s Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest exhibition is open until Sunday 23 February 2020. The exhibition is part of PHM’s year long programme exploring the past, present and future of protest, marking 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre; a major event in Manchester’s history, and a defining moment for Britain’s democracy. The exhibition is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund. People’s History Museum is open seven days a week from 10.00am to 5.00pm, and is free to enter with a suggested donation of £5.