Saturday, May 12, 2012

May 11, 1812 - Bellingham's Reign of Terror Begins

The life of merchant John Bellingham seemed cursed.  Believed to have been born in 1769, he became a midshipman on The Hartwell, which came under mutiny and ran aground four years later.  In 1794, he opened a factory in London, which went bankrupt.  Finally he found work as a clerk in an import/export firm between Britain and Russia.  Shortly after his marriage in 1803, he was sent to Russia on business.  The Russian ship Soleure had been lost at sea, and its owners claimed insurance from Lloyd's of London.  When an anonymous note to Lloyd's warned that the ship had been sabotaged, the owners blamed Bellingham and accused him of a debt of nearly 5000 rubles.  While he would be eventually found innocent, the charge stripped him of his traveling visa and kept him in prison in Russia for four years just as he was about to sail home to his wife.

Upon his eventual return to London, Bellingham appealed to the British government for restitution, but Britain had ceased diplomatic relations with Russia due to its switching sides in the Napoleonic Wars.  For years, the bad luck tortured him, despite his wife suggesting he drop the matter.  He worked until 1812, when he saw the Luddite movement growing in the North as industrialized looms put hundreds out of work.  Like-minded laborers joined the movement, blossoming it until crowds of thousands of protestors clashed with British troops and breaking looms was made a capital crime.

Bellingham at last discovered his chance to join with others who were devastated by the politicians of the government.  Using his expertise in trade and organization, he began to build a secret society dedicated to the destruction of a government who sat idly (or at least busily fighting foreign wars) while its people suffered an unjust world.  Bellingham decided to use assassination to get the points of the people across, using something of an inverse of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror.  Rather than a council oppressing its people by use of guillotine, the people would strike out against their oppressors to make their will known, one assassination at a time.

The first target was Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, political champion of the Peninsular War and suppressor of the Luddite riots.  A lone gunman waited in the lobby of Parliament until Perceval came in, then shot him, and (according to Bellingham's orders) sat quietly on a bench to be apprehended.  The man was executed within a week, but an anonymous letter (written by Bellingham) was read in court,

"Recollect, Gentlemen, what is our situation. Recollect that our families were ruined and ourselves destroyed, merely because it was Mr Perceval's pleasure that justice should not be granted; sheltering himself behind the imagined security of his station, and trampling upon law and right in the belief that no retribution could reach him. We demand only our rights, and not a favour; we demand what is the birthright and privilege of every Englishman. Gentlemen, when a minister sets himself above the laws, as Mr Perceval did, he does it as his own personal risk. If this were not so, the mere will of the minister would become the law, and what would then become of your liberties? I trust that this serious lesson will operate as a warning to all future ministers, and that they will henceforth do the thing that is right, for if the upper ranks of society are permitted to act wrong with impunity, the inferior ramifications will soon become wholly corrupted. Gentlemen, my life is in your hands, we rely confidently in your justice."

On the same day the gunman was "hanged by the neck until... dead... body to be dissected and anatomized", the ambassador to Russia was assassinated by another of Bellingham's agents.  Panic struck London, and many of the ministers of Parliament returned home under guard.  Others stayed under heavier guard.  Letters flowed out from Bellingham's society, explaining it was not a revolution but an act of justice.  He had no designs on injuring royalty, only those elected to serve their people but did not.

A war in counterespionage launched from the Earl of Liverpool's new government, which was losing members weekly.  Eventually Bellingham was found out, but he went into hiding, and believers in his cause moved him from place to place ahead of army searches.  Despite murders continuing throughout the summer and into the fall, the government refused to change its position.  Assassinations and executions took place for months until Bellingham was finally caught aboard a smuggler's ship headed for the United States of America, which had recently declared war with Britain and, Bellingham believed, would take him in with political understanding.  Bellingham was executed and his society dispersed.

To quote Sir Adam Roberts, emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University and president of the British Academy, to the BBC, "In fact tyranny, or whatever form of government you have, usually has a broader social basis. The idea that one cleansing act of violence will transform the political landscape has been disproved time and time again because it has messier results."

Rather than realizing a revolution by carefully placed targets, Bellingham contributed to dispelling to many the idea of eliminating a figurehead on the behemoth that is government.  Later taken as a folk-figure much like Guy Fawkes, he would be rarely taken under serious academic study, with the exception of writers such as Thoreau and Marx, who used him as an example of what not to do.


In reality, Bellingham went himself to make his point.  Already a figure in the lobby of the House of Commons and having repeatedly attempted to find compensation, he was easily identified after the shooting.  He made his case in court in hopes he might be understood, but Bellingham again found bad luck as he was sentenced to death.


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  2. We have posted a cheeky reversal of this interesting story Spencer Perceval recompenses John Bellingham on the Today in Alternate History web site.


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