History rhymes: The massive protests in Hong Kong have happened to coincide with one of the most tragic demonstrations in British history. Two hundred years ago today — Aug. 16, 1819 — tens of thousands of English men and women gathered in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to demand parliamentary reform. The deadly response from the city’s authorities in what is called the Peterloo Massacre, or the battle of Peterloo, galvanized the radical movement, outraged the British public, and embarrassed the government. Two centuries later, it reminds us of the dangers of even peaceful political protest.
The years following Britain’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars were marked by serious economic problems, which inflamed the sense among many Britons that they were not adequately represented in Parliament. A radical reform movement grew around the country, spurred on by a charismatic speaker named Henry Hunt.
When Hunt visited Manchester to call for universal suffrage and annual parliaments, about 60,000 men, women, and children came to listen. They were laborers — cotton-factory workers and loom weavers, for example — from around the region, and they carried signs that read “Liberty or Death,” “Universal Suffrage,” and “Taxation without Representation is Unjust and Tyrannical.”
The large crowd and its demands alarmed a British government that remembered the French Revolution. Hunt himself was a figure of particular concern, in part because he’d been involved in a demonstration that deteriorated into a riot three years before. So Manchester’s magistrates commissioned a warrant for his arrest and ordered a group of yeomanry, or volunteer, cavalrymen to disperse the crowd almost immediately after he started his speech.
But the yeomanry did not keep the peace; they brought chaos. Waving sabers in the air, they struck the weapons indiscriminately into the crowd, causing panic and sending the gathered people running in all directions. Many were trampled. According to one witness, “The piercing shrieks and deep moanings of the people were indescribable; the petitioners were carried off their feet many yards.”
The casualty count ranged from eleven to 15 people, the injured count from 421 to as many as 670. As Robert Poole of the University of Central Lancashire writes in his new book Peterloo: The English Uprising, “The scale of violence perpetrated by magistrates and their allies on their own citizens, and of the deceptions and cover-ups both before and after, almost defies belief.”
The ironic portmanteau “Peterloo” conveys an unflattering contrast between the British triumph at Waterloo and the shameful violence against unarmed countrymen. Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo, released last fall, reinforces that irony through a character who survives the war — physically, if not mentally — but is murdered in Manchester by a cavalryman who calls him “soldier boy” before running a saber through his gut.
In his seminal history The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson explains that “Peterloo outraged every belief and prejudice of the ‘free-born Englishman’—the right of free speech, the desire for ‘fair play’, the taboo against attacking the defenseless.” Another historian, Linda Colley, adds that a major reason the event was a “propaganda defeat” for the government was that “helpless women [were] hurt rather than protected by men in uniform.” Percy Shelley, in a sonnet titled “England in 1819,” bluntly described “people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field.”
On the other hand, the Tory prime minister — Robert Jenkinson, Second Earl of Liverpool, who had been in Paris when the Bastille was stormed — opined that the yeomanry’s actions were “justifiable” if not entirely “prudent.” And contra Shelley, the novelist Walter Scott defended the yeomanry, writing to a friend that they “behaved very well upsetting the most immense [crowd] ever was seen and notwithstanding the lies in the papers without any unnecessary violence.” In his 1819 novel Ivanhoe, Scott incorporated a joke about the violence of reform meetings.
Rather than accede to the protesters’ demands, the government sought to impose order through a series of laws restricting speech and assembly. According to Cambridge historian Boyd Hilton, “for the political nation as a whole fear of the mob outweighed acknowledgement that on this occasion the local authorities had overreacted.” Parliament did not pass significant electoral reform until 1832.
Which returns us to Hong Kong, where what began as a protest against a bill that would subject accused criminals to extradition to China has expanded into a broader fight for more direct democratic representation. The protests there have been longer, larger, and in some regards more intense than those in Manchester two centuries ago. The British reformers met in a field to hear a speech; the protesters in Hong Kong have occupied office buildings and an airport. There has been chaos and violence; the Chinese government is trying to crack down. But there have been no casualties. It has been no Peterloo, let alone a Tiananmen Square.
So far, anyway. The tragic violence in St. Peter’s Field 200 years ago reminds us of how quickly these events can turn. As we watch, let us hope that history does not repeat itself.