Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Tower of London's Only American Prisoner: Henry Laurens

The Tower of London, originally a royal castle-palace, later a royal prison, has housed many famous prisoners in its thousand year history, including the Little Princes, Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More. But only one was an American: Henry Laurens, during the American War for Independence. [Image: Henry Laurens, Boston Magazine, 1784]

Laurens, who had made a fortune in the slave trade in his native Charleston, South Carolina, and owned several plantations, became a leading Patriot during the conflict between colonists and mother country. He served as President of the Continental Congress in 1777-78. Congress then named him minister to the Netherlands. He made a successful voyage there in the spring of 1780, gaining some financial assistance from the Dutch. On a second voyage that autumn, a Royal Navy frigate captured his ship at sea, along with a draft of a treaty with the Netherlands, a document that led the British government to declare war on that country. 

The British government lodged Laurens in the Tower on suspicion of treason. Laurens recorded that the guards of the Tower serenaded him with a rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" when he arrived to take up residence, passing through Traitors Gate on the Thames. (below)

Laurens remained in the Tower for more than a year. During that time two artists painted his portrait, an indication that his treatment was not especially harsh. The portraits are by Lemuel Francis Abbott and John Singleton Copley.

The mildness of Laurens' treatment owed something to important British friends, notably the enormously rich Richard Oswald, a former slave trading partner. Laurens had been Charleston agent for the slave factory at Bunce (AKA, Bance) Island, Sierra Leone, in which Oswald was heavily invested. [Image: 18th century drawing of Bunce Island]

Oswald secured Laurens' release from the Tower on bail in December 1781. Not long after, the British government exchanged Laurens for Lord Cornwallis, the British general who surrendered to Washington at Yorktown in October 1781. Oswald later became chief British negotiator at the peace talks in Paris. 

After Laurens' release, the US government ordered him to join the American peace delegation of John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin. [Image: Benjamin West, American Peace Delegation, Paris, 1782, unfinished. Laurens is in the red coat, Franklin, Adams, and Jay to his right.]

Laurens put off going to Paris for months, pleading ill health. He did not arrive until late November, the day before the preliminary treaty was to be signed. He insisted on an addition to the treaty: that the British government return all runaway slaves to their American masters. Thousands had run away to British lines. Despite the fact that the British government had promised the runaways freedom, Oswald agreed to Laurens' addition, and the clause went into the final document. 

The runaway clause proved largely unenforceable. Sir Guy Carleton, the new British Commander in America, refused to hand over thousands of them under his protection in New York. Before evacuating the city, Carleton shipped them to Nova Scotia. Some of them later went to Sierra Leone, where they established a freedmen's colony and the current capital, Freetown. [Image: Early Freetown]

After the preliminary treaty was signed, Laurens returned to Britain and served briefly as US minster to the former mother country. In 1784, he returned to South Carolina. He spent his remaining years restoring his fortune and estates. He avoided politics, dying at his favorite plantation, Mepkin in 1792, surrounded by his slaves. His body was cremated, allegedly one of the first cremations in the United States. Today, Mepkin is a Trappist monastery, Mepkin Abbey.

[Images of Mepkin, by Charles A. Fraser, early 19th century]

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Battle of the Somme: Dress Rehearsal for Brexit

The Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle of World War I, produced 300,000 dead and one million casualties, with virtually no change in the battle lines. The Somme came hard on the heels of the second worst battle of the war, the Verdun, and preceded the third worst, the Battle of Passchendaele. For people suffering through the current Brexit mess, it is a reminder that things could, after all, be worse. Much worse. The politicians and generals responsible for the Somme battle were perhaps even more incompetent, myopic, and dishonest than the leaders now in charge of the Battle of Brexit. Let that sink in.

The Somme battle began on July 1, 1916 and continued futilely until December of the same year, pitting British and French armies against the evil Huns (AKA, Germans). The attack on German lines that day was preceded by a three day artillery barrage, the biggest in history, involving the launching of 1.5 million shells. High command assured the British soldiers that the barrage would make their job as easy as beating Iceland in the Euros. "You will be able to walk to Berlin. The Germans will all be dead." Sounds like "the EU will give us our cake and let us eat it, too."

Not quite. The barrage alerted the Germans that an attack was coming. They rushed up reserves. Most of them stayed safe in deep underground dugouts, ready to cut down the advancing British. And mow them down they did, with machine guns, rifles, artillery, and gas. Even a new British weapon, the tank, did not help much. Most of them quickly broke down and no one knew how to use them anyway. 

On the first day of the battle, a massive British attack across No Mans Land resulted in 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded: the worst day in the history of the British Army.

In northern France, at Thiepval, there rests a ponderous monument to the 72,000 Allied dead whose bodies were never recovered, mainly because they were blown to bits or buried under soil thrown up by exploding shells. I like to think at least a few ran away and lived in caves. (Image: Thiepval)

Lots of talk about "sacrifice" at commemorations. Did the sacrifice accomplish anything beyond piles of dead and mutilated men, and have we learned the lessons of the Somme? The answers are sadly obvious.