Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Naming and Shaming: Nicknames for Police, From Peelers to Pigs

Police have been in the news much of late, mostly for negative reasons: racism, corruption, and brutality to name three. In other words, they are much like the rest of humanity, armed with truncheons, tasers, tear gas, and guns.

Of all the professions on earth, perhaps none has generated more nicknames than the police. Prostitutes and lawyers are probably close behind. I make no claim for scientific accuracy in this post. The origins of these police nicknames is often obscure at best. 

Some police nicknames are, however, closely connected with their history. In the UK, for example, two of them came from the name of the man who established the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel. [Image: Peel]

The nickname "Bobbies" comes from Peel's first name. Anyone the least familiar with British culture is likely to know that. Fewer know that at first, "Peeler" was the more common name. "Peeler" eventually went out of fashion, but "Bobby" is still in common use.

[Image: Sydenham Police, London, c. 1860]

Most nicknames for police come from street or criminal slang. "Bobby" and "Peeler" sound pretty neutral or even positive now, but probably were not at first. Many people viewed the creation of the Metropolitan Police with suspicion, as a threat to individual freedom. 

The term "police" conjured up images of Continental despotism -- the France of Louis XIV and Napoleon or Tsarist Russia. Police were looked on as little better than government spies and enforcers propping up the ruling elite. 

A more common and international nickname for police is "cop" or "copper." According to the Oxford English Dictionary these words have an old pedigree, going back to at least the early 18th century, 1704. They derived from the French caper, meaning "to capture." 

Because England had no professional police at that time, the term may have referred to a "thief taker." These were essentially like the later bounty hunters who captured criminals for rewards. 

So says the OED. Other explanations of "cop" and "copper" exist. One was that "copper" came from the copper buttons on the uniforms of Peel's new police force. Another, familiar to me since childhood, was that "cop" was an acronym for "Constable on Patrol."

Since medieval times towns and parishes were required to appoint constables responsible for enforcing the law and catching criminals. But these constables were elected, ordinary citizens who had no training and often tried to get out of doing an unpleasant and often time consuming job. Better to leave it to the thief takers, who were themselves often criminals. 

The most famous thief taker of the early 18th century was Jonathan Wild, who styled himself as "Thief Taker General." He turned some of his own gang members in for rewards and eventually got his own, being hanged at Tyburn in 1725. [Image: Wild]

Wild provided the inspiration for Peachum in John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728) and later the subject of a Henry Fielding novel (1743). 

Whatever the true origins of "cop" and "copper," the names have proved enduring. Other nicknames for police are more recent, including "fuzz" and "pigs." 

"The Fuzz," which has been used much since the 1960s, is of unknown origin. One view is that it is a corruption of "the force. "  Another is that it is a reference to static on police radios or the short haircuts of police. The name was famously used in the 2007 comedy, "Hot Fuzz." 

"Pigs" first came into use in the 19th century. It declined in usage afterwards, but became common again in the 1960s and 1970s. In the latter period, "pigs" was widely employed by people in the counter culture and anti-Vietnam War protestors. It remains widely used in the English-speaking world and beyond.

In 1971, "pig" became the focus of a short-lived controversy in an English town (I forget which). A new police station was being built on a street called Pig Lane. The local police wanted to change the name. Local residents protested, arguing that it had been Pig Lane since the 18th century. I don't recall who won. I suspect the residents. Tradition and ALL THAT.


Monday, 17 May 2021

Boston King: Black Loyalist, Minister, African Colonial Leader

When the British attacked Charleston (Charlestown), South Carolina in the spring of 1780, thousands of enslaved Africans fled to the British lines as Loyalists. General Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander, offered them freedom as an incentive to leave rebel masters. Among those who took up the offer was a young man named Boston King. (Image: Charleston, c. 1770)

King was born enslaved on a plantation near Charleston owned by Richard Waring, around 1760. His father, who was literate, had been born in Africa but "stolen away into slavery when he was young." King relates that Waring had been on good terms with his father and his mother, a skilled herbalist, and treated them well. Boston's experience was less fortunate.   

As a boy he trained as a house servant. When he was sixteen, Waring apprenticed him to a carpenter in a nearby settlement. His new master often beat him "without mercy. When the opportunity came, King joined the exodus of the enslaved fleeing to the British lines at Charleston. "I began to feel the happiness, of liberty, of which I knew nothing before " he later wrote. The British welcomed him, but did not always treat him well. (Image: Siege of Charleston, 1780, a somewhat fanciful depiction from 1862)

At the time, smallpox had broken out in and was spreading across South Carolina. The black runaways were highly vulnerable to this deadly, agonizing disease. Few of them had survived smallpox or had been inoculated, the two means of achieving immunity. It spread among them with terrifying rapidity, and King became infected.

British authorities removed the infected blacks about a mile away from their camp to prevent their soldiers from being infected. There, most of them lay in the open without adequate food or care. 

King wrote later that he owed his survival to the kindness of a British soldier who had nursed and fed him. He was later able to do the same for his benefactor, when he was wounded in battle. Soon after, he narrowly avoided being sold into slavery by a white Loyalist officer. Captain Lewes was stealing horses from the British army and was about to switch to the rebel side. King escaped from him and alerted his British superior to Lewes' plan.

King went on to serve the British army in Carolina by carrying dispatches through enemy lines. One message he carried while stationed at Nelson's Ferry (Near Eutawville) helped save 250 soldiers from being captured by the Americans. 

He later joined the crew of a British man of war and took part in the capture of a rebel ship in Chesapeake Bay. His ship went to New York City with its prize. King decided to stay and worked at various jobs, including as a crewman on a pilot boat. The boat was captured by an American ship and King was nearly forced back into slavery.  But he escaped once again and returned to New York. 

By that time, the war was coming to a close. Thousands of  black Loyalists had converged on New York City, the last British stronghold in the former thirteen colonies. In New York, King married Violet, an enslaved woman from North Carolina who had also joined the British. But once again the threat of re-enslavement threatened him. 

Article 7 of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War in 1783 stipulated (at the insistence of Henry Laurens of South Carolina) that the British return all American property to its owners, including runaway slaves. The news filled King and his acquaintances with "inexpressible anguish and terror." 

Fortunately, the British Commander in New York, Sir Guy Carleton refused to implement Article 7. He argued that the black Loyalists were no longer property but free persons. Returning them to slavery would violate Clinton's promise. Prior to the British evacuation of New York, Carleton sent them to the British territory of Nova Scotia, where many white Loyalists also took refuge. In all, the British issued certificates of freedom to more than 5000 black Loyalists. 

Boston and Violet embarked for Nova Scotia in July 1783. There they helped to establish a black Loyalist settlement called Birchtown. (King calls it Burch Town in his memoir). The settlement was named for General Samuel Birch, the British commandant in New York City who had issued certificates of freedom and overseen the evacuation of the black Loyalists. In Birchtown, King worked as a carpenter and various other jobs to support himself. (Image: Halifax, Nova Scotia, 18th century)

Methodist missionaries arrived in the area the following year. The Kings were among the first to be converted. Boston became a circuit riding preacher. Life was initially extremely hard, as in all new pioneering settlements The difficulties were increased by poor soil and a harsh climate. Tensions with white neighbors were often high as both communities competed for scarce resources and jobs. 

After a few years conditions began to improve, but in 1792 the Kings accepted an offer from the new Sierra Leone Company to emigrate to a new British colony in West Africa. They helped to recruit hundreds of other black Loyalists in Nova Scotia to join them.

The Company's backers were antislavery leaders in Britain, including Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce, and brothers Thomas and John Clarkson. They established the colony as a refuge for freed slaves, most of them Loyalists living in Canada and Britain. They called it the Province of Freedom. It was later renamed for the nearby Sierra Leone Mountains.  

John Clarkson led about 1100 Nova Scotia settlers, including the Kings, to the new colony. Together, they established the settlement of Freetown, now Sierra Leone's capital. Tragically, Violet died soon after their arrival, probably of yellow fever or malaria. Many other new arrivals, both white and black, also died. Few had immunities to the local fevers. [Images of Freetown, mid-19th century]

The Sierra Leone Company employed King to preach to the indigenous people. He was the first Methodist preacher to do so. That task proved immensely difficult, because he did not understand their language. He proposed to open a school. In 1794, the Company sent King to London to study at a Methodist institution, Kingswood School, near Bristol. 

At Kingswood, King trained as a missionary and teacher, returning to Sierra Leone in 1796. While at Kingswood, he wrote his autobiography, which the Methodist Magazine published in 1798. It is one of few accounts written by a black Loyalist or any Loyalist for that matter.

Meanwhile, King had remarried. He and his second wife Peggy relocated about 100 miles inland to missionize among the Sherbo people. The couple died there in 1802, probably of a fever.

Further Reading: 

Boston King, "Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, A Black Preacher," Methodist Magazine, 21, 1798. King's memoir is republished in The Life of Boston King, Black Loyalist, Minister, and Master Carpenter, ed. by Ruth Holmes Whitehead and Carmelita A.M. Robertson, Nimbus Publishing Limited & The Nova Scotia Museum, 2003. 

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

The British Seize Charleston, May, 1780

[A somewhat fanciful depiction of The Siege of Charleston from the British lines by Alonzo Chappell, 1862.] 

On May 12, 1780, Charleston, South Carolina surrendered to a British army under the command of Sir Henry Clinton. It was the worst Patriot defeat in the American War for Independence. Clinton not only took the city, the most important in the South, he also captured most of the garrison, more than 5000 soldiers. It was not until the Surrender at Bataan in World War II that more American soldiers surrendered to an enemy army. [Image: Sir Henry Clinton]

The victory was the culmination of a campaign that had begun three months before, when Clinton had disembarked an army of more than 8000 men on Simmons (now Seabrook) Island. Marching through the difficult terrain of Simmons and James Islands, they crossed the Ashley River onto Charleston Peninsula on March 29. 

They immediately began to construct siege lines that moved them and their artillery ever closer to the city. The map below shows the gradual encroachment of the British lines. 

Thousands more British and Loyalist soldiers from Savannah and New York soon joined Clinton, as did thousands of black runaways attracted by his promise of freedom. Many of them were enlisted as Black Pioneers, auxiliaries to the British Army. 

The American commander, Benjamín Lincoln of Massachusetts, had advocated Colonel John Laurens' idea of arming enslaved men on the same promise. The state legislature voted the proposal down by a large majority. Some local leaders argued that allowing the British a free passage through South Carolina was preferable to the prospect of arming Africans.

By late April the British had completely surrounded Charleston. Lincoln proposed to escape with his army before the British had encircled the city. He backed down in the face of local hostility to the move. [Image: Benjamin Lincoln]

Acting Governor Christopher Gadsden (of "Don't Tread On Me" flag fame) led an angry crowd to Lincoln's headquarters. Gadsden accused Lincoln of cowardice. One of his entourage threatened to open the gates to the enemy and attack Lincoln's soldiers before they could get to their boats. [Images: Christopher Gadsden and his flag]

Most of Lincoln's officers also opposed a withdrawal at this point. Lincoln agreed to remain. In the end, cut off from escape and reinforcements, running out of food, and under increasingly heavy bombardment, he accepted Clinton's terms. Ironically, Gadsden and others who had accused Lincoln of cowardice earlier now demanded he surrender to save the city from destruction. 

Under Clinton's terms, the Continental soldiers became prisoners of war. They were interned in and around the city. The militia were paroled. They could go home, as long as they did not take up arms against the British. Lincoln, Laurens, and other officers were also paroled not long after. They were able to return to active service after being exchanged for British prisoners of equivalent rank. 

A few weeks later, Clinton returned to his headquarters in New York. He left General Lord Cornwallis in command in the South. The two men despised each other, a fact that would cause serious problems for British operations for the rest of the war. [Image: General Charles, Lord Cornwallis]

Before leaving, Clinton made a serious mistake. He decreed that men who had taken parole had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. In effect, they might have to fight for the British against their former comrades. 

Anger at Clinton's proclamation helped fill the ranks of the partisan forces that soon emerged in the backcountry under Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter. Cornwallis won a decisive victory over General Gates at Camden in August, but his inability to subdue the partisans (and Carolina fevers) led him to march his army to Virginia and Yorktown.  

Footnote: On the same day Charleston surrendered to Clinton, an enormous tragedy occurred. As the Patriots were surrendering their weapons at the powder magazine (on Magazine Street), the powder exploded, killing scores and injuring hundreds. The dead and wounded included soldiers from both sides, women from a nearby brothel, and most of the "lunatics" at the adjacent poorhouse and hospital. Each side blamed the other, but the explosion was most likely caused when a soldier threw down a musket that had not been unloaded and discharged into the magazine.

Further Reading: 

Carl P. Borick, A Gallant Defense: The Siege of Charleston, 1780. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.