Posts Tagged ‘Napoleonic Wars’

As long as civilization has existed the majority has always been deprived of its liberty and its voice. It has been literally and figuratively muzzled. You can look anywhere in the world and to any period in history and you will find that this is so. I recently discovered a very strange link between two such barbarities – between press-ganged English sailors and the ‘dirt-eating masks’ many African slaves were made to wear in America.  Both sets of people had their voice removed, and although the reasons seem quite distinct they are really just separate manifestations of a more central truth.

Whitby, Yorkshire – The setting for Gaskell’s Novel and a town much plagued by press-gangs

In 1863, the English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell published Sylvia’s Lovers, set in a fictional Whitby, Yorkshire (‘Monkshaven’), at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is both a typical nineteenth century tragic love story and a strident denunciation of the evils of British naval impressment. I explained in a recent short article that by 1793 seventy-five percent of the crews of British naval vessels consisted of prisoners of war, convicts and those forced into service. Sailors, their families, their friends and whole communities tried to evade the rapacious press-gangs whenever and wherever they could. When they couldn’t, they fought back. Sometimes hundreds of people would turn out, armed as they best could, to prevent their men being hauled away ‘like slaves or criminals’, first to rot in offshore ‘tenders’ lined with metal to stop them hacking away the wood to escape, and then to serve at His Majesty’s pleasure in ships of the Royal Navy – often never to return. Throughout the eighteenth century people also tried to escape the gangs by recourse to the law and the courts. Although they occasionally had some success, the law, the judges and the politicians, the ruling elite, were usually against them. The government wanted to fight its wars on distant fields and seas and if the common people didn’t show enough alacrity by volunteering in sufficient numbers to man the growing Royal Navy, then they would have to simply be ripped from their homes, from their taverns and from merchant vessels and forced to serve.

In Sylvia’s Lovers, the eponymous heroine’s father, Daniel, who had  been impressed some years previously during the ‘American War’ (or Revolution if you like), decided to resist the press-gangs when they returned again to the town to collect fodder for the war with France. There was a major riot and the people of the town chased the gangs away. But retribution soon followed and Daniel was hanged as an example. The story was based on true events in Whitby of 1793 and Daniel’s fate was based on the hanging of a certain William Atkinson:

William Atkinson, Hannah Hobson, John Harrison late of the parish of Whitby in the North Riding committed Feb. 26th, 1793, charged on subpoena of a Felony in having with divers other persons then unknown, on Sat. 23d of the same month about nine o’clock at night riotously assembled themselves together against the peace of our Lord the King, and with force and arms, unlawfully begun to pull down and demolish the dwelling House of John Cooper of Whitby aforesaid Shoe Maker… William Atkinson, hanged 13th April, 1793.             Calendar of Felons and Malefactors tried at the Assizes at York on the 18th day of March, 1793.

William Wilberforce – The anti-slavery campaigner

Only with Napoleon’s defeat did the movement for the abolition of impressment start to gain strength. Although by the time Gaskell wrote her book she could write in it, ‘Now all this tyranny (for I can use no other word) is marvellous to us; we cannot imagine how it is that a nation submitted to it for so long, even under any warlike enthusiasm, any panic of invasion, any amount of loyal subservience to the governing powers’, impressment was never actually legally abolished and came back in different guises throughout the, misnamed, nineteenth century ‘Pax Britannica’, finally to be replaced by explicit conscription during the First World War. One of the most vociferous advocates of impressment abolition was Thomas Urquhart. Released, he tells us, from any feeling of patriotic duty once the war against the French had been won, he started a long campaign of writing to the Admiralty, to politicians and to the’ great and the good’ to try to persuade them that impressment was a crime against every Englishman’s birth right of liberty and was comparable to slavery.

In 1816, in a public letter to William Wilberforce, the leading anti-slavery campaigner, Urquhart wrote:

I have been anxiously waiting for the present period, when the foes of our country are subdued, to address you on the subject of Slavery. The great and unwearied efforts you have made to suppress the traffic of human flesh will transmit your name with honor, as a man and Christian, to the most remote posterity. You have at last received the noblest reward in the success which has crowned your labours; and the treaty just concluded with France, consecrates your exertions, whilst it shews what a single individual, impelled by an honest zeal, is capable of performing. This perseverance and this success in behalf of the negro, encourages me to claim your powerful aid, in order to redress another grievance equally glaring and where the sufferers have a much stronger title than the African, to your sympathy. The sufferers are Britons; and what is more, to their courage and intrepidity the country is principally indebted for the prosperity and security she now enjoys.

I belong myself to this class of men, whose hardships have been so long and so unaccountably neglected ; and whilst you, Sir, and other philanthropists ranged the earth, in order to break the fetters of the slave, you disregarded with singular inconsistency, the ill treatment which the British seaman, the guardian of your independence, has been obliged to endure. In his cause no bolts of eloquence were shot, no commiseration was excited ; and whilst he encountered death in every form, and raised the fame of Britain to the highest elevation that can be reached, his ill treatment, though more galling than that of the negro, because he was born and bred up with the rights and feelings of a free man, remain unnoticed and unredressed.

Despite his rather objectionable comparison of the relative ‘title’ of the slaves and the seamen, Urquhart wasn’t against the abolition of slavery:

It is not my intention to defend the principle or the practice of slavery; I am only anxious that the persons who have displayed so much fervour, zeal, and perseverance in attacking both, would look at home, and try to correct the evils to which I have called your attention in the course of this letter. To the condition of the lower classes in this and every other country, hardships are attached, which demand as much sympathy as the case of the African.

Yet he does suggest that escaped slaves were happy to return to their owners, while impressed seamen never returned to the Royal Navy willingly:

I have known a concern in one of those islands (the West Indies)  which had from twenty to thirty negroes, most of whom were sailors, and who during the late war, were captured, some once, twice, and even thrice, and were conveyed to that land of liberty and equality, Guadeloupe, all of whom voluntarily returned to their owners as soon as they could get away, except one who could not be accounted for; but this you will perhaps say was a rare instance. Sir, I could produce various of the same kind, as well attested as any other fact, and which would shew that no small share of exaggeration has prevailed on the subject ; however, it substantiates the truth of my comparison, and I might go farther, and ask, if there be one instance on record, of mercantile seamen who had been impressed into the naval service, with the same opportunity to evade it, ever voluntarily returning to it again?

He then makes this (for us) perhaps rather strange observation:

In the print-shops in London, a negro is represented with an iron mouth-piece, and this exhibition has been made with a view to make the public suppose, that this mouth-piece is put on to prevent the slave from eating sugar or cane; yet the whole of the inference intended to be drawn from this subject is false.

(When I say this, I mean as to the cause ascribed for the use of it. That it may have been put upon a negro for a criminal act, as punishment, I can believe, although I never saw it done, or heard of its being done. In this country for the game act, you perhaps would have put a rope round his neck)

There is a distemper to which negroes are subject and at which time they are in the habit, unless forcibly prevented, of eating earth; at this time their mouth is covered until a cure can be effected. This is the secret of the terrific mouth-piece, which has been the topic of so much invective against West Indians.

Slave wearing a dirt-eater mask

He was referring to what are now called ‘Dirt-Eater Masks’. These were just one of numerous barbaric punishments and humiliations inflicted on African slaves in North America, in the West Indies and in South America.

But were these masks really ‘designed’ to prevent the slaves eating dirt? The answer seems to be ‘Yes… but’. I’ll first try to explain the ‘yes’ and later the more tricky question of ‘but’.

Dirt-eating’s Latin medical name is Geophagia: ’The deliberate consumption of earth, soil or clay.’ Surprising as it may seem, this practice goes back millennia in Europe and Africa. It still exists today. In fact it is a sub-category of Pica, ‘a term that comes from the Latin for magpie, a bird with indiscriminate eating habits’. The American Psychiatric Association defines Pica as, ‘persistent eating of non-nutritional substances that is inappropriate to developmental level (sic), occurs outside culturally sanctioned practice and, if observed during the course of another mental disorder, is sufficiently severe to warrant independent attention.’ Well that seems debatable, but I’ll leave it to one side.

In the fifth century BC in Greece, the ‘founder’ of medicine, Hippocrates of Kos, wrote:

If a pregnant woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things.

A Roman medical textbook tells us that ‘people whose colour is bad when they are not jaundiced are either sufferers from pains in the head or earth eaters’. The Roman Pliny writes that ‘Alica’, made of red clay, ‘used as a drug has a smoothing effect… as a remedy for ulcers in the humid part of body such as the mouth or anus. Used in an enema it arrests diarrhoea, and taken though the mount… it checks menstruation’. Actually the use of clay for such purposes is still prevalent today; you can buy it in any pharmacy!

Throughout the Classical period and into the Middle Ages and early modern period there are numerous references to earth or dirt eating and its various beneficial effects. Some of the references given at the end provide more detail as well as the examples I have quoted. One such, entitled Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, by two South African doctors, concludes as follows:

All the concepts of geophagia—as psychiatric disorder, culturally sanctioned practice or sequel to famine—fall short of a satisfying explanation. The causation is certainly multifactorial; and clearly the practice of earth-eating has existed since the first medical texts were written. The descriptions do not allow simple categorization as a psychiatric disease. Finally, geophagia is not confined to a particular cultural environment and is observed in the absence of hunger. Might it be an atavistic mode of behaviour, formerly invaluable when minerals and trace elements were scarce? Its re-emergence might then be triggered by events such as famine, cultural change or psychiatric disease.

In his survey of Holmes County in the 1970s, Dr. Dennis Frate of the University of Mississippi wrote:

Dirt-eating can be traced to ancient Greece, to Africa. It was a part of European culture and was observed in the American Indians. Practically every culture has had a dirt-eating phase,’ Frate said. ‘But very little is known about why people do it.

So there is ample evidence that African slaves brought the practice of earth eating with them to the colonies. In the United States there have been quite a few newspaper articles describing how the practice still persists, predominantly (though not exclusively) amongst Afro-Americans and in the southern states. Here’s just one from the New York Times in 1984, it quotes Dr. Frate again:

According to his research, Dr. Frate said it was not uncommon for slave owners to put masks over the mouths of slaves to keep them from eating dirt. The owners thought the practice was a cause of death and illness among slaves, when they were more likely dying from malnutrition.

It is difficult to say how prevalent dirt-eating is today. But in 1975, among 56 black women questioned by Dr. Frate as part of a larger study on nutrition in rural Holmes County, 32 of them said they ate dirt. The survey also showed that the ingestion of dirt tended to be more common in pregnancy.

There have been other explanations. Some have suggested that the masks were used by slave owners to prevent slaves eating earth to excess, trying to commit suicide, and although there isn’t much evidence for this it may well have happened. In Brazil, where the slaves were used to mine gold, it has also been suggested that the masks were to prevent them from eating earth containing nuggets of gold and later, no doubt, recovering the nuggets from their faeces.

Another mask

Whatever the reasons for the slaves eating ‘dirt’ – be they cultural, nutritional, medicinal, suicidal or financial – and scholarly opinion has yet to reach a consensus – the fact is that the slave owners wouldn’t allow it. Perhaps they were just trying to protect their ‘investment’ in their slaves, to stop them harming themselves, even killing themselves or (and only in Brazil) stealing gold? I don’t really know and the whole subject needs more attention. But here is the ‘but’. Slaves had already been deprived of their liberty, and often their lives, but they must also be deprived of their customs, their voice. Eating the earth, eating dirt, was just one of these.

Thus while there is still some mystery about the ‘role’ of dirt eating and the reasons for the masks, there can, perhaps, be no better graphic and literal illustration of the loss of slaves’ voices than the horrific pictures of them wearing these ‘dirt eating masks’.

English sailors didn’t go quietly, and neither did the Africans. They went kicking and screaming. But the sailors, once on board His Majesty’s Royal Navy ships, had lost their voice as well as their liberty. If they tried to escape (which they repeatedly did) they could be flogged, incarcerated or hanged, as could the African slaves.

These two examples of ‘historic’ barbarities might seem very different – and they are – but one truth connects them. Britain’s rulers – the rich and powerful – wanted to extend their wealth and were willing to fight in distant lands and on distant seas to do so. Of course, most of them didn’t want to fight themselves; they needed a constant and growing stream of common cannon-fodder to man the Royal Navy’s ships and to fight for them. When ordinary English people didn’t flock to the mast in sufficient numbers to crew the growing navy, the rulers did what they always have done, they forced them to.

Exactly the same happened with slavery in the colonies. Initially, European indentured bondsmen were used on the plantations. But more and more servile and cheap labour was needed if the planters were to enrich themselves further. So what was done? With the active encouragement and support of the British government/rulers, private entrepreneurial slave traders from Bristol and Liverpool (and from elsewhere in Europe) forcibly yanked Africans from their homes and transported them to America.

Both of these things were about power and money. The voices of the less powerful were repressed and their liberties stolen. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. Marie Antoinette may have suggested that the unwashed masses eat cake, but more often than not they had to eat dirt.

Some references:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia’s Lovers, 1863; Nicholas Rogers, The Press Gang, Continuum UK, 2007; Thomas Urquhart, A letter to William Wilberforce on the Subject of Impressment, 1816; Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate,  Geophagia in rural Mississippi: environmental and cultural contexts and nutritional implications, 2001. http://www.ajcn.org/content/32/10/2129.full.pdf , William Schmidt, Southern Practice of Eating Earth shows signs of Waning, New York Times, 1984; Alan Huffman, It’s hard to quite the habit, Mississippi dirt-eaters say, Clarion-Ledger, 1983; Alexander Woywodt and Akos Kiss, Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, 2002;  Geophagy,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geophagy.

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Atrocities are committed in all wars. Indeed war itself is an atrocity. Some atrocities are remembered, some just disappear from the historical consciousness. The bombing of the Basque town of Gernika by the German Condor Legion at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1937 is remembered, not least because of Picasso’s famous painting Gernika. But an arguably even more horrendous atrocity was committed in 1813 by Wellington’s British and Portuguese troops on the people of the nearby Basque town of San Sebastian. With the exception of a yearly commemoration of the event in the town itself on 31 August, the memory of what happened there over a period of  five days has almost totally disappeared, and even at times been suppressed. In some small way I’d like to rectify this.

The siege of San Sebastian, 1813

The siege of San Sebastian, 1813

If you read books or watch television programmes on the Napoleonic Wars, and particularly those touching on the Peninsular War, you will more often than not find descriptions of Wellington’s army’s siege of San Sebastian, which lasted from 7 July 1813 until the capture of the town on 31 August and the final surrender of the French on 8 September. It is a tale of military struggle, of tactics, of suffering, of death and of acts of valour and heroism. But what followed is rarely if ever told.

Just a few words by way of context: For five years the British army had been in the Iberian Peninsula trying to help the Spanish and Portuguese throw out the French occupiers, while also, it has to be said, trying to loosen the grip of the French blockade of Britain. After the Battle of Vitoria on 21 June 1813, the French army, first under Napoleon’s older brother Joseph Bonaparte (who Napoleon had made king of Spain in 1808), and later under Marshal Soult, had retreated to the Pyrenean borderland of France and Spain. Wellington, who commanded all the allied British, German, Portuguese and Spanish forces, didn’t want to move further into France until the threat posed by the French garrison still stationed in San Sebastian had been removed – hence the siege of the town.

Storming of San Sebastian by Denis Dighton

Storming of San Sebastian by Denis Dighton

If you’re interested in the siege itself there are many fine, full and accessible accounts. I will start at the siege’s end. On 31 August 1813, British and Portuguese troops managed to pour through a large breach that had been made in the city’s inner wall. The French garrison retreated to find refuge in the town’s citadel, called Monte Orgullo. As the English and Portuguese were capturing the town there was, to use the words of the most famous early English historian of the War, Sir William Napier, ‘a thunder storm, which came down from the mountains with unbounded fury immediately after the place was carried’. This ‘added to the confusion of the fight’. Napier continued:

This storm seemed to be a signal of hell for the perpetration of villainy which would have shamed the most ferocious barbarians of antiquity. At Ciudad Rodrigo intoxication and plunder had been the principal object; at Badajoz lust and murder were joined in rapine and drunkenness; but at San Sebastian, the direct, the most revolting cruelty was added to the catalogue of crimes. One atrocity of which a girl of seventeen was the victim, staggers the mind by its enormous, incredible, indescribable barbarity. Some order was at first maintained, but the resolution of the troops to throw off discipline was quickly made manifest. A British staff-officer was pursued with a volley of small-arms and escaped with difficulty from men who mistook him for the provost-martial of the fifth division; a Portuguese adjutant, who endeavoured to prevent some atrocity, was put to death in the market place, not with sudden violence from a single ruffian, but deliberately by a number of English soldiers. Many officers exerted themselves to preserve order, many men were well conducted, but the rapine and violence commenced by villains soon spread, the camp-followers crowded into the place, and disorder continued until the flames following the steps of the plunderer put an end to this ferocity by destroying the whole town.

I have started by quoting from Anglo-Irish Sir William Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula, because you might otherwise think that what follows is Spanish or French propaganda. It is not.

Immediately after the events Napier described, the ‘town council, cathedral chapter and inhabitants’ of San Sebastian compiled a report or ‘manifesto’ which they sent to the ‘Spanish nation’ describing what happened. Its full title is: Description of the atrocities committed by the Anglo-Portuguese troops in Saint Sebastian, 31 August 1813 and in the following days, exposed to the eyes of the Spanish nation by the municipality, chapter and inhabitants of the town. ( Tolosa 1813). They affirm: ‘We take it on our own head as to the exact truth of this relation that we present to you and that we have all signed.’ What follows is my inadequate verbatim translation of some extracts from this report. I have taken it from a book published in France in 1813 which contained a French translation of the Spanish report. I apologize if my rendition of a two hundred year old French version of a Spanish text has lost something in translation, but I think you will be able to get an idea of what happened to the people of this Basque town:

The town of San Sebastian had been set alight by the allied troops who had besieged it, after these troops had unleashed a horrible sack and its inhabitants had experienced a treatment such as one has not had any idea in civilized Europe…

… The patriotism of the loyal inhabitants of San Sebastian, for a long time suppressed by the severity of the enemy (the French), shone out in many ways, as did the joy and the affection with which the allies were welcomed; but these, insensible to this demonstration, as sincere as it was pathetic, responded to it by taking rifle shots at these same crossroads and balconies from where these felicitations came, and on which a large number of inhabitants perished, victims of the expression of their love of country, a terrible presage of what was to follow…

These horrors were only a prelude to many others, even the memory of which makes one quiver. Oh day forever unhappy; Oh cruel night!… At the extremity were found the enemy, cornered at the foot of the chateau, to save themselves from the unprecedented excess that the pen refuses to describe.

The pillage, the massacre, the rape were pushed to an unbelievable point; and what we discovered for the first time at the fall of night, after the retreat of the French into the Chateau, were limitless scenes of horror. From every quarter we heard the cries of distress of women who were being raped, without regard either to their tender youth or to their respectable age; wives outraged under the eyes of their husbands, girls dishonoured in the presence of their parents; one girl was the victim of the brutality of a soldier which happened on top of her mother’s dead body… Other crimes more horrible yet were committed on this day, and it’s only a sense of ‘modesty’ which prevents us naming them.

Throw a veil over this sad tableau, we’ll put our sights on another, no less deplorable: We have seen innocent victims having their throats cut…. even people of renown. Don Domingo de Govocehea, an old and respectable churchman, and a great many others, who we will not name, were murdered; the ill-fated Joseph de Larramaga was killed while trying to save the lives of a young girl, who had been raped, and her young son, by holding them in his arms.

A huge number of people were dying each day from the bad treatment that they had received. The citizens who were neither killed nor wounded were to suffer in a thousand ways; many of them stripped and left entirely naked.

… Pursued by the soldiers, they envied the fate of the people who had found a momentary asylum on the roofs or in the ‘pigsties’…

These excesses lasted several days after the affair, without anything being done to stop it… They appeared authorized by the commanders, since the goods stolen in the town were sold publically by the English and Portuguese in full view, and right next to, the military head-quarters.

When we thought the spoliation had finished, the allied troops found that the flames weren’t making enough progress; they fed them with a whole mixture of artefacts that they threw into the cauldrons, by which means they propagated the fire with frightening rapidity…

In this manner the town of San Sebastian perished.

Of the six hundred and some houses that were contained within the ramparts, there were only thirty-six left. It is remarkable that those saved were all adjoining the Chateau that the enemy occupied. The two parochial churches have also been conserved, as they served as quarters and hospitals for the victors. All the rest have been delivered to the flames… Fifteen hundred families were without bread and shelter eking out an existence worse than death.

Goods, furniture, merchandize, shops, boutiques, all had fallen prey to rapacity or incendiary… San Sebastian exists no more.

Oh unhappy town! Honour  of Guipuscoa! You who had given such proof of constancy, who had regarded the English as liberators, could you believe that you would be destroyed by the same hands which should have broken your chains! To how many dangers were the inhabitants exposed during the five years that the French occupation had lasted!

When, on 25 July, we saw English and Portuguese prisoners arrive, we wanted to help them; the most delicate women ran to the hospital to lavish them with linen, food and care; the recompense for such fidelity has been the destruction of our town.

San Sebastian today

San Sebastian today

When the survivors came to survey what remained of their town, they found, as was reported, only thirty-six houses and two churches left standing. The houses had been spared because they were being used by British and Portuguese officers when they were attempting to force the surrender of the French holed up in the Chateau – the French capitulated on 8 September. A census of inhabitants showed that before the siege there were about 5,500 people in the town, the massacre had reduced this to 2,600!

San Sebastian had to be rebuilt from scratch. The beautiful city you see today is the result of that rebuilding.

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington

We often hear tell that Wellington was a great enforcer of order and military discipline and that he punished any pillaging in the most severe way. After San Sebastian, when his allied army was moving into France, he declared that he had not come to France to inflict pillage on the local people. Supposedly this was in reference to the pillaging and attacks of Spanish troops on the local French (Basque) population. He sent most, though not all, of the Spanish troops under his command back to Spain.

Wellington was not present at the fall and destruction of San Sebastian. The besieging army was under General Thomas Graham. But not only were no measures taken against the British and Portuguese troops who had run wild, but no mention was ever made of what happened in any official letters written by either Graham or Wellington. On 8 September, Graham wrote to Wellington: ‘My Lord, I have the satisfaction to report to your Lordship, that the castle of San Sebastian has surrendered.’ After giving more military details, he adds: ‘Thus, giving your Lordship another great result of the campaign, in the acquisition to the allied armies of this interesting point on the coast, and near the frontier.’ He also enclosed a copy of the terms of surrender agreed with the French.

Wellington sent the news to Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War, on 11 September: ‘The town of San Sebastian was taken by storm on the 31st August, and the garrison capitulated in the castle on the 8th.’ No mention of any ‘atrocities’. But on the same day Wellington wrote to the Spanish General Freyre: ‘Sir, I shall be very much obliged to you if you will send the civil engineer of Biscay…. in regard to the repairs of the place of San Sebastian.’ He also requested that the civil magistrates sent masons, carpenters and ‘common labourers’ to ‘perform the works necessary’. He was no doubt fully aware of what had happened to the town.

British War Memorial in Sean Sebastian

British War Memorial in San Sebastian

There is in San Sebastian a memorial to the British liberators of the town in 1813. It is located on the slopes of Monte Orgullo (Urgull) and was unveiled by the Spanish Queen on 28th September 1924. The two inscriptions read, in both Spanish and English: ‘England has confided to us her Glorious Dead, Our Gratitude will Watch Over Their Eternal Repose’, and, ‘In memory of the Gallant British Soldiers who gave their lives for the greatness of their own country and for the Independence of Spain’.

Knowing what happened after the British entered the town, reading these words is enough to make one weep.

The state this memorial has been allowed to fall into is deplorable and should no doubt be remedied. But perhaps it is small wonder if the people of San Sebastian do not want to remember their British and Portuguese ‘liberators’. Perhaps they still remember and wish to mourn the atrocity which was perpetrated on their town?

Sources and references:

Description of the atrocities committed by the Anglo-Portuguese troops in Saint Sebastian, 31 August 1813 and in the following days, exposed to the eyes of the Spanish nation by the municipality, chapter and inhabitants of the town,  Tolosa, 1813; Sir William Napier, History of the War in the Peninsula, Vol 3, 1835-40; Victoires, conquêtes, désastres, revers et guerres civiles des Français de 1792 a 1815. Par une société militaries et de lettres, Vol 28, Paris, 1813; Javier Sada, Historia de San Sebastian, 1995; The Dispatches of Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington, Vol 11, London, 1838; Lieutenant Mazars, Les divisions espagnoles de l’armée de Wellington, Revue des Pyrenees, Vol 25, Toulouse, 1913; J. W. Fortescue, History of the British Army, Vol 9, London, 1920.

As long as Civilization has existed the majority has always been deprived of its liberty and its voice. It has been literally and figuratively muzzled. You can look anywhere in the world and to any period in history and you will find that this is so. I recently discovered a very strange link between two such barbarities – between press-ganged English sailors and the ‘dirt-eating masks’ many African slaves were made to wear in America.  Both sets of people had their voice removed, and although the reasons seem quite distinct they are really just separate manifestations of a more central truth.

Whitby, Yorkshire – The setting for Gaskell’s Novel and a town much plagued by press-gangs

In 1863, the English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell published Sylvia’s Lovers, set in a fictional Whitby, Yorkshire (‘Monkshaven’), at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is both a typical nineteenth century tragic love story and a strident denunciation of the evils of British naval impressment. I explained in a recent short article that by 1793 seventy-five percent of the crews of British naval vessels consisted of prisoners of war, convicts and those forced into service. Sailors, their families, their friends and whole communities tried to evade the rapacious press-gangs whenever and wherever they could. When they couldn’t, they fought back. Sometimes hundreds of people would turn out, armed as they best could, to prevent their men being hauled away ‘like slaves or criminals’, first to rot in offshore ‘tenders’ lined with metal to stop them hacking away the wood to escape, and then to serve at His Majesty’s pleasure in ships of the Royal Navy – often never to return. Throughout the eighteenth century people also tried to escape the gangs by recourse to the law and the courts. Although they occasionally had some success, the law, the judges and the politicians, the ruling elite, were usually against them. The government wanted to fight its wars on distant fields and seas and if the common people didn’t show enough alacrity by volunteering in sufficient numbers to man the growing Royal Navy, then they would have to simply be ripped from their homes, from their taverns and from merchant vessels and forced to serve.

In Sylvia’s Lovers, the eponymous heroine’s father, Daniel, who had  been impressed some years previously during the ‘American War’ (or Revolution if you like), decided to resist the press-gangs when they returned again to the town to collect fodder for the war with France. There was a major riot and the people of the town chased the gangs away. But retribution soon followed and Daniel was hanged as an example. The story was based on true events in Whitby of 1793 and Daniel’s fate was based on the hanging of a certain William Atkinson:

William Atkinson, Hannah Hobson, John Harrison late of the parish of Whitby in the North Riding committed Feb. 26th, 1793, charged on subpoena of a Felony in having with divers other persons then unknown, on Sat. 23d of the same month about nine o’clock at night riotously assembled themselves together against the peace of our Lord the King, and with force and arms, unlawfully begun to pull down and demolish the dwelling House of John Cooper of Whitby aforesaid Shoe Maker… William Atkinson, hanged 13th April, 1793.             Calendar of Felons and Malefactors tried at the Assizes at York on the 18th day of March, 1793.

William Wilberforce – The anti-slavery campaigner

Only with Napoleon’s defeat did the movement for the abolition of impressment start to gain strength. Although by the time Gaskell wrote her book she could write in it, ‘Now all this tyranny (for I can use no other word) is marvellous to us; we cannot imagine how it is that a nation submitted to it for so long, even under any warlike enthusiasm, any panic of invasion, any amount of loyal subservience to the governing powers’, impressment was never actually legally abolished and came back in different guises throughout the, misnamed, nineteenth century ‘Pax Britannica’, finally to be replaced by explicit conscription during the First World War. One of the most vociferous advocates of impressment abolition was Thomas Urquhart. Released, he tells us, from any feeling of patriotic duty once the war against the French had been won, he started a long campaign of writing to the Admiralty, to politicians and to the’ great and the good’ to try to persuade them that impressment was a crime against every Englishman’s birth right of liberty and was comparable to slavery.

In 1816, in a public letter to William Wilberforce, the leading anti-slavery campaigner, Urquhart wrote:

I have been anxiously waiting for the present period, when the foes of our country are subdued, to address you on the subject of Slavery. The great and unwearied efforts you have made to suppress the traffic of human flesh will transmit your name with honor, as a man and Christian, to the most remote posterity. You have at last received the noblest reward in the success which has crowned your labours; and the treaty just concluded with France, consecrates your exertions, whilst it shews what a single individual, impelled by an honest zeal, is capable of performing. This perseverance and this success in behalf of the negro, encourages me to claim your powerful aid, in order to redress another grievance equally glaring and where the sufferers have a much stronger title than the African, to your sympathy. The sufferers are Britons; and what is more, to their courage and intrepidity the country is principally indebted for the prosperity and security she now enjoys.

I belong myself to this class of men, whose hardships have been so long and so unaccountably neglected ; and whilst you, Sir, and other philanthropists ranged the earth, in order to break the fetters of the slave, you disregarded with singular inconsistency, the ill treatment which the British seaman, the guardian of your independence, has been obliged to endure. In his cause no bolts of eloquence were shot, no commiseration was excited ; and whilst he encountered death in every form, and raised the fame of Britain to the highest elevation that can be reached, his ill treatment, though more galling than that of the negro, because he was born and bred up with the rights and feelings of a free man, remain unnoticed and unredressed.

Despite his rather objectionable comparison of the relative ‘title’ of the slaves and the seamen, Urquhart wasn’t against the abolition of slavery:

It is not my intention to defend the principle or the practice of slavery; I am only anxious that the persons who have displayed so much fervour, zeal, and perseverance in attacking both, would look at home, and try to correct the evils to which I have called your attention in the course of this letter. To the condition of the lower classes in this and every other country, hardships are attached, which demand as much sympathy as the case of the African.

Yet he does suggest that escaped slaves were happy to return to their owners, while impressed seamen never returned to the Royal Navy willingly:

I have known a concern in one of those islands (the West Indies)  which had from twenty to thirty negroes, most of whom were sailors, and who during the late war, were captured, some once, twice, and even thrice, and were conveyed to that land of liberty and equality, Guadeloupe, all of whom voluntarily returned to their owners as soon as they could get away, except one who could not be accounted for; but this you will perhaps say was a rare instance. Sir, I could produce various of the same kind, as well attested as any other fact, and which would shew that no small share of exaggeration has prevailed on the subject ; however, it substantiates the truth of my comparison, and I might go farther, and ask, if there be one instance on record, of mercantile seamen who had been impressed into the naval service, with the same opportunity to evade it, ever voluntarily returning to it again?

He then makes this (for us) perhaps rather strange observation:

In the print-shops in London, a negro is represented with an iron mouth-piece, and this exhibition has been made with a view to make the public suppose, that this mouth-piece is put on to prevent the slave from eating sugar or cane; yet the whole of the inference intended to be drawn from this subject is false.

(When I say this, I mean as to the cause ascribed for the use of it. That it may have been put upon a negro for a criminal act, as punishment, I can believe, although I never saw it done, or heard of its being done. In this country for the game act, you perhaps would have put a rope round his neck)

There is a distemper to which negroes are subject and at which time they are in the habit, unless forcibly prevented, of eating earth; at this time their mouth is covered until a cure can be effected. This is the secret of the terrific mouth-piece, which has been the topic of so much invective against West Indians.

Slave wearing a dirt-eater mask

He was referring to what are now called ‘Dirt-Eater Masks’. These were just one of numerous barbaric punishments and humiliations inflicted on African slaves in North America, in the West Indies and in South America.

But were these masks really ‘designed’ to prevent the slaves eating dirt? The answer seems to be ‘Yes… but’. I’ll first try to explain the ‘yes’ and later the more tricky question of ‘but’.

Dirt-eating’s Latin medical name is Geophagia: ’The deliberate consumption of earth, soil or clay.’ Surprising as it may seem, this practice goes back millennia in Europe and Africa. It still exists today. In fact it is a sub-category of Pica, ‘a term that comes from the Latin for magpie, a bird with indiscriminate eating habits’. The American Psychiatric Association defines Pica as, ‘persistent eating of non-nutritional substances that is inappropriate to developmental level (sic), occurs outside culturally sanctioned practice and, if observed during the course of another mental disorder, is sufficiently severe to warrant independent attention.’ Well that seems debatable, but I’ll leave it to one side.

In the fifth century BC in Greece, the ‘founder’ of medicine, Hippocrates of Kos, wrote:

If a pregnant woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things.

A Roman medical textbook tells us that ‘people whose colour is bad when they are not jaundiced are either sufferers from pains in the head or earth eaters’. The Roman Pliny writes that ‘Alica’, made of red clay, ‘used as a drug has a smoothing effect… as a remedy for ulcers in the humid part of body such as the mouth or anus. Used in an enema it arrests diarrhoea, and taken though the mount… it checks menstruation’. Actually the use of clay for such purposes is still prevalent today; you can buy it in any pharmacy!

Throughout the Classical period and into the Middle Ages and early modern period there are numerous references to earth or dirt eating and its various beneficial effects. Some of the references given at the end provide more detail as well as the examples I have quoted. One such, entitled Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, by two South African doctors, concludes as follows:

All the concepts of geophagia—as psychiatric disorder, culturally sanctioned practice or sequel to famine—fall short of a satisfying explanation. The causation is certainly multifactorial; and clearly the practice of earth-eating has existed since the first medical texts were written. The descriptions do not allow simple categorization as a psychiatric disease. Finally, geophagia is not confined to a particular cultural environment and is observed in the absence of hunger. Might it be an atavistic mode of behaviour, formerly invaluable when minerals and trace elements were scarce? Its re-emergence might then be triggered by events such as famine, cultural change or psychiatric disease.

In his survey of Holmes County in the 1970s, Dr. Dennis Frate of the University of Mississippi wrote:

Dirt-eating can be traced to ancient Greece, to Africa. It was a part of European culture and was observed in the American Indians. Practically every culture has had a dirt-eating phase,’ Frate said. ‘But very little is known about why people do it.

So there is ample evidence that African slaves brought the practice of earth eating with them to the colonies. In the United States there have been quite a few newspaper articles describing how the practice still persists, predominantly (though not exclusively) amongst Afro-Americans and in the southern states. Here’s just one from the New York Times in 1984, it quotes Dr. Frate again:

According to his research, Dr. Frate said it was not uncommon for slave owners to put masks over the mouths of slaves to keep them from eating dirt. The owners thought the practice was a cause of death and illness among slaves, when they were more likely dying from malnutrition.

It is difficult to say how prevalent dirt-eating is today. But in 1975, among 56 black women questioned by Dr. Frate as part of a larger study on nutrition in rural Holmes County, 32 of them said they ate dirt. The survey also showed that the ingestion of dirt tended to be more common in pregnancy.

There have been other explanations. Some have suggested that the masks were used by slave owners to prevent slaves eating earth to excess, trying to commit suicide, and although there isn’t much evidence for this it may well have happened. In Brazil, where the slaves were used to mine gold, it has also been suggested that the masks were to prevent them from eating earth containing nuggets of gold and later, no doubt, recovering the nuggets from their faeces.

Another mask

Whatever the reasons for the slaves eating ‘dirt’ – be they cultural, nutritional, medicinal, suicidal or financial – and scholarly opinion has yet to reach a consensus – the fact is that the slave owners wouldn’t allow it. Perhaps they were just trying to protect their ‘investment’ in their slaves, to stop them harming themselves, even killing themselves or (and only in Brazil) stealing gold? I don’t really know and the whole subject needs more attention. But here is the ‘but’. Slaves had already been deprived of their liberty, and often their lives, but they must also be deprived of their customs, their voice. Eating the earth, eating dirt, was just one of these.

Thus while there is still some mystery about the ‘role’ of dirt eating and the reasons for the masks, there can, perhaps, be no better graphic and literal illustration of the loss of slaves’ voices than the horrific pictures of them wearing these ‘dirt eating masks’.

English sailors didn’t go quietly, and neither did the Africans. They went kicking and screaming. But the sailors, once on board His Majesty’s Royal Navy ships, had lost their voice as well as their liberty. If they tried to escape (which they repeatedly did) they could be flogged, incarcerated or hanged, as could the African slaves.

These two examples of ‘historic’ barbarities might seem very different – and they are – but one truth connects them. Britain’s rulers – the rich and powerful – wanted to extend their wealth and were willing to fight in distant lands and on distant seas to do so. Of course, most of them didn’t want to fight themselves; they needed a constant and growing stream of common cannon-fodder to man the Royal Navy’s ships and to fight for them. When ordinary English people didn’t flock to the mast in sufficient numbers to crew the growing navy, the rulers did what they always have done, they forced them to.

Exactly the same happened with slavery in the colonies. Initially, European indentured bondsmen were used on the plantations. But more and more servile and cheap labour was needed if the planters were to enrich themselves further. So what was done? With the active encouragement and support of the British government/rulers, private entrepreneurial slave traders from Bristol and Liverpool (and from elsewhere in Europe) forcibly yanked Africans from their homes and transported them to America.

Both of these things were about power and money. The voices of the less powerful were repressed and their liberties stolen. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. Marie Antoinette may have suggested that the unwashed masses eat cake, but more often than not they had to eat dirt.

Some references:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia’s Lovers, 1863; Nicholas Rogers, The Press Gang, Continuum UK, 2007; Thomas Urquhart, A letter to William Wilberforce on the Subject of Impressment, 1816; Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate,  Geophagia in rural Mississippi: environmental and cultural contexts and nutritional implications, 2001. http://www.ajcn.org/content/32/10/2129.full.pdf , William Schmidt, Southern Practice of Eating Earth shows signs of Waning, New York Times, 1984; Alan Huffman, It’s hard to quite the habit, Mississippi dirt-eaters say, Clarion-Ledger, 1983; Alexander Woywodt and Akos Kiss, Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, 2002;  Geophagy,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geophagy.