Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Jersey's Independent Media 1856-1862 - Part 1

Balliene's History of Jersey tells us that:

1848 was a year of Revolutions, most of them unsuccessful, and Jersey became a haven of refuge for Republicans and Socialists of many nations. The first to arrive were the Poles. Then came Russians, Hungarians, Italians; then Frenchmen flying from the wrath of Louis Napoleon. In 1852 Victor Hugo arrived, poet, dramatist, novelist. He had stormed against Napoleon in the Assembly, and raised barricades against him in the streets, and had fled to Brussels with a price on his head. When Belgium expelled him, he came to join his fellow Proscrits in Jersey.

The French section of the refugees published a weekly paper, L'Homme, and in 1855 this got them into trouble. England and France were now Allies in the Crimean War, and Victoria paid a visit to Napoleon III in Paris. To the Proscrits Napoleon was a rattlesnake with whom no decent person could associate. Three French Socialists in London published An Open Letter to the Queen: `You have sacrificed your dignity as a Queen, your fastidiousness as a woman, your pride as an aristocrat, even your honour' ; and L'Homme reprinted this. Next day posters covered the walls: `Have you seen L'Homme? It says your Queen has lost her honour. Will you allow the first lady of the land to be insulted with impunity?' The Queen's Assembly Rooms, the largest building in the Town (now swallowed by the Ann Street Brewery) was crowded for an Indignation Meeting. The offending newspaper was burnt on the platform. Next day the Governor expelled the three Editors from the island. Hugo had disapproved of the letter; but he with thirty-five other Proscrits signed a protest against the banishment of their colleagues. The result was that they too were ordered to leave Jersey. Hugo and his family went to Guernsey, where they remained fourteen years. (1)

Meanwhile, events were taking place in England which would bring the Chartist George Julian Harney over to Jersey, where he would remain and create an independent media viewpoint, outside the regular Jersey establishment, and at odds with other newspapers in the Island such as the ultra-conservative Constitutional. He would arrive just as Hugo was leaving, and from 1856 to 1862 would be editor of the Jersey Independent. He does not feature in Balleine's History, even as a footnote, but his story is told here.

George Julian Harney, the son of a seaman, was born in Depford on 17th February, 1817. When Harney was eleven he entered the Boy's Naval School at Greenwich. However, instead of pursuing a career in the navy he became a shop-boy for Henry Hetherington, the editor of the Poor Man's Guardian. Harney was imprisoned three time for selling this unstamped newspaper.

This experience radicalized Harney and although he was initially a member of the London Working Man's Association he became impatient with the organisation's failure to make much progress in the efforts to obtain universal suffrage. Harney was influenced by the more militant ideas of William Benbow, James Bronterre O'Brien and Feargus O'Connor. (2)

Harney was at work in England, but had reached something of a dead end with his attempts to further the cause of universal suffrage. The public letter written by Felix Pyat in London began a chain of events which would lead to Harney coming to Jersey and Hugo being expelled. Pyat's letter went almost unnoticed in England, but in Jersey, its republication led to the action taken as described by Balleine.

A.R. Schoyen's book on Harney, however, suggests that the action taken against the French radicals in Jersey was not a sudden event, but a chance taken by an establishment which was actively seeking ways to discredit and get rid of the exiles:

The suspicious promptitude with which placards had appeared in St. Helier with an English translation of the letter which made the most of what was, in any case, not overly delicate in the original; the deliberate incitement of mob-action by a secret group including a French official in St. Helier and the omnipresent Sergeant Sanders, the Metropolitan Police refugee expert; and communications between the French and English governments on the one hand and instructions from the Home Office to the Lieutenant Governor in Jersey on the other: all this makes it sufficiently clear that L'Homme's publication of the letter was seized upon as a pretext by the government to expel the refugees.

This was also seen in England, where Louis Napoleon was putting pressure for action to be taken against the exiles, and the cabinet was effectively blocked from moving to reintroduce an Alien Act which would restrict the rights of political refugees to asylum:

Under the pressure of Louis Napoleon's increasingly angry demands for action against the French émigrés, it would seem that the government entertained the idea of reenacting an Alien Act. Considering their ignorance of the government's dispatches, the Radicals' diagnosis of the real motives  behind the expulsion was remarkably accurate; and even the pro-government  Times immediately assumed that French pressure was responsible for the action. The result was a great outcry in England from Liberals and  working-class Radicals against the violation of the traditional right of sanctuary for political refugees and the threat of an Alien Act, the effect of which was to effectually block any steps by the cabinet.

It was as Hugo set sail that Harney arrived to discover that the locals were beginning to doubt the wisdom of the action taken, and began to see how they had been manipulated into supporting a course of action directed at a distance with the approval of the United Kingdom Government:

Meanwhile, as the envoy of the Newcastle Foreign Affairs Committee, Harney had arrived in St. Helier in time to see Hugo and his compatriots sail in a driving rain for what they considered but a temporary refuge in Guernsey and London. He found that sober second-thoughts had begun to afflict the local inhabitants, many of whom had shown little enthusiasm for the demonstrations against the "Red Republicans" from the first. ("An officer offered a sovereign to a workman to be the first to throw a stone; the workman refused," one observer reported of the "attack" on L'Homme's office which preceded the expulsion.)

It is interesting to see how the Constable of St Helier took the side of the Lieutenant Governor and needed to speak out to defend the actions which had been taken:

Loyalty to the Queen may have been a dominant Jersey characteristic, but jealousy of any encroachments on the island's legislative body, the "States", was even stronger; and uneasiness about the arbitrariness of the action taken by the Lieutenant Governor -- an appointive official whose position was evidently regarded in England as a sinecure for deserving brigadiers and in Jersey as having only nominal powers -- soon took overt form. Defending the Governor's and his own action, the Constable of St. Helier made heavy weather of it in the States. "We all know they [the refugees] insulted us. Have they not carried their red flag in our streets?" he asked with considerable irrelevance, adding, in a pungent comment on Jersey justice, "Had we brought the offenders before the court, it would only have been acting a comedy, which would never have an end."

Guernsey, in the meantime, had welcomed Victor Hugo and his fellow exiles with open arms, demonstrating both their own independence from manipulation, and seizing the opportunity for the publicity associated with the famous writer. Harney was to travel to Guernsey to pledge support from the English working class, and this was widely reported in press:

If it had been Harney's intention to rally support in Jersey for the exiles, his work was already being done for him in the typically devious local manner. A few weeks after his arrival he journeyed to Guernsey and, in a ceremony widely reported in the English liberal and ultra-radical press, presented an address to Hugo from the Foreign Affairs Committee pledging the support of the Tyneside working class. Hugo's thanks to "notre courageuse co-religionnaire" were undoubtedly heartfelt: Harney epitomized one section of a popular support which had forcefully indicated that English sanctuary for refugees was a matter that deeply concerned them. The whole affair was no more than a minor incident, perhaps; nonetheless it was an admirable display of liberal idealism in a Europe over which the forces of reaction had been uniformly victorious. So far as Harney's future was concerned, his part in the display had the paradoxical effect of taking him another step from English politics.

Harney now decided to make his home in Jersey, and recover his health. At that time, he had no notion of becoming involved in Jersey politics, even though his paper, the Northern Star, had printed letters from Jersey, but he had little knowledge of Island life, and the Island seemed to be still acting against the radical refugees.

He was now thirty-eight, ill, tired, and once more adrift. Jersey must have seemed to him a soothing refuge, green and fertile and ruled by laws and customs which teetered always on the thin edge of satire. One aftermath of the Hugo expulsion illustrates the tendency for the serious to lapse into the farcical on the island. As the Chevalier de Châtelaine indignantly informed the public, " Evangeline", the "saint-like daughter of Longfellow's muse", had shared the fate of the expelled refugees. The Nouvelle Chronique, which had been printing his translation of the poem into French, had suppressed the lines: "After your houses are built, and your fields are yellow with harvests,/No King George of England shall drive you away from your homesteads." This editorial ruthlessness could only mean one thing, wrote the Chevalier: "The journal thought fit to suppress so incendiary a passage, no doubt by command from headquarters."

In the next section, I shall look at how Harney took over as editor of the Independent, and how his own views changed over time, yet always retaining a degree of the radical edge with which he had arrived in the Island.

(1) A History of the Island of Jersey, G.R. Balleine, 1950
(3) The Chartist Challenge: A Portrait of George Julian Harney. A. R. Schoyen, 1958


Anonymous said...

Educational, thanks!
So now, when the Guerns brag about Victor Hugo we can turn around and say "yes but only because we threw him out!"

TonyTheProf said...

That's true, but they can turn around and say - you must have been idiots to let the British government run your policy and get rid of him - and Hugo wrote Toilers of the Sea - and set it in Guernsey!