Despatch from London | International

In memory of a 200-year-old massacre

A Manchester campaign is urging the British government to teach children about the Peterloo Massacre, where soldiers attacked a march at St. Peter’s Field in 1819 and killed up to 18 people.

On August 16, 1819, tens of thousands of people gathered at St. Peter’s Field in the northern English city of Manchester to demand parliamentary reform, and the extension of the vote to working men. “Despite the seriousness of the cause, there was a party atmosphere as groups of men, women and children, dressed in their best Sunday clothes, marched towards Manchester. The procession was accompanied by bands playing music and people dancing alongside,” noted Ruth Mather in a piece for the British Library on the incident, which is now tragically remembered for the events that followed.

Plans to arrest Henry Hunt, one of the main campaigners, and other speakers, were resisted by the crowd, and people were attacked by soldiers, who “slashed at both men and women” with sharpened sabres. The first to die was a baby “trampled under horses hooves”, noted the public body, Historic England, in a piece on the tragedy. The article noted that the violence happened despite the crowd being determined to show its peaceful intentions by banning “anything that could be construed as a weapon and people [leaving] their walking sticks behind in pubs along the way to the rally”. Between 15 and 18 people died, with hundreds reported injured, and the event was dubbed the “Peterloo Massacre”, in a satirical reference to the battle of Waterloo that had taken place just years before.

The event was seen as a landmark moment in British history. The killing outraged many in the country, bolstering the already well-developed campaign to extend the vote (around 2% of the population had the right to vote at the time, according to the Peterloo Memorial Campaign, which is pushing for a “respectful, informative, and permanent” memorial to the event). The literary impact was profound too, providing the background to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem The Mask of Anarchy (“Rise, like lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number,” begins its final verse). The moment was vividly captured through paintings and cartoons that summed up public anger. The atrocity also led to the setting up of the newspaper The Manchester Guardian, which eventually became The Guardian.

Annual commemoration events take place and a plaque stands on the site, but does the event have the recognition it needs? This question has been asked as a new film directed by left-wing director Mike Leigh is due to come out later this year, ahead of the 200th anniversary of the massacre in 2019.

Historical amnesia

Britain has for some time now faced questions over its approach to less salubrious events in its history, both at home and abroad. Shashi Tharoor accused Britain of having “historical amnesia” over atrocities committed by it. However, Mr. Leigh, the director, and senior members of the Labour Party, have joined calls from a Manchester campaign to include the event in school history curricula.

“Many died and hundreds were injured attending a peaceful protest as a result of state violence. But it’s all too often left out of our national story,” said Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. “The 1819 Peterloo Massacre was a seismic moment in political and social reform in this country and should be taught to all our children,” tweeted Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson.

Change is certainly in the air — plans for the first public memorial were announced earlier this week. Whether it prompts a re-evaluation of the way the subject is approached in the education system — as well as wider questions about atrocities — remains to be seen.

Vidya Ram works for The Hindu and is based in London.

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 3:34:49 PM |

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