Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below
An international & interdisciplinary conference
Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Event Dates: June 24-26th 2010
Isaac Land (Indiana State University)
Patriotic Performances: Naval Veterans on (and off) the Street in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain
My paper discusses autobiographical texts by Royal Navy veterans (such as John Nicol’s Life and Adventures, first published in Edinburgh in 1824) as well as the performances of vagrants and mendicants who also presented themselves as sailors in distress in the years following the abrupt demobilization of 1815.
The existence of starving or otherwise desperate veterans was, itself, a sign that the government had not delivered on its promises. The Navy liked to boast about how well “superannuated” (elderly) or disabled sailors were cared for in the palatial surroundings of Greenwich Hospital. In fact, gaining admittance to Greenwich Hospital was not easy. John Nicol found himself walking the streets of London from one government building to another, at each turn informed that he lacked the proper paperwork or was inquiring at the wrong office. Instead of being ushered into a “safe berth,” this veteran of both the American and French wars ran out of money and was forced to return to Scotland, where he wrote his autobiography.
Nicol’s success in finding a publisher was relatively rare. However, many beggars identified themselves as sailors in this same period, and their improvised placards, songs, and oral narratives also deserve our attention. Some used props to make their point, such as Joseph Johnson, the peg-legged African-American ballad singer with a model ship on his head. I discussed Johnson in my article “Bread and Arsenic,” but in this paper I explore other performance strategies, notably that of Charles McGee, a Jamaican who laid claim to one particular spot in Ludgate Circus, within sight of St. Paul’s Cathedral. As a street sweeper, McGee found a way to make a living while demonstrating his extraordinary stamina, becoming a fixture of this busy intersection at the heart of the capital over a period of decades.
While all of these individuals articulated a claim on the public’s attention and affections, their performance of indigence also presented a very public reproach to the British government. Through their performances, these sailors also positioned themselves among the early historians of the Napoleonic Wars, fighting to communicate a common seaman’s view of the wars, their consequences, and their human impact.
Isaac Land, Indiana State University email
Isaac Land is an Assistant Professor of History at Indiana State University. He has written War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) as well as a number of articles and book chapters placing sailors in a larger social and cultural context. He edited Enemies of Humanity: The Nineteenth-Century War on Terrorism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and a special issue of the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, ‘New Approaches to the Founding of Sierra Leone’.