A vision of the whole human race

Revolutionary ideas do not come from books and manifestos, but from experiences and connections with different peoples.

The Arab winter will see a ‘counter-revolution’, as new forms of repression are imposed [GALLO/GETTY]

On February 22, 1803, Colonel Edward Despard was hung and beheaded in London for organising a revolutionary conspiracy to overthrow King George III and establish a republic in Britain.

Among the crowd of 20,000 in front of the gallows was Colonel Despard’s wife and partner in conspiracy, Catherine, an African American who Despard met during his military service in the Caribbean. She helped him compose the speech he made with the rope around his neck:

“… his Majesty’s Ministers… avail themselves of a legal pretext to destroy a man, because he has been a friend to truth, to liberty and to justice. Because he has been a friend to the poor and the oppressed. But Citizens, I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate … that the principles of freedom, of humanity and of justice will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and [over] every principle inimical to the interests of the human race.”

What Despard meant by the “human race” was far in advance of the political theorists of his time. He included in this concept not only white males, but women and men of every colour and every status and class, native peoples, slaves and all the mixtures of white, brown and black that he had encountered during his service in the Americas.

How did the son of a family of small, Irish landlords, who became an accomplished professional soldier, develop such an expansive view of humanity?

As a boy in Ireland, he watched peasants driven off the land as English-backed landlords enclosed land that had been held in common. As a young officer building fortifications in Jamaica, he was nursed by Afro-Caribbean women. He learned to effectively command multi-racial work parties, and saw firsthand the terror used to enforce discipline among slaves, sailors, soldiers and workers.

Along with a young Horatio Nelson, Despard led a harrowing expedition to evict the Spanish from Nicaragua. They successfully captured the main Spanish fort but then their men began to die from starvation and disease.

Challenging societal norms

Survival was possible only by cooperating with nearby free communities of Mosquito Indians – composed in fact of native Americans, runaway slaves and lower class whites who preferred freedom to backbreaking labour. (Nelson, who became Britain’s greatest naval hero, would later unsuccessfully appeal for clemency for Despard and for a pension for Catherine.)

Despard then became the Crown’s leading official in British Honduras. There he sought to distribute land to indigent men and women of colour. He set aside lands for common use; sought to keep food prices down “for the poorer sort of people”; and worked with Indians who understood the local ecology.

The landlords and big merchants were outraged. One railed that Despard had placed the “lowest Mulatto or free Negro” on an equal footing with the wealthy whites.

People of different origins can find a common cause, and work together for change [GALLO/GETTY]

Not to be trifled with, the landlords and merchants appealed to their networks in London and had Despard removed. Despard and Catherine returned to London and started plotting their conspiracy which ended on the gallows.

What does the story of Edward and Catherine Despard offer us today, as we live through another moment of upheaval, revolution and counter-revolution?

One thing the Despards teach us is that new political ideas do not generally arise from intellectuals and theorists alone. Rather the cut and thrust of experience and practice throws up new political possibilities. ‘Practitioners’ like Despard draw on their stock of ideas to develop new and creative responses to the situations that confront them.

It is worth remembering that many of those we regard as great thinkers were also practitioners. Karl Marx was a revolutionary not an academic, and his comrade Friedrich Engels managed a factory. Karl von Clausewitz, the philosopher of war, was a Prussian officer with much experience of war. Socrates too was a veteran soldier; Freud a working psychologist; Keynes a civil servant. Gandhi was an activist.

Even Rene Descartes, the supreme rationalist philosopher, was a professional soldier who sought to ‘gather experiences’. His worry that he might be a brain in a vat, fooled by his senses, was perhaps an early modern case of PTSD.

Despard developed his expansive concept of the human race because he had lived and worked in the multi-racial world of the 18th century Atlantic, not because he had read Immanuel Kant. In any case, Kant’s cosmopolitanism was profoundly limited by comparison with Despard’s. Kant believed that “Humanity achieves its greatest perfection with the White race”.

In Haiti in 1801, revolting slaves managed to produce a constitution that went well beyond the liberal thought of the day. All slaves were freed and everyone made equal before the law. The US Constitution of 1787 regarded slaves as three-fifths of a person so that their white owners could have more representation in Congress.


And so, when we look upon the Arab Spring, we should not interpret it as a matter of Arabs having finally read John Locke and Thomas Jefferson and applied Western ideas. We should look instead for the new ideas, the new possibilities, the new politics created up by the protesters, activists and ordinary people who have made revolution.

We should be cognizant too that the Arab Winter will be a university of counter-revolution, as new forms of repression, of neo-imperialism and of exploitation are developed in response to novel circumstances.

The Despards have one last, difficult lesson to teach us. For over two centuries, liberal political theorists have been writing of human rights and democracy. Their well-intentioned acolytes have sought to spread the word around the world.

Yet today, despite globalisation and multiculturalism, it is difficult to imagine political activism, cooperation and resistance across lines of race, religion and region that match what the Despards achieved.

Think about it: A lordly Irish officer in the 18th century finds common cause, even love, with Indians, Africans and all manner of oppressed folk, and returns to the West as a revolutionary citizen of the world. Catherine, too, of slave origins and “violently in love” with her husband, crossed lines to help organise London’s sailors (white and black), longshoremen, and other workers in the failed plot to create a republic.

Here and there, in our time, Westerners, Christians and Muslims may find common cause – as in the Palestinian solidarity movement; or whites, blacks and mixed race people, as in the resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

But in a jingoistic age, when Westerners, Asians and Muslims are all convinced of their own superiority, a multi-racial, multi-regional, multi-cultural resistance movement on the model the Despards cooked up is almost unthinkable.

Despite our own delusions, we have regressed – not progressed – from the Despards’ vision of the whole human race.

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer in the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge.

Al Jazeera readers can find out more about the Despard conspiracy in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (London: Verso, 2000)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.