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Dynamite, Treason & Plot
Terrorism in Victorian & Edwardian London
By Simon Webb
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Simon Webb
All rights reserved.
The Roots of Modern Terrorism
The origin of terrorism, as it is currently practised throughout the modern world, is to be found in late nineteenth-century London. This is not say that terrorism started in London or that before 1890 there was no such thing as terrorism; rather that the very idea of terrorism before that time was formless and vague. It was in London during the 1870s and 1880s that the theoretical basis for terrorist activity was formulated and it came to be seen as a legitimate form of political action for those who had no other recourse in their struggle against a repressive or authoritarian state. Why should it have been in London that these theories first began circulating? The reason is simple. In many European countries, activists, agitators and subversives were constantly hounded by the police and imprisoned or driven into exile.
The British were generally happy for anybody to come to their country and, so long as they lived respectably and did not make a nuisance of themselves, they could say or write what they pleased. There were, at least until 1905, no restrictions at all on immigration in this country. Once they were here, there were no identity cards, demands for papers, harassment by secret police, arbitrary imprisonment or the threat of deportation. Under such conditions, foreign intellectuals, writers and left-wing thinkers found that they had the leisure to think and freedom to publish their thoughts whenever they felt like it, within certain limits. We shall see later what these limits were and what the consequences were for those who exceeded them.
So it was that London became the refuge for political thinkers, particularly those on the left, who needed peace and quiet in order to think through their ideas, draw up manifestos, write books and, in some cases, plan revolutions. Karl Marx naturally gravitated to London in 1849 and remained there until his death thirty-three years later. Lenin too found a safe haven in London, where he lived and worked for some time while publishing his revolutionary newspaper Iskra, the Spark. Stalin and Trotsky too spent time in London, plotting revolution. Other foreign-born radicals who settled in the capital are less well known. Johann Most, the German anarchist, and Prince Peter Kropotkin, a Russian, are among those whose names may not be immediately familiar to most people. Their writings and speeches in London, however, laid the foundations for every modern terrorist campaign from the IRA to Al-Qaeda.
Before we go any further, it might be a good idea to ask ourselves just what we mean by the word 'terrorism'. The British Government defines terrorism as 'the use or threat, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological course of action, of serious violence against any person or property'. This is sufficiently vague as to include everything from crowds of student demonstrators all the way up to the invasion of Iraq. The usually accepted view of terrorism is that it is limited to acts of violence carried out by a nongovernmental agency. In order to qualify as terrorism, such acts really need to be of such a nature as to cause, or be likely to cause, serious injury or death. In practice, this means the use of guns and explosives.
Now there have always been groups of people prepared to advance their cause by setting off explosions and shooting people. This practice certainly did not originate during Victoria's reign. There is a sharp difference, though, between the practice of terrorism before this time and its later use. The most chilling aspect of terrorist campaigns as they are currently conducted is that any one of us may become a victim. This creates a general fear or apprehension, which is, of course, precisely the aim of modern-day acts of terrorism. It is this, the essentially random nature of the injuries and deaths produced, which was unknown before the mid-nineteenth century.
What was called 'terrorism' throughout much of history has really consisted of targeted attacks on particular groups or individuals. These might be pogroms directed against Jews or Catholics, or perhaps the assassination of government leaders. In many cases, it was a matter of pride for those carrying out these attacks that nobody but the specific target of their attack should suffer any injury or harm. The perpetrators of such actions have been described as 'good terrorists'. This type of terrorist was epitomised by Ivan Kalyayev. A member of a revolutionary group in Russia during the rule of the tsars, Kalyayev decided to assassinate Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovitch, General-Governor of Moscow and uncle of the tsar. Kalyayev prepared a bomb and waited for the Grand Duke's carriage to pass. When it did, he saw to his horror that the duke's wife was also in the carriage, along with a group of young nephews. He refused to kill any innocent victims and so abandoned his plan. He later threw a bomb at the duke, killing him, when he was travelling alone.
Principled behaviour of alleged terrorists was very common in nineteenth-century Russia. These people, members of groups such as the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will), were almost fanatically careful not to harm any bystanders when carrying out assassinations. This tactic, the so-called 'blow at the centre', proved useless in the long run. There was no shortage of new men prepared to step into the shoes of some murdered police chief or city governor. The ordinary citizens remained apathetic, viewing the assassinations and executions almost as some species of private quarrel that didn't really concern them. It was this indifference of the general public that caused some political thinkers to decide that a more effective way of using bombs would be to aim them at the general population. This, if anything, would be guaranteed to shake them out of their complacency. These theoreticians were aided by scientific discoveries being made at that time in the field of chemistry.
In 1847 Ascanio Sobrero, an Italian, was studying chemistry at Turin University under the tutorship of a Professor Pelouze. Sobrero was experimenting with a mixture of sulphuric and nitric acid, which he had combined with glycerine. He was actually trying to devise new medicines when he made the mistake of heating this deadly mixture in a test tube. Fortunately, the test tube contained only a small quantity of the ingredients, because as soon as it was held over a flame, there was a loud crack and the test tube exploded. Sobrero was injured by fragments of glass, but he had really got off very lightly indeed. The oily liquid which he had produced was nitroglycerine.
Sobrero was shaken by the experience, but continued his work with this dangerous new compound. He fed some to a dog, which promptly died. While dissecting the unfortunate creature's body though, Ascanio Sobrero made a very important discovery. The blood vessels in the dog's heart were hugely dilated. It at once occurred to him that here could be a remedy for angina and other problems of the circulatory system. Today, nitroglycerine is still the most widely used treatment for circulatory problems involving the heart.
Sobrero realised at once that there was another and more dangerous side to this new drug. In larger quantities, it had the potential to be used as a weapon of war. The only explosive known at that time was gunpowder: a compound of charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre which had been in use for a thousand years or so. However, as a matter of fact, gunpowder is not really an explosive at all. It is simply a substance which will burn very fast indeed. It only explodes if it can be enclosed in a container such as a gun barrel or bomb casing.
If one fills a saucer with gunpowder and then touches it with a red hot needle there will be no explosion. The powder will flare up very quickly and if you are not careful, you might end up singeing your eyebrows. Try the same trick with a saucer of nitroglycerine and you will probably blow off your hand. It will explode at once, whether or not it is enclosed in a container. It is, in the jargon of the trade, a high explosive; in contrast to gunpowder, which is a low explosive.
The new explosive was in great demand, but it suffered from one quite literally fatal defect. It was so sensitive that it was liable to explode if banged, splashed, dropped or even shaken too hard. It also deteriorated over time into unstable compounds, which could explode spontaneously without any warning. A fortune awaited the man or woman who found a way to make the new compound stable enough for general commercial use. This fortune was duly made by Alfred Nobel from Sweden, who was, coincidentally, another former pupil of Professor Pelouze of Turin. Nobel found a way of absorbing nitroglycerine into a type of clay called Kieselguhr, so that it became safe to handle. In 1867 he patented this process and the resulting product became known by the trademark of 'dynamite'.
Nitroglycerine revolutionised warfare in the nineteenth century through a range of new explosives, but its potential for conventional armies was not the end of the story. Gunpowder was never really a convenient substance for producing bombs or grenades; it is simply not powerful enough. It is also very hard to manufacture to the right quality, unless you happen to be running a factory. A few sticks of dynamite, though, made the perfect bomb to throw. Even if one had no access to commercial explosives, it was possible, although hideously dangerous, to synthesise nitroglycerine at home out of the basic ingredients of sulphuric and nitric acid, added to glycerine in the right proportions. Dynamite became known as 'the poor man's artillery'. It was the perfect tool for what was becoming known as 'propaganda by the deed'.
The expression 'propaganda by the deed' originated with the anarchist movement that was active in the 1880s in both Europe and North America. The idea was simple. Instead of writing long, convoluted pamphlets and tracts that no ordinary person would read anyway, why not capture the attention of the public by acts of terrorism? Many people had become accustomed to the idea of a president or police chief being assassinated and so to seize their interest it was necessary to make these terrorist acts outrageous and a threat to ordinary people. Thus was born the classic strategy of urban terrorism that we see today. Every modern terrorist group follows the pattern first set out by anarchists living and writing in London around 1880.
In 1881 Johann Most, a Bavarian anarchist who had been imprisoned in his own country and subsequently sought asylum in Britain, published a booklet called The Philosophy of the Bomb. In it, he formulated the strategy which terrorists follow today. First, it is necessary to attract the attention of the public by acts of violence that are likely to affect them personally. It is no good simply killing some soldier or policeman. As we saw in Russia, after a while people lose interest in such activities. This type of action, propaganda by the deed, would awaken the population to political issues in a way that mere words could never do. Once violence of this sort became frequent enough, the next stage would be reached. The state would react with repression, aimed at the bombers and assassins but likely to affect the general public. This would have the effect of alienating ordinary people and making them hostile to towards the government and their agents, the army and police. This cycle, acts of terrorism by individuals and reprisals by the state, would escalate into a spiral of violence. Ordinary citizens would inevitably be drawn into this conflict. The endgame would see the masses angry and disillusioned with the forces of law and order and driven into the arms of the terrorists, whom they would have finally realised had the same aims and values as they did themselves. All this was very well in theory, but in practice it often did not work out according to plan. This was especially so in Britain, a country long noted for its tolerance towards minorities and dissidents.
The whole practical aim of all terrorism in the twenty-first century is firmly based upon the ideas expressed by Most, Kropotkin and Errico Malatesta, an Italian anarchist who was also living in London during the 1880s. It has, however, proved notoriously hard to provoke the state in this country into savage repression of the kind necessary to kick-start a revolution or popular uprising. This is because instead of relying upon all the paraphernalia of dictatorships – the identity cards, secret police, arrest and imprisonment without trial and suchlike – the British have always relied upon a far simpler method for combating extremism. It is, almost invariably, done not by the apparatus of the totalitarian state, but by the simple use of informers and double agents.
This has been the tradition in this country since long before the nineteenth century, but it was with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that the paid informer really came into his own. The problem is that there is often a very fine line dividing the informer from the agent provocateur; between the man or woman who just tells the authorities what is going on and the person who actively encourages and incites others to illegal activities. This is a line that has been regularly crossed in this country and never more so than during the attempt to deal with the European terrorists who found refuge here during the closing years of Queen Victoria's reign.
Just as the police today seem to be able to nip the majority of terrorist conspiracies in the bud, so too did their nineteenth century counterparts. Informers ran anarchist magazines, rose to important positions in the Irish Fenian movement and seemed to have a hand in most of the plots which were uncovered. In many cases, it looked suspiciously as though they were themselves the instigators of the plots that they revealed to their police handlers. The problem with using paid informers is, of course, that they need to keep coming up with dangerous conspiracies in order to justify their very existence. Some double agents of this sort rely upon the money which they make from their activities and so of course a thriving terrorist network is vital for their livelihood. No police force is going to bother recruiting and financing agents who are just keeping an eye on men who write books or give speeches. It is essential that threats to public order and safety are regularly discovered. This all too often results in the actual creation of such threats that otherwise would not have existed. This theme, that of the agent who actually precipitates terrorism where none would otherwise have occurred, is explored in detail in two books published only a few months apart in 1907 and 1908.
In the next chapter we shall look at how the threat from terrorism was reflected in popular literature around the turn of the century, but I wish to examine first The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad, and The Man who was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton. The central theme of both these works is the role of police agents in encouraging terrorist activity in Britain. As this is something of a leitmotif in police actions against terrorist groups in this country, right up to the present day, I think it is worth looking in detail at some of the ideas behind this way of combating the threat of terrorism.
The Secret Agent is loosely based upon an actual incident, when an anarchist attempting to plant a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory was killed when his bomb detonated prematurely. In the book, the double agent uses his brother-in-law as a dupe to carry the bomb to its intended target. The brother-in-law of the man actually killed in the attempted bombing of Greenwich Observatory was in real life a police agent who was also the editor of the anarchist magazine Commonweal. The suspicion was that he had actually persuaded his impressionable young brother-in-law to carry out the attack on Greenwich, exactly as Conrad describes in the fictionalised account given in The Secret Agent. This book is fascinating for the exposition that it gives of the role of the informer and how he could be manipulated by unscrupulous paymasters into working to their agenda.
Mr Vladimir, an official at the Russian embassy, explains to Verloc, the eponymous secret agent, why it is imperative that a bomb attack take place in London. Verloc is a member of an anarchist gang and Vladimir wishes him to stage what we would today call a 'spectacular' in order that Britain should be 'brought in line', as he calls it. At the time that the novel is set, the British habit of allowing anybody to come to their country and promulgate any political view was beginning to irritate other European countries. As Vladimir says: 'England lags. This country is absurd with its sentimental regard for individual liberty ... England must be brought into line. The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches.'
Excerpted from Dynamite, Treason & Plot by Simon Webb. Copyright © 2011 Simon Webb. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Roots of Modern Terrorism,
2 The Anarchist Terror,
3 The Clerkenwell Outrage,
4 The First Modern Terrorist Campaign,
5 Fighting Back: the Political Police in Britain,
6 The Tottenham Outrage,
7 The Houndsditch Murders and the Battle of Stepney,
8 Three Trials,
9 The India House,
10 The Terrorists of the Suffragette Movement,
Appendix 1 A Walk through Radical Clerkenwell,
Appendix 2 In the Footsteps of Peter the Painter,