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The 1819 Manchester Massacre And Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Masque Of Anarchy

1484 words - 6 pages

The 1819 Manchester Massacre and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy

Sometimes a person is beyond all reach of society. Percy Bysshe Shelley was in Italy on August 16, 1819, during an event which shook his native England. The next month, word reached Italy, and upon receiving word of the protest gone awry, he immediately started work on a poem, and finished it before the end of the month (White 105). It became “The Masque of Anarchy.” Written in light of the 1819 Manchester Massacre, it demonstrates Shelley’s political stance, in that he detested the British government yet was terrified of the chaos and violence of a revolution.

       The Manchester Massacre, also called the Peterloo Massacre due to the name of the specific location--St. Peter’s Field--as well as its temporal proximity to the battle of Waterloo, took place on the field in the city, and featured such noted speakers of the day as Richard Carlile, John Cartwright, and Henry Hunt, all known for their contrarian views of the government (Bloy). The people there had gathered--fifty to sixty thousand outside of the city of only two hundred thousand, a fourth of the normal population--to protest, among other things, misrepresentation in Parliament (Manchester and other new industrial cities didn’t have any parliamentary representation, but much, much smaller townships did). However, such a large gathering, peaceful or not, would and did arouse the suspicions of the government, especially a bloated and corrupt government like England’s in the early nineteenth century. The English government, fearful of a violent uprising, took the first strike and sent more than sixteen hundred troops: cavalry, infantry, artillery, and even dispatched the local yeomanry and constables to keep watch on the situation (“Peterloo”). When magistrates decided that the gathering “could be the forerunner of revolution,” they announced the arrest of the speakers, but because the deputy constable in charge of the apprehension decided that involving the military in dispersing the crowd was the only way to get to the speakers (Bloy). A dispersal of so many people by armed troops is intimidating, especially given the shape of the city: St. Peter’s Field was in the center of the city, and troops filled the streets all around it, so when the troops attempted to disperse the protesters, they had no where to go and general chaos ensued (“Map”). The yeomanry in particular attacked the populace, and the military was forced not only to disperse the population, but also to hold back the “ill-trained” yeomanry (Bloy). Unfortunately, by the end of the day, not only were Hunt and the others arrested on trumped-up charges (they were accused of being “wicked” and conspiring to create an armed disturbance), but eleven men and women were dead and four hundred or so were injured (Bloy). All investigations of the events were prohibited, mainly to prevent a biased view; this, of course, was impossible for the fifty-or-so...

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