From 1780s London to 2023 South Africa: Finding parallels in societal unrest and political reactions – Jeremy Gordin

Jeremy Gordin reflects on the story of Lord George Gordon and his conversion to Judaism, as well as the 1780 riots that were inextricably linked to his name. The article also considers the question of whether it is fair to draw analogies between the people of 1780s London and South Africa in 2023. Gordin compares the throwing of human faeces during times of unrest in 18th century London to the “faecal fulcrum” protest at the University of Cape Town in 2015. Ultimately, one is invited to join the dots and draw their own conclusions.


King Mob’s return

By Jeremy Gordin

1.

When I, aged 14, asked my father how come we, Jews hailing from Latvia, had an ostensibly Scottish name Gordin (obviously a variant of Gordon[i]), he handed me a book titled King Mob: the story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780 by Christopher Hibbert (1958).

If I read the book (my father said), I’d discover that in about 1787, 36-year-old Gordon – a ware Scotsman, Protestant grandee, and peer of the realm – converted to very orthodox Judaism. This conversion included being circumcised, wearing at all times a tallit katan [everyday prayer shawl undergarment], abiding by the laws of kashrut, sporting a long and unkempt beard and ‘typical’ Polish Jew’s hat, etc. – and that he did all this while imprisoned[ii].

For my father thought that it was likely that, due to Gordon’s famous or notorious conversion, many Russian Jews had chosen to take his name as a surname [iii].

A few things about Gordon, the riots, and Hibbert’s book. During London’s (ostensibly) anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780, a message was painted on the wall of the newly destroyed Newgate prison: it said that the prison inmates had been set free by the authority of “His Majesty, King Mob” [iv]

Another thing: although Gordon was eventually found not guilty of causing the mayhem and deaths, his name has been inextricably linked to the riots. And at the time of the riots and ever since, the view has been that Gordon was mad as a hatter, and it seems that many regarded his conversion (and maybe some still do) as an additional manifestation of mental disorder.

Read more: Right in front of the kids – Jeremy Gordin

Those writers and commentators who’ve commented on Gordon’s conversion have for the most part done so ‘sympathetically,’ as best as I can tell [v]. For example, one very famous author who did ‘comment’, albeit ‘obliquely,’ on Gordon was Charles Dickens. Gordon appears as himself in Dickens’ first attempt at historical fiction, Barnaby Rudge (1841) – generally considered to have been the great author’s first unsuccess, and therefore somewhat neglected by Dickensians[vi]

In (my reading of) Dickens’ rendition, Gordon clearly comes over as gentle and even well-meaning, but childishly self-aggrandizing, bizarrely out of touch with reality, and easily led by the nose by his fictional(NB) private secretary, tellingly named Gashford[vii]. But Gordon doesn’t come across as ‘insane’ (whatever that means). We should also note that the book’s main protagonist Barnaby is someone whom we’d today describe as having obvious ‘developmental disabilities’.

At any rate – leaving aside the quip that anyone who’d voluntarily convert to Judaism, especially in the 1780s (or even now!), must surely have a screw loose – one does wonder (or I do) whether Gordon was indeed mentally disordered.

Anyway, to get on with the business at hand, I have in the last few days re-read King Mob, and I’ve been wondering whether it’s fair to draw analogies between the people (the rioters and the ‘local’ and ‘national’ governments) of 1780s London and 2023 South Africa? To be more precise, I’m talking about roughly analogous situations and events and the reactions to those.

Is it okay to find correspondences or partial similarities between then and now? Not only do some 240 years separate us, but we are dealing with different ‘peoples’ in different places and situations, with different backgrounds and systems of political governance, and with different internal and external ‘national problems’.

Well, let’s consider an example. We rapidly learn from the Hibbert book that throwing human faeces at people was quite popular in 18th century London during times of unrest or irritation. It’s not long therefore before one recalls what David Benatar has termed the “faecal fulcrum” at the University of Cape Town. In March 2015 CE, one Chumani Maxwele threw human faeces at a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, “triggering the Rhodes Must Fall and associated ‘decolonization’ protests,” which “had ripple effects at Oxford, Harvard and other universities abroad”[viii]. And so on.

So, in answer to my questions above, and notwithstanding that I’m not a professional (or even an amateur) historian, I’m going to soldier on for the moment with Adam Small’s semi-kumbayaobservation that “mense is mense” everywhere, even during different eras; and see what observations can be gleaned from comparing the Gordon Riots to present-day RSA; and I’ll try not to fling too much dung around.

I also need readers to think of this article as an ‘interactive’ exercise; you’re going to have to join some of the dots yourselves.

Read more: The Godfather Trilogy’s lessons for South Africa: patronage, power, and politics

2.

Some background about the 1780 Gordon Riots, the most destructive in the history of London[ix]. The stated intention of the proposed Papists Act of 1778 was to mitigate official discrimination against Roman Catholics in Great Britain; in fact, however, although there was de jure discrimination, de factothere wasn’t much, and even leading Catholics felt it was better to let sleeping dogs lie. 

The ‘real’ reason for passing the bill, however, was that British military forces at the time needed cannon fodder (the vershtunkende ‘military-industrial complex’). The Brits were involved in fighting what had become a ‘global’ American War of Independence and were fighting the French and Spanish too. The new Act would absolve Catholics from taking a religious oath when joining the armed forces – so that (the idea was) all those Catholics in Ireland and particularly in the Scottish Highlands could be recruited.

Let’s stop right there. What government do you know of that passes, or tries to pass, legislation allegedly aimed at sorting out X when in fact it’s aimed at achieving Y? (Readers can answer below in the comments section.)

However, the Protestant Association of London got its knickers in a twist and asked Lord George Gordon, who became its president in 1779, to find a way to repeal the Act. Gordon did play a role; he warned about the horrors of Papism’ and claimed that Catholics in the military would, given a chance, join forces with their co-religionists on the continent and attack Britain.

Know any groups of people or individuals who wail ‘racism’ at any given opportunity, getting everyone else riled up?

Early in 1780 Gordon met King George III a few times but failed to convince the king of the dangers of the Act. George III initially humoured Gordon – they came from the same milieu, so to speak ­– but the king soon grew irritated with Gordon’s humourless verbosity (Carl Niehaus? Mzwanele Jimmy Manyi?) and eventually refused any future audiences.

Then on 29 May 1780, Gordon called a meeting of the Protestant Association, and its members and others marched on the House of Commons to deliver a petition demanding the repeal of the Act. This was followed on 2 June by another march, consisting of a crowd estimated at 40,000 to 60,000 strong. Many carried banners proclaiming, “No Popery”, and wore blue cockades, the symbol of their movement (like tee-shirts). 

As the crowd marched, its numbers swelled. The crowd attempted to force its way into the House of Commons, but without success. Gordon, petition in hand, and wearing in his hat a blue cockade, entered the Commons (he was an MP) and presented the petition. Outside, the situation got out of hand and a riot erupted. Members of the House of Lords were attacked as they arrived, and a number of carriages were vandalised and destroyed.

We haven’t yet had anything of quite this nature in Seffrica yet some of us do remember October 2015 when students clashed with police at parliament (before it was burnt down) and were treated more ‘unkindly’ than the petitioners in 1780. 

I must also interpolate at this point that – as was pointed out afterwards –many of those marching with Gordon didn’t much care about the Act or Catholics per se. There were hundreds in London who had political and above all ‘economic’ grievances ­– the loss of trade during the war (with the US and others) had led to falling wages, rising prices, and periodic unemployment. Sound familiar? 

Also on 2 June, part of the ‘problem’ was that the bizarrely droll prime minister, Lord North, had forgotten to issue an order mobilizing the very small number of constables in the area. (I’ll be getting back to this issue.) 

Any other head of state you know who seems so disinterested in things? By the way, the petition against the Act presented by Gordon was dismissed by a vote of 192 to 6. (Votes of no confidence against Jacob Zuma, now everyone’s whipping boy?[x])

Then in the ensuing days the proverbial hit the fan with a vengeance. That same night, a number of Catholic chapels, homes of rich Catholics and embassies were attacked ­– as we might do too, exercising our democratic rights, in the case of the Israeli embassy; and if things go against Putin in Ukraine, we’d probably have a shot at the American one too. 

On 3 June, in Moorfields, one of the poorest parts of the city, in which mainly Irish people lived, a crowd went on the rampage, burning houses and dwellings. Newgate Prison was attacked and largely destroyed, as was The Clink. These attacks allowed large numbers of prisoners to escape, many of whom were never recaptured. Severe destruction was inflicted on Catholic churches and homes, as well as on New Prison, Fleet Prison, and the house of the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray. 

On 7 June, called “Black Wednesday” by Horace Walpole, the riot reached its climax. An attempt to breach the Bank of England was narrowly averted when a combination of the London Military Association and regular troops (to whom we’ll also get back) managed to repulse rioters.

But none of this description adequately captures the horror that was London during the days of 2-9 June. The original ‘protesters’ seemed to have disappeared and the streets and activities were being run by the freed criminals and anyone else who thought they might be able to cash in. 

Violence, widespread drunkenness, and rape were the order of the day. Houses and everything in them were turned into bonfires. Then the army was finally called out, and opened fire on any groups of more than four people who would not willingly disperse. 

In the end, between 300-700 people died (Hibbert claims 850). About 30 were later tried and executed, but they were not ‘ring leaders’. 

How many died here during our Zuma Riots, the KZN unrest of 2021? Officially, 354. But then most of ‘our’ fatalities seemed to have been ‘internecine’ – not caused by SAPS or the army who were not seen anywhere for a long time.

Which reminds me. One of the fascinating things about the Gordon Riots was that almost no one in authority wanted to invoke the Riot Act – this was considered too ‘dictatorial’, too ‘martial’ – so continually during the Gordon Riots, soldiers turned up at trouble spots. But they were not allowed to open fire unless a person of authority (an alderman or magistrate, say) gave permission. And no one would give permission (until after a week); so soldiers would not intervene even if a house was being set on fire under their noses.

Remarkable too, as far as I’m concerned, is that people obeyed orders to the hilt, even the country bumpkins who comprised most of the redcoats. Think of the police at Marikana. Would they have controlled themselves if told to do so?

But, as you might expect, not everyone had the people or property at the forefront of their minds. The Lord Mayor, Brackley Kennett, an apparently loathsome individual, was afterwards convicted of criminal negligence for not reading out the Riot Act at, for example, Moorfields (he cared nothing for the poor Irish), and he was fined. That feels more like home, doesn’t it?

Read more: South Africa’s crime epidemic: A nation in crisis

3. 

So what has one learned from all this? At least two things, I think.

First, that Seffrica is by no means as squeaky clean and beneficent a place as some among us (who stand up in parliament) would claim.

And, second, we see how easily and quickly King Mob can rule a city or a country, and that while the Brits lived through it 200 years ago and apparently learnt some lessons, we’re just starting to get acquainted with this scurvy king.

This article first appeared on Politicsweb, where Jeremy Gordin’s column appears every week. Click here to sign up for Politicsweb’s free daily headline newsletter. 


Endnotes

[i] Hebrew does not have written vowels (e.g., “o” or “i”); vowel sounds are indicated by nikudot (vowel points) under or above letters. So, to those writing in Hebrew ‘Gordon’ and ‘Gordin’ were pretty much the same. In any case, so-called surnames were considered by my forebears to be annoying goyishefripperies, mainly used by governments for taxation or conscription purposes. 

[ii] Although Gordon never went to jail for the Gordon riots, he was later convicted of defaming inter alios Marie Antoinette (it’s true!) and the administration of justice in England; and aged 41, died of typhoid fever while in prison.

[iii] It seems much more likely, by the way, that those Russian Jews who adopted Gordin did so in honour of Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries (1635-99), a mercenary who became a Russian general and rear admiral as well as principal advisor to and close friend of Tsar Peter the Great. (Gordon allegedly disliked the Russian armed forces, complaining of the corruption and venality of officials, which left him, in his own words, “almost at wits end with vexation”. The more things change, the more …) 

Also just as likely to have played a role in the adoption of ‘Gordon’ as a name among Russian Jews is that the region and then city of ‘Grodno’ was one of the most important centres in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and many Jews lived there. Additionally, the Russian term for an ‘urban dweller’ (if I have this right, my Russian’s a bit rusty) is gorodskoy zhitel.

[iv] The term “King Mob” afterwards came to denote, at least for us capitalists, an unruly and fearsome ‘proletariat’.

[v] One of the problems I’ve faced in writing this article within the time I set for myself is that the available bibliographical material about Gordon seems scant in general, and though I do have a reasonably good Judaica ‘library’ in my Parkview redoubt there are some books I’d have liked to have read but haven’t been able to get my hands and eyes on. I also have the impression, though I speak under correction, that Gordon qua topic might have been avoided, especially by Jewish writers, both because of his ‘role’ in the Gordon riots and because he’s been thought of by most as mad.

[vi] A fast perusal of the biographical and critical material suggests – at least to this non-scholar – that when Dickens, still in his early 20s, was writing Barnaby Rudge ­– and even though he was probably one of the most over-energetic multi-taskers who ever lived – he was feeling off-balance due to a number of personal hassles (fighting with his publisher, discovering that his father was apparently forging his name to clear certain debts, having a pretty serious operation sans anesthetic, and so on). It also seems that Dickens seriously over-egged the pudding, resulting in Barnaby turning into what Henry James would have called a “large, loose, baggy monster” of a book.

Dickens could have got away with this, of course, but the subject matter was not the ‘heart-warming’ stuff his then audience counted on and wanted.

Having said which, however, it’s ‘instructive’ that George Orwell clearly read Barnaby carefully for his famous essay (“Charles Dickens,” 1940), as did Edmund Wilson for his also famous, ‘break-through’ essay on Dickens (“The Two Scrooges,” 1941), that Michael Slater (Charles Dickens, Yale University Press, 2009) doesn’t ignore the book, though he doesn’t comment on it per se, and that Peter Ackroyd is a keen Barnaby fan (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/oct/08/classics.peterackroyd).

[vii] Dickens’ ‘names’ are always an obvious clue to what he’s thinking and feeling about people and things.

[viii] Cf. The Fall of the University of Cape Town: Africa’s leading university in decline by David Benatar, Politicsweb Publishing, 2021, p 15ff.

[ix] In the first few paragraphs here I’m using Wikipedia as a handy framework (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Riots), backed up by King Mob and other material.

[x] If you’ll pardon the phrase.

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