(continued from page 20 of Amandala dated Friday, February 19th, 2021)
The Despards intended their visit to London to be brief, but attempting to right the wrongs of the Bay colony was to consume the rest of their life together. Despard’s case was viewed with little sympathy by the Home Office committed to supporting the wealthy planters in the colonies and little interested in refereeing disputes over local justice. He was not offered a new commission, and he was pursued by writs from the Baymen’s trading partners which, though eventually dismissed by the courts, bankrupted him and sent him to debtors’ prison for two years. During this period, he read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, which gave eloquent voice to his own conviction that popular electoral mandates should be the basis of government.
When he left prison he committed himself to the campaign for political reform. He joined the London Corresponding Society, an association recently established by and largely composed of artisans and working men, among whom he was a conspicuous gentlemen member. His Anglo-Irish origins gave him a particular interest in the cause of Irish independence, and he also joined the United Irishmen, an organization with similar aims established in Dublin in 1791 by the Protestant lawyer Wolfe Tone.
With Britain at war with revolutionary France, these campaigns for political reform were a cause of acute anxiety to the government, and new laws were passed to make it easier to prosecute political dissidents for sedition and treason. Despard was placed under surveillance by espionage rings coordinated by the Home Office and the Bow Street magistrates. Their testimony is unreliable on many points, but they claim that during this period he associated with known revolutionaries and terrorists and was involved in plots with the Irish rebel militias, and perhaps with the French enemy. According to these reports, the Despards moved lodgings every few months: Soho, St. George’s Fields, Berkeley Square. They also suggest that Catherine was worried about the political risks her husband was taking and he began to use a safe house in Camden Town for meetings without her knowledge.
The government swooped on the London Corresponding Society and the United Irish in 1798 after a group of suspects was arrested at Margate, one of whom was found to be a carrying plans for an Irish republican uprising to the French directory. Despard was arrested at lodgings in Meard Street, Soho, where the Times reported that he had been found in bed with “a black woman”. Along with around thirty others, he was held in Coldbath Fields, a recently constructed high security prison in Clerkenwell.
When the Great Rebellion broke in Ireland a few months later, the government suspended the right of habeas corpus, and Despard and his fellow suspects found themselves confined indefinitely without trial.
Catherine began a campaign to agitate for Despard’s release. She enlisted the help of the independent MP Sir Francis Burdett, who raised the question of the Coldbath Fields detainees in the House of Commons. A letter by Catherine was read in the course of the debate, in which she reported that her husband was being held “without either fire or candle, table, knife, fork, a glazed window or even a book to read”. The government minister George Canning implied that Catherine was being used as a mouthpiece by political subversives, claiming that “it was a well-written letter, and the fair sex would pardon him, if he said it was a little beyond their style in general”. Catherine’s blackness was as invisible as ever; her gender was enough to make her eloquent appeal suspicious. Burdett replied that Catherine “is not so illiterate as Mr. Canning would have us believe”, to which the Attorney General, Sir John Scott, replied with the threat that “there were some wives who had met with much indulgence, in not being taken up and confined as well as their husbands”.
Despard was held for three years before the suspension of habeas corpus lapsed and he was freed, in theory at least without a stain on his character. Within a year he was arrested once more, in the Oakley Arms, a Lambeth pub, in the company of a number of disaffected soldiers suspected of plotting a mutiny. This time he was charged with high treason: an alleged conspiracy to assassinate King George III and spark a republican revolution. Despard pled not guilty but was convicted on the evidence of government informers.
He was sentenced to be publicly hung, drawn and quartered, a sentence that had barely been handed down in living memory.
Catherine persisted with her campaign on his behalf. She approached Lord Nelson, who had appeared as a character witness at Despard’s trial, to plead with the Prime Minister for leniency; together, the Despards spent their time in prison together writing a petition to the King. Either as a result of these appeals, or fear of public unrest, the public dismemberment and disemboweling were waived, but Despard was still to be hung and beheaded. Catherine had been hoping for a pardon, or a commutation of the sentence; the Observer reported that she “had almost sunk under the anticipated horror of his fate; her feelings, when the dreadful order arrived, can scarcely be conceived – we cannot pretend to describe them”. She was allowed a final meeting with her husband during which, according to reports, “the Colonel betrayed nothing like an unbecoming weakness”.
Catherine’s final service to her husband was to insist on his hereditary right to be buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, a campaign she won despite protests to the government from the Lord Mayor of London. After his death she was supported by a pension from Sir Francis Burdett, and may have spent time in Ireland, before dying in Somers Town, London, in 1815. Their son James joined the French army but returned to Britain after the Napoleonic Wars. The final trace of him in the family records is an episode recounted by General John Despard, Edward’s older brother, who was leaving a London theatre when he heard a carriage driver calling the family name. He made his way towards the carriage he assumed was his, “and there appeared a flashy Creole and a flashy young lady on his arm, and they both stepped into it.” After this brief glimpse, James – and any future black Despards – melted into the night streets of London.