Saturday, March 07, 2009

Revolutionary Art (and plagiarism)

In March 1770, matters began to turn ugly in Boston. Following three days of provocation against the occupying British troops - including incidents where stones wrapped in snow were thrown at soldiers, a private was attacked with a club and had his arm broken, and another soldier’s face was smashed in - a group of colonists gathered on King Street. Twenty of them surrounded a sentry called Hugh White and accused him of striking at someone who had insulted him. They taunted him as ‘a son of a bitch’ and ‘a scoundrel lobster’, threw snowballs and chased him to the customs house. Here six other soldiers and a corporal came out to rescue him. An angry mob assembled, led by Crispus Attucks, a 27 year old man of mixed Indian and African heritage. According to John Adams's testimony, Attucks:

‘appears to have undertaken to be the hero of the night..with one hand he took hold of a bayonet and with the other knocked the man down. To his mad behaviour, in all probability the dreadful carnage of the night is to be ascribed’

The private who had been struck and fallen was Hugh Montgomery. He fired in response and his shots were joined by other soldiers. The crowd dispersed rapidly, leaving behind three dead, two dying and six wounded. Following a day of rioting, the new governor Thomas Hutchinson received the leader of the rebels, Sam Adams; agreed to try the soldiers and ordered the troops out of the town.

As the anger subsided, Paul Revere, a local goldsmith and engraver, copied some drawings of what became known as ‘The Boston Massacre’ which had been made by the young  Henry Pelham. Pelham appears to have been a bit peeved by this. A letter was found fifty years ago from the young lad to Paul Revere which reads:

'Sir, when I heard that you was cutting a plate of the late murder I thought it impossible, as I knew you were not caperble of doing it unless you copied it from mine and as I thought I had entrusted it in the hands of a person who had more regard to the dictates of honour and justice than to take the undue advantage you have done of the confidence and trust I reposed in you. But I find I was mistaken and after being at the great trouble and expense of making a design paying for paper printing etc.., find myself in the most ungenerous manner, deprived not only of any proposed advantage but even of the expense I have been at, as truly as if you had plundered me on the Highway. If you are insensible of the dishonour you have brought on yourself by this act, the world will not be so. However I leave you to reflect upon and consider of one of the most dishonourable actions you could ever be guilty of.

H Pelham

PS I sent the bearer the prints I borrowed of you. My mother desires you would send the hinges and part of the press, that you had from her. 

The result of Revere's 'theft' became the famous engraving known as ‘Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated by the State’; this image went on sale to the Boston papers three weeks after the incident. It was a masterful piece of political properganda and would do much to increase tensions. In the image the British troops are shown firing an orderly volley at the orders of their commanding officer Captain Preston. Preston has an evil grin on his face and appears to be urging his men on rather than trying to stop them. With irony, the sign over the Customs House has been made to read "Butcher's Hall. The belligerence and violent protests of their colonial assailants has not been depicted, instead they are presented as a peaceful assembly. Crispus Atturks is depicted as a white man and no snow is shown in the picture. The colours, which were chosen by Christian Remick contrast the blue, black and green of the colonists with the red of the hated British lobsterbacks and the blood they have unleashed. Revere’s print would become a powerful influence in provoking an outspoken anti-British public opinion. Many copies of the print would go on to be hung in country kitchens where generations of young children would grow up learning to hate England.

What is less well known is that a poem was written to go underneath. It reads:

Unhappy BOSTON! see thy Sons deplore,
Thy hallowe'd Walks besmear'd with guiltless Gore:
While faithless P--- and his savage Bands,
With murd'rous Rancour stretch their bloody Hands;

Like fierce Barbarians grinning o'er their Prey,

Approve the Carnage, and enjoy the Day.

If scalding drops from Rage from Anguish Wrung
If speechless Sorrows lab' ring for a Tongue,
Or if a weeping World can ought appease

The plaintive Ghosts of Victims such as these;

The Patriot's copious Tears for each are shed,

A glorious Tribute which embalms the Dead.

But know, FATE summons to that awful Goal,

Where JUSTICE strips the Murd'rer of his Soul:

Should venal C-ts the scandal of the Land,

Snatch the relentless Villain from her Hand,

Keen Execrations on this Plate inscrib'd,

Shall reach a JUDGE who never can be brib'd.

The unhappy Sufferers were Messs. SAM. L GRAY, SAM.L MAVERICK, JAM.S CALDWELL , CRISPUS ATTUCKS & PAT.K CARR Killed. Six wounded two of them (CHRIST.R MONK & JOHN CLARK) Mortally

The image of martyrdom (and its lyrical accompaniment) would become familiar motifs as nationalist movements erupted over the course over the next hundred years, one has only to think of La Marseillaise or David’s painting of the martyrdom of Joseph Bara. And yet the writing of poems to accompany massacres is something that has gone out of fashion in the mainstream press. The closest we get nowadays is the odd sombre commentary delivered during news reports on channel 4. I suppose there are only so many things you can get to rhyme with ‘gore’.

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