There sure are one hell of a lot of Bloody Sundays. Could make your head spin. A Wikipedia Disambiguation page lists 18 between 1873 and 1991 and I am not sure the list is definitive. The first was a Reconstruction Era race riot in Colfax, Louisiana in which White Democrats attacked Black Republicans and Militia members trying to defend the ballot results of an election. Between 50 and 160 Blacks were killed, most executed after surrendering and their bodies dumped in the river. The most recent was on January 13, 1991 in Vilnius, Lithuania when Soviet troops opened fire on civilians protesting rising prices in newly independent nation. In between most of the incidents were cases of police, military, or armed security guards opening fire on protestors. A handful like a 1939 massacre of civilians at Bydgoszcz, Poland by Nazi Germany were war crimes.
Most Americans associate Bloody Sunday with the attack on voting rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 setting the stage for the historic Selma to Montgomery March on March 21. They may also recall a Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972 when British Army Paratroopers opened fire on unarmed Catholic demonstrators in Belfast, Northern Ireland leading to a twenty year-long guerilla war and bombing campaign by the Provisional IRA. It is remembered as much for protest songs by Paul McCartney, Give Ireland Back to the Iris; John Lennon, Sunday Bloody Sunday; and U2’s song of the same name.
The events in London’s famed Trafalgar Square on November 13, 1887 are virtually unknown to Americans, but this particular Bloody Sunday was pivotal in British political, class, and labor history and helped shape a generation of struggle.
Times were hard in Britain in the 1880’s. Had been since a crash in 1873 and would continue to be until the turn of the 20th Century. The period is remembered as the Long Depression. There were many contributing causes but among the most significant was a collapse in agricultural commodity prices that combined with the introduction of modern farming equipment displaced rural agricultural laborers and tenant farmers who with nowhere else to go flooded the cities. The infusion of so many unskilled laborers into the cities led to a collapse of wages. Unemployment skyrocketed and depressed wages led to wide spread want.
Nowhere was the agricultural depression felt more strongly than in Ireland where despite huge losses in population due to starvation and disease in the Potato Famine decades earlier and mass emigration to the United States, Canada, and Australia, continuing consolidation of landed estates forced more peasants off the land, many of them piling into English cities when they could not raise fare for new worlds.
Discontent had been building in the cities where there had been demonstrations of the unemployed and clashes with police for two years. And in rural Ireland there were rent strikes, boycotts, rioting, and unrest which caused the Coercion Act of 1881 allowing for persons to be imprisoned without trial. The act was introduced by the Liberal Government of William Gladstone and, along with continued harsh measures in Ireland, led to the abandonment by the radical wing of the Party. With the old Whigs shattered, the Tories—now officially the Conservatives, swept to power and would remain in the saddle almost continually through the rest of the century. Their hold was secured by the allocation of seats in Parliament that still vastly underrepresented urban and working class districts while preserving rural safe ridings for the Conservatives.
The Conservatives ideologically refused to consider measures of domestic relief or economic reforms that might have interfered with a free market. They were also most interested in the maintenance and extension of the Empire through which the vast wealth of the world settled into the hands of banks, corporations, and an entrenched elite who were thus insulated from the domestic economic crisis.Starving men from London's East End slums line up for meal tickets from the Salvation Army. Private charity was the only form of relief for the desperate.
These conditions had given rise to new movements—a small but growing socialist movement including the Marxists of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and Socialist League, and the middle class and intellectual Fabian Society of reformist socialists. Discontented Liberals and former Liberals had rallied around organizations like the National Secular Society, various free thought movements, and radical dissenters including the Unitarians.
There were also organizations of the Irish diaspora, increasingly radicalized by the Coercion Acts. These were galvanized by the recent arrest of Irish nationalist Member of Parliament William O’Brien who was imprisoned for incitement as a result of an incident in the Irish Land War. The Irish National League called for a mass demonstration to demand O’Brien’s release.
The SDF, led by William Morris, better known to American viewers of Antiques Road Show as the textile and furniture designer who was the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement, was eager to curry favor with the burgeoning Irish populations of the London slums and joined in the call for a demonstration. They broadened demands to include unemployment relief. They were able to attract fairly significant numbers of native English workers, many of them members of the struggling trade union movement. The Fabians were not official sponsors, but most prominent members offered their support, including Irishman George Bernard Shaw, as did some of the radical Liberals and Freethinkers.Artist and designer of furniture, wall paper, and domestic decorations, was also a leading radical and leader of the Social Democratic Federation which took the lead in organizing the Trafalgar march.
The march was well publicized in advance. The Conservative government of Lord Salisbury vowed not to be intimidated and assigned infantry companies and cavalry troops in support of hundreds of massed Metropolitan Police who were armed only with their truncheons.
The flash point would be Trafalgar Square where the working class East End met the upper-class West End of London. On that Sunday afternoon as many as 30,000 “respectable citizens” ringed the square in hopes of witnessing the suppression of the march as if it were a spectator sport. Ironically, although many of the crowd probably hoped to see violence unleashed against the demonstrators, the presence of so many witnesses caused authorities to order that troops carry unloaded weapons and that the cavalry refrain from drawing their sabers. There would be no repeat of the bloody military attacks on Chartist demonstrators 40 years before.Annie Besant of the National Secularist League was the firs speaker physically restrained from speaking but she was not beaten or arrested like other march leaders.
The march was well organized and coordinated. Various feeder marches converged on the Square from different points in the East End. Columns were led by Morris, fiery trade unionist and SDF leader John Burns, National Secularist League speaker Annie Besant, Scottish radical Liberal MP Robert Cunninghame-Graham, and the socialist feminist Elizabeth Reynolds. Their prominence is an indication of how much of the leadership of the movement had slipped from the hands of the Irish nationalists to the socialists and radicals.
But the majority of the marchers, estimated at around 10,000 in numbers were Irish. And they were plenty mad. By all accounts many had come armed with clubs, iron bars, gas pipes, and knives. They were met with a force of 2,000 police and 400 troops. As soon as Annie Besant attempted to address the crowd, she was restrained by police, who despite her insistence declined to arrest her. But police did attack other leaders including Burns and Cunninhame-Graham beating both men badly before dragging them away.Police and a "respectable citizen" detain a stereotypical Irish rioter. Most of the press was hostile to the demonstrators and supported the government.
Police charged the crowd with truncheon’s swinging. They were met and resisted by many of the armed Irish in a bloody melee in which dozens on both sides were seriously injured. Perhaps biased press accounts claimed that the Police suffered greater injuries. Troops surged forward to disperse the crowd, the cavalry trampling many and some demonstrators were stabbed by bayonets. Scores were injured and at least two demonstrators, Alfred Linnell, a young clerk and W. B. Curner died later of their wounds.
Burns and Cunninhame-Graham and others who were arrested were sentenced to seven weeks in prison. In Parliament most Liberal MPs supported the Conservative government’s use of force and its refusal to offer any concessions to the demonstrators.
|William Morris's Memorial illustrated by Walter Crane was widely circulated in cheap editions for the poor.|
One week later a second protest meeting was broken up by police. Shortly after Linnell, who had not even been a participant in the march, but an unlucky spectator run down by a cavalry horse, died. William Morris composed a memorial hymn which was published and widely disseminated. Morris spoke at a memorial for Linnell telling thousands assembled that, “It is our business to begin to organize for the purpose of seeing that such things shall not happen; to try and make this earth a beautiful and happy place.”
When the prisoners were released in February an open meeting lead to a breach between the radical Liberals, secularists, and reformist socialists and the more radical Marxists. SDF leader Henry Hyndman violently denounced the Liberal party, and singled out for criticism even radicals like Cunninghame-Graham for being insufficiently committed to the working class. It represented a rejection of “respectable” middle class leadership leading eventually to a new strategy centering on the Trade Union movement and the creation of a working class led social democratic Labour Party.
The British labor and socialist movements would look back on Bloody Sunday as an almost mythic event in their self-defined origin stories.