Colonel, British Army, Executed
Edward Despard (1751-1803) was an Anglo-Irish British officer — the brother of General John Despard. He was an “acquired” gentleman and soldier through his service as a squire in the household of Lord Hertford. Edward entered the British Army as an Ensign with subsequent service with the 50th Regiment of Foot in Jamaica. He initially served as an engineer; his construction duties required that he supervise the so-called motley crews, including free blacks and mixed-race “Miskitos.” He employed these people and worked them hard, but he also sympathized with them.
Despard served with distinction in operations against Spanish Guatemala during the American Revolution. He fought under Admiral Horatio Nelson during the San Juan expedition (1780), and in 1782, while serving as a captain, Despard commanded the British force at the Battle of Black River. In recognition of Despard’s courage in the heat of battle, the Army promoted him to Colonel. He continued to lead reconnaissance missions, relying on people of color to help him defeat his Spanish foe; it was through this experience that he developed an affinity for those whom, he felt, lived together in “perfect equality.”
After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Colonel Despard supervised the British logwood concession in the Bay of Honduras, then known as British Honduras (now as Belize). Working under the British Foreign Ministry, Colonel Despard sought to accommodate displaced British subjects along the Miskito Coast. Despard’s problem was that in attempting to distribute land equally without regard for color, he ran afoul of British slave traders and landowners. His lottery system afforded people of color equal opportunity for land acquisition, which placed them in competition with white landowners seeking to make their fortune in the harvesting of mahogany timber.
Unfortunately, the British Home Secretary found agreement with white landowners that it was impolitic to afford people of color an equal footing with wealthy businessmen, who also happened to be white. Colonel Despard replied to Lord Sydney that the laws of England made no such distinction. In 1790, Lord Grenville, who replaced Thomas Townshend, recalled Despard to London to answer questions relative to certain “irregularities” in his governorship.
When Colonel Despard arrived in London, he traveled with his wife Catherine and son James. Catherine, a black woman, was the daughter of a protestant minister. Since mixed marriages were almost unheard of in England, the union created a stir, but mainstream society never challenged it.
After Colonel Despard’s arrest, Catherine worked to bring attention to the unfair (malicious) manner of the government’s accusations of alleged irregularities. Seeking to discredit her, the British government referred to her efforts as the “fair sex” intercession, with no mention of her race. In the minds of Despard’s enemies, it was enough to suggest that this weak-minded woman was being used to further the goals of political subversives. As it happened, Despard’s descendants later repudiated Edward and Catherine’s marriage by referring to Catherine as Edward’s black housekeeper and “the poor woman who called herself his wife.” Despard’s son James was described as the offspring of a previous lover, and both Catherine and James were quietly removed from the family tree.
While the government investigated Colonel Despard’s irregularities, he was confined in debtor’s prison for two years on trumped-up charges. While confined to his dank cell, Despard read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Paine’s argument vindicated Despard’s view of universal equality, which is how he conducted himself as governor of British Honduras. At the time the British released Despard from prison in 1794, Thomas Paine was living in France and Paine’s writings were popular among people who shared Despard’s view, particularly the Irish.
Between 1792 and 1797, the United Kingdom was a member of a loosely constructed European coalition against the French First Republic — known as the Wars of the First Coalition. In 1791, European monarchies viewed developments in the French Revolution with considerable concern for the welfare of Louis XVI and his family and other matters. Although the coalition was uncoordinated, the first act of violence occurred when France declared war on Austria in April 1792, Prussia declared war on France in June 1792, and both Austria and Prussia invaded France in September 1792. It did not help matters when the French executed Louis XVI on 21 January 1793. The British kept their distance from the mainland battles but did manage to irritate the French by supporting French loyalists against the Republic.
At the time of its war with France, high-ranking members of Parliament made a connection between Thomas Paine, Edward Despard, other Irish malcontents, and certain seditious efforts to undermine the authority of King George III. Indeed, some among these men were voicing suggestions of armed rebellion. Unrelated to this movement, one fellow attempted to assassinate King George. He was acquitted based on insanity but institutionalized, nevertheless. Earlier, in 1793, authorities arrested three prominent citizens, members of “corresponding” societies, charged them with sedition and sentenced them to fourteen years of penal transportation.
In the summer of 1795, crowds shouting “No War, No Pitt, Cheap Bread” attacked the residence of British Prime Minister William Pitt (The Younger) and consequently surrounded King George III in procession to Parliament. There was also a riot at Charing Cross, at which location authorities detained Edward Despard and questioned him about his involvement in those riots if any. A magistrate later suggested to Despard that he may have brought the matter upon himself by his flippant answers to initial questions. In October 1795, Parliament passed the Seditious Meetings Act, which made it a crime to attend meetings that were even remotely suggestive of treasonous activity.
Notwithstanding the Gag Act, Colonel Despard joined the London Corresponding Society and was quickly elevated to its central committee. When the Irish movement turned toward the prospect of a French-assisted insurrection, Despard took the “United Irish” pledge to obtain complete and adequate representation for all the people of Ireland. In the summer of 1797, a Catholic priest named James Coigly traveled to Manchester where he demanded Englishmen to join Ireland in removing the king, to “…exalt him that is low and abuse him that is high.” In furtherance of this goal, Coigly met in London with groups calling themselves United Bretons, and with Irish leaders of the London Corresponding Society, which in addition to Alexander Galloway, included Despard, and Benjamin and John Binns, members who “committed themselves” to overthrowing the present government and joining the French as soon as they made a landing in Ireland. Only poor weather prevented a French landing from taking place.
Historians believe Despard held a liaison position between British republicans and the French Republic at this junction. In June 1797, a government informer reported that a United Irish delegation intending to travel to France via London applied to the British government for their departure clearance. In March 1798, while attempting to cross the English Channel to France, British agents arrested Coigly and Arthur O’Connor. O’Connor, highly placed and vouched for, was acquitted of the charge of sedition. Coigly, on the other hand, with French documents in his possession, was charged and convicted of treason and then hanged. There may not have been a mass movement to overthrow King George III, but there was undoubtedly an attempt to invite and encourage a French invasion of Ireland.
Soon after, British authorities arrested Despard and thirty others and confined them to the Clerkenwell prison. Despard was retained for three years while British agents infiltrated committees of correspondence and began a system of suppression of those and workman’s unions, which the government outlawed.
Although retained for three years behind bars, government prosecutors never charged Despard with an offense. Despard was set free in 1802, and he returned to Ireland, where he rejoined the anti-British movement in his home county. Whether Despard realized it or not, British informers riddled the county. Meanwhile, in England, a large influx of unhappy Irish refugees restarted a republican movement.
On 16 November 1802, British agents arrested Colonel Despard for attending and meeting with forty or so workers. The next day, the Privy Council officially charged him with High Treason. Admiral Lord Nelson appeared as a defense witness, but the fact that Nelson had not seen Despard for twenty years diminished his glowing report. In the end, Despard was found guilty of only one overt act — his oath to Ireland republicanism. Nevertheless, Colonel Despard, Private John Wood, Private John Francis, carpenter Thomas Boughton, shoemaker James Wratten, slater Arthur Graham, and laborer John McNamara were all sentenced to hang and be drawn and quartered.
British executioners carried out Colonel Despard’s sentence on 21 February 1803. It is entirely possible that Colonel Despard, having great sympathy for the Miskito people and the common man, may have become a useful idiot to Irish and British republicans. Nevertheless, 20,000 British citizens attended his final farewell, the largest ever gathering in London until the death of Lord Nelson.
Catherine and James Despard vanished into history. Three months later, the United Kingdom went to war with France, remembered in history as the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815).
- Carroll, D. The Usual Suspects: Twelve Radical Clergy. Columbia Press, 1998.
- Conner, Clifford D. Colonel Despard: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel. Combined Publishing, 2000.
- Madden, R. R. The United Irishmen: Their lives and times. Madden & Company Press, 1846.
 Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney served in British politics from 1754-1783 and as Home Secretary from 1783-1789. He was a cousin of Charles Townshend, the man responsible for the Townshend Acts, which were one cause of the American War of Independence.
 William Grenville later served as British Prime Minister (1806-1807).
 The forced relocation of persons convicted of crimes, or judged undesirable, to distant places (penal colonies). Most of such persons did not have the money to return to their homes once released from confinement.
 Pitt The Younger was the son of William Pitt, 1st Earl Chatham, who also served as Prime Minister (1766-1768). Fort Pitt was named in honor of William the Elder, present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
 In the United Kingdom, high treason equates to disloyalty to the Crown, which includes plotting the murder of the sovereign, or sexual dalliances with members of the royal family, levying war against the sovereign, consorting with the sovereign’s enemies, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and attempting to undermine lawful authority.