Remembering John Cahuac: Post-Peterloo Repression and the Fate of Radical-Romantic Satire

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In the short run, government prosecution of radical publishers after Peterloo affected literary sensibilities of late Romanticism, evident in the fall in popularity of political satire in the 1820s. In the long run, government repression, by silencing dissent, shaped the canon of radical and Romantic literature. This essay explores the forgotten career of the radical satirist and publisher, John Cahuac, cut short by his transportation.

Remembering John Cahuac: Post-Peterloo Repression and the Fate of Radical-Romantic Satire

Michael Demson
Sam Houston State University


1.         Donald Read, a Peterloo historian, has observed that the 1819 massacre of political reformers by local yeomanry in Manchester’s St. Peter’s Field “had its influence in the realm of the arts” and that it “inspired” Percy Shelley as well as “many contemporary prints” (208). Indeed, Peterloo provided a lasting image of political tyranny: mounted and uniformed riders slashing gratuitously with sabers through a panicked crowd. Moreover, as James Chandler has aptly expressed, “the more one reads in public or private commentary by intellectuals across the political spectrum of England in 1819, the more one sees of revolutionary hopes and fears” (21). And yet, while both Read’s and Chandler’s observations are correct, both are optimistic, strictly speaking. Peterloo also, and more significantly, inspired intense political and cultural repression. E. P. Thompson somewhat wryly refers to the 1820s as “the quiet years” of radical culture (171): despite the occasional outbursts by defiant publishers such as Richard Carlile, editor of The Republican, or Thomas Wooler, editor of the Black Dwarf, English radicalism—where it survived—was forced underground (711-23). In his recent discussion of censorship in the eighteenth century, Richard Darnton has argued that “state intervention in the literary realm went far beyond the blue-penciling of texts. It extended to the shaping of literature itself as a force at work throughout the social order” (20). This was true in Peterloo-era England as well. Far from refined in its methods, the Liverpool government was belligerent in its response to the mounting propaganda war over public sympathy (Hilton 252-3; Gash 87-90). While Parliament wielded “the hugely blunt instrument of suspending civil liberties,” the Home Office “made furious efforts to mobilize a loyal press as a counterweight to the rash of seditious publications” (Hilton 607; 252). Moreover, Lord Sidmouth spent “a good deal of public money” on domestic spies and informants to thwart those “disaffected demagogues” who sought to “harness social discontent” for the agenda of a national revolution (Gash 87-90). It is more accurate to say, then, that post-Peterloo repression, more than the event that prompted it, had a profound and enduring influence on English literature and culture. Intense repression not only arrested public responses to Peterloo in the 1820s, but also profoundly affected literary sensibilities in the late Romantic period, not to mention subsequent historical accounts of the submerged radical culture of the 1820s. The impact of post-Peterloo hegemony is epitomized by the history of John Cahuac, a radical London publisher in 1819, who was effectively silenced and removed from any political discourse, and the fate of his satirical writings, almost entirely forgotten today, confirms the power of the state to affect both contemporary literary sensibilities and future literary history.

2.        If the massacre itself provoked a flurry of indignant responses in 1819 and early 1820 from liberal communities, including Shelley’s now widely-celebrated lyrical satire, The Mask of Anarchy, the consequences of the ensuing repression were more far-reaching. The government systematically prosecuted and imprisoned radical agitators, shut down newspapers and booksellers, ended popular protests and large meetings, silenced authors or otherwise encouraged them to turn away from popular politics, and broke apart liberal political associations. Moreover, as the legal historian Michael Lobban has documented, the government worked rapidly after Peterloo to redefine radical activity as criminal activity: if “seditious libel” had been the prosecutorial weapon of choice before Peterloo, the Peterloo trials provided case law that would establish “the doctrine of unlawful assembly,” which provided terms such as “breach of the peace, obstruction and nuisance” that could be used by authorities as “a lever with which to control dissent” (352). Indeed, radicalism after Peterloo, John Gardner argues, was largely “defeated, by a government that deployed against it, methods that, though they may be morally reprehensible, were both innovative and effective” (220). Prosecution devastated the aspirations of reformers by reasserting the state’s authority to define the agenda of public discourse. This left many of the radicals isolated, dejected, and alienated, including many of the Romantics who had radical sympathies, Shelley among them. As a result, Paul Foot remarks, “many disillusioned revolutionaries … settled for what [was] ‘immediately practicable’ and drifted gently to the right” (224). In short, imminent political persecution had a coercive influence on the literature of the 1820s, most clearly evident in a growing disillusionment with satire by the midpoint of the decade.

3.        The disillusionment with satire was a broad trend, but specific examples are plentiful. Iain McCalman has observed that Carlile, himself no stranger to hyperbole and sarcasm, surprisingly “blamed fellow radical pressmen … because their propaganda had taken trivial forms” when forced to temporarily shut down The Republican at the end of 1820, a little over a year after Peterloo (175). McCalman paraphrases Carlile’s complaint: “squibs and pasquinades could amuse and annoy but not influence serious political change” (175). Similarly, Shelley’s series of responses to Peterloo until his drowning in 1822 reveal a fall in his estimation of the political efficacy and literary merits of satire—from his acerbic and combative “England in 1819” to his more measured and earnest A Philosophical View of Reform, and finally to his late and all-but-disengaged political fragments. In his late fragment, “Satire upon Satire,” for example, he regrets the violence of the genre: “Tis not worth while” to compose and publish satires because “harsh words beget hard thoughts” (ll. 44-6; see Jones, “Shelley’s Fragment…”). Beleaguered by the government’s campaign of repression, Carlile and Shelley, to mention only two examples, came to recognize the shortcomings of satire to prompt any real reform.

4.        The link between the government’s campaign of repression and a popular dissatisfaction with satire has not been evident to all. For example, in his survey of satire from 1789 to 1832, Gary Dyer documents how “satire largely disappeared as a distinct literary form” (139) in the 1820s, and he attributes this disappearance to the rise of a middle-class; to the death of Byron, which made satire “passé;” and to marketplace trends: “publishers needed the reliable profits fiction provided” (139). When citing statistics that reveal a yearly decline in the sales of verse satire, he notes 1820 as an aberration and acknowledges the flurry of radical publications that year, but he does not explore the possibility that the subsequent decline of satire was precipitated by the government’s counter-attacks against radical publications (140-143). Nonetheless, the repression was real, and the government’s multifaceted campaign has been documented (for an initial overview, see Thompson 711-23). “In the same month that Carlile denigrated satirical radical literature,” McCalman notes, “[Lord] Sidmouth [Secretary of the Home Office] and his officials were racking their brains for ways to counteract the ‘deadly weapon’ of popular caricature” because “George and his government were remarkably sensitive to popular ridicule and caricature” (176), and through persistent prosecutions, they were largely successful. Indeed, Marcus Wood concludes his study of radical satire of the Romantic era in 1822 when satirical writing largely disappears.

5.        Chandler, in his study of English literature of 1819, summarizes succinctly that “the growing agitation all came to an abrupt halt” owing to

the combined effect of arrests of key leaders (Henry Hunt, Major Cartwright, Francis Burdett, Richard Carlile, Sir Charles Wolseley), government countermeasures (the Gag Acts, passed on December 30, 1819), and desperate radical plots (The Cato Street Conspiracy, discovered on February 23, 1820). (22)
Of course, post-Peterloo repression did not crush radicalism entirely, but the success of attempts to crush satire can be estimated on an immediate level by the slump in bookshop sales after 1820, which Dyer documents, and, taking a broader view, by how successfully government repression ultimately concealed its own efforts. That authors such as Carlile and Shelley turned on the genre of satire suggests their sense of powerlessness in the face of the government counter-measures and unwillingness for one reason or another to address them directly. Regardless, those who were engaged in more immediate prosecutions, such as Thomas Dolby and John Cahuac, reveal more about the government’s actions than those who avoided such engagements.

6.        To argue that Shelley grew disillusioned with satire is not to argue that Shelley’s radical convictions wavered after Peterloo, or that he was a fair-weather radical, as he famously accused both William Wordsworth and Robert Southey of being. In fact, there have been a number of Shelley scholars, including Michael Scrivener, Steven E. Jones, Mark Kipperman, and John Gardner, who have researched post-Peterloo repression and who have reconstructed from Shelley’s diverse writings a coherent logic to his political convictions, thus demonstrating his steady commitment. These scholars have offered compelling apologies that valorize his developing responses to the government’s campaign. Kipperman, for example, has sought to counter critiques of Shelley’s “aristocratic exile” in Italy and the assumption that his work had little impact because Leigh Hunt suppressed much of it for over a decade (1). To this end, Kipperman distinguishes the political “import” from the “impact” of The Mask of Anarchy; that is, he distinguishes its immediate engagement with and influence upon its contemporary political moment from its “total historical and social situation” within “a larger and all-too-effective culture of resistance” (3). This allows Kipperman to argue the significance of Shelley’s participation in radical culture, regardless of whether or not his productions were published. In other words, even if Shelley were aware of the possibility that his writings would be withheld from popular circulation, his continued involvement lent weight to the reform movement when it was forced underground. Moreover, Kipperman continues, The Mask of Anarchy has “a moving target” (4): the identified targets of the satirical humor, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Eldon, and King George IV, should be read merely as incidental metaphors of tyranny and corruption. If readers abstract from the specificity of political allusions, a move that would be obvious to sympathetic readers in other political contexts, the proto-Marxist rhetoric and visionary utopianism of the poem become only more apparent. In this way, satirical humor may once again prove to be a potent means to bring about an awakening of class consciousness. If Chandler sets himself the task of examining “the historical situation of the texts of England in 1819 and … the hermeneutic conceptualization of this very work of historically situating texts” (38), Kipperman pushes aside this methodological concern and attempts to free Shelley’s satires from the critical tendency to static historical determination altogether. Simply put, rather than attempt to historicize it, Kipperman urges readers to follow The Mask of Anarchy as it reconfigures across historical contexts. It is a compelling argument, especially when one considers the enduring popularity of Shelley’s visionary writings in unions and working-class associations over the next one hundred and fifty years.

7.        In any event, despite his political convictions, Shelley’s faith in political satire was not unwavering in the final years of his life, and it is my aim to continue the dialectical history, already begun by Scrivener, McCalman, and Jones, that follows the evolving poetics of satire in the late Romantic period at a time when efforts to suppress radical satire were mounting. Jones, whose central argument about Shelley in Satire and Romanticism is that his “radical-reformist satire was a central part of his oeuvre” (108), compares Shelley’s 1819-1820 writings to those of Thomas Wooler, editor of the Black Dwarf (108). Through this comparison, Jones reveals not only how Shelley deployed “a public discourse that subsumed canonical and subcanonical works alike,” but also and more importantly, that the satirical mode was the essential link between radicalism and Romanticism (104). It is my contention that while satire did indeed serve as this link between the poetic and the political, the link was not long lasting. “In late 1824,” as Neil Fraistat has observed, “England’s poet laureate, Robert Southey, publicly derided the second bookshop of the radical William Benbow, the Byron’s Head, as ‘one of those preparatory schools for the brothel and gallows; where obscenity, sedition, and blasphemy are retailed in drams for the vulgar’” (409). If Southey was particularly outspoken in this regard, most of the Romantics turned against popular political satire after Peterloo.

8.        Indeed, by the mid-1820s, most Romantics disassociated themselves from satire, often but not necessarily as a retreat from the politics of reform. In short, if it had been cutting-edge in the late 1810s, satire ceased to be fashionable by the mid-1820s. This turn on satire had a legacy that extended well beyond the Romantic period; without identifying post-Peterloo repression, Marilyn Butler notes that “With the passing of time, critics seem to have become less rather than more aware of the satirical and intellectualist strain in Romantic writing” (224). It has only been in the last few decades that critics such as Butler, Haywood, Jones, and Wood have questioned the neglect of satire of the Romantic era, a neglect I contend that was initially prompted by political necessity.

9.        To appreciate how precipitous the fall was after Peterloo, it is crucial to understand that in the years leading up to Peterloo, radicals and Romantics alike celebrated satire as both the pinnacle of wit and a practical tool for advancing their various political agendas. Satire of the period expressed an earnest conviction that it could identify corruption, exhibit popular interests, redirect popular sympathies and loyalties, alienate political opponents as agents of tyranny, and, ultimately, inspire the solidarity necessary to push through political reform. This was the agenda of all satirical productions of the period. Kyle Grimes has described the combative radical humor of the period as a “verbal jujitsu,” which sought “to expose, disarm, and ridicule … pretensions to authority” (182), but ultimately, its aim was to inspire political solidarity among reformers. The refrain that concludes The Mask of Anarchy epitomizes this aspiration:

Rise Like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few. (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 326)

10.        In the years subsequent to Peterloo, satirists retreated or were routed. “Why crush a starving bookseller?,” Shelley furiously wrote about government repression to Hunt on November 3, a few months after Peterloo, because in doing so, “tyrants … strike in his person at all of their political enemies” and “divert the attention of the people from obtaining a Reform in their oppressive Government…” (72-3). As was frequently the case, Shelley’s political commentary was astute. Publishers, including Richard Carlile, Thomas Wooler, William Hone, Thomas Dolby, and Leigh Hunt, were prosecuted in high-profile cases, and many were incarcerated, impressing on all the government’s determination to, in Shelley’s word, “crush” radicalism. One casualty of this repression was John Cahuac, one of Shelley’s “starving bookseller[s],” who was in fact “crushed” by Sidmouth’s campaign against satirists and booksellers. [1]  Cahuac shared Shelley’s radical sensibility prior to Peterloo, but he had none of the financial advantages Shelley enjoyed, nor was he abroad following Peterloo. Rather, Cahuac was on the front line of radical resistance in England in 1819 and 1820, faced government prosecution, and ultimately, lost.

11.        In 1819, Cahuac was a working-class publisher and bookseller at 53 Blackman Street, Southwark—the Borough—of south London. After Peterloo, and while being routinely abused by government agents, he composed and published a series of satires. Three command attention: first, a rabble-rousing pamphlet, Who Killed Cock Robin? A Satirical Tragedy, or Hieroglyphic Prophecy on the Manchester Blot!, akin to those of his better-known contemporary, Hone; second, an openly seditious Letter to Lord Sidmouth, on His Oppressive Arrest for the Sale of an Alledged Libel, about Sidmouth’s relentless campaign of prosecuting publishers while he directed the Home Office; and third, a list of the jury members paid by the Crown during the Queen Caroline scandal, in which Caroline sued for her right to the throne while her husband sought a divorce. Not one of these satires was particularly original or literary, but all three epitomize embattled radical culture post-Peterloo, before it crumbled under repression.

12.        On September 10, 1823, four years after Peterloo, Cahuac was arrested. He was tried promptly, and found guilty of receiving stolen property (a considerable number of unbound but valuable books), for which he was sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land for fourteen years, the standard maximum sentence. Cahuac, like all political dissidents who were sentenced to transportation, was “torn from every tie of relationship,” as Thomas Reid reported in his 1822 exposé on the horrors of exile to Australia (2); he was removed from English life, his political career was brought to an end, and his participation in the reform movement to that point was all but erased from history. In fact, references to Cahuac in histories of the period are almost non-existent, but the extraordinarily brazen expressions of political defiance in his post-Peterloo publications should not be lost to history, if for no other reason than because they are exemplary of radicalism in the late Romantic period.

13.         Although they are piecemeal, there are some records of Cahuac’s life, and taken together, they can provide a sketch of his career. He was born around 1770 (records vary) in London to John and Mary Cahuac, the third of five children, and he was baptized at St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch, in 1771 (London, England, Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812: Record for John Cahuac). It seems that his father was the nephew of Bertrand Cahuac, a wine seller who had migrated likely from Languedoc and whose tavern eventually became the “Caveac” Masonic Lodge, one of many permutations of the original family name (Simpson 30-31). In any case, as a young man, nineteen or twenty, John Cahuac junior worked as a pawnbroker’s assistant for one Mr. Woodin in Drury-Lane, a position which, according to court records, connected him to London’s criminal underworld of fences (See the trials of Elizabeth Ford and Elizabeth Kelley on 15 September 1790 and James Bond on 8 December 1790, The Proceedings of the Old Bailey). By 1793, he had broken out on his own as a pawnbroker (again, court records suggest that he was still dealing with fences) and then as an apothecary, assigned to the London Dispensary. He sought a military appointment as an apothecary, but no records of any military service exist. He married a woman of the same age named Mary, and they had a son, Henry St. John Cahuac, in 1808 (they would have a second child, a daughter, Elizabeth, who they called Eliza, in 1822) (Australia Death Index, 1787-1907). There are no records concerning his parent’s home, his upbringing, or education, and the first records we have of Cahuac’s radical activities suggest that he was in his late thirties or early forties when he became politically active.

14.        By 1817, Cahuac was working cooperatively with the radical publisher, Thomas Dolby. Dolby had a successful shop a few blocks from the Crown and Anchor public house and was known as a radical reformer. Perhaps through this association, Cahuac became, as J. Ann Hone describes him, one of the “ultra-radicals” in the reform movement in London (287-288). On July 21, 1817, for example, he was the appointed steward for the dinner celebrating the acquittal of Arthur Thistlewood and James Watson at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, the regular meetinghouse of the London Corresponding Society, of which Cahuac was a member (Hone 288). Thistlewood and Watson, both Spencerian radicals, had tried to instigate rioting at the mass meeting at Spa Fields on December 2, 1816, in an attempt to seize control of the Tower of London and the Bank of England. Their acquittal was a triumph for radicals, but their fortunes were short lived. Both were embroiled in the Cato Street Conspiracy, when government spies entrapped them in a manufactured plot to assassinate several members of the government. They were arrested, paraded before an incredulous public, and hanged in 1820. [2]  Though he seems to have been a close acquaintance to both Thistlewood and Watson, as J. Ann Hone has documented, Cahuac does not appear to have had any involvement with the Cato Street Conspiracy or to have been involved with the Spencerians.

15.        During the same period that Shelley was looking to set up residence in Italy in 1819, Cahuac moved to 53 Blackman Street, acquired and registered his own printing press, as the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799 required, and shifted to working as an independent publisher and bookseller. Because Southwark was home to many dissenters and political discontents, he found a readership for radical literature, but it is more likely that he anticipated this market than merely responded to it. His imprint appears in various radical texts, including works by Thomas Paine, Richard Price, and Elihu Palmer, and he was a distributor of The Republican, published by Carlile, whom he seems to have known personally, as well as The Black Dwarf. Moreover, with his own press, he became more than just a bookseller; he edited and composed his own radical literature. In that first year with his own press, for example, he published “a New Edition” of Palmer’s Principles of Nature, “Revised & Corrected by J. Cahuac.” Later that year, he was tried for this publication, but the “prosecution was compromised for a sum of money,” according to the London Investigator (Cooper 82). Then came the news of Peterloo.

16.        Immediately after Peterloo, in late 1819, Cahuac collaborated with Thomas Rowlandson, the artist, illustrator, draftsman, and caricaturist. That he collaborated with such a prominent figure demonstrates how well connected Cahuac had become. Together they produced the pamphlet entitled, Who Killed Cock Robin? A Satirical Tragedy, or Hieroglyphic Prophecy on the Manchester Blot! The pamphlet presents a satirical allegory about the brutality and corruption of the government, narrated in the form of an extended nursery rhyme, with sequential caricatures, culminating in a caricature of the king as a bloated peacock, who “Struts unconcern’d at / Cock Robin’s Sad tale.” Wood has suggested that William Hone’s similar The Political House that Jack Built, published in December 1819, “was the most notorious popular satiric reaction to the Peterloo massacre” (213). He continues that it “established the basic form in which the majority of Hone and Cruikshank’s other satirical pamphlets were to be produced,” and that it “led to a host of imitations and counter-imitations by both the radical and loyalist press. Radical publishers including William Benbow, Thomas Dolby, John Fairburn, and John Cahuac brought out satires based on the forms of nursery rhyme books, and nursery rhyme parody became part of the currency of popular satire” (213). It should be pointed out, however, that Cahuac’s pamphlet is also dated 1819; if Hone’s was published in December, Cahuac had less than a month to write, have Rowlandson illustrate, edit, print, and bind his imitation. It seems unlikely that Who Killed Cock Robin? followed The Political House, but rather that it was composed either simultaneously or, perhaps, even before Hone’s publication. In any event, Cahuac was actively participating in what Kipperman called the “larger and all-too-effective culture of resistance” alongside such figures as Hone and Shelley.

17.         In 1819, this “culture of resistance” believed that satire was the way to reach a popular audience and thereby to win popular support. Indeed, Gardner suggests that “for a brief period in late 1819 Shelley made strenuous attempts … to open himself to the quite different tradition embodied in the work of Hone, Cruikshank, Wooler and the radical pamphleteers” (100), who exploited accessible forms such as caricature, sarcasm and invective, hyperbole, sensational imagery, and simple verse and rhyme schemes, all with the aim of developing a rhetoric of political polarization that would alienate specific targets in power while soliciting popular sympathy. It is perhaps impossible to measure the extent of the political impact of these productions—Shelley’s were suppressed, copies of Hone’s sold in the thousands—but what is clear is that radicals soon became defensive. Cahuac, like all radical publishers in England, was on the frontline. If one follows the fate of Cahuac or Dolby, Hunt’s decisions regarding publishing Shelley’s works seem if nothing else to be prudent, as Gardner suggests (100).

18.        The course of Thomas Dolby’s political career as a publisher and bookseller was similar to Cahuac’s own, but, fortunately, unlike Cahuac, he published memoirs. [3]  The son of a tenant farmer and roof-thatcher in Huntingdonsire, Dolby left his humble origins by attaching himself as a personal assistant to a retired general. He recounts in his autobiography that in 1808 he quit this service and set up shop in London as a seller of stationery and books. Although he had had little formal education and no familial resources to help establish his business in the city, Dolby was nevertheless shrewd, resourceful, and sociable. He met Leigh and John Hunt (97), began to sell radical newspapers, including Cobbett’s Political Register, and, as Jonathan Topham has noted, “His shop became a focus for radical activity” (81).

19.        By 1817 Dolby had acquired printing presses, establishing a national distribution network, and in that year, as he records in his memoirs, “we all went politically mad” (108). He met Henry Orator Hunt, endorsed his reformist campaign before Peterloo (where Hunt was scheduled to be the keynote speaker), and participated in events at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, the political meetinghouse for many of the key reformists, which was conveniently one block from his shop (109; and see Topham 81-3). Moreover, he began selling radical satires, namely The Pasquin and the Political Dictionary, which made him both successful and infamous: “In the summer of 1819, I was arrested on two informations by the Attorney General for selling two numbers of Sherwin’s Register, in which some strong remarks were made on the employment of the military in civil affairs, and particularly on the memorable Manchester massacre” (112). Dolby was targeted and prosecuted by the government for selling radical satires, and his memoirs make clear that he understood the political battle in which he was deeply involved:

I wish as far as possible to avoid political remarks in this book; but I must just observe, that the Sidmouth and Castlereagh administration of that day … groped their way onward with daggers and dark lanthorns. One of their favorite objects was the slavery of the press. They did not strike the blow boldly at once; but secretly connived at and encouraged the very mischief which publicly they affected to deplore, in order that under such fostering care, it might rise to such a pitch as to warrant them in going the full length they wished, for the enslavement of the press generally. (112-3)
While his attorneys were successful in having the court drop the charges in 1819, Dolby was the special focus of Charles Murray, an attorney representing the non-governmental, arch-Tory and anti-Jacobin Constitutional Association, which hunted radicals after Peterloo. News of their activities hit the papers and, in an August 16, 1821 letter, Byron called them the “atrocious crew” (345). Writing considerably later in the century, James Taylor comments acerbically that the soon-dubbed “Bridge-Street Gang,” named after their office location, were comprised of
… a considerable number of wealthy and influential individuals [who] formed themselves into an association for “discountenancing and opposing the dissemination of seditious principles,” and for “supporting the laws for suppressing seditious publications, and for defending the country from the fatal influence of disloyalty and sedition.” (251)
Taylor quotes from the Association’s eponymous manifesto, before discussing its inevitable decline once the public began to scrutinize its activities. Nevertheless, in his memoirs, Dolby accuses Murray and his gang of colluding with the courts, of sabotaging his publishing business, which ultimately went bankrupt, of terrorizing his family, leading to the death of his wife, and of defrauding and betraying the people of England, all for personal aggrandizement and financial gain (119-49). While it is unclear the extent to which any of this is true, Dolby was indeed identified on May 30, 1820, by the now-notorious Home Office informant, “J.S.” (John Shegog, whose correspondences are available in the Public Record Office), as an active member of the “Liberal Alliance” (of which Cahuac was also an active member) determined “to carry on Sedition and Treason and to oppose His Majesty, Government, + the laws of the Realm” (PRO). In any case, Murray and his “junto” retreated when questions were raised about the standing of the Constitutional Association to bring the actions against radicals, but not before Dolby was court-ordered to desist publishing political material (149).

20.        In 1820, Cahuac appeared in court again, charged with seditious libel for selling Carlile’s Republican. His defense was rather disingenuous: he pleaded poverty and claimed that “he had merely sold the pamphlet in question without ever having read it,” and that he “sold pamphlets on all questions, whether opposed to or favorable to government,” according to the report, “The King v. John Cahuac,” published in The Times (2). In the end, he spent one month in Horsemonger Lane, Southwark’s prison, for seditious libel. Despite his superficial disavowal in court, there is no doubt that Cahuac was still a committed radical. After his release, he published an open letter to Lord Sidmouth, which is nothing short of a full-scale counter-attack, bearing the title, Letter to Lord Sidmouth, on His Oppressive Arrest for the Sale of an Alledged Libel. Cahuac’s self-defense in this letter is a thinly veiled attack. His most immediate issue was that the constables who had arrested him had carried him beyond his neighborhood and outside of London so that he would not have his neighbors as his jurors. Cahuac deems this as yet another instance of recent corruption and abuse of power coming out of the Home Office, but the fourteen-page pamphlet does not shy away from listing others: (1) Sidmouth’s “paltry warfare against newsmen and bill-stickers,” (2) the crown’s “ill-judged act of thanking inhuman butchers for slaughtering their neighbors” at Peterloo, (3) the on-going abuses of over-taxation, rotten boroughs, and poor treasury decisions, and (4) police corruption. What Cahuac’s rant lacks in focus is made up for in wit and defiant indignation. For example, he begins,

My lord, Not having the honour of your Lordship’s acquaintance, nor even a knowledge of your person, it cannot be supposed a particle of enmity could in any shape dictate the present Address. Your Lordship will therefore please to consider me as only defending myself from the machinations of those below you, without the smallest intention of giving your Lordship offence. I am, my Lord, one that venerates the Office of Magistrate, even in the hands of a dolt. –But oppression naturally prompts even the beasts of the field to resistance.– (1)
Cahuac then warns Sidmouth that if the government does not open itself up to reform, a revolution will ensue, but he carefully tempers this in a passage remarkably similar to Shelley’s post-Peterloo political philosophy. Cahuac adds that the people of England “have learned philosophy from the school of oppression” (10) and that “they will leave the breaking of the peace to those paid to protect it” (11). When his ranting threatens to outstrip his wit, which is frequent, he interjects with poignant quotes from Swift, Addison, Shakespeare, and the Bible. Nevertheless, the letter remains a fiery piece: “The clergy tell us,” he continues, “out of Hell there is no redemption. That I deny, my lord; I have escaped the Manchester yeoman, though not your lordship’s informers” (8). Of course, after this publication, he continued to be watched.

21.        In 1820, radicals called for support for Queen Caroline, hoping to incite popular protest against mounting repression. She had come home from Spain to assume the throne next to George IV, but the new king rebuked her and sought a divorce through parliament. The radicals responded, not so much for her sake, but out of antipathy for the seated government and the new King. They formed the Queen’s Plate Committee, of which Cahuac was a member alongside such notable figures as Major Cartwright, William Hone, and Thomas Dolby (Ingelhart 72; for further discussion of the Committee’s activity, see Hone 316). Public outrage, the committee hoped, might rekindle reform efforts. At this point, Cahuac published the third of his three significant post-Peterloo pieces, a four-page pamphlet, The Queen’s Judges! Or, a Penny Peep at the Peers, with an epigraph below the title that reads, “—There is nothing like / A fair, free, open trial, where the King / Can choose His judges and appoint His jury.” It then lists in alphabetical order three hundred and sixty-nine jury members on government payroll and how much each was paid, or as Cahuac has it, “the amount of corrupt Influence attached to each individual Peer from Places, Pensions, &c.” The brashness of this publication was so unchecked that it caught the attention of several American papers covering the Caroline affair, including The Plough Boy out of Albany, which described in its “Weekly Summary” the pamphlet’s circulation in England as “extensive” (71). Unfortunately, as John Gardner has pointed out, the Caroline affair fizzled out, and the hopes of radicals and reformers were disappointed; by 1821 it was apparent that both Caroline and the radicals had failed to win popular support. Years later, in a thinly-veiled attempt deny the success of his enemies, Dolby reflected on the failure of his satirical publications,

… it will be said the Constitutional Association checked and put a stop to licentious publications. I deny that. Causes arise, and effects follow; causes cease, and effects disappear whether such societies as Mr. Murray’s exist or not. Satire is torpid, unless hatched into animation by some ruling vice or folly. The more vicious the cause, the more stinging the effect. In the case just concluded, the Queen’s arrival and treatment excited a strong feeling throughout the country. Satire was awakened into stinging activity; but the public madness subsided before the poor Queen died; the rage was over, and satire became torpid again. The Pasquin and the Political Dictionary were too late. The rage that would have devoured them a year before, had gone by. They both died of inanition. Mr. Murray stepped in too late to kill them, but just in time to make them stink; which is the only service such a man is fit for. (149-50)
Dolby does not discuss the terms of his plea deal in his memoir that put an end to his career as a radical publisher, and throughout he downplays his own involvement in radical activities, perhaps because he published his memoirs in 1827, before the radicals and the reform movement recovered.

22.        Shelley’s participation in the London radicalism was indirect, and by the middle of 1820, this seeps into his writings. Steven Jones has demonstrated, for example, that Shelley’s fragment “Satire upon Satire,” written at some point between 1820 and 1821 but not published in his lifetime, calls into question the aesthetic, moral, and political merits of the genre even though it simultaneously launches a satirical attack upon Southey for his political apostasy. The poem is, Jones concludes, “a self-conscious exploration of rather than a sententious answer to questions about form and purpose in poetry” (163). This is accurate, but the poem also reveals that Shelley’s earnest convictions about the political utility of satire in 1819 were supplanted by a more private, skeptical, and highly ironic estimation of satire. Nowhere in this reflection on satire does Shelley consider the project of inspiring solidarity, as if such an aim is no longer essential to the genre nor particularly relevant. In 1823, the year after Shelley drowned off the coast of Italy, Cahuac was still politically active in London. In March of that year, the Black Dwarf identified Cahuac, alongside Major Cartwright, Mr. Galloway, Mr. Wooler, Capt. R Williams, Mr. George Rogers, and Mr. Webb, as conducting “a select meeting of friends to a Constitutional Reform in the Representation of the people in Parliament,” with the express purpose of producing a document that “should be submitted to the consideration of the Unrepresented throughout the kingdom, a form for petitioning, which, by its instructiveness in the true principles of Representation, and on the undeniableness of the Right of the people universally, as might aid them in their exertions for recovering those rights” (“Parliamentary Reform” 426-427). Gone is the humor, the invectives, and the irony, though clearly Cahuac was still invested deeply in radicalism.

23.        Cahuac was also in deep trouble. On July 16, he, along with Thomas Beeman, was indicted for stealing one hundred and six printed books from the Fleet Street property of one Benjamin Bensley. Cahuac was charged with receiving the stolen books, while Beeman what charged with their theft. (The books in question were an octavo edition of Lingard’s History of England.) At their trial on September 10, both Cahuac and Beeman denied having known each other or having even met before their arrest, much less conspiring together to steal the books. Moreover, Cahuac claimed that he legally purchased the books from somebody else but that his confinement had kept him from locating this individual. The jury took less than an hour to find both guilty (Edinburgh Annual Register, vol. 16). Beeman was sentenced to seven years transportation, but, suspiciously, there is no record of him every being transported or incarcerated. Cahuac was sentenced to fourteen years transportation, and we have extensive records of his deportation.

24.        On September 21, 1823, Leigh Hunt ran an announcement of the indictment of John Cahuac in the Examiner, but not a subsequent report on the trial (Hunt 618). There was an account, however, in The Annual Register, which reported, “an unusual number (not less than 30)” of “respectable witnesses” appeared in court to testify to Cahuac’s “good character” (“Old Bailey” 125). The Register’s report does not mention that Cahuac was a radical publisher who had been tried at least twice previously for seditious libel, nor did it mention his London Corresponding Society membership, nor his association with prominent radicals such as Major Cartwright and Francis Burdett, among others, nor any of his own radical productions. In fact, there seems to be a deliberate circuitousness in the Register’s report about Cahuac’s radicalism. From his early years as a pawnbroker’s assistant, Cahuac seems to have had criminal associations, and yet there are details about this trial that are suspect, and it seems likely that his heavy sentence was the result of his political activities rather than his alleged criminal ones.

25.        In 1824, with two hundred other convicts, Cahuac shipped out from Portsmouth on board the Phoenix II, under Captain Robert White, on a journey that took one hundred and fourteen days (Founders & Survivors). He was never to return to England. The “Gaol Report” filed upon his arrival in Van Dieman’s Land reads, “[He is] a respectable Man & may be relied upon” but also that he was transported for the felony: “Buying Books, knowing them to have been stolen, once for publishing a blasphemous libel” (Founders & Survivors). The report gives us our only physical description: In his mid-fifties, Cahuac was five foot three and a half, had gray hair and eyes, his left hand was crippled, and he had a notable scar over his left eye (Founders & Survivors). On August 15 1825, less than two years after he was sentenced, he was granted permission to leave Van Dieman’s Land and to proceed on to Sydney. He immediately submitted a petition “for his family to be sent out to the Colony at Government expense” (Colonial Secretary Index), giving inexplicably “H.R.H. Princess Sophia of Gloucester as his only referee in England” (Picton Phillips 227). Surprisingly, this was granted five days later as was a “recommendation for a ticket of leave,” essentially probation that would allow him to find employment (Colonial Secretary Index). Mary arrived with their two children but died two years later in 1827. There are a few records of his life in Australia, but John Cahuac’s political career as an English radical had ended in 1823. He died in Australia in 1832, at roughly sixty-two years old.

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Notes

[1] I discovered John Cahuac’s publications while conducting research in the Pforzheimer Collection at the New York Public Library. This research was made possible by a Carl H. Pforzheimer Research Grant, awarded by the Keats-Shelley Association of America in 2011. I am indebted to Liz Denlinger, who assisted me in finding Cahuac’s publications in the Pforzheimer as well as to my former research assistant, Amy Potter, who found and made coherent many of the records of Cahuac’s life discussed here. BACK

[2] For a fuller discussion of the Cato Street Conspiracy, see Gash, Gardner, and Hilton. BACK

[3] I am indebted to Karen Nangle and the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, for scanning one of the very few known copies of Dolby’s memoirs. BACK

Published @ RC

September 2015