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Whigs and hunters : the origin of the Black…
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Whigs and hunters : the origin of the Black act (1975 original; edició 1975)

de E. P. Thompson

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With Whigs and Hunters, the author of The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson plunged into the murky waters of the early eighteenth century to chart the violently conflicting currents that boiled beneath the apparent calm of the time. The subject is the Black Act, a law of unprecedented savagery passed by Parliament in 1723 to deal with 'wicked and evil-disposed men going armed in disguise'. These men were pillaging the royal forest of deer, conducting a running battle against the forest officers with blackmail, threats and violence. These 'Blacks', however, were men of some substance; their protest (for such it was) took issue with the equally wholsesale plunder of the forest by Whig nominees to the forest offices. And Robert Walpole, still consolidating his power, took an active part in the prosecution of the 'Blacks'. The episode is laden with political and social implications, affording us glimpses of considerable popular discontent, political chicanery, judicial inequity, corrupt ambition and crime.… (més)
Membre:GrahamHodges
Títol:Whigs and hunters : the origin of the Black act
Autors:E. P. Thompson
Informació:New York : Pantheon Books, c1975.
Col·leccions:La teva biblioteca
Valoració:
Etiquetes:English history

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Whigs And Hunters: The Origin Of The Black Act de E. P. Thompson (1975)

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E. P. Thompson's book is an important study of a frightening piece of 18th century English legislation, "The Waltham Black Act", or as it is generally known, the Black Act, which took its name from a forest area to the north of London which became the arena for a remarkable conflict between rich and poor, and the darkening of the face, or "blacking", commonly practiced by poachers and others as a form of disguise. Thompson's study outlines the traditional management of "the King's forests" around London, wherein certain rights and privileges were extended to the farmers, cottagers and other foresters who occupied the area in exchange for complete protection of "the King's deer". This was not always a happy arrangement for the local people: like the sacred cow, the King's deer could go anywhere and do anything; it was illegal not merely to kill or harm them, but to put up fences to block their ingress; farmers whose crops they destroyed were allowed to chase them away, but nothing more. Keepers were installed to watch over the situation, and inevitably there were clashes with the locals, who were regularly guilty of killing deer either for profit or for food, or of simply trying to protect their own slender holdings.

Into this already fraught situation came the nouveau riche of the early 18th century, who bought or obtained leases to properties in the forest area and proceeded to build themselves mansions with sprawling landscaped gardens, to fence off traditional common areas, and in a dozen other ways to violate the traditional rights of the foresters. The result was an escalting class war, which at length resulted in the emergence of a surprisingly organised counter-force. The "Blacks", as they became known, were a small outfit led by a man who called himself "King John" (probably one William Shorter), who turned out to be the closest thing to Robin Hood that recent history can supply. Though the Blacks killed deer and other livestock, burned barns, attacked houses and threatened their occupants, in every case an attack can be traced to a provocative act on the part of a landowner, in which the local people were hurt or dispossessed. The deer that were killed were rarely carried away to be sold or eaten, but left behind as a message. Whatever else they were, the Blacks were not profiteers or poachers.

But of course, the idea of the poor having the temerity to strike back against the rich, not randomly but as an organised resistance, was an outrage in the eyes of the ruling classes - for whom the final straw was the local juries which, their sympathies solidly with the foresters, repeatedly refused to bring in the verdicts that the government wanted. In the face of what was perceived as an intolerable act of defiance, the Walpole administration retaliated by drafting the Black Act, which in 1723 added to the existing statutes more than two hundred new capital offences for crimes against property.

The early chapters of this book, which describe the historical, geographical and social background to the passing of the Black Act, are somewhat heavy going. The record is frustratingly incomplete and fragmentary - not least because, during the period in question, the government instituted blanket censorship of the press - and Thompson is repeatedly forced to try and fill in the gaps himself, or simply to admit that he doesn't know. But ultimately, the scantiness of the public record is exactly Thompson's point---this brutal piece of legislation, openly framed to protect the wealthy against the poor, passed without resistance; it appeared to no-one in power to require debate.

Thompson is on firmer ground when he begins to examine the role of Robert Walpole and the Whig administration in the passing and implementation of the Act. The profound political corruption of the time is a matter of common knowledge; yet again and again the reader feels Thompson's outrage and disgust as his investigation into the circumstances of the Black Act uncovers yet another bribe, yet another cheat, yet another instance of pork-barrelling. Again and again, Thompson traces the beneficiaries of the Black Act back to Walpole, his relatives and his political cronies, who were only too willing to kill to maintain their privileges; or rather, to let the machinery of a corrupt law do their killing for them. Furthermore, as if the Act itself was not quite brutal enough as written - under certain of its provisions, individuals could be found guilty and condemned to death without trial, thus circumventing those defiant juries - it was further twisted and abused by various figures in authority. The Lord Hardwicke, who had helped to draft it, liked to pull out of it and apply specific clauses - for example, ruling that blacking in and of itself was a capital offence, without the individual required to be caught in the commission of a crime, or even armed. In the ultimate illustration of the extremities of the Black Act, we find one man, condemned for blacking alone, wailing from the gallows that he hadn't been disguised - his face was just dirty...

There's not much light to be found in Whigs And Hunters. This is, finally, an incredibly grim cautionary tale about the corruptions of power. (Thompson, realising in retrospect just how angry and depressing his study was, how ugly its depiction of legal abuses, added an afterword chapter arguing for the inherent value of the rule of law, properly administered.) However, we do see over time a general revulsion against the provisions of the Black Act, an increasing distaste for the idea that a deer, or a rabbit, or even a tree, was worth a human life. If we readers are to take anything positive away from this book, it is perhaps the role played by literature in this fight. Thompson credits the writings of people like Henry Fielding and Oliver Goldsmith with influencing public attitudes and helping to bring about change, and highlights the most scathing satires of the Walpole era: Swift's Gulliver's Travels, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and Fielding's Jonathan Wild.
1 vota lyzard | Feb 16, 2012 |
This is an at times fascinating account of a little known piece of legislation from a preeminent British historian. The Black Act outlawed peasants and commoners from infringing on the privileged classes in Hanoverian England in the 1720s.
  gmicksmith | Dec 19, 2009 |
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"Jesu!" said the Squire, "would you commit two persons to bridewell for a twig?" "Yes, said the Lawyer, "and with great lenity too; for if we had called it a young tree they would have been both hanged." ---Henry Fielding, The Adventures Of Joseph Andrews
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To CHRISTOPHER HILL Master Of More Than Just An Old Oxford College
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The British state, all eighteenth-century legislators agreed, existed to preserve the property and, incidentally, the lives and liberties, of the propertied.
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With Whigs and Hunters, the author of The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson plunged into the murky waters of the early eighteenth century to chart the violently conflicting currents that boiled beneath the apparent calm of the time. The subject is the Black Act, a law of unprecedented savagery passed by Parliament in 1723 to deal with 'wicked and evil-disposed men going armed in disguise'. These men were pillaging the royal forest of deer, conducting a running battle against the forest officers with blackmail, threats and violence. These 'Blacks', however, were men of some substance; their protest (for such it was) took issue with the equally wholsesale plunder of the forest by Whig nominees to the forest offices. And Robert Walpole, still consolidating his power, took an active part in the prosecution of the 'Blacks'. The episode is laden with political and social implications, affording us glimpses of considerable popular discontent, political chicanery, judicial inequity, corrupt ambition and crime.

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