improving the flavor of their soup.

Category: Daily Life | Type: Historical | Title: Great Expectations (in Context) | Author: Charles Dickens | Ch: Chapter XXXII

Dickens is referring to the inmates of Chatham Convict Prison who in February, 1861, rioted, protesting the conditions of their imprisonment, especially the reduction in their food rations. His satire is at the expense of the convicts, which may surprise us, for his attitude toward prisons and convicts is generally sympathetic and more akin to Joe's compassion for the inmates of the Hulks.

Yet Dickens became more conservative, especially regarding punishment of adults, as he aged, and he reversed his opposition to capital punishment. His attitude was further sharpened by an article on the Chatham Prison riot in The Cornhill, a respected periodical, indicating the conditions in Chatham Prison were superior to those suffered by many of the working poor: proper lodging, sanitary facilities, and sufficient food. In fact The Cornhill rhapsodized: "There are few families in London which command better materials" and "The cooking is excellent; better, far better, than in most ordinary inns." This is simply not believable; were it remotely the truth, we can be fairly certain the convicts would not have rioted.

Dickens' politics were always complex and sometimes contradictory. He was radical in some areas, especially concerning children, but fairly authoritarian in others. We've noted his indebtedness to his friend Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present, whose politics by this time bordered on the fascistic, something that never tempted Dickens. Perhaps inciting Dickens' reaction to the Chatham Prison riot was the Sepoy Rebellion/Indian Mutiny/Rebellion in 1857, which resulted in the massacre by Indian troops of some British officers, eight children, eight women, and four male civilians by Indian troops. 

In1865 occurred what become known as the Gov. Eyre controversy. Although the British Emancipation Act (1833) ended slavery in all British possessions and enabled former slaves to vote, in practice matters were different. Of the 350,000 to 436,000 people (the numbers vary) who made up the black population in Jamaica, only some 2,000 could vote. The disparities in quality of life between this population and the 13,000 or so Europeans, many English, were often grotesque. Following years of tension, a crowd attacked a police station in the town of Morant Bay. The mob killed eighteen people and subsequently two planters and besieged plantations in the vicinity.

The response was in the true sense draconian. The colonial governor, Edward Eyre, perhaps with the Indian Mutiny in mind, executed some 500 blacks, ordered flogged mercilessly at least that number, and burned hundreds of black homes. He also hanged after a court martial a mixed-race legislator in the Jamaica Assembly.

Eyre's conduct divided politicians and intelligentsia in England. On the one hand some Radical politicians condemned Eyre as did such intellectual luminaries as John Stuart Mill, Cbarles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Frederic Harrison, Charles Lyell, and Thomas Hughes, as did a number of prominent Quakers and the London Missionary Society. But the opposition was also powerful and included Thomas Carlyle, Dickens, Tennyson ("The Charge of the Light Brigade"), John Ruskin, and the novelist and clergyman Charles Kingsley (Water-Babies and Westward, Ho!). Over two years the vehemence against Eyre and the attempts to prosecute him withered as England became absorbed by more immediate and yet related concerns, such as the Second Reform Bill, which promised the vast extension of the right to vote. Much of the Eyre controversy turned on whether black people were essentially—their innate intelligence and moral sense—were equal to whites. While Dickens detested slavery, he did not believe in the essential equality of blacks and whites. But in the arguments surrounding the Second Reform Bill, analogous assumptions were sometimes made about the poor, especially the Irish, as being incapable and finally undeserving of exercising the power to vote intelligently.   

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