EPS Review #85 - The Unfortunate Colonel Despard

by Mike Jay, Bantam Press 2004

Despite the book cover and the Amazon blurb, Despard was not a terrorist. The only terrorism in this book is by the British government, as far as I can tell. Despard arrived in Jamaica in 1772 as a military engineer. He did a great job fortifying castles, and later assisted in some exciting warfare in Spanish-controlled Central America. He even makes friends with Nelson. They take a big castle, that proves to be a plague incubator: Despard destroys it before the Spanish come back. For a while he runs the British Bay Colony on the Miskito Coast (Honduras), balancing the demands of rich British planters who illegally cut logwood and mahogany, of the Spanish who own all the surrounding territory, of the Home Office, and of the common people, largely black or mulatto.

Eventually Despard goes back to England, to argue his case about local rule (he was popular with the common people but not with the greedy planters), and to claim several years' worth of expenses. He never leaves again, but spends time waiting for his pay and reassignment, then in debtor's prison, and finally perhaps agitating against the government, and being the last person ever to be drawn and quartered for high treason. His was the first face that Madame Tussaud modeled after death. I have never been to her museum; I wonder if the likeness is still there. The details of Despard's life are tantalisingly vague. For example, he married a beautiful black woman named Catherine, who worked hard to fight his case in London. Jay asserts that, despite England's horrible record with slavery in the Caribbean, this was before any racist attitudes had hardened, and Catherine was theoretically acceptable in polite society. But she is mostly erased from history.

What is not erased is the behavior of the government of King George and Pitt the Younger (but he was so cute in the Black Adder episode!). This was the period of the jolly Patrick O'Brian naval stories (though they do touch upon Ireland), and of the American and French revolutions and Thomas Paine. I was ignorant of the details, so I figured that England was liberalising at this time. I guess Despard thought so too, but he was wrong. They suspended the right of habeas corpus to get at him, and employed spies and informers to an amazing extent. A huge English army put down an Irish uprising in 1798, killing 30,000. There were many societies promoting freedom, but these all gradually became illegal. The government also used the fear of the French, and the likelihood of the abolition or redistribution of private property if French ideas took hold, to frighten and bully the populace into long expensive wars. What does remain impressive is that the legal system managed to hold up, and that Britain achieved various freedoms in such a slow and unrevolutionary way. Oh, and I am impressed that, if anyone ever wanted to hold a secret revolutionary meeting in this country, they always seemed to do it in a pub.

Who remembers logwood from their chemistry-set days, besides me? I remember that it could be counted on to make the test tube foam over with brilliant color.

By the way, this was the latest selection of our Boys' Book Club. I wonder if we should have tried to meet in the Oakley Arms where Despard was nabbed. Not sure if this is the same one

Previous selections were:

Death Comes to the Archbishop, Willa Cather - Sweet but slow. I liked the true-feeling evocation of the old west, and some of the anecdotes (the secret indian cave, the greedy priest). For laughs I bought the cliff-notes off Amazon. They come in a locked PDF that only allows me to read it. They were pretty lame, focusing on e.g. colors in each section.

Money, Martin Amis - Missed this one.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon - An amusing and affecting quick read. It is poignant when the narrator says he has a grip on life and will succeed.

The Death of Vishnu, Manil Suri - Some of us were glad it had so little "magic realism", but I wanted more.

Personal History, Katherine Graham - Very long and painfully thorough. Best part was the newspaper strike, where she finally allows some drama to seep in.

Next on the list is Vernon God Little, though The Gift of Stones looks pretty interesting, too.

Paul wrote: "Vernon God Little" - read it about 5 weeks ago in TKO. My advice is, if possible, guide the book club away from it. VGL is really trying to be clever and current. It does this in three annoying ways. The first is the theme (boy is improperly framed for school killing) the second is the backdrop (inevitable media maelstrom around confused young man) and the third is the writing (trying to transliterate the thinking patterns and accent of a 16 year old texas kid. There's lots of text like "my fuken mom" and what not). These, plus an amazingly aggravating ending, make the book distracting and something which has to be held at arms length. As such, I didn't engage with the book as much as observed it with a bit of mild annoyance. If/when you read it, I'll share some of the particularly aggravating parts. But seriously, if you want to read a book that will piss you off but make you think, choose something like Infinite Jest, not VGL.