11 May 1812: John Bellingham entered the House of Commons with mind full of grievances and a loaded gun.
1983: Henry Bellingham enters Parliament as a member for Northwest Norfolk.
14 May 2010: Conservative MP Henry Bellingham is appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, in the Foreign and Commonwealth office.
24 May 2012: Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, visits Sudan.
Henry Bellingham has little in common with his indirect ancestor, John. They both share a surname, but they’ve entered the House of Commons in very different ways, and with very different motives.
“I think Whitehall was even more indolent in replying to letters than it is now.” Says Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Henry Bellingham, when asked about his ancestor, “[John] was being given the run-around by government departments.”
Although John Bellingham is remembered as being an unsuccessful Scouser merchant who shot an unpopular Prime Minister, his story really begins thousands of miles away from London and Liverpool, in the depths of Russia.
International trade was as important to early 19th Britain in the as it is to Britain today. But Britain’s commercial ex-pats weren’t always valued by her veteran diplomats.
Unlike what we learn today, there was no free market in the UK in the early 19th century: Britain was still holding fast to a few of its government-granted monopolies. It was very difficult for a small businessman like John Bellingham to make a living, but he’d probably learnt to accept that.
What he didn’t learn to accept was for all the tax money he spent, all the money spent on protecting tyrants from Napoleon (and the tax money that resulted in massive land grants to friends of parliament), nothing seemed to be done for the average citizen in trouble.
Our story really starts in 1804. That’s when John Bellingham went to Archangel (Arkhangelsk) in Russia to do business. Like most expats investing abroad, Bellingham took his business with him, in this case it was ships. (John Bellingham left his family back in Liverpool, perhaps worried about the dangers of war, or perhaps wanting them to live a “normal” life rather than a transient one.)
On the 15th of November 1804, Bellingham wanted to go home and see his family, so he set off by way of Saint Petersburg.
Everything would have gone smoothly if it weren’t for a liar by the name of Solomon Van Brienen. Van Brienen was a co-owner of the Russian ship called Sojus, which had been shipwrecked in Russia’s White Sea. In order to get insurance money from Lloyds, Mr. Van Brienen brought the name of John Bellingham into the affair, claiming that Bellingham had written to Lloyds of London about the ship.
Bellingham had nothing to do with the vessel, and Lloyds hadn’t heard of it. The insurance payment was refused.
Now, perhaps no one would have believed Van Brienen, but a Russian official named Popoff also had partial ownership in the Sojus. Popov was not only a mayor, but also a magistrate. Popov wanted someone to pay for his loss, so he had John Bellingham arrested.
Bellingham was now unable to go home. So, like any ex-pat, he wrote to his government’s local representatives. One letter went to Sir Stephen Shairpe, another to Lord Grenville, who was the government representative at St. Petersburg at the time.
At first, Shairpe and Grenville seemed to both promise to do something about the situation, to protest that any of their citizens would be illegally detained in such a manner. However, John Bellingham languised for a time in prison without a response. Finally, he got the following in a letter from Shairpe.
“That the General Governor had replied to his Letter, stating your Petitioner to have behaved very indecorously, and that he was legally detained.”
In other words, Shairpe said that Popoff complained about Bellingham’s behavior, and so Shairpe accepted the Russians had every right to keep the Scouser locked up for as long as they wished.
It was pretty obvious that there was no case against Bellingham. The Russians apparently kept Bellingham in prison because a few powerful men like Popoff wanted money from a British company. It wasn’t an ordinary prison either, Bellingham was subjected to a military prison, with the “worst kind” of offenders including murderers and assassins.
Despite the fact that John Bellingham had not even been accused of any crime related to military conduct, his government did nothing. No matter how many letters he sent, they did nothing.
Eventually, the Russians found in John Bellingham’s favor, and let him go home. This had nothing to do with British petitions, as there weren’t any (the reason for this may have been Britain’s desire to win and keep Russia’s support in the war against Napoleon.) The Russian senate eventually saw no point in keeping an innocent foreigner in prison when there was no concrete evidence against him.
After six years, Bellingham returned home. There, he found that his family had been ruined. His affairs were not in order. No one from government would even tell John’s family whether he were alive or dead, and they were left in limbo, not knowing whether to prepare for his return or to mourn his passing.
The British Government was too busy suppressing Catholics, suppressing dissent from men like Daniel Isaac Eaton, granting subsidies to the royal family and a few chronies of parliament, thinking up new penalties for petty thieves, and trying to force Americans and other Neutrals into war with France. It had no time to care about its own people. A small businessman like John Bellingham was not considered important.
However, Bellingham did not give up hope. He continued to petition his government for some kind of redress, some kind of justice. He wrote to everybody, from the Prince Regent, to the House of Commons.
Just as before, there were promises to look into John Bellingham’s complaint, followed by letters saying that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do a thing about it.
Losing his business, having spent so long in prison, hearing so many promises that were not fulfilled, and seeing his family in ruins might have been enough to make John Bellingham snap. A man who started good had turned bad.
Just as he had in Mr. William’s dream, John Bellingham was able to gain entrance into the House of Commons. He sat in the lobby, waiting for someone to arrive. Then, John Bellingham took a few steps forward, took out his gun, and shot the Prime Minister.
After successfully hitting his target, John Bellingham sat calmly down on the same bench. John Bellingham did not attempt to flee, and he didn’t resist arrest. He had his revenge, he had his say, and now it was time to face the consequences.
Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was low down the list of people who Bellingham had a grudge against, Bellingham’s real enemies were in Russia. At his trial, John Bellingham apologized to Prime Minister Perceval’s family, saying that perhaps he should have shot someone else instead.
We might say that miffed off citizens today don’t act in such a way. British citizens have not assassinated a prime minister for 200 years (although an attempt was made on Thatcher, and a few government officials have been hit with paint, eggs, or kitchen utensils.)
But there are still hotheads who take their grievances out on the wrong people.
I remember a few years back, in Atlanta Georgia, my connecting flight to Savannah was cancelled. Sure, we were all disappointed, and as I had just been across the ocean, with no way of calling the people waiting for me, I might have been a bit anxious to find out how we’d get to Savannah.
Well, some large angry woman, who hadn’t travelled from any farther than New York, didn’t exhibit the same level of patience as the rest of us. She started shouting at the first person she could find, the woman at the ticket counter.
Everyone knew that woman behind the ticket counter had nothing to do with our delay, but some people just feel like letting off a little steam on the wrong person. The ticket counter woman took it very well, and all the screaming of Yosemite Sam himself probably wouldn’t have phased her.
I saw a similarly ugly scene in social networking this year. The aggrieved man had to wait in a phone queue for what, maybe an hour? Yes, it’s annoying, but not even Bellingham would assaulted someone over an hour.
The 2012 aggrieved ex-pat, or traveller, started writing abusive messages aimed at a US government worker he never met. What did she do to him to deserve this abuse? She merely asked how to leave a group on LinkedIn.
His excuse for this abusive behavior was that an embassy made him wait for a passport, for about an hour. Consequently, he hated all government workers.
Imagine if that man had been left to rot for six years in a Russian prison?
(More to come)