At the start of 1812, insurgents were big news in the French media.
“We learn from Valencia that the small fortress that Marshall Sechet has left in his rear, blockaded by various corps of the army, have successively surrendered, and the siege of Valencia has been seriously prosecuted by General Harispe, who commands under the orders of the Marshall. The Spanish General Blake is attempting to collect a force, in order to make a second attempt to relieve the place, but the uniform terror spread by the armies of France, is sufficient to impede his design; and the insurgents have, by the last account, been driven from the right bank of Guadilaviar. The Polish division has particularly distinguished itself in the late encounters with the enemy.”
One thing I notice in looking at old documents is the use of the word “terror” in war, as if it were a good thing. The French weren’t alone is using “terror” as an instrument. Even in the US Navy, ships carried the name “USS Terror” as late as World War II. (The Terror was a minelayer, a ship whose primary purpose was to lay sea mines in the water.)
Of course, the word terror does not necessarily mean what we today call a terrorist. But has the definition of the word insurgent changed as well?
The Spaniards, loyal to the old regime who attacked what they saw as foreign invaders were the “insurgent” enemy to the French newspapers. The pro-independence rebels in South America who fought against remnants of that same old regime were also called “insurgents.”
If you want an insurgent for a neighbour…
But not all insurgents were fighting against a foreign government, or a foreign aligned government. The Luddite rioters in England were also given the title of insurgents by the British media in 1812.
“The riotous conduct of the insurgents in Nottinghamshire, is a matter of national alarm and regret: — it is hardly possible to imagine anything more stupidly foolish and ridiculous than for artisans and manufacturers to seek a melioration of their state and condition in life, or an advancement of their trade, by the destruction of the implements of the machinery which form and constitute their means of living!” The Morning Chronicle, January 13, 1812
The Morning Chronicle isn’t the only paper to call rioters insurgents. Throughout the British press, the two terms (insurgent and rioter) were used interchangeably to describe the people we now call Luddites.
The French newspapers appeared to have a particular loathing of insurgents, of which “fifteen hundred have been arrested, and sent to France; and the chief of the insurgents have been executed at the public squares!”
America’s insurgent friends
But “insurgents” were not always enemies. Sometimes “insurgents” shared space with more positive words, like “Patriots.” When speaking of the South American revolutionaries, a Boston paper said:
“The Insurgents, or Patriots, formed a camp on Rose’s bluff, opposite St. Mary’s, at the same time the gun-boats, were ordered to proceed down to the Sound, where they were moored, their guns loaded, and every man to his station; several signal guns were fired by the Commodore; the Insurgents then embarked in boats from Rose’s Bluff, and proceeded to Amelia island, where they landed, Col. Ludowick Ashley at their head, and demanded the surrender of the island to the Patriots, which was refused by the Commandante, but who requested a parley until he could send a deputation to Commodore Campbell, who was then sailing up and down the harbor, to ascertain whether he would assist the insurgents in case they even resisted – The Commodore’s reply was, that he would assist the insurgents. The island was then surrendered to Col. Ashley, and the flag of the Patriots was immediately displayed on the ramparts of the fort, which was soon succeeded by the flag of the United States. The United States troops are now in possession of the island of Amelia, the country of East Florida in possession of the Patriots, and the town of Augustine and the garrison in possession of the soldiers of Ferdinand the 7th. The Governor of that place is determined to hold out to the last extremity.”
That letter, dated March 20th 1812, was printed in the Columbian Museum and Savannah advertiser on the 26th of March. The Morning Chronicle reprinted it on May 13th 1812.
It is frustrating that the British papers did not seem to comment much on this particular expedition, choosing only to quote foreign papers and letters sent from elsewhere. Did the fact that Americans had allied with insurgents against the Spanish crown in Spain’s colonies worry the British that the Americans might do the same to their own? When summarizing the above event in a later edition, the word “insurgent” was used, but not patriot. Perhaps the choice of words was enough for the British press to indicate its own opinion.
The most frequent use of the word “insurgents”, however, is used to describe those who fought against Napoleon’s occupation. Here again, French papers loyal to Napoleon are quoted as using the word “insurgent” to describe their enemies, and the British are merely trying to be faithful to original in their translation.
“We learn from Gerona, that on 4th inst (4th of May, 1812), an attempt to carry by assault the fort of Mattaro, built in the old garden of the Capucins, was made by the insurgents under the command of Milans. — They were supported by two English ships of the line, a frigate, and six corvettes.” (translated in the Caledonian Mercury, sixth June 1812)
It’s obvious that the insurgents in Europe were allies of the British. But while the Latin American rebels were regularly called ‘insurgents’ in news summaries, the British allies were almost exclusively called insurgents in French papers (and their translations).
Therefore, it appears that insurgent had a strong negative connotation in Britain, a connotation that it might not have shared in the United States. After all, the insurgents in Latin America were not only fighting against the King Ferdinand 7 of Spain, a British ally, but they also appeared to espouse the same Republican virtues of the French revolution (and to a lesser extent the American one.)
But insurgents were not the most evil of fighters, and even if the British refused to call their allies insurgents, that didn’t mean they lost all sympathy with those who they would label as such. When speaking of those who rebelled against the Sultan of the Ottoman empire, the following account was given.
When the Russians were fighting the Ottoman empire “the whole of Servia (Serbia) rose in revolt against the Turkish governors, yet no object of importance was attained. Peace was therefore proposed, and negotiation commenced, when the Janizaries, instigated by both superstition and the desire to continue a war which increased their influence, broke out in open rebellion in the heart of Constantinople. Their numbers amounted to 40,000, and at the later end of November (1809) they violated the seraglio, plundered the treasures, and forced the houses of the peaceable citizens. The Grand Seigneur [Ottoman emperor or Sultan] was compelled to seek refuge on board the fleet, and troops were sent from all quarters to quell the insurgents. A battle ensued of the most sanguinary character, which the Janizaries maintained in divided parties from street to street, and it was not until 10,000 of them were slain, besides a great number of regular troops, that the Sultan could return with safety to his palace. He then found it necessary to increase the pay of the army to secure its fidelity, while he continued the negotiation with Russia.
“Three thousand of the insurgents are said subsequently, in a Turkish state paper, to have suffered by the hand of an executioner, and as many to have been condemned to imprisonment for life. It is thus that the despotic Governments ever are obliged to seek for safety in the destruction of their subjects: their strength exists only in the terrors with which it is arrayed, and they purchase a temporary authority by the blood of those very men in whom their real power necessarily consists. Hence we may deduce this maxim that every extension of severity in the laws of a free state testifies a decline in freedom, for in a free state no government can, nor ought to, exist by severe and compulsory statutes.
– Historical Sketch of the Regency, from the Meeting OF Parliament, in November 1810. quoted in the Liverpool Mercury etc (Liverpool, England), Friday, June 26, 1812;
So, while although the acts of the insurgents are not to be approved of, the opponents of the insurgents are not necessarily innocent victims, but can be called “tyrants.”
Sometimes, terms would slip. The Spanish allies were called insurgents on 6 July 1812 in the Hampshire telegraph and Sussex Chronicle.
“Some of the last letters from Paris state, that the guillitine is now called into very active service, as the most effective instrument of silencing the cries of miserable insurgents for bread.”
I haven’t seen a source that extreme from the French, but the French Republican lack of sympathy for the insurgents is apparent in the following communication made in 6th June (reprinted in several British newspapers in July 1812)
“An individual, who escapes from Cadiz, draws a deplorable picture of the insurgents’ situation. The Regency is absolutely without money; Officers, and even Generals, are obliged to go from House to house, to beg wherewith upon to subsist, under pretense of building barracks for their troops.”
The lack of food among insurgents is meant to build French morale.
Eventually, the term insurgent was used more in a positive manner, as the British press started feeling sympathetic for the rebels in the Spanish colonies.
“The unnatural and bloody contest has already cost near one hundred thousand lives, and has reduced the annual produce of Mexico from 25 million dollars to less than a fifth of that amount. Nothing can exceed the cruelties exercised on the insurgents taken in battle. All of them have been put to an ignominious death. And among them many of the most experienced miners, whose loss it will for a number of years be impossible to supply.”
Any rebel, foriegn or domestic, could be an insurgent. Even a prisoner of war. When “7500” French prisoners in Dartmoor, who felt a lack of bread as their rations of bread and water had been cut by a third, rebelled in mid September, for a lack of bread “the appearance of artillery settled everything.” What did the French “insurgents” do that was so menacing that artillery was required? Apparently they took their shirts off and swore at the British soldiers, even those armed with bayonets, swords and rifles. To the British soldier’s credit, it doesn’t seem that a single round was fired at the “insurgents.”