Big Meeting in Support of Political Refugees (November 1855)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 13 November 1855

First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 537, November 16, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Published in English for the first time in MECW.
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.581-583), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): Neue Oder-Zeitung

On October 10, 1855 the French petty-bourgeois democrat Félix Pyat addressed an open letter to Queen Victoria in connection with her visit to France in August of that year. It was printed in L'Homme, a refugee newspaper published in Jersey. Anti-Bonapartist in content, the letter, like all public statements by Pyat, was adventurist in character and provided Bonapartist circles and the conservative British press with a pretext for launching a sustained attack on the refugees. It was rumoured that the British Government was contemplating repressive measures against the refugees. The Governor of Jersey ordered the publisher of L'Homme, Sventoslawski, and some other refugees to leave the island. Victor Hugo too was threatened with expulsion.

This in turn gave rise to an angry protest campaign by the progressive public in Britain.

The basic propositions of this article coincide with those of Marx's letter to Elsner of November 8, 1855.

London, November 13. An exceptionally well attended meeting was held in St. Martin's Hall last night. The notices announcing the meeting spoke of "a joint demonstration against the recent expulsions from Jersey, the proposed Alien Bill[1] and the present war policy"[2]. The last point, however, was dropped to ensure concord on the other two points. The chairman, Mr. Edward M.P., gave a survey of the events which led to the expulsion and then continued:

"The simple object of this meeting is to protest. both against the past and against the future. We claim on behalf of political exiles here the right of asylum. (cheers) on the simple ground that they are political exiles (cheers), whose misfortunes suffice to secure our sympathy and protection (cheers). We do not ask what politics they profess or what might be the party in their own country to which they belong.. We make no distinction between prince and plebeian in this respect. (Cheers.) We want the right of sanctuary to be accorded equally to all who come to these shores. Hitherto we have done this impartially. We have extended our hand to Prince Louis Napoleon, just as we sheltered a forgotten monarch under the name of John Smith[3]. (Cheers and laughter.) We have granted the protection of our laws to Orleanists, Fusionists,[4] Royalists and Republicans not according to the policy of the rulers of the country from which they fled, but according to the laws of this country. (Cheers.) Our national hospitality has bid them all a cordial welcome. Among others we have held in high esteem Kossuth (prolonged applause) whom The Times recently called the noble Magyar, we have likewise afforded Mazzini the protection he sought. (Loud applause.) We had not thought it necessary to inquire whether the political views of these men were in accordance with our own; it sufficed that they were exiles from their own country for political causes, and their misfortunes were a sufficient passport to our sympathies. (Cheers.) This is what we claim for the Jersey [...] refugees. (Hear, hear!) This is what we claim for all who come to these shores and we will not bate one jot of our national hospitality at the bidding of any one. (Loud and prolonged cheers.) It is therefore fitting that those who come here should be welcomed to the full enjoyment of British liberty and not merely to a prison. (Hear, hear!) There must be no registration of political refugees, no police surveillance. (Hear, hear!) The freedom of these persons, just as our own, must not be placed in the hands of any minister or the Crown", etc.

After Miall's fairly long speech, which was greeted with tremendous applause and did not pass off without fierce attacks on Louis Napoleon and Austria, Mr. Washington Wilks read the following letter from Cobden:

"My dear Sir,—I cannot, I am sorry to say, take a part in your demonstration against the arbitrary treatment of M. Victor Hugo and his brethren in exile. But although distance from town and other engagements prevent me from being present, I sympathize very cordially with the promoters of the meeting. Surely such proceedings as those which you are meeting to protest against ought to open the eyes, of at least that part of the public which is supporting the war (cries of oh, oh) from a sympathy with liberalism abroad, as to the gross delusion that has been practised on their credulity (cries of oh, oh) by those who have told them that in the hands of our present Government the war in which we are engaged is a struggle for liberty. (Hisses and cheers.) Depend on it, the tendency, both at home and abroad, ever since the peace of Europe was broken, has been the very reverse; and give us but a few years more of war, and we shall find ourselves retrograding to the dark political doings of Sidmouth's evil days[5]. (Cries of no, no, hissing and cheering)"

R. Cobden

The meeting then passed the following resolution:

"That this meeting utters its indignant protest against the recent expulsion of refugees from jersey, and affirms that foreigners landing in the dominion of the British Crown become at once entitled to the natural and legal right of Englishmen—a public examination and trial by jury before exposure to any penal consequences. That this meeting pledges itself and calls upon the country to resist by all lawful means the apprehended attempt to carry through Parliament an act invalidating or restricting the right of sanctuary."

This demonstration will be followed by quite a number of similar ones. Incidentally I cannot refrain from observing that the whole refugee question consists of much smoke and little fire. Public opinion has definitely turned against the government, but I also believe that this uproar was allowed for in the government's calculations. The government responded to Louis Napoleon's first demands so clumsily, tragi-comically and blusteringly merely to demonstrate the fact to him that further concessions were beyond the power of a British government. Had it been in earnest, the government would have proceeded more skilfully and would not have struck in such a grotesque way and so long before the opening of Parliament. Palmerston does not love the refugees, but he regards them as a means which he must keep at hand so as to be able to threaten the Continent with them when the occasion arises. I am convinced that just now the refugees have less reason for anxiety than ever before.

  1. The Alien Bill (Marx uses the English term) was passed by the British Parliament in 1793 and renewed in 1802, 1803, 1816, 1818 and, finally, in 1848, this time in connection with revolutionary developments on the Continent and Chartist demonstrations in Britain. The Bill authorised the Government to expel any foreigner from the Realm at any moment. It remained in force for one year. Subsequently conservative circles repeatedly urged its renewal.

    In connection with the developments in Jersey, the proposed expulsion of revolutionary refugees was discussed for several months and finally rejected at the beginning of 1856. On February 1 of that year Palmerston told the House of Commons that the Government would not seek a renewal of the Alien Bill.
  2. Below follows a summary of a report of this meeting published in The Times, No. 22216, November 13, 1855.—Ed.
  3. Louis Philippe.—Ed.
  4. The Fusionists advocated a merger (fusion) of the Legitimists (supporters of the elder branch of the French house of Bourbons) with the Orleanists (supporters of the younger branch).
  5. The name of Viscount Henry Addington Sidmouth, Home Secretary in Liverpool's Tory Cabinet from 1812 to 1821, was associated with a number of anti-popular laws and reactionary measures: the introduction of the Corn Laws in the interests of the landowners in 1815, the restriction of the right of assembly and the virtual introduction of censorship in 1817, the bloody dispersal of a workers' meeting near Manchester in 1819 (the Peterloo massacre), the passage of the "gagging acts" and others.

    Following the massacre of workers at a mass meeting in support of electoral reform on St. Peter's Field near Manchester on August 16, 1819, the British Parliament passed the Six Acts, proposed by Lord Castlereagh, which virtually abolished Habeas Corpus and the freedom of the press and assembly. They became known as the "gagging acts", and Marx uses the phrase in the English version of the article where he speaks of "Castlereagh's six gagging acts".