Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


Forgotten Hero

Bill Hunter
Forgotten Hero: The Life and Times Of Edward Rushton: Liverpool’s Blind Poet: Revolutionary Republican and Anti-Slavery Fighter
Living History Library, Liverpool, 2002, pp. 119, £6.00

THIS book roams over Liverpool’s connection with the slave trade in the eighteenth century, quoting from various sources. Unfortunately, the wrong conclusion is drawn in a number of cases. For instance, Hunter cites the first verse of the poet William Cowper’s Pity For Poor Africans (p. 19) as an indication of Cowper’s, and by association John Newton’s, support for the slave trade. Hunter does not appear to understand that the poem is satirical. Cowper was in fact writing against the slave trade a good decade before the matter was taken up seriously in Parliament. In the late 1780s, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade approached Cowper, through John Newton, to write campaigning songs as broadsheets, and he did so, with his songs becoming very popular. As for John Newton, while he had been the captain of a slave ship, he repented and entered the church. William Wilberforce was a member of his congregation.

Additionally, Hunter states that Thomas Paine was unsympathetic to Rushton’s plea that they campaign together against slavery, from which it is concluded that Paine ‘cared valiantly for the freedom of the white man, but not of the negro’ (p. 50). As it happens, the introduction to a 1939 edition of Paine’s Age of Reason contains a quotation from the Pennsylvania Magazine which reads ‘Paine … the first to urge the principles of independence to the enslaved negro’, and the Introduction continues that the first anti-slavery association in America was formed following this. An earlier edition of the Age of Reason published by Watts & Co also makes this point. In this, the biographical introduction by the Rt Hon J.M. Robertson states: ‘An anti-slavery essay was Paine’s first composition for publication … and 35 days after Paine’s paper, the first American Anti-Slavery Society was formed in Philadelphia.’

Unfortunately, such inadequate research by Hunter makes me uneasy about other statements and conclusions made by him in this book.

To continue, in order to exhibit Rushton’s views, Hunter’s book contains pages of his poetry. Some of these were issued as broadsheets. Most of them exhibit the influence of hymns with their reliance on antique language – for example, thees and thous. I must compare the simplicity of language, if not of ideas, of Rushton’s exact contemporary, William Blake. On page 102, Hunter cites Eric Glasgow, who in his book Liverpool People put forward the view that Rushton’s poetry had not stood the test of time because ‘it belonged essentially to the political and social issues of his own time’. Hunter, in defence of Rushton, considers that poetic ability is secondary to the social and political ideas expressed. He posits Rushton’s adherence to principles as superior to Wordsworth’s poetic genius. However, it seems to me that if a man is presented as a poet, it is legitimate to make a critical assessment of his poetry. I would also point out that another contemporary of Edward Rushton, Percy Byshe Shelley, was not only a fine poet, but that his political poetry remains relevant to this day.

Hunter’s book contains an account of the Liverpool seaman’s revolt of 1775, and there is also information on press gangs and the rigours of the sailors’ lives. But it is a pity that the book as a whole is spoiled by the inaccuracies detailed above, for I am sure that Edward Rushton deserves to be remembered in print.

Sheila Lahr

Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011