The main period that steampunk covers is the reign of Queen Victoria (1838-1901). At conventions and meet-ups, we see people dressed in spiffy waistcoats, stylish petticoats and top hats. People have high tea, create characters and personas of mad scientist, airship captains and Victorian dandies. There is nothing wrong with emulating Victorian high society; at the same time, however, during this much-admired period, the British government instituted its control over half the globe and soaked a large portion of it in blood. What, then, are our responsibilities as people who use this time period as a historical base for our worlds? This was an age of Social Darwinism, of belief in white, Christian supremacy, and the idea that it was the godly imperial duty of all good Englishmen to help extend their world view to the darker parts of the world, and if they meet resistance, it was to be crushed. Does the same vicious and racist world view come through in our worlds? If not, what is the history of people left unconquered by Western Imperialism?
Victoria’s vision of a global British empire didn’t go unchallenged. Throughout her rule, from Dublin to Khartoum, people took up arms to see the British (and other western powers) removed from the places they had come to conquer. Thus, the following questions should be asked: Who were the “rebels” of the Victorian era? Who were the people that were responded to what they saw happening all around them? The list is actually quite long: they were the Irish, the Zulus, the Boers, the Luddites, the mutineers in India, the guerillas in the Sudan, the working class of all nations, and the children living on the streets of London. These were the true rebels in Victoria’s empire, and we should pay them more attention and respect as we evolve as a subculture and literary movement. As we look for the modern “punk” in steampunk, we should become aware of the rich history that lies in all the colonies, not just the United States. Their struggles and the tactics they chose, though not always universally acceptable, make perfect fodder for the worlds and stories we wish to tell. The following is just one example of resistance to the British state from a colonized population and how the British responded. It is the story of acts of resistance that was aimed not just at Victoria’s empire, but at the queen herself.
On June 21st 1887, all of London and the world had come to out to watch the procession to Westminster Abbey, where Queen Victoria would celebrate her Golden Jubilee, her fiftieth year on the throne. Every head of state in Europe was in attendance, as well as diplomats, military men, and royalty from across the globe. But unknown to the onlookers, the members of Scotland Yard were busily scanning the crowd. Westminster had been searched from top to bottom. Word had reached them that a plot was being hatched to assassinate the queen; they feared Irish revolutionaries from America joined with Fenian sleepers in the city to strike a fatal blow against the British Empire.
There was reason to be fearful, even as Victoria waved to the crowd: two bomb makers were docking in Liverpool. But there was more to this event then just an Irish plot to kill the queen. It was the final stage in a long and drawn out struggle between Irish rebels and the British Intelligence service which had been waged for the past twenty years.
Ireland had been England’s longest-held and most troublesome colony. We may think of “the troubles” as a modern problem, but in fact, violence has wracked that small island from the moment the British occupied it. Each generation in Ireland saw some form of uprising, and in the middle of the nineteenth century, taking notes from the radicals in Russia, Irish rebels embarked on a campaign of urban terrorism, one which shook many Londoners to their core.
It is a fair argument to make that England’s problems with Ireland during the Victorian era, can be traced to the famine that gripped the island in the 1840’s. British landlords did almost nothing to help as one and a half million people starved to death. Millions more flooded onto ships bound for America, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. For these immigrants, the memories of the famine and all the pain and suffering would be burned into their memories. More importantly perhaps, is that the memory of the famine would be passed on to their children, many of whom were born in America, but raised in proud Irish households. This generation would also be swept up on both sides of the American Civil War. It is here that a perfect storm was created: a generation of Irish-Americans fueled by nationalism from their parents and given military training by a government outside England. When the war ended, they would put their training to use in trying to liberate their occupied homeland. Almost all of the bombs that exploded in London over the course of the next twenty years can be traced back to America, where Fenians plotted revolution safely in cities that would never have extradited them. Boston in particular had a reputation as being one of the safest havens if one was being pursued by the crown. It was also in this period that we saw the rise of what would become the British Secret Service, and the beginning of the first covert war waged between a standing government and a terrorist organization.
In October of 1871, hundreds of Irish Americans turned up at New York Harbor to welcome political prisoners who had been pardoned by the British government. The ship that carried them into exile was the CUBA, and as such the five men were given the name the Cuba Five. All five were leading members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a nationalist group active in Ireland, they were: John Devoy, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles Underwood O’Connell, Henry Mulleda, and John McClure. Although the condition of their pardon was that they could not enter British territory again, these five men became the leadership of the new age of resistance to English rule and ushered in a new age of terror.
All five men were convinced that armed struggle was the only way to liberate Ireland. What form that armed struggle would take was an issue that bitterly divided them. At the time they docked, the main group on US soil was the Fenian Brotherhood, an organization that had launched numerous failed raids into Canada in an attempt to ransom the provinces for Ireland. In the wake of these failures, a new group was established known as Clan na Gael (family of the Gaels). This group served as the main sister organization to the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin and was the forbearer of the groups like the Irish Republican Army. These men were respected elders in the struggle and quickly ushered into leadership roles. It was during this time that John Devoy made contact with a rising star within the Irish parliament, a man named Charles Stewart Parnell.
Over in Ireland, a crop failure in the early 1870’s sent most of the country into a panic. Vowing not to go through another famine, the Irish Land League was formed in order to abolish landlordism in Ireland and allow peasant farmers that had worked the land for centuries the ability to own it. Out of this movement came Charles Stuart Parnell, who would soon become the leader of the Irish Party, and the most vocal advocate for Home Rule for Ireland. Parnell was an odd choice to champion the cause of the Irish peasantry; he was an Irish landlord, educated in England and benefited from English rule. As Parnell’s political power grew, he was viewed as a traitor to his class and queen by those around him. Parnell didn’t go unnoticed from those in America either. On Palm Sunday 1879, John Devoy met with Parnell in a hotel in Dublin. It was through these meetings that Clan na Gale offered Parnell an alliance. Parnell accepted and it became known as the New Departure. It was the first time that Irish Radicals would form lasting networks with mainstream politicians.
With issues over the land in Ireland intensifying, an event took place in Ireland that would divide the movement on both shores. The incident began when Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke took a leisurely stroll through Phoenix Park in Dublin on May 6th 1882. Cavendish was the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Burke was the Permanent Undersecretary, the most senior civil servant in the country. Without warning two figures approached the pair, drew knives, and stab the civil servants to death. The killings were the work of a group called the Irish Invincibles. Parnell was horrified at the murders and even offered his resignation to the Prime Minster William Gladstone, whose niece was the wife of Lord Cavendish. Parnell’s outraged led to the growth of his popularity in Ireland, and though it would later be called into question, Parnell’s disgust at the murders showed that though he was willing to work with militants, he was in fact not one himself.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, however, was convinced that only through mass terror would the British government be forced to leave Ireland. He split with Clan na Gael and formed his own group, the United Irishmen. His followers began stealing dynamite from worksites in New York, Chicago, and Boston. These explosives were then smuggled back to mainland Brittan, to be used in what became known as the Dynamite Campaign. Throughout 1884-85, bombs exploded at Scotland Yard, at The London Subway and at The Queens Amy station at Salford barracks. In one day known as Dynamite Saturday, bombs rocked both the Tower of London and the House of Commons. Only a handful of other bombers were caught before they could detonate the rest of their infernal machines.
These attacks caused a huge outrage within the Irish movement. Parnell condemned them publicly, and the IRB in Dublin officially cut ties with Clan na Gale and other Irish groups in America. The attacks did little to change the official British position on the land crisis or the issue of home rule. It did, however, convince some within the British government that they were better off dealing with Parnell and his ballot box, than the Fenian bomb. Edward Jenkins heading the Fenian offices at Scotland Yard wrote a memo to the Prime Minster Salisbury, saying that the government should embrace Home Rule for Ireland, fearing an even more violent and destructive event coming. But Salisbury had a different solution in mind.
British intelligence, of course, was not unaware of what the Clan na Gale or the United Irishmen were plotting. An extensive network of spies ran throughout the Irish movement, both on the Island and off. Francis Millen, a mercenary from Latin America, was a perfect example. Earning his stripes in the Mexican-American war (on the side of Mexico), Millen was welcomed into the ranks of the Fenian Brotherhood and then Clan na Gael. Unknown to the Fenians was that Millen had also showed up at the British consul in New York offering his service as a spy. For more than twenty years he would pass information to the British Government in exchange for money. It would be through Francis Millen that London would attempt to solve their Irish problem.
In the beginning of June, 1887, several London papers began running stories about how the Irish were plotting to blow up The Queen and anyone in Parliament at Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration at the end of that month. This was in fact true—with the blessing of the Prime Minister Salisbury, Frances Millen had put in motion a plot to kill Victoria. The idea of taking out the” Famine Queen” was something that had certainly crossed the rebels’ minds before. It’s even possible that the idea of an attack at the Jubilee was in the minds of Clan or UI’s leadership before Millen suggested it. What would come to be known as “The Jubilee Plot” long held to be the work of Irish radicals based in America, in fact had its origins with Prime Minister Salisbury.
As Parnell grew in power and stature, he and the Irish Party found that they held a great deal of influence in Parliament. They saw themselves as holding the balance of power between the unionist PM Salisbury and the leader of the Liberals, former Prime Minister William Gladstone. Both leaders would find themselves uncomfortably reliant on Parnell, who would use the opportunity to try and push, not only for land reform, but for Home Rule. Parnell’s actions attracted the attention of the Prime Minister. Salisbury was an extreme unionist, who thought that if the union between England and Ireland were broken it would mean the end of the British Empire itself.
On June 11th in New York, Andrew Sullivan, a Clan leader dispatched two bomb makers, Thomas Callan and Michael Harkins, to England with a trunk filled with explosives. Through a mix-up in ticket reservations the pair had—literally—missed the boat that would have landed them in London in time to prep for the assassination; they ended up taking a later boat which docked the day of the Jubilee. Whether it was the work of Millen or just the result of poor planning will never be known. What is known, though, is that the bombers arrived on the day of the Queen’s celebration, and as a result had to look for other targets. For the next five months, the pair was followed throughout London, British Intelligence making note of who they visited. The pair was finally arrested in November, and a crackdown began that would cripple the Fenian network in mainland Brittan. Francis Millen escaped back to New York where he was named as the mastermind of “Jubilee Plot” and placed at the top of an English Most Wanted list.
Soon after, the London Times published an article called “Parnellism and Crime,” which stated that Parnell not only had links with the dynamiters, but that he had ordered some of the attacks, including the Phoenix Park murders. This article led to the formation of a committee that was set up on the House of Commons to investigate whether Parnell had been involved in any of the plots. The main proof was said to be a series of letters provided by a man named Richard Piggott, but after two days of intense cross-examination, he confessed that he had forged them. Millen was then called from New York to testify to Parnell’s involvement with the Jubilee Plot but died in his home in New York. Some historians have since wondered if his treachery had been discovered and that the Clan na Gale wanted to silence him. The findings of the commission were that there was not any conclusive proof linking Parnell to any of the dynamiters, though they stopped short of exonerating him. That episode marked the beginning of the end of his career.
The Dynamite Campaign of the 1880’s failed to bring about home rule for Ireland. When one looks back at the Jubilee Plot, the only ones who came away victorious were the forces of British Intelligence, and even their victory was a temporary one. The issue of independence for Ireland had not been crushed, it had only been delayed. In the end what Parnell and Devoy worked to avoid took place: Ireland would gain most of its freedom through a bloody war of attrition with the British Army a generation later, a war that would last until modern times.
Only in the past ten years has Northern Ireland seen peace and stability. How many thousands dead and gone? How many people maimed and injured at the hands of both sides, because of the refusal of the British government to give up its Empire? As we look for ways to put the punk in steampunk, the struggles in Ireland allow us a perfect way to acknowledge the struggle that was constantly going on in this period, between the British state, and those who refused to obey them.
So the next time you drink high tea, perhaps you’ll choose Irish Breakfast as opposed to Earl Gray, and as you pick out your costume for the next steampunk event, perhaps you’ll decided to go as a Fenian dynamiter, as opposed to a English gentlemen.
Kevin Mullins is a playwright, theatre artist and steampunker originally from Boston. His plays have been presented at Slant of Light Theatre in Norwich CT, Flat Earth Theatre in Boston, and the International Anarchist Theatre Festival of Montreal. He is a founding member of Flat Earth Theatre, and is currently heading to the Pennsylvania wilderness to pursue a master’s in dramatic writing, and plot the assassination of Queen Victoria.