Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Red Flag's Banner Year: 1831?

Making my slow but pleasant way through Emyr Humphreys' literary history of what he calls "The Taleisin Tradition," a sentence buried in a description of the 1831 Merthyr Tydfil uprising arrested me. Apparently this Welsh rebellion was the first time that we know of when a red flag flew as a symbol of workers' protest. The "Red Flag" entry on Wikipedia adds that the pair of banners had been soaked in calf's blood.

I'd always assumed the 1848 upheavals marked its rousing début, fueled by Marx & Engels. This corrective Welsh factoid reminds me of how little I know about the restive, or dormant, past. Unless we see a tidy bio-pic on Ché, Malcolm X, or Harvey Milk, it appears that few of us gain even that much knowledge about even a cartoonish or two-hour reductive tale from our radical past. Even more telling's the absence of celluloid stories about a conservative array of restless characters such as Samuel Johnson, Cardinal Newman, or even Éamon De Valera!

I know I speak as a minority of a minority in my interest in the Long Fellow's machinations, but Alan Rickman's haunting portrayal of Dev in the ambitious if uneven "Michael Collins" remains indelible. It also reminds me how few movies get made about right-wingers rather than lefty icons! Their absence of good looks may be to blame. Even Fox News relies on buxom bottle blondes to deliver its neo-con tirades!

I chatted with a friend last night, André, my older son's bar mitzvah coach-- doubtless one of the few black Angeleno Americans who has converted to Judaism, finished a degree in Judaic Studies at York U. and now coaches hockey from his flat in the heart of kosher Toronto while working for the second largest Conservative synagogue on our continent-- about his weariness with his own considerably complex skill set of "Jackie Robinson moments" of having to be the "first so-and-so." He aligns smoothly with the post-racial generation about to be inaugurated. Kibitzing with him and my wife about Toronto's machers, schnorrers, and schemdliks, I was reminded of how complex we essentially (in this true spirit of that adverb) are.

While many try by our skin to define and limit us, many of us resist rather than rejoice in its categorization of our supposed ideology and temperament and preferences! We learn remote languages not our "own." We challenge our heritage. We upend expectations of how we "should" talk, look, or act as if our identity's identical with our complexion.

His older brother, a gay man in L.A., nonetheless prefers to sit out the Prop. 8 debates roiling here rather than march in protest. He, a child of the civil rights era, now more calmly figures the law will right itself in time, and backlashes may be sparked by bitter boycotts. How many of us don't fit into our blue-red party lines? André reminded my wife and I about those who had preceded Obama who had been often denigrated by their own community: Colin Powell, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice, for saying what our President-elect has been applauded for, regarding responsibility rather than blaming the Man. And, as Marc Goldblatt asked in January 5th's National Review Online,"The Upside of Obama," what happens now that another Man's in charge?

That's what André likes about his new home in Canada: more choices, even if the Conservatives there are at their most radical only moderate Democrats south of the border. That's the difference between, as he notes, a civilized, literate, and more thoughtful society and our own that revels in rants, vulgarity, and spectacle. Yes, I like punk and dirty jokes. I snicker when I should not at what I am shown. I enjoy malcontents ostracized (at least) for their own stubborn stances, such as Céline or Francis Stuart, alongside those lionized on the P.C. curriculum. I guess I root for whomever's shouting at the emperor for his woeful sartorial hubris. Still, as with artists, I suppose we humanists habitually sidle towards sinistrality on a political spectrum, although much of what's created by many media today should shame us all.

Speaking of colors, intriguingly, Bob Saunders archived at expands in details gleaned from contemporary accounts, a couple of black flags also were brandished by marchers angered at the execution of "Dic Penderyn." The red and the black, for unfurling not only in Stendhal. Visit also the "The Dic Penderyn Society." I reproduce as context a pithy but forceful entry from "Welsh Heroes," #56, "Dic Penderyn," aka Richard Lewis.

For over a week in the summer of 1831, the authorities lost control of Merthyr Tydfil. With the town already a hotbed of political unrest, news that the ironmaster William Crawshay was to cut his workers’ wages was the spark that ignited the flames of rebellion.

Troops of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were sent to put down the rioters. In an ugly confrontation in front of the Castle Hotel, as many as twenty people were shot dead.

Along with the Newport Rising eight years later, it was one of the most serious violent outbreaks witnessed on mainland Britain. It is also claimed to be the first time that a red flag was waved as a banner of workers power.

In the aftermath of the disturbance, a 23 year-old miner by the name of Richard Lewis was arrested and imprisoned. Better known as Dic Penderyn, he was originally from Aberavon and was typical of the men who had flocked to Merthyr, then the largest town in Wales, to find work.

Dic was accused of wounding Donald Black, one of the Scottish soldiers. The evidence against him was slender and Black himself apparently could not identify his assailant. Nevertheless, at his trial in Cardiff, Dic Penderyn was sentenced to the gallows.

Historians have argued that the authorities were worried about the potential power of the trade unions emerging in the newly industrialised parts of Wales. As an outspoken and intelligent workingman, Dic Penderyn may well have been suspected of being a union ringleader. Although 28 people had been arrested, only he was sentenced to death.

Despite the please of several well connected Welshmen that Dic Penderyn’s life should be spared, the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne showed no mercy.

Thousands of people accompanied his coffin on its journey from Cardiff back to Dic’s home at Aberavon. Whether deliberately or through incompetence, a martyr had been created.

Back to me for postscript. Civil Rights led to such uprisings in Wales, marches in Selma, and elections in my nation. My wife tends to recall the firehoses of Bull Connor and marvels how far we've come. I tend to remember the multiracial mix of classmates that I grew up with and those students I now teach as representatives of a blended, hybrid, unclassifiably polyglot California. Andre's mom thinks of her segregated Texas upbringing; her son responds with his own truly admirable life's accomplishments. Out of such conversations, maybe we all agree that perhaps what Dic Penderyn and the red flag nearly two centuries ago pioneered may be bringing us into a new promised land. Whether milk and honey or ogres and grasshoppers dominate its cities of the plains, however, remains as elusive as when Joshua's scouts reported back after they'd entered an appealing/appalling Canaan-- which itself has battled ever since over its strategically hapless and hallowed location: haven or hell?

Illustration: ChartistNewport blog.

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