Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Edmund Burke’s rebuke of Sir George Rodney

Ronald Hurst, The Golden Rock
In an earlier post I wrote about how Admiral George Rodney, commander of the British fleet in the Caribbean, harassed the Jewish community of St. Eustatius.

The great Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, is known for his eloquent speeches in Parliament defending often unpopular causes in England such as respect for the American colonists, Catholic emancipation in Ireland, repeal of the Catholic penal laws and of the death penalty, and constitutional limits on the powers of the king. Burke also condemned the French revolution for going too far in trying to eradicate the foundational institutions of society such as the church, the monarchy, the rule of law, and cultural traditions.

Burke’s penchant for speaking on behalf of the underdog may be why he felt compelled to speak out against Admiral George Rodney’s treatment of the Jews in St. Eustatius and demand a Parliamentary inquiry into the matter on May 14, 1781. Burke is quoted as saying:

The persecution was begun with the people, whom of all others it ought to be the care and the wish of humane nations to protect, the Jews. Having no fixed settlement in any part of the world, no kingdom nor country in which they have a government, a community, and a system of laws, they are thrown upon the benevolence of nations, and claim protection and civility from their weakness, as well as from their utility. They were a people, who, by shunning the profession of any, could give no well-founded jealousy to any state.

If they have contracted some vices, they are such as naturally arise from their dispersed, wandering, and proscribed state. It was an observation as old as Homer, and confirmed by the experience of all ages, that in a state of servitude the human mind loses half its value. From the east to the west, from one end of the world to the other, they are scattered and connected; the links of communication in the mercantile chain, or, to borrow a phrase from electricity, the conductors by which credit was transmitted through the world. 

Their abandoned state and their defenseless situation call most forcibly for the protection of civilized nations. If Dutchmen are injured and attacked, the Dutch have a nation, a government, and armies to redress or avenge their cause. If Britons are injured, Britons have armies and laws, the laws of nations (or at least they once had the laws of nations) to fly to for protection and justice. But the Jews have no such power, and no such friend to depend on. Humanity then must become their protector and ally. (The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, 1900, Oxford University Press)

However, in a second speech on December 4, 1781, in response to Admiral Rodney’s and General Vaughn’s defense of their conduct on St. Eustatius, Edmund Burke took a different tact, accusing the two commanders directly of causing the surrender of General Cornwallis to the Americans in Yorktown because they’d neglected to intercept the French fleet whilst occupied with plundering St. Eustatius. In this second speech, Edmund Burke again referred to the “poor Jews of St. Eustatius” but focused his words on a particular individual, Mr. Hoheb, who’d endured great financial hardship as a result of his property being confiscated by Admiral Rodney in the name of the crown. 

A Parliamentary recorder wrote of Burke, “Here the character of England he said was at stake and he implored gentlemen to have pity on their country though they should have none on the poor Jew.”

Thus it seems that by December, ten months after the plundering of St. Eustatius and just weeks after the island had been taken over by French forces, Burke had tempered his indignation at the plight of the nation-less Jews. He made the comparison of Mr. Hoheb to the Biblical Jew who is set upon by robbers and attended by the ‘Good Samaritan’ and urged Parliament to act as a Good Samaritan to the Jews of St. Eustatius who had petitioned England for a return of their property or some kind of recompense for what was taken from them by Admiral Rodney.

Thus, for all of Edmund Burke’s impassioned words on behalf of the Jews of St. Eustatius, their treatment at the hands of the British military was not a real concern, but a suitably pathetic prop against which the moral character of the English Empire could be judged. 

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