Wednesday, May 22, 2013

History Corner: John Evelyn of Deptford

John Evelyn (1620-1706) has cropped up a few times for me in the last week. The seventeenth century diarist, writer, gardener and government official is remembered in the names of the local Evelyn Street and Lewisham's Evelyn Ward, among other places.

Portrait of Evelyn by Robert Walker
Last Saturday I gave a history tour of the Deptford riverfront to New Cross Commoners, ending up with a picnic on the beach. We looked at the Convoys Wharf site, and I mentioned that part of it covered the site of Sayes Court - Evelyn's home from 1652-1690.

While preparing for the walk, I had been reading a lot of Peter Linebaugh. The historian's various works provide a good context for understanding Detpford history. 'The London Hanged' in particular includes lots of information about the working practices on the Royal Dockyard in the 18th century; 'The Many Headed Hydra' deals with maritime radicalism and the circulation of sailors, pirates and slaves across the Atlantic; and 'The Magna Carta Manifesto' deals with commons and enclosure through the lens of the Forest Charter sections of the Magna Carta which sought to safeguard the common rights of access to woodland  from Royal encroachment.

In the latter, Linebaugh writes of Evelyn as an apologist for enclosure, seeking to put the knowledge of trees at the service of empire:

'English forests were cut down at such a rate that toward the end of the century John Evelyn despaired of the national security, inasmuch as the navy provided the island’s “wooden walls.” The expansion of the British empire was by means of wood products and it was to the end of acquiring wood products. Restoration diarist and gentleman environmentalist John Evelyn (1620–1706) inherited a fortune that his grandfather had accumulated under James I and Charles I through his royal monopoly on saltpeter, essential ingredient (with sulfur and charcoal) to gunpowder. The “saltpeter man” forcibly ransacked stables, barns, dovecots, pigeon houses in search of potassium nitrate. The grandson’s project was to make an inventory of English trees in terms of their use values, and to convey this knowledge from commoners to commercial, scientific, and military markets. Not once does Evelyn mention the Forest Charter. Enclosed woods thrive better than unfenced forest. He wrote disdainfully of “satisfying a few clamorous, and rude Commoners.” He could not escape a millennium of custom, but he could bury it within Latin and Greek obscurantism. He concluded by quoting a Latin proverb of Erasmus, who was paraphrasing the Greek poet Theocritus, Praesente Quercu ligna quivis colligit, “In the presence of an oak every- one collects firewood.” Referring to An Act for the Punishment of Unlawful Cutting or Stealing or Spoiling of Wood (15 Charles II c.2), he coolly noted that ancient law punished the “beheading” of a tree by the forfeiture of a hand'.

Others have seen Evelyn more positively as a proto-environmentalist, writing against London pollution and for the preservation of trees. One strand of the campaign against current development plans for the Convoys Wharf site is the call to acknowledge or even recreate Evelyn's historic garden there (see Sayes Court - London's Lost Garden for lots of interesting historical material).

Evelyn's Cabinet

As reported in the Guardian at the weekend (18 May), a cabinet of Evelyn's features (along with the Horniman Museum's walrus) in a new exhibition in Margate. Curator Brian Dillon writes

Consider this curious item of furniture, which belongs to the Geffrye Museum in London and appears at Turner Contemporary, Margate, as part of Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing. The object in question, at once austere and elaborate, is a cabinet of intricately carved ebony that stands on eight slender legs and opens to reveal a prismatic array of interior drawers and doors, rendered in fruitwood and ivory. The thing is said to have been made by the renowned Dutch craftsman Pierre Golle, though we cannot be sure. What's certain is that it was bought in Paris in 1652 by Mary Evelyn: wife of the polymath John Evelyn, who used it to store prints and small items. The empty cabinet is a reminder of the capaciousness of Evelyn's intellect and imagination: by the time he died in 1706, he had completed not only half a million pages of his celebrated diary, but treatises on medicine, mathematics, air pollution and the cultivation of trees. He had even written a discourse on salads'.
Evelyn and Slavery

It can't be denied though that Evelyn had a role in the administration of slavery. A royalist during the Civil War, he was later appointed by the King as an official to the Council of Foreign Plantations in a period when plantations were expanding in America and the Caribbean on the backs of slave labour. Even in this period, there were controversies about this in the face of slave demands for freedom. In his diaries Evelyn mentions the arguments about whether slaves should be allowed to be baptised as Christians - since some argued that as Christians they should no longer be treated as slaves: 'I may not forget a resolution which his Majesty made, and had a little before entered upon it at the Council Board at Windsor or Whitehall, that the negroes in the plantations should all be baptized, exceedingly declaiming against that impiety of their masters prohibiting it, out of a mistaken opinion that they would be ipso facto free; but his Majesty persists in his resolution to have them christened'. Evelyn also mentions the attempted slave revolt in Barbados in 1692: 'there was a conspiracy among the negroes in Barbadoes to murder all heir masters, discovered by overhearing a discourse of two of the slaves, and so preventing the execution of the design' - alleged conspirators were hanged, burned alive and castrated by the authorities.

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