Wednesday, February 15, 2012

History Corner: The Indian candidate for Deptford, 1885

The latest edition of Lewisham History Journal (no. 19, 2011) includes an interesting article by Ray Thatcher on ‘Lal Mohun Ghose and Politics in Victoria India and Deptford’. Ghose fought two election campaigns in Deptford as a Liberal Party candidate in 1885 and 1886, standing on a moderate Indian nationalist platform of greater self-rule for India within the British Empire as well as supporting Home Rule for Ireland.

Funds were raised in India to support the campaign to secure the election of Indian representatives to the British parliament from British constituencies on the basis that while the British government ran India, Indian voters had no vote in elections. Deptford appears to have been selected as the battleground because its radical working class base were thought more likely to be sympathetic (this was before the formation of the Labour Party of course, when there was still a radical liberal current). His supporters included Florence Nightingale, who met him and invited his wife to her house.

Ghose was a figure at national Liberal gatherings in this period, including meeting Prime Minister Gladstone as part of an Indian delegation, and he took part in a mass meeting in Piccadilly against Britain's war in Sudan (Times April 3 1885). He was originally selected as a prospective candidate for Greenwich before switching to Deptford in time for the 1885 election.

In the 1885 general election campaign, Ghose attended many meetings across the area, ‘Accompanied by his son and daughter and brother’. He ‘spoke at a large open-air meeting in a field opposite New Cross Gate Station in June, presided over by Mr Osborne Morgan MP, who, according to Reynold’s Newspaper “referred to the fact that he was the first native Indian gentleman who had ever aspired to win… an English constituency"’ (Thacker). Other meetings took place at the New Cross Public Hall, St Peter’s Hall in Brockley, the Lecture Hall in Deptford High Street, and at Deptford Green.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the count at the St Paul’s Vestry Offices in Tanners Hill, where it was initially announced that Ghose had won. However in the final count he narrowly lost, securing 47.5% of the vote against the victorious Conservative candidate Evelyn (52.5%). In 1886, he again polled well with 3,055 votes (45.3%) against Evelyn’s 3,682 (54.7%). This was a very respectable result given the nature of the campaign against him, with the local paper arguing: ‘We retain all the objections we have ever expressed to the intrusion of this Oriental gentleman into our home politics and we know that his birth and religion [he was a Hindu] form a strong and natural objection in the minds of a large number of intelligent Christians in this country to his assuming a position of a parliamentary representative’. Never mind he intrusion of Britain into Indian home politics!
The Graphic reported (10 July 1886) that the victorious Conservative candidate received an 'ignomious reception' on the streets: ‘Our forefathers would have been rather astonished, not to say scandalised, at the idea of men with dusky complexions, and non-Christian religious views, putting up for seats in the House of Commons. But nowadays we are accustomed to all sorts of queer things, and so our equanimity is not disturbed by the fact that our Indian fellow-citizens have on two occasion during the present election tried to scale the walls of St Stephen’s… The peculiarity about the Deptford election, as witnessed by our artist, was that Mr Evelyn was apparently less popular than his Asiatic rival, the former, though a winner, being pelted; the latter, though a lose, being cheered. Perhaps it was a case of the classes against the masses’.

Ghose returned to India in January 1887 following a big meeting at the New Cross Public Hall (Times, 8 December 1886). Technically he may not have been the first person of Indian descent to stand for parliament - Ochterlony Sombre, of mixed Indian and Scottish descent, was elected to parliament in 1841. But Ghose was the first fully Indian candidate to stand for the British parliament. While he was unsuccessful he paved the way for the election of the first Indian MP, Dadabhai Naoroji, who pursuing the same Indian nationalist strategy was elected as Liberal MP for Finsbury Central in 1892.

Interestingly William John Evelyn, who defeated Ghose in 1885 and 1886, himself resigned as  Conservative MP for Deptford in protest against the 'execrable tyranny' of coercive British rule in Ireland. And in the 1888 general election the Conservative candidate came within a few hundred votes of being defeated by another radical liberal candidate, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who was in prison in Ireland for his Home Rule activities. So perhaps in contrast to any assumptions about the xenophobic patriotic masses in Victorian London, half the population in Deptford voted for an Indian nationalist and then a pro-Irish prisoner in three successive elections in the 1880s.

Illustrations from The Graphic, 10 July 1886. See also a previous post on this episode at Caroline's Miscellany.

Lewisham History Journal is published by Lewisham Local History Society. It isn't available on-line but you get copies if you join the society - or you can read it in most Lewisham libraries.

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