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William Davidson the political radical

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Black History Month UK 2021 'Black to the Past' campaign - African and Caribbean heritage

Georgians in Britain

William Davidson was born the illegitimate son of the Scottish Attorney General of Jamaica and a local Caribbean woman in 1781. At the age of 14, against his mother’s wishes it is said, he was sent to Glasgow to study law. His time in Scotland coincided with the democratic ferment that followed the French Revolution when, as Lord Cockburn noted: “Everything, not this or that thing, but literally everything, was soaked in this one event.”

Agitation for reform was intense in Scotland and would ultimately lead to the infamous trials for sedition and the conviction and transportation of the advocate Thomas Muir of Huntershill. It was no surprise then that it was during his time north of the border that Davidson first he became interested in radical politics. During the repression that followed the trials for sedition, Davidson moved to Liverpool and served three years of an apprenticeship before he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy.

After his discharge, he returned to Scotland and his father arranged for him to study mathematics at Aberdeen. But Davidson withdrew from study, moved to Birmingham, and started a cabinet-making business with a legacy from his mother. The failure of this business prompted Davidson to move to London.

In London, Davidson married Sarah Lane, a working-class widow with four children and had had two more children with her. He became a Wesleyan Methodist and was incensed by the Peterloo massacre. He returned to radical politics and joined the Marylebone Union Reading Society, a club that offered a reading room of radical newspapers such as the Republican and the Manchester Observer for a subscription of twopence a week. He also read the works of Tom Paine, which had been banned in the 1790s.

At the Marlylebone society Davidson met another Jamaican-Scot and Wesleyan radical – Robert Wedderburn – the son of a Scottish plantation owner and an enslaved African woman who had joined the radical Spencean Philanthropists and became famous as a campaigner against slavery. Davidson joined the Spenceans and became embroiled in the Cato Street Conspiracy, an entrapment exercise by government spies, which was opposed by Wedderburn.

A police officer was killed by one of the conspirators when the trap was sprung and police raided a hayloft where the men were meeting in Cato Street near Grosvenor Square. Davidson’s presence in the hayloft and possession of a blunderbuss sealed his fate.

During proceedings at the Central Criminal Court, William Davidson protested his innocence. It was argued that the evidence of a man named Edwards, an agent provocateur, was unreliable. Edwards seems actually to have instigated the murders, and it was on his evidence that the conspirators were convicted. A number of other witnesses provided statements, including John Davey, who confirmed that Davidson, 'a man of colour', was a cabinet maker.

In his defence before the court, Davidson told the jury ' may suppose that because I am a man of colour I am without any understanding or feeling and would act the brute; I am not one of that sort; when not employed in my business, I have employed myself as a teacher of a Sunday-school...'.

The presiding judge responded ' may rest most perfectly assured that with respect to the colour of your countenance, no prejudice either has or will exist in any part of this Court against you; a man of colour is entitled to British justice as much as the fairest British subject'.

Of the eleven conspirators charged, one was freed for testifying for the prosecution, five were transported for life and the remaining five, Davidson among them, were publicly hanged outside Newgate jail on May 1, 1820. They were decapitated and their heads were held aloft with the ancient cry ‘Behold the head of a traitor!’.

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