The story below of James Brown and his non violent protests and bravery when facing persecution and prosecution for standing up for his beliefs in the face of racism and an establishment determined to silence criticism.
I make no apologies for publishing this article from the Isle of Man Today newspaper website. Read the article and I will explain more about why I have chosen to publicise the story.
James Brown – a pioneer for many reasons
The scenes in the House of Keys in 1864 were worthy of a big-budget historical drama.
On March 16 that year, a certain James Brown, the mixed-race grandson of an American slave, stood before the House charged with contempt for a series of ’scandalous and libellous’ articles.
The defendant – a newspaper editor, activist and soon-to-be political prisoner – offered absolute defiance.
’Who, may I ask, do you represent?’, Brown asked the unelected clique of landowners.
’Not the people. No, you represent yourselves.’
Contempt, the members discovered, didn’t cover it.
Brown did everything he could to aggravate his audience. He dared the court to hang him from the top of Castle Rushen.
’You may imprison me,’ he said, ’but I tell you fearlessly that I will never retract one iota of what I have said or published.’ He was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.
Last week UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak lent his support to the ’Banknotes of Colour’ campaign, which will see non-white figures appear on British banknotes and coins for the first time.
The news arrived in the same week as the 205th anniversary of the birth of James Brown – if his story was better known, perhaps he might find a place on the shortlist.
Despite the Isle of Man’s claim to the ’oldest continuous parliament the world’, its members were not elected by the people until 1867.
Brown’s imprisonment began a series of events which saw the old order crumble. By the time the dust had settled, the House of Keys was finally elected by public vote.
It was a watershed moment in the road to democracy in the Isle of Man and an extraordinary event in black British history.
Even without the climactic events of 1864, Brown was a rare example of black social mobility in Victorian Britain.
Born into the black and mixed-race community in Liverpool in 1815, he moved to the Isle of Man with his Manx-born wife Eleanor in 1846 and eked out a living as a jobbing printer.
He went on to make his reputation – and a good living – as a newspaper proprietor.
When the first issue of the Isle of Man Times was published in 1861, he was living with his extended family in a large townhouse in Upper Douglas.
The colour of his skin might have set him apart but Brown fitted perfectly into a Manx tradition of radical journalists campaigning for political reform.
The Times made its intentions clear from the outset by demanding a democratically elected House of Keys: ’How much longer will [the Manx people] be content to have no voice in the working of those laws which are to bind them and their children after them?’
He stood on the shoulders of campaigners like Robert Fargher (pictured), founder of rival newspaper Mona’s Herald, who was imprisoned three times in his campaigns for popular elections.
When Fargher died in August 1863, the reform movement needed a champion. It was James Brown who stood up when the moment came.
On paper it was a simple thing. Douglas Town Commissioners needed new powers to manage the infrastructure of a town which was rising to become the de facto capital.
But it cut to the heart of the democratic problem in the Isle of Man: the directly elected Commissioners were overruled by the unelected House of Keys, whose members refused to ’invest individuals, who are merely tradesmen, with royal authority’.
The Times didn’t hold back in its reporting: ’The Town Commissioners and the inhabitants of Douglas should at once represent to the British Government the tyranny exercised by the House of Keys, and apply henceforth that the members of that house shall be elected by the people, so that taxation and representation may go together.’
This was one of the articles which saw Brown summoned to the House of Keys.
Brown’s ’Diary of a Political Prisoner’, which he wrote while incarcerated, was rediscovered by chance in 2008.
It is reprinted in full in the fascinating book ’The Struggle for Manx Democracy’ by Dr Robert Fyson, which deserves a place on every Manx bookshelf.
One of the highlights of the diary is Brown’s first-hand account of his day in court: he insisted that the members had no right to put him on trial and spent more than an hour reading out the offending articles, one of which ended with a call to arms: ’Let the people at once, this very day, meet and protest against the despotic power exercised by these self-elected noodles’.
Brown was the right man in the right place. You get the sense that he knew what he was doing – provoking the members into making a fatal mistake. They took the bait and sent him to Castle Rushen.
Brown’s advocate appealed to the British courts, which ruled that the House of Keys, sitting in its legislative capacity, had no powers to commit Brown for contempt.
He was triumphantly released from Castle Rushen having served seven weeks of his six-month sentence. When he sued for damages for wrongful imprisonment, the members who had convicted him were forced to pay their share of his compensation.
They were out of pocket and out of time. The pressure for an elected House of Keys had been building for decades from the British Government and the Manx public.
The rotten system had no defenders left after this humiliation. The self-selecting clique of legislators finally submitted to democratic elections. The first took place in 1867, with roughly 40 percent of the adult male population eligible to vote.
Despite his key role in the campaign for reform, Brown was never a hugely popular figure.
His position as a newspaper proprietor left him exposed to the petty jealousies and rivalries of the trade; other papers didn’t celebrate his victories to avoid endorsing one of their competitors.
He also faced racist abuse, with some of the worst examples coming from an unlikely source: Mona’s Herald published outrageous attacks on Brown in the aftermath of his triumph.
There was a deeper story underneath: Brown wasn’t the only editor put on trial by the Keys on that fateful day in 1864.
Also charged with contempt was the son of the pioneering campaigner Robert Fargher, who struck a very different note before the House: after apologising and promising to retract his stories, he was released with a warning.
In hindsight, Fargher had missed the chance to fulfil his father’s life’s work. So when Mona’s Herald attacked Brown, it seems that the owners weren’t so much reflecting public opinion as stoking a family feud.
For his part Brown toasted the shining example of Robert Fargher for the rest of his life. Fargher’s descendants, however, didn’t always show Brown the same courtesy.
Profound democratic change is never instantaneous; in this case it was decades in the making. But between March 1864 and June 1865, Brown struck an irrevocable blow against the unelected House of Keys and set the island on the road to democracy.
But when the crucial moment arrived, it took James Brown to fearlessly speak truth to power
He wasn’t the first editor to be imprisoned in the Isle of Man, nor would he be the last – that distinction went to Samuel Norris in 1916, at least as the Examiner went to press. There were many more battles to come in the fight for reform.
Right, hopefully you have read the story of James Brown, a man who was prepared to and did go to prison for his beliefs.
Despite all the unfair treatment he suffered , he never resorted to violence or physically destroying property.
Unlike other more violent protestors, James Brown actually succeeded in changing the law. Very rapidly after his stand, the Isle of Man introduced proper free and fair elections with universal suffrage.
As a lawyer, I admire his bravery in the face of a kangaroo court in reading all the “offending” articles out so the court had to hear them again, and they were entered verbatim into the court record.
“Stand Firm Brave Defender”
There is another reason for my publishing this story….James Brown is a direct ancestor of mine. It is an honour to be a descendant of such a brave and honourable man who effected change by peaceful meand