By PAUL MATTHEWS
And they blessed Rebecca and said unto her, let thy seed possess the gates of those which hate them.
GENESIS XXIV, 60.
THE NIGHT of 13th May, 1839, was a memorable one for the village of Efail-wen, set on the edge of the Preseli mountains in south-west Wales. A passing stranger on that night might have been struck by an unusual quietness. He would not at first have known "that this was occasioned by the absence from their farmsteads of all the local menfolk; but soon enough he would have encountered them: gathered together on the local road, and armed with sledge-hammers, bill-hooks, and not a few guns.
Had such a stranger seen them in time, and perhaps watched in silence from the shadows, he would have seen a strange happening. He would have noticed one man ― a local farmer, just like the rest ― on a horse; he would have watched the man ride forward to a gate that stood closed across the road; and he might have heard the man say, in Welsh: "My children - this gate has no business to be here, has it?" There was a general response: "No!" "Then", the man continued, "what is to be done with it?" The reply: "It must be levelled to the ground!"
At this the stranger would have seen the men step forward, and in moments reduce the gate to splinters with their hammers.
Such a stranger, had there been one, would no doubt have been astonished at such a pantomime. He would have been more astonished still had he known that he was witnessing the beginning of the Rebecca Rising.
The building of toll gates, for such was the gate of Efail-wen, was a source of acute grievance to the farmers of south Wales. These were gates set up on roads by those who owned the roads, and at them fees were charged on those using the roads. They were a particular hardship to the mountain small-holders, who relied on the transport of lime to fertilise their hard land, and on the transport of cattle and sheep for market and winter grazing.
Tolls had, in fact, long been payable on these roads, but until the early 1800's they had been in the hands of local trusts, which had kept the roads in passable condition and charged a minimum toll. In the years before the outbreak of the Rising, however, there arose a class of capitalist toll-gate owners, who bought up gates en masse and ran them as business, not social, concerns: not just for the upkeep of the roads, but for profits. The main gate-owner in S.W. Wales was one Thomas Bullin, an Englishman with gates in London and Bristol.
The action of the people of Efail-wen ― a spontaneous action, involving all the local people, and directed only at their local gate ― was soon copied throughout south-west Wales. In community after community toll gates were destroyed, so that eventually there was not a gate left standing.
So widely did the trouble spread that Special Constables were deployed, and the Government sent in troops ― but witnesses could never be found, and all attempts to identify a leader came to nothing.
In fact the movement had no mastermind or leader. Although popular tradition has since given this honour to two or three picturesque characters, the truth is that the Rising ― whilst in a real sense a national uprising ― began and remained entirely local in its form. The only 'leaders' it ever had were the ordinary folk who on the night stood forward to ask: What business has this gate to be here?
For the distinctive feature of the Rebecca Rising was that it was a communitarian uprising. It had nothing of the character of communist agitation, with a handful of committed individuals stirring up the masses for their own purposes: there were no masses involved here, and no leaders. It was a simple rising of the people, acting together in the defence of their communities. It was, in the true sense, democratic.
It is significant that in the years before the Rising there had been an increase in incidents in which the people ignored English law, and took it upon themselves to apply mediaeval Welsh law.
One of the offences most commonly punished in this way was the crime of increasing one's property at the expense of another: Woe unto them that shall join house to house, that lay field to field.
The Rebecca Rising can thus be seen as rather more than a campaign against toll gates based only upon economic grievance: it was an expression of ancient community justice.
For this reason, then, the Rising was not confined to attacks on toll gates. It involved also attacks on the property of those who bought their neighbour's farm; attacks on the property of magistrates (in one celebrated incident constables sent to guard a gate were 'arrested' by the people, marched to the large house of a local magistrate, where they were made to take apart its surrounding wall, stone by stone); attacks on the property of those who lent money at interest, and on the property of those who had the poor imprisoned for debt; and attacks on the property of English employers, of whom it was said: "No Englishman shall manage in Wales any more."
The most considerable of these other activities occurred in 1843, when a crowd of 2,000 local people marched on the workhouse in Caerfyrddin (Carmarthen) bearing a great banner with the words: Cyfiawnder a charwyr cyfiawnder ydyn ni oil ('Justice, lovers of justice are we all'). The people entered and ransacked the workhouse ― symbol of the injustice of poverty ― and were only dispersed by the arrival of a company of English dragoons, who were ordered to "slash away". Fortunately, the troops had more humanity than their commander, a notable magistrate and banker, for not a person was killed; but 60 prisoners were taken, and the Cyfiawnder banner lay trampled by the soldiers' horses.
Attacks on toll gates, then, were merely the main form that the Rising took: the gates were merely its more immediate cause.
What then was at the heart of the Rebecca Rising? Two things: poverty, and alienation.
“Justice lies trampled in the dust”
There was the crushing poverty of an economic depression: the depression that followed the Napoleonic Wars ― for the end of war brought stagnation to the heavy industries of England and restricted the market for agricultural produce. But depression was also caused, as so often, by a banking crash, which hit rural Wales especially hard; for overnight the savings of a whole class of small farmers were wiped out.
And alienation? There was the alienation that the people felt at a system of government that was at every level foreign to them. The London Parliament was English. The local magistrates were mainly English. The language of government and law was English, and cases were tried before English judges in a tongue that few defendants ever understood.
Do we see the parallels with our own age: with England, Scotland and Ulster, as well as Wales? We see the return of massive unemployment, and with it poverty. We see this poverty caused not by a failure of the working people or by a lack of natural resources, but by the policies of government and of bankers. We, too, know alienation: alienation from a succession of Governments that do not represent us, but consistently act against the interests of the British peoples.
How did the Rebecca Rising end? By 1844 the London Government had 1,800 troops in south Wales: "Enough", said the Home Secretary, "to conquer the country, let alone keep it in order." And that was how the Rising ground slowly to a halt: ordinary people ― small people ― poor people ― overwhelmed by the sheer weight of Government coercion.
Do we not recognise this too? Have we not felt it ourselves? On our marches? Selling our papers? The raids on our members' homes. Did the miners not see it in their struggle? It is there for all to see, in the batons, in the shields, of helmeted police.
At the time of the Rebecca Rising, the British State was beginning its great Imperial ascent. The annexation of Natal; the annexation in India of Sind, the Maratha States, the Punjab; the First China War, to secure the profits of British opium traders... It was at least consistent that a State set on building an Empire abroad should make sure of its Empire at home, too.
The Rebecca Rising, in fact, is known to history under another name. It is called the Rebecca Riots. And this, too, is consistent. It is a mark of the contempt that an Establishment bent on wealth and power feels for the small efforts of ordinary people. It is the contempt that the same Establishment had for the Boers and for the natives.
But from which source should we draw our political inspiration and strength? From the glories of Empire, which served only the interests of the capitalist and class system? Or from the humble struggles of the poor, asking only for justice?
Establishment history gives its answer ― glorifying the Empire, denigrating the efforts of the poor as riots and anarchy. But then, it is the victorious who write history. The victorious, and the well-fed.