Monday, September 21, 2009

Walcheren fever 2 - the duel

Today is the 200th anniversary of a famous duel that took place between two British cabinet members - Foreign Secretary George Canning and Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord Castlereagh. Like the previous Diary Junction Blog article, this one too is linked to the ill-fated Walcheren Campaign: the cause of the duel had its roots in Canning’s opposition to Castlereagh’s deployment of troops to the Netherlands. And on this day 200 years ago, George Rose, then serving as Treasurer of the Navy, gave a detailed account of the duel in his diary.

Rose was educated at Westminster school, joined the Royal Navy for a few years, and then entered the civil service. He became a joint keeper of the records in 1772 and secretary to the board of taxes in 1777. In 1782 he was appointed secretary to the treasury under Lord Shelburne, and then continued to serve in the same post under Pitt with whom he became closely associated. Thereafter, Rose was elected a member of parliament - for Launceston first and later for Christchurch - and was appointed to various offices during Pitt’s governments, including Paymaster-general. After Pitt’s death he was Treasurer of the Navy from 1807 to 1812. A little more information can be found about Rose at Wikipedia and The Diary Junction.

Rose wrote several books on economics. He was also a committed diarist, but it was not until long after his death (in 1818) that these were edited (by Rev. Leveson Vernon Harcourt) and published in two volumes in 1860 as The Diaries and Correspondence of the Right Hon. George Rose: Containing Original Letters of the Most Distinguished Statesmen of His Day. Both volumes are freely available on Googlebooks. Notably, they contain reports of conversations with King George III. However, they also contain a long entry for 21 September 1809, the day of the famous duel between Canning and Castlereagh.

According to the Wikipedia articles on Canning and Castlereagh, the government, then being led by the Duke of Portland, became increasingly paralysed by disputes between the two men. In particular, Canning opposed the deployment of troops away from the Peninsular War in Portugal to the Netherlands. When Canning threatened resignation unless Castlereagh were removed (and replaced by Lord Wellesley), Portland acceded, but in secret until such a time as he could enact the changes. However, Castlereagh discovered the plan, held Canning responsible for the secretive nature of it, and challenged him to a duel. It was fought on 21 September 1809 - exactly 200 years today. The duel caused much outrage, and before long the ailing Portland resigned as Prime Minister.

Last year, I B Tauris brought out an entire book, by Giles Hunt, on the event: The Duel: Castlereagh, Canning and Deadly Cabinet Rivalry. A few pages can be viewed at Amazon. Otherwise, though, here is George Rose’s diary entry for the day (with some paragraphs about the political manoeuvrings omitted).

21 September 1809

‘On going to the Office for Trade, Sir Stephen Cotterell told me, there had been in the morning a duel between Lord Castlereagh and Mr. Canning, and that the latter was wounded, not dangerously, in the upper part of the thigh. . .

. . . I then went out to Mr. Canning’s, where I saw Mr. Charles Ellis, who had been his second in the duel, on Mr. Henry Wellesley having declined to go with him, who told me that Lord Yarmouth had brought a letter to Mr. Canning yesterday morning, in which Lord Castlereagh recapitulated all that he had lately learned had passed relative to his removal from the War Department, and resting his ground of complaint principally, and almost exclusively, on the concealment from his Lordship of the whole transaction and everything connected with it till after the expedition to Walcheren was over; concluding with a positive call upon him for the only satisfaction he could receive. In the afternoon, Mr. Ellis went to Lord Yarmouth, and in a conversation of an hour and a half explained all the circumstances that had occurred, to show that the concealment (the only important ground of complaint insisted upon) was not in the remotest degree imputable to Mr. Canning. On a report of which, however, to Lord Castlereagh, the meeting was still insisted upon. Accordingly the parties met this morning. When the parties reached the ground, Mr. Ellis explained a further circumstance, to show that Lord Camden (the near relation of Lord Castlereagh) had undertaken positively to explain to the latter all that was necessary respecting the arrangement connected with the Foreign Department; but it was ineffectual; Lord Yarmouth attending Lord Castlereagh, and Mr. Charles Ellis Mr. Canning. The second of the latter said to the other, that as the principals could not be there to seek each other’s blood, it would be desirable to take the usual distance, to which Lord Yarmouth agreeing, twelve paces were measured; and it was then settled the parties should fire together. On the first fire both escaped. Mr. Ellis then said to Lord Yarmouth he supposed enough had been done, but that it must be as Lord Castlereagh wished, as Mr. Canning came there only to satisfy him. Lord Yarmouth then talked with Lord Castlereagh, and addressing himself to Mr. Ellis said there must be another shot, after which he should leave the ground, as he would not witness any further proceedings. The parties then fired together a second time, and Mr. Canning was wounded in the flesh of the upper part of the thigh, the ball passing through; after which he walked to a cottage near the spot, where Mr. Home, the surgeon, was waiting, having been engaged for that purpose by Mr. Ellis last night - and then went home. . .’

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