It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law,
so much as for the right.

Henry David Thoreau


‘Of Base and Ignominious Treason’

Treason is one of those charges that is often bandied about in conversation but rarely charged in real life. As a society we think we know what it is, but as a technical crime it is rare and narrowly conceived.

         Coldharbour Gentlemen treats of both sorts of treason, the legal tort and the crime of the popular imagination. On the literal side, the crime in the story is a violation of one of the provisions of the Treason Act of 1351: ‘if a man do levy war against our lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere,’ he is chargeable with treason. The death penalty was mandatory upon conviction, though the King could opt to exercise mercy.

      The time of the wars with France, 1792–1815, was rife with acts of treason in this sense, though as far as I know it was never prosecuted as such. Why it was not appears to have been a matter of political expediency.

         At the time of Revolutionary France’s massive expansion of its military, the years immediately before and after 1800, France was an impoverished nation and Britain the wealthiest nation in the world. If the Laws of Thermodynamics had been understood in those days, the result of this imbalance of need versus resources might have been obvious. France desperately needed money to support its vast

The execution of Lord Ferrers, 1760, from Walter Thornbury, Old and New London, vol. 5 (1878).

armies and imperialist ambitions; Britain already had the empire to support its prosperity. France was obsessed with expansionism, Britain had everything to protect—and the inevitable result was war.

      But in the middle were the money-men. Britain as a state did not control all its wealth; the international merchants and, especially, the bankers did. And like all capitalists, those men did not care so much about the political aims of one nation or another. It was, in fact, the dawn of what would eventually be named (a century and a half later) the military-industrial complex.

         The money-men were not slow to grasp the potentialities of the situation. Currencies were local but gold was a universal commodity, and in desperate France, gold had a higher value than it did in complacent England—specifically, the guinea that was worth twenty-one shillings in England was worth thirty shillings in France. British bankers and other holders of capital could turn their guineas into profit simply by moving them across the Channel.

Detail from ‘A View of the Old Bank of England’, aquatint by Thomas Shepherd. British Museum 1880,1113.3658.

         And that is what they did, especially after Napoleon Bonaparte came to power (as he admitted publicly once in exile on the island of Saint Helena). The British government would never officially allow such a flow of resources to support the enemy, of course, and so the guineas travelled through the flourishing networks of smugglers better known for importing spirits and other goods from the ports of France and Holland. Those enterprising ‘gentlemen’ in their turn quickly grasped the benefit of making their southbound journeys as profitable as their northbound ones. And the enterprising boat-builders of Deal soon found ways to customise their designs to serve this new trade. It is thought that in the 1790s, £10,000 in gold coins was being smuggled out of the country every week.

         Surely this was a form of treason on a massive scale, and it was widely suspected from the start. And consider for a moment the human cost: a deadly war fought in every corner of the globe was prolonged not for years but for decades. Without this financial support, bankrupt France would have had to abandon the fight in short order. Hundreds of thousands of combatants’ lives were taken, and the lives of nonparticipants shattered by conflict raging across their farms, others starving as the result of food shortages caused by the violence and supplies being commandeered to support the armies on both sides. This was a treason not just against the British Crown but against humanity.

         Yet there were no public trials, bankers were not hanged or even exiled, life went on as usual for the perpetrators. In Coldharbour Gentlemen I endeavour to explain why, what forces of the status quo united to resist exposure and condone the profiteering.

         And this brings me to the other dimension of treason, the one that prevails in the popular imagination. The ever-incisive Samuel Johnson said, ‘I have always considered it as treason against the great republic of human nature, to make any man’s virtues the means of deceiving him.’ This approach to dealings with one’s fellowman is of course the stock-in-trade of the confidence-man, those who use others for their personal profit. This species of treason is also a part of Harry Steer’s story in Coldharbour Gentlemen, one of the sad truths he must learn in his coming-of-age struggle. The trick for us all is to recognise the treasons around us and learn to survive them without adopting their methods.

3 September 2021


Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759).

Trevor May, Smuggling (Shire Publications, 2014).

Richard Platt, The Ordnance Survey Guide to Smugglers’ Britain (Cassell, 1991).

With grateful acknowledgement of Wikipedia articles about British law and history

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