Despard, Edward Marcus (DNB00)

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DESPARD, EDWARD MARCUS (1751–1803), executed for high treason, was the youngest of six brothers, who were all in the army, except the eldest [see Despard, John], and was born in Queen's County, Ireland, in 1751. He entered the army as an ensign in the 50th regiment in 1766, and was promoted lieutenant in 1772, when his regiment was stationed at Jamaica, where he quickly showed his talent for engineering. In 1779 he was appointed engineer in the expedition to San Juan, and so greatly distinguished himself, that Captain Polson wrote in his despatch to the governor of Jamaica: ‘There was scarcely a gun fired but what was pointed by Captain Nelson of the Hinchinbrooke, or Lieutenant Despard, chief engineer, who has exerted himself on every occasion.’ On his return he was promoted captain into the 78th regiment, but still employed in engineering in Jamaica. From this work he was removed by the governor, Sir John Dalling, in 1781, when he was appointed commandant of the island of Rattan on the Spanish main, whither certain English logwood-cutters had retired when driven from Honduras by the Spaniards, and soon after of the whole Mosquito shore and the bay of Honduras. Dalling recalled him in a hurry to superintend the military defences of Jamaica, when the island was threatened by the great fleet of the Comte de Grasse. All apprehension on this score was removed by Rodney's great victory, and in August 1782 Despard was permitted to take command of an expedition, consisting of the settlers of Cap Gracias à Dios, at the head of whom, with the help of a few English artillerymen, he took possession of all the Spanish possessions on the Black River. He received the special thanks of the king for these services (see Bannantine, Memoirs of Colonel Despard, p. 13), and was, at the special request of the House of Assembly of Jamaica, made a colonel of Provincials by Sir Archibald Campbell, who had succeeded Governor Dalling on 9 Nov. 1782. By the treaty of peace of 1783 Spain granted the peninsula of Yucatan to the English logwood-cutters, on condition that they should do nothing but cut logwood, and in March 1784 Despard was directed to take over the new territory. In this capacity he gave so much satisfaction that, at the special request of the settlers themselves, he was appointed by Campbell to be superintendent of his majesty's affairs there on 1 Dec. 1784, with the very inadequate salary of 500l. a year. He was at first most successful, and obtained leave from the Spanish authorities for the English to cultivate vegetables, and also the cession of a small island for the residence of a pilot. But his popularity did not last long; the old settlers on the peninsula, seven hundred in number, objected to the existence among them of the two thousand logwood-cutters from the Mosquito shore, whom Despard particularly favoured, and the chief of the old settlers, Robert White, sent in a number of accusations against him for cruelty and illegal actions. These accusations had no weight with the House of Assembly of Jamaica, or with Lord Sydney, the secretary of state in charge of the colonies, who dismissed them as frivolous in 1787, but Lord Grenville, Sydney's successor, suspended Despard, whom he ordered to England. He reached England in May 1790, but was kept hanging about the secretary of state's office until 1792, when he was informed that there was no real accusation against him, and that, though his old post was abolished, he would not be forgotten. Nevertheless he obtained no employment, and as he claimed compensation both violently and persistently, he was in the spring of 1798 seized and imprisoned in Coldbath Fields prison without any accusation being made against him. In a few weeks he was released, but on the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in the autumn of 1798 he was again seized and imprisoned in the House of Industry at Shrewsbury, and in the Tothill Fields bridewell until 1800. He was then a soured and embittered man, and began to form a plot against the government. As a man of sense and education he can never have expected his plot to succeed. According to the evidence given at his trial by spies, Despard's idea was to win over some of the soldiers of the guards, and with their help to seize the Tower and the Bank of England, assassinate the king on his way to open parliament, and stop the mails going out of London. The whole plan is so ridiculous that it cannot be regarded seriously; but the government arrested Despard and forty labouring men and soldiers, who were mostly Irish, at the Oakley Arms, Lambeth, on 16 Nov. 1802. He was tried with twelve of his poor associates before a special commission, consisting of Lord-chief-justice Ellenborough and Justices Le Blanc, Chambré, and Thompson, at the New Sessions House, Horsemonger Lane, on 7 and 9 Feb. 1803. The attorney-general prosecuted, and Serjeant Best defended Despard; but the evidence of the spies was too strong against him, and he was found guilty of high treason and condemned to death. The most interesting evidence given at the trial was that of Lord Nelson as to character, who said, referring to the days of the San Juan expedition: ‘We served together in 1779 on the Spanish main; we were together in the enemies' trenches and slept in the same tent. Colonel Despard was then a loyal man and a brave officer.’ After his condemnation Despard refused to attend chapel or receive the sacrament, and on 21 Feb. 1803 he was drawn on a hurdle to the county gaol at Newington with six of his associates. He delivered a long address on the scaffold in front of the gaol, which was loudly cheered, and was then hanged and his head cut off, the rest of the horrible mutilations prescribed by his sentence being remitted. His remains were handed to his widow, who was present at the execution, and were buried in St. Paul's churchyard, close to the north door of the cathedral.

[Memoirs of Edward Marcus Despard, by James Bannantine, his secretary when king's superintendent at Honduras, &c., 1799, on which are founded the biographies in the Georgian Biography in the Gentleman's Magazine, &c., and that prefixed to the Whole Proceedings on the Trial of Colonel Despard and the other State prisoners before a Special Commission at the New Sessions House, Horsemonger Lane, Southwark, 7 and 9 Feb. 1803, to which are prefixed original and authentic Memoirs of Colonel Despard. The best report of the trial is that taken by James and W. Brodie Gurney in shorthand, and published immediately afterwards.]

H. M. S.