Wednesday 15 October 2008

Martial Bourdin and Greenwich's anarchist mystery

On 15 February 1894, Martial Bourdin's walk through Greenwich Park ended in disaster when he tripped over. As he fell, he dropped a bomb which went off and blew away his left hand and stomach. He was taken on a stretcher to the Seamen's Hospital, but died there half an hour later. Police soon discovered his name and that he was a 26-year-old Frenchman staying in Fitzroy Street; he had taken the tram to Greenwich that morning, carrying a large amount of money in addition to the bomb.

Although still able to speak immediately after the explosion, Bourdin didn't say anything about what he had been planning to do. It was assumed that he had intended to blow up the Royal Observatory, but nothing is known for certain. Revolutionary bombings had been a problem throughout Europe in the late nineteenth century: most famously, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated by bomb in 1881. There had been several anarchist bombings in France in the months before Bourdin's accident; later that year, the president would be assassinated. Bourdin was connected to other foreign anarchists through his membership of Club Autonomie, which police raided shortly after his death - but no one was charged.

Nonetheless, initial press reports spoke of an international conspiracy with Bourdin as head of a gang. Graphic accounts were given of his injuries and it was wrongly claimed that his hands were covered in an (impliedly demonic) black substance which would not come off. The Times hinted that his funeral was being planned from Paris or Ireland; the MP for Deptford, Charles Darling, was sufficiently concerned about it becoming the focus of an anarchist demonstration that he raised the matter in parliament. His suggestion was that as Bourdin had brought about his own death, his body should be quietly disposed of as a suicide's. The Home Secretary declined to order such a step or to keep the body unburied until the coroner's verdict. In the event, although Bourdin's funeral did attract fellow anarchists, they were outnumbered by the police and a hostile crowd.

We still don't know exactly what Bourdin meant to achieve. His bomb was too small to cause major damage, and the Royal Observatory seems a rather unlikely target. The New York Times pointed out that since Britain was something of a refuge for anarchists, it would be against their interests to commit an outrage here; indeed, Britain's anarchists either ignored the incident or denied involvement in it. Maybe he didn't mean to blow the observatory up at all: it has been suggested that he was attempting to dispose of the bomb before leaving the country or had been duped into carrying it (perhaps by his police-informer brother-in-law). Such an outrage might have served the interests of those trying to pass anti-immigration legislation, or of foreign governments hoping to provoke a British clampdown on anarchist activity. On the other hand, the observatory did represent science and the worldwide regulation of time, while the police assumed that the money indicated an intention to flee the country.

There is nothing in the Park to mark the incident; Bourdin's most lasting legacy is his role in inspiring Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent. As Transpontine has remarked, his story is certainly a contrast to the royalty-focused history of Greenwich Park given to tourists - don't expect it to feature strongly in 2012, should controversial proposals to hold Olympics equestrian events there go ahead ...

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