The Godfather of Manx Democracy

Let’s clear one thing up. This article is not about music legend James Brown. This is about somebody who has the same name as a well-known tunesmith – a burden that I know oh-so-well. 

We’re not discussing the godfather of soul, but the godfather of Manx democracy. And while he may not have the moves or the grooves of his 20th-century namesake, in his own way, our James Brown certainly made people get on up.

He was born in Liverpool in 1815, the son of a slave who’d been freed. Brown moved to the Island, having married a Manx woman. He worked in printing and advertising before establishing the Isle of Man Times newspaper in 1861. 

Brown used the paper to campaign for greater democracy in the Isle of Man. Although we’re very proud of the fact that our parliament is over a thousand years old, the truth is that it’s been truly democratic for a much shorter time. When Brown made his stand, the House of Keys entirely consisted of wealthy male property owners. They weren’t voted in by general election, but appointed themselves, like members of a gentlemen’s club. 

At the time, there was a long-standing barney rumbling on between Tynwald and Douglas Town Council (or Commissioners, as they still called themselves then). The Commissioners were angling to have more powers granted to them. In Tynwald, one MHK sniffed that DTC was only fit to organise the donkeys on the beach. 

Writing up this sass-fest for the paper, Brown commented that the member’s quip ‘elicited marks of approval from the donkeys around him‘, and followed it up with a reference to the House of Keys behaving like ‘despotic rulers‘.  You can see the paper in question at the end of this piece (page 2, right hand column).

The honourable members decided to show JB just how despotic they could be, in the face of his fierce campaign for modernisation.  They summoned him to stand trial before them, charged with contempt. 

Brown’s defiance in court, refusing to retract his words or apologise for them, was a brilliant bit of political playing, outsmarting his foes. He urged the Manx people to rise up against these men he called (rather superbly) “self-elected noodles“. 

From this distance, it’s hard to imagine what a bombshell this must have been. These well-fed, well-wined gentleman farmers and landlords would not have been used to being spoken to in this manner by anybody. Let alone a working-class black man, whose words threatened to incite rebellion and derail their gravy train. 

Enraged, terrified, and completely played, the MHKs lashed out, sentencing Brown to be imprisoned for six months inside the walls of Castle Rushen.

Just let that sink in. The editor of a newspaper was thrown into a medieval castle cell, for criticising politicians. 

Jailing Brown was a disaster for the Keys. It laid bare their high-handed attitude and casual cruelty to those who dared to step out of line. His legal team appealed the case to the High Court in the UK, who ruled that the House of Keys had exceeded their authority. Oops.

The threat of the adjacent island stepping in to overrule the Manx parliament has always been a potent one. By acting in such an arrogant manner, the MHKs had threatened their own existence. Empowered by James Brown, more and more Manx people spoke up against the blatant unfairness of the old way.

Brown was released after serving just seven weeks of his six-month sentence. Clinching the next move in his humiliation of the Keys, he sued for unjust imprisonment and was awarded £519 – equivalent to about £65,000 today.

The trial of James Brown was the kick in the pants the local reform movement needed, leading to the first truly democratic Manx elections taking place in 1867. 

Well, yes…..I say ‘truly’ democratic – actually, just 40% of the male population and 0% of the female population were allowed to vote. But, as modern Manx politicians like to say – baby steps. And it swept away the fetid old clique that had existed before. 

Now, exactly 140 years after his death, a fine marble bust of James Brown stands in the Manx Museum, just next to the portrait of that other famed Manx rebel, Illiam Dhone. 

We owe the current democratic model of the House of Keys to a person of colour who recognised injustice when he saw it. The son of a slave became the master of change. Those votes that we all cast in the Manx General Election a couple of weeks ago are his legacy.

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