Diffusing Knowledge about Poland in Britain in the First Half of the 19th Century

Europe in the 1830s and 1840s was marked by political ferment, with various kinds of nationalism and political ideology challenging the international system established by the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15. One potential tool at the disposal of revolutionaries was public opinion abroad, insofar as the international order depended on enforcement by the great powers—Prussia, the Habsburg monarchy, Russia, France, and Great Britain. The last of these was particularly interesting for those on the Continent with a national or liberal agenda because it offered a safe haven for political exiles, its press laws were liberal, and it had a sizeable educated and moneyed public that was interested in constitutional and national questions—a public that might sway government policy or offer financial and moral assistance. Lucy Riall has highlighted the role played by the media and public opinion campaigns in Great Britain during Italy’s struggle for national independence.1 Poles too sought to use such tools.

When news of the anti-Russian uprising in the Kingdom of Poland reached London in late December 1830, very few people had any knowledge of the political situation in so-called Congress Poland, let alone the history behind it. Despite near universal sympathy for the liberal principles behind the Polish rebellion, it took some time until British society gained a better understanding of that struggle. Although the uprising itself lasted only ten months, the Russian army having quelled it by October 1831, British interest in Poland continued. This article looks at the ways in which Polish exiles and British friends of Poland sought to foster ongoing interest in the 1830s and 1840s by spreading knowledge about Polish history, culture, and political demands.2

European order as established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Detail of map from C. Colbeck, Public Schools Historical Atlas (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1905), map 99, Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin, https://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/history_colbeck_1905.html.

During the November Uprising

The uprising began on the night of November 30, 1830, with an armed, anti-Russian revolt in Warsaw.3 Shortly after that, the Provisional Government saw the need for an active foreign policy in order to obtain the recognition and support of the European powers. Faced with a very limited awareness of Polish affairs and demands on the part of those they wished to persuade, the Polish envoys sent to London worked hard to broaden British knowledge of Poland. These efforts first resulted in the publication of the Constitutional Charter of the Kingdom of Poland, a pamphlet which included the 1815 charter itself as well as examples of the Russian constitutional violations that had led to the November Uprising.4 This booklet was the first of a wide range of pro-Polish works published during and after the uprising in which the Poles (and eventually also British friends of Poland) sought to introduce to the British public the subject of Poland in political and historical terms. The Polish envoy to London, Aleksander Wielopolski, ensured that the work was given to all Members of Parliament and the editors of all the major newspapers so that these opinion elites might familiarize themselves with the question of Polish independence.

Several months later, a second pamphlet appeared: Poland: The Polish Question Shortly Stated by an Englishman.5 It rehearsed the arguments presented in the Constitutional Charter pamphlet, this time making clearer the European significance of the Polish question and placing the issue in a wider context. That these publications, as well as personal contacts between the Polish envoys and British MPs and radical politicians were making a real impact, can be seen in the subsequent publication of Considerations on the War in Poland and on the neutrality of the European Powers at the present Crisis.6 In contrast to the previous two works prepared by Polish envoys, Considerations of the War in Poland was written by an Englishman, Hunter Gordon. More importantly, it was created without the involvement of Poles, opening, at the same time, a new chapter in British interest in the Polish Question. Of course, the domestic British political context of these publications mattered too. Throughout 1831, the battle for the Reform Bill was the major issue of British domestic politics.7 At the same time, the affairs of France and Belgium, particularly the Belgian struggle for independence and fears that France would lead an armed intervention in Belgium, were the most significant foreign policy issues. In this political context, the Polish Question could attract only limited attention from the British public.

British Friends of Poland

The dominance of the Reform Bill in British politics throughout 1831 can be seen as the main factor behind the somewhat delayed creation of any pro-Polish society in the country. In France, the first such groups emerged shortly after the outbreak of the November Uprising, but in Great Britain the first meeting of such a group, the Literary Association of the Friends of Poland (LAFP), took place on February 25, 1832. Among the fathers of the association were Thomas Campbell, Adolph Bach (a German lawyer and émigré), William Ramsay Maule, Robert Dundas Haldane-Duncan, Thomas Wentworth Beaumont, and Sir Thomas Wyse. Within two weeks of its founding, the society expanded to “forty most respectable individuals,” with Campbell becoming the president and the most active member of the organization. In the following year, he resigned due to bad health and was replaced by Beaumont. It was, however, the activities and devotion to the cause of Poland of Lord Dudley Coutts Stuart (from 1833 one of the vice presidents of the LAFP) that made the organization and its members central in promoting knowledge of Poland in Britain.

According to its statutes, the LAFP was “a literary , for collecting, publishing, and diffusing all such information respecting Poland, as may tend to interest the public mind, and keep alive in it a strong interest with respect to the condition of that brave but ill-used nation.”8 Between 1832 and 1855, the LAFP published over twenty different pamphlets related to Poland, Russia, and Eastern Europe. Among the most significant was Polonia, or Monthly Reports of Polish Affairs, a pro-Polish periodical published from August till December 1832, the time of greatest British public interest in Poland. The pages of Polonia were filled with news from the Kingdom of Poland, articles about Polish history, and reports on pro-Polish meetings all over Britain. Following the creation of the LAFP, a number of other Polish societies came into being in places like Hull (where a separate pro-Polish periodical, The Hull Polish Record, was published), Manchester, and Edinburgh. This wave of sympathy for Poland lasted for several months, finding expression in publications, public meetings, debates in the House of Commons, not to mention various articles published in metropolitan newspapers. As Leonard Niedźwiecki, one of the Polish exiles who arrived in Britain after the defeat of the November Uprising, noted in mid–1833, “in London everything Polish is adored.”9

With time the subject of the November Uprising lost its appeal and novelty. After Russia re-established itself in the Kingdom of Poland, nothing apart from another European war could have restored Polish independence. From 1834, British public interest in Polish affairs began to wane, resulting in fewer pro-Polish public events and publications. Of approximately a dozen Polish societies created in Britain in 1832 and 1833, only the LAFP remained. As the number of Polish refugees coming to Britain increased (from no more than 100 exiles arriving between 1831 and 1833 to over 500 in 1834), even British friends of Poland were forced to adjust to the changing situation. Consequently, the “literary” aspect of the LAFP’s activities was eclipsed by the organization’s involvement in obtaining and distributing funds for the newly arrived exiles. But if members of the association began to play a more limited role in the collection, publication, and diffusion of knowledge about Poland in Britain, the organization nevertheless remained a center for the majority of organized pro-Polish efforts in Britain. During the 1830s and 1840s, these included meetings, parliamentary debates (some of them later published as separate pamphlets), and regular dinners and balls (from the 1840s organized in the London Guildhall). At the same time, Polish exiles not associated with the LAFP became the main promoters of knowledge about Poland in Britain.

Polish Refugees and the Cause of Poland

The first pro-Polish pamphlets, those prepared by the Polish envoys, were published anonymously, perhaps in an attempt to make British readers believe they had been written by British friends of Poland. Not until the late 1830s did the first publications openly authored by Poles became available. Among the first such works published in Britain after the fall of the November Uprising was The Polish Exile, a periodical edited by Napoleon Feliks Żaba and Piotr Falkenhagen-Zaleski in Edinburgh.10 In contrast to Polonia, the main interest of the editors here was Polish history, culture, and literature. Among the most significant series of articles published in the periodical was “A Sketch of the History of Poland,” which ran throughout all twelve issues. In these articles, the authors presented a comprehensive guide to Polish history, paying particular attention to the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century and the events that followed the 1814–15 Congress of Vienna.

Żaba continued diffusing knowledge of Poland and Polish history after he moved from Edinburgh to London. He delivered lectures, which were published in 1837 as Two Lectures on the History of Poland. The aim of Żaba’s lectures was not simply to inform listeners and readers about the history of Poland. As he argued in the introduction, “ad the experience of the past … been more generally studied, not merely for the purpose of ornamental knowledge, but as a moral lesson, mankind would have been much benefited.” The author perceived sharing his knowledge of Polish history as a moral duty. Indeed, history itself had moral value and perceiving it in such a way would increase universal moral consciousness. Effectively, “the increasing moral energies would then raise the fallen dignity of mankind, and cause oppression to wither from the world.”11

Slightly different was the approach presented by a certain T. A. Gałecki, author of A Sketch of the History of Poland, a work dedicated to the people of England and written with the intention of keeping British interest in Poland alive “until energetic assistance shall have enabled us to recover our native country.”12 The ostensible moral significance of history was also promoted by Józef F. Gomoszyński, a member of the Polish Historical Association of London and Paris. His 1843 Course of Three Lectures on the History of Poland, from Her First Existence as a Nation, to the Present Time stressed that the subject of Poland “must excite a feeling of sympathizing interest in the bosom of every friend to humanity and justice.” Gomoszyński shared Żaba’s belief in moral significance of history, which offered “a review of the past, a school for the present, and an oracle as respects the future.”13

Both of these works were published after the Tories won the 1841 general election. Not only the political but also the social and economic situation in Britain began to change in the early 1840s, making the subject of Poland far less appealing than in the previous decade. The Tories had never been friends of European revolutionaries, and shortly after taking office as Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen made it clear that the Poles could expect very little support from the Tory Government.14 At the same time, growing economic hardships of the “hungry forties” made the British public more interested in affairs at home. Even the usual support for the Polish exiles in Britain came under harsh criticism. As a certain Anglicus commented in his letter to The Times, “for Liberalism’s sake, have our own distressed countrymen no claim on a ‘Liberal’s’ sympathy? … Let the Poles seek relief in Poland, or wherever else they can get it; but not in England.”15 Galecki’s and Gomoszyński’s publications can therefore be seen as attempts to maintain pro-Polish interest in Britain when sympathy for the Polish cause had begun to fade.

Over the two decades that followed the November Uprising, a number of pro-Polish publications appeared in Britain. Written by British friends of Poland and Polish exiles, they provided British readers with information about Poland, in particular its history and political situation, leading to a significant increase in British knowledge on the subject. The best example of that change can be seen in the 1847 parliamentary debate on the annexation of Cracow. In contrast to the debates of the 1830s, the involvement of the Poles in preparing the pro-Polish motion was very limited. The whole discussion, which occupied the House of Commons for three days, was full of references to Polish history and its situation both before and after 1830.

At the same time, however, all that knowledge and pro-Polish propaganda did not result in any official support for the cause of Poland. The Polish Question, despite its popularity, was bound to remain on the margins of British politics at the time. In contrast to the questions of Greece, Belgium, and, later, also Italy, Poland remained a distant land divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. British politicians were fully aware that, despite occasional differences, all three powers were ready to defend against any attempts to restore Polish independence. The internal situation of Britain was also not without significance. As the Daily News commented at the time of the Cracow debate, “we have relief committees, and sanitary meetings, and mechanics’ institutes, and ragged schools, washing-house and lodging-house establishments for the poor. Where are the time and the money for a Polish opera?”16

Milosz K. Cybowski holds a PhD in History from the University of Southhampton, Great Britain. His 2016 thesis is entitled “The Polish Questions in British Politics and Beyond, 1830–1847.”

  1. Lucy Riall, Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
  2. This article is part of a larger project devoted to the subject of British public opinion and Poland in the nineteenth century. The project is funded by the August Cieszkowski Foundation.
  3. For detailed study of the outbreak of the Uprising see John Dunn, “‘The November Evening’: The Warsaw Uprising of November 1830,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 16.3 (2003), 126–35. For a brief overview of the event, see Milosz Cybowski, “Poland’s Forgotten Novembrists: Youth and a Failed Uprising, 1830,” Age of Revolutions, November 14, 2016, https://ageofrevolutions.com/2016/11/14/polands-forgotten-novembrists-youth-and-a-failed-uprising-1830.
  4. Constitutional Charter of the Kingdom of Poland, in the year 1815, with some remarks on the manner in which the Charter, and the stipulations in the treaties relating to Poland, have been observed (London, 1831), available at Hathi Trust Digital Library, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008375316.
  5. Poland: The Polish Question Shortly Stated by an Englishman (London, 1831), available at Hathi, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011536822.
  6. Hunter Gordon, Considerations on the War in Poland and on the neutrality of the European Powers at the present Crisis (London, 1831).
  7. For an interesting approach to history of the Reform Bill for general readers, see Antonia Fraser, Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 (London, 2013).
  8. Rules and Regulations of the London Association of the Friends of Poland (London, 1833), 3.
  9. Leonard Niedźwiecki to Antoni Bukaty, July 1833, in Leonard Niedźwiecki: Listy wybrane z lat 1832–1839, ed. Stanisław Makowski (Warsaw, 2009), 25–26.
  10. The Polish Exile, being an Historical, Statistical, Political, and Literary Account of Poland (Edinburgh, 1833), available at Hathi, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008610803.
  11. Napoleon Feliks Żaba, Two Lectures on the History of Poland, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (London, 1837), 1, 3. Żaba published his lectures on the history of Poland under a similar title three years earlier; most probably they were accounts of the presentations he had delivered during his trip across Scotland in late 1833. See Napoleon Feliks Żaba, Lectures on the History of Poland, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (Edinburgh, 1834).
  12. T. A. Galecki, A Sketch of the History of Poland (London, 1842), 5, available at the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/asketchhistoryp00galegoog.
  13. Józef F. Gomoszyński, A Course of Three Lectures on the History of Poland, From Her First Existence as a Nation, to the Present Time (London, 1843), 2–4, available at Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=8d0DAAAAQAAJ.
  14. Lord Aberdeen to Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, September 10, 1841, Czartoryski Library, Cracow, Poland (BKCz), 5479.
  15. The Times, November 11, 1843.
  16. Daily News, March 4, 1847.
Suggested Citation: Milosz K. Cybowski, “Diffusing Knowledge about Poland in Britain in the First Half of the 19th Century,” History of Knowledge, September 22, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/09/22/diffusing-knowledge-about-poland-in-britain/.