10 ways to start a revolution

Justin Pollard offers the would-be revolutionaries among you some light-hearted advice on how to lead an uprising – using everyone from Lenin to a bunch of Dutch desperadoes as examples. Plus, he has some handy illustrations of what not to do if you’d far prefer to maintain the status quo.

This article was first published in the June 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine 

1) Send a surprise package 

The Russian February Revolution of 1917 left Lenin stuck in neutral Switzerland at a time when getting home was problematic. Firstly there was a war going on in which Germany and Russia were enemies, something which would normally preclude taking a train trip between the two countries. Secondly, although Germany desperately wanted Lenin to return home and use his influence to make Russia withdraw from the war, what would happen if his Marxist ideas infected Germany en route and the people ended up, like the Russians, thinking this was all a bit of an aristocratic, ruling class disaster?

Lenin was too good a weapon not to use however and so the Germans decided they would allow him to travel across their country but his ideas would have to be kept in quarantine. Lenin and his entourage were placed on a sealed train, like some form of biological weapon, and transported in locked carriages across Germany, ready to be injected into the Russian body politic.

 

2) Surprise yourself 

When Dutch ruler William of Orange set himself against Spanish rule in 1569 he gave letters of marque (a sort of piracy licence) to a group of seafaring desperadoes known as the Sea Beggars (Watergeuzen). They raided Spanish ships, taking their booty to England until 1572 when Queen  Elizabeth suddenly banned them.

With nowhere to take their loot or repair their ships the Sea Beggars decided the only thing they could do was seize a port for themselves. So they attacked Brielle – when the Spanish garrison was away – and to their own great surprise took it. Flushed with their success they then moved to Vlissingen, which they also took – to everyone’s astonishment – inspiring the Dutch resistance and kicking off the war of independence.

Dutch ruler William of Orange. (Bridgeman Art Library) 

 

3) Remember local sensibilities 

The trigger for the Indian Mutiny, (also known as the First War of Indian Independence, depending on which side you’re supporting) was the greased paper cartridges that held gunpowder charges for British rifles. To load a gun the top of the cartridge was bitten off so the powder could be poured into the muzzle. It was this biting that proved the problem.

Among the sepoys – native Indian troops working for the British East India Company – the rumour ran that the grease used on the cartridges was made from cow or pig fat. The sepoys were Hindu or Muslim and the idea of having pig or cow fat in their mouths when they bit off the end of the paper cartridge was unthinkable. As news of the supposed nature of the greased cartridges worked its way through the ranks, some units refused to use them. In return they were punished with unusual severity, and so the mutiny spread.

 

4) Dress up and throw a party 

In an attempt to prevent the American colonies circumventing the tax on tea, the British government allowed the East India Company a monopoly that actually made its tea cheaper than that sold by local merchants. This infuriated some of the burghers of Boston.

On 16 December 1773 they responded by dressing as Mohawk Indians and throwing a 90,000 pound cargo of tea belonging to the British East India Company in Boston harbour – an act that would be remembered by posterity as the ‘Boston Tea Party’. Under the guidance of the radical Samuel Adams, the Bostonians’ complaint that tea was too cheap was deftly transformed into an argument over whether the colonies should pay any tax when they had no parliamentary representation.

The British, convinced that they should pay taxes like everybody else, responded by closing the port until the tax was paid on the spoiled tea. This further drew the rebellious colonists together and hastened the drift towards revolution.

Boston Tea Party tea leaves, seen here in a bottle, helped radicalise Americans. (Bridgeman Art Library) 

 

5) Read the small print  

When the Roman client king in Britain, Prasutagus of the Iceni, died he believed he could leave his kingdom to his family and his Roman overlords but his wife Boudicca soon discovered that the benefits of client kingship were for one generation only.

With Prasutagus dead, the Roman procurator immediately seized financial control of the whole kingdom – helped along by a cunning little Roman financial wrinkle. Having lent large sums to Prasutagus and his friends to help them pay for the luxuries of Roman life, the Roman money lenders suddenly called in their debts. The Iceni were bankrupt and the procurator could step in. Boudicca complained and was whipped, her daughters and heirs were raped – and so began the Iceni revolt.
 

6) Keep your plans secret – but not too secret  

On an autumn evening in 1596, ten men and boys and one dog climbed Enslow Hill near Bletchingdon, Oxfordshire and waited for the people of the county to join them in rising up against the land enclosures that threatened their livelihoods. But come the morning there were still just ten men on Enslow Hill who then got up and went home.

We would know nothing of this ‘revolt’ were it not for a talkative carpenter. Roger Symonds mentioned it to the local vicar while he was mending his bookcase and news that the local peasantry had threatened to “cut the throats” of the gentry spread like wildfire, from vicar to landlord to aristocrat and so to government. The response of the Elizabethan establishment was savage. The ringleaders were arrested, two were hanged and another two died under torture.

A drover on common land. The issue of land enclosures led to the Enslow Hill ‘revolt’ of 1596. (Mary Evans Picture Library)

 

7) Know your market  

For many Protestant clerics, the English Prayer Book seemed like a liberation – offering church services in a language everyone could understand – unlike the previous Latin service. Yet in the West Country the introduction of the Prayer Book sparked a rebellion of unprecedented proportions.

The response of the government was, not surprisingly, brutal. At Fenny Bridges by Clyst Heath on 5 August 1549, a professional army annihilated the gathered peasants. Most of the rebels were massacred and those that escaped were hunted down and killed. But why should the West Country be so upset about an English Prayer Book? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that many of them spoke Cornish – a language the Prayer Book was never translated into.
 

8) Make a splash 

The Bohemian revolt was kicked off by a surprise exit. At Prague Castle on 23 May 1618 an assembly of Protestants tried two imperial governors for violating the ‘Letter of Majesty’ that had been issued by the Emperor Rudolf II which guaranteed freedom of religious expression.

Having found them guilty, rather than put them in prison the Protestants hurled the governors (and their hapless scribe) from the window of the Bohemian Chancellery. Luckily for them they landed in a pile of manure and weren’t hurt. Unluckily for the rest of Europe, this precipitous exit precipitated the Thirty Years War.

 

9) Try to avoid undue bother

William III of Orange-Nassau managed his Glorious Revolution with very little fuss. Invited by a disgruntled Protestant administration to replace the unpopular Catholic James II of England he landed in Torbay on 5 November 1688, with an army ready to seize the throne by force.

James’s army however refused to fight and James was left with little option but to run away to France (taking the Crown Jewels with him). Parliament declared he had abdicated, and that William and his wife Mary (who also happened to be James’s daughter) were now joint monarchs. And so a very British revolution was concluded.

William III holds a council of war in Torbay on 5 November 1688. It wasn’t required. (Bridgeman Art Library)  
 

10) Remember it’s not over until the fat lady sings 

The revolution that brought the nation of Belgium into being was inspired by a rather stirring aria in an opera about a girl who ends up throwing herself into Mount Vesuvius. Following the defeat of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna had given the Protestant house of Orange-Nassau a kingdom made up of what is today the Netherlands and Belgium.

The Catholic Walloons of Belgium were none too happy about this and fomented rebellion. The spark that set them aflame was a performance of Daniel Auber’s opera La Muette de Portici on 25 August 1830. The key aria in the opera was a duet called Amour Sacré de la Patrie, a patriotic number which led to a riot as the crowd began yelling patriotic slogans.

Government buildings were seized, the Dutch army was sent in but thrown back, and finally, on 4 October 1830, independence was declared.

Justin Pollard was historical advisor to the BBC series The Tudors and he co-writes the BBC quiz show QI. He is author of The Interesting Bits – The History You Might Have Missed (John Murray, 2007). You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinPollard.

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