Former Governor of Belize the UNFORTUNATE Colonel Edward Marcus Despard
It is a curious coincidence that the trial of "Colonel" Lynch for high treason should have taken place on the centenary, almost to the day, of the trial of another colonel, without the inverted commas, however, on the same charge. The case of Colonel Despard, whose trial in February, 1803, created a great sensation, formed the last instance of a man of good birth being charged with this offence against the State. Despard was a man of respectable Irish ancestry. Born in 1750, he had a distinguished military career, first in the 50th and 79th Regiments, and subsequently as Chief Engineer in several over-sea expeditions, notably that to San Juan in 1779. At the close of the latter he was appointed Governor of British Honduras, and this proved the beginning of his troubles. Owing to the spurious complaints made by some half-caste colonists he was suspended for alleged cruelty and illegal actions. On his return home, however, the Government acknowledged that there was no case against him, and promised that, though his old post had been abolished. he would not be forgotten. Nevertheless, he obtained no employment, and his betrayal made him a soured and embittered man, who advertised his grievance by a variety of actions of a very foolish nature. Finally, he began to plot. According to the evidence given at his trial by spies, Despard's idea was to win over some of the men of the Foot Guards, and with their help to seize the Tower and the Bank of England, to assassinate the King on his way to open Parliament, and to stop the mails leaving London. All this is hard to credit though, for Despard was a well-educated man, and he must have realised at once that such extraordinary projects could never have succeeded.
The Government arrested the colonel and forty of his alleged associates at a public-house in Lambeth on November t6. 1802. He was tried with twelve of his poor associates before a special commission, consisting of Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough, and Justices Le Blanc, Chambre, and Thompson, on February 1803. The most interesting evidence was that given by Lord Nelson as to character: "We served together in 1779 on the Spanish Main; we were together in the enemies trenches, and we slept in the same tent - Colonel Despard was then a loyal man and a brave officer."
The colonel and nine unhappy men were found guilty, but the jury earnestly recommended Despard to mercy on account of his former good character and the services he had rendered his country. All were sentenced to be "drawn, hanged, and quartered," with its revolting concomitants of disembowelling and burning. On February 19 following, however. the king respited three humble convicts, and commanded that the colonel and the six remaining should he allowed to hang till death had ensued, instead of being cut down before, and that justice would be satisfied with mere decapitation - no disembowelling, burning, or quartering. The execution took place in front of Horsemonger Lane Gaol on February 21.
Twenty thousand spectators had gathered to see the traitors turned off. and the authorities, fearing a riot or an attempt at rescue, had the scaffold guarded, and the streets patrolled by four regiments of horse.
Although the scaffold was only 20 yards distant from the convicts' cells, the conventional sledge or hurdle, that is, the body of a cart without wheels, to which were harnessed two horses, was introduced into the prison yard, to "draw" the prisoners thither. "What nonsensical mummery is this?" exclaimed the colonel, when he caught sight of the apparatus. This, by the way, was the last instance of treason convicts being so "drawn," according to sentence.