“Finding Bourdin”, The Graphic, London, 1894

The Bombing of the Greenwich Observatory.


This black and white engraving appeared in the English newspaper The Graphic in 1894. The place represented is famous in the London landscape. This is Greenwich Park. It is made of two grounds separated by a double diagonal ascending from left to right. In the foreground stands a man in uniform. It's a park warden. He is obviously heading toward a man on his knees. The path guides our gaze towards a monument on a hill. It is the Greenwich Observatory in London, well known for its meridian.


On February 15, 1894, schoolchildren on their way back home were going through Greenwich Park when they heard a deflagration at 4:50 pm precisely. They decided to follow the column of smoke that followed the explosion. What they discovered then must have shocked them for many years. On his knees, holding his abdomen, and a handkerchief covering his wrist, a man asked them to go and get help. The schoolchildren encountered guards in the park, who very quickly arrived at the scene and tried to help the man. He was taken to the Marine Hospital a few steps from the Greenwich Observatory. He died at 5:40 pm. The man had been carrying a hand-made bomb that he had unintentionally triggered, tearing off his left hand and seriously wounding him in the abdomen and thorax. His name was Martial Bourdin, a 26-year-old Frenchman, and an anarchist. Born in Tours and tailor by profession, he was a member of the famous Parisian anarchist group "L'Aiguille" (the needle). After a short passage in French jails for trying to organize a political rally in 1887, he moved to London, where his brother, a tailor in the women's ready-to-wear, sometimes gave him some work. Bourdin became an active member of the London anarchist club, the Autonomy Club, 16 Windmill Street, near Tottenham Court Road, a neighborhood known for its anarchists and socialists from all over Britain and abroad (mostly Jews, former members of the Russian Bund). Numerous articles from the Manchester Guardian and the Times, as well as London newspapers describe this neighborhood by insisting on the Yiddish character of its placards, signs and the language heard in the streets. The police monitored this club because it was the landmark of many foreign "desperados" having fled their country of origin. Bourdin acted as the official secretary of the French anarchist section of London by organizing fund raising to help the poor French anarchists who had left the continent after the "wicked laws" voted by the Carnot government.

On the day of his accidental death, he had asked his brother if he had any work for him, the answer was negative. He then lunched with two friends, then took the tram to East Greenwich. The witnesses describe him carrying a square packet in his hands. At the autopsy carried out by the British authorities, 13 British Pounds were discovered in his pockets (today the equivalent of 1500 pounds), which made the authorities think that he was preparing to return to France after the attack that he hoped to perpetrate at the Greenwich Observatory. Bourdin died without revealing his exact purpose, which gave rise to many interpretations and allegations. The anarchist milieu argued that no real anarchist would target a place that was working for the improvement of humanity. Left-wing newspapers such as the Commonweal interpreted his gesture as the one of a mere 'postman' on his way to hand over the bomb to another anarchist on his way to Paris, where a few days before, a bombing had taken place in a cafe killing three people and wounded many others.

In the political sphere, everything was done to make sure that Bourdin would not become a martyr of the anarchist cause, threatening the European governments (France, England, Germany in particular). He was buried in an unmarked grave. At that time the governmenthad to fight against workers' strikes (1886-1889 with the Dockers and Jewish tailors) driven by an anarchist press such as the famous Yiddish newspaper "Arbeiter Fraynd". Parliament called for increased scrutiny of London's anarchist circles, which according to the House of Commons were all in the hands of foreigners using English freedom to foment attacks on European democratic regimes.
The accidental triggering of the bomb was proved by autopsies and since then, Bourdin's goal has been controversial. No sure source can state that the aim was the Observatory. Moreover, there has been no other terrorist attack organized by the anarchist circles in England.


This event has to be taken in the broader context of the anarchist struggle in Europe. A few months later, in Lyon, President Sadi Carnot was assassinated by an Italian anarchist named Santo Caserio. These two events were used by Lord Salisbury to present the House of Lords with an anti-migration law specifically targeting the Jews of the East. Indeed, for the British politician, London had become the benchmark of the international anarchist movement of which the Russian and Polish Jews provided the major part. It must be said that the Jewish libertarians and anarchists were indeed virulent in the East End. The British trade unions denied them access to their organizations, they very quickly organized themselves into Jewish trade unions. In 1889 the Jewish tailors led an unprecedented strike in London and joined the dockers' movement and the foundations of liberal society were undermined. Since then, Conservative opposition had been seeking ways to put an end to social movements in the capital city. The Jews seemed to be the best scape-goat. They were accused of creating the sweatshops, of lowering the wages, of destroying the foundations of British society ... Why not accuse them of revolution and international conspiracy aimed at the destruction of European democracies? The Times, a conservative and pro-government newspaper, had published an article stating that the Jewish anarchist milieu in London was partly responsible for the assassination of Carnot, as the pamphlets distributed in France and titled "A mort Carnot" (Death to Carnot) had been printed in London on the presses of the Jewish libertarian newspaper.

Salisbury was finally unable to pass his law, which was rejected by Parliament. Nevertheless, it laid the foundations of a conservative power that would seek to limit Jewish immigration. In 1905, the government passed the Aliens Act, the first British anti-migratory law.

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