Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Bartlomiej Beniowski: newly discovered picture of Chartism's "military leader"

Bartlomiej Beniowski is a shadowy presence in the story of Chartism. An emigre who found his way to Britain after a failed Polish-Lithuanian uprising against Russian rule, he joined both the London Working Men's Association and the more radical London Democratic Association.

The truth  about his supposed role as the possible military leader of a planned armed uprising over the winter of 1839-1840 has never been properly established.

It appears, however, that this most enigmatic of men may be one of the few Chartists to have left a photograph of himself. And unlike those of men such as George Julian Harney and George Jacob Holyoake, who were photographed in old age, Beniowski's picture shows a man in his prime.

The picture of Bartlomiej Beniowski shown here is reproduced from an original stereoscopic tinted daguerreotype held as part of a collection of daguerreotypes at the National Museum of Lithuania. It appears here with the kind permission of the museum.

The picture does not quite show the “tall, well looking, slim” figure described in one police report of 1839. The years have clearly added a few pounds. But it is easy to see how he would have fitted the description at the time, and he still looks the very model of a former cavalry officer.

I came across the daguerreotype, previously unknown to those of us with an interest in Chartism, while looking into Beniowski’s life outside Chartism. In the pre-internet era it would never have come to light (indeed, it never did!). My belief is that there is much still out there to find.

I have written a short biography of Beniowski for Chartist Ancestors. However, much more remains to be discovered.

At some point, Beniowski’s daughter Emilja Wrublewska returned to Lithuania (then still part of the Russian empire) and she and her family made important contributions to Lithuanian cultural life. The library of Lithuanian Academy of Science carries the name of her son today

Wrublewska kept a diary from 1850 onwards, and this is held by the National Museum of Lithuania. Although the diary post-dates Beniowski’s involvement in Chartism, the first two volumes were written in London and they cover the last 17 years of Beniowski’s life. They remain to be translated.

More immediately, the Lithuanian academic Dr Reda Griškaitė wrote an extensive account of Wrublewska’s life and work in Archivum Lithuanicum 14, 2012. The PDF is here. I have tried to run this through Google translate but with very limited success.

However, the article does include, in addition to the daguerreotype of Beniowski, another of Wrublewska and a picture of the remaining fragment of paper recording Beniowski’s promotion to the rank of major.

Read more about Major Bartlomiej Beniowski.

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