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Who Was the Original Aunt Jemima and What Did She Do?

05/16/2006Robert LeFevre

Five hundred years from now, when historians and philosophers have the opportunity of viewing the 20th century in perspective, they may decide that the outstanding characteristic of our time was a willingness to pass responsibility to others. In a sense, this has become the age of Pass The Buck.

In the British Isles, until the 20th century, the cry "Stop Thief!" echoing down the street caused good citizens to cease their daily endeavors and rush in hot pursuit of the fleeing miscreant. Each man felt a concern when the property rights of others were violated. But in the 20th century, we have learned dependence upon government. Whenever possible, we shirk responsibility and thrust it away.

Not too long ago, in New York City, on Broadway, a young man seized a brick and hurled it through a plate glass window of a men's clothing shop. At least a hundred people waiting for transportation, or passing by, observed the action and what ensued. The young man calmly climbed through the broken window, helped himself to clothing, and then walked on down the street. Not a voice was raised in protest. No one called the police. No one wanted to become involved. It wasn't the duty of the citizens to arrest a criminal: it was the duty of the police. Besides, why worry about it? The owner of the store was probably rich and deserved the loss. The young man probably needed the clothing. A hundred blasé and skeptical New Yorkers shrugged it off.

"Whom the gods destroy, they first make mad."

Perhaps that well-known adage could be revised to read, "Whom the gods destroy, they first make indifferent."

With these ideas in mind, now let me tell you the story of Aunt Jemima. Most of us may think of Aunt Jemima as a round-faced black woman with red bandana, smiling invitingly behind a stack of hot cakes. But the original Aunt Jemima was a Welsh woman. Her unwillingness to be indifferent to the threat of danger, and her courage in organizing private defenses for the Welsh coast when government proved to be incapable, may have prevented the expansion of the French Empire when Bonaparte was on the march in the latter years of the 18th century.

The Welsh people who inhabit the county of Pembrokeshire are noted for their independence. They are suspicious of all tidings, good or evil, until they've checked the source. They are dubious of government, and question what it does for them that is of any value. They have an inherent love of liberty, and observers who know the people best say that this spirit of independence is as strong and vital today as it was 200 years ago.

Pembrokeshire is the southwestern portion of Wales and thrusts out into the Atlantic Ocean, forming the eastern boundary of Saint George's Channel. One Day, in February, 1797, on that bleak and forbidding coast, part of Bonaparte's French fleet landed to make a raid. There were 3 ships and a lugger blown off-course from a French expedition, which Napoleon had dispatched to aid the united Irishmen in their rebellion and in their seeking separation from England. The Irish loved freedom and were angry with government generally. Napoleon was eager to ensure that Irish anger would be directed against the British king.

At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the ships sailed up the coast of southwest Wales, past the Strumblehead Lighthouse and hove to, within sight of the town of Fishguard. Apparently no one on shore was unduly alarmed at the sight of the French vessels. Three months earlier, Spain had declared war against George III, and evidently the British had had many problems of larger concern. With his glass, the French commodore could detect no unusual activity in the streets of Fishguard. There were no milling crowds, no British Redcoats. There was no reason why the French ships, all carrying troops to assist in the Irish rebellion, couldn't assist that rebellion right here in Fishguard, and by staging a quick raid upon the Welsh coast, they could seize stores and munitions, and possibly even a few prisoners.

The commodore snapped his glass shut and gave the order. French troops, together with arms and munitions, were rowed ashore in preparation for an inland thrust. The French had correctly analyzed the military situation. The Welsh were militarily unprepared. But the invaders had made a monstrous miscalculation. They had failed to consider the Welshman's love of liberty and his refusal to be too dependent on his government. (And then, too, they had never heard of Aunt Jemima.)

Thomas Williams, of Treleddyn, Saint Davids, a county magistrate who had been a sailor, noticed the French as they hove to. Although the ships were flying English colors, he immediately recognized them for what they were and immediately sent runners to warn the people of Saint Davids and Fishguard to be on the lookout for enemy movements along the coast. In a few hours, the entire countryside was aroused. A message was sent to Lord Carter for a troop of Castlemartin yeomanry to drive the French invader from Welsh soil, but their leader Colonel Davis was nowhere to be found. Rumor was that the colonel had been tippling, and it appeared that the Welsh were at the mercy of Napoleon's troops — and so they might have been had they depended on their government for their protection.

If the Welshmen had believed that the French arrival was none of their business, and that government has an exclusive monopoly in the field of protection, the history of the Napoleonic Wars might have had a different ending. The French in fact were so confident of success that they made no attempts to exploit their original advantage of surprise, putting off until the following day the landing of their main forces and the raids upon farms and nearby communities. They left only a token force to guard their stores and spent the night aboard ship.

When Aunt Jemima Nicholas heard the news of the landing of the Frenchmen, she was not surprised. She knew of the trouble between the French and the British, and any stranger in Wales — be he French, Spanish, or English — was not to be trusted. And she was concerned about the protection of her home and her country.

Late that day, when word came to the worried and excited townspeople, that the troops of Castlemartin could not find their leader, Aunt Jemima decided to take events into her own hands. Picking up a pitchfork, she sauntered to Goodwick Sands, where the French had established a temporary beach camp. History gives no details of how she completed her daring exploit, but armed with nothing but that pitchfork, Jemima single-handedly captured 12 Frenchmen and marched them back to her shoemaker shop. She extracted from her captives the full story of the intended raid. Then leaving her victims trussed up like fowl, she went about the town of Fishguard, and with the help of a Mr. Whitesides, the builder of the lighthouse at Strumblehead, she aroused the people.

A great military strategist was born in Aunt Jemima Nicholas that night. Of course she had no authority to do these things. She was acting quite unofficially and without precedent. But she refused to let the initiative go over to the enemy. She organized and worked until dawn flooded the rocky coast with light. And then she acted. Just above a spot on the beach, where the landing was being made in force, and within clear view of the French warships anchored in the channel, Jemima and the women of Fishguard circled proudly about the hill.

Over the shoulders of each flamed the bright red shawl characteristic of Welsh women. As they passed round a little ridge, they would quickly run back, hidden from sight in the little valley, and then once more march across the face of the hill. Jemima Nicholas and her fellow citizens from Fishguard continued this action all morning. And to the eyes of the watching Admiral, it appeared that the hills were crowded with innumerable British soldiers all marching to intercept his troops.

At a distance, the bright red shawl, the scarlet mantel wrapped around the shoulders of the women, appeared like the red coats of the British regulars. The French Admiral cursed under his breath. He'd been led to believe that the Welsh people would not be aided by King George. He'd also understood that the Welsh were a discontented lot and would be ready and eager to join with Napoleon as the Irish had done. Too late he realized that he had been trapped.

The Welsh hills were swarming with British regulars. He would not have sent his troops ashore. He realized now that all was lost, and without as much as a parting au revoir to his compatriots who had recently landed, he upped anchor, and the three men o'war with their lugger headed out for the open sea, abandoning Napoleon's troops upon the Welsh coast.

Now the women of Fishguard, together with what menfolk were available, stripped the lead from the roof of the Cathedral, mounted signs on long poles, took pitchforks, pistols, guns or poll axes, anything that came to hand, and descended upon the beach, not as a troop of disciplined military, but as an aroused community who knew the meaning of private protection.

The French took one look at the motley horde descending upon their camp and ran up the white flag. Who can blame them?

A truce was quickly arranged. A meeting took place next day at the Royal Oak Inn in Fishguard. The French formally surrendered without having fired a shot. And finally, after all was over, Colonel Davis and Lord Carter's troop of Castlemartin yeomen arrived to lead the prisoners away.

And there you have the story of how men and women who knew they were free and who didn't depend on the government to save them defended their liberty against an invading army. Today if you go to County Pembrokeshire, in Wales, and make your way to the town of Fishguard, there in the Royal Oak Inn, you will see a plaque, which bears an inscription telling of the surrender and treaty that occurred on that famous day back in 1797.

There's another point which also could be made. All wars are created by government. And the principle reason why the Welsh populous felt a necessity to protect their homes was because of the politically inspired war, which their king had helped to cause. Had there been no King George — had there been no war between the British government and the Irish or the French, a French expedition off the Strumblehead Lighthouse could have negotiated peacefully with the private merchants in Fishguard in order to reprovision their ships. Trade is a far less costly practice than war, with few of the attendant risks.

Certainly the French people would not have thought to invade the Welsh coast, nor would the Irish. Governments invade. Governments make war. Given a condition in which the rules of liberty pertain, there would be scant reason either for invasion or the necessity of the defense of a coastal village.

But we can surely admire this Welsh Aunt Jemima for recognizing that the government can do nothing useful that private persons cannot do. And her initiative and resolute action contain the elements of which freedom and independence are formed. Often we are led to believe that government protects us from danger, or that government solves our problems and permits us to lead happier, freer and more secure lives. But in fact, government never does anything for us that we cannot do for ourselves. For the very best government of all is self-government. Those of us who would be free must always remember that liberty and self-government are one.

Robert LeFevre ran the Freedom School and Rampart College, founded in 1957. He had a legendary impact on a whole generation of libertarians. This article was transcribed from his "Past is Prologue" radio series. The original recording is available in MP3. LeFevre's complete audio archive is hosted by Mises.org. Comment on the blog.


Robert LeFevre

Robert LeFevre (1911–1986) ran the Freedom School and Rampart College, founded in 1957. He had a legendary impact on a whole generation of libertarians. LeFevre's complete audio archives is available in Mises Media.