Britain is in the grip of a divisive war on terror. The government is forcing through new emergency powers to imprison suspected terrorists without trial. Dissent is spilling on to the streets, where popular opposition to the war is suppressed with violence. Secret intelligence sources whisper of a vast international terror conspiracy. The year is 1798, and Colonel Edward Marcus Despard is shortly to become the last man sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered for high treason.

Despard’s execution was the climax of an extraordinary life. He had served as a soldier in Jamaica, and fought alongside savage Miskito Indians – and a young Horatio Nelson – in one of the most hellish jungle campaigns in the history of warfare. Rewarded with command of the British settlement of Belize, he had married a black woman and staked his reputation on giving the same rights to freed slaves as to white settlers. Summoned back to London to explain himself, and finding his career put on hold, he joined the revolutionary underground.

The Unfortunate Colonel Despard moves from high adventure on the Spanish Main to the political tumult of the London underworld in the 1790s, when many believed that, as in America and France, the old elite were on the verge of collapse. Despard’s personal drama unfolds against a background of voodoo slave revolts and naval mutinies, the French Revolution and the Irish Rebellion, the democratic ideals of Tom Paine and the ruthless political clampdown of William Pitt’s ‘Reign of Terror’. Despard’s contested fate was the sensational climax to a British revolution that never happened, but it also presaged the birth of modern democracy.

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