At the height of the international Cold War era, it was not uncommon to hear about foreign embassies serving as havens for government spies.
Journalist/author Christopher Dickey turns back the clock 100 years on the Cold War and tells the story of a British diplomat who served as a spy operating in plain sight. Dickey’s book, “Our Man in Charleston,” is an account of Robert Bunch, who served as the British “consul” in Charleston, S.C., before and during America’s Civil War.
In the mid-19th century, Great Britain had 14 people serving as consuls throughout the United States. In effect, they were ambassadors. However, they also served the purpose of relaying information back to the Crown regarding what was going on in their assigned regions.
Information from South Carolina was especially important to England during this time. This was the state that would lead the drive for secession, as the well-heeled Southern landowners and politicians became increasingly dissatisfied with the North’s feeling about slavery and slave trading.
Great Britain found itself in a double bind of trying to stay friendly with both sides in this period of American history. The dilemma was that although British officials detested the institution of slavery, the country was reliant on American cotton to supply what was then Britain’s leading industry.
During the 1850s there was no specific law in the United States regarding slavery. It was a tradition that had existed in the South since plantation owners put in their first cash crops.
Britain’s opposition to slavery was shared by many European powers. The transport of slaves from Africa was one of the major points of concern. In 1841, most major European countries had endorsed a treaty declaring slave trading as outright piracy. England made sure its navy was on the alert to enforce this treaty.
Back in the States, Bunch relied on his innate curiosity along with an affable personality to endear himself to the Who’s Who of Charleston leaders. Soon he was able to collect insider information as to their true feelings on slavery, home rule and the increasing desire to secede from the Union.
The cumulative effect of Bunch’s presence during the Civil War can be compared to a network of tunnels and passageways that a mole has dug right beneath your feet without ever being discovered. Because of Bunch, British leaders had the most up-to-date knowledge of how the U.S. was slowly splitting into two separate countries. It was imperative that England knew which of the two to support so that the kingdom across the sea would not be harmed economically or politically.
Dickey’s book is a good historical primer on the buildup to the Civil War and a behind-the-scenes look at England’s concern for its own future as the conflict unfolded.
Steve Novak is a freelance writer in Cleveland.