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Blackguards and Blackmail

The genteel ladies of Durban’s Berea are traditionally considered to be more concerned with bridge and cake sales than with criminality. But Mrs F Macpherson Brown has written to Wordsworth expressing a scholarly interest in the derivation of “black-guard” and “blackmail”.

That such things should be unknown on the Berea is a comforting reminder that lawlessness has not yet become all-pervasive.

For the record, the much-maligned “blackguard” began life relatively inoffensively as kitchen attendants. They were the lowest menials of royal or noble household, responsible for pots, pans ad other culinary utensils and rode in the wagons conveying these from one residence to another.

The term was also applied to servants and camp followers holding the same position in the army.

By their very nature, it is unlikely that members of the “black guard” would have law-abiding citizens. The word thus acquired its modern pejorative sense of pertaining to the dregs of community, with connotations of crime, brutality, and general scurrilousness.

“Blackmail” on the other hand, was a nasty word from day one. The original “mail” meant rent and tribute, and the black variety was that extracted by the freebooting Scottish chiefs from their southern neighbours in exchange for immunity from plunder.

Genuine rent- “white mail” - was paid in silver, but black was rendered in labour, produce, or livestock.

It would thus seem that protection money was not by the Al Capone but by the MacMafia of the 16th century, as the first recorded reference to the word is in a Scottish catechism written by Archbishop Hamilton in 1552.

Half a century on, shortly before the death of Queen Elizabeth, an English Act of Parliament peevishly complained:

“Sundry of Her Majesties loving subjects within the sayd (4 nothern) Countries have been informed to paye a certaine rate of money, corne, cattell, or other consideration, commonly there called by the name Black maile.”

Although a year later in 1603 the “sayd subjects” fell under the rule of Scotland’s King James VI, the practice continued, and even in1875 an English textbook spoke of “preferring to pay blackmail to the Scots.”

The modern definition is to extort money by intimidation, by the unscrupulous use of official or social position, or of political influence or vote. It probably still happens in Scotland, but on the Berea? Never!

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