Today in London radical history: Anarchist Malatesta jailed for ‘libelling’ police spy Belleli, 1912

As mentioned on before on this blog, late-19th and early 20th century London was home to a bustling community of exiles from various European countries, a fair proportion of who were radical activists of one stripe or another, driven from their homes for their political involvement. For many socialists and anarchists living in London, however, fleeing this repression to what was on the face of it a more liberal and tolerant regime in Britain didn’t necessarily mean they escaped surveillance by the police back home.

The active involvement of the exiles in supporting radical and revolutionary struggles from London inevitably meant that the secret services, the political police, of several major European powers had an interest in knowing what was going on in London’s radical circles, and in disrupting and dividing it if possible. Most of the socialist and anarchist groups, clubs, and meeting places were heavily infiltrated by spies of all nationalities. British Special Branch also got in on the act. Since many of the activists were expecting police infiltration, and some of the spying was less than competent, suspicion, paranoia and general distrust quickly became second nature among the exiled left scenes. This is in itself, is of course almost as good as spying on people, to make them think that everyone they know is a spy, especially if they aren’t. Anarchists were particularly targeted by the secret services, especially after some elements of anarchism took a shine to bombings and assassination in the 1880s-90s. The attraction of anarchism to loud-mouthed bombastic nutters, very hard to distinguish from agent-provocateurs, lent itself nicely to a climate of denunciations, accusations and back-stabbing. Which does the police’s job in itself – sabotaging as much effective action as possible.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Italian police had a number of spies among the exile anarchist community in London. (See our entry for May 9th.)

In 1912, in a leaflet distributed to the Italian anarchist community in London, longtime Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta accused Enrico Belelli of being an informer of the Italian government, and challenged him to openly disclose the nature of his means of maintenance.

In April 1912, the Italian anarchists in London published a single issue to protest against Italy’s invasion of Libya: La Guerra Tripolina. Malatesta wrote the editorial for the one-off publication. Shortly after the appearance of this single issue, Enrico Ennio Belelli, a member of the anarchist colony, spread rumours that Malatesta was a Turkish spy. In reply, Malatesta issued a leaflet entitled Alla Colonia italiana di Londra (Per un fatto personale) and circulated it in the Italian colony. In that leaflet, Malatesta explained the reasons why he had ended all relations with Belelli, namely Belelli’s support of the Italian military invasion.

Malatesta challenged Belelli to attend a public meeting to explain where his funds came from and prove that he was not an agent of the Italian police. The publication of this leaflet represented the starting point of one of the most dangerous event that threatened Malatesta’s safety during the years of his long exile in London.

Initially Belelli issued a rebuttal to be printed by Giuseppe Pesci, who provided Malatesta with a copy of it. However, Belelli decided to withdraw the publication and not to distribute the leaflet in which he explicitly accused Malatesta to have taken part in the Houndsditch robbery. Instead, Belelli took proceedings against Malatesta for criminal libel. According to La Gogna, the single issue that exposed Belelli as a spy, Belelli reached that decision after consultation with Inspector Francis Powell of Scotland Yard.

Malatesta’s trial took place on 20 of May 1912 at the Old Bailey, in front of the Common Serjeant. Belelli’s interpreter was Enrico Bojada, the former informer of Inspector Prina. Belelli declared he was a bookseller and to have repudiated anarchist ideas a long time before the trial:

“…I am an Italian and have been trading in England about 10 years. Have known prisoner about 30 years, and have seen him many times since I have been in England… I was a personal friend of prisoner up to about six months ago, when the Italian-Turkish War started. I have sold a lot of books, some very ancient ones. I do not keep books of accounts as I pay in cash. I have no invoices or documents to show that I have sold any books, but I have sold many to various ladies and gentlemen. I make a profit of L250 to L300 a year. I have not banking account. I have not plate on my door showing I am a bookseller. I have two rooms and a Kitchen at my flat, and live there with my wife and six children, and carry on my business from there. I sell my books outside. I keep all my books in my flat. I have at present 700 or 800 francs worth. I may not have a large numbers of books as perhaps only one is a very valuable book…I did profess anarchy at one time, but after I saw that anarchist ideas were not fit for myself or others I gave up anarchy. That is … more than eight years ago, and I very seldom went to any other meetings. I did go to the International Anarchist Congress at Amsterdam in 1907 with prisoner’s brother, who is not an Anarchist, but only as a matter of curiosity… I have never been an Italian police spy, and have never received any money from the Minister of the Interior in Italy. I never sent money to the Anarchist Congress, and have only bought their newspapers; 15s. or 20s. is all I have ever paid towards anarchism in my life… I have never asserted that the defendant had sold himself to the Turkish Government as a Turkish spy. I did not write an article in reply to the challenge of defendant, and never gave such a thing to anyone to print for me… It may be that defendant and I have fallen out in consequence of the war, but my wife broke the friendship off at the time of the Houndsditch affair because the police were calling at my house asking me if I knew persons who participated in the murders… I take defendant’s circular to be an act of vengeance because I put him out of my house…six months ago because he said that whoever killed an Italian was his friend, and my wife would have given him some kicks if he had not gone…

Malatesta confirmed to have been close to Belelli; in fact, Malatesta used to visit him to give arithmetic lessons to his children. Malatesta added that Belelli posed as a bookseller, that in the previous five or six years he never saw him supply books and that Belelli owned only a few books for private use. In the cross-examination, Malatesta stated:

“When I published the circular I said that many people might think Bellili [sic] was an Italian police spy. When I say that he is not doing an honest trade as bookseller I mean to imply that he is getting his money as an Italian police spy. When I say he is a liar, I mean it. When I said I could show how I get every 6d. of my income I meant I was getting my living honestly. I challenged Bellili [sic] to do the same. I have been sentenced in Italy, but always for political offences – never to 30 years’ imprisonment or anything of the kind. I did not go to Bellili’s [sic] house on purpose to say that I disagreed with the Italian over the war. I did not say I was against all the Italians – I am an Italian myself. Bellili [sic] said at the Italian Colony that I wished all the Italian would get killed – or something of the kind – to influence the Italian Colony; but he has failed. Mrs. Bellili [sic] told me that she had a brother, who was a lieutenant in the Italian Army. I used no violent language, but Bellili [sic] was not ashamed to put his wife in the question. I do not like to quarrel with ladies. I did not say that everybody who murdered an Italian was a friend of mine, or that they should be crucified. I was a frequent visitor at Bellili’s [sic] house until his wife insulted me and then I went away. Afterwards I met Bellili [sic] at a shop kept by a friend of mine. I have seen Bellili [sic] on several occasions, but have had no conversation with him. It was in April I issued the circular and had it printed. It was printed in Paris. I had about 500 copies distributed.

Giuseppe Pesci, Giulio Rossi, Alfonso Spizzuoco, Pietro Gualducci, Romeo Tombolesi, Giorgio Antibando, and Enrico Defendi stood as witnesses in Malatesta’s favour, confuting Belelli’s statements. The Common Serjeant refused to accept as evidence a copy of Belelli’s reply to Malatesta. Pesci, nicknamed Bologna, the printer of many anarchist publications in London, stated that he had printed three proofs of the reply to Malatesta that Belelli had handed to him. Spizzuoco and Antibando testified to have been told by Belelli that Malatesta was a spy of the Turkish government. Defendi, Gualducci, Tombolesi, and Rossi denied that Belelli was a bookseller. All of them admitted to have been Belelli’s friends. Ludovico Brida and Giovanni Moroni, to whom Belelli declared to have sold books for a large amount of money, rectified the figure of the purchase to the value of few shillings. The Russian anarchist Chaikovsky testified in Malatesta’s favour as well.

The jury held Malatesta’s allegation against Belelli not substantiated by the evidence available. Therefore, they found Malatesta guilty of criminal libel.

In a contentious decision, the Common Serjeant allowed Inspector Powell of the Special Branch to give evidence after the delivery of the verdict.

“…Prisoner has been known to the police as an Anarchist of a very dangerous type for a great number of years. He has been imprisoned in his own country and has been expelled from France. He has visited Egypt, Spain, France, Portugal, and, I believe, America, in the interests of Anarchy, and wherever he went there was a great deal of trouble. He is known as the leader of militant Anarchists in this country – in fact, in the world. Many of his formers colleagues have passed through this court and had penal servitude for coining. Gardstein, one of the Houndsditch …had been using prisoner’s workshop, or working with him for 12 months. A tube of oxygen that was used on that occasion was traced to prisoner, who stated that he had sold it to Gardstein. That is all that was known. He has never been in the hands of the police in this country, but on one occasion was fined for assaulting a school teacher who chastised his son at school… I do not know much in his favour…”

Clearly opinion in the courtroom was swayed by Powell’s description of Malatesta as ‘an anarchist of a very dangerous type’, who had links with forgers and the police murderers of Houndsditch: his pronouncements also prejudiced the sentence issued to Malatesta by the Common Serjeant.

Three months’ imprisonment; recommended for expulsion under the Aliens Act; ordered to pay costs of prosecutions.

The Common Serjeant’s decision of considering Malatesta as an undesirable alien and to recommend him for expulsion at the expiration of his sentence aroused broad indignation. Articles against the punishment appeared in several newspapers: the Manchester Guardian, The Nation, the Daily Herald, the Star, the Daily News, and the Leader, as well as in Conservative newspapers. Malatesta’s sentence was seen as an attack against the tradition of political asylum, an attempt ‘to repudiate a principle to which all Liberals and most Conservatives are sincerely devoted’.

“An even greater scandal has arisen by the appearance in the court of a detective from the Political Department of Scotland Yard. This man was allowed to enter the witness box after the jury had given their verdict and make an attack upon Malatesta…Malatesta is the victim of the despicable international secret police who wish to destroy the RIGHT OF ASYLUM for political refugees which has hitherto been the glory of Britain. Their victory would be our dishonour. If this plot to deliver Malatesta into the hands of the Italian Government were successful, it would also strenghten [sic] the hands of the enemies of freedom in this country.”

Prince Kropotkin defended Malatesta in a long letter published in The Nation. Kropotkin argued that Malatesta’s case had to be considered in its political aspect. The challenge, an appeal to the judgement of comrades, as the one addressed by Malatesta to Belelli, was a defence against the system of agents-provocateurs that had ‘lately taken an immense development’. Malatesta’s condemnation for libel was dangerous because it rendered impossible any appeal to a jury of honour.

A Malatesta Release Committee was immediately established to launch a protest campaign against the sentence and to stop the deportation order. Initially, the secretary and treasurer was Jack Tanner, but was quickly replaced by Guy Aldred. The official address of the committee was Recchioni’s shop, in 37 Old Compton Street.

In the following weeks the Committee distributed 120,000 leaflets and 100,000 postcards to be sent to the Home Secretary. Rallies were held in Finsbury Park, Peckham Rye, and Regent’s Park ‘for arousing public interest in the dark and low–down tricks of continental political police agents’. A massive meeting was held on the 9 June, the day before the hearing of Malatesta’s appeal. According to The Anarchist at least 15,000 people joined the demonstration. Four processions with bands and banners convened on Trafalgar Square from Highbury, Mile End, Hammersmith and Harlesden. A large number of trade unions and labour organisations participated: dockers, tailors, gas workers, railwaymen, shop assistants, iron and tin-plate workers, etc. Banners of the Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party mixed with those of the anarchist groups. Many speeches were given from three platforms, among others by the secretary of the London Trades Council, James MacDonald, the editor of The Syndicalist, Guy Bowman, the Italo-Scottish anarchist James Tochatti, Guy Aldred, Mrs. Tom Mann, and Mrs. Agnes Henry.

The mobilisation demonstrated the deep esteem that Malatesta enjoyed, especially among the people of Islington, the area where he lived. Thousands signed the petition in Malatesta’s favour:

“Islington knows little and cares less about Malatesta’s “philosophical anarchism”. It only knows him as one who will give his last copper to the man who needs it, and who for more than twenty years has worked there, teaching useful trade to boys who would have drifted into hooliganism.”

 

Rudolf Rocker’s son, Fermin, retained a vivid memory of Malatesta in those years:

“Malatesta was one of the heroes of the movement, a veteran of many struggles on two continents, and his prestige, particularly among his countrymen, was equalled by very few. Oddly enough, there was little in his appearance and demeanour to suggest his exploits as a leader of strikes and insurrections, and to children in particular he seemed the very essence of benevolence… Despite his prominence in the movement, Malatesta lived a life of the utmost frugality, supporting himself as a machinist and metalworker, a calling he pursued in his own little workshop in Islington. Poor as he was, he invariably had a little gift for me whenever he would see me, either a little bag of sweets, a coin or a toy. In this regard he was not playing any favourites, for he had a way with children and was known and loved by all the youngsters in his neighbourhood.”

The Malatesta release campaign was a real tonic for the anarchist movement in London. Demonstrations were held in France as well. The anarchist newspaper, Les Temps Nouveaux, organised a successful meeting in Paris where ‘there was an overflow that would have filled the hall twice over’.The principal speakers were Charles Malato, M.Yvetot, and Dr. Pierro. Two hundred pounds were collected for the fund raised for the benefit of Malatesta. A large open-air meeting took place in Glasgow on Sunday 16 June.

On 10 of June, the appeal of Errico Malatesta against the sentence was heard before the Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Darling, and Mr Justice Avory. During the proceeding Malatesta ‘lent his bushy iron grey beard upon his white arm and gazed about the court with keen, penetrating eyes. Throughout the hearing he took apparently a deep interest in the proceeding’. Malatesta’s appeal was refused. The motivations for refusing the appeal, apart from the legal questions, demonstrated the judges’ particular perception of the Italian colony:

“He wrote and published in Italian, the native language of a number of people living together as a colony in this country, among them many anarchists… it held up Bellilli [sic] to the hatred of this society, a society of a very peculiar character. If a man in such a society was to be convicted of being a police spy… it followed that that man would be, in a society like that, in a very dangerous position… The Common Serjeant had made perfectly plain that he did not recommended that Malatesta should be deported as an undesirable alien simply because he was an Anarchist… His deportation was recommended on the ground that Bel[elli] being an anarchist, and being accused by Malatesta of being an Italian spy, the accusation was a danger to Bel[elli]. It was probable that in consequence of the libel some crime would be committed, and it was not going too far to say that some assassination might take place and that crime would be produced in this country. The Court, having taken in consideration all the circumstances, could therefore see no reason for revoking that part of the sentence relating to the deportation of Malatesta.

The Manchester Guardian underlined the judges’ contradictions at the Court of Appeal and rested its hopes in the Home Secretary.

On 18 June, the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, announced to the House of Commons that he: ‘had decided not to make an expulsion order against Malatesta but he saw no reasons to advise the remission of the sentence of imprisonment’.

Thanks to those mass demonstrations, Malatesta was therefore able to stay in England.

The trial put an end to Belelli’s career as a spy – he had for a while been suspected of being an infiltrator code-named Virgilio. Indeed, Malatesta’s allegations were sound. Belelli was born in the village of Novellara, near Reggio Emilia, on the 15 May 1860. The inaccessibility of prefettura and questura records held at the Archivio di Stato in Bologna, closed for building works for the last two years, made it impossible to consult further documents to determine when Belelli was recruited as an informer by Giolitti. The go-between Giolitti and Belelli was the police superintendent (questore), Vincenzo Neri. Neri had much experience in dealing with spies. It was in fact Neri, at that time a police inspector, who approached Domanico – a noted police spy among the anarchists – in Florence and put him in contact with the Ministry of Interior in 1892. Neri was appointed questore of Bologna in April 1896, but he took office only in the September of the following year. Belelli, after being a socialist, from 1892 became one of the leaders of the anarchist movement in Bologna. Although Belelli could have been a secret agent before Neri’s arrival in Bologna, it is possible to surmise that Belelli’s career as a spy began with Neri’s appointment in that city. Belelli was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for libel in September 1897. In May 1898, Belelli was suddenly released, a decision that completely surprised the prefect of Bologna. Belelli was granted pardon thanks to the good offices of a senator. It is therefore possible to make a conjecture that Neri contacted Belelli while in prison and released him in exchange for his services. In the middle of 1900, Belelli moved to Paris. He was expelled in September 1901, when the Tsar visited France.

Apparently, serious suspicions against Belelli were aroused by the solicitations of the anarchist Siegfried Nacht. Nacht had applied for a position at the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome; the position had been offered to him on condition of interrupting all his contacts with the anarchists. From Rome, Nacht sent 45 lire to Giovanni Spizzuoco, Alfonso’s brother, to clear a debt that he had previously contracted with him. Some time later, Nacht was questioned at the Ministry of Interior about this transfer of funds and was rebuked for continuing to maintain contacts with the anarchists. In consequence Nacht urged his comrades in London to investigate the leak. Spizzuoco claimed that the only person acquainted with the transaction was Belelli, who had changed the lire into pound sterlings. Moreover, Felice Vezzani, from Paris, reported that, according to Belelli’s sister-in-law, Belelli received registered letters from the Ministry of Interior monthly. In any case after Malatesta’s trial, Belelli went back to Reggio Emilia where he died in 1926.

With Belelli’s departure, Virgilio disappeared as well. In fact Belelli was the person who for twelve years signed his reports with that cover name. But although Belelli was in direct contact with the Ministry of Interior he left no traces of Virgilio’s real identity in his correspondence between the Ministry and the embassy or the consulate, which was different from what happened with other spies. However, evidence has since emerged to verify that Belelli and Virgilio were one and the same person.

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