Open main menu


OSWALD, JOHN (d. 1793), poet and republican, was a native of Edinburgh, where his mother is said to have kept John's coffeehouse. He is stated to have been apprenticed to a jeweller, and various accounts are given as to the method by which he obtained sufficient money to purchase a commission in the 42nd highlanders, with which he served as ensign in America. He had obtained the rank of lieutenant when, in 1780, he embarked with the second battalion of the regiment for the East Indies. On the way out he fought a duel with the officer commanding the two companies, but neither combatant was injured. His finances not permitting him to join the officers' mess, he was accustomed to content himself with the same rations as those served out to the common soldiers. While in India he sold his commission, and in 1783 he returned overland to England. On his way out he is said to have occupied himself in learning Greek and Latin, and while in the east he obtained a knowledge of Arabic. From intercourse with the Brahmins he imbibed certain curious beliefs. Although not accepting all their doctrines — for he was professedly an atheist — he shared their repugnance to flesh, from which he abstained on the professed ground of humanity, but was accustomed to drink wine plentifully. On his return to England he occupied much of his time in penning political pamphlets.

On the outbreak of the French revolution Oswald went to Paris, where he joined the Jacobin Club, and was appointed commandant of the first battalion of pikemen. It is stated that on one occasion he coolly suggested, at a party of some members of the convention, as the most effectual method of averting civil war, the putting to death of every suspected man in France; to which Thomas Paine replied, 'Oswald, you have lived so long without tasting flesh that you have a most ferocious appetite for blood' (Redhead Yokke, Letters from France, i. 162). His regiment having been ordered to La Vendée for the repression of the royalist insurrection, he was killed at the battle of Ponts-de-Cée, September 1793, by a cannon-ball, his two sons — whom, in practical exemplification of his belief in the doctrine of equality, he had appointed drummers in the regiment — being killed almost at the same instant by a discharge of grapeshot.

Oswald was author of 'Review of the Constitution of Great Britain,' London, 1784; 3rd edit., with considerable additions, 1792; translated into French under the title 'Le Gouvernement du Peuple ou Plan de Constitution pour la République Universelle,' Paris, 1792; 'Ranæ Comicæ Evangelizantes, or the Comic Frogs turned Methodists,' 1786; 'The Alarming Progress of French Politics: a Pamphlet on the Commercial Treaty,' 1787; 'The British Mercury' (a periodical publication), 1787; 'The Cry of Nature, or an Appeal to Mercy and Justice on behalf of persecuted Animals,' London, 1791; 'La Tactique du Peuple/Paris, 1793. Under the pseudonym of Sylvester Otway he wrote 'Euphrosyne, an Ode to Beauty,' London, 1788; and 'Poems, to which is added the Humours of John Bull: an Operatic Farce in two Acts,' London, 1789.

[Lives of Scottish Poets, 1821; Anderson's Scottish Nation; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Redhead Yorke's Letters from France; 'Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. i. 434, 459, 516, ii. 14, 5th ser. ii. 364, 496; Alger's Englishmen in the French Revolution, pp. 76-7.]

T. F. H.