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The Bentham Brothers, their adventure in Russia

Prince Potemkin and the Benthams  The project to create an English village with "modern" factories in Belorussia.  A fasinating account.

History Today,  August, 2003  by Simon Sebag Montefiore



ON DECEMBER 11TH, 1783, His Most Serene Highness Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin--Serenissimus as he was known--summoned to his apartments in St Petersburg a young Englishman Samuel Bentham, whose doomed love affair with a beautiful Russian countess had been followed by all society, and offered him a glorious new start. Potemkin's offer led, not only to the most adventurous career in war and peace ever enjoyed by an Englishman in Russia but also to a farce in which an ill-sorted company of Welsh and Geordie artisans were settled on a Belorussian estate, which they were to develop into Potemkin's own industrial trading empire. The episode highlights not only the Prince's boundless dynamism, but the way he used his estates as the arsenal and marketplace of the state, with no boundary between his own money and that of the empire.

Samuel Bentham (1757-1831) was the youngest of seven children--Jeremy (1748-1832) was the eldest--and they were the only two who survived. Their father Jeremiah was a well-connected lawyer whose patron was the future Whig prime minister, the Earl of Shelburne. The Benthams were a close family; they wrote to each other constantly about Samuel's escapades in Russia. The brothers shared a brilliant intelligence, a driving energy and inventiveness but they were opposites: Jeremy, a philosopher and jurist, now almost forty, was shy and scholarly. Samuel, an engineer by profession, polymath and entrepreneur, was sociable and amorous.

Three years previously, in 1780, while Jeremy was at work on his judicial reforms in London, Samuel, aged twenty-three, had journeyed to the Black Sea coast, (observing on his voyage Potemkin's burgeoning new port town Kherson, under construction for the Prince's Black Sea fleet) and thence to St Petersburg where he called on Potemkin. Samuel was hoping to make his fortune in Russia, while Jeremy wanted his brother to propose on his behalf his legal ideas to the Empress. Potemkin was looking for talented engineers, shipbuilders, entrepreneurs and Englishmen: Samuel was all of these things. But he wanted to travel, so in 1781, the Prince dispatched Bentham to Siberia to analyse its industries. While there, Samuel wrote to Jeremy from Irkutsk, boasting about his new contact:

This man's business is to greater amount than any other's I have heard of in the Empire. His position at Court is also the best on which account, as well as that of his riches.  Governors of course bow down to him. His chief affairs lie about the Black Sea. He there farms the duties on some articles, builds ships for the    Crown, supplies the army and the crown in general with all necessaries, has fabricks of various kinds and is clearing the waterfalls of the Dnieper at his own private expense. He was very anxious to have assistance in his undertakings before I left St Petersburg.”

Back in St Petersburg by mid-1783 Bentham was distracted by something much more alluring. The object of his attention was Countess Sophia Matushkina, the pretty niece and ward of Field-Marshal Prince Alexander Golitsyn, the Governor of St Petersburg. Samuel and the Countess, roughly the same age, met in the Field-Marshal's salon. Their passion was fanned by the operatic intrigues made necessary by the disapproval of old Golitsyn. The Empress Catherine, however, let court know that she was thoroughly enjoying the scandal.

'If you have anything to say to me for or against a Matrimonial Connection' Samuel asked Jeremy, 'let me know'. He was in love with the girl--and her position, for he added disarmingly: 'She is heiress to two Rich People'.It was a wonderful moment to be an Englishman in Petersburg and the impassioned Samuel lived a dizzy social existence. He soon decided that his love affair had caused such interest that it might help him get a job fromthe Empress, a novel sort of curriculum vitae, though one not unknown in Russia:

“I am fully disposed that a desire Her Majesty has to assist
                           my Match goes a great way in disposing her in my 
favour ... she fully
                           believes it was my love induced me 
to offer my services."

Golitsyn, meanwhile, had banned the couple from seeing each other. The courtiers relished the forbidden romance as much as the Empress--even while annexing the Crimea, Potemkin was kept informed.

Probably at Catherine's prompting, her young favourite, Alexander Lanskoy, now intervened on Samuel's behalf, telling Sophia's aunt and mother that 'the Empress thought they did wrong to oppose the young Countess's inclinations ... This only irritated the aunt more.' Samuel, intoxicated by the grandeur of those involved in his affairs, suffered from the delusion that the very Cabinets of Europe had forgotten wars and treaties, and were exclusively discussing his trysts. When Potemkin returned triumphantly to St Petersburg in November 1783 with the Crimea and Georgia at his feet, Samuel was convinced that the Prince's first question would be about his love. Serenissimus, however, was much more interested in the Englishman's shipbuilding potential. But he knew from his courtiers that Bentham's affair was doomed. The Empress may have enjoyed teasing the Golitsyns--but she was never going to support an Englishman against a distinguished member of the old aristocracy. Soon Lanskoy intervened again on Catherine's behalf: the affair must end.

That December the crestfallen Samuel called on the Prince who had Colonel Korsakov offer him a job as Lieutenant-Colonel at Kherson. Samuel resisted Potemkin's offer--he hoped that Countess Sophia was still in love with him. But it was all over. Samuel resolved to leave 'out of delicacy'. He accepted the job. Potemkin offered him a salary of 1,200 roubles a year and 'much more for table money.'

The melodramatic lover of the months before was now replaced by Potemkin's self-congratulatory protege:

"While I enjoy fully the share of the Prince's good opinion and confidence which I flatter myself I possess at present, my situation cannot be disagreeable.  Everything I propose to him, he accedes to."

Potemkin's idiosyncratic management style bemused Colonel Bentham. 'As to what employment I am to have at Kherson or elsewhere ...', Serenissimus also mentioned

"... an Estate on the Borders of Poland ... One day he talks of a new port and dockyard below the Bar, another he talks about my erecting windmills in the Crimea.  A month hence I may have a regiment of Hussars and be sent against ... the Chinese and then command a ship of 100 guns."

He was to end up doing almost all of the above. However, as to his immediate destiny, he could only inform his brother: 'I can tell you nothing.'

On March 10th, 1784, the Prince abruptly left St Petersburg for Moscow. Bentham followed three days later. When he presented himself to the Prince the following Sunday morning in his usual frockcoat, Serenissimus called in his head of Chancellery, and told him to list the boy in the army, cavalry or infantry, whichever he liked--he chose the infantry--and put on his Lieutenant-Colonel's uniform. Henceforth Bentham always wore his green coat with scarlet lapels, scarlet waistcoat with gold lace, and white breeches.

A season of travelling with the Prince round his empire was a privilege accorded to few foreigners--but Potemkin only tolerated those who were the best company. They headed south and for six months, Samuel travelled 'always in the same carriage' as Potemkin:

"The journey I have been making this spring with the Prince, to me who do not think much of fatigue, has been in every respect highly agreeable ... I had not for a long time spent my time so merrily." 

Somewhere in this perambulating horse-powered seat of government, the Prince decided that Lt-Colonel Bentham's posting was to be Krichev, his sprawling estate 'on the borders of Poland'. Here Bentham was appointed the sole master of an estate 'larger than any county of England': Krichev itself was over 100 square miles but it was right next to another Potemkin estate, Dubrovna, which was even larger. At Krichev, there were five townships and 145 hamlets--14,000 male serfs. Together, the population of these two territories was 'upwards of 40,000 males vassals', as Samuel put it: the total number of inhabitants must have been at least double that.

Potemkin was already the master of an industrial empire, best-known for its factories making Russia's most beautiful mirrors. At Krichev Bentham found a brandy distillery, factory, tannery, copperworks, textile mill with 172 looms making sailcloth, a rope walk with twenty wheels, supplying Kherson's shipyards, a complex of greenhouses, a pottery, a shipyard and another mirror-factory. 'The estate ... furnishes all the principal naval stories in the greatest abundance by a navigable river which ... renders the transport easy to the Black Sea.' The trade went in both directions: there was already a surplus of cordage and sailcloth that was traded on to Constantinople while there was a booming import-export business to Riga. This was Potemkin's imperial arsenal, his manufacturing and trading headquarters, his inland shipyard and the chief supplier of his new cities and navy on the Black Sea.

Krichev was another world from the salons of St Petersburg. Bentham moved into 'Potemkin's house' but which was really just a 'tottering barn.' He had landed at one of Europe's crossroads: not only did the riverways converge there, but the place was a cultural cauldron too. There were forty poverty-stricken Polish noblemen who worked on the estate 'almost as slaves'.

The place was teeming with different races and languages. There were Russians, Germans, Don Cossacks, Polish Jews--and the English. This was all most confusing and alarming to Bentham's recruits from England. Beaty, an artisan from Newcastle who had never been abroad before, confessed that 'the heterogenous mixture of people here is surprising'. At first 'I thought it a collection of the strangest sounds that ever invaded my English ears.' The Jews, from whom 'we had to buy all the necessities of life,' spoke German or Yiddish. Beaty could only muse that 'on a Market Day when I behold such an odd Medley of Faces and Dresses, I have more than once started and wondered what brought me amongst them.'

Samuel's responsibilities over these people were extensive: he was now the 'Legislator, Judge, Jury and Sheriff' of the local serfs. Then, 'I have the direction and putting in order of all the Prince's fabriks here.' The factories were lamentable. 'They tell me the cordage [factory] is scarcely fit for use' wrote Potemkin, who was always thinking of improving his cities and warships. He begged Bentham to improve it and sent him an expert from Kronstadt.

When Samuel's friends, Korsakov and the sailor Mordvinov, both senior officers of Potemkin's, visited on the way to Kherson in the mid-1780s, Bentham reported to Serenissimus that he was supplying them with whatever they needed for their shipbuilding. After almost two years, Samuel was doing so well with his mills that he suggested a deal to the Prince that he would actually take over the less successful factories for ten years while Potemkin kept the profitable ones. 'Extremely agreeable', replied Potemkin from Tsarskoe Selo who professed himself 'charmed with your activity and the project of your obliging responsibility.' All the buildings and materials would be supplied along with 20,000 roubles (about 5,000 [pounds sterling]) of capital which Samuel would gradually repay. In the deal signed in January 1786, Serenissimus asked for no income whatsoever during the ten years--he simply hoped to receive the factories back in a profitable state at the end. His interest was not profit but imperial benefit.

Bentham's main task was to build ships for Potemkin. 'I seem to be at liberty to build any kind of ship ... whether for War, Trade or Pleasure.' The Prince wanted gun frigates for the Navy, a pleasure frigate for the Empress, barges for the Dnieper trade and ultimately luxury barges for a long-planned visit by the Empress to the South. Bentham tried to pin down Potemkin about ship design for one of the Empress's vessels: did Serenissimus want one mast, two masts and how many guns? 'He told me by way of ending the dispute that there might be twenty masts and one Gun if I pleased. I am little confused ...'

Soon Samuel realised he needed help. His ships required rowers, whether peasants or soldiers. This was no problem: the Prince delivered a battalion of Musketeers. 'I give you the command,' wrote Serenissimus from St Petersburg to Bentham in September 1785. Potemkin was always thinking about his beloved Navy: 'My intention, sir, is that they shall be capable one day of serving at sea, therefore I exhort you ... to qualify them for it.' Bentham had no idea how to command soldiers or speak Russian so when a Major asked for orders on parade, Samuel replied 'Same as yesterday'. How was this manoeuvre to be conducted? 'As usual,' ordered Bentham. But there were only 'two or three Sergeants' who could write, let alone draw, plus two leather-makers from Newcastle at Orsha, a young mathematician from Strasbourg, a Danish brass-founder and a Scottish watchmaker. Samuel bombarded the Prince with requests for artisans: 'I'm finding it very difficult to recruit people of talent,' he complained. The Prince replied that he could hire workmen at whatever terms he liked.

The Prince's obsessional Anglophilia now exploded into one of the most energetic recruitment campaigns ever designed to lure British experts to distant climes. Potemkin did not care about the details but he knew that he only wanted Englishmen to drive the looms of Krichev, to run his botanical gardens, dairies, windmills and shipyards from the Crimea to Krichev. The Benthams placed advertisements in English newspapers which catch the capricious demands of Potemkin: 'The Prince wants to introduce the use of beer', announced one. He 'means to have an elegant dairy' with 'the best of butter and as many kinds of cheese as possible.' The advertisements rapidly expanded to lure 'Any clever people capable of introducing improvements in the Prince's Government might meet with good encouragement'. Potemkin even declared to Samuel that he wished to create a 'whole colony of English' with their own church and privileges.

Bentham's budget was limitless. Sutherland, Potemkin's banker, simply arranged the credit in London. Samuel immediately saw opportunities for himself and his brother Jeremy to trade in goods between England and Russia and to benefit from the position of middlemen in Potemkin's recruiting campaign.

Father and brother, Jeremiah and Jeremy Bentham, enthusiastically scoured Britain to this end. Old Jeremiah excelled himself--he called on Lord Howe at the Admirality, then invited the Under-Secretary of State Fraser, and two recently-returned Russian veterans, Sir James Harris and Reginald Pole Carew, to his house to discuss it. He even roped in Shelburne, now first Marquess of Lansdowne, who thought Potemkin interesting but untrustworthy. His compliments about the Bentham brothers were distinctly backhanded. In a letter to Jeremiah of August 21st, 1786 he wrote:

"Both your sons are too liberal in their templer to adopt a mercantile spirit and your Sam's mind will be more occupied with fresh inventions than with calculating compound interest which the dullest man in Russia can perhaps do as well ..."

The whole frantic project now assumes some of the absurdity of an eighteenth-century situation comedy.

Jeremy bombarded Samuel with interminable details on a parade of candidates for posts varying from chief of botanical garden, to milkmaid. Naturally such an adventurous expedition attracted a motley crew: Logan Henderson, for example, recruited to run the botanical garden was a Scotsman who claimed to be an 'expert' on gardens, steam-engines, sugar-planting and phosphorous fireworks. He signed up, promising also to deliver his two nieces, the Miss Kirtlands, as dairymaids. Doctor John Debraw, the exapothecary of Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, and author of that significant work, Discoveries on the Sex of Bees (just published to mixed reviews), signed up as Potemkin's experimental chemist along with gardeners, millwrights, hecklers, mostly from Newcastle or Scotland. The first tranche reached Riga in June 1785.

Jeremy Bentham longed to join Samuel in Belorussia, where he saw not only mercantile opportunities but peace in which to work on his treatises, and statesmen like Potemkin who could put his utilitarian ideas into practice. Jeremy decided to bring out another group of his recruits. He planned to buy a ship to bear the Prince's artisans, which he proposed to name The Prince Potemkin. Jeremy began to write directly to the Prince himself suggesting quixotic ideas and telling him about gardeners and chemists. In one letter Jeremy apologetically signed himself 'Here for the fourth time, Your Eternal Correspondent.'

Samuel panicked. Serenissimus hated long letters and wanted results. Colonel Bentham feared his career was being ruined by the 'Eternal Correspondent' so he told off his bungling brother. The Prince would have found the details 'troublesome' and 'expected to hear no more until the people made their appearance.' Samuel was anxious because Potemkin had not replied to Jeremy: 'I fear the worst ... I hope to lay the blame on your over-zeal.' But the philosopher finally received a courteous letter from the Prince via the Russian Embassy in London. Indeed, Jeremy Bentham's long letters were exactly the sort of fascinating distraction that the Prince relished: he sent word he enjoyed them immensely and was having them translated into Russian.

Meanwhile, on July 28th, 1785, Jeremy Bentham set out from Brighton, bearing Shelburne's worldly advice: 'get into no intrigues to serve either England or Russia, not even with a handsome lady'. He met Logan Henderson and the two lissom Miss Kirtlands at Paris and travelled on via Nice and Florence. The group sailed from Livrono to Constantinople. Thence he sent Henderson and the two Miss Kirtlands by sea to the Crimea. Jeremy made his way overland and reached Krichev in February 1786. It was a joyous reunion: the brothers had not seen each other for five and a half years.

Once the party was complete, the Belorussian village seemed to turn into a Tower of Babel of quarrelling, drinking and wife-swapping. The recruits were as ragged a crew as could be expected and few were quite what they claimed: Samuel tried to control this 'Newcastle mob--hirelings from that rabble town'.

Henderson did not turn out successfully. Jeremy confessed to Samuel that his milk-maid 'nieces,' who had so impressed him with their femininity and knowledge, were neither cheesemakers nor any relation to the gardener: they were apparently troilists. Henderson proved to be a 'shameless imposter' who had not even 'planted a single blade of grass and Mamzel [one of the girls] has not made a single cheese.'

Dr Debraw the bee sexologist also proved an utter nuisance. He stalked into Jeremy's study 'with a countenance of a man out of Bedlam' and demanded a pass to leave. There were rebellions against the Benthams led by Benson the general factotum, and some of the recruits even stole from Samuel to pay off their debts. Yet the Benthams achieved an immense amount in Krichev: 'I rise a little before the sun, get breakfast done in less than an hour and do not eat again until eight ... at night.' wrote Jeremy, who was working on his 'Code' of civil law, a French version of the 'Rationale of Reward' and the 'Defence of Usury'. He was also developing an idea of Samuel's. This was the Panopticon--Sam's solution to supervising this rabble of Russians, Jews and Geordies at Krichev: a factory constructed so that the manager could see all his workers from one central observation point. Jeremy the legal reformer could immediately see its use in prisons. Samuel meanwhile was running the factories, trading with Riga and Kherson in foreign exchange and English cloth, and building baidaks (riverboats).

Jeremy and Samuel were also pursuing another great ambition that was close to Potemkin's heart: to become landowners in the Crimea. 'We are going to be great farmers,' announced Jeremy. 'I dare say he would give us a good portion of land to both of us if we wish it ...' But despite Potemkin teasing riposte to Samuel 'you have only to say of which kind', the Benthams never became Crimean magnates, though they did get a share in one of Korsakov's estates.

Since 1783, Catherine and Potemkin had been debating when the Empress should inspect her new domains in the South. The trip had always been delayed, but in 1786 Potemkin ordered Samuel to produce thirteen yachts and twelve luxury barges in which the Empress could cruise down the Dnieper to Kherson. Samuel had been experimenting with a new invention which he called 'the vermicular' which is best described as 'an oar-propelled articulated floating train, a series of floating boxes cunningly linked together.' Samuel set to work and managed to fulfil Potemkin's massive order to which he added an imperial vermicular--a six-section barge, 252 feet long, driven by 120 oars. This barge was indeed used by the Empress on her famous trip to the Crimea accompanied by Potemkin and all the ambassadors of the great powers in the spring of 1787.

Before the Empress's voyage, Samuel tested his ships on the Black Sea, leaving Jeremy on the estate eagerly awaiting the appearance of Serenissimus, whom he desperately hoped to meet. As far as we know, however, Potemkin did not appear, and the disappointed elder Bentham never met the man he called the 'Prince of Princes'. Meanwhile, the incongruous British community were behaving even worse than ever under the nervous, part-time management of the philosopher of utilitarianism. Potemkin had not paid them yet. Doctor Debraw, gardener Roebuck and butler-factotum Benson were now in open rebellion. Many of the British clearly enjoyed a traditional expatriate life of abandoned debauchery. Soon they began to perish prolifically, a misfortune that Samuel said had more to do with their intemperate lifestyle than with the unwholesome climate. Debraw had just been made Physician-General to the army when he died in 1787, possibly a mercy for the Russian soldiers. The rest of the recruits either expired or were dispersed. By 1787, after more than a year in Belorussia Jeremy Bentham was on his way home to England.

Surprisingly, given the bedlam of Krichev, the estate had flourished. However, profit and loss accounts meant little to Potemkin: his sole criterion was that his projects brought glory and power to the empire. By this criterion, this imperial arsenal and the factories of Krichev were an outstanding success.

But suddenly in 1787, the Prince decided to sell the entire Krichev complex to some Polish allies for 900,000 roubles, in order to purchase even bigger estates in Poland. Potemkin had originally received the estate for nothing and, though he had invested a lot in it, it is unlikely that the hiring of English artisans cost him anything close to the selling price. He moved some of the factories to his estates in Kremenchuk in the south Ukraine leaving others to continue under new management. When the prospective sale of Krichev was announced, the Jews of the settlement tried to raise a purse to buy the estate themselves 'to enable Sam[uel Bentham] to buy up this town.' But nothing came of it.

This was the end of the Krichev adventure for the Bentham brothers. It was not the end of the association between Samuel and Potemkin, however. In the Russo/Turkish War of 1787-92, Bentham commanded a squadron of Potemkin's navy in the battles on the Black Sea where he distinguished himself as a naval commander. Then in 1788 Potemkin dispatched him to the Chinese border to command two battalions, create a regimental school, discover new lands, form alliances with the Mongols and open trading links with Japan and Alaska. Bentham even hatched a plan to conquer China with 100,000 Russians. After his return to Britain Brigadier General Sir Samuel Bentham became the inspector-general of works for the Royal Navy, and was responsible for the fleet that won Trafalgar. His amazing life of adventure was the unique manifestation of a very special time in Anglo-Russian relations.


Simon Sebag Montefiore, Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin (Phoenix Press, 2001); Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (Phoenix, 2002); A.C. Cross, By the Banks of the Neva: Chapters from the Lives and Careers of the British in 18th-century Russia (CUP, 1997); I.R. Christie, The Benthams in Russia 1780-91 (Berg, 1993); M.S. Bentham, The Life of BrigadierGeneral Sir Samuel Bentham (London, 1862).

Simon Sebag Montefiore's latest book Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson last month, at 25 [pounds sterling].

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