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Beginning of gambling in Europe


If we cross the Atlantic and land on the African shore, we find that the ‘everlasting Negro’ is a gambler—using shells as dice—and following the practice of his ‘betters’ in every way. He stakes not only his ‘fortune,’ but also his children and liberty, which he cares very little about, everywhere, until we incite him to do so—as, of course, we ought to do, for every motive ‘human and divine.’

There is no doubt, then, that this propensity is part and parcel of ‘the unsophisticated savage.’ Let us turn to the eminently civilized races of antiquity—the men whose example we have more or less followed in every possible matter, sociality, politics, religion—they were all gamblers, more or less. Take the grand prototypes of Britons, the Romans of old. That gamesters they were! And how gambling recruited the ranks of the desperadoes who gave them insurrectionary trouble! Catiline’s ‘army of scoundrels,’ for instance. ‘Every man dishonoured by dissipation,’ says Sallust, ‘who by his follies or losses at the gaming table had consumed the inheritance of his fathers, and all those who were sufferers by such misery, were the friends of this perverse man.’ Horace, Juvenal, Persius, Cicero, and other writers, attest the fact of Roman gambling most eloquently, most indignantly.

The Romans had ‘lotteries,’ or games of chance, and some of their prizes were of great value, as a good estate and slaves, or rich vases; others of little value, as vases of common earth, but of this more in the sequel.

Among the Gothic kings who, in the fulness of time and accomplishments, ‘succeeded’ to that empire, we read of a Theodoric, ‘a wise and valiant prince,’ who was ‘great lover of dice;’ his solicitude in play was only for victory; and his companions knew how to seize the moment of his success, as consummate courtiers, to put forward their petitions and to make their requests. ‘When I have a petition to prefer,’ says one of them, ‘I am easily beaten in the game that I may win my cause.'(8) What a clever contrivance! But scarcely equal to that of the GREAT (in politeness) Lord Chesterfield, who, to gain a vote for a parliamentary friend, actually submitted to be BLED! It appears that the voter was deemed very difficult, but Chesterfield found out that the man was a doctor, who was a perfect Sangrado, recommending bleeding for every ailment. He went to him, as in consultation, agreed with the man’s arguments, and at once bared his arm for the operation. On the point of departure his lordship ‘edged’ in the question about the vote for his friend, which was, of course, gushingly promised and given.

(8) Sed ego aliquid obsecraturus facile vincor; et mihi tabula perit ut causa salvetur.—Sidonius Apollinaris, Epist.

Although there may not be much Gothic blood among us, it is quite certain that there is plenty of German mixture in our nation—taking the term in its very wide and comprehensive ethnology. Now, Tacitus describes the ancient stout and valiant Germans as ‘making gaming with a die a very serious occupation of their sober hours.’ Like the ‘everlasting Negro,’ they, too, made their last throw for personal liberty, the loser going into voluntary slavery, and the winner selling such slaves as soon as possible to strangers, in order not to have to blush for such a victory! If the ‘nigger’ could blush, he might certainly do so for the white man in such a conjuncture.

At Naples and other places in Italy, at least in former times, the boatmen used thus to stake their liberty for a certain number of years. According to Hyde,(9) the Indians stake their fingers and cut them off themselves to pay the debt of honour. Englishmen have cut off their ears, both as a ‘security’ for a gambling loan, and as a stake; others have staked their lives by hanging, in like manner! Instances will be given in the sequel.

(9) De Ludis Orient.

But leaving these savages and the semi-savages of the very olden time, let us turn to those nearer to our times, with just as much religious truth and principle among them as among ourselves.

The warmth with which ‘dice-playing’ is condemned in the writings of the Fathers, the venerable expounders of Christianity, as well as by ‘edicts’ and ‘canons’ of the Church, is unquestionably a sufficient proof of its general and excessive prevalence throughout the nations of Europe. When cards were introduced, in the fourteenth century, they only added fuel to the infernal flame of gambling; and it soon became as necessary to restrain their use as it had been that of dice. The two held a joint empire of ruin and desolation over their devoted victims. A king of France set the ruinous example—Henry IV., the roue, the libertine, the duellist, the gambler,—and yet (historically) the Bon Henri, the ‘good king,’ who wished to order things so that every Frenchman might have a pot-au-feu, or dish of flesh savoury, every Sunday for dinner. The money that Henry IV. lost at play would have covered great public expenses.

There can be no doubt that the spirit of gaming went on acquiring new strength and development throughout every subsequent reign in France; and we shall see that under the Empire the thing was a great national institution, and made to put a great deal of money as ‘revenue’ into the hands of Fouche.

But the Spaniards have always been, of all nations, the most addicted to gambling. A traveller says:—’I have wandered through all parts of Spain, and though in many places I have scarcely been able to procure a glass of wine, or a bit of bread, or any of the first conveniences of life, yet I never went through a village so mean and out of the way, in which I could not have purchased a pack of cards.’ This was in the middle of the seventeenth century, but I have no doubt it is true at the present moment.

If we can believe Voltaire, the Spaniards were formerly very generous in their gaming. ‘The grandees of Spain,’ he says, ‘had a generous ostentation; this was to divide the money won at play among all the bystanders, of whatever condition.

Montrefor relates that when the Duke of Lerma, the Spanish minister, entertained Gaston, brother of Louis XIII., with all his retinue in the Netherlands, he displayed a magnificence of an extraordinary kind. The prime minister, with whom Gaston spent several days, used to put two thousand louis d’ors on a large gaming-table after dinner. With this money Gaston’s attendants and even the prince himself sat down to play. It is probable, however, that Voltaire extended a single instance or two into a general habit or custom. That writer always preferred to deal with the splendid and the marvellous rather than with plain matter of fact.

There can be little doubt that the Spaniards pursued gaming in the vulgar fashion, just as other people. At any rate the following anecdote gives us no very favourable idea of Spanish generosity to strangers in the matter of gambling in modern times; and the worst of it is the suitableness of its application to more capitals than one among the kingdoms of Europe. ‘After the bull-feast I was invited to pass the evening at the hotel of a lady, who had a public card-assembly…. This vile method of subsisting on the folly of mankind is confined in Spain to the nobility. None but women of quality are permitted to hold banks, and there are many whose faro-banks bring them in a clear income of a thousand guineas a year. The lady to whom I was introduced is an old countess, who has lived nearly thirty years on the profits of the card-tables in her house. They are frequented every day, and though both natives and foreigners are duped of large sums by her, and her cabinet-junto, yet it is the greatest house of resort in all Madrid. She goes to court, visits people of the first fashion, and is received with as much respect and veneration as if she exercised the most sacred functions of a divine profession. Many widows of great men keep gaming-houses and live splendidly on the vices of mankind. If you be not disposed to play, be either a sharper or a dupe, you cannot be admitted a second time to their assemblies. I was no sooner presented to the lady than she offered me cards; and on my excusing myself, because I really could not play, she made a very wry face, turned from me, and said to another lady in my hearing, that she wondered how any foreigner could have the impertinence to come to her house for no other purpose than to make an apology for not playing. My Spanish conductor, unfortunately for himself, had not the same apology. He played and lost his money—two circumstances which constantly follow in these houses. While my friend was thus playing THE FOOL, I attentively watched the countenance and motions of the lady of the house. Her anxiety, address, and assiduity were equal to that of some skilful shopkeeper, who has a certain attraction to engage all to buy, and diligence to take care that none shall escape the net. I found out all her privy-counsellors, by her arrangement of her parties at the different tables; and whenever she showed an extraordinary eagerness to fix one particular person with a stranger, the game was always decided the same way, and her good friend was sure to win the money.

‘In short, it is hardly possible to see good company at Madrid unless you resolve to leave a purse of gold at the card-assemblies of their nobility.'(10)

(10) ‘Observations in a Tour through Spain.’

We are assured that this state of things is by no means ‘obsolete’ in Spain, even at the present time. At the time in question, however, the beginning of the present century, there was no European nation among which gaming did not constitute one of its polite and fashionable amusements—with the exception of the Turks, who, to the shame of Christians, strictly obeyed the precepts of Mahomet, and scrupulously avoided the ‘gambling itch’ of our nature.

In England gambling prevailed during the reign of Henry VIII.; indeed, it seems that the king was himself a gamester of the most unscrupulous sort; and there is ample evidence that the practice flourished during the reign of Elizabeth, James I., and subsequently, especially in the times of Charles II. Writing on the day when James II. was proclaimed king, Evelyn says, ‘I can never forget the inexpressible luxury and profaneness, gaming and all dissoluteness, and as it were total forgetfulness of God (it being Sunday evening) which this day se’nnight I was witness of, the king sitting and toying with his concubines, Portsmouth, Cleaveland, and Mazarine, &c., a French boy singing love-songs, in that glorious gallery, whilst about twenty of the great courtiers and other dissolute persons were at Basset round a large table; a bank of at least L2000 in gold before them, upon which two gentlemen who were with me made reflections with astonishment. Six days after all was in the dust!’

The following curious observations on the gaming in vogue during the year 1668 are from the Harleian Miscellany:

‘One propounded this question, “Whether men in ships at sea were to be accounted amongst the living or the dead—because there were but few inches betwixt them and drowning?” The same query may be made of gamesters, though their estates be never so considerable—whether they are to be esteemed rich or poor, since there are but a few casts at dice betwixt a person of fortune (in that circumstance) and a beggar.

‘Betwixt twelve and one of the clock a good dinner is prepared by way of ordinary, and some gentlemen of civility and condition oftentimes eat there, and play a while for recreation after dinner, both moderately and most commonly without deserving reproof. Towards night, when ravenous beasts usually seek their prey, there come in shoals of hectors, trepanners, gilts, pads, biters, prigs, divers, lifters, kidnappers, vouchers, mill kens, piemen, decoys, shop-lifters, foilers, bulkers, droppers, gamblers, donnakers, crossbiters, &c., under the general appellation of “rooks;” and in this particular it serves as a nursery for Tyburn, for every year some of this gang march thither.

‘Would you imagine it to be true—that a grave gentleman, well stricken in years, insomuch as he cannot see the pips of the dice, is so infatuated with this witchery as to play here with others’ eyes,—of whom this quibble was raised, “Mr Such a one plays at dice by the ear.” Another gentleman, stark blind, I have seen play at Hazard, and surely that must be by the ear too.

‘Late at night, when the company grows thin, and your eyes dim with watching, false dice are often put upon the ignorant, or they are otherwise cozened, with topping or slurring, &;c.; and, if you be not vigilant, the box-keeper shall score you up double or treble boxes, and, though you have lost your money, dun you as severely for it as if it were the justest debt in the world.

‘There are yet some genteeler and more subtle rooks, whom you shall not distinguish by their outward demeanour from persons of condition; and who will sit by a whole evening, and observe who wins; and then, if the winner be “bubbleable,” they will insinuate themselves into his acquaintance, and civilly invite him to drink a glass of wine,—wheedle him into play, and win all his money, either by false dice, as high fulhams,(11) low fulhams, or by palming, topping, &c. Note by the way, that when they have you at the tavern and think you a sure “bubble,” they will many times purposely lose some small sum to you the first time, to engage you more freely to BLEED (as they call it) at the second meeting, to which they will be sure to invite you.

(11) It appears that false dice were originally made at Fulham; hence so called, high and low fulhams; the high ones were the numbers 4, 5, 6.

‘A gentleman whom ill-fortune had hurried into passion, took a box and dice to a side-table, and then fell to throwing by himself; at length he swears with an emphasis, “D—e, now I throw for nothin;, I can win a thousand pounds; but when I lay for money I lose my all.”

‘If the house find you free to box, and a constant caster, you shall be treated below with suppers at night, and caudle in the morning, and have the honour to be styled, “a lover of the house,” whilst your money lasts, which certainly will not be long.

‘Most gamesters begin at small games, and by degrees, if their money or estates hold out, they rise to great sums; some have played first all their money, then their rings, coach and horses, even their wearing clothes and perukes; and then, such a farm; and at last, perhaps a lordship.

‘You may read in our histories, how Sir Miles Partridge played at dice with King Henry the Eighth, for Jesus Bells (so called), which were the greatest in England, and hung in a tower of St Paul’s church, and won them; whereby he brought them to ring in his pocket; but the ropes afterwards catched about his neck; for, in Edward the Sixth’s days, he was hanged for some criminal offences.(12)

(12) The clochier in Paul’s Churchyard—a bell-house, four square, builded of stone, with four bells; these were called Jesus Bells. The same had a great spire of timber, covered with lead, with the image of St Paul on the top, but was pulled down by Sir Miles Partridge, Kt, in the reign of Henry VIII. The common speech then was that he did set L100 upon a cast at dice against it, and so won the said clochier and bells of the king. And then causing the bells to be broken as they hung, the rest was pulled down, and broken also. This man was afterwards executed on Tower Hill, for matters concerning the Duke of Somerset, in the year 1551, the 5th of Edward VI.—Stowe, B. iii. 148.

‘Sir Arthur Smithhouse is yet fresh in memory. He had a fair estate, which in a few years he so lost at play, that he died in great want and penury. Since that Mr Ba—, who was a clerk in the Six-Clerks Office, and well cliented, fell to play, and won by extraordinary fortune two thousand pieces in ready gold; was not content with that, played on, lost all he had won, and almost all his own estate; sold his place in the office, and at last marched off to a foreign plantation, to begin a new world with the sweat of his brow; for that is commonly the destiny of a decayed gamester—either to go to some foreign plantation, or to be preferred to the dignity of a box-keeper.

‘It is not denied but most gamesters have, at one time or other, a considerable run of winning, but such is the infatuation of play, I could never hear of a man that gave over a winner—I mean, to give over so as never to play again. I am sure it is rara avis, for if you once “break bulk,” as they phrase it, you are in again for all. Sir Humphry Foster had lost the greatest part of his estate, and then playing, as it is said, FOR A DEAD HORSE, did, by happy fortune, recover it again; then gave over, and wisely too.'(13)

(13) Harleian Misc. ii. 108.

The sequel will show the increase of gambling in our country during the subsequent reigns, up to a recent period.

Thus, then, the passion of gaming is, and has ever been, universal. It is said that two Frenchmen could not exist even in a desert without QUARRELLING; and it is quite certain that no two human beings can be anywhere without ere long offering to ‘bet’ upon something. Indolence and want of employment—’vacuity,’ as Dr Johnson would call it—is the cause of the passion. It arises from a want of habitual employment in some material and regular line of conduct. Your very innocent card-parties at home—merely to kill TIME (what a murder!) explains all the apparent mystery! Something must be substituted to call forth the natural activity of the mind; and this is in no way more effectually accomplished, in all indolent pursuits, than by those EMOTIONS AND AGITATIONS which gambling produces.

Such is the source of the thing in our NATURE; but then comes the furious hankering after wealth—the desire to have it without WORKING for it—which is the wish of so many of us; and THIS is the source of that hideous gambling which has produced the contemptible characters and criminal acts which are the burthen of this volume.

We love play because it satisfies our avarice,—that is to say, our desire of having more; it flatters our vanity by the idea of preference that fortune gives us, and of the attention that others pay to our success; it satisfies our curiosity, giving us a spectacle; in short, it gives us the different pleasures of surprise.

Certain it is that the passion for gambling easily gets deeply rooted, and that it cannot be easily eradicated. The most exquisite melody, if compared with the music of dice, is then but discord; and the finest prospect in nature only a miserable blank when put in competition with the attractions of the ‘honours’ at a rubber of Whist.

Wealth is the general centre of inclination. Whatever is the ultimate design, the immediate care is to be rich. No desire can be formed which riches do not assist to gratify. They may be considered as the elementary principles of pleasure, which may be combined with endless diversity. There are nearer ways to profit than up the steeps of labour. The prospect of gaining speedily what is ardently desired, has so far prevailed upon the passions of mankind, that the peace of life is destroyed by a general and incessant struggle for riches. It is observed of gold by an old epigrammatist, that to have is to be in fear; and to want it is to be in sorrow. There is no condition which is not disquieted either with the care of gaining or keeping money.

No nation has exceeded ours in the pursuit of gaming. In former times—and yet not more than 30 or 40 years ago—the passion for play was predominant among the highest classes.

Genius and abilities of the highest order became its votaries; and the very framers of the laws against gambling were the first to fall under the temptation of their breach! The spirit of gambling pervaded every inferior order of society. The gentleman was a slave to its indulgence; the merchant and the mechanic were the dupes of its imaginary prospects; it engrossed the citizen and occupied the rustic. Town and country became a prey to its despotism. There was scarcely an obscure village to be found wherein this bewitching basilisk did not exercise its powers of fascination and destruction.

Gaming in England became rather a science than an amusement of social intercourse. The ‘doctrine of chances’ was studied with an assiduity that would have done honour to better subjects; and calculations were made on arithmetical and geometrical principles, to determine the degrees of probability attendant on games of mixed skill and chance, or even on the fortuitous throws of dice. Of course, in spite of all calculations, there were miserable failures—frightful losses. The polite gamester, like the savage, did not scruple to hazard the dearest interests of his family, or to bring his wife and children to poverty, misery, and ruin. He could not give these over in liquidation of a gambling debt; indeed, nobody would, probably, have them at a gift; and yet there were instances in which the honour of a wife was the stake of the infernal game!…. Well might the Emperor Justinian exclaim,—’Can we call PLAY that which causes crime?'(14)

(14) Quis enim ludos appellet eos, ex quibus crimina oriuntur?—De Concept. Digest. II. lib. iv. Sec. 9.

Source: The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims, by Andrew Steinmetz

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