Tag Archives: Royal Navy

BRITISH EMPIRE WAS A BLESSING

It has been suggested that citizens of the sixteen Commonwealth Realms be given their own “fast lane” at UK Points of Entry.   This will be good news for citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the smaller realms.   If the idea is approved, it will be a first step toward restoring closer Commonwealth ties that ended when Britain joined the EU.

While Britain has been a member of the European Union, EU citizens were able to go through the fast lane, while the rest of us waited for up to two hours, slowly inching forward in the “Aliens” line.

Post-Brexit, it will certainly be in Britain’s best interests to enter into closer trade and defense ties with the countries that share Britain’s parliamentary system and all have the same Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II.   Other Commonwealth countries have opted for a republican form of government, recognizing the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth but not retaining her services as their own sovereign.

It will also mean that, for the first time, the United Kingdom is reversing five decades of history and turning its attention again to its former Empire.

The word “Empire” has been a pejorative for two generations.   Before World War One, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the British Empire around the world in territories that constituted the “empire upon which the sun never set.”   Over a quarter of the world’s people lived under the British flag.   Imperialism was in vogue and inspired millions of people to help develop other nations.

Today, people forget what a blessing the Empire was.  Let’s take a look at a few of those blessings.

1.  The Bible and religious freedom.

The fourteenth century philosopher and theologian, John Wycliffe, was the first man to translate all the scriptures into English.   His favorite verse was Philippians 2:12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”   He struck the first blow for religious freedom and democracy by encouraging people to study for themselves and make up their own minds.

Two centuries later, the English Queen Elizabeth I, secured the Protestant Reformation by bravely sending her smaller fleet against the Spanish Armada.   England defeated the Spaniards, thereby thwarting an attempt by the pope to force the country back into the Catholic Church.

In the nineteenth century, the British and Foreign Bible Society, took the Bible into dozens of different countries.   The Wycliffe Bible Translation Society still exists, sending volunteers into poor and backward countries to develop a written language and then translate the Bible so that all may read it.

The most famous British missionary, David Livingstone, took the Bible with him into central Africa, to “bring light into darkness.”  He was also motivated by a desire to see the end of slavery, perpetrated by Arab slave traders, who were seizing black Africans as slaves.

2.  Britain was the first major country to abolish slavery.

Slavery was universal and had not been questioned until the eighteenth century.   It wasn’t just Africans who were taken as slaves.   One million white people were being held by Muslim slave traders at this time.   (“White Gold”, Giles Milton, 2004.)

In 1772, the Somerset decision by an English court, ruled that British people could not hold slaves, that all people in Britain were free. It took another 35 years before the slave trade was abolished and a further 27 years before slavery itself was ended throughout the British Empire.  (Denmark banned the slave trade in its territories a few years before Britain.)

One year after the abolition of the slave trade, the British government authorized the Royal Navy to stop ships on the high seas and free all the slaves.   Wikipedia has this to say about the West Africa Squadron:

“The Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron (or Preventative Squadron) at substantial expense in 1808 after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807.   The squadron’s task was to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa.   With a home base at Portsmouth, it began with two small ships, the 32-gun fifth-rate frigate HMS Solebay and the Cruizer-class brig-sloop HMS Derwent. At the height of its operations, the squadron employed a sixth of the Royal Navy fleet and marines.

“Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.[“1]

Because of its role in fighting slavery, Britain was seen as a Liberator around the world.  Many tribes in Africa asked to be annexed into the British Empire, seeking protection from slave traders.  At one point, so many African tribes were asking to join the Empire that the British were overwhelmed. “The Dualla chiefs of the Cameroon repeatedly asked to be annexed, but the British either declined or took no notice at all.”  (Pax Britannica, James Morris, 1968, page 43)

In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Victorians were caught up in an enthusiastic desire to see slavery ended in Africa, and the Bible, Protestant Christianity, democracy and the rule of law introduced (“Africa and the Victorians,” Robinson and Gallagher, 1961)

Sadly, in the sixty years since the end of the British Empire, slavery is back in every single African country, according to UNESCO.   The former Ghanaian President, John Kufour, condemned slavery in Ghana a few years ago on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire; he also apologized for the role Ghana’s own chiefs had played in promoting slavery by selling their own people and members of other tribes.

3.  British capital developed many nations.

The definitive books on British investment around the world are the two volume “British Imperialism” by Cain and Hopkins.  The books highlight “London’s role as the chief provider of economic services during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (back cover, volume one).   London remains the world’s number one financial center (New York has the world’s biggest stock exchange).   Not only did British capital develop every country in the Empire, it was also responsible for developing the United States, Argentina, Brazil,Chile, the Ottoman Empire and China.

Interestingly, one reason that members of the European Union are upset over Brexit, is that Britain has been a net contributor to the EU, helping to finance development in other member nations.  When the UK leaves, where is the money going to come from?

4.   Another blessing of British rule was its governmental system and the administration of its various colonies.

Britain’s democratic parliamentary system and its constitutional monarchy is the most stable political system in the world.   It was successfully exported to all its colonies and dominions.  Sixteen of those countries have retained the same system since independence, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a number of majority black countries in the Caribbean.  Queen Elizabeth remains as Head of State in all of these countries.

38 other countries, former colonies of Great Britain, did not retain the Queen as Head of State but still look to her as the Head of the Commonwealth.  Many of these nations have suffered through coups and counter-coups and periods of military rule.  In many, corruption is rife and the people are worse off than they were when colonies.

Interestingly, it was recently suggested that the United States join the Commonwealth, as an Associate member.  The Royal Commonwealth Society is opening a branch in New York City.

5.   The free world’s first line of defense.

For two centuries Great Britain was the “policeman of the world.”  The country brought down Napoleon, after which she was the undisputed leader of the world.  A century later, with her dominions and colonies, she brought down the Kaiser.  In World War Two, the British Empire was the only power that was in the war from beginning to end.   With later help from the Soviet Union and the United States, the Empire defeated Hitler and his monstrous Third Reich that was the most racist regime in modern history.  The Empire’s forces also kept the peace on the North-West frontier of India, in what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan and in other trouble spots around the world.

America’s pre-eminent historian, James Truslow Adams, wrote his history of “The British Empire 1784-1939” in the year that World War Two started, 1939.   This is the final paragraph in his book:   “In this world crisis, we in America have a great stake.  We know that stability is impossible without respect for law and order, for the honesty of the written and spoken word.  Without liberty of thought, speech and press, progress is impossible.  What these things mean to the world of today and tomorrow has been amply demonstrated by the negation of them in certain great nations during the past few years.   Different peoples may have different ideals of government but for those who have been accustomed to freedom of person and of spirit, the possible overthrow of the British Empire would be a catastrophe scarcely thinkable.  Not only would it leave a vacuum over a quarter of the globe into which all the wild winds of anarchy, despotism and spiritual oppression could rush, but the strongest bulwark outside ourselves for our own safety and freedom would have been destroyed.”  (page 358)

The Empire has indeed been replaced by “the wild winds of anarchy, despotism and spiritual oppression.”

It’s no wonder that, at the height of the Empire, during Queen Victoria’s reign and the first few years of the twentieth century, many people in Britain and its overseas territories, believed the Empire was a fulfillment of biblical promises made to Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Israel.  In Genesis, chapter 48, we read of howJoseph’s descendants were to become a great “multitude of nations” and a “great (single) nation,” the British Empire and Commonwealth and the United States.  They were to be a physical blessing to the world (Genesis 12:3).  In the late Victorian period, believers published a weekly newspaper called “The Banner of Israel”  — they enthusiastically tracked the daily growth of the British Empire and the United States at the time.

This belief was widely held in the trenches of World War One.  It’s ironic that those same trenches shattered the religious convictions of many, who witnessed the carnage first-hand.

No empire was perfect.  Britain made mistakes.  Often listed by anti-imperialists is the Amritsar massacre of 1919.  This was not deliberate government policy, but rather the misjudgment of the commanding officer.  The 1943 Bengal famine is also often mentioned; overlooked is the fact that this was in the middle of World War II when other nations also experienced famine. Historical mistakes were made in Ireland, which caused problems to this day.

Imperialism had been in vogue before 1914; after two world wars, there was great disillusionment.   Additionally, the colonial powers had serious financial problems.  Decolonization followed.  It was the end of the European empires.

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DID A DYING PRINCE ALBERT SAVE A DYING UNITED STATES?

Our Man in Charleston

I’m currently reading a new non-fiction book that may interest some of you.   It tells the story of the British Consul in Charleston, South Carolina, in the years leading up to and into the US Civil War (1861 to 1865).

When southern states seceded from the United States, the hope across the Confederacy was that they would receive support from the British government.   Britain was the greatest power in the world at the time and had the most powerful military.   They had a great deal of support in the British press.   British commercial interests strongly suggested the United Kingdom would support the South – the UK was the biggest importer of southern cotton, which was needed to feed the clothing factories in the North of England.

The British government’s Consul in Charleston was Robert Bunch, who lived in the city with his wife and children.   His instructions were to ingratiate himself with prominent citizens and report to London.   His reports to the British government, via the Ambassador in Washington, Lord Lyons, were highly influential in determining Britain’s attitude toward the breakaway republic.

Great Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807, the first major power to do so.   With the world’s most powerful navy, the British took it upon themselves to stop vessels on the high seas and free any slaves they found.   The US followed one year later, but American vessels continued to transport slaves from West Africa, where African leaders continued the practice.   These slave ships transported people in the most horrible conditions, many dying en route.   The Royal Navy’s ships were kept busy along the West African coast throughout the nineteenth century.

Bunch was repulsed by slavery and by those who kept slaves. But he hid his feelings extremely well, as he mixed with leading Charlestonians in the 1850’s.   The people around him thought that he sympathized with them and their “peculiar custom” of slavery and would support the South when it broke away from the North.   But he was, in fact, sending back to London reports on the brutality of slavery, reports that made it impossible for London to show any support for the Confederacy.

He did his job so well that the US Secretary of State, William Seward, pressured the British government to remove Bunch from Charleston as he was a “known” secessionist!

In late 1861, there was a major crisis between Washington and London that almost brought the two countries to war.   If that had happened, the UK would likely have recognized the South and the Confederacy would still exist.

The crisis was triggered when an American navy steamer, the USS San Jacinto, under Captain Charles Wilkes, boarded a British mail ship, the Trent, and arrested two prominent Southerners who were on their way to London to appeal for recognition and help.   The British protested volubly.   The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, wrote a seriously threatening note, which would have placed Abraham Lincoln’s Administration in a difficult position and would almost certainly have led to another war between the two great English speaking nations.

Then something interesting happened.

“Before the ultimatum could be sent, however, it had to be read and approved by the palace.   On other occasions this might have been largely a formality, and, indeed, in this case Queen Victoria had other priorities.   She was giving a dinner party and did not want it interrupted.   But Prince Albert, her beloved consort, begged off from the dinner, saying he felt ill.   Feverish with the first symptoms of the typhoid that would kill him a few days later, Albert sat down at his desk to look at the ultimatum, and he did not like what he saw. Palmerston and Russell (British Foreign Minister) were giving Lincoln and Seward no way out. They would have to bend to Britain’s will, release Slidell and Mason (the two Southern gentlemen), and apologize abjectly or face the greatest military power on earth.

“For twenty years Albert had made the fight against slavery, and especially the slave trade, one of his important causes.   He did not want to see the Crown tarnished by a war that might guarantee the continuation of slavery for generations to come.   He deeply mistrusted Palmerston’s bellicosity and thought of Russell as something of a lightweight.   He wanted the brashness in the official note to be softened:   “Her Majesty’s Government are unwilling to believe that the United States Government intended wantonly to put an insult upon this country…..”   The new wording left a way open for Seward to explain the incident as an accident, if only he would take it.”   (“Our Man in Charleston”, by Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey, pages 297-8, Crown Publishers.)

“The language offered by Prince Albert had left room for a face-saving response in Seward’s reply:   Charles Wilkes had not been acting under orders.   Three days after Christmas the correspondence of Seward and the British and French foreign ministers was published, announcing the release of the Confederate emissaries.”

War between the US and Britain had been averted, thanks to a German prince’s careful editing of a diplomatic note, written in English!   If the more strident note had resulted in war between Britain and America, London would have supported the Confederacy and the United States would have been permanently divided.   If Prince Albert had not been seriously ill, the outcome of the Civil War could have been very different.

The book is an interesting read and gives some fresh insight into the Civil War.