British North America

Courtesy Ron Good, an article from the New Yorker sure to gin up controversy:

WE COULD HAVE BEEN CANADA

Was the American Revolution such a good idea?

And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada….

Justin du Rivage’s “Revolution Against Empire” (Yale) re-situates the Revolution not as a colonial rebellion against the mother country but as one episode in a much larger political quarrel that swept the British Empire in the second half of the eighteenth century. Basically, du Rivage thinks that the American Revolution wasn’t American. The quarrels that took place in New York and Philadelphia went on with equal ferocity, and on much the same terms, in India and England, and though they got settled by force of arms and minds differently in each place, it was the same struggle everywhere. “Radicalism flourished in Boston, Bristol, and Bengal, while fears of disorder and licentiousness provoked rural elites in both the Hudson Valley and the English shires,” du Rivage writes. “As radical Whigs gained strength in North America, the political culture of the British Empire became increasingly Janus-faced.”

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: The author asks:

Why is it that, until now, the Civil War cast such a long, bitter shadow, while the Revolution was mostly reimagined as a tale of glory? One reason, too easily overlooked, is that, while many of those who made the Civil War were killed during it, including the Union Commander-in-Chief, none of the makers of the Revolution died fighting in it. The Founding Fathers had rolled the dice and put their heads on the line, but theirs was the experience of eluding the bullet, and, as Churchill said, there is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without result. Of how many revolutions can it be said that nearly all its makers died in their beds? In the American Revolution, the people who suffered most were not the people who benefitted most, and the lucky ones wrote most of the story. Like everything in history, amnesia has its own causality.

I would go further and suggest that the postwar settlements had a lot to do with it. Former Loyalists were expelled from the new American republic; a lot of them moved to Canada, leaving behind a more ideologically uniform country. The Civil War saw the attempted secession of eleven American states. This attempt failed, but there were simply too many former Confederates to expel them all – reintegrating them into the Union became a priority, at the price of allowing them to wax nostalgic about their Lost Cause for all time.

Heligoland

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Heligoland coat of arms. Wikipedia.

From the National Post:

‘Blow the bloody place up’: Why, 70 years ago, Britain blew up an entire German island

In 1947, Britain had a problem. It had thousands of tonnes of explosives left over from the Second World War. And it also had a German island in the North Sea that it hated.

So, 70 years ago this week, the Royal Navy enacted an elegant solution: Use the explosives to blow the island to hell.

“Blow the bloody place up,” was reportedly the instructions given to F.T. Woosnam, the British naval engineer tasked with making the island of Heligoland disappear.

The preparation wasn’t overly technical.

For nearly a year, crews had simply stacked up more than 7,000 tonnes of old munitions and wired them together: Depth charges, old torpedoes, boxes of grenades and stacks of aerial bombs.

Photos from the era show crews nonchalantly kicking dismantled torpedoes into large heaps.

The resulting April 19 explosion, triggered with the push of a button by a sharply dressed naval commander, not only shattered every vestige of human habitation on the island — but permanently altered the topography of the place.

The United Kingdom had plenty of reasons to hate Heligoland. For starters, the island had once been part of the British Empire after it was captured during the Napoleonic Wars.

But finding no use for a windy outcrop filled with vacationers, in 1890 London handed it over to the newly formed German Empire in exchange for the African island of Zanzibar.

To the Brits’ chagrin, the Germans then proceeded to spend two world wars using Heligoland as a fortress from which to attack the U.K.

The island was the site of the first naval battle of the First World War, and the first major aerial battle of the Second World War. In both conflicts, it was a key forward base for submarines looking to starve the U.K. into submission.

After the first war in 1918, the victorious Allies had simply ordered the island to be demilitarized.

But when that clearly hadn’t worked, the victors of another war settled on a backup plan: Detonate the place so severely that it could never again be used for military purposes.

“A very reasonable way of celebrating Hitler’s birthday,” proclaimed the narrator of British newsreel documenting the destruction.

Then, just for good measure, the Royal Air Force spent the rest of the 1940s using Heligoland as a target site for their bombers.

Only in 1952 were Heligolanders allowed to move back.

Why the Brits didn’t just keep it I do not know. I seem to remember that the place played a role in the John Malkovich movie Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Click on the link to read more and to see newsreel footage of the explosion.

Zimmerman Telegram

Notice of a significant anniversary from the BBC:

Why was the Zimmermann Telegram so important?

By Gordon Corera
Security correspondent

Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of a remarkable success for British intelligence: but one that involved spying on the United States and then conspiring with its senior officials to manipulate public opinion in America.

On the morning of 17 January 1917, Nigel de Grey walked into his boss’s office in Room 40 of the Admiralty, home of British code-breakers.
It was obvious to Reginald “Blinker” Hall that his subordinate was excited.

“Do you want to bring America into the war?” de Grey asked.

The answer was obvious. Everyone knew that America entering World War One to fight the Germans would help break the stalemate.

“Yes, my boy. Why?” Hall answered.

“I’ve got something here which – well, it’s a rather astonishing message which might do the trick if we could use it,” de Grey said.

The previous day, the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, had sent a message to the German ambassador to Washington.

The message used a code that had been largely cracked by British code-breakers, the forerunners of those who would later work at Bletchley Park.

Zimmermann had sent instructions to approach the Mexican government with what seems an extraordinary deal: if it was to join any war against America, it would be rewarded with the territories of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

“This may be a very big thing, possibly the biggest thing in the war. For the present, not a soul outside this room is to be told anything at all,” Hall said after reading it.

Part of the problem was how the message had been obtained.

German telegraph cables passing through the English Channel had been cut at the start of the War by a British ship.

So Germany often sent its messages in code via neutral countries.

Germany had convinced President Wilson in the US that keeping channels of communication open would help end the War, and so the US agreed to pass on German diplomatic messages from Berlin to its embassy in Washington.

The message – which would become known as the Zimmermann Telegram – had been handed, in code, to the American Embassy in Berlin at 15:00 on Tuesday 16 January.

The American ambassador had queried the content of such a long message and been reassured it related to peace proposals.

By that evening, it was passing through another European country and then London before being relayed to the State Department in Washington.

From there, it would eventually arrive at the German embassy on 19 January to be decoded and then recoded and sent on via a commercial Western Union telegraphic office to Mexico, arriving the same day.

Thanks to their interception capability process, Britain’s code-breakers were reading the message two days before the intended recipients (although they initially could not read all of it).

A coded message about attacking the US was actually passed along US diplomatic channels.

And Britain was spying on the US and its diplomatic traffic (something it would continue to do for another quarter of a century).

The cable was intelligence gold-dust and could be used to persuade America to join the War.

But how could Britain use it – when to do so would reveal both that they were breaking German codes and that they had obtained the message by spying on the very country it was hoping to become its ally?

Find out at the link.

Prime Ministers

For what it’s worth, the Historical Writers’ Association has conducted a poll of its membership, to vote on the worst Prime Minister of the last hundred years. From the Guardian:

Margaret Thatcher has narrowly beaten David Cameron to be named the worst prime minister of the past 100 years by historical writers.

The Historical Writers’ Association surveyed its membership on their views of the 19 prime ministers who have led the UK since 1916, in advance both of this year’sHarrogate History festival later this week, and Theresa May’s 100th day in office on 22 October. Thatcher, who died in 2013, came in first with 24% of the vote, followed by Cameron (22%) and Neville Chamberlain (17%).

Authors singled out Thatcher’s attitude to society as a chief problem with her premiership. “She destroyed too many good things in society, and created too many bad ones, then left a social and moral vacuum in which the selfishly rich and unimaginatively fortunate could too easily destroy still more of what they don’t need and can’t see that everyone else does need,” said the writer Emma Darwin.

“Thatcher made the idea of society, in the sense of a community that cares for all its members and accepts the premise that people need support and should not be stigmatised for it, an anathema,” wrote historical novelist Catherine Hokin in her response. “It is easy to demonise politicians and resort to ad hominem rather than policy attacks, but Thatcher encouraged the worst behaviour across all aspects of society and we are still reaping her poisoned harvest.”

But Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, begged to differ: “I disagreed with Mrs Thatcher, I fought her all the way. But I thought she was a great and necessary destroyer. Some of those old structures she pulled down had to be pulled down, but what she wasn’t was a builder.

“Oddly enough, this will offend some, I put her down as one of the most successful PMs of all time, not because I agreed with her, but because she laid out her stall and she achieved it, and Britain in many ways was stronger afterwards – although in many ways it was also weaker, particularly our sense of communities,” said Ashdown, who will speak at the festival later this week about his latest book, Game of Spies.

More at the link.

Sweet Caroline

An interesting discovery on Historic UK, about Caroline, wife of King George IV. I had no idea!

***

The Prince of Wales, know as Prinny, was a well known womaniser and at the age of 17 he had an affair with an actress Mary Robinson. When he was 23 he fell in love with a beautiful Catholic, Mrs Fitzherbert. He was so besotted with her that he persuaded her to go through with a secret marriage. The marriage was conducted in secrecy in her house where a Church of England clergyman performed the ceremony for a fee of £500.

They were very happy together for eight years but by then Prinny was in debt to the tune of £630,000, a tremendous sum in those days.

The only way that he could pay off his debts was to marry and furnish the country with an heir, then Parliament would pay his debts.

In 1795 Prinny was introduced to his potential bride, Caroline of Brunswick. Caroline was short, fat, ugly and never changed her undergarments, and rarely washed. Her body odour was overwhelming.

After embracing her, Prinny retired to the far end of the room and said to the Earl of Malmesbury: “Harris, I am not very well, pray get me a glass of brandy”.

He continued to drink brandy for three days until the morning of the wedding.

He was so drunk on their wedding night that he collapsed into the bedroom grate and remained there until dawn. Nevertheless, their only child Princess Charlotte was conceived, so he obviously managed to do what was required of him by his country.

Prinny found Caroline so disgusting that he refused to live with her and a year after their wedding he sent her a note tactfully informing her that she could do as she liked, as he would not be having ‘relations’ with her again. Caroline took this to mean that she could do as she wished.

Rejected by her husband she went to live at Blackheath, London where her behaviour became more than a little extreme. In her room she had a clockwork Chinese figure that performed gross sexual movements when wound-up. She also was given to dancing around in front of her guests in a manner that was most indelicate, exposing most of her body.

In 1806 rumours began to circulate that a four year-old child in her entourage, William Austin, was her son. His father was said to be a footman.

A Royal Commission was set up called the ‘Delicate Investigation’, but nothing could be proved against her.

In 1814 Caroline left England and proceeded to shock the people of Europe. She danced at a ball in Geneva naked to the waist, and in Naples she became the mistress of King Joachim, Napoleon’s brother-in-law.

In January 1820 King George III died and Prinny became King George IV and so Caroline became Queen.

The government in England offered Caroline £50,000 if she would stay out of the country, but she refused and came back, where she settled in Hammersmith to the intense embarrassment of all concerned.

On the 17th August the House of Lords took the offensive by demanding that Caroline appear before them. The aim of the House of Lords was to dissolve the marriage on the grounds that Caroline had been involved with a man called Bartolomeo Bergami, (‘a foreigner of low station’) in a most degrading intimacy.

Caroline was very popular with the London ‘mob’ whilst King George was not. They surrounded the House of Lords every day; her coach was escorted by the cheering mob whenever she had to appear there. The evidence against her was plentiful. It seems that during a cruise she slept on deck in a tent with Bergami and took her baths with him in full view of the other servants. In Italy her mode of dress was bizarre to say the least; she was in the habit of wearing dresses open to the waist.

After 52 days the divorce clause was carried but after the brilliant oratory of Lord Brougham in her defence, the Lords decided to drop it.

George IV’s Coronation was to be the 29th April 1821. Caroline asked the Prime Minister what dress to wear for the ceremony and was told that she would not be taking part in it.

Nevertheless Caroline arrived at the Abbey door on the day demanding to be admitted. She shouted “The Queen…Open” and the pages opened the door. “I am the Queen of England,” she shouted and an official roared at the pages “Do your duty…shut the door” and the door was slammed in her face.

Undaunted, Caroline drove back to her house and sent a note to the King asking for a Coronation ‘next Monday’!

She died 19 days after her frustrated attempt to get into the Abbey.

She was buried in Brunswick, and on her coffin was inscribed… ‘CAROLINE THE INJURED QUEEN OF ENGLAND’.

A Grim Centenary

July 1 marks the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Anglo-French attempt at breaking through the German front during the Great War, near the River Somme in France. The offensive lasted until November of 1916, and made no appreciable gains in territory – at a cost of well over one million casualties.

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Wikipedia.

Depicted is Edward Luytens’s Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, dedicated by the Prince of Wales in 1932.

MORE: From the Telegraph: “Somme ‘Iron Harvest’ will take 500 years to clear, say bomb disposal experts on centenary of bloody battle”

Brexit

Even though the United Kingdom has always been a reluctant member of the European Union, I was surprised as anyone about the results of their June 23 referendum on continued EU membership, largely for the reason Megan McArdle articulated: “The status quo is a powerful totem. People don’t like jumping off into the unknown… I assumed that we were seeing the usual pattern: People flirt with the new, dangerous outsider, then come home and marry the familiar boy next door.” The successful “Leave” vote has opened up a can of worms: how will the exit be accomplished? Will there be another Scottish referendum? Will Northern Ireland finally be united with the Republic – or will the Troubles reignite? Will Spain get Gibraltar back? Etc. (I don’t think this is exactly a “constitutional crisis,” as some would have it, but it will require some creative improvisation or simply “muddling through.”)

I will say that I appreciate Tim Stanley‘s view of things. Here is a historian who understands the proper use of history.

There is no historical case for leaving the EU. There is no historical case for staying in. That’s because this isn’t an existential matter. It’s a practical decision. Do you think your country is better off in or out? I think the latter. So I’m voting for Brexit.

The vast majority of historians probably want to stay. This doesn’t surprise me. Most of my colleagues are social democrats of the Roy Jenkins variety – which is dandy. What is frustrating is the idea, encouraged by the media, that historians have some special, purely objective insight on the modern world thanks to their familiarity with the past. We don’t. Knowing the ins-and-outs of 17th century Westphalia does not make you an expert on EU agricultural policy. Most academics – good academics – are specialists to the point of loners. Go to a historical conference and you’ll find a room full of people who don’t know what each other is talking about.

I’m not saying that history isn’t fun, illuminating, thought provoking. It’s all of those things. But when it becomes mixed with politics, it becomes mythology. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. So long as you know that what you’re reading is prejudiced.

More at the link.

An Interesting Discovery

Wikipedia:

The Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office is the title of the official resident cat of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at 10 Downing Street. Only three cats, Humphrey, Sybil and Larry, have been given the title officially; other cats were given this title affectionately, usually by the British press. There has been a resident Treasury or Downing Street cat employed as a mouser and pet since the reign of Henry VIII, when Cardinal Wolsey placed his cat by his side while acting in his judicial capacity as Lord Chancellor, an office he assumed in 1515.

Larry has held the post since February 15, 2011.

Jenny Wormald, 1942-2015

From the website of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford:

It is with sadness that we share the news that Jenny Wormald died peacefully on 9th December 2015. Jenny was Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at St Hilda’s for twenty years (1985-2005), during which time she served also as Fellow Librarian and Senior Tutor. She was a highly respected and much loved friend, colleague, scholar, and tutor. She will be greatly missed.  A memorial event will be planned to take place in 2016.

Once There Was An England

Discovered an interesting four-part series last night on YouTube entitled Endgame in Ireland. A very telling exchange occurs at 2:30 in the first episode (“Bomb and Ballot Box”): the IRA has just bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton in the hopes of killing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet who were there for the 1984 Conservative Party conference. The bomb killed five people, but not any of the intended targets, and as Mrs. Thatcher emerged from Brighton Police Station she gave an impromptu interview:

Reporter: How are you?

Mrs. Thatcher: Very well, thank you very much. Our worry is whether there’s anyone under that rubble, I don’t know whether you’ve seen it but it’s pretty awful. You hear about these atrocities, these bombs; you don’t expect them to happen to you. But, life must go on as usual.

Reporter: And the conference will go on?

Mrs. Thatcher: The conference will go on.