Hashtag History: The Forerunner Fascist, The Tiny Tyrant, Napoleon Bonaparte, from Provincial Pauper to Europe’s First Modern Dictator

It’s a story recently reawakened by George Lucas in the new Star Wars trilogy. The low-level political idealist who is in the right place at the right time to bring a promising republic crashing to the ground, as he assumes more and more power within the republic’s systems, eventually proclaiming himself Emperor, and renaming the republic he has taken in a similar fashion.

Most people know that George Lucas based a lot of the story in Star Wars on the Second World War, and the actions Palpatine (the evil emperor in Star Wars) took parallel those of real-life evil emperor Adolf Hitler, a man who has, in the modern day, become a symbol for all things anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic. Hell, look on your standard internet forum argument, and try and count how many posts before a person’s belief system is compared to Hitler or the Nazis.

In reality, Hitler hated religion, tried to ban smoking, and promoted vegetarian ideals, while also promoting a system wherein corporations had absolute control over the state. He also firmly opposed gay-rights, and wanted to rid society of Jews, homosexuals, the insane and the disabled. He doesn’t fit in any modern party, and yet, all of them.

In reality, Hitler hated religion, tried to ban smoking, and promoted vegetarian ideals, while also promoting a system wherein corporations had absolute control over the state. He also firmly opposed gay-rights, and wanted to rid society of Jews, homosexuals, the insane and the disabled. He doesn’t fit in any modern party, and yet, all of them.

But who did Hitler base his rise off of? Well, contrary to Hitler’s general distaste for the Allied powers of the First World War, he actually did look to France for inspiration.

Well, yes and no, you see, Napoleon wasn’t from France proper. He was from Corsica, and even during Napoleon’s life time, Corsica went from French hands to Genoan hands (Genoa was a city-state in modern day Italy.) and back again. By the time Napoleon was old enough to enrol himself in a military academy, Corsica was under French domination.

Napoleon’s family were bankrupt aristocrats. They had become aristocrats after his father ‘embraced’ the invading French government, and became a court noble representing Corsica to King Louis XVI. But Napoleon’s father was a drunk and a gambler. Every time he remade a fortune through land-deals (mostly confiscating other people’s properties. Yeah, the ways of le Ancien Régime) he tended to gamble it away. Making, and losing, all his money in mainland France while his wife and children in Corsica rarely saw a Franc.

'I am, how you say, a dead-beat father'.

‘I am, how you say, a dead-beat father’.

Perhaps this became a part of Napoleon’s interest in the military. He would build himself up, progress through the ranks, and work within the great social mobiliser of the late 18th century! The military! Which, even in absolutist France was a mix of aristocracy and meritocracy. Once he was in the academy, he focused on becoming an artillery officer. His fondness for artillery would show itself through all his later military campaigns. At the academy, he was mocked by his fellow officers for his ‘quaint’ Corsican accent and crude dialect of French.

Good to see the French never abandoned their national sport, snobbery.

Good to see the French never abandoned their national sport, snobbery.

Nonetheless, as France descended into civil war in 1789, Napoleon was ranked Second Lieutenant in an Artillery Regiment, and after the revolution began, took an extended leave to go home to Corsica, and join Corsican Nationalists in a riot against the French Army stationed in Corsica. Yes, the French Army in which Napoleon was a part. Napoleon’s punishment for his actions against the French Army? He gets promoted to Captain. After his promotion, he splits ranks with the Corsican Nationalists, and moves his family to mainland France, in 1793.

After this move to mainland France, Napoleon begins to suck up to the Robespierre family, who at this time were in power over the ‘Committee of Public Safety’. (Reign of Terror in progress here). He writes several pamphlets in favour of Robespierre, the Revolution, and a Republic. He also uses his artillery know-how to crush a rebellion in Toulon and scare the British Royal Navy away from a potential intervention. The Committee of Public Safety is impressed by Napoleon’s complete disregard for public safety, and put him in charge of France’s ‘Army of Italy’, and send him off to invade Italy.

Then Robespierre’s government collapses, and the new ‘Directory’ put Napoleon under house arrest. When the Royalists in France rebel against the National Assembly, the Directory remembers Napoleon’s actions in putting down the rebellion at Toulon, and bring him to face off against the Royalists. He does face off against them, with a cannon or two. Using ‘Grape Shot’, which is best described as the 18th and 19th century equivalent to a massive shot-gun, he kills 1,400 royalists, and sends the rest fleeing. The Directory conveniently forgets their previous condemnation of Napoleon’s relationship to the Robespierre family, and send him to Italy, again.

'Zose Italians won't invade zemselves, you know'!

‘Zose Italians won’t invade zemselves, you know’!

In Italy, he drives the Austrian Empire out of Lombard, and beats the Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States into submission. The Directory, filled with Atheists, desires for Napoleon to knock the Pope himself out of power. Napoleon withdraws, but not for any love of the Pope, per se, but rather because he feared the absence of the Papal authority in Italy would allow Naples to unify the Italian peninsula against France. This isn’t the last time Napoleon argues with the Directory.

During this time, Napoleon begins his press tour. Like Hitler, who wrote Mein Kampf to justify his rise, Napoleon was similarly gifted at using print to drive public opinion in his favour. He establishes two newspapers, and works to woo Talleyrand, France’s foreign advisor, in order to bring more high-ranking government officials into his corner.

Napoleon then invades Egypt under direction of the Directory. He reaches Jaffa, where he has men, women, and children alike murdered. His army begins to fall ill, and Horatio Nelson and the British Royal Navy defeat the French Navy at the Battle of the Nile. Napoleon begins his retreat from Egypt, and has all his injured or sick men killed in order to speed the retreat. Increasingly, Napoleon’s true colours are showing.

In France, the Directory’s fights with France’s neighbours and internal threats had weakened its power, and completely bankrupted the nation. They tried to pin the failed invasion of Egypt on Napoleon, calling him a deserter. Public opinion, however, was in Napoleon’s favour, as he was hailed a hero, despite the massive failure of his Egyptian campaign. He decides the best way to respond to the Directory’s accusations against him is to overthrow the Directory.

On 10 November, 1799, Napoleon and a regiment of Grenadiers enter the National Assembly, first accosting the Directory itself, and the ‘Council of Ancients’ and then proceeding to the Council of 500. Napoleon himself declares the Revolution over, and accuses the Assembly of destroying the Constitution. He declares himself and two of his supporters the ‘Consulates’ of France, and force decree after decree through the Senate.

He brings peace to France, the Revolutionary war does end in 1799, and France does rebuild. He rapidly expands and reorganises the French military. Putting France square as a world power again. He even manages to fight the Haitian revolutionaries to a standstill.

He sends French forces to the Netherlands, to establish the Batavian Republic. William Pitt the Younger, the British Prime Minister, tells Napoleon to evacuate French forces from the Netherlands and from Switzerland. Napoleon does not, and on 18 May, 1803, Britain declares war on France. Napoleon uses the conflict to his advantage, and holds an election in France, with the ballot question reading something like, ‘Do you think Napoleon should become emperor for life and defend France against any future revolutions and foreign invasions’? The public ‘voted’ yes, and Napoleon proclaims himself The Emperor of the French on 18 May 1804, giving himself absolute power. He reorganises France in a way truly ‘Enlightenment Era’ friendly, namely he reorganises France in the way the Roman Empire reorganised itself after the collapse of the Roman Republic.

'I feel like we could've learned how to prevent zis in some sort of class about previous world events'.

‘I feel like we could’ve learned how to prevent zis in some sort of class about previous world events’.

Of course, as this rearrangement finished, the world was at war, and France and France’s ‘interests’ were fighting brutal wars in South Asia, the East Indies, Africa, South/Central/North America, the Caribbean, and of course, Europe itself, in Spain, Germany/Austria, and Russia. (And don’t forget France’s Ally, the Ottoman Empire, waging war in the Middle East and Central Asia against Russia and Britain).

Say what you will about infamous persons in history such as Napoleon and Hitler, but they do start these major wars that mark decided shifts in eras. The Napoleonic War brought a swift and crashing end to the dynastic nature and social order of the world that had built itself into a very unstable tower in the 18th century, just as the Second World War would be the final death kneel for the Victorian social order over a hundred years later. In both cases, Hitler and Napoleon had poor tempers, and perhaps their poor tempers were because the social orders they were raised in were stacked against them. Hitler, the German Army grunt from Austria, Napoleon, the disgraced, poor, provincial, ‘noble’ from Corsica, which wasn’t French when Napoleon was born, and both had neglectful/absent fathers. Some of the parallels from Hitler and Napoleon’s life are far too sinister to overlook. Both men took advantage of economic, social, and political upheaval within the nation they adopted as their own. Both men had inferiority complexes that led to genocidal, regicidal, out-right homicidal tendencies. Both men became political mouth-pieces for their parties, and used their status as a veteran to win the good favour of their countrymen. Both men became the leaders of democracies, and then swiftly ended anything democratic about said democracies.

On the 23rd of June, 1940, the day after France surrendered its Army, Navy, and colonial possessions to Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler visited the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparté. He left the site, grinning, saying it was the grandest moment of his life. He then ordered the remains of Napoleon’s son be moved from Vienna to Napoleon’s side in Paris, in tribute to Napoleon.

I suppose if you're a power hungry dictator willing to plunge the entire world into war in order to achieve your means, this becomes hallowed ground.

I suppose if you’re a power hungry dictator willing to plunge the entire world into war in order to achieve your means, this becomes hallowed ground.

One has to wonder how much of himself Hitler saw in Napoleon, or even if Hitler had modelled himself after the French dictator.

History is stranger than fiction.

‘History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time’. – Abraham Lincoln

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Hashtag History: The Dickens! …and the Bronte(s), and Cricket. Popular Culture in the Early Victorian Era (1836-1849)

Some time ago, in a class about the history of Popular Music and Culture, I came across an essay that made the claim ‘Popular Culture was born of the Napoleonic War’. I suppose a case could be made, in the age preceding the Napoleonic War the Bourgeois emerged as a powerful force and consumer base in the west, and to this day, the main consumer of popular media is the very bourgeois class which also tends to produce it. While I doubt the Napoleonic War itself actually caused the birth of Popular Culture, I’m sure the time frame (1803-1815) was likely it began to shift into a mode more recognisable in the current era.

I'm fairly certain that if he lived today, Poe would've written an HBO series.

I’m fairly certain that had he lived today, Poe would’ve written an HBO series.

Of course, all this assumes that it wasn’t a thing before, which is potentially problematic, don’t forget, once upon a time, Shakespeare was considered a playwright for the lower classes, as well as the aristocracy. Weird considering the fact that in the present day, we hold Shakespeare in much higher acclaim then we will ever likely hold the ‘writers’ of Keeping up with the Kardashians.
What would be unique about early Victorian Popular Culture then? Hard to say. Perhaps the widely available nature of it is a good starting place. Certainly, this would be an era in which most ‘popular media’ was still in the form of the printed word. The trouble with the printed word, historically, has been that it was difficult to both replicate and consume. Someone needed to know how to write, then it needed to be copied, and finally, it needed to have people read it.
The writing bit wasn’t necessarily hard. Since before the days of Rome, the west has had written languages and scribes. By the 19th century, the printing bit wasn’t hard, as Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press some four centuries prior. (Printing presses had existed in China and Korea prior, but it is unlikely that Europeans had knowledge of such things, indeed, to his knowledge, Gutenberg did invent the printing press). Thanks to scribes and Gutenberg’s press, there was no shortage of literature in the west.
What there was a shortage of, however, were the people who could read (i.e. consume) the books being printed. As the Bourgeois class grew, and as schooling became more and more affordable, and as various religious orders began to similarly teach literacy, there was an explosion of literacy in the west. This explosion of literacy was almost immediately followed by the explosion of cheap, gritty, dirty, mindless, melodramatic romance novels.

Well, thank God we've advanced past that stage of literature.

Well, thank God we’ve advanced past that stage of literature.

What it is about the human race that draws us to soap operas, I will likely never know. I mean look at the pop culture of most places, France, Latin America, India, the US, Britain, melodramatic love stories and soap operas seem to dominate all of it.
It’s into this arena of popular romance literature that our dear friend Charlotte Bronte enters, notably, with Jane Eyre, published 1847. Some thirty-four years prior, in 1813, Jane Austen had published the classic source of chick-flick material, Pride and Prejudice. (It was like recent best seller, Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies, only sans the undead). Of course, as you’ve likely noticed by now, Pride and Prejudice was something of a hit. And due to its status of being something of a hit, there were many imitations in the following years. When it came out, Pride and Prejudice likely didn’t contain any clichés. However, as it became thoroughly imitated, it became full of them. People couldn’t get enough of the ‘women need to become married in order to gain value, also, men need to be social climbers’ genre. Perhaps for members of the newish Middle Class, it allowed them to fantasise having the life of an aristocrat, or even became a how-to guide, on how to emulate the upper classes and fit into their new found wealth.
Whatever the reason, it was a genre that had been putting women into their place very readily since 1813. The well-educated Charlotte Bronte wasn’t keen on having her place be defined on her marriage. In this light, she penned Jane Eyre. A work that many have argued is a proto-feminist piece. The men, not Jane Eyre, in this piece are flawed, and in need of her justification. What is more, she actively avoids being married for most of the novel. When she does get married, it’s defeat. ‘Reader-I married him’, she says in exasperation when she finally weds Mr Rochester, but after travelling platonically, or at least, unwed, with St John across India. And even after Jane is wed to Rochester, she has a £20,000 inheritance (worth approximately £1,757,000 today) from her uncle. Rochester’s fortunes lay in ruin (quite literally) after his previous wife, driven mad, burns down his mansion, and he is blind and lame as a result. When he does marry Eyre, he is reliant on her, instead of vice versa. In short, throughout the novel, Jane Eyre acts with her own agency, independent, and ends with a man dependent on her instead of the other way around.
It was a major milestone in literature. In its time it was condemned by more conservative members of the media. It was subversive, it challenged social norms, it made women question their role as the put upon. Jane Eyre was explosive.
Similarly subversive in this era, came Charles Dickens.

Seen here, moments after a rag-tag gang of orphans pick-pocketed him.

Seen here, moments after a rag-tag gang of orphans pick-pocketed him.

I largely gave this much space to Jane Eyre in this entry in order to limit my ‘geek-out’ about Charles Dickens. For his, or any other time period, he is extraordinary. This isn’t, of course, to deny the extraordinary ability of the Brontes, Charlotte, et al. My bias likely comes from my early introduction to the near instant hit, A Christmas Carol. Indeed, one wouldn’t necessarily expect a man paid-by-the-word, like Dickens, to use excessive wordiness to his advantage. But he does, or did, rather.
Unlike the Brontes, whose most famous work comes purely in the forms of novels, Dickens tended to write his popular stories in episodic format, for periodical fiction magazines. For a young Charles Dickens, he wasn’t necessarily out to write great literary pieces to stand the ages, or to help women liberate themselves, no, Dickens, like many arts school students, was obsessed with Popular Culture, and only wanted to be a part of it. As time went on, he found his working class background was holding him back, especially as member of his family ended up in Debtor’s Prison. He became increasingly angry with the treatment of the poor in Britain.
1836 saw him finish the Pickwick Papers and begin Oliver Twist. By 1842, he found himself inspired during a visit to Manchester, and he began to pen A Christmas Carol, a periodical piece, eventually turned novel, in which he managed to both criticise the wealthy, describe the plight of the poor, and make Christmas a popular holiday, as well as a religious one, in Britain, the Empire, and the United States.
(Think about other religious holidays, such as St Francis Day, or Pentecost, not nearly as big of a production as Christmas. These are religious holidays, not necessarily popular ones. Christmas, alternatively, has gained additional meaning over its original Christian feast form. A lot of the secularisation and popularisation of Christmas as a ‘big deal’ begins here, with Dickens. Gift giving, tree decorating, crackers, cards, all things that became the norm in the Victorian Era, aren’t mentioned in the Bible, and have no religious significance, these are all popular culture elements of Christmas, not religious ones).
Yes, Dickens is a part of the cultural force that invented modern Christmas. If you’re one to believe this ‘war on Christmas’ nonsense, you could argue he fired the first shots. A Christmas Carol contains no references to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, no reference to the Magi, Mary, or Joseph. It merely contains humans helping other humans in the ‘spirit of Christmas’. And, some have argued, the Ghost of Christmas Present could have served as another step in the evolution of St Nicholas/Father Christmas/Santa Claus. While similarly, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come began the popularisation of the hooded version of the ghost of death. (Previously the Grim Reaper rarely wore a hood, look at a medieval sketching of him, he tended to simply be a nude skeleton with a scythe). The ghost of Christmas past simply became the creepiest of the Muppets in A Muppet Christmas Carol.

As a child, I was more terrified of this 'innocent' child ghost than of the Grim Reaper Muppet at the end of the film.

As a child, I was more terrified of this ‘innocent’ child ghost than of the Grim Reaper Muppet at the end of the film.

This entry, I’m going to close with Cricket. I love cricket. I haven’t always. But I’ve grown to love it. Yes, I saw much of the 2013 Ashes, and yes, I most certainly saw the results. Australia was lucky this year, as apparently England forgot to send a team. Nonetheless, for most of the modern Commonwealth, cricket is a major sport. This is why it’s entirely ironic that the first international match of cricket to occur, in September of 1844, occurred between Canada and the United States. While Canada is a Commonwealth realm, it’s a realm that hasn’t fielded a good cricket team in… well, ages. The United States, of course, sets outside the Commonwealth, and is a land in the modern day that either doesn’t know what cricket is, or detests it terribly. Perhaps the reason the Americans hate cricket so much is because Canada won this match, played in New York City, by 23 runs. At which point I’m guessing the Americans swore off cricket forever, and adapted baseball as their national pastime.
Either way Australia, I’m looking forward to England winning the 2014 Ashes.

Hashtag History: ‘Let Them Eat Cake’, A PR Nightmare and the Fall of the French Monarchy

So, here’s the deal, we’re opening the French section here on Hashtag History, as we continue to roll out all the other national sections of each of the ‘empires/powers’ that Hashtag History will be covering in either the 19th or 20th centuries. (20th century coverage starting soon). And as with the introductory entry on the other nations we’ve here on Hashtag History so far (Britain, the Ottomans) we will have to begin the 19th century by putting it in the context of the late 18th. So bear with us as we take a step back, once again into the late 1700’s.

Firstly, every country has ways of dividing up its historical eras. The British, for example, tend to use ‘Regal Eras’, that is, we name our eras for the monarchs who reigned over them. As covered over in the British section, three of these Regal Eras that we have/will cover here on Hashtag History include the Georgian Era (Kings George I, II, III, IV, and, confusingly, King William IV’s reign 1714-1837), the Victorian Era (Queen Victoria, 1837-1901), and the Edwardian Era (King Edward VII, also, confusingly, part of King George V’s reign, 1901-1918), and of course, Shakespeare’s time was known as the Elizabethan Era (Queen Elizabeth I, 1558-1603). The deviations from this are the Civil Wars (1640’s and 1650’s), and the era of the ‘restoration of the monarch’ (King Charles II 1660-1685). The other exception is the ‘Interwar Period’ (1918-1939) and the ‘Modern Period’ (1945-Present). Of course, we can’t really know what the future will call our era. Personally, I’m rooting for the ‘Second Elizabethan Era’. (Queen Elizabeth II, 1952-2???, the old girl may have another century in her at this rate).

The Americans tend to have a simpler view, they go ‘Colonial Times’ (1650-1776), ‘Revolutionary Times’ (1776-1783), the ‘Pre-Civil War Times’ (1783-1861, including the ‘oops, that time we drew/lost at war with Britain time’ in 1812-1814), the Reconstruction Era (1865-1879), the ‘Gilded Era’ (1880’s, 1890’s, 1900’s), the ‘times leading up to and including the First World War’ (1910’s), the ‘Interwar Period’ (1918-1941), the Second World War (1941-1945), the ‘Babyboom/Post War Years’ (1945-1955), the ‘Cold War’ (1946-1989), and the ‘now-a-days’ (1990-present). Of course, America’s lack of distinct eras may be due to America’s relative youth, none the less, as American history is further written, refined, and studied, I’m sure the Americans will figure out how to properly codify, and give eras to their own history.

'It was in those days that avid American historian Nicolas Cage did step up, and lo, he begun to divide up the American epochs into Nic Cage films'.

‘It was in those days that avid American historian Nicolas Cage did step up, and lo, he begun to divide up the American epochs into Nic Cage films’.

This brings us to the French. The classical divisions of French history depends on the ‘regimes’ in control at that time. In other words, which method of rule, which constitution is in effect. So, for example, when you’re talking about the era of French Kings and Queens, you’re likely talking about Le Ancien Régime. Which translates to ‘old’ or ‘former’ regime. While the starting point may be hard to nail down precisely, I’m going to go with 1461, and the reign of King Louis XI, the first uncontested King of France, although it would be Louis XIII and XIV (1610-1715) that would bring the fully realised notions of ‘absolutist monarchy’ and a strong central state to France, and would grow France into the international competition to Britain.

I say this because here in the 17th century we see the beginnings of French and British acting as the foils to each other. Previous conflicts between France and England (Prior to Britain unifying in the 17th and 18th centuries) were dynastic in nature. That is to say, they were about which royal family had right to various lands in France. (At one point in history, way back in the middle ages, the regions of France known as ‘Britanny’ and ‘Normandy’ were claimed to be a part of England, stop to think about that). By the 18th century, however, the clash between the British and the French had grown into an Imperial contest, an arms contest, and an ideological contest. You see, the British quite liked their constitutional monarchy, wherein the powers of the monarch were shared with the elected Parliament. What is more, a free-trade system existed in Britain, as was noted and celebrated by British economist, political philosopher, and social scientist, Adam Smith. (Again, Wealth of Nations fame). Smith had noted that Britain was a ‘Nation of Shopkeepers’. France, meanwhile, was a nation of a very strong and powerful King, who had no interest in any form of a legislative body, and the French economic system was not one of free trade, but one dominated by price-fixing over powerful guild and aristocrats. For the peasants of France, upward mobility was very difficult, and the early Bourgeois of France had absolutely no power, unlike their British counterparts.

Here we see avid historian Nicolas Cage working to understand French class struggles of the 18th century.

Here we see avid historian Nicolas Cage working to understand French class struggles of the 18th century.

French political philosopher, Montesquieu (1689-1755) was often jealous of his British counterparts. Montesquieu’s most famous of works, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), is much of the basis for both the US Constitution as well as the ‘guiding light’ of the early French revolutionaries. He also wrote an essay called Notes on England, which he wrote during his tour of Europe after the 1721 publication of another of his great works, The Persian Letters. In his Notes on England, he writes, ‘At present, England [Britain] is the freest country in the world; I don’t except any republic. I say free, because the prince lacks the power to inflict any wrong imaginable upon anybody at all, since his power is controlled and limited by statute’.

Firstly, let me point out his misuse of the phrase ‘England’ was common among Frenchmen in his day. The term used for Britain until very recently was the same term used for England, that is l’Angleterre. The French used the term l’Angleterre to refer to the whole UK for quite sometime. Some still do. This, of course, would upset any true-blooded Briton who knows that Britain includes Scotland, Wales, and at that time all of Ireland, as well as England. Indeed, by the time Montesquieu wrote these notes, Britain had been a unified country for quite some time, and so let me assure you that in his ‘Notes on England’ he actually meant Britain nearly every time he used the term ‘England’. French arrogance and ignorance aside, Montesquieu’s fondness for the English system (met by some of his personal ire, as he felt that the ‘cold’ and ‘unkind’ British didn’t deserve this system) was due in large part to the fact that it wasn’t ruled entirely by the Legislative Body (Parliament) nor by the Executive body (the Monarchy). It was the perfect mix, and served as a model for his thesis on the importance on the Separation of Powers. Montesquieu viewed this as preferable to the absolutist power in France.

'If zer is any doubt, let me make clear, I 'ate ze British'.

‘If zer is any doubt, let me make clear, I ‘ate ze British’.

So this brings us to an interesting crossroad. As I’ve laid out here, the British and the French were competing with each other economically, militarily, and colonially, the problem though is that while the British may have been competing with the French, the reality is the people, er, person competing back with the British weren’t necessarily the French writ large, but mainly the French Royal Family, and perhaps the inner circle of French nobles and aristocrats. The so-called ‘First and Second’ Estates in French culture.

Indeed, I’m sure the peasants of France, who made up the bulk of the French population, didn’t give a damn about France’s colonial empire or competition with Britain. In large part, they were just as colonised by the French government as Haiti (Then known as San Dominique) was.  No vote, 3rd class citizen status, exploitive labour practices, an inability to own land, nor profit from the land, this is the life of the average French peasant. And this life gets worse after the French lose the 8 Years War (and Canada) to the British, as this makes the French treasury run dry. The French economy begins to tumble, and this is further worsened when France fights on America’s side in the American Revolution (1776-1783), expecting trade with the Americans after the Americans are independent.

The Americans favoured the British post-independence in trade, as Franco-phobia (not phobia as in ‘fear of’ but in the other definition, ‘hate of’) in the US is hardly a recent phenomena.

If economies are the kinds of things that need to be stimulated from time to time, each and every one of France’s attempts to stimulate their economy failed. (Turns out, the French aren’t good lovers after all).

Sorry, sorry, my British blood is still genetically predisposed towards making disparaging remarks about the French...

Sorry, sorry, my British blood is still genetically predisposed towards making disparaging remarks about the French…

Now, I don’t want to make jokes based on cultural stereotypes (okay, I do, they’re usually funny, so long as they’re well-intended, and not malicious) but bread is really bloody important to the French. This becomes very much more so when bread is all you can afford and therefore serves as the staple (if not the entirety) of your diet. So when the French lost control of their bread prices, they also lost control of their peasants, who now truly had nothing to lose.

So, theoretically here comes the infamous quip by the unpopular French Queen, the Austrian (to them that made her an unbearable monster) born Marie Antoinette. From the moment she set foot in France upon her marriage to Louis XVI, Marie was deeply unpopular with the French people and when her and Louis XVI failed to copulate the marriage right away, her image with all circles of French culture suffered even more. Men, women, clergy, rich and poor, in France didn’t like, didn’t trust, and often even despised Marie, who’s greatest sin was being born among the Germanics. (Some things in France never change).

Okay, okay, oblige me, I have another French joke, ‘How do you get a French waiter’s attention? You start speaking in German'.

Okay, okay, oblige me, I have another French joke, ‘How do you get a French waiter’s attention? You start speaking in German’.

As the fury against the French Royal family continued to build, Marie Antoinette began to represent all the flaws of monarchy in the eyes of the opponents. She was quite into fashion, and spent lavishly on hair, clothes, make-up, perfumes, etc. This at a time when most French persons could not afford bread. (In her defence, it’s not entirely clear if she was into fashion herself, or if her position forced her into being into fashion, you know, an expectations kind of thing). She was foreign born, and from Austria, no less, France’s competition for power on the continent. And she seemed to stall in giving Louis XVI a child, a clear sign that she was plotting to usurp the French Royal Family with an Austrian Royal Family and bring an end to France. (In her defence again, the real reason for the delay in, er, copulation, was likely due to a genital defect that Louis XVI himself suffered from, but in the 18th century culture was very much into blaming the woman for everything).

You have to start to feel sorry for Marie Antoinette, she can’t due right. No matter what she does, the opponents to the French absolutist monarch turned it against her. Most things she approached, she approached in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ type of situation.

Then came the bread protests, and allegedly she said, ‘Let them eat cake’.

Allegedly. In fact, we know now, she didn’t ever utter those infamous words. Again, these words were ‘put in her mouth’ by French revolutionaries looking for a good anecdote about the evils of the monarchy. (If anyone had said these words, it would’ve been one of her predecessors, Marie-Therese, the wife of Louis XIV, over a 100 years before Antoinette is alleged to have said them). In fact, in reality, Antoinette was a generous donor to charity and took great personal interest in ending the famines in France. But despite her best personal political footwork to try to appeal to the French people (she was actually a very bright woman in touch with the French people) the nobles didn’t like her because of her charity work, and the peasants didn’t like her because she was being made into an icon of the sins of the French monarchy by the revolutionaries. (Who usually just flat-out lied about her sins whenever the whole ‘AND SHE’S A DAMNED AUSTRIAN’ bit didn’t get enough anger out of the French crowds), and the nobles certainly didn’t rise to her defence when the revolutionaries trashed her, her downfall was their benefit.

Or so they thought.

So, from here Louis XVI calls the ‘Estates General’ to try to solve the problems of France, and appear like he’s willing to create a legislature. The Estates General meet, with the Third Estate, the commoners, being represented by ‘self-made’ Bourgeois men, usually lawyers, who had been well read on Enlightenment Era philosophers like Montesquieu, Hobbes, and Locke. Either on purpose, or on accident, depending on who you ask, the Third Estate is locked out of their meeting chambers at Versailles during the meetings. They go to an adjacent tennis court, and take the ‘Tennis Court Oath’ pledging the end of the absolutist monarchy. Louis XVI declines. France collapses unto itself, and the Bastille is stormed.

‘Is it a revolt’? – King Louis XVI, ‘No sire, it is a revolution’. – Reportedly a French duke

I could write entry upon entry about the French Revolution. I’ve taken entire semesters worth of courses on the French Revolution. For a ten year period (1789-1799) it is a very eventful ten year period, with a lot of things happening. But this blog focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries. And the French Revolution is 18th, and the next entry is on the rise of Napoleon, so let me summarise the Revolution as thus:

It was a civil war. Let there be no question about this. A lot of people, hundreds of thousands of people, dying. Aristocrats, political dissidents, political leaders, the Royal Family, peasants, and soldiers alike all get killed, massacred, executed, and assassinated by any of the many factions that rose and fell during this ten year time period. There was no trust to be shared among Frenchmen in this time period, and the French economy was in constant flux. The rest of Europe held on the brink, and even fought violently to contain the French revolution to make sure it didn’t cause the rest of Europe to collapse the way France did.

And out of all this smoke and confusion arose the first modern dictator. A military officer from a poor noble family in Corsica, whose accent was mocked by many of his peers, and whose height (or lack thereof) became a running joke in the British press. (Who had exaggerated how short he was, in reality, he was average height). Napoleon Bonaparte would give us a taste of the power hungry dictators that Europe would continue to produce throughout the remainder of the century, and into the next.

Next on Hashtag History:

  • Culture in a Time of Stagnation and Decay, Ottoman Culture of the 1820’s
  • 1832: Britain’s Great Reformation
  • Europe’s First Modern Dictator: The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

Hashtag History: Starting the ‘Great Game’, Central Asia at the Dawn of Ottoman Decline

First off, let me apologise for my recent, unplanned, irregularity. It’s been a very busy summer for me thusly far as I kick off my ‘new life’ here in Seattle. I should hope it won’t be such a long pause in between blog posts again.

Maybe I was saving the whole damn city while I was away, why doesn't anyone ever think of that? Why do they always assume I'm doing research and work?

Maybe I was saving the whole damn city while I was away, why doesn’t anyone ever think of that? Why do they always assume I’m doing research and work?

Okay, that out of the way, let’s get back into history. And we’re going to pick up where we left off with one of my personal favourite empires, the Ottomans. When you’re a historian like me, who does a lot of comparative work between empires, you start to accumulate certain favourites. For example, I prefer the Ottomans over the French, the French over the Spanish, and the British over them all. The Mughals, the Marathas, the Fatimids, and the Safavids all fit in there too, someplace in between Britain and France. (Germany, Portugal, and Spain all sit at the very bottom of my list. At the absolute bottom? Belgium).

Good Lord, I need to get back on track, right then, the Ottomans. Okay, so, as a lover of the Ottomans, or perhaps admirer, we don’t want things to get too serious, you know, I don’t want to creep the Ottomans out, but as an admirer of all things Ottoman, there’s a great deal of sadness for me when the Ottomans go into collapse. It’s like that time my Granddad came back from hospital with an Oxygen Machine for the first time, and it was clear that ol’ Billy wasn’t what he used to be, in terms of health. You know something great is in decline, nearing its end, and it brings sadness to it, as you begin to recall the mortality of all things…

The 18th century, through to the Napoleonic War, had been an era of Ottoman stagnation. And much like the Second World War acting as a marker between one era of empires and the next, the Napoleonic War brought an end to the notion of dynastic empires reigning supreme in Europe. The Holy Roman Empire was out, nationalism was in, and the Ottomans began their swan song in the face of this rapid change post-Napoleon. Indeed, in one of my British entries, I discuss the rise of Greek nationalism in the 1820’s, and while we shall revisit that as we talk about Ottoman decay, as the Greeks were a sign of it, let’s also visit the lands right next to the Ottomans.

Namely, there’s one region in question here, for today’s entry. And this confusing term, ‘Central Asia’ that is strange because if you look at a proper map of Asia, ‘Central Asia’ is actually more or less the western border of Asia. I think ‘Central Eurasia’ would’ve been a better phrasing, because with a continent the size of Asia, I don’t think the part of Asia that touches Europe and Africa should be called ‘Central Asia’. Especially since the part of Asia that we call ‘South Asia’ (Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) is closer to the mid-section of Asia than ‘Central Asia’ is. But, you know, we’re battling a couple centuries of Eurocentric history and geography as we move through our terms.

Central Asia? More like slightly off-centre Asia.

Central Asia? More like slightly off-centre Asia.

So that brings us back to the part of the world we’re talking about. Now, if you can recall my intro-post to the Ottomans from a couple, well, now, months, ago, the Ottomans were the continuation of a long line of ‘Muslim’ empires that occupied the Arabic peninsula, Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa. Here, I put the quote marks around ‘Muslim’ because while the Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire used the Islamic Religion to justify their sovereignty, this makes them an ‘Islamic Empire’ in much the same way that Britain, France, et al are ‘Christian Empires’. Yes, the majority of the people within the metropole ascribe to the main religion, and yes, initially the monarchs of these realms used religion to justify their rule, but in reality, the state is the state, and will always be a symbol of secular humanity. The Ottomans no more represent the Islamic faith than the historically very secular French government represents Christianity. That is to say, don’t judge a religion by those who abuse it to claim power.

But it’s important nonetheless to identify the Ottomans as ‘Muslim’. Why? For the same reason we identify the British as ‘Christian’. You see, in many areas of the empire building process, the Ottomans and the British actually have a great deal in common. How so? Well, religion is one of these. Here’s where we shall play the comparative empires game once again. Let’s look at Spain, Portugal, or to a slightly lesser extent, France. The ‘Catholic Empires’ of Europe. When these empires began their growth in the 16th century, the Pope, under siege from separationists and reformers in present-day Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, and Northern Europe in general, used the loyally Catholic Iberians (Portugal, Spain) and French to showcase Catholic might and strength to the poor, unsuspecting world. (The author used to be Catholic, and most of his family still is, so this isn’t ‘Hate on the Catholics’ rather, ‘hate on the Catholic power structure that drove the author straight into the arms of the Anglicans’).

The result? Well, the Spanish, Portuguese, and French Empires begin their empires with the zeal of the Evangelical, helping the ‘pagan savages’ they encountered educate themselves right into the Catholic church, and then enslaving/genociding those who didn’t embrace this overwhelmingly violent expression of Christianity. Much like ‘Vote or Die’, only with ‘Love Jesus, or die’.

'What part of Thou Shall Not Kill and Love They Neighbour as Thyself did you not get'? - Jesus

‘What part of Thou Shall Not Kill and Love They Neighbour as Thyself did you not get, also, why does everyone think I’m white’? – Jesus

Of course, in much of the Spanish Empire, and the French Empire this meant that ‘infrastructure’ meant ‘Church’. Instead of schools proper, like what the British built, you had missions. Instead of cross-culture clashes and understandings like what you had in the Dutch, British, or Ottoman Empires, you had a policy of cultural assimilation in the Spanish Empire and the French Empire. Indeed, by the time of the French Revolution, the French wouldn’t accept anyone unless they became ‘culturally French’, and sentiment that is maintained to this day. (Thusly, the banning of the Burka and the Hijab). The British and the Ottomans were different in this respect. Perhaps the Economic nature of these empires gave room to this, well, this other viewpoint, but for the most part, the majority of the power structure in the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, and the British Empire throughout its history, really didn’t care for forcing a certain religious practice on the inhabitants, much to the ire of some of those more conservative elements within the respective churches, and so in the Ottomans, like in the Fatimids, and like in the British Empire, the Jews, the ‘other’ Christians, the ‘other’ Muslims are allowed to exist in a certain peace. Granted, this is a culture of tolerance, and not acceptance, but it’s still preferable to genocide.

‘Welp, at least it’s preferable to genocide' was the state motto of the Maratha Empire

‘Welp, at least it’s preferable to genocide’ was the state motto of the Maratha Empire

The difference here between the Ottomans and the British, however, is the head of state. In Britain, as a result of increasing reforms beginning as early as 1215, and accelerating in the 1650’s, the British ‘executive branch’, the Monarchy wasn’t by any stretch of the definition an absolute monarch. Indeed, much of the Monarch’s power was shared with the House of Commons in Parliament. This meant, means, that the British Monarch reigns in conjunction with the Parliament, instead of rules. Also, while the British Monarch sits as the ‘head of the Church of England’, this role means little, as one, the Church of England has no jurisdiction over Parliament, and two, the Archbishop of Canterbury does most of the executive duties of the Anglican Church. So, despite its name, the Church of England has no real grip on Britain, (despite what some of the ultra-left assert) and has often played the part of opposition to both Monarchs and Parliament alike. But at any rate, the Church of England stayed, and stays outside of the power structures of the British Empire and Commonwealth, much to its own dismay. When Napoleon, and Adam Smith both refer to Britain as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ this serves partially as a reminder that the people, and the businesses, of Britain are what built the empire, not royal dynasties nor churches.

This is contrary to the Ottomans. You see, while I wouldn’t necessarily call the Ottoman Sultan an absolutist monarch in the strictly European sense of the term, there are certainly comparisons to be made. For one, as I stated before, the Ottoman Sultan, since the final demise of the Fatimid Empire, took upon himself the title of ‘Caliphate’ of the Sunni sect of the Islamic faith. Again, for my predominantly western audience, for the sake of simplicity we shall compare the office of the Caliphate in Sunni Islam to the office of the Papacy in Catholic Christendom, or lesser so, to the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Anglican Christendom. Essentially, the Caliphate is the head of Church.

Indeed, the ‘cabinet’ or, more accurately, the court, of the Sultan would be as much a religious ruling body as it was the lead of the secular state. And, especially at the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, the Ottoman court served not only as the ruling court of the Ottoman legal system, but also of the Islamic faith globally. To put it bluntly, the Ottoman Sultanate proclaimed upon himself, and his empire, to be the ‘defenders of the Islamic faith’. And with the expansion of various European Empires, both religious (Spain, Portugal, France, Austro-Hungarian) and secular (Britain, the Netherlands, eventually the United States) the Islamic faith needed a lot more defending than it did in the days when the Christian were weak and mostly at war with each other. As Europe expanded and threatened the Ottoman hegemony of Central Asia and Northern Africa, where in the Safavids of Persia, the Mughals of India worked with the Ottomans as the premiere Islamic state, and Europe was the mercy of the Ottoman sword. As the Ottoman hegemony was threatened by Europe’s rise, the Ottoman Empire went into full-blown reactionary mode, and became more and more of a theocracy as Europe rose to prominence.

The rise of the Ottoman reactionary theocracy meant more discord within her own borders and more of a disconnect with the Shi’a Muslims of the various kingdoms of Persia that rose in the wake of the collapse of the Safavid Empire in modern day Iran. The Ottoman hegemony collapsed on itself. With the Safavids gone and a great deal of dismay within the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans couldn’t defend Persia, couldn’t defend Morocco. Couldn’t hold Greece. The Ottoman Empire’s loss of power didn’t just symbolise a structural flaw within the Ottoman Empire’s border, it marked the collapse of several power structures within the Islamic world. From the Mughal Empire in the East to the Kingdom of Morocco in the West, the Islamic World had become vulnerable.

'Well, shoot, this isn't going well'.

‘Well, shoot, this isn’t going well’.

And here comes Russia. During the 18th and 17th centuries, the Islamic world was largely untouchable to the Europeans. The various armies of the Islamic world, most notably the armies of the Ottoman Empire, meant that the Islamic world was ‘off limits’ to the Europeans, unless they wanted protracted warfare. With the Ottomans no longer holding much of the Islamic world’s purse strings and military power, and the decay of the strong states of the Islamic world in general, a previously untouchable resource was now within Europe’s grasp.

And Russia and more to prove than the rest of Europe. A lot more to prove. You see, this notion, this stereotype we hold in our minds today of Russia as one large, vast, backwater lacking most of the creature comforts and ‘modernity’ of western Europe, and indeed, the world, isn’t a new perception. Even the 18th century courts and governments of Europe and Britain didn’t take Russia seriously, at all. For one thing, Russia had an on-going identity crisis. Were they European or were they Asian? For another thing, the Russian branch of Christianity was largely disconnected from most of the western branches of Christianity. It had never been a part of the Roman Catholic Church, and it had never gone through the Protestant Reformations.

For another thing, most of Russia’s interactions with Europe was through various Cossack raids and pogroms. Further planting in the European mind-set the notion of a barbaric, violent, backwards Russia.

'Culture? Culture? To hell with that! I have a pointed stick'.

‘Culture? Culture? To hell with that! I have a pointed stick’.

By the 18th century and 19th century, Russia was trying to recoup its international image, and did so against the backdrop of the ‘Enlightenment’ in Europe. This meant a lot of higher education was needed, a lot of trade was needed, and a lot of culture was needed. Suddenly emergent, for example, were all the classical Russian Authors you probably hate, who had to create a ‘Russian Nation’ in literature and art that hadn’t existed before.

And so marks the rise of Russian Nationalism, under the Tsarist rule of the first Russian Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries. And this Tsarist Empire had to prove to Europe that it had the same gusto, the same will, the same might that it had. That it was just as modern, ballsy, and worthwhile as they were. To prove this, Russia needed a ‘sphere of influence’ and colonies to expand into, and the weakened state of Central Europe after the Napoleonic War, especially after Russia’s gains from the Ottoman Empire, were too good for the Russians to pass up.

Of course, every time Russia even hints at having power, (and usually doesn’t deliver) outside of Russia herself, the west takes note, and usually feels threatened, even if there isn’t a real threat per se. Indeed, as I point out in previous posts, the 19th century after the end of the Napoleonic War is Pax Britannia, a time of global British hegemony. And believe you me, there was no corner of the globe that the British were going to let someone else have influence. Especially not Central Asia, which was dangerously close (in Britain’s eyes) to the British Empire’s interests and holdings in India.

'Hmmm, a slight threat, best to overreact to it'.

‘Hmmm, a slight threat, best to overreact to it’.

So here begins a competition between Britain and Russia over the right to influence over a territory that for a long time had been under the leadership of the Ottomans and the Safavids. In many ways, this competition between Britain and Russia marked the end of any and all Ottoman hegemony and/or influence outside of her borders.

Again, this post is just an introduction to a topic that we will cover in later posts, sorry!

Next Up For the Ottoman Empire:

  • Culture in a time of Stagnation and Decay, Ottoman Culture of the 1820’s
  • The Economics of Empire, the Successes and the Failures of the Ottoman Economic System
  • Analysing the Ottomans in the era of Post-post Colonial Theory

Next Up For the British Empire:

  • 1832: Britain’s Great Reformation
  • The Nation of Shopkeepers and the Inventions, Companies, and Expansion of the First Bourgeois Empire

AND INTRODUCING: The French Empire

  • ‘Let Them Eat Cake’, A PR Nightmare, and the Demise of the French Monarchy
  • Europe’s First Modern Dictator: The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

Hashtag History: The King Is Dead! Long Live the Queen! Queen Victoria, and the Dawn of the Victorian Era

Okay, the Victorian Era, where do I begin? I know historians say this phrase a lot, you know, the phrase I try to avoid repeating, the whole, ‘this [event/period/invention] totally changes the course of human history, and is extraordinarily important, please pay attention to the essay I’m writing’! bit or tangent that historians go off on. So, now I get the immense joy and pleasure of trying to convince you that this period that I’m writing about, the Victorian Era (1837-1901) is indeed one of these human race altering periods that is worth studying at length. (Having studied it at length myself).

Although, to be fair, not everything I've obsessed over/studied extensively has been that important...

Although, to be fair, not everything I’ve obsessed over/studied extensively has been that important…

That said, when talking about the importance of the Victorian Era it’s critical to approach it with a certain amount of… care. Some of the darkest parts of human history expose themselves here. The period of time that spans from the 1860’s to the 1960’s is quite arguably the most racist in the course of human history, and is the period of time from whence ‘white entitlement’ comes from. There isn’t a single nation on this planet that can walk away from the period of 1860’s to 1960’s free and clear from being accused of pursuing some form or another of racially based policy. Some nations were more racist then others, but really, it’s a very harsh decade to study several aspects of sociology. And there are some days when even the most objective, stoic, and logical of historians (like me, I do try my best to keep emotion out of history) walk away from the history books in disgust at the atrocities committed during this time period. In truth, when people talk about the wonders of the Victorian Era and the goodness of it, they neglect to mention that it would be best enjoyed as a white person, an Indian, or a Japanese person, or a Hispanic person. If you came from Africa, South East Asia, or East Asia, this is not a good time period for you. And in India, if you came from the wealthy families, or the North of India, you did alright. If you came from South India (where the skin tones turn darker) things don’t look good for you. Latin American? Well, you’ll do all right within Latin America itself. This is when you’re independent. Travel north though, to the United States, and that’s where things turn sour. Are you Irish? Well, you’ll do all right (not great, admittedly, but alright) in the UK, surprisingly, go to America, however, especially during the potato famine, and things become rougher. You won’t even be perceived as white.

All that said, this is an era filled, for the first time, with upward mobility.

Okay, you’re probably a bit shocked at that sentence. The paragraph proceeding it really didn’t lead up to it. And you’re right. That’s hardly an ideal paragraph to lead up to that sentence. When researching the Victorian Era for History, not that scourge nostalgia, but for proper history, it’s easy to get down on humanity. It’s easy to become a pessimist and hate the white race, or any race that indulged itself in Social Darwinism. (Whites, while they may have been the loudest about it, weren’t the only ones to exploit that false science). It’s easy to come across the photographs of mass graves, gruesome wars, or London (or any large city) slums before deciding you’ve had enough of the human race, and then spend the rest of your days with dogs/cats/ferrets. (Remember how in the 1990’s ferrets were the ‘in’ animal? This is just another reason why the 90’s sucked).

I grew up in a house with four cats and one (German Shepherd) dog. One ferret on a good day smells worse than all five of those creatures on their worst day combined.

I grew up in a house with four cats and one (German Shepherd) dog. One ferret on a good day smells worse than all five of those creatures on their worst day combined.

Now, I will admit, that the 1900’s was the era when the Middle Class absolutely exploded into prominence. But it grew a lot during the 1800’s. Think about it, when you picture the 19th century, what do you picture? I’m sure top-hats come to mind, walking sticks, dark clothing, maybe steam-powered everything, lots of fancy metal work, some bricks, lots of fancy brickwork. (I suppose masonry would work there too). What else comes to your mind as you picture the 19th century? Let me narrow this down, picture a 19th century street in any major city of the 19th century. I don’t care if you’re thinking of London, Calcutta, New York, Liverpool, or Paris. You should think of the advertising. Why? Because there was a lot of it. A lot. Indeed, the 19th century was probably the first century to see this large amount of mass-advertising. Why?

Because for the first time, people had money to spend.

'Rolling in the light blue with Britannia on the obverse side banknotes, I say'.

‘Rolling in the light blue with Britannia on the obverse side banknotes, I say’.

Again, we shall move quickly towards Capitalism 101 for a couple seconds, and lately this is the part of Capitalism that the world’s largest Capitalisms (Britain and America among the club here) seem to have forgotten. One of the most critical parts of a healthy economy is not an abundance of mineral resources, nor is it ‘cheap labour’. No. It’s a middle class. Why? Well, if we’re going to do this off of pure common sense, then I implore you to think about it. In the ‘upper class’, the aristocracy, the CEOs, the Kardashians, the Trust-Fund children, the Beckhams, what you have are consumers. That’s it, that’s all they do. They consume. They don’t produce anything. I everyone in the UK lived like the Beckhams, or the Ramseys, or the Bransons, the British economy would literally collapse on itself. Same to for the Americans if everyone lived like the Kennedys, the Kardashians, or the Bushes. It’d be non-existent. Britain would have nothing to offer the rest of the world. At the other extreme, you have the ‘lower class’, the ‘proletariat’, the ‘working class’. The class I’m from originally. While I have plenty of working class pride, the problem with the working class is that they produce. Think of that classic folk song ‘Sixteen Tonnes’ with the chorus, ‘You load sixteen tonnes, and what do you get, you get another day older and deeper in debt, Saint Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go! I owe my soul to the company store’!

Unfortunately, the working class doesn’t get paid enough. Really, honestly, I can’t stress this enough. For the work they do, they don’t get paid enough. If my Father was fairly compensated for the work he did in the 80’s and 90’s before he (and by proxy my family) escaped into the ‘white collar’ middle class, my family would be millionaires in any currency on this planet, and not just the Zimbabwean Dollar.

To the dictator Robert Mugabe: When your rate of inflation has gotten so bad that you have to start printing banknotes like this with regularity, you've done something wrong.

To the dictator Robert Mugabe: When your rate of inflation has gotten so bad that you have to start printing banknotes like this with regularity, you’ve done something wrong.

The result then of the working class is a class that produces. It doesn’t consume a substantial amount in the least. It simply can’t afford to. It doesn’t matter what products Apple/Nintendo/Microsoft/Mini/Vauxhall or any company produces or releases. The working class won’t buy them, simply because it can’t afford them. Again, if the working class makes up the majority of your economy, it will collapse on itself because no one is spending any money. There’s simply not enough consumption.

Keeping in mind that I’m keeping this a highly simplified explanation, I will introduce the middle class. The ‘bourgeois’. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a member of the bourgeois. This is probably the most hated and self-hating class in the history of man. The aristocrats loathe the bourgeois, seeing them as ‘posers’ and ‘uppity’. The proletariat loathe the bourgeois because they view them as ‘pretentious’ and ‘full of themselves’. The bourgeois loathes the bourgeois because everyone in the bourgeois pretends and/or longs to be a member of one of the other two classes.

But the brutal irony is that the bourgeois is the best thing to happen to the human race. Why? Well, the aristocrats are, always have been, and always will be, few in number. The proletariat spent the 18th, 19th, and most of the 20th century shrinking in size, but used to be the majority of the human race. Where did all these proletariat go? They became bourgeois. You see, an economist, a proper one, anyway, is obsessed with one thing, that thing is the distribution of wealth and resources, and the bigger the bourgeois class is, the better that distribution is going.

Earth has a finite amount of resources. That’s why economics is a thing to begin with. If we all had infinite rock/steel/wood/food/coal/etc then there’d be no need for economies at all. We wouldn’t have to worry about the distribution. Think about it, here on earth we have a near infinite amount of air, and so no one is worried about the cost/availability of air. We simply breathe it. The instant we leave this near infinite amount of air, however, by venturing under water or by going out into space, suddenly air becomes that much more valuable. We worry about the consumption of it, and we even buy air inside specialised air tanks to ensure that we will have enough supply.

In the days before the western United States was well populated, your average home owner didn’t pay for wood. He simply went outside and chopped down a tree, and at the time, it seemed like there was a near infinite amount of wood available. It wasn’t until those forests were gone, and there were quite a few more homeowners out there that lumber became a pricey commodity.

That’s where money comes into play at all. We don’t have infinite food, we don’t have infinite tea/ale/liquor/wine, we don’t even have infinite electricity. So we pay for all those things, and the price fluctuates based on, among other things, supply and demand. The bourgeois class can both supply and demand things. Buying power therefore increases, and resources get distributed to far more people than the aristocracy.

If you think the '1%' of today is bad, the 'less than 1%' of pre-revolutionary France was worse, often disallowing the peasants to eat meat...

If you think the ‘1%’ of today is bad, the ‘less than 1%’ of pre-revolutionary France was worse, often disallowing the peasants to eat meat…

If I had to wager a guess, I’d say that this is why the Victorian era sees the birth of wide-spread popular sport. While it is true that football has existed since the 1100’s, it wasn’t until the late Victorian era, early Edwardian era that the behemoth of modern British athletics, the Football Association, would come into existence. (Of course, the best development here was the establishment of Chelsea FC in 1905). Rugby, Cricket, Football, all become national pass times during the Victorian Era, and it’s probably because more Britons could afford both the time and the money to indulge themselves in sport. Popular literature? Also widely from the Victorian era. Bronte(s), Dickens, Doyle, Twain, Kipling, Austen, they all found mass audiences for their pieces at this time. A big bourgeois class meant that more Britons were literate, and more Britons had time to read. (Sherlock Holmes was so popular that when Sir Doyle killed Holmes off in The Final Problem there was actually widespread protest throughout Britain, eventually forcing Doyle to bring back Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House in a way that said, ‘Holmes was pretending to be dead the WHOLE time’).

With the emergence, power, and intelligence of the bourgeois class, there was, of course, tension. Tension from the aristocrats, from whom the bourgeois class was taking power, and tension from the proletariat, who watched as some proceeded upwards, but not all. There was also tension within the bourgeois class, as it was a highly competitive class.

This tension led to a growth in, um, social difficulties, shall we say. A lot of these tensions would play out to cause some of the more dramatic episodes of the 19th century.

The Victorian Era was one of rapid change. One has to wonder if the young Victoria, a mere 18 years of age when she ascended to the throne of the most powerful nation on earth could fathom the change that would envelop the earth during her reign. When she took the throne, ships were made of wood and powered by sail. By the end of her reign, it would be steel ships powered by steam. Horse and buggy would be challenged by the first motor cars, and electricity would become an international obsession. All during her reign.

The most exciting part of the 19th century is about to begin. Here we go with the Victorian Era…

'Hullo it's me. Queen Victoria'.

‘Hullo it’s me. Queen Victoria’.

Hashtag History: de Tott be Proud! The Ottoman Navy During the Napoleonic War

Who here plays video games? I know I do sometimes. It’s okay, it’s a part of acceptable popular culture now, like books, films, or television. We live in the age of the nerd, after all. Now, I make no secret that my favourite video game franchise is the history-heavy Total War series from the UK-based (huzzah) video game studio The Creative Assembly. This franchise I’ve been playing since the days of Rome: Total War. While I’ve played all the instalments, I have to admit that the instalments I’ve been most excited for, given my time periods of choice, have been Empire: Total War (which took place from 1700-1800), Napoleon: Total War (1805-1816), and Shogun II: Total War: Fall of the Samurai (1860’s and 1870’s). Since my period of love is the ‘Early Modern’ and ‘Modern Era’, you can probably imagine how excited I was for each release, and how many real-life hours (and virtual years) I’ve sunk into these particular titles. After all, for us history geeks who aren’t interested in the Second World War, video games really don’t offer much.

It's a strange place in history we've reached when the Nazis have the same level of fear attached to them as the Goombas from Mario Bros.

It’s a strange place in history we’ve reached when the Nazis have the same level of fear attached to them as the Goombas from Super Mario Bros.

One of the reasons why Empire: Total War was so interesting was because it was the first Total War title to introduce naval combat to the mix. Of course, you can’t really fully cover the 18th century without including the navies of the world. Believe you me, I appreciate that fact. None the less, it was still really exciting, being able to take the helm of the British Royal Navy, or, you know, any of the other powers playable in the game. Why is introducing navies so exciting? Well, aside from the broadsides, the boardings, and the other aspects of naval combat in the Age of Sail, it added a major element to empire building. Namely, creating and securing over-seas international trade lanes, disrupting other nation’s trade, and/or blockading the enemy.

In the real-life 18th century, the world was all about naval power. Indeed, in an era with widespread sea-based trade routes, and in an era when imperial power was measured by the amount of merchant ships it had under sail, navies worldwide exploded in size, in firepower, and in general importance. For the British, not only were they an island nation, but they were an island nation with colonies in the Caribbean, North America, and India. (And eventually in Australia, Africa, and New Zealand, and well, you get the point). The Royal Navy was as worried about protecting these international sea lanes as it was about protecting mighty dear ol’ blighty herself.

'Hullo, I'm Blighty, for those of you who don't recognise that bit o' British slang'.

‘Hullo, I’m Blighty, for those of you who don’t recognise that bit o’ British slang’.

This brings us back to the Ottomans. Once the masters of spice, silk, and general European-Asian trade, back when the most efficient and cost effective way for European merchants to reach Asia was through the Arabic world, were now lagging behind Europe in trade. The Ottoman Navy no longer ruled the Mediterranean Sea the way she once had, and Ottoman Merchants didn’t bother with taming the waves the way the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese had. While cotton grew within Ottoman borders, the British were grabbing far more cotton from India and the 13 colonies (before the US declared independence) then they were from the Ottomans. And the French? Well, despite the Anglo-French rivalry, the French found trade with the British more profitable and easier than with the Ottomans, so you can imagine from whence the French got cotton from.

Ottoman economic forecasts were looking down, and a large part of it was because of her lack of interest in the sea.

'My advisors have just informed me that the majority of the world  Ocean, but I'm not sure how to respond to this fact'.

‘My advisors have just informed me that the majority of the world Ocean, but I’m not sure how to respond to this fact’.

Another thing to remember about the Ottoman Empire is Turkey itself. Not only is the country almost perfectly rectangular, but it is split in two, the smaller part, the part that contains Istanbul, is separated from the larger chunk by the Turkish Straits, the Dardanelles, the Bosphorus, and the small sea between them, the Sea of Marmara. These straits are important, why? Well, a lot of Russian shipping passes through there, and by the 18th century Russia had become a trading power too. Why is this a big deal?

For my British and American readers, you’re probably confused by this being a big deal. Britain hasn’t had to worry about land borders for Britain itself since… well, since before the English-Scottish unification in the 17th century that created the modern UK. Which I’m going to go ahead and assume happened long before any of my reader’s conscious memories start. Other than that, the UK is the sole occupant of its main land mass, that is, the island of Great Britain itself. To the north of this land mass sits… nothing. The North Pole, maybe, but nothing that people regularly travel. It’s not like any major nations sit north of Britain and travel through Britain to get to the European continent.

For the US readers, this is also likely difficult to understand. No major shipping routes go through the US. The Mississippi River, the largest river in the US (not the world, contrary to many an American’s belief, the Nile River is the longest in the world, the Mississippi is the 4th longest in the world). The Mississippi begins somewhere in Minnesota and terminates in Louisiana, where it drains into the Gulf of Mexico. For those terrible at geography, this means the only nation with access to the Mississippi is the US.

But now imagine, for my UK/US readers, take the largest river in your borders, for my Brits, that means the Tweed, the Aire, the Mersey, or the Thames, depending on what’s nearer you, for my American readers, just go ahead and use either the Potomac or the Mississippi, and imagine that a neighbouring nation used it regularly. Now imagine that historically, you and that nation don’t get along at all. Finally, imagine if that nation didn’t just sail/steam merchant ships up and down that river, but fully armed and operational warships as well. On a regular, near daily basis. Finally, imagine if you’re nation didn’t have a navy at all to defend itself with.

That’s where the Ottomans sat with the Turkish Straits, which passed right through their country, was used by the Russians, whom they’d already fought wars with over land, and to make matters worse, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, sat right next to the Strait, well within striking distance for Russia, should they decide to invade via the Strait.

You can imagine the level of discomfort felt by some Ottoman officials once this became the operating standard.

'I'm just sitting here hoping the Russians forget they have cannons'.

‘I’m just sitting here hoping the Russians forget they have cannons’.

Enter Britain and/or France (depending on the era). Neither nation liked the idea of a Russian ascendancy, as it could threaten their hegemonies. Neither nation liked the idea of Russian competition in the fields of trade or military, either. With the Ottoman Empire in a place that could naturally put it at Russia’s throat, it was well within the British and/or French interest to keep the Ottoman Empire well-armed against any Russian threat.

It would also be in the Ottoman interest to get a navy that could compete with its European rivals. The Ottoman fleet was still largely constructed of Galleys at the dawn of the 18th century. Galleys were tiny and poorly armed compared to their European counter-parts, which by the 18th century had all been ‘Ships of the Line’, those massive sailing ships with three masts, and usually anywhere between 20 and 120 cannons on board ready to carry out devastating ‘broadside’ attacks. (Think in Pirates of the Caribbean when two Ships-of-the-Line get next to each and fire all the cannons on a side into the side of the other ship. Think of the damage, the carnage, the splinters, that’s what the Europeans were fighting with. Now imagine the row boat at your camp. Make it slightly larger, maybe put ten or fifteen people and three cannons on it. That’s what the Ottomans were fighting with).

Luckily, by 1738, the Ottomans had brought some more modern ships into their fleet. Unfortunately, by the Ottoman-Russian War of 1768-1774, the Ottoman Navy, both modern and antiquated, was completely destroyed by the thoroughly modern Russian Navy.

'Well, shoot'.

‘Well, shoot’.

Indeed, for the Ottomans, who prior had used their Navy to conquer North Africa, sweep back the Venetians, thwart the Spanish, and generally hold control of the Mediterranean Sea and surrounding important bodies of water, the 18th century did not go well. Remember, like I said in my introductory post for the Ottomans, the 19th century will be a study in the decay of an Empire. The 18th century is the study of its stagnation. If the Ottoman Empire was a human, it’s starting to fall ill. If it were a human in a typical film, this is where it starts doing the coughing that makes us think, ‘Oh, this character will die before the end of the film, good ol’ foreshadowing’.

Of course, for a nation, particularly a well-to-do one, having a Navy is something akin to having a sports car, or some other luxury vehicle. Yeah, Navies are good for defence, but they also look damn cool, and slightly intimidating to other countries. A way of saying, ‘Hey! Look at what we can do’! I mean, why do you think the British spent so much time and money making their Royal Navy ships have decorations on them? It’s the same reason why your Uncle spends all day polishing his Porsche.

By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire will enter its mid-life crisis and spend way too much on a Navy as a means of flaunting to the British, French, Russians, and Americans. The person who kick started the ‘Rainy Day bank account’ for this eventual Ottoman Navy was Frenchman François Baron de Tott. De Tott had spent a good amount of time travelling and living between France and Turkey during his life. By 1767 he was working between Crimea, the Ottomans, and Russia trying to destabilise Russian efforts in the era, he was doing this for both France and the Ottomans. During the previously mentioned Russo-Ottoman War of 1768-1774, he discovered the Ottoman Empire’s problem with the Turkish Straits. To fix it in a hurry, after the loss of the Ottoman fleet to Russia, he quickly built a series of fortresses along the Dardanelles Strait designed to cripple and/or destroy the Russian fleet passing through. For the Ottomans, this was a Godsend, the Dardanelles was finally weaponised, and one of the Ottoman Empire’s weak points wasn’t nearly as weak anymore.

Behold! A Ottoman construction of French design.

Behold! A Ottoman construction of French design.

De Tott’s final gift to the Ottomans before he went to the great-big-Paris-in-the-sky where all the French go when they die, was to break the ground on a brand new Naval School for the Ottomans. This Naval Academy/HQ would be the lynchpin of the new Ottoman Navy going forward. Indeed, as the dust settles from the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768-1774, the Ottomans start rebuilding their Navy. That leads us (finally) to the Napoleonic War. Like I said prior, the Ottomans get dragged into the global conflict by 1806. By this point, the Ottoman Navy had reached 10 ships-of-the-line. What I didn’t want to open the article with, as it would’ve been anticlimactic and would’ve likely made you miss it, is the Ottoman Navy does poorly during the Napoleonic War. 22 June, 1807, the Ottoman Navy engages the Russian fleet in the Battle of Athos, named for the nearby Mount Athos in Greece.

The Russians enter the battle with 10 Ships-Of-The-Line. The Ottomans match their 10 Ships-of-the-Line and raise them 5 frigates, 3 sloops, and 2 brigs. The Russians manage to cut the Ottoman formation in two as the Ottomans move their fleet north to the Isle of Thasos. This puts the Ottoman fleet into slight disarray.

By the battle’s end, 77 Russian sailors have died, and not a single Russian ship was lost. For the Ottomans, the battle was far worse, 1,000 Ottoman sailors lost their lives, and six ships were sunk. Three of the ships of the line, two frigates, and one sloop lay at the bottom of the sea, and the rest of the fleet is crippled. 20 Ottoman Ships entered the battle, and only 12 made it back to Ottoman ports. 20 Ottoman Ships engaged 10 Russian ships, and to make matters worse for the Ottomans, the Russian Admiral felt that his ships had been ‘sloppy in execution’.

'We should've sailed at LEAST three laps around them, honestly men'.

‘We should’ve sailed at LEAST three laps around them, honestly men’.

It would be nearly ten years before the Ottomans would have a combat ready fleet again, well after the close of the Napoleonic War. With no fleet, and no Army, the Allies (Britain and Russia, in this case) forced the Ottomans back out of the Napoleonic War. When the Ottomans signed the Treaty of Bucharest, ending their involvement in the Napoleonic War, well, I just don’t think I can describe to you how dark an hour that must’ve been, to hand over so much land to the Russians. Worse still, as we get into the 19th century, the Ottomans will have to get used to the Russians and the British stomping all over their former lands.

What I’m referring to here is a portion of history that is often referred to as ‘The Great Game’, which is a time period when Russia and Britain competed for influence in Central Asia. And that time period, is what we will delve into for the next episode of Ottoman History here on Hashtag History.

Next Up For the Ottoman Empire:

  • Starting ‘The Great Game’: Central Asia and the dawn of Ottoman Decline
  • Culture in a time of Stagnation and Decay, Ottoman Culture of the 1820’s

Next Up For the British Empire:

  • The King is Dead! Long Live the Queen! Queen Victoria and the Dawn of the Victorian Era
  • 1832: Britain’s Great Reformation

AND INTRODUCING: The French Empire

  • ‘Let Them Eat Cake’, A PR Nightmare, and the Demise of the French Monarchy
  • Europe’s First Modern Dictator: The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

Hashtag History: The Beginning of the Wars of Pax Britannia: The British Armed Forces of the 1820’s

Okay, so for a quick refresher for those who haven’t recently read my posts on the Napoleonic War, the time period of 1803-1815 very much so changed the entire world, and not always for the better. The abridged version of the change? Well, two/two-and-a-half, maybe three super powers entered the conflict, and only one emerged with its ascendency intact. These powers are Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. (I appreciate the Ottoman Empire’s power/influence is debatable, thusly my marking them at ‘half superpower status’). France is basically the aggressor in the conflict, after over a century of Anglo-French competition for global supremacy, and the Ottomans backed the wrong horse when it came to choosing which side of the conflict to join.

France is a notorious ball hog...

France is a notorious ball hog…

Spain, another empire who could’ve also made a claim for being ‘half a superpower’ at the time, was on the fence about their historical ally France, and then, promptly invaded by France. An event that would lead to Spain losing most of her overseas Empire, as most to all of Central and South America declared independence during or after the Napoleonic War, taking advantage of Spain’s very weakened position.

'Ouch! France does an illegal tackle'!

‘Ouch! France does an illegal tackle’!

And another French ‘ally’, really, puppet state, the Batavian Republic/the Netherlands, lost many of their overseas territories to Britain, chief among those positions being Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and a chunk of South Africa. (At this same time, two parts of Dutch South Africa, Transvaal and the Orange State declare their independence from the Netherlands, and set up the first precursor to Apartheid. Remember this, it will come back later as big trouble for the British, and South Africa in general).

Anglo-American relations improve slightly after the American entry and then exit from the Napoleonic War, as the US/Canada border is further debated by British and American officials. (Washington state almost becomes a part of modern day British Columbia, we’ll come back to that). A chunk of Maine is contested between Britain and America, but Anglo-American trade has returned, American English and British English officially divorce each other due to the efforts of Oxford University in Britain and Noah Webster in the States, so a new source of ‘Those Americans talk funny’, ‘Those Brits talk funny’ could begin. (American author Mark Twain actually wrote a very good essay about it).

Suffice to say though, by the end of 1815, the only superpower left standing was Britain, and for the first time in, well, probably the conscious memory of everyone alive at the time, Anglo-Prussian, Anglo-Austrian, Anglo-Spanish, and Anglo-Russian relations were actually on good terms. (Obviously, this won’t last, this is just post-war, ‘Wow, our side won’ euphoria, think Anglo-Russian or US-Russia relations after the Second World War, good at first, until it tanks under international competition). With the economies and nations of Europe, America, and the Near East recovering from the lengthy Napoleonic War, Britain managed to walk away with more trade lanes, more land, and little damage. After all, of all the nations involved, Britain was the only one that hadn’t been invaded. British industry and agriculture was intact and operating at full capacity. British banking was intact, and operating at an even larger rate than it had in 1803, and for the first time since the 1780’s, everything was looking up for the British Empire. (It’s a shame that our friend William Pitt the Younger wasn’t around to see this, he could’ve done loads of good in this era. Some of history’s best and brightest are wasted on warfare).

To be fair, the British did repay William Pitt the Younger by having the great Benedict Cumberbatch play him.

To be fair, the British people did repay William Pitt the Younger in full by having the great Benedict Cumberbatch play him.

Now, I’m going to teach you a history word here that we use. That word is hegemony. Hegemony is basically the idea that the one, two, or three most powerful nations in the world are working to create an international scene wherein the scales are tipped in their favour. The desire to create a global hegemony, and the ability to do it, is a trait of superpowers, and yes, you can have multiple hegemonies at once. However, occasionally there are times where one superpower has an unquestioned global hegemony. Pax Romana (27 BCE to 180 CE) is the time that Rome had a nearly unquestioned global hegemony. Once we clear of 1815, we enter Pax Britannia, that is, the time of nearly unquestioned British global hegemony. (Many historians assert that Pax Britannia lasts until 1914, and the dawn of the First World War. I would actually make the claim that since the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War in 1918 was still very much so in the favour of the British, I would say Pax Britannia probably lasted until 1939, and the dawn of the Second World War, since the Second World War is often viewed as win America begins to build its own hegemony. I would also make the case that there hasn’t been a Pax Americana yet, since Britain, the US, and, initially, the USSR have shared global hegemony since the Second World War, and now China is here too. If we’re lucky, the idea of a sole global hegemony is at its end anyway).

Back to the 19th century, we enter Pax Britannia. Now, while Pax Britannia is the time of unquestioned British global hegemony, there is an irony to observe here. Namely, for those of you who speak Latin out there. Pax Romana translates to ‘the Roman Peace’. Pax Britannia translates to ‘the British peace’. Now, Pax Romana followed the ‘Final War of the Roman Republic’ between Octavia’s faction and the Egyptian/Greek parts of the Republic that wanted democracy. This Final War of the Roman Republic was a huge and bloody conflict, and so all the wars of Pax Romana seemed like little ‘tickle fights’ for the Romans, not big, violent all consuming conflicts. This is the distinction. It doesn’t matter whether or not the Romans went to war during Pax Romana. So long as the civilians could live a comfortable civilian life without fear of the war harming them, it was peacetime in their eyes.

As I’ve said before, a war the size of the Napoleonic War wouldn’t be seen again until 1914. Compared to the Napoleonic War, all the wars Britain fought in the 19th century were ‘minor conflicts’. And indeed, with no conscription, no rations, no military action in Britain herself, for your average British civilian, in most parts of the Empire, Pax Britannia was a time of peace. But that doesn’t mean Britain didn’t fight wars during that time. No, no, no. In fact, Britain’s been involved consistently in at least one conflict or another since 1701. Simply though, most of them have been ‘minor conflicts’. Especially when compared to larger British wars, the Napoleonic War, the First World War, and the Second World War.

I go to parties, people say, 'What do you do'? I say, 'I'm a historian'. They say, 'OMG I LOVE WORLD WAR II'. Then I purse my lips. There is a lot more to history than those seven years.

I go to parties, people say, ‘What do you do’? I say, ‘I’m a historian’. They say, ‘OMG I LOVE WORLD WAR II’. Then I purse my lips. There is a lot more to history than those seven years.

Still with me? I said a lot of controversial/debatable things up there. And I know it, and you may disagree with some things I said up there. And that’s a part of the beauty of history. That’s why the Doctorate in history is PhD, which is to say, it’s a Doctorate of Philosophy. History is a philosophy, that means we (historians) talk about it, debate about it, argue about it, all the damn time. There are no hard and fast rules in history. And while some arguments have more merit to them than others, it should be a discussion, not commandments. Got that? Good. Let’s move on.

So, back to the dawn of Pax Britannia. Hegemony is a part of Imperialism. And like it or not, some form of imperialism will always exist. Like imperialism, there are several facets to hegemony, three main ones are military, economic, and culture. Now, as I’ve touched on briefly in the past, since the mid-16th century, the British Royal Navy has been the master of the seas. Between the mid-16th century, and the mid-20th century, she was the largest navy in the world. Even today, she is still one of the larger ones, one of the best equipped ones, and one of the few ocean-going ones. (Currently, we’re in a place of Naval flux as the UK, China, and the US are all scrambling to update their navies, we haven’t seen this much naval building since the 1980’s, meaning the aged fleets of the UK and the US are in desperate need of a major overhaul).

Until the arrival of the Royal Air Force, which usurped the Royal Navy for prestige in Britain in during the Battle of Britain in the 1940’s, the Royal Navy was the pride of the British Isles. Makes sense, since Britain is an island, and therefore the Royal Navy would be the first line of defence for any and all things British. When France was Britain’s main threat, the Royal Navy made sure the English Channel remained under British control. When Germany became a threat, the North Sea and the Adriatic became major ports of the Royal Navy. In this era of instability in the Middle East, Cyprus and the Indian Ocean have become the point of focus for the British Royal Navy. You can always tell who the British feel the most threatened by in that era by where the Royal Navy is spending the bulk of its time and resources.

That said, the British have conquered and fought on more of the Earth’s surface area than any other empire in history. A recent study pointed out that 9 out of 10 nations have been invaded by the British at least once in their history. Indeed, large parts of the British Empire and modern day British Commonwealth like India, Canada, or Australia have large chunks of land entirely inaccessible by sea. After a while, every naval power needs a good army.

The British army of the 17th century was something of a joke. It paled in comparison to its European and Asian counterparts. Part of this, of course, was because during the mid-17th century Britain fought its last series of Civil Wars, and that takes a lot out of a country. Part of it too was Ottoman/Spanish/Portuguese control of trade. By the 1660’s, when Britain’s time finally came, the British Army began a long series of reforms, by 1707, the British Army as we know it today was finally born, and it quickly gained a reputation for well disciplined, well trained soldiers who were pulling off manoeuvres that no one else could. You see, one advantage to Britain’s Civil Wars in the 1640’s and the 1650’s was that the British could practice and try a great many different tactics and methods in fighting. By 1707 many of those tactics and practices borne of the Civil Wars had become the core of the British Army.

Pictured: Another core of the British Army.

Pictured: Another core of the British Army.

The Napoleonic War had been a unique test of rapid and far spread deployment for the British Army. Europe, India, Africa, North America, and even parts of South America all saw the British Army deployed to their shores very quickly during the Napoleonic War. This saw the Army develop logistical systems to cover the entire Empire and more to make sure the Army was ready for far-off deployment.

Those of you who know the after-math of the First World War and the Second World War, no doubt could imagine that with all the rapid change brought on by the Napoleonic War, new conflicts were brewing globally. To maintain her hegemony, the British Army would spend much of the 19th century being dispatched to various places to either defend or grow the Empire. The 1820’s saw an initial batch of these conflicts:

  • Greek War of Independence (1820-1830, minimal British involvement)
  • First Ashanti War (1823-1831)
  • First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826)
  • Portuguese Civil War (1828-1834, minimal British involvement)

The Greek War of Independence as I mentioned in a previous post, was more of a British international effort, as was the Portuguese Civil War (also known as the Portuguese Liberal War). In summary of these two (honestly, just go read the post I did about these) Greece wants independence from the Ottoman Empire, and Britain, seeing a chance to further weaken both a recent foe at that point, as well as a former superpower, backs the Greek horse. The Portuguese Civil War is a war between two heirs to the Portuguese throne, one who wants to return Portugal to the ‘good old days’ before the Napoleonic War of Absolute Monarchy and colonial imperialism in South America (namely, Brazil, which had gained independence by this point) and the other side wants Portugal to adapt a British-style Constitutional Monarchy and grow its empire elsewhere. (Although the ‘grow the empire elsewhere’ bit might not have actually been a part of the plan, but Portugal would go on to grab two African colonies later). In this case, Britain backs the Constitutional Monarchy side, who do go on to win the whole conflict. It didn’t exactly stop Portuguese decline, but it was better than watching Portugal try to reclaim Brazil, which likely would’ve been rather bloody.

'Since we could barely keep Napoleon at bay, maybe now isn't the time to start launching unnecessary wars'.

‘Since we could barely keep Napoleon at bay, maybe now isn’t the time to start launching unnecessary wars’. -Portugal

The First Anglo-Ashanti War began after negotiations between the British and the Ashanti Empire (near modern day Ghana) about a variety of things from trade, to Cape Colony, to some Ashanti rebels the British were protecting, to a dispute over the Fanti regions broke down. In 1823 Sir Charles MacCarthy led a British Army from Cape Colony in present day South Africa to the Ashanti Lands. They promptly over ran him and killed him and his men. When news of this loss reached the War Office in London, Britain sent in the Royal Marines and a couple regiments. By 1831 the British had pushed the Ashanti back, and the Ashanti Empire and the British Empire agreed on the Pra River as the border between British claims and Ashanti claims. This was before the ‘Scramble for Africa’ that took place in the second half of the 19th century, so it is hard to gauge to what extent Britain actually had interest in the continent at the time. After all, this is after the end of slavery inside the British Empire, but before technology had advanced enough for Africa’s mineral resources to be of any use to the British, or any other European powers. Colonialisation will return to Africa, but it will be later, after Social Darwinism changes Britain’s, and other European nations’ foreign and imperial policies.

The First Anglo-Burmese War in 1822 the British had named Calcutta the capital of India. By this time, the Burmese Empire was also trying to grow in the region. Calcutta laid claim to Cachar and Jaintia, and actively supported rebellions against the Burmese in Manipur, Assam, and Arakan. After Cachar and Jaintia were added to Calcutta’s territory of the British Indian Empire, they became a way for British products and goods to enter this part of the Indian subcontinent, and became a very important marketplace for the British economy. In 1824, Burmese Top Lieutenant Thado Thiri Maha Uzana invaded Cachar and Jaintia to try and stop some of the rebels. Calcutta and London dispatched troops to counter the Burmese forces. The resulting conflict lasted from 5 March 1824 to 24 February 1826, and resulted in a British victory. In the treaty of Yandabo, Burma cedes Assam, Manipur, Arakan, and Tenasserim to British India, as well as recognises Calcutta’s sovereignty in Cachar and Jaintia. A decisive battle to research here is the Battle of Prome, which had acted as the final turning point in the war.

No funny caption here, just two soldiers.

No funny caption here, just two soldiers from the First Anglo-Burmese War.

Next On Hashtag History For the British Empire:

  • The King is Dead! Long Live the Queen! Queen Victoria and the Dawn of the Victorian Era
  • 1832: Britain’s Great Reformation

Next On Hashtag History for the Ottoman Empire:

  • de Tott be Proud! The Ottoman Navy during the Napoleonic War
  • Starting ‘The Great Game’: Central Asia, and the dawn of Ottoman Decline