British politics and Empire in the 1820’s.
‘I have never seen so many shocking bad hats in my life’. – Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and British Prime Minister on Parliament of the 1820’s.
Alright, inventions we got down. We’ve already seen that the 19th century will be a century of rapid scientific progress. We enter the 19th century with the last great battle of the ‘age of sail’. (Trafalgar. Pay attention), and we’ll leave it with steel and iron clad, steam (both coal and oil) powered battleships. We enter the century with letters being delivered by horse, and leave it with electronic telegraphs, telephones, post deliverable by rail, phonographs, radio, etc, etc, you get the picture. A lot of fancy inventions come out the century, and most of them led to the very communicative and fast era in which we presently live.
Thank God we can share such vital, and thought provoking information as this, with little to no effort.
But a lot of other things come up in British life too. Namely, we see a lot of reformation within the government. I know a lot of people like to paint the Victorian Era (and most of the past, for that matter) as a backwards, out of sync, barbaric time. The reality is that this is an oversimplification of a complex era with both good and bad things to it. You see, no matter what century you’re dealing with, if you’re studying human history, you’re going to have to contend with that strange, difficult, neither good nor bad creature that is humanity.
Now me, personally, I have my cynical moments and I have my optimistic moments. (Again, being a complex human being, singular adjectives rarely fit us as a whole). But for the most part, I do believe that humans are inherently good creatures. All of us are simply running on incomplete data while we all try to do our best to better the lives of those around us. Some of us try to care for entire countries/regions/worlds, others are more focused on caring simply for their family and those whom they love intimately. And quite a few are concerned with both. Being a fan of the British philosopher and Anglican apologist C.S. Lewis, I am also aware of his observation in Mere Christianity, ‘Goodness is only itself, badness is spoiled goodness’. For most of the great atrocities of the human race, you find a good intent towards the origin, but it’s either a misinformed goodness, or the goodness is carried out in such a careless, or otherwise muddled way that it becomes a difficult to handle evil.
That was too much philosophy. Here’s a picture of a cat vaguely emulating human behaviour, in order to win the internet back.
That said, as we approach the 19th century, approach it with an open mind. As you hopefully would for a foreign culture. I don’t always like the whole, ‘The past is a foreign land’ bit, but if it makes you slightly more objective and open minded about the past, then I’m all for it.
So what were the political actions that gained momentum in the 1820’s? Well, a lot of William Pitt the Younger’s work began to take full effect. The Catholic Relief Act, the reorganisation of Parliament, the use of the Royal Navy to blockade Africa and raid trade routes in order to effectively end the slave trade. All things Pitt wanted, but took place after he died because of that pesky bugger Napoleon and that war he waged.
‘I tire of zis. Give me a break, for I am ded’.
The unfortunate thing about Pitt though, despite how awesome and forward thinking he was for his time, he didn’t have nearly the effect on the 19th century that Churchill had on the 20th. (Churchill damn near shaped the second half of the 20th with his catchy quotes like, ‘Iron Curtain’ and, ‘Special Relationship’, he was kind of the prototype of ‘sound-bite’ politicians). But that doesn’t stop the 19th century from being full of awesome reformation movements, and other… less than savoury political events, and the 1820’s definitely held its fair share of political events, like…
The Portuguese Liberal War (1828-1834)
Say what you will about the divisive nature of modern politics (and it is pretty damn divisive, if I do say so myself, as neither side gives the other time of day anymore) at least our politics tend not to erupt into ‘Liberal Wars’ or ‘Conservative Wars’ quite like this. (Despite what the melodramatic coverage of elections may have you believe).
The Portuguese Liberal War is essentially what it sounds like. A civil war in Portugal between two different factions with claim to the Portuguese throne, those supporting Queen Maria II of Portugal, and those supporting King Miguel of Brazil. (Brazil was by this point, independent of Portugal). Maria’s side is the ‘liberal’ side of the conflict. Mainly because while Miguel wanted to unify Brazil and Portugal again and create something of a ‘absolutist monarchy’ (think the French monarch prior to the French Revolution), Maria II wanted to maintain Portugal and Brazil as two different countries, (her claim was that Miguel’s branch of the family tree had proclaimed Brazil independent, and that’s how it should stay), and Maria II also wanted to maintain and expand Portugal’s Constitutional Monarchy, which resembled Britain’s.
Every classroom has that one kid that waits until someone else gets the right answer on the test, and then copies the answer down. Portugal is that kid.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and Britain backed the side that was imitating it. They backed the liberal faction. By backing I mean mostly fiscal backing, except for that time that the HMS Orestes and her squadron came under attack by the absolutists as she delivered supplies to the Liberals and maintained Britain’s trade routes through the region. Other than that Britain’s support for the Liberals was mostly rhetoric and money. A good preview of the way 20th century geopolitics would go.
Siamese Treaty of Amity and Commerce
Who here has seen The King and I?
Well, ignoring the racial overtones of this particular Rogers and Hammerstein piece, (which, really considering when it was written, is very progressive in its view of South East Asians, even if the original film had white actors playing Asian roles) one fact should definitely be made clear by the film King and I, and that point is that the Kingdom of Siam (known in the modern day as Thailand) is the only Southeast Asian country to not have been colonised by a European power during the 18th and 19th centuries. This is kind of a big deal, since Britain and France were both aggressively grabbing up property on either side of them.
How did the Thai avoid (direct) colonialisation?
They won all the ‘dance offs’.
Well, there are many parts, and many theories, behind how Siam/Thailand remained independent. Most people agree that this particular treaty with Britain was a large part of it.
Now, most Western power-Eastern power treaties of this era were written in a way to benefit the western power far more than the Eastern power. The Siamese were lucky that their negotiator with the British was particularly shrewd. At the end of the day, this treaty which created a very open trade zone between the British Empire and the Kingdom of Siam would dramatically expand the Siamese economy, help fund the creation of a large army (which also kept the potential for foreign invasion down to nil) and basically kept the British happy enough that an invasion was never deemed necessary by the British Army. Good work, Thailand.
Death Penalty Begins Fall out of Fashion
In the 18th century there were quite few crimes that could bring the death penalty with them. Counterfeiting currency for example, was a death by hanging. Pickpocket too many times? To the gallows. Piracy? Gallows. Burglary? Gallows. General theft? Gallows. More crimes killed you in 17th and 18th century Britain than let you live.
The Judgement of Death Act 1823 effectively removed the death penalty from anywhere from 100 to 200 minor crimes, leaving most notably treason and murder as two crimes left that still carried the death penalty. But it began a trend towards fewer and fewer executions until the Criminal Damage Act 1971 basically brought the death penalty to an end in the UK. None the less, the idea of pickpocketing and theft carrying the death sentence makes the plot of Les Miserables that much more understandable.
Though still not tolerable.
The Judgement of Death Act 1823 also ended the (already unpopular) execution method known as ‘Drawing and Quartering’, effectively relegating it to gore films.
The First Modern Stock Market Collapse
I’m assuming you lived through 2007. If not, I am impressed that you read and understand this blog. I hope someday, my child will be as bright as you. But, for those of you who did live through 2007 you likely remember the dawn of the ‘Great Recession’ as a result of the mortgage bubble burst.
I’d like to remind you that the Napoleonic War came to its final close in 1815. The decade between 1815 and 1825 had been a great decade for British investors. Namely, since Britain was one of the only countries not completely ravished by the Napoleonic War, British investors had money to spare, as they weren’t rebuilding their own nation. The countries of Latin America required a lot of investors, since they had all gained their independence from Spain during that embarrassing time for Spain that they had been occupied by France, or during that time when Spain had to rebuild from the very destructive Peninsular Campaign.
The British banks went hog-wild with loans and investments in both British and Latin American interests, all up until none of the loans or investments were paying back.
Then Gregor MacGregor, an employee of a bank known as Thomas Jenkins & Co. is reported to have issued a loan of the then hefty amount of £300,000 with an interest rate of 2.5 per cent. (£23,742,148.76 in modern GBP). Mr MacGregor had done this, as banks gave little oversight to what their overeager employees were doing at the era, but the London Stock Exchange caught wind of it.
‘I told you Charles, when you hired me. I’m a blithering idiot, and you should keep constant watch of me. This is all your fault, really’.
The result? The Panic of 1825. The first modern Stock Market collapse. What made this one different from previous market collapses? Well, for one, it was based on credit failure, and other internal (meaning financial sector) causes, not by an external cause. (Like war, or crop extinction, etc, etc). It was essentially the first time in economic history that a stock ‘bubble’ existed. And the first time it burst. As many as seventy British banks folded. (It’s hard to say with any certainty what precisely happened, as one of the reasons for the failure was a lack of organised banking records). Granted, the Panic of 1825 looks like nothing compared to the Great Slump of 1929 or the Great Recession of 2007. But hey, it’s a start.
Trade Unionism Becomes Legal
Have you ever been walking down a sunny, urban walk, having a good day, thinking of buying ice cream for yourself to celebrate how happy you and your whole existence is, when suddenly you see a massive inflated rat in front of the ice cream store?
The rat was put up by the Ice-cream Servers Local 289, who are protesting the lack of free product given them by their oppressive employer, Mrs McKenzie’s Corner Icecreamery. (She’s 90 years old, and extraordinarily hard of hearing, and slightly racist, but in that humorous and innocent old people way).
‘Those damn Belgians! Always ruining everything for everyone. Especially those poor people from the Congo’.
Without going into whether or not trade unions are good or not, they became legal in the British Empire in the 1820’s. As the 19th century went on, they would win more and more rights for the average British worker. By the late 20th century, they’d gain a certain amount of infamy for being responsible for Tony Blair’s government.
That’s right, the trade unions eventually led to the creation of the famous/infamous British (and other Commonwealth realm) Labour Party(ies), which began its life as a socially progressive party, and then regressed into being a regular political party.
The British Help Create an Independent Greece
In the modern day, when we think of Greece we think of reckless spending, uncontrollable debt, and the beginning of the collapse of the controversial Eurozone. In the 19th century, Britain saw it was a way to strike a blow against another superpower, even if it was a fading superpower.
This fading superpower I’m talking about is the oft-forgotten by the masses Ottoman Empire. Which, despite being oft-forgotten by the masses is actually one of history’s superpowers, and its collapse is one of the root-causes for most of the trouble in the modern Middle East.
Seriously. How do you forget/overlook all this?
Namely, the largely Coptic Greek Orthodox Christians of Greece wanted independence from the largely Muslim Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire wasn’t particularly oppressive when it came to things like religion, academia, language, etc. In fact, the Ottomans had actually nourished a large infrastructure of enlightenment, education, and religious tolerance through the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. And in the late Middle Ages, when there wasn’t a European Superpower or Academic Centre, the Ottomans were the global superpower, and academic centre.
But the 18th century had witnessed a stagnation and decline of Ottoman influence and power. Especially when the Europeans figured out how to circumvent Ottoman trade lanes and get to India all by themselves. The Ottoman economy began to weaken, and the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire weren’t doing so well at the whole ‘economic recovery’ bit. (The Ottoman Empire ran on a very mercantile based system, the most evolved version of it in many ways, but when it came to innovation, British, Dutch, and eventually French capitalism simply promoted more, and therefore saw more innovation in all fields than the Ottomans, whose economy was something of a one-trick-pony revolving around the spice and cotton trades).
The Ottomans had no civilian police force, instead relying on a complex system of soldiers, knights, and uhm, well, the honour system itself to prevent crime in the less central parts of the empire, like Egypt or the Balkans. (Greece is a part of the Balkans, for those of you less than good at geography). Somehow this system didn’t quite work as well as initially intended, and the merchants of Greece weren’t satisfied with being raided by highwaymen on a regular basis. This in the midst of a general empire-wide economic downturn.
When the money disappears, people search for scapegoats and solutions. As I said in a previous post, the French Revolution made ethnic nationalism look like a solution, and the Greeks thought they could become wealthy and stable, if only they got rid of the Ottoman Empire.
‘THIS CAN ONLY END WELL!!!’
The Ottoman Empire had shaky relations with Europe. In the 18th century it had been on good terms with Britain, and they used each other as critical trading allies to get access to more goods. But then during the Napoleonic War, the Ottomans had allied with France, also known as the losing horse. This left something of a poor taste in the mouths of the victors, including Britain. What is more, many Europeans, when they thought of the Ottomans, they thought of the many invasions of Austria that the Ottomans had attempted throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries.
What is more, the Christian Greece was rising up against the largely Muslim Ottoman Empire, which allowed for easy propaganda in Europe for supporting Greek independence. How did the British help the Greeks? Well, the Royal Navy was very present for the duration of the war, cutting the Ottomans off from many of their supplies in the Mediterranean Sea. The British had also grabbed quite a few small islands around Greece during the Napoleonic War. It handed all these islands off to Greece during the war.
In the end, the Ottomans folded, and Greece became an independent nation. As for whether or not Greece was better off without the Ottomans? Well, economically at least, let’s be honest. The idea of Greece being bankrupt isn’t new, nor is it contained to our present era.
‘These things… they keep happening to us’.
What is more, the Greek revolutionaries themselves had a lot of infighting as to whether Greece should be a republic or a kingdom, with the monarchy winning out, for a while. We’ll get back to that later, as that does become an issue later on in the 19th century….
Civilian Police Force and Fire Brigades Established
In Pirates of the Caribbean when Captain Jack Sparrow is on the run from the law, it’s not ‘bobbies’ he’s running from. No, it’s the British Army. And in most of the world to this point, when law enforcement was needed, it was done by justices or soldiers. There was no such thing as a civilian police force.
With all the revolutions going on, the rather stable populace of the UK didn’t like having rifle-toting soldiers patrolling the streets to keep them safe. Why do unarmed civilians need to be ‘law-enforced’ by heavily armed soldiers?
That was the question that Robert Peel, a Conservative ‘Tory’ member of the House of Commons created an answer for, when he wrote the Metropolitan Police Act, which went into effect in 1829, creating the Metropolitan Police Service of London. (The Met). It was better than having no police presence (as London grew, so too did her criminal problems), but it was a softer presence than having fully armed British soldiers (already overburdened, the British Army of this era, as you can probably guess) patrol the slums of London.
Because everyone in London knew that Robert Peel was the politician behind the new police force, they commonly referred to the new policemen as ‘Peelers’, or as is more known, ‘Bobbies’ (Bob being short for Robert). In case you were curious where precisely the term Bobby came from (in relation to policemen, that is).
‘You’re welcome for that term. You’re welcome’.
Want another municipal protection that most of us want to have in every city we live in? Imagine life with no fire brigades to put out our house fires, or lecture us on why having a 5 mile long chain of extension cords is unsafe. Well, the first ever Fire Brigade was founded in October of 1824 in Edinburgh.
The idea of the usefulness of fire brigades quickly spread across the Empire, and then the world as one of those, ‘I can’t believe no one thought of this before, this is so much better than having the local church women’s club do this same damn thing’ ideas.
‘Oh, but we was doing such a good job with dem fires, and all, no one appreciates us’.
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