- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
But anyone who has ever had to recite in school—Tennyson, R. T. S. Lowell, Whittier—can take the tale from here, the gloom, the despairing women in the cellar, the Scottish maiden with her ear to the ground, her sudden cry: “The pibrochs! The piping of the clans!” At first there is disbelief—she is delirious!—but later, it comes: the real sound, unmistakable, sharp, and shrill, the skirling, bone-tingling wail, the pipe band of the relieving force. Let Whittier finish it:
Round the silver domes of Lucknow, Moslem mosque and Pagan shrine, Breathed the air to Britons dearest, The air of Auld Lang Syne. O’er the cruel roll of war-drums Rose that sweet and homelike strain; And the tartan clove the turban, As the Goomtee cleaves the plain. Dear to the corn-land reaper And plaided mountaineer,— To the cottage and the castle The piper’s song is dear. Sweet sounds the Gaelic pibroch O’er mountain, glen, and glade; But the sweetest of all music The Pipes at Lucknow played!
This is the stuff of empire.
By the end of 1857, the Sepoy Rebellion is mostly suppressed, but it has spelled the doom of the East India Company, which will be replaced by direct British rule the next year (and a less revolutionary policy that plays along with the sprawling coterie of rajas, nizams, nawabs, and other rulers).
Elsewhere the affairs of empire proceed more satisfactorily. A little war with Persia, now under strong Russian influence, puts down an attempted grab in Afghanistan. At Canton, Britain and France are again engaged in hostilities with the moribund Chinese empire, bombarding the city and sinking many junks in what is, to be frank, a drive for expanded trading opportunities. The excuse for all this is weak indeed: the Chinese authorities at Canton have seized some Chinese pirates on a Chinese ship which once was (but no longer is) of British registry. Even when the prisoners are returned under pressure, the British commander complains that the manner of the return is not as abject as stipulated, refuses to receive them, and opens fire on them.
At Jidda, seaport of the holy city of Mecca, twenty Christians, mostly Englishmen and Frenchmen, have been murdered by a mob, without interference from the police of the crumbling Turkish empire that “rules” Arabia. A British frigate appears, demanding punishment of the guilty, which is not refused, only delayed to await word from Constantinople. But the town is impatiently shelled and subdued, the flags of France and England are paraded through the streets, and eleven of the murderers (so the local pasha identifies them, at any rate) are beheaded in the presence of a smartly drawn up party of sailors and Royal Marines, plus Turkish and Egyptian troops.
“The demands of justice were thus satisfied,” roars Britain’s Annual Register of 1858, “and a lesson was given to the Mussulman population, in that quarter, which they are not likely soon to forget.”
Meanwhile, throughout Atlantic waters prowl other ships of this great navy, putting down the slave trade and working wonders for the British conscience. Off the west coast of Africa this year a British cruiser captures a slaver, setting free 380 trembling, starving Africans; 120 have already perished.
A British tar is a soaring soul, As free as a mountain bird, His energetic fist should be ready to resist A dictatorial word… His eyes should flash and his breast protrude, And this should be his customary attitude!
(Gilbert and Sullivan knew what they were ribbing.)
The recital of a long list of wars and rumors of war in the Queen’s speech from the throne elicits a scornful laugh from the brilliant leader of the Tory Opposition, Benjamin Disraeli, a wit, a dandy, and above all a realist who is convulsed by the conclusion to the speech, as read by the Lord Chancellor: “Her Majesty commands us to express the gratification which it affords her to witness the general well-being and contentment of her people.”