Sunday, 28 February 2016

What happened to the Caribs of the Caribbean?

The story of the virtual disappearance of the people after whom the Caribbean Sea is named.

Caribs and Arawaks

The Caribbean Sea took its name from the people who occupied the islands that fringe the sea; or at least, the people who lived there at the time when the region was discovered by European explorers towards the end of the 15th century. However, one would be hard pressed to find any ethnically pure Caribs there today. So what happened to them?

At the time when Christopher Columbus made landfall in 1492 on the islands that he firmly believed lay off the coast of India, hence the name West Indies, they were peopled by two groups of natives, the Arawaks and the Caribs. Both peoples originated in South America and they had made their way along the island chain that sweeps north and then west.

The Arawaks had started their journey some centuries before the Caribs and had reached the larger islands (the “Greater Antilles”) of Cuba and Hispaniola (which today is split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic). It was the Arawaks with whom Columbus first made contact and who told him about the fierce Caribs who had displaced the Arawaks on the smaller islands to the south (the “Lesser Antilles”).

The Spanish explorers found it relatively easy to trick the Arawaks into working for them for no pay, in other words forcing them into slavery, but the Caribs proved to be harder nuts to crack. It was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that later settlers, from England and France, were able to get the better of the Caribs on the southern islands and treat them as badly as the Arawaks had been treated further north.

As might have been expected, the Caribs fell victim not only to diseases from which they had no natural protection but also to the firearms with which the colonisers put down any resistance to their rule. Another threat to their racial survival was the influx of African slaves that the settlers introduced in vast numbers from the 16th to 19th centuries.

“Black” and “Pure” Caribs

One group of Caribs, on the island of St Vincent, became known as the “Black Caribs” because of their descent from mixed race ancestors who had interbred with African slaves. A rebellion in 1795 led to their wholesale deportation to Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras. Their descendants live there to this day, being known locally as the Garifuna. These Carib descendants have also spread to the coastal regions of mainland Central America and probably number around half a million people.

Pure-bred Caribs are much harder to find, and they would probably have disappeared altogether had not the British government established a “Carib Reserve” on the island of Dominica in 1903. This area of less than six square miles is home to about 3,000 people today who constitute the only community of any size in the Caribbean region who can realistically claim to be true Caribs and do their best to maintain a traditional way of life.

The fate of the Caribs is yet another example of what happens when, out of greed and the desire to dominate, powerful people from another continent seek to impose their will on native populations who do not have the means to protect their lands from conquest. The legacy of European colonialism and empire building has been a lamentable catalogue of destruction across the world, and the demise of native peoples of whom the Caribs are only one example among many.

© John Welford

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Events leading to the Russian Revolution

The October Russian Revolution, which actually took place on 6th and 7th November 1917 (the discrepancy was brought about by differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars), had causes that went back many years and many events can be cited as contributory factors.

However, in order to distinguish between what characterised the October Revolution and that of March 1917 that overthrew the Tsar, one needs to go back to 1903 and the Second Congress of the Social-Democratic Party that was held in London because such a meeting on Russian soil would have been impossible.

Who should lead the peasantry?

At that meeting there was a fundamental disagreement about the means that should be used to bring about a revolution in Russia. It was agreed that the revolution must involve both the workers in the factories and the peasants on the farms, but who should be responsible for leading the peasantry, as they did not have the degree of organisation that was being built among the factory workers?

The choice lay between the workers and the bourgeoisie (i.e. the middle classes). One view was that the workers did not have the education or influence to lead the peasantry, which did not have the political will to move forward to Socialism given that its main interest was in getting control of the land. The bourgeoisie was therefore the class that should lead the peasantry into overthrowing the Tsar and creating a provisional government that would be largely capitalist in nature, with Socialism waiting until conditions were more conducive for its emergence.

The other view was that the bourgeoisie was, at heart, counter-revolutionary and not suited to leading the peasantry. The workers had become imbued with Marxism and were aware of their role in changing society. The bourgeoisie was not driven by this philosophy and was therefore not intellectually minded to lead the Revolution. The Revolution, when it came, must be a working-class one with no input from the bourgeosie.

At the 1903 Congress the majority of delegates took the latter view and were therefore dubbed the “Bolsheviks” from the Russian “bolshinstvo” meaning “majority”. The minority became known as the “Mensheviks”, from “menshinstvo” (minority). The Bolsheviks were led by Lenin and the Mensheviks, who included Trotsky, by Martov.

One long-term consequence of this split was that the Bolsheviks concentrated their efforts on party organisation at the factory level, with the middle classes being largely excluded from the underground groups that were being formed in all the large factories and which would develop into the “soviets” (delegates from all the factories in a city) that became the driving force of the October Revolution.

The Mensheviks continued to seek to appeal to middle-class intellectuals and to inculcate a liberal spirit that would be acceptable both to workers and capitalists.
The first two Revolutions

There were three Russian Revolutions. The first, in 1905, was put down with great brutality by the Tsar’s troops, although it had never threatened to use physical force except in a few localities.

The Revolution of March 1917 (known as the February Revolution for the reason given above) occurred under very different circumstances, with Russia being nearly three years into a war against Germany that was taking a very heavy toll not only of lives but in terms of economic chaos. A wave of strikes and demonstrations led to workers disarming the police and finding increased support among the soldiers who were sent against them. A Provisional Committee of the Duma, which was a Parliament of sorts but with very limited powers and consisting almost entirely of members of the bourgeoisie, declared itself to be the new authority in the country.

In support of the Duma, a new soviet was created in Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been called since 1914) that consisted of deputies from factories both large and small and also from every unit of the armed forces. This adopted the title of the Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, and was largely a creation of the Mensheviks.

The Bolsheviks had been outsmarted by the February Revolution. One of their problems was that their organisations in the factories were illegal and many activists had been arrested and sent into exile. The Mensheviks, on the other hand, had managed to avoid over-stepping the mark and their organisations were still largely intact. The February Revolution, which forced the Tsar to abdicate, was therefore the Menshevik Revolution.

The Provisional Government that ruled Russia between the two 1917 revolutions was led by Alexander Kerensky, a lawyer and the only Socialist member of the Duma Committee. However, the new government was very much a middle-class one and the prospect for the workers and peasants was that they would only have a limited role in determining the future direction of the country.

The rise of the Bolsheviks

That was not what Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted. Lenin had not even been in the country at the time of the February Revolution but in exile in Switzerland. When he returned to Russia, in a sealed train as it crossed Germany, he declared in his “April theses” his demand for “all power to the soviets” because he did not envisage the Provisional Government giving way to working-class government any time soon.

Lenin had a point. Actions by the Provisional Government during the summer of 1917 included opposing any transfer of land to the peasants and support for factory owners in resisting takeovers by workers’ committees. When a massive demonstration by workers and soldiers, in July, called for the government to be overthrown, the policy of the government, supported by the Mensheviks, was for the Bolsheviks to be suppressed by force.

However, in order to do this the Provisional Government had to call upon the forces of the old regime that had formerly supported the Tsar, namely officers from the elite army regiments and the police, led by an old-style general named Kornilov. It soon became clear that, if this force were to prevail, the result would be a swing back to what had existed before the February Revolution and thus the restoration of the Tsar. This was not something that many people outside the ruling class wanted to happen and so allegiances began to switch back once again.

The Bolsheviks now picked up support in soviets across the country, becoming the majority in more than 200 as well as the soldiers’ soviets of the front-line armies. The war was so unpopular that the soldiers refused to support the Provisional Government any longer, and without that support it was impossible for it to continue.

The point of no return

At midday on 6th November the military committee of the Petrograd soviet instructed the armed workers’ guards in the factories, units of the Petrograd garrison, and sailors in the Baltic fleet, to seize the key points in the city as a preliminary to marching on the Winter Palace and arresting the Provisional Government.

The industrial working class of Russia, led by the Bolsheviks, had therefore brought to a conclusion a long process of overthrowing Tsardom and setting free the creative forces of the Russian people. Once the Bolshevik Revolution had succeeded there was no way by which the process could be reversed.

© John Welford

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Abermule rail disaster, 1921

The fatal rail crash that happened near Abermule in mid-Wales on 26th January 1921, claiming 17 lives, is an example of how disaster can occur when several people make a mistake and each one of them assumes that everyone else is acting correctly. That may sound complicated, but the truth of that statement will become apparent as the story unfolds.

Tablet system for safe single-track running

The rail line in question runs from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth through the Welsh hills. It is twisty and hilly and single-track. The obvious implication of the latter fact is that two trains must never be allowed to run in opposite directions in the same section. Passing loops are provided at intervals and, by using a “tablet” system, it is possible to ensure that only one train is in a section between passing loops at any one time.

The idea is that the driver collects a tablet at one end of a section and hands it in at the other end (this can be either when the train is stationary or via a collection arm on the outside of a signal box while a train is in motion). This is, therefore, a train’s “passport” for that section.

However, it is not possible for there only to be one tablet for a section, which goes backwards and forwards as trains alternate in direction, because it is often the case that two or more trains need to pass in one direction before one travels the other way. This therefore opens the possibility of a second tablet being issued at one end of a section and the original tablet being issued at the other end for a train travelling the other way, thus opening the way to tragedy should this occur.

The system was made a lot safer by the patenting, in 1878, of the Tyer electric tablet instrument, into which the tablets were placed until such time as they were authorised to be handed to a driver who was due to pass through a single-track section. When a tablet was withdrawn the machines at both ends of a section would be locked until a tablet was replaced in one machine or the other. It was also necessary for a signalman, when accepting a train into his section, to press a release button on his instrument so that the signalman at the other end of the section could withdraw a tablet.

Thus, a train coming the other way could not be issued with a tablet, and neither could a second train going in the same direction as the first enter the section, until the tablet carried by the first train had been placed in the machine at the other end. Each signal box would have two such instruments, covering the sections on either side of it.

In theory, this sounds like a foolproof system, but the events at Abermule were to prove otherwise.

Events at Abermule

On the morning in question two trains were approaching from opposite directions, an express and a stopping train. They were due to cross at Abermule, but the signalman was used to the situation in which one train might run late and the crossing take place at the next station up or down the line, with the aim being to allow the express a clear run by making the stopping train wait for it at either Montgomery (to the northeast) or Newtown (to the southwest), neither station being more than three miles distant. A measure of flexibility was therefore allowable, but the tablet system covered all eventualities.

One unusual feature at Abermule was that the electric instruments were not housed in the signal box but in a room in the station building, and it had become common practice for staff members other than the signalman to operate them. At Abermule there were four staff members, namely the signalman (Jones), a relief stationmaster (Lewis, deputising for the regular stationmaster who was on leave), a porter (Rodgers) and an office boy (Thompson) who performed various duties around the station including collecting tickets from alighting passengers.

Signalman Jones received a signal from Montgomery that the stopping train was about to enter the Montgomery-Abermule section and he duly pressed the release so that the Montgomery signalman could withdraw a tablet to give to the driver. Jones then left the instrument room to return to the signal box to set the road for the approaching stopping train, after he had checked, by phone, the situation regarding the express. This was now in the section on the other side of Newtown, so there was plenty of time for the stopping train to reach Abermule before the express would come through in the opposite direction.

The two junior members of staff had been in the instrument room when Jones accepted the stopping train, and were still there after Lewis the stationmaster arrived back from his lunch and immediately left again to supervise movements in the goods yard. Rodgers and Thompson were therefore the only staff members present when the call came from Newtown to ask for acceptance of the express into the Newtown-Abermule section. It was the porter Rodgers who pressed the button to accept the express, thus allowing Newtown to release the appropriate tablet.

At this stage everything was in order. The stopping train would enter the station and the express would use the passing loop to proceed without stopping as soon as the tablet from Montgomery had been entered in the Montgomery-Abermule instrument, thus allowing the express to collect a tablet as it passed through. In the meantime, both Abermule instruments would remain locked.

Rodgers then left to set the road for the express, for which he needed to attract the attention of signalman Jones, now in his signalbox at the other end of the platform, who needed to unlock the points before Rodgers could move the ground frame lever. Had Jones known that Rodgers was ready to set the points, he would have realised that the express was now in the Newtown-Abermule section. However, before Rodgers could act, the stopping train arrived.

The boy Thompson, who had been with Rodgers when the latter had accepted the express, then crossed the line to collect the Montgomery-Abermule tablet from the driver of the stopping train, now at the platform. He was on his way back to the instrument room when stationmaster Lewis returned from the goods yard. He asked Thompson if he knew where the express was, and the boy told him that it was still the other side of Newtown, running late, despite having watched as Rodgers had accepted it into the Newtown-Abermule section.

Thompson then handed the tablet in his hand to Lewis, as the former had to go and collect tickets from the passengers leaving the platform from the stopping train.

Stationmaster Lewis then made his fatal mistake by assuming that the tablet in question was the one for Abermule-Newtown and that Thompson had collected it for handing to the driver of the stopping train. Lewis would have had no reason for thinking that this tablet would not be available, based on the false information given him by Thompson. He then proceeded to the cab of the stopping train and gave the tablet to the driver, who now assumed that he was free to proceed towards Newtown.

The driver also made a fatal mistake in not checking the tablet that he had been given. Had he done so he would have realised that he was being handed back the tablet that he had only just given to Thompson.

Both signalman Jones and the boy Thompson watched Lewis hand the tablet to the driver, but both assumed that it was the correct tablet. The signals were set and the train pulled away. Rodgers was a bit surprised, but assumed that, in his absence, there had been a change of plan and the express had been held at Newtown for some reason. They all had implicit faith in the Tyer system that guaranteed that a tablet could not be withdrawn from the instrument unless it was safe to do so.

It was only when they reached the instrument room and realised that the system had worked perfectly, but the driver had been given the wrong tablet, that they appreciated what had happened and that they had all, along with the driver of the stopping train, make errors that contributed to a disaster that they were now powerless to prevent.

The two trains collided head on, with the victims including the driver and fireman of the stopping train and fifteen passengers on the express, with many others being injured. The express train driver, despite being injured, searched for and found the two tablets carried by the trains, and one of those was a Montgomery-Abermule tablet that should never have been there.

This was therefore a tragedy caused by the errors of five people who failed to ask the right questions, give the right answers, or have anything but implicit faith in a system that was not so foolproof after all.

As a result of Abermule, changes were made locally so that the instrument machines were moved to the signal box, and nationally so that starting signals could not be pulled until the relevant instrument had been cleared. Fortunately, these measures have prevented a similar accident ever occurring again on the British rail system.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Pride's Purge

What became known as “Pride’s Purge” took place in London on 6th December 1648 and resulted in the formation of the “Rump Parliament” that later agreed to the trial and execution of King Charles I. Members of Parliament who were most likely to be sympathetic to the King were arrested or otherwise persuaded to stay away from Parliament.

Colonel Thomas Pride

The officer who carried out the purge was a brewer turned army officer, named Thomas Pride.

He came from a Somerset family but is known to have been apprenticed to a London haberdasher in 1622. His date of birth is not known, but must presumably have been around 1608 if his apprenticeship began at the usual age of 14.

However, with his indentures served, Pride decided to try his hand as a brewer and was very successful, becoming the owner of at least two breweries in the 1640s. He continued his business interests throughout his life, using his political connections to enrich himself.

When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Thomas Pride joined a London “trained band” but soon obtained a captaincy in Colonel Barclay’s regiment of the army led by the Earl of Essex. When the New Model Army was formed in 1645, Pride became a lieutenant-colonel but was virtually in charge of his regiment due to the absence of its colonel, Edward Harley. He distinguished himself at the decisive Battle of Naseby on 14th June 1645, and in later actions in the West Country.

However, although the Army fought for the cause of Parliament, the two did not always see eye to eye. One issue that divided them was the attempt by Parliament, during the spring of 1647, to disband the Army without giving the men their arrears of pay. Thomas Pride organised a petition of his regiment, demanding the signatures of all its members. This action was not approved by Colonel Harley, who had Pride summoned to the bar of the House of Commons to explain himself. Undeterred, Pride continued with his protest and presented his petition.

In July 1647 he helped to draft the articles of impeachment laid by the New Model Army against those Members of Parliament (the “Eleven Members”) regarded as being the Army’s greatest enemies. However, he did not have the support of all his regiment’s officers, a number of whom resigned out of loyalty to Parliament. As these included Colonel Harley, Thomas Pride now took his place at the head of the regiment.

The background to the Purge

It is often assumed that the English Civil War was fought between King and Parliament as though the whole of Parliament was of one mind in opposition to King Charles. This was not so, because there was a whole spectrum of opinion represented there, including many who regarded the War as simply an attempt to persuade the King to rule in a different way; these members did not seek to depose him, let alone have him beheaded. Indeed, that was the view of the vast majority of members at the outbreak of the War.

However, opinions changed during the conduct of the War, especially after Charles renewed his campaign in the “Second Civil War” of 1648-9 and was seen to be attempting to do deals with whatever groups and factions might support him. These factions included royalist sympathisers within Parliament.

In September 1648 a group of parliamentarians began negotiations with King Charles at Newport on the Isle of Wight, where he was being kept prisoner in Carisbrooke Castle. However, although a document was agreed (The “Treaty of Newport”) it did not find favour with the Army, especially when Parliament voted to allow Charles to return to London and be restored to his property.

Mainly at the instigation of Henry Ireton, a counter-document entitled “The Remonstrance of General Fairfax and the Council of Officers”, or more simply the “Army Remonstrance”, was drawn up and adopted by the Army Council on 18th November. This made clear the Army’s determination that Charles should be put on trial, as well as proposing sweeping constitutional changes.

Parliament now dithered over its response, the general attitude being that the Treaty negotiations should be given a chance to continue. Clearly, they could not accept both the Treaty and the Remonstrance, but there appeared to be every chance that the Treaty would win the day.

The Purge

Pride’s Purge was therefore the Army’s way of forcing the issue, and it can be seen as little short of a military “coup d’etat”, achieved by threat of force. It has been suggested that Colonel Pride was only the instrument of the Purge, rather than its driving force, but it is clear that he was involved in its planning and was enthusiastic in its execution.

After a force of 7,000 men had moved into London in early December (many of them camped in Hyde Park), on the morning of 6th December Thomas Pride mounted the steps of Parliament, which was ringed by soldiers, and brandished a piece of paper on which were listed the names of those Members of Parliament whom the Army distrusted. It is not known exactly how many names were on the list, but it could have been about 180. Not being a parliamentarian, Pride was not able to match names to faces as the members arrived, but he was helped in this task by Lord Grey of Groby.

In all, 45 members were arrested and taken away, but word soon got around and many of those who might otherwise have attempted to enter decided not to bother. There was only one violent incident, when William Prynne tried to get past and was pushed back down the stairs. When Prynne asked “By what authority and commission, and for what cause, they did thus violently seize on and pull him down from the House”, Pride pointed to the soldiers who had their muskets ready to fire, replying that “there was their commission”.

Although Thomas Fairfax, the Army General, was not made aware of the Purge until after it had taken place, and was furious when he found out, he had little choice but to accept it as a “fait accompli”. It certainly suited the ambitions of the political leader of the coup, namely Oliver Cromwell, who now found that the new “Rump”, at first comprising as few as 80 of the 470 or so members of the former House of Commons, was much more amenable to his will.

The Treaty of Newport was soon forgotten, being annulled on 13th December, and plans for the King’s trial went ahead. When Charles’s death warrant was signed, one of the signatories was Colonel Thomas Pride.

Thomas Pride died on 23rd October 1658, not long after Cromwell had died but before the Restoration of King Charles II. He therefore escaped the wrath of the new regime that would be directed against the Regicides. However, had his dead body been in a better condition it is possible that it might have shared the indignity suffered by those of several of his colleagues (including Cromwell and Ireton) in being dug up and hanged posthumously.

Pride’s Purge was important not only for its effect on the course of history, but also because it was the last occasion on which the democratic process in England was set aside by force of arms.

© John Welford

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Stanley finds Livingstone, 1871

One quotation that everybody knows is the greeting given in 1871 by the journalist Henry Morton Stanley to the missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone. After trekking across Africa to the shores of Lake Tanganyika in a mission to find the long-lost explorer, Stanley reached out a hand and said: “Dr Livingstone, I presume”.

However, as with so many “everybody knows” incidents, this one is unlikely to have happened exactly as the newspapers of the time would have one believe. There is no direct documentary evidence that the words in question were used, and neither Stanley nor Livingstone left any contemporary record of the meeting. Stanley was, after all, a journalist sent to find Livingstone by the New York Times, and he knew the value of a good human interest story.

The mission to find Livingstone was also not quite as portrayed at the time. The public in Britain and the United States had had their interest in Livingstone’s whereabouts sustained by the Press for years, and Stanley’s journey to find him was merely a culmination of a long-running newspaper story.

David Livingstone (1813-73) was a Scottish medical doctor who had been sent as a missionary to Africa in the 1850s but who had proved to be singularly inept in his role as a converter of Africans to Christianity. Throughout his career there were only two confirmed examples of conversions. However, he proved to be much more successful as an explorer of Africa’s interior, being the first white man to cross the continent from east to west and he was the discoverer and namer of the Victoria Falls. On his return to Britain he became a celebrity, despite his incompetence as a missionary.

In the late 1860s he started to explore the area around Lake Tanganyika as part of an attempt to discover the source of the River Nile. However, his despatches back to Britain failed to arrive and, to all intents and purposes, he was lost in darkest Africa, possibly dead. By November 1871, when Stanley started his search, Livingstone had been out of touch with civilization for five years.

Henry Morton Stanley was an interesting character. Born in Wales in 1841 as John Rowlands, he had emigrated to the United States at the age of 17, been a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, changing sides on being captured, and had finally become a journalist on the New York Times. His experiences as a Southern white man had given him a highly prejudiced opinion of the value of black people, which he took with him to Africa. His harsh treatment of the porters who formed the bulk of his huge exploration party contrasted sharply with the enlightened views of his quarry, Livingstone, one of whose objectives was to put an end to slavery within Africa.

Finding Livingstone was not particularly difficult. Stanley simply headed east from the coast to Lake Tanganyika and, when he arrived, the first person he encountered was Livingstone’s personal servant, who led him straight to the man himself. However, Stanley needed to write a story, and the simple meeting needed a little embellishment. As well as the “Dr Livingstone, I presume” line, Stanley also concocted the idea that Livingstone expressed surprise at the nomination of Horace Greeley as the Democrat candidate for the next United States Presidential election. The notion that a Scottish explorer, “lost” in Africa for five years, should have had the slightest interest in or knowledge of contemporary American politics is surely a far-fetched one, but Stanley was, after all, writing for an American readership which had very different priorities!

Following the discovery of Livingstone, Stanley was supposed to head straight back home, but his naturally adventurous character got the better of him and he stayed with Livingstone until March 1872. Despite their very different personalities, the two men became firm friends.

The story did not have a particularly happy ending. Livingstone died a year later without returning home. Stanley carried on exploring, being the first white man to trace the course of the River Congo from its source to the sea. He also became instrumental in enabling the Belgian King Leopold III to seize the Congo as a personal fiefdom from which the resources of the area were exploited with great rapacity and cruelty. It is ironic that Stanley’s efforts helped the slave trade in the Congo to flourish, which would have horrified his former friend David Livingstone.

A further irony of that famous meeting on the shores of Lake Tanganyika was that the decent and honourable man, Dr Livingstone, died alone and largely forgotten, far from home, but the cruel, racist and money-grabbing Henry Morton Stanley lived to become a British Member of Parliament and to be honoured with a knighthood in 1899. He died in 1904.

© John Welford

Friday, 19 February 2016

The toothless soldiers of World War I

When the British Expeditionary Force - composed of regular Army men and volunteers before conscription was introduced - set off for France in August 1914, most of the men would have had all or most of their teeth extracted and been fitted with dentures.

This was because the Army sent medical men to deal with injuries and illnesses, and vets to look after the many horses that went to the Front, but not a single dentist. It was only when the commander in the field, Sir John French, got a dose of toothache that anyone thought to remedy this oversight, with 12 dentists being sent in November 1914 to cover the entire Army.

Many soldiers therefore opted to have all their teeth removed before they embarked. This was one way of delaying their arrival, because their gums had to heal before dentures could be fitted.

However, it does sound like a drastic precaution to take, simply because the Army had not thought that soldiers without aching teeth would be more likely to concentrate on the job in hand.

© John Welford

Thursday, 18 February 2016

The Paris Commune of 1871

The Paris Commune of 1871 was a revolt by the people of Paris against the French government, following the defeat of France under Emperor Napoleon III by Otto Bismarck’s Prussia.

Paris under siege

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 the city of Paris had been besieged by the Prussians for four months and the people reduced to near starvation, with cats, rats and the animals in the zoo being killed for food.

Paris was staunchly Republican and had already declared the Second Empire of Napoleon III to be at an end in September 1870. However, it was not until 28th January 1871 that an armistice was signed and arrangements made for an election to provide France with a government that had authority to negotiate with the conqueror. The new assembly met in Bordeaux, in south-west France, and set up a provisional government, under Adolphe Thiers, in February.

An unpopular solution

However, the assembly and government were overwhelmingly monarchist and only represented the wealthier classes of France. Some of them hoped to establish a new Bonapartist empire headed by the son of Napoleon III. The move of the assembly from Bordeaux to Versailles, the seat of the old French monarchy, aroused suspicions on the part of the Parisians that a restoration of the monarchy was being planned.

Another cause for revolt was the triumphant German procession through the city that took place in March 1871, this having been one of the demands acceded to by the Versailles assembly, although they actually had no choice in the matter. However, the assembly made matters far worse by a move that was within their control, which was to demand payment, with full interest, of all the rents and debts that had been suspended during the siege of Paris the previous year when the people had been eating rats from the sewers.

The establishment of the Commune

Things came to a head when the government ordered the Paris National Guard to disband and sent a small band of soldiers to remove the guns stationed on the heights of Montmartre. This move was resisted and the negotiators sent by Versailles were murdered. Shortly after this the people of Paris set up their own council (or Commune) of 92 elected members.

The word “Commune” might imply that these were early Communists who followed the teachings of Karl Marx. However, although they did include some members who had Socialist leanings, they were by no means all inspired by left-wing politics and included many middle-class business people who wished to carry on their trades on purely capitalist lines but without interference from a government they had no cause to trust.

During its existence the Commune did carry out some economic organisation along what might be thought to be Socialist lines, such as setting up work schemes and taking steps to control the price of foodstuffs to prevent profiteering, but its main energies were devoted to the struggle for survival against the forces sent by the Versailles government.

The defeat of the Commune

The assault against the Commune was led by Marshal MacMahon, under instruction from Adolphe Thiers. An artillery barrage was levied against the city from mid March to early May. The German occupation force stood aside as Frenchman fought Frenchman, with their only contribution being the permission given by Bismarck to Thiers for the assault forces under MacMahon to be increased.

Once a breach had been made in the western defences of Paris, a week of fierce hand-to-hand street fighting took place, with the communards setting up barricades that were overrun one by one. The last stand of the defenders was in the cemetery of Père Lachaise with men taking cover behind the gravestones.

The aftermath and consequences of the Commune

The government was severe in its reprisals against the survivors, with many being executed by firing squad and up to 7,000 being transported to overseas penal settlements. With some 20,000 people having been killed and many more fleeing the city, it is estimated that the population of Paris fell by as many as 100,000 people during the rebellion. Many parts of the city were left as smoking ruins.
Apart from the material damage, the most important long-term consequence of the Paris Commune was the wedge driven between the government and the working class, not only in Paris but other major cities in France (communes had also been established in Lyons and Marseilles, for example). Divisions between the wealthier and poorer classes in France became almost unbridgeable, with a section of the working class being driven towards Marxism. Even to this day, French politics has been marked by the strength of its extremes, with the parties of the far left and far right always doing much better in elections than their equivalents in most other European nations.

The support given by the wealthier classes to the Thiers government increased to the extent that the huge sums demanded by Bismarck as indemnity for the Franco-Prussian War could be paid off far sooner than Bismarck had expected or wished, and the French army could be rebuilt. This was to have consequences in the following century as France continued to believe that she could withstand German aggression, although the two World Wars were to prove this belief to be ill-founded.

As for the internal government of France, the communards were eventually to get their way, with a republic being established under a constitution, agreed in 1875, that was to last until the German invasion of France in 1940.

The Paris Commune was therefore one of the most violent and tragic episodes of recent European history, an event that has left a deep mark on the political life of France ever since.

©John Welford

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The St Bedes Junction rail crash, 1915

1915 was a terrible year on Britain’s railways, with no fewer than eight accidents in which lives were lost, the worst being the Quintinshill disaster in which more than 200 people died. The accident at St Bedes Junction was the final fatal crash of that year, occurring early in the morning on 17th December. It was similar in nature to the Quintinshill accident, but with far less serious consequences.

St Bedes Junction was on the line from Newcastle Upon Tyne to South Shields at Jarrow, on the south side of the River Tyne. Today the line forms part of the Newcastle Metro; there is a “Bede” station but no longer a junction at this point.
The junction was to a short double-track branch to Tyne Dock Bottom, along which freight trains passed to the Jarrow docks. The gradient was as steep as 1 in 49 at one point, so it was regular practice for heavily laden trains to be assisted up to the junction by a “banker”, which was a small tank engine that pushed from behind.

The normal procedure was for the tank engine to carry its signal lamps the wrong way round, displaying a green light at the back and a red light at the front. This meant that, when the train it was assisting had moved off up the main line, the banker would be correctly lit when it reversed back down the branch line to be ready for its next task.

Having crossed over the junction and run past the signal box that controlled the points and signals at this location, the engine would move up the line for about 90 yards, where it would wait beyond a crossover point and a signal bridge. With the points and signal changed, the engine would chug off down the branch line.

At 06:50 on the day in question it was still dark and there was a “Tyne fog” that made visibility worse. Tank locomotive 2182 helped a train of 21 loaded and 10 empty wagons up the branch line and then waited at the usual place on the “up” line, having given a whistle to tell the signalman that the engine was clear of the points.

However, another train was signalled to proceed along the opposite track (the “down” line) and on to the branch line, so Driver Hunter asked his fireman to switch the engine’s lamps round so that they would be correct during the short time that they would be forced to wait.

The signalled train came and went, after which Driver Hunter whistled again, but still there was no response in terms of the points changing and the signal moving. All that happened was that another signal moved on the gantry to indicate that another “down” train was on its way.

Driver Hunter now realised that he would have to apply “Rule 55”. This stipulated that, when a train or light locomotive was stationary on a line due to a stop signal, and the sounding of a whistle brought no response, a crew member must walk along the track to the nearest signal box to tell the signalman in person. This was to guard against the possibility that the signalman was not aware that the line was obstructed. The rule stated that, in clear weather, this must be done within three minutes of the stoppage, but immediately if there was fog.

As Fireman Jewitt approached the signal box he could hear the rails beside him “singing”, which was a clear indication that a train was approaching. He rushed up to the box to attract the signalman’s attention. Signalman Hodgson immediately threw the signals to danger and Fireman Jewitt waved his red lamp, but they were too late to prevent the 07:05 passenger service from South Shields to Newcastle hurtling past the signal box at thirty miles an hour.

Driver Hunter heard the train approaching behind him and desperately tried to get moving again, blowing his whistle as he did so. However, he had hardly got started when the collision occurred. The impact knocked him unconscious and the next thing he knew he was standing in a field at the bottom of a 20-foot embankment.

Meanwhile, a train on the down line, consisting of empty passenger coaches, had passed a distant signal at danger and was slowing down when it hit Driver Hunter’s tank engine, which was now obstructing the down line.

All the crewmen survived the crash, although several were injured, but not all the passengers were so lucky. There were 18 fatalities, most of them in the front coach of the passenger train in the first impact, which had then been hit by rolling stock from the second impact. Fire broke out (from the fractured pipes that fuelled the gas lamps on the passenger train) and this destroyed the front carriage and spread to the second. A railwayman who was travelling as a passenger helped a number of people to safety and performed first aid on others.

The driver and guard of another train, which was waiting to proceed down the branch line, rushed across and had the presence of mind to uncouple the undamaged carriages and push them clear before the fire could spread.

The enquiry into the disaster was conducted by Lt-Col Von Donop, who was highly critical of the North Eastern Railway Company’s practice regarding banking engines. The problem was that bankers were not always used, so that a signalman could easily overlook the presence of one that was waiting to return to base. In this instance, Signalman Hodgson had neither seen the engine as it passed his box, not heard its whistle in the dense fog.

The inspector’s recommendation was that the bell code used between signal boxes should be changed so that it would be known whether a train had a banker or not. However, Signalman Hodgson should have been aware that a banker might have been used on this occasion, given that this was standard practice on at least 50 percent of trains coming up the branch line.

Driver Hunter was held to be the most culpable person on the day, for his long delay in activating Rule 55. As noted above, he should have done so almost immediately, given the foggy conditions, but it was seventeen minutes before he sent his fireman off to the signal box, by which time the passenger train was already bearing down on him. Given that the Quintinshill crash, which involved a train running into another which had been “forgotten”, was fresh in the memory of all railwaymen, it seems extraordinary that Driver Hunter should have been so lax in not taking steps to prevent a repetition of those circumstances.

The inspector also stressed the importance of switching train lighting from gas to electricity, as this had been a contributory factor in the deaths that occurred. However, the country was at war in 1915 and this was a reform that would have to wait. Fires caused by gas would be a contributory factor to rail fatalities in Great Britain as late as 1928, when the last such occurred.

© John Welford

Monday, 15 February 2016

The Hindenberg disaster, 1937

During the years preceding World War II there were two choices on offer to those who wished to travel by air. There were fixed-wing, propeller-driven aircraft, and there were airships. Given that the former were primitive by modern standards, being noisy, cramped and uncomfortable, not to mention dangerous, it is understandable that people who could afford to travel long distances by air were attracted to the much greater comfort offered by airships, although safety was still an issue.

 Airships and zeppelins

The rigid-framed airship was the invention of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, an aristocratic German general who, in 1895, patented a design for a cigar-shaped balloon, filled with hydrogen gas, to which engines and a cabin could be attached, thus making it far more manoeuvrable than standard balloons that could only go where the wind blew them. Not surprisingly, the rigid airship became known as the zeppelin.

During World War I, Germany used zeppelins as weapons of war, mainly for reconnaissance but also for carrying out bombing raids on London, but after the war the zeppelin was developed as a means of luxury travel. It was American interest that was mainly responsible for this, with orders being placed for bigger and better airships to fly across the Atlantic and beyond.

Passenger services between the United States and Europe began in 1930, with the vast “Graf Zeppelin” airship taking pride of place. This was 776 feet long and was capable of flying anywhere. However, in 1931 an order was placed for an airship that would be even bigger and more luxurious. This was the “LZ 129 Hindenburg”, which entered service in 1936.

This was the age of the great ocean liners that transported the rich and famous in considerable luxury from one side of the “Pond” to the other, but even the fastest liners took the best part of a week, or even longer, to do so.  There was therefore a market for a means of transportation that was just as luxurious but faster, even though a modern traveller would not consider four days for a journey from Germany to New Jersey to be particularly rapid.

The Hindenburg

The Hindenburg was massive, being more than 800 feet long and 130 feet in diameter. In size it was nearly as big as that other ill-fated transatlantic voyager, RMS Titanic. The cabin that was slung beneath the gas balloon (which consisted of 16 separate cells) could carry up to 72 passengers and had a crew of around 50. There was a lounge in which entertainment was provided at a grand piano, a promenade deck, a dining room, a smoking room, and sleeping accommodation in two-bunk berths that resembled sleeping compartments on long-distance rail trains. The whole thing was powered by four huge diesel engines.

The one great drawback for the Hindenburg was that the gas used to fill the balloon was hydrogen and not helium, either of which would have given the required lighter-than-air lift. The United States was the only country in the world that could supply helium gas in sufficient quantities, and, since the rise to power of the Nazis in 1933, such supplies were off-limits to the Hindenburg’s German owners.  Instead of travelling thousands of miles slung beneath an enormous bag of inert helium gas, the passengers had no choice but to trust their safety to a similar quantity of highly inflammable hydrogen.

The end of the Hindenburg and travel by airship

The flight that arrived on May 6th, 1937, at Lakehurst airfield, New Jersey, was the victim of this arrangement. As the airship reached the mast to which it was to be moored before the passengers disembarked, something caused the hydrogen gas to ignite. The fire ripped through the gas envelope from rear to front in just over half a minute, causing the passenger cabin to fall to the ground.

Although the disaster killed 35 of the 97 people on board (there was also a casualty among the ground crew), it is noticeable that the majority survived. This was largely because the blaze was very rapid and the flames soared skywards, so that the passenger accommodation was not touched. As the aircraft broke free from its mooring, the as yet unburned gas still provided enough lift during that short time for the fall to the ground to be relatively gentle, thus making the impact survivable for most of those on board.

The cause of the fire has never been conclusively determined, but the arrival of the Hindenburg coincided with an electrical storm, and it possible that the highly charged atmosphere at the time caused a spark within the metal framework of the airship which would have been enough to ignite the vast quantity of hydrogen gas.

This was a very public disaster because this particular landing was filmed and a radio commentator gave a live broadcast of the event. The dramatic scene therefore became the subject of newsreels that were seen all across America and Europe, as were the still photographs that were splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the world.

There had been other airship disasters in the past. The loss of the British R101 in 1930, which crashed in France with the loss of 48 lives, had put an end to British interest in airships as a mode of international travel. The United States now followed suit given that the inherent dangers of massive airships had become apparent to everyone.

The world would soon be at war, during which time civilian air transport ceased to be a priority for most nations. When the war ended, the development of fixed-wing passenger aircraft made massive strides, especially when jet engines became generally available, so the era of airships such as the Hindenburg could be allowed to slip into history without many regrets.

© John Welford

Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Pig War of 1859

The Pig War of 1859 scarcely deserves to be called a “war” at all. Only one shot was fired, which accounted for the aforementioned pig, but the rest of the affair was a matter of threats and gestures, although it was not fully resolved for another thirteen years.

A border dispute

This dispute between the United States and Great Britain arose from the uncertainty over where the border should run between the US and Canada, which was then under British control. The decision to set the border at the 49th parallel, arrived at in 1818, only applied as far west as the Rocky Mountains, with anything west of there, which was largely unexplored, being jointly assigned to both nations although it was still largely in the hands of various Native American tribes.

However, by 1844 settlers both north and south had pushed west to the Pacific coast into what was then known as the Oregon Territory. With absolutely no regard for the wishes of the Native Americans who, as usual, were disregarded in any territorial claims by the immigrant settlers, the Americans sought to set the border in the Rockies at 54.40 degrees north which, had that happened, would have meant that the United States would today have occupied the whole Pacific coastline from Mexico northwards, because the modern state of Alaska extends south of that line.

However, after much negotiation, it was agreed that the 49th parallel should be extended as the international border all the way to the coast, thus granting all the territory north of that line, to the originally desired 54.40 line and beyond, to what is still known as British Columbia.

There was still a problem, though, because the 49th parallel, being a line on a map, did not accord well with the ins and outs of the western coastline. There was the little matter, for example, of a small peninsula that juts across the line to the south of the city of Vancouver, and the much larger issue of Vancouver Island, quite a considerable portion of which is south of the line.

In 1846 a treaty was agreed under which the whole of Vancouver Island would belong to British Columbia but the small peninsula of Point Roberts, covering no more than five square miles, would be American territory. To this day, Point Roberts is part of the State of Washington but can only be reached by sea unless one travels through part of Canada to get there by road.

However, this was not the whole story, because there are a number of smaller islands that lie between Vancouver Island and the mainland south of the 49th parallel, and the ownership of these was not made clear in the 1846 treaty. One of these is San Juan Island, and this was the site of the Pig War.

A pig makes a fatal mistake

The island had been settled by people of both British and American origin. When an American settler shot a pig that had strayed into his garden and which belonged to a neighbour, who was British, both men sought the support of their respective governments. As might have been expected, both sides over-reacted to an alarming degree. The British sent a fleet of five warships and the Americans landed a force of more than 450 soldiers on the island. Things could have turned very nasty indeed.

Fortunately, sanity prevailed and no shots were fired. The sides agreed that San Juan Island should, for the time being, be jointly administered with troops from both sides providing security for the settlers. However, this state of affairs could not last for ever and in 1872 the matter was referred, in what sounds today like an extremely bizarre decision, to the Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm I. It was thought that he was neutral enough to provide an unbiased opinion on who should be the owner of San Juan Island. He came down on the side of the United States, which has remained in charge of the island ever since.

It could well be argued that all wars are stupid, but some are more stupid than others. Had the United States and Great Britain engaged in a shooting war over a straying pig, the 1859 Pig War would have been a strong candidate for the title of most ridiculous war of all time.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Battle of Plassey, 1757

The Battle of Plassey, fought on June 23rd 1757, decided the fate of Bengal as part of the British Empire. From this point on there was little doubt that Great Britain would be the dominant colonial power in the region, nor that large tracts of the Indian sub-continent would fall into British hands and become the jewel in the crown of the British Empire for the next 200 years.

During the early 1750s there had been four European powers with an interest in exploiting the resources of India for their own benefit, namely Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Portugal, although by the end of the decade only the first two could be considered serious players.

France and Britain both allowed commercial companies to be their agents in the region. In the case of France this was the “Compagnie des Indes”, while for Britain the “British East India Company” ruled the roost. This latter was a remarkable institution in that it was allowed to command its own army and to declare war and peace as though it were a sovereign state.

The East India Company established its main base at Calcutta (modern day Kolkata) in West Bengal, and this city was to become the capital of British India. It was the capture and relief of Calcutta that led to the Battle of Plassey.

On June 20th 1756 Suraja Dowla, the Nawab of Bengal, captured Calcutta after a four-day siege. When the city fell, a number of British citizens were imprisoned in a small cell and, due to overcrowding, more than 120 of them died in a single night. At least, that was the account given by one of the survivors. The incident has gone down in history as the “Black Hole of Calcutta”, and it did much to strengthen British resolve to punish the perpetrators. The exact circumstances are, however, still shrouded in mystery. It is quite likely that the horror of the incident was exaggerated, and whether it even happened at all is open to argument.

When Calcutta was recaptured by troops sent from Madras, on January 2nd 1757, it was decided that a British force, led by Robert Clive, should pursue Suraja, who was being aided by the French. This meant proceeding inland up the Hooghly river, which flows past Calcutta.

On 23rd March Clive captured a French fort at Chandernagore. This was an important step because it meant that the British supply lines to Calcutta could not be interrupted by the French.

Clive caught up with Suraja further up the Hooghly river, beyond the point where its name changes to the Bhagirathi. The Indian troops, together with some French artillery, were camped on the far side of the river from Clive’s direction of approach, near the village of Plassey (modern day Palashi).

Suraja’s force was considerably larger than Clive’s. Suraja commanded 50,000 men and he also had 53 guns available to him, under French control. Clive could only muster just over 3,000 troops and had ten guns. However, that did not dissuade him from crossing the river and massing his forces in a mango grove.

Suraja surrounded the British army in a semicircle and began firing on them. However, a sudden rainstorm had the effect of making the Indian gunpowder useless and the firing was brought to a halt. Instead, the Indians mounted a cavalry charge which was repulsed by the British, who had literally “kept their powder dry”, to the surprise of the Indians.

Clive had something of a “fifth column” in Suraja’s army, in that it contained supporters of a rival Nawab, Mir Jafar. Clive gambled on the probability that, if the tide turned in favour of the British, these supporters would change their allegiance, and the gamble paid off.

Clive was thus able to advance on Suraja’s entrenchments and fire on them at close range. Only the French guns fought to the last as Suraja’s men fled in disarray.

Suraja Dowla did not survive much longer, being assassinated a few days later. Clive established his son-in-law, Mir Kasim, as the new Nawab, but, when Kasim proved to be too independent for Clive’s liking, he was deposed and Mir Jafar took his place.

An important aspect of events surrounding the Battle of Plassey was that the British exploited divisions among the Indians in order to get a firm foothold on India. The British adopted the tactic of supporting one Indian faction against another and then demanding their reward when their side won. Two-thirds of Clive’s army at Plassey were Indians, and his campaign was funded by a powerful banking family who were rivals of Suraja Dowla. By making Mir Jafar the new Nawab, Clive was ensuring that his man was in the seat of power, but only as a puppet with the British pulling the strings.

The Battle of Plassey was not the final action that the British would fight, either against Indian natives or French colonialists, but it set the scene for what was to follow. Eventually the French would give up their claims and local uprisings would be put down with relative ease, as would mutinies of Indian troops within the British army. By the end of the century the dominant position of Great Britain as the overlord of much of India was firmly established, and would be further consolidated in the century that followed. The Battle of Plassey therefore marked a turning point in that British expansion in India was no longer under serious threat.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Morton's fork

King Henry VII acquired the throne of England by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. He was well aware that his claim to the throne was not strong, and that challenges to his position were entirely possible. He therefore needed the backing of a strong army, and financial independence so that he would not have to rely on Parliament for the necessary funds.

He therefore set about acquiring more wealth than the monarchy had ever known. Indeed, the cupboard had been virtually emptied by Edward IV (Richard III’s older brother), and needed to be refilled.

Henry’s chancellor, who was given the task of finding the cash, was John Morton (c. 1420-1500) who had previously served Edward IV as an ambassador to France and had been rewarded in 1479 by being made Bishop of Ely. However, he was opposed to Richard III, and has even been accused of inventing the story of the murder, by Richard, of Edward’s sons, the “Princes in the Tower”.

After Bosworth, Henry made him Archbishop of Canterbury and, in 1487, his Lord Chancellor. Morton was well aware that a good source of funds was the nobility of England, and he also knew that transferring wealth from them to the king would have the political benefit of making them less able to challenge Henry and more dependent on him for favours in the future.

As a churchman, he knew that the church was itself enormously wealthy, owning vast tracts of land in England. He had no intention of allowing that wealth to find its way into the royal coffers, so it was the secular powers in the land that would have to pay. Of course, Henry’s son, Henry VIII, was to have a very different attitude on this score!

Morton therefore set about a scheme of enforced loans, fines and taxes, designed to extract as much money as possible. In his own words, his policy was expressed as:

"If the subject is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability he can afford to give generously to the King. If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure."

This was therefore the “fork”; if the nobleman was not caught on one prong he was caught on the other. To be fair, one could say that Morton had a point, the assumption being that the aristocrat in question was wealthy in the first place, which was probably not unreasonable.

Whatever the justice or otherwise of Morton’s policy, it was clearly highly successful. Henry’s reign was not a particularly long one, as he died in 1509 at the age of 52. However, the royal treasury was considerably fuller at the end of his reign than at its beginning, helped in great part by Henry’s refusal to spend anything more than was absolutely necessary; for example, he turned down Christopher Columbus’s request to finance his voyage to the “Indies”. Yet it was to Cardinal Morton, fork in hand, that he owed a large part of the wealth that Henry VIII was doubtless delighted to inherit.

In the 20th century the term “Catch 22” entered general use from Joseph Heller’s novel, to mean a choice that is not really there, but the principle is the same as that of Morton’s Fork. The latter term is however still used in some circumstances, such as the “Morton’s Fork coup” in contract bridge. The spirit of Henry VII’s wily old Chancellor is alive and well whenever a person in power makes an offer than cannot be refused.

© John Welford

Monday, 8 February 2016

The Boxer Rebellion, 1898-1900

The Boxer Rebellion at the end of 19th century was a revolt against both the Chinese monarchy and Western imperialism, although Cixi, the wily Empress Dowager, used it to further her own ends.

Western Imperialism in China

The last years of imperial rule in China were marked by increasing weakness on the part of the Manchu Qing emperors and increasing dominance by foreign countries. After China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1895 the carve-up of China began in earnest, as it was seen by the Western powers as another vast area of the world, after Africa, to be exploited for its wealth and divided up into “spheres of influence”. The United States, which had largely missed the boat in terms of territorial gains in China, proposed an “Open Door” policy to allow even more exploitation of China’s riches.

However, the encroachment of the “foreign devils” was not welcomed by many of the Chinese people, and the Boxer Rebellion was one step on the road towards the ending of weak government and incipient colonialism, leading eventually to the Chinese Republic.

The Boxers

The Boxers were a secret society whose name translates as “The Society of Right and Harmonious Fists”. They practised a variety of martial arts and calisthenics, which became a mixture of military training and semi-religious rituals. Many of the Society members came to believe that they were immune to injury from swords and bullets, thus giving them considerable courage. Parallels could be made with the Samurai of Japan in some of these respects. The Society dated back to before 1700, and had been active in opposing Western influence in the past.

The term “Boxer” was a nickname given to them by their Western opponents, for whom martial arts meant the gentlemanly sport of boxing.

One factor behind the 1898-1900 rebellion was economic distress caused by a succession of poor harvests, made worse by sanctions imposed after the 1895 war. The original aim of the Boxers had been to overthrow the government of the Qing dynasty as well as to expel the foreigners.

Empress Cixi and the rebellion

The most powerful member of the Qing dynasty was the Dowager Empress Cixi (otherwise transliterated as Tzu Hsi) who had risen from concubine to empress and now controlled the actions of the nominal emperor, her nephew Guangxu. She was a particularly devious and clever woman who saw a way to use the rebellion to her own advantage, as she was also in favour of the Boxers’ policy of ridding China of foreign influence.

The first actions of the Boxers took place in March 1898, in a dispute over the ownership of a building that was either a temple or a Catholic church (the facts are disputed), and which came under attack from the rebels. Anti-Christian activities were a pronounced feature of the rebellion, and many Chinese converts became its victims, given that Christianity was regarded as a constituent feature of Western colonialism.

Shortly after this incident, Guangxu attempted to reform the government of China along more liberal lines, including introducing elements of democracy and reforming the educational and economic systems of the country. Cixi was totally opposed to such moves and engineered a virtual coup d’etat, which resulted, in September 1898, in Guangxu being placed in virtual exile within the Forbidden City, and the real power moving decisively Cixi’s way.

For the Boxers, the proposed reforms smacked of giving in to Western influences. However, their opposition was seen as being to the official government, and in October they were soundly beaten by troops loyal to Guangxu. Empress Cixi, however, was keen to exploit the power that the Boxers wielded and began supporting their campaign, at first covertly but later more openly.

Despite her dominance of the imperial court, Cixi’s rule did not extend in practice across the whole of China, and local provincial governors were in general more inclined to accept the presence of foreign traders and missionaries in their territories, and therefore to oppose the Boxers and ignore the instructions of the Empress Dowager. The governors were not necessarily any more welcoming of “foreign devils” than the Boxers, but they could foresee the dangers of encouraging military intervention by the Western powers, and they were to be proved correct in exercising such caution.

Western governments become involved

The Boxers therefore concentrated their attentions on Beijing, beginning in early 1900 with massacres of Chinese Christians and destruction of foreign-owned property. The Western delegations in Beijing could see what was likely to happen and called in military backing from the troops they maintained at bases on the Chinese coast. However, only a small force had arrived by the time the Boxers sealed off the city and laid siege to the diplomatic quarter, to which a large number of Chinese Christians and westerners had retreated to seek refuge.

So began the “55 days in Peking” of the 1963 film title, a time of great suffering, punctuated with incidents of cruelty and courage. Among the victims were 66 children who died in an attack on the Cathedral, where they were being cared for by a group of nuns.

The relief of Beijing in August 1900 was effected by an eight-nation force that was hampered by its constituent parts trying to outdo each other and claim credit for breaking the siege. They did succeed eventually and the power of the Boxers was broken, although not without minor resistance in various places over the next few months.

The aftermath of the rebellion

For many of the rebels, the rebellion had a disastrous outcome, with thousands being rounded up, briefly tried (if at all) and condemned, and brutally executed. There are photographs of public beheadings and corpses butchered in the street. It is highly likely that many victims of these executions were innocent bystanders who were unfortunate enough to be caught up in the general bloodletting.

The net result for China was further humiliation in the form of demands for reparations, especially as it was very clear that the Boxers had not acted alone in their attacks on Western property and personnel, including the murders of a number of diplomats. China’s mineral wealth was now virtually at the disposal of the West, and the Qing dynasty entered its final phase.

Empress Cixi lived on for another eight years, dying only one day after Guangxu in 1908, and having installed the boy emperor Puyi who was to be “The Last Emperor”, to quote the title of another celebrated film.  In 1912 the Chinese Republic was declared, and 2,000 years of Empire came to a close.

© John Welford