Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Then and now.

I have been reading Martin Gilbert's three volume History of the Twentieth Century. So far I have reached 1906. The century opened with Britain at war on two fronts. Then as now it was in a multi-nation coalition in the far east. This time in China fighting against the Boxers who had the tacit support of the Chinese Empress. They were also, as now, fighting in Africa, this time against the Boers.

The Boer war has a bad press, not least because the British invented concentration camps to intern Boer women and children under severe conditions. Far more internees died than Boer troops on the battlefield. It should be remembered, though, that the war was started by the Boers invading the British Cape Colony and Natal and not the other way round, and it was the descendants of the Boers who instituted the vile regime of Apartheid.

The Boxer revolution in China was a nationalistic one, typical of many in the Twentieth Century. The Great Powers, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States had established trading settlements on the Chinese coast and were exploiting cheap Chinese labor (plus ca change...). The Boxers believed that they could not be killed by Western bullets. They were mistaken in that.

Nationalism was pulling the great empires apart. This was chiefly seen with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but the Russian, Ottoman British, French and German Empires were all subject to the same attack. By defeating Spain in the Spanish American war, the United States had accidentally acquired and empire in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Samoa, Guam and several islands in the Pacific and West Indies. Teddy Roosevelt was just the man to run it in the European way. The Colonial powers were not an absolute disaster. They tended to bring a measure of civilization to many of the colonies. These 'countries' were not exactly idyllic before the Westerners came and have not be havens of harmony since they left. Undoubtedly, the colonial powers inflicted terrible atrocities too, at least judged by Twenty-first Century standards. The worst by far were those inflicted by King Leopold of the Belgians, who ran the Congo as a personal fiefdom. In putting down an insurrection he demanded an amputated hand for every Belgian bullet fired (he left them one hand with which to harvest the rubber). There were 6000 bullets spent...

The Belgian Empire was run at an enormous profit. The German Empire in Africa always ran at a loss. It comprised part of the Cameroons, South West Africa (now Namibia), Togoland and Tanganyika. The Germans had instituted many social welfare programs at home, including old-age pensions, but the Kaiser was a very nasty piece of work and a less oppressive ruler would have served Germany well, since it was in a position to rival the USA as the successor to Britain as the most powerful nation. An alliance with the UK was certainly possible in the early years of the century.

Queen Victoria's grandsons certainly developed autocratic characteristics. The Tsar, faced with insurrection and rebellion in his vast empire continued to rule as an autocrat and found virtue in the concept. He goaded his opposition into more and more extreme positions. Luckily for Britain, Victoria's son and grandson, were only constitutional monarchs and its democratic tradition allowed gradual change. Nevertheless, Ireland wanted to be free and many of the colonies required a gunboat or two.

Then as now the artificially constructed countries were the site of religious wars between Christian and Muslim. Just yesterday I received news of conflicts in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. The same countries were involved then.

The other thing that was similar between now and then were the numbers of natural disasters. In 1900, an earthquake in the Caucasus killed 1000 Georgians, in Texas a tsunami hit Galveston, killing 4000, a fire in Ottawa left 14,000 homeless, 200 German sailors were killed by a fire sweeping through three ships in New Jersey. In Hong Kong, a hundred people a week were dying of bubonic plague and in India famine had killed 2 million. In 1901, 100 people were killed by a fire in a chemical factory in Frankfurt and a hundred died in a heat wave in New York. Two and a half million died in a single month from famine in China. In 1902, an earthquake in the Caucasus killed 2000, and a volcano on Martinique killed 30,000 and one on St Vincent killed 2000. In Egypt, 20,000 died of cholera and in India 1000 died in a hurricane. In 1903, 100 were killed in a train crash in Spin and 84 in a fire on the Paris Metro. 600, mainly women and children, were killed in a fire in a Chicago theater. In 1904, several hundred Americans were killed in a fire on board a steamer in the East River, New York and in 1905 1.25 million Indians died of bubonic plague. The figure had been close to a million every year of the century. In areas where the British had control of medical practice - the Indian Railways and the prisons, the number of deaths was 123. However, attempts at immunization to other Indians were rebuffed by the indigenous population. Nowadays, polio would have been eliminated from the planet had the indigenous populations of Northern Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to be inoculated.

1 comment:

Carter said...

Thank you for concise and clear writing.