Wednesday, March 28, 2007

History Friday on a Wednesday: "Civis Romanus Sum"

I was going to subtitle this rare "History Friday on a Wednesday" post "Gunboat Diplomacy", but the excellent Flying Rodent beat me to it. Pop over there and read his stuff, there's a bunch of loves, as he's rather splendid.

Anyway, to my post. With 15 British merry Matelots and bolshy Booties under lock and key somewhere in deepest, darkest Iran, HMS Cornwall and her flotilla bobbing about sheepishly in the Shatt al Arab, and Tony Blair mumbling about how this sort of thing is just not on, one's thoughts wander back to the 1850s and the days of Prime Minister "Leg Over" Palmerston. Most specifically, the Pacifico Incident and the birth of gunboat diplomacy.

To quote (in it's entirety) the entry on the Pacifico Incident from The History of Great Britain:

"The decade of the Great Exhibition begins with an event which suggests a new British attitude to foreign policy. This is the approach later characterized as gunboat diplomacy, in which military force is used to impose the nation's will on another country.

Known as the Don Pacifico incident, the event concerns a Portuguese Jew of that name trading in Athens. When an anti-Semitic crowd burns his house, in 1847, he sues the Greek government for damages - with little result, until he appeals to Britain for help on the grounds that he is a British citizen (as a result of being born in Gibraltar).

The Liberal foreign secretary, Palmerston, provokes fierce controversy by the vigour of his response. He sends a naval squadron into the Aegean in 1850 to seize Greek ships to the value of Don Pacifico's claim. Censured in the house of lords, Palmerston wins a majority for his action in the commons where he argues that 'a British citizen, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong'.

Four years later the watchful eye and strong arm of England are in the care of a Conservative prime minister, Lord Aberdeen. He too sends warships to the Aegean to back up diplomacy, this time in support of Turkey.

A joint British and French fleet steams through the Dardanelles in 1854 as a gesture of warning to Russia. The result in this case is full-scale war in the Crimea. A few years later Britain and France again act together in distant waters. They use two minor incidents which would normally be the stuff of diplomacy (in the British case the offence of some Chinese officials in 1856 in boarding a British merchant ship and lowering the red ensign) as a pretext for launching a renewal of the Opium Wars.

The steam-assisted warship has made it possible, as never before, for a strong nation to police the entire world in its own interest. And to an unprecedented degree ordinary members of the public now feel closely in touch with events."

Not that I'm advocating for a minute that anything like that would work in this case (after all, the presence of our gunboats provoked their gunboats to attack our gunboats, etc, etc ad nauseam). But it must have been fun in the high Victorian era, and not just because of the outrageous facial hair.


FlyingRodent said...

See, that just sounds far more well educated. A good bit of Latin always makes one look brainier.

God knows I need to use every trick in the book myself...

weasel said...

If only it were mine...

Its a quote from Palmerston's speech to the Commons wherein he justified blockading Greek ports and seizing Greek shipping by suggesting that it was the birth right of every British citizen anywhere in the world to call upon the protection of his government if wronged, much like a Roman citizen could from Hadrians Wall to North Africa.

Victorian Britain operated like a cross between Rentokil and the Guardian Angels, apparently.