British History

Home/British History

J.R. Dalhousie – Governor-General of India

DalhousieNot all governors-general, or ‘viceroys’ of India were touched with brilliance, like Lord Curzon. One of them, the last, gave the most important part of the British Empire away as if he were presenting the prize at a school’s Parent’s Day. Dalhousie must be awarded top marks for effort, however. He was born in 1812, just three years before Bonaparte was finally pushed off the map. He became Governor-General at the age of thirty-six – remarkably good going – and held the office until 1856. He is still the youngest ever to reach this position. He was able, innovative and interested; he worked so hard that he ruined his health. (more…)

By | 2015-04-04T10:31:47+00:00 April 4th, 2015|British History, History of India|0 Comments

Who was the dreaded Mosley?

The Mosleys in retirement /

The Mosleys in retirement /

I doubt if more than a handful of today’s teenagers have ever heard of Sir Oswald Mosley, or if they have, he is but a shadowy figure haunting the nineteen thirties. And yet he was brilliantly guyed in the television series Jeeves and Wooster in the 1990s; with another name of course, P.G. Wodehouse invented a comic horror who has several brushups with Bertie, Jeeves and Gussie Fink-Nottle (newts and all). Wodehouse calls him Sir Roderick Spode. He is played to perfection by John Turner. (more…)

By | 2015-03-21T16:15:10+00:00 March 21st, 2015|British History, English History, Humour, World History|0 Comments

What was the British ‘Raj’?

Last splendours of the 'Raj'; Mountbatten after his swearing-in a Viceroy /en

Last splendours of the ‘Raj’; Mountbatten after his swearing-in as Viceroy / en

Raj is Hindi for ‘rule’. The East India Company (always known as The Company) had opened up this vast Asian territory since the latter part of the 18th century. Largely because of corrupt practices, the British government took control in 1858. India was to be governed by a Viceroy in situ and a Secretary of State in London. The country would be controlled and administered by the Indian civil service, created in 1853 with entrance permitted only by the passing of competitive examinations, where there was supposed to be no racial discrimination. The exams were, however, held in London so Indians taking them were few and far between. They did manage however to secure the less important posts.

It became obvious that a few thousand British officials could not control tens of millions of Indians (305 million in 1921, 400 million in 1941) without the cooperation of the natural (and hereditary) leaders in the princely states, which meant 30% of the continent with around a quarter of the population. The British therefore awarded honours and restricted powers to the princes, while at the same time impressing them with British strength at the mightily staged Durbars. (more…)

Commodore Perry & the ‘Unequal Treaties’

The Commodore meets the Shogunate /

The Commodore meets the Shogunate /

Matthew Galbraith Perry was born into the American ruling class in 1794. He entered the Navy in his teens and was soon a naval officer. It was as a Commodore (a rank with meaning in the American navy, not so in the Royal Navy) that Perry entered Tokyo Bay fifty-nine years later in July 1853, in command of four fighting ships, two under sail and two powered by the new steam engines. Japan had been closed to foreign conact for more than two hundred years because the Tokugawa Shogunate feared foreign trading would allow rebellious warlords to become rich, allowing them to buy foreign arms. Commodore Perry’s brief from his president had clarified that the US wanted to extend and expand her trade in the Far East, especially coal supplies from Japan for US ships trading with China. (more…)

The wit of two conductors

Sir Thomas Beecham /

Sir Thomas Beecham /

It is possible that many players in orchestras have heard very funny comments made to them during rehearsal, or even during the actual performance of an orchestral piece. But someone needed to be quick enough to scribble what was said, and this has not always happened. The following remarks were noted at the time, though critics simply attribute them to the speaker. (more…)

By | 2015-01-30T08:29:56+00:00 January 28th, 2015|British History, History, Humour|1 Comment

William the ‘Sailor King’



William IV King of Great Britain and Ireland was born in the eighteenth century (1765) and died seventy-two years later. He was also King of Hanover from 1830 to 1837, because he was the third son of George III. He was called ‘the Sailor King’ because he joined the Navy at fourteen, serving around the coasts of the United States and in the West Indies. He was promoted admiral in 1811 at forty-six – not bad for the crusty British Navy – and then rose to be Lord High Admiral in 1827.

George IV (who had been the infamous Prince Regent) died in 1830, and William ascended the throne because his older brother had died. He was to be the penultimate British monarch of the House of Hanover. The country believed he had Whiggish (liberal) sentiments, and this might have beeen true, but he soon abandoned them, developing serious Conservative sympathies, obstructing the passing of the first Reform Bill in 1832.

William IV was the last British monarch to use prerogatory powers to dismiss a ministry which had won by a majority vote. He achieved this by firing Lord Melbourne in 1834 and inviting the Tories to form a government. He died in 1837 and was succeeded in that year by his niece Victoria at the age of eighteen. Queen Victoria did not fire Lord Melbourne; she learnt about politics and power from him. Ascending the throne as a Hanoverian, she changed the name to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha when she married a German prince.

Henry VI of England, sad man and king

/ en

/ en

Henry was born in 1421, and became King of England at the age of one. He had two reigns, due to the Wars of the Roses. The first lasted from 1411 to 1461; he was noted for his piety and general air of preferring to be left out of things. He was the only son and child of a very famous warrior, Henry V, who after the Battle of Agincourt married a daughter of the French King – Catherine of Valois. This sturdy couple managed to produce only our subject, a weakly child, disposed to illnesses and madness. During his infancy and adolescence his tutor the Duke of Bedford (a younger brother of Henry V) was regent, while another uncle, Humphrey of Gloucester was Lord Protector of England. Nothing of these three redoubtable men showed in the future Henry VI. The one useful thing he managed successfully was the founding of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge.

The army of British India



Also known as the ‘Indian Army’, this was a British – officered military force in India; the other ranks, corporals, sergeants and warrant officers were recruited from the native population. Even so, some purely European regiments managed to stay put until the early 1860s.

The Indian Army served outside India as well, and had a deserved reputation for ferocity and good discipline; it remained (at least until the Sepoy Rebellion) a staunch and integral part of the Pax Britannica. It creators were locally found guards employed in the protection of the East India Company, known as sepoys. (more…)

New France & the North American fur trade

Fur trading with Native Americans in Canada /

Fur trading with Native Americans in Canada /

The name ‘New France’, which sounds rather arbitrary, was the name given to all the North American territories France claimed to own between 1524 and 1803. In reality, it is a term used for the north/eastern colonies. In 1534 Cartier placed a cross in the name of the King of France on a shore of Gaspée Lake, taking all that territory for France. It was not to be, however, though Quebec, founded in 1608 by Champlain, was used as a base for exploration and fur trading. The same man got a large (and very cold) lake in the northern United States (New York State) named after him.

   Quebec naturally became the centre of operations for the French colony in Canada. In 1663 it was a royal province with a Governor, responsible for defence matters in particular and foreign relations in general. Justice was administered there, and there was a bishop to look after Catholic spiritual affairs.

   Somehow, perhaps because of typical French regimentation and bureaucracy, Quebec had no opportunity to develop early expressions of the sense of community, togetherness and responsibility that was perhaps more typical of the early English colonies in North America. One of the French, Jean Talon, did however encourage and support fishing, farming and lumber work. The latter led to ship-building activity. Tar and potash were produced and the French colonies’ future seemed assured and proficient.

The Fur Trade

The lengthy history of the fur trade in North America is closely linked with exploration of the continent, and the struggle between France and Britain to control it. At first the trade was centred along the banks of the St. Laurence River and the Atlantic coasts around Newfoundland and Acadia in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Furs were brought to the trading posts by Native Americans (q.v.) attracted by cheap trinkets and other goods manufactured for the purpose. It was not fair exchange, but the Native Americans did not know this yet.

   Samuel de Champlain (see above) established himself at Quebec and enjoyed successful contact with the Algonquin and Huron tribes (q.v.), aiding them in their age old conflict with the Iroquois (q.v.). With exploration and opening up of new territories spreading fast it was known by the end of the seventeenth century that something had to give; the French were sandwiched between the British colonies to the south and the formidable Hudson’s Bay Company (founded 1670), though the latter had in fact been set up as a result of information from two disaffected French traders.

   Meanwhile, the Iroquois were bringing trade into British hands at Albany; the French responded by building a chain of forts and trading posts, which should have brought under their control the Great Lakes region and the upper Mississippi as well as the valleys of the Ohio. But then, in 1763 came the cession of New France to Britain.

   In the early years of the nineteenth century the north-western fur trade was much contested between the ‘independents’, organized by the North West Company. For instance, the Company opened up new trade routes right across the continent to the Pacific coast, only to find John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company already established, plus branches of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The two Canadian companies merged in 1821, while the HBC organized the fur trade on a continental basis, surrendering its lands to the Dominion in 1869. This did not prevent it from becoming the most important economic force in the north.

Robert Owen, a founding father of Socialism



Though Owen was born in 1771, a son of a successful maker of saddles for horses and mules, he started work in a cotton mill in Manchester at the usual age of twelve, and by only nineteen was appointed manager. Later, moving to Scotland, he was almost solely responsible for founding a ‘new model community’ in Lanark.

Here he supervised better living conditions for the workers, better housing, better food, even building an Institute for the formation of the children’s general education and character, in true socialist style. Naturally there was opposition as he and his community grew to be famous, conservative mill owners tending to prefer 18-hour working days for their employees, and not caring too much if they were not properly fed. The Institute contained the world’s first day-nursery and a playground, and evening classes for the parents were available.

Remembering that this was still the end of the eighteenth century, it is barely credible that Owen also introduced a comprehensively stocked village shop. In 1813, at only forty-two, Owen went into partnership with another great reformer – Jeremy Bentham and a few more. They designed and formed New Lanark, which might be seen as the world’s first cooperative and socialist commune. Robert Owen wrote a book called A New View of Society in that year, in which he stated that character in the human race is formed by one’s social environment, daily work, paid holidays, shorter hours and above all education for youth.

New Harmony, Indiana /permanent

New Harmony, Indiana /permanent

And then it was off to America, the land of the free, where he established several cooperative Owenite communities, including one called New Harmony in Indiana. Sadly, they all failed, and Robert Owen died, exhausted, in 1858, though, as they say, his ideas lived on despite growing opposition. The now world-wide Socialist movement owes a great deal to people like Owen and Bentham.

By | 2014-12-09T18:27:07+00:00 December 9th, 2014|British History, US History, World History|0 Comments
Load More Posts