Wednesday, 27 February 2019

A British Admiral is Executed for Cowardice, 1757

Voltaire's satrical novella, Candide (1759) contains an episode in which the hero, Candide, arrives in Portsmouth, England on a Dutch ship. As they enter the harbor, he witnesses a naval officer being executed by firing squad on board a nearby ship.  

Candide asks others present what the officer had done to deserve such a fate. They tell him that he is an admiral, and is being killed for not killing enough of the enemy. He had given battle to a French admiral, but had not come close enough to his enemy to engage him properly. 

Candide points out that the same was true of the French admiral. The others agree but declare that "in this country it is found good, from time to time, to shoot an admiral now and then to encourage the others." Candide tells the Dutch captain to take him away from such a horrible country.            

The episode, like many in Candide, is based on a real event. It took place in 1757. Britain was at war with France, the Seven Years' War.  The admiral was John Byng

In 1756, the Admiralty had sent Byng with a fleet to the Balearic island of Minorca, then under British control. His task was to relieve the British garrison on the island, which was under threat from a French attack. 

After fighting an inconclusive engagement with a French fleet near the island, he decided to return to Gibraltar to repair his ships, some of which were in poor condition. The French captured Minorca. The public was outraged. 

Byng was recalled to Britain, where he was court-martialled for failing to do "his utmost" to prevent the loss of the island. The court found him guilty. Under the Articles of War, the conviction carried an automatic sentence of death.  

Public opinion shifted after the verdict. People in and out of government and the Navy who had previously demanded his punishment now campaigned to get his sentence commuted on the grounds that it was unduly harsh. Some suspected that the Admiralty had used Byng as a scapegoat for its own failures to maintain the Navy's ships and crews properly in recent years. 

But under existing law only King George II could pardon Byng. George refused, even when urged to do so by Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder. It didn't help Byng that the King intensely disliked Pitt, who had been highly critical of George and his ministers.

On 14 March, 1757 the sentence of death by firing squad was carried out on board HMS Monarque in Portsmouth harbor. A contemporary print portrayed the event. 

Byng was the last British admiral to be punished by execution. In 1779 the Articles of War were revised to allow lesser punishments for failures like Byng's.

In 2007 Byng's family petitioned for a pardon for their ancestor. The Ministry of Defence refused. The family and a group in his home village of Southill, Bedfordshire continue to seek a pardon.

Did Byng's execution "encourage the others" to do "their utmost" to engage the enemy? The British Navy performed at a much higher level in the later stages of the Seven Years War, but that may have been due as much to improvements in the design and maintaining of ships and in training crews as to fear of being "Bynged."

Monday, 18 February 2019

Soap, Imperialism, and Racism

Soap: an innocent item of everyday life, one would think. The Victorians proclaimed "Cleanliness is next to Godliness." Soap (and water) were the keys to cleanliness. 

In 2020, washing one's hands with soap and clean water is the first line of prevention against Covid-19, and most of the world's people, though not all, are fortunate enough to have access to them. That hasn't always been the case.

During the Victorian Age, water was increasingly supplied to houses in urban areas of the industrializing West, and people could buy manufactured soap in local shops. Keeping clean became easier, especially for the middle and upper working classes. Western cleanliness, however, soon became a mark of racial and imperial superiority.

During this time, western states were not only industrializing and urbanizing. They were also engaged in a landgrab of less developed regions of the globe. Imperialists justified their acquisitions as a civilizing mission, or the "White Man's Burden" the title of Rudyard Kipling's popular poem of 1899. 

The British company that made Pears' Soap latched onto that idea quickly. The company promoted its product as possessing a "civilizing influence." Soap and civilization, Pears' ads declared, marched hand in hand. 

Soap also lightened the White Man's Burden, by "brightening the dark corners of the earth." That translated here as cleaning up the dirty natives. The ads also complimented the advanced (white) civilizations for using soap. 

In the Pears' ad below, American Admiral Dewey, victor of the Battle of Manila Bay (1898), is pictured using the "ideal soap" while civilizers are bringing it to the people sitting in darkness.

Advertising in newspapers, magazines, and billboards boomed as never before in the late 19th century. The new type of ads were large and colorized, making them hard to miss. Soap companies, like many other businesses, were quick to take advantage of the latest in advertising technology and styles.

Many soap ads seemed innocent enough, such as this cute one:

But even apparently innocent ads often emphasized how the soap helped preserve one's "white and beautiful" complexion.
Intentionally or not, they encouraged the idea that skin that deviated from pure whiteness was inferior. 

Soap ads were often more overtly racist. They more than implied that dark skin was not only less desirable than white skin, but unclean. The ads promoted the "whitening" quality of the soap by showing it being used to wash off black or brown skin. 

The intention of such ads was not to claim that the soap really could turn dark skin white but to highlight the pure complexion it could ensure for white folk, as in this overtly racist one for Cook's Soap. 

The ad below illustrates this intention in another way. The immaculate white child asks the filthily dressed, incredulous black girl "Why Doesn't Your Mamma Wash You With Fairy Soap?"

Below is an ad that seems to imply that blacks might  benefit by using Pears' Soap. In fact, it ridicules black people. The key is the contrast between the testimonial of Sambo with that of Adelina Patti in the upper right corner. Patti was a famous late 19th century opera singer. Sambo needs no introduction.

Ads sometimes juxtaposed white and black people in more realistic situations that emphasized the "whitening" quality of the soap. In this American ad, the speech pattern of the porter, "chocolate custard" Sam (short for "Sambo"?) reinforces the white-black gulf. The very name of the soap, "Ivory," highlights its "white purity."

The history of soap highlights how even ordinary items of daily life can take on a much broader and sometimes, less than benign influence.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

An Unwelcome Immigrant: Cholera Comes to Britain

At the beginning of the 1830s, Britain was in ferment. As with Brexit today, the country was badly divided over several issues: reform of Parliament and extension of the suffrage, abolition of slavery, poor law reform. In the midst of rising unrest, an unwelcome immigrant was approaching Britain. 

Doctors called it Indian or Asiatic Cholera after its alleged place of origin. It had long been known in the Indian subcontinent, much of which was now under British control. An outbreak in 1817 killed 10,000 British soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Indians.

In the following years cholera spread inexorably into Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, and continental Europe. By 1830 it had reached Western Europe and was poised to cross the English Channel. 

Local authorities in Britain vowed to keep it out. The cartoon below imagines John Bull seizing the cholera, imagined as an Indian, trying to sneak through an equally imaginary protecting fence into England. The reality was far different.

Efforts to prevent cholera reaching Britain proved in vain, as no one then knew how cholera spread or what caused it. Indeed, within a few months after making landfall in Britain it had reached the Americas and become a truly global pandemic. 

In November 1831, cholera broke out in the northern English port city of Sunderland. The main effect of cholera is violent diarrhea, which produces severe dehydration and often death, within hours or a day or two. The victims' skin often turned blue, giving it the name "Blue Disease." The image below shows a woman who died at Sunderland. 

Within weeks, cholera was breaking out in many parts of the kingdom. In London and elsewhere, authorities tried to locate the source of the disease, with no success. See Looking for the Elusive Mr. Cholera on this blog.

Boards of health informed the inhabitants of cholera's symptoms and listed remedies, most of which would have had no impact on the course of the disease. Medical and health boards often emphasized temperance in eating and drinking. They advised agaist drinking cold water when the body was heated and consuming "ardent spirits." 

The connection with water was correct. The main medium through which cholera spreads is water contaminated by the intestinal evacuations of the infected. But avoiding water only when one was "heated" would have had little effect. Ardent spirits caused many health problems, but cholera was not one of them. Some doctors prescribed ardent spirits.

Medical professionals tended to favor standard remedies for most dangerous diseases: bleeding, purging, mercury, and opium. Removing fluids from a body that was already becoming dehydrated seems perverse, and did make things worse. 

A couple of physicians argued for rehydrating with saline solution and got better results. Most medical men scorned such an unorthodox therapy until the late 19th century or later. Today rehydrating is a standard procedure, often combined with antibiotics.

Critics ridiculed the advice and efforts of boards of health and doctors in the 1830s, as seen in these contemporary cartoons. 

The cartoon below shows the Central Board of Health congratluating iself with a sumptuous dinner despite the mounting death toll from cholera. At bottom right a paper has the words "while doctors differ and deny, the country bleeds and patients die."

The 1832 epidemic killed about 55,000 people in the UK. It was the first of several outbreaks to strike the country during the nineteenth century. Other diseases killed far more people during that time, but they were mostly familiar and aroused far less terror than cholera. 

In the 1850s, following a couple more severe outbreaks in Britain, London surgeon John Snow demonstrated that contaminated water was the main source of cholera infection. See London's Great Stinks, Cholera, and John Snow on this blog. 

Snow had no idea what the contaminant was. He theorized that it might be a microscopic organism. In the early 1880s, German physician Robert Koch isolated the microbe responsible: the cholera vibrio. 

The solution became obvious: avoid drinking contaminated water and you could prevent cholera. Some authorities, accepting Snow's theory, had begun to advise that precaution even before Koch's discovery, as this poster from 1866 shows. 

The first cholera vaccine came into use in the 1880s and improved versions followed. (Below: Inoculation in Calcutta 1894) 

Today, cholera is preventible and curable. But thousands of people continue to die of this dreadful disease each year from a lack of safe water and adequate medical care in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The civil war in Yemen has unleashed an ongoing major epidemic, with hundreds of thousands of infections. (Below: cholera patients in India)