Monday, 31 October 2016

Heroes and villains: the Georgians at war

War and Empire

Benjamin West, 'The Death of General Wolfe'
National Gallery of Canada
Public Domain

The great heroes of 18th century Britain were not monarchs but successful generals and admirals (particularly the latter). The great villains were admirals who had failed. 

For sixty-three of the 144 years between 1688 and 1832 (44 per cent), Britain was at war with France (and sometimes Spain), though intense francophobia coincided with admiration for French culture and the French language. (See here for an example of francophobia in action - a riot in the Haymarket Theatre in 1749 when a French company dared to put on a play there.) The wars were over trade and territory and were fought in Europe, the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, and North America. But they were not purely about trade and the economy. They were seen as part of a 'patriotic', Protestant project to establish Britain as the world's greatest nation. In that respect they succeeded. By the time they were ended in 1815, though Britain had lost the American colonies, it had emerged as a world superpower, the ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

The wars were:
The War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-48)
The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48)
The Seven Years’ War (1757-63)
The War of American Independence (1775-1783)
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)

Admiral Vernon

In October 1739 a reluctant Walpole was pushed into a war with Spain which he did not want: the War of Jenkins’ Ear. He told the Duke of Newcastle: 'It is your war and I wish you well of it.'

The war achieved an early success when Admiral Edward Vernon
captured Porto Bello in Spanish-held Panama in November. The news reached England in  March 1740. Vernon was a stern critic of Walpole and he had earlier been opposition MP for Penryn. His victories were the only ones in the war. 

Samuel Scott, 'The Capture of Porto Bello'
Public Domain

On hearing the news, celebrations of his birthday occurred all over the country, most financed by the subscriptions of local merchants and tradesmen. In London a pageant was held in his honour. Prints, poems and ballads appeared at booksellers and print shops. Medals were struck and commemorative pottery manufactured. Thomas Arne composed ‘Rule Britannia’ in celebration. The country road west of London, formerly known as Green's Lane, was renamed Portobello Road.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Georgian crime

"Tyburn tree" by Unknown
Retrieved from National Archives website.
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons

This is a very well-researched subject among historians of the eighteenth century. Our knowledge is in the process of being transformed by the wonderful Old Bailey website. Do visit! For an account of how a trawl though local newspapers can highlight our knowledge of an individual crime see here.


To social commentators like the novelist Henry Fielding the key cause of crime was not poverty but ‘luxury’ - a word which symbolised the dangerous aspirations of those who sought material possessions and ‘diversions’ above their station. For example, the gin epidemic, made famous by Hogarth's print, 'Gin Lane' (1751) was seen as a cause not a consequence of poverty. The growth of crime was the obverse of the consumer revolution, fuelled by increasing expectations and the increase in the volume and range of goods in circulation.

"GinLane" by William Hogarth -
Transferred from en.wikipedia;
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

One strategy against crime, especially highway robbery, was the bill of exchange. But watches, silk handkerchiefs or even wigs could be stolen from individuals with relative ease from the swelling number of shops. The word shoplifting was first recorded in 1680.

The Dream of Enlightenment

David Hume, painted by Allan Ramsay
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

There's an interesting review in The Guardian of Anthony Gottlieb's The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy, that has quite a lot of bearing on the Georgian Enlightenment. His hero is clearly the genial David Hume who
'never took himself too seriously: he performed high-risk philosophical manoeuvres with unflagging good humour, and was always willing to concede that his hard-won theoretical convictions might turn out to be ridiculous foibles'.
No wonder he and Rousseau couldn't get on!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Fanny Burney's mastectomy

If only Hymphry Davy had thought to apply his discoveries from his experiments with nitrous oxide to the relief of the agonies undergone during surgery. Here is one especially harrowing case-study.

In 1811the novelist Fanny D'Arblay (née Burney) was living in France with her French husband. She was now fifty-nine and she had not seen England for nine years. The D'Arblays had journeyed to France during a brief interlude in the Napoleonic Wars, but when the peace broke down they found themselves stranded there. Fanny was cut off from her family, and she was not sure that the letter she wrote to her sister describing her operation would ever reach her. But all the same she had to write it; the experience was so traumatic that she was unable to keep it to herself.

You can read it here.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Georgians and the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment

Immanuel Kant
the German philosopher
who defined the Enlightenment

The eighteenth century is the age of the Enlightenment – the application of reason to all aspects of life. In France it is associated with Voltaire and the other philosophesIn 1784 the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (go here if you want a detailed philosophy tutorial!) published 'Was ist Äufklarung?' (‘What is Enlightenment’?)
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. … Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding’,  is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

The origins of the British Enlightenment

The origins go back to the late seventeenth century. Two thinkers above all influenced Georgian Enlightenment thought. Isaac Newton described a universe based on rational principles.  John Locke constructed a theory of knowledge based on the accumulation of ‘impressions’. The human infant was born a ‘tabula rasa’(blank slate) and character was acquired rather than innate.

The Enlightenment in action: smallpox

Georgian doctors were largely ignorant of the causes of diseases and unable to treat illness. However, there was one significant medical advance – the use first of inoculation and later of vaccination.

Inoculation was brought to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire 1717-18. In Turkey she had her son inoculated and when she returned to England her daughter received the same treatment. Both survived.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
by Jonathan Richardson the Younger
Public Domain

However, it took time for inoculation to be accepted. It came from the Muslim world, it was advocated by a woman, and, above all, it was counter-intuitive and risky (though of course less risky than the disease itself). It was first tried -successfully - on seven condemned criminals. It became more acceptable with Caroline, Princess of Wales, a highly intelligent and enlightened woman, had her daughters inoculated in 1722. 

The Wellcome Library has a couple of fascinating letters, written by George I to his daughter, the Queen of Prussia, urging her to inoculate her children. See here for more.

By the end of the Georgian period, inoculation was being replaced by the safer and more reliable vaccination, pioneered by the physician, Edward Jenner. From his observations of milkmaids, who were generally immune to smallpox, Jenner concluded that the mild ‘cowpox’ they contracted gave them immunity. On 14 May 1796 he vaccinated an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, with 'cowpox' from blisters from the hands of a milkmaid who had caught the disease. 

Thanks to the twin treatments of inoculation and vaccination, smallpox was far less of a killer at the end of the Georgian period than it had been at the beginning. Instead, medical science was puzzling over how to treat the newer threats of tuberculosis and cholera.

Saturday, 1 October 2016