They were known as bloodhounds. Because the relentless way the British Light Infantry would attack and pursue their patriot foes bred a chilling similarity to a pack of hunting dogs in full chase.
With their sleek and cut down uniforms, garish feathers and distinctive bugle-horns blaring behind them as they went into battle, these were probably the most feared infantry in the British Army Serving in North America during the Revolution.
As author Robbie MacNiven shows us in this book, this was a reputation that the light infantry battalions consciously adopted and cultivated. They bred an elite culture within their ranks and at every opportunity encouraged an aura of capability, toughness and mercilessness that is reminiscent of special forces today.
Even in defeat they were dangerous and Patriot commanders learned to be weary of them on the battlefield. Their fighting spirit was such that they became mutinous at the mention of making peace with the rebels. Their officers, no less spoiling for a fight than the men, would write home of how fighting the Americans was much like fox hunting.
A steely eyed breed of short, stocky, active and dangerous men was born within these light companies. Men adept in the art of movement and concealment, of ambush and encirclement. They asked for no quarter and gave none, and they pursued their enemy relentlessly until they stopped kicking.
The author reveals this elite force with great descriptive skill and academic verve. Not only in battle but on campaign and in camp, giving good descriptions, visual and textual of the dress and training of the units. Also including information on loyalist forces and some little known areas of light infantry history as well. One of the most interesting is the rarely explored subject of the 1776 ‘contract rifle’ which was issued to five men in every light company.
The reader will be able to begin to get an image in their mind as to the esprit de Corps of the light infantry battalions, some of their terminology and traditions, and a sense of warfare in North America in general too.
Here warfare was dominated by who could deploy the most flexible infantry, and as a result this book builds on what other Osprey authors such as Stuart Reid have written about the so called ‘American scramble.’
An open order firing line able to act by company as well as by battalion, a theory which came to dominate practical linear warfare in the 19th century .
The book expands every now and then to observe that the British Army did not just stumble upon the light infantry doctrine at Shorncliffe camp in the early 1800s. A circular pattern emerged from 1755 to 1803 where as needs required light troops would be authorised and disbanded, but always enough residue would remain to ensure that the next time war loomed the light corps would return stronger than the last time. So by the start of Britain’s Napoleonic epic, fully authorised permanent light infantry battalions would be ready as a result.
With excellent accompanying images by Stephen Walsh this title is highly recommended.
A simplistic appreciation and survey of three fairly well known actions during the North American War of 1812 is delivered by Gregg Adams in this latest combat title.
While offering little that is terribly novel about the challenges and minutiae of how opposing Battalions tackled each other in the field during the conflict, it is good to see this overlooked conflict get attention.
The point of this book is to demonstrate how the US Army learned to hold it’s own against the British. It does this in straightforward style. The Americans are beaten in two battles, Queenston Heights and Chrysler’s Farm, then win a victory themselves at Chippewa which apparently demonstrated their ability to fight. Yet in the end I felt no closer to understanding what went into this change than I did to begin with.
It is a trend in histories of the wars between Britain and the US to create an underdog scenario in order for the Americans to rise above their supposedly invincible enemies. While there is no doubt that the US Army was in poor shape in 1812 and only found its feet in 1813, this recipe has been done many times and in the confined space of a this type of book, there might have been an opportunity here to investigate a different angle.
The battles are described at a fairly high angle level, without delving too deep into tactical or practical doctrine. Methods of fire control, logistics, and systems of arms handling and manoeuvre are only very briefly explained. The Americans lose the first two battles because of poor leadership and what the author calls their amateurish methods, but with little to demonstrate what exactly this looked like. To be honest I was left to imply from the quotes by General Scott that extensive training in roughly established methods paid dividends and that success could have been theoretically achieved at any time previously. Even the section dealing with Scott’s camp of instruction focuses only on the General’s opinion.
As one might expect, in the last year of the war some talented officers came along and got around to doing a proper job. This book is about regular infantry, and so discussing the militia and irregular forces, isn’t something it has time for, and that is good. But every now and then it throws in a little nugget of unsubstantiated information that raises more questions than answers. For instance in the section dealing with Chippewa, the author happily throws in a description of American Regulars taking aimed shots as if this was; A a hugely unusual thing, and; B even practical at all, given each side had roughly the same capabilties in terms of accuracy.
Combat books should realistically be about the dynamics and first hand experiences of combat from a very low level point of view, trying to conjure up a picture of combat from the ranks so the reader can get beyond the staple military history jargon, revealing what terms like ‘forced back’ actually looked like and what it meant.
This book gives some snappy and exciting battle summaries, especially if you like the David and Goliath scenario of British pros eventually being bested by Yankee amateurs, but little of the boots on the ground realities of linear combat in North America.
A new book, written by Anthony Ruggiero has been published and is now available, please have a look, as I’m sure it will be a great read.
‘The Tudor Dynasty of England, spanning from the late fifteenth century into the early seventeenth century, was filled with colorful monarchs that impacted the country politically, economically, and socially. One of those monarchs was Mary Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mary ruled over England from July 1553 to her death in November 1558. Despite its initial promise and success, Mary Tudor’s reign was unsuccessful due to the increased influence of foreign power. Mary’s early life and struggle to the throne reflected her determination to rule, her strong religious conviction to Catholicism, and her reliance on Spain.’
The rulers of India are no less beguiling today than they were when, as Manimugdha Sharma says, the emperor Akbar was in vogue amongst Dutch republicans trying to create a new state.
Quite apart from the famed luxury of their courts and the exoticism that so easily transfers to the minds of distant foreigners from dimly imagined mental pictures; the leaders of South Asia often represent something special in the history of the world. The image of enlightened rule.
If we knew them better and compared them with our own past rulers, who would in their right minds not say that Ashoka ranked greater than any handful of English monarchs, not only for his conquests and his rejection of war itself but for his laws? Which are far more in tune with the classical ideal that Western Europeans have tried to harbour and rebuild since the fall of the western Roman Empire, than much of what replaced it.
Who, likewise, could arguably say with any credibility that Akbar the Great could not stand alongside any of the greatest contemporary kings and queens of Europe and not seem a little taller for his enlightened ideals of inclusion and, what Sharma calls the ‘physical and moral courage’ that makes great men beloved.
Though undoubtedly an inspiration to many in the past, since its independence India has rightly been a talisman to those who hold the promise of democracy near and dear to their hearts.
Rightly might citizens of the world’s largest republic revere the history of their march to liberty as a proud emblem to cherish. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the author feels a deep concern as he observes the course his nation is taking, and it should be no less concerning to the world either.
‘we are a medieval people,’ he writes at the end, ‘creating conditions in the country akin to those that prevailed in Akbar’s lifetime, always using past hurt to justify present hate, and therefore needing a medieval monarch to show us the way.’
As he told me over a long and interesting Skype call, it is never good when the rule of a 16th century emperor seems necessary or preferable than a democratically elected official, but if one were to wish for such an autocrat you would want Akbar. When I finished reading this book, I could not help but agree with this assessment.
On further contemplation I realised it is as important for the British to understand the Great Mughal as it is for the Indians.
In the British drive to establish themselves as rulers of India the legacy of the Mughals was a principle tool. Sharma points us to the importance of this element of baton passing by highlighting the importance of tiger hunts in Mughal court society.
In establishing himself as the perfect incarnation of universal kingship, the young emperor entertained his court with lavish hunts. The British would copy these and thus lend themselves to an image of shadow puppetry that is today a cypher for British rule in India.
It might be said that the British used Akbar and his dynasty as something as a template on which they could more easily assimilate themselves into the role as India’s overlords, they even took up some of his crusades, such as trying to abolish sati.
Nevertheless as the author told me, the idea of intolerance between Hindus and Muslims in India was encouraged to some degree by the British, who fostered the idea of the Mughals being foreign tyrants replaced by the enlighten rule of the Europeans.
Akbar by contrast strove to separate religion from society’s primary consciousness, and remove it as a source of division. Today it is this legacy of the British that is still causing the trouble and the lessons of Akbar are hard to learn from as a result.
There aren’t many writers that can make the past more present than Manimugdha Sharma can. The author has a hawk eyed knack of seeing across history, finding the similarities to the present and threading them together in a comprehensible narrative.
In saying that, one could say that this isn’t so much a biography of Akbar, but an investigation of the echo chamber of history. Sharma looks at the world and hears the echoes of distant resonance.
Allahu Akbar is a graceful read, with each paragraph revealing some detail of interest. Softly humorous and finely detailed, with sometimes wry, always sharp observations on the interplay of historical and modern issues.
One discovers in reading about the life of an extraordinary monarch that India’s politics have not changed very much. Sharma observes that candidates still attempt to vilify and deify through visual media, in the Mughal courts this was done through art and literature, whereas today it is done with much less subtlety and often exaggerated incompetence by keyboard warriors.
The results are nevertheless the same and the motives little removed from when Akbar was alive; to make governments and leaders seem untainted and untarnished as opposed to their opponents.
As a controversial figure in modern India, Akbar suffers from the stigma of being a Muslim emperor in a country with a Hindu majority and his indelible place in his country’s history, especially the interpretation of it, seems at times tenuous.
Akbar’s early reign was a dark time, filled with brutal battles, political murders and betrayals. Akbar, sought to establish himself as a king in both name and practice, and he projected this aura very effectively, not only once he regained his throne but as he was doing so, and the author does not shy away from his subject’s more unvarnished or inglorious exploits.
Fascinating elements are to be found at practically every turn, from the typical accounts of intrigue and conflict to personal things as well. Quite apart from the flowing prose of his chroniclers and his fine accomplishments, Akbar, can be seen as a coarse man, a soldier and a sportsman as much as diplomat or a courier. His language was the language of military camps and peasants and he wore coarse clothing and enjoyed it.
He mixed this with the piety of his father, which was devout, but not extremist, and he showed regret at the death of his enemies and when he could not show mercy as a beneficent, almost paternal, overlord.
Above all the great strength of the emperor was his attempt to create a unified and inclusive state that sought to draw the best out of the religions and philosophies of the world.
He was as some have said, a man of reason before the age of reason, and the people who have the will to effect change and not only that but apply such ideals are worthy of notice.
This is why Akbar is important, not only to India, but to the world, which is increasingly becoming a more insular place and in desperate need of uniting figures to admire.
Despite her poor understanding of who Akbar really was it is telling that when Elizabeth I, herself a persecutor of catholics like many of her dynasty, wrote to Akbar that it was his humanity that had spread even to her distant shore. Note she did not speak of the conquests and might of this descendent of Timur and Genghis Khan, but his humanity.
If that proves anything it proves that even in times of uncertainty, we don’t have to fear the foreign and the other.
In the warfare that had developed out of many year’s conflict in Europe and its colonies, were 3 broad area of the combat system, most numerous were the infantry, supported by the artillery, guns, both large and small, finally, performing the tasks of reconnaissance, providing a screen of pickets (sentries) and scouting off the battlefield as well as lightning fast strikes and flanking manoeuvres in battle, were the cavalry.
Wellington himself served 2 years in the cavalry, from 1789 to 1791 with the 12th Light Dragoons. Service in the Army as an officer was through a complicated system of purchasing promotion, that was open to exploitation. The design behind it meant that the offer of promotion on merit alone was relatively rare, as it was hoped to favour those from a aristocratic background. A officer’s commission in the cavalry was particularly fashionable, with bold uniforms, a flamboyant reputation and the chance to seek glory and favour in a famous cavalry charge, meant that a commission in a cavalry regiment cost more than in the a line infantry regiment.
The purpose of this article is to provide a overview of Wellington’s “British” cavalry regiments. As Spanish, Portuguese and “foreign” (Émigré regiments in British service) would have differences in their structure which may be covered at a later date. Each regiment would have varied on the number of men & horses sent on campaign, but a common structure was laid out.
For a British cavalry regiment during the period, it was formed round a single regiment. Unlike the infantry regiments, which would typically be formed of 2 Battalions, but could be many more in some cases, a cavalry regiment was a single unit.
The typical Regimental structure:Colonel of a regiment (General – Major General overseeing Administrative duties, promotions and supplies, such as uniform purchasing.)1x Lieutenant Colonel (with 1 additional space on the list, he would be able to promote to General rank and serve away, the other would be the Commanding Officer of the Regiment) 2x Majors10x Captains across 10x Troops100 ‘Troopers’ Per Troop. This was reduced to 80 men in December 1805.(Trooper referred to: Private – Corporal. N.b. Lance Corporal was only a regimental rank & stood as part of regimental standing orders, likely to received no/little extra pay)2 Lieutenants & 1 Cornet (equivalent to 2nd Lieutenant) per Troop.5 Serjeants per Troop (N.b. to tradition spelling of Serjeant with a J in the Cavalry)1 Trumpeter Serjeant Major with 10 Trumpeters (1 per Troop for passing orders) Regimental staff consisting of: Paymaster, Adjutant, Veterinary surgeon, Surgeon and 2 assistant surgeons.Plus a Serjeant Major (RSM), Paymaster Serjeant, Saddler Serjeant, Farrier Serjeant & Armourer Serjeant, along with a cadre of farriers.1x Quarter Master. (N.b. previously there was rank of Quatermaster Serjeant per troop, this developed into a Troop Serjeant Major.) With a strength of just over 1,000 men and the same again of horses (around 1,064 would have been needed per regiment), this was found to be unrealistic. Officers were permitted time away from regimental duties, such as adjutant to other units, staff officers, leave and even serving as sitting Members of Parliament common.
Along with this, there were always, casualties, sickness, missing (including desertion which was unfortunately common in the non-commissioned ranks) and with the strains of a long war, recruitment was a problem. The recruitment problem contributed to the December 1805 decision to formally reduce a regiment to 800 men plus staff, even then there was difficulty recruiting enough men, but more trouble was had in finding enough horses to mount the men. The high demand persisted meaning higher prices were asked for by horse-breeders for the cavalry mounts.The decision to lower the regimental number to around 860, meant that a typical number serving in a regiment overseas could be around 400-600 men. This was usually supplemented by leaving 2 to 4 Troops at home to train new recruits and horses.
This leaves the modern and traditional sub-units. Principally, the “Squadron”. Unlike in the modern army, a squadron wasn’t a standing unit, but still a common one. Usually formed of 2 Troops, with the senior Captain in command (occasionally a Major in place for tasks deemed important by the Commanding Officer).
The squadron allowed for 2 Troops to support one another and proved a useful structure. For example if a regiment was sent to the Peninsular, then a single squadron would often be maintained at the depot, to recruit, train, provide replacement and break in new horses. Often when orders came for campaign a given number of squadrons for a regiments was requested, leaving much to the colonel to decide on who to send.
Secondly, under the Troop level, was “The Squad”, these were kept separate and each commanded by a Serjeant, leaving the common administrative work to NCOs meant the officers were relieved of some mundane orders, however it was regulated that the officers were to check their men at “meal times”. So this left a structure of: Regiment – Squadron – Troop – Squad.
Welfare of the horses for paramount to the regiment, for every sick or lame mount a soldier could not perform their duties. The Royal Veterinary College had only been founded in 1791, so the requirement to have a Veterinary surgeon in each regiment was forward thinking from the Army’s commanders at Horse Guards, ensuring a better provision for the mounts at home and on campaign.
Farriers, under the Farrier Serjeant were part of the Troop, but with additional duties. Typically strong men, made bigger by the work of beating steel. They developed a role to care for the horses, along with riding instructors; there was a wealth of knowledge of equine science and welfare. For example, foreign forage was found to cause illness if fed immediately to the horses, so it was mixed into food brought from Britain, whilst on campaign, weaning them onto local food so to acclimatise them to their new feed.
There was well documented knowledge of experience of equine diseases and illnesses that would be well cared for. Sometime at the grumbling of infantry soldiers who thought the horses sometime had better care than they did.Recruits and training; Although Horse Guards set out guidelines for training the way new recruits were instructed was a matter for each individual regiments. Recruits were trained as part of the Troop, under the instruction of the NCOs.
A Special cadre of “rough riders” were kept with the depot to break in newly bought horses, with that came a special pay. For new officers, horse riding was thought to be an essential skill, but they also paid a small sum to the Sergeant in the role of master at arms, for sword and sabre practice.
General John Le Marchant, after having observed the British Cavalry’s inferior skills at arms in the lowland campaigns of the 1790s wrote a new doctrinal book, as well as redesigning the swords. Before this, swords were purchased by the Regimental Colonel, leading to a myriad of designs, across a variety of qualities.
What followed was the 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Sabre and the 1796 Pattern Heavy Cavalry Sword (for respective designations of light and heavy cavalry troops). Le Marchant thought that British swordsmanship had reminded him of “someone chopping wood”.
His thoughts and practices were turned into a drill manual, becoming The Rules and Regulations of the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry (Released in 1796 also). This led to a rapid improvement of the close combat ability of the British cavalry, using Le Marchant’s manual, each man would learn the key 6 offensive cuts, along with guard positions and downward strokes, all formalised. The 6 cuts centred round a circle, representing an enemy’s face, rather than wildly hacking at the upper torso that had been ineffective before.
.It is also worth noting here the 2 main branches of cavalry; heavy and light. The distinctions meant different uniforms and swords, but meant little in the way of duties and both types were armed with pistol and carbines. In theory the light cavalry rose slightly smaller horses and were purposed for scouting and pickets (sentry). But heavy cavalry frequently often see themselves used in that role. Also it was the heavy cavalry that were meant to execute fierce charges on the battlefield, but light cavalry would see heavy action and carry out brilliant charges, such as the combat at Villa-Garcia. Wellington himself paid little attention to the designation of the cavalry role, compounded by the fact he was often calling for more cavalry (of either type), he used regiments as convenient, without regard to their official classification.
Light cavalry was made up of a mixture of “Light Dragoons” and “Hussars”. It wasn’t until after Waterloo in 1815 that regiments converted to become lancers. The heavy cavalry were “Dragoons” or more elaborately “Dragoon Guards” along with the Life Guards and Royal Horse Guard regiments (which formed the Household Cavalry).
Sources: “Gallantry and Discipline. The 12th Light Dragoons at War with Wellington” by Andrew Bamford”So Blood a Day. The 16th Light Dragoons in the Waterloo Campaign” by David J. Blackmore”The Cavalry that Broke Napoleon. The King’s Dragoon Guards at Waterloo” by Richard Goldsbrough” Wellington’s Peninsular Army” Men-at-Arms series, by James Lawford.
Absorbing, humorous and written with a soft, almost confidential, way, the story of a Navy Officer’s quest to increase the knowledge about the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew is essential lockdown reading.
Right now all of us are in need of strong voices, that talk confidently of mental and physical fortitude, which guide us in how we can achieve our goals. Ernest Coleman’s book which details his four remarkable expeditions to uncover the truth behind some of the Franklin expedition’s biggest myths can help us get into that necessary expeditionary mindset and at the same time brigs and authentic light to this historical maritime disaster.
In tackling much debated explanations such as death by lead poisoning and cannibalism, Coleman is frank and straightforward rather than scholarly in his approach. This imbues the reader with a confidence in his common sense and capability (and rigorous testing of the written evidence) to present and interpret his findings.
Half travelogue, half history, half exploration log, No Earthly Pole is replete with its own sense of adventure and struggle. Before the book is half over Coleman half kills himself clinging on to a ATV trailer and becomes his own worst enemy during an isolated march across King William Island, where he ended up existing on hot chocolate and fisherman’s friends for ten days while he awaited rescue.
Getting followed by a film crew intent on making him sing at every possibility was another singular achievement. But that aside, there is also the endless cycle of expedition, followed by lecture tours, followed by fundraising, which is the tempo of this book. It is a realistic facet of all such memoirs of expeditions; that those who undertake them are necessarily locked into this pattern in order to forward their projects, the latter two being often more challenging than the actual expedition.
Not every expedition was a blinding success, and none could be considered outright failures, but most importantly, none were finished up without benefit. And that is an important queue for us to follow. The truth of all expeditions of a historical and archaeological nature is that very often a great deal of work goes into saying, ‘well, we know it’s not here at least.’
But Coleman’s hardships are borne with a true spirit of enterprise, for as Shackleton said, a man must shift his objectives, as soon as the last one disappears. It is how we move on. Yet sometimes peril and isolation can seem overwhelming. In one particularly striking moment, which can be used to exemplify the highs, lows, dangers and humour of this book, the author, alone and exhausted heard his own voice lulling him to lie down and drift into restful oblivion.
He fought this siren song off by debating the merits of, what was at the time a hot button issue for the Church of England; the acceptance of female ministers. Through rigorous debate he kept himself from harm, and his demons were put to flight, but he ended up deciding that he was against co-educational bible college curriculums. When, afterwards, he told a churchman of his inner struggle and how he overcame it, Coleman was told that to the mind of his correspondent, God seemed to have accepted that change was the best way, to which Coleman replied; ‘and who do you think I was talking to?’
The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of 20 Squares has been found in the tombs of Pharaoh’s and Kings. It was scratched into the walls of palaces so guards could pass the time, and you can play it too.
Thanks to the work of Professor Irving Finkel the rules of he game were discovered and translated, making it the oldest game in the world with an accompanying set of rules known to refer to it.
There are lots of versions for sale online, but allot are quite expensive. So I made my own. I visited the British museum, did some research, and then created a portable version of the game that double’s as a useful tote bag.
I hope you enjoy the video, please support the channel if you can. And I’ll see you next time for another Adventure in Historyland.
This year has been busy which has made the top five of 2019 a fairly easy selection. The cream of the review crop this time represent some of the best history books I’ve read.
They span a range of subjects as varied as the people of Japan to the origins of western civilisation. Their authors represent many styles and disciplines, but all have succeeded in writing history that leaps off the page and allows the reader to engage with it.
Therefore, in no particular order we have:
‘unhurried … never boring, always lucid, with some of the most fluid prose imaginable and the most serene voice I’ve encountered, Japan Story is not just a good read, it is a revelation’
‘Revolutionary in every sense.’
‘The Anarchy is worthy of it’s author’s ambition as a brilliantly realised and enjoyably written history which looks out at it’s subject with an eye to both the past and the future.’
‘I cannot praise the ingenuity and hard work that went into this book enough. I’m not just crafting pleasing blurbs here when I say it is perfect for serious scholar and newcomer alike.’
‘I predicted soon after the launch that if Gurkha Odyssey was even half as well written as General Duffell’s eloquent and sincerely delivered talk, then it would be a brilliant book and I am delighted to assure you that I feel 100% justified in that prediction.’
Please join me in 2020 for more adventures in Historyland. Josh.
It is rather surprising to me that the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Chinese controlled Tibet slipped by with little more than a murmur this spring. It’s been 60 years since 17-31 March 1959. A significant moment in world history.
During a year that should have been celebrating a landmark event, the central figure has come under fire not only by his traditional enemy but former allies as well. And with politics in such a mess in Europe, a pitiless mob; eager for blood online & an all-you-can-eat feeding frenzy on all things Trump, few major editorials & fewer world leaders seem to have tested China’s rhetoric defences.
Over half a century has passed since Tibetan Exile began. And though the event will have been marked in Dharamsala, around the world, the conversation is subdued. There seems little interest in looking at how India & China’s Tibetan policies began, have gone & where they might go.
At the beginning of the year Beijing seemed to be expecting trouble. From what is online I can see that the Chinese were so worried about foreign tourism surrounding the anniversary that they closed the border of Tibet. 
In an effort to head off bad press & contend with critics in the thorny question of who has the right to appoint the 15th Dalai Lama, the China Daily openly criticised HH & his comments on his successor & praised Beijing’s enlightened stance towards Tibet 
Indeed they’ve been laying down a counter narrative minefield since 2018 in anticipation of large scale press & popular backlash. 
It would seem that Beijing beat everyone to the punch. Creating a story centred upon their accusations of rabble rousing in Dharamsala & a hypocritical Dalai Lama. Adding to their relentless bombardment of anti Dalai Lama rhetoric and mockery and niftily sidestepping the historical events of 60 years ago. 
A whole generation has grown up with only a passive intellectual connection to Tibetan Exile. The web eagerly turned on HH this summer over a misstep, in a news storm that drowned the coverage of his fight for freedom & lifetime of good works. 
Unfortunately HH’a message of compassion just isn’t cutting the ice like it used to and doesn’t seem to be resonating with people the way it did before. Though still a respected religious leader, his political clout seems increasingly on the wane.
No 60 years of dedicated humanitarian service is protection against a single slip of a 84 year old 2nd language tongue. More worryingly it shows us again how time erodes the meaning of history through generations.
In a geopolitical sense as well, China’s push to become the inherited caretakers of an international Bhuddist community is not being countered as stolidly by an increasingly exclusive India as it once was. 
Ironically the rise of Hindu nationalism in India is at odds with the support of Tibetan nationalism and breeds a disinterest in competing with China for the support of Asian Bhuddists. In March 2018 Indian officials were instructed to keep clear of a Tibetan nationalist rally, a sure sign that Beijing’s threats are being taken seriously.
With the current Dalai Lama in his 84th year, the rise of global nationalism, an India that wishes closer ties with China & a harsher press & social media climate, perhaps it’s no surprise that very few outside the old-guard hurried to cheer his historic escape to freedom in exile. 
The long war of Mexican independence had left the country in a greatly fragile state. Teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, with a large army to pay, her once lucrative trade revenues dropped dramatically in the years that followed the expulsion of the Spanish. Sinking into an economic depression, rife with faction, alone and vulnerable with no allies to ensure her independence, Mexico decided to attempt to gain European interest by applying to one of the great powers for a loan. They, in response, were pleased to open the account.
Unfortunately, this did not take into account Mexico’s instability. The country had no taxation system to speak of and despite successive regimes promising reparation, continual strife meant that what money could be gathered got spent on internal matters. Mexico’s debts rose and foreign merchants and Mexican Citizens lost property and money as opposing forces sought cash to pay their troops. It got so bad that repayment of the Mexican debt proved to be a political topic of great discussion in Britain, France and Spain during 1861.
British representatives in Mexico had been working hard to try and achieve some kind of workable plan with multiple treaties being signed between 1842 and 1851 but to no avail. Mexico was consistently unable to raise the money. Calls for troops to be deployed to intervene in Mexico’s domestic problems and restore order were ignored. Although the British government was interested in the welfare of the country and wanted to see a stable government implemented, which was in the best interests of everyone. No one in parliament wished to make Mexico a protectorate or fight a costly war of intervention.
Britain’s Western relations were tense in the 1860s. There had been two war scares with the United States between 1859 and 1861. Once during a boundary dispute on the Canadian border, known as the “Pig War” and another when the U.S. Navy illegally seized Confederate diplomats sailing on RMS Trent. Both times cool heads had prevailed but on the wider stage Whitehall was disinterested in further large scale colonial adventures. Britain had only just got out of a conflict in China, and there were similar calls to protect British interests in Japan and New Zealand. A war without a firm goal in a country as destabilised as Mexico was not on the cards.
Between the loss of Texas and the year 1850 the Mexican nation went through a period of violent turmoil and anarchy. A series of revolutions and counter revolutions had wrecked the already fragile economy. Then in 1846 the disastrous American war, which ended in 1848, saw a chunk of territory comparable to the size of Western Europe, including gold-rich California, lost to the United States. Not unsurprisingly a civil war then followed, between Liberal Republicans and the Church conservatives, known as the “Guerra Reforma”.
On 1 January 1861, (the Liberal side having won the war) Benito Juarez, a 54 year old country bred Zapotec lawyer from Oaxaca became president of Mexico. After removing his enemies from positions of power, including sending the Spanish ambassador packing, his response to the debt crisis was to call a moratorium. The pending payments, now amounted to some $80 Million, parcelled out between Swiss banking houses, Spain, France and Britain. Britain making up the main injured party with unpaid bonds and damages valued in excess of £69 Million.
In September Spain suspended diplomatirelations in response to the ejection of her representative & urged France and Britain to do likewise. Infuriated Anglo-French representatives, Saligny and Wyck wrote angry letters to Juarez warning that if the moratorium wasn’t lifted then they would break off relations with Mexico. The Spanish went so far as to press Britain to form a coalition that would invade Mexico to obtain redress.
In the United States, President Lincoln, was unsurprisingly jumpy about the idea of European powers messing around South of the border with large armies and fleets. American ambassadors in Mexico City and London were empowered to take action. Thomas Corwin told the Mexicans that the USA would take responsibility for the debt, via a large loan, with the understanding that if reparation was not made in 6 years, all public and mineral lands in Baja California, Chihuahua, Sonora and Sinaloa would be forfeit to the United Stares. In London, ambassador Francis Adams informed Prime Minister Earl Russell that if European powers got embroiled in the Americas, the United States would likewise freely embroil itself in Europe. The British tacitly agreed that an intervention was necessary but also played for time, they told the Spanish to wait and see what the French would do.
The French question was soon to resolve itself. As leader of one of the three principle nations tied up in Mexico, Napoleon III was watching events closely. The emperor was an adventurer, and all too happy to go galloping off in search of windmills to joust, especially if they furthered his imperial fantasies. After Juarez suspended the debt payment, Napoleon was eager to get involved in Mexico, not just for the money but to create a Mexican monarchy with a French puppet, Saligny wrote encouragingly that 4-5,000 European troops could take the whole country. Napoleon however felt politically insecure without British involvement, as the nation with the largest grievances.
On 31 October 1861 representatives from the three powers signed the London Convention which laid out their intentions to obtain redress from Mexico but firmly asserted that they would not try to take territory or usurp the government. The plan was to occupy Vera Cruz and from there coerce Juarez to pay up, although a coordinated effort was desired, the Spanish sailed from their nearby bases and took the port on January 17 1862. Spanish troops held it alone with 6,500 men, until the other allies arrived. The Mexican army withdrew from the coast at the arrival of the Europeans, who now in total numbered about 12,200 men.
The British force was small compared to her allies. 4 ships of Dunlop’s Squadron, two armed with heavy Armstrong guns and with between 400 and 700 Marines specially selected from the Plymouth Division aboard, backed up by double that number of sailors, who would form large Naval Brigade battalions if necessary. Dunlop’s numbers swelled briefly once they reached the West Indies in January 1862, and then receded back to their starting number. The navy, as the empire’s main trouble shooters in matters of this sort, had been chosen to undertake the operation alone. Once at Vera Cruz the three powers went about seizing the customs house and threatening to invade the interior of the country. The snag was that Dunlop, in conversation with the French admiral Graviere at Havana, had become aware that they were there on different missions.
Both the Spanish under General Prim and the British wanted to reopen negotiations with the Mexicans as quickly as possible. However Graviere insisted that the first objective was to assist the people of Mexico in forming a monarchy. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston had been aware of Napoleon’s crackpot idea to foist the Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the Mexicans, and had warned his representatives to take no part in the scheme unless the Mexican people wished it, and even then to not advance inland unless specifically ordered.
The French were under the opinion that there was a large monarchical party in Mexico and entertained Conservative party members, even though the British were arresting them, causing tension to rise in the European camp. After meeting with the secretary of war, General Zaragoza, and with no clear idea of how to proceed in one accord, the three powers sent their demands on to Mexico City, but yet again the excessive demands of the French derailed the scheme. Mr. Wyke correctly observing to Lord Russell that they were calculated to render acceptance by the Mexican government unacceptable. France was spoiling for a fight. Juarez tried to plead his country’s woeful financial state, and asked that the three powers return their troops to their ships.
There was however a pressing problem due to the buildup of troops and the advancing season. The climate would soon become unhealthy for the Europeans stuck in Vera Cruz, and negations were opened to allow them to move out to higher ground to avoid being decimated by the diseases that would find them on the low lying coastal plain.
In February the Soledad convention agreed on the various towns in which the Europeans could enter, and the limit to which they could advance. The British were still adamant in not advancing inland, while 3,000 French reinforcements drifted in to augment the 5,000 already there and so outnumber the Spanish. The Mexican flag was raised over Vera Cruz and the customs house handed back over. If negations were to break down the Europeans should “return to Go” at Vera Cruz, and 100 men from each nation were to garrison the city. The British contingent likely stationed at the fort of San Juan de Ulloa. It was hoped that the extraneous forces would be sent back to Europe.
However the treaty of Soledad was more an agreement between the three powers than one between them and Mexico and the problem still remained; how to obtain the money from an almost bankrupt nation without provoking a war. The way forward was marred by France’s belligerence and separate agenda. In an attempt to rein them in, Spain and Britain threatened to pull out if the French did not stop fraternising with the conservatives, as it was contrary to the convention of Soledad. They did not stop.
When exiled conservative Minister General Almonte arrived and proclaimed a monarchy. The bemused Wyke and Prim asked what government he was representing in declaring this. Almonte replied that he had the confidence of France, and the last straw broke.
France broke off negotiations with Juarez, Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Doblaño warned the French that a move to overthrow the Republic and impose a monarchy would be strongly resisted, and invited the British and Spanish to discuss matters. Unwilling to back down, on April 16 France declared war on Mexico and urged its citizens to rally to the French tricolour in order to form a stable government.
General Prim and Admiral Dunlop condemned the action most strongly, much to Doblaño’s satisfaction and applause. With France in open violation of the treaty of London and the a Convention of Soledad, Britain and Spain could not justify their presence in Mexico any longer and withdrew. British representative Mr. Wyke however had finally found a temporary solution to the debt problem that had kept 700 marines cooped up for 4 months at Vera Cruz.
He simply managed to get the Mexican Government to agree to sign a convention that promised to begin paying their debt out of the illusionary loan of $11 million offered by the United States. As a result it would be years before the subject of repayment could be once again revisited.
The entire expedition was predicated on the idea that Mexico could pay the debt, or would promise to do so, and would not continue to resist an in the face of an armed intervention. When both of these assumptions proved false the entire thing went belly up, not aided by the less than inspired plan to impose an Austrian archduke, promoted by exiles like Santa Anna, as a resumption of the house of Moctezuma, on a hastily constructed throne propped up by French bayonets.
With the exit of Spain and Britain, Mexico declared war on France. The red trousered French regulars marched into the interior to begin “The Mexican adventure”. A conflict that would see, the early Republican victory at Puebla on Cinco de Mayo 1862, the last stand of the French Foreign Legion at Camerón, Mexico becoming a short lived protectorate of France, and the tragic execution of the reluctant emperor, Maximilian I. But it is nonetheless fascinating to think that in 1861 Britain, of all places, skirted close to an invasion of Mexico.
This post first appeared on the Britannia Magazine Facebook page in 2016.