Posts Tagged ‘Great Britain’

The Politics of Science

Posted in General, On This Day on September 14th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

September 14th (really!), 1752:  Great Britain Finally Admits That the Catholics Are Right

 When the truth is inconvenient, and the facts are incriminating, one can find great solace in ignorance. There are times and societies where stupidity is a dogma. For example, in 16th century Spain the Inquisition regarded the practice of reading on a Saturday as suspiciously Jewish. And you know how the Inquisition dealt with suspicions. People can be as flammable as books.

Now lest I be picketed by the Knights of Columbus, I must mention an example of willful ignorance by Protestant liberals. In 1582, the Catholic Church presented an updated and far more accurate version of the calendar. However, Protestant England refused to acknowledge the improvement, as if there were a Jesuit lurking behind every page of the calendar. Of course, naming the calendar for Pope Gregory was not exactly ecumenical either. Rather than give a Catholic credit for anything, England adhered to the old Julian calendar. (Apparently, an inaccurate pagan was preferable to an accurate Catholic.) 

 For almost 170 years, Britain chose dogma over science.   But in their Protestant zealotry, the British were making the Sun into a Catholic.  It was scheduling equinoxes and solstices in compliance with Rome rather than Canterbury.  The fact that British farmers would miscalculate spring plantings by ten or eleven days cannot be the sole excuse for English cooking, but it hardly helped.  Science, commerce and common sense demanded the correction, and by 1751 Parliament was ready.

The British Calendar Act began by acknowledging a few problems but not any fault.  According to the legislation, the problem with the calendar dated back to 325 A.D. and the Council of Nicea.  So, according to this Protestant logic, it actually was the Church’s mistake.   Having exonerated itself, British Protestantism now was willing to make the necessary adjustments. 

Britain would adopt the “common” calendar.  The legislation did not mention “Gregorian”, preferring any verbal evasion to that Catholic noun.   To correct the chronological errors, in 1752 September 2nd would be followed by September 14th.  Finally, in keeping with “the usage of other nations”, the New Year in Great Britain would now begin on January 1st rather than the Olde English quirk of March 25th.

So, on this day in 1752, Great Britain adopted the “Common” Calendar, and Protestantism somehow survived.  The Stuarts were not restored to the throne and the American Colonies did not revolt (yet).  If any English resented this capitulation to Papism, they could alway take it out on the Irish.


Posted in General, On This Day on August 29th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

August 29th  On this day in 1842:  the Treaty of Nanking

At midnight, July 1, 1997, in an elaborate pageant that marked the end of a historical epic, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from Great Britain to China. Concluding their 156-year rule of the colony, the British departed with pomp and ceremony: splendid uniforms, regimental bands, and formal banquets. It is a British art. However, the Chinese were in business suits, and showed no nostalgia for the Victorian relics. Britain’s Prince Charles and China’s President Jiang Zemin stood on the same dais, the personifications of their countries in this historical act: the old empire was giving ground to the new world power.

Ironically, that was how the history of Hong Kong began. In the early 19th century, however, China was the old empire and Britain the new world power. China had become the relic of a great nation. When Europe was stirring from the Middle Ages, China’s might, culture and wealth were unmatched. In the 15th century an emperor had disbanded the Chinese navy. The outside world could not threaten his empire and had nothing to offer it. His arrogance would become China’s policy for the next four centuries. The Chinese civilization acclaimed by Marco Polo, the culture that invented gunpowder, the printing press and eyeglasses became complacent and stagnant. The Chinese had the first cannons but they had not improved them since the 16th century. Against the encroaching powers of Europe, China could not even defend herself. Foremost of these new powers was Great Britain.

In the 18th century, British ships were plying China’s shores, eager to trade for silk, porcelain and especially tea. This trade, however, was one way. China was selling but not buying. The imperial government regulated commerce, restricting European imports into the empire. Furthermore, China would only accept silver bullion as legal payment. (The Chinese had invented paper money but evidently did not trust anyone else’s.) This trade deficit with China–and the drain on bullion–was undermining Britain’s economy. British merchants, however, eventually found a way to reverse the trade imbalance: selling opium.

Smoking opium was a vice long known to China, and the opium poppy was easily cultivated in British-controlled India. (The local rajahs did not care, so long as the opium was only for export.) A ready supply of the drug increased the Chinese demand for it. In the 1770s, the British were importing 75 tons of opium a year into China; the imperial officials initially overlooked it. By the1830s, the opium traffic had grown to 1400 tons a year. Now, China was running a trade imbalance with Britain; worse, an estimated 4 million Chinese men were opium addicts. Confronted with this crisis, China sought to stop the opium trade.

In 1839 an imperial viceroy confiscated 1200 tons of opium from British merchants. He further threatened prosecution of traders and sailors involved in the drug traffic. The viceroy even wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria, criticizing her for permitting her barbarians to poison the Chinese people with opium. Her Majesty may never have seen the letter, but the British press certainly did. You can imagine the headlines: “Heathen Chinee Insults Our Queen”; “Opium Fiends Call Us Barbarians.” (Rupert Murdoch had his role models.) While the British government could hardly condone the specific opium trade, it could champion the general principles of the Free Market. Furthermore, it would never allow British subjects to be tried by a foreign power, especially one that insulted the Queen. So, for such impeccable causes as free trade, sovereignty and royal dignity, Britain went to war with China.

Britain had a population of 26 million; China had over 400 million people. Yet, it was China that proved hopelessly outmatched. Britain had the best navy in the world and her army was equipped with modern weapons. This conflict, known as the First Opium War lasted from 1839 until 1842 but only because the British were in no hurry. “I say, shall we take Canton this afternoon or would you rather play cricket?” With their unchallenged mobility and superior firepower, the British were free to blockade, raid and conquer at their leisure. In 1841, the British seized a large island a mile off the Southern coast of China. With its deep-sea anchorage this island–Hong Kong–made an excellent base. The war ended with the Treaty of Nanking, signed August 29, 1842; the humiliated Chinese basically turned over their ports and customs enforcement to the British, they paid for the confiscated opium, and ceded Hong Kong to its conquerors.

So, you can understand if, 156 years later, China’s President did not seem nostalgic for the departing British. Indeed, if he had a sense of whimsy, he was imagining a different history; with the fleet of Imperial China anchored in the Thames as Chinese merchants exploited the British addiction to tea.