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The United Kingdom has issued sanctions against Russia because Russia has threatened to invade and annex another part of the Ukraine (as it did in 2014 in Crimea).
As Mark Twain allegedly said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Well, if you want to know what this period of history is beginning to “sound” like to me, read on.
Let’s begin in March 1802 when, after a decade of war, Great Britain and France signed the “Treaty of Amiens”. Britain agreed to withdraw troops from France and her allies, and France – or rather, its self-appointed revolutionary leader, Napoleon Bonaparte – agreed to stop invading other countries and trying to expand its empire.
After promises were broken on both sides, Great Britain declared war on France in May 1803. Blah blah, Russia, Prussia, assassination plots (rhymes with Cicero in the Roman Republic), Battle of Trafalgar and Bavaria… let’s pick it up in 1806. Now, listen very carefully.
Realising that he would never be a direct military threat to Britain, Napoleon engaged in commercial warfare, enacting the “Continental Blockade”, an embargo against British trade. His November 1806 “Berlin Decree” – which itself was a response to an original blockade Britain put on French ports – banned British imports coming into any European country allied with, or dependent on trade with, France. On the surface, this was a deft move by Bonaparte in what was a war of attrition. If Britain was weakened, economically, she would be weakened militarily. However, Britain was a far-too-powerful trading partner and Napoleon a far-too-unpopular despot throughout Europe for this to have been a singularly effective strategic move. Britain swiftly dealt with the blockade by establishing new international markets and strengthening existing smuggling routes.
There was really no need to embark on direct retaliation against Napoleon’s “Berlin Decree” but if there is one thing that politicians are always far too proud to do it is… “nothing”. In response to Napoleon’s insolent embargo, something had to be done. A disastrous game of “tit for tat” ensued that ended in a series of own goals for Britain.
Britain’s original blockade of French ports had been imposed via a parliamentary tool known as “Orders in Council” in May 1806. “Orders in Council” were the nineteenth century equivalent of “Emergency Powers”. After Napoleon’s retaliatory “Berlin Decree”, Britain imposed two further “Orders in Council” in January 1807 and November 1807, the latter showing how drunk on power they’d become because it decreed that all American merchant ships heading to the continent must first dock in Britain and pay a tax to the British before going on their way. The Americans were having none of that, so it was an egregious and unnecessary shot in the foot by Britain. This undoubtedly planted the seeds of disgruntlement between the United States and Great Britain that escalated into war by 1812.
From 1807 to 1812, Great Britain haemorrhaged money trying to keep Napoleon at bay on the Iberian Peninsula. While all eyes were trained on this foreign drama, national debt was allowed to spiral out of control. At the same time, the British economy was being crippled by those self-sabotaging Orders in Council. The textile industry was dependent on cotton imports from the United States and it was these business owners who were caught in the cross fire of trade embargoes. Ultimately, the US was joined at the hip to France. They also had no desire to pay Britain’s “danger money” taxes to use her ports, so US trade with Britain ground to a halt. British merchants couldn’t get the cotton to make their cloth and thus had to lay off workers. The invention of new industrial machinery exacerbated this situation, unemployment rose, and the situation grew ever bleaker for ordinary British families.
Disagreement raged between the Tories (all for continuing to batter Napoleon in any way they could) and the Whigs (continually campaigning to end sanctions that they viewed as a cure worse than the disease). Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, and later President of the Council was a passionate spokesperson. In a House of Lords debate in February 1812, he gave a stark warning about these policies that were “so injurious to the manufacturing and commercial interests of the country, and to the welfare of the state”. But the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, refused to lift restrictions.
While war raged and sanctions stifled, one seemingly random British man was having a particularly rough time of it. John Bellingham was a British shipping agent stationed in Russia who found himself caught up in a rather pernicious international squabble. It all started when a Dutch merchant claimed for the loss of a ship from his insurers, Lloyds of London in late 1803. Lloyds refused the claim on the grounds they’d received an anonymous letter assuring them the claim was fraudulent, as in, the ship had been sabotaged. Said Dutch merchant accused John Bellingham of authoring the letter and somehow persuaded Russian officials to ruin Bellingham’s life in an act of revenge. From 1804 to 1809, the Russians terrorised Bellingham, refusing him the required travel documentation to leave Russia, throwing him in jail and supporting the Dutch merchant’s claim on Bellingham for costing him his insurance pay out.
Bellingham described how he was, “banded from prison to prison, and from dungeon to dungeon, fed on bread and water, treated with the utmost cruelty, and frequently marched through the streets under a military guard with felons and criminals of the most atrocious description, even before the residence of the British Minister, who might view from his window, this degrading severity towards a British subject who had committed no crime.” He called this “a disgrace and insult of the British nation.”
In December 1809, bankrupt and broken, Bellingham was finally allowed to return to Britain and sought compensation for his ordeal from the British government, accusing them of abandoning their subject when they left him at the mercy of the Russians. He was passed from pillar to post by various government departments and got nowhere. He was routinely ignored. Presumably, the government assumed this irritating man would eventually give up and leave them alone. But he didn’t. Concluding that His Majesty’s government were criminally in breach of their duty to protect him, he appealed for help from the police, writing to them and informing them that he considered the government to have “completely closed the door of justice, in declining to have or even permit my grievances to be brought before Parliament for redress, which privilege is the birth-right of every individual.” He warned, “The purport of the present, is, therefore once more to solicit his Majesty's Ministers, through your medium, to let what is right and proper be done in my instance, which is all I require. Should this reasonable request be finally denied, I shall then feel myself justified in executing justice myself, in which case I shall be ready to argue the merits of so reluctant a measure with his Majesty's Attorney General, wherever and whenever I may be called upon so to do.”
When he received no assistance from the police, he resorted to “executing justice” himself when, on 11 May 1812, he entered the lobby of the House of Commons and shot dead the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval. Bellingham was arrested for this heinous crime, tried and hung. The above quotes are from his defence at his Old Bailey trial.
So that’s the story of John Bellingham, who assassinated a British Prime Minister. I’ve asked around and no one remembers studying this story in history classes. Interesting but not surprising. Most people are also unaware of the following 3-year war fought between Britain and the United States, which seems to have come about as the result of nineteenth-century-style communication more than anything else.
While Britain announced it was repealing the Orders in Council on 16 June 1812 (coincidentally a little over a month after Perceval’s death), the news took too long to reach the US. Unaware that the trade embargoes had been lifted (and perhaps even that the Prime Minister was dead), Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, persuaded congress to use its constitutional powers for the first time since the recognition of American independence. On 17 June 1812, President James Madison signed the declaration of war against Great Britain. That news took another month to reach Great Britain so, after a very short period of normalcy, sanctions against the United States were reissued in July 1812. During the hostilities that ensued for the next three years, the US made an unsuccessful bid to wrest Canada away from British clutches.
And so, from our vantage point of February 2022, think back to where Britain was 210 years ago: a country drowning in debt, ruinous economic policies devastating the lives of its people, a Prime Minister refusing to defend and compensate a British citizen falsely imprisoned in Russia, and our newly emancipated American cousins preparing to declare war on us from across the pond. Do you hear any chiming rhymes? If you do, take heed. Before you champion the imposition of sanctions against Russia, take a moment to look behind the political rhetoric and ensure you understand exactly how those sanctions will affect the people of your own country. Is it not the obvious tactic of any deft dictator to lure its true intended target into pressing the self-destruct button?