August 2, 1858 – the high tide of imperialism

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Gew gaws and confetti first.

As served up by your London copy taster.

It’s August 2nd.

It’s National Ice Cream Sandwich Day. And National Colouring Book Day. And National Regatta Day. And National Jacqueline. Hello Jacquelines out there, a tip of the hat on your day.

And not forgetting Virgin of Los Angeles Day. I didn’t know there was one.

But where do these things come from? Who dreams them up? They’re like bugs on a car grill screen. Wonder if we can send the thing up? The more preposterous the better. National scuff marks day, for example. Or National In-grown Toenail Day. Or National Forgot My Password Day. Come on folks, you come up with them and I’ll work them into the weave. See if we can pass them off as every bit as bona fide as National Ice Cream Sandwich Day.

Anyway, so much for the warm-up act.

The main course day is August 2nd, 1858. And there are three sides to go with it.

The first side is a couple of further ruminations about yesterday’s serving. The Abolition of Slavery across the British Empire on August 1st, 1834. Thinking about that celebratory dinner in the Freemason’s Tavern, my god there was a lot of mutual back-patting going on there. They didn’t just feel good about what they’d accomplished, they were very pleased with themselves. And of course felt infinitely superior to the poor benighted souls who’d just been emancipated.

The three other points that jumped out at me were: 1) the Jamaica governor’s observation that if the slaves hadn’t been freed what he called “a fatal convulsion of society in the West Indies” was in the offing. Somebody had wet a finger and put it up in the air. They knew which way the wind was blowing.

And 2) that point about now that slavery was abolished England would start making some serious profits from its Caribbean colonies. Bottom line, these people weren’t saints. There was something in it for them. Something rather more tangible than just feel good about doing what’s right, putting a wooden stake through the heart of a monstrous iniquity. And the third matter is that nearly 50 million people live in modern slavery today. That’s nearly four times as many people who were captured and sold into slavery between the 15th and 19th centuries. Four times as many slaves in 2023 as there were in the four centuries of the so-called slave era. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a stomach-churning statistic.

Oh and look, here are two more sides. They pair nicely. It’s a neat coincidence. On August 2nd, 1870, a world first for London. The Tower subway opened. It was the world’s first underground tube railway.  Ninety-seven years later – to the day – August 2nd, 1967 the second Blackwall Tunnel opened in Greenwich. Wonder if that was a coincidence. August 2nd, National Thames Tunnel Day.

And as long as we’re down in Greenwich – the home of time – it was on August 2nd, 1880 that the British parliament officially adopted Greenwich Mean Time.

And now comes our main course. It’s August 2nd, 1858. The Government of India is transferred from the East India Company to the British crown. That’s hard on the heels of the Indian Mutiny. It had kicked off in early May in the previous year.

And it goes without saying that’s a cue for putting in a word about Lisa Honan’s East India Company Walk. Lisa’s the distinguished former diplomat whose expertise is augumented by first hand experience. She gets rave review after rave review. The most recent one came in three days ago. Here’s what walker Nadeem Khan said. “Lisa wears her diplomatic credentials modestly. The sweep of 200+ years of history was expertly captured in the narrative built during an excellent walk, full of insights and information. The Company’s considerable legacy was well-researched, and both sensitively and honestly described. For what is perhaps a relatively ‘niche’ subject matter, you may well be surprised by how much you take away with you. Much food for thought. Would highly recommend. There is a gem of a hidden monument that also awaits.” Next outing for the East India Company Walk is August 15th.

But let’s get back to our anniversary. As usual I wanted to get a contemporary feel for what was, after all, an Everest of a story: East India Company stepping aside for the British crown. So I got myself to the summer of 1858 and ordered up a few newspapers.

Here’s a representative sample. As much as I admire historians – and learn no end of this, that and the other from them – in one very real sense their output is like processed food. You want the real thing, the mood, the raw feelings you lend an ear to somebody who was in the thick of it back in 1858. Here’s how matters looked to them.

Subtitled Present State of India, the piece reads: “June 23 was the anniversary of the battle of Plassey,

when Clive with 1,000 Englishmen and 2,000 Sepoys defeated and dispersed the army of Bengal, numbering 40,000 infantry, 15,000 cavalry, 50 pieces of the heaviest ordnance, and number of French auxiliaries. On this day last year the mutineers were in possession of Delhi, they had beset Lucknow and besieged Cawnpore. A wail was heard throughout the land, and people asked each other with pale lips what was to happen next. England, however, girded up her loins, and prepared herself for the struggle. She lost many men, but she did not lose her heart, and India is ours today – aye, more firmly and more enduringly than ever it was since its fetters were forged on the plains of Plassey. Delhi is ours. Lucknow is ours. Cawnpore is ours. Bareilly is ours, Jhansi is ours, Calpee is ours, Kotah is ours, and Gwalior is ours; there is, in fact, not a stronghold in the country from the summit of which the British flag is not waving. The princes of the Mogul dynasty have been shot like dogs, and their carcasses exposed in the marketplace. Everywhere retribution has overtaken the murderers, and the remnants of the mutinous army are now the denizens of the jungle. The rebellious rajahs and chiefs have now neither house nor home. They have been blown from guns, hanged, transported and imprisoned; and even the foot of the miscreant of Bithoor can scarcely find a resting place among his own kith and kindred. The king of Delhi is awaiting a felon’s doom and everywhere disaster, disgrace and death have followed all who opposed us. Timid people still entertain alarm; but there is no longer any real grounds for apprehension. The anniversary of Plassey in 1857 found us, in the midst of all our troubles and calamities, still the dominant race, and today, amid all our triumphs and victories, finds us a thousand times more so. We have no doubt a great work still before us; but the grand end has been attained – our supremacy in India has been made manifest.

The prestige of our arms has everywhere been maintained, and even bhang and fanaticism have recoiled before the British bayonet. We have beaten the rebels on their own battlegrounds, we have driven them from the fortresses they had most strongly fortified, and we have met and muzzled them in the jungles like tigers in their dens.”

Bhang if you didn’t know – I didn’t – is an edible preparation of cannabis. It’s like paper, stone, scissors isn’t it. Bayonets beat bhang. Now there’s a surprise.

Blustery isn’t it? And I think it’s whistling past the graveyard. Either that or he didn’t know his Gibbon. How’s that famous passage go, “the shores of history are littered with the wrecks of Empires.”

Didn’t know his Gibbon and didn’t have a crystal ball, couldn’t see the bandy-legged, bespectacled little Indian lawyer clad in a loin cloth who wasn’t too far up ahead and who in the end would strew one more wreck of Empire on the shores of history.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *