“John Bull has an awful day of retribution to look to when the world wakes up.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In our second survey of Levi Slamm and the New York Daily Plebeian’s attacks on the British Empire, we travel from Afghanistan, to China and India, then across the Pacific Ocean to the Hawaiian Islands. At every turn, in virtually every section of the planet, British imperialism asserted its position and power, accumulated authority and legitimacy, and even assumed the position of moral supremacy in the fight against the slave trade. “Young Americans” like Slamm perceived that republicanism and democracy were thus surrounded by the world’s foremost corporate aristocratic institution. American coasts were under constant threat from the Imperial Navy (no less so than the Chinese); the northern border stretched for thousands of miles and presented the constant threat of land invasion from British regulars, Canadian militia, and Native Americans alike; while across the South and West, Britain sought to acquire Texas, Oregon, and Pacific territories like the “Sandwich Islands.” Victoria’s tentacles threatened to choke the life out of American democratic republicanism, making the Revolution a momentary historical blip in the proliferation of a veritably British global socio‐political order. Modern readers will likely notice that Slamm was painfully uncritical of curiously American socio‐political orders, including southern slavery and the political coalitions (like his own) that protected and expanded slavery’s reach.
In the following instalment of articles, Slamm addresses the ethics of imperial activity, focusing on British duplicity in Afghanistan, violence in China, untrustworthiness in Hawaii, and heartless pragmatism in India. Slamm’s opposition to British imperialism was far from the Cold Warrior’s feverish fears of global communism. He did not propose an American Empire of his own to battle Victoria in a fresh round of global warfare; rather, he hoped to rouse people everywhere to several facts the “Young Americans” considered both manifest and unavoidable. First, Slamm believed that people did indeed rule themselves, and though most humans failed to assert their right to self‐government they could not be dispossessed of this right. Second, he argued that once a population had resolved to live free no institutions were powerful enough to deny them their rights. Should “Young India,” “Young China,” “Young Ireland,” and even “Young Hawaii” take their places alongside “Young America,” imperialism simply could not withstand the republican assault. Though he never expected as much, Slamm’s contributions to the concepts of “Manifest Destiny” and “American exceptionalism,” provided early and necessary political support to the rapidly‐developing American empire.
The pieces below have been excerpted from the New York Daily Plebeian.
“British Honor at Cabul” (25 February 1843)
By Levi D. Slamm
The London Athaenaeum for January 7th…contains a frank confession of the duplicity and treachery of the British authorities towards the Afghans, which led to the destruction of the Envoy of Queen Victoria, Sir Wm. Macnaghten. It is in the form of a narrative of the military operations in Cabul, by Lieut. Eyre, now in India…
Through the pressing representation of the military commanders, made after the first disasters in Upper India, negotiations were opened with the invaded and injured Afghans, and a treaty concluded and solemnly ratified, by which the British forces solemnly pledged themselves to evacuate Cabul, surrender its fortresses to their owners, and retire under Afghan protection, which they would have faithfully obtained.
But the Afghans doubted British honor. Mahomed Akber Khan, to test the sincerity of the English army, pretended to propose to the British Envoy a secret scheme by which Sha Soojah, the puppet of the foreigners, was to continue to act the mock king, and themselves remain in possession of Cabul, and break their treaty.
“It is with deep humiliation,” says the Atheneaum, “that we recorded here, that the British Envoy was a consenting party to these disgraceful proceedings, and gave a written sanction to the arrangement. From that moment the British forces were doomed to destruction.” Sir William soon set forward to meet the parties who were thus testing his honors and proving the hollowness of his most sacred engagements, and his base treachery towards their country. Who can wonder that they seized and slew the principle traitor? Who can regret the fearful retribution which was inflicted on the abettors? One thing is to be deplored–the greediness of gain, the lust of power, that can induce men, pretending to be Christians, and full of truth and integrity, to degrade themselves and assume the character of knaves and cheats.
“Correspondence of the Plebeian” (26 May 1843)
Mr. Editor–The affairs in China may have ceased to interest the good people of the United States, and even the East India squadron may have been forgotten amidst the more weighty matters which press upon the mind of the public. We wish, therefore, to awaken your slumbers, and to represent that the war is not ended in China, or has the East India squadron quite all left its shores.
The Boston sailed on the 28th of September with the news of a treaty, and is now looking out for our fishing and other interests about New Zealand and the Islands of the Pacific. This old ship is still at her post, watching the result of a war, the history of which no historian will have the hardihood to undertake to defend.
The “Canton Press” herewith transmitted, will inform you of a riot in Canton. This riot, as it is called, is but a lingering flash from the popular feeling which exists in China. It may be called a mob affair, but while every body knows how the war began, and how hostilities have ceased, it were idle to believe a people so injured could rest in peace.
It would be vain and useless to expect profound peace under the circumstances; and this outbreak at Canton will be but a prelude of what is to take place at the Five Ports, and will again be enacted in Canton.
The Chinese people and the Chinese government, alike, are most deadly hostile to every thing English. They feel their power, and bend to the necessity, hence they will sign any sort of a treaty–willing on any terms to get their great ships of war and steamers out of their waters. The force of might ably prevails, and whatever you may think we know not–but have made up our minds upon one point, which is, that England has only begun the game in this Empire, and before long all the rascals and gamblers in the world, who have no business in smuggling, or the slave trade, or piracy, will be coming this way to assist her in conquering one of the greatest, and we believe, the happiest nation on earth, this same China; for it is certain that no present treaty will bind a people whose altars have been torn down–whose cemeteries have been torn up–and whose females have been ravished, or who, to prevent it, have destroyed themselves by poison, or throwing themselves with their young ones into cisterns.
Besides the inalienable right of soil, what is to be considered safe so long as a flag of the despoiler flies on the Chinese island of Hong Kong?–Why may not the same some day be seen on Nantucket, or upon the top of our own Hempstead Hill? And then Nantucket or Long Island is British ground. But to return from the heroics.–John Bull has an awful day of retribution to look to when the world wakes up.
We have seen the Chinese people. They are a great people. They have been under the best government that nature could provide for them under the circumstances. We are sure the worst of them are as well off as the worst of other people, and we think the best are a great deal better off than any other people. No one has been seen idle, no one has been seen drunk; and this, in ten month’s experience, is saying something. Why, then, shall it be considered just that a war is waged against a nation to make them eat opium, and drink and buy rum, and foreign goods, leaving their own simple way of living to cause the employment of people in India in the poppy fields? We ask this?
For shame, old England! Thou setter up of morals! Thou emancipator of blacks, and enslaver of yellow skins, and of the fair bright Irish! Who, at this day, are greater slaves than the most bow‐legged negroes south of “Mason & Dixon’s line.”
With regard to the citizens of the United States in China, they, who are not connected with British houses, are concerned in the opium trade, there is nothing to fear…from a popular outbreak…
Macao Roads, Jan. 1st, 1843.
“British Usurpation of the Sandwich Islands” (8 June 1843)
By Levi D. Slamm
The policy of our government, avowed at a time when we were comparatively weak, as compared to other States, was to hold all nations “enemies in war, in peace friends.” Since the announcement of this rule of national conduct, two generations have passed away, and with the strength which time has brought to us, we are no longer required to bend principle to policy, but dare speak out as we should whenever events which European and monarchical aggression upon the rights of the people, and the interests of the civilized world require remonstrance. Our Congress at its last session provided for the support of a Commissioner to the Sandwich Islands, and is pursuance of the authority thus vested in him, the President appointed an individual to discharge the trust. Before that minister can reach his destination, news arrives that his mission will be fruitless, and that the British have usurped authority over 200,000 free islanders of the Pacific seas. What…is now required of our government? She has within the last ten years seen the British nation possess itself of all the avenues to the commerce of the entire world, that it had not mastered during the thirty years’ struggle–Asia, Africa and Australia under her perfect control, and her restrictive system at home, and for her wide spread colonies, effectually excludes all commercial and mechanical competition on the part of other countries, that rely upon their own resources solely. Her late acquisition of the Sandwich Islands, viewed in connection with her claim to the mouth of the Columbia river, especially affects the United States. Owning these two stations, she can, if she be so disposed, put an end to our whale fisheries, and deprive us of the 20,000 able seamen that they support. This small group of islands can be of no…intrinsic value, for she owns already thousands of unsettled square miles; her aim is to destroy the American preponderance in these seas, and to lop off one fourth of the means which support our formidable commercial marine. What our government may feel disposed to do in the premises, we can hardly venture to guess, but we would think that the same policy which forced us to announce many years ago, in our feeble state, that we would endure no European interference in the affairs of the western hemisphere, would justify us in abating the evil of which we now complain. English artifices are constantly astir all around us. They have been noted in regions closely connected with us–they may be pushed too far in other quarters for the tolerance of even our peaceful people.
“From the Cincinnati Gazette: India” (19 July 1843)
This is a fated land. From its first possession by European power, it has been the theatre of fraud, rapine, and blood. There is no crime in the record of history so black that we shall not there find its parallel; no scene of human butchery so desolating that we shall not there witness its counterpart. India has been visited by every evil which villany breeds; she stands a living monument of the blackest oppression.
Avarice planted the European on her soil. He went there to get money; to get it fairly if he could; but to get it; by persuasion, by dexterity, or by plunder. He succeeded. But there mingled in afterwards the desire for possessions–for an extension of empire; and then the governments of Europe made it the theatre for their political movements. Chief was arrayed against chief; nation against nation; until weakened by divisions, and limited in resources, India fell an easy prey to European authority. Yet what a sacrifice of life was occasioned by this subjugation! Myriads fell ignorant of the harm they had done. Nor was the condition of India bettered, in any way, under this European sway. The country was too extensive–the people too numerous–to be governed by military force. The same policy by which it was subdued was adopted to render that subjugation complete. One chief was made to check another; one nation was set to war with another; and thus, by hostility set on foot, or a jealousy fermented among them, by the Europeans, was India made, and kept, a tributary.
And how revolting are the scenes which its history presents! Sometimes, whole sections of the country were reduced to beggary. For months together, said one familiar with its condition in the last century, these creatures of sufferance (the East Indians) whose very excess and luxury in their most plenteous days had fallen short of the allowance of our (English) austerest fasts, silent, patient, resigned, without sedition or disturbance, almost without complaint, perished by an hundred a day in the streets of Madras; every day seventy at least laid their bodies in the streets, or on the glacis on Tanjore, and expired in the granary of India. And then again, when some chief bolder in heart, and wider in view, saw that “he had to do with men who either would sign no convention, or whom no treaty and no signature could bind, and who were the determined enemies of human intercourse, itself,” and thereupon resolved “to put perpetual desolation as a barrier between him and those against whom the faith which holds the mortal elements of the world together, was no protection,” with what terrible vengeance did he execute his purpose? Who does not recollect this determination of Hyder Ali, and the memorable burst of eloquence with which Mr. Burke described his resolution, and its execution:
“Having terminated his disputes with every enemy, and every rival, he drew from every quarter whatever rudiments in the arts of destruction; and compounding all the materials of fury, havoc, and desolation, into one black cloud, he hung for a while on the declivities of the mountains. Whilst the authors of these evils were idly and stupidly gazing upon this menacing meteor, which blackened all their horizon, it suddenly burst, and poured down the whole of its contents upon the plains of the Carnatic. Then ensued a scene of woe the like of which no eye had seen no heart conceived, and which no tongue can tell. All the horrors of war before known or heard of, were mercy to that new havoc. A storm of universal fire blasted every field, consumed every house, destroyed every temple. The miserable inhabitants flying from their flaming villages, in part were slaughtered; others without regard to sex, to age, or the respect to rank, or sacredness of function, fathers torn from children, husbands from wives, enveloped in a whirlwind of cavalry, and amidst the goading shears of the drivers, and the trampling of pursuing horses, were swept into captivity in an unknown and hostile land. Those who were able to escape the tempest, fled to the walled cities. But escaping from fire, sword, and exile, they fell into the pains of famine.”
These were the evils which Plunder–“a heroic avarice”–as it was called, brought upon that land in the last century, under British rule. Nor have they been lessened since. Modified, they may be; there is now, no doubt, less of extortion, less of rapine, but not a whit less of injustice and wrong: for the natives are slaves; are treated as such; and if they resist their iron vassalage, they are butchered by thousands! It is the same cause which produced the devastation of the Carnatic, and which led to the late battle on the Scind. It was wrongs of this kind which caused Mr. Burke to speak as he did in behalf of India, and if a kindred spirit existed, at this time, in the House of Commons, if any thing but athirst for dominion blinded the English people, no shouts of exultation would be heard for battles won over this abused, and oppressed race! But it is not so. The plains of India are conquered; not satisfied, British ambition grasps at the mountain barriers; and these gained, she will claim to sway even the Barbarian powers that live beyond them!
And all this, be it remembered, is the work of a power which calls itself Christian; which talks of its philanthropy; which boasts that there is no slavery on British soil!