By Numan Abd al-Wahid
Whether one is critical of the alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States or in favour of the so-called “Special Relationship” it is perceived to be an amicable, natural and trans-historical partnership between two nations who share the same language and whose global interests are more or less the same. Over the last fifteen years these two nations assumed the lead in their continuing support of the colonialist state of Israel and waging war on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and calling for more military intervention in Syria and Iran. So it is no surprise that many find it hard to accept that this alliance is a recent advent rooted in geo-political exigencies of the historical moment at hand. British imperialism was animus, if not outright antithetical, in the first 150 years of the Republic.
Writing, if not gloating, in the midst of the American civil war in the nineteenth century, the future British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (a.k.a. Robert Cecil) heralded not only the end of the United States of America but democracy itself or as he referred to it the “evil of universal suffrage.”[i] American democracy and the vaunted republic he gleefully boasted were not only a failed experiment and a busted flush but the “most ignominious failure the world had ever seen.” It had become, in our esteemed Lord’s eyes, what today would be referred to derogatively and pejoratively, as a ‘failed state’.
The main reason for this inevitable failure according to Cecil was that the United States had rejected and overthrown its natural leaders, i.e. the British establishment. As such they are now richly “reaping a harvest that was sown as far back as the time of Jefferson.” The Americans had substituted genuine leadership for a dreamer’s theory (the works of Thomas Jefferson) and more so, in the present climate, Abraham Lincoln was an “ass”, an incompetent and “the most conspicuous cause of the present calamities.”[ii]
Another British Minister, William Gladstone too had little time for Lincoln and came out in support of the Southern Confederacy. The Gladstone family had become wealthy largely owing to the family’s slave camps in Jamaica and William’s maiden speech in parliament was a defence of the family business which arose from the slave trading port of Liverpool. Although William Gladstone represented constituents in the family’s native parliamentary seat of Midlothian, Scotland, his father had represented Liverpool in Parliament.[iii]
At the time of the civil war Liverpool’s economy as well as that of the wider North-west region of England was mostly reliant on cotton imported from the American south and then distributed to the cotton mills of Lancashire and Cheshire. Lincoln’s Union army’s blockade of Southern ports caused a massive disruption to this trade.
The blockade also affected the South’s ship manufacturing facilities. As such they turned to Great Britain for ship and gunboat manufacturing. Two ships stand out. The first was the ‘Alabama’ which once operational sunk 65 union ships. The other Confederate ship was a trade ship re-fitted as a gunboat, ‘Shenandoah’ which once sent out to battle “captured nearly 40 prizes” i.e. that is hijacked and looted 40 union and other ships. Needless to say the crew on both ships were mostly manned by British personnel.[iv]Claims were made that these ships were “decoying their victims with the British flag.”[v]
In parliament 74 members were in favour of the confederacy, while only 17 were pro North, pro Lincoln.[vi]The British political establishment were clearly waiting for the right time to intervene on behalf of the south yet at the same time they were loathe to spread the Empire’s resources “too thinly across the globe.” [vii]
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