If you’re a fan of Victorian history, literature, and culture, the BBC blog Magazine Monitor has a great series on at the moment called Victorian Strangeness.
All stories are taken from 19th-century newspaper reports (which, if you’re not familiar with 19th-century newspapers, they are entirely great both for their sometimes utterly bizarre stories and also equally strange ads). One of my favorites is the story about the 3,000-mile drunken escapade, which you can find linked in the article.
10. The Boer Concentration Camps
Pitched under the white hot African sun and crawling with flies, the camps were overcrowded, underequipped, and lethally prone to disease outbreaks. Food supplies were virtually non-existent, and the callous guards would dock people’s meager rations for the slightest perceived offense. The result: sickness and death spread like wildfire, killing women by the thousands and children by the tens of thousands. In a single year, 10 percent of the entire Boer population died in the British camps—a figure that gets even worse when you realize it includes 22,000 children.
But the atrocity didn’t stop there. While rounding up the Boers, the British also decided to detain any black Africans they encountered, 20,000 of whom were worked to death in slave labor camps. All told, British policy in the war killed 48,000 civilians.
9. Aden’s Torture Centers
The Aden Emergency was a 1960s scramble to control the once-vital port of Aden in modern Yemen. Although the port had long been under British rule, a nationalist wave sweeping Yemen led to strikes, riots, and a general desire that the Brits leave as soon as possible. A desire the British decided to quell by opening torture centers.
Detainees were stripped naked and kept in refrigerated cells, encouraging frostbite and pneumonia. Guards would stub their cigarettes out on prisoner’s skin and beatings were common. But perhaps worst of all was the sexual humiliation. Locals who had been detained could expect to have their genitals crushed by guards’ hands, or to be forced to sit naked on a metal pole; their weight forcing it into their anus.
8. The Chinese “Resettlement”
In 1950, the Empire had a problem. Armed Communist insurgents were trying to take over Malaya and most of the population seemed willing to let them do so. Reasoning that their forces stood no chance against a hidden army that could call upon the peasants for supplies, the British hit upon an ingenious solution. Rather than fight, they’d simply imprison all the peasants.
Known as “New Villages,” the camps constructed to house Malaya’s poor were heavily fortified and watched over by trigger-happy guards. Inmates were forced to do hard labor in return for scraps of food, and contact with the outside world—including family—was forbidden. Once in a village, you lost all right to freedom and privacy. At night, harsh floodlights flushed out the shadows to stop clandestine meetings. Expressing any political sentiment could get your rations docked.
7. The Amritsar Massacre
On April 13, 1919, thousands of peaceful protesters defied a government order and demonstrated against British rule in Amritsar, India. What happened next was one of the lowest points in British history.
At 4.30pm, troops blocked the exits to the Garden and opened fire on the crowd. They kept firing until they ran out of ammunition. In the space of ten minutes, they killed between 379 and 1,000 protesters and injured another 1,100. A stampede caused a lethal crush by the blocked exits. Over 100 women and children who looked for safety in a well drowned. Rifle fire tore the rest to shreds.
The British public labeled Brigadier Reginald Dyer, the man responsible, a hero and raised £26,000 (around $900,000 in today’s money) for “the man who saved India.”
6. The Cyprus Internment
The big myth of the British Empire is that it nobly withdrew from its colonies when it realized the days of Imperialism were over. Yet one look at Cyprus proves the myth to be just a feel-good fairy tale. Between 1955 and 1959, the British responded to a Cyrpus rebel bombing campaign by rounding up and torturing 3,000 ordinary Cypriots.
The victims of this internment campaign were often held for years without trial and violently abused for being “suspected” terrorists. Detainees received regular beatings, waterboarding, and summary executions. Children as young as 15 had burning hot peppers rubbed in their eyeballs, while others reported being flogged with whips embedded with shards of iron. Those found guilty of rebel sympathies were relocated to London, where a UK opposition party inspection found inmates with their arms broken and jagged scars running across their necks.
5. Crushing the Iraqi Revolution
In 1920, the newly-formed nation of Iraq was tiring of British rule. Charged with guiding the new state towards independence, the Empire had instead installed puppet leaders. turning the place into a de facto colony. Fed up with their imperial overlords, the Iraqis turned to revolution, only for the British to unleash wave after wave of atrocities against them.
First the RAF conducted nighttime bombing raids on civilian targets. Then they deployed chemical weapons against the fighters, gassing whole groups of them. But the real horrors came in the aftermath, when the victorious British decided to use collective punishment against the offending tribes.
From that point on, any tribe that caused a fuss would have one of its villages randomly annihilated. Specific orders were given to exterminate every living thing within its walls, from animals to rebels to children. Other villages were subject to random searches. If the British found a single weapon, they would burn the place to the ground, destroy the crops, poison wells, and kill livestock. They’d sometimes target weddings to terrorize the population. In short, the British deliberately targeted civilians in a campaign that lasted the better part of half a decade, all because a few Iraqis had dared to ask for their country back.
4. The Partitioning of India
Cyril Radcliffe has the distinction of killing more people with the stroke of a pen than anyone else in history. With almost zero time to prepare himself, Radcliffe was tasked with drawing the border between India and newly-created Pakistan that would split the subcontinent forever along religious lines. It was a tricky task, one that had the potential to cause massive displacement and ethnic violence even if handled carefully. Radcliffe, on the other hand, was asked to make some of the most-important decisions during the course of a single lunch.
The result was a border that made no ethnic or geographical sense. Terrified of being caught on the wrong side, Hindus in modern Pakistan and Muslims in modern India upped sticks and ran. The result was 30 million people trying desperately to escape one country or the other, a situation that quickly spiraled into mind-numbing violence.
Gangs of armed Muslims held up border trains and slaughtered any non-Muslims onboard. Hindu mobs chased and battered Muslim children to death in broad daylight. Houses were ransacked, villages burnt, and half a million people killed. It was a ridiculous waste of life, one that could have been largely avoided simply by giving the unfortunate Cyril Radcliffe enough time to do his job properly.
[or you know, letting the Indians figure shit out instead of a white guy who had never before even been to the subcontinent]
3. The Irish Famine
What started out as an ordinary if brutal famine soon became something more like genocide when London sent the psychopathic Charles Trevelyan to oversee relief work.
A proud Christian who believed the famine was God’s way of punishing the “lazy” Irish, Trevelyan was also a fierce devotee of Adam Smith. How fierce? Well, he passionately felt that government should never, ever interfere with market forces, to the extent that he refused to hand out food to the starving Irish. Instead, he instituted a public works program that forced dying people into hard labor building pointless roads so they could afford to buy grain. The only problem was he refused to control the price of grain, with the result that it skyrocketed beyond what the road builders could afford. Trevelyan thought this would encourage cheap imports. Instead it led to a million people starving to death.
Trevelyan was later officially honored for his “relief work.”
2. The Kenyan Camps
In the 1950s, the people of Kenya decided they wanted their nation back. Fearing a countrywide rebellion, the British rounded up 1.5 million people and placed them in concentration camps.
Under slogans like “labor and freedom” and other variations on ” Arbeit macht frei,” inmates were worked to death as slave labor filling in mass graves. Random executions were not-uncommon and the use of torture was widespread. Men were anally raped with knives. Women had their breasts mutilated and cut off. Eyes were gouged out and ears cut off and skin lacerated with coiled barbed wire. People were castrated with pliers then sodomized by guards. Interrogation involved stuffing a detainee’s mouth with mud and stamping on his throat until he passed out or died. Survivors were sometimes burned alive.
The official body count is under 2,000, but more reliable estimates place the total dead in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Most of them were civilians or children, detained on vague, trumped-up charges of aiding the rebels.
1. The Bengal Famine
In 1943, a deadly famine swept the Bengal region of modern East India and Bangladesh. Between one and three million people died in a tragedy that was completely preventable. At the time, the extent of suffering was put down to an incompetent British government too busy dealing with a war to look after its empire properly. But in 2010 a new book came out claiming the lack of famine relief was deliberate and that the deaths of those millions had been intentionally engineered by one man: Winston Churchill.
According to the book, Churchill refused to divert supplies away from already well-supplied British troops, saying the war effort wouldn’t allow it. This in itself wouldn’t be too damning, but at the same time he allegedly blocked American and Canadian ships from delivering aid to India either. Nor would he allow the Indians to help themselves: the colonial government forbade the country from using its own ships or currency reserves to help the starving masses. Meanwhile, London pushed up the price of grain with hugely inflated purchases, making it unaffordable for the dying and destitute. Most-chillingly of all, when the government of Delhi telegrammed to tell him people were dying, Churchill allegedly only replied to ask why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.
Never. Ever. Forget.
#8 affected my family back in the old country.
My British citizenship is a fluke of birth, not a matter of pride.
Fixed the spelling of Malaya. Although this version that it was Malaya’s poor is new, given that the Communist insurgency were racialized specifically as Chinese, so all the Kampung Baru you see are mostly Chinese people. Yes it was mostly poor Malayan-Chinese, but it’s not quite all of Malaya’s poor peasantry like in that description.
Our identification cards are also part of that legacy of resettlement, iirc.
Is this an 1840’s photo of the Bronte sisters? Some believe it might be:A photo on glass, it dates from the 1850s, and written on the back in French is “Les Sœurs Brontë.” Although Emily and Anne died in the 1840s, copies were made of their other portraits in the 1850s, one by a photographer from France.
Read more about this photo here. Photo © RPM Collection
Tea leaves collected from Boston harbor the morning after the Boston Tea Party.
“Tea that was gathered up on the Shore of Dorchester Neck on the morning after the destruction of the three Cargos at Boston December 17, 1773.”
i’m so pleased that this means someone during the event was like “yeah this is probably gonna be historically interesting” and just ran out there with, like, what, a net? some cloth? fishing around in the fucking bay to collect tea to put in a bottle? you go, buddy
Good job, anonymous 18th century person. Your commitment to historic preservation pleases me.
Dr. Mary Walker ”believed that tight corsets along with voluminous skirts and petticoats were unsanitary and hampered her medical practice. So she didn’t wear them: first sporting bloomers, then, midway through the war, abandoning those for a male surgeon’s uniform. She didn’t attempt to pass as a man; she was an obviously female doctor wearing a male uniform…. She continued to wear men’s clothing throughout her long life (she lived until 1919) and continually advocated for rational dress reform for women.”
"A recent medical writer states that the vices of the American character may be briefly summed up as follows:
- An inordinate passion for riches.
- Overwork of mind and body in pursuit of business.
- Undue excitement and hurry in all the affairs of life.
- Intemperance in eating, drinking and smoking.
- A general disregard of the true laws of life and health.”
Mary Bowser, former slave of the Van Lew family, infiltrated the Confederacy by working as a servant in the household of Jefferson Davis. Bowser was assumed to be illiterate, and as a black woman was below suspicion. Practically invisible, she was able to listen to conversations between Confederate officials and read sensitive documents, gathering information that she handed over to the Union.
tw: racism, slavery, torture
George Washington’s dentures, ca. 1780s
More than his teeth were false, as Michael Coard and others have documented:
Although Washington considered his enslaved black workers unworthy of proper clothing (among other items), he certainly found their teeth quite worthy, so much so that he replaced a number of his unhealthy teeth with their healthy teeth, to his mouth from their mouths. While schoolchildren often were taught and sometimes still are taught about his wooden teeth — a story based on myth, they never were taught about his “slave” teeth — a story based on truth…Instead of (or in addition to) wooden teeth or standard dentures, Washington had teeth that actually were “yanked from the heads of his slaves and fitted into his dentures… [and also] apparently had slaves’ teeth transplanted into his own jaw in 1784…”
Clarence Lusane zooms out:
The White House itself, the home of presidents and quintessential symbol of the U.S. presidency, was built with slave labor, just like most other major building projects had been in the 18th-century United States…President Washington initially wanted to hire foreign labor to build the White House, but when he realized how costly it would be to pay people fairly, he resorted to slave labor…
While professing to abhor slavery and hope for its eventual demise, as president Washington…did everything he could to ensure that not one of the more than 300 people he owned could secure their freedom. During the 10 years of construction of the White House, George Washington spent time in Philadelphia where a law called the Gradual Abolition Act passed in 1780. It stated that any slaves brought into the state were eligible to apply for their freedom if they were there for longer than six months. To get around the law, Washington rotated the people working for him in bondage so that they were there for less than six months each.
Scumbag of the day: founding fucking fathers edition
Every time I see Elizabeth i’s signature I get absurdly happy cause I just imagine her signing her name and doing a little twirly and then pausing and then adding a few more twirlies
“your majesty perhaps thats enough twirls” suggests William Cecil
“perhaps Im the motherfuckin queen” suggests elizabeth and adds 6 more