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Another British Revelation[356]

Karl Marx

With the single exception of the posthumous papers of Sir A. Burnes, published by his father in order to clear his memory from the false imputation, cast upon him by Lord Palmerston, of having initiated the infamous and unfortunate Afghan war, and proving to evidence that the so-called dispatches of Sir A. Burnes, as laid before Parliament by Lord Palmerston, were not only mutilated to the entire perversion of their original sense, but actually falsified and interpolated with passages forged for the express purpose of misleading public opinion[357]—with this single exception, there has, perhaps, never appeared a series of documents more damaging to the reputation of the British Government and of the caste which enjoys a hereditary tenure of office in that country, than the correspondence between Sir James Graham and Sir Charles Napier, just published[a] by the old Admiral with a view to vindicate his own character.

In this controversy Sir James Graham possesses one great advantage over his adversary—no revelation whatever is likely to lower his character in the world's judgment. The man who loudly boasted of having been an accomplice in the murder of the Bandieras; who stands convicted of having regularly opened, and tampered with, private letters at the London Post-Office for the mere benefit of the Holy Alliance; who spaniel-like licked the hands of the Emperor Nicholas, when he landed on the English shore; who even exaggerated the atrocious cruelty of the new English Poor Laws by his peculiar method of administering them; and who, but a few months ago, vainly attempted in a full House to throw upon Mr. Layard the odium of the injuries he had himself inflicted upon poor Captain Christie[b][358]—such a man may be fairly considered character-proof. There is something mysterious in his public career. Possessed neither of the uncommon talents which allow Lord Palmerston to belong to no party, nor of the hereditary party influence which enables Lord John Russell to dispense with uncommon talents, he has nevertheless succeeded in acting a prominent part among British statesmen. The clue to this riddle is to be found, not in the annals of the history of the world, but in the annals of Punch. In that instructive periodical there occurs, year after year, a picture drawn from the life, and adorned with the laconic inscription: "Sir Robert Peel's Dirty Boy." Sir Robert Peel was an honest man, though no great man; but above all, he was a British statesman, a party leader, forced by the very exigencies of his position to do much dirty work, which he was rather averse to doing. Thus, Sir James proved a true godsend to him, and thus Sir James happened to become an inevitable man, and a great man too.

Sir Charles Napier belongs to a family alike distinguished by their gifts and their eccentricities. The Napiers, amid the present tame race of men, impress one with the notion of some primitive tribe, enabled by their natural genius to acquire the arts of civilization; but not to bow before its conventionalities, to respect its etiquette, or to submit to its discipline. If the Napiers have always done good service to the English people, they have always quarreled with and revolted against their government. If they possess the value of Homeric heroes, they are also somewhat given to their swaggering mood. There was the late General Sir Charles Napier—undoubtedly the most ingenious soldier England has possessed since the times of Marlborough, but not more noted for his conquest of Scinde[359] than for his quarrels with the East India Company, which were prolonged beyond the grave on the part of his family. There is General Sir W. Napier, the first writer in the military literature of England, but not less famous for his eternal feuds with the British War-Office—whose regard for the narrow prejudices of his countrymen is so small that, at first, his celebrated history of the Peninsular War was unanimously denounced by the British reviews as "the best French account ever given of that War." There is also the antagonist of Sir James Graham, old Admiral Napier, who made his renown by unmaking the orders of his superiors. As for this last burly scion of the Napiers, Sir James fancied he had wrapped him in boa-constrictor folds, but they finally prove to be mere conventional cobwebs.

Sir James Graham, as First Lord of the Admiralty, deprived Sir Charles Napier, on his return to England, of his command; in the House of Commons he pointed to him as the responsible author of the Baltic failure, in proof of which he quoted some passages from his private letters[c]; he accused him of having shrunk from the execution of the bold orders he had received from the Admiralty Board; he expressed a hope that no other Lord of the Admiralty would at any future time be inconsiderate enough to hoist Sir Charles Napier's flag; and he ridiculed him in the papers at his disposal as "Fighting Charley," who, like the mythological King of France, "marched up the hill with twenty thousand men, and then marched down again." Sir Charles, to use his own words,

"demanded inquiry on his conduct, which was refused; he appealed to the Cabinet, but received no reply, and finally to the House of Commons. The papers were refused, under the plea that it would be injurious to her Majesty's service."[d]

After the bombardment of Sweaborg that plea was of course at an end.

Sir James thought his game the more sure, as he had taken the precaution of marking all his letters "private" which were likely to expose himself and to vindicate his intended victim. As to the meaning of that sacramental word "private," Sir James himself, when giving his evidence before the Sevastopol Committee, stated that a British First Lord of the Admiralty is wont to mark public instructions "private" whenever he has good reason to withhold them not only from the public, but even from Parliament.[e]

With a man like Sir James, who thinks himself entitled to turn private letters into public ones, it is quite natural to convert public documents into private property. But this time he reckoned without his host. Sir Charles Napier, by boldly breaking through the shackles of "private instructions," is perhaps exposed to the chance of being struck from the British Navy list, and has probably disabled himself from ever again hoisting his flag; but, at the same time, he has not only barred the entrance of the Admiralty Board to Sir James, but also shown to the English people that their navy is as rotten as their army. When the Crimean campaign stripped from the British army its time-honored reputation, the defenders of the ancient régime pleaded not guilty on the plausible ground that England had never pretended to be a first-rate military power. However, they will not dare to assert that Great Britain has laid no claim to be the first naval power of the world. Such is the redeeming feature of war; it puts a nation to the test. As exposure to the atmosphere reduces all mummies to instant dissolution, so war passes supreme judgment upon social organizations that have outlived their vitality.

This correspondence between Sir James Graham and Admiral Napier, extending from the 24th of February to the 6th of November, 1854, and denied a place in full in our columns only from its great length, may be summed up very briefly. Up to the end of August, when the Baltic season, as is generally known, has reached its close, all went very smoothly—although Sir Charles Napier, on the very outset of the expedition, had told Sir James his opinion that

"the means which the Admiralty had provided for fitting out and manning the North Sea fleet [...] were insufficient for the occasion and unequal to an encounter with the Russians on fair terms."

During all this time Sir James in his letters does nothing but smile upon his "Dear Sir Charles." On March 12 he "congratulates" him on the "order " in which the fleet had left the English shores; on April 5 he is "satisfied with his movements;" on April 10 he is "entirely satisfied with his proceedings;" on June 20 he calls him "a consummate Commander-in-Chief;" on July 4 he is "sure that whatever man can do will be done by Sir Charles;" on August 22 he "congratulates him sincerely on the success of his operations before Bomarsund;" and on August 25, seized with a sort of poetical rapture, he breaks forth:

"I am more than satisfied with your proceedings; I am delighted with the prudence and sound judgment you have evinced."

During the whole time Sir James feels only anxious lest Sir Charles,

"in the eager desire to achieve a great exploit and to satisfy the wild wishes of an impatient multitude, should yield to some rash impulse, and fail in the discharge of one of the noblest of duties—which is the moral courage to do what you know to be right, at the risk of being accused of having done wrong."

As early as May 1, 1854, he tells Sir Charles:

"I believe both Sweaborg and Kronstadt to be all but impregnable from the sea—Sweaborg more especially—and none but a very large army could operate by land efficiently in the presence of such a force as Russia could readily concentrate for the immediate approaches to her capital."

If Sir Charles tells him on June 12 that

"the only successful manner of attacking Sweaborg that he could see after the most mature consideration, assisted by Admiral Chads [...], was by fitting out a great number of gun-boats [...]"[f]

Sir James answers him on July 11:

"With 50,000 troops and 200 gun-boats you might still do something great and decisive before the end of September."

But hardly had the Winter set in, the French army and navy sailed away, and the heavy equinoctial gales begun to furrow the Baltic waves—hardly had Sir Charles reported

"that our ships have already been parting their cables; the Dragon was reduced to one anchor, and the Impérieuse and Basilisk lost one each the other night; and the Magicienne was obliged to anchor in a fog, and when she weighed in the night from off Nargen found herself obliged to anchor off Renskar Lighthouse, having drifted among the rocks; and that the Euryalus had been ashore on the rocks, and that it was a mercy she was not lost"—

when Sir James all at once discovered that "war is not conducted without risks and dangers," and Sweaborg, therefore, must be taken without a single soldier or a single gun or mortar-boat! Indeed, we can only repeat with the old Admiral: "Had the Emperor of Russia been First Lord of the Admiralty he would have written just such letters."

At the Admiralty Board, as is clearly shown by this correspondence, anarchy reigned as supreme as at the War-Office. Sir James approved of Napier's movement inside the Belt, while the Board disapproved of it. In August, Sir James writes him to prepare for an early retreat from the Baltic, while the Board sends dispatches in a contrary sense. Sir James takes one view of Gen. Niel's report, and the Board an opposite one. But the most interesting point presented by the correspondence is, perhaps, the new light it throws upon the Anglo-French Alliance. The French admiral[g] showed Sir Charles his orders of recall on the 30th of August. The French army sailed on the 4th of September, and the rest of the French fleet left on the 19th; while Sir James Graham informs Sir Charles that he only knew of their withdrawal on the 25th September. Sir James, therefore, erroneously supposed "the decisions to have been taken on the spot, with Napier's consent," but, as he emphatically adds: "without any reference to the English Government." On the other hand, it seems that Niel, the French General of Engineers, and Louis Bonaparte's intimate friend, gave the advice to "destroy Sweaborg in two hours, by sail-of-the-line." This would seem to show clearly that he intended goading the English fleet into a desperate attack, in which they would uselessly knock their heads on the forts and sunken rocks of the Russian defenses.

Written about September 8, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4502, September 24, 1855
as a leading article


[a] The Times, Nos. 22149, 22150, 22152 and 22154, September 3, 4, 6 and 8, 1855.—Ed.

[b] This refers to Graham's speech in the House of Commons on May 18, 1855. The Times, No. 22058, May 19, 1855.—Ed.

[c] Graham's speech in the House of Commons on March 8, 1855. The Times, No. 21997, March 9, 1855.—Ed.

[d] "Sir Charles Napier on the Bombardment of Sweaborg. To the Editor of The Times", The Times, No. 22141, August 24, 1855.—Ed.

[e] "State of the Army before Sebastopol", The Times, No. 22054, May 15, 1855.—Ed.

[f] "Sir Charles Napier on the Bombardment of Sweaborg".—Ed.

[g] A. F. Parseval-Deschênes.—Ed.

[356] This article was published in The Eastern Question under the heading "Napier and Graham".

[357] In 1839 the British Parliament issued a Blue Book on Persia and Afghanistan containing, among other documents, a number of letters by A. Burnes, the British representative in Kabul, on the Anglo-Afghan war (see Note 20↓). The letters had been selected and presented by the Foreign Office in such a way as to conceal Britain's provocative role in unleashing the war. Shortly before his death Burnes sent duplicates of his letters to London. Those not included in the Blue Book were published by his family.

[358] A reference to the following facts connected with James Graham's activities as Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty: the opening, on his instructions, of the letters of Italian revolutionary refugees (see Note 199↓); his part in the welcome given to Russian Emperor Nicholas I during the latter's visit to Britain in June 1844; his administration of the 1834 Poor Law and especially his responsibility for the notorious scandal at the Andover workhouse in 1845; and the attempt to put Captain Christie, head of port and transport facilities in Balaklava, on trial for neglect of duty, an attempt which caused Christie's premature death.

[359] The Sind, an area in Northwest India bordering on Afghanistan, was seized in 1843. During the Anglo-Afghan war of 1838-42, the East India Company by threats and violence forced the feudal rulers of the Sind to agree to the transit of its troops through their territory. In 1843 the British demanded that the local feudal lords become vassals of the Company. This caused an uprising of the Baluch tribes (the Sind's indigenous population) after whose suppression by British troops under Sir Charles Napier the whole area was annexed to British India.

[20] The Afghanistan campaigns—during the first Anglo-Afghan war (1838-42) in which Britain strove to establish colonial rule in Afghanistan, British troops invaded Afghan territory twice (in 1838 and 1842). Both invasions failed to achieve their purpose.

At the insistence of the British government, Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia signed a convention in London on July 15, 1840, on military assistance to Turkey in its war against Egypt (1839-41). In the autumn of 1840 British and Austrian warships bombarded Beirut, Saint-Jean-d'Acre and other for-tresses on the Syrian coast, which had been captured by Mehemet Ali, the ruler of Egypt, between 1831 and 1833. Eventually Mehemet Ali was forced to relinquish his possessions outside Egypt and submit to the supreme authority of the Sultan.

[199] Acting on instructions from the Home Secretary James Graham, the British authorities in 1844 opened the correspondence of a number of Italian revolutionary refugees, including letters from the Bandiera brothers to Mazzini in which they set forth their plan for an expedition to Calabria to organise an uprising against the Neapolitan Bourbons and Austrian rule in Italy. In June 1844 the members of the expedition, betrayed by one of their number, were arrested. The Bandiera brothers were shot.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.513-518), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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