Britbox Beatbox Bumbles – WIF Eye On Britannia

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Bloody Curious

Facts About the

Expansive

British Empire

The British Empire was by far the biggest empire in human history, which doesn’t sound as impressive if we just leave it at that. Consider this; at its height, the tiny island famous for being damp and cold controlled around 24% of Earth’s total area, ruling over 23% of the world population. It was a hugely influential entity, too. Many of our modern technologies first originated there, and its effects can still be seen in many nooks of modern life.

For all of its merits, though, the British Empire was also one of the most controversial empires to have ever existed. While many other European nations had their own territorial empires around the world, the excesses of colonialism are inherently associated with the Brits. For good reason, too, as it was the biggest one of them all, and perfected many of the techniques later used by other colonial powers to keep their numerically-superior colonial subjects in control. Some of them have been extensively discussed in modern discourse – like its prominent role in the establishment of the slave trade – though many of them have been left out of history books.

Because of its size and global influence at its peak, there are still many surprising – and shocking – facts from across the once-mighty British Empire most of us don’t know about.

7. The First Evil Corporation

The British Empire existed as a monarchy throughout its existence, though the true credit for its rapid rise around the world could be squarely given to the East India Company. Think of it as a private firm with its own standing army and patronage from the monarch, as the EIC was instrumental in wrestling control of Britain’s colonies in South and Southeast Asia all on its own.

What most of us forget, though, is that the EIC also pioneered the blueprint for all ‘evil corporations’ to come after it. Its whole business model was set up around efficiently securing the natural resources from its colonies, with support from the central British state in exchange for a bulk of those resources and military backing. It was also the recipient of the world’s first corporate bailout in 1773, when the EIC ran into massive debt and caused banks across Europe to crash. It could be compared to the Wall Street Bailout of 2008, except the EIC was way bigger and more intertwined with global trade at that time than any of those banks ever would be.

6. 1857 Sepoy Revolt

There’s no doubt that the EIC was one of the most successful corporations in history, with control over some of the most resource-rich and populous parts of the world at its peak. What started out as a loose group of merchants just trying to set up trading outposts in the East turned into a state of its own, with little to no oversight from the British government in its early days. If you’re wondering why we don’t hear about it as much as other successful business ventures in history, it’s because of the 1857 revolt in British-controlled India.

While the EIC had a standing army of its own, it wasn’t enough to control a territory as diverse and politically-complicated as India. That’s where the sepoys came in. An anglicized word for sipahi – which translates to soldier – they were soldiers picked from local populations to help the EIC army maintain control of the territory. That plan worked quite well for a while, too, until they decided to coat the rifle cartridges with pig and cow meat.

While the reasons behind the rebellion were diverse and numerous (much like all rebellions), the cartridges turned out to be the final straw. You see, the cartridges had to be picked with the teeth before being reloaded into the rifles, which was offensive to Hindu and Muslim sepoys. It gave way to one of the most brutal rebellions in the history of the British Empire, as the rebels came shockingly close to wrestling control of the whole territory. It caused quite a bit of outrage in Britain, too, as stories of rebels murdering British civilians living in India made its way there.

The rebellion was eventually suppressed, though it fundamentally changed how Britain dealt with its colonies. It marked the end of the East India Company, and put the British Indian territory directly under the monarch. It would stay that way until India’s independence in 1947.

5. Influence On Nazi Ideology

When we talk about the Nazis in the modern context, there’s always an air of shock to it. How could an ideology so opposed to human rights and just generally being nice to others gain a foothold in one of the world’s largest democracies of the time? Many reasons are cited, including the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression. While they may have contributed to it to an extent, what we often forget is that Nazi ideology never had to come out of the woodwork in the first place. The most problematic parts of it were already out in the open and widely-practiced, especially in the British Empire.

Hitler was massively influenced by British subjugation and control of its overseas territories – especially India – as he wanted to replicate it for Germany. He even referred to Eastern Europe as ‘Germany’s India’, though as we all know, that didn’t exactly go according to plan. The British Empire also kind of had a racism problem, as is proven by Churchill’s (and other British politicians’ of the time) frequent remarks on the colonies.

Moreover, many parts of the Nazi ideology were already popular across sections of governments in Europe, largely due to other countries wanting to replicate Britain’s success in their own colonies. A huge part of that was written out of Western history after the Second World War, though Hitler’s admiration for the British Empire remains well-documented. Despite that, the British Empire’s influence over the Nazis and fascists in Europe is almost never discussed.

4. The Bengal Famine

We’re no strangers to the disastrous policies of the British Empire, so much so that apologizing for them is a sort of an in-joke among the Brits at this point. From its infamous ‘divide and rule’ doctrine to the botched partitions of various countries in the wake of its departure from them, we’d say that we could fill a book with it, if there weren’t already many books like that. The fallout of those policies is still clearly visible in almost all of its economically-disadvantaged former colonies, in the form of inflamed racial and ethnic tensions as well as their economic backwardness after decolonization.

The Bengal Famine of 1943, however, is rarely ever mentioned as a part of that fallout, despite being one of the most devastating and controversial events in British Empire’s history. The mere fact that it’s known as a famine instead of a disaster caused by artificial scarcity of resources should tell you something about why it’s so rarely talked about. By some estimates, around 3 million of Bengal’s population died as a direct result of it, and many more were left malnourished for years to come, as it took quite some time for the state of Bengal – and India in general – to recover from it.

While the official position of Britain has always been that it was caused by a natural drought, recent studies have found that it wasn’t that natural after all. It was actually caused by the redirection of the food resources to Britain’s war effort and halted rice imports due to the Japanese invasion of Burma, as well as not declaring it a famine-hit region at the right time (or at any time since then). One study done on soil moisture data from that time concluded that Bengal was under no threat of a drought, and that the factors leading to the famine were purely manmade. To this day, the Bengal famine remains one of the most severe and deadly famines in history.

3. Still The Empire On Which The Sun Never Sets

As we said above, the phrase ‘the biggest empire ever’ doesn’t mean much on its own, as we have no intuitive way of quantifying how big that actually is, especially considering that history is full of massive empires – like the Roman and Mongolian empires. Consider this; at its peak, the British Empire was so huge that it was daytime in at least some of its territory, earning it its unofficial nickname ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’. That’s not to say that it was the only empire like that – as other big empires of the time, like Spain, could also qualify for that description at some point in their history – though Britain held that reputation for far longer than any of them.

While Britain is far from its glory days now, surprisingly, the sun still doesn’t set on it, as it still has many of its former colonies under its control. Apart from the British mainland, there are 14 British territories around the world, and we’re assuming all of them are okay with the arrangement as they’ve not yet asked for independence. Some of those territories are British outposts in uninhabited, remote areas – like its Antarctic base – though they still count as British territory for all intents and purposes.

2. Its Contribution To The Current Conflict In The Middle East

No matter which side of the story you listen to, you’d agree that the Middle East is in kind of a mess right now. With multiple factions – many of them extremist, armed groups – vying for control of vast tracts of countries like Syria and Iraq, there seems to be no end to the conflict. Well, not unless everyone mutually decides to call it quits and go back home. It’s made worse by underlying ethnic tensions between the various groups; tensions that have been unresolved and simmering under the surface for quite some time now. “Surely,” you’d probably wonder, “all of this couldn’t have happened overnight.” And you’d be right, because it didn’t.

In case you missed the title of the article, Britain had a huge role to play in what would inevitably, sooner or later, turn the Middle East into what it is today. It all started with the end of the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire’s territories were divided by Britain, with considerable help from France. Known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, the arrangement divided up the whole region according to spheres of influence and territorial ownership of the victors, with little to no regard for the actual ethnic demographics of the place.

To their credit, they didn’t know that they’d have to give up these territories at some point, as colonialism was still going strong around that time. Many terrorist groups in the Middle East still have the removal of the Sykes-Picot agreement as one of their primary aims, something we don’t even consider when we talk about the current state of the region.

1. The Disastrous Afghanistan Invasion

Afghanistan, for some weird reason, has been the focal point of many global conflicts in its history, right from the Soviet invasion in the ’80s to America’s ‘War on Terror’. Like Russia, many countries have discovered the hard way that Afghanistan isn’t the best place to invade, as it’s still a country largely ruled by independent warlords, with little oversight from the central government. The harsh and vast terrain doesn’t help the chances of invading armies, either.

What may be common knowledge now, though, wasn’t back in the middle of the 19th century, when the British Empire decided to make the same mistake as its later counterparts. Its invasion of Afghanistan in 1938 and eventual retreat in 1942 remains one of the empire’s biggest military defeats, despite its technological strength on the battleground.

It all began when the British army – made up of British and Indian soldiers – toppled the Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed, and installed Shah Shujah Durrani in his place. While their original plan was to take the country and withdraw all of their forces, two of their brigades had to stay back to keep the peace, including their civilian family members. They eventually grew comfortable with their hold on the country, and decided to kick back and relax a bit in Kabul.

It was all going well till the local population started to revolt, as any occupied population would tend to. Because of the rapidly worsening situation, the British decided to take all of their troops (around 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 civilians) and withdraw back into India in 1842, with a promise of safe passage from the local army general. As you probably guessed, the Afghans did not honor that promise, and the British army was harassed and slowly decimated throughout their long journey back across the treacherous terrain. All in all, the entire British army was killed, except one British and a handful of Indian soldiers.


Britbox Beatbox Bumbles

WIF Eye On Britannia

Fire, Floods, Famine, Lava and Shakers – WIF Bad Things Go Happen

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Epic Natural Disasters

Throughout History

Natural disasters have existed as long as humanity, and in fact a lot longer. This means that pretty much every century in recorded history has been forced to endure one or more incredibly destructive attacks of nature’s strongest powers. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest natural disasters in history, and how they affected the people of that era.

10. Peshtigo Fire

Most people are familiar with the Great Chicago Fire, with its “Mrs. O’Leary’s cow tipped over a lantern” backstory and hundreds of dead. However, it’s far from the most destructive fire in American history. It’s not even the most destructive one that started on October 8, 1871. That dubious honor goes to the Peshtigo Fire of Wisconsin — the most destructive forest fire in America’s history, which caused around 1,200 deaths, burned an incredible 1.2 million acres and burned through 16 different towns, in 11 counties. At one point, it even “skipped over” Green Bay to burn sections of two counties on the other side. It even made the same amount of damage as the much more urban Chicago fire — roughly $169 million.

Where the Great Chicago Fire was a disaster, the Peshtigo fire was hell, plain and simple. The fire was likely started by careless railroad workers who caused a brush fire which the dry summer and unfortunate winds soon whipped up into a superfast wall of flame that some say moved almost like a tornado. The flames “convulsed” and moved in strange ways, eating up all the oxygen and bursting fleeing people ablaze. It looked like the end of the world, and for many, it was. There were heroics, and tragic losses, and desperate survival stories. One heroic man reportedly carried a woman all the way to safety, thinking it was his wife, and when he found it was a stranger he immediately went insane. A young girl spent all night in the river to escape the inferno, holding on to a cow’s horn to stay moored.

The worst damage was done to the fire’s namesake, the town of Peshtigo. 800 of the fire’s 1,200 victims were from there, and the entire place was “gone in an hour.”

9. Ch’ing-yang event

There have been many times when meteors and meteorites have graced our planet with their presence, but arguably the one with the biggest death toll is the Ch’ing-yang event in 1490. Seeing as this meteor shower event in China happened well over five centuries ago, actual details about the event are unfortunately somewhat fuzzy. Accounts of the era report that “stones falling like rain” killed up to 10,000 people on the Ch’ing-Yang area of the Shaanxi Province.

Modern experts have expressed doubt over that exact figure — after all, it is the only meteor shower case with such a giant death toll. However, pretty much everyone agrees that a “dramatic event” happened at the reported time and place, and it’s speculated that a breakup of an asteroid may indeed have resulted in a deadly rain of celestial hail.

8. Calcutta cyclone

The Ganges River delta area is no stranger to tropical storms, but the Calcutta cyclone of 1737, also known as the Hoogly River cyclone, ranks among the absolute worst. It struck on an early autumn morning just south of the city of Calcutta, tearing 200 miles inlands before finally calling it a day. The cyclone brought with it a 30 to 40-foot storm surge (a sudden rise of water level in Ganges), along with 15 inches of rain over just six hours.

The combination of these elemental attacks was catastrophic. Most of the city of Calcutta, built largely of mud huts and brick buildings, was utterly demolished. The city suffered 3,000 casualties, but the cyclone’s overall damage was over a hundred times worse; The disaster is estimated to have killed up to 350,000 people and destroyed around 20,000 boats, ships and canoes of all shapes and sizes.

7. Dadu River dam landslide

On June 1, 1976, a huge earthquake shook the Kangding-Luding area of southwest China, causing all the problems that a major 7.75 magnitude quake can cause. What happened next was worse. A landslide dam (debris from the landslide blocking the water flow of the river), and as is so often the case in impromptu dams, it unfortunately wasn’t built to last.

After building a nice reservoir behind it for 10 days, the landslide dam eventually breached. The water cascaded downstream as a catastrophic wall of death, flooding the areas it encountered to the tune of 100,000 deaths. Experts think that this was likely the most destructive event of this particular nature in history.

6. Coringa cyclones

Coringa was a large and prosperous Indian port city at the mouth of river Godavari. These days, it’s still there, but only as a mere small village. This is because the former busy city went through some of the worst cyclones in history.

In 1789, Coringa received a massive blow when a nasty cyclone tore through the area, leaving around 20,000 people dead. The shaken city was nevertheless able to resume its functions, but unbeknownst to its residents, their terrors had only begun. On November 25, 1839, another, much worse cyclone came, bringing a 40-foot storm surge and punishing winds with it. Once the roar of the storm died down, Coringa’s entire port was destroyed. The death count of the cyclone was an estimated 300,000 people, which along with the 20,000 boats that were also destroyed by the storm marked the end of Coringa’s glory days.

5. Krakatoa volcanic eruption of 1883

What the Krakatoa volcano’s eruption in August 1883 lacked in death toll (it killed “only” 36,000 people), it delivered in pure, deadly spectacle. The volcano, which was on a 3-by-5.5 mile island between Sumatra and Java, started giving signs of upcoming trouble months before the incident, starting with massive ash clouds, “thundering” noises and strange “natural fireworks” that lit the sky. Unaware of the impeding doom, the people living on nearby islands took to celebrating the show — only to be rudely interrupted when Krakatoa started a very different, deadly party.

On August 26, the first blast threw debris and a gas cloud a good 15 miles in the air. The next morning, the area was shaken by four explosions that equaled the strength of 200 megatons of TNT (the Hiroshima bomb was around 0,01% of that) and could be heard from 2,800 miles away. Super-heated steam, hot gases and volcanic matter scorched the surrounding 25 miles at speeds over 62 miles-per-hour.

The eruption claimed its first victims via thermal injuries from its mighty blasts, and the rest fell victim to the 120-foot tsunami that came when the volcano collapsed into an undersea caldera. Even after its initial terrors were over, Krakatoa wouldn’t stop wrecking humanity’s day. The eruption was so strong that it actually changed the climate and dropped temperatures all over the world.

4. Shaanxi earthquake

In 1556, the Shaanxi province of China had the extreme misfortune of hosting what is thought to be the deadliest earthquake in recorded history. The quake was around 8 on the Richter scale, meaning it was a “great” earthquake that is totally capable of leveling communities near the epicenter. The Shaanxi quake wasn’t content with just communities, either; Chinese annals report that it lasted mere seconds, but was so incredibly strong that it destroyed buildings, remodeled rivers, caused floods, ignited massive fires and even “leveled mountains.”

As you can probably expect, such a massive disaster was bad news for any and all humans who happened on its way. The Shaanxi earthquake had an estimated 830,000 casualties, and it actually cut the population of the area by a ridiculous 60 percent. Oddly, it also managed to affect the architectural trends of the area: Because many people had been killed by falling stone buildings, the rebuilding process saw the adaptation of wood, bamboo and other more earthquake-resistant materials.

3. Yellow River floods of China

Between 1887 and 1938, China’s famed Huang He (Yellow River) went through the top three most destructive floods in recorded history. The 3,395-mile river is extremely silted, which makes especially the North China Plain’s flatlands to be in constant risk of flooding: Since the 2nd century BCE, it has flooded an estimated 1,500 times, and no one can even begin to calculate the death and destruction these floods have brought in total.

We do, however, know unpleasantly well the havoc these three ultra-destructive floods brought on the ill-prepared China. In the flood that happened over September and October of 1887 (and the famine and diseases it brought to the survivors) the death toll is estimated somewhere between 900,000 and two million people. An even more destructive one in August 1931 covered 34,000 square miles of land in water, and “partially” flooded a further 8,000. Up to 4 million people were killed by the flood and its aftermath, and a devastating 80 million people were left homeless. This particular flood is often considered the most deadly natural disaster in recorded history.

The last of the three mega-floods came in June 1938, and it was actually completely man-made. Thanks to the military’s destruction of dikes near Kaifeng in an effort to stop the approaching Japanese forces in the Sino-Japanese war, up to 900,000 people died.

2. The great European famine

If even honest men can do terrible things when they’re desperate, and the best way to make a person desperate is to make them terribly hungry, imagine what would happen if you’d make a whole continent starve. Actually, you don’t need to, because that exact thing happened in 14th century Europe.

The Great European Famine happened when bad weather conditions caused crops to fail all over Europe from 1315 to the summer harvest of 1317. The results were nothing short of cataclysmic. The few years of hunger single-handedly stopped a centuries-long time of wealth and growth, and plunged the continent into a pandemonium of disease, death, crime, and even the indescribable horrors of infanticide and cannibalism. Millions of people died, and it took until 1922 for Europe to recover from the terror. In fact, the effects of the disaster can still be felt today: Reportedly, certain parts of France are still more sparsely populated than they were just before the Great Famine hit.

1. Plague of Justitian

Disclaimer: this one has a death toll that goes right through the roof, though technically it’s not a natural disaster in the “earth rises to devour us all” sense, but rather an outbreak of disease. A massive, massive outbreak of disease.

Imagine being an all-powerful emperor trying to cement your legacy, only to find that the main thing history books remember about you is that a bunch of rodents managed to kill countless thousands of people during your reign … and then giving the ensuing epidemic. Such was the fate of Byzantine’s emperor Justitian I, who became the namesake of the Plague of Justitian (or Justitian’s plague, because why bother giving it just one version of the guy’s name?) just because he happened to be in charge when it struck.

Justitian’s plague, which was basically a nasty cellar band version of the Black Plague before it went mainstream, had formed in China and/or India, and its tours eventually took it to Egypt and assorted trade routes. it got its big break in the year 542, when the rodents bearing the disease finally reached the mighty city of Constantinople. Reports indicate that the city was struck with pretty much all forms of plague at once: Apart from the Black Death classic bubonic plague, pneumonic and septicemic types were also present. As such, citizens started keeling over by the thousand. Tens of thousands of people died in an extremely short span of time, and matters weren’t helped by the fact that authorities were unable to dispose of the masses of dead, diseased bodies in a timely manner.

After the plague was done with Justitian’s Constantinople, it turned its attention to the Mediterranian and later Persia. Its active career lasted for an estimated half a century, though some indicate that the plague continued its Mediterranean tour for a good 225 years. Ultimately, it’s estimated that the Plague of Justitian killed up to 40% of Constantinople’s residents, and the entire Byzantine empire lost somewhere between 25 and 50 million people. Nice legacy, Justitian.


Fire, Floods, Famine, Lava and Shakers

WIF Bad Things Go Happen