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    Chapter 4

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    Chapter 5
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    Chief Public Events, 1837-49--Rebellion in Canada--Opium War with China--Wars in North-west India--Penny Postage--Repeal of the Corn-laws--Potato Famine--Free Trade--Chartism.

    The Queen had been only a few months on the throne when tidings arrived of a rebellion in Canada. The colonists had long been dissatisfied with the way in which the government was conducted by the mother-country. In the year 1840 Upper and Lower Canada were united into one province, and though the union was not at first a success, the colonists were granted the power of managing their own affairs; and soon came to devote their efforts to developing the resources of the country, and ceased to agitate for complete independence. The principle of union then adopted has since been extended to most of the other North American colonies; and at the present time the Dominion of Canada stretches across the whole breadth of the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

    Another contest which marked the early years of the new reign was the inglorious war with China (1839-42). The Chinese are great consumers of opium, a hurtful drug, which produces a sort of dreamy stupor or intoxication. The opium poppy is extensively grown in India, and every year large quantities were exported to China. The government of the latter country, professedly anxious to preserve its subjects from the baneful influence of this drug, entirely prohibited the trade in it. Several cargoes of opium belonging to British merchants were seized and destroyed, and the trading ports closed against our vessels. Our government resented this conduct as an interference with the freedom of commerce, and demanded compensation and the keeping open of the ports.

    As the Chinese refused to submit to the demands of those whom they considered barbarous foreigners, a British armament was sent to enforce our terms. The Celestials fought bravely enough, but British discipline had all its own way. Neither the antiquated junks nor the flimsily constructed forts of the enemy were any match for our men-of-war. Several ports had been bombarded and Nankin threatened, when the Chinese yielded. They were compelled to pay nearly six millions sterling towards the expenses of the war; to give up to us the island of Hong-Kong; and to throw open Canton, Shanghai, and three other ports to our commerce.

    During this period also the British took a prominent part in upholding the Sultan of Turkey against his revolted vassal, Mehemet Ali, the Pasha of Egypt. The latter, a very able prince, had overrun Syria; and there seemed every likelihood that he would shortly establish his independence, and add besides a considerable portion of Turkish territory to his dominions. Lord Palmerston, the British foreign minister, however, brought about an alliance with Austria and the eastern powers of Europe to maintain the integrity of the Turkish empire. The Egyptians were driven out of Syria, and the supremacy of the Turks restored. The energetic action of Lord Palmerston at this crisis brought him much popularity; and from this time until his death, twenty-five years later, the nation almost absolutely trusted him in all foreign affairs.

    So necessary at the present day has the penny post become to all classes of the people, that we can scarcely realise how our forefathers managed to live without it. Yet even so recently as the accession of Victoria, the nation was not in the enjoyment of this great blessing. So seldom in those days did a letter reach the abode of a working-man, that when the postman did make his approach, he was thought to be the bearer of news of great importance.

    The adoption of the penny postage scheme was the only great measure of Lord Melbourne's ministry during the early years of the new reign. The credit of it, however, did not in reality belong to the ministers. The measure was forced upon them by the pressure of public opinion, which had been enlightened by Rowland Hill's pamphlet upon the question. Hill was the son of a Birmingham schoolmaster; and thus, like so many other benefactors of the human race, was of comparatively humble origin. He had thoroughly studied the question of postal reform, and his pamphlet, which was first published in 1837, had a great effect upon the public mind. Previous to this, indeed, several other persons had advocated the reform of the post-office system, and notably Mr Wallace, member of parliament for Greenock.

    Before 1839, the rates of postage had been very heavy, and varied according to the distance. From one part of London, or any other large town, to another, the rate was 2d.; from London to Brighton, 8d.; to Edinburgh, 1s. 1d.; and to Belfast, 1s. 4d. Some of these charges were almost equal to the daily wages of a labouring-man.

    There was considerable opposition to the new measure, especially among the officials of the postal department. Many prominent men, too, both in and out of parliament, were afraid it would never pay. The clever and witty Sydney Smith spoke slightingly of it as the 'nonsensical penny postage scheme.' In spite of the objections urged against it, however, it was adopted by parliament in the later part of 1839, and brought into actual operation in January 1840; and the example set by this country has since been followed by all civilised states. Every letter was now to be prepaid by affixing the penny stamp. In this way a letter not exceeding half-an-ounce in weight could be carried to any part of the United Kingdom. In 1871 the rate was reduced to a penny for one ounce. The success of this great measure is best shown by the increase of letters delivered in Great Britain and Ireland: from 85 millions in 1839, the number had more than doubled by 1892. Thus, at the present time, the income from stamps forms no inconsiderable item of the revenue; while it need scarcely be said that the advantages of the penny post, both to business men and the public generally, cannot be over-estimated.

    Between the years 1839 and 1849 the British were engaged in a series of military enterprises in the north-west of India, which greatly tried the bravery of our soldiers, and were attended even with serious disaster. They resulted, however, in the conquest of the territories in the basin of the Indus, and in establishing the British sway in India more firmly than ever.

    With the view of averting certain dangers which seemed to threaten our Indian empire in that quarter, the English invaded Afghanistan. The expedition was, in the first instance, completely successful. Candahar and Cabul were both occupied by British troops, and a prince friendly to England was placed upon the throne (1839). The main force then returned to India, leaving garrisons at Candahar and Cabul to keep the hostile tribes in order.

    The troops left behind at Cabul were destined to terrible disaster. General Elphinstone, who commanded, relying too much on the good faith of the Afghans, omitted to take wise measures of defence. The Afghans secretly planned a revolt against the English, and the general, finding himself cut off from help from India, weakly sought to make terms with the enemy.

    The Afghans proved treacherous, and General Elphinstone was reduced to begin a retreat through the wild passes towards India. It was a fearful march. The fierce tribes who inhabited the hilly country along the route attacked our forces in front, flank, and rear. It was the depth of winter, and the sepoy troops, benumbed with cold, and unable to make any defence, were cut down without mercy. Of the whole army, to the number of 4500 fighting men and 12,000 camp followers, which had left Cabul, only one man (Dr Brydon) reached Jellalabad in safety. All the rest had perished or been taken captive. As soon as the news of this disaster reached India, prompt steps were taken to punish the Afghans and rescue the prisoners who had been left in their hands. General Pollock fought his way through the Khyber Pass, and reached Jellalabad. He then pushed forward to Cabul, and on the way the soldiers were maddened by the sight of the skeletons of their late comrades, which lay bleaching on the hill-sides along the route. They exacted a terrible vengeance wherever they met the foe, and the Afghans fled into their almost inaccessible mountains. General Nott, with the force from Candahar, united with Pollock at Cabul. The English prisoners were safely restored to their anxious friends. After levelling the fortifications of Cabul, the entire force left the country.

    Shortly afterwards, war broke out with the Ameers of Scinde, a large province occupying the basin of the lower Indus. The British commander, Sir Charles Napier, speedily proved to the enemy that the spirit of the British army had not failed since the days of Plassey. With a force of only 3000 men, he attacked and completely defeated two armies much superior in numbers (1843). The result of these two victories--Meanee and Dubba--was the annexation of Scinde to the British dominions.

    The main stream of the Indus is formed by the junction of five smaller branches. The large and fertile tract of country watered by these tributary streams is named the Punjab, or the land of the 'five waters.' It was inhabited by a people called the Sikhs, who, at first a religious sect, have gradually become the bravest and fiercest warriors in India. They had a numerous army, which was rendered more formidable by a large train of artillery and numerous squadrons of daring cavalry.

    After being long friendly to us, disturbances had arisen among them; the army became mutinous and demanded to be led against the British. Much severe fighting took place; at length, after a series of victories, gained mainly by the use of the bayonet, the British army pushed on to Lahore, the capital, and the Sikhs surrendered (1846).

    Three years later they again rose; but after some further engagements, their main army was routed with great slaughter by Lord Gough, in the battle of Gujerat. The territory of the Punjab was thereupon added to our Indian empire.

    The terrible famine which was passing over Ireland (1846-47), owing to the failure of the potato crop, had to be dealt with by the ministry. The sufferings of the Irish peasantry during this trying time were most fearful; and sympathy was keenly aroused in this country. Parliament voted large sums of money to relieve the distress as much as possible, the government started public works to find employment for the poor, and their efforts were nobly seconded by the generosity of private individuals. But so great had been the suffering that the population of Ireland was reduced from eight to six millions during this period.

    The measure for which Peel's ministry will always be famous was the Repeal of the Corn-laws. The population of the country was rapidly increasing; and as there were now more mouths to fill, it became more than ever necessary to provide a cheap and plentiful supply of bread to fill them. For several years the nation had been divided into two parties on this question. Those who were in favour of protection for the British wheat-grower were called Protectionists, while those who wished to abolish the corn-duties styled themselves Free-traders.

    In the year 1839 an Anti-Corn-law League had been formed for the purpose of spreading free-trade doctrines among the people. It had its headquarters at Manchester, and hence the statesmen who took the leading part in it were frequently called the 'Manchester Party.' There being no building at that time large enough to hold the meetings in, a temporary wooden structure was erected, the site of which is marked by the present Free-trade Hall. The guiding spirit of the league was Richard Cobden, a cotton manufacturer, who threw himself heart and soul into the cause. He was assisted by many other able men, the chief of whom was the great orator, John Bright. Branches of the league were soon established in all the towns of the kingdom, and a paid body of lecturers was employed to carry on the agitation and draw recruits into its ranks.

    At the beginning of the year 1845, owing to the success of Peel's financial measures, the nation was in a state of great prosperity and contentment; and there seemed little hope that the repealers would be able to carry their scheme for some time to come. Before the year was out, however, the aspect of affairs was completely changed. As John Bright said years afterwards, 'Famine itself, against which we had warred, joined us.' There was a failure in the harvest, both the corn and potato crops being blighted. Things in this country were bad enough; but they were far worse in Ireland, where famine and starvation stared the people in the face. Under these circumstances the demand for free-trade grew stronger and stronger; and the league had the satisfaction of gaining over to its ranks no less a person than Sir Robert Peel himself.

    When Peel announced his change of opinion in the House of Commons, the anger of the Protectionists, who were chiefly Conservatives, knew no bounds. They considered they had been betrayed by the leader whom they had trusted and supported. Mr Disraeli, in a speech of great bitterness, taunted the prime-minister with his change of views. His speech was cheered to the echo by the angry Protectionists; and from this moment Disraeli became the spokesman and leader of that section of the Conservative party which was opposed to repeal.

    The next year a measure for the repeal of the corn-laws was introduced into parliament by the prime-minister. In spite of the fierce opposition of Mr Disraeli and his friends, it passed both Houses by large majorities. At the close of the debates, Peel frankly acknowledged that the honour of passing this great measure was due, not to himself, but to Richard Cobden. On the very day on which the Corn Bill passed the Lords, the Peel ministry was defeated in the Commons on a question of Irish coercion, and had to resign.

    The fall of the government was brought about by the Protectionists, who on this occasion united with their Whig opponents for the purpose of being avenged upon their old leader.

    Peel bore his retirement with great dignity, and firmly refused to accept any honours either for himself or his family. Four years afterwards, he was thrown from his horse while riding up Constitution Hill, and the injuries he received caused his death in a few days. A monument was erected to him in Westminster Abbey. On its base are inscribed the closing words of the speech in which he announced his resignation: 'It may be that I shall leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of good-will in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour, and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened with a sense of injustice.'

    On the retirement of Sir Robert Peel from office in 1846, Lord John Russell became prime-minister, with Lord Palmerston as foreign secretary. No very great measures were passed by the new ministry, but the policy of free trade recently adopted by the country was steadily carried out. But, although parliament did not occupy itself with any very important reforms during his tenure of office, Lord Russell had his hands quite full in other respects. Chartism came to a head during this period; and besides this, there were fresh difficulties in Ireland in store for the new premier.

    For ten years during the early part of the reign of Victoria, Chartism was like a dark shadow over the land, causing much uneasiness among peaceable and well-disposed persons. The Reform Bill of 1832 had disappointed the expectations of the working-classes. They themselves had not been enfranchised by it; and to this fact they were ready to ascribe the poverty and wretchedness which still undoubtedly existed among them.

    It was not long, therefore, before an agitation was set on foot for the purpose of bringing about a further reform of parliament. At a meeting held in Birmingham (1838), the People's Charter was drawn up. It contained six 'points' which henceforward were to be the watchwords of the party, until they succeeded in carrying them into law. These points were (1) universal suffrage; (2) annual parliaments; (3) vote by ballot; (4) the right of any one to sit in parliament, irrespective of property; (5) the payment of members; and (6) the redistribution of the country into equal electoral districts.

    The agitation came to a head in 1848. Britain had thus her own 'little flutter' of revolution, like so many other European countries during that memorable year. On the 10th of April, the Chartists were to muster on Kennington Common half a million strong. Headed by O'Connor, they were then to enter London in procession bearing a monster petition to parliament insisting on their six 'points.' The demonstration, however, which had called forth all these preparations, proved a miserable failure. Instead of half a million people, only some twenty or thirty thousand appeared at the place of meeting, and the peace of the capital was not in the least disturbed. From this time Chartism fell into contempt, and speedily died out. Of the six 'points,' all but the second and fifth have since that time become the law of the land, as the growing requirements of the nation have seemed to render them necessary.
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