Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Two Hundred Years Ago: Visiting 1810

Before the year ends, I thought I might invite you to join me on a journey back in time, back two hundred years to 1810.

Why have I chosen two hundred years? I was thinking about past and present recently and I realised that, despite the fact that the world looked very different then, it is, in fact, not such a long period. Let me explain my reasoning. My paternal grandfather was born in 1876 (he married late and my father was his youngest son). My first grandson was born one hundred and thirty one years later and can, therefore, confidently expect to be alive in 2076. So in my own family five generations can expect to cover two hundred years and my father has personally known, in his own direct lineage – from his father to his great grandson – members of the family whose lives, taken together, will probably span two centuries.

So join me in my time-machine and let us take that trip back to 1810. Don’t worry, it’s quite safe and we won’t be staying long; just long enough to briefly look at what’s going on and what life is like then.

The population of the world has just recently topped one billion (around a seventh of what it will become 200 years later) and the population of London, probably the world’s largest city, is around one million. The mightiest country in the world is France. Napoleon Bonaparte is at the height of his power, dominating Europe with all the major powers as his obedient allies (the one exception being the British whose forces under Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, are doggedly fighting the French occupation forces in the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal). To cement his own family’s dynastic pretentions Napoleon, who has ruled for six years now as Emperor of the French, has this year divorced his wife Joséphine and married the Princess Marie Louise of the Austrian House of Habsburg. He is busy reforming Europe according to his own views, imposing many of the Enlightenment ideas of the French Revolution, particularly his legal code, wherever his writ holds sway. His catastrophic invasion of Russia is still two years away.

With Austria, Prussia and Russia cowed, Britain remains the only obdurate enemy of France. In Britain the Industrial Revolution is taking firm hold; steam engines are in widespread use for pumping mines and driving machines in the many cotton works in central England and in the rapidly growing iron and steel industry, where technical advances and new production methods have increased quality and output enormously. British demand for cotton is creating a boom for the slave-based plantations in the southern states of the United States. Social dislocation and unrest are growing because of the major changes industrialisation is bringing and the first “Luddites”, groups of hand-weavers deprived of their livelihood by the new industrial cotton mills, will mount their violent attacks on those mills next year. The increasing industrialisation has gone hand-in-hand in the past hundred years with major changes in agriculture, from the development of four-crop rotation and the spread of new crops like the potato, to the introduction of various machines and the increasing use of horses rather than oxen (Jethro Tull being perhaps the greatest innovator in this whole area) and all this has changed life on the land deeply in Western Europe, above all in England.

Tension is rising between Britain and its former colonies across the Atlantic, a tension which will result in war in two years time, but for now things are peaceful. James Madison is president of nearly 7.2 million Americans, of whom 1.2 million are slaves. The US did a huge land deal with Napoleon seven years ago, buying the sovereignty over most of the Midwest from France, the so-called Louisiana Purchase. New Orleans will feature prominently in the rise to fame in the coming war of 1812 of a certain Andrew Jackson. Mr. Jackson is no great friend to the Indians, and indeed more and more Native Americans are becoming worried about the spread of white settlers across the Mississippi and into their lands, the most well known of whom is the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who will, like many other Native Americans, ally with the British in the coming war and lose his life fighting. That war will also see “The Star Spangled Banner” being written and will definitively confirm the existence of Canada as a political entity independent of the USA.

Latin America is in uproar as more and more areas take advantage of Spain’s powerlessness as a result of defeats by Napoleon to declare their independence (the first declaration of Mexican independence [the famous Grito de Dolores] by the priest Hidalgo y Costilla has taken place on September 16), but Spain keeps control of most of its non-American provinces, particularly the Philippines. Brazil is well on its way to independence as the whole Portuguese government has moved there two years ago, fleeing from the French, so that Portugal hardly exists at the moment.

Indonesia is temporarily under British control, as a result of the occupation of the Netherlands by the French. This period under Britain will last only last ten years altogether, until 1816, but the British are making their mark; among other things by insisting that horses and carriages drive on the left. China is ruled by the Manchu and Japan by the Tokugawa shoguns. In India John Company (the East India Company) has extended its control over most of the country, thanks in no small measure to the Governor General from 1798 to 1805, Marquess Wellesley (the older brother of the future Duke of Wellington), who is now British Foreign Secretary, though large areas are still ruled by independent Indian princes.

Apart from the northern Mediterranean shore, where among other things Napoleon has lost Egypt to the British, Portuguese colonies in some costal areas like Angola and Mozambique, and South Africa, where the British have taken over from the Dutch four years ago, Africa remains the Dark Continent. With one major, horrifying exception; it has been the source of slaves for hundreds of years, both from East Africa, through Arab slavers, and European slavers shipping millions from West Africa to the Americas. But Britain has abolished the slave trade three years ago now and since the beginning of 1808 the importation of slaves into the United States has been illegal.

Beethoven writes Für Elise in 1810, the first bars of which are probably the most frequent music ever played on the piano, and this year Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin are born. Walter Scott publishes The Lady of the Lake and Jane Austin is putting the finishing touches to her first major work Sense and Sensibility, which will be published the following year.

Ladies fashions have been changed enormously by the French Revolution, with stiff brocades having almost completely disappeared in favour of much more casual, comfortable forms. In at the moment, dictated naturally by Paris, is the high-waisted so-called Empire style, with dresses closely fitted to the torso under the bust, falling loosely below, and muslin the material of choice. Wigs are rapidly disappearing and gentlemen’s clothing has been taking on a recognisably modern form as full length breeches, linen shirts and dark overcoats are usual, knee-breeches and stockings still being worn only by older, conservative men. And it is not only fashion that was dictated by Paris; French is the language of the educated and the aristocracy throughout all of Europe and the official language of diplomacy.

But such concerns are far from the minds of the great majority of people all over the world, who live a precarious life in direct dependence on nature and the land. Whether in Cheshire or China, Belgium or Bengal, Umbria or the Ukraine, most people are farmers or farm labourers, have little to do with money, usually go barefoot and get up and go to bed with the sun. Most can neither read nor write and there is little or no security beyond the next harvest. People marry young and families are large, but infant mortality is high, many women die in childbirth and few people reach a ripe old age. Even the towns and cities are, by our standards, very dark after sunset – though the first gas-lights will be introduced in London next year.

Despite horses and stage-coaches, for the vast majority of people the rule is simple; if you want to go somewhere you walk. Most people never travel more than a few miles from their place of birth anyway, unless, as a man, you have the bad luck to be forced into an army or the romantic stupidity to voluntarily go for a soldier. And then you really walk, hundreds sometimes thousands of miles, often in the space of a few months – in 1812 Napoleon’s Grand Armée will move from the Polish border to Moscow in eleven weeks and (those few who survive) leave Russia again in thirteen (June 24 to December 12). On foot and fighting major battles on the way.

So, my friends, I think we have been here long enough. Let us go back to our time-machine and return to the 21st Century. We have seen a world very different to our own and yet, for all that, a world not so very far away. I started this piece with the example of my father to try to get a sense of subjective generational time, let me finish with another example. Imagine that when you were a baby, a very old person (maybe a neighbour or a relative), over ninety years old, came to visit you and caressed you on the head. Now imagine that that person also had the same experience as a baby, being personally “blessed” by the oldest person in their neighbourhood. If you are over twenty years old today, then that old man or woman was already alive in 1810.

The past is closer than you think.

See my other time machine journeys; to 1762 and 1911


  1. Delighfully vivid peep into a moment in time.

  2. Interesting!
    Will soon create a link to our weblog Internations to yours.)

  3. Well, if this was (but) an attempted essay, it was a felicitous attempt; a read that I did thoroughly enjoy.
    Chapeau, Francis. And thanks.

  4. Hans (Internation Comment) I'd be honoured to be linked from your blog - I enjoy reading it very much.

  5. Dickens was born just two years later and eventually wrote incredible descriptions of the period. Thanks so much for your beautifully written overview.

  6. Susan - Thanks for the reminder; I had Dickens mentally on my list but in my attempt to fly around the world in 1500 words he must have fallen off somewhere on the way, or maybe he was just hiding behind Jane Austin's skirts!

  7. What a superb post Francis - a period of history that truly interests me. Thanks for linking to the Poor Mouth. I have returned the compliment

  8. Very interesting notion to close. I greatly appreciated this piece.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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