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Monday, 7 March 2011

Around the World in 1911


Picasso: Le pigeon aux petits pois 1911
It’s been a while now since I used the time-machine I keep in the garden shed, so I thought we could take a short trip. Back this time a hundred years to 1911, a year which already knew all about time machines since Mr. H. G. Wells had published his famous book about one sixteen years previously.

Following the sunrise, we arrive in the Empire of Japan. The country has been modernising frantically for the past decades, determined to be regarded as a world power. In 1905 it has already given the Russian Empire a serious black eye, defeating Russian armies and destroying a Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. The result was Japanese control over Korea and most of Manchuria. In 1911, Japan will renew its strategic alliance with Great Britain. Modernisation will continue, two Japanese officers visiting the USA to learn to fly aeroplanes this year.

Farther to the South, the Qing dynasty in China is finally in terminal collapse. This year will see the Wuchang uprising which will culminate in the overthrow of the dynasty and the proclamation of the Republic of China on January 1, 1912 under Sun Yat-sen.

In India, changes are also underway. The new Emperor, King George V of England will visit the country this year and preside over the formal transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, laying the foundation-stone for the administrative centre of New Delhi. Thoughts of Indian independence are being expressed by some members of the Indian Congress party, but its charismatic leading figure, Mohandas Gandhi is still in South Africa, championing the rights of the many Indian immigrants there and developing his theory of non-violent resistance, satyagraha.

But the world is dominated by Europe. Almost all of Africa has been divided between the European powers who are in continual competition with each other, though by now two alliance blocks are becoming clear; France, Britain and Russia against the central empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary, with whom the Ottoman Empire is also allied. With the exception of France, all the other great powers are ruled by kings and emperors. They all have parliaments, elected according to some sort of democratic franchise but, with the exception of Britain where the king’s position has become largely ceremonial, they all retain the ultimate reigns of power.

And they’re all playing dangerous games of provocation with each other. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, sensitive with regard to his own dignity and that of his Reich, will send gunboats to Agadir in Morocco this year, once more playing “chicken” with the British and the French. The ensuing crisis will, once more, be resolved diplomatically as have many others during the previous years, but many are convinced that sooner or later war is going to break out. Perilously, a lot of people are looking forward to it – all are convinced of their own superiority and of the possibility of quick, glorious victory.



Various figures who will play major roles in the 20th Century are still lurking in the wings. Lenin is in exile in Switzerland, a dedicated Marxist revolutionary, fighting for dominance among the splintered radical Russian left. His faithful henchman, Stalin, is escaping from Siberian exile to once more try to stir up problems in the Caucasus. Adolf Hitler is an unsuccessful artist, living in a home for poor working men in Vienna.

Britain is going through a process of constitutional reform; the Parliament Act which will be passed this year will remove the right of absolute veto, held up to now by the House of Lords. This will have major repercussions for Ireland; the decade-long dream of Home Rule is now on the verge of attainment. The Bill will be passed in 1912 – due to come into force in 1914, it will be overtaken by other events and, finally, by more ambitious Irish dreams.

Taking a brief glimpse at my native Ireland, I note that two of my grandparents are still going to school. My other grandmother is a young woman, living on the family farm in Roscommon. To see her future husband, we will have to travel a little farther.

Across the Atlantic, then, to where my grandfather is driving a street-car in New York. Eight years will pass before he returns home to inherit the small family farm and marry the girl next door.

In the USA, William Howard Taft is president, though he will lose the position next year when his popular predecessor Theodor Roosevelt runs against him on the Progressive ticket, thus splitting the Republican vote and letting the Democrat Woodrow Wilson win as a result. The economy is booming and the power struggles between the various European powers are fairly peripheral for US American politics and people; though ever larger numbers of them were born in Europe, for the USA is still a country of immigrants. But for all their disdain for the old European powers, the USA is administering a little empire of its own. The Spanish-American war, in which Teddy Roosevelt had played the role of the dashing military hero, had brought the Philippines as well as Guam and Puerto Rico under American control and Cuba too, though formally independent, was also firmly under US domination.

Roosevelt was the author of a famous “Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, which basically defined the entire Western Hemisphere as a US sphere of influence. Most of South America is under the control of propertied oligarchies, though Roque Sáenz Peña, the newly elected president of Argentina (the richest and most progressive of the South American nations at the time), is preparing to introduce universal suffrage in his country. Wisely perhaps, the USA has decided not to interfere in Mexico (when possible), where the revolution which had broken out during the previous year is tearing the country apart. But in Nicaragua, American gunboats intervened in internal politics only last year and next year the country will be occupied by US marines. And, speaking of Nicaragua, stopping briefly on our journey in Tampico, Illinois, we discover that Mrs. Reagan has just given birth to a son, Ronald.

Canada is an exception to the Monroe doctrine. It is a Dominion of the British Empire, with considerable autonomy, just as New Zealand and Australia also. But the limits of their independence will be shown in three years time, when Britain does not seek their approval before declaring war – also in their names – on Germany and Austria-Hungary.

In 1911, people believe in progress. Many wonderful discoveries and inventions made in the previous years are becoming popular and spreading; electricity and Edison’s electric light bulbs and phonographs, Bell’s telephone and Marconi’s wireless. Henry Ford has been producing Model Ts for two years now and this year Chevrolet will start to compete with him. The motor car is spreading throughout the world and 1911 will see both the first Indianapolis 500 and the first Monte Carlo Rally. All over Europe and the USA intrepid pioneers are improving the eight year old invention of the Wright brothers, the aeroplane; many paying for their experiments in the flimsy undependable machines with their lives.

Cinema or moving picture shows are also becoming popular. Already a small motion picture industry is coalescing around Los Angeles. The famous director, D. W. Griffiths, has produced a 17 minute short feature, In Old California, filmed entirely in the village of Hollywood and the Nestor Motion Picture Company, the first Hollywood film studio, will begin business this year.

In art, Braque, Gris and Picasso are developing cubism. In literature, George Moore publishes the first volume of Hail and Farewell, Joseph Conrad Under Western Skies and G. K. Chesterton The Innocence of Father Brown. In music, light opera and operetta are popular, but there’s also a lot of ragtime about, moving far beyond the work of composers like Scott Joplin to influence even Claude Debussy in his 1908 Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Although the phonograph is becoming more popular, the most beloved piece of furniture in many households is the piano; many people can play and sheet music sells briskly. This is the basis of  the success of Tin Pan Alley, which this year will see the advent of its newest bright star when Irving Berlin bursts onto the scene with Alexander’s Ragtime Band. In fashion, a particularly crazy development is de rigueur; wide at the waist, the hobble skirt becomes so narrow at the hem that women are only able to take very short steps.

It is a world on the brink of catastrophe, of cataclysmic change which will break over everything with the beginning of the Great War, three years later. 1914 and all that it initiated defined most of the agendas for the 20th Century and we, the children of that century, can only look back to its beginning through the lattice of what came after; total war, the battle of ideologies, fascism and communism, the violent deaths of hundreds of millions, the Shoah and the bomb, the end of (formal) colonialism, feminism and the pill. For the people of 1911 all of this was part of an unknown future. Despite the fears and warnings of a few, the view of the future was optimistic. Progress had brought so many wonderful things in the previous decades, surely this would continue in the future. It would, but the price of it would also become clearer.


See my other time machine journeys; to 1762 and 1810


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