Our Man in Charleston
© 2016 Christopher Dickey
Our Man in Charleston is a fascinating history of British diplomacy in the South, 1850s-1865, about a British consul working to defend Her Majesty’s interests in the erstwhile colonies, focusing specifically on the slave trade which Britain had made its mission to destroy. Although many in the South preferred the trade stay closed, to maintain the value of their existing ‘stock’, others were married to expansion, and wanted to re-open the trade and expand the slave system across North America. The book’s subject, William Bunch, no sooner arrives in Charleston that he announces he hates its climate, its inability to match the metropolitan delights of say, London, and all of the people he meets. Of course, he’s rubbing shoulders exclusively with the patrician slaveholders, but I imagine if he met a white freeholder (poor whites only exist if we’re at war or misbehaving) no doubt he’d turn up his nose and declare English peasants far superior. At this time, those attempting to smuggle slaves into Cuba and the like took shelter behind the American flag, not because they were Americanos but because Britain didn’t want to provoke incidents with its rebellious and very-much-armed prodigal son. The US Navy, which could search American-flagged ships, wasn’t nearly as zealous or able as the Brits, so the inability of Britain to properly police the azure main was a bone of contention. Bunch took stock of many of the loudmouths in South Carolina and realized that not only were they wholly married to the evil institution, they were reckless to boot: willing to antagonize the British empire and risk war to expand their interests. Bunch’s constant coverage of these remarks went a long way, after the attempt at southern independence was underway, to prevent Britain from recognizing the South as a nation and attempting to meditate in the dispute — despite William Henry Seward apparently doing his damnedest to provoke war between the United States and Great Britain, huffing and puffing that even Her Majesty even communicating with the Confederacy was tantamount to recognizing it as a nation and therefore declaring hostilities against DC. Had he been the only element in the picture, we might now have an ironic tribute to Seward in the Confederate Capital of Richmond, hailing him as Dixie’s greatest diplomatic asset. Instead, Lord Palmerston and Prince Albert were able to sooth ruffled feathers — and Abe’s politicization of the war, declaring it about slavery despite having spent three years denying the same, made British recognition of the Confederacy a moral impossibility. Amusingly, Bunch did his job of ingratiating himself to the Southerners so well that Seward believed him a Confederate agent (despite his constant insults against them in private letters). This is a unique look at the buildup to secession and the war, a first exposure for me to the world of British diplomacy, and an interesting if frequently irritating read. I realize Bunch had the moral high ground, but he spends the entire book, covering eleven years in Charleston, doing nothing but complaining, playing secret agent man, and befriending people while amusing himself with florid insults about them in his private letters. He’s simply not fun to be around, to be frank, and the author doesn’t really do him any favors. I’m now interested in reading more about Britain’s crusade to vanquish the slave trade — not merely refraining from it, but using its temporal power to effect lasting moral change and attacking other powers who attempted to perpetuate it. This is especially interesting considering the resources and diplomatic capital this must have cost, and one can read it as a way of attempting to sanctify, not merely justify, Empire.
Review by Cyberkitten, which led me to this title.
Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce and the birth of the British crusade. The movie of this stars Ioan Gruffyd as Wilberforce, and that Benedict whatshisface fellow as William Pitt.
Next up: Baseball in Alabama, maybe, or The Confederate Reader: The War as the South Saw It.
One of the intriguing things I discovered a while back was the existence of the West Africa squadron which was part of the Royal Navy purely dedicated to stopping (or at the very least diminishing) the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It cost a *significant* percentage of Britain’s GDP and lasted for decades. It was quite a commitment. I have a book on my Wish List covering it which should interest you:
Britain’s War Against the Slave Trade: The Operations of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron 1807-1867 by Anthony Sullivan.
Thanks! Will look into it. I’m tempted to compare Britain’s war against slavery to DC’s war for democracy in the middle east — an attempt to baptize its unparalleled global ability to project power. The war on slavery was far more justified and effective….democracy is about as healthy in Iraq as bananas would be in Norway.
I’ve never believed that Democracy can be imposed at gunpoint. Plus, I don’t believe that being a ‘democracy’ after years or decades or even centuries of being something else will suddenly make everything different overnight. Just knowing a little History shows that moving to Democracy is a process that takes *generations* not days, weeks or even a few years.
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