The Alabama Affair

(Ed. The Alabama Affair refers to an incident in the American Civil War where a ship fitted out in British dockyards was later used by the South as a military vessel in their war with the North. The North protested that the British government did not exercise due diligence in determining how the vessel would be used.]

The second defeat was suffered over the United States claim for compensation in connection with the Alabama. In 1871 the British, who refused to admit any liability for the injuries done by the cruisers, agreed to the appointment of a joint commission to settle the question. The American commissioners proposed that a lump sum should be paid to cover all claims.

The British suggested arbitration. The Americans agreed, on condition that certain views of their own upon international law should be accepted as a preliminary. The British allowed their acceptance, while denying that they had as a matter of fact been valid heretofore.

British counter-claims in respect of damage done by Fenian raids were withdrawn from the arbitration, which was referred to a court whose members were nominated by various European sovereigns.

The court awarded damages, chiefly in respect of the Alabama, amounting to 15,500,000 dollars, to the intense disgust of the British people, who jumped to the somewhat hasty conclusion that any court composed of foreign arbitrators might be relied upon to give an anti-British verdict. The mere fact that such an arbitration had been attempted at all was a great step towards finding peaceful solutions for differences of a certain type; but it did not add to the prestige of the Government at the time.

The Prime Minister appears to have been unconscious of the extent to which the Government was losing popularity in the country. Nevertheless when in 1873 a bill dealing with the Irish Universities was defeated and Gladstone resigned, Disraeli refused to take office, which was resumed by Gladstone. In this last year of the administration there was another Ashanti expedition, in which the actual operations were skilfully conducted by Sir Garnet Wolseley.

But before this necessarily inglorious war was finished a general election at the beginning of 1874 returned the Conservatives to power. The Liberal ministry was weakened by dissensions, but Gladstone expected that an appeal to the country would give him a fresh lease of power.

He had a large surplus, and believed that the long desired time had come when the income tax could once more be taken off, a con­summation which he had always desired. His intention was to substitute for it an increase of the succession duties, the charges payable when property passed by inheritance. The announcement of his intention was denounced as a trick for catching votes.

The government measures had aroused the indignation of one section of the community after another - Churchmen and Dissenters, the Army, the landowners, the licensed victuallers (a particularly dangerous body when their hostility was aroused), the manufacturers, and the working-men.

This last group, who at the previous general election had voted for the Liberals, now in their irritation at the Criminal Law Amendment' Act ran several independent candidates of their own, with the almost unfailing result that the Conservatives headed the poll; and that party returned to power with a solid majority.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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