A redcoat getting shot, in the War of 1812, between the newly independent Americans, the British British, the Canadian British and the Injuns on both sides, who were suckered into fighting with promises of greater autonomy (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
Two centuries back this week, in September 1812, a war was fought by three nations who now happen to be the thickest of chums – US, Britain and ‘the British North American Territory’, known these days simply as Canada.
Here’s what happened….
Three decades after being booted out by the Americans in the war of independence, the British were still at the peak of their world hegemony and wanted to teach the Americans a lesson. The Napoleonic wars with France were raging and Britain didn’t want America to engage in trade with France. In 1807, Britain put embargoes in place, much the same way that the EU and the Americans do from time to time these days, more recently against Iran (ongoing), Syria (ongoing) and Russia (ongoing).
Unfortunately embargoes have never worked, neither then and nor do they work now. Brandishing rigid middle fingers was in vogue even then and that is what the Americans did. They simply said ‘up yours’ to the British and went on trading with the French.
Then the Brits did something else that really pissed the Yanks off. The war with France needed experienced sailors and Britain was running out of them. They began stopping American merchant marine ships and took into custody all able bodied American seamen who had been born in Britain, claiming that they were still British citizens and had to sail with the British navy in times of war. This kidnapping on the high seas was called impressment, ie: pressing the American seamen into British Naval service. The term ‘press gang’ has been derived from this.
Now the Yanks were really pissed off and we all know how Americans have always had a very short fuse. They decided to kick some British butt (in this case, British-Canadian butt) and launched an invasion up north into the present-day Canadian province of Ontario.
The British responded by blockading the Atlantic coast of America and burning and looting the towns there. Not stopping at just pillaging, the Limeys then went in and burnt down two of America’s greatest edifices – the White House and the Capitol Building.
If Osama Bin Laden had known about the razing of the White House and the Capitol by the British, he might have been able to site precedence and gotten away with 9-11, in any reasonable court of law. But that is another story.
The interesting part is the way that all sides exploited the sentiments of the native American tribesmen, playing on their fears, leading them on, promising them complete autonomy and even sovereignty, none of which the white men made good on, later. All sides had their own native tribesmen, riding shotgun, fighting alongside them and dying for them, hoping that if they won, they could have their own sovereign nation.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that the War of 1812 ended in a Status quo ante-bellum, otherwise known as a stalemate. (I love breaking out in Latin. It makes me seem enlightened). Everyone went back behind their original borders. No wonder that someone named this war ‘the stupid war’.
The stupid war, however, had its lessons. The Americans, Brits and the Brit-Canadians realized that having a Navy was essential to winning a war. The native Americans came to understand that they had been had and that contrary to the promises made, there never was anything in it for them, just as there was nothing in it for the thousands of Indian Gorkha soldiers who fought and died for the Brits in the First World War.
1812 was the beginning of the end of injun-white amity, an animosity that simmers under the surface even today all across North America. It was in fact a seminal moment in history, a realization that white colonial Europeans could never be trusted to keep their word. History has thrown up numerous later examples of similar treachery. The hideously deceitful Sykes-Picot Agreement that secretly carved up the entire middle east between Britain and France after the First World War, was another such case.
Today, as always at the lunch table I was the only guy born outside Canada. I decided to ask them all a question – Who won the War of 1812?
No one, none, nary a body, knew.
Melanie said,” Ummm…lets see now, 1812, huh? Ummm…heck, we must have won. I mean, like, we are still around, right?”
Kenny for once piped up on something other than fornication,” Yeah, we musta kicked butt, though whose I have no clue… Injuns maybe?”
“Naaah, not Injuns. We began kickin’ Injun butt way before 1812” – Stephane, the history Prof.
“And we still are…” – that was Akna. She is half Cherokee.
With Akna’s caustic comment, the topic hurriedly changed to the Toronto International Film Festival which is in the news right now.
The point I am trying to make is that there have been many wars that changed the course of history, the abovementioned American War of 1812 being one of them. Thousands perished in it. Towns and villages were burnt down and innocent women raped and dwellings looted. And lessons to be learnt.
Sadly, even we who live right where it all happened just two centuries back, know next to nothing about it, let alone learn anything from it. Isn’t that a pity?