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Cobden argues that the British Empire will inevitably suffer retribution for its violence and injustice (1853)

The free trader and anti-war advocate Richard Cobden (1804-1865) opposed the annexation of Burma in 1852. In a pamphlet written in 1853 he argued that like all previous empires, the British Empire will one day be punished for its “ imperial crimes”:

But it is not consistent with the supremacy of that moral law which mysteriously sways the fate of empires, as well as of individuals, that deeds of violence, fraud, and injustice, should be committed with permanent profit and advantage. If wrongs are perpetrated in the name, and by the authority, of this great country, by its proconsuls or naval commanders in distant quarters of the globe, it is not by throwing the flimsy veil of a “double government” over such transactions that we shall ultimately escape the penalty attaching to deeds for which we are really responsible. How, or when, the retribution will re-act upon us, I presume not to say. The rapine in Mexico and Peru was retaliated upon Spain in the ruin of her finances. In France, the razzias of Algeria were repaid by her own troops, in the massacres of the Boulevards, and the savage combats in the streets of Paris. Let us hope that the national conscience, which has before averted from England, by timely atonement and reparation, the punishment due for imperial crimes, will be roused ere it be too late from its lethargy, and put an end to the deeds of violence and injustice which have marked every step of our progress in India.

A war it can hardly be called. A rout, a massacre, or a visitation, would be a more appropriate term. A fleet of war-steamers and other vessels took up their position in the river, and on the 11th April, 1852, being Easter Sunday, they commenced operations by bombarding both the Rangoon and Dallah shores. Everything yielded like toywork beneath the terrible broad-sides of our ships. The Burmese had about as fair a chance of success in contending against our steamers, rockets, detonating shells, and heavy ordnance, of which they were destitute, as one of their Pegu ponies would have had in running a race with a locomotive. Whole armies were put to the rout, with scarcely the loss of a man on our side; and fortified places, when scaled by a few sailors or marines, were found entirely abandoned. There is neither honour nor glory to be gained when a highly civilised nation arrays the powers of mechanical and chemical science against a comparatively feeble, because ignorant and barbarous people. There is small room for the display of courage where there is little risk; and even muscular force has not much to do with a combat, the result of which depends almost entirely on the labours and discoveries of the workshop and laboratory. There is no doubt then as to the result of the Burmese war. Our troops may suffer from the climate, the water, or provisions; but the enemy has no power to prevent their subduing and annexing the whole or any part of the country. But success, however complete, will not obliterate one fact respecting the origin of the war….

Public opinion in this country has not hitherto been opposed to an extension of our dominion in the East. On the contrary, it is believed to be profitable to the nation, and all classes are ready to hail with approbation every fresh acquisition of territory, and to reward those conquerors who bring us home title-deeds, no matter, I fear, how obtained, to new Colonial possessions. So long as they are believed to be profitable, this spirit will prevail.

But it is not consistent with the supremacy of that moral law which mysteriously sways the fate of empires, as well as of individuals, that deeds of violence, fraud, and injustice, should be committed with permanent profit and advantage. If wrongs are perpetrated in the name, and by the authority, of this great country, by its proconsuls or naval commanders in distant quarters of the globe, it is not by throwing the flimsy veil of a “double government” over such transactions that we shall ultimately escape the penalty attaching to deeds for which we are really responsible. How, or when, the retribution will re-act upon us, I presume not to say. The rapine in Mexico and Peru was retaliated upon Spain in the ruin of her finances. In France, the razzias of Algeria were repaid by her own troops, in the massacres of the Boulevards, and the savage combats in the streets of Paris. Let us hope that the national conscience, which has before averted from England, by timely atonement and reparation, the punishment due for imperial crimes, will be roused ere it be too late from its lethargy, and put an end to the deeds of violence and injustice which have marked every step of our progress in India.

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After the success of the Anti-Corn Law League in getting the Corn Laws repealed in 1846 Cobden became increasingly unpopular and isolated in the House of Commons because of his anti-war and anti-empire position. By the time war broke out in the Crimea against the Russian Empire in 1854 the British people had swung solidly behind the government on the issue of war and Cobden was to lose his seat in the Commons in 1857 as a result of his opposition. Typical of his anti-war rhetoric is this pamphlet he wrote in opposition to the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852 which saw the annexation of Burma. In a gloriously entitled piece called “How Wars are Got Up in India” Cobden shows why he became so reviled in the Commons: he held up a mirror to the face of the British people to show their naked self-interest and moral hypocrisy in supporting wars of colonial conquest and occupation.

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