6.11 Overseas

Britons are spared crises of identity as everyone else is 'overseas'; on an island, Britons are yet not insular - instead looking ever outwards as part of a global destiny


'More world travellers, explorers, surveyors, voyagers and navigators have started out from the British Isles than from any other country in recorded history.' [Source: Sykes]

Royal Geographical Society: 1830; this organisation has been a key associate and supporter of the expeditions of, among others, Charles Darwin, James Kingston Tuckey, David Livingstone, William Ogilvie, Scott of the Antartic, Richard Francis Burton, John Hanning Speke, George W Hayward, Henry Morton Stanley, Ernest Shackleton & Edmund Hillary

David Livingstone: 1813-73; medical missionary and legendary explorer; first European to traverse Africa, 1853; named Victoria Falls, 1855, perhaps the world’s greatest natural wonder; he was located in Africa after 10-month search by newspaperman (Welsh-born American) Henry Morton Stanley, who wrote, ‘My heart beats fast but I must not let my face betray my emotions, lest it detract from the dignity of a white man appearing under such extraordinary circumstances…[I] said: ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume.’ Comments Empire historian Niall Ferguson, ‘It took an American to take British understatement to its historic zenith.’; Livingston, a passionate anti-slaver, journeyed to the heart of African to try to suppress slavery at its source

'Dr Livingstone…put the actual number of slaves taken away from their homes every twelve months (regardless of those who died because they were left behind without any protection) at 350,000, of which only 70,000 ever reached the other side of the ocean.' (Hendrik Willem van Loon, The Home of Mankind, 1933)

Samuel Hearne: 1745-92; explored what is now northern Canada, travelling light, like a native, for the Hudson’s Bay Company; in 1771 he became the first European to travel overland to the Arctic Ocean, by foot and using birch-bark canoe, by following the Copper Mine River north of the Great Slave Lake

Constantine Phipps: 1744-92; North Pole, 1773; Phipps was the first European to describe the polar bear, one of which nearly killed a young Horatio Nelson on this expedition

David Thompson: 1770-1857; mapped a third of Canada; his work as cartographer became the basis of the Canada-US border; he is rated the greatest land navigator ever; travelled with an equally indomitable wife and three children; the indigenous people called him a name that means “He who gazes at the stars”, i.e. with his eyes and with a sextant, itself a British invention used by Thompson and myriad others to map the world

Hester Stanhope: 1776-1839; intrepid woman traveller in a man’s world, Lady Hester Stanhope set herself up as a local potentate among the arabs of the eastern Mediterranean, mainly through incredible force of personality

Mungo Park: 1771-1806; charted course of River Nile, 1796; first Westerner to encounter the Niger River

Matthew Flinders: 1774-1814; first person to circumnavigate Australia, 1801-3

John Rae: 1813-93; this Orcadian working for the Hudson’s Bay Company travelled overland like a native to find the Rae Strait; this was the final element of the North-west Passage, the long-sought sea route across the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific; Rae made four Arctic expeditions in all, losing only one man; he mapped 1,500 miles of Arctic coastline

Alexander Gordon Laing: 1793-1826; first European to enter the fabled city of Timbuktu, in modern Mali, 1826

James Clark Ross: 1800-62; first to reach the North Magnetic Pole, in 1831, and hence its discoverer

Richard Burton: 1821-90; Lake Tanganyika; introduced ‘pyjama’, Hindi for loose garment, and ‘safari’, from Swahili for journey, to describe one of our great travel innovations; celebrated as libertine, fencer, explorer, diplomat and translator of the Kama Sutra and the Thousand and One Nights; first infidel in the modern era to enter the great mosque at Mecca, in 1853, dressed as a Pashtun

John Hanning Speke: 1827-64; sought source of the Nile, the Holy Grail of Victorian exploration, finding it in the form of Lake Victoria

Robert Falcon Scott: 1868-1912; Antarctica; second to the South Pole, with death from starvation and exhaustion awaiting him and his party on the return journey; Captain Oates heroically removed himself as a burden to the expedition, saying, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’; Scott’s last diary entry read, “Had we lived, I should have had a tale of hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”

Ernest Shackleton: 1874-1922; journeyed to Antarctica in Endurance, in the early 1900s; greatest survival story of all time; model leadership, with his trusty righthand man, Frank Wild; not a man was lost; Shackleton & Wild are buried side by side on South Georgia in the southern ocean, facing Antartica

[see Islanders Afloat & America, below]

Overseas firsts

Western Samurai: mariner Will Adams (1564-1620) fetched up in Japan and made good there

Couterier: i.e. male designer of women’s high fashion; Charles Frederick Worth, Paris, mid-1800s [see Fashion]

Cuban cigar eponyms: only two of the 15 main cigar sizes are named after individuals, Lonsdale and Churchill, and both are British; a Lonsdale is a 6½ inch Cuban corona cigar, named after Hugh Cecil Lowther (1857-1944), the 5th Earl of Lonsdale, of boxing belt fame; the even mightier 7 inch cigar, a Churchill, celebrates Winston Churchill (1874-1965) [see Food & drink]; the first islander known to have smoked a cigar was John Cockburn in 1731, while marooned on Honduras [Source: Robertson/Shell]

French wines: Bordeaux was spurred to greatness as a wine region over three centuries as part of a English empire in France in the Middle Ages; champagne was invented by scientist and physician Christopher Merret in 1662, when he added sugar to finished wine to make it sparkle, thereby achieving a secondary fermentation; Merret’s was the first intentionally produced sparkling wine (Dom Perignon's activities in this line in France date to 1688  at the earliest); the cult of fine wine started in Britain after 1660, when the monarchy, in the person of Charles II, was restored; it was based on imported French wine; wine connoisseurship has gone on to flourish globally

European Union: Britain joined what was then the Common Market in 1973; the idea of a united Europe was first mooted by William Penn in 1693, who also founded Pennsylvania in North America

'In his essay on the peace of Europe, he [Penn] virtually invented collective security and with amazing foresight planned in detail something very like the present European Union.'
[Source: W M S Russell, ‘William Penn and the peace of Europe’, Medicine, Conflict and Survival, 20, 19-34, 2004]

Penn called for the establishment of a 'European Dyet, Parliament or Estates'; the anthem of the EU is the Ode to Joy finale of Beethoven’s Choral, which symphony was paid for by the Philharmonic Society in London; Europhiles extoll the role of the EU in rendering unthinkable another Franco-German war, in giving Europe collectively a greater voice for constructive change in the world based on Western values, in encouraging democracy and the rule of law among new and aspiring members, and, as they see it, in boosting European prosperity, notably via the creation of a single market; meanwhile Eurosceptic Britons - recalling that they voted to join a trading group called the Common Market not an expensive foreign club of 27 members bent on an ever-closer political union - see the EU as less democratic, more bureaucratic and much more prone to corruption than their homeland,  and as having a byzantine political process unwholesomely dependent on horsetrading behind closed doors and to be perennially conspiring against their interests to boot; every crisis is an opportunity for ‘more Europe’; island sovereignty is being exsanguinated away, the Eurosceptics say, and with it Parliament’s life-blood; some remember that Belgium declined to supply Britain with armaments during the Falklands War of 1982; the even more historically minded note that when Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534, a lot of money that had left the country bound for the Vatican no longer did so, provoking a long-term economic boom at home

‘A sporting chance’: during the French Revolution a new way of decapitating undesirables was invented by Monsieur Guillotin; the deficiencies of the French language are such that it would not have been possible for King Louis XVI to say in his native tongue, between the two chops necessary to hack through his neck, ‘I have been guillotined’; since however this was not an invention but a reinvention, the French king could have said in another more versatile language, viz. English, ‘I have been Halifax Gibbetted’; the first recorded guillotining in Halifax, West Yorkshire, was in 1286, and the service continued into the 1600s; the law stated that if a condemned person withdrew their head quickly enough after the blade had been released they were allowed to go freely into exile, a macabre exemplification of the British sense of fair play; there is a record of a guillotining in Merton, Ireland in 1307 [Source: Robertson/Shell]

America: this was certainly not named for the Italian geographer Amerigo Vespucci but probably for Richard Ameryk, a Welshman who was Sheriff of Bristol and main sponsor of an expedition from that city by John Cabot, discoverer of Newfoundland, 1497; Columbus only reached the Caribbean islands during his own momentous voyage of discovery in 1492, so the English flag was planted before that of Spain’s on the American mainland, at Labrador; the Earl of Orkney, one of the Sinclairs of Rosslyn, completed a transatlantic voyage to America in 1398 and mariners from Bristol are said to have fished the Grand Banks from an early date; Prince Madoc of Wales is said to have visited North America, leaving colonisers; the conventional telling of this tale is to be found in Enderbie [pp285-6; see Sources]; Prince Madoc in this version is the son of Owen Gwyneth, who was king of Gwyned in North Wales in the time of Henry II of England (reigned 1154-89); after the death of his father in 1169, Madoc sails far to the west, landing in the New World in 1170; this is insupportable fiction according to Wilson & Blackett [see Sources], who identify Madoc 'the Cormorant' as a brother of Adras, King of Glamorgan & Gwent in the sixth century; the dating of Adras seems open to question and this startling piece of revisionism may even relate to the fifth century; the Vikings were early visitors to North America; the ancient world seemed to be aware of America [see Atlantis]

United States of America: Britain spawned the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Free; the phrase ‘The United States’ was coined by Englishman Thomas Paine, author of the timely anti-monarchist polemic Common Sense, of 1776:

'In January 1776 Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense”, which rallied the colonists against the British crown, was printed in a run of 1,000 copies. One of them reached George Washington, who was so impressed that he made American officers read extracts of Paine’s work to their men. By July 1776 around 250,000 people, nearly half the free population of the colonies, had been exposed to Paine’s ideas.' (The Economist, 9 July 2011)

The man reckoned to have founded modern America was Englishman Bartholomew Gosnold; the American dream was engendered by Captain John Smith, who founded an early colony and wrote of a land where people of ‘great spirits and small meanes’ could become rich; the first permanent English colony in what was to become the USA was established in 1607; that was Jamestown in Virginia; Boston was another early English settlement, dating from 1635

American Revolution: 1775-83; this rare lost war for Britain, an especially interesting episode in the long conflict between Britain and France, was arguably the world’s gain, lighting a flare path to freedom, albeit a wonky one; the American founding myth is that they threw off an empire that was evil; they did throw off an empire, but evil it was not; the Declaration of Independence, 1776, spoke of the ‘inalienable rights’ to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, yet independence fatefully delayed one British modernisation, the abolition of slavery; a law banning slavery in Britain itself had been passed in 1775 in fact; General George Washington's orderly during the conflict, William Lee, was his slave; in the nascent United States of America 400,000 slaves comprised one-fifth of the then population; the Capitol, the seat of the legislature, was slave built; slave trading was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 and in the US in 1808; this was at a time when Napoleonic France was reconfirming its commitment to slavery in its Carribean colonies; but the residual issue was slave ownership; that was finally abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833; the Americans had to sort that one out for themselves via one of the 19th century’s greatest man-made calamities, the American Civil War of 1861-65; there were 1-2 million casualties, with estimates varying; this was not as great a slaughter as was seen in the roughly contemporaneous Taiping Rebellion in China of 1850-64, which saw probably ten times as many people killed, but American losses in relation to population bear comparison with European deaths in the First World War and Russia’s in the Second World War

'To this day many Americans believe that British opinion was pro-Southern. Not so…though the Times and Punch (and to a lesser degree The Economist) did favour the South, the Union had its supporters too. Both nations were divided. …Though all Social classes in Britain hated slavery, it took Lincoln’s death to make many realise that ending slavery was indeed the North’s goal.' (The Economist, 13 November 2010)

The year 1865 saw the ending of slavery in the US and at last the noble sentiments of the Declaration of Independence held good for all, including what was by then four million black slaves; a few years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Act of Emancipation, the Russian serfs had been set free; in 2008 the US elected its first black president, Barack Obama, who thus became the 44th incumbent; he was re-elected in 2012 

British antecedents in America

American football
: this evolved from the same common ancestor as British football and rugby; the Plains Indians had a version of the round-ball game which involved passing the ball along a line of players; on encountering white settlers of British origin they adopted the superior rules of the modern game [see Sport & leisure]

Bat & ball game: Baseball was first recorded in the mid-1700s in London [see Baseball]

Darts: this pastime was brought over in 1620 with the Mayflower Pilgrims, many of whom were from Nottinghamshire; the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock instead of voyaging further south as planned, partly because they had run out of beer, a dart player's worst nightmare

American pool: this was developed from English billiards; the use of side in a shot is known in the US as “Putting a bit of English on it”

Rodeo: this is the only national spectator sport to originate entirely in the United States

Snake oil: this was sold in Britain in the 1600s before it was sold in America

American national anthem: the tune was composed by a Briton, John Stafford-Smith

American flag: this was inspired by the Washington family’s British coat of arms; in the new country that was the United States of America, George Washington was offered the throne; he declined it, following the historical precedent of Oliver Cromwell and Julius Caesar – though Caesar was just playing hard to get and was vastly miffed when the offer wasn’t repeated, but by then it was too late

Liberty Bell: this icon of the American War of Independence, in Philadelphia, was cast in London by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which also cast Big Ben; the Liberty Bell and Big Ben have another thing in common – they both have cracks

Apple pie: as in ‘As American as apple pie’; baked in Britain first of course

US Navy: founded by the Scotsman John Paul Jones

Soda water: i.e. carbon dioxide dissolved in water, the basis of carbonated soft drinks; invented by Joseph Priestley, 1768 [see Joseph Priestley]

Railway cowcatcher: invented by Charles Babbage

Groundhog Day: developed by British emigrants to America

Iced tea: invented by an Englishman for Americans, 1904

Skyscraper: the first structure to be built around an iron frame was the five-storey Ditherington Flax Mill, which is in Shrewsbury near Coalbrookdale, in 1797, not Chicago nearly a century later

New York: this city takes its nickname from the Nottinghamshire town of Gotham

Mount McKinley: the highest peak in North America was first climbed in 1913 by a party led by the English missionary Hudson Stuck

White House: Britain, then at war with the US, burnt this down in 1812, while itself being bested at the Battle of New Orleans; meanwhile the Canadians comprehensively beat off a US invasion; all this was part of the war of 1812, the only war on record where all parties won

American contributions to Britain: there has been plenty of traffic the other way, too, of course (e.g. the British ‘stiff upper lip’ was a phrase coined by an American)

British place-names: these speckle the globe, not least North America: New Amsterdam was renamed New York; Nome, Alaska, was the mistake of an Admiralty clerk who misread ‘Name?’ on a ship’s chart (the word is not devoid of meaning, as in Ancient Egypt nome meant 'district'); magnetic north is located near Prince of Wales Island in Canada; a compass points towards this, not to the north pole, ‘true north’; Hudson’s Bay, Baffin Island – the list is endless

British-born Americans: Andrew Carnegie, Charlie Chaplin (first globally recognised face), Stan Laurel, Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Raymond Chandler, William Shockley (American parents; co-inventor of the transistor) etc; also movements the other way of course, e.g. Pocohontas came to live in Brentford

Churchillian quote:

 '…the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus, trial by jury and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.' (Winston Churchill, 1874-1965)

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