Brian's Blogs

Does History Teach us that Might is Right?

Looking back on history, I would imagine that most countries have some skeletons in their closet, incidents in their past they might even feel embarrassed about, albeit that none of us can be responsible for things our ancestors got up to, even though what we can do is at least acknowledge that some "excesses" did actually take place.

Back in my school days we never learned about China or anywhere in Asia at all for that matter (yes, I really am that ancient); and it was only much more recently that I ever learned about some of the truly awful things some of the Allied forces got up to in Chinese history.

On the other hand, every schoolboy in the UK used to know that at the height of Britain's Empire, almost a quarter of the world was colored pink on the world maps stuck up on classroom walls, showing the extent of British rule around the globe.

Now, author Stuart Laycock - an enterprising historian in the UK - after two years of research, has discovered that at some time or another in its history, Britain invaded almost nine out of every ten countries on this planet; or to put it another way, it invaded all but 22 countries of the 193 states recognized today by the UN.

The findings are contained in a book entitled "All the Countries We've Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To". What has taken Britain by surprise is that only a comparatively small proportion of the total actually formed an official part of the British Empire. The remainder were included because the British were found to have employed some sort of military presence in the territory, either through force, the threat of force, negotiation or payment. Even incursions by British pirates or armed explorers are included, provided they were operating with the approval of their government. (Many countries that seem to have had little historical connection with the UK, such as Costa Rica, Ecuador and El Salvador, made the list because of the repeated raids they suffered from state-sanctioned British sailors.)

The only other nation which has achieved anything even approaching the British total is France – for so long the "traditional enemy of Britain", and the second-most globally invasive country in history; but it also holds the unfortunate record for having been at the receiving end of the most British invasions!

Probably the most peaceful nation, in complete contrast, is Iceland – itself invaded by Britain in 1940, after the neutral nation refused to enter the war on the Allies side. The Icelandic government made strong protests, but offered no resistance.

So what connection has all this got to do with China, you may be asking yourself? Well, two things that have got me thinking, to be honest. Firstly, news also comes this week that an auction of two Chinese relics that were looted from Beijing's Yuanmingyuan in 1860 have been withdrawn from sale at Bonhams in London after the auction house received protests from China. The second is the ongoing dispute China has with Japan over ownership of the Diaoyu Islands.

Without in any way wishing to take sides on this particular debate, the fact is that territories throughout history have changed hands as a result of violence, intimidation and wars. The victors then invariably rewrite history to make themselves out to be the "good guys". So how far back in history should one go in order to set the equivalent of a "statute of limitation of rights"? This is the problem faced by nations across the world, whether it is the Falklands/Malvinas dispute between the UK and Argentina, Peñón de Alhucemas disputed by Spain and Morocco, the Shatt al-Arab (Iran/Iraq), and up to 200 others as listed in Wikipedia.

Further, with items looted during forced occupations and times of war, I guess there is no clear cut answer as to the ownership of such items when states try to reclaim them maybe centuries later. If Lord Elgin hadn't "stolen" the Elgin Marbles from Greece, such that they finally ended up in the British Museum, many would argue that left to the ravages of nature, they would no longer be with us today. So does Greece now have moral ownership of them or not? Take that argument to extremes and I guess many of the world's most fabulous museums could be forced into returning priceless treasures to their original homeland. Would that be a good or a bad thing?

Or what about kings and emperors throughout history who, in the main only got their positions of strength through subjugation of people through force. Because William the Conqueror invaded Britain in 1066, do I have the right to complain that this is the only reason Queen Elizabeth II is sitting on the throne a thousand years later?

These are not easy questions, and I guess there are no obvious answers. Often negotiation and reason are finally able to win the day in the settlement of territorial and ownership disputes. But history has a nasty habit of repeating itself when force is the only "argument" that wins.

And that is what leaves a nasty taste in the mouth when all the shouting and posturing is over.

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