Remember the Camperdown Disaster? Do you still experience a visceral jolt of anxiety when you think of the lives lost? Still reel with anxiety about Mafeking? What about Agadir?
Of course not. These were some of the dramatic events on the world stage during the late Victorian era, and they were specific to the British Empire. That world-spanning entity on which the sun never set, that made the world tick with commerce, that provided the Pax Britannica- and that ran wild with exploitation of less technologically advanced peoples, too.
Still, all those people, all those utterly fascinating characters from coal miners to middle-class merchants to captains of industry and ancient nobility- all their hopes and fears and dreams are now long forgotten, unless you love history as I do...
-In case you were wondering, Victoria was a RN battleship commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. Tryon was a strict disciplinarian who believed that the best way of keeping his crews taut and efficient was by continuous fleet evolutions, which before the invention of wireless were signalled by flags, and he had gained a reputation as a daring and highly proficient handler of his ships. A taciturn and difficult man for his subordinate officers to deal with, Tryon deliberately avoided making his intentions known to them in advance, so as to train them to be adept in handling unpredictable situations.
During complex manouvres in the Mediterranean on June 22, 1893, Tryon gave manouvre orders that were recognized by the other officers present as exceedingly dangerous. Inhibited from speaking up and violating the chain of command, however, they could not disobey and the battleship Camperdown rammed Victoria.
Victoria sank, quickly sank, taking 358 crew with her, including Tryon.
We have our constant parade of tragedies, missteps and wars too. Is it hubris, then, to think that we are any different than the Victorians of more than a century ago? After all, all our hopes and fears and dreams will be forgotten someday too- except by those who love history, like me and some of you.
Something has changed, though. Consider. The Victorians had their Camperdown- we have our Deepwater Horizon. The loss of life is equally tragic- but now we are faced with the reality that our actions will wreck a vast ecosystem for decades, perhaps centuries, and will severely damage the economies of several populous states. And although BP is directly responsible, it remains our addiction to oil to run just about everything that is the ultimate cause of the tragedy.
If a terrorist group sets off a dirty bomb, or worse yet manages to construct or purchase a nuclear warhead, they will render a city of their choosing uninhabitable for decades, perhaps centuries.
Even so far back as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world came to within a heartbeat of Armageddon. We've gotten close before, very close.
If we genetically engineer microbial, plant and animal species a little too aggressively, there may be unintended consequences that ripple through the earth's ecosystem for- well, forever.
If people, especially in less industrialized countries, keep having seven or eight or twelve children- how can we possibly feed everyone, much less provide a reasonable level of medical care?
When the Victorian world imploded, it did so in the inconcievable inferno of World War One, perhaps the greatest calamity mankind has ever known. (WWII was at its essence a continuation of WWI, which was left totally unresolved.) Now that our capabilities have grown by many orders of magnitude, can we keep our world from falling apart, and if we can't, how, precisely, will it do so?
The Victorians and their peers in all the other industrialized countries of the world could afford to make big mistakes- they were sort of contained in their effects, at least right up until that final one. It seems that we can no longer count on things sorting themselves out. Nor should we blindly follow authority figures without questioning their intelligence- or, in fact, their motives.
It's time, I'm afraid, that we grew up.