On January 13th, 1898, the day after William arrived in London from West Hartlepool to make final arrangements for his trip, a huge scandal erupted across the channel in France which would have immediately been news in London. The famous writer, Emile Zola, had published an open letter to the President of the French Republic accusing the government of falsely imprisoning Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army with German roots from the disputed territory of Alsace. Dreyfus was accused of espionage and imprisoned in Devil’s Island in French Guiana. It had come to light however that the charges were false and based on fake documents, and many in French society were demanding that Dreyfus be released or given a fair trial. The episode split French society between the conservative Catholic Pro-Army faction and the more leftist, anticlerical republicans. Dreyfus was eventually acquitted but not before leaving a permanent fissure in French society and leading to the establishment of the 1905 French law on the separation of church and state.
On February 15th, 1898, the USS Maine exploded mysteriously in Havana harbor, amid tensions between the US and the Spanish colonial government who were fighting against an independence uprising in Cuba. Many in America suspected the Spanish authorities of sinking the ship and called for a war with Spain, which was eventually declared on April 25th. Admiral Dewey destroyed the Spanish Pacific fleet in Manila Bay on May 1st and the future president Theodore Roosevelt won fame on July 1st as the commander of the Rough Riders cavalry unit that heroically charged up and took San Juan Hill in Cuba. The war ultimately resulted in the defeat of Spain and the loss of Cuba, the Philippines and other colonies, putting an end to Spain’s once great global empire. It also signaled to the world the military ascension of the United States and the strength of its Navy.
The victory of the United States in the war, and its sudden possession of lands around the globe for the first time, led to a debate about the merits of imperialism and eventually got the US entangled in a war in the Philippines to suppress the independence of the people there. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem exhorting the American’s to “Take up the White Man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed, go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need.” It remains perhaps the best description of late 19th century European attitudes toward colonized native peoples.
Colonialism was at its peak at this time: On June 9th, the British government signed a 99-year lease with the Chinese government for Hong Kong, part of an ongoing carving up of China among the major European powers; on July 7th, the United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands and on September 2nd, a British Army in the Sudan led by General Kitchener – and including a young Winston Churchill – defeated a massive native army in the Battle of Omdurman.
The British still considered the French their main geopolitical rival at this time, despite the rise of Germany on the continent. Britain and France were locked in a “scramble for Africa” and were trying to establish opposing continent-wide territories. These conflicting aspirations reached a climax on September 18th when they intersected at Fashoda in the Upper Nile region of Sudan as French and British military contingents both met there and made opposing claims on the territory. There was fear of a general war between the two countries which only subsided with the withdrawal of the French and a compromise agreement that left Britain in control of Egypt and Sudan, and recognized France as the main colonial power in Morocco. In just a few years’ time, in 1904, with Germany becoming ever more antagonistic, Britain and France would sign the Entente Cordiale which paved the way to greater military cooperation in the run up to war with Germany in 1914.
In Europe at the end of the 19th century the continent still contained several large, multi-ethnic Empires: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. Nationalism and International Socialism were growing threats to stability: the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (known affectionately as Sisi) was assassinated in September 1898 by an Italian anarchist in Geneva, and in 1901, President William McKinley would also be assassinated by an American anarchist in Buffalo, NY. Another famous political assassination in Sarajevo just 16 years later would lead to the outbreak of the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires, and to the collapse of the Russian Monarchy with the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The year 1898 was in many ways the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter in world history. Queen Victoria herself would only live for 3 more years. A few events of late 1898 in particular foreshadowed the rapid advances to come with the following century. The first land speed record was set by an automobile on December 18th, and on December 26th, Marie and Pierre Curie announced the discovery of an element they named radium. Within 10 years, radio voice transmissions would become commonplace and powered flight would take off. The age of the sailing vessel also peaked and then rapidly came to an end around this time. It is ironic that my great grandfather, Albion, would apprentice aboard one of the fastest sailing ships ever devised, while at the same time his father was sailing around the world on steamships. It also demonstrates how unprepared the people of the time were for the rapid changes that were about to overtake their lives. In just a few years, the speed, convenience and predictability offered by steam would eclipse wind power for good, and it is not surprising that by 1905 Albion had abandoned sailing entirely for a new life in the New World.