Religion and Decline of the Absolutism – The Stuarts

1625 doesn’t sound like a significant year in history, but in fact it is the start of a century of rebellions and revolutions that shaped the political system we have in Britain today.

This is because in1625 Charles I married a Catholic, kicking off a fight against absolutism in Britain.

Religion wasn’t of course the only reason but a key and perhaps the most important reason the country transitioned from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

The Stuart dynasty had always been Catholic – but it was something somewhat set aside when Elisabeth I, a devout Protestant, made James I and IV her heir. Scotland adopted Protestantism as its main religion in 1560 so there didn’t seem to be a problem.

But then his son married a Catholic, Henrietta Maria, remained friendly with the Catholic nations such as Spain and became increasingly autocratic in his religious policies, using the Star Chamber to harshly punish religious dissidents.

Moreover, he strongly believed in the Catholic doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. For Charles, he was only answerable to God, as God appoints the monarch.

Unfortunately for Charles, everyone in the Kingdom, particularly parliament and many nobles, expected to hold the King to account, as they had done with his predecessors.

The idea of a monarch who not only had questionable loyalties but refused to be held accountable politically and religiously is a worrisome one.

The English Civil war was sparked due to Charles’s heavy-handed religious policies. First the Scottish in 1639 rebelled after Archbishop Laud attempted to impose the Anglican book of prayer, followed by the Irish two years later. The English lastly took up arms against their King, led by the Puritans.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the Stuarts hadn’t learned from their father’s mistakes. Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Catholic which served to stir up theories amongst disgruntled protestants such as the ‘Popish plot’ – that she had been employed by the Pope to poison Charles so that his Catholic brother James could take the throne.

Moreover, his popularity quickly faded due to his extravagant lifestyle. Many of Charles’ favourites at court were Catholics, who were all expelled after a Test Act passed in 1673 banning Catholics from taking public office. He didn’t produce any legitimate heirs, meaning the throne would fall to his brother.

John Morrill, a historian who has extensively studied religious absolutism as cause for decline of the monarchy, views Charles as a ‘Secret Catholic’, a theory stemming from his close diplomacy with France, a very Catholic nation, and the fact when he died, he was received back into the Catholic Church.

Image credit: Coventry City Council via Creative Commons. 

James II’s reign was the final nail in the coffin for religious absolutism. A militant Roman Catholic, according to Morrill, advocating to repeal penal laws asserting Anglicanism was superior to Catholicism, appointed Catholics to public office and allowed the Papal Legate to visit for the first time since Henry VIII’s reign.

All of this culminated in the Bill of Rights of 1689, effectively banned Catholics from taking the throne, as it served to criticise the former King’s religious policies, stating he, “ … did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom”, whilst “By assuming and exercising a power of dispensing with and suspending of laws and the execution of laws without the consent of Parliament”. It is this Bill of Rights that began our transition to a constitutional monarchy.

The focus on Stuart Dynasty isn’t their Catholicism, more their wilful ignorance of and their desire for absolute power. Catholicism at the time was very much associated with absolute power and the unwillingness to govern fairly and properly.

Their marriages to non-Anglicans as shown with Charles I and both of his sons further increased distrust by MPs who assumed these Catholic spouses would endeavour to continue a Catholic dynasty in which the country was ruled by the Divine Right of the monarch.

Every generation seemed to look back and assume they could achieve what the one before could not – absolute control over the Kingdom using a Catholic doctrine in a Protestant nation.

Their inability to evolve strategically or religiously meant the ultimate decline of absolutism. 

Michaela Makusha


Sources

Morrill, John, The Nature of the English Revolution: Studies in Religion and Politics, 1603-42 (1992)

John Morrill, The Sensible Revolution (1991) https://www.historytoday.com/archive/civil-wars The Civil Wars by Sarah Mortimer

China: an Old Giant Trapped in a Loop

China is familiar to westerners , but also unknown— the sleeping giant has awoken and has been appearing in thousands of headlines. Some say that it is the enemy of the western world, some say that its rise benefits the global economy—despite what has been said about it, the public may generally gain an impression that it is a historical powerbase. Nevertheless, half of its history reads like a stuck record—there is no substantial changes throughout centuries. More precisely China is indeed a country which has a rich history and extraordinary culture, but its impressive intellectual evolution all but came to an abrupt halt two thousand years ago, and only started to develop again in the 19th century. To examine how it all began, we have to go back to 4000 years ago—the emergence of the Xia dynasty (the first dynasty in China). 

Since the Xia dynasty, China has experienced the rise and fall of several dynasties, including the Shang and the Zhou. The Zhou dynasty established a system where the King divided the land between his relatives, namely zhuhou, then these relatives passed on their fiefs to their descendants. Within their own fiefs, these zhuhou were able to take control over military power, governmental power and legislative power. Nevertheless, the King still had power over them. After centuries of prosperity, this great empire suffered from turmoil in which the King (You of Zhou) was killed. Consequently, the rest of the Zhou nobles withdrew from the original capital to the east—the old capital of Chengzhou. Starting from this point, the Zhou dynasty entered the start of the Eastern Zhou period (770 -256 BC), leading to the Spring and Summer Period and the Warring States Period—centuries of chaos and casualties, but also the greatest and brightest period of Chinese Philosophy.

Ever since the Zhou nobles moved to the East, the King no longer had power over those regional rulers. As a result, those regional rules started to disobey the orders from the central government and attack each other. The period from then on can be further divided into the Spring and Summer period (722 -481 BC), and the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Noticeably, the last King of Zhou Dynasty was killed amidst the Warring States Period, which is the end of the Zhou Dynasty.More broadly, during the Warring States Period, the conflicts between states reached their peak, with only around 7 states left, compared to hundreds of states during the Spring and Summer Period.  ultimately led to the rise of Qin Dynasty (221-206BC) who conquered the rest of its competitors. 

King Wen of Zhou, painted during the Ming Dynasty. (Credit)

It is doubtless true  that these periods were dark ages—millions were killed, and the collapse of states becamea  daily occurrence. Nevertheless, the greatest intellectual movement occurred  asa wide range of Chinese schools of thoughts emerged. It is these ideologies which shaped the core values of the Chinese, it is the greatest leap of Chinese philosophy, it is, you might say, the enlightenment age of China—without these ideologies, China would be longer be China. It is so unique due to the diversity of the different schools of thought, such as Taoism, Confucianism, Legalism, Mohism, Yangism, etc. Though they all differ, they are the reflection of humanity of the world, and through learning from each other, new ideologies arise and bring out a better interpretation of the world. Unfortunately, there was a great leap and then nothing — for  the next two thousand years, Chinese adapted the same ideology, which shaped the historical cycle of China, molded the values of Chinese—but no significant breakthroughs came about since then. 

To clarify, I am not suggesting that ever since so no changes in China have taken place, many have: the improvement in technology, the emergence of different types of poems, the new scholars in Confucianism are several examples. I am trying to justify is that in the root of Chinese core values, the same ideology has dominated the whole country, it controls their minds and their wills which bind them into a united collective, which is why the following history of China is merely a cycle until the Opium War. As such, there are no leaps in terms of intellectual movement on a large scale—it is trapped at that point. 

It all began after the downfall of the Qin dynasty where the Han dynasty took over. Emperor Wu of Han, one of the greatest Emperors in Chinese history, decided to enact the ideas  of Dong Zhong Shu on Confucianism as the basis of the state’s political philosophy. The ideas of Confucianism are rtoo sophisticated to be examined in this essay, but in general, it rests on the basis that humans are fundamentally good, and individuals should aim to become “jun zi”, a respectable gentleman who acts according to proper conduct. To achieve this, there are multiple concepts that have been discussed, in particular, the five Constants “Wuchang”, including humaneness “ren”, justice “yi”, propriety” li”, wisdom “zhi” and trustworthiness “xin”. Through practicing these values, Confucianism believes that individuals will be able to become better people—children will treat their parents well, neighbors helping others, and people respecting elders. These morality and ethics then build up from the individual level to the relationship with other individuals, ultimately forming a peaceful society, and then finally, it is applied in political aspect—in the blueprint of Confucianism, the Emperor himself must be a “jun zi” who is a morally respectable person first, ensuring that the one who has power also conforms to this set of ethics value. Then, he will rule its people in a humane way, creating a benevolent utopia. Yet, if the Emperor was found to be morally unworthy, the people should subvert him and bring peace to the collective. From one perspective, it can be argued that what Confucianism tried to do is to establish a certain set of values among all individuals. If they successfully make the individuals treat it as their core values, it shapes their actions and thoughts which will ideally lead to a peaceful society as all individuals believe the same set of rules, even the rulers conform to them, thereby creating a humane world. What is so special about it is that Confucianism despises using strict law but instead, using “li” to promote and implement their ideas across the country. “Li’ itself is but a set of actions, it is only vital if other values are moderated into it such as ren”. While practicing these actions, these regulated norms will always remind people about its core and why they are doing what they are doing, hencereinforcing the idea of “ren” in their mind and strengthening the control over the people. To do so, they always promote it through education and music. After generations, they will ideally develop a mainstream ideology where all people conform to it.

Whether we agree with it or not, it is no doubt a challenge to create a peaceful society. However, Dong Zhon Shu ended up turning these ideals to his own ends, becoming a tyrant. He added the idea of divine rights of Kings to Confucianism, suggesting that the emperor appears to rule due to the order of God, it was his rightful place which significantly strengthened monarchical power—but remember that this idea does not come from  Confucianism, according to which people can always overthrow an emperor if he is morally underqualified. Furthermore, he suggested that no other ideologies should be promoted but his Confucianism; for example, one must study Confucianism in order to be a civil officer. Yet, the price was that this ideology would remain dominant as other ideologies would be marginalsied, hindering the intellectual development of China. The emperor was obviously pleased with this outcome in which his people remained gentle and respectful to each other whilestrengthening his power and maintaining his dictatorship. He even further introduced the idea of legalism into it—  for those who failed to conform, strict punishment and laws would be used. Hitherto, a distorted political philosophy emerged which only served the goal of the emperor,, and with it brought about the demise of other ideologies. In the following years, the worship and fear of the emperor have become the greatest goals of the people. A subject follows the emperor till the very end, even if he is obviously a terrible ruler who would but destroy the country. The result was a dearth of  intellectual development as the general public became lambs who only learned to fear and worship their emperor. 

After the fall of the Han dynasty, we can see lots of dynasties—Jin dynasty, Tang dynasty, Ming dynasty—all of them rise at the very beginning, then fall after hundreds of years when the people can no longer withstand the emperors. Since the King has all the power, so long as the King lacks intelligence, the situation rapidly deteriorates. And yet, no one would have ever thought of ending this loop—all of the people would only fight against these tyrants when they could not stand the mess caused by the rulers, then return the power to the new King and start a new cycle, but no individuals will come up with a new intellectual movement, suggesting we may have to forfeit monarchy, or at least weaken the power of the emperor. This only starts to change with the outbreak of the Opium War, where the modern western society defeats the aging Chinese Monarchy, indicating that China needs to awake from its own prison.

Tsz Hin Lok (Marco)

Belated Black History Month: a Black conquistador and a Black Samurai

When we think about conquistadors, the first thought we would have is probably of a typical Spanish man with spikes daring to enter the new world. And when we imagine a samurai, we would imagine a Japanese man with his katana. While these general concepts would be the majority, even in such unexpected places we could find footsteps of Africans.

Samurai in Armour, hand-coloured albumen silver print by Kusakabe Kimbei, c. 1870s–90s; in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. There are few depictions of either the Black conquistador or Black Samurai. (Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum (object no. 84.XA.700.4.58), digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program)

Juan Garrido (1487~ 1547) was a member of the Hernan Cortes Conquistador expedition, Famous for causing the downfall of the Aztec empire. While records are scarce about his origins, he is said to have originated from the Kingdom of Congo or one of the southern Sahara’s Berber tribes. It is said he moved in his youth to Lisbon. Considering slavery was still active at the time, Historian Ricardo Alegira suspects Juan came from a powerful African Tribal leader or king whom the Portuguese have traded with. Other historians such as Peter Gerhard suspect he was a freedman ergo a former slave who has earned his freedom. This suspicion is due to one of the other Conquistadors, Pedro Garrido. 

In 1508 Garrido joined in his first expedition with Ponse de Leon and his conquest of Puerto Rico, making him the officially first African ever to fight a native of the new world. It is said he fought against the native revolt in 1511 and in 1513 after Ponce de Leon had been forced to step down in place of Diego Columbus.They even visited and found Florida despite being ill-prepared to conquer the land. By the time Cortes came into the picture Garrido was a veteran conquistador and one of the few that survived the Law Noche Triste (The Night of sorrows where Cortes had lost 2/3 of his army) and Battle of Otumba. (1) He was honoured as a veteran and given land by Cortes. He became wealthy as many did at the time in the New World through a use of slave labour. However, he was always looking for new adventures and participated in the expeditions to the North of Mexico and California where he spent an exorbitant amount of wealth leaving him destitute. In 1547 the man who saw the rise of the Spanish colonial empire in Americans had passed away after a lifetime of expeditions.

Yasuke (?~?) was a samurai during the Sengoku Jidai (Warring states period). It is unknown which part of African he had come from, but most agree he was probably from Mozambique. It is unclear if Missionary Alessandro Valiganano has bought him as a slave in Mozambique or in India. In 1581 when Valiganano met with Oda Nobunaga who took an interest in him. (2) Not believing there can be a black-skinned person Nobunaga is said to have ordered him washed but after seeing the skin colour hadn’t changed, intrigued Nobunaga requested to have him as one of his vassals in court and advanced Yasuke from a humble servant to a Samurai and bestowing the name Yasuke. Yasuke learned Japanese and the culture in just a short 2 years and impressed Nobunaga further through the fact he was recorded to be 188cm tall, making him a massive giant for the time period.. He served under Nobunaga until June 1582 when the infamous Honoji incident occurred where Mitsuhide betrayed Nobunaga. In some literary sources it is said before committing seppuku (Ritual suicide) Nobunaga asked Yasuke to kill him for him. After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke joined Oda Nobutada as he rallied all his fathers’ men and fought to avenge Nobunaga, but he lost and was imprisoned for his efforts. But being foreign he was banished away instead of being killed. Some sources claim he was sent away back to the Christian church and afterwards this unlikely story end.However, some sources indicate he became a Ronin (A samurai without a master) and a record of a black gunman who fought for the Arima clan suggests perhaps it was the same Yasuke that did so. Considering gunman is a lower position in the feudal hierarchy and the fact Yasuke was recorded as having met many influential men during his stay with Nobunaga yet this man is only of a passing mention, it is unlikely this was the same African who ended up becoming a samurai. This wasn’t the end of Japanese interaction with Africans as during the Imjin War (Japanese invasion of Korea 1592~1598) when the Chinese reinforcement entered Korea there were 4 Africans who was introduced as Sea Ghosts (海鬼), that was set as a form of a special force that could hide under the sea at night time and attack the vessels effectively. While unfortunately there are no records of these 4 men being effective, there are records of the Japanese fearing the news of the fact Africans showed up on the other side which might indicate memory of Yasuke the giant who served under Nobunaga was still fresh in the minds of some Japanese.

Justin Kim, History in Politics Contributor


(1) As a side note at the same period a female conquistadora by the name of Maria de Estrada was also present for both battles being referred to by Bernal Diaz del Castillo who recorded the battles as the sole female combatant. And as part of the 23 cavalry that was instrumental in turning the battle in the Spanish favour. She like Garrido was recognized by Cortes for her valour and given land and lived a wealthy life before her death in 1537

(2) Oda Nobunaga was one of the Three leaders (三英傑) who is set to represent the Sengoku Jidai period. To understand each character’s significance, the poem at the time illustrates each individual beautifully.

Nobunaga prepared the rice,

Hideyoshi made the rice cake called Japan,

and Ieyasu sat and ate the rice cake.

織田がつき

羽柴がこねし天下餅

すわりしままに食うは徳川

How the UK Shaped Hong Kong’s Unique Democratic Sensitivity

Many look at Hong Kong’s politics now and wonder how Hong Kong got into such a mess. As some may know, in addition to it being a shopping and cuisine paradise, Hong Kong is a has a special political and legal status . Alongside Macau, Hong Kong is run under the principles of ‘one country, two systems’. In other words, though Hong Kong is a part of socialist China, it operates under a capitalist system. This is a compromise agreed between the British Colonial Government and China in 1997 when the British control of Hong Kong ended. Whether the Chinese government is maintaining the principle well is not the question to be discussed here). Instead, this article will  explore the British Colonial government’s impact on shaping Hong Kong people’s unique democratic sensitivity, which has certainly contributed to the recent clash between the Hong Kong government and its people. 

The impact of shaping Hong Kong people’s democratic sensitivity can first be explored by the British Colonial government’s localisation policies. In 1967, there was a very serious riot throughout Hong Kong. This was a wake-up call to the British Colonial government that they had to change their way of administration by catering to the local people’s needs better. The British Colonial government thus started to implement a series of socio-economic policies, such as providing affordable housing and free and compulsory education. With a better living environment, Hong Kong people were able to spend more on learning instead of merely focusing on escaping poverty. Generations of improvement in education led to a Hong Kong population with a very high level of education. As a result, more locals were capable and eligible to work in the government. There was rapid localisation of governmental personnel including an increase of over 50% of Hong Kong civil servants from 1980 to 1990. There was an increased number of Hong Kong Administrative Officers. Similarly, more Hong Kong people were promoted to senior and even top governmental positions. For example, Anson Chan Fang On Sang became the first Chinese Chief Secretary and Donald Tsang Yam Kuen became the first Chinese Financial Secretary in the 1980s and 90s. Over the years towards the transfer of Hong Kong, more Chinese ‘secretaries’ emerged. More Hong Kong people learned the British democratic way of governance and were trained in this way. 

The Pro-Beijing government forces facing protestors, 1967. (Credit: Hong Kong Free Press)

As the transfer approached , the British Colonial government implemented an even more significant attempt at ‘localisation’: increasing  Hong Kong people’s democratic sensitivity. Towards the second half of the twentieth century, China had emerged as a stronger nation running under a socialist system. The British Colonial government feared that Hong Kong would become a socialist city under the CCP. As a result, in the 1990s, it greatly localised the government by promoting more locals into the administration. The British colonial government hoped that by doing so, these Hong Kong people would already be trained to manage their government in a democratic way when the transfer happens. Also, the fact that these capable Hong Kong people are already occupying government positions means that there would not be many vacancies when the British Colonial government was ‘out’ in 1997. The Chinese government would not, the thought went, send their own personnel (who are trained and worked under a socialist system) to manage the government. 

The impacts of the localisation measures had been effective in realising the British Colonial government’s democratic intentions. For example, in the early years of the twenty-first century, many Hong Kong people trained under the British democratic system still occupied most government positions. They pushed for further democratic reform after the transfer to ensure  democratic education to the new generations. The creation of the secondary school subject ‘Liberal Studies’, which educated youngsters on the ‘one country, two systems’ and one’s political rights, is a clear illustration of these efforts. These in turn trained a new generation of millennials who had lived and known democracy their whole life. These generations of youngsters clearly know what their political rights are and are willing to participate in defending their rights or pushing for democratic reforms. Under the education of liberal ideas, they are also capable of critically challenging government actions. Thus, it is not hard to understand why these democratically sensitive generations of youngsters felt threatened and protested when more pro-China politicians are taking up government positions and more pro-China policies are implemented in recent years. 

Hong Kong people’s unique democratic sensitivity can also be explored by another policy of the British Colonial government: the creation of representative governance. The China government’s autocratic rule during the Cultural Revolution really ‘freaked out’ the British Colonial government. It was determined to build Hong Kong a steadfast democratic foundation through increasing the electoral elements in Hong Kong’s political structure. In the Legislative Council, the first indirect election in 1985 marked the start of a gradual change, and was soon followed by the first direct election for 18 seats by the method of ‘one person, one vote’ in 1991 and the abolition of all official seats in 1995 by Governor Chris Patten. At last, the president of the Legislative council was no longer the Governor but elected among the Legislative council’s elected counsellors. In the District Council, the first direct election was held in 1982 and all official seats were abolished in 1985. All appointed seats were abolished in 1994 and the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years old. More people were eligible to participate in voicing their opinions by being able to vote for politicians that represent their views. In the Urban and Regional Councils, there were gradual elections and the abolishment of appointed seats. More people could vote and more were eligible to stand in elections. 

As Hong Kong moved into the twenty-first century, these elections were already present. The current  generations are used to having their say and participating in politics by voting and choosing their representatives. On the other side, more young people choose to participate in community affairs by standing in District Councilors’ elections, which are open to voting to everyone aged above 18. Some other young people choose to become a Legislative Councilor to have their opinions regarding the future development of Hong Kong valued. Thus, it is not hard to understand why youngsters are willing to protest, even resolve to radical actions, in face of the narrowing of electoral choices and rights in recent years. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

Cornish Independence: dream or future political force?

‘You wouldn’t want to mention it in the pub, for a start.’ By this, Cornwall-born Johnny refers to Cornish nationalism, a highly contested topic that has drastically shaped how Cornwall views its place on the map. Though dismissed by some as little more than a political farce, Cornish support for its independence has deeply historic roots, predating Roman times. Demonstrated by those who fly St Piran’s flag, nationalist dreams of sovereignty permeate Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, reflecting its original Celtic culture.

Known politically as the ‘Case for Cornwall’, full Cornish independence from England would likely entail the creation of a devolved Cornish Assembly, harking back to the original Stannary Parliament and holding the same powers as in Wales or in Northern Ireland. The closest Cornwall has come to this status so far is the 2015 ‘Devolution Deal’, authorising Cornish control over its health and social care services, transport, and enterprise and skills funding policies. However, for nationalists, this is not enough. Dick Cole, leader of Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish nationalist party, argues for future amendments to the elements overlooked in the Deal such as housing and planning. His demands also include more Cornish autonomy over its governance, comparable to the contemporary political independence debates within Scotland. His critique  demonstrates the ongoing tussle for Cornwall’s national status to be recognised.

Moreover, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent ’Levelling Up’ speech announced the revival of Cornish and other County Deals, sparking debate over whether Cornwall should have an elected Mayor as a further sign of devolved political power de jure. Derek Thomas, MP for St Ives, argued for Cornwall’s deal to be named a ‘Duchy Deal’, referring to Cornwall’s constitutional ‘Duchy’ status, thereby reminding the government of Cornwall’s legal authority to veto Westminster legislation. Thus, in his adamant conviction for this ‘Levelling Up’ policy to be beneficial for Cornish nationalism, Thomas poses a stark challenge to the English government.

Portloe, Cornwall. Credit: Edward Webb via Wikimedia

However, today’s reality is still far from Cornish nationalists’ dream of independence. Even by accommodating this County Deal, Cornwall implicitly accepts the authority of the English government over its own. Importantly, where does this dream of independence stem from?

Cornish nationalism majorly relies upon the recognition of a distinctly Celtic identity, originating from early first century Dumnonii Celtic populations. This cultural and political identity was threatened by Roman rule, until their retreat back across the Channel in the 410s. Though far from fellow Celtic nations like Brittany, the renewal of Celtic culture and Cornish political sovereignty after the Romans left illustrates the determination and individualistic natures of the Cornish people at that time. As John Reuben Davis argues, Cornwall ‘remained as an independent British territory in the face of pressure from Wessex,’ over the next several hundred years. This subsequent revival of Celtic culture into the sixth century draws parallels with the contemporary Cornish struggle against controlling governance.

Cornish political alliances made with ‘othered’ fighting forces, including Scandinavian raiding parties, highlight their struggle for political sovereignty when facing the most powerful governing force of this time, Wessex. Most notably, the 838 Battle of Hingston Down, where a Viking ship of men aided the Cornish in their final recorded battle against Wessex, parallels modern Cornish alliances with smaller forces, in order to challenge centralised political systems. One example of this is its celebrated place among the Six Celtic Nations as a recognised Celtic political and cultural polity.

Interestingly, the fight for modern Cornish nationalism also subtly materialises within alternative portrayals of the ninth-century subduing of Cornwall, after Hingston Down. In spite of the 927 expulsion of Cornish forces from Exeter, as described by William of Malmesbury, Davis argues for the continuation of a distinctive Cornish identity with the subsequent creation of a separate bishopric for Cornwall as well as a fixed Cornish border at the Tamar. Furthermore, Davis’s championing of the underdog reflects a modern historiographical trend toward studying the Cornish revolt as part of Cornish cultural and political identity in itself. As Mark Stoyle identifies, Cornish revolts are now seen as ‘part of a continuum,’ that goes on long past medieval times, into the Tudor period and beyond. Thus, this historic and unique Cornish identity perseveres across history.In short, contemporary nationalist demands echo the distinct and rebellious nature of the Cornish identity. Their independent streak may continue to be revealed through the sui generis nature of the local governance of the Isles of Scilly. Scilly’s partial devolution from Cornwall, recognised as a separate local authority under the 1930 Isles of Scilly Order, with its own county council to match,bypasses Cornish removal of English authority, thereby moving towards a different kind of independence. Like Scilly then, Cornwall may look to more creative methods to reinstate local governance. Cornwall’s dreams of reinstating its sovereignty may never come to fruition. Yet, the echoes of its recalcitrant past undoubtedly remain key to its fight for independence today.

By Sophie Bodenham, Summer Writer

Hong Kong issues: Brief summary of how the UK ruled Hong Kong during the early 20th century


Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997. How it was actually run is rarely discussed, especially nowadays. Let’s look at four main features of the British administration in the early 20th century (1900 – 1941). 

The view from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. (Credit: China Highlights)

Executive-led government 

During the period, the whole government was mainly led by the executive branch, i.e. the Governor. The Governor was the president of councils and had the right to appoint and dismiss members of the legislative and executive council. Governor-led government secretaries make and propose all bills and policies. The councils played merely consultative and not binding roles. Ultimately, legislation was proposed, approved and passed by the executive branch. Then it was ‘rubber-stamped’ by the legislative council.

The executive branch also had enormous power spanning a vast range of areas. The Governor exercised tremendous judicial powers by having the power to dismiss and appoint judges and grant amnesty to prisoners. Being the Commander-in-chief of the British force in Hong Kong, the Governor was also in charge of military and foreign affairs. There was no separation of powers for smooth administration. It is fair to say that the government was led by the executive and was a ‘one branch band’.

Lacked legitimacy 

The legitimacy of a government refers to the approval by a majority of the population. During the period, the nature of the British colonial government led to its low legitimacy. At that time, 98% of the population were Chinese and only 2% were foreigners. Also, it was the early years of the British government officially taking over the whole administration. It is expected that local Chinese did not trust the British colonial government. What is more, the reason the British government occupied Hong Kong is that China lost a war against the British. In the minds of the Chinese in Hong Kong, the British were enemies that invaded their motherland; some Chinese in Hong Kong hated the British administration. 

The local Chinese did not feel that the Governor cared about them. The Letters patent, Royal instructions and Colonial Regulations guaranteed the Governor’s ruling power. This means that he was not empowered by the general public. The Governor was also nominated by, thus answerable to, the British Prime Minister, and not the people. It was simply impossible for a local Chinese to relate to or feel represented by the government. 

Nor were British administration willing to let locals participate in the governance in any meaningful sense. Elections were only held in one council, the Urban Council, and only for 2 of the 13 seats. It was also hard for local Chinese to actually be inside the administration, as shown by the lack of Chinese personnel. Local Chinese had no representation in the government who could voice their demands. Officials were usually British merchants. The civil service was also monopolised by British people with key positions all occupied by British people. 

Indirect rule featuring control and conciliation 

The low legitimacy of the British colonial administration led to riots and strikes in the early years. For example, there was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922 and the Guangdong Hong Kong General Strike in 1925. The British administration also suffered ineffective implementation of policies as the local Chinese simply did not support the policies. For instance, the local inhabitants in the New Territories firmly resisted the UK’s Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. In 1923, they strongly resisted the policy regulating the building of houses. All these incidents forced the British administration to come up with new measures to maintain peace and order. 

The first measure was indirect ruling featuring control. Western education was carried out and local Chinese had to learn English. The second measure was indirect ruling featuring conciliation. Small groups of influential Chinese elites and businessmen were allowed to participate in politics to smooth tensions regarding the lack of Chinese representatives. For instance, Mr Chow Shouson, an influential Chinese man, was a consultant and mediator for the government. The government also placed heavy emphasis on these people’s opinions as they understand the local culture better. The local Chinese’s resentment towards western officials was mitigated in this way. The government also set up channels to listen to the needs of the local Chinese. For example, in 1926, Heung Yee Kuk was set up to deal with affairs in the New Territories. The British colonial government hoped that the local Chinese would feel valued and their disobedience would reduce. Other conciliatory measures were implemented, with permission given for firecrackers to be set off in the New Territories during the Lunar New Year as one illustration of how the British administration would avoid meddling in the Chinese traditional lifestyle. In addition, all male indigenous residents were allowed to own a piece of land in the New Territories, another measure by the British administration to please the local Chinese. 

Discrimination against Chinese 

The last feature of the early British colonial administration is that most measures discriminated against local Chinese. Discrimination was serious within the government. As mentioned above, local Chinese had no representation in the government as officials were usually foreigners. In the civil service, British civil servants had higher salaries and better benefits compared to Chinese civil servants of the same rank. 

In socio-economic policies, discrimination was equally clear. For example, the Peak District Reservation Ordinance restricted local Chinese from living in the Peak District which had a cooler temperature and excellent views of the city. Clubs such as The Hong Kong Club and Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club only served whites. Perhaps most strikingly, English was the only official language and the legal system was all in English. As a result, local Chinese would be greatly disadvantaged in trials as they could not even understand the language. It is shown that most policies were highly discriminating against local Chinese. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

“It’s not the Virgin Mary. It’s a painting.” Whiteness’ politicised grip on Iconography explored around Ofili’s depiction of the Holy Virgin Mary.

16 December 1999. New York City. With his hands as his weapon of choice, Dennis Heiner waltzes into the Brooklyn museum with vengeance, walking purposefully to the corner of the Sensation exhibit in which his victim awaits. Dipped in white paint smuggled inside in a hand sanitizer bottle, Heiner’s hand meets its target, the “blasphemous’ depiction of the Virgin Mary painted by British artist Chris Ofili two years earlier. Failing to prevent the attack, guards protecting the painting reportedly state “it’s not the virgin Mary. It’s a painting”.

Iconographic imagery proliferates in Western art history. Whether in the form of paintings or sculptures, from Da Vinci’s The Last Supper to Duccio’s Madonna and Child, one theme is consistent throughout the canon: the whiteness of its figures. Ofili’s Black Virgin Mary embodies an attempt to broaden the canon in line with non-western expressions of religiosity, and Heiner’s vandalism embodies the Western canon’s resistance to change. Supposedly incensed to violence by Ofili’s use of pornographic cut-outs surrounding the Madonna, why then did Heiner smother her face rather than her surroundings with white paint? This was nothing short of a political, defensive and violent display of whiteness. Ultimately, Heiner’s smearing of white paint on the figure of the Black Madonna symbolises the whiteness which has historically been imposed onto Western understandings of Christianity and continues to mark both art-political and theological discourse, as is explored here.

The Ofili piece being vandalised. (Credit: Philip Jones Griffiths, Magnum Photos, accessed here)

Upon a yellow-gold background which harks back to medieval iconographic trends, Ofili’s Madonna features a breast moulded from elephant faeces and a beautiful blue outfit interwoven with the contours of her body. Inspired by his time in Zimbabwe and appreciation of artistic technique in the region, Ofili’s work mixes European and African tradition with an expert experimentalist hand. However, its beauty has often been overlooked. 

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) (Credit: MoMA

The controversy surrounding the painting was not limited to the violence of Heiner on that December afternoon. Upon its showcase in galleries lawsuits abounded, including from the Mayor’s office of New York in which Ofili’s use of pornographic clippings and elephant faeces was labelled ‘disgusting’ and ‘sick’. In  a seeming attempt to find a middle ground, some commentators have described the piece as a ‘juxatposition between the sacred and the profane’, but this is a misguided conclusion which reinforces the hegemony of whiteness’ grip on Iconography. Within Africa the piece was interpreted very differently. Nigerian Art historian Moyosore B. Okediji wrote that elephant dung was a material used in both art and architecture in Yorubaland, also commenting that in artistic depictions of indigenous deities called Orisha, the nude female form was commonplace. In specific relation to Western reactions to the piece, he exclaimed “the learned West always fails to understand Africa”.

Ultimately, the use of elephant dung was not an act of defamation but a display of Christian identity based in African tradition. Born in Britain and of Nigerian heritage, a country which now has a Christian population of around 102 million people, Ofili’s aim with this project  was to display anAfrican form of Christianity, rather than mount an anti-Christian attack. Whilst some commentators have described the sacred intentions of Ofili’s painting as ‘ironic’ in relation to the reaction it garnered, we must acknowledge that his use of images of the body and earthly materials is not objectively irreligious. In fact, there is nothing ‘ironic’ about a painting espousing a form of Afro-centric religiosity. Rather than conveying Ofili’s intentions, the label of ‘irony’ imposed onto his combination of African tradition and Christian ideas instead displays the extent to which whiteness has been defensively protected in Western Christian expression.

Therefore, it is vital that we acknowledge that the lawsuits and physical assaults inflicted on Ofili’s depiction of ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ are innately political and are the product of centuries of European Christian history in which whiteness was not just centred but expected when speaking of divinity. The piece being deemed ‘blasphemous’ by a plethora of white Americans, art commentators and religious leaders at the turn of the twenty-first century shows how Christianity’s global reach remains overlooked in favour of centring whiteness. Ultimately, it must be said that the security guards tasked with her protection stating “It’s not the Virgin Mary, it’s a painting” embodies a reluctance to associate holiness with anything other than white skin. 

By way of a conclusion, Ofili’s depiction of the Holy Virgin Mary is nothing short of an emblematic display of Afro-centric Christian theology. The reaction shown to the piece both within and without the art and theological worlds reveals the seemingly inextricable link between whiteness and holiness in Western thought. As Black theologians both in the west and throughout the world challenge these ideas and artists such as Ofili display the debate in the public eye, the politics of race and theology will no doubt continue to be a much-needed region of inquiry.

George R. Evans, History in Politics’ Summer Writer

Wuhan and China: the Pandemic and its Past

China’s history presents an interesting counterpoint to the West, revealing as much about our prejudices as another’s past. Often presented, from a Western perspective, as a place with continuous history until Western intervention in the form of the Opium Wars and Communist ideology, it is intriguing to see how China presents its own history in political situations. Does it return to this supposed stability to prove its historic greatness, as Britain does with the World Wars? Or, instead, does it focus on the future, using its technological shifts to ignore aspects of the past, such as Mao’s famines, or the 1931 Central China Flood, unknown inside and outside China but the cause of over two million deaths? As Dr. Chris Courtney, who has researched the Flood, was keen to emphasise when answering these questions in our podcast Dead Current, it is often hard to gain access to these histories given the Communist Party’s policy of preventing historians’ archival access or the liberty to criticise. Dr. Courtney’s claim for the need to dismantle the monolithic historical narrative that the Party promotes feels relevant to all strands of history, but especially the construction of Wuhan during the pandemic. 

Aerial view of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. (Credit: sleepingpanda, via Shutterstock.)

Of course, we could not interview Dr. Courtney without relating his specialism of Wuhan to the current global pandemic. Wuhan is a vibrant city; an industrial and financial hub with a vast cultural heritage, serving briefly as China’s war-time capital in both 1927 and 1937. The Wuchang Uprising in 1911 – which catalysed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, starting the Xinhai Revolution – occurred in the Wuchang District of Wuhan. Yet, its spotlight on the global stage roots the pandemic in its wet markets.

Wet markets are not unique to Wuhan or China. Spread across much of Asia, the name comes from how perishable goods are sold, in contrast to dry markets’ electronics or clothes. Whilst the food in wet markets may not always resemble a local farmers’ market, they have more similarities to these than the health code violation they are presented as. When discussing this with Dr. Courtney, it was clear that there needs to be an acknowledgement that food practices in China are not perfect – the 2002 SARS outbreak began in Guandong’s food industry. However, as he emphasised, this should not allow a return to racist stereotypes. Passively accepting these concepts can lead to a reinforcement of racist stereotypes about China’s eating patterns from the twentieth century. 

Our food patterns reflect our history. For example, many in Britain find eating dogs abhorrent; biologically edible, their role as our ‘best friend’ means they are not, to use Poon’s term, ‘culturally edible’. Likewise, at the beginning of the twentieth century, few in China ate beef, as oxen played a central role in agriculture. Yet, as industry rose and agricultural techniques shifted, so that someone would not be spending all day with one animal, the taboo no longer exists and China’s beef consumption per capita has risen to rates equal to Britain or the USA. 

These shifting food patterns emphasise the mutability of what is deemed acceptable to eat, and how it is not a universal standard, but a reflection of personal history. Criticism can be made to the stalling in China’s post-SARS food reforms, but this should not be couched in racist rhetoric, which is a sign of ignorance that weakens the argument.

To hear more about how the Chinese Communist Party utilises history, how this compares to Britain, and how Covid-19 reflects and is changing this, listen to our new podcast with Dr. Chris Courtney, Durham University’s Assistant Professor in Modern Chinese History, available on Spotify on Dead Current.

Eleanor Williams-Brown, Senior Editor, History in Politics

How did the British rule Hong Kong?

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997. How it was actually run is rarely discussed, especially nowadays. Let’s look at some key features of the British administration in the early 20th century (1900 – 1941) before it was captured by the Japanese. 

The first point is that government in this period was mainly led by the executive branch, i.e. the Governor. The Governor was the president of councils and had the right to appoint and dismiss members of the legislative and executive council. Governor-led government secretaries made and proposed all bills and policies, while councils played merely consultative and not binding roles. Ultimately, legislation was proposed, approved and passed by the executive branch. Then it was ‘rubber-stamped’ by the legislative council.

The executive branch also had enormous power spanning a vast range of areas. The Governor exercised tremendous judicial powers by having the power to dismiss and appoint judges and grant amnesty to prisoners. Being the Commander-in-chief of the British force in Hong Kong, the Governor was also in charge of military and foreign affairs. There was no separation of powers for smooth administration. It is fair to say that the government was led by the executive and was a ‘one branch band’.

Secondly, and a result, the government chronically lacked legitimacy due to the nature of the British colonial government. At that time, 98% of the population were Chinese and only 2% were foreigners. Also, it was the early years of the British government officially taking over the whole administration. It is expected that local Chinese did not trust the British colonial government. What is more, the reason the British government occupied Hong Kong is that China lost a war against the British. In the minds of the Chinese in Hong Kong, the British were enemies that had invaded their motherland; simply put, some Chinese in Hong Kong hated the British administration. 

The local Chinese did not feel that the Governor cared about them. The Letters patent, Royal instructions and Colonial Regulations guaranteed the Governor’s ruling power. This means that he was not empowered by the general public. The Governor was also nominated by, thus answerable to, the British Prime Minister, and not the people. It was simply impossible for a local Chinese to relate to or feel represented by the government. 

Nor were British administration willing to let locals participate in the governance in any meaningful sense. Elections were only held in one council, the Urban Council, and only for 2 of the 13 seats. It was also hard for local Chinese to actually be inside the administration, as shown by the lack of Chinese personnel. Local Chinese had no representation in the government who could voice their demands. Officials were usually British merchants. The civil service was also monopolised by British people with key positions all occupied by British people. 

Front Street, Hong Kong, 1900. Credit: R. Y. Young

The low legitimacy of the British colonial administration led to riots and strikes in the early years. For example, there was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922 and the Guangdong Hong Kong General Strike in 1925. The British administration also suffered ineffective implementation of policies as the local Chinese simply did not support the policies. For instance, the local inhabitants in the New Territories firmly resisted the UK’s Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. In 1923, they strongly resisted the policy regulating the building of houses. All these incidents forced the British administration to come up with new measures to maintain peace and order. 

The first measure was indirect ruling featuring control. Western education was carried out and local Chinese had to learn English. The second measure was indirect ruling featuring conciliation. Small groups of influential Chinese elites and businessmen were allowed to participate in politics to smooth tensions regarding the lack of Chinese representatives. For instance, Mr Chow Shouson, an influential Chinese man, was a consultant and mediator for the government. The government also placed heavy emphasis on these people’s opinions as they understand the local culture better. The local Chinese’s resentment towards western officials was mitigated in this way. The government also set up channels to listen to the needs of the local Chinese. For example, in 1926, Heung Yee Kuk was set up to deal with affairs in the New Territories. The British colonial government hoped that the local Chinese would feel valued and their disobedience would reduce. Other conciliatory measures were implemented, with permission given for firecrackers to be set off in the New Territories during the Lunar New Year as one illustration of how the British administration would avoid meddling in the Chinese traditional lifestyle. In addition, all male indigenous residents were allowed to own a piece of land in the New Territories, another measure by the British administration to please the local Chinese. 

Hong Kong Waterfront c1910. Credit: Mee Fong Studio

One final and striking feature of the early British colonial administration is that most measures discriminated against local Chinese. Discrimination was serious within the government. As mentioned above, local Chinese had no representation in the government as officials were usually foreigners. In the civil service, British civil servants had higher salaries and better benefits compared to Chinese civil servants of the same rank. 

In socio-economic policies, discrimination was equally clear. For example, the Peak District Reservation Ordinance restricted local Chinese from living in the Peak District which had a cooler temperature and excellent views of the city. Clubs such as The Hong Kong Club and Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club only served whites. Perhaps most strikingly, English was the only official language and the legal system was all in English. As a result, local Chinese would be greatly disadvantaged in trials as they could not even understand the language. It is shown that most policies were highly discriminating against local Chinese. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena, History in Politics Writer

Mary I: The First Queen of England and the Legacy of Female Leadership

Whilst the first Queen of England’s reign is largely overshadowed in favour of the other Tudors, namely her father Henry VIII and half-sister Elizabeth I, the historiographical interpretations of Mary I illuminate interesting notions associated with female leadership. Mary I was the first woman to ascend to the throne of England, as the succession of Empress Matilda in the twelfth century never materialised due to the eruption of civil war. Only four centuries later do we witness the succession of a female monarch in England, and this was not without issues, as there had been earlier attempts to bar her from inheritance. Her gender, as well as her supposed illegitimacy, provided the grounds for such attempts as her younger half-brother was placed above her, when she was eventually restored to the line of succession.

Mary I’s reign is largely interpreted as one of hysteria and irrationality. Such a notion of hysteria is particularly of note as the term has long been associated with the assumption that women are unable to control their emotions and are thus unfit to rule. Shakespeare’s common depictions of a madwoman within his works have fostered this link of femininity with that concept of hysteria, particularly illustrated in Hamlet through Ophelia. Literary representations have certainly exacerbated the historical issues of female rule.


Portrait of Mary I, Antonis Mor, 1554. (Credit: Public Domain)

Historians are critical of both Mary’s personal life, due to her failure to conceive, as well as her broader policies that saw the intense persecution of Protestant sympathisers, which led to her title of ‘Bloody Mary’. The issue of motherhood in politics is still prevalent in our times, as seen by the scrutiny Theresa May faced within the media and from other members of the Conservative Party due to her choice not to have children. With regard to Marian politics, the stabilisation of economic policy her reign is often underplayed and when acknowledged, is widely credited to her male councillors or the reforms laid by the Duke of Northumberland before her advent to the throne. Mary is thus painted as weak, feeble and ineffective. The first Queen of England is largely portrayed as conforming to the gendered anxieties that the elite ruling class had regarding the notion of female monarchy. Women were deemed as far more emotionally charged compared to their male counterparts and would be unable to conduct rational governance as a result.

In the 21st century, women still face significant opposition to reaching the highest positions of political power. Britain’s only popularly elected female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is often represented as contradicting feminist values. The US has never elected a woman to that highest position of President, and notably Hilary Clinton’s gender played a significant role in right-wing opposition to her election. Such ideas regarding female hysteria and heightened emotion have arguably laid a basis for the preference of male leadership and have correlated with deeming women unfit for positions of political power. The qualities associated with leadership are still often presented through characteristics which men are more likely to be socialised to have, therefore perpetuating the idea that women are not suited to power.

What we can draw from the accounts of Mary I’s governance and her later treatment in historical research is that female leadership is not often deemed a suitable option, nor do women find easy pathways into politics. These ideals surrounding female inferiority have

historical precedence in sixteenth-century England as illustrated by the analysis of early modern Queenship. These notions have not been undermined or significantly challenged by the twenty-first century. Mary I’s legacy illustrates how she has been utilised to highlight the perceived barriers to effective female governance. Arguably, this has set a precedent for the limited role that women play in politics within our modern era.

Ellie Brosnan