WHEN Boris Johnson sent two Royal Navy vessels to monitor the brouhaha with French fishermen off Jersey last week, it was a mild example of ‘gunboat diplomacy’.
The offshore patrol craft Tamar and Severn were each armed with a 30mm automatic cannon and two general purpose machine guns.
There was not the remotest possibility of the crews using the weapons, but their presence presumably served its purpose in showing the French that a possible blockade of St Helier harbour was not being taken lightly.
Gunboat diplomacy has historically been applied much more forcefully, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries when Britannia ruled the waves.
The best-known instance came in January 1850, when the Greek government refused to pay compensation to David ‘Don’ Pacifico, a British subject whose home in Athens had been ransacked and burned by an anti-Semitic mob. In retaliation, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston sent a naval squadron to blockade the Greek coast.
Pacifico was a Portuguese diplomat, but because he was born in Gibraltar, he was entitled to claim the protection of the Crown. In the face of the gunboats, the Greeks gave in and paid up.
Palmerston’s action was condemned by the House of Lords, but supported by the Commons when he alluded to the British and Roman empires. He said that just as an ancient Roman could claim his rights anywhere in the world with the words Civis Romanus sum – I am a Roman citizen – ‘so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong’.
What is little remembered now though is that Britain’s gunboat diplomacy was not used exclusively for quelling rebellious foreigners. In 1911, it was notoriously employed by the Government against its own people – in the waters of the Mersey.
That June, a transport strike involving railwaymen, dockers and seamen brought Liverpool to a standstill and violence erupted. Home Secretary Winston Churchill sent in 3,500 troops – infantry and cavalry – and two men were shot dead when soldiers opened fire.
As the unrest continued, Churchill ordered the armoured cruiser Antrim into the Mersey, with its guns trained on Liverpool. A second armoured cruiser was put on standby at Douglas on the Isle of Man, a few hours sailing from Liverpool.
Antrim’s main armament was four 7.5in guns which could fire a high explosive shell almost eight miles. It meant that Liverpool and its environs could be bombarded at will as the ship sat invulnerable in the middle of the Mersey.
However, although a landing party was sent into the city to help protect the docks, the cruiser’s feared purpose – shelling the strikers – never came to pass.
It’s hard to believe that the Government had any intention of using the Antrim’s guns. Bombarding civilians would have been a criminally irresponsible act anywhere, but for a British warship to have targeted a British city would have been insane.
However, Churchill was adamant that the strikers would not disrupt the flow of essential supplies and he knew that the looming presence of the cruiser would be a stark warning to them.
By the end of August, the unrest in Liverpool had petered out, with a Government-brokered deal between employers and workers that included the reinstatement of all sacked strikers. Antrim went on to see service in the Great War before being scrapped in 1922.