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Saturday, 27 October 2012


When my ancestral cousin the British MP Russell Gurney died in 1878, he rather surprisingly received a transatlantic obituary from the New York Times. Russell, a first cousin of my great great grandmother Emma, had a successful career in England both as a lawyer and as a Member of Parliament for Southampton. But what interest did New York have in a southern English Conservative?

The Right Honorable Russell Gurney was the Recorder for London, an MP from 1865 till his death, and from 1866 a member of the Privy Council following his service as a commissioner on the enquiry into the Jamaica rebellion of 1865. The rebellion, which broke out at Morant Bay in Jamaica, was a protest at the slowness of change following the abolition of slavery in 1834, something many of Russell’s ancestors including his great aunt Martha had fought for.

The Right Hon. Russell Gurney QC, MP (1804-1878)
pictured in Vanity Fair in 1871

Within parliament he was given responsibility for the details of a number of significant new Acts including the Married Women’s Property Act (1870) and the Medical Act (1876), the latter making it possible for women to practise as doctors. I write this with some pride as my own niece is about to enroll in Medical School.

These achievements alone would be enough admire Russell for. But in 1871 he was dispatched to America to oversee the legal details of the Treaty of Washington then being negotiated between Britain and the U.S. The Treaty was the result of talks to resolve a couple of delicate issues which had been overshadowing U.S./British relations since the Civil War; and it seems that by his skills of tact and diplomacy Gurney ensured the smooth application of the Treaty’s terms. Widely respected as a politician in Britain, he was also appreciated in America for expressing “high admiration for the United States and his pleasure that an amicable settlement of the differences with England had been arrived at.” (So said the New York Times.)

The Treaty of Washington addressed two mains areas of conflict between the two governments: the northwestern border between the U.S. and Canada, which had been under dispute since the glorious Pig and Potato War of 1859; and the damage caused by British-built warships sold to the Confederate side during the American Civil War of 1861-1865.

CSS Alabama (right) sinks USS Hatteras, 11th January 1863
The Alabama was built by John Laird of Birkenhead and crewed by British mercenaries

In the latter matter, Britain was found to have breached its neutrality by supplying ships (particularly the CSS Alabama), which were subsequently used to attack the American merchant and naval fleets. Under the new treaty, Britain apologised for the damage caused (without admitting liability) and paid America the sum of $15.5 million – considerably less than the U.S.’s original demand of either $2 billion or the transfer of all Canadian territories to U.S. control.

As for the Pig War, the precise path of the U.S.-Canadian border through the cluster of small islands between Vancouver Island and Washington State had been the subject first of confusion (because of poor early map-making) and then disagreement. Things came to a head after both Britain’s Hudson Bay Company and a handful of American pioneers occupied the largest little island, strategically important San Juan.

There, in 1859, an American farmer, Lyman Cutlar, shot a pig belonging to an Irish Canadian farmer, Charles Griffin, for eating American potatoes. When Griffin complained, Cutlar told him to control his animals, and Griffin retorted that it was up to Cutlar to keep his potatoes out of Griffin’s pig. When British troops threatened to arrest Cutlar, American troops were called in to back up the settlers. No shots were fired (except at the pig) and an eventually friendly truce existed for twelve years between the northern (British) and southern (American) halves of the island. Finally, as a result of the Treaty of Washington, an independent tribunal headed by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany awarded San Juan to the U.S.

San Juan Island’s British and American Camps are still celebrated 140 years after the outbreak of war between the two countries

(The emerging Dominion of Canada, it should be noted, were not at all happy with the settlement, which included not only the loss of territory but the permission of U.S. fishing boats to hunt in Canadian coastal waters. Only the sweetener of a cash payment for the fishing rights, and a guaranteed loan of £4 million to Canada for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, enabled the Treaty’s ratification in the Canadian Parliament.)

To this day the British flag still flies over the site of the British camp on San Juan, raised and lowered daily by U.S. Park Rangers. It is a symbol of the so-called special relationship between the two countries, which has flourished unbroken (more or less) since Russell Gurney helped to resolve these outstanding issues back in 1871.

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