My wife took me today to Fort St. George in Chennai, the first fortress built by the English in India in 1644. Well that’s quite some time back and it was fascinating to take a peek into the history at display. The Lord Cornwallis statue right at the entrance of the Museum was impressive. The statue has moved around quite a bit keeping the sensibilities of the public in mind as the base of the statue has an engraving of Tipu Sultan’s two sons being handed over to Cornwallis as hostages.
What was particularly fortuitous was to witness a fragment of a shell fired by the German warship Emden during the First World War. I had read about the shelling by Emden on Madras just a few nights ago in Hew Strachan’s The First World War and I was stunned to see a piece of that history right in front of me.
Emden, a light cruiser warship, was previously stationed at Germany’s naval base at Tsingtao (China) along with other German warships. The fleet was under the overall command of Graf von Spee. Post Japan’s capture of Tsingtao, the fleet was left without any base and Spee directed the fleet towards Chile. However, the captain of Emden, Karl von Muller, disapproved the idea as he wanted to attack and disrupt Britain’s naval commerce in the East Pacific. Spee agreed to detach Emden from the rest of the fleet and Muller made his way to the Bay of Bengal.
On September 22, 1914, Emden bombarded Madras which caused a frenzy in the otherwise peaceful city. As per Strachan, Muller’s “exploits created chaos in British trace in the Indian Ocean.” Muller’s escapade included the bombing of Madras and Penang, apart from capturing twenty-three vessels, sinking of a Russian and a French warship. Emden was eventually sunk by an Australian warship on November 9, 1914 when she was raiding a wireless station at Cocos Islands.
The end of the First World War in 1918 set the stage for two competing economic ideologies to battle over the next seventy years (culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991). At one end was the centralized totalitarian planning model of Germany (under Hitler), Italy (under Mussolini) and Soviet Union (under Lenin and Stalin) and at the other end was the relatively decentralized democratic governments of the United Kingdom and America. The rapid militarization led industrial growth of Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union was so successful that it gave rise to British insecurity and a tendency for similar economic centralization in what was once the bastion of economic freedom. This prompted Hayek to publish the aptly titled The Road to Serfdom (1944) to warn against the risks of socialism. At stake was also the political liberal ideas espoused during the French Revolution. Thus, the fault lines during the First World War were not merely drawn on the basis of political boundaries, but also ideologies on how society should be organized.
I have been pestering my wife where she is going to take me next. Keeping my fingers crossed…