By Jingo

While fiddling around on the internet today, I came across a rather interesting piece of linguistic history. It concerns the history of the word “Jingoism“, a word I had long known, but never known the origin. Jingoism describes an aggressive, slightly xenophobic, foreign policy that advocates strong military responses to diplomatic challenges. The term originates with the phrase ‘By Jingo!”, a substitution for the blasphemous oath “By Jesus!” in early modern English, which was a favorite of the Victorian stage and music halls. 

In 1878 a diplomatic crisis arouse when the Russians, having been repudiated by a French-British-Sardinian-Turkish coalition in the Crimean War of 1853, again threatened an advance against the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. They had declared war on the Ottomans the previous year, and in alliance with the nascent nations of the Balkans had decisively defeated the Turks south of the Danube, pushing them back on Istanbul. This situation promised to turn nearly all of Central Asia over to the Russian sphere of influence, pushing from the Oder River eastwards to the shores of Kamchatka. The Ottoman Empire, “the sick man of Europe” seemed on the verge of total overthrow, despite their share of modern weapons and military advisers provided by their western allies.

The British, already jostling against the Russians in Afghanistan (and entering a war with the Afghans that year in order to shore up this northerly approach to the Raj) moved to block the complete collapse of the Turks. Sending a fleet to the Dardanelles to sure up the naval defenses of Anatolia, the sight of these ship’s heavy guns blocked the further advance of the Russians from their positions a mere 7 miles from the heart of Istanbul at San Stefano (Yeşilköy). A treaty ending the war and establishing the independence of Bulgaria (and Ottoman recognition of Russia’s allies and former provinces Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro) was hastily signed. The imbalances in this treaty, which moved several new countries into the Russian sphere of influence while also moving Bosnia-Herzegovina into the Austrian, would in some degree precipitate the general conflict of 1914 and the First World War. 


At the time, though later allies against the central powers, Britain and Russia remained cool in their relations over rival influences in Afghanistan, Persia, and China, what Kipling (after Arthur Conolly) termed “The Great Game“. The victory of British arms in the Crimea had been Britain’s last great European ‘conventional’ war (and would remain so, arguably, until the First World War), and the liberally-inclined British public was repeatedly bombarded with depictions of the repressive government of the autocratic Tsars, who had only recently liberated Russia’s serfs and were pursuing an policy of direct rule in Poland and oppressive measures against the Muslim Circassians in the Caucuses.  At the time of the Crisis of 1878, anti-Russian sentiment was running high among the English public, and into this ill-feeling sprang Gilbert Hastings MacDermott, a prominent stage performer in London’s music halls, and itinerant songster George William Hunt. Upon hearing the news of the surrender of the Ottoman garrison of Plevna, which left Istanbul open to Russian attack, Hunt penned a song advocating the British commitment of ships to Istanbul’s defense. MacDermott bought it from him to perform throughout music halls and pubs, and the song came to be known as “MacDermott’s War Song”.

The song’s lyrics blasted Russians for their attacks on the Turks (though implying the Turks were also suspect), and rebuked them for their autocracy and occupation of Poland and Circassia. The song also referenced the victories of the Crimea, and stated that Britain was ready to fight the Russians again in expeditionary warfare (or as one elderly commentator in a lecture I recently attended said, apparently without any sense of irony, “Ivan doesn’t fight well when he gets his boots wet”). The chorus ran as follows:

“We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too,
We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true,
The Russians shall not have Constantinople!”

The song proved enormously popular, securing MacDermott a healthy publicity in the press and on the stage and earning him the title “The Great MacDermott”. So popular was the chorus’ “by Jingo!” expression that it came to characterize the aggressive response of Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservative government to Russian expansion in the Balkans, the so-called ‘Eastern Question’, at the Congress of Berlin, which sought to organize the newly-established Balkan states in order to avoid European conflict (and did a fairly poor job of it in retrospect). Hence the term “Jingoism” came to reflect any aggressive British foreign policy, and later reflected any reactionary measure against another country’s foreign policy objectives or economic goals.

Taken in the context of the current situation in Ukraine, the song made me chuckle. Of course its not so funny given how serious it could all become. Britain and the USA can’t really be said to have the ships, men, or money for an expeditionary war against Russia should it intervene against the Ukrainian ‘anti-terrorist’ operations. It could be hoped that a settlement, hopefully one better upheld then last week’s in Geneva or the Congress of Berlin, might solve the issue before it would result in military action. At least the commitment of additional ships to the Black Sea and some planes and men to Poland represents a gesture in the spirit of Disraeli’s fleet, though in the face of aggressive Russian maneuvers on the border, one has to wonder if a destroyer or a few fighters will be enough to prompt a deescalation should Russia choose to move in defense of the separatists in Ukraine. 

I doubt we’ll see any catchy songs about it. I also hope that advertisers won’t be as crass (or alas as clever) as this one enterprising ad for American tinned goods was: 



Though, actually, the people at Lynx may have already pulled it off:


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