By Donu Kogbara
A FASCINATING and formidably well-researched new history book that is aptly titled, has just been published in Europe. Written by a Professor called Jerry White, it meticulously catalogues the violence, hooliganism, dirt and chaos that characterised the British capital city 2-300 years ago.
There were frequent riots. Kings George I, II, III and IV were regularly hissed and hooted at by mobs when they left their palaces. The windows of the coaches they travelled in were often smashed by “a storm of missiles”.
The police force was woefully inadequate and disorganised. And thieves were, as a result, bold and plentiful. In January 1792, a gang of thugs robbed the Prince of Wales in his private quarters.
In September 1776, a highway brigand held up the Lord Mayor and his entourage and made away with a large sum of money. In October 1788, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s home was burgled.
One could not even enjoy simple pleasures like theatrical outings in peace in those days because the less cultured elements in various audiences were fond of assaulting or loudly insulting the performers and fighting amongst themselves.
Sometimes “swords were mutually drawn and blood shed”. On one occasion, David Garrick, a famous actor who was respected by serious drama afficionados, had to seek protection from soldiers after being chased from the stage to his residence by a crowd that had declared his performance wanting.
Gory public executions and grotesque “freak shows” featuring disabled unfortunates were received much more enthusiastically by the brutish masses. Professor White ascribes most of this rampant unruliness and widespread criminality to drunkenness, which he says was triggered off, indirectly, by the fact that the metropolis’s drainage system was extremely rudimentary.
Apparently, faeces, animal waste from abattoirs, dead cats, etc, flowed from open sewers and gutters to join and feed the swarms of rats that lived in the River Thames. And because the Thames was such a filthy, diseased death trap, many people preferred to drink cheap gin or wine instead of water.
It was a straight choice between catching something potentially fatal from the toxic water or being perpetually intoxicated by alcoholic beverages. And most, it would appear, chose the latter option and made nuisances of themselves.
But avoiding insanitary water supplies was not enough to save 18th century Londoners from premature demises. They still died like flies in their primes because there were many other sources of sickness and because medical facilities and practitioners were too primitive to heal them. Infant mortality was very high and it was normal for entire families to perish in one fell swoop.
Meanwhile, the ruling elite was “anarchic…and fractured” and a law unto itself; and public officials, including judges, took bribes; and orphans were enslaved and cruelty was routinely inflicted on the poor and infirm.
Roger Lewis, a UK journalist who reviewed this book for a UK publication was not wrong when he succinctly concluded that “this was a savage century”.
Now you would think that absorbing so many nasty details about an unsavoury era would depress the hell out of me. But White’s revelations really cheered me up! Why? Because they reduced my fear that Nigeria is a lost cause!
When I survey the enviably modern and essentially civilized place that London has become, I find it difficult to believe that there was ever a time when it was not only a corrupt, stinking, dangerous, disorderly mess but much more murky than any of the urban centres that are dotted around the Nigeria of today.
According to Lewis, though there were some substantial architectural, artistic, civic and technological advancements during the period covered by White’s book, it was not until the l9th century that Englishmen, inspired by relatively enlightened new Victorian values, “stopped behaving like beasts”.
Lewis is exaggerating and being too simplistic. Human beings are intrinsically imperfect and the human race – its English branch included – will never be totally liberated from its fundamental flaws and bestial tendencies.
But there’s no doubt that societies can drastically improve in an overall sense over time, China being a classic example.
Sophisticated, confident Chinese
When I was growing up, I and most of my contemporaries pitied the Chinese from afar because they were oppressed, impoverished and isolated from the rest of the world. Nowadays, affluent, sophisticated, confident Chinese folks are everywhere; and pity is the last thing on our minds when we relate to them.
Having said all this, progress is not inevitable. Nations can and do, for all sorts of reasons, including mismanagement by terrible leaders of all skin tones, slowly crawl or rapidly hurtle backwards rather than forwards.
The British aren’t as powerful as they used to be. The mighty Roman Empire disintegrated. The current crop of Greek citizens do not closely resemble their heroic ancestors. Zimbabwe is less developed than it was before Mugabe decided to destroy its economy. And it’s beginning to look as if Libya will be even worse off in the near future than it was under Ghadafi.
So, yes, there is no guarantee that Nigeria will fulfill its potential and become a laudable Giant of Africa. It’s possible that the prophets of doom who keep assuring us that we are heading for meltdown will eventually be proved right.
However, harrowing tales about a London that was once monstrous but is now a desirable destination have made me feel that it is not wildly optimistic to think that there might be light at the end of the tunnel for my homeland.