13 May 2009

This year sees the 250th anniversary of Britain's Annus Mirabilis. In other words, and in case your Latin's a bit rusty, 1759 was the so-called 'Year of Victories': a watershed year in the Seven Years' War and one which, arguably, altered the course of British history. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"219668","attributes":{"class":"media-image mt-image-center","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"450","height":"357","alt":"F7408.jpg"}}]]
The Death of General Wolfe For Britain, 1759 was a year of military triumphs, at places like Minden in today's Germany and Quebec in Canada, as well as decisive naval victories, at Lagos off Portugal and Quiberon Bay in France. Some people, like General James Wolfe and Admiral Edward Hawke, emerged as heroes; others, such as Lord George Sackville at Minden, were vilified for their contribution to the war effort (or, rather lack of it!). Over the past number of months, I have been working on how 1759, and the Battle of Quebec in particular, has been remembered and commemorated over the course of the last two and half centuries. There is a very important local Greenwich connection here too: James Wolfe spent part of his teenage years in Greenwich, his mother lived in a house that looks on to Greenwich Park, and Wolfe himself was buried in St Alfege's Church in Greenwich following his death at Quebec in September 1759. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"219669","attributes":{"class":"media-image mt-image-center","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"450","height":"340","alt":"F7407.jpg"}}]]
'A View of the Taking of Quebec September 13th 1759' Of course, military engagements were not the only things to happen in 1759. Recently, I attended a conference that considered the year from a number of different points of view. It was a year in which George Frideric Handel died and in which William Wilberforce, Robert Burns and Mary Wollstonecraft were born. In the fields of literature, it saw the publication of Voltaire's Candide, Samuel Johnson's The Prince of Abissinia (later Rasselas), and the first two volumes of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. The second edition of Edmund Burke's highly influential A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, with its important new introduction on 'taste', also appeared in 1759. And, in the world of museums, the British Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time. One historian has remarked that 1759 should be as well known as 1066, 1588, 1688 and 1707, but I have found it to be generally inconspicuous among the years that people regard as historically important. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the events that took place in 1759 impacted so significantly on so many people, and with such monumental consequences for this country, that it is certainly worthy of remembering.