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This January marked the 150th anniversary of the Polish Rebellion against Russian authority in 1863. Ever since the revolt, the events themselves and international reactions to them have remained the subject of scholarly dispute. One of the controversial questions still being debated is the British response to the situation in Russian-held Poland between 1861 and 1864. Some historians view Britain’s policy towards Poland as a complete failure, while others argue that it was successful in checking the expansionist tendencies of France. The motivations behind Britain’s tactics in the Polish crisis remain somewhat murky, however.
Kathleen Geaney


The immediate cause of the Polish uprising that broke out on 22 January 1863 was the attempt by the Russian authorities to impose conscription on young political activists, but disaffection had been brewing for a long time, fuelled by repressive policies that aimed to stifle Polish national identity, including proscription of the Polish language and restrictions on religious practices. Moreover, Tsar Alexander II’s reforms in Russia, such as the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, raised expectations among Poles of similar improvements in Russian-held Poland. However, affronted by the upsurge in Polish patriotism, the Tsar regarded the activities of the Poles as “political treachery.” The success of national unification processes in Romania and Italy exerted a powerful influence on Polish opinion, but served as a warning to the Tsar.

Public opinion in Great Britain and France closely followed the dramatic events that were taking place in Warsaw in the 1860s. Initially, public opinion in Britain and France rallied behind the Poles. Expressions of support for the insurgents were voiced in newspaper articles, pamphlets, petitions, and public meetings. Russia’s high-handed approach to quell the rebellion was condemned. The pro-Poland campaign found fertile soil in mid-Victorian Britain, with its emphasis on the values of progress, domestic stability, prosperity, humanity, and sympathy for national liberty, and also fed into a latent Russophobia. The British government felt obliged to respond to the ground swell of support for Poland among the population at large.

British foreign policy was controlled by the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, a patriotic and somewhat flamboyant politician, and his Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell, a cold and aloof individual who often lacked tact. Neither man had any sympathy for Russia. They had offered to mediate in the dispute between Poles and Russians in 1861, but had been turned down. Two years later, personal inclinations notwithstanding, their conclusion was that there was precious little Britain could do for the cause of Polish freedom. Furthermore, other important events on the international scene, including the U.S. Civil War, competed for attention with the Polish crisis. In the first stage of the crisis they decided to give moral support to Polish aspirations but to maintain friendly relations with Russia.

The immediate cause that sparked the Uprising of 1863 was the introduction of conscription in Russian-held Poland. London responsed by expressing regret at this turn of events. News coming from Poland suggested that the uprising had no chance of success and would be quickly crushed. This, however, proved to be false. Matters became more complicated when the Russians and Prussians signed the Alvensleben Convention, which allowed the military forces of each country to enter the other’s territory in pursuit of rebels, thus thrusting the Polish question onto the international agenda. This led to an outcry in Britain and France. The French Emperor, Napoleon III, asked the British to join with France in protesting the new convention. Neither Palmerston nor Russell trusted French intentions, being of the opinion that Napoleon III might maneuver reactions to the Polish crisis as a tool to extend the French border to the coveted left bank of the Rhine. Nevertheless, they regarded non-cooperation with France as an even more dangerous option.

For this reason, dispatches were sent from London to the Russian, Prussian, and French capitals on 2 March 1863. Lord Russell, in his note to Saint Petersburg, claimed that Britain had the right to express “an opinion” about the situation in Russian-held Poland because Britain was one of the signatories of the Treaty of Vienna of 1815. The wording, however, was not couched in the form of a protest. Napoleon III was enraged by the content of the British note because France had been trying to change the provisions of the Vienna Treaty for years. The Russians, not surprisingly, rejected Britain’s assertion of the right of moral intervention, stating that Poland was not under Russian sovereignty by the terms of the Treaty of Vienna, but by right of conquest, which followed the Polish Uprising of 1830-1831. In the note to Berlin, Russell mentioned that his country would look favourably on an “annulment” of the Alvensleben Convention. He was assured by the Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, that the convention was a “dead letter.”

The attitude of British politicians towards Russia changed in the spring of 1863 in response to public opinion, and the non-confrontational approach was replaced by remonstrance. In line with this shift in policy, Britain decided to revive the old Crimean coalition of Great Britain, France and Austria. Napoleon III thought the three allies should send an identical collective note to Russia; this, however, proved to be impossible. Nevertheless, notes were sent to the Russian capital between 10 and 12 April 1863. Lord Russell’s dispatch was the most sharply-worded. He again stressed the Treaty of Vienna and, ominously, expressed Britain’s readiness to take “far-reaching action”. Officials in Russia viewed the British threat seriously and concentrated on defusing the situation but, at the same time, made preparations for a possible military conflict. All three intervening powers received a similar Russian reply. Napoleon III became convinced that a European conference should be convoked to settle the Polish question. Again, however, the officials of the three powers were unable to reach agreement, this time on the shape such a conference should take or on its agenda. Lord Palmerston argued for the establishment of an independent Polish state, comprising Russian-held Polish territory together with Cracow, which was in Austrian hands. Not surprisingly, this idea was summarily dismissed by the Austrians.

The next move by the allies did not come until mid-June 1863. In the interim, however, Lord Russell had come to doubt whether anything could be done for Poland. The Russian stance was firm. The three allied powers suggested an armistice and other concessions to the Poles, but the Tsar refused the Western request. The situation in Great Britain was likewise becoming more complex, with rising public disquiet at the prospect of war between Britain and Russia over Poland. On 11 August 1863, Lord Russell once again requested moderation. The Russian government responded that it considered the whole matter to be closed.

Most historians agree that Britain’s diplomatic intervention on behalf of the rebellious Poles resulted from the pressure of British public opinion. From the mid-19th century onwards, the role of the press in public life was paramount. The British press established itself as a medium in political disputes; moreover, newspapers became cheaper, with a consequent increase in readership among the lower-middle and working classes. In addition, because of the revolution in transportation costs, distribution of newspapers was much more efficient and The Times had attained the status of a national paper throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom. As far as the Polish question was concerned, the British press, initially at least, condemned the repressive measures in Poland and depicted the Russians as barbarians. The Poles, on the other hand, were portrayed as courageous patriots.

The Polish émigré community in London played an important role in shaping British sympathy for the Polish cause, and the most important representative of the Poles in Britain was Count Zamoyski, who had friendly relations with both Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell. The Polish émigré community published pamphlets, organized public meetings, and wrote articles for the British press. However, British reaction to the events unfolding in Poland in 1863 showed that the public was willing to support the Polish cause only so long as it did not mean war for Britain. With rumours of an impending armed conflict circulating in the spring and summer months of 1863, doubts about helping Poland surfaced in the press. Although Russia was still blamed for the unrest, critical comments directed towards the Poles now began to surface as well. For example, the Poles were sometimes referred to as the “Irish of the Continent,” in keeping with the deep-rooted anti-Catholic feelings in Britain caused by unrest in Ireland.

Meanwhile, British leaders had to contend with other, more pressing matters on the international arena. The most significant of these was the American Civil War of 1861-1865. The British had declared neutrality at the outbreak of hostilities, but they took precautionary steps in case they became embroiled in the conflict. By the end of 1862, Lord Palmerston believed that the South would successfully secede from the North and that the North might then invade British Canada to gain satisfaction for its loss, and his opinion had not changed as late as autumn 1863. However, the fall-out from the American Civil War, from the British point of view, was not confined to politics. Britain had strong economic links with the Confederate States, and without American cotton crops, many English mills faced closure.

The American Civil War, moreover, had a direct connection to the Polish question. Britain favoured the American Confederacy in the dispute, while Russia sympathized with the northern states. When the Polish Uprising broke out in January 1863, Washington and Saint Petersburg were working on developing a “friendly understanding,” which led to a visit by the Russian Imperial Fleet to the American ports of New York and San Francisco later the same year. The British government feared, therefore, that if Britain were to become involved in the American Civil War, Russia would provide naval assistance to the northern states. By sending the fleet on its goodwill mission, Alexander II achieved several purposes: he demonstrated Russia’s support for the northern states, but also intimated that the Russians might have an ally in the event of war with Britain.

The Polish question was likewise linked to the situation on the Black Sea. Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell made clear to their Russian counterparts that London’s attitude towards Russian-held Poland very much depended on Russia’s policy towards the Ottoman Empire. In addition, the Schleswig-Holstein question re-appeared on the international scene in 1863, and Britain was asked to act as a mediator in the conflict as it had done in the early 1850s. On top of that, Britain had her own imperial problems to deal with. British military commitments were far-flung, ranging from China and India to Canada. Indeed, in 1863, the same year as the Polish Uprising erupted, Britain had to face two colonial rebellions: the third Maori War in New Zealand and the second Ashanti War in today’s Ghana.

Public opinion, on the one hand, and the demands of foreign policy, on the other, were instrumental in shaping Britain’s attitude towards Poland. However, economic factors argued for restraint. Business links with Russia were very important, because Russia was one of Britain’s main trading partners. Russia bought iron and machinery from Britain and was supplied with technical expertise, capital, and loans, and Russia, in turn provided Britain with flax, tallow, hemp, lumber, and grain. British economic relations with Russian-held Poland, in contrast, were marginal, and, in fact, the Polish Uprising had a negative impact on British business interests in the region as a whole. Meanwhile, a war with Russia would very expensive.

Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell took a pragmatic approach to international politics and hence to the Polish Uprising of 1863. They had to take various factors into account when formulating the country’s foreign policy: national security and economic interests, public opinion, diplomatic relations with other states, the state of public finances, and military preparedness. In 1863, from the perspective of the government in Whitehall, war with Russia was certainly not in the national interest. British political leaders acknowledged the humanitarian aspect of intervening on behalf of Poland; nevertheless, wider issues were at stake. For political, economic, and domestic reasons, Britain favoured Russia over Poland. Indeed, Russian-held Poland had no strategic, economic, political or other tangible value for Britain, and this shaped the British reaction to the Polish question.

Kathleen Geaney was visiting scholar at the Skalny Center in the 2012-2013 academic year. She is doctoral candidate at the Institute of World History, Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic.