• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Brown’s Telling Gift to Obama

    Last month, President Obama returned a bronze bust of Winston Churchill that had, since 9/11, been on loan as a symbol of the Special Relationship from the British Government to the United States. When he arrived for his visit this week, Prime Minister Gordon Brown brought along a few replacements. If he studies them well, Obama could learn a useful lesson about diplomacy: it is a compliment to, not a replacement of, the use of force.

    There was a first edition of Sir Martin Gilbert’s authorized biography of Churchill, all seven volumes of it, so a bit of the Churchill touch endures in the White House on British insistence. There was a framed commissioning paper for HMS Resolute, rescued by an American whaler in 1856; part of HMS Resolute was later made into the desk presented by Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880, and used by American presidents to this day.

    And then there was the third present. As Reuters reports it, the gift was:

    a pen holder fashioned from the timber of HMS Gannet, a sister ship of the Resolute that also served for a time on anti-slavery missions off Africa.

    The ironies here are wonderful, though Obama doesn’t seem likely to appreciate them. Of course, the reference to the anti-slavery mission is a nod to Obama’s fascination, fervent but not deep, with Abraham Lincoln.

    But HMS Gannet was not, as a casual reader might guess, employed against the trade of slaves from Africa to the New World, and since it was built in 1878, it has nothing to do with Lincoln or slavery in the United States. It sailed the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, patrolling against Islamist slavers. In the Red Sea, the Africans it saved would have come, among other places, from Kenya. Obama has made mention of his grandfather’s antipathy to Britain, stemming from his experiences in colonial Kenya. It is quite possible that grandfather’s ancestors would, had it not been for the Royal Navy, have been carried away to slavery in Arabia.

    The British campaign against the slave trade is instructive for another, more important, reason. By volume of business, it was the Foreign Office’s most important concern for much of the 19th century. In the courts of Europe and the New World, Britain sought to negotiate effective treaties against the trade. But Britain did not restrict itself to diplomacy. Far too often, treaties were negotiated and then not enforced. Britain’s first response to this was usually to negotiate again, but its patience was not infinite. Thus:

    [In June 1850], British warships entered Brazilian ports to flush out vessels being fitted for the slave trade. The subsequent burning and scuttling of suspected slave ships, and exchanges with coastal batteries, resulted in a predictable outcry in Brazil, including a call for the government to consider war with Britain. Wiser counsels prevailed, and in the summer of 1850 new legislation placed a comprehensive ban on the importation of slaves and measures for the seizure of vessels fitted for the trade. Unlike previous acts, these provisions were rigorously enforced and within twelve months the Brazilian slave trade was effectively extinct.

    In short, Britain’s campaign against the slave trade combined diplomacy and unilateral force in a highly effective and sustained way. Diplomacy provided legitimacy, but the British were not willing to be bound by treaties that did not bind the other side: if they felt they were being made fools of, they acted. Negotiations were meant to achieve a distinct aim: they were a means of policy, not an end in itself.

    How unlike the current administration, which congratulates Hugo Chávez on winning his ‘dictator for life’ referendum, has responded with “utter passivity” to a series of Russian, Pakistani, and Iranian provocations, and which cannot wait to stab Eastern Europe in the back by selling them out on missile defense. Maybe that pen holder is Brown’s way of encouraging Obama to show a little of the old-fashioned British spirit, and to recognize that endless negotiations not backed by steel are a mistake if they come at the cost of the nation’s values and honor.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

    11 Responses to Brown’s Telling Gift to Obama

    1. suek says:

      Obama's gift to Brown, on the other hand, was much more current:



    2. Pingback: Shiver his timbers | Worth Reading

    3. S. Watcher, MO says:

      Obama is ignorant of history unrelated to him personally. Worse yet, what little he knows of history is viewed through the prism of race. He has serious issues with whites partly because he himself is not white enough and thus rejected that side of himself.

    4. Joanne says:

      It is quite possible that the Kenyan forefathers of Obama were slavers and that would be why they were anti-British. Kenya had a thriving slave trade, so it is possible that the dislike had more to do with the Brits stopping their trade, than their Colonization. By 1878 Britain had outlawed slavery, but the African trade, was still active, and if I am not mistaken, still is, to a certain degree, on a limited basis. I think the lack of a welcoming ceremony and the thoughtlessness of the gifts, were intended slights. To suggest it occurred because of the economic crisis is disingenuous. I can't wait to see if he slights the Queen. Do you think the same level of disdain will be evident when when he invites the Irani president, or Chavez, or Castro?

    5. Elizabeth Matthews, says:

      THE STORY of HMS RESOLUTE is in the press of late, because of the gifts that Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Barack Obama exchanged. Unfortunately, many of these stories are repeating mistakes that I would like to correct.

      Most of these articles, when referring to the pen holder which was made of wood taken from HMS GANNET, say that the GANNET was a sister ship to HMS RESOLUTE. In my research, I can find no justification for this claim. HMS RESOLUTE was an Arctic exploration ship, powered by sail. Originally a barque named PTARMIGAN, she had been built with private funds for the East India trade, but was purchased for Arctic service by the Admiralty in February 1850 from Mssrs. Smith in Newcastle for the sum of £10,777, and was sent to search for the lost explorer, Sir John Franklin, as soon as she was strengthened for service in the ice. RESOLUTE was a little over 400 tons, and 115 feet long, in service from 1850 – 1854, 1856-1879.

      The GANNET that was in the Royal Navy in 1852 was built in Britain at Chatham dockyard by the Admiralty, was 2,590 tons, 213 feet in length, carried 90 guns, and was in service from 1840 – 1863. Another HMS GANNET was built at Sheerness in 1878, was powered by both sail and steam and had a hull constructed from teak on an iron frame. (This HMS GANNET has recently undergone a £3m restoration and is now on display at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, and could be the source of the wood for the pen holder.) Neither ship resembled RESOLUTE, in either build or service.

      Another mistake that I have seen is one that referred to the RESOLUTE as being a ship the Admiralty used in the “campaign against slavery.” The closest she came to the slave trade was through her captain, Henry Kellett, who, after his return from the Belcher Expedition in 1854, was commissioned captain of TERMAGANT on the West Indies station. Part of his orders was to monitor and disrupt the illegal cross-Atlantic slave trade.

      The most significant gift Prime Minister Brown gave President Obama was RESOLUTE’s commissioning papers. RESOLUTE and the desk in the Oval Office made from her timbers represent the special relationship between Britain and the States because the ship was a symbolic gift when such a gesture was desperately needed. In 1856, Britain and the States were on the very brink of war. Among other warlike activities taken by both countries, America had closed the British Embassy and sent the ambassador home: truly 11:59 p.m. when midnight is war. After the gift of a completely refurbished RESOLUTE arrived in Portsmouth, all the talk of war dissipated.

      Captain Henry Hartstene, who delivered RESOLUTE, reminded his hosts that handing over the ship to the Royal Navy was "against the traditions of his service", a reference to the War of 1812, when the dying captain of USS CHESAPEAKE pleaded with his crew: "Don't give up the ship" to the British. Incidentally, Hartstene must have been a party animal: he over spent his hospitality budget of $4,000 by a further $2,000! Perhaps we need his descendants to visit London and spend their high-valued dollars today to boost the British balance of payments?

      After her return in 1856, RESOLUTE was never used for Arctic exploration again, despite Lady Franklin asking for the ship to conduct more searches for her lost husband. The Admiralty kept her close to home, and used her as a troopship and store ship in home waters. Possibly the admirals could not face the chance of being embarrassed if the ship were to be lost (and maybe found) again in the Arctic? When she went to the breaker's dock at Chatham in 1879, Queen Victoria had several desks made from her timbers, the most famous one is living in the Oval Office today.

      Since 1856 the United States and Britain have been allies, and, though the relationship has been strained a few times since, we have settled our differences through diplomacy, not on the battlefield. That two such great enemy nations made this transition peacefully is something to be celebrated, and honoured. Being allies does not mean that two countries will always, or SHOULD always agree. It not-so-simply means that the disagreements will be aired and hopefully resolved through words, not swords. That $44,000 spent in 1856 for RESOLUTE's refurbishment continues to pay a huge peace dividend today.

      Is the relationship one sided? Over the 150 years since the Americans bought, refurbished, and sailed RESOLUTE back to Britain there have been times when America has given support to Britain, and others when Britain has supported the States. But focusing on that question is, as my mother used to say: putting the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble, i.e. where it doesn’t belong. Though it is regrettable that the president did not have adequate advise about what would have been appropriate gifts to give to the British prime minister, celebrating and emulating the peaceful change these two enemies made so long ago would make today’s world a better place. There are certainly many countries that need to make a similar transition from being deadly enemies to, if not allies, then at least no longer warring enemies.


      Elizabeth Matthews

      -Elizabeth Matthews, author of From the Canadian Arctic to the President’s Desk, HMS RESOLUTE, and How She Prevented a War, will be lecturing on the RESOLUTE at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, in October as part of their exhibition: The Northwest Passage: An Arctic Obsession.

    6. Bill, Missouri says:

      I don't think there is any problem with believing the president is racist. I don't know if this was the reason for his treatment of PM Brown, but I do know it was poor statesmanship. The United States better keep it's mouth when he is treated the sane way by a head of state.

    7. Pingback: President Obama is a thoughtless giftgiver « … And the cow goes moo

    8. Gardener, Northern C says:

      Since ancestors of Obama's owned slaves as documented through census records,


      I find Mr. Brown's gift rather tasteless. What was his reasoning? Because Obama's skin is dark?

    9. Pingback: What price Christie? | No Bull. news service.

    10. Pingback: Capitalism V3.0 Roundtable » Blog Archive » What price Christie?

    11. Pingback: The American Spectator : Obama's Petulant Presidency

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.