British sparklers tweet on bicentenary of White House fire sends sparks flying

Embassy posts: ‘Commemorating the 200th anniversary of burning the White House. Only sparklers this time!’

Photograph of a cake shaped like the White House together with sparklers burning and the US and British flags, as tweeted by the the British embassy in Washington.

Photograph of a cake shaped like the White House together with sparklers burning and the US and British flags, as tweeted by the the British embassy in Washington.

Wed, Aug 27, 2014, 01:00

The incident was not as incendiary as the original but the decision by British diplomats in Washington to mark the 200th anniversary of the torching of the White House sparked fires on social media websites that Her Majesty’s representatives moved quickly to extinguish.

On Sunday, recalling the August 1814 burning of the presidential residence at the height of the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, the British Embassy in Washington posted the message: “Commemorating the 200th anniversary of burning the White House. Only sparklers this time!” accompanied by a photograph of a cake shaped like the White House together with sparklers burning and the US and British flags.

The message was retweeted more than 7,000 times and drew an equally tongue-in-cheek message from the US State Department. “The difference 200 years can make in foreign relations: 8/24/1814: #ItsComplicated vs 8/24/2014: #SpecialRelationship,” wrote spokeswoman Marie Harf.

But two centuries may not mark the passage of enough time to permit such jocularity. Several Twitter users posted angry responses to the playful British message showing that the so-called “special relationship” between the countries is perhaps not as assured as each country’s diplomats believe, at least for this kind of joke.

“Good to know the US isn’t the only country with mentally deficient diplomatic corps that doesn’t know how to tweet,” wrote one user.

“What poor taste,” said another respondent.

“Expel these bastards, Obama, ” wrote another.

Apologies

Just over two hours later, the British said sorry with the embassy telling its 32,000-plus followers in a follow-up tweet: “Apologies for earlier tweet. We meant to mark an event in history & celebrate our strong relationship today.”

The embassy included a link to an article published on the Huffington Post website by the British deputy head of mission in Washington Patrick Davies, outlining how relations had improved between the two countries since British troops stormed Washington, setting fire to the White House, then the home of president James Madison and seizing the US Capitol building.

“Needless to say, we’ve put the events of August 1814 far behind us,” wrote Davies.

“So much so, in fact, that when the British prime minister, David Cameron, visited the White House two years ago, he and president Obama, fresh from watching a March Madness basketball game together, traded wisecracks about the burning.

The redcoats “made quite the impression,” Obama said. “They really lit up the place.”

“I can see you’ve got the place a little better defended today,” Cameron replied. “You’re clearly not taking any risks with the Brits this time,” according to Davies’s article.

In 1814 the troops were led by Sir George Cockburn, a Royal Navy rear-admiral who rescued thousands of slaves during a two-year campaign, according to an article in Harper’s Magazine by his descendant, the Washington-based Anglo-Irish journalist Andrew Cockburn.

“It was pathetic of the Brits to apologise,” the journalist told The Irish Times about the embassy’s tweet.

“Cockburn fought his way to the White House as the head of an army partly composed of slaves he had freed and armed.

“After sending slave owner Madison running, and torching the place, he sailed 6,000 former slaves to freedom – altogether a noble effort.”