A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne (1977)

The blurb on the back of this book sums it up: The Algerian War was the long brutal conflict between the National Liberation Front (the Front de Libération Nationale or F.L.N.) fighting for Algerian independence from the French Empire, and the French Army tasked with repressing it.

The war lasted from 1954 to 1962. It brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the French Fourth Republic and eventually forced General de Gaulle out of retirement to become President in 1958 solely in order to sort out a peace deal. As the violence committed by the FLN and the army increased, as international opinion turned against the French, as the Soviet bloc became more friendly with the Algerian revolutionaries, de Gaulle found himself reluctantly pushed towards the only logical solution – that the French withdrew and granted Algeria its independence.

This was so unpopular among the 500,000 or so troops which France had by this time deployed to Algeria, and who had been fighting and dying in often inhospitable environments (the arid desert, the freezing mountains) that it prompted a military coup by the generals in Algeria. This collapsed in just four days, but the rebellion helped bring together a number of mid-ranking soldiers and psychopaths into an anti-de Gaulle, anti-independence paramilitary which called itself the Organisation armée secrète or O.A.S.

These (and other freelancers) planned and attempted some thirty (!) assassination attempts against de Gaulle as well as an escalating campaign of murder and terrorist outrages against liberal French in Algeria, against writers and thinkers in Paris (they bombed Jean-Paul Sartre’s flat and the homes of newspaper editors) as well as attacking Muslim bars, shops, schools, colleges and so on. IN February 1962 they killed over 550 people. The F.L.N. responded with their own tit-for-tat terrorist outrages. In March F.L.N. activists broke into the home of a pied noir nightwatchman, disembowelled his wife and smashed the heads of his two children, aged 5 and 6, against the wall (p.526). This book is packed with stories like that. Every day in Algiers was marked by the sound of explosions and gunfire.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1962 secret talks began between de Gaulle’s emissaries and F.L.N. representatives at a secret location in the Swiss border. Horne’s book – brilliant in every aspect – shows how right down to the wire the F.L.N. representatives refused to budge on the purity of their demands for complete independence and control of all Algeria’s territory (shrugging aside attempts by France to hang on to her naval bases or the vast areas of the Sahara to the south of the Atlas mountains where, ironically, in the last few years of French rule vast reserves of oil and even more of natural gas had been discovered). A peace treaty granting Algeria independence was signed in March 1962.

Brutality

Official French figures tally up to about 300,000 Algerians who lost their lives in the fighting, but even more in the terrorism and as victims of the extensive intra-Muslim fighting and vendettas. The Algerian state settled on the round number of one million Muslims and sticks to it to this day.

The F.L.N. used terrorist tactics, planting bombs, using drive-by shootings and chucking hand grenades into European cafes, bars etc, but mostly they set themselves to murder Algerians who had sold out to the French authorities e.g. native village constables and local caids, cutting off noses or lips as a first warning, slitting the throats of any ‘traitors’ who remained loyal to the French regime. The French efforts became steadily more indiscriminate, arresting all political suspects in the towns, bombing entire villages and, at the scenes of brutal murders of Europeans, running wild and shooting every Muslim in sight. All of which, of course, helped recruitment to the rebels.

Both sides used torture although the F.L.N. routinely used barbaric bloodthirstiness: on August 20, 1955 about 80 guerrillas descended on the town of Philippeville and went from house to house massacring all Europeans. Mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies cut open by bill-hooks, babies had their brains beaten out against the walls. One women had her belly cut open and the corpse of her young baby – cut to ribbons by knives – stuffed back inside her (p.121). When French paratroopers arrived on the scene some hours later they went mad and machine gunned every Muslim in sight.

In this respect F.L.N. tactics worked: the native population was terrorised into abandoning the French and giving the guerrillas help; the atrocities sparked the French into harsh reprisals which further alienated both peasant and educated opinion. The F.L.N. strategy was to militarise the conflict and the whole country, and it worked.

The advent of the O.A.S. in the final period of the war raised the stakes to new levels of wanton brutality, with attacks in mainland France and Paris. The French Secret Service attempts to penetrate the O.A.S. were eventually successful but, ironically, only increased the level of murder and terrorism, because the psychopaths were now headless and unchecked. In another level of irony (and what is history except irony written in blood) the O.A.S. – fighting to keep Algeria French – probably did more than any other group to ensure Algeria became independent. Their aim was to create such chaos that it would lead to the overthrow of de Gaulle the traitor and then… then… something good would happen (like the coup plotters, they had no grasp of politics). But their way to achieve that was through random outrages, mostly against Muslims, mostly against moderate and educated Muslims – and this had the effect in the final year of the conflict, of driving a huge wedge between the communities, destroying forever any claims by the pieds noirs to be able to live in harmony with their Muslim neighbours.

Divisions on both sides

War suggests two monolithic sides, but in fact both ‘sides’ were deeply divided and riven by factions. Since the French Revolution the French political nation has been bitterly divided between a revolutionary Left and an authoritarian Catholic Right, with all kinds of ineffective liberals ranged in between. After the Second World War France also had to contend with a large and powerful Stalinist Communist Party. This contributed to the chronic problem with French politics – its instability: there were no fewer than 21 different governments between 1945 and 1958! It was, thus, very difficult for ‘the French’ to formulate and stick to one policy.

On the other side, Horne explains the political situation at the start of the war among the Algerians: there was a communist party, a Muslim fundamentalist party, and a Liberal party representing the so-called évolués i.e. educated Algerians who were progressing along the state-approved path towards full ‘French-hood’.

All of these found themselves outflanked and outmoded by the violence and determination of the F.L.N. But there were also big divisions ethnically and culturally among the Algerians, and within the F.L.N. itself. For a start there were gulfs between the minority of urban, educated, literate Algerians and the majority of the nine million population which were illiterate peasants. Also between ethnic groups in Algeria, for a large percentage of the population were (and are) Kabyle, descended from the original Berber tribal occupants of the country who had their own language, culture and traditions and not all of whom were Muslim. Horne shows how the Kabyle-Arab divide was a permanent problem of the F.L.N. leadership and on the ground led to some appalling massacres perpetrated by each side.

A glaring example was the Massacre of Melouza, in late May early June, 1957, when FLN rebels massacred 300 Muslim inhabitants of the Melouza village because they supported the rival rebel group M.N.A. To be precise the F.L.N. rounded up every male over the age of fifteen, herded them into houses and the mosque and slaughtered them like animals with rifles, pick axes and knives (p.221).

There was also a long-burning division between the ‘insiders’, who stayed in the country to lead the armed struggle, and a cohort of ‘outsiders’ who a) acted as ambassadors, seeking political and financial support from other Arab states – especially Nasser’s nationalist Egypt and b) worked tirelessly at the United Nations in New York to lobby the Cold War blocs and the rising non-aligned movement to support the struggle.

As in every other aspect of this masterful book, Horne gives a thorough and insightful account of the changing personnel, changing relationships and evolving success of each of these factions.

Obstacles to a settlement

The successive French governments had a dual prong strategy: to completely suppress the armed revolt through military means, while simultaneously implementing ‘reforms’ to try and win over the majority of the population. These were stymied for a number of reasons.

  1. Too little, too late The government sent Liberal Jacques Soustelle as Governor-General of Algeria in 1955 to devise a reform package. He introduced the concept of ‘integration’, not altogether easy to distinguish from the previous policy of ‘assimilation’. He aimed to improve the crushing poverty and unemployment in which most rural Algerians lived. He declared he would make Arabic an obligatory language in Muslim schools, train peasants in modern agriculture, eliminate inequities in education alongside the creation of other public works. But the rebellion had already started and, as atrocity followed atrocity, Soustelle found his rational, sensible plans becoming irrelevant in the sea of blood.
  2. The pieds noirs Pieds noirs is French for ‘black feet’. It’s a slang expression the metropolitan (or mainland) French invented for the French who had settled in Algeria. In actual fact, a large proportion of the European settlers in Algeria were from Italy, Spain and other countries. But they all thought of themselves as 100% French and were led by some powerful men who owned huge businesses, rich from shipping, agriculture, vineyards, housing and so on. There were nearly a million pieds noirs and they dominated the Algerian Assembly. In theory Muslims could be elected to this, but in practice, through a system of double elections designed to prevent Muslims being elected, only a small number of Algerians were representatives, despite the natives outnumbering the settlers by about 9 to 1. Anyway, unlike the French government and Liberal opinion, pieds noirs sentiment was solid and consistent: it was anti any kind of further power or representation for Algerians, it wanted the war pursued with maximum aggression, it was against independence in any shape or form. Early on it held riots against ministers sent over from France and realised that it, too, could mobilise the street and threaten violence to foil any attempts at concession.
  3. Algeria was French The strangest element, the most fateful, tragic aspect of the whole bloody tragedy, was that the French government of 1848 made the fateful declaration that Algeria was an integral part of France, as much a part as Brittany or the Dordogne. At least Morocco and Tunisia to the west and east of it had only been French protectorates and so they could, relatively easily, be given their independence – both in 1956. (An unintended consequence was that F.L.N. fighters could use both countries as refuges and arms bases.) But French politicians were lumbered with the fateful situation that Algeria was legally – and all the pieds noirs took this absolutely literally – part of France and so could not be given independence because it was not legally or culturally perceived as a separate entity.

Thus for the French it was not a question of granting a colony independence: it was a case of losing part of France itself. This, to any outsider, is quite obviously insane and part of the experience of reading this long book is to be soaked in the ongoing insanity of the entire French political class. Looked at in this way, the F.L.N. struggle can be seen as the brutal attempt to make the French realise and admit that Algeria was a nation in its own right.

Indo-China and Algeria – one long war

If the year 1954 rings a bell it’s because that was the year the French Army lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and, as a result, began to withdraw from Vietnam (see my reviews of two classics on the subject, The Last Valley by Martin Windrow  and Embers of War by Frederik Logevall). The massive French base at Dien Bien Phu was overrun in May 1954 and the rebellion in Algeria began in November 1954. In fact Horne shows that the founding meeting of the umbrella group of revolutionary parties that formed the F.L.N. actually took place on the very day that news of Dien Bien Phu reached Algeria. Many of the same military units who had just been repatriated from Vietnam found themselves being sent on to North Africa to fight another insurgency.

Thus, although on opposite sides of the globe, the wars in Indochina and in Algeria can be seen as aspects of the same struggle of native peoples to free themselves from French rule. Taken together they meant that France was engaged in serious colonial wars from 1945 to 1962. Long time, isn’t it? A long time that it could have been devoting its money and energy to rebuilding its war-torn society back home. And, if it had agreed negotiated independence for both countries, how many lives would have been saved, and what a good reputation France would have enjoyed within those countries and around the world. It makes Britain’s withdrawal from India and Pakistan, though flawed, look like the wisdom of Solomon.

The French military record

In the 1950s the French Army had to look back 150 years, to the heyday of Napoleon, to be really sure of major military victories which they won by themselves.

Napoleon’s army had been finally, definitively, defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The conquest of Third World Algeria began promisingly in 1830, but the French faced stiffer opposition than they expected and the conquest dragged on for over 15 years. It’s true the French won the Crimean War (1853-56) but only  in alliance with the British, only just, and only after establishing a reputation for caution and delay and after losing huge numbers of troops to illness. A few years later the military suffered a humiliation when their attempt to install a Francophone Emperor in Mexico failed and the puppet Emperor was executed in 1867.

But none of this compared with the seismically crushing military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After the Prussians had finished occupying and looting Paris, the city descended into a super-violent civil war as leftists declared a Commune and the French Army was sent in to defeat and annihilate them. The military defeat of the war and the deployment of Frenchmen to kill Frenchmen left a poisonous legacy which lasted a generation.

A generation later the French Army was the epicentre of the Dreyfus Affair which from 1894 to 1906 tore the country (again) into violently opposing factions either supporting or reviling a certain Captain Dreyfus, who was (wrongly) alleged to have sold military secrets to the Prussians. When he was, finally, exonerated, almost the entire army hierarchy looked like frauds and incompetents.

The French would have lost the Great War if the British Expeditionary Force had not helped to hold the line on the Marne in 1914. After three years of butchery, in 1917 the French Army was dishonoured to suffer widespread mutinies (the British didn’t).

Between the wars France was so divided that many thought the street riots which erupted across Paris in 1934 were the beginning of a civil war. The profound divisions between left, right and liberals encouraged the spirit of wholesale defeatism which led to the speedy French capitulation against invading Nazi Germany in 1940 (‘better the Germans than the reds’, was the cry of conservatives across the country).

France was finally liberated in 1945, with a large contribution from the British but mainly from the overwhelming might of the Americans, scores of thousands of whom died to liberate la patrie. Immediately, the French roared back into arrogant World Power mode and, in Indo-China, instead of taking Vietnamese nationalists seriously, spurned all talks and decided to beat them militarily (the tragic story so brilliantly told in Frederick Logevall’s Embers of War) to restore France’s gloire and grandeur and prestige around the world (it is telling that even in English, we use French words for these ideas).

The eight-year struggle to hang on to Indo-China climaxed in the international humiliation of defeat at Dien Bien Phu, when the French army’s heavily-defended citadel was crushed by the third world army of General Giap, leading the French Army and civilian administration to pack up and leave Vietnam.

(Some of the many, many soldiers, statesmen, civilians and eye witnesses quoted in this long book start the long track of France’s humiliations earlier, with the massive failure of the Seven Years War back in the 1760s, in which King Louis XV’s lack of financial and military commitment led the French to lose both Canada and India to the British Empire. Reflecting on this during the days it took to read this book, a simpler theory came to mind: in the Seven Years War Louis sacrificed the foreign colonies because his main focus was on maintaining France as the pre-eminent military power on the Continent, as his father had and as Napoleon would do. If we take this as the central aim of French foreign policy – to maintain French pre-eminence on the continent – then it was doomed to failure when it met the unstoppable rise of Prussia and Germany from the 1850s onwards. It took three bitter wars between the nations – in 1870, 1914 and 1940 – to prove beyond any doubt that Germany was (and remains) the top power in Europe. So a) France had wasted all those years, men and money in a project which turned out to be futile – while b) all the time their bitter rivals the British were by and large ignoring continental squabbles to focus on expanding their vast maritime empire).

Thus, at their elite academies (e.g. the famous École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr) each new generation of French officers was brought up on an unremitting diet of gloire and grandeur but had, embarrassingly, to look all the way back to the great battles of Napoleon 150 years earlier, to find the last real military victories, the last time the French had really won anything. The French were very aware that in the Great War (arguably) and in the Second War (definitely) its success was on the coat tails of the British and the Americans.

This long history of defeat and humiliation helps to explain the special bitterness and acrimoniousness of France’s relations with her colonies post-1945. She didn’t want to be humiliated yet again. According to the French historian, Raymond Aron:

that deep ingrained sense of past humiliations had to be exorcised. (p.331)

And yet, with bleak irony, it was the very doggedness with which she hung on in Indo-China and in Algeria that ended up guaranteeing the political and military humiliations she was striving so hard to avoid.

It’s important to grasp this sense of inferiority and grievance and bloody determination because it helps to explain the fundamental irrationality of the French military ending up declaring war on their own government, trying to assassinate the French head of state, taking France to the brink of civil war, and why a hard core of ‘ultras’ formed the O.A.S. which set out on a policy of murdering their fellow Frenchmen.

Suez

Horne pithily calls the Suez invasion ‘the shortest war in history and possibly the silliest’. (p.163). I hadn’t previously understood its connection with Algeria. The French were convinced that Nasser (leader of Egypt) was supplying the F.L.N. (given that impression by the fiery pan-Arab messages coming over on Radio Cairo). In fact, Nasser and the other Arabs were notable unhelpful in the early part of the war – but the French didn’t know that. Thus when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 – two years into the Algerian crisis – the French seized the opportunity to strike a blow against the supplier of their enemy. The Israelis already wanted to strike a blow against the strongest Arab state and both countries leaned on the British to get involved.

The Suez Crisis is remembered because only a day or so into the joint Israeli-French-British assault on the canal zone the Russians began to make loud warning noises and President Eisenhower threatened to ruin the British economy by selling the U.S. government’s sterling bonds unless the Brits desisted. British forces were stopped in their tracks and British political leaders, the army, informed opinion, all realised it with a never-to-be-forgotten jolt that it marked the end of Britain’s role as a Global Power.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s my generation accepted all of this as a given and now, 60 years later, it seems like ancient history. But it is just one more of the many insights this wonderful book throws up, to revisit it from the Algerian perspective.

Scale

The Algerian War is important in its own right, as the largest and bloodiest of all decolonising wars. You occasionally read about:

  • Britain’s heavy-handed response to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, but that eight-year conflict resulted in some 12,000 Kenyan dead (mostly killed by fellow Kenyans) and only 200 settlers dead.
  • The Malayan Emergency, when Chinese communists led an insurgency against British imperial forces over a 12-year period from 1948 to 1960, led to a total of about 2,000 Malay and British police and army killed, and some 6,000 communist insurgents dead.
  • The crisis in British-held Cyprus in the later 1950s which resulted in some 600 dead.

Together with other small conflicts, these ’emergencies’ and insurgencies routinely appeared on the front pages British newspapers during the 1950s, but they are quoted here to compare and contrast with the awesome scale and enormous casualties and the huge political turmoil of the Algerian War. It was a completely different order of magnitude and the sheer number of bombings and atrocities is impossible to imagine. In some months there were over 1,000 incidents, over thirty every day. At the peak of O.A.S. activities they would set off 20 or 30 plastic explosive devices every day. In all, the French authorities recorded some 42,090 acts of terrorism.

Horne’s book is long and immaculately detailed, giving a riveting military history of the entire conflict, peppered with accounts of just enough of the atrocities to make you feel continually sick, and tense at the scale of what was at stake. It is like one of the most gripping novels ever written.

Long-term

The Algerian War turned out to be a testing ground for the kind of urban terrorism which has become so common in the 21st century, a pioneer of the strategy of attacking ‘soft’ civilian targets – nightclubs and pop concerts – in order to militarise and polarise society: the worse the atrocity, the greater the success in creating the battle lines.

The only response to this kind of terrorism-to-divide is not to rise to the bait and not to let society become polarised. But the best way to prevent it is not to allow injustice and grievance to build up to such a pitch in the first place, by giving all parts of society a voice, a say, and by having mechanisms through which to confront and solve grievances.

The war was also a template for the kind of asymmetric warfare in a Muslim country between a Western-style army and irregular militia and terrorist units, which has also become common in the 21st century – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. The cover has a blurb from Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco – the damning account of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq – which says this book has become compulsory reading for all U.S. military officers and counterinsurgency specialists, and Horne himself draws direct parallels with the Iraq invasion in his preface to the 2006 edition.

The war was such a long and convoluted conflict, with so many aspects, that it also contains examples of a whole range of political problems. In fact, it could almost be read as a sort of compendium of classic problems of statecraft.

  • How not to colonise a country and how not to ruinously hang on to it long after the time to go has come.
  • How not to stage a military coup, something the generals in fact attempted twice, failing both times.
  • How to return to a divided nation as a saviour, how to be all things to all men, and then how to steer a perilous course through violently opposing factions – as de Gaulle did.
  • How not to try and assassinate a head of state.
  • How to penetrate urban guerrilla organisations – Horne’s account of how the French penetrated the undercover F.L.N. network during the Battle of Algiers is brilliant.
  • Just as insightful, and impressive, is the account of how General Maurice Challe in 1959 instituted a whole new method to tackle attacks by smallish groups in remote desert areas – by using radio to call in helicopters carrying reinforcements to surround the armed bands, and by not giving up the chase or hunt until each one had been exterminated. Challe’s approach was showing real results, clearing entire areas of nationalists and reducing attacks, when his operation was overtaken by political developments and he was replaced by a general who never completed the process.
  • Building a wall. Like the Israelis were later to do, and Donald Trump threatens to in our time, the French built a wall against their enemies. In their case it was a fortified electrificed fence along 320 kilometres of Algeria’s border with Tunisia, the so-called Morice Line, because Tunisia in particular was a major bolthole for F.L.N. operatives, guns and money. The Morice Line’s a barbed wire barrier was lined with minefields and a sophisticate alarm system which triggered rapid response units who could quickly helicopter out to tackle attempts to breach it.
  • Urban uprisings. Both the pieds noirs and the Muslims staged mass uprisings in Algiers. The French one, starting in January 1960, was called ‘the week of barricades. Horne even-handedly shows how the pieds noirs students and activists organised it, and how the authorities tried to handle it.

There is just a whole host of war-related conflict and public order disturbances throughout the book. Not only Western armies but police forces could probably learn something about managing civil disturbance, disobedience and violent crowds.

Mass migration

The peace was signed with little agreement about the future of the pieds noirs. The result was a mass movement of people on a scale not seen since the end of the Second World War. Over a million pieds noirs fled Algeria in heart-breaking scenes which Horne describes. They could only take two suitcases of belongings with them and made bonfires of all their worldy goods and then left their homes, family homes for generations, abandoned to their new Arab owners. They arrived in a France completely unprepared for them, which struggled to find homes and schools and jobs for them for many years.

Much worse, though, was the fate of the harkis, the native Muslims who had collaborated with the French. Up to a quarter of a million Algerians worked with the French army, the ones who came under actual army discipline called harkis. One of the (just) grievances of senior army figures was that the fate of the harkis wasn’t even addressed in the peace negotiations. Only about 15,000 managed to esacpe to France. The rest were, in effect, left to the mercies of the F.L.N.

No-one knows for sure how many of these collaborators were murdered in the months that followed the French withdrawal in July 1962, but Horne quotes just some of the horror stories about how they were treated. Hundreds were forced to clear the minefields along the Morice Line by being forced to walk through them and getting blown up. Many were tortured before being killed.

Army veterans were made to dig their own tombs, then swallow their decorations before being killed; they were burned alive, or castrated, or dragged behind trucks, or cut top pieces their flesh fed to the dogs. Many were out to death with their entire families, including young children. (p.537)

In many instances French soldiers were ordered to take away their weapons, promising replacements, but then leaving the next day, the harkis completely unarmed and defenceless. Some French soldiers were ordered to stand impassively by while harkis were killed in front of them. Many French officers disobeyed orders and smuggled their Muslim comrades abroad, but nowhere near enough.

This book is absolutely packed with situations like this, cruel ironies of war and defeat, atrocities, torture and murder. 600 pages of horror, but reading which gives you an important – a vital – insight into contemporary France, into contemporary Algeria, and into contemporary conflicts between the West and Islam.

A Savage War of Peace

Sir Alistair Horne’s account was first published in 1977 and has long held the field as the definitive account, in English, of this awful conflict – although new studies have appeared throughout that period.

At 600 pages it is long, thorough and beautifully written. I’d read criticisms that it doesn’t give the Algerian side but there are page after page devoted to portraying and analysing the lead characters in the F.L.N. and the hugely complex machinations both among themselves, and between the F.L.N. and the other Muslim groups. Horne quotes extensively from interviews he himself held with as many of the surviving F.L.N. leaders as he could meet. He explains in forensic detail the social, cultural, economic and political barriers put in the way of Algerians and the multiple unfairnesses of the French system which led to so much poverty and grievance. When the violence gets going Horne is scrupulous in abominating the results of the terrorist attacks and the execution of ‘traitors’ or the civil war between Arab and Kabyle – but as giving persuasive and plausible explanations of why each side adopted strategies of atrocity. It struck me as perfectly balanced.

Horne was a journalist in the lead-up to the war (working for the Daily Telegraph) and was in Paris researching his first book when the war broke out. He gives examples of the impact de Gaulle’s rousing speeches had on him and fellow journalists as they heard them. He was there. This gives him the invaluable advantage of being able to really convey the atmosphere and the mood, the psychology, the milieu, the feel of what is now a long-distant period.

As mentioned, Horne carried out extensive interviews with all the key players he could track down including – fascinatingly – surviving leaders of the F.L.N. and of the O.A.S. and the French coup leaders. He interviewed no fewer than five of the ex-premiers of France who governed during this stormy period. The text is littered with quotes from key players which shed invaluable light on the complex and long, long course of events. It also means he is able to give in-depth accounts by the main players of vital political and military decisions taken throughout the period.

Horne was himself a soldier who served during World War Two, and so manages to get inside the peculiar mindset of the soldiers in this war, from the foot soldiers on both sides to the higher ranks, the colonels and generals. He doesn’t see it as an academic (or as I would) as an abattoir, an unrelenting list of brutal murders and tortures, but rather as killings carried out in the name of understandable (if reprehensible) military and political strategies.

Speaking as a non-military man, as much more the liberal humanities student, from one angle the entire text – like the war – is a kind of exploration of the strange twisted notions of ‘honour’ which led men to throw hand grenades into dance halls, to assassinate schoolmasters, to slit the throats of gendarmes, to eviscerate pregnant women. You could make a list of the people – the generals and colonels – who pompously spout on about ‘honour’ and then correlate the massacres and murders committed by their troops. Something similar could maybe done to the F.L.N. who spoke about human dignity and smashed children’s heads against walls or slit open pregnant women.

I circled every mention of ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ I saw. So often they came just before or just after the description of yet more killing, bombing and knifing. Eventually I wished, as the narrator of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell To Arms does, that those old words – glory, honour, pride, dignity – could all be abolished, scrapped forever, thrown into the depths of the sea.

Horne’s style

I’m an English graduate. Words always interest me. Horne was very posh. The son of Sir Allan Horne, he was born in 1925 and sent to a series of public schools before serving in the RAF and the Coldstream Guards during the war. All things considered, it’s impressive that his prose isn’t more old-fashioned. It happily belongs to that post-war style of posh, correct English, grammatically correct but loosened up by the egalitarianism and the Americanism of the post-war years. His prose is a pleasure to read and to read aloud. As a tiny detail of this masterpiece of historical research & writing, I enjoyed the way he confidently uses rare and flavoursome words:

meridional Relating to or characteristic of the inhabitants of southern Europe, especially the South of France, in practice meaning hot-tempered

Says Jouhaud proudly [his disguise] gave him the air of ‘an austere professor, whom candidates would dread at exam time’, though, in fact, photographs reveal something resembling more the coarse features of a meridional peasant. (p.481)

contumelious – (of behaviour) scornful and insulting; insolent

[In the French National Assembly] one of Abbas’s fellow deputies had declared: ‘You showed us the way, you gave us the taste of liberty, and now when we say that we wish to be free, to be men – no more and no less – you deny us the right to take over your own formulas. You are Frenchmen, and yet you are surprised that some of us should seek independence.’ After this eloquent pleas, he had been brought to order by the President of the Chamber in this contumelious fashion: ‘Monsieur Saadane, I have already reminded you that you are at the French tribune. I now invite you to speak in French there…’ (p.73)

Objurgation A harsh rebuke:

Through being in charge of the Cinquieme Bureau, with its potent functions of propaganda and psychological warfare [Colonel Jean] Gardes had a powerful weapon and he now used it unhesitatingly to further the cause of francisation – regardless of the objurgations of [Delegate-General] Delouvrier. (p.354)

The Islamic world

Horne has some blunt and simple things to say about the Islamic world. Writing in 2006 he says:

In many ways the horrors suffered in Algeria’s own civil war do read like a paradigm, a microcosm of present-day Islam’s frustrated inadequacy to meet the challenges of the modern world, the anger generated thereby finding itself directed into lashing out against the rich, successful West. (p.18)

This has not got any less true with the eruption in 2011 of the Arab Spring revolts which, in most cases, led to brutal suppression (as in Egypt) or the kind of chaotic civil war to be seen in contemporary Libya or Syria. If you include the under-reported civil war in Yemen, itself a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the recent ostracism of Qatar by the other Gulf states, it’s not difficult to see the entire Arab world as racked by conflicts and crises which its own political and cultural traditions don’t seem equipped to handle.

European nations themselves are fragile – until a generation ago half of Europe was part of the Soviet empire; in my lifetime Spain, Portugal and Greece were run by military dictatorships. And as Horne’s book brings out, just as I was born (in 1961) France nearly experienced a full-blown military coup which could have plunged the country into civil war. Democracy is extremely fragile, requires deep roots, requires the ability to disagree with your opponent without wanting to cut their throat.

Neo-Malthusianism

My son (19 and studying philosophy) calls me a neo-Malthusian. He means that whenever we discuss current affairs I always come back to the sheer scale of human population (and the related destruction of the natural environment). When France invaded, the population of Algeria was 1 million. When the insurrection broke out in 1954 it was 9 million. When Horne wrote his book in the mid-1970s it was 16 million. Today (2017) it is 41 million. The country is lucky enough to float on a vast reserve of natural gas which should underpin its budget for generations to come. But all across the Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan, huge population increases have put pressure on governments to supply jobs to young men, while at the same time all those countries are reaching the limits of their agricultural and natural resources (of water, in particular).

I don’t think a ‘clash of civilisations’ is inevitable; but I do think an ever-expanding population will provide the motor for unending conflict, and this conflict will be channeled into well-worn channels of racial and religious conflict, invoking the well-worn vocabulary of grievance, victimhood and justification (this doesn’t mean just anti-western violence: the conflict between Sunni and Shia will just get worse and worse, the proxy wars between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi will get worse; the plight of communities caught in the middle – the Kurds or the Egyptian Copts – will continue to deteriorate).

And various groups or individuals will accept the by-now traditional discourse that ‘it’s all the west’s fault’, that ‘there are no civilians; everyone is a warrior in the war against the infidel’, and so will be able to justify to themselves setting off bombs at pop concerts, driving into a crowd of pedestrians, opening fire with a machine gun on sunbathers on a holiday beach, or storming into a popular market to stab everyone in sight to death.

All of these things happened during the Algerian War. And all of them are happening again. There are now five million Algerians living in France with its 67 million people. Many of them descendants of the harkis who managed to flee in 1962, many temporary migrant workers, and many refugees from Algeria’s bloody civil war in the 1990s. Many millions are crammed into squalid banlieus, suburbs of cheap high rises and unemployment, where periodic riots break out – the subject of Mathieu Kassovitz’s terrifying film, La Haine. More recently, of course, there were the ISIS-inspired attacks on rock concert and in the Champs Elysées. A massive deployment of troops and police was called up for the recent French elections. France has been living under a state of emergency since the Bataclan attacks in November 2015. I shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a permanent state of emergency. Angry Muslims are here to stay.

The Algerian War has effectively crossed the Mediterranean to France… (p.17)


Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

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Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (1998)

One should never underestimate the disruptive force of haphazard actions. (p.104)

A decade or so ago I set out to spend a year reading only books by women authors. Among them, I read half a dozen or so novels by Beryl Bainbridge and loved them all. Having just worked through several books about the Crimean War (Victoria’s Wars by Saul David and Crimea by Orlando Figes) prompted me to dust off my old copy of Master Georgie, Bainbridge’s novel set during the Crimean War.

‘Quirky’ is a quick way of establishing where in the ballpark Bainbridge belongs, but doesn’t begin to capture her depth or complexity or strangeness.

Master Georgie, like most of her novels, is deceptively short and, in this Abacus paperback, has quite large print, resulting in the page having a light, airy feel. The text is divided into six sections and, since several of the protagonists are involved in the then-newfangled trade of photography, the book uses the conceit of naming each section after a ‘plate’ or early-style photograph. Hence:

  • Plate 1. 1846 Girl in the presence of death
  • Plate 2. 1850 A veil lifted
  • Plate 3. 1854 Tug-of-war beside the sweet waters of Europe
  • Plate 4. August 1854 Concert party at Varna
  • Plate 5. October 1854 Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice
  • Plate 6. November 1854 Smile, boys, smile

Each ‘plate’ or section is narrated by a different character. Thus:

Plate 1 – 1846 Girl in the presence of death (Myrtle)

This is told by a young girl named Myrtle (named on page 73), who was found as a toddler next to her mother, dead from smallpox in a slum in Victorian Liverpool, and taken into the household of wealthy if dissolute Mr Hardy. Myrtle is still pre-adolescent when she tells her tale. She has a mad crush on the son of the house, young Master George Hardy (the Master Georgie of the title), who is a medical student, with an amateur interest in phtography. George is wooing young Annie, and he has a friend, a would-be writer named Potter, who is enamoured of George’s sister, Beatrice.

The text is packed with uncanny detail, odd anecdote and strange insights – one of the oddest being that the child Myrtle is side-tracked from her task of accompanying George around town into watching a street performance of a Punch and Judy man. This is told with all the surreal oddity the subject encourages, but with the added twist that a passing horse shies, starts and backs into the Punch and Judy booth, knocking it and the performer inside sprawling. Disgruntled the performer packs his stuff into his gaudily painted van and trots off.

But the main event of this section is that, while George is strolling back from a run-of-the-mill chore, followed by the puppy-like Myrtle, he comes across a house outside which a wretched drunken harridan is wailing about a sick man. Reluctantly, medical student George feels compelled to investigate, is led up to the first floor, where, to his horror, he finds the half-naked body of his father with his trousers down on a bed. Pretty obviously Mr Hardy senior had a heart attack while having sex with the drunk woman, although we see all of this through the eyes of pre-sexual Myrtle who thinks he must have just been sleeping an a funny position.

Keeping his self-possession, George arranges for a street urchin, whose name we later discover is Pompey Jones, to fetch any conveyance he can beg or borrow. This, with typical Bainbridgean bizarreness, turns out to be the wagon used by the local Punch and Judy man we saw in an earlier scene – and, along with Myrtle, the trio dress Mr Hardy’s body, carry it into the Punch & Judy van, rattle back to the Hardy residence, sneak it through the family orchard and upstairs into Mr Hardy’s house, dodging the servants, Mrs Hardy and sister Beatrice. The guilty trio lay the stiffening corpse out on its bed as if he’s had a heart attack, perfectly natural-like. Then they go their separate ways, leaving the body for a maid to find that evening – which results in general hysteria among wife, daughter and servants. Myrtle swears eternal silence to George. Pompey is heavily paid off for his silence.

Plate 2 – 1850 A veil lifted (Pompey)

Section two is narrated in the voice of Pompey Jones (as we learn on page 63), the street urchin who did Master Georgie the immense favour of helping him carry his dead father home four years back. We learn that George subsequently packed Myrtle off to boarding school to ensure her absence/silence. And that George sent Pompey with money to buy the silence of the drunk harridan/prostitute. But the latter is such an alcoholic she’d forgotten the incident anyway, so Pompey kept the money and spent it on a set of his own photographic equipment, figuring to pick up the craft from Mr George and eventually set up in his own right.

We learn that Pompey once scraped a living as a street performer, eating fire, which is how he badly burned his lip, which George tended to free of charge. Through one thing and another, Pompey has become a kind of favoured servant, a fixer and gofer for George, running occasional errands as and when required.

On the day covered by this section, Pompey arrives bright and early as requested by George at the Hardy house. Here, he tells us, while waiting for George to awaken, he’s got into the habit of performing little tricks before anyone’s up, namely moving bits of furniture around, swapping paintings, moving fire irons and so on. Today he carries out his boldest exploit yet by rearranging the living room tiger rug, draping it over the back of a chair so it appears almost lifelike. He takes a glass of the family port and surveys his work with pride. He is a cheeky chappy, an artful dodger, a streetwise kid.

George finally appears and commands Pompey into the waggon with his medical equipment because they are setting off on a bizarre medical exploit where Pompey will be needed, namely assisting at an operation George is carrying out along with a fellow surgeon, Dr Rimmer, to remove the cataracts from the eyes of an aging ape kept in the collection of the eccentric millionaire owner of Blundell Hall.

This requires Pompey to drive George and his boxes of equipment in a lumbering horse and cart on a circuitous route along the seashore out of Liverpool and through what are presumably – nowadays – heavily built up inhabited areas but which were, back in the 1840s, empty countryside or sparse hamlets, thus giving a frisson of recognition to any Liverpudlian readers of the novel. (Bainbridge was Liverpool born and bred.)

Pompey assists at the bizarre operation by applying ether in a rag to the mangy old ape and keeping it unconscious while the two surgeons cut into its eyes! I defy you to think of a weirder fictional scene. Afterwards Rimmer and George celebrate with a drink, the latter overdoing it (since his father’s death, George has become a heavy drinker) so that Pompey has to manhandle him into the cart and drive it back into Liverpool along the wide beach as the sun sets. They stop so George can have a drunken conversation with an old hermit who they find on the shore.

We learn, through Pompey’s quick cynical thoughts and memories, that, on the fateful day of Mr Hardy senior’s death, George made a pass at young Pompey. He makes another, drunken, pass now. So, George is what we would nowadays call bisexual, although it is one of the many appeals of Bainbridge’s books that she imagines people in the past thinking according to their own culture, mindsets, psychologies and categories – which are often remote and strange. Maybe this – George’s wandering sexuality – is the veil which is lifted in this section.

When they arrive back at the Hardy household, and Pompey has helped drunk George up to bed, he is accosted on the way back downstairs by George’s friend Potter, who sternly tells Pompey that his stupid jape of rigging up the tiger rug to look lifelike has caused George’s wife, Miss Anna, opening the door in the dim dawn light, to cry out, turn, trip, stumble and hurt her wrist but, more importantly, it brought on a miscarriage. Surprisingly, Pompey isn’t beaten or whipped but that is the end of his merry japes.

Plate 3 1854 Tug-of-war beside the sweet waters of Europe (Potter)

This first-person narrative is in the voice of Potter (as we learn on page 70), an older friend of George’s who was a geologist. In the earlier sections I had got the impression he was another medical student but now it becomes clearer that he is a geologist – not least because he gives several long descriptions of rocks and geological formations, as well as describing the shock he received on reading Charles Lyell’s epoch-making textbook, the Principles of Geology. Alas Potter has tried – and failed – to make a living by writing and now, sheepishly, lives to a large extent on the generosity of his old friend George.

George, we begin to realise, is the unspeaking central figure around whom all these other lives circle.

Potter is now married to Beatrice and narrates how they, George and his wife Annie, ‘the children’, and Myrtle – now educated and grown up but still slavishly devoted to George – have decided to take a cruise through the Mediterranean to Constantinople. The initial idea was for the two men to revisit some of the locations Potter first visited as a young man (and which he wrote a not-very-successful travel book about) but first one and then other wife asked to come and the whole expedition just snowballed. Thus they are all together in Malta as they hear rumours of approaching war, and by the time they reach Constantinople it is confirmed that Britain and France have gone to war with Russia in support of the Ottoman Empire. The Crimean War has begun. George reports to the British consulate and volunteers as a surgeon, and is assigned to the newly established military hospital up the Black Sea coast at Varna.

Potter’s voice is much the most enjoyable of the three, with his cynically humorous take on his wife, his friend, their families, hangers-on. He gives deliciously acid thumbnail portraits of fellow passengers on the ship and then of fellow Brits in Turkey.

Both George and Potter are particularly irritated when a pompous fellow passenger, Naughton (a bumptiously jingoistic violin maker), becomes infatuated with Myrtle who, of course, has eyes only for George. George and Potter spontaneously start a joke which is to pretend to Naughton that Myrtle is already engaged. Pushed on the identity of her fiancé, they invent a dashing cavalry officer, all of which Naughton believes. Things get complicated later on, when Myrtle gets caught up trying to extricate the family puppy from street dogs in Constantinople, and is helped out by a passing cavalry officer. Naughton sees them returning from this incident and completely misinterprets it to think that this officer is Myrtle’s (entirely fictitious) lover.

And so when Naughton spies this same officer, innocently snogging a local woman in the box next to our chaps at the opera – and Myrtle weeping (entirely because the of the music) – Naughton completely misinterprets the scene to think the officer is behaving outrageously and making the poor aggrieved Myrtle weep. Naughton storms along the passageway, into the box and attacks the officer, who promptly defends himself and accidentally knocks Naughton clean out of the box and onto the stage beneath. George attends Naughton, who is not as injured as you’d expect, leaving Potter to feel sheepishly guilty, while reflecting on the absurdity of life, its randomness and chance complications.

Plate 4 – August 1854 Concert party at Varna (Myrtle)

Section four is narrated by Myrtle, eight years older than her first appearance and a woman of the world. George has volunteered to work as a surgeon up at Varna, where the British soldiers are dropping like flies from the cholera epidemic. The wives – Annie and Beatrice – and the children have been packed off back to Blighty, and Myrtle and Potter have accompanied him to Varna.

This section gives us a sense of the sights and smells of the allied camp at Varna, especially the drunkenness of the British troops. It also slowly becomes clear that George’s relationship with Myrtle is now sexual. Myrtle goes for a horse ride with another Brit they met on the ship over, a Mrs Yardley who openly admits to being in an unmarried relationship with a colonel in the Guards. There is a typically bizarre scene where the pair of English ladies find themselves straying too close to a Turkish farm and being hussled into it by peasants, who promptly offer them bowls of none-to-clean milk while the exhausted peasant mother suckles a baby and a nearby pregnant goat gives birth messily, to the ladies’ horror.

But the main event in this section is a performance by a British concert party, chaps dressing up as women and singing each other sentimental songs. The climax is an explosive display by a handsome young fire-eater. Fire eating ring any bells? Yes, it turns out this performer is none other than Pompey Jones from Liverpool. He had become a photographer’s assistant in Liverpool, the photographer received a commission to come out and take pics of the army in Turkey, so that’s how he’s here in Varna; then one of the performers in the concert show went sick and someone had heard Pompey talking about his fire-eating days so he found himself being dragooned onstage. In other words, it is a staggering coincidence that Myrtle, George and Potter should bump into Pompey like this. But, as various characters reflect throughout the text, life is full of haphazard accidents and random chances.

Before the concert show George had asked Myrtle to prepare for a sexual encounter with him, so she had washed her armpits and ‘other places’. Alas, she waits and waits till dawn but he doesn’t come. She goes over to his tent and is upset to find George asleep in the arms of the handsome, fit young fire-eater. Myrtle is distraught, and finds herself pouring her heart out to Mrs Yardley – but Mrs Yardley and all the others believe in the cover story that George and Myrtle are brother and sister, and so thinks Myrtle is upset merely at the lower class and homosexual nature of George’s affections – she doesn’t realise Myrtle is upset because she feels a lover’s betrayal- and Myrtle, even in full flight of sobbing, realises she mustn’t reveal the truth.

Later, once George has woken and gone about his tasks at the barracks hospital, Myrtle and Pompey sit and talk about old times. Pompey startles her by revealing that Georgie has told him ‘about the babies’. It is via this conversation that we learn the startling revelation that Myrtle is the mother of George and Annie’s babies! After George’s wife Annie’s fourth and final miscarriage – the one caused by Pompey rearranging the tiger rug – Annie was declared infertile and so… and so the trio agreed that Myrtle should be impregnated and bear the children which she now helps to bring up but which George and Annie treat as theirs. She is the mother of George’s children. No wonder she is so besotted by him.

But in the way which I so admire about her historical novels, Bainbridge captures the way all involved acquiesce in the event but keep it hidden, coping with it, rationalising it, in a way inaccessible to our modern politically correct sensibilities.

Annie accepts the situation and the children and Myrtle. George conceals any public displays of affection for Myrtle and keeps her at a distance – and sleeps with young men. Which upsets Myrtle but doesn’t repel her: the homosexuality isn’t an issue. She even wonders whether George’s mother, old Mrs Hardy know but keeps quiet about the ‘scandal’.

The story feels so Victorian, so very much about love and desire twisted and reconfigured in unexpected, secret, repressed ways. People were different in the past. Really profoundly different, in the way they thought about life, lived, in their values and decisions, and Bainbridge’s novels wonderfully capture this difference on every page.

After Pompey leaves her, Myrtle tells Potter that Pompey knows about the babies. Foolish for George to have told him, Potter says. He could do you both harm. An ominous note is sounded. Will the story end in some kind of blackmail?

Plate 5 – October 1854 Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice (Potter)

This is the second narrative told in the voice of by Potter, in which he comes over as significantly more of a bore than in the first one. Shame. I liked his affable cynicism. Now we know, from remarks of George’s to his face, that George is finding him rude and offensive and he is boring everyone with his endless classical quotations.

It is through Potter’s eyes that we see the allied task force of 64,000 soldiers set sail from Varna, cross the Black Sea and land at Eupatoria, on the west coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Potter describes the unopposed landing, the assembly of the troops and then the nightmare march of the soldiers south, without food or drink through the intense heat of a blistering summer’s day, when thousands of soldiers dropped out of line and hundreds died of exhaustion and dehydration, the terrible march I’ve read about in the historical accounts by Saul David and Orlando Figes.

And so the soldiers straggle on to create the armed camp south of Sevastopol. Bainbridge is not a historian and so we only hear about the epic battles of the river Alma and of Balaklava peripherally, as throwaway remarks by Potter who is more concerned about the facilities in the camp where he finds himself, and the relationship with George and Myrtle.

It is a relief we are not shown these battles (as we might be in a more macho, male narrative). Instead the charge of the Light Brigade is only referenced insofar as some of the returning riderless horses ride on in among the hospital tents where Potter was assisting George. He stops one of the fleeing horses and commandeers it, albeit the poor thing has been deafened by the cannon.

There are drunken dinners with soldiers (officers, of course) at which Potter tactlessly prattles on about death and displays his classical and/or geological learning, to the others guests’ boredom or dismay. According to Potter’s narrative he is having more and more intense visions of his wife, Beatrice, who was wise enough to depart Constantinople and return to peaceful Wales, but now appears to him in visions by day and night. Most embarrassingly she appears to Potter when he’s attending a funeral of some officers they knew. Her spirit leads him away to pick an intensely blue cornflower. I suspect these feverish hallucinations are intended to be the symptoms of cholera or typhoid. Maybe Potter is going to die.

A photographer is present to pose the mourners at this funeral, to show ‘the folks back home’ – hence the section’s title, Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice.

Plate 6. November 1854 Smile, boys, smile (Pompey)

The sixth and final section is narrated by Pompey. His boss, the photographer, has gone back top Constantinople for supplies, leaving Pompey to hang out with the gang – George, Myrtle, Potter – and give us our last sight of them.

Pompey isn’t in the army – he built on the photography equipment he bought with the money he sidelined from George, as per chapter two, to get a job as a photographer’s assistant. We learn that the photography van, painted bright white and containing shelves of cameras, lenses and development equipment, is none other than the Punch and Judy van which Myrtle described back in section one, eight years earlier, and which was used to carry the corpse of naughty Mr Hardy home. Thus do accidents and coincidences litter our lives.

The climax of the book comes when all four are called into action to reinforce British troops being attacked. I think this is an account of the Battle of Inkerman, a bloody battle in which Russian troops again and again stormed British strongpoints on a day of dense fog, in which the fighting was reduced down to bleak and horrific hand-to-hand bayoneting in muddy pits.

Pompey, the tough street urchin, finds himself commandeered into combat but – like the survivor he is – kills his quota of Russians and survives. These last few pages convey the horror, terror and mindless violence of battle and Pompey, the tough survivor is the perfect pair of eyes to see it through.

Then the battle is all over and Pompey and Myrtle are helping injured soldiers back towards a dressing station where George is working, specifically an officer who’s had both feet blown off and whose comrades put his stumps into a barrel of gunpowder to stanch the bleeding. George lends a hand and,when Myrtle calls out because she’s stumbled on a stone, George turns to look at her and at that moment an injured Russian soldier, who had been lying nearby and has propped himself up on a rock, takes one shot at the stretcher party and shoots George dead.

Myrtle cradles George’s head. Pompey staggers off to inform Potter, a man now much reduced from his former witty self, plastered in mud, malnourished, babbling classical quotes while tearing the pages of his precious books to stuff into the stove to keep warm. So much for intellectuals.

In the final act, Pompey returns to the British camp to discover his boss, the photographer, has returned and is taking a photo of five survivors for the folks back home. They need another figure to complete the composition. Pompey jogs off and returns bearing the corpse of George. Not fazed by dead bodies, the soldiers prop George up to look like one of themselves, one of the happy chaps defending ‘Justice’ and ‘Liberty’ and ‘Empire’, as the photographer says, ‘Smile, boys, smile.’

Finis.


The photos

By the end the reader realises that each section contains the taking of a photo: in section one George practices his new hobby by asking the young Myrtle to pose touching the corpse of his father (hence ‘Girl in the presence of death’), and each of the subsequent sections is named after a particular photograph which for one reason or other is taken during the action. Thus the photo of the funeral party in the penultimate section (the one where Potter shames himself by wandering off half-delirious to pick a cornflower) and, of course, the final posed and utterly deceitful photo which ends the text.

As I noted in my review of Crimea, which describes how the newfangled photographs of the war were almost all carefully posed and arranged – the camera always lies.

Literary effects

Humour, often very dry humour, is never far away in Bainbridge’s novels. One simple but effective result of the way the book uses multiple viewpoints is that the impression and story told by one narrator can then be humorously undercut by the next one.

Thus when we see George through Myrtle’s eyes it is through the mind of a lovelorn girl who describes him as a handsome, wise and good young man. It is a shock to have the same George described by Potter as an overweight drunk. Similarly, Potter’s own text narrative is shrewd and witty, so we (well, I) was won over to his witty character. It comes as a shock, then, to have Myrtle, at the beginning of her next section, describing him as an intellectual bore, irritating everyone by quoting ancient poetry in the original, maybe -as Myrtle reflects – as an escape from the brutal realities of the present.

Conclusion: We are mysteries to each other. The world is a mystery to all of us.

Disconcerting

Bainbridge is the Queen of Disconcertment. The broad shape of her narratives, the vivid vignettes which stud her stories, and even passing similes and phrases, all contain the potential to unnerve, ruffle and discomfit the reader. For example, Potter describes their ship setting off from Constantinople:

In our wake flew a swarm of small birds, no bigger than robins, which are never seen to settle, but must always be in flight. The Turks, so I was told, suppose them to be the souls of women whom the Sultan has drowned. (p.106)

Not what you expected from a description of sea birds. Potter describes how the extended group spend an evening at the filthy Istanbul opera house, where the big passionate music of Verdi made Myrtle cry. But the reader is distracted from this straightforward situation by the discombobulating comparison which Myrtle’s weeping brings to Potter’s mind.

Then, some moments before the interval, I heard a strange mewing sound, which instantly brought back memories of Mrs O’Gorman’s kitchen and the cry of the stable cat prowling the bucket in which its kittens lay drowned. (p.100)

Wow. Yes. An endless ability to unsettle and unnerve.

Quite apart from the unsettling drift of the overall narrative, the text is laced with moments where the everyday is transformed into bewildering strangeness. Sometimes the incongruities can be very funny, like the extended deception Potter and George play on poor Naughton about Myrtle’s fictional lover. But mostly they’re weird and discomfiting. And sometimes poetic and evocative, coming and going in seconds, like the flow of experience. A tiny example: in the final section Pompey is sharing a cosy mug of tea with Potter, both of them shrouded in the impenetrably thick fog.

Close by, a horse pissed, its splatterings diminishing as it trotted on. (p.197)

This is a marvellous book, laced all through with the weirdness and poetry of life.


Related links

The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010)

This was the first war in history in which public opinion played so crucial a role. (p.304)

This a brilliant book, a really masterful account of the Crimean War, a book I reread whole sections of and didn’t want to end. It covers the military campaigns (along the Danube, in Crimea) and battles (at the Alma river, Balaklava, Inkerman) competently enough, maybe with not quite the same dash as the Crimea section of Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars – but where it really scores is in the depth and thoroughness and sophistication of Figes’ analysis of the political and cultural forces which led to the war in the first place and then shaped its course – his examination of the conflict’s deep historical roots and in its long lasting influence.

Thus the first 130 pages (of this 490-page text) deal with the background and build-up to conflict, and drill down into the issues, concerns, plans and fantasies of all the main players. Not just the British (though it is a British book by a British historian) but a similar amount of space is devoted to the Russian side (Figes is a world-leading expert on Russian history), as well as the situation and motives of the French and the Ottoman Turks, with insights into the position of the Austrian and Prussian empires.

The Holy Places

The trigger for the war has always struck anyone who studied it as ridiculously silly: it concerned the conflict about who should have control of the ‘Holy Places’ in Jerusalem, the Catholic church (championed by France) or the Orthodox church (championed by Russia). (Who could have guessed that the acrimonious theological dispute about the meaning of the word filioque which split the two churches in the 11th century would lead to half a million men dying in miserable squalor 800 years later.)

To recap: the life and preaching and death of Jesus took place in Palestine; by the time of the Emperor Constantine (c.320), Roman Christians had supposedly tracked down the very barn Jesus was born in, at Bethlehem, and the precise site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem – and begun to build chapels over them.  By the 1800s there were well-established Churches of the Nativity (at Bethlehem) and of the Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem) with attendant monasteries, chapels and so on stuffed with Christian priests and monks of all denominations.

The situation was complicated by two factors. 1. In the 700s the Muslim Arabs stormed out of Arabia and by the 900s had conquered the Middle East and the North African coast. The Muslim world underwent a number of changes of leadership in the ensuing centuries, but from the 1300s onwards was ruled by the Ottoman dynasty of Turkish origin. The Ottoman Empire is alleged to have reached its military and cultural peak in the late 1500s/early 1600s. By the 1800s it was in obvious decline, culturally, economically and militarily. Many of the ‘countries’ or ‘nationalities’ it ruled over were restive for independence, from the Egyptians in the south, to the Christian ‘nations’ of Greece and Serbia in the Balkans.

What Figes’ account brings out in fascinating detail is the extent to which the Russian Empire, the Russian state, Russian culture, Russian writers and poets and aristocrats, academics and military leaders, were all drenched in the idea that their entire Christian culture owed its existence to Constantinople. The founding moment in Russia’s history is when missionaries from Greek Orthodox Byzantium converted the pagan ‘Rus’ who inhabited Kiev to Christianity in the 9th century. This newly-Christian people went on to form the core of the ‘Russians’, a people which slowly extended their empire to the Baltic in the North, the Black Sea in the south, and right across the vast territory of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.

In a really profound way, which Figes’ book brings out by quoting the writings of its poets and philosophers and academics and Christian leaders, Russia saw itself as the Third Rome – third in order after the original Christian Rome and the ‘Second Rome’ of Constantinople – and felt it had a burning religious duty to liberate Constantinople from the infidel Turks (Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, being of course the capital of the Ottoman Empire). It is fascinating to read about, and read quotes from, this broad spectrum of Russian nationalist writers, who all agreed that once they’d kicked the Turks out of Europe they would rename Istanbul ‘Tsargrad’.

Alongside the deep and varied rhetoric calling for a ‘Holy War’ against the infidel Turks was the linked idea of the union of all the Slavic peoples. Russians are Slavs and felt a deep brotherly feeling for the Slavic peoples living under Ottoman rule – in present-day Serbia and Bulgaria in particular. The same kind of Russian intelligentsia which wrote poems and songs and pamphlets and sermons about liberating Constantinople, and – in extreme versions – going on to liberate the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, also fantasised about a great pan-Slavic uprising to overthrow the shackles of the infidel Turk, and uniting the great Slavic peoples in an Empire which would stretch from the Adriatic to the Pacific.

Intoxicating stuff, and this is where Figes is at his tip-top best, taking you deep deep inside the mind-set of the Russian educated classes and leadership, helping you to see it and understand it and sympathise with it.

The only snag with this grand Russian vision was the unfortunate fact that there is such a thing as Catholic Christianity, and that a number of the ‘nations’ of the Balkans were not in fact either Slavs or Orthodox Christians – e.g. the Catholic Romanians. In fact, there was a lot of animosity between the two distinct versions of Christianity, with the Catholics, in particular, looking down on the Orthodox for what they regarded as their more primitive and pagan practices.

The simmering conflict between the two came to a head at the two churches mentioned above, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The churches had become rabbit warrens themselves, with holy grottoes underneath and vestries and side chapels sprouting onto them, with both Orthodox and Catholics clerics building monasteries and so on in the immediate vicinity and claiming complete access and ownership to the sites.

The Ottoman Turks had done their best to resolve disputes between the squabbling Christians and there had even been a succession of treaties in the 1700s which laid down the precise access rights of each Christian sect. But when the silver star embedded in the floor of the Church of the Nativity by the Catholics was dug up and stolen in 1847 the ‘dishonour’ was so great that the new ruler of Catholic France became involved, demanding that the Ottomans cede the French complete control of the Holy Sites to ensure there wasn’t a repetition of the sacrilege.

In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity. In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the “sovereign authority” in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century. The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in “authority,” citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)—and deployed armies to the Danube area. (Wikipedia)

Egged on by the pan-Slav and religious zealots in his court, Tsar Nicholas I saw the opportunity to teach the Ottomans a lesson, to reassert Orthodox authority over the Holy Places, to spark the long-awaited Slavic uprising in the Balkans and to extend Russian power to the Mediterranean. Hooray! In May 1853 Russian forces moved into the two principalities which formed the border between Russia and the Ottoman Empire – the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, ‘Danubian’ because the river Danube ran through them. The Ottomans moved armies up to face them, and the war was on!

Politics in depth

What sets Figes’ account apart is the thoroughness with which he explains the conflicting political and cultural pressures within each of the countries which then got drawn into this conflict.

France, for example, had recently been through a revolution, in 1848, which had eventually been crushed but did manage to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy and usher in the Second Republic. To people’s surprise the man who managed to get elected President of the Republic was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoléon’s presidential term expired in 1851, he first organised a coup d’état in that year, and then the following year, reclaimed the imperial throne, as Napoleon III, on 2 December 1852. At which point the Second Republic changed its name to the Second Empire. (19th century French history is a hilarious farce of revolutions, coups, republics and empires, each one more incompetent than the last. Mind you, 20th century French history isn’t much better – between 1946 and 1958 the French Fourth Republic had 22 Prime Ministers!)

But that’s not the interesting stuff, that’s just the basic factual information: the interest Figes brings to his account is his analysis of the various political pressures which the new president found himself under from within France. Obviously the Catholic Right and many actual churchmen were calling for action to defend the rights of Catholics in the Holy Places; but there was a large left-wing grouping in France whose hopes had been crushed by in the 1848 revolution. Napoleon realised that he could reconcile these opposing factions by depicting war against Russia as a pro-Catholic crusade to the Church and as a setback to the autocratic Tsarist regime – which was widely seen on the Left as the most repressive and reactionary regime in Europe. On top of which a glorious French victory would of course cover secure his place as successor to his famous uncle.

Polish liberation was a big cause in France. It wasn’t so long since 1830 when Polish nationalists had risen up to try and throw off Russian control of their country. The rebellion was brutally put down and Tsar Nicholas I (the same Tsar who launched the Crimean offensive 20 years later) had decreed that Poland would henceforward be an integral part of Russia, with Warsaw reduced to a military garrison, its university and other cultural activities shut down.

A stream of Polish intellectuals and aristocrats had fled west, many of them settling in France where they set up presses, publishing newspapers, pamphlets, books and poems and establishing networks of lobbyists and contacts. Figes investigates the writers and activists who made up this Polish lobby, specifically Prince Adam Czartoryski, and explains how they went about demonising Russia (and you can understand why), losing no opportunity to exaggerate Russia’s threatening intentions and, of course, lobbying for the liberation of Poland. Figes is excellent at showing how the Polish activists’ influence extended into both British and French ministries and military hierarchies.

But this was just one of the many forces at work across Europe. All the way through his account of the war, which lasted two and a half years, the constellation of forces at work in France shifted and changed as public opinion evolved from feverish support of a war against the Russian aggressor to increasing war-weariness. It is absolutely fascinating to read how Napoleon III tried to manage and ride the changing positions of all these factions, the vociferous press, and fickle public opinion.

And the same goes for Britain. In the 1830s and 40s conflicts in the Middle East – not least the rebellion of Mehmet Ali, pasha of Egypt, who rebelled against his Ottoman masters and demanded independence under his personal rule for Egypt and Syria – had forced the British to realise that, corrupt and collapsing though it may be, it was better to have a weak Ottoman Empire imposing some order, rather than no Ottoman Empire and complete chaos over such a huge and crucial region.

Thus the French and British governments, though perennially suspicious of each other, agreed that they had to prop up what became known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Again where Figes excels is by going much much deeper than standard accounts, to show the extent of the ‘Russophobia’ in British politics and culture, identifying the writers and diplomats who showed a fondness for Turkish and Muslim culture, explaining how British diplomats, the Foreign Office, and the cabinet staked their hopes on British-led reforms of Turkey’s laws and institutions.

Figes presents not a monolithic slab called ‘Britain’, but a complex country made up of all kinds of conflicting interests and voices. For example, it’s fascinating to learn that the British had the most varied, free and well-distributed press in the world. A side-effect of the railway mania of the 1840s had been that newspapers could now be distributed nationally on a daily basis. The prosperous middle classes in Bradford or Bristol could wake up to the same edition of The Times as opinion leaders in London.

This led to the first real creation of an informed ‘public opinion’, and to a huge increase in the power of the press. And Figes is fascinating in his depiction of the robust pro-war politician Lord Palmerston as the first ‘modern’ politician in that he grasped how he could use the press and public opinion to outflank his opponents within the British cabinet. Thus the British Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was against war and supported the moderate Four Points which a peace conference held in Vienna suggested be put to the Russians. But Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary, had a much grander, much more aggressive vision of attacking Russia on all fronts – in the Baltic, Poland, the Balkans, the Crimea and in the Caucasus.

Figes’ account goes into great detail about these other little-known fronts in the war – for example the repeated efforts by the British to storm the Russian naval port of Kronstadt on the Baltic, with a view to ultimately marching on St Petersburg! (The successive British admirals sent out to size up the plan consistently declared it impossible pp.337-339.) Or the plan to foment a Muslim Holy War amongst the tribes of the Caucasus, who would be levied under the leadership of the charismatic leader Imam Shamil and directed to attack the Russians. In the event there were several battles between Turks and Russians in the Caucasus, but Palmerston’s Holy War plan was never implemented (pp.336-337)

The summary above is designed to give just a taste of the complexity and sophistication of Figes’ analysis, not so much of the actual events which took place – plenty of other histories do that – but of the amazingly complex kaleidoscope of political forces swirling in each of the combatant countries, of the various leaders’ attempts to control and channel them, and of the scores of alternative plans, alternative visions, alternative histories, which the leaders were considering and which could so nearly have taken place.

Being taken into the subject in such detail prompts all kinds of thoughts, big and small.

One is that history is a kind of wreck or skeleton of what is left when leaders’ grand plans are put into effect and come up against harsh reality. History is the sad carcass of actual human actions left over when the glorious dreams of night time meet the harsh reality of day.

The Tsar dreamed of liberating the Balkans, creating a great pan-Slavic confederacy and throwing the Turks completely out of Europe, liberating Istanbul to become the centre of a reinvigorated empire of Orthodox Christianity.

The Polish agitators dreamed of throwing off the Russian yoke and creating a free united independent Poland.

Napoleon III dreamed of establishing French supremacy over a weakened Ottoman Empire, thus consolidating his reputation at home.

Palmerston dreamed of a grand alliance of all the nations of Europe – Sweden in the Baltic, France and Prussia in the centre, Austria in the Balkans, allied with the Turks and Muslim tribesmen in the Caucasus to push back the borders of the Russian Empire a hundred years.

Figes is just as thorough in his analysis of the forces at work in the Ottoman Empire, which I haven’t mentioned so far. The Ottoman Emperor also struggled to contain domestic opinion, in his case continual pressure from Muslim clerics, imams and muftis, and from a large section of educated opinion, who all dreamed of an end to the ‘humiliation’ of the Muslim world by the West, who dreamed of a ‘Holy War’ to repel the Russians and restore Muslim power and dignity.

All these shiny dreams of glory, honour, liberation and holy war ended up as battlefields strewn with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of men blown up, eviscerated, decapitated, butchered, bayoneted, as well as plenty of civilian women and children raped and murdered – all rotting in the blood-soaked soil of the Crimea, the Danube, the Caucasus.

No matter what glorious rhetoric wars start off with, this is how they always end up. In rotting human bodies.

Figes brilliantly shows how, as reality began to bite, the various leaders struggled to control the rising tides of disillusionment and anger: Napoleon III deeply anxious that failure in the war would lead to another French revolution and his overthrow; the Tsar struggling to contain the wilder pan-Slavic fantasies of many of his churchmen and court officials on the one hand and a steady stream of serf and peasant rebellions against conscription, on the other; and, strikingly, the Ottoman Emperor (and his British advisors) really worried that unless he acted aggressively against the Russians, he would be overthrown by an Islamic fundamentalist revolution.

In standard histories, the various nations are often treated as solid blocks – Britain did this, France wanted that. By spending over a quarter of his book on an in-depth analysis of the long cultural, historical, religious, technological and social roots of the conflict, Figes gives us a vastly more deep and sophisticated understanding of this war, and of the deeper social and historical trends of the time.

Relevance

Many of which, of course, endure into our time.

Why read history, particularly a history of a forgotten old war like this? Because it really does shed light on the present. In a number of ways:

1. The area once ruled by the Ottoman Empire is still desperately unstable and racked by conflict – civil war in Libya, military repression in Egypt, chaos in northern Iraq, civil war in Syria. Almost all Muslim opinion in all of these regions wants to restore Muslim pride and dignity, and, whatever their factional interests, are united in opposing meddling by the West. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were living through the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, in lands where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians were raping and murdering each other.

2. In other words, the religious and cultural forces which lay behind the Crimean War still dominate the region and still underpin modern conflicts. Again and again, one of Figes’ quotes from the pan-Slavic visions of the Russians or the Muslim doctrine of Holy War read exactly like what we read in the newspapers and hear on the radio today, in 2017. After all it was only as recently as March 2014 that Russia annexed the Crimea, an act most UN member states still consider an act of illegal aggression, and the Foreign Office consequently advises against any foreign travel to the Crimea.

165 years after the events analysed so brilliantly in this book, Crimea once again has the potential to become a flashpoint in a wider war between East and West.

What could be more relevant and necessary to understand?

3. And the book continually stimulates reflection not just about the possible causes of war, but about how national and religious cultures have eerily endured down to the present day. Figes paints a fascinating portrait of the fundamentally different social and political cultures of each of the belligerent countries – I was particularly struck by the contrast between the essentially open society informed by an entirely free press of Britain, as against the totalitarian closed society of Russia, which had only a handful of state-controlled newspapers which never criticised the government, and where a secret police could cart people off to prison and torture if they were overheard, even in private conversations, to utter any criticism of the tsar or the army. 160 years later Britain is still a raucously open society whereas journalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a risky occupation and open opposition to the President has landed many of his opponents in gaol, or worse. Plus ca change… Also, it becomes quite depressing reading the scores and scores of references to Muslim leaders, mullahs, muftis and so on, insistently calling on the Sultan to put an end to Western interference, to declare a Holy War on the Western infidels, to attack and punish the Christians. Again, almost every day brings fresh calls from Al Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS to defeat the infidel West. How long, how very, very long, these bitter hatreds have endured.

4. And the book offers another, more general level of insight – which is into the types of political pressure which all leaders find themselves under. The leaders of all the belligerent nations, as described above, found themselves trying to manage and control the often extreme opinion of their publics or churches or courts or advisors. How they did so, where they gave in, where they stood firm, and with what results, are object lessons modern politicians could still profitably study, and which give fascinating insight to us non-politicians into the sheer difficulty and complexity of trying to manage a big modern industrialised country, let alone a modern war.

The Crimean War was a shameful shambles for nearly all the participants. This book not only describes the squalor and suffering, the disease and dirt, the agonising deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in a pointless and stupid conflict – it sheds fascinating light on how such conflicts come about, why they are sometimes so difficult to avoid and almost impossible to control, and why sequences of decisions which each individually may seem rational and reasonable, can eventually lead to disaster.

This is a really outstanding work of history.


Memorable insights

The trenches The Siege of Sevastopol lasted from September 1854 until September 1855. Criminally, the British were completely unprepared for winter conditions in Russia (like Napoleon, like Hitler) resulting in tens of thousands of British soldiers living in pitifully inadequate tents, with no warm clothing, amid seas of mud and slush, so that thousands died of frostbite, gangrene and disease. In an eerie anticipation of the Great War both sides created elaborate trench systems and settled into a routine of shelling and counter-shelling. In between times there were pre-arranged truces to bury the dead, during which the opposing armies fraternised, swapped fags and booze and even toasted each other. In this element of prolonged and frustrating trench warfare,

this was the first modern war, a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War. (p.373)

Alcohol 5,500 British soldiers, about an eighth of the entire army in the field, were court-martialled for drunkenness. It was rampant. Some soldiers were continually drunk for the entire 11-month siege.

Disease As usual for all pre-modern wars, disease killed far more than weapons. For example, in January 1855 alone, 10% of the British army in the East died of disease. Died. Cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases, combined with gangrene and infection from wounds, and frostbite during the bitter winter of 1854-55. Figes has a splendid few pages on Florence Nightingale, the tough martinet who tried to reorganise the wretched hospital facilities at Scutari, on the south side of the Black Sea. I was staggered to read that the Royal Inquiry, sent out in 1855 to enquire why so many soldiers were dying like flies, despite Nightingale’s intentions, discovered that the hospital barracks was built over a cesspit which regularly overflowed into the drinking water. As Figes damningly concludes, the British wounded would have stood a better chance of survival in any peasant’s hut in any Turkish village than in the official British ‘hospital’.

Nikolai Pirogov Figes goes into some detail about Florence Nightingale (fascinating character) and also Mary Seacole, who is now a heroine of the annual Black History Month. But Figes brings to light some other heroes of the 11-month long siege of Sevastapol, not least the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov. Pirogov arrived in Sevastapol to find chaos and squalor in the main hospital, himself and the other doctors operating on whoever was put in front of them by harassed orderlies and nurses, as the allies’ continual bombardment produced wave after wave of mangled bodies. Finally it dawned on Pirogov that he had to impose some kind of order and developed the  system of placing the injured in three categories: the seriously injured who needed help and could be saved were operated on as soon as possible; the lightly wounded were given a number and told to wait in the nearby barracks (thus not cluttering the hospital); those who could not be saved were taken to a rest home to be cared for by nurses and priests till they died (pp.295-298). He had invented the triage system of field surgery which is used in all armies to this day.

Irish A third of the British army consisted of Catholic Irish. This surprising fact is explained when you learn that the army was recruited from the poorest of the urban and rural poor, and the poorest rural poor in the British Isles were the Irish.

The camera always lies The Crimean War is famous as seeing the ground breaking war reporting of Russell of The Times and some of the earliest photographs of war, by the pioneer Roger Fenton. However, Figes points out that the wet process of photography Fenton employed required his subjects to pose stationary for 20 seconds or more. Which explains why there are no photographs of any kind of fighting. He goes on to explain how Fenton posed many of his shots, including one claiming to be of soldiers wearing thick winter wear – which was in fact taken in sweltering spring weather – and his most famous photo, of the so-called Valley of Death after the Light Brigade charged down it into the Russian guns – in which Fenton carefully rearranged the cannonballs to create a more artistic effect.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

This reminded me of the account of Felice Beato I read in Robert Bickers’ The Scramble for China. Beato was an Italian–British photographer, one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. Beato was allowed into the Chinese forts at Taku after the British had captured them in 1860 towards the climax of the Second Opium War and – he also arranged the bodies to create a more pleasing aesthetic and emotional effect.

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato


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Sargent: The Watercolours @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first UK show in nearly 100 years devoted to the watercolours of the Anglo-American artist, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

Sargent biography

Sargent was American, born to a successful Philadelphia eye surgeon, who quit his trade to live a peripatetic life travelling round the beauty spots of Europe, with wife and a growing brood of children. Sargent’s parents encouraged his artistic tendencies and supported his decision to train as an artist in Paris in the 1870s. Here he learned precise draughtsmanship and a sumptuous way with oils, though he was also attracted to the new fashion for painting in the open air which came to be called Impressionism.

In Paris Sargent painted a number of successful portraits before moving to London in the mid-1880s where he quickly established a lucrative practice as a portrait painter to the upper classes. Sargent produced some 900 oil paintings, many of them masterpieces of style and grace, as demonstrated by the recent awe-inspiring exhibition of John Singer Sargent portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

But throughout his life he continued to paint watercolours for his own pleasure and, once his London practice was secure, from the 1890s onwards, took a regular extended summer holiday, travelling all over the most picturesque parts of Europe and painting painting painting wherever he went.

The Lady with the Umbrella (1911) by John Singer Sargent. Museu de Montserrat. Image © Dani Rovira

The Lady with the Umbrella (1911) by John Singer Sargent. Museu de Montserrat. Image © Dani Rovira

The exhibition

This beautiful exhibition brings together a selection of some 80 of the estimated 2,000 watercolours which Sargent produced. Away from the pressurised world of his London studio and expensive commissions, the watercolours depict a relaxed and sunny world of picturesque locations – Venice, the Alps – a world of colourful locals in Italy or Spain, and of leisure ladies lounging with parasols.

It is the world of wealthy, confident Yankee ex-pats depicted in the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton, a gracious world untroubled by rumours of war, where the moneyed could travel easily and stylishly from hotel to hotel in Venice, Rome, Bologna, Corfu, maybe down into Spain, and, after a good breakfast, set out one’s easel, pin up the cartridge paper, moisten the brushes, adjust one’s straw hat, fix the brollies in place, and then start sketching with light confident pencil strokes before moving on to start building up washes of colour.

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass (c. 1910-11) Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass (c. 1910-11) Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Architecture

Many of the watercolours give the impression of being deliberately unfinished, accentuating their light and airy effect. In fact one of the four headings into which the exhibition is divided is ‘Fragments’, although it is intended to have a different meaning. The curators use it to draw attention to the way Sargent is deliberately experimental in the way he frames and focuses many of the watercolours, cropping the subject, viewing it from unusual angles. Sargent’s oil portraits had to be pretty conventional, showing the key parts of the body of the sitter in a well-defined and well-decorated space – take one of my favourites, the staggering Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer in Tate Britain.

By contrast, in many of the watercolours Sargent deliberately focuses on details, cropping and cutting off, zooming in on unexpected aspects. This is particularly true of the depiction of buildings which dominate the first few rooms. He is interested not in the whole thing but of significant details and aspects, which he renders luminous with his amazing technique.

Rome: An Architectural Study (c. 1906-7) by John Singer Sargent. Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC

Rome: An Architectural Study (c. 1906-7) by John Singer Sargent. Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC

The curators point out the influence of photography which by the turn of the century had pioneered all kinds of ways of cropping and focusing. I love draughtsmanship and all lines, firm clear lines, so something in me warmed to all of the architectural paintings. Venice is the prime location for these, many of them ‘taken’ from low on the waterline, providing a gondola’s-eye view of the famous crumbling palazzos and churches. a) It’s a question of angle but b) also of the play of light on water.

Light on water is a perpetual challenge to a painter and water is a secret thread which connects many of the works here of ostensibly different subjects – portraits, landscapes, cityscapes and so on. There are lots of boats in harbours. Or streams in the mountains. Or lakes. His depiction of Palma harbour is an amazing attempt to capture the really dazzling, blinding white light of the Mediterranean midsummer noon, shimmering on the blue water.

Palma, Majorca (1908) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Palma, Majorca (1908) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Of the six rooms here one is devoted to the subject of ‘Cities’, but in fact of the 13 paintings in the room, 11 are of Venice. Venice Venice Venice. Light on water, on aging stone, the detail of columns and porticos, friezes and balustrades. There are several rather touristy paintings of gondoliers punting their boats along canals, the spume of the waves highlighted with white impasto.

But there are plenty more of buildings, stone catching the reflections of water, and a moment’s reflection suggests that Venice combined the two great subjects, very classical monumental architecture, and shimmering surfaces of water.

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1904-9) by John Singer Sargent © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1904-9) by John Singer Sargent © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira

One of my favourites was this dazzling depiction of a grand baroque statue in Bologna: it demonstrates several characteristics – it is cropped (you can’t see either the top of the statue which apparently is a huge statue of Neptune, or the sides of the bowl) – it shows fascination with light on different surfaces, specifically the aged stone walling, the bronze statues and a slender line of acquamarine water – it is somehow both monumental and light and airy – and the casual pink washes give the sense of the background architecture with a wonderful casualness. It is often the bravura confidence of the backgrounds as much as anything which fills you with a sense of respect and awe at his ability.

The Fountain, Bologna (c. 1906) by John Singer Sargent. Private Collection

The Fountain, Bologna (c. 1906) by John Singer Sargent. Private Collection

Boats

Not everything is genius, however. I found the exhibition a mixed bag, with several startlingly brilliant images in each room, but also a fair amount of average or so-so works. Maybe this is because the standard of all of them is so high that you just accept it and quickly take it for granted.

In the earlier rooms I surprised myself by not liking so much his depictions of boats. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I think I want my lines to be firmer and straighter, to bring out the toughness of lines to be found in rigging, the geometric complexity and angularity. There were several showing ships in a dry dock and one of some mill machinery (The Mill, Arras), but, for me, they lacked the rigour of the modernism which was to take the world by storm a generation later, when art found a language for machinery in modernist painting and social realist photography. Sargent’s ships are too soft for me.

Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor (c. 1904-07) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor (c. 1904-07) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Some of the scenes of classic tourist destinations had a touristy tweeness; they are the kind of painting you actually find on sale in the streets of Venice, being hawked by street vendors. Depicting sweet peaceful scenes but lacking any oomph.

Loggia, View at the Generalife (c. 1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Loggia, View at the Generalife (c. 1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Landscapes

I thought the landscapes were his weakest works. Sargent developed a routine summer itinerary from the late 1890s through to the start of the Great War: each vacation began with a spell in the Alps, then on to Venice, Rome, Bologna, maybe to Corfu. He visited Spain several times and even went on a Middle Eastern tour, as research for a historical mural he was painting back in the States. Everywhere he went, painting painting painting.

A Glacier Stream in the Alps (c. 1909-11) by John Singer Sargent. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

A Glacier Stream in the Alps (c. 1909-11) by John Singer Sargent. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

If you Google ‘John Singer Sargent landscape‘ you can surf through hundreds of images, many of them stunning. But some of the ones on display here were, I thought, weak. The Glacier stream (above) highlights some of those weaknesses – the perspective seems out, none of the details, of rock or water, are very convincing, and the human figure is worse. It was just as well the show included some of the weaker works: it made you realise Sargent wasn’t a god, he had his off days like other people.

That said, one of the best works in the show was a quiet but absorbing study of stones by a stream. It may not look much reproduced on a screen, but the closer you looked the more uncannily brilliant it became, you could touch each individual rock, feel the soggy sand bordering the stream. The brown blotches of heather in the background seemed perfectly judged. If I had a million pounds, I’d buy this one.

Bed of a Torrent (c. 1904) by John Singer Sargent. Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger

Bed of a Torrent (c. 1904) by John Singer Sargent. Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger

People

The final room is devoted to watercolours with people in them and there is a wide variety of settings. There are Bedouins in Arabia, gondoliers in Venice, Spanish street singers (this latter I find rather disturbing).

Blind Musicians (1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Blind Musicians (1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

There are ladies in billowing skirts lounging by streams, a kind of quintessence of ease and relaxation.

A Turkish Woman by a Stream (c. 1907) by John Singer Sargent © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A Turkish Woman by a Stream (c. 1907) by John Singer Sargent © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There’s a number of so-so studies of male nudes, smudgy faces and black loins. Again, if you Google ‘John Singer Sargent nudes‘ you can see scores of marvelous charcoal and pencil studies of males nudes online. The male nude watercolours on display here aren’t so good.

What did stand out for me was a trio of genius watercolours. One was of his sister, Emily. She was a painter in her own right. There’s a small display case of photos of the man himself, with friends, and of Emily and she looks a very starchy character, dressed in dense Victorian black. She travelled everywhere with a ‘companion’, a Miss Eliza Wedgwood, and there is a stunningly good watercolour depicting Emily painting, paintbrush in mouth, while spinsterish Miss Wedgwood looks off to the side. The character in Eliza’s face is wonderful; and the calm companionableness of the pair is like a novel in paint.

There are several depictions of soldiers. Sargent spent the early years of the Great War back in the States, but was recruited to become an official British war artist at the request of the Prime Minister himself. In the landscape room there are so-so depictions of ammunition dumps which don’t really have much to them, certainly none of the sketches compares to his studied masterpiece, Gassed (1919), they’re not meant to. But there are a couple of studies of soldiers from a Highland regiment, wearing kilts, at rest.

Highlanders Resting at the Front (1918) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Highlanders Resting at the Front (1918) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

But the one I would like to own is this fantastic study of two soldiers pinching apples in an orchard. The light on the main figure’s helmet, and on the back of his jacket and top of his kilt, is to die for.

Last of this trio was a ravishing study of a man lying naked on a bed.

This is a stunningly relaxed and liberated, redolent of holidays anywhere hot, the big wooden bedsteads, the sharp tan lines on the body, the rumpled white sheets, the cigarette casually held. And, after I’d looked at it for a while, I came to admire the nose – the use of pink and cream to model the sheeny shiny nose of someone who’s been out in the sun, it’s just one of thousands of stunning details throughout the exhibition which Sargent’s amazing eye and staggering technique capture and record forever.

Conclusion

80 out of 2,000, that’s 4% of his total output of watercolours. A surf of the internet indicates the riches among the other 96%, but these are here, now, and available to view in the flesh in Dulwich.

Close up, you can see the texture of the cartridge paper, see the skimming pencil lines he sketched out first, capturing the essence of shapes, buildings, people, rocks – and then marvel at the confidence with which he applied colour washes and highlights to create, at their best, almost magical effects, stunningly evocative and atmospheric works.

A Street in Spain (c. 1880) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

A Street in Spain (c. 1880) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The video


Related links

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Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2017

Took the kids to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This is the 7th or 8th Summer show I’ve been to, so I know the form: of 12,000 or so works submitted by professionals and amateurs alike, some 1,200 are selected and hung in rooms arranged by different curators, picking out or choosing different themes, often with distinct wall colours to give each room a specific character.

There’s always a room devoted to architecture (the ‘room of shame’ as I call it) and one of Big Sculptures. This year there were also two room showing videos, one showing Phantom Rhapsody by Sarah Pucill and The Invisible Voice by Julie Born Schwartz. I have myself produced and directed a number of videos, and then series edited several hundred TV programmes. It never ceases to surprise me how ‘art’ videos have such low production values and use so little of the digital technology which is available. Having watched the showreels of hundreds of directors applying for TV jobs, which consist of scores of inventive clips, impactful short films, novel combinations of music and action, I’m always struck by the way art videos are so often deeply conservative and unimaginative.

And then there’s always work by the familiar Royal Academicians like Michael Craig-Martin, the Matisse-like cut-outs by Gillian Ayres, the saucy cartoonish self-portraits of Anthony Green (e.g. The Pink Lounge), evocative etchings of the Highlands and Islands by Norman Ackroyd, or the scrawny nudes by Tracey Emin – although this year Ms Emin supplied a set of smallish neon sentences spelling out phrases like ‘I Did Not Say I Can Never Love You I Said I Could Never Love You’ and ‘Never Again!’ and ‘And I Said I Love You!’. This last one can be seen through the archway in the photo below, a pink neon sentence hanging from the wall and yours for just £84,000.

View of the Wohl Central Hall featuring Petrol Cargo by Romuald Hazoume and Very Nice Ride by Paola Pivi

View of the Wohl Central Hall featuring Petrol Cargo by Romuald Hazoume and Very Nice Ride (a rotating bicycle wheel studded with peacock feathers attached to the wall) by Paola Pivi (£13,000)

Petrol Cargo is based on the scooters laden with jugs and vessels used to smuggle petrol across borders in West Africa – possibly more a piece of ethnography than art, but hey…

View of Room II featuring Untitled (Violin) by Michael Craig-Martin

View of Room II featuring Untitled (Violin) by Michael Craig-Martin RA (£120,000)

Although you can take a few minutes to read the wall label in each room which gives the ostensible aim and guiding principles the selectors used to make their selection, these would be impossible to guess from the works alone which, in each room, present much the same kind of cluttered random feel.

View of Room II showing Volute IV by Paul de Monchaux (£36,000) and Full House by Sean Scully (NFS)

View of Room II showing Volute IV by Paul de Monchaux (The bronze sculpture on the floor – £36,000) and Full House by Sean Scully RA (the big painting – Not For Sale)

My kids quickly devised a game called Find The Most Expensive Work in The Room, though this didn’t stop us just liking things we liked, such as Aeronautics by Alexander Vorobyev, bottom left and heavily channeling Paul Klee -and Frederick Cuming’s slightly disturbing Children’s Playground, Sicily. These were in Room I which was absolutely crammed with works stacked next to each other. It’s an interesting effect. This is  how the Victorians displayed their pictures without the enormous reverent white spaces we’re used to in normal exhibitions. It tends to make you make much quicker, more sweeping judgments: Yes, No, No, Yes.

Room I featuring Aeronautics by Alexander Vorobyev (botton left - £6,000) and Children's Playground, Sicilty by Frederick Cuming (bottom right - £7,200)

Room I featuring Aeronautics by Alexander Vorobyev (botton left – £6,000) and Children’s Playground, Sicily by Frederick Cuming (bottom right – £7,200)

Sometimes works catch your eye. Or the arrangement of works. So, simply having two works by Bill Jacklin RA next to each other more than doubled their impact – though both have a hint of the Jack Vettrianos about them.

Hub I (£55,000) and Umbrella Crossing IV (£35,000) by Bill Jacklin

Hub I (£55,000) and Umbrella Crossing IV (£35,000) by Bill Jacklin

Room V is dominated by Natural Pearl, a sculpture in steel by Nigel Hall RA. On the wall, at the top, to the right of the doorway, you can see two of the bright, attractive decorative works in the style of Matisse’s cut-outs by Gillian Ayres RA. These come in signed editions of 30 at £4,700 a pop.

Room V featuring Natural Pearl by Nigel Hall (£189,600)

Room V featuring Natural Pearl by Nigel Hall (£189,600)

The woman on the right in the photo is above is holding a flute of champagne. because in the centre of the largest room is a bar serving champagne among other intoxicating drinks at Royal Ascot prices. So there were lots of white middle-class people sipping champagne and considering post-colonial works such as Inheritance by British artist Zak Ové, noted for ‘his documentation of and anthropological interest in diasporic and African history’.

Inheritance by Zak Ové (£21,600)

Inheritance by Zak Ové (£21,600)

Next to this pillar are two works by Mozambique artist Gonçalo Mabunda, both called Untitled throne and made out of decommissioned weapons used during Mozambique’s civil war in which over a million people died. They’re clearly related to the famous Throne of Weapons in the British Museum made by Cristóvão Estavão Canhavato as part of the same project titled ‘Transforming Guns into Hoes’, part funded by European charities.

One chair costs £14,400 and one costs £15,000 – the kids suggested that one costs more because some of the ammo is still live – and that the only way to find out which one is to sit on them both and see which one blows up! Nothing in Art, I explained patiently to my son, is that exciting or dangerous. When curators describe a work of art as ‘dangerous’ or ‘risky’ they don’t, in fact, mean it.

Untitled thrones by Gonçalo Mabunda (£14,400 and £15,000)

Untitled thrones by Gonçalo Mabunda (£14,400 and £15,000)

In a corner of room VI were this set of figurines a little over a foot tall, each with an individual name (Taigen, Monika etc) by Japanese artist Tomoaki Suzuki and retailing at an impressive £24,000. My son calculated you could buy 480 Action Men for that price.

Taigen, Monika, Larry, Dasha, Rosie, Kadeem and Kyrone by Tomoaki Suzuki (£24,000)

Taigen, Monika, Larry, Dasha, Rosie, Kadeem and Kyrone by Tomoaki Suzuki (£24,000)

Amid so many so-so abstract paintings, I was attracted to sculptures of the human form. This one-off mannequin, a ‘unique fibre-glass sculpture, hand-painted with Dutch wax pattern, bespoke hand-coloured globe and steel baseplate’ is by Yinka Shonibure RA and titled Venus de Medici. (Hanging on the wall to the left is Métamorphose de Papillon by Abdoulaye Konaté – £35,000)

Venus de Medici by Yinka Shonibare RA (£162,000)

Venus de Medici by Yinka Shonibare RA (£162,000)

Looking into it now, after my visit, I notice that this room, Room VI, was curated by Yinka Shonibare and was probably my favourite, with half a dozen big striking sculptures.

Mūgogo - The Crossing By Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga (£17,500)

Mūgogo – The Crossing by Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga (£17,500)

When there are lots of paintings, of wildly different styles and aims, hanging cheek by jowl, it’s difficult to sort out your responses to them, or to really pay attention to each one. You tend to be attracted at a quick glance by the colour, the design, the subject conveyed (whether it’s a figurative work), and so on.

For example, the semi-abstract works on the right are probably the better pieces, but by this stage the visitor is over 750 works into the exhibition (!) so the rather exhausted eye tends to be drawn to the easier-to-process figurative images on the left.

Corner of Room VII

Corner of Room VII

In the above photo, the image of the door open into a room is Postern by Suzanne Moxhay (£895), to its right is Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (After Piranesi) by Emily Allchurch; on the right wall are Of by Elizabeth Magill (£10,000) and Baroda – Tree Of Art by Katsutoshi Yuasa (£2,500).

Room IX is dominated by a vast work by Gilbert & George, the latest in their huge stained-glass-window style works divided into panels and generally depicting crude and vulgar subjects – I am still reeling from the similarly huge works depicting turds and piss, such as Spunk Blood Piss Shit Spit (1996) which I saw at Tate a few years ago. The example here was relatively restrained Beard Speak, made up of panels containing the text of adverts stuck up in phone boxes – from the days when there used to be phone boxes.

Beard Speak by Gilbert & George

Beard Speak by Gilbert & George

I preferred two sculptures by women artists: Amy Remixed by Sarah Gwyer (£7,500): my daughter told me how much work it must have been to colour and then sew together all these sequins, beads and so on.

Amy Remixed by Sarah Gwyer (£7,500)

Amy Remixed by Sarah Gwyer (£7,500)

And, nearby, a wonderful sculpture of an old sailing ship made from fake and real pearl necklaces, bracelets and tiaras, Wing Wo by Ann Carrington (£31,560) maybe a reference to the gold and precious stones so often transported across the seas in the high period of piracy in the 17th century.

Wing Wo by Ann Carrington (£31,560)

Wing Wo by Ann Carrington (£31,560)

I was intrigued enough by this to search the internet for an explanation of the name.

Luckily the final room, the Lecture Room felt much airier and spacious, a big room with a manageable 20 works, including Und Du Bist Maler Geworden by Anselm Kiefer (NFS), Painting For B by Secundino Hernández (NFS) and two bright abstract works by Fiona Rae RA, She Pricked Her Finger Cutting the Clouds (NFS) and Many-Coloured Messenger Seeks Her Fortune (NFS).

View of the Lecture Room including, from left to right, Und Du Bist Maler Geworden by Anselm Kiefer, Painting For B by Secundino Hernández, and She Pricked Her Finger Cutting the Clouds and Many-Coloured Messenger Seeks Her Fortune by Fiona Rae RA

View of the Lecture Room including, from left to right, Und Du Bist Maler Geworden by Anselm Kiefer, Painting For B by Secundino Hernández, and She Pricked Her Finger Cutting the Clouds and Many-Coloured Messenger Seeks Her Fortune by Fiona Rae RA. The sculpture is Bumps In The Road by Huma Bhabha

So many ways of seeing and being and expressing and depicting – quite bewildering. It is worth commenting that it is in many ways more satisfying to view works via the online search portal.

Seeing works in isolation like this helps you to:

a) notice them at all among the scrum and hubbub of the packed walls displays
b) dwell on their merits

It’s beyond the energy of most gallery visitors to pay close attention to over 1,000 art works. There are 48 just in this photo below, and it shows less than half a room. It dawns on me that it may be a good idea to spend some time scrolling through the works online, deciding what you like, and only then visit the exhibition to see them in the flesh…

Lots of pictures

An awful lot of pictures

 


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Victoria’s Wars by Saul David (2006)

The 2nd Europeans, 31st and 70th Regiments of Native Infantry drove the enemy from their cover with great slaughter. I only saw one European amongst the dead; at least a part of one. He was a sergeant of the 2nd Europeans; his cap, grog bottle, and his head was all we saw. There was a letter in the cap, but I could not make out any of it, for it was saturated with blood. (An anonymous British private describing the aftermath of the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, quoted p.136)

This book is unashamed good fun, intelligent, gripping, informative and horrifying by turns.

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire consists of 400 pages of lucid compelling prose which retell the rattling stories of the British imperial conflicts during the 24 years between Queen Victoria ascending the thrown in 1837 and the death of her much-beloved husband, Albert, in 1861. The period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dual Monarchy’ and saw the size of the British Empire almost quintuple in size from 2 million to 9.5 million square miles. But this didn’t happen peacefully: the British Army fought 30 or so campaigns during the period. David explains this book will cover the two major and nine medium-sized wars of the period. That’s a lot of fighting.

David disarmingly admits in the Author’s note that he first got addicted to the thrill and swashbuckling adventure of Britain’s early Victorian imperial wars from a boyhood reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. When he came to research the period as a mature historian, he discovered that Victoria and Albert had more say in some of these conflicts than had previously been reported.

Thus he had the idea of interweaving his accounts of these (pretty well-known) imperial conflicts with the key events in the lives of the royal couple – how Victoria inherited the throne (in 1837), her coronation (in 1838), her wooing and wedding to Albert (February 1840), and then their periodic interventions in politics through till Albert’s death in December 1861. So a central thread of this narrative is the surprisingly detailed interest the royal pair took in Britain’s imperial conflicts: David quotes the letters which show Victoria being surprisingly sharp and critical of her governments for the way they (mis)managed both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and the other conflicts of the period.

The early Victorian wars

The wars are:

  • 1st Afghan War (1839-42)
  • 1st Opium War (1839-42)
  • 1st Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46)
  • 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (1848–49)
  • 2nd Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3)
  • The Crimean War (1853-6)
  • 2nd Opium War (1856-60)
  • The Anglo-Persian War (1856-7)
  • Indian Mutiny (1857-9)

The nature & scope of these ‘wars’

This is essentially a military history, not a political or diplomatic or strategic or cultural history – these accounts take us right into the guts of the fighting and this approach, as always, has numerous benefits.

For a start they make it clear what ‘war’ actually means in each instance, in terms of geographic location and strategic intention. I’ve never really read in detail about the Crimean War before, and so was surprised and enlightened to learn that Britain and France, for a start, need never have fought it.

The conflict arose because the Czar insisted on bullying Turkey into granting authority over all Christians in the ailing Ottoman Empire to Russia. The Turks vacillated between agreeing or giving in to France who, under Napoleon III, also wanted control of the Turkish Christians, and Britain, who saw the whole thing as yet another pretext for Imperial Russia to extend her power south and take control of the entire Black Sea, thus threatening Britain’s supply lines to India.

If the allies had managed to pull Austria into the alliance of France, Britain and Turkey this would probably have sufficed to make Russia back off, but instead, while the diplomats wrangled, Russia sent her armies into the Balkans to besiege strategic towns there with a view to marching on Constantinople. Britain and France decided Russia must not only be threatened out of the Balkans but taught a lesson. This lesson, it was decided, would be the seizure of Russia’s main military port in the Black Sea, Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula.

That was it. That was the aim of the Crimean War: to teach Russia a lesson by seizing Sevastapol. But the allies landed 20 miles away to the north of the port, took ages to get all the equipment ashore, slowly marched to the city and then dithered about attacking – all of which gave the defenders of Sevastapol time to create awesome defences around it, thus setting the stage for a long and bloody siege which dragged on through the cruel Russian winters in which thousands of men slept in mud and water and snow and, not surprisingly, died like flies from cholera.

What a miserably mismanaged cock-up. The three battles I’d heard of – at the River Alma, Inkerman and Balaklava – were all subsidiary battles fought only to achieve the main goal, seizing Russia’s only warm water port.

We are used, in our time, to the Total Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 and so tend to think of ‘war’ on the same epic scale, fought to obliterate the opponent. It is thought-provoking to read about ‘wars’ of much more limited geopolitical, geographical and military scope and aim, fought with much smaller numbers, using much more primitive weapons.

Blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts

The second feature of a military history like this is its detailed, blow-by-blow description of the actual fighting, the battles and encounters, feints and charges and stands. (David’s book is graced with lots of charming hand-drawn maps – perfectly clear but in a whimsical deliberately archaic style – maps of the whole country affected, and then detailed maps of specific battles. These are vital.)

Thus David’s account of the ill-fated Kabul expedition, or the Crimea, or the Sikh Wars or the Mutiny, are studded with eye-witness accounts, scoured from letters, journals, diaries and official battle reports, which take the reader right into the sweat and fury of battle. Again and again we read the specific actions of named individuals and their vivid terrifying descriptions of fighting off Pathan warriors with swords, parrying Russian soldiers with bayonets, of rushing walls and stockades or helping comrades under fire. This is from the account of Private Wightman of the 17th Lancers describing how the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, disorientated and riding back through dense smoke, veered by mistake up the sides of the valley only to encounter Russian infantry:’

My horse was shot dead, riddled with bullets. One bullet struck me on the forehead, another passed through the top of my shoulder; while struggling out from under my dead horse a Cossack standing over me stabbed me with his lance once in the neck near the jugular, again above the collar bone, several times in the back, and once under the short rib; and when, having regained my feet, I was trying to draw my sword, he sent his lance through the palm of my hand. I believe he would have succeeded in killing me, clumsy as he was, if I had not blinded him for the moment with a handful of sand.’ (quoted on p.233)

I guess this sort of thing is not for everyone but if you’re a certain sort of boy or man then you’ll find these hyper-detailed accounts of combat thrilling and exciting. ‘Why do men fight?’ girlfriends have asked me over the years. For the simple reason that it is the most exciting thing a man can experience – or a certain sort of man, at any rate.

One example can stand for thousands: here the young British officer Garnet Wolseley describes the feeling of standing on the battlefield shouting for volunteers, then charging a well-defended enemy stockade in Burma in 1853.

Wolseley could see the numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’ (p.169)

Or Lieutenant E.A. Noel of the 31st Foot describes the exhilaration of charging the Sikh artillery at the Battle of Ferozeshah on 22 December 1845. The battle was:

‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive.’ (quoted p.101)

Most of the common infantry fought because a career in the army offered the security and pay their lives in Britain couldn’t provide, as well as training and camaraderie and a sense of identity. The officers – as David brings home – were mostly upper-class twits, not least because throughout this era officers could simply buy their ranks and saw the army as a means to social and financial advancement.

Nevertheless, ragamuffin proles or chinless toffs, all or any of them could be swept up in the heat of actual battle and find themselves performing super-human feats.

Heroism

For men under pressure reveal extraordinary capacities. There are accounts of mind-boggling heroism here, of men fighting on single-handed, manning guns after all their comrades are killed, racing across open ground towards walls stuffed with musketeers shooting at them, and so on.

It was during this early period, in 1857, that a new medal, the Victoria Cross was instituted for just such acts of stunning bravery. (David has a fascinating section about the creation, the design and casting of the first Victoria Crosses: they were, and still are, cast from the bronze cascabels – the large knobs at the back of a cannon used for securing ropes – of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastapol, hence the dull gunmetal colour. The remaining metal from these cascabels has still not all been used up; there is said to be enough metal for eighty-five more medals, p.282)

At the battle of the Alma the defeated Russians were limbering up their guns and withdrawing them, when Captain Edward Bell of the 23rd Fusiliers ran forward alone and, armed only with a pistol, surprised the Russian driver, who fled, while Bell seized the horse and led horse and Russian gun back to the British side of the breastworks. For this he later won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the Crimea (p.207).

At the Battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854) Captain John Crosse of the 88th Foot found himself defending the Saddle Top Ridge against advancing Cossacks:

‘I found myself close to a knot of six Russians who were advancing to attack me… I shot four of the Russians, the fifth bayoneted me & fell pulling me down on top of him, the sixth then charged on me & [with my sword] I cut down his firelock on to his hands and he turned back.’ (quoted p.241)

Who needs movies?

Butchery

But, of course, scattered moments of heroism are all very fine, and tend to be remembered by all concerned for the fine light they shed on combat, but fighting boils down to men killing each other in hair-raisingly grisly ways, hacking at each others’ bodies with blunt swords, stabbing and gouging and strangling and bludgeoning, while others are shooting bullets which smash bones, joints, shoot through your eyes or mouth or skull.

Take the relief column under Lieutenant Robert Pollock which was sent to rescue the British hostages held in Kabul (those held back and so not slaughtered in the mountains). As this force went back over the ground taken by the retreating Kabul garrison, it walked over bodies the whole way.

All along the road from Fatiabad lay the remains of the Kabul garrison, the corpses ‘in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun-wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard.’ (quoted p.71)

Having rescued the British hostages, this column also withdrew back to India, but was harried all the way by the fierce Ghilzai tribesmen. One of the last to die was Ensign Alexander Nicholson of the 30th Native Infantry. The following day, John Nicholson, just released from Afghan captivity and following the same path to safety, came across his brother’s mutilated corpse, with his penis and balls cut off and stuffed into his mouth, as was the local custom (p.72).

After the Battle of Sobraon (Sikh War, 10 February 1846), the British drove the Sikh defenders back onto a narrow bridge over the River Sutlej which quickly broke. Thousands tried to swim across but were slaughtered by rifle fire and grape and canister shot being poured into the swimming mass at point blank range. Gunner Bancroft described the river water as:

‘a bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’ (p.109)

By the same token as he uses eye-witness accounts to describe the progress of battles, giving the sense of total immersion in the gripping, terrifying experience of combat, so David also details the appalling gory butchery and bloodshed of battle. He gives a harrowing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, on 25 October 1854:

A corporal who rode on the right of the 13th was ‘struck by a shot or shell in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near’. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, ‘yet for about thirty yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm.’ (p.232)

There is an appalling price to pay for all these conflicts and the pages of this book are drenched in blood and brains. Describing the Indian ‘rebels’ at Sikandarbagh, Fred Roberts recalled:

‘Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion , and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. there they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead or dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… ‘ (quoted p.342)

I wonder if David did a tally of how many people died during these imperial conquests, men killed in battle, and women and children murdered in the accompanying atrocities by both sides: to the casual reader it must have been several million – the Crimean War alone accounted for some three quarters of a million dead on all sides. So much blood. So many human bodies composted back into the soil.

‘We overtook numbers of their infantry who were running for their lives – every man of course was shot. I never saw such butchery and murder! It is almost too horrible to commit to paper.’ (An officer of the 9th Lancers at the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, p.137)

One example from thousands sticks in my mind: at the siege of Cawnpore, when the ‘rebel’ Indian regiments rose up against their European officers and families, pushing them back into a hastily defended cantonment, a ball from an Indian canon decapitated the son of the British commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, leaving the boy’s hair and brains smeared on the wall of his father’s wall. His brains and hair (p.310). In fact, the rebels promised the garrison safe passage down the river, but as they loaded into the boats treacherously opened fire, killing 800 or more. The survivors were thrown into a small building along with Brits from other locations, nearly 200, almost all women and children, and kept prisoner in the blistering heat, without food or water for weeks. When a relief column of British forces approached all of them – 194 women and children – were hacked to death with swords. it is recorded that the killers needed replacement swords because the first ones became blunt hacking on human bone. Then all the bodies were thrown down a well, quite a few still alive at the time, only to asphyxiate under the weight of bloody bodies.

Yes. I know – the butchery, on both sides, during the Indian Rebellion, requires a book of its own. But still, it’s the father having to see the hair and brains of his son smeared across the wall which has stayed to haunt me at nights…

Incompetence

But maybe the main learning from the book is the staggering level of blundering incompetence shown by so many Brits at so many levels. As a survivor of the catastrophic retreat from Kabul, put it, the complete destruction of the allied force was due to the ‘incompetency, feebleness and want of skill’ of the military leaders (p.70) and this story is echoed again and again during these 24 fraught years.

The absolute epitome of mismanaged confused dunderhead behaviour was the Charge of the Light Brigade, sent into the wrong valley against well-placed Russian guns which wiped them out – an event David goes into in great detail (pp.227-237) and which just gets worse the more you understand it.

The entire Crimean campaign became byword for mismanagement, not least in the inability to feed, clothe and medicate British troops who died in their thousands during the first winter besieging Sevastapol. It was this dire situation which prompted T.J. Delane, the editor of The Times, to write an editorial excoriating the incompetence of the army and the government.

The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastapol, in the harbour at Balaklava, in the hospitals of Scutari, and how much closer to home we dare not venture to say. (p.254)

How the devil did these clodhoppers manage to acquire and run the greatest empire the world has ever known? The book suggests a number of levels at which British incompetence and stupidity operated:

1. The wrongness of basic aims Was it even worth fighting the Crimean War or the Afghan war in the first place? Diplomatic pressure was already making the Russians withdraw from the Balkans; after three years of war, the peace treaty didn’t achieve much more than had been on the table at the start.

Similarly, the First Afghan ‘war’ amounted to an armed expedition into Afghanistan to overthrow the existing ruler – Dost Mohamed – for being too friendly to the Russians and replace him with an exile of our choosing, Shah Suja, who would then owe us undying loyalty. The British force with some 10,000 camp followers fought its way through south Afghanistan, finding it harder than predicted, and eventually took Kabul, forcing Dost to flee and imposing the new ruler. But the people rejected him, we never controlled the outlying settlements, we promised subsidies (bribes) to various tribes which we failed to pay or cut back – and so shouldn’t have been surprised when there was a popular uprising which quickly took Kabul, besieging the Europeans in an indefensible cantonment.

The divided British leadership patched up an agreement with Dost Mohamed’s son in which we were promised free passage over the mountains back to Jelalabad but a) it was winter – the first weeks of January – b) nobody told the various angry tribes who controlled the mountains, and so the vast retreating force of several thousand soldiers and over 10,000 camp followers, were picked off at leisure or died of exposure in the sub-freezing temperatures. Notoriously, of the 16,000 or so total who went into Afghanistan, one – ONE – survivor, a Dr Brydon, made it alive to Jelalabad.

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of William Brydon, sole survivor the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

2. Strategic blundering The Kabul disaster reads like a textbook example of how not to do it. For a start leadership of the expedition was divided between the military leader Elphinstone and the political emissary, Macnaghten. The cantonment where the British Army based itself was significantly outside the city of Kabul; we didn’t build a citadel of strength to act as a secure base; and we relinquished control of the only secure building in the city, the Bala Hissar fort, to the new playboy ruler we had installed, and his harem.

3. Indecision and hesitation This really comes across as a key cause of failure in almost all these conflicts. Even after fighting broke out in Kabul the British leaders refused to take it seriously. Quick and decisive action might have stamped it out, captured the ringleaders and dissipated the local aggression; but the military leaders on the ground hesitated or plain refused to march into the city and so it was lost and the rest followed logically.

The same hesitation or plain refusal to attack leaps out of the account of the Crimean War where a quick attack on Sevastapol immediately after the allied forces had landed might have taken the city and prevented two years of costly siege: but the generals in charge – Lord Raglan for the British, Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud for the French – wanted to wait until everything was ready and everyone had landed etc, thus giving the Russkies time to defend Sevastapol to the hilt. After the hard-fought Battle of the Alma River, with Prince Menshikov’s army retreating in disarray, both generals lost the opportunity to devastate them with the as-yet unbloodied British cavalry.

Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of the Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war… [but] neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day – with disastrous long-term consequences for the allies. (p.212)

The same reluctance and refusal shines out of David’s account of the Indian Mutiny, a much bigger more complex event, in which there’s one silver thread concerning how the British garrison forced out of Delhi by the ‘rebels’, joined by reinforcements, took the cantonment to the north-west of the city: had they attacked immediately they might have driven the rebels out and squashed the rebellion at its heart. Instead, just like Raglan and Saint-Arnaud in Crimea, they waited, they prevaricated, they said they needed more forces – and the moment was lost (p.307).

Months passed and then waited: had they attacked straightaway who find a secure base above the city and then prevaricate for months and months and months, under the reluctant leadership of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who drove his officers mad with frustration by continually claiming he needed just a few more guns, ammunition, soldiers, before he launched the attack to retake the city.

A very crude rule emerges from all of these accounts which is: If you see an advantage – SEIZE IT! Even if all your regiments, cavalry, artillery or whatever haven’t totally arrived – if you see the enemy retreating or vulnerable – GO FOR IT. Time and again opportunities were lost for quick, decisive knockout blows because the men in charge hesitated, were afraid, wanted to be sure of total success… and all too often that turned what would have been quick campaigns into brutal struggles of attrition in which tens of thousands died needlessly.

4. Penny pinching Prevarication was often caused by the wish to save money, for another thread which emerges is the way the British wanted to have an empire on the cheap. It’s striking to realise how nothing has changed in the national culture in 180 years – we’ve always been an austerity nation. Garnet Wolseley complained that all the logistics support for the army had been shut down ‘on so-called economical grounds’ and much of the rest contracted out to private suppliers – hence the revolting inedibility of the food provided for the soldiers in the Crimea. Ring any bells?

Thus the disaster at Kabul was partly caused by the Treasury demanding cuts to the costly expedition so that its political leader, Macnaghten, halved the subsidy/bribe being paid to a northern tribe of Afghans – who promptly rose against us; and, in order to save money, ordered a column out to meet a relief force coming from the north instead of waiting – which was promptly massacred.

The Crimea was a classic example of a major war which we tried to fight on the cheap, resulting in military stalemate (we won the side battles of Inkerman and the Alma but obstinately failed to take Sevastapol for years) and the deaths, due to lack of equipment (proper winter uniforms, tents, even food) of thousands and thousands of poor bloody infantry. ‘The Army is a shambles’, he quotes one officer as commenting (p.186). Eventually, the government was shamed by the extensive newspaper reporting of Russell (among others), the reports of Florence Nightingale, and pressure from the Queen, to face the facts that it was going to cost money to win the damn thing.

And David highlights the same mindset at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion: the government didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t want to take it seriously because it didn’t want to spend the money which ended up being required to put it down. By this stage, twenty years into her reign, Queen Victoria had the confidence to write to her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, criticising the government for, yet again, being:

anxious to do as little as possible, to wait for further news, to reduce as low as possible even what they do grant…’ (quoted p.327)

I’ve read so many times that the Empire was a device for looting and creaming off vast wealth from colonised countries that I am genuinely puzzled how come an account like this gives the strong impression of a colonial government in a permanent financial crisis, consistently underfunding and under-equipping the army it needed to police the empire, acting slowly, refusing to recognise the severity of the crises it faces and always trying to get away with the cheap option.

David gives a handy checklist for responsibility for the Afghan disaster, which serves as a useful checklist for many of these imperial fiascos. Who was to blame?

  • The political ruler of India, Lord Auckland, for ordering an invasion of Afghanistan which was never really necessary in the first place – the existing ruler was fairly friendly and could have been bribed to be on our side without the loss of a single life.
  • The Tory government, which, in order to save money, demanded a reduction in troop numbers and reduction of local bribes – thus helping to spark the rebellion.
  • General Cotton, the senior military man on first arrival in Kabul, who acquiesced in making the large, indefensible, out-of-town cantonment the main British base.
  • Sir William Macnaghten, the senior political agent on the spot, who deliberately played down the rebellion when it started, refusing to give permission for quick decisive suppressing action, then made a hash out of negotiating with the enemy chieftains (for which he was shot dead on the spot by one of them).
  • Brigadier-General Shelton, the man in charge of the British forces, who made a series of decisions all based on hesitation and caution, which allowed the rebellion to spiral out of control.

5. Unwanted freelancing Another theme is the regularity with which the men on the spot far exceeded their orders from the home government which then found itself forced to back them up. For example, the governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier in 1842 with a force designed to bring the amirs of Sind, in north-west India, into submission to the British. Instead, Napier fought a series of battles and annexed the territory outright, to the horror of the board of the East India Company (who still, technically, ruled India) and the government of Robert Peel. It was felt to have been unnecessarily aggressive but also – more importantly – incurred unwanted cost: all very well for these soldier chaps to go a-conquerin’ territory, but then someone had to pay for the new lands to be garrisoned, manned, administered and so on, which cost a fortune.

6. Disease Three quarters of the 20,000 British deaths in the Crimea were caused by disease: 10,000 allied lives were lost to cholera, dysentery and fever before the allied armies even arrived at the Crimea, due to the squalid conditions at the base camp of Varna. In the winter of 1855 it was clear both sides in the Crimean War desired peace, but Napoleon III of France let himself be persuaded by the British to keep his forces at the Sevastapol siege through the winter to keep the pressure on Russia. With the result that the French lost more men – at least 30,000! – to disease in the final three months of the war than they lost in all combat operations of the previous two years.

Disease was the bane of all these ‘wars, fought in extreme heat or freezing cold in the plains of India, the jungles of Burma, the snowbound Afghan mountains or the frozen trenches of the Crimea.

The grim dynamic of imperialism

Again and again the same pattern and sequence of events took place: local rulers of land bordering the existing empire refuse to become our allies (Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan) or harass British traders (the ruler of Burma the Qing Emperor in China) so a British force is dispatched to bring them to heel/punish them/force them to let free trade continue.

If they resist in any way, especially if any of our chaps is killed, then the whole thing is converted into a massive Insult and Dishonour to Queen and Country and suddenly the entire nation is whipped up by the government/popular press to avenge/right/redeem this Insult, carrying out ‘the just retribution of an outraged nation’ (p.71) – and a large force is sent to sort them out.

Then it turns out to be tougher going than we thought, there are unexpected defeats, casualties mount up, it takes longer than we expected, soldiers start dying of heat and disease, they have the wrong uniforms (winter for summer or vice versa), run out of ammunition, reinforcements are delayed, individual acts of amazing heroism help to conceal systematic failings of strategy, funding and logistics and so the whole thing drags on, sometimes for years.

Eventually, enough extra forces, ammunition and cannon finally arrive to force a ‘victory’ of sorts or face-saving compromise, news of which is cabled back to a jubilant nation, there’s dancing in the streets, pubs and streets are named after the various bloody battles – the Alma, the Balaklava – medals are handed out, victory parades, the native rulers are arrested, exiled, replaced, the native peoples brutally massacred and cowed into submission… for the time being.

All in all, it is a shameful narrative of bullying, exploitation and hypocrisy but almost everyone was caught up in it, the national narrative. It is inspiring that there were radical thinkers and even MPs who were solidly against the notion of Empire, who consistently thought it directly contradicted Britain’s own rhetoric about Freedom and Liberty. But they made little impression on the jingoistic national culture, which only became more and more imperialistic as the century progressed.

Vandalism

A summary of these years wouldn’t be complete without some mention of European vandalism and destructiveness.

  • After the gruesome retreat from Kabul in which over 10,000 died, British forces were despatched to rescue the European hostages being held west of the city. They successfully rescued them and fell back on a pacified Kabul but realised they couldn’t hold it and retreated back to British India. But not before the force, under Lieutenant Robert Pollock and widely nicknamed the ‘Army of Retribution’, had blown up Kabul’s ‘magnificent Great Bazaar’ amid widespread looting and destruction (p.71), as punishment for the murder of the British envoys whose dismembered bodies had been hung there a year earlier (p.54).
  • During the Crimean War Sir George Brown was despatched with a force to capture Kertch, a vital supply port on the east coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Once they’d captured the relatively undefended town the allied troops went wild, looting homes, murdering civilians and raping women. They also burnt to the ground Kertch Museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art (p.261)
  • The Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperors at Beijing was (to quote Wikipedia) ‘widely conceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design… an architectural wonder, known for its extensive collection of garden, its building architecture and numerous art and historical treasures.’ Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, as an Anglo-French expedition force approached Beijing, two British envoys were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. When news emerged that the delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace. It was comprehensively looted and then burned to the ground. The Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven this crime.

Footnotes & insights

This is the kind of fact-packed popular history where even the footnotes are packed with interesting information. There’s a footnote on almost every page and every one is worth reading – from details of the  several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, the Indian origin of the words sepoy, sirdar, pundit and so on, what a regiment’s ‘colours’ actually are (two flags, one regimental, one for the queen), how the town of Ladysmith in South Africa got its name, and an extended sequence on how the famous Koh-i-noor diamond came to be handed over the British and included in the crown.

The evolution of military hardware

Alongside the thread about Victoria and Albert’s interventions is another thread which dwells on the evolution of military technology during this period. I was fascinated to read about the arrival of steam warships. At first battleships continued to have masts and depend on sail power – if there was wind – but were also equipped with steam engines for when there wasn’t. Only slowly did they make the full transition to steam. I was particularly interested in the advent of a new design of much smaller warship, only 200-foot long, powered by steam and equipped with a small set of rotatable guns. Because of their size these could penetrate up even minor rivers and still deliver punishing artillery fire. They were called gunboats and for the first time really allowed the Royal Navy (and Britain) to extend its might/force/violence into the remotest river frontages all over the globe (p.159).

And so for the first time I really understood the hoary old expression ‘gunboat’ diplomacy’, which is always used to describe Lord Palmerston’s belligerent foreign policy during this period. The use of gunboats is exemplified here by their use in the Second Burma War, 1852-3.

Just as interesting was David’s detailed description of how new ‘rifles’, manufactured at the new workshops on the River Lee at Enfield, hence the ‘Lee Enfield rifle’, were developed to replace the old flintlocks which were still in use at the start of the period, much more accurate at a longer distance, giving our boys a distinct advantage.

A little less interesting, but still giving you the sense of getting a complete overview of the military world of this era, is David’s attention to the evolution of uniforms, away from the heavy double buttoned tunic and the clumsy tall shako hat towards more practical (but still to us, improbably unwieldy) uniform.

Conclusion

This is a compellingly written, exciting and illuminating book on many levels – popular history at its best.


Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J. Silbey (2012)

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

1. Silbey is an American – he is Associate Professor of History at Alvernia University, Pennsylvania – so for a start it’s nice to read someone who is not a Brit and therefore does not go on and on about the wickedness of the British in a tediously self-hating manner (compare and contrast with the tediously anti-British tone of recent China books by Rana Mitter or Robert Bickers).

Instead, Silbey treats the Brits sensibly, as the dominant imperialist power until later in the 19th century, when more and more European powers began hovering around China like vultures – but as only one among a pack of imperialist nations who all shared the same values and assumptions and, moreover, by 1900, one that was very much losing its European dominance to Germany, its global industrial dominance to America, and, in Asia, was nervously aware of the growing rivalry between Japan and Russia.

2. This is a great read – at a slender 240 pages it’s half the size of most of the other China books I’ve been reading, and is written in a clear style with short declarative sentences retailing facts and events in a lucid, forceful way, not drowning them in political correct attitude or an over-fancy prose style.

To begin with Silbey skips briefly over the prior history of the Qing Dynasty (which was founded way back in 1644), and through the more recent two opium wars with Britain (1839-42 and 1856-60). These passages lack the depth or detail of a John Keay or Jonathan Fenby, but they are well judged as an introduction to the main theme. Slowly the detail builds up along with the pace, until I found myself genuinely gripped and excited by his narrative. I read the whole book in less than a day.

Background

Before he even gets to the account of the Boxer Rebellion itself, I found one early section particularly memorable, mainly because it chimes with my own obsessions/concerns.

For me everything any human being does or says or thinks is secondary to the basic fact that we are breeding like rabbits and destroying the planet. Our ‘cultural’ achievements – much though I spend time and effort enjoying and analysing them – are ultimately trivial compared to the one Big Story of our time, that we are degrading the natural environment wherever we go, driving huge numbers of plants and animals extinct, fouling our own nest and bequeathing our children a poisoned planet.

So I sat up a bit when Silbey himself early on introduced an environmental explanation for the rise of what became known as the Boxer Rebellion. Basically, overpopulation was the fundamental cause for the social instability which plagued China throughout the 19th century and beyond:

  • Population China’s population was 150 million in 1700, around 350 million by 1800, and maybe 430 million by 1850!
  • Environment, flood and famine This explosive population growth was supported by the immense fertility of China’s huge river valleys – specially the Yellow River in the north and Yangtze to the south. But the Chinese didn’t have the kind of ‘agricultural revolution’ that we in the West benefited from during the 1700s. By 1850 even these huge fertile river plains could barely support the galloping population. Thus, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, China’s population was extremely vulnerable to agricultural disaster, caused by drought or torrential rain leading to floods, or when the Yellow River underwent one of its periodic massive shifts of route, leaving devastation in its wake (as it did in 1855). China lived on an environmental and agricultural knife-edge which was almost guaranteed to produce periodic disasters, mass starvation, huge population dislocations. (Silbey doesn’t mention it but Jonathan Fenby’s more overarching account of China 1850 to 2000 describes, in often gruesome detail, repeated outbreaks of cannibalism in famine-stricken areas of China.) Even at the best of times, many millions were reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence on the periphery of their villages, or became migrant labourers roaming the countryside and easily transitioning into the ‘bandits’ who plagued much of non-coastal China – angry young men looking for food/justice/a better life.
  • Secret societies Chinese culture was drenched in respect for authority, for the family dead, for parents, local authority figures and for the Big Daddy of them all, the emperor. There were no political parties. There was no legal way to express opposition or dissent. Anyone who got on the wrong side of the emperor – and, in the second half of the 19th century, that meant anyone who crossed the all-powerful Dowager Empress Cixi – was liable to be beheaded. Hence it was a country alive with ‘secret societies’, cults and underground movements, the more so as so many of the dispossessed migrant workers, deprived of the traditional home, support and constraints of a settled village community, sought safety and validation elsewhere – in what were, basically, gangs.

So unlike Rana Mitter – who centres his (admittedly later) history on the diary of China’s leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or Robert Bickers – who quotes extensively from British traders and officials throughout the nineteenth century – i.e. unlike both those accounts which focus on surviving texts left by high-level, literate social leaders – Silbey digs deeper to put his finger on the key structural forces which help to explain the chronic instability of 19th century China.

And in particular he applies them to the rise of the so-called Boxer movement in the last years of the 19th century: population explosion, poverty, secret societies and then – a catastrophic natural disaster. In 1898 the Yellow River broke its banks, flooding millions of acres and reducing millions of peasants to starvation; the following year, in a cruel irony, there was drought. Huge numbers of peasants took to the road seeking food.

Exterminate the foreigners

The Boxers were mostly illiterate peasants, which explains why we have no manifesto or documentation from, for or about them. There are hardly any photographs of ‘Boxers’, even though their numbers at their peak ran into the millions. They didn’t have a leader, so we have no diaries or correspondence to pore over, no high level meetings to eavesdrop on, no strategies to weight and assess.

Almost the only thing we know about the Boxers is their one, simple, peasant slogan –

Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners

What seems to have happened is that disparate groups of young men across northern China but especially in Shandong Province, just to the south of the capital Peking (as it was then called), became superstitiously convinced that it – the disaster, the poverty, the starvation -was the fault of the foreigners.

In particular, they blamed the only foreigners that the average peasant ever met or knew about – the interfering missionaries, missionaries from all the European nations, who arrived one day out of the blue in your village and not only began preaching un-Chinese nonsense about a tortured god, but made converts often among the lowest dregs of society – criminals and losers – who promptly used their powerful western backers to start winning village feuds and gaining the upper hand.

Silbey quotes numerous missionaries and journalists who were uncomfortably aware of this trend at the time. Missionaries appealed most to renegade members of society who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by acquiring powerful new western sponsors, but were often despised and scorned by their peers.

So the Boxer phenomenon first manifested itself, to western eyes anyway, as attacks on the Chinese converts to Christianity. Reports of scattered attacks, some murders, some atrocities, filtered into the European legations in Peking in 1898. And then came reports – sporadic at first – of attacks on the European missionaries themselves, which filtered in during 1899.

Occasional attacks on remote mission settlements were not unknown already, so it took a while for anyone to realise something new was happening, something more organised. Silbey reports the scepticism among consular officials in Peking, and even more so among hard-pressed imperial civil servants back in Britain and and the European nations.

The missionaries had always been a problem for imperial officials because they were always wandering far beyond the protection of our minimal military forces and then getting into trouble. For a long time the Boxer thing seemed like more of the same.

The Boxer movement

The Boxers are so-named because they grew out of secret societies and groups who were reviving China’s native traditions of martial arts. In Chinese the name was Yi-he quan, roughly translated as ‘Righteous Fists of Harmony’ or ‘Boxers United in Righteousness’. Boxers was short and snappy, so that’s what caught on with the British and has stuck to this day.

To their martial arts the Boxers added the voodoo belief that the correct rituals and spiritual exercises, for example swallowing bits of paper with magic phrases on them, would make them invulnerable to bullets – something we’ve seen in our own time among some African fighting groups.

Their discipline, their cult-like conviction, the righteousness of their cause, all spread like wildfire among half-starving angry young men in the drought summer of 1899, and through into the spring of 1900. They attacked missionaries and got away with it, they coalesced into larger bands, they stole guns and weapons where they could find them – and then they began to infiltrate the big cities.

The fighting

As 1900 progressed, consular officials wrote reports about the increase in attacks. In the spring Boxers – wearing their trademark red sashes – began to appear in towns frequented by foreigners, intimidating them with hard stares and displays of martial arts.

In April and May reports arrived of Chinese converts being murdered in ritualistic ways, tied to trees, having their arms chopped off and their intestines hacked out.

On June 1 two missionaries were ambushed, tortured and murdered. In late May the first surly, aggressive, red-sashed young men arrived in the streets of Peking, terrifying the Europeans. On May 27 a bloodied Belgian engineer staggered into the Peking embassies to announce that the train line to the coast was being destroyed by Boxers. On 31 May the British ambassador called a meeting of all the foreign consuls and they telegraphed to the coast for help and soldiers. The menfolk of the legations began building defences, reinforcing the existing wall surrounding the European quarter, adding barbed wire and trenches. On 9 June a racetrack just outside Peking was attacked and burned down. Some young Westerners who rode out to see the fun got caught in a firefight and came scampering back. On 11 June the Japanese ambassador, Sugiyama Akira, went with a servant to the train station to check on the arrival of the reinforcements but was shot dead in the streets. On June 13 the last telegraph line was cut. On 14 June several hundred Boxers with flaming torches attacked the legation but were beaten back by a picket of marines. By June 17 the legation quarter was surrounded and the Westerners were besieged, cut off from food, water, ammunition and help.

Thus Silbey shows how a trickle of scattered events slowly snowball into a major historical event -the siege of Peking – without anyone realising.

Several points are worth making about Silbey’s approach:

1. Day-to-day detail

There are numerous different ‘types’ of history writing, but nothing replaces a straightforward account of what actually happened.

Silbey’s narrative covers every available strand of the so-called Boxer Rebellion, the European part of which, the bit which is well-documented and understandable, took place in three or four locations simultaneously. By taking you carefully through it on a day-by-day basis, Silbey helps the reader understand the pressure the players were under, the limits of what they knew, the decisions they faced, why they did what they did – even if, with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out to have been the wrong decision.

Like a video game, this approach puts you in the game

  • Should the European forces set off to relieve Peking by train (quicker but vulnerable) or by river (safer but a lot slower)?
  • Should the Empress Cixi back the Boxers, hitching her star to this unpredictable uprising because it’s the best chance in a generation to kick the Europeans out of China?
  • Or are the Boxers a flash in the pan which the Europeans will crush, in which case she should declare war on them?

Silbey shows how at the start of June contingents of the Chinese army were stationed all along the train track and river from the coast via the city of Tianjin and along the route on to Peking – waiting for orders from the court: were they to make an alliance with the foreign armies in order to attack the Boxers – or ally with the Boxers against the foreigners?

Silbey’s day-by-day approach means that you, the reader, get involved in these decisions and find yourself taking sides, making gambles, taking part. The result is vastly more involvement, commitment and understanding than in the usual run of higher-level histories, which might make throwaway references to this or that battle, generalising, summarising etc.

But in Silbey’s account we are right down in the nitty gritty. When Able Seaman McCarthy is shot down in open ground in front of the fortified walls of Tianjin, Basil Guy a midshipman stays with him to bind the wound, under heavy fire, runs to get a stretcher team which he brings back, then helps the stricken McCarthy to safety. This takes half a page to describe and the reader is shaking at the intensity of the experience; you wonder whether you would have the nerve to do that, to stay with a comrade under heavy rifle and sniping fire, taking every measure to save their life. Guy was awarded the Victoria Cross (p.154).

During the same battle, the allies struggled to take the heavily defended inner wall of the city. Late at night the Japanese, closest to the inner wall, under cover of darkness planted tins of gunpowder against the south gate and set a fuse. Three times they set it and three times the Chinese defenders saw it flaring and shot it out. Until finally a Japanese engineer grabbed a box of matches, ran to the pile of gunpowder, and lit it. Boom! Up went the gate and the engineer was blown to smithereens. Wow – what bravery, fanaticism, madness!

On August 13 the Boxers made what was to be their final assault on the Peking legations, including an attack on the so-called Tartar Wall, an ancient fortification which they’d included in their defences. The section under attack was defended by just two men, Captain Newt Hall and Private Dan Daly of the U.S.Marines. As the attack intensified, Hall left Daly to go get reinforcements. Now alone, Daly, five feet six inches tall and ‘the most prolifically profane man in the history of the armed services’, held off waves of attacks. If he had given in or run away the Boxers would have made a breach, swarmed in and massacred the 500 plus Europeans. For his sweary bravery Daly was later awarded the Medal of Honour.

The day-by-day approach puts this book (for me) in the same league as Simon Schama’s monumental history of the French Revolution, Citizens (1989), or Orlando Figes’ epic account of the Russian Revolution (1996) or – going back earlier – Veronica Wedgwood’s masterpiece narrative of the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, The King’s War (1958).

By dealing with each day at a time, these historians convey not only the events, but something important about the very nature of human behaviour, of time and free will. The outcome of entire wars are shown to hang by a thread. The Chinese had held off the Europeans at Tianjin – if the Japanese engineer hadn’t sacrificed his life to blow the gate, would they have continued to hold out long enough to force the Europeans to run out of ammunition and be forced to retreat? Would the European legations in Peking have been stormed? Would Chinese forces in the rest of China, hesitating about which side to join, have come in on the side of the Empire and the whole thing turned into a genuine war of liberation against the Europeans? Would the Empress Cixi have gone down in history as the woman who liberated China and guaranteed the future of the Qing Dynasty for another century? And China never have fallen to Mao’s communists?

The day-to-day approach shows how truly contingent human affairs are, how people are forced to take all kinds of decisions on the basis of inadequate or zero information, decisions which only later assume huge importance.

All of this – the specificity of human agency and free will, the importance of individuals, the contingency of human affairs, heroism and cowardice, luck or good planning – come over brilliantly in this thrillingly detailed and exciting history.

And all of this is precisely what is lost as you write higher and higher level history, which deals in broader and broader brushstroke, misleading generalisations, giving a profoundly misleading sense that human history is somehow fated, predictable or purposeful.

2. Revealing the precise scope of the war

The day-by-day approach helps you understand a whole range of things. For a start, by the end of the book you’ve grasped the odd shape of the ‘conflict’. Basically, the European legations in Tianjin and further up the river, at Peking, found themselves unexpectedly besieged. A train of troops led by Admiral Seymour set off from the coast to rescue them, but found the track dug up by Boxers and came under repeated attack until eventually they had to retreat in disarray. So, next the Europeans tried the river route up the River Hai to get to Tianjin. But the seaward entrance to the Hai River was guarded by two forts on the north and south banks. So Silber gives us a nailbiting description of the European assault on the forts, infantry fighting their way across the mudflats, while the Royal Navy planned to bring two ships alongside two moored Chinese battleships and storm them – a plan Silber righttly describes as ‘insane’.

But it worked.

And so, having secured the forts, the riverborne relief troops set off up the river and, next, had to take Tianjin to free the besieged Europeans inside. This was a long hard fight in which the Europeans nearly lost. Eventually, they took the city, freed the Europeans and sailed on into another battle, to take the next settlement up the river, Beicang. Silber describes this battle in punishing detail, as he does the next encounter at Huangcan.

The Dagu Forts are significant because it was this which forced the Empress Cixi to make a decision. Support the Europeans against the illegal rebel Boxers, or support the Boxers against the far-from-invulnerable Europeans? She took option B, executed all the advisers who had been pushing for option A (there really not being space in Chinese politics for opposition or political parties – your argument loses, you die), and ordered the Chinese army to engage the foreigners.

At Beicang and again at Huangcan the Chinese army proved tougher and better organised than the foreigners expected. The Chinese lost, but they fought hard, and they withdrew in good order, not just scarpering and abandoning their kit.

The great mystery at the heart of the story is what happened next: after the battle of Huangcan the Chinese opposition suddenly and completely melted away. Before Huangcan the allies had been sniped at and ambushed at every bend in the river; afterwards, it was plain sailing through an empty landscape to Peking.

Why?

Silber invokes the same causes he gave at the beginning of his account: it started to rain. Plenty of journalists had been accompanying the expedition and they, and accounts from soldiers, paint a searing picture of the scorching summer heat of July and August in the north China plain. Dead crops, abandoned villages, bodies of animals and humans scattered across the barren plains. Then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Crops needed tending, fields looking after, animals shepherded back into health, families needed supporting, flood defences reinforcing. The Boxers disappeared back to their villages. And the Chinese army hesitated.

At Peking, it’s true, the allies did encounter stiff resistance – but this was patriotic: after all, who would want their capital city assaulted and razed by foreigners? The Dowager Empress Cixi and her court had long fled into the western provinces (where, in Fenby’s account, she for the first time in her life witnessed the squalor her subjects endured, living in mud huts or holes in cliffs, suffering malnutrition and starvation in their hundreds of thousands).

After hard fighting, the allies took Peking and liberated the legations who, to their surprise, were generally in better shape than many of the troops – not having spent the previous two months marching through a parched landscape and fighting tough battles. A peace settlement was imposed on the Chinese government. The war was over.

Thus Silbey’s account allows you to really understand the shape and scope of the actual events. It wasn’t a ‘war’ as we think of European wars; it was really a glorified relief expedition which, at several key moments, very nearly failed.

3. Imperial shame

Because Silbey’s account has soaked us in the day-to-day struggles and suffering of everyone concerned – the starving peasants, the angry Boxers, the murdered missionaries, the officials and soldiers on both sides, because it has all been made imaginatively alive and important to us – this makes the atrocities that he describes all the more shocking.

The taking of the three towns (Tianjin, Beicang and Huangcun) was followed by Western reprisals and, because the Boxers were essentially civilians, only sometimes marked out by their red sashes, the reprisals are shockingly indiscriminate. An American contingent came across a group of French soldiers who had corraled about 300 Chinese men, women and children down towards the river and were firing indiscriminately into them – mass murder.

High level historians like Mitter and Bickers use words like racism very freely, so freely that after a while they lose their power. Silbey, by contrast, rarely uses the word – he shows you the thing in action – and this is infinitely more shocking, repellent and shameful.

Plenty of correspondents, even senior army officers and European officials, were horrified at the behaviour of their troops and – crucially – realised that they undermined if not destroyed any claim whatsoever that European ‘civilisation’ possessed any kind of superior values.

Having ‘liberated’ Peking, the allied troops went on a rampage of killing, raping and looting. Officers and officials tried to prevent it, and Silbey recounts the story of one American soldier who was tried and convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to life imprisonment; and this attempt at keeping control contrasts with, say, the behaviour of Japanese troops in China 30 years later who were given complete freedom to murder, rape and torture the Chinese at will. There was a real difference in attitude, with the best of the allies trying to prevent atrocity. But all too often they failed, and they certainly failed when it came to the wholesale ransacking the Peking.

Silbey doesn’t judge, he just shows. And by taking us so thoroughly into the feel and pressure of the time, by taking us so close to the sweating, fearful people of those days, makes us experience the atrocities with a similar visceral intensity – more powerful than any amount of name-calling or political correctness. Less is more.

4. Patriotic hate and the fall of the Qing

The Empress Cixi came back to Peking, her tail between her legs, and appointed the aged statesman Li Hongzhu to negotiate a crushingly humiliating peace treaty with the allies. A huge indemnity was forced on China, which she was still paying off 40 years later. The Western rapes, murders and looting shook the  Chinese intellectual class to the core; quite obviously ‘Western values’ were about as humane as Genghis Khan’s. They smile and invite you to tea with the vicar but, given half a chance, will ransack your capital city and rape your women. 

Cixi’s gamble had failed. She had backed the wrong side. More starkly than in some of the other accounts I’ve read, Silbey highlights how her failure condemned not only her dynasty, but the entire tradition of imperial rule, to the dustbin. Patriots and intellectuals growing up during this crisis not only saw at first hand that Westerners were violent, exploitative hypocrites – but just as clearly that the entire structure of imperial rule had failed and had to go.

5. The allies

So far I haven’t mentioned one of the dominant threads in the story which is that the expedition to relieve the besieged legations was strikingly multinational. Forces from Britain, British India, France, America, Japan and Russia took part. Again, by drilling down to the daily nitty-gritty Silbey reveals the highly complex world of competing imperial rivalry which operated, from staff level all the way down to individual soldiers. When the allied force finally took Tianjin, there was a race, an actual race, between the Japanese and British to get to the city flagpole and be the first to raise their flag over the liberated city. There was even more intense rivalry about which nation’s forces would be the first into besieged Peking (again it boiled down to bitter rivalry between the British and Japanese).

Silbey makes the point (as does Bickers in his book) that the Boxer conflict took place at exactly the same period as the second modern Olympic Games were happening in Paris (summer 1900). Exactly the same spirit of international rivalry was on display in China.

6. The aftermath

I’ve mentioned that one of the medium-term consequences was the end of the Qing dynasty, which itself contained the seed of another 75 years of further turmoil for China.

But it was really the rivalry between the allies which was full of portent and omen. The armies of France, Britain, Russia, Japan, America not only fought alongside each other against the Boxers and Chinese army – they watched each other and assessed each other. Spookily, at the Peking victory parade, the Japanese examined the Russians with a very appraising eye, noticed by onlookers. Four years later Japan would provoke a conflict with Russia in which she would whip the hapless Slavs, and consolidate her sense of being a World Power and entitled to a major role in Asia – a sense of entitlement which would lead her to annex Korea in 1910 and then invade north China in 1931.

It is fascinating to learn that conquered Peking was partitioned into sectors, each run by a different power – exactly like Berlin in 1945. All through the story the Germans had behaved with egregious brutality, inspired by their wicked Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who made a speech to departing troops telling them to take no prisoners and to inspire the same terror as their forebears, the Huns under Attila.

Silbey goes on to detail how the Chinese fled the brutality of the German sector, which became a ghost town, and flooded into the relatively well-run American sector. Apparently, when the Americans came to pull out a year later, the Chinese raised a large petition begging them to stay. The Americans brought order, stability, law, as well as clean water, medical facilities, schools and so on, something even their own authorities couldn’t provide until…. well, when exactly? The 1980s? The 1990s?

Conclusion

This is a thrillingly powerful, well-written, lucid and thought-provoking account of the Boxer Rebellion and the allied expedition to relieve Peking – bristling with all kinds of ideas and insights into the period itself, but also into the very nature of war and politics, of heroism and failure, of the scope and possibility of free will and action in a world constrained by society, history, politics and culture.

They did what they thought right, some of it wicked, some of it wrong, some of it foolish and deluded, some of it inspired and heroic. They were flawed people, constrained by their times, just as we are, in ours. For as Silbey writes:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

Judge not lest ye be judged. A clear, well-written factual account of these kind of events is vastly more illuminating – and ultimately damning – than any amount of editorialising and name calling.

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China's corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China’s corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

The Scramble for China by Robert Bickers (2011)

Bickers obviously knows a hell of a lot about western intervention in nineteenth century China – or Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832 – 1914, as the book’s sub-title puts it. Unfortunately, he attempts to convey this wealth of information in such a long-winded, round-the-houses manner, choked by a prose style which veers between academic jargon and whimsicality, that a lot of the time it’s difficult to tease out what he’s on about.

For example, the early chapters open with an unnamed ‘he’ doing something melodramatic, but take half a page getting round to explaining who ‘he’ is, what ‘he’ is doing, where and when and why.

‘They shouldered their way in. At Mr Lindsay’s order, Mr Simpson and Midshipman Stephens put their shoulders against the barred entrance to the Daotai’s quarters and heaved, twice.’ (Opening of chapter two)

Who? Where? When? Why? Patience, grasshopper. All will be revealed… eventually.

‘Was it a dream? Were his eyes deceiving him? He pressed forward through the crowd, the report goes, to get a better sight of the strangers, and “immediately began rubbing his eyes”.’ (Opening of chapter three)

Who? Where etc. Wait. Wait and see. Wait quite a while, in fact, for Bickers to make himself clear.

These teasing anecdotes, once finally explained, take a while to be placed in the wider historical moment, which Bickers tends to explain both repetitively and obscurely. Quite regularly, I didn’t know who he was referring to or when, because the narrative jumped unpredictably between one set of characters and another, and (very frequently) back and forward over time, the only consistent thing being his use of colourless academic phraseology and his scorn for the no-good imperialising westerners.

At first sight there appears to be a good deal of ‘background colour’ – the third chapter prides itself on going into great detail about the role of theatre and opera in Chinese society, from the professional heights of Peking Opera to the most amateur of local productions. Unfortunately, a lot of these purple passages, when you really look at them, merely state the obvious.

To give an example, the ‘he’ described in the opening of chapter three turns out to be a Chinese bystander who’s heard about two Europeans who have arrived out of the blue in Shanghai in – well, the date is lost in the yards of verbiage, I genuinely couldn’t figure it out – and who have blundered into a public opera production. This is Bickers’ cue to write pages and pages about the Chinese opera and theatre tradition. Sounds fascinating, right? Alas, all these pages are written like this:

But what was being staged depended on the occasion, and who was paying – the temple, a guild or a private patron. We cannot know, but we do know that the temple and the gathering so rudely interrupted by these bumptious foreign travellers were part of the fabric of Shanghai life and culture, in which were tightly interwoven the sojourning communities of commercial China, men from afar, whose trading activities were a key component of its wealth and importance. (p.59)

This one long sentence informs us that this big temple in Shanghai was part of Shanghai life and culture. Golly. Communities of sojourners (sojourner = ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’) were – in case you hadn’t twigged – ‘men from afar’. OK. And that the trading activities of travelling merchants ‘were a key component of [Shanghai’s] wealth and importance’. ‘Tightly interwoven’ sounds impressive, doesn’t it? What does it mean, though?

I.e. when you take this grand-sounding sentence to pieces, it doesn’t tell you anything that wasn’t already obvious. This is true for thousands of passages throughout the book: sound great, don’t tell you a thing.

Obscurity 

I’ve gone back and reread the opening pages of this chapter three, and I cannot actually work out when the action quoted above is taking place. You have to wait until three pages into the chapter before there is any reference to an actual date, and then it’s to two dates at once, one or both of which refer back to a scene described in the previous chapter (I think), which required me to go back and double-check those.

In other words, this book requires quite a lot of double-checking and cross-referencing just to figure out when the thing is happening. Here’s the date reference:

Understanding what they were congregating for on this dreary October day in 1835 and had been watching on that wet June morning in 1832, and why at a temple, will help us develop a fuller picture of the China that first Lindsay and Gütlzaff, and then Medhurst and Stevens, were so intent on interrupting with their presence. (p.53)

This is what I mean by a round-the-houses manner. The opening of chapter three is deliberately obscure and teasing but… becomes no clearer as it goes on, in fact becomes in many ways more obscure and confusing as it goes on.

This makes for a very frustrating read. Obviously Bickers knows masses about this subject – it is a tragedy for us readers that he can’t set it down in a straightforward, understandable manner.


The sound of his own voice

Complementing the obscure structuring of the book is the convoluted prose style.

1) Long paragraphs Bickers’ paragraphs routinely last an entire page and often longer, so on opening the book anywhere the reader is faced with a blank wall of words, with no way of breaking the text down into smaller, manageable units of meaning. I continually found myself losing the drift of a 2-page long paragraph, my eyes glazing over, suddenly snapping out of it and then having to go right back to the start to figure out what was happening.

2) Long sentences These mammoth paragraphs are indicative of the book’s general long-windedness. Bickers is reluctant to write a simple declarative sentence. He prefers long, swelling periods, dotted with commas to indicate the proliferation of subordinate clauses and – if possible – the insertion of one or two additional facts in parentheses, to make them as ornate and rhetorically wrought as possible.

You know those suitcases which are so over-stuffed you have to sit on them to try and get them closed? Bickers’ sentences are like that. And is this over-stuffing done in the name of presenting the facts clearly? Alas, no. Nine times out of ten it is to achieve an effect of style, a rhetorical repetition of phrases or artful alliteration, the deployment of irony or sarcasm – all techniques which are more suitable to a creative writer than to a historian.

And so, yet again, the Tianhou temple at Shanghai played host to parley, and the crude theatrics of private diplomacy, as Medhurst in particular stood, or rather aimed to sit, on his dignity as yet higher officials, the Customs superintendent (with a foreign cloak, he noted) and the district magistrate, came along in turn to sort things out, and found the foreign intruders rudely rebuffing the requirements of propriety when meeting officials of the great Qing. (p.52)

Note the attempts at humour – ‘or rather aimed to sit’. Note the insertion of a parenthesis, which itself contains two grammatical parts ‘(with a foreign cloak, he noted)’. Note the fondness for alliteration, for the sound of his own style – ‘rudely rebuffing the requirements’. Note that rather than describing or explaining the attitudes of the participants, Bickers prefers to convey them through irony verging on sarcasm – ‘the great Qing’.

Basically, this is a historian trying to write like a novelist.

3) Old fashioned Ironically for someone who is so determined to take a loftily modern point of view, Bickers’ prose, as well as being convoluted to the point of incomprehension, is also addicted to very old-fashioned locutions and vocabulary. I began collecting his oddities and archaisms (‘a thing that is very old or old-fashioned, especially an archaic word or style of language’):

  • History was ever a public act, but it was also ever a private passion. (p.16)

Leaving aside the fact that this grand sounding period means less the more you think about it, there is the phrasing – ‘ever’ to mean ‘always’? Really? In 1817 certainly. In 1917 maybe. But in 2017? Reading so many Victorian journals, tracts, articles has obviously infected Bickers’ style. This isn’t a one-off.

  • Lindsay was ever deadly serious, of course, and Medhurst too. (p.75)
  • There were private interactions, too, as there had ever been. (p.224)
  • Music was ever also a private pleasure, a private relief, a source of succour. (p.228)
  • Such confidence in the foreign ability to know China better than the Chinese themselves was to be oft rehearsed. (p.39). ‘Oft’?
  • All understood the law, he averred… (p.41) ‘Averred’?
  • All this fury and posture came to nought. (p.46)
  • The bells in Macao were quieted at the request of his physicians, but it all proved to no avail. (p.46)
  • Emigrants from Fujian, who had long sojourned in the city… (p.54)
  • The colonial consolidation and expansion of the emperor’s predecessors was largely foresworn… (p.66)
  • The Qing could but capitulate… (p.324)

Odd that Bickers is so loftily dismissive of the old imperialist bullies when he himself sounds so like a mutton-chopped lawyer out of Dickens:

  • The tension among the Company men in China persisted thereafter… (p.25)
  • … they aimed to get their complaints heard elsewhere along the coast and transmitted thereby to Peking… (p.26)
  • Scholars have begun in recent decades to look beyond the rhetoric of some schools of Chinese statecraft, particularly insofar as it articulated hostility to commerce.. (p.62)
  • Thereafter he held an intendant post in Zhejiang… (p.72)
  • Charles Elliott, by now the British superintendent of trade, rushed to Canton from Macao in cocked-hatted full dress uniform, evading the blockade and thereby deliberately adding himself to the hostaged fray. (p.78) ‘The hostaged fray’?
  • There were ‘mixed feelings’ from The Times, at the conclusion of a ‘miserable war’, and the ‘ill-gotten gains’ therefrom. (p.84)
  • Jardines had fourteen receiving ships by 1845, and usually ten thereafter… (p.92)
  • Like most of the early missionary community in China, he secured a post with the official British establishment during the war, and turned it into a secure position thereafter… (p.94)
  • In this way they rationalised their operations somewhat. (p.106)
  • Telegraph lines snaked their way thereafter to China. (p.164)
  • [The convicted murderer John Buckley] went quietly to his death, the site guarded by twenty-four policemen in case an attempt was made to rescue him, and he was not thereafter missed. (p.180)
  • For almost a quarter of a century thereafter the firm grew and diversified… (p.185)
  • Thomas Hanbury and his ilk were wedded to their interests in the Settlement at Shanghai… (p.189)
  • At least in Britain there was a Public Records Office, and in principle archives were transferred to public access, but nothing of that like existed in China. (p.376) I don’t think I’ve ever read ‘like’ being used in this way before. I suppose he could have written ‘but nothing like that existed in China’, but where would be the fun in that?

Alliteration Self evidently promoting sound and rhetoric over factual content and meaning.

  • Lindsay instantly resumed a pointed game of protocol and precedence. (p.21)
  • Their later frantic, frequent queries… (p.27)
  • It complained that the authorities in Canton were corrupt, capricious and cruel (p.28).
  • All wanted friendly and fruitful relations… (p.41)
  • They left that afternoon with a promise that a polite and properly formal response to their petition would follow. (p.41)
  • Instead they indulged in recondite debates about terms and texts. (p.73)
  • [Nathan Dunn’s exhibition of chonoiserie in London in December 1841] inspired catcalls and copycats… (p.88)
  • Such consular conveniences, compounded by confusions… (p.107)
  • [The Taiping rebels] fought fanatically and fiercely. (p.120)
  • … fifteen years’ worth of precedent and practice. (p.155)

Maybe he’s modelling himself on the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In at least one place he does in fact directly quote Gilbert & Sullivan – on page 78 referring to the ‘little list’ being used in negotiations with the Chinese, a phrase which is the focus of a well-known song from their operetta about Japan, The Mikado (1885) (in fact, Bickers likes the jokey reference so much, he makes it again on page 194).

Hendiadys and pairing Why use one word when you can use two – ideally alliterating or rhyming – to deliver that knockout rhetorical punch? Sound over meaning.

  • Confident, nonetheless, they memorialised now more readily and steadily. (p.370)
  • … ongoing debates and disagreements… (p.374)

Fancy-ancy just for the fun of playing with words:

  • These shows… brought curious orientals to accompany the oriental curiosities on display in London. (p.89)
  • As successive reports made their way back to Britain, and as the lobbyists worked their words… (p.80)
  • But abate it they could not, or abate it they would not… (p.113)
  • Nearly all foreigners could or would still only talk a pidgin English… (p.114)
  • The act of uprising – daring to stand and daring to fight… (p.120)
  • But he could not, or would not, pay them. (p.126)
  • Parkes had grown up as British China grew up. He had grown with conflict and he had grown accustomed to conflict. China was his adult life, his only life… (p.138)
  • The men were there to fight and fought there well. (p.162)
  • So Robert Hart had had his fill of life in the foothills of the China apocalypse, had seen how vacuum would follow and violence ensure if the Qing could not hold… (p.196)
  • This new Peking, the object of romantic contemplation, suggested a China that might be appreciated rather than caricatured, and savoured rather than savaged. (p.221)

Singular nouns or nouns without an article This a real addiction of Bickers’ style and gives the prose a stilted hieratic feel:

  • [Lindsay] was ready to perceive slight and note omission… (p.22)
  • Now Lindsay was sailing north without invitation… (p.24)
  • … he and his retinue had been denied audience… (p.24)

Shouldn’t that be, ‘denied an audience’? It’s not wrong, it’s just that, by denying many of these nouns an article turns them from specific instances into lofty-sounding abstractions – makes them and the sentences they appear in just that wafer-thin bit more stilted and precious than they need be. More portentous and pretentious.

  • The predictable regularity of the internationalised trading world was periodically upset, as in any port city, by human failing and misadventure… (36)
  • They knew so well many of the possibilities that lay beyond their reach by imperial order, and engaged in shrewd estimate and wild conjecture… (p.65)
  • Nor was [the emperor Daoguang] the despised feudal archaism of the Marxist history of communist-era China, which castigated the failures of the late-Qing monarchs to combat imperialism’s assault. (p.67)
  • Those Napier-ordered bombardments of the Canton forts were simply ‘minnows’ compared with the just desserts of Chinese obstruction and insult that were to be meted out by British warships. (p.77)
  • The British helped inform this comedy of error. (p.86)

As with the other elements of Bickers’ style it gives the impression of acuity and insight without providing any actual information. The proliferation of these rhetorical tricks explains why you can read whole page-long paragraphs, get to the end rather exhausted, and then wonder why you don’t appear to have learned or remembered anything.

  • The Canton RegisterCanton Courier, and the more ambitious and scholarly Chinese Repository, edited by Elijah Bridgman, the first American missionary to China, all conveyed up-to-date news, description and opinion across the seas. (p.36)
  • Every contact with Chinese officials was an occasion for slight. (p.44)
  • It administered each in the way which seemed best, or most pragmatic at the time, and given considerations of resource and capacity. (p.69) Why not ‘resources‘?
  • Bouts of fighting were interspersed with parleys and negotiations, and with defence of insecure occupations of Chinese islands… (p.81) Why not ‘the defence’?
  • Stronger still would be the accumulated body of printed and private report… (p.89)
  • … the consequent legal haziness of their operations generated much correspondence and dispute. (p.93)
  • But domestic crisis was no small matter when rumour swept around… (p.114)
  • If stray shots passed over there would be formal complaint and stern rebuke. (p.127)
  • European initiative needed Chinese resource. (p.156)
  • The Customs delivered increasing resource as foreign trade grew… (p.198)
  • The development of official banks of information and report by consul and commissioner… (p.218)

So as an emphasiser, and in an unusual position in the word order, emphasising its old-fashioned usage:

  • Indeed it will help if we understand more about the temple itself, which so stood out on the Shanghai waterfront close by the Customs House and under the highest point on the city wall, and which so stands out in these two landmark accounts of foreign visits to the city…This way we can better understand the China of the early 1830s outside the narrow confines of the factories, the roads, Macao, that narrow semi-foreignised sliver of the Canton delta that so overfills accounts of the early Sino-foreign encounters. (p.53)

Indeed it would have been better for the gentle reader of these rhetorical tricks which so embellish and so adorn the purple prose of the historian had been somewhat reined in and replaced with useful and understandable factual content.

Presage Bickers likes this word.

  • The foreign traders, all of them, were to be held hostage for the drug, without fresh food, without their servants, worried that the commissioner’s little list… presaged individual arrests and possibly torture. (p.78)
  • The sight of the burning buildings…presaged some more years of violent Canton problems. (p.101)
  • All such minor disturbances of men and women could presage consular grief. (p.114)
  • An estimated 7 million people were affected by the floods and dyke-failures that presaged the great change [of the course of the Yellow River in 1851] (p.136)
  • This turn to antique China also presaged the opening of another front in the foreign campaign. (p.221)
  • Margary’s slaughter presaged another round in China’s despoliation… (p.260)
  • The new blockade was to presage a new phase in the campaign… (p.296)

Typical of his preference for the orotund and bombastic as opposed to the plain and simple.

Inversions of normal sentence order making sentences sometimes difficult to understand.

  • Quickly to the Company’s aid came instead other parties and volunteers… (p.26)
  • What commercial bliss it was that hot Canton spring… (p.78)
  • Rare it was that ‘the preacher commences and ends his discourse without a single intervention’. (p.111)
  • Always in Peking, I think, someone will in fact have heard him. Always someone will have heard the young foreigner belting out song in the capital’s dry air. (p.229)
  • Always there were exceptions… (p.249)
  • Fearful too were Chinese residents and local authorities. (p.349)

Incomprehensible In fact some sentences are just incomprehensible.

  • And what was eventually left over, why, when the hullaballoo was over, and when Lin’s officers had spent three weeks in April and May overseeing the smashing of the balls of opium and their flushing out to sea at Humen, close by the Linten anchorage, then what a market there was for it, and what prices it could now fetch discreetly, much more discreetly, sold along the coast to friends disappointed by the diversion of the spring stock. (p.79)
  • Along the coast with the British Cantonese went nonetheless, or followed soon after. (p.101)
  • Gods of ignorance and bafflement reigned over the China theatre. (p.397)

Sojourners sojourning As mentioned above, a sojourner is ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’. Lots of westerners came out to newly-opened-up China to make a quick fortune then go home; but lots of Chinese, both native and immigrants from the south-east Asian diaspora, also came to ‘sojourn’ in the new Crown colonies Britain had wrested from China. Hence there was a whole lot of sojourning going on, and the text doesn’t let us forget it:

  • Sojourners and settlers prefer familiarity to adaptation… (p.62)
  • [The Qing empire] was well used to dealing with sojourners from outside its formal domain… (p.69)
  • Cantonese migrants and sojourners were quick to see additional value in association with the British… (p.102)
  • Robert Fortune’s second sojourn in China… (p.105)
  • They [westerners] were sojourners, mostly… Their sojourns were not short. (p.117)
  • Shanghai itself fell on 7 September 1853 to a sojourner coup. (p.125)
  • The sojourner was mentally relocating, settling in, his sense of where he formally belonged shifting. (p.168)

Personification

  • Arrogant opium swaggered its way along to the newly opened ports. (p.92)

Not traditional history writing, is it?

Tired and jaded

It is an oddity of this book that Bickers’ tone is tired and jaded with the whole western adventure in China before it has even started. Very early on he starts using phrases like ‘once again’ and ‘yet again’, when in fact what he’s describing is happening for the first time. This quickly conveys to the reader that Bickers is frightfully bored with the oh-so-predictable cultural misunderstandings or western bullying or the absurd scenes of everyone standing on their dignity which he depicts.

  • At Shanghai as at Hong Kong, and in every foreign community, such sentiments… were to be expressed again and again… (p.134)
  • Again it all began in Canton… (p.136)
  • And here we are again at the closed gates of the city and at the closed door of the yamen… (p.146)
  • It was the old story, of China coast savviness about Chinese duplicity… (p.213)

It conveys that he feels blasé and superior to the events he’s describing and the poor saps enacting them. If only the human race had given Bickers something a bit more interesting and novel to write about! There’s a striking passage which introduces the First Opium War where he tells us how awfully over-familiar the whole thing is:

The course of events that followed are well known. How Lin Zexu was sent as a special commissioner to investigate the problem in Canton and to put a stop to the trade, how he made his way overland to the city and set about making his mark: all of this has been much narrated. (p.77)

Is it well known, though? Has it been much narrated? Do you know all about Lin Zhu and his overland trek and what happened next? I certainly didn’t. In fact, that’s why I’m reading a book about the scramble for China, precisely to learn about this history, not to be patronisingly told that I ought to know all about it all already.

This passage (there are plenty more in the same vein) crystallised my feeling that Bickers is far too close to his subject matter and makes the mistake so many experts do, in assuming that his readers share his specialised knowledge and are all as blasé and bored by it as he is.

Many of us have barely heard any of this story before and it is his responsibility to tell it to us. Alas, Bickers is so over-familiar with events that he has to resort to fancy prose and attitudinising to keep his own interest up. I, on the other hand, was hoping for a simple, reliable and clearly written account of the events of these hundred years.

I didn’t get it here. Bickers’ account of the First Opium War is confusing, but not as confusing and partial as his account of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) on pages 118 to…. well… his account just fizzles out – which I was particularly looking forward to. As if determined to confuse, he begins his account of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the most epic events in world history, in mid-chapter, after some pages lulling you into a false sense of security describing the cosy lives of the China British, with the words:

But then enter the younger brother of Jesus Christ who came to discomfort all their lives… (p.118)

If you didn’t know that the leader of the Taiping Rebellion was a religious visionary who really did think he was the brother of Christ, this opening would be incomprehensible. In fact, Bickers doesn’t give an account of the overall Taiping Rebellion at all – he is only interested in it insofar as a) it demonstrates and was arguably caused by, the destabilising presence of Europeans on China’s coasts and b) it impacted the British settlements at Canton and at newly colonised Shanghai where, for example, in 1853, the British – from the protection of their walled settlement – could watch pitched battles between the Taiping army and the imperial Qing forces.

The accounts of the Taiping Rebellion in the books by John Keay and Jonathan Fenby are both much clearer and more penetrating than in Bickers, clearly explaining the total causes and consequences of this truly epic conflict, possibly the largest civil war in all human history, anywhere, a titanic devastation which led to the loss of as many as 20 million Chinese lives, maybe more.

The same goes for Bickers’ treatment of the contemporaneous but distinct Nian Rebellion (1851-68), given only a brief page here (p.135), fleetingly explained but not analysed in any depth.

The brief mention of the Crimean War (on pages 134 and 135) neither explains that conflict nor its geopolitical ramifications for European powers in China. Bickers briefly points out that the war had a distinct Pacific element – a fascinating idea I’d never come across before – but then frustratingly drops the subject completely. This feels like a massive and fascinating topic completely ignored. So disappoinging. I bought this book precisely to understand the geo-political implications and context and motives for the sequence of China-oriented wars of the nineteenth century, and that turns out to be the very last thing on Bickers’ mind.

This confusing melange of super-brief references to these huge and super-important wars then segues abruptly and, as usual, in a very offhand way, into a typically arse-over-tit account of the Second Opium War (1856-60).

So the foreigners placed their faith in the Qing, once they had warred with them, beaten them, and humiliated them.
Again, it all began in Canton. (p.136)

Note the tired and jaded tone as he casually begins a confusing account which spools onto page 150, with a vivid but hard-to-follow explanation for the (scandalous) British burning of the Emperor’ Summer House. OK. But in the 14 or so pages which cover it, Bickers nowhere mentions that he is describing the Second Opium War – you have to know that already. He is so close to, and over-familiar with, his subject, he just assumes that we all know about this stuff already. But we don’t. That’s why we bought your bloody book in the first place.

Towards the end I was genuinely appalled when the only mention he makes of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the first war in modern times in which a non-European nation (Japan) thrashed a European one (Russia) is this. He’s explaining how after the Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled, the European nations demanded reparations but, for the most part, didn’t seek to acquire new territory. Apart from Russia:

Russia failed to conform, though, and hung on in Manchuria with 200,000 troops. So the British and the Japanese opened up a new world of international politics by entering into a formal alliance in 1902, breaking with decades of British practice, and in 1904-5 the Japanese smashed Russian forces in Manchuria and Siberia, shocking the European world, and offering new hope for the colonised and threatened. (p.349)

The Russo-Japanese War doesn’t even get a sentence of its own, but is shoehorned into the second half of a sentence which starts in 1902 and ends in 1905. The republican revolution which finally overthrew the Qing Dynasty – and ended 3,000 years of rule by emperors – in October 1911, is dealt with – including the accident which sparked it, the spread of revolt, the seizure of power by Sun Yat-Sen, the abdication of the emperor, and the handing over of power to general Yuan Shikai – this seismic event is dealt with in 10 sentences – half a page – and not returned to.

Thus does Bickers leap over hugely important geopolitical, strategic and military events in order to get back to lambasting western businessmen living in sin with their Chinese mistresses, making fortunes from the opium trade and lobbying for more access to Chinese markets. This is a sociological essay about China, not a history.

Academic jargon

By this stage the reader has realised that Bickers isn’t interested in giving a chronological account of what happened during China’s century of humiliation; he isn’t interested in analysing or explaining the complex geopolitics of a weakened China caught between coastal invaders like the British and, towards the end of the period, the Japanese – with an ever-present threat from the land-grabbing Russian empire in the west and north.

He isn’t even very interested in any of the other European nations – the French and Americans get only a few walk-on parts, while the Portuguese, Dutch or Germans are hardly mentioned at all.

Instead, what becomes clearer and clearer is that Bickers thinks he is giving a kind of cultural history of the century of humiliation.

That’s a fine ambition but he doesn’t live up to it. There is nothing at all in the book about, say, Chinese art or poetry, nothing. What there is, is repeated references to the way the Chinese or British performed as if on a stage with each other, or the way Chinese artefacts (and people) were shipped off to London to be put on display in various public shows and the big European expositions of the later Victorian era, or the way the colonisers engaged in practices and policed sites and shaped public space, and so on. Instead of interesting stuff about Chinese culture, what Bickers gives us is a lot of academic jargon.

Over the past forty years or so, the mind-set and terminology of (mostly French) modern literary theory/history/sociology pioneered in the 1960s and 70s by, say, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, has congealed to form a higher entity called just Theory – which has spread out to infect study of all the humanities subjects at university.

I’m extremely familiar with this all-purpose semi-sociological terminology from the many art exhibitions I go to, where contemporary artists no longer make ‘art works’ – they engage with issues of gender and sexuality, or money and class or whatever, carrying forward projects which use strategies of this, that and the other, all of which together amount to their practice. What used to be called ‘works of art’ are now more often than not the sites of their engagement with whatever, where the artists subvert conventional narratives of whatever or challenge this, that or the other norm or convention.

This all-purpose academic jargon has a number of purposes. Firstly, like academic jargon down the ages, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages – it makes you sound clever. Secondly, it makes it all sound very serious: no longer painting a picture or developing a photo, an artist is now engaged in their practice – like a serious professional, like an architect or GP. Thirdly, it is all very active – none of that old bourgeois standing around in front of an easel, an artist now engages with, subverts, challenges and questions and interrogates and a whole load of other action words. All very exciting and edgy.

But at the same time many of the words have a very clinical and scientific feel: not only the artist, but especially the art critic, is no longer subject to the wishy-washy whims of their bourgeois imagination, but gives the impression of applying rigorous scientific procedures: they have ‘projects’ and ‘practices’ which are enacted in ‘sites’ and ‘spaces’. Anything like a sculpture or installation reorientates the ‘space’ around it, maybe reorders ‘spatial hierarchies’, probably ‘challenges’ accepted ‘narratives’ or what a work of art can be, and so on.

Another feature of Theory Language is that a little of it goes a long way: these terms have become remarkably all-purpose: you can apply them to almost any human activity and come out sounding serious, weighty and profound.

The only snag is that – although this kind of language, used sparingly, conveys a sense of power and thrust and importance and intellectual force,

a) it doesn’t, on closer examination, really tell you anything at all
b) used too much, it quickly turns into a vacuous jargon of empty slogans – just as the public very quickly got sick of Theresa May telling us she represented ‘strong and stable leadership’ (and turned out to represent the opposite) so an artist, or curator, or critic, or historian who goes on and on about ‘practice’ and ‘projects’ and ‘sites’ and ‘narratives’ in an effort to sound meaningful and scientific and precise – runs the risk of ending up like a cracked record playing the same meaningless jargon over and over again; far from subverting anything, this kind of jargon ends up reinforcing existing conventions about art writing. In fact, it is the new normal.

Examples of academic jargon

Display is an important idea for Bickers. European merchants built big houses – he takes it as an example of ‘display’. They hosted lavishes dinner – more ‘display’. Chinese objects were sent back to London – where they were put on ‘display’. As if grouping these pretty everyday activities under a semi-scientific singular noun gives us all a special insight into human activity, grouping them all together somehow explains… something.

  • China was in this way [exhibitions of China bric-a-brac in London in the 1840s] being normalised as an object for such display and ethnographic and other curiosity. (p.89)
  • Such display – display at table, architectural display – announced probity and confidence (to each other, to Chinese merchants), but it also spoke of vulgarity and extravagance. (p.99)
  • Admiration for the appearance of the Sikhs, the ‘colour’ they were felt and said to have brought to China, and to British display in China… (p.163)
  • What became the routine display of China at such forums was a key strand in the project that Hart was leading. (p.204)

Engage and engagement At a recent internet conference I went to there was a list of banned words; if you mentioned one you had to contribute to the swear box (all money coughed up was sent to a charity for refugees). ‘Engage’ and ‘engagement’ was top of the list. Why? Because it means everything and nothing; because it is an empty buzzword.

  • Farmers engaged in handicraft production. (p.64)
  • The ordered business of its routine engagement with the world at the treaty ports elsewhere was able to continue… (p.352)

Enterprises and projects

  • At the heart of the official British China enterprise… (p.206)
  • The foreign China enterprise at Shanghai was actually truly a real-estate imperialism… (p.222)
  • They were men of commerce and outside what was formally recognised as British empire, and their enterprise was multi-national and often makeshift. They had no imperial project. (p.382)

Sites and spaces Both make pretty run-of-the-mill places sound important and exciting, and make it sound as if you’re saying something especially perceptive and insightful about them.

  • This book explores the world which created that final photograph and its many sites and fields of action. (p.14)
  • A popular temple was also a commercial and economic site… They were embedded in the daily public space of the city. (p.16)
  • The rural landscape was pocked with market sites. (p.65) So much more emphatic and intellectually demanding than simply writing ‘markets’ or ‘market places’.
  • [Just outside harbour boundaries, opium] was stored, and there were established new sites for conflict and the low-level disorderliness that filled the consulate letter books. (p.93)
  • The new ports were like many of the other sites of power around the Indian Ocean. (p.105)
  • As the new roads and buildings grew up in the treaty ports they were to acquire new memorials, and new sites for commemoration and celebration. (p.112)
  • It might seem odd that we can find so much insistent quiet emphasis on the symbolic ordering of foreign space [the British insisted on having a grand ex-palace to be their legation in Beijing]. Partly this was a response to understandings of Chinese conceptions, a breaking out of spaces and sites allotted them for reasons they interpreted (rightly sometimes) as intentionally demeaning. But they had their own such practices already… (p.206)
  • Foreign observers chuckled at Chinese geomancy, at fengshui, even as they fashioned symbolic landscapes themselves, sacralising space, creating sites for pilgrimage, reflection and remembrance. (p.207)

Bickers is describing how the British built graveyards wherever they settled. Note how he goes out of his way to ridicule the British who, he claims, chuckled at Chinese geomancy but – at least according to Bickers’ confidently post-imperialist view – were themselves every bit as superstitious and irrational in their treatment of ‘space’ – i.e. building cemeteries. Ha ha ha silly old British.

But as with almost everything he writes, a moment’s reflection makes you question this casual criticism and superiority: geomancy or fengshui are to some extent optional practices; organising the hygienic and orderly burial of the dead probably much more of a necessity. But – and here’s my point – Bickers has conceived and written this sentence not to make a factual statement – but to score politically correct points over ‘the foreigners’.

  • Peking, resolutely, was different to all the other sites of the foreign presence, different in scale, meanings, history, experience and climate. (p.215)
  • the Inspectorate General was the site in time of an entirely novel private experiment of Hart’s. (p.227)
  • There were of course other sites of jubilee. (p.309)
  • China long remained a site of foreign male opportunity. (p.311)
  • Homes, memoirs show,  now became sites for the assertion of the supremacy of the European woman over her servants… (p.313)
  • Real Chinatowns became fictionalised nests of opium dens and sites of the despoliation of white girls by Chinese men. (p.364)

Space

  • [Western music] served to mark space in new ways. (p.228)
  • So at Shanghai they ordered space, responding as quickly as they were able to the breathtaking speed with which opportunities were seized, innovations latched onto, loopholes explored. They also ordered Chinese use of public space, imposing new norms of behaviour, turning urination into a minor criminal category. They also attempted to order aspects of private space: the gambling house, the brothel, the household. (p.224)

On reflection, where Bickers writes ‘space’ he really means ‘behaviour – but ‘space’ sounds more abstract, intellectual, scientific. And, in his usual hurry to denigrate Europeans and the British at every turn, he turns the imposition of regulations like banning people pissing in the street into a bad thing. Maybe we should return to the days of men randomly urinating in the street? Similarly, maybe gambling houses and brothels shouldn’t have been regulated. Naughty naughty Europeans with their silly laws.

Practice A super-useful word which can be applied to almost any human activity to make yourself sound impressively intellectual. For example, my postman for the most part engages in letter-delivery activities but has recently expanded his practice to encompass the manual transmission of parcels in the course of which he transitions from the public space of the pavement, governed by one code of conduct, to the private space of my porch, which has become a site for intrapersonal exchange and dialogue i.e. we have a bit of a chat whenever he knocks on the door to deliver a parcel.

Used in this pretentious way ‘practice’ has become a buzzword which lends your text the authority and the spurious pseudo-scientific precision of an anthropologist or ethnographer or sociologist. But like so many of these terms, it mostly just dresses up banality and the bleeding obvious.

  • Officials often had little time intellectually for popular religious practice. (p.61)
  • Buddhist in origin, but adopted far beyond Buddhist practices, [the festival] involved opera performances, processions and bonfires… (p.61)
  • But that containment [of foreign traders by the Chinese] was too restrictive, too contrary to emerging European interests and practices.. (p.157)
  • As the concessions and settlements merged spatially with the rest of the developing cities, their autonomous judicial systems and practice routinely returned to deportation as a legal punishment. (p.160)
  • It was a queer affair, the extension of Tongzhi restoration practice to overseas diplomacy… Burlingame was carefully and explicitly instructed not to follow practices which might prompt reciprocal demands on Peking.. (p.212)
  • There were descriptions and assessments too of Chinese practice. (p.281)
  • North China farmers knew that into their brittle world had come new forces, with alien ideas and practices… (p.341)
  • And the practices of the new combined forces of Boxers, the Yihequan, ‘Boxers united in righteousness’, gave them mastery over foreign things… (p.342)
  • Foreign office archives practice was in theory quite clear. (p.375)

Network Not found so much in other Theory-mongers, this word makes you sound like you’re all across modern technology and the internet and the groovy, cool, multi-connected world.

  • [The Taiping Rebellion] was a revolt informed by the new intellectual currents from over the oceans which were at work in Chinese cities and in the networks of people, goods and ideas that flowed through them… (p.120)
  • The swiftness of the incorporation after 1860 of the new sites of treaty port China into these far wider networks shows just how interconnected it already was. (p.156)
  • Globalisation, international migration, the growth of British and other European empires and the networks that cut across and through them, all had a bearing on developments in China. (p.156)
  • China was already deeply embedded in new-fashioned networks… (p.157)
  • So the Inspectorate general became the centre of its own network of stations, as well as a node in wider networks – regional meteorology, the international round of display and representation… (p.204)
  • The growing presence, and relative ease of transmission of goods and people, locked China more and more closely into knowledge networks, not least geographical and scientific ones. (p.165)
  • By 24 October 1860, when allied troops paraded into the heart of the imperial capital escorting Elgin and Gros, two bands in the vanguard heralding their intrusion and the imminent treaty ceremony, China was already being fashioned steadily into new networks – of communications, of people, of ideas. (p.157)

‘New networks of communications, of people, of ideas’ – this is vacuous modern corporate jargon: it could be an excerpt from the press release for any big company, bank or government department – it has that hollow corporate ring, impressive, vibrant-sounding and absolutely empty of meaning.

Scripts and performance Another classic piece of sociological jargon in which people are depicted as hollow puppets helplessly ‘performing’ ‘scripts’, putting on performances – which they called living and making decisions but which we – everso wise Posterity – can now see as ritualised and formulaic ‘performances’:

  • The China script for the performance of British power and identity in the treaty ports was borrowed from the Subcontinent. (p.162)
  • Many missionaries played at the local level the China game of compensation for injury and damage, property restitution and repair, and symbolic gesture – judgement and proclamation set in stone, or transfer of communally important sites as punishment… Some did so to show how powerful Church and mission were, how actively they could help; to reassure and protect existing converts, and to tempt others. Such action could also provide a stage for the rehearsal of the national honour script, the dignity of the nation residing in the person of the missionary and his flock. (p.249)
  • But as 3,000 troops and labourers disembarked at Langqiao Bay in May 1874, a more routine script was being rehearsed… (p.254)
  • His death was incorporated into the same empire script that he rehearsed as he travelled… (p.260)
  • The limits of this private enterprise imperialism, of the sweaty plans of Bland and his ilk were reached on the early Sunday of of 28 July 1913, when Bruce and his band blundered noisily into sleepy Zhabei, and nobody met them to play their scripted part in the local drama of Settlement expansion. (p.369)

Transgressions and subverting and challenging and interrogating etc. Sounds so exciting and edgy and revolutionary. But is all too often applied to really boring and obvious descriptions in an effort to jazz them up.

  • As guardians of order and peace they saw such large gatherings… as sites of transgressions of moral order. (p.61)

What he means is that prostitutes often plied their trade at big Chinese festivals. Who’d have thought? Pretty transgressive, eh?

Actually, there isn’t as much transgression here as I find in the commentary of art galleries; and only one or two mentions of another favourite of Literary Theory, ‘desire’, used as a kind of bland, all-purpose, catch-all term for sex in the widest sense. Although there are quite a few references to brothels and prostitutes mainly, of course, pointing out how brothels and prostitutes followed western land grabs and settlements, thus proving what racist hypocrites Europeans were. Oh, and many of them took Chinese mistresses, as well. How vile and disgusting, only white men ever did this, and only in China.

Prose like concrete

The direction of Bickers thought is always upwards towards sweeping generalisations. Converting a specific argument between a specific Chinese and English into the generic term ‘dispute’, or particular local laws and customs into the generic word ‘practice’, is always to leave the specific and colourful behind in the name of scientific-sounding but in reality vague and generalised concepts. Move in this direction enough and you are left with sentences which are so generalised they could be about anything, anywhere. It just makes long stretches of this book really, really boring.

Always there were exceptions, men and women horrified by this new world of local conflict and dispute that could unfold as people converted. But the mission enterprise was nonetheless mired from the start in such local dispute, at the same time as it was enmeshed with the wider foreign world in China through nationality, affinity, language, marriage, and wider kin networks. (p.249)

It’s like reading concrete. It’s like being stuck in a supermarket car park looking at thousands of shopping trolleys, all the same. Dispute, insult, practice, site, spatial integration, networks of communication, sites of display, imperial spaces, networks of engagement, circuits of empire, colonial display, imperial sites, the China project, the China enterprise, blah blah blah.

I should have been warned off by the reviewer on Amazon who said reading this book was like walking through thickening mud.

Some, such and many Bickers also has a peculiar way with the words ‘there’, ‘some’, ‘such’ and ‘many’: by peculiar I mean that I’ve read thousands of books, paying close attention to their style, and never come across anyone use those words so eccentrically and idiosyncratically. He is fond of ‘fray’ which recurs many times; and ‘odd’.  It is tempting to embark on an analysis of these short, common words for what they reveal about Bickers’ eccentric uses of them – but this review is long enough already.

  • Such permission was certainly given to some… (p.374)
  • Such fear held good there. (p.374)
  • Such memory is the product of hard state work. (p.392)

A simpler soul might write ‘this kind of’ permission or fear or memory – but Bickers is a sucker for rhetorical effects.

Bullying sanctimoniousness

It goes without saying that a modern white, middle-aged English academic will have completely absorbed the political correctness of their university context and so be extremely, comprehensively, sarcastically critical of the white, middle-aged Englishmen of the past. A modern politically correct academic could take no other attitude.

They are all racist imperialist saps; we, dear reader, are by contrast morally unimpeachable and live in an age of complete enlightenment. Thank goodness the modern West which Bickers is a part of doesn’t go around invading other countries and plunging them into decades of chaos and civil war; thank goodness the modern West doesn’t build encampments in foreign countries – Iraq, say, or Afghanistan – protected from angry natives by huge walls inside which the soldiers and civil servants of the occupying forces, blissfully uninterested in the local culture, are provided with all the pleasures of home.

Yes, the modern historian, embedded in this wonderful Western culture, is sooo superior to his great-great-great-great grandparents who did just the same in China or India. In an account of a speech the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave in 1898, Bickers makes sure to point out that it was infused with the outdated ideology of social Darwinism, that he spoke ‘complacently’ and that his imperialist audience ‘chortled’.

What’s ironic is that Bickers’ own account is drenched with the cultural ideology of our times – sanctimonious political correctness – and that he himself never loses an opportunity to ‘chortle’ at the inferiority of other people – in this case, our ancestors. Bickers displays exactly the same patronising tone towards people who can’t defend themselves, as he lambasts haughty imperialists for displaying towards their victims.

Bickers laughs at the British merchants and soldiers, the consuls and captains he depicts, for importing the comforts of home, for bringing in English plants and trees, for building Anglican churches, for ordering prints and paintings of reassuringly patriotic subjects to hang on their walls, and even sending for familiar foods, rather than the bewildering local cuisine.

They wanted and recreated the familiar. They wanted their cigar brought, and then their newspaper. So they made themselves at home on the Huangpu, the Min, Gulangyu island, the slopes of Hong Kong, as snug as they could manage, and read weeks-old news about the real world over the ocean in a fug of finest Havana. (p.117)

Silly selfish saps!

And in their insatiably imperialist lust for profit, Bickers points out that some British firms even sold guns and ammunition to the warring sides in the Taiping Rebellion! The horror of those racist imperialist profiteers! Luckily, we now live in a blessed and enlightened age, when the British government would never dream of selling arms and airplanes, guns and implements of torture to Third World regimes, to countries like Saudi Arabia, who use the planes we sell them to bomb civilians in Yemen. Never ever.

— To be perfectly clear: I find a lot of the historiography of the British Empire, generally written by guilty white liberal men who bend over backwards to be politically correct in every way, to be revoltingly smug, superior and sanctimonious. To assume that their responses to the problems those people living in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and so on faced – their motivations to travel where the opportunity was, to set up companies, to trade and make money, to seek a living and a career – were all somehow uniquely wicked, and only the British ever did this or displayed imperialistic behaviour – never displayed before or since by any other nation (including the countless Chinese merchants they traded and set up companies with, or the genuinely bestial Japanese Empire) – and to assume that these are all behaviours which we moderns, in our infinite wisdom, have completely outgrown.

In my opinion, every human being is born into struggle – against their biological destiny, their physical flaws, the illnesses and accidents we are all prone to, against the psychological damage of childhood and education, against the cultural and technological limits of their time and position and, above all, the crushing necessity to make a living, to earn a crust, to eat and drink and stay alive.

My opinion is the same as John Locke’s, that we do better to commiserate our common frailty and sinfulness with our fellow humans – to sympathise with other people, to understand their suffering and pain, to help and aid those who are alive, now, today – and to empathise with the tribulations of those who came before us, who struggled through their own challenges.

But people like historians of empire, who appoint themselves judge and jury over the past, who lump the entire population of Britain into one undifferentiated pile labelled IMPERIALISTS so they can sneer and ridicule and belittle our benighted ancestors, well they run the risk of themselves being lumped in with the Britain of our times, being judged by the same strict broad-brush approach which they apply to the past – and found wanting. Was Bickers not alive during the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the Brexit vote or, at its widest, the election of President Trump? In a hundred and fifty years time won’t he be lumped in with this violent, war-starting, financially ruinous era?

And – the most obvious crime of our age – he is living through the destruction of the planet’s life forms and the tipping point of global warming. In a hundred and fifty years time Bickers too – with his flying round the world and globetrotting, a privileged western academic who ‘travelled extensively, visiting many of the haunting sites scattered across China that feature in the book’ (as the blurb puts it) – will be lumped in with the stupid, blinkered generation who arrogantly took it as their prerogative, as their right, as their entitlement, to burn up fossil fuel, to heat up the atmosphere, and to permanently damage the planet – and all in order to write his sarcastic quips about his obscure forebears.

And, if anybody reads books a hundred and fifty years hence, this type of morally superior historian will be judged all the more harshly because they have forfeited the possibility of themselves being forgiven by the unremitting harshness, judgmentalism, superior and supercilious attitude which they apply so flippantly and casually to people who died 150 years ago, and who cannot speak in their own defence. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ as a dead white man said long ago.

Seen from this perspective – of condemning the helpless dead – judgmental histories like Bickers’ are a form of bullying. And when I see any form of bullying happening right in front of me, although I may not like the victim very much, my instinct is to side with the underdog, with the person being subjected to relentless vilification by someone in power over them.

But the relentless patronising of the past is not only morally offensive, it’s also plain dumb. Repeatedly Bickers comes up with the revelation that these businessmen and traders and merchants and bankers were out to make a profit! That merchants and bankers came out from Britain to set up businesses, to trade, and to make money! God, the implication is – how grubby and tacky and awful, all this fussing about money and profits!

The implied contrast is with morally pure academics, swanning around the world paid for by government grants, unfurling their deathless prose for the benefit of lesser mortals who have to scheme and plan and graft, to set up businesses, borrow capital, employ staff, hire premises and equipment, do deals and live with the permanent risk of going bankrupt or having your offices, staff or family attacked by anti-western zealots. What losers they must be, eh!

Bickers describes how a lot of the China traders got very rich very quick which, it is implied, was a contemptible thing. What depraved wretches! Lucky for us that we live in an era of perfect equality, with no disparities of income and wealth, either here in perfectly governed Britain, or in contemporary not-at-all-capitalist China. Aren’t we so right to feel superior to the past and their despicable get-rich-quick mentality 🙂

Eurocentric

The final irony is that, despite all his fashionably anti-imperial attitudinising, this book is in fact written overwhelmingly from the white western point of view. To be precise, from the British and, by and large, English point of view. Chaps’ diaries are used to put chaps down. Chaps’ accounts of their adventures are used to criticise chaps’ racist attitudes. Chaps’ reports back to the East India Company or Parliament are used to chastise chaps’ crudely mercantile way of thinking.

Oh silly, silly Victorians who knew nothing about multicultural studies or LGBT rights, who thought only in terms of their own age, cultural and social norms. How blinkered some people can be! Could they not guess how they would be judged in 150 years time and reorient all their actions accordingly?

Also, a thorough account of ‘the scramble for China’ really ought to include not just the British but the French, Portuguese and Dutch, with large roles for the Russians and Germans, all of whom got in on the act, scrambling for their own treaty ports and concessions. But in this book there are hardly any accounts of other countries’ activities.

All in all, this book is emphatically not a historical account of the multi-national scramble for China – it is a cultural and sociological study of ‘the British in China 1832-1915′ and its title really should have conveyed that more accurately.

And above all – irony of irony – for such a politically correct writer, there are hardly any Chinese voices in the text. This may be for all kinds of structural reasons, such as that many of these encounters weren’t recorded on the Chinese side, or that the archives were lost in the various revolutions and rebellions. But the fact remains that this is yet another book about the white British empire, by a white British historian, which relies overwhelmingly on the efficient and detailed record-keeping of white Victorian imperialists – in order to twist and quote them out of context with the sole intention of proving what awful racist money-grubbing insensitive imperialists they were.

In other words, through the academic jargon and preening rhetoric, there is little in the facts and nothing in the attitude which are either new or interesting. The Scramble for China conforms entirely and dully to the politically correct dogmas of our time.

Extended example

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was just one of several native Chinese uprisings which overlapped with, or promoted reprisals from, the European powers to create a terrifying vortex of violence right at the end of the nineteenth century. What you’d hope for from a long (400-page) historical account of the period might be an attempt to disentangle these events, to patiently explain and analyse them. Bickers does the opposite.

War was fought across Manchuria, as Russian forces razed Amur river cities, and smashed their way south into Manchuria and north out of Port Arthur. It was fought in Tianjin, the foreign concessions besieged by Boxer bands and the Qing army. It was fought all the hot dusty way to Peking, as a multinational force of foreign troops slogged their way to the capital and relieved the besieged legations and Christian cathedrals. War was fought in Shanxi province, as German and British columns tramped to Taiyun, slaughtering opposition on the way… War was fought between Boxers and Christians, between Qing armies with Boxer allies, and the ‘Eight Power’ allied expeditionary force. It was fought by British marines and Japanese infantry, as well as by Sikhs, Bengalis, Black Americans, Annamese, Algerians and a British regiment of Chinese from Weihaiwei… It was a cruel war: a war between states, a civil war, a fight for personal survival… (p.346)

My critique is simple: every one of these incidents (the battles and campaigns) and ideas (for example, the very mixed nature of the armies) ought to receive extended treatment so that the reader can understand these key events and these important issue better; can learn something.

Instead, this vast tangle of events and ideas is made subordinate to Bickers’ addiction to fancy rhetoric, to the single flashy rhetorical trick of starting a lot of sentences with ‘war was fought’ or ‘it was fought’. Sure, the repetition rams home the idea that there was a whole lot of fighting going on; but the most basic elementary entry-level journalistic questions – who, what, where, when, why and how? are ignored – not in the name of some compelling insight or new thesis – but in the name of grand-standing rhetoric.

Bickers is more interested in describing the way news of these events back home was chaotic and often fabricated, how reports were made up by European journalists or editors, along with staged photographs and how some of the very first newsreel footage in the new technology of moving pictures was also generally faked and rigged.

Golly! News is fabricated and created by fallible and/or profit-seeking papers, magazines and media outlets! Wow! Yes indeedy, Bickers is here to tell us that coverage of far-away wars is often sensationalist and inaccurate.

There was a dearth of authenticity in this much-faked war, characterised and impelled as it was by forgery and wild rumour (p.355)

To read Bickers you’d think this must be the only war in history characterised by ‘forgery and wild rumour’ – as opposed to the obvious fact that, as the saying coined a century ago puts it, the very first casualty of war is truth.– This is a truism. A cliché. A threadbare, bleedingobvious commonplace taught to every GCSE schoolchild. Why am I reading it in a book written by a professor of history as if it is a dazzling new discovery?

My contention is that Bickers knows an awesome amount about this period, but fails to report it clearly or accurately, preferring to corral it all into either a) huge paragraphs designed to show off his rhetorical prowess, or b) long sections filled with tedious academic jargon which, upon a closer reading, always turn out to be obvious and banal.

To adopt Bickers’ own sociological terminology, this book is history ‘recruited’ and ‘refashioned’ for personal ‘display’ and ‘aggrandisement’.

This example is far from unique. A few pages later he does the same thing again. In among the chaos of the turn-of-the-century conflicts there was a lot of looting and pillaging (as, I believe, has occasionally happened in other wars) – but do we gets details, context, causes or consequences, useful facts and analysis to help us understand and remember each of the distinct outbreaks and incidents? Nope. We get another set-piece of booming rhetoric:

They looted at Tianjin; they looted at Peking; they looted everywhere in between, and far out into the northern provinces. They looted for days, for weeks, for months. They looted arsenals, granaries, mints and palaces. They looted the instruments from the old Jesuit Observatory. They looted salt stocks and Tianjin, and treasure from pawnshops. They looted houses and hovels. They looted tombs. They took furs, silks, paintings, jades and porcelains. They looted gold-plate from the roofs of temples. They took books and statues. What they did not like or could not take they trampled underfoot, tore, burned or wrecked. (p.350)

OK, I get it – there was a lot of looting. But who, what, where, when, why and how? Not in this book, you won’t find these basic questions answered.


Conclusion

This long book is a struggle to read. The average person-in-a-hurry could pick up pretty much all they need to know in half an hour by reading these Wikipedia articles.

What this 400-page book gives you which Wikipedia doesn’t, is vast amounts of anthropological-ethnographic-sociological jargon, almost entirely about the Western, and specifically British, individuals involved in the opening up and colonising of China.

There are brief descriptions of festivals or temples, a bit about Peking architecture, many scattered details about relevant places and events though generally delivered in a confusing way – but little or nothing about Chinese art or poetry, history or attitudes, culture or politics – and nothing you can really grasp or learn from about the big wars in Victorian China and their geopolitical implications. And that was the main reason why I bought this book.

Instead, there are lengthy sociological disquisitions about the spread of Christianity through missionary activity (chapter 8), the rise of the Chinese Customs Authority under the legendary Ulsterman Robert Hart (chapter 7), a lengthy account of how Hart’s Customs helped organise a comprehensive network of lighthouses along China’s coast in the 1870s and 80s, which leads on to the western gathering of data generally, about the meteorology of the coast or of Chinese diseases (chapter 9).

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But because it is all couched in the limited and stereotyped jargon of ‘practices’ and ‘networks’ and ‘sites of insult’ and ‘imperial enterprise’ etc, and because Bickers never drops his anti-British sentiment (lighthouses were – shockingly -built to make imperial trade safe and guarantee profits! meteorological data designed to help imperialist shipping! medical reports to help the racist westerners better able to exploit etc) it isn’t. It ends up all sounding the same. He manages to make a riveting period of history sound really boring.

Last thoughts

For my £15 I had to wade through hundreds of pages of preening prose and abuse being thrown at long-dead profit-hungry, racist imperialists – but did ultimately emerge with two newish (to me) thoughts:

  1. The China British were always a sort of spin-off of British India, using the same slang, building the same sort of houses, treating the locals, especially their servants and mistresses, with the same appalling and often violent condescension. And the Forward Party of China colonists really thought they could hoodwink and bully the British government back home into supporting an incremental takeover of China through piecemeal wars and ‘punitive actions’ – raucously calling for more and more belligerent intervention. This, after all, was all how we slowly acquired India. Hmmm. Interesting.
  2. Right at the end of the book Bickers describes how he has himself been subjected to harangues and lectures by modern young Chinese criticising him personally for being British and therefore to blame for the ‘century of humiliation’. What is interesting is that these young people have absolutely no experience of any of the events they cite (the violence of 1842, 1860 or 1901). But this story – how their country was subjected to a hundred years of imperialist conquest, a hundred years of victimhood – has been drummed into them by the Chinese state. Why? Bickers explains that, after the Chinese government violently repressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and arrested and imprisoned the reform-minded leaders who let it all get out of hand, they then undertook a sweeping review of Chinese education designed to emphasise the uniquely nation-saving achievements of the Chinese communist party and why all Chinese should be forever grateful to it. In order to boost its role as the goody in the story, the communists emphasised the irredeemable baddyness of all foreigners, of Western Imperialism, be it British, French or Russian, and also to lump in the decades of abuse from Japan as somehow permitted and encouraged by those imperialist farangs.

It is fascinating to learn that the anti-western feeling of many of China’s young educated people is more powerful and passionate today than it has ever been – and that it is encouraged by state-sponsored history books, courses and teachers.

The final chapter of Bickers’ book is thirty pages devoted to a rather boring description of how archives and records were rescued from China during the 20th century, and how a patchwork of researchers has set about writing more accurate and unjingoistic accounts of western, and especially British, imperialism in China. Fair enough.

The irony is that they are doing so at the same time as China’s authorities are also sponsoring a highly tendentious anti-western narrative. Bickers worries that this could lead to quite dangerous results:

A globalised China is not new; but a powerful global China is unprecedented. That provides new food for thought, especially as Chinese youth come out into the world equipped for instinctive indignation at China’s past humiliations and what they feel to be contemporary echoes of those. The awkward confidence that such sensitivity engenders in them might make for all of us a very awkward world. (Final words of the text – p.399)

Worrying, eh?

And this leads onto a final thought of mine, which isn’t in the book at all – that we live in an age of Victimhood, of ever-multiplying victim narratives competing to be heard. The Jews have a well-established Holocaust narrative which is now enshrined in Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Black History Month has been going since 1970 in the States, 1987 in the UK. Since 1909 there’s been an International Women’s Day, now held on 8 March. These are state-sanctioned days or periods solemnly commemorating what are, at heart, victim narratives.

But away from these official victim narratives, the entire Arab world, for example, blames Europeans and especially the British for allowing Israel to be founded, for giving their countries stupid arbitrary borders, for interfering and undermining their nations in any number of coups and invasions, and for continuing to kill Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria – narratives which can be compiled into recruiting literature for al-Qaeda or ISIS.

I’m not passing judgement on any of these or the numerous other narratives of victimhood of our time – just pointing out the fact that the last pages of Bickers’ book make a riveting contrast to the previous 400, in that, after reading hundreds of quotations from bombastic, jingoistic, imperialistic, often overtly racist, patronising and violently confident China pioneers, settlers and apologists all boasting about their power and might and supremacy  – there is a loud screeching of brakes as you are suddenly dumped into the 21st century and find yourself surrounded by voices all clamouring to show off their weakness, to show you their wounds and their suffering, all competing to show you how vulnerable and abused and humiliated they have been.

Read newspapers and magazines from 1911 and they’re all about power, might and conquest; read newspapers and magazines from 2011 (when this book was published) and it’s a wall of helplessness, victimhood and suffering.

Just a thought…


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Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

Tintin: Hergé and his creation by Harry Thompson (1991)

Slow evolution and complete revamping

The important things to grasp about Tintin are:

a) how old he is – he first appeared in the 1920s!
b) how long it took for his inventor – Georges Remi, who created a pen name by reversing his initials from GR to RG, hence Hergé – to evolve the finished, clear-line look of his mature bandes dessinées or ‘drawn strips’
c) how the early black and white strips were cut down, re-edited and coloured before being republished in the 62-page book format we’re all used to
d) and that mid-way through his career – in the 1940s – the Tintin Studio revisited the first half dozen of the books and comprehensively redesigned, redrew and often even rewrote them to bring them into conformity with the mature style

Thus any attempt to discuss the evolution of the Tintin drawing style is challenged from the start because it’s almost impossible to access the original versions of the first six or seven books in order to make a considered assessment.

Publishing history

From 1929 to 1939 the stories were published in Le Petit Vingtième, a youth supplement to the right-wing Catholic Belgian newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle.

In 1940 the Germans invaded France and Belgium. Le Petit Vingtième was closed down, but Belgium’s leading newspaper, Le Soir, continued to publish and Hergé became editor of its youth supplement. As such he was well-placed to commission new Tintin adventures.

After the war, there was another hiatus, not least because Hergé was investigated for alleged collaboration with the Nazi regime i.e. working on a Nazi-approved newspaper. When he was finally exonerated, the leading publisher, Casterman, approached Hergé with the idea of creating a weekly journal devoted solely to his creation – Le journal de Tintin. It was in this journal that the ten last stories were published, through to Hergé’s death in 1983.

Early stories

The first Tintin story was published in 1929. The early design is stiff and awkward and the ‘storylines’ of the first few books – Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America – don’t amount to much more than a ramshackle sequence of slapstick adventures. The ‘hero’ is very obviously based on a boy scout and childishly immune to danger and assault. Most of the other characters are stereotypes of the popular culture of the day – evil Russian Bolsheviks, stupid lazy Africans, and gangsters, cowboys, and Indians in America.

Nonetheless, Tintin was popular from the start. Thompson makes clear just how popular by telling us that Le Petit Vingtième‘s editor hired an actor to play Tintin and invited a crowd, and a load of other journalists, to meet ‘Tintin’ at Brussels’ main train station, each time one of the stories came to an end. It worked – each time the actor (and his white terrier) was mobbed by excited fans!

Capitalising on this popularity, the newspaper strips were republished as best-selling books.

However, it was only in 1942 that these books were routinely colourised (and the resulting strips edited and shortened to fit each book’s 62-page format). The newspaper strips themselves remained in black and white until 1946.

It was also only in the 1940s that Hergé, by now running a dedicated Tintin studio, had the resources to go back and get his team to redesign and redraw the best of the early adventures, bringing them into line with the claire ligne style which he had by then evolved. This explains why the first seven or so books exist in two versions (though the original black-and-white versions are hard to find).

A striking example of this revisionism is The Black Island, which went through three versions. The first was serialised weekly from April to November 1937. It was published in book form in 1938. As part of the Tintin Studio’s overhaul of the earlier tales in the 1940s, they produced a new, second, colourised version of the story in 1943, reducing the number of pages from 124 to 60.

But the story is set in the UK and when Hergé’s British publishers, Methuen, began to prepare an English translation, they were upset by numerous inaccurate representations of British life. Methuen made a list of 131 errors of detail which they asked to be set right. And this led the Tintin studios to rework the book completely, resulting in the completely updated and redrawn 1966 version, the only version you can now buy. Because this third version was done at the mature peak of the studio’s style, it is sometimes thought to be the best-drawn story of all.

Insights

– Tintin was virtually the first cartoon series in Europe to use speech balloons. This innovation came as a revelation to contemporaries and was hugely influential.

– Just as novel was its invention of ‘bande dessinée‘, literally ‘drawn strips’ or just ‘strips’ – i.e. a strip or sequence of pictures which tell a story. The sustained use of this format, over a course of weeks and months, to tell a coherent narrative using the same characters, was a radical innovation.

– It took Hergé some years to perfect his style of ligne-claire or clear line drawing. This is characterised by clear, strong lines of the same width outlining the people and objects in the story, with little or no cross-hatching or shading. Shadow isn’t suggested by shades of black or grey, but darker versions of the unshadowed colour. The total effect is of a wonderful brightness and clarity.

– Thompson points out how, in Hergé’s mature style, only the faces are comic – the rest of the body, the positioning of all the bodies in architectural space, the cars and gadgets and features of the outside scenery or interior furnishing, are all depicted in brilliantly economical and precise line drawing. It is hard to put into words why this is so immensely, even thrillingly, satisfying.

– Photographic realism From The Blue Lotus onwards Hergé and his growing team of assistants carried out thorough research – of the cultural and political backgrounds to the stories, but also scouting out, photographing and sketching real locations to use as settings for the story.

The hyper-accuracy of the later strips can be seen in the dazzling, almost technical drawing of countless artefacts:

The technical accuracy of these drawings of cars, boats, planes etc, the fine detail and finish in the depictions of wonderfully-engineered machines, gave the Tintin books the same thrilling beauty that I found in Dinky cars and Airfix models when I was 8 and 9 and 10 years old.

I think the simple technical accuracy of the  machines is an under-appreciated aspect of the Tintin books. It is present on almost every page and quite routinely outshines the human figures and even the sometimes silly plots.

– The fundamental element in Tintin’s character is the ever-optimistic boy scout. Hergé had been an enthusiastic boy scout as a teenage, and had drawn cartoons for the Belgian boy scout magazine. Tintin never loses his innocence and morality.

– Left to right Along with the obvious features of the bande dessinee and ligne claire is another recurrent element: in the mature strips Tintin always progresses from left to right; danger always comes from the right; if Tintin is pictured moving left, it is in retreat or a setback.

– If the first few, naive adventures are open to accusations of patronising racism, quite quickly Tintin becomes the egregious defender of native people, especially children. Think of the classic scene in Prisoners of the Sun (1946) where Tintin defends a young Quechua boy named Zorrino from Spanish bullies. Maybe the first instance comes early in The Blue Lotus (1934) when Tintin defends a hapless rickshaw puller from the odiously racist American businessman, Gibson. Later in the same book he saves a Chinese boy, Chang Chon-chen, from drowning in a flooded river.

– Zhang Chongren At the end of the newspaper run of Cigars of the Pharaoh, Hergé mentioned that Tintin’s next adventure would be set to China. This prompted a Belgian Catholic, chaplain to the Chinese students at the University of Leuven, to write to Hergé asking him to be sensitive about what he wrote about China.

Hergé agreed and in the spring of 1934 the chaplain introduced him to one of the Chinese students, the young Zhang Chongren. Zhang and Hergé were the same age, both born in 1907, and from this chance introduction sprang a deep and lifelong friendship.

Zhang introduced Hergé to Chinese history, culture, and the techniques of Chinese art including the delicate art of calligraphy. As a direct result Hergé for the first time:

  • tried in The Blue Lotus to be meticulously accurate in depicting the places Tintin visited
  • to give a real sense of the mature and complex politics of the contemporary world – The Blue Lotus is startling in its depiction of the violent arrogant Japanese and the revolting racism and/or corruption of the westerners in Shanghai’s International Settlement
  • shows the influence of Chinese art in its greater clarity and stylisation
  • actually includes the Chinese characters for Zhang’s name in a couple of key places (shop fronts and dock warehouses)

In the story Tintin befriends a young Chinese boy with the not-very-disguised name of Chang Chong-Chen and there is a striking scene where Tintin explains to ‘Chang’ how Europeans think of Chinese in terms of cartoon stereotypes. Chang bursts out laughing at westerners’ ignorance and prejudice. It was really a very bold stance for a children’s cartoon to take in 1934, and it drew criticism from pro-Japanese businesses and politicians and even from the Japanese ambassador to Brussels himself.

– Tintin’s alternative geography Whereas he had been blunt and insulting about the USSR, America, Africa and Japan in the first few books, the occupation of Belgium by the Nazis made it dangerous for Hergé to depict real countries. But Hergé had in any case begun to develop the notion of fictional countries, closely related to real ones but simplified and exaggerated. For me the most memorable are the ruritanian East European countries of Syldavia – home of King Ottakar – and its aggressive neighbour Borduria, which reappears as the setting of the masterpiece The Calculus Affair. Here it is depicted as half-Eastern Bloc and half-fascist country complete with its own secret police, ZEP, led by Colonel Sponsz, and a fascist military dictator, Marshal Kûrvi-Tasch.

The process had begun with the fictional South American dictatorships of San Theodoros and Nuevo Rico depicted in The Broken Ear (1938), and continued right to the end, with ‘Sondonesia’ bearing a striking resemblance to Indonesia, and ‘Khemed’ to Jordan, in Flight 714 (1968).

The original names

Tintin remains Tintin but almost all the other characters were given new names by the translators (Michael Turner and Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper) when they turned the stories into English:

  • Milou is translated as Snowy (the name needed to be five letters long to fit the often small speech bubbles)
  • Archibald Haddock / le capitaine Haddock remains Captain Haddock
  • Le Professeur Tryphon Tournesol becomes Professor Cuthbert Calculus
  • Detectives Dupont et Dupond become Thompson and Thomson

List of works

1929–1930 Tintin in the Land of the Soviets
1930–1931 Tintin in the Congo (2nd version 1946)
1931–1932 Tintin in America (2nd version 1945)
1932–1934 Cigars of the Pharaoh (2nd version 1955)
1934–1935 The Blue Lotus (2nd version 1945)
1935–1937 The Broken Ear (2nd version 1943)
1937–1938 The Black Island (2nd version 1943, 3rd version 1966)
1938–1939 King Ottokar’s Sceptre (2nd version 1947)

With the Nazi takeover of Belgium in 1940, Tintin’s character as a journalist fighting crime was quietly dropped. As Thompson points out, at this point Tintin changes from being a fearless journalist to being a fearless explorer. An unintended consequence was that – forced to drop the cheap satirical and topical gags of the early books – Hergé had to concentrate more on strong plots and deeper characterisation.

1940–1941 The Crab with the Golden Claws
1941–1942 The Shooting Star
1942–1943 The Secret of the Unicorn
1943 Red Rackham’s Treasure
1943–1946 The Seven Crystal Balls

With the end of the war, new Tintin stories began to be published in a new journal devoted just to him, Le Journal de Tintin.

1946–1948 Prisoners of the Sun
1948–1950 Land of Black Gold
1950–1952 Destination Moon
1952–1953 Explorers on the Moon
1954–1956 The Calculus Affair
1956–1958 The Red Sea Sharks
1958–1959 Tintin in Tibet
1961–1962 The Castafiore Emerald

Final works

For me the canonical Tintins stop at this point – the last two completed stories, Flight 714 and Picaros never had the same place in my heart.

By contrast, The Castafiore Emerald still has a strong 1950s vibe in all kinds of details, like the beatnik beard of one of the journalists or the tweedy formality of Madame Castafiore and her maid. That late 1940s/1950s atmosphere still lingered on in my own childhood, in the clothes and attitudes and essential decency of my parents and their friends, when I was small.

Whereas these last two bandes dessinées were a) produced after a notable break b) are visually more part of that late 1960s/1970s environment in which I turned teenage – less suits and ties, more windcheaters and machine guns; less remote and childlike baddies of the moon books or the Bordurian dictatorship of Kûrvi-Tasch of The Calculus Affair – more hijackings and the PLO,

1966–1967 Flight 714 to Sydney
1975–1976 Tintin and the Picaros

1986 Tintin and Alph-Art – radically unfinished at Hergé’s death in 1983.

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