Make Me by Lee Child (2015)

We can’t fight thirty people. To which Reacher’s natural response was: Why the hell not? It was in his DNA. Like breathing. He was an instinctive brawler. His greatest strength, and his greatest weakness. (p.136)

Make Me is the 20th novel in the series featuring tough ex-U.S. Army Military Policeman-turned-investigator, Jack Reacher.

The series is immensely popular, with every one of the novels having been optioned for movies, and two – One Shot and Never Go Back – made into ‘major motion pictures’ starring Tom Cruise. Which is odd since Cruise is famously on the short side (5 feet 6 inches) whereas the whole point of Jack Reacher is that he is a hulking bear of a man (six foot five).

Lee Child

The single most interesting thing about the Jack Reacher novels and their star, the tall, street wise, intelligent and bullet-proof American tough guy, is that their author is English.

Lee Child was born in Coventry and grew up in Birmingham. You can hardly get less glamorous and more provincially English than that. What turned him into an international publishing phenomenon? Eighteen years working with Granada TV, writing trailers, introductions, commercials and news stories. This honed his skills for getting to the point. (In fact Lee Child is a nom de plume: his real names is James Grant.)

Praise

The cover of the book is festooned with praise from his peers in the thriller-writing business, such luminaries as James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Ken Follett, Stephen King and Frederick Forsyth. It is noticeable that all the women writers describe Reacher in terms of physique and sexual attractiveness.

Patricia Cornwell says she picks up Reacher ‘when I’m in the mood for someone big to solve my problems.’

Karin Slaughter says Reacher is ‘one of the sexiest characters in fiction.’

Joanne Harris says reading Reacher is ‘one of my essential guilty pleasures.’

The most revealing comment is from British journalist Lucy Mangan:

I am very much in love with Jack Reacher – as a man and a role model. If I can’t shag him, then I want to be him.

(The bold is in the originals.) Reacher is tall, blonde and handsome, He is strong and silent. He protects women and the vulnerable. He doesn’t start trouble but if there is trouble he can more than handle himself in a fight. ‘What do women want?’ Freud is said to have asked. Jack Reacher, apparently.

Slow buildup

I was surprised and then amazed at how slow-moving this novel is, very slow, very slow-moving indeed. It has 492 pages divided into fifty-nine short punchy chapters (8.3 pages per chapter, though each one manages to feel much briefer because of the snappy writing).

By half way through, the following has happened: Reacher has stepped off a train at a remote and minuscule settlement in the American mid-West, intrigued by its incongruous name, Mother’s Rest. A woman steps out of the shadows as he strolls towards the central strip of town, clearly expecting him to be somebody she knows, then realises he isn’t.

They get chatting and it emerges that she is Michelle Chang (a name as tokenistically ethnic, but really as bland and commonplace as his own). Chang is ex-FBI, now a freelance investigator, having set up a detective agency with a few other investigators in the same situation. One of them was named Keever. He called in to tell the others that he was investigating something here in Mother’s Rest, then disappeared. She’s come to find out why.

We, the readers, know why – because Child opened a novel with a description of ‘them’ – an unnamed group of men – burying Keever. He’s dead. They killed him. This much we know. But why?

Very slowly Reacher gets drawn into Chang’s problem, not least because he is irked by the unfriendliness of the guys in town. (All men are referred to as ‘guys’ throughout.) The one-eyed owner of the only motel in town is twitchy and nervous, refuses to answer questions about Keever, keeps an obvious eye on Reacher and Chang.

As Reacher moseys round the small town he realises he is being followed by a kid and that various store owners lift the phone as he walks by – phoning in his progress to a central figure, who goes unnamed – we only know that he wears pressed jeans and has blow-dried hair. Ooh. Creepy! They are all nervous about the way Reacher is snooping around. They all talk about ‘us’, and how ‘we’ will have to take some action…

Reacher and Chang decide to drive to Keever’s apartment in Oklahoma City to find out more. Some guys from Mother’s Rest follow them as they drive. Reacher stops the car, gets out, confronts them and, as they go for their guns, kicks one in the nuts and smashes the other’s cheekbone with his elbow. He’s so tough. He’s so strong. Men want to be him. Women want to shag him. The appeal really does seem to be as primitive as that.

Reacher’s ‘technique’ is thoroughness

Sherlock Holmes’s deductions are clever and unexpected. Reacher’s feel far more obvious. He and Chang find a scrunched-up note in Keever’s room with a phone number and a name on it. They ring the number. It’s a science journalist in LA named Westwood. He agrees to meet them. They fly to LA. The science journalist explains that he gets calls from cranks all the time. Reacher guesses that whoever had hired Keever might be one of these cranks. They check Westwood’s database of calls. They systematically ring them all and eliminate all the obvious fruitcakes or unanswered calls. This narrows it down. One particular caller made lots of calls from Chicago, from a number they identify as the public library. They fly to Chicago. They take a taxi to a hotel. They check in.

By this stage Reacher and Chang have got beyond edgy camaraderie, progressed to sharing theories and hunches, and have had dinner together. He is tall, blonde and handsome with eyes of Arctic blue. She is lean and fit with curves in all the right places. Go on. Guess what happens.

Yep. They go to bed. What do women want? To be wined and dined, to be respected and courted. And then to be shagged senseless by a tall, super-capable man. Repeatedly. In hotel rooms across America.

They visit the public library in Chicago where the calls came from. They interview the librarian who knew the old, sad man who they now think was the caller, Keever’s client, the instigator of Keever’s investigation, name of McCann.

As I mentioned, Sherlock Holmes’s deductions are deliberately made outlandish and improbable. By contrast, at every step of the way Reacher is shown working through the possibly scenarios with very clear logic and application. If Reacher has a method, it is extreme thoroughness. At every stage, almost on every page, there are options and alternatives. He considers them rationally and logically. He works through them. He chooses the best one. It generally proves to be correct.

There is more than a touch of Mr Spock about Reacher.

Lucky man

But one of the things that makes this an example of genre fiction is the easiness, the fluency and the luck. Reacher is lucky, continually lucky.

He speculates that it was Keever’s client who called the LA journalist – and is proved right.

He speculates that the caller will have called in a specific time window 3 to 4 months earlier – and is proved right.

He guesses that the caller, having been blocked by the journalist as a nuisance, will change his name and continue calling, but call from the same number or area code. He does, and that’s what helps them recognise the fake name he uses second time round, which in turn leads them to his real name – McCann.

(It helps that Chang has a contact in the US telephone system who does her favours and helps them identify the various numbers.)

All this evidence narrows the search down to Chicago so they fly there, check into a hotel, have sex, then visit the library. All of which proves to be the correct deduction.

Similarly, the polite lady librarian at the Chicago public library won’t give them the address of the man they have now identified as McCann, out of a sense of confidentiality – but Reacher asks a series of tangenital questions about whether he drove or took public transport to work (walked) and his health (poor) from which they deduce that McCann’s home must be among the surrounding three blocks. Which is correct.

A block away from the library is a dusty old pharmacy which sells the kind of temporary cell phones (known as ‘burners’) which they speculate that McCann used. So Reacher guesses that the old boy walked past it on his walk to the library – so his house must be in that general direction. Which turns out to be correct.

The librarian had said that McCann gave the impression that he was ashamed of where he lived. So Reacher guesses it’s not a nice house but an apartment, probably in a rundown block. And so it is that after half an hour of working along the street, looking at nameplates to every flat on every apartment block, Michelle finds one with ‘Peter McCann’ on it.

They pretend to be making a delivery in order to get buzzed into the block, walk up to the apartment in question, to find the door is open.

And so on.

At every juncture Reacher makes reasonable enough guesses based on the odds, working things through steadily and methodically. But he is always lucky. The cards always fall his way. The time period of calls to the journalist turns out to be dead right. Chicago turns out to be the right hunch as location for the mysterious client. Guessing the pharmacy is the one where McCann bought his disposable phones turns out to be right. His apartment has a nice legible name label (unlike most I’ve ever visited) – and it gives McCann’s real name. The door to the apartment is unlocked.

Same with women. Reacher’s guesstimates about how to pace things in his relationship with Chang turn out to be picture perfect – when to hold off, when to be polite and professional, when to be slightly more personal, when to take her to dinner, when to wait for her signal, when to make a first move (a kiss) and when to take her to bed – all turn out to be right. He is right all the time. About everything.

Tall, tough and handsome, and always right.

Fighting

This supernatural skillfulness comes into its own in the many scenes of violence, fighting and shooting.

When he gets out of the car he and Chang are driving to Oklahoma City to confront the two toughs who have been tailing them – the reader partakes in his expert assessment of the situation, his estimate of where best to stand in order to a) kick one in the nuts and still have time to b) smash the other in the face.

When an assassin confronts them outside Keever’s apartment, we once again share Reacher’s immensely detailed calculation of the best way to handle the situation, and a literal blow-by-blow account of the fight.

Later in the book, Reacher and Chang go to visit McCann’s sister to find out more about his motives for hiring Keever. She’s married to a rich doctor and they’re supervising wedding celebrations for their grown-up daughter when three assassins hired by the Mother’s Rest people burst in. Three assassins with guns. Once again Child gives us an extremely detailed account of how Reacher thinks through the problem, works the angles, creates a diversion, and ends up killing all three and saving himself, Chang and McCann’s sister’s family unscathed.

We see his careful planning and calculations, so it’s not dumb luck. He thinks the problem through, calculates the angles, waits for the right moment, and so on.

Still pretty lucky, though.

When they figure out that the assassins were sent by ‘the fat man’, who is the head of the organisation of hitmen and which has been sub-contracted by the Mother’s Rest mob to rub them out – Chang and Reacher:

a) easily identify the nightclub which is a front for the gang
b) find the gate to the fenced compound around the club conveniently open
c) find the fat man sitting inside the compound, so that
d) Reacher can walk up to him, shoot him in the head, turn and walk away.

No bodyguards protecting him, no-one comes bursting out of the club firing at him. Lucky, huh?

Reacher is always right, about everything.

No wonder men want to be him. No wonder women want to shag him.

Characteristics of a Jack Reacher novel

Simple Child’s prose style is pared right back in the standard thriller style.

1. Partly because all modern American prose is pared back – generations of American creative writing teachers have told all their students to go over and over their manuscripts to remove unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, to keep it simple. So now American prose is simple. Doesn’t mean it can’t be thoughtful, though. Imaginative. Evocative.

Three Rugers [a type of gun], three guys. Black clothes, scalped hair, pale skin. Big enough and heavy enough, but also somehow bony. Tight cheekbones. Hard times in their DNA, from not too long ago. From Europe, maybe. Far in the marshy east. Every man against his neighbour, for the last thousand years. (p.330)

2. Partly because over the past hundred years the masculine world of crime fiction with its strong silent types has been associated with tough, no-nonsense prose for tough, no-nonsense guys. Hard boiled. Nothing soft or wishy-washy. True since the 1920s at least. Dashiell Hammett. Keep it simple.

Simple sentences. Short sentences. Sometimes three words. Or two. One. Limited vocabulary. Repetition.

Reacher listened hard, and heard nothing.
He stepped around the desk to the private side.
He glanced at the ledgers. And the files. And the notebooks. Routine motel stuff. Accounts, orders, to-do lists, percentages.
He listened again. Heard nothing.
He opened a drawer. Where the guy kept the room keys. He put 113 in, and took 215 out.
He closed the drawer.
He stepped back to the public side.
He breathed out. (p.73)

It gives a bleached-out, empty effect. Obviously designed to be tense and taut. Minimum perceptions. Human as robot, as terminator, stripped of all uncertainty and hesitation. Human as pure knowing, calculating machine.

A gated community. Rich people. Taxpayers. Political donors. The Maricopa County sheriffs on speed dial.
They waited at the kerb, a hundred yards short.
It was three in the afternoon. Five, in Chicago.
There was one guard behind the glass.
Reacher said, ‘We should have figured.’
Chang said, ‘If she’s heard about her brother, we’ll never get in.’ (p.291)

Said When characters talk they never question, answer, reply, respond, smirk. They never do anything with any colour or inflection. They just ‘say’. She said. He said. The guy said. They said.

Chang said, ‘He could be a brother or a cousin…’
‘He looks like the boss,’ Reacher said…
Chang said, ‘We have to be certain…’
Reacher said, ‘Did your contact mention family members?’..
Chang said, ‘We don’t know of any family members.’
‘He looks like the boss,’ Reacher said… (p.352)

The deliberate reduction of the complex and multi-faceted human activity of speaking, questioning, answering, discussing and joking down to one monotonously reiterated word – ‘said’-  typifies the general strategy of simplification.

All men are ‘guys’. All roads are blacktop. Taxis are taxis. They took a taxi to the hotel. It was part of a chain. The Mothers Rest hard goods store is like hundreds of others. The pharmacy in Chicago is the type you see everywhere.

Hardly anything is really described, certainly not given any detailed vibe or atmosphere. That would require invoking an element of subjectivity on the part of the narrator, that would involve soft, wishy-washy feelings and perceptions and these – in this genre – are banned.

Instead, atmosphere is almost entirely implied by Reacher’s reactions to a situation, sizing up the guy, weighing the odds, calculating the angles.

Paused a beat Hence another characteristic: characters often pause in speaking — pause a beat or, in another common phrase, pause until the silence becomes uncomfortable.

He paused a beat… She was quiet for a long moment, five or six seconds, right to the edge of discomfort. (p.492)

During these pauses the characters – mostly Reacher – are calculating the odds, thinking the problem through.

Which Another mannerism is, after anyone has made a decision or acted a certain way, to have a short sentence starting with ‘which’ and approving it.

Which made sense. (p.349)

Which was a good question. (p.468)

Which was good. (p.457)

If you say it out loud, in a slow tough guy drawl, you can see how it conveys laconic, wise approval. One pro nodding approval of another pro. Good choice. Wise move.

The bloody climax

In the end, you won’t be surprised to learn that the sleepy little ville of Mother’s Rest does indeed contain a gruesome and disgusting secret, a secret so sordid and violent that the townspeople are all jumpy whenever a stranger arrives, and have outsourced ‘protection’ to a Ukrainian mobster, Merchenko, and his hitmen.

(These are the hitmen Reacher deals with in the scene where they invade McCann’s sister’s house in Phoenix – referred to above – which prompts him to track down and coolly execute Merchenko.)

In fact, there turn out to be two secrets, a secret within a secret, which is very effective, in narrative and thriller terms.

As the plot moves along, Westwood introduces Chang and Reacher to a geek who can access the so-called Dark Web, the vast cyberspace with hidden websites and transactions, mainly used for pornography and crime. He is referred to simply as ‘the guy from Palo Alto’ (p.378).

This guy uses the evidence our team have assembled to tell the following story – a middle-aged man named Peter McCann had a 30-year-old son, Michael, with mental health issues who he was concerned about and who had gone missing on a bus journey through Mother’s Rest. McCann made repeat calls to Westwood asking for his help tracking his son down. Why? Because McCann had written an article way back, one he’d more or less forgotten about, on the subject of the Dark Web, and McCann wanted Westwood’s help in delving into it to find out what happened to his son. McCann had discovered that his son was a frequent visitor to dark websites concerned with suicide.

The guy from Palo Alto confirms all this and goes on to discover that it looks like Michael made a pact with someone he met on the Dark Web to go to Mother’s Rest and be euthanised.

In other words, the dark secret behind the sleepy little town, is that a dozen or so of its inhabitants have set up a euthanasia centre on a remote farm a dozen miles outside of town. Here customers can commit suicide in a number of ways. The guy from Palo Alto tracks down a hidden brochure which lists the methods: injection of poison, carbon monoxide piped into a peaceful room to nice music etc.

Having discovered all this Reacher and Chang return to Mother’s Rest along with Westwood, pretty sure there will be a welcoming committee and there is. The ten or so men in the euthanasia syndicate have posted lookouts around the town and are waiting with guns.

There is a very bloody shootout. Reacher and Chang lure out of the stronghold, cosh and tie up five of the baddies, before the situation degenerates into a prolonged shoutout with the other five.

Despite being trapped in a large shed-like building with the baddies firing rifle bullets through the thin walls, our heroes survive unscathed, while despatching all five of the armed baddies. Lucky, eh?

It is only during the shootout that they discover there is an even darker side, to the euthanasia setup than they had originally thought. I won’t give it away, partly because it’s so disgusting, partly because… you should read it yourself!

Reacher is a calculating machine

By page 492 – in among the violence, the pared-back prose style, the inevitable championship sex between Chang and Reacher and the incredible fluency and mobility of American life (on one level the book is a blizzard of planes and trains and coaches and taxis and hotels and gold cards) –  I kept being struck by the surprisingly Darwinian nature of its worldview.

The longer it goes on the more you realise that Reacher is a calculating machine – not doing sums, but calculating the odds of everything. What is really going on in Mother’s Rest, why does a shopkeeper glimpsed through a window move his arm (phoning someone?), what are his chances with Chang, how will the assassin in the doorway move next, how accurate will the shooters with their M16 rifles be – and so on. He never stops. He is permanently calculating the odds and possibilities of everything.

Some of this is unconscious. On a number of occasions Child tells us that Reacher is calculating something with the frontal, conscious part of his mind – but meanwhile, the unconscious back part is making its own split-second decisions – what he refers to several times as ‘the lizard brain’.

A forty per cent chance, the back of Reacher’s brain told him, immediately and automatically… (p.332)

Then the guy in the yard opened the slider and stepped inside, and the back of Reacher’s brain showed him the whole chess game right there, laid out, obvious, in flashing neon arrows, in immense and grotesque detail… (p.327)

Meanwhile the guy [Reacher has just shot] was going down vertically, as if he had stepped into an elevator shaft, and Reacher was turning fractionally left, from the waist, shoulders braced, looking for the third-base guy, the furthest away, because some back-of-the-brain calculation was telling him the guy had a better line of fire… (p.337)

It’s like being inside the brain of a cheetah or a leopard, stalking its prey on the savannah, permanently calculating, continually alert to its next move.

At one point Reacher is described as a predator poised above the waterhole. This is exactly what he feels like all the way through. When not being pressed he is gentlemanly and courteous, to old ladies or women like Chang. But when at all pressed, he turns into super-predator, an unrivalled calculator of the odds for fighting and surviving and beating all the opposition in sight.

He’s not just tall and strong and trained to kill in twenty ways. He is a super-predator, a quintessence of the hunter-killer instinct which the biologists tell us is inside all of us.

Which, according to the blurbs, men want to be, and women want to shag – in order to have babies by him, in order to be protected by him.

The heartlessness of American life

Where does Reacher get his money from? There seems to be no end to the train tickets, hire cars, airplane flights, hotel rooms and taxis, taxis everywhere. Credit cards, cell phones, the internet, shiny hire cars, the rich doctor in his gated community, the party by the pool, power breakfasts, brunch in diners, dinners in restaurants – to me there is a sickening surfeit of wealth.

In their films and fictions, Americans seem to take it for granted that they can go anywhere, do anything, eat anything, shoot anyone. By and large Americans don’t realise how rich and privileged they are.

Which makes the contrast with the sickening sadism, violence and general heartlessness of almost the characters so upsetting and disturbing. The novel opens with a murder, there’s a lull while Chang and Reacher slowly uncover the powder trail leading to the gruesome truth – and then a steady increase in tempo of the opponents Reacher has to blow apart, behead, execute and generally eviscerate.

For me there’s an umbilical connection between the two: The casual way they accept the train tickets, plane flights, hire cars, identikit hotel rooms, everything is described in solely functional terms, as expressions of wish and desire. I wanna go there. I’ll getta plane. I’ll hire a car. I’ll getta taxi. I want, I get.

The characters apply the same instrumental mindset to each other. You’re in my way. I gotta kill you. Sorry it ain’t personal, it’s business. I’m being paid to execute you, sorry but a job’s a job.

In the scene where the assassins burst in on Chang and Reacher talking to McCann’s sister and her family, the assassins – once they’ve lined the good guys all up on the sofa – proceed to share the fact that they’re upset: they were paid to kill three people (Chang, Reacher and McCann’s sister) and now they’re confronted with five people. Well, that’s just not fair, is it? If they gotta kill five they want more money. I mean you would too, right? Am I right?

Presumably this scene is meant to be funny. In fact it’s the delay while the assassins try to figure out which of the five people in front of them are the three they’ve been sent to assassinate – Chang, Reacher and McCann’s sister (well, Chang being Chinese is easy enough, but they’re uncertain about the other two) that allows Reacher, with his lizard brain, to contrive a strategy which evens up the odds enough for him to tackle all three assassins and – lucky as usual – to go from sitting on a sofa completely unarmed, to getting the better of three armed assassins. What a guy.

It’s possible to enjoy books like this for the thrill of the narrative, for its tongue-in-cheek hard man prose, for its ridiculous love scenes – but still be appalled by the insight they give into a society which has been hollowed out and lost all its humanity.

Every possible facility of advanced twenty-first century life is laid on for these Americans. And yet, with a kind of tragic inevitability, books like this show how having everything has somehow withered Americans’ humanity and turned them into killing machines. Not every American is a soulless killer, obviously. But our time does seem to be witnessing a plague of mass shootings by Americans with plenty of guns and no soul whatsoever.


Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1971)

Pedler and Davis

This is a hugely enjoyable, trashy but compelling sci-fi shocker, written by the scriptwriting duo of Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. The story of the their writing partnership is interesting in itself:

Christopher Pedler was a British medical scientist, science fiction author and general science. He was head of the electron microscopy department at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University of London, when he was invited in the mid-1960s to contribute to the BBC programme Tomorrow’s World.

As a result of proving to be media-friendly, he went on to become the unofficial scientific adviser to the Doctor Who production team. It was here that he met and formed a writing partnership with Gerry Davis, the programme’s story editor.

Their interest in the way modern science was changing and endangering human life led them to collaborate on a number of scripts and storylines. Probably their most notable achievement was to jointly create the Cybermen, the second most popular monsters on Dr Who (after the Daleks).

In the late 1960s they devised and co-wrote a new science fiction TV series for the BBC, Doomwatch, which ran from 1970 to 1972. Doomwatch covered the work of a fictional government department that was set up to fight the increasing threat of technological and environmental disasters.

I watched the original series back in 1970 and remember to this day the scary special effects in the very first episode of series one, The Plastic Eaters. This episode set the tone of technology run wild creating worldwide disaster and was so popular that Davis and Pedler then turned it into the 1971 novel, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters.

Mutant 59

Unsurprisingly, the book shows all the signs of having been written in a hurry – it is not very well proof-read, and the science and technology bits often feel cut and pasted into gaps between the exciting ‘adventure’ scenes.

Nonetheless, I found it so gripping – in a ripping yarns sort of way – that I literally couldn’t put it down. I picked it up in the ‘library’ of a small hotel where I was staying, started to read the opening chapter about 11.30 pm and then found I couldn’t stop, reading the entire book through until 3.30 in the morning – much to my regret the next day.

The plot is simple: a man-made bacterium starts eating plastic, all plastic, everywhere. Incidents occur around the world, but the heart of the infection is in London and during the course of the novel, central London is cordoned off by the army who erect decontamination centres at key gateways in and out.

It takes a while for this basic fact to really emerge clearly because, to begin with, it seems more as if a new super-plastic created by a trendy technology company is at fault. The firm is run by go-getting American, Arnold Kramer, whose beautiful wife, tough independent journalist Anne, has just discovered he is having an affair. Kramer has recently hired from Canada a tall, handsome scientist named Luke Gerrard, who is to emerge from the rather confused opening scenes as the hero.

Together Kramer’s company had pioneered a tough new form of plastic, shown to resist anything and sold it to companies around the world. It is components made from this plastic which fail in the opening pages of the book, with disastrous results for

a) an Apollo 19 space mission which explodes as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere
b) BEA flight 510 which crashes into a suburban street on its approach to Heathrow with devastating results (a genuinely harrowing description of the death and destruction caused by a plane crashing into an inhabited area)
c) the loss of a British nuclear submarine
d) the failure of a an experimental new computerised traffic system, which brings chaos and – again – death to the area around Kensington

Enquiries are started in Whitehall into the submarine loss and into the road traffic fiasco. In the latter we are introduced to the architect of the traffic scheme, Slayter, who has been developing the scheme for years and is puzzled and upset that it fails on its first day. The book is also quite persuasive about the bureaucracy of the civil servants who had commissioned the traffic scheme and how they all blame each other when it goes wrong. There are scenes set in Whitehall meeting rooms where various officials report to the head of the enquiry, and a good description of the in-house feuding led by the senior government official, Atherton who had always been against the scheme and now takes his revenge in a quiet bureaucratic sort of way.

Meanwhile, at Kramer’s consultancy we meet not only him, the wife Anne and Luke, but several of the other scientists. We learn that they had not only developed a type of plastic which lasts forever – the type which was used to insulate wires in the space ship, submarine and traffic system, the meting of which cause all the catastrophes. We now learn that they had also been working on a type of plastic designed to decompose when exposed to a chemical they’ve developed. The motive for this was the ever-increasing mountains of disused plastic which are cluttering up the Western world. The plastic-eating chemical might have any number of applications, for example a little sachet might be built into plastic drinks bottles sold in supermarkets. When you’ve drunk the drink, pull a little pin, the chemical is released and the plastic decomposes in front of your eyes.

It takes a while for all this to emerge because the first 50 or 60 pages of the book are quite confusing. The failure of the moon shot, the findings of the nuclear sub enquiry, the Whitehall arguments about the road traffic fiasco and so on all create a compelling sense of foreboding and menace, and the reader is happy to be carried along on a wave of suspense – but it also results in quite a blizzard of names, with some 30 characters being introduced and no clear sense of who, if anyone, is the ‘lead’.

The tube adventure

It is only about a third into the book that the central part of the narrative kicks off and this is the part which kept me up half the night. What happens is that members of the two enquiries going on in Whitehall (into the traffic and nuclear sub accidents) bump into each other, as jolly Whitehall types do, and begin to realise that the incidents all have something in common, something to do with the failure of the plastic lining of the electrical wiring.

Thus the plastics man sent along by Kramer – hunky Luke Gerrard – gets chatting to traffic scheme designer, Slayter, a practical no-nonsense man after his own heart – in a smoky 1970s pub. they put two and two together and start wondering where else plastic insulation is widely used. Turns out they’ve recently done a job to rewire the London Underground system. Hmmm.

Gerrard raises all this when he reports back to the board of Kramer Consulting. He suggests he rings up their contact in London Underground and goes to inspect the cables for himself. Anne Kramer (big Kramer’s cheated wife) is in the meeting and, being a go-getting journalist, insists on coming along. Gerrard rings up Slayter, who he took a shine to in the pub, and asks him if he wants to come, too.

Thus it is that this trio – Gerrard, Slayter, Anne – are met by several Underground officials who take them underground, initially along a live Tube rail line, and then off into some of the huge number of unused branch lines running off it, all with a view to examining the new wiring.

Here they do indeed discover that the plastic insulation around the wires carrying electricity along the lines of tube tunnels is melting. But they’ve barely made this discovery before there is a catastrophe. The process of plastic decomposition releases CO2 and methane, and a lot of this has built up in the Tube system without anyone realising it. Our heroes are carefully approaching a tube station where a train has stopped with a view to climbing up onto the platform, when there is the most enormous explosion and a ball of flame rips through the carriages and platform, turning people into human torches as they watch.

They try to save some of the victims but are forced back by the heat, running back to the last carriage on the train, through the door and down onto the rail, running as fast as they can to escape the fireball.

The CO2 is so widespread in the system that the explosion they witness turns out to be only one of a series of explosions which blow holes in main roads, kill passing pedestrians, making cars explode and generally introducing mayhem into central London.

In the rush to escape our heroes find that they have acquired a bossy military man in civvies, another guy and a blonde secretary, who also fled down the Tube line after them.

Unable to go back to the platform where a big fire is now burning, our heroes discover that if they continue down the track it dips and… is being slowly filled with poisonous heavier-than-air CO2. They find this out the hard way when Slayter and one of the Tube men go that way. The Tube man suddenly grows weak and faints and when Slayter bends to help him he too is very quickly overcome by poisonous fumes and is only just able to turn and stagger back up the slope of the tunnel, arriving back at the others weak, sick and close to death.

So this little troup of survivors can’t go back to the burning Tube station or forward down into the CO2-filled tunnel. Are there any other exits? This is where it comes in handy that throughout the process they have been guided by an old station master. Yes, he knows some old tunnels off to the side of the one they’re in. Although it turns out that he’s quite an old guy, nearing retirement, and all this excitement and activity isn’t good for his old ticker.

And thus begins their long, perilous and thrilling trek through the forgotten backways of the Tube – a subterranean odyssey which reminds me of the Weirdstone of Brisingamen or Bilbo Baggins’ lost adventures in the caves under the Misty Mountains, not to mention several classic Dr Who episodes set in the Tube.

Underground journeys through great peril go back, I suppose to Dante in the Inferno, and via him to Aeneas being shown the underworld, or back to Orpheus’s adventures in Hades. There is something very profound, very deep, in the most obvious sense, about being lost underground.

Not only could I not put the book down but I became genuinely scared as our heroes have to overcome a whole series of unexpected perils and trials. The door from my bedroom into the hallway was ajar showing a big black nothingness. The book gripped and scared me so thoroughly that I had to get up and switch on the hall light, so powerful was the sense of creeping terror.

Anyway, so by this stage we have the classic Disaster Movie scenario of a selection of random citizens who find themselves at the mercy of the increasingly unwell old station-master. He leads them on a complicated journey through the Tube network, into side tunnels and into disused old stations (notably Gray’s Inn station), encountering hazards all along the way. For example there’s a tunnel which he thinks leads out, and they can certainly feel a draught and fresh air coming up it but – it is half-filled with water above which are hanging some powerful electricity cables now stripped of their insulation. If the cables touch the water ZAP!

As in all these kinds of stories the bad-tempered military man insists on taking the risk of going into the water, despite everything the decent chaps – Gerrard and Slayter do to try and prevent him. Military bully persuades the weak-minded secretary to go with him, while Slayter and Gerrard manage to restrain Anne. Guess what happens to the military man and his follower… Yes. ZAP!

Alas, the old station master’s heart disease gets worse as the adventure progresses and our guys eventually have to abandon him in a large open space they’ve discovered, promising to come back and get him. Going on, they discover a big brick room with fresh tea and sandwiches incongruously laid out in it. They realise maintenance men had been at work here when the explosions happened. Good. They have only recently left and have… locked the steel door behind them. Bad 😦

However, the workmen abandoned some up to date acetylene torches behind them, good 🙂 But Slayter and Gerrard realise that the oxygen at the bottom of the room is being replaced by CO2 and that using the torches will use up even more. Bad 😦

Their further adventures include the completely unexpected return of the half-burned and wholly mad military man resurrected like a zombie, and climax in a final, almost impossible climb up a hundred foot, sheer-sided air shaft. It all reminded me very much of the movie The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and any number of other Escaping Disaster narratives.

Sex and friendship

To nobody’s surprise the independent, intelligent journalist Anne Kramer, who has just discovered her husband is cheating on her, finds herself strangely attracted to tall, rugged, decisive Luke. Fancy that!

At one point they are climbing a ladder and he looks up to see her white panties. Hm. At another, they have got soaked crossing through water and all strip down to their undies in order to dry their clothes in front of a makeshift fire, Anne, of course, stripping down to wet panties and to a clinging bra which shows her large brown nipples. Hmm.

When I was eleven years old this kind of thing titillated me no end as it was more or less the only form of erotic description you could access anywhere. Years later I can see it for the highly formulaic level of titillation required in this kind of adventure.

Just as formulaic but more enjoyable is the bromance between Gerrard and Slater. They share different but complementary types of scientific and technological insight so that they not only have to escape through the various underground hazards but between them begin to cobble together an explanation for what is going on with the melting plastic. (Maybe the teamwork between this clever, literate pair of scientists reflects something of the camaraderie of Pedler and Davis themselves?) Both think it is something to do with the new super-plastic developed and widely sold by Kramer’s consultancy.

the true source of mutant 59

But they are wrong. The plot takes a massive swerve in the middle of the narrative, when the narrator completely switches the time and setting of the story in order to give us the true cause of the melting plastic.

Turns out it was a completely different scientist, employed by a commercial company on unrelated work, who one day was irritated to discover his mains drains blocked by plastic toys thrown away by his children and, not for the first time, wondered whether he could concoct a bacterium which would eat plastic.

So he sets about creating a mini-lab in his own house, using materials filched from work. He systematically works through a set of variations on the most likely candidate, exposing each sample to varying degrees of radiation from radioactive cobalt in order to produce a plastic-eating mutation.

Now it just so happens that this scientist has a brain aneurism and, at the very moment when he discovers that variation 59 of his experiments does seem to be a potent eater of the small sample of plastic he has placed in the petrie dish – at that very moment his excitement at the discovery makes the aneurysm rupture, he collapses dead on the spot, and drops the petrie dish – plus its brand-new plastic-eating bacterium – into the nearby sink, where it oozes into the public drainage system and towards the local sewerage works.

This is a very convenient plot device, because it means that nobody knows where the plastic-eating bacterium comes from, and so there is no-one to sound the alert, or to blame.

So – I asked myself at about 2.30 in the morning – why the hell have we been so elaborately introduced to Kramer Consultants and their plastic sheaths? Because, it turns out, the substance which Kramers have created which degrades in sunlight – this turns out to be a kind of superfood for Mutant 59.

And since people have been drinking drinks and eating eats made from the new biodegradable plastic and then chucking it down the drains – the drainage system of London has become packed to the hilt with plastic-eating bacteria.

Not only that, but Mutant 59 is itself mutating at an astonishing speed, becoming more and more efficient.

And not only that but the by-product of the eaten plastic is the highly flammable gas methane. Hence the massive explosions in the Tube network. Hence smaller explosions in private residences all over the capital.

Civilisation collapses

So much for the ‘whodunnit’ aspect of the narrative. Any good sci-fi disaster story has to follow through the consequences of its disastrous premise, that’s part of the fun of the genre. And so we are treated to extensive descriptions of the collapse of the complex infrastructure lying under the feet of all Londoners, and ghoulishly enjoyable descriptions of what happens when it all melts and blows up.

The book is set in winter so the quick result of all this melting and exploding is the cessation of power, light and communications. The government assumes emergency powers. The army cordons off central London and sets up decontamination centres at key gateways, where citizens are stripped and deloused – all in a bid to prevent the bacterium travelling beyond central London and, potentially, around the world.

Obviously what policemen in novels refer to as ‘the criminal fraternity’ see a golden opportunity in all this and now we are introduced to three hardened crooks based in Soho who do a job on a West End jewellers.

Having had the true story of the origin of mutant 59 explained – and the resulting ‘social collapse’ painted in some detail (there’s a meeting of the Emergency Committee where we are introduced to officials from the Army, the Police, the water board, the sewage people, London Transport, food organisation civil servants, and so on and so on, at considerable length, with each one given a name and the chance to make a page-long speech about how their department is coping with the crisis) the slightly exhausted reader returns to the adventures of Anne and Luke and Slayter.

Long story short, due to Gerrard’s heroism and tough Canadian physique, he manages to climb up the air shaft, find the authorities, get Anne and Slayter (and the station master they had abandoned way back) all freed from the Underground and taken to hospital. And, after a brief spell in hospital, he calls an emergency meeting of the Kramer Consultancy scientists with Slayter attending.

The cure

I like the way that, throughout the book there is a large cast (confusing but realistic) and that we see them routinely arguing and bickering, just like real adults in all organisations do. The members of Kramer’s consultancy are at particular loggerheads, and it doesn’t help that their boss has been summoned to America to testify in front of a NASA committee looking into the Apollo space disaster.

With him out of the way, we watch the half dozen or so other members of the consultancy argue like ferrets in a sack about whether the disaster is their fault (for creating the biodegradable plastic), whether the company has lost its original altruistic intentions in the rush to make money and all join in criticising the character of their (absent) founder, Kramer himself. I liked all this bickering, it felt realistic, and it certainly felt realistic the way it hampers Gerrard from getting them to agree on any concerted effort to solve the problem.

Gerrard’s badgering finally gets the original designer of the degradable plastic to think aloud about possible solutions, and I liked the collegiate way team then collaborate, with accelerating excitement, towards a possible solution. This is to design a variant of the degradable plastic which replaces one of its polymers with the strongest poison they can find, a variety of industrial arsenic. The aim: to get the hungry mutant to gorge on poisonous plastic and wipe itself out.

Overnight the chemist creates a tiny amount of this experimental poisonous plastic in the lab and next morning they all crowd round to watch its action on a sample of Mutant 59 in the petrie dish. Mutant 59 gobbles it all up and then – dies!

OK, so how to distribute it? Another of the scientists suggests they could combine it with a petrol-based aerosol to create a spray. I liked all this. I particularly liked the way the little group of scientists, technicians and engineers go from squabbling among themselves to all falling into line with the new project, as their scientific enthusiasm trumps bitching.

So they contact the production company who had produced the original decomposable plastic for them, who quickly produce several canisters of the poison-plastic.

Gerrard goes out with an army team, all dressed up in biohazard suits, to the shabby quarters of some old proles who live in Soho. This hapless pair had recently reported to the authorities that the foul-smelling foam of post-plastic-eaten bacteria was swarming up through their sink drain,  onto the counter and floor, eating all the plastic in sight.

The proles, as well as Gerrard and the posh officer in charge of the unit, all watch in amazement as they spray the foam and – it works! Covering the foul foam with a shiny patina which the bacteria greedily eat and then – die – hardening into dead crusty flakes and ceasing to eat plastic.

The crisis is solved.

But not before one final piece of poetic justice. Kramer had taken a flight to America before full quarantine conditions had been applied. He has – with heavy inevitability – of course taken a fragment of Mutant 59 with him, attached to his plastic pen.

This allows the authors to paint a gruesomely enjoyable vision of the bacteria quickly spreading throughout all parts of the plane, from the galley to the flight deck, through the plastic insulation on the plane windows and along all the insulated electric wires which festoon a modern jet plane, as Kramer himself, then the air stewardess, then the flight crew realise that their plane is literally melting around them!

I think the teenage reader is then meant to feel there is a poetic justice about the way that, despite alerting the air crew and taking every precaution, the plane disintegrates and blows up in mid-air, killing the adulterer Kramer. He was, after all, a Bad Man, responsible for turning the consultancy he set up to solve the world’s technological problems into a capitalist money-making machine, concerned only with profit – tut tut – and an adulterer into the bargain.

Environmental issues

Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater is a great sci-fi romp for teenagers of all ages, for anyone who enjoyed the old Dr Who with its cardboard sets. It is badly written and the plot creaks with holes and improbabilities – and yet the atmosphere of fear, terror and menace which it creates kept me up half the night. I found it riveting.

But having put it down and got over my terror, the most grown-up thought it gave me was about the sheer antiquity of its environmental concerns. Pedler became disillusioned with the way technology and science were degrading the world’s environment in the late 1960s. Fifty years ago.

The driving force for both the rogue scientist in developing his plastic-eating bacteria and for Kramer’s consultancy in creating a biodegradable form of plastic, was that both groups knew that the world was producing too much plastic.

The world was choking in plastic.

Fifty years ago they were writing fictions about pollution by plastic. Nearly fifty years ago I read sci-fi novels, articles, watched documentaries and adventure series about it. For fifty years anybody who watched kids TV or read pop sci-fi novels has known this is an issue. Why has it only become a political issue now, fifty years too late?

How can people be so ignorant as to think that this is a new and urgent issue? It was new and urgent fifty years ago. Where have they been hiding, what have they been reading, how can they not know this?

Biology trumps ecology

Seen from this point of view – from an environmental point of view – the ‘relationship’ between tall strong Gerrard and fit and fertile Anne is capable of another, broader, social interpretation.

It shows that the sex drive of individual humans hugely outweighs broader social considerations. The blindingly feverish lust between two people widens like ripples in a pond from mutual obsession, to a lesser consideration of the impact of their affair on those around them (spouses, children, family), to a vague awareness of what the neighbours will think, and finally to indifference to the opinions of, or impact on, the billions of nameless souls who make up the world’s population.

Thousands of poems and novels reinforce the idea that our passions, here and now, the quick hot infatuation of lust, of present pleasure, of present convenience, are all that matter – blinding us to wider concerns.

Thus the brown nipples and white panties of the Gerrard-Anne affair can stand as a symbol of the profound selfishness which we are all biologically heirs to, the immediacy of present appetites which make us buy a bottle of water or sweets or sandwiches packaged in plastic, whenever we need to, and chuck away the wrapping and bottle, with no thought for the consequences.

It is ironic that two and a half thousand years of Western philosophers have emphasised the mindfulness and rationality of human beings, when all the evidence suggests the opposite – the extreme heedlesness and indifference of human beings to anything beyond the pleasure of the moment.

Fifty years after Pedler and Davis wrote this novel to alert its readers to the ruinous excess of plastic which was strangling the natural world. During that half century the situation has gone from bad to catastrophic, the seas are more polluted than ever, the birds are strangled in plastic netting, the fish die of poisonous plastic, there is barely a drop of water anywhere on the planet now which does not contain microscopic particles.

The thirst for comfort and convenience hard wired into each and every one of us always trumps the very abstract, unmeasurable sense of our impact on the wider environment. Biology always trumps ecology I thought, as I put the book down, turned off the light, and shivered with fear.

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Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Figures

It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.


Related links

Other posts about American history

American Revolutions: A Continental History 1750-1804 by Alan Taylor (2016)

The picture which you have drawn, & the accts which are published, of the commotions & temper of numerous bodies in the Eastern States, are equally to be lamented and deprecated. They exhibit a melancholy proof of what our transatlantic foe have predicted; and of another thing perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and is yet more unaccountable; that mankind left to themselves are unfit for their own government. (George Washington letter to Henry Lee, 31 October 1786)

Debunking myths

In his blurb on the back of American Revolutions, historian Eric Foner makes the Big Point that it was during the Cold War that a particular version of American history was defined and taught across America’s schools, a version which made the American revolution an exception, distinct and different from the later French and Russian revolutions – by contrast with their chaos and violence the American Revolution was portrayed as ‘good, orderly, restrained and successful’ (p.3), a squeaky-clean Disney version of history designed to underpin America’s claim to an Exceptional Destiny, to being a beacon of reason and light, the leader of the free world.

In this version, whereas they (the French and Russian revolts) had been led by radical ideologues and resulted in appallingly violence, the American Revolution was fought by gentleman-farmers who just happened to be wise and benevolent philosophers in their spare time. They rallied the whole nation behind them with ringing declarations of human rights, to combat a corrupt and greedy British Empire.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Second sentence of the 1776 Declaration of Independence)

Taylor’s history sets out to blow the Disney version of American history sky high in any number of ways.

For a start his text sets the American War of Independence in a far broader time period, and much wider geographical frame of reference, than is traditional.

But it is the core American myths and legends about the heroic men who left their simple life as farmers to stand up to British tyranny, to defy British demands for outrageous taxes, and to forge a new nation out of the thirteen disparate colonies, which take a colossal battering.

Not only is the reality neither as simple nor as high-minded as that, but Taylor regularly takes the reader’s breath away with the blunt, matter-of-fact way in which he debunks so many myths, so comprehensively.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

The dates Taylor endstops his account with – 1750 and 1804 – sound fairly innocent and anodyne, until you realise that this period covers:

  • the build-up, course and outcome of the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763)
  • the slow, incendiary build-up to the War of Independence (1775 to 1783) with its bloody, anarchic eight year duration – during which it metastasised into a world war involving Britain against France, Spain and Holland
  • and, the period I found most interesting, the aftermath of the American War of Independence – 1783- 1804 – during which the newly liberated ‘Patriots’ struggled with
    • a major economic depression
    • a huge increase in public and private indebtedness and the taxes required to pay them off
    • violent (riots, lynchings) disagreements about how to pull the new nation together

Taylor’s account of the creation of the American Constitution is as riveting as it is eye-opening. I had no idea that the chaos, confusion and violently different goals of post-war Americans led many eminent figures (Adams, Washington, Jefferson) to worry that, following ‘victory’ in the war of independence, there might be a civil war between the southern slave-owning states and the northern anti-slave states.

It is a little staggering to realise that the seeds of the great Civil War (1861-65) were evident, and were a real threat, in the 1780s. The question then becomes not ‘Why did the Civil War break out in 1861?’ but ‘How did the Americans manage to delay the inevitable Civil War for so long?’

Such was the suspicion and hatred between the victorious states and their various political leaders that many commentators feared that the new nation might end up fragmented between the European empires which still surrounded it (Britain in the north [Canada], France in the west, Spain in the south).

And – mind-bogglingly – Taylor quotes many who thought that the only way to restore order and deference to authority (as opposed to jostling anarchy) was a return to a monarchy. To institute an American royal family!

For not only was there a division between slave-owning south and slave-free north, but, throughout the thirteen states, huge conflict between those who represented money and property and wanted a strong central government to defend them (who came in time to be called the ‘Federalists’) and those who wanted only a weak central government, and power to remain with the thirteen states, who became known as ‘Republicans’.

The Republicans felt keeping power close to the states ensured a better democracy, each state knowing its own special interests best and its leaders being accountable to an electorate who knew them best.

Taylor’s account of the lengthy debates among the fifty or so representatives from each state who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a new constitution is among the most interesting things I’ve ever read.

a) Because if you’re interested in politics, his explanation of the numerous compromises that had to be made to please various factions is a real eye-opener about the realities of power and power-brokering.
b) Because the constitution has remained the subject of intense debate and conflicting interpretation right down to the present day, invoked all sides in the constitutional battles raging around president Trump.

It is really eye-opening to realise that the American Constitution grew out of tumultuous and vituperative disagreement among men so incensed against each other that key players in the framing (Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton) often despaired of reaching any agreement.

In fact I was reminded, as I read Taylor’s clinical account of the Americans’ ferocious squabbles, of the Magna Carta of England, signed in 1215, which was also not, as most people think, some high-minded declaration of human rights, but a peace treaty, the minimum requirements the barons demanded from dictatorial King John. It also came at the end of a ruinous war and was an attempt to reconcile warring parties, and so has much in common with the American Constitution.

The delegates came to Philadelphia seeking a peace pact to avert civil wars within the fragile union, but their rancour seemed more likely to hasten that bloody collapse. (p.378)

In Taylor’s account the American constitution is just such a compromise, designed to heal rifts and bring together fiercely opposed factions, namely:

  • the slave-based south and slave-free north (in 1780 slaves comprised less than 4% of the northern population compared to 40% of the south)
  • believers that only a strong federal government could hold the ramshackle union together as opposed to believers that only strong independent states guaranteed liberty
  • and laid across these rifts a third one, a class conflict between supporters of the rural interest – of farmers and settlers who had been screwed by the Depression which followed the war and wanted a fairer distribution of land and wealth – and the well-educated, urban elite who owned big plantations, or were lawyers and bankers who made their money from big landowners and their wealth

The drafting was a long and acrimonious process which is absolutely fascinating to read about.

The Founding Fathers of America, from top left clockwise: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson

The Founding Fathers of America, from top left clockwise: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson

After months of horse-trading final agreement on a text was followed by even more trouble when the framers tried to get it ratified by the thirteen states, some of whom flatly refused.

Taylor brings out the importance of the control of the media, the press and the existence of good, well-educated writers and speakers on the Federalist side, which loaded the scales for in their favour, as opposed to illiterate and badly organised opposition from poor farmers and settlers who lived a thousand miles away from the urban centres of power.

This political and rhetorical power helped most of the states ratify the thing, and the ratifiers and drafters then were able to coerce the last few holdouts, like little Rhode Island, until they too capitulated.

It’s a thrilling read which completely alters your view about the origins of the United States and, on almost every page, sheds light on the origins of the economic, political and social problems which it faces to this day.

Americans often romanticise the founders of the nation as united and resolute and then present them as a rebuke to our current political divisions. Pundits insist that Americans should return to the ideal vision set by the founders. That begs the question, however, which founders and what vision? Far from being united they fought over what the revolution meant… Instead of offering a single, cohesive, and enduring plan, the diverse founders generated contradictions that continue to divide Americans. (p.434)

Myth-busting

The American revolutionaries were simple farmers  Well, they certainly derived their money from the land, but both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were masters of large estates worked, of course, by slaves. Washington had a very keen eye for a bargain and was an accomplished land speculator. He was one of the Virginia landowners angered by the British refusal in the 1770s to allow enterprising colonists (i.e. land speculators) to expand westwards into Indian territory.

The war was fought by patriots Taylor emphasises what John Ferling’s book had already made clear to me, that after the first flush of revolutionary fervour in 1775 and 1776, as the war of independence ground on, all the Americans who could manage to do so, evaded military service and conscription by paying to have someone poorer replace them. By 1788 the Continental Army consisted almost entirely of ‘apprentices, transients, beggars, drunks, slaves, and indentured immigrants’ (p.195) All those gentleman farmers which the legends talk about, had skedaddled back to the safety of their farms.

American greed Nobody made noble sacrifices. All the Yanks who possibly could, bought their way out of military service. The officer class fought like ferrets in a sack for promotion and for more money. The issue of pensions for officers became such an issue that significant numbers of officers quit the services, or organised strikes while the war was still in progress, so that Congress was eventually forced to promise all officers five-year pensions.

Government support The British took better care of their soldiers than the Americans took of theirs. Congress could never raise adequate money to feed or clothe their own troops, and had to rely on massive loans from France to continue the war. In the depths of winter 1777, while his Patriot army was dispersed in winter quarters around Pennsylvania – in the freezing snow, often without tents or even blankets to huddle under, without food and without boots or shoes – Washington was disgusted to visit Philadelphia and discover it a city of fashionable balls and feasts and revelries celebrated by an urban élite dressed up in the latest fashions from London and eating fancy French delicacies.

American soldiers making the most of the appalling conditions at Washington's retreat at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-8

American soldiers making the most of the appalling conditions at Washington’s retreat at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-8

There was, in other words, as Ferling’s book also makes clear, almost no solidarity between the colonial rich and the poorest of the colonial poor who they conscripted and sent off to be blown up and bayoneted to death in the scores of inconclusive but brutal military encounters which made up the ‘revolutionary war’.

American ‘liberty’ always tainted by slavery Any slave who could make it to British lines was promised their freedom. Many freed slaves fought for British and a lucky few chose to sail to Britain when ships were evacuating or fleeing American attacks (an unlucky few ending up in Canada, where they were completely unprepared for the freezing weather).

Thus, to many rich Americans, especially in the middle and southern states where slavery was economically vital, the British represented a threat to slavery and, very simply, to their wealth. Whenever any American of the period writes about ‘freedom’, the entire concept, in American mouths, is intimately linked with – and hopelessly compromised by – the enslavement of about half a million Africans, (a fifth of the 1770s population of 2.5 million).

An American slave

American slaves

American ‘freedom’ British politicians and propagandists spotted this straight away and Taylor has a wry smile on his lips as he quotes a steady stream of British politicians and propagandists pointing out the wretched hypocrisy of white American men bickering from morning to night about the precise definition of ‘liberty’, while keeping a fifth of the population of America in chains – and all the while hell-bent on breaking through the barrier of the Appalachian Mountains to the west in order to seize and steal Indian land.

The Indians It was news to me that one of the complaints that enterprising Americans had in the 1760s against the British authorities was that the latter tried to protect the Indians by limiting the colonists’ right to seize and trade land west of the Appalachian mountain chain, in the vast valleys of the river Ohio and Mississippi.

In 1774 the British passed the Quebec Act, designed to bring order and consistency to their rule in Canada. One of its many provisions was to extend Crown control over a huge swathe of land south of the Great Lakes – southern Ontario, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota – areas which American land speculators considered theirs to buy, develop and sell on (at immense profit).

Thus the ‘freedom’ which the Patriots proclaimed was the freedom to continue exploiting black slaves and to expand westwards and conquer the native Americans.

Punishing opponents With typically unanswerable bluntness, Taylor declares that: ‘Revolutions breed civil wars’. The Patriots, utterly convinced of their own rectitude, couldn’t credit conservatives and Loyalists (who wanted to remain in the British Empire) with sensible arguments or ideas; they thought they must be brainwashed, blinded or – worse – bribed into opposing the cause of ‘Truth and Virtue’.

It is striking that 250 years ago ‘progressives’ displayed the same intolerant mind-set that they show today. Anybody who opposes the call for ‘revolution’ cannot be someone with a sensible or cautious approach; they must be a traitor, an outcast, a non-person.

Thus a recurrent theme in the history of the American Revolution is the whipping-up of mobs to attack and burn the houses of anyone who opposed the Patriotic line (compare and contrast the not-very-different mob rule in the French and Russian revolutions).

Naming and shaming and tarring and feathering Hence the extensive examples Taylor gives of the way Patriot communities sought out British governors or anyone else in the British power structure who didn’t have the sense to scarper as soon hostilities broke out.

Anybody who collaborated or expressed ongoing loyalty to King George III, or was just too slow to respond enthusiastically to the latest Patriot declarations, risked being rounded up by a vengeful mob, stripped naked, having boiling tar (boiling, so it melted their skin) poured over them, feathers sprinkled onto the cooling tar, then placed on a beam of wood and paraded round town.

Some courts had Loyalists branded on the face or had their ears cut off, just so everyone could see who ‘the enemy’ was.

So much for the American revolution being some kind of ‘exception’ to the notion that revolutions breed civil wars and civil violence. And Taylor shows how, once established as a valid way of expressing political views and uniting communities, mob attacks, lynchings, the tarring and feathering of opponents, continued  long after the cessation of the War of Independence, well into the era of disputes about the Constitution and beyond.

Lynching a Loyalist, 1773

Lynching a Loyalist, 1773. Note the Liberty Tree, in American mythology a symbol of freedom but also handy for hanging dissidents from

The civilian violence engendered by the War of Independence established the kind of raucous and aggressively violent tone of public debate which visitors like Dickens and Trollope were so surprised by 50 years later – with lynchings, particular, going on to have a long career in the southern slave-owning states until well into the twentieth century.

Taylor’s style and approach

Taylor’s style is crisp, blunt and forthright.

  • Rendered arrogant by their larger population, British colonists mistreated their Indian neighbours, and colonial juries would rarely convict settlers for murdering natives. (p.40)
  • [Benjamin Franklin argued for toleration of people with different coloured skin] Most colonists rejected his logic, preferring their racism. (p.60)
  • [The framers of the Constitution] wanted to redesign republican governments to weaken the many and empower the few. (p.371)

I’ve just finished reading John Ferling’s epic account of the American War of Independence, which deploys a leisurely, poetic prose style, and lengthy biographical sketches of key politicians and military leaders, to seek to understand the character, psychology and motivation of the men who made the big decisions and fought the battles of the Revolutionary War.

Taylor’s prose style is the opposite of rich and poetic. Pithy and to the point, many passages sound as if they’ve barely been expanded from a lecturer’s powerpoint presentation.

  • The Glorious Revolution plunged Britain into prolonged warfare with the French Empire.
  • After 1700, British America imported 1,500,000 slaves: more than four times the number of white immigrants. (p.20)
  • The culture taught women to define their lives by motherhood and domesticity. (p.27)
  • Natives exploited the competition between rival empires to procure presents from both. (p.41)

Individuals – and entire cultures – are briskly dismissed for not sharing our modern enlightened views about race and gender, or for just generally being bad. Taylor takes no prisoners on either side.

  • [British commissioner for Indians] Johnson acted selfishly and cynically
  • In the name of liberty, Patriots suppressed free speech, broke into private mail, and terrorised their critics. (p.108)

His factual statements are sweeping and nervelessly confident.

  • Patriot women felt pride in their enhanced political awareness. (p.112)
  • British critics cast Americans as canting hypocrites who preached liberty while practicing slavery. (p.116)

Moderation, doubt, qualifications, don’t seem to exist in Taylor’s mind. Softening words which might qualify his judgments, words like ‘some’, ‘many’, ‘most’, aren’t in his vocabulary.

  • Eighteenth-century Britons celebrated their mixed constitution as the surest foundation for liberty in history and on earth. (p.91)

Really? Absolutely every Briton who lived between 1700 and 1800 believed this? There were no British critics of the British constitution at all in that entire hundred year period?

No. There is no room for equivocation, doubt or shades of grey in Taylor’s brisk, dismissive prose.

Taylor’s revolutionary aim

But then Taylor’s aim is not to equivocate but to overthrow accepted opinion in its entirety, to subvert reputations, to make us completely and utterly rethink what we thought we knew about the origins, course and meaning of the American War of Independence. (I say us: his book is mostly, one imagines, aimed at an American audience – Taylor is a professor of history at Virginia University, and this book is published by an American publisher.)

The sub-title, A continental history, is the key. As in the prequel to this book, the stunningly eye-opening American Colonies, Taylor’s avowed aim is not just to broaden our thinking about early American history, but to smash the bonds which have held it in prison for generations.

For two hundred years research, thinking and writing about America have been conducted in terms of white European men, focusing on the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ who settled New England, and following a lineage of Protestant dissent through to the ‘Founding Fathers’, who created the noble Constitution.

Taylor’s books aim to show this tradition up for the travesty it is, and to utterly transform it.

The earlier book, American Colonies, starts with the first people to cross the Barents Strait from Siberia around 15,000 years ago, and describes how they spread across the continent, developing differing cultures to cope with the huge variation of ecosystem they encountered, until the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego was reached some 8,000 years ago.

He then describes how the Norse settled Greenland and then reached Newfoundland around 1,000 AD.

Then Columbus came in 1492, bringing with him the brutal system of slave plantations which the Spanish had perfected on the Canary Islands.

The conquistadors first colonised the West Indian islands, then attacked mainland Mexico, destroying empires and enslaving peoples wherever they went. The Spanish explored up into Florida, where they spread diseases which ravaged the civilisations of the Mississippi basin, and also sent explorers and Christian missionaries across the arid deserts of New Mexico and up the California coast.

In other words, an absolutely vast amount of human activity had been taking place on on the American continent for millennia before the English Pilgrim Fathers ever arrived. American history did not start with the Pilgrim Fathers.

And to think so is to submit, acquiesce and accept the very narrow, blinkered myth of America as a land of high-minded white Protestant farmers – that myth of ‘American exceptionalism’ which Eric Foner claims was fostered and crystallised during the Cold War.

Even once the white English settlers arrive in New England, they remain only a part, a tiny fragment, of the vastly wider network of human activities which comprise American history. It is impossible to understand how American developed unless you grasp:

Geography

How the different geography and ecosystems of the Atlantic coast determined what could be grown in each region and therefore what kind of social systems developed there. Thus the West Indies turned out to be ideal for growing sugar, which requires enormous amount of physical effort and so it was these islands that saw the rise of vast plantations worked by enormous workforces of slaves brought over from Africa, and the rise of a relatively small network of rich plantation owners.

Sugar grew less well in the land surrounding the big Chesapeake Bay (which became Virginia) but tobacco did. Again requiring intensive labour, and so big plantations of enslaved Africans.

But from New York northwards the climate was more like Europe and so farms for livestock or crops were more suitable, which tended to remain smaller, mostly family-run affairs. Hence there was never any need for slaves in the north and, though there were some, the slave population was always small.

The Atlantic economy

The intricacy of the Atlantic economy, whereby British ships bought slaves on the west African coast, shipped them to the Indies and Virginia, picked up sugar, rum and tobacco, carried these north to New England where they picked up grain and raw materials, and then sailed back to Britain, or swapped them for foodstuffs and linen which could also be taken across the sea to Britain, or sailed back south to feed the ever-hungry slave populations.

All parts of this triangle of trade became wealthy, and Taylor is brilliant at conveying the unremitting interlockedness of so many different peoples and cultures, towns and nations, agricultures and technologies, all around the Atlantic coastline.

Background to the American Revolution

This – the gist of American Colonies – is all recapped at speed in the first 50 or so pages of American Revolutions, the context for the series of conflicts between Britain and France which took place in Europe and around the world throughout the 18th century: to be precise, from 1689 to 1763.

The last of these conflicts took place from 1756 to 1763. The British called it the Seven Years War, although the colonists called it the French and Indian War, as that was who they were fighting.

The British won the Seven Years War, making massive gains in India, and in north America, seizing all of Canada from the French (along with some smaller West Indian islands and Louisiana).

But it had been a costly war, and when Britain began to raise taxes on the colonists to pay for the British soldiery and the new forts built to protect them, the colonists balked at the new taxes.

At least, that’s the conventional story – but, as usual, Taylor goes way beyond this, to describe another, previously overlooked and far less creditable source of conflict – the colonists’ relentless thirst for new land which brought them into conflict with the Indians, and with the British Imperial authorities who had pledged to protect the Indians and limit the colonists’ westward expansion.

In other words, there was more to the American rebellion than the high-minded rhetoric about taxation and representation would suggest. Characteristically, Taylor points out that Benjamin Franklin who represented himself as an honest man of simple tastes, was himself involved in some breath-taking land speculations just before war broke out. Taylor also chooses to debunk Daniel Boone – for generations painted as a true-hearted son of the soil – revealing that he also was in it for the money.

A veteran hunter, Boone knew the best routes over the mountains to the finest lands in Kentucky. Folklore casts Boone as a nature-loving refugee from settled civilisation; in fact, he helped land speculators fill the forest with farmers. (p.81)

Thus Taylor proceeds, in his short sharp prose larded with unforgiving judgements, as detached from his subject as a Martian examining an alien species.

Patronising

Sometimes Taylor’s explanations seem patronising – as when he explains that a society based on deference meant that the ‘common’ people were expected to defer to their ‘betters’ – as if these were ideas nobody had heard of till his book.

Similarly, he explains that colonial high society was based on status, part of which was being seen to wear the latest fashions from London – as if the rich trying to outdo each other was a practice unheard of anywhere else, at any other period.

Elsewhere, he explains that ‘Christians’ spurned the rewards of this world because they believed in a place called ‘heaven’ where all their good behaviour would be rewarded for ‘eternity’ – as if nobody had ever heard of these ideas before.

In fact, he often sounds precisely like a politically correct American university professor lecturing 18 year-old American students who appear to have no idea what an ‘aristocracy’ or ‘status symbols’ or ‘deference’ are, what Christianity or any other belief system is, until they step into his lecture hall. He takes absolutely no prior knowledge for granted. Sometimes it grates on those of us who do know what a society based on deference means, and have read a bit about Christianity.

Clean slate

But then this is all part of his strategy – which is to step right back from the period, from all the well-established narratives, legends and myths, and from the blinkered traditions of seeing the story only in terms of heroic, white, male Patriots striving for ‘liberty’ – to step right back, to reconsider all the sources, and to tell what actually happened, across the entire continent, to all of its inhabitants – not just to the handful of rich, white men who have usually dominated the story, but to all the different Indian nations, to the half of the population which was female, to the enslaved blacks, free blacks, and even black leaders, and also to the other European nations – specifically France and Spain – who are generally kept out of the story.

American Revolutions is a sweeping, brisk and often blunt account which debunks every conceivable legend about the origins of the United States, giving clear-eyed, unillusioned portraits of all the so-called Founding Fathers, setting all the events in the widest possible economic, social and political context right across the continent to include considerations of the Spanish rulers and French generals who played a role in shaping the new nation even after the War of Independence was concluded – of the Indians who shaped policy throughout the period, fighting on one side then the other – and of the important role played by slaves, primarily as forced labour, but also as freedmen fighting for one side or the other and, periodically, rising up in slave rebellions to seize ‘liberty’ for themselves…

The Haitian rebellion

To give an example, Taylor describes the slave rebellion which started in 1791 in the French colony of Haiti. This uprising forced the French revolutionary government to decoy troops away from the European front to sail half way round the world to put down the revolt.

But the French troops were badly mauled by the black freedom fighters over a series of engagements which dragged on for a decade, while governments came and went in Paris. Eventually, having lost over half their forces to disease and finding it impossible to stamp out the rebels guerrilla tactics, the french abandoned the effort to recapture Haiti in 1803.

Taylor then produces a great coup d’imagination by showing that it was this experience of having his forces pinned down and worn down in the Americas, which prompted the new French ruler, Napoleon, to also dispense with his other territory in the continent, the vast territory known as Louisiana, which he knew he would never have the resources, money or manpower to defend. So Napoleon sold it to President Jefferson in 1804, doubling the size of America at a stroke.

In traditional tellings, this development comes from left field, as an unexpected bonus. But it is the main purpose of Taylor’s account to present a fully integrated history of early America and all its peoples, across the entire region, showing how America was never a land apart, but always intimately linked to the three major European empires and the extraordinarily tangled network of trade in raw materials, goods and people which criss-crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the centuries leading up to Independence.

So that Taylor presents the wide perspective which allows us to understand that it was the slave rebellion in Haiti which persuaded Napoleon to sell Louisiana to the Americans – to put it another way, it was the efforts of black rebel slaves which enabled America to more than double its territory in 1804.

Again and again Taylor’s broad views and panoramic understanding allows him to shed drastic, and exciting, new light on familiar events.

America is not exceptional

Above all American Revolutions makes you realise that – as per Foner’s insight quoted at the start of this review – America is just another country like any other – and that even in its founding period it was characterised by the same kind of poverty, exploitation, corruption, hypocrisy and violence as was to be found in the very European nations it claimed to be superior to.

Except that it also carried the additional burden of bearing, from birth, the twin Original Sins of

  1. the mass enslavement of black Africans
  2. the calculated wiping-out of the native American peoples

Sins which will dog American politics and culture for as long as there is an America.


Related links

Other posts about American history

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


Related links

Other posts about American history

John Ferling’s descriptions of days in the American War of Independence

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Days by Philip Larkin

The historian’s problem with days

Historians deal with periods of time. Since these are generally longer than a few hours, they can or have to be measured in days, days which make up weeks, months, years and sometimes centuries. Nonetheless, when it comes to recording key events (births, marriages, deaths, battles, treaties), historians, like the rest of us, tend to think of them as happening on specific days. D-Day. Independence Day. Days are what we attach meaning to. Days are where we live.

How can you distinguish and separate out all the days which make up all of human history? How can you convey the passage of time, the passage of days, how can you make it more than a colourless recitation of numbers and dates?

Take the American War of Independence. There is debate both about when the war both started and when it ended. The consensus view is that hostilities began on April 19, 1775, when British regular forces tried to arrest rebel leaders in the Massachusetts villages of Concord and Lexington. This sparked skirmishes with Patriot militiamen, which escalated into a running battle as the British soldiers were forced to retreat back to their stronghold in Boston.

And, officially, the war ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783 – although after the British lost the siege of Yorktown in October of 1781 they decided not to continue hostilities and there was no full scale fighting after that date.

So, officially, the American War of Independence lasted about eight years and five months, ‘one hundred and four blood-drenched months’ – some 3,000 days to demarcate and distinguish. How do you make the key ones stand out?

John Ferling’s feel for days

A little way into John Ferling’s long and minutely-detailed military history of the American War of Independence, I began to notice how much attention he pays to the weather and to the quality of important days.

Much of Ferling’s content is as dry and factual as any other historian’s, but he consistently slips in little descriptive phrases designed to convey the specificity of important days. He is particularly fond of the crepuscular hours – of dawn or nightfall – the hours when the world seems more pregnant with meaning and possibility than usual.

  • The brilliant midday sun stood high in the sky over Pell’s Point, transforming the bite of dawn into a comfortable fall day. (p.9)
  • First light came at 4am on this historic day. Thirty minutes later, with streaks of orange and purple visible in the eastern sky, an advance party – six companies totalling 238 men – reached Lexington Common… (p.30)
  • As darkness gathered on September 12 [1775], twenty four hours after their departure from Newburyport, the last of the eleven vessels in Arnold’s armada reached Gardinerstown, Maine, a tiny village with a shipyard some thirty miles up the Kennebec. (p.90)
  • By around 7am, with day breaking under a grey snowy sky, the battle [of Quebec] was over and the Americans who could do so were on the retreat back to the Plains of Abraham, leaving their dead and wounded behind. (p.98)
  • As the dark stain of night gathered over Long Island, Howe, together with Clinton and guided by three Loyalists, set out with half his army over a maze of back roads leading toward the Jamaica Pass eight miles away. (26 August 1776, p.133)
  • When night tightened over Brooklyn, and the black storm clouds obscured the moon, the boats, manned by two Massachusetts regiments under Colonel Glover, and consisting almost exclusively of experienced mariners, were brought across the East River. [Washington’s army flee Long Island for Manhattan after their crushing defeat on 26 August 1776, p.136]
  • As the slanting shadows of late afternoon gathered, [General Howe] decided to wait until morning before launching his frontal attack. (p.147)
  • The British reached Hackensack on November 22 [1776]. The American army had departed twenty-four hours earlier, continuing to move to the west, crossing the Passaic River into Acquackononck Landing (modern Passaic), as the pale sun of the late day glinted off the water. (p.164)
  • The crossing out of New Jersey [by the retreating American army] began immediately and continued through the sullen night under an eerie orange-yellow illumination provided by giant fires  built on the shores, making for what a Pennsylvanian militiaman thought was ‘rather the appearance of Hell than any earthly scene.’ (p.170)

Ferling’s descriptions are like paintings, aren’t they, although paintings from a later era. Ferling brings an essentially romantic sensibility to what was still a pre-Romantic, eighteenth century world.

  • To preserve secrecy [for their surprise attack on German mercenary forces at Trenton], the Americans could not stir until darkness gathered, leaving much to be accomplished in a short period before morning light streaked the eastern sky. (p.176)
  • Washington had divided his forces about three miles west of Trenton. Greene led a division along the northern road to the village. It consisted largely of veterans of the long retreat across New Jersey. Sullivan, who for the most part commanded the men that Lee had brought down from New York, proceeded along a southerly artery near the river, the frozen breath of men and horses visible in the early morning light. (p.177)
  • Time and again the Americans ambushed the British, waging time-consuming firefights before melting away to take up new positions further down the road, from which they opened up yet again on their prey. At one juncture, rebel pickets tied down the enemy for two precious hours. When the lead elements in Cornwallis’s force finally reached the [river] Assunpink, the long, sloping black shadows of late day swaddled the landscape. (p.182)
  • The last lonely streaks of daylight slanted through the leafless trees as the Continental army entered Morristown, New Jersey, on January 6. 1777. (p.204)
  • [General St Clair] ordered the withdrawal [of the American army from Fort Ticonderoga] to begin in the wee small hours of the morning, when the landscape, under a new moon, would be shrouded in sooty darkness. (p.220)
  • The surrender of 5,895 men [after the British General Burgoyne’s ill-fated march south from Canada to the river Hudson ended in total defeat] took time, more than four hours. When the last man had departed the field of surrender, [American General] Gates hosted an outdoor dinner on this sun-soft autumn afternoon for Burgoyne and his brigade and regimental commanders… When the meal was done, and the shadows of late day stretched over the idyllic fields that recently had witnessed untold agony, the British and German officers stood, stiffly said their goodbyes, mounted their horses, and rode off to join their men in the march to Boston and an uncertain future. (p.241)

Ferling is careful to give a pen portrait of each of the many military leaders who appear in these pages, the generals and brigadiers and colonels on both sides. We are told the biography and character of scores of leading military men. But it is to the weather, the light and the mood of key days, that he pays particular attention.

Sometimes his description of the light is more persuasive than his description of the people.

  • The men gathered early under a soft linen-blue sky and marched smartly to their designated spots where they stood in the delectable sunshine listening as the summary of the treaties [with new ally, France] were read out… (p.294)
  • After fighting for three hours or more in ‘weather… almost too hot to live in’, as one American soldier put it, the British abandoned their bloody charges and for two final hours, until 6pm, when the evening’s cooling shadows swaddled the bloody landscape, the battle morphed into an artillery duel. (p.306)
  • Three days later, in the pale sunshine of winter, the bulk of the British invasion force entered Richmond unopposed. (p.478)
  • About 5.30am in the last throes of the dark, starry night, [Tarleton’s cavalry] splashed across muddy Macedonia Creek to the cups of Cowpens. As they began to organise in the still, cold darkness – the temperature was in the low to mid-twenties – the first low purple of day glazed the eastern sky. (p.483)
  • Around noon on March 15, a gloriously cool day, the rebels heard, then spotted, the first column of red-clad soldiers as it emerged through a cuff of leafless trees and marched grandly up New Garden Road, awash with the soft, spring sun… (p.497)
  • Washington got all that he wanted [from the French delegates in March 1781] and at sunset on March 8, as he and Rochambeau stood shoulder to shoulder on the cold wind-swept shore watching, the [French] squadron sailed off into the gathering darkness. (p.502)

Romantic descriptions, romantic paintings

Ferling includes some 40 paintings and illustrations in the book. When I came to analyse them I realised that only four are illustrations of actual battles – a few are technical pictures of contemporary ships, but the great majority, over 30, are portraits of the many military men and political leaders on both sides – emphasising the care he takes to give portraits of all the key military leaders.

But then I noticed that, whereas the military portraits are all contemporary i.e. drawn or painted from life in the 1770s and 1780s, the battle pictures are from over a century later, painted at the height of late-Victorian realism (1898, 1903, 1898), in the style of boys’ adventure stories — almost as if the history had to wait for a sufficiently ‘manly’ painting style to develop to depict the tough heroism of those days.

Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga by artist Percy Moran (1911)

Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga by artist Percy Moran (1911)

Or as if only paintings in the late-Victorian style can match Ferling’s own romantic feel for the weather, for the mood, for the changing light, for the fogs and blazing sunshine, for the first dawns and the quick-falling nights with which his enthralling account is laced.

He rode through the afternoon and most of the following day, one of the last soldiers yet on the road home from this war. At last, as the sun hung red and low in the sky on Christmas Eve, George Washington, private citizen, emerged through the bare trees and onto the path that led to the front door of Mount Vernon. The War of Independence was truly at an end. (p.561)

Ferling has a stylish, highly descriptive, and memorable way with the days of the American War of Independence.


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Beauty and barbarism (a note on Banastre Tarleton)

Beauty…

One of the most striking paintings in the National Gallery in London is a full-length portrait of Sir Banastre Tarleton, 1st Baronet, GCB (21 August 1754 – 15 January 1833), who led a cavalry troop in the American War of Independence, depicted by the leading portrait painter of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds, then-president of the Royal Academy of Arts, in 1782.

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton in the uniform of the British Legion, wearing a 'Tarleton Helmet' by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton in the uniform of the British Legion, wearing a ‘Tarleton Helmet’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)

See how he is placed centre stage in a graceful pose which dominates the scene, the storm clouds of war to his right (possibly clouds of smoke from some conflagration on the horizon), while an underling manages two panic-stricken horses on the left, making the link that Tarleton led a notorious troop of British cavalry during the war.

The fallen flags – presumably of the defeated enemy – are draped across one cannon to the left, while Tarleton has nonchalantly placed his left book on another fallen cannon while he does.. what? Is he adjusting a strap in his shapely jodhpurs or adjusting his boot? Or is he going for his sword?

The cream colour of his trousers chime with the white choker, set against the billowing white clouds, and echoed by the white patch on the nose of one of the horse’s.

But he himself is gorgeous, an arrestingly beautiful young man, with full lips and a smooth complexion, both emphasised by the way Reynolds gives them catchlights or white gloss or sheen reflected from the imagined light source. And the way the shadow from the helmet with its fur ruff – which Tarleton himself made fashionable – coquettishly casts a shadow over his right eye.

‘What a stunner’, to use Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s phrase.

… and the beast

Tarleton was phenomenally ambitious. After a spell at Oxford he had joined the British Army and sailed to American to help put down the rebels. Tarleton went on to distinguish himself in the British campaigns around New York. Within three years he rose from the lowest commissioned rank in the army to be a lieutenant colonel.

Stocky and powerful, with sandy red hair and a rugged visage that disclosed a hard and unsparing nature, Tarleton had the reputation of one who was ‘anxious of every opportunity of distinguishing himself.’ (The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling, p.423)

The war of independence was stalemated in the North, in New York and Pennsylvania. So in 1780 the British decided to try a new strategy and attack the colonists in the South. Tarleton went south with the commander-in-chief of British forces in America, Sir Henry Clinton, and his second in command, Charles Cornwallis, to besiege Charleston, port city and capital of South Carolina. He was now leading a cavalry group which was named the ‘British Legion’.

Tarleton won two important cavalry engagements.

In the first he led a devastating attack on about 500 rebel cavalry and militia commanded by Brigadier General Isaac Huger at Monck’s Corner, 30 miles from Charleston, which protected its eastern approaches. This small encounter helped seal off the final escape route for the rebel forces trapped in Charleston and contributed to the eventual surrender of the town on 11 May 1780, the greatest single American defeat of the War of Independence.

After accepting the surrender of Charleston, Clinton ordered Cornwallis to set about pacifying the back country. He knew that a force of North Carolina militiamen, and a separate force of American soldiers, had been marching to relieve Charleston. Intelligence suggested the militiamen had returned home, but the American force under Colonel Abraham Buford was still at large. Cornwallis detached the British Legion to attack Buford.

Tarleton, always mad for a fight, force-marched the 270 men under his command, covering 160 miles in just two days in the Carolina heat and humidity. On 29 May the British cavalry caught up with Buford in an area known as the Waxhaws. Buford was without artillery – having sent it ahead – but still outnumbered Tarleton two to one.

Buford hurriedly assembled his men into one straight line but, without stopping to think, Tarleton ordered his entire force to charge straight into the middle of the line, covering the 300 yards or so which separated the forces in a few seconds at full gallop. Buford’s line had time to get off one thunderous volley – which brought down some of Tarleton’s riders – but then the British were on them.

The momentum of those who were unscathed carried them into the enemy’s lair, or like Tarleton, whose horse was killed beneath him, they simply cleared their fallen mount and sprinted the last few final yards toward their foe. Whether on horseback or foot, the attackers swung their sabres, cutting men to pieces, overwhelming their stunned adversaries.

Battlefields are horrid places, but this one was especially ghastly. Here were men with severed hands and limbs, crushed skulls, and breached arteries. Some men were decapitated by the slashing cavalrymen. Others were trampled by maddened horses. The bellies of many were laid open by bayonets. Although resistance ended within seconds, the carnage continued. Tarleton did not order the slaughter that ensued, but he did not stop it either. As the Virginians screamed for ‘quarter’, for mercy, Tarleton’s men waded among the hapless rebels hacking and bayoneting in a saturnalia of bloodshed. It was a massacre. (‘I have cut 170 Off’rs and Men to pieces’, Tarleton said straightforwardly in his report.)

In a war in which rarely more than 6 or 7 percent of combatants fell on a battlefield, nearly 75 percent of the Virginians fell victim on this day of horror at the Waxhaws. As the British Legion was a Loyalist outfit, scholars have sometimes attributed the slaughter to a frenzy of retribution by neighbour against neighbour, but Tarleton’s men consisted entirely of fairly recent Scottish immigrants who had been recruited in Northern provinces.

Other historians have depicted Tarleton as a bloodthirsty ogre. That, too, seems not to have been true, but he was relatively new to command responsibilities and he had previously exhibited a habit, for which Cornwallis had reprimanded him, of not controlling his men in the immediate aftermath of battle, when churning passions, including bloodlust, drove men to act in unspeakable ways

From this day forward, southern rebels called him Bloody Tarleton and spoke of ‘Tarleton’s quarter’ in the same vituperative manner in which they uttered an expletive.  (The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling, p.437)

I will never look at Tarleton’s rosy lips and trim, sexy figure in the same way again.


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Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors were the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel

A 15th century Portuguese caravel

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


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The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture @ Sir John Soane’s Museum

In the two-room exhibition space at Sir John Soane’s Museum is an interesting show about five key British architects who were central in the rise of the architectural style known as Postmodernism. This review consists of:

  1. An introduction to Sir John Soane’s Museum
  2. A brief explanation of Modernism and Postmodernism
  3. Notes on the exhibition

1. Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane’s Museum is a little-known treasure trove of art, architecture and antiquities, in central London.

Just a few minutes’ walk from hectic Holborn tube station, down narrow back alleys, you arrive at big, leafy Lincoln’s Inn Fields and here, on the north side of the square, in the centre of a terrace of sober Georgian houses, is Sir John Soane’s Museum, with its surprisingly grand neo-classical facade.

Facade of Sir John Soane's Museum. Photo by John Bridges

Facade of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Photo by John Bridges

This unusual facade is because Soane was himself an architect in the neo-classical style, and a great collector of art and antiquaries. To quote from Wikipedia:

Soane (1753-1837) made his living as an architect in the neo-classical style and rose to the top of his profession, becoming professor of architecture at the Royal Academy. His best-known work was the Bank of England (his work there is largely destroyed), a building which had a widespread effect on commercial architecture. He also designed the Dulwich Picture Gallery whose top-lit galleries were a major influence on subsequent art galleries and museums.

At one point Soane owned three adjoining houses in the square, numbers 12, 13 and 14. He spent much time remodelling the facade of number 13 (now the museum), experimenting with internal design and decoration in all three properties, and also experimenting with ways to hang and display his ever-growing collection of paintings, books and antiquities.

The museum was created by an 1833 Act of Parliament which gifted Soane’s huge collections to the nation on the condition that they be displayed as they were during his lifetime, in the old-fashioned ‘cluttered’ style, with rows of paintings one above the other, and statuary and antiquities crammed higgledy-piggledy together.

In the past ten years the Soane Museum has undergone extensive renovation. But although the trustees have bought the house next door (number 14) and carried out extensive work to create a new Research Library, a room devoted to Soane’s huge collection of drawings (9,000) by the architect Robert Adam, an airy shop, offices and a temporary exhibition space – it is still the clutteredness of the hang which really makes an impression – small, tall, top-lit rooms and staircases absolutely crammed with busts, friezes, sculptures, antiquities and paintings all packed cheek by jowl.

Interior of Sir John Soane's Museum

The interior of Sir John Soane’s Museum

It’s this combination of intense clutteredness with the open and airy nature of some of the upstairs drawing rooms – and, of course, the value and interest of many of the objects, drawings and paintings – which gives Sir John Soane’s Museum its unique and magical atmosphere.

2. Modernism and Postodernism

Modernism

To understand Postmodernism, it helps to understand the modernism it was reacting against.

Modernism in literature, art and architecture from, say, the First World War through to some time in the 1970s, took it as axiomatic that there was one and just One, central avant-garde Movement and, if you were serious, you had to belong to It.

This avant-garde – in architecture in particular – was devoted to getting rid of all ornaments, all decorative features – which were condemned as bourgeois luxuries, fripperies, indulgences – and instead designing stark, angular buildings, which emphasised their harsh functionality.

The Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner and writer Le Corbusier was the lead figure in the 1920s and 30s of the idea that a building is no more than ‘a machine for living in’.

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1931) designed by Le Corbusier

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1931) designed by Le Corbusier

Architects from the German Bauhaus pioneered designs which reduced buildings to the simplest possible shapes, cubes, square windows. Most were left wing if not active communists and saw themselves as building the architecture of a future society in which everyone was equal and lived in well-designed, functional units which could be mass produced and easily assembled.

After the Second World War the style became international. Not only decoration of any type, but even decorative materials were rejected in the name of the most simple, ‘honest’ building methods of the day.

When the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933, a number of its artists and architects fled abroad. The most famous exile was the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who became head of an architecture school in Chicago. Mies is largely credited with bringing to perfection the principles of Le Corbusier and Bauhaus in a series of soaring steel and glass skyscrapers in ‘the Windy City’.

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe

Completely smooth facades made of industrial steel and plate glass are combined with often light and airy atriums or plazas to give a sense of drama, combining the thrusting power of the building with sometimes surprisingly graceful spaces.

He strove toward an architecture with a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of unobstructed free-flowing open space. He called his buildings ‘skin and bones’ architecture. (Wikipedia)

An alternative variant of this Modernist style was the unrestrained use of concrete in low-rise buildings. During the 1960s this style became known as Brutalism, possibly a reference to Le Corbusier’s use of the French term béton brut, which means ‘raw concrete’ in French, but the term took off because it accurately described the unflinching, uncompromising, in-your-face look and feel of buildings which were made from slabs of raw concrete.

Prime examples are the Hayward Gallery or the Barbican Centre in London. Indeed, the newly-reopened Hayward Gallery shop stocks a surprising number of books celebrating Brutalism around the world. There’s even a book titled Brutal London with maps so you can go on a pilgrimage around the brutalist buildings of London. Harsh, slabby, heavy, undecorated.

The Barbican Centre, London

The Barbican Centre, London

It’s difficult to recapture at this distance in time, but Modernism was strongly flavoured by left-wing politics, with the notion that unnecessary ‘decoration’ was a sign of bourgeois, wealthy elitism, and that all right-minded architects were working for a better world, a new socialist, communist, egalitarian world, whose buildings must be characterised by clarity and simplicity and ‘honesty’ to their materials.

Instead of bourgeois mystification, statues of lions or generals, ornate facades and so on, Modernist buildings should emphasise their functionality – the vast frontages of identical windows in Mies skyscrapers, or the open-to-the-elements staircases, walkways and balconies in Brutalist buildings.

Result: Countless 1960s high-rise blocks of flats. New towns. Ring roads. Shopping centres. Square, featureless, concrete slabs.

Postmodernism

But as is the way with all fashions, people – that is the architects themselves – eventually got fed up with all this plainness, brutality and po-faced, anti-bourgeois rhetoric.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, the Modernist mindset began to crumble. New architects questioned the need for everything to be grey and joyless, and also the need for there to be only One Dominating Aesthetic, approved by a jury of like-minded straightlaced colleagues.

Why shouldn’t buildings have decorative features? Why did they all have to be made of slate-grey concrete? And why must there only be One Style? Given the possibilities of modern engineering and the wealth of new materials – why not hundreds of styles – why not a different style for every building?

Postmodernist architecture started in America and is often linked with the name of architect Robert Venturi who published a deliberately controversial book Learning from Las Vegas in 1972, which suggested that architects could learn something from the tacky, commercial shops, drive-ins, Dunkin’ Donuts and MacDonalds buildings, the big signs and flashing neon, along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Venturi and others began building deliberately garish, playful new buildings in a range of materials.

In Britain, in 1977 critic and architect Charles Jencks wrote The Language of Postmodern Architecture, a book which brought together examples of a wide range of fanciful and colourful buildings being designed by American architects. The book popularised the term ‘Postmodernism’ to a wider audience, and ultimately led to it spreading out to other disciplines in the humanities.

So postmodernism was a conscious revolt against the Modernist architectural orthodoxy which many felt had become stifling and dull. The new young architects thought that new buildings:

  • should reintroduce historical references and quotes from other periods
  • should reference and echo their surroundings, instead of being concrete boxes plonked down willy-nilly
  • should use a variety of materials instead of just concrete (Brutalism) or steel and glass (Internationalism)
  • should use colours – shock horror – yes the whole rainbow of colours, not just slate grey
  • should be funny, witty, ironic and provocative

Suddenly there was no longer One Dominant Orthodox Movement, but the potential for everyone to break free and do their own things.

3. Five postmodernist British architects

This exhibition brings together a range of drawings, sketches, plans, designs, models and images, as well as full-scale replicas, of iconic works by five of the British architects most associated with Postmodernist architecture. The drawings and models are displayed in large wall cabinets and in table-based display cases.

Installation view of Return of the Past. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Installation view of Return of the Past. Photo by Gareth Gardner

The five architects are:

  • Terry Farrell
  • John Outram
  • Jeremy Dixon
  • James Stirling
  • CZWG

Terry Farrell (b.1938)

Farrell is sometimes taken as the pioneer of the new look in Britain. The wall labels explain that postmodernism was, among other things, an end of the utopian, left-wing beliefs of Modernism. Instead of trying to bring about a brave new egalitarian world through buildings, Farrell was one of a number of architects who looked back beyond the concrete wastelands of Modernism, with a view to reconnecting to older styles and, well, having fun.

Why not reference the old architectural motifs of classicism and so on, but done in a new way, with a 1980s aesthetic, the age of shoulder pads and big hairdos, with bright colours and ornamentation?

One of the earliest of the new wave buildings was the TVam headquarters, built next to Camden Lock. It includes unnecessarily bright colours, references a range of older elements, and emphasises its frivolous decorative features. Why not?

TV-am building, Camden (1981–82) by Terry Farrell

TV-am building, Camden (1981–82) by Terry Farrell

In terms of cultural references, there were elements of an Egyptian ziggurat (look at the skyline at the back of this photo) and a Japanese tea garden tucked away at the back. The front of the building sported a modernist metal variation on a traditional archway, complete with massive keystone – but made not of stone but of brightly coloured tubular piping. The whole facade curves gently following the curve of the road it stands on, and is end-stopped by huge cutouts of the letters T V a m. And all done in bright brash colours, unafraid of the grey Style Police.

Traditional Modernists hated it and really hated the set of 11 fibre glass rooftop eggcups dotted along the top of the building. Breakfast TV – hard-boiled eggs – geddit? One of them is in the exhibition!

Critics thought it was all tacky, vulgar, superficial and – worst epithet of all – bourgeois!

One of the eggcups from the TV am building by Terry Farrell, photo by the author

One of the fibreglass eggcups from the TV am building by Terry Farrell, photo by the author

Farrell went on to design what is now one of London’s iconic buildings, the new SIS or MI6 building at Vauxhall on the south bank of the River Thames.

Initially it was just going to be another speculative block of offices, it was only some way into the process that he learned the government was interested in buying it. The exhibition includes a fascinating series of preparatory sketches and drawings. Farrell starts from the premise that a number of other London riverfront buildings make big, grand stylistic statements (for example, Somerset House) and then the drawings show him playing with different combinations of cubes and bulges and curved sections, working towards the stepped faced we see today. It’s really interesting to see architectural ‘creativity’ at work.

SIS Building, London by Terry Farrell, completed 1994. Photo by Nigel Young

SIS Building, London by Terry Farrell, completed 1994. Photo by Nigel Young

The exhibition includes models of the building which help you examine the ziggurat-style, stepped detail of the finished building close up, along with one case devoted to the Dr Who, Tardis-style blue entrance doors on the side of the building. The closer you look, the weirder it all gets.

Display case showing models of side entrances into the SIS building by Terry Farrell. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Display case showing models of side entrances into the SIS building by Terry Farrell. Photo by Gareth Gardner

John Outram (b.1934)

Outram emerges as the philosopher and visionary of the group. He built the New House, Wadhurst Park (pictured in the show) but it is the models and big plans of some of his unbuilt projects which really dominate. Here is a large colour drawing for a building planned for 200 Victoria Street in London.

Project for 200 Victoria Street for Rosehaugh- Stanhope Developers (1988-90) Image credit: John Outram

Project for 200 Victoria Street for Rosehaugh- Stanhope Developers (1988-90) Image credit: John Outram

Mad, isn’t it? A long, long way from concrete slabs, in fact it’s difficult to know where to begin in describing the extravagant use of colour and decoration. Most outrageous are the coloured statues of mermaids on the roof, and what appears to be a windmill design off to the top right. The surface seems to be as encrusted with coloured tiling and decorations as an Anglo-Catholic Victorian Church.

And I was tickled to learn that Outram claimed to have invented an entirely new ‘order’ of column, the Robot Order. Anyone interested in columns knows that the ancient Greeks pioneered three ‘orders’ of column – the plain Dorian, the Ionian with a scroll at the top, and the Corinthian which has a capital covered in carved acanthus leaves – which were copied all across Europe from the Renaissance up to the present day.

In his plan you can see that Outram’s ‘robot order’ is characterised by its squat massiveness (the columns actually contain all the building’s services), but most of all by the way that each column is topped off by a massive pair of turbines, spoofing the Doric order. A good example of the jokey, ha-ha, ironic, insider wittiness which Postmodernist architects now felt free to display in their buildings.

Jeremy Dixon (b.1939)

Dixon is represented by the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden, which took from 1989 to 2000. There are a number of plans plus two wooden models of the piazza and one of the Opera House itself, with one wall pulled away to give a cutaway, inside view.

Reading about the evolution of Covent Garden the scheme reminds you of probably the most distinguishing feature of architecture as an ‘art’, which is how mightily collaborative it is, and how very restricted by site, location and environment.

I can paint a painting, write a sonnet, take a photograph more or less anywhere. But most architects are hemmed in a) by the space where the building is to go b) by an extraordinarily complicated web of planning regulations and restrictions. And all of that before c) you get to the self-imposed limitations of fashion, what’s in, what’s new etc.

A lot of people stuck their oar into the Covent Garden redevelopment, from the City of Westminster, through the GLC and the government. Only a decade earlier there had been moves to demolish the entire square and build some nice brutalist flats over it. By the time Dixon became involved in the 1980s it was clear that the existing structures were going to be preserved, but how should they be fronted, completed and styled?

Dixon decided the facades would be allowed to change to reflect their immediate surroundings. Thus a new arcade was created at the north-east of the piazza – where it abuts the Opera House – in order to echo, but not copy, the central arcade designed by Inigo Jones back in the 1630s.

Modern but… echoing the old. Certainly not outfacing it with a vast steel skyscraper nor shaming it with Barbican-style bunkers.

Painting of the Royal Opera House project in Covent Garden by Jeremy Dixon and BDP (1986) Painting by Carl Laubin

Painting of the Royal Opera House project in Covent Garden by Jeremy Dixon and BDP (1986) Painting by Carl Laubin

James Stirling (1926-1992)

A similar problem confronted James Stirling when he was commissioned to design a building for 1 Poultry, opposite the Bank of England. Six huge plans are on display here for the first time (on the far wall in this photo), showing how Stirling sought to ‘relate’ his design to nearby buildings designed by Edward Lutyens and Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Installation view showing the large case of drawings for 1 Poultry, on the wall, and models of the TVam frontage and the SIS building by Terry Farrell on the table

Installation view showing the large case of drawings for 1 Poultry, on the wall, and models of the TVam frontage and the SIS building by Terry Farrell on the table. Photo by Gareth Gardner

CZWG

The firm CZWG is named after four students who studied architecture together in the 1960s – Nicholas Campbell, Rex Wilkinson, Roger Zogolovitch and Piers Gough. Next to Farrell, these guys seem to have come up with the most playful designs.

CZWG Architects, China Wharf, London (1988) Photo by John and Jo Peck

CZWG Architects, China Wharf, London (1988) Photo by John and Jo Peck

The display case devoted to this building, at China Wharf, contains old photos showing the state of the often derelict Victorian warehouses surrounding the site, and makes the case that the structure ‘echoes and reflects’ its surroundings. Maybe. But, the casual viewer might point out, it also has a dirty great big red concrete stuck onto the front.

The wall label says:

The orange concrete facade echoes adjacent warehouse frontages, whilst making reference to Baroque and Art Nouveau design – all to create a new architectural identity for Docklands.

My Dad told me never to trust anyone who says ‘whilst’.

Another CZWG building facing on the Thames is Cascades. This building had a display case devoted to it which was arguably the most interesting in the exhibition because, alongside contemporary photos and ephemera (for example, an invitation to the opening party), were extracts from magazines and newspapers which were virulently critical of this building and of the Postmodern trend it represented.

Cascades, London (1988) by CZWG Architects. Photo by John and Jo Peck

Cascades, London (1988) by CZWG Architects. Photo by John and Jo Peck

Cascades was one of the first new-look builds in Canary Wharf, a twenty-story tower which, to quote the wall label:

emerges at its base through references to Victorian warehouses and the ocean liner aesthetic, before reaching a summit that would not appear out of place in Hong Kong… The sloping side gives the building a dynamic shape absent from a more conventional tower, while allowing the penthouse apartments along that side to have south-facing balconies open to the sky…. Cascades showed how high-rise living could be popular and glamorous.

With its sloping side, its tonal variation from dark to light brown, with its semi-circular bulges dotted along the facade, the many round ‘porthole’ windows and the three white ocean liner style piped vents, it couldn’t be further from the grey concrete brutalism of a 1970s tower block.

What’s fascinating is the highly critical article shown alongside the plans, written by architect Stephen Gardiner (1924-2007). Gardiner warms up by making general criticisms of Postmodern architecture, raging against its ‘jazzy vulgarity’, the way it screams out like a TV commercial, is full of cheap dodges and flashy effects, is ‘B-movie architecture’. Then he lets fly at Cascades in particular, finding it:

a grotesque and shapeless 20-story tower block on the Isle of Dogs… a horrifying result of the deregulation of aesthetic controls… an example of visual chaos… a crazy jumble of so-called architectural references … and a heap of different materials… These architects appear to regard a city as a private gallery for their brand of pop-art buildings. But it isn’t: their appearance affects us all, particularly when exposed on the river front. Whatever the situation architects have a very special responsibility to the public…

Go Stevie, go. This article is more or less the only thing in the exhibition which really expresses why the new Postmodernist style was so controversial and on what grounds its critics attacked it.

But all good things come to an end. In 1987 an essay was published in Art in America magazine titled Late Postmodernism: The End of Style? By the late 1980s the first fine careless flush of anti-establishment defiance was played out. Postmodernist buildings continued to be built into the 1990s but younger architects tried to forge new lines of development moving beyond its jokiness and irony.

Thoughts

I suppose architecture can be considered and assessed in three ways:

  1. As plans and designs and drawings and concepts I warm to straight lines and geometric patterns, and also to dinky scale models of buildings with tiny little figures walking by, so I often find architectural designs and models entrancing. That said, insofar as they are drawings, they all look a bit samey, drawn in the same kind of technical way on the same kind of paper with the same kind of formal conventions.
  2. It’s only when they’re built that architects’ plans come alive and can then be considered in two ways.
    1. If you live or work in one – does it work? What’s it like? Does it have the conveniences promised? Or is it badly designed and thought-through, as so many ‘city in the sky’ council flats and tower blocks of the 1960s and 70s were.
    2. What’s it like to walk past? What impact does it have on those who don’t live or work in it, but whose built environment it contributes to? What contribution does it make to the skyline and cityscape?

I am no expert, I am just an averagely educated Londoner, but I think there are now so many buildings like Cascades – the Thames from Battersea to Westminster, and from the City down to Docklands is so lined with quirky jokey blocks of luxury apartments, take the stepped ziggurats and the tower block that bends backwards at Battersea Reach – that most people just accept it as the style of our times.

Battersea Reach, London

Battersea Reach, London

I don’t really like any of it. Today I walked through the Covent Garden piazza on the way to Sir John Soane’s Museum and all I can think is that a) it’s a blessing that the bastard planners of the 1970s didn’t knock it down and replace it with concrete flats b) it does the job of being a Tourist Trap, a place where tourists are funneled and blunder around buying over-priced coffee and gewgaws.

But I don’t really like the Royal Opera rebuild or the North arcade. I rather think I dislike it for seeming hollow and… somehow fake.

And I happened to walk through the little atrium of 1 Poultry a month or so ago and it seemed dark and noisily polluted from the two City roads which hem it in. Some kind of rebuilding work was going on, there were pipes across the floor, drilling, entrances to some tacky chain shops like Accessorise or H&M. Horror.

Whenever I’ve been past the TVam building in Camden it’s always seemed to me poky, tacky, narrow, low and constricted. It makes me feel choked and cramped. It is not a happy building.

I don’t think I’ve consciously seen the China Wharf building but there are now so many extraordinary designs of buildings dotted all over the Isle of Dogs that it’s just one more in the wacky show.

Buildings for faceless overlords

My impression is that nobody can stop it now. Quirky, funny, witty, ironic, call it what you will – knowing, arch, self-referential etc, Postmodern architecture is where we are, is the modern look.

The Thames is now lined with ranks of po-mo apartment blocks which come from the same lineage as Cascades.

I appreciate that more recent buildings which have hit the headlines such as the Shard and the Gherkin are not Postmodern in style. If you look it up you discover that the Shard and the Gherkin are examples of ‘neo-Futurism’. Neverthetheless, it feels that the way was paved for this generation of jokey, quirky, steel-and-glass monsters, by the jokey, quirky innovators of Postmodernism.

The net result of all this is the widely shared feeling that modern architecture is commissioned, given planning permission, designed and built by a faceless élite, by our lords and masters, by nameless faceless people who don’t seem to be accountable to anyone except their billionaire oil sheikh or Russian oligarch sponsors – to Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra who owns the Gherkin or to the Qatari Royal Family who own the Shard.

Modern architecture in this vein is the plaything and fantasy of an international cosmopolitan élite which has nothing to do any more with the concerns and tastes of the powerless populations which they tower over.

Which is why I always laugh out loud whenever I see architects writing about ‘social responsibility’ or ‘working with the community’. Ha! As if. Which is why I always think of the architecture room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition as ‘the Room of Shame’. Most architecture doesn’t have anything to do with ‘ordinary people’. Maybe it never did.

Postmodernism is a lot better than the concrete misanthropy which preceded it. In terms of architectural history, it opened the floodgates to an enormous diversity of modern buildings whose designers feel free to play and experiment with a wide range of designs, ornamentation, features and materials.

But I don’t think there are any po-mo buildings that I actually like. And in my mind, anyway, the big hair and padded shoulders of TVam associate it with the end of the post-war social democratic consensus and the rise of loads-of-money capitalism, the Thatcherism and Blairism of the 1980s and 90s, which led directly to the steel-and-glass artefacts of the age of terror, the age of relentlessly growing inequality, and the age of a hyper-articulate, cosmopolitan art and architectural élite pandering to the wishes of the international super-rich – the age in which we now find ourselves.

Conclusion

The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture is a small but really interesting exhibition. It was useful to be reminded of the names of the architects behind the MI6 building, or 1 Poultry, to be shown that this was Stirling, that was Farrell, and to be introduced to the unbuilt extravaganzas of John Outram.

It was fun.

And, like all good exhibitions, it sets you thinking about its subject – about architecture and the modern built environment, determined to read up more on a subject which, although it affects all of us – the buildings we live and work in and walk by every day – is given surprisingly little coverage in any of the media.

And it’s FREE. Check it out.


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