Mary Sibande @ Somerset House

Mary Sibande (b.1982) is one of South Africa’s most notable contemporary artists, which makes it all the more surprising that this is her first solo exhibition in the UK.

Sibande calls herself a sculptor but she is also a very good photographer. In fact she mainly works with fabric, sewing her own fabric-based sculpture, and the friend I visited the exhibition with described her as a fabulous seamstress – hence, presumably, the show’s title, I Came Apart at the Seams.

For Sibande hit upon an idea early on in her career and has been producing variations on it for over a decade. The idea was to create life-size mannequins of herself, except

  1. imagined as an alter-ego or avatar, who she named Sophie
  2. to pose these sculptures in striking postures and activities
  3. and to dress them in elaborate, sometimes fantastical, almost science-fiction garments

Over the years she’s used this simple-sounding idea to produce some quite simply staggering works of art. I’m amazed she’s not better known and hasn’t been snapped up by one of the major galleries. This is a FREE exhibition at Somerset House so if you’re passing along the Embankment or through Covent Garden it’s well worth making a detour to visit.

Blue

Long Live The Dead Queen (2008-13) was the series in which we first met Sibande’s avatar, Sophie, conceived as a domestic servant – as Sibande’s mother and grandmother were before her. In various iterations Sophie is seen either as a sculpture or in enormous crystal-clear digital photos, transforming her servant costume (in one iteration she is embroidering the Superman logo onto it) in a series of dreams of escaping her lowly status and gender.

I Put A Spell On Me by Mary Sibande (2009)

Purple

Sibande’s next series was titled The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17). In these Sophie is embodied as ‘The Purple Figure’.

The title is a play on words, making two references, mashing up the opening principle of the 1955 Freedom Charter of the African National Congress stated that ‘The People Shall Govern!’ – with the 1989 anti-apartheid Purple Rain protests.

During these, thousands of anti-apartheid protesters marched on the parliament building in Cape Town and the police sprayed the protesters with water cannon marked with purple dye so that they could be identified and arrested later. However, some of the marchers got their hands on the water cannon and turned it back onto the police and authorities, spraying them and thus symbolically equalising everyone.

Anyway, in Sibande’s hands the colour purple is the inspiration for a series of absolutely wild photos and fabric-sculptures, in which the Sophie figure is transfigured into a force of nature out of whose body and clothes and hair, wild dreadlocks or roots or tendrils cascade and explode in a twirling confusion.

A Terrible Beauty is Born (Long Live The Dead Queen series) by Mary Sibande (2013) Copyright the artist

The above is an enormous digital print which is a) of wonderful clarity and precision b) printed onto fabric not paper and hung across one whole wall and c) is totally wild.

The po-faced seriousness of the political commentary on her works – the references to apartheid and this or that protest – in no way prepares you for the wild, crazed, science fiction pullulation of her imaginings.

It is extravagant, operatic – dreams, nightmares or visions on an epic scale and all the more weird and compelling for having been made, created, carefully and time-consumingly sewn out of fabric.

One entire room in the show consists of an absolutely amazing piece of sculpture – the black woman Sophie wrapped in purple fabric, while her hair appears to be exploding backwards into a huge tangled skein which is itself intertwining to form something like the roots of a tree. It is as if the human being is metamorphosing into an awesome, phantasmagorical force of nature.

It’s one of the weirdest and most powerful works of art I’ve ever seen.

A Reversed Retrogress Scene 2 by Mary Sibande (2013)

Red

Sibande’s latest series is titled In The Midst of Chaos There Is Also Opportunity (2017-). In these Sophie has transformed into ‘The Red Figure’ – red to express the collective disillusionment and anger of many South Africans at the enduring poverty in post-apartheid South Africa.

So blood-red is for anger, but also the power to heal and restore – there’s something of the priestess and healer in the Red Figure. She is sad, she is angry – but she is also empowered by the legacy and memory of all those who gave their lives to overthrow apartheid.

Come, you spirits of the land and the skies by Mary Sibande (2019)

As I say, the commentators, the curators, and Sibande herself, are happy to describe her art in terms of South Africa’s apartheid and post-apartheid history, the struggle for liberation and the long disappointment that came afterwards, and so on.

Maybe that’s where her art starts. But in my opinion where it goes to is somewhere altogether different, somewhere weird, strange and entrancing, to a zone which is disturbing, upsetting, amazing and supremely memorable.

Look closely and you’ll see that Sophie’s eyes, in all her reincarnations, are always closed: she is dreaming, according to the curators, dreaming of freedom and equality etc.

But the way I read it, Sophie is having dreams far bigger than paltry ones about politics and justice – dreams which are far more disruptive and uncontrolled and weird and enthralling, about human nature itself.

A Terrible Beauty and A Reversed Retrogress show humanity morphing into something much bigger and more cosmic than petty concerns about this or that cause or country –  in them the purple and red figures are becoming cosmic, entwining with the natural world, seizing power and going beyond the human into an extraordinary new realm of the imagination.


Related links

Reviews of other Somerset House exhibitions

Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion @ Hayward Gallery

Kader Attia is ‘one of today’s leading international artists’ and this exhibition is the first major survey of his work ever held in the UK.

Attia was born in 1970 France. His parents were of Algerian origin. He grew up in one of the banlieues or suburbs in north-east Paris, in a multicultural environment where Catholic, Jewish and Muslim religions mixed. Attia has dual nationality and has returned often to the family home in Algeria. In the mid-1990s he worked and travelled in the democratic republic of Congo where he held his first exhibition.

Since then he has gone on to forge a career as an exponent of deeply fashionable ‘post-colonial art’, working across a dazzling array of media to criticise western imperialism, western colonialism, western racism, western cultural appropriation of native lore and art, western control of its immigrant populations, and so on.

‘I try to trigger a political feeling in the viewer. My job is like all of us confronted with reality. What interests me is when a work poses a political question not only from a linguistic point of view, formal, but more from an ethical point of view.’

Political feelings. Political questions. Well, the show as a whole struck me as a sustained attack on western values, history, art and culture. The assault is sustained across six rooms on the ground floor of the Hayward gallery, plus the Heni Project space entered from the gallery lobby.

Transgender sex workers

When I learned that one of his earliest successes was a project to photograph and ‘document’ the lives of a community of Algerian transgender sex workers, and that a slideshow of 160 of these images won him international recognition when displayed at the 50th Venice Biennale, my heart sank.

What could be more crushingly obvious, inevitable and clichéd? Is there any other subject as fashionably outré and yet as well trodden? I immediately thought of:

  • Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde at the Barbican, which featured lesbian, gay and transgender artists and performers
  • diane arbus: in the beginning currently the sister exhibition to Attia, upstairs in the Hayward, which features a ton of male female impersonators and performers from the 1950s and 60s
  • Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers at the Photographers’ Gallery, with hundreds of photos of transgender and cross-dressing people from the past century, notable:
    • the well documented life of Marie-Pierre Pruvot, born a male in Algeria, who became a famous French transsexual entertainer with the stage name of ‘Bambi’
  • The photos taken by Olivia Arthur of the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities in India which featured in the Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum
  • Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican, which featured photos by half a dozen photographers of sex workers and transgender people, namely:
    • Daido Moriyama’s photos of prostitutes and transvestites in Tokyo
    • Walter Pfeiffer’s portfolio of photos of his young transsexual friend Carlo Joh, from the Zurich gay scene
    • Casa Susanna, a historic collection of around 400 prints taken during the mid-50s and 60s at a private retreat for transvestites in upstate New York
    • Paz Errázuriz’s project depicting the community of transgender sex-workers working in an underground brothel in Chile
    • Teresa Margolles’s series of enormous colour photos depicting transgender sex workers in Mexico
  • Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain which was packed full of transsexuals, transgenders and same-sex desires

Identity and ‘trangressive’ sexuality are the fashionable subject of our age and yet curators and artists conspire to imagine they are still hugely taboo subjects which you have to whisper about and which an artist is oh-so brave to address. Instead of a boringly predictable subject which has been comprehensively ‘explored’ by every art gallery in London.

This set the tone for my reception of Attia: he and his supporters think he is a grand rebel, an incisive critic of western historical narratives and norms – but all of his critiques seemed to me extremely old and over-familiar and passé.

When I went to the Sensation exhibition of young British Artists in 1997 I was genuinely bowled over by their dazzling new approaches to an amazing new range of subject matters. This guy is retreading ideas and approaches I got bored with decades ago.

Room 1 – modern architecture

Room one is dominated by an awesome projection which covers one entire wall of a camera very slowly moving up the facade of one of the shitty council housing blocks which make up the dreaded banlieues of Paris, the post-war sink estates where Paris sent all its working class and immigrant population to live and which, more or less every summer, erupt in rioting and car burning.

Post-war concrete high-rise council estates are crap. Not a new idea, is it?

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by Linda Nylind

The wall label tells us Attia is drawing attention to the way these blocks were built around principles of surveillance and control similar to those used to subdue colonial populations.

As it happens a) I grew up on the edge of one of Britain’s all-concrete post-war new towns and b) I’ve been reading a lot recently about post-war town planning and architecture in the social histories of David Kynaston:

Although the subject of post-war town planning was fraught with controversy and disagreement I’ve nowhere read anything suggesting that the new estates were designed in order to monitor and control their inhabitants.

Sounds like Attia has swallowed his Michel Foucault whole. (Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic whose theories address the relationship between power and knowledge and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. He died in 1984. Foucault was awesomely fashionable in the early 1980s when I went to university and read half a dozen of his books. It was when I found myself reading an interview from the mid-70s in which Foucault explained how ‘we’ [the radical student movement] could use Maoist concepts to battle against the fascist French police, that I began to realise that Foucault had little or nothing to offer me in the actual political and cultural situation of Thatcherite Britain that I found myself in.)

The mistakes the planners made had nothing whatever to do with surveillance and control. In knocking down the old slums and rehousing people, they decided that, instead of rehousing them on the same locations, they would move them out to clean new locations which had no historic restrictions on design. All the architects were fans of the fashionable Le Corbusier who promoted cities in the sky and also adopted high rise builds as solutions to shortages of space.

It was only as tenants moved into these gleaming and fashionable new blocks that the drawbacks became clear: very often the planners had forgotten to build in shops and facilities, pubs and churches and you centres and the miscellaneous kinds of places where people meet and hang out. Public transport into the city centres was poor and irregular, and they were too far way to walk to.

More importantly it turned out that various elements needed expensive maintenance, especially the lifts without which people couldn’t get to their flats. Getting rubbish out of people’s flats down to collective rubbish collection points didn’t always work and anyway resulted in overflowing bins which bred rats.

Most subtly, it was discovered that traditional communities are self-policing. Where you had an old-fashioned street you had windows on the street and, in any kind of good weather, people sitting out on stoops and steps watching, generally congeries of mums watching their kids playing, or owners of the various small shops in a neighbourhood similarly watching what was going on.

These acted as an informal and highly informed police. If fights broke out, if kids did something dodgy or rude or bullying and so on, there were scores of eyes watching and people could intervene, often mums who knew the mother of the wrong-doer. Thus communities were able to police themselves with little or no intervention from the authorities. This is something I’ve seen described in Somerset Maugham’s novel Lisa of Lambeth, have read about in 2,000 pages of David Kynaston’s histories, and was really emphasised by a recent BBC 4 documentary about Janet Jacobs who wrote the classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) describing how over-intellectual architects and planners, dazzled by the futuristic designs of le Corbusier and other fashionable European architects, were destroying the neighbourhoods of old Manhattan, replacing rundown but friendly and self-policing communities, with windswept high ‘projects’ – just like the French banlieues. Into the projects American planners decanted a lot of their cities’ poorest which tended to include lots of blacks, just as Paris decanted its poorest, which included lots of Algerian immigrants, into its banlieues.

The result? Vast expanses of concrete high rise buildings where ‘community’ has been destroyed, and the public spaces belong to the worst kind of tearaway teenagers who patrol in gangs, peddle drugs, stab rivals and erupt in violence if the police try to intervene.

In everything I’ve read and watched on this subject, no-one has mentioned the idea these wretched estates were built to to monitor and control their inhabitants. A far simpler explanation is that they were the disastrous result of planners and architects falling under the spell of fashionable French and German theorists with sweeping intellectual attitudes: demolish the old, build the shiny gleaming new cities of the future.

This is what went through my mind as I stood in this first room looking at the awesome film of a camera slowly moving up the side of just such a concrete high rise building, next to a model of such a building.

My conclusion was that Attia is deliberately and wilfully ignoring the real motivations and the complex social history of these places, in order to turn them into a cheap and obvious jibe at the police and authorities. The claim that these places were built solely so the authorites could control their inhabitants is 1. factually incorrect 2. a deliberate distortion which allows Attia to quote Foucault and so sound wondrously intellectual and clever and 3. 40 years out of date.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, who is surveilling and controlling the inhabitants of these horrible slums if it isn’t the owners of multinational American corporations, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, Instagram, Facebook and twitter to name but a few? But the internet is a bit too up to date for Attia. He is still lost in the 1970s when it was cool and path-breaking to take photos of transgender people (wow) and use new Left Bank ideas to deconstruct notions of power and control (“have you read Foucault, man, he’s just soooo cool”).

Away from the leather-jacketed student politics, I liked some of Attia’s more allusive pieces, such as this piece of minimalism, although I still found it weird that he made it some forty years after minimalism had become well established as a style in America.

Narcissus (2012) by Kader Attia. Concrete block, mirror and wire

Narcissus (2012) by Kader Attia. Concrete block, mirror and wire

Room 2 – joy, fear and humiliation

This is a massive room devoted to scores of big prints of his photos of 1990s Algerian transgender sex workers, capturing ‘moments of elation experienced in the course of an otherwise precarious and difficult existence’.

Attia is obviously yet another artist who subscribes to the view that prostitutes and sex workers are privy to a kind of special knowledge and insight concealed to the rest of us, that photographing hookers reveals a ‘secret world’, that the mere act of photographing them ‘breaks taboos’ and ‘transgresses’ conventional bourgeois values. Really?

La Piste d’Atterrissage (The Landing Strip) by Kader Attia (2000) © the artist

La Piste d’Atterrissage (The Landing Strip) by Kader Attia (2000) © the artist

He says:

I wanted to present the whole picture of their lives, to show that even illegal immigrants working as transgender prostitutes have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope.

‘Even illegal immigrants have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope’. How patronising. How patronising to his subjects to treat them like some kind of remote tribe in New Guinea, instead of people like you or me, and how patronising to us, the viewers, that he feels he has to explain that prostitutes are people who have feelings. Really?

As to the transgender thing, some of us have been totally comfortable with, not to say bored by, the whole idea of cross-dressing and transgender for nearly fifty years. (‘But she never lost her head, even when she was giving head…’)

Like the room criticising soulless concrete housing estates this took me right back to the 1970s.

The opposite wall displays a number of black-and-white press and publicity photos of world famous politicians and popular singers, entitled Field of Emotion. Apparently, this work

explores the ambivalent role that emotion plays in all areas of our lives… Attia asks us to consider how and whether powerful emotions might help heal rather than create conflict.

Emotions play a role in our lives. Hmm. Really. Do you see why I felt I was being patronised?

Anyway, what struck me about the display was how very dated all of the images were. Miles Davis, Fidel Castro, Idi Amin, Edith Piaf, Moshe Dayan, Lenin, Mussolini, Ella Fitzgerald. It looks like the wall of a radical student on the Left Bank circa 1974. “Right on, baby. Have you heard Lou Reed’s new album? And what about Foucault’s new book?” Dated dated dated.

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery

Room 3 – Chaos + Repair

I liked this big ball made out of fragments of fabric, broken mirrors and wire. Apparently it is an attempt to capture the ambivalence most people feel about aspects of their cultural, political or personal identity. Is that how it makes you feel? Do you feel ambivalent about aspects of your cultural, political or personal identity?

I just liked it as another example of the minimalist thread in his thinking and creating.

Chaos + Repair = Universe, 2014 by Kader Attia. Photo by the author

Chaos + Repair = Universe, 2014 by Kader Attia. Photo by the author

Room 4 – joy, fear and humiliation

Attia is, apparently, critical of

the museological impulse to classify and categorise [because it] is part of a much broader and more problematic system of control. In many of his sculptures and installations, he typically invokes the display methods and subject matter of a typical 19th-century natural history or ethnographic museum… in order to explore the ways in which colonialism continues to shape how western societies represent and engage with non-western cultures.

I profoundly disagree with this on all kinds of levels.

Abandoning all the achievements of science All western science is based on the collection and sorting of data. Medicine is based on a vast array of anatomical, chemical, biochemical and medical information which has been painstakingly collected, sorted and categorised over the last 200 years. Does Attia really think the inhabitants of Algeria would be better off without antibiotics, anaesthetics, innoculations and vaccinations which European scientists devised after years of collecting samples, experimenting and cataloguing? If so, he is an idiot.

Valorising voodoo His work, he says, is looking for a way we can escape from ‘the obsession of the Western modern mind to organise the universe’, which sounds very cool and Foucauldian. “Let’s smash the system, man.”

But just really, really think for a moment what it would be like to live in a world where there was no organising, classifying impulse, where knowledge was not recorded, and collated, in which each generation was born into the same old ignorance and fear. The world of the illiterate wode-painted heath-dwellers who the Romans found in ancient Britain, performing human sacrifices to placate the anger of the gods. Is that the kind of world you’d like to live in, ruled by shamans and witch doctors. Don’t think the transgender prostitutes would last long in that world. Or any woman who defies tribal customs.

Luckily Attia with his irresponsible views and the entire class of dilettantish modern artists to which he belongs, has absolutely no effect whatsoever on politics, economics, medicine, science or technology.

Classifying and categorising A few years ago I went through every room in the British Museum and discovered that the five dark, dusty, wooden-cabinet-lined rooms on the east side of the central courtyard are devoted to showing how everything we know today had its origins in the impulse of all sorts of people, from the Holy Roman Emperor to English parish vicars, to collect all manner of weird and wonderful objects, and to sort and organise their collections.

These rooms look boring but turn out to be full of quirky and highly personal collections of everything from bones and fossils to Roman antiquities, types of rock to the shape of clouds.

All human knowledge is based on the impulse to collect and categorise. The impulse to collect is a fundamental human attribute. Everyone does it. I arrange my books into categories. My daughter puts her photos into different Instagram albums. My son organises his music into different spotify playlists. Who doesn’t ‘curate’ their own content on social media and the web?

Well then, it turns out you are in the grip of the Western world’s sick and dubious ‘museological impulse to classify and categorise’. It turns out you employ ‘problematic system of control’.

Of course some of this classifying and categorising can be used for evil purposes, as the Nazis categorised humans into different races, starting with the distinction between Jews and Aryans, and imperial authorities may well have categorised people into ‘white’ and ‘native’ for all kinds of bureaucratic reasons. And it is very much this tradition of classifying people and in particular the inhabitants of the colonised nations of Africa and Asia which Attia has in mind.

But to say that the impulse to collect and categorise is in itself evil and to devote your work to finding ways ‘to escape this’ impulse is like deciding to abolish language because Hitler used language in his speeches and imperialists used language in their racist laws.

Hypocrisy And, it barely seems worth pointing out that all these works which are devoted to critiquing the wicked Western habit of wanting to organise and classify and categorise are being displayed in an art gallery where… they are being organised and classified and categorised :).

The walls of this exhibition abound in labels precisely dating each piece, carefully explaining the materials they’re made from, categorising them as photographs, sculptures, installations and soon.

The works are divided into rooms each of which has been organised around a central theme or concept.

And there is, of course, a big expensive catalogue of the works on sale in the gallery shop, ‘a fully-illustrated catalogue with an extensive interview between Kader Attia and Ralph Rugoff’, Director, Hayward Gallery, no less.

In other words, this exhibition itself demonstrates the very compulsion to categorise and organise which Attia claims to have devoted a career to trying to deconstruct.

When I was younger and experiencing the first heady rush of reading Foucault and Barthes and Adorno and Benjamin I might have interpreted this as sophisticated irony, or as ‘a playful deconstruction of the normative values which underlie the western historical narrative’, or some such.

Now I’m older and more impatient, I just see it as idiotic hypocrisy.

Technology Is Attia at any point using traditional tribal native-people’s media to create his art with? No. He uses digital photography, digital video, film, light shows and minimalist sculpture. All the hallmarks and media of the most technically advanced, post-industrial, post-modern Western art.

Ethnography But of course Attia isn’t really referring to the impulse to collect and categorise as a whole, whatever he might say. He is speaking much more personally about the West’s history of collecting and categorising the artefacts (and indeed peoples) of the non-Western, ‘developing’ world which he has taken it upon himself to be a post-colonial mouthpiece for.

No prizes then, for guessing that there might well be a room devoted to showing how Western culture has ripped off and appropriated non-western art and artefacts.

As long ago as the 1920s left-wing critics were criticising Picasso for ripping off African tribal masks. This accusation became a standard part of Marxist art criticism in the 1960s and 70s. Now it is entirely accepted, it is the utterly conventional wisdom of our time, that early 20th century artistic Modernism wouldn’t have existed if Picasso and Matisse hadn’t been able to see African and Oceanic tribal masks in the Paris Ethnography Museum. Which exhibition of Picasso and Matisse does not point it out?

Thus the Royal Academy’s exhibition on Matisse and his studio was at pains to prove how up to date and politically correct it was by ‘calling out’ Matisse for his ‘cultural appropriation’ of tribal artifacts, as well as his ‘orientalism’ for painting odalisques.

So – as with Attia’s pieces of minimalism, or his insight that concrete high-rise estates are horrible, or his oh-so-risqué photos of transgender prozzies – what really struck me about his western-modern-art-ripped-off-African-art pieces was how very, very, very old, clichéd and totally acceptable this fact is.

How he presents this is so glaringly obvious I thought it was funny, Here is one of his ‘artworks’ where he has placed a book with a cover illustration of Munch’s notorious painting The Scream next to a ‘Pende sickness mask’. Yes, Kader, I do get it. Munch would never have painted like this if it he hadn’t had sight of the African masks collected by wicked imperialists, and therefore his painting is a wicked wicked piece of cultural appropriation.

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Photo by the author

Naughty, naughty Western artists. Pablo and Henri and Edvard, you must all go and sit on the naughty step. Don’t you know that art must never copy ideas from other cultures. Only Europeans are this wicked. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians never copied art, writing or religions from of other people’s cultures. And even if they did, it’s alright, because they aren’t white.

What I found literally impossible to believe was the wall label for this work which explained that:

Several works in this room, including The Scream and Mirrors and Masks point to the still under-acknowledged influence of African art on the trajectory of Western art history.

Still under-acknowledged? By whom? This point of view has been knocking around for ages. I found it in full cry in an art history book from 25 years ago which I reviewed last year.

Do you really think this is news to anyone who regularly attends art galleries or knows anything about modern art? It is one of the clichés, one of the absolute bedrock certainties, of modern art history. Anybody who studies modern art will hear about it.

Room 5 – The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures

The biggest room in the gallery is given over to this massive installation.

Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

The fundamental concept is ‘repair’. As Attia, a self-declared expert on Western and non-Western societies, confidently proclaims:

While Western societies seek to erase marks left by injury or trauma, ‘in traditional societies it’s the opposite: they have ways to fix an injury that also keeps it visible.’

Hence this collection of twenty or so metal warehouse shelf units as well as three vitrines which display hundreds of objects including African masks, vintage photographs, books, newspapers and a series of decorative, functional or devotional objects constructed by soldiers during the First World War.

In among all these objects are mingled busts which Attia commissioned from craftsmen in Carrara, Italy and Senegal, which depict members of an African ethnic group known for body modification including facial scarring – juxtaposed with busts of First World War soldiers with severe facial injuries.

The whole thing, then, is an ‘investigation’ into contrasting Western and non-Western attitudes to scarring and healing, repairing and fixing.

Another part of the display is a slideshow juxtaposing photos of First World War soldiers undergoing early and rudimentary plastic surgery, with African masks showing obvious signs of repair –

an unsettling series of juxtapositions that challenges our conventional ideas about wholeness, injury, beauty and otherness.

Ah. ‘Otherness’. Surprised it’s taken this long to get round to that familiar old shibboleth of cultural studies and critical theory.

The premise is that Western cultures try to cover, repair and occlude physical scars and injuries, whereas non-Western cultures don’t and often wear them with pride.

OK. I’ll buy that.

Room 6 – Shifting Borders

The most recent work in the exhibition is a set of three videos being shown on three big monitors with benches in front of them, and headphones for you to put on so you can listen to the talking heads.

Each of the videos features Attia interviewing mental health professionals, academics and survivors of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in which more than 600 people, most of them students, were killed.

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

In one of the videos a Vietnamese spiritualist describes holding a ceremony for the spirit of an American soldier who had possessed her brother-in-law. In another a professional doctor declares ‘I don’t think a psychiatrist is the only one who can heal.’ In other words:

Through the spoken testimonies that make up the video element of Shifting Borders, Attia addresses different forms of healing and in particular the therapeutic role played by shamanistic and spiritualist practices in non-Western societies.

West bad. Non-West good.

Thoughts

The first impact is the scale and variety of the work, sculptures, photos, installations, videos on display – Attia is covering the whole waterfront of contemporary media.

Next I was struck by how very out of date so much of it seemed – finding 70s housing estates crappy, oh-so-edgy photos of transgender prostitutes, the claim that European modern art ripped off African masks, the claim that traditional non-western ‘healers’ know things Western scientists don’t understand, a wall of political and jazz icons from the 1950s – all of these struck me as old, old, old ideas and images. Non-western medicine might have alternative ways of healing? A new idea? Really?

He wanted a political response and so I have responded to the ideas on show and I find them thin, deliberately misleading, superficial and, although dressed up in fashionable curator-speak, in fact stunningly old and dated.

The one big theme which I did find thought-provoking or interesting was this idea of ‘repair’ which runs through many of the works. Thus in the room of African masks placed next to western books to prove how wicked wicked Europeans ripped off African culture, there was suddenly a big hole in the wall, apparently unconnected to the grim lecturing of the other pieces.

Untitled (2014) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Untitled (2014) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

I liked this. Like the ball made of fabric and broken mirror, I just found this an arresting artefact, object, thing. Not something you see every day.

I get so bored by hectoring, lecturing, dogmatic, ideological modern art. It’s a refreshing change to come across something which just… is. Which connects with you at some inexplicable level… Which gives you a funny feeling about space, and secrets, and interiors and wrecks and rubble.

It reminded me of some of the works of Anish Kapoor which play with the integrity of the surface of the gallery i.e. disappear into the walls and ceilings.

Something similar could be said of this hypnotic jumble of sheep horns, that it creates an eerie and uncanny sensation in the viewer, a kind of discomforting sensation in your mind as you imagine running your hands over its sharp surfaces.

Schizphrenic Melancholia (2018) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Schizophrenic Melancholia (2018) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Unfortunately the wall label then goes on to give a lengthy explanation which does its best to eliminate all of the mystery and surprise from the piece, and convert it into another part of the heavy-handed anti-western lecture.

In this sculptural work, Attia elaborates on the relationship between contemporary Western medicine and traditional healing practices, in particular those that deal with mental illness. Attia’s research in this area – a key subject for the artist – took him to Dakar, Senegal, where he witnessed an ancient healing ceremony called ‘Ndeup’, in which the horns of sacrificial goats and sheep form the centrepiece of a ritual that involves the whole community. According to the Lebu people, by the ceremony’s end these horns would hold all the ‘bad energy’ that had been forced out of the afflicted individual during the ritual.

“Yeah, man, western society has lost its way, it’s like traditional peoples, man, they’re like so much more in touch with nature and their true selves, man. I’ve seen stuff on my trips, man, things you people can’t understand, stuff which defies western medicine, man.” Neil the hippy.

It was only on leaving the gallery that I realised that the enormous poster / hanging / digital print opposite the main entrance is also by Attia.

Rochers Carrés (2008) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Rochers Carrés (2008) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

It’s a striking composition although, like everything else in the exhibition, it cannot be allowed to simply be: it must immediately be stuffed full of Victorian moralising and curatorial meaning-making.

It has to be categorised and defined and described, to be titled and dated and explained and interpreted, in just the kind of way which Attia has made a career out of saying he is trying to run away from. So:

Kader Attia is interested in boundaries – ‘geographical, cultural, sexual, religious’ – and the way they function as in-between spaces. the son of Algerian immigrants, Attia grew up in Paris but spent his summer holidays in Algiers where he spent hours smoking, fishing and – like the teenagers in this photograph – watching the ships going back and forth between Algeria and Europe.

Rochers Carrés – in English ‘square rocks’ – is one of a series of images that Attia made of this breakwater ‘beach’ in the Algiers neighbourhood of Bab El Oued. In Attia’s words, this beach is ‘the ultimate boundary’ that separates these young people from their dreams of a better life.

Really? Is it really that much of a boundary to youths like Attia who could take a cab to the airport, get on a plane and fly back to their homes in Paris, secure in the heart of the scientific, economic, technological and artistic bosom of the West?

Summary

The world is much more perforated and mixed up and heterogenous and immigrated than Attia’s simplistic binary definitions (West bad, non-West good) allow.

And this big poster is a classic example of the way every single piece in the show has to be dated and defined, contextualised and interpreted, labelled and explained.

If Attia is sincerely trying to ‘escape’ from the European obsession with collecting and categorising, then this exhibition shows his efforts to have been a self-defeating failure.


Related links

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis @ the House of Illustration

The ‘refugee crisis’ started to make headlines in 2015 as thousands of people fled wars in Syria, Iraq, and conflict and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

News footage of overcrowded boats coming ashore in Greece and Italy made the evening news, along with images of those who didn’t survive the trip, who drowned at sea, and then images of life in the squalid, overcrowded refugee camps which sprang up on the Mediterranean shore, as well as the so-called Jungle refugee camp in Calais.

Journeys Drawn is the first ever UK exhibition to explore the refugee crisis through illustration. It includes 40 multi-media works by 12 contemporary artists, several of whom are themselves refugees.

Illustrators have the advantage over ‘fine artists’, in that they are already used to working with stories and narratives, and most refugees’ stories are, by definition, stories about moving, about travelling, journeying – fleeing x and arriving in y.

Also, the genre of ‘illustration’ is flexible enough for illustrators to feel to treat subjects in all kinds of ways, from childlike picture-books, through stark political cartoons, to images packed with all kinds of information and detail – a kaleidoscope of approaches which ‘purer’, fine art tends to disavow.

A good example is the information-rich pictures of Olivier Kugler, who didn’t just depict the refugees he met on the Greek island of Kos (on a project funded by Médecins Sans Frontières) but created a format which can accommodate their stories through the extensive inclusion of text, especially the refugees’ own words, as well as inset images of their key objects and belongings.

As he says: ‘If you take time to view the drawing, it is like spending time with a person and their family in their tent.’

Rezan and Roca by Olivier Kugler (2015)

Rezan and Roca by Olivier Kugler (2015)

At the other extreme are the stark black-and-white images of David Foldvari. Foldvari usually does editorial work for The New York Times, Guardian and FT. He was commissioned by Save the Children to illustrate the stories of unaccompanied children at Civico Zero in Rome, a centre for refugee children. In his own words:

My main concern was to treat the subject matter in a way that was not patronising or clichéd, and to create some kind of emotional connection with the viewer without resorting to shock.

Typical of his style is this stark but deeply shaded, black-and-white image of one boy, Awet (not, in fact, his real name),which becomes even more powerful when you learn his story.

After fleeing his home in Eritrea at just 15 years old, Awet trekked to Sudan. He was smuggled with 30 others on a packed pick-up truck to Libya, but here they were kidnapped and imprisoned in a disused factory, where they were starved and tortured until their families could pay a ransom. Awet later managed to get onto a boat bound for Italy, only for it to fill with water. Rescued by the Sicilian coastguard, he found shelter at Civico Zero, two years after leaving Ethiopia. Which is where Foldvari met him.

Awet © David Foldvari

Awet © David Foldvari

I like realistic drawings, I am endlessly stimulated and excited by an artist’s magical ability to draw the world, to set down what we the rest of us only see around us, in solid lines and colours on paper – so I was immediately attracted to the documentary illustrations in pen, ink and watercolour which George Butler has made from what he’s seen in Greece, Belgrade and Syria.

As he puts it: ‘Reportage should tell a story, communicate an idea, or help someone relate to a situation.’

Of this picture, made in war-torn Syria, he says: ‘This was the first scene we saw as we came into Azaz – children playing on a burnt-out government tank. The fighting had finished here ten days earlier and would soon start again, but in the meantime the few residents left were trying to fathom what had ripped through their homes.’

Climbing frame tank by George Butler

Climbing frame tank by George Butler

There are a number of animations in the exhibition. This is Iranian artist Majid Adin’s award-winning animation set to Elton John’s song, Rocket Man.

Adin was imprisoned for his political works in Iran, before being expelled. He made his way by boat to Greece then trekked across Serbia before reaching the Jungle camp at Calais. He was smuggled to London inside a refrigerator in a lorry. In 2017 he won a global competition to create the first ever music video for Elton John’s hit Rocket Man and since then has been working as an animator in London.

Another video, by Karrie Fransman, uses a format called ‘zoom comic’ in which the picture is continually zooming in on the central image to open up the next scene. It was inspired by the testimonies of four Eritrean refugees who fled their homes to make the dangerous journey across Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya to Europe. The animation is narrated by Lula Mebrahtu, an Eritrean refugee who has found fame as a singer, songwriter and sound designer.

Kate Evans created a graphic novel, Threads from the Refugee Crisis, describing her experience of volunteering in the Calais Jungle. She published drawings from the camp within days of returning, and then went on to expand them into the book, ‘a poignant and emotive depiction of conditions in the camp, punctuated with political narrative, insightful commentary and angry responses from the public to her original blog post.’

Earlier this year Threads became the first ever graphic novel to be nominated for the Orwell Prize for Books.

Camp Sunset from threads by Kate Evans

Camp Sunset from Threads by Kate Evans

By now you should have got the idea of what the show looks and feels like.

In a way the subject matter is a bit repetitive – war, escape, camp. But visually, the artists and their works are extremely varied. I was surprised to see one set of pictures entirely in the style of Japanese manga, created by Asia Alfasi.

Alfasi grew up in Libya and moved to Glasgow at the age of seven. She now lives in Birmingham and has been working in the manga style since 2003. She aims to represent the voice of the Muslim Arab and her illustrated short stories have won several national and international manga awards.

In this wordless comic a young refugee returns to her destroyed childhood home. She is haunted by memories, but finds hope when she sees children playing among the rubble.

Childhood is hope by Asia Alfasi (2016)

Childhood is hope by Asia Alfasi (2016)

All of the illustrations in this exhibition are good, some very good. All the stories are moving, some very moving. It is, all in all, quite a shocking and upsetting exhibition.

According to Wikipedia, ongoing conflicts and refugee crises in several Asian and African countries have increased the total number of forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2014 to almost 60 million, the highest level since World War II.

Where are they all going to go?


Related links

The illustrators’ websites

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild (2005)

In all of human experience there was no precedent for such a campaign. (p.97)

Executive summary

The abolition of slavery took place in two parts:

  1. abolishing the slave trade (1807)
  2. abolishing slavery itself (1834)

1. Abolishing the slave trade 

After a whole century when anybody suggesting that African slavery be banned would have been considered a mad eccentric, the issue suddenly exploded into public consciousness in the years 1788 to 1793 when there was an extraordinary eruption of pamphlets, articles, petitions from every town and city in Britain, plays and polemics and debates in parliament, calling for the abolition of the slave trade.

It suddenly became the topic of the day and Hochschild is able to quote diarists and letter writers saying how heartily sick they are of every single dinner party or coffee house conversation being about nothing but abolitionism.

And then, just is the cause of abolition had become so unstoppable that it seemed poised to succeed in Parliament, the French Revolution broke out which led to two major events which set back the cause of abolition by a decade:

  1. The outbreak of the largest slave rebellion anywhere, in the French sugar colony of St Domingue, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, in November 1791. This is a long story, in which both the French and the British sent armies which were eventually defeated or, more accurately, abandoned the war in the face of deaths from tropical sickness and the slaves’ successful guerrilla tactics. But reports of the brutality on both sides of the conflict had undermined the image which abolitionists tried to foster, of slaves as helpless, saintly victims.
  2. The French revolutionaries executed Louis XVI in January 1793 and declared war on Britain in February 1793. War always halts reforms. A nationwide outburst of patriotism was accompanied by repressive laws banning seditious writings and political meetings. Abolitionism became ‘tainted’ by association with some of the wilder English Jacobins, who included it in general calls to overthrow the monarchy, the House of Lords, please for universal male suffrage and so on.

The movement which might have led to the end of the slave trade in just four or five years from its inception in 1788, because of the interruption of the French revolutionary wars, ended up taking nearer to 20 years.

The movements’s representative in parliament, the short, correct and conservative MP William Wilberforce, introduced an abolition bill into each new sitting of parliament from 1788 onwards, but they were always swamped by the pressing urgency of measures to deal with the war and the eruption of other crises throughout the British Empire.

It was only after the Peace of Amiens of 1802 led to a pause in the war with France, that the abolitionists were able to rally. Although war with France resumed in 1803, a new burst of campaigningy led to the final abolition of the slave trade in 1807. It became forbidden for British ships to carry slaves. Soon the Royal Navy was instructed to stop all ships carrying slaves of whatever nation, and confiscate them.

2. Abolishing slavery

There was then a long lull as Britain focused its energies on defeating Napoleon, first in 1814, then all over again in 1815 after he escaped from St Helena. The period 1815 to 1820 was characterised by immense social unrest in Britain caused by the mass unemployment of huge numbers of men who’d been serving in the army and navy simply being dumped back on the market, and also the social disruption of the industrial revolution.

The government responded with a whole series of repressive measures. Paul Foot’s biography of the poet Percy Shelley is a surprisingly thorough account of the repressive laws enacted during this period, as well as a doleful record of the many working class activists who were arrested, convicted, hanged or shipped off to the new penal colony in Australia.

It was only in the 1820s with a new government in place, with better harvests damping down rural protest, with working people finding more work, that the sense of crisis eased, and a new wave of young abolitionists took up the struggle, this time to abolish slavery altogether.

In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in London, its members including Joseph Sturge, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton with the women Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Elizabeth Pease, and Anne Knight.

The most interesting aspect of the story, in Hochschild’s telling, is that most of the running of this second phase was made by the women. William Wilberforce was still there in Parliament. Thomas Clarkson was still the great collector of facts and information. The Quaker networks provided the basis of publicity and campaigning. But they all took a cautious, gradualist approach. By contrast, a number of the women and women’s groups pressed for immediate abolition. Most notable was Elizabeth Heyrick.

During the 1790s the first generation of abolitionists had organised a sugar boycott i.e. they stopped buying and using sugar. Heyrick went one further and went to grocers shops asking them not to stock it at all.

Again the cause became entangled with a much bigger issue – in the 1790s it had been the French Revolution, in the late 1820s it was the titanic struggle to pass the Reform Act of 1832 to reform Britain’s ludicrously out-of-date electoral system.

Abolitionists realised this was their cause too, and put their energy into this struggle, and it was only after a reformed parliament had been elected in 1833, that direct campaigning for abolition continued and almost immediately was a success.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire BUT even then, it was in two phases: as of 1834 only slaves below the age of six were freed, all adult slaves had to continue working for their masters as ‘apprentices’.

Full and complete abolition – i.e. full and complete emancipation of all British slaves – had to wait until midnight on 1 August 1838. Hochschild amply describes the celebrations.


Bury the Chains

This is a long, detailed, very readable and profoundly moving account of the movement to abolish slavery in Britain.

Some of Hochschild’s most interesting points are made in the introduction, namely:

  1. In the 1780s, when the abolition movement got going, not just African slaves but maybe as many as three quarters of the world’s population was unfree.
  2. The abolition movement was the first mass civil society movement, not the product of a particular class or particular special interest group or trade – it joined all classes, all genders, all ages and all occupations across all the regions of Britain (‘Something new and subversive was making its first appearance: the systematic mobilisation of public opinion across the class spectrum.’ p.138)
  3. It was the first such campaign in human history that was not motivated by self-interest; none of the campaigners stood to gain anything and they, and the British population as a whole, stood to lose out economically – but nonetheless the righteousness of the cause outweighed self-interest.
  4. The abolition movement invented, or brought to perfection, a whole range of campaigning tactics which are still used around the world.

An unfree world

The first stirrings of the abolitionist movement occurred during the American War of Independence (1775-1783), around 1780. This is where Hochschild begins his narrative (although some strands require stepping back a bit in time to explain the background and development of slavery, and of specific elements in the story, such as a brief history of the Quakers.)

Anyway, I found it riveting that the first few pages are devoted to explaining that most human beings in the world at that age, in 1780, were not free.

When native Americans fought each other they often took captives prisoner as slaves. The Aztec and Inca empires had seized conquered peoples as slaves. Then the Spanish turned the entire population into peons to work for their European masters. But slavery was widespread in African kingdoms, too, and existed long before the Europeans touched the coast in the late 1400s.

For centuries before that there had been a) a slave trade taking African slaves north to serve in Muslim countries of the Mediterranean, and particularly to the heart of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and b) victorious African rulers routinely enslaved their defeated enemies.

The condition of slavery, selling of slaves, slave trails and slave entrepots were established well before the Europeans arrived.

The enormous landmass of Russia was characterised by serfhood where illiterate peasants were tied to land, and bought and sold along with it. In most of the rest of Europe illiterate peasants were similarly virtually the property of their lords and masters. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of people were in outright slavery (‘tens of millions’, p.2), while tens of millions more lived in a form of debt bondage which tied them to specific owners.

Hochschild doesn’t mention China, but millions of Chinese peasants lived in various forms of servitude.

Even in the most ‘civilised’ parts of Western Europe and north America, there was a deeply engrained social hierarchy, by which everyone deferred to those above them, and the aristocracy and landowners could use, whip, beat, punish and abuse their servants and staff, almost at will.

It is chastening, sobering, terrifying to read Hochschild’s convincing account of how most people for most of the past, have not been free. Count your blessings.

18th century violence

Not only were most people either not-free, or lower down the pecking order of deferentiality, but the 18th century world was one of quite staggering brutality. When you don’t know much you sort of think that the disgusting brutality meted out to slaves was uniquely bestial. But violence of every sort existed quite freely far beyond the slave world. Ordinary men and women could be punished for simple misdemeanours with public whipping or even the death penalty. As James Walvin’s book on slavery highlights, and as Hochschild repeats, deaths among the crew members of slave ships were, proportionately higher than deaths among the slaves.

And then there was the British tradition of press-ganging. Any halfway fit man walking the streets of London, Portsmouth, Bristol and any other major port city was liable to be bought drinks till he was legless, or simply seized by the notorious press gangs, carted off to serve on a slave or Royal Navy ship, for years at a time, with no legal redress.

Alan Taylor, in  American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, describes some atrocity happening in the 1700s and ironically remarks, ‘all this took place in the supposed “Age of Enlightenment”‘.

But the whole point of the Age of the Enlightenment is that it was a movement to try and reform a fundamentally brutal, backward, obscurantist and reactionary society. It was light amid darkness, profound darkness. Of course the Age of Enlightenment was often brutal; that’s precisely what the relatively small number of philosophers, thinkers, poets, writers, artists and enlightened citizens were struggling against.

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789)

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789), according to Hochschild, the first painting depicting the slave trade

The Quakers

This makes Britain’s 20,000 Quakers stand out all the more remarkably from all the other social and belief systems of the Western world. For the Quakers believed that all people are equal – and put their belief into practice. They didn’t use any linguistic forms of deference, refused to say Mr or Sir or Your worship, insisted on only saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ since these were the non-deferential versions. They refused to fight in wars. They refused to take vows to any monarch or magistrate. They insisted their only allegiance was to God the Creator of All. (p.107)

And they believed not only that all men, but that all people are equal. Thus, with ramrod logic, Quakers were the only one of the countless religious denominations anywhere in the New World who spoke out against slavery in the 18th century. They refused to own slaves. If they came into possession of slaves through land deals, they promptly liberated their slaves and, in some cases, Hochschild says, paid them compensation.

Compare and contrast with the Church of England which not only failed in its duty to speak out against slavery, but was itself a large owner of slaves through various companies and committees, notably the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

Among other properties the Church owned the Codrington estate, the second largest slave estate on Jamaica. On the governing board of the Society for the Propagation etc, and therefore aware of their slave profits, were the Regius Professors of Divinity at Oxford and Cambridge and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

All slaves working for the Society had the word SOCIETY branded into their chests with a red hot iron. Disgusting, eh?

It was Quakers who, in 1783, set up the first committee to lobby for the end of slavery. They got nowhere because they were ignored as cranks. It was only when Anglican luminaries came on board that the powers that be were inclined to listen. The most important was the Divinity student Thomas Clarkson, who, at the age of 25, underwent what amounted to a religious conversion, deciding to devote his life to the abolitionist cause.

Still, it was symptomatic that when a new committee for abolition was formed in 1787, nine of the twelve members were Quakers.

Thomas Clarkson

For Hochschild the central character of the entire story is Thomas Clarkson, 6 feet tall, red haired, who was converted to the evils of slavery aged 25 and became an indefatigable campaigner and investigator.

It was the investigations that mattered. In London, Bristol and Liverpool Clarkson spent months befriending slave ship captains, crews and merchants (where possible – many became firm enemies; on more than one occasion Clarkson’s life was threatened). He visited all the main posts gathering eye witness accounts of the brutality of the trade.

Using figures freely available from the authorities of the slave ports, Clarkson assembled statistics showing the appalling loss of life among the white crews of slave ships. As a proportion, more white sailors died on a slave journey, than slaves.

His aim was to refute one of the central the pro-slavery arguments, that the crews of slave ships provided a kind of rough apprenticeship for the Royal Navy. On the contrary, Thompson proved that most slave ship crews were press ganged, desperate to flee the ships, and only kept in place by punishments every bit as savage as those meted out to the slaves. He assembled copious testimony testifying to the way white sailors were flogged, sometimes to death, put in chains, tied to the deck or thrown into tiny spaces belowships, and died like flies on these long voyages.

Clarkson aimed to assemble the broadest possible case, showing that the slave trade degraded and brutalised everyone who came in touch with it. When he came across ship’s chandlers in Bristol or Liverpool openly selling chains, shackles and thumbscrews – implements of torture – he bought them as exhibits to show on his lecture tours, he sent accounts of them to the Times and to Parliament.

All this testimony and equipment, all the statistics existed and were publicly available, but nobody had ever set out to assemble all the evidence, to buy and display the implements of torture, to assemble all the statistic, to do the basic investigative groundwork which could then be recycled into articles, pamphlets, books and speeches.

Clarkson and colleagues listed the negative arguments against slavery, but also tried to formulate arguments emphasising the positive results that would stem from ending it.

One of these was the attempt to prove that free trade with African nations and peoples would yield larger profits than slavery; that the slave trade was not only morally reprehensible, degrading, lethal to ships crews, but that it was preventing the development of more profitable free trade with African countries.

To prove his point, on his visits to the slave ports, Clarkson came across products from Africa and began collecting them into what became known as ‘Clarkson’s box’. These included carved ivory and woven cloth, along with produce such as beeswax, palm oil and peppers.

Clarkson could see the craftsmanship and skill that went to produce many of the items and used them to refute the notion that blacks were savages, little more than animals. Quite clearly they were not, they were craftsmen and women of great skill. The idea that such imaginative and talented designers and craftsmen could be kidnapped and enslaved was horrifying.

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Campaign tactics

How did the abolitionists achieve all this?

It’s a long story which first of all requires a good sense of the nature of British society in the 1770s and 1780s, which is why it takes a book to tell how various strands of social, religious and moral thought came together.

But Hochschild also points out how the abolitionists pioneered campaigning techniques which have endured to this day:

  • posters
  • pamphlets
  • lecture tours
  • investigative journalism designed to stir people to action
  • books and book tours
  • mass petitions
  • targeting individual MPs
  • lobbying parliament
  • organising boycotts of sugar

Hochschild devotes a couple of pages to the origin of one of the most powerful icons of the movement and what he calls ‘one of the most widely reproduced political graphics of all time’.

The chairman of an abolitionist branch Clarkson had set up in Plymouth sent Clarkson a diagram of the slave ship Brooks which he had come across at the owners’ offices. It showed the optimal way to cram the ship full of African slaves. Clarkson seized on the diagram’s importance and worked with the committee’s publisher and designer to expand and fine tune it.

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

The slave packing diagram quickly began appearing in newspapers, magazines, books and pamphlets. The abolitionists and thousands of other supporters around the country hung it on their walls as a constant reminder. To this day it has the power to harrow and shock.

Morality trumped self interest

The British decision to abolish slavery was taken against the economic interest of Britain.

Not only this, but many communities and economic sectors which stood to be specifically damaged by the decision, nonetheless supported abolition. Towns whose wealth was based on slave imports nonethless produced lengthy petitions against slavery. It was, therefore, a decision taken on moral and religious principles, and these trumped economic self interest.

Scholars estimate that abolishing the slave trade and then slavery cost the British people 1.8 per cent of their annual national income over more than a century, many times the percentage most wealthy countries today give in foreign aid. (p.5)

Why 1788?

Hochschild lists the precursors, describes the events leading up to the formation of the abolition committee and gives accounts of the personal conversions to anti-slavery of key personnel. But it might still have remained an eccentric fringe group. Why did the cause suddenly catch fire, and become a country-wide phenomenon in 1788-89?

In 1780, if you had suggested banning slavery, everyone would have thought you were mad. Nobody discussed it, it didn’t appear in newspapers, magazines, parliamentary debates or coffee house conversations.

By 1788 Britain was aflood with a tsunami of anti-slavery propaganda. Petitions flooded Parliament as never before, thirteen thousand signed one in Glasgow, 20,000 one in Manchester; books and pamphlets flooded from the press, lectures and sermons were given about it, newspaper and magazine articles poured forth – it was everywhere, the burning topic of conversation, it was like the Brexit of its day.

But why? Why did the campaign to abolish slavery spread like wildfire and unite all classes, regions, towns and cities so suddenly? And why in Britain and Britain only? After all, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Holland and Sweden all owned colonies in north or south America which employed large numbers of slaves. There was no movement to abolish slavery in any of those six other European nations. Why not?

Hochschild gives a list of secondary causes, before he unleashes what he thinks is the prime and main cause (pp. 213-225).

The secondary causes amount to a thorough profile of British late-eighteenth century society and indicators of it economic, technological, social and political advancement beyond all its European neighbours.

  • massive investment in well-kept toll roads which made widespread travel easier in Britain than anywhere else in Europe
  • the world’s best postal service
  • more newspapers than any other country, and more provincial newspapers which passed on developments and debates in the capital to the remotest provinces
  • the coffeehouse, a British institution in every city and town, which had up to date copies of all the magazines and newspapers, and where news and issues of the day could be debated
  • more than half the population of Britain was literate because Protestantism insists that each individual can read the Bible in their own language
  • libraries in every town and city, with over a hundred in London alone
  • well over a thousand bookstores, which often offered hsopitality while you sat and read
  • no censorship; anyone could set up a printing press and publish what they liked compare with, for example, the 178 censors who censored everything written in France before it was published
  • debating societies which became widespread during the 1770s

So although fewer than 5% of the population could vote, an extraordinary number of people knew what was being debated and discussed by parliament, read and understood the issues of the day, and created a ‘public opinion’ which couldn’t be ignored by the country’s rulers.

  • The rule of law. Unlike most continental nations, Britain had age-old common law which had been continually influenced and modified by trial by a jury. Obviously the law was weighted towards the rich, towards aristocrats and landowners. But in theory at least, a labourer could take a lord to court and win. After the Somerset case of 1772, the leading abolitionist Granville Sharp helped a number of slaves take their masters to court – and won.

These are all mighty fine aspects of British society circa 1790, but none of these by themselves amount to a sufficient cause.

The primary cause, Hochschild thinks, is the uniquely British institution of press-ganging.

He gives four or five pages describing in some detail the mind-blowing examples of the powers of the press gang to kidnap any man whatsoever between about 14 and 40 and whisk them off to a life of brutally hard work and vicious discipline aboard the Royal Navy’s vast fleet.

Grooms could be kidnapped at the altar, in front of bride, vicar and congregation, and whisked off. Some gangs were so large they fought pitched battles with customs officials or soldiers. The pages he devotes to press-ganging are quite an eye-opener.

But his point is that many Britons had experienced, or knew of, a form of slavery themselves; knew an institution whereby perfectly free young men could be kidnapped and sold into a life little better than slavery, subject to appallingly brutal punishments, with a fair certainty of death from disease, rotten food or combat.

Alongside all its positive aspects, British society also contained this brutal institution – and it had led over the decades to a widespread sense of grievance and resentment. It was this feeling (among others) which the abolitionists were able to tap into.

Personally, I find this theory a bit far-fetched. I would have thought there were several other social trends which Hochschild mentions elsewhere but not in his list of causes, which were far more important than press-ganging.

Chief among these would be the Great Religious Awakening from the 1750s onwards, which led to the rise of non-conformist sects, chief among them the Methodists. This movement converted people rich and poor to the belief that society at large only paid lip service to Christian values, and that individuals really had to experience the grace of God for themselves to be born again into a purer, more devout, more moral Christian life.

It was to these newly awakened consciences that much abolitionist propaganda appealed, and it is notable that non-conformists – building on the heroic work of the Quakers – were at the forefront of disseminating and spreading the movement.

Fascinating and eminently readable though his book is, I don’t think Hochschild quite drills down into the immense spirituality and religiosity of the era, and how that influenced every thought and feeling of millions and millions of Brits.

Summary

This is an absolutely vast subject, because the campaign, in total, stretched across fifty years, and was hugely affected by two great historical events: the French Revolution and the twenty years war it led to; and then the immense struggle to pass the 1832 Reform Act – not to mention acknowledging the huge social changes caused by the industrial revolution which was trundling along in the background throughout the period.

Vast as it is, this really brilliant book probably comes as close to doing the subject matter justice as one volume can.

Despite the horror of much of the content, Bury the Chains manages somehow to be a humane and uplifting story, because it shows how evil can be conquered, and it shows how even when a wicked system or institution is in place, millions and millions of good-hearted people can rise above their own self interest to organise and work for its overthrow. And succeed.

The British are often damned for perfecting the Atlantic slave trade and making vast fortunes from it. But they should also be praised for rising up in their millions and forcing their government to change its policies and then to spend a lot of money policing the seas to try and eradicate this truly evil trade.


Related links

Related reviews

Other posts about slavery / American history

Black Ivory (2) by James Walvin (1992)

Without the slaves there would have been no sugar and without sugar there would have been no national addiction to coffee and, later, to tea. (p.4)

I bought Walvin’s book 20 years ago, read and found it as unsatisfactory then as I do now. He uses a thematic approach to grouping the material in order to loosely follow the slave experience. Thus the opening chapters describe the ways slaves were seized in Africa – in war or expressly for slavery – marched to the coast, he describes the coastal slaving forts, the Atlantic crossing, the slave auctions in America or the Caribbean, and then life and death on the different types of plantation.

It’s a valid approach but the downside is it is very bitty. It creates a kind of magpie effect, picking out dazzling facts and incidents from Barbados in 1723 or Georgia in 1805 or Jamaica in 1671, fragmenting your understanding.

Not only is there little sense of chronological development and change, but some of the incidents he chooses are in reverse chronological order, so that the chapter about slave rebellions opens with the massive slave rebellion in Haiti in the 1790s, treating it at some length. But a) to do so he has to bend his own rules since Haiti – then called Saint Domingue – was a French colony and everywhere else Walvin restricts himself strictly to British colonies.

And b) he then works backwards from the Haiti revolt, to describe far earlier uprisings from the 1600s onwards, for example the Stono uprising in South Carolina in 1739, or jumps forward to uprisings near the end of the period – Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia, 1831, or the 1822 Charleston uprising, and then back to Tacky’s Revolt in Jamaica in 1760, then forward to the Baptist Uprising on Jamaica in 1831.

It all ends up being quite confusing. Much more sensible would have been to try and show what the slaves cumulatively learned about organising uprisings, and what the authorities learned about suppressing them.

Walvin repeatedly refers to the differences between plantation culture in the West Indies and on the American mainland, but never makes them as clear as Alan Taylor does in his outstanding book American Colonies: The Settlement of North America to 1800 (sugar grew best in the West Indies, tobacco in the Chespeake Bay area (Virginia, Georgia) and Europe-style agriculture from New York north into New England).

It was entirely these agricultural and climatic facts which gave rise to the intensive slave labour of huge sugar plantations in the Indies, to large but not-quite-so-vast tobacco slave plantations in the South, and to the relatively slave-free, family-run farms of the middle and northern states (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, New England).

Most irritating of all, Walvin has a fondness for rhetorical questions, which often just seem lame. It’s as if a historian of the Holocaust kept stopping every few pages to sigh, ‘But where are the memorials to all the Jews that died at Belsen?’ or ‘How can we imagine the feelings of the Jews of Jewish mothers as they carried their babies into the gas chambers?’

The facts are quite horrifying enough. They don’t need lachrymose embellishments, such as:

When Lord Mansfield died, in March 1793, he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey… But where are the memorials to those thousands whose lives were touched by the career of England’s Chief Justice? (p.22)

But how many watery miles would always remain between the slaves he had sold in Antigua and their loved ones in Africa? (p.43)

Nuggets

Nonetheless, the book does have loads of nuggets of information tucked away in it, and I thought I’d extract and list ones which stood out for me, as an aide-memoire:

Drinks The new fashionable drinks of the late 1600s and early 1700s – coffee, tea and chocolate – are all naturally bitter. They need sweetener. Sugar. Grown by slaves. What a stunning fact that a product from China (later imported into India and Ceylon), sweetened by tea from the West Indies, grown by slaves imported from Africa, became an addiction in cold northern Europe.

Puddings During the 18th century the British became famous for their puddings which required prodigious amounts of sugar: hot puddings, cold puddings, steamed puddings, baked puddings, pies, tarts, creams, charlottes and bettys, trifles and fools, syllabubs and tansys, junkets and ices, milk pudding, suet pudding, custards and cakes, and rice pudding (rice grown by slaves in Georgia and Carolina, sugar grown by slaves in the Indies).

Somerset v Stewart (1772) Slavery had never been authorized by statute in England and Wales, and Lord Mansfield decided that it was also unsupported in common law. Lord Mansfield tried to narrowly limit his judgment to the issue of whether a person, regardless of being a slave, could be removed from England against their will, and said they could not. Nonetheless the case ‘aroused enormous interest and political controversy’ (p.305) and became one of the most significant milestones in the abolitionist campaign.

Mansfield had in his own household a black slave, Elizabeth Dido, born to a slave woman captured aboard a Spanish ship by a British pirate, who got her pregnant and passed the baby on to his relative Mansfield, who brought her up.

In his will Mansfield specified that Dido be freed and given an annuity for life.

The Zong case (1781) The Zong was a Liverpool-based slave ship. In September 1780 it departed the coast of Africa for Jamaica with 470 slaves on board. 60 Africans and seven crew had died from disease on the crossing when, on November 29, Captain Luke Collingwood called a meeting of his officers to decide whether to throw the sick Africans overboard in order to preserve the others and save drinking water. 131 slaves were thrown overboard. The owners of the Zong, Gregson, claimed the loss of their slaves (£30 each) from their insurers, Gilbert. The insurers refused to pay. The case was taken to court and provoked a storm of outrage. Another milestone towards abolition.

A depiction of the Zong massacre, November 1781

A depiction of the Zong massacre, November 1781

John Newton John Newton, later in life an ardent abolitionist and author of the hymn Amazing Grace was, early in life, captain of a slave ship and responsible for punishing and reprimanding uppity slaves. He used thumbscrews.

The Middle Passage It surprised me that, as a proportion, more of the white crews died in the Atlantic crossing, than the slaves. I have seen the diagrams of the slaves packed tight below decks hundreds of times, and they have been recycled in numerous works of art as symbols of unprecedented suffering. Who knew, that as a proportion, more whites died than blacks!

All Souls Barbados was the most densely planted and cultivated sugar island in the West Indies. The largest slave owner was Christopher Codrington. It was his land which funded the establishment of the Codrington Library at All Souls College, Oxford. It comes as no surprise to learn that in our politically sensitive times, the College is setting up a scholarship to help West Indian students.

West Indian output Between the 1660s and the abolition of slavery, the African population of the West Indian sugar islands rose to 1 million. During that period over 10 million tonnes of sugar were produced.

Task work Slaves were set tasks and, once these were complete, were free to tend their own gardens, practice artisan skills and so on. In fact, one of the biggest learnings from Walvin is that many slaves had a surprising amount of freedom and agency.

Many were trained in a very wide range of skills, from artisan work such as coopers, carpenters and smiths, to work gang overseers, to book keepers and accountants, while off to one side of field work was an entire hierarchy of domestic servants from lowliest char to senior butler and household supervisor.

I thought the chapter about ‘runaways’ would be about desperate conspiracies to break shackles, get through the barbed wire fence and escape – but this is completely wrong. It turns out many, many slaves had jobs which naturally took them far afield, taking all kinds of goods to local markets, fetching and carrying from towns or neighbouring plantations, and even operating boats and ships to carry plantation produce down river to collection centres and big towns.

Slaves were much more mobile than we might imagine. (p.165)

Some slaves’ jobs required them to be absent from the plantation for weeks on end, and so it turns out that the definition of ‘runaway’ is ragged round the edges. Many slaves didn’t ‘run away’ so much as stay away longer than a job warranted – for all kinds of human reasons, because they had a sweetheart to visit, or distant spouses and children they’d been separated from, to gamble and get drunk.

Free blacks Similarly, it is startling to have it brought home how many free Africans lived in the slave areas, specially of the Deep South. They also sailed the seas as free sailors, alongside white sailors, ending up in ports wherever European ships anchored – which is to say, right round the world.

Striking that Olaudah Equiano, who left a detailed account of his life, worked aboard a British ship which made an expedition to the Arctic in 1773!

If there is one really pervasive message to Walvin’s book, it is the counter-intuitive one that slaves – captured, enslaved Africans and their descendants – were emphatically not passive helpless victims, but adapted to their appalling new circumstances, spread into all walks of life available, acquired skills, saved up and earned their freedom, set up businesses and schools, and sailed the seven seas alongside their European one-time captors.

As Walvin puts it, everywhere historians look, they see:

the growth of an independent slave culture, linked to the world of plantation slavery but operating and thriving at an economically autonomous level. (p.115)

The black African element not only underpinned the wealth of the British Empire in the 1700s, but was everywhere visible in that empire.

It was news to me that there was a black drummer in the Scottish court in 1507, that Henry VII and Henry VIII employed a black trumpeter, that Elizabeth I had black musicians and dancers. At a celebration ball in London in 1764 all the musicians were black.

Black servants were highly fashionable among the 18th century aristocracy. And not just aristocrats. Samuel Johnson’s much-loved manservant Francis Barber was black, and Johnson not only made him his heir but left him most of his important papers.

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth by Pierre Mignard (1682)

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, with a black servant by Pierre Mignard (1682)

Death in the Indies The majority of slaves were imported into the West Indies but they dropped like flies, because of poor food, appalling conditions, and being worked to death by the brutal requirements of sugar production. Fewer slaves were imported onto the American continent, but more of them survived because working tobacco was relatively less onerous, food and conditions were better, and, above all, disease was less lethal.

Music Apparently, it’s racist to say that Africans have a special feel for music and rhythm – but the testimony of slave owners and visitors to plantations is full of evidence for the slaves’ fondness for music of all sorts, from chanted and sung words alone, to the accompaniment of instruments made from whatever came to hand, through to full proficiency on European instruments like the violin.

Christianity I’ve met no end of progressives, especially feminists, who think that Christianity’s influence was and is and can only ever be calamitous. In some respects this may be true, but Walvin has a chapter ramming home the fact that it was the Great Religious Awakening from the 1750s onwards, and the spread of Protestant missionaries throughout the slave colonies, the conversion of many slaves to Christianity, and then the widespread dissemination of Christian anti-slavery pamphlets, sermons and so on, from the 1770s onwards – which played a huge role in creating widespread public and political support for abolition.

The role of Christianity in freeing the slaves was ‘seismic’ (p.194).

Phases of abolition Anyone familiar with the subject knows this, but it’s worth emphasising that abolition came in waves.

In the 1780s there were attempts to rein in what were becoming the well-publicised excesses of plantation owners in the colonies. Parliament passed laws restricting the types of punishment (for example, the number of lashes) they could dole out.

Phase one was the campaign from the end of the American War of Independence (1783) to abolition in 1807. This first abolition was the abolition of the slave trading by ship. From 1807 no British ship was allowed to carry slaves. Parliament and the campaigners expected that  this would result in an improvement in the conditions of slaves in the West Indies, and they set up a demographic register to monitor change.

In the event, the evidence came in that it improved nothing. The condition of slaves in the Indies remained as miserable as ever. Abolitionism was put on hold during the Wars with France. When these ended in 1815, there was a period of intense political repression in Britain. But this slackened in the 1820s and a new generation called for further reform, and not just of slavery.

The new post-war generation chafed against the domination of the landed gentry under the old voting franchise. The industrialists of the north chafed against having no political power to match their new wealth. Apologists for capitalism insisted that Free Trade was the great panacea which would drive the British economy and so campaigned against trade tariffs. Christian missionaries provided a ceaseless supply of literature describing the appalling conditions and sufferings of the ongoing slave colonies.

This was the second wave of abolitionism, led by a new generation, which called for the abolition of slavery on moral, Christian, but also economic and political grounds. Free market economists insisted that slavery distorted markets, businesses and wages, thus hampering the growth of British trade and prosperity.

It was only after the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed, and a new ‘reformed’ Parliament assembled, that a laws was finally passed to abolish the condition of slavery throughout the British Empire.

On 1 August 1834 all slaves under 6 were freed. Adults became ‘apprentices’ and were still forced to work for their owners for 40 hours a week, for nothing, for a period of 6 years. Some islands decided tojust get on and free all their slaves.

Many of the colonies had reacted to the unrelenting pressure from the church and the mother country against slavery, by steadily releasing slaves already, especially if they were old, ill or unable to work. Slavery was always first and foremost an economic consideration.

Full abolition only came at midnight on 31 July 1838. Freed slaves across the West Indies held marches and parades, made speeches, attended church, decked their houses and towns with flags and bunting.

The British enforced the slave trade Having seen the light, the British became enthusiastic opponents of the slave trade wherever it remained. It became a standing order of the Royal Navy to confiscate slave ships. Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.

American slavery But we no longer had jurisdiction over the United States. By 1860 there were some 4 million slaves in the USA, far more than had been liberated from the British colonies in the 1830s.

Their struggle for liberation, and the epic civil war it prompted, is another story.


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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.


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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, in this telling, seem like 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. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

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.


Related links

Primitivism and Modern Art by Colin Rhodes (1994)

This is another in Thames and Hudson’s extensive ‘World of Art’ series, which means it has a serious and thorough text but that, of the 207 illustrations, only 28 are in colour, and all of them are small.

In Primitivism and Modern Art Rhodes aims ‘to give an overview of, and to highlight and clarify the often confused major issues and values at stake in the Primitivist world view through a discussion that focuses on the modern artists most closely associated with it’ – which straightaway explains the central theme and also gives you an example of the book’s rather clotted prose style.

Primitivism and political correctness

I was expecting there to be a fair amount of political correctness and I wasn’t disappointed, both in terms of sweeping generalisations and characteristic sociological jargon:

In [the late 19th century] the female body was deemed to be less specialised and women were generally typed as being essentially instinctive as opposed to rational thinkers. This conveniently situated them in a position closer to nature and so in this way the generic woman was defined, silenced and contained in male discourses of culture in precisely the same way as the savage.

‘Precisely’?

It is no coincidence that Pechstein’s image of female fecundity should be titled Early Morning (1911). The curving form of the apparently pregnant, exoticised woman is echoed in the arching sweep of the primordial landscape, suggesting that here creation can be understood simultaneously as a literal dawn, the dawn of time and as the promise of new life. (p.62)

For Rhodes, paintings are Evidence for the Prosecution, indictments of painters who are charged with being complicit in the racist, sexist, homophobic, imperialist value systems of their day (the book lingers longest on the imperial heyday at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries).

The artists’ work needs to be paraded before us so we can ridicule their absurdly antediluvian attitudes. After all, are not we in our own time, completely and perfectly enlightened? Are our times not the acme of human moral achievement? Do these old white guys from over a hundred years ago not merit our scorn and criticism?

For me it smacks too much of Hitler’s exhibitions of ‘Degenerate Art’ or Stalin’s persecution of any artist, musician, performer who failed to carry out the wishes of the Party. After all, was not the Soviet Union the Workers’ Paradise and the most morally advanced society in human history?

The art illustrated here and much of the detailed commentary is interesting, but there is too much of the intolerant commissar, permanently straining at the leash to find some aspect of every single painting and sculpture to criticise and judge to make it a very enjoyable experience.

Some of the criminals and their crimes

Here are some of the indictments on the charge sheet against white Western male art.

  • Paintings of women can only exploit their sexuality and offer the male viewer (apparently, no woman ever looked at a painting) ‘an eroticised vision of women’ resulting in ‘a sort of culturally endorsed voyeurism’ (p.82)
  • The artist (any artist) is guilty of using ‘the artist’s controlling gaze’ (p.81).
  • Gauguin, in finding Tahitian men and women rather androgynous, is guilty of ‘crude evolutionary reasoning’ (p.72).
  • Matisse’s odalisques are guilty of connotations of ‘white slavery and socially unacceptable indulgences’ (p.83).
  • Oskar Kokoschka is guilty of an ‘uncritical acceptance of a need to distinguish between different types of humanity and to classify them accordingly’ (p.83) and of ‘voyeurism’ (p.84).
  • Klee and Kokoschka are guilty of ‘conventional ideas about the Orient’ (p.84).
  • Orientalist paintings of the 19th century are, it goes without saying, guilty of voyeurism and racism (p.90).
  • The West was guilty of using ‘notions of the primitive’ as ‘mechanisms of domination and control over “outsiders”‘ (p.133)

Guilty guilty guilty. Rhodes fearlessly names and shames the guilty men, and indicts whole eras of history for their pitiful ignorance.

Cultural appropriation

The politically correct view of ‘primitivism in modern art’ is that white, Western male artists had run out of steam and inspiration by the turn of the twentieth century, and so invented modern art by ‘appropriating’ (i.e. stealing) images, motifs, ideas, designs and so on from the supposedly ‘primitive’ societies of Africa and Oceania (the Pacific).

They were able to do so because in the last years of the 19th century the European empires reached their zeniths i.e. ruthlessly exploitative imperialism was imposed over a huge part of the globe and countless artifacts were looted from the powerless inhabitants and sent back to European museums, art boutiques or junk shops.

Thus white male artists can be accused of a kind of double whammy, stealing ideas from already-stolen goods. And, being men, they are of course guilty of all kinds of sexism, conscious and unconscious.

Guilty three times over.

This idea of the criminal ‘cultural appropriation’ of non-European art was well-established in Rhodes’s day (1994), and has only grown more clamorous and strident as ‘identity politics’ have replaced effective class-based politics, especially in university humanities courses. (Thus the recent exhibition about Matisse in the studio was awash with the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ and earnest discussions of its wickedness.)

I don’t really understand the idea of cultural appropriation, in the sense that it seems to me to have been the basis of human culture since records began. Cro-Magnon man appears to have adopted aspects of Neanderthal culture. Japanese language and court ritual is based on the much older Chinese characters and etiquette. Christianity is a wholesale appropriation of the books, teachings and beliefs of Judaism. Islam incorporates elements of Jewish and Christian traditions. Notions of hellfire and damnation apparently derive from Persian Zoroastrianism. The Greeks took much of their astrological and numerical knowledge from the Egyptians. The Romans ripped off the Greeks wholesale. The Germanic tribes which overran the Roman Empire copied the laws, language, architecture and ceremonies of the Romans. And so on. Every culture we know of can be shown to have incorporated aspects of other cultures they came into contact with or defeated.

The suspicion is that white western-educated intellectuals only really apply the notion of cultural appropriation to themselves in a spasm of liberal guilt at the wickedness of western empires. In a tiresome example of reverse snobbery, is cultural appropriation something all cultures in all of recorded history have done, but is only bad when done by white people?

Problems with ‘primitivism’

What surprised me is how difficult it proves for Rhodes to sustain this idea, for a number of reasons. In fact the fundamental problem the book struggles with is that Rhodes’s definition of ‘the primitive’ is set far too wide to be effective:

1. Western history is full of the quest for the ‘primitive’

For a start Western civilisation is itself drenched in a huge number of intellectual movements which have sought to rejuvenate the present (generally seen as decadent and over-refined) by invoking some long-lost, more simple, utopia of ‘primitive’ belief or culture.

Jesus thought he was trying to restore Judaism away from the complex rules and regulations devised by the Sadducees and Pharisees back to its pure belief in the one God. 1,500 years later Martin Luther tried to throw out the vast intellectual edifice of the Roman Catholic church in order to restore Christianity to its pure founding beliefs.

On the pagan side, the ancient Greek and the Romans developed the idea that there had once been an early Golden Age, simpler, more peaceful and rural, before men fell into the corruption of the cosmopolitan cities. This fundamental dichotomy – rural innocence, urban corruption – has been a central thread of literature ever since. Part of the huge cultural movement known as the Renaissance wasn’t trying to be ‘modern’, but saw itself (as the word explicitly says) as a rebirth, a return to the ancient knowledge of the ancients, restoring their lost skills in sculpture, painting and perspective.

Politics and religion aside, just in the narrow field of art, there was a constant series of movement which all claimed to be returning to and restoring earlier, purer values and practices.

  • Rococo artists thought they were returning to a simpler, rural idyll after the extremely heavy, over-wrought emotion of the Baroque Counter-Reformation.
  • Jacques-Louis David and his neo-classical followers at the time of the French Revolution thought they were overthrowing the courtly decadence of the Rococo in order to revive the sterner, purer idealism of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  • The pre-Raphaelites did what their name suggests and tried to return to an idealised idea of medieval and early Renaissance art, before it was ‘corrupted’ by the perfectionism of Michelangelo and Raphael.

And so on.

In other words, western politics, religion and culture have repeatedly sought to restore, refresh and renovate themselves by seeking out more basic, simpler, more ‘primitive’ antecedents. The discovery and taste for African and Pacific art should surely be seen as the latest in a long line of quests for rejuvenation from idealised ‘simple’ and ‘pure’ sources.

2. Discussion of ‘primitive’ societies and artifacts belongs to anthropology not art criticism

Who exactly is Rhodes accusing and blaming? The opening pages make it clear that the main accusation is against late-Victorian biologists, anthropologists and ethnographers, figures like Ernst Haeckel the biologist, Herbert Spencer the social theorist or the French ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. Rhodes quotes them writing dismissively about ‘primitive’ cultures, ‘savage’ races, ‘inferior societies and so on, and it is not very difficult to indict them of racism, sexism, orientalism and so on.

These are the figures who took Darwin’s theory of evolution and remodelled it into Social Darwinism, the theory which applied the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to human societies (justifying the poverty of the poor by saying they just weren’t up to the struggle for life), and then applying it to the colonies of the huge European empires, whose populations, it was claimed, were savages, primitives, children who needed to be guided and nurtured until they evolved up to the level of our wonderful Western societies.

1. It’s easy to get whip up outrage against these kind of writers but:

  • It was quite a long time ago
  • Pointing out that the writings of some German sociologist of the 1880s was ‘racist’ is not exactly news. It’s the opposite, really. It is quite tediously well known.

2. Same with Imperialism. Rhodes thinks it was bad. Really? Golly. May I suggest that this is no longer news.

3. Overall, this is an argument to take up with modern anthropologists and social theorists. An art critic wading into the writings of pioneer anthropologists and ethnographers is bound to be able to find all kinds of quotes which offend modern sensibilities. His conclusion is ‘they were all sexist and racist’. This is so boring and predictable as to turn me off the whole book: is it all going to be written at this kindergarten level?

There’s something about art and literature critics who make a foray into completely different disciplines in order to froth and rage against the appalling racism and sexism of people writing 150 years ago. It’s so easy. It’s like Edward Said getting cross about the ‘orientalist’ writings of supposed ‘experts’ on the Middle East or Africa, who were writing in the 1850s.

And of course Rhodes and Said’s readers, their audiences (art students, literature students), are not experts in these fields – they are completely unqualified to comment on how the attitudes of 1880s ethnographers or orientalists have been superseded and transformed over the past 140 years – and so are liable to hoover up this sense of undifferentiated anger untroubled by detailed knowledge of how the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography have changed in the 140 years since then.

3. The assumption of influence

A second objection is that Rhodes makes the dubious assumption about these racist writings, namely that they are representative of everyone’s views at the time.

Were they? Has he carried out extensive historical researches into the attitudes of the entire colonial-administrative-government-ruling class attitudes? Or of ‘ordinary’ non-university-educated people? Because in Britain there was a broad range of Liberal and Socialist opinion which was passionately opposed to Empire and imperial discourse. The Indian National Congress party was established in 1885 on the initiative of a British official and had many British Liberal supporters.

Instead Rhodes cherry picks only the most outrageous bits of text he can find. It’s as if some art critic in 100 years’ time gives his students selected quotes from Donald Trump and then says, all Americans at this time agreed with everything Donald Trump said and wrote. We can all see that that’s a ludicrous simplification, right? Well, why apply the same kind of gross simplification to people 100 years ago?

The second dubious assumption is that the artists of the day (1880s, 1890s, 1900s) were in some way unquestioningly influenced by these imperialist, racist writings. Was Picasso a keen reader of the biology professor Haeckel? Was Matisse a devotee of Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer? I doubt it. And to claim that they somehow picked up these attitudes because they were ‘widespread’ or ‘in the air’ or ‘the spirit of the times’ is lazy and insulting.

Do you, the person reading this, share the widespread anti-democratic, right-wing populism which is without doubt ‘the mood of our times’, in the States, in Britain, and across Europe? Rhodes’s assumption is that everyone in a bygone era shares one unified set of values, the values he personally wants to assign them in order to then criticise and flay them.

This is an insultingly simplistic view of history or of society.

4. ‘Primitivism’ is just too vague a term for such an enormous cultural movement

Rhodes shows how the idea of the ‘primitive’ was much much bigger than just African masks and fetishes. The leading post-Impressionists in the 1880s (Gauguin and van Gogh, in his own way Cézanne) were already moving away from the Impressionist aim of giving a more accurate account of what the artist saw, towards emphasising what the artist saw made him feel.

And then the decade of 1900 to 1910 saw the decisive breaks with figuration of Matisse and the Fauves, of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism. Meanwhile, in Germany, in Scandinavia, in Russia, other artists were experimenting with rejecting traditional academic painting in favour of styles which emphasised feeling, seeking out more basic, simpler, starker effects.

In other words a whole generation of artists was rejecting the 450-year-old tradition which began with the Renaissance, the tradition of striving for a super-realistic depiction of reality, complete with realistic perspective, naturalistic colours and so on – the window on the world idea – and which had been brought to a peak of perfection in the academic Salon painters of the mid- and late-19th century.

In their different ways the post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, the Expressionists, Munch, Kandinsky, all across Europe leading artists sought ways to escape from this tradition, to free painting up so it could express a more modern variety of feeling and sensibility.

Rhodes shows that this is what spurred the Turn to the Primitive, in the broadest sense and that most of  this art had nothing whatever to do with African or Oceanic artefacts.

4. ‘Primitive’ is a crude umbrella term for all kinds of art

Because, in this broadest sense, ‘the primitive’ could refer to almost any type of art – any source of styles and images and metaphors and traditions and ways of seeing – which was simply not the sophisticated Western academic one. Thus Rhodes admits that the term can include:

  • medieval and very early – or ‘primitive’ – Renaissance art
  • children’s art – the artists of the German Blue Rider group were particularly interested in children’s art and published it untouched in their magazines around 1911-13
  • peasant art – simple motifs in textiles, cloth, curtains, ceramics and glass
  • folk art – just as the classical composers of the period went out into the field to collect folk songs and melodies
  • the art of the insane – a key work is Artistry of the Mentally Ill by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, published in 1922 which influenced Paul Klee’s exercises in mad drawing
  • the art of the self-taught, like Henri Rousseau
  • outsider art, such as the backdrops, masks, costumes, sets and designs for circuses, cabaret, vaudeville, puppet theatres and so on

The interest in African and Pacific art which came in around 1905 has to take its place in a far, far wider cultural movement, and among a whole range of ‘primitive’ sources, which the book goes on to describe.

To give just one example, Neo-primitivism was a specific Russian art movement which took its name from the 31-page pamphlet Neo-primitivizm by Aleksandr Shevchenko (1913). Shevchenko proposed a new style of modern painting which fused elements of Cézanne, Cubism and Futurism with traditional Russian ‘folk art’ conventions and motifs, notably the Russian icon and the lubok. ‘Primitive’ is in the very name but it has nothing to do with the art of Africa or the Pacific.

The best definition of this very broad ‘cultural primitivism’ Rhodes can find comes from a book written as long ago as 1935, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, whose authors Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas define it as:

The discontent of the civilised with civilisation, or with some conspicuous and characteristic feature of it. It is the belief of men living in a highly evolved and complex cultural condition that a life far simpler and less sophisticated in some or all respects is a more desirable life. (quoted on page 20)

Reading this I think, ‘but when was this impulse not present in Western culture (or indeed others, such as Chinese and Japanese culture)?’ I think of Spenser’s Fairie Queene which ends with the desire to escape the corruption of courtly life. Or back to the Roman poets of the early Empire, all fondly imagining a life among pie-tooting peasants.

Maybe the period at the end of the 19th century was distinguished by the fact that a lot of artists and writers really did leave the big cities to seek out a simpler life, among peasants or abroad? But not really – Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists and, later, the Surrealists stayed resolutely in the city.

Primitivism and modern art

So, I had all kinds of questions about the relatively short introduction to the book. I think Rhodes is trying to cover a subject which is too vast and stretches over a bewildering range of modern disciplines. The book is much more confident and interesting once it starts looking at specific artists in detail.

Gauguin is routinely criticised for ‘appropriating’ the style, motifs, myths and stories of the South Sea Islanders he went to live among in the 1890s. In fact Gauguin emerges as possibly the number one criminal cultural appropriator for ‘stealing’ South Sea motifs, styles, people (depicted ‘patronisingly’ in his paintings) and their language (which he used liberally written across his works).

But as Rhodes points out, Gauguin had already spent some time living among Breton peasants in the village of Pont-Aven, which is where he really developed his ‘primitive’ style, with its strong black outlines defining garish expressive areas of colour, the figures drawn in a deliberately naive, angular way.

In other words, Gauguin had established a powerfully ‘primitive’ art way before he went looking for ‘tribal’ art.

And he wasn’t the only one: Wassily Kandinsky went to stay in the Bavarian town of Murnau where he decorated the house he stayed in with folk crafts done in naive styles, as well as actually dressing like the local peasantry. Die Brücke painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner went to live among the peasants of Frauenkirch in Switzerland. Nothing African involved anywhere.

Rhodes mentions the Omega Workshop set up by English critic Roger Fry in 1915, including Duncan Grant and continued an Arts and Crafts vision of working with ‘primitive or peasant’ motifs and patterns in the making to textiles and furniture. They withdrew to a country house Sussex in 1916 and formed a kind of posh commune. Maybe they used tribal art as inspiration for some of their angular designs, but any account of their lives demonstrates their wish to rediscover simpler, rural patterns.

A similar ‘back to nature’ impulse lay behind the founding of the schools of art in Newlyn as early as 1882 (and would lead to the St Ives school of painting being set up in the 1940s). In fact Rhodes says it was a sign of the times, with ‘artistic colonies’ being set up all across the Western world, from America to Russia. Some 30 artists’ colonies existed in Germany alone.

All this coincided with the advent of nudism or naturism as a popular movement. The first serious book advocating naturism’s social and psychological advantages was published in 1902 (Nacktkultur by Dr. Heinrich Pudor).

Though Rhodes doesn’t mention him, the grand-daddy of this ‘back to the country’ spiritual cleansing was Count Leo Tolstoy who rejected his urban youth and successful middle age, to go live among the peasants on his country estate, progressively renouncing his earthly goods (such as the copyrights in all his books), and writing scores of essays promoting the simple good life.

Tolstoy’s powerfully-phrased arguments affected – among millions of others – young Mohandas Gandhi, who entered into correspondence with Tolstoy in 1909 and went on to preach a) non-violent revolt and b) a return to the ‘primitive’ culture and trade of rural India (in opposition to its sophisticated cities).

Graffiti Another way of rejecting the academic was to incorporate writing into pictures. Artists as varied as Mikhail Larionov, Picasso, George Grosz did just that. Jean Dubuffet’s work from after the Second World War is particularly brutal and primitive. I can see how it anticipates the interest of someone like Basquiat in graffiti.

To put it another way, it’s interesting to learn that graffiti as a ‘strategy’ for primitive art existed long before Basquiat reignited it in the 1980s.

Conclusions

The book goes on, pushing familiar buttons, repeating Edward Said’s criticisms of ‘orientalist’ artists of the 19th century and sniffing out ‘orientalist’ tendencies in early modern artists (stay behind for detention, Matisse), using key post-modern terms like ‘the other’, ‘difference’, ‘discourse’, ‘situate’, negotiate’, ‘subvert’ and so on, in the approved style, and making frequent mention of the ‘bourgeoisie’ (the people all these radical artists were endlessly trying to shock).

This limited vocabulary and stereotyped litany of ‘isshoos’ is mind-numbingly boring.

Some conclusions:

The primitive is too big As mentioned above, the idea of ‘the primitive’ is much, much more complex than it first appears, and its impingement on modern art is so complex, manifests itself so differently in every one of the major and minor artists from the 1880s until, say, the 1940s, that an overview like this may, in the end, be impossible to write. Just telling the story of the impact of ‘primitive’ art on Gauguin or Picasso or Matisse would take an entire book.

Tribal art Thus, the way Rhodes defines ‘the primitive’ and ‘Primitivism’ makes the African and Pacific art which I thought the book would be all about, only a part, only a sub-set of this much larger and in the end, very unwieldy idea of back to nature, outsider art, the art of children, the art of the mad and so on.

No definition of tribal art When we do get to the part of the book devoted to African and Pacific art, Rhodes appears to distinguish it from the very broad category of ‘the primitive’ by calling it ‘tribal art’. I was very disappointed that he nowhere gives a working definition of ‘tribal art’ which I thought itself sounded a bit simple-minded. Do all African and pacific peoples live in ‘tribes’? I doubt it. Is there no more nuanced and refined term for this kind of art?

Along with no working definition of ‘tribal art’, Rhodes nowhere gives any sense of its history and development in Africa, or the Pacific (or in north-western America, which also gets referenced).

He nowhere attempts an overview of its main features or aspects. It’s a shame and also surprising.

Among my most favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes in the British Museum, which I find riveting, dazzling, awesome, and I was hoping to read something which put into words their impact and power. But there is no mention of them.

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Contemporary writers on tribal art In fact by far the best writing about ‘tribal art’ comes from the artists and critics of the time. The people Rhodes accuses of patronisingly racist views, ironically, have much more sophisticated and interesting responses to this art than he does.

Take the German writer on modern and primitive art, Carl Einstein, who wrote an essay African Sculpture (1915) written after a stay in Paris where he’d met Picasso’s circle. His key insight is that African sculptures are self-contained. They are:

‘oriented not toward the viewer, but in terms of themselves’. They function, he continues, not so much as representations, but as things in themselves: ‘the art object is real because it is a closed form. Since it is self-contained and extremely powerful, the sense of distance between it and the viewer will necessarily produce an art of enormous intensity.’ (Quoted page 117)

When I myself have tried to put into words the impact of the African art I like, I’ve always ended up saying that these works feel somehow complete, utterly finished. They totally achieve what they set out to do. They have complete mastery of form and technique, so I was delighted to come across Einstein’s similar formulation of their self-containment.

Picasso on tribal art Probably the single most famous statement about the impact of ‘tribal art’ on a Western painter is Picasso’s own, a description he gave of his first visit to the Museum of Ethnography in Paris in 1905.

Picasso was no intellectual; he was one of the most instinctual artists who ever lived. He doesn’t even react to them as ‘works of art’, but far more profoundly reacts to their imaginative, spiritual force.

Men had made these masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realised that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as mediation between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desire. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way. (p.116)

A passage of prose as vivid and expressive as his art. Many artists did directly copy motifs and patterns from ‘tribal art’ into their own works. But in this passage you can see that, for many others, it wasn’t a one-for-one transcription of individual pieces, it was the realisation that there was a whole other way of conceiving of the visual and of crafted objects, completely outside the Western academic tradition.

The general thrust of the book is that artists of this generation were looking for ways to escape the dead hand of the academic tradition and that they tried all kinds of routes – going off to the country, living among peasants, stripping naked, copying the art of children, peasants, the insane, anything.

And that ‘tribal art’ was just one among many means of escape, but one which opened a particularly powerful and massive door.

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

A narrowly politically correct reading claims that Western artists ‘stole’ the worldview, designs and motifs of tribal peoples. A more relaxed view suggests that the art of tribal peoples helped to crystallise alternative visions and ideas which artists and sculptures right across Europe were already looking for.

The artists who are blamed for exploiting tribal art are the ones who popularised it The avant-garde artists who Rhodes so casually criticises for ‘appropriating’ tribal and ‘primitive’ art, are in fact the means by which tribal and ‘primitive’ art itself became visually acceptable, stylish, fashionable and, in time, valued and judged in its own right.

The politically correct can (and do) slate off all those dead white men for stealing non-European ideas, motifs and designs, but there is a mirror image way of thinking about this: that all those dead white men placed tribal and ‘primitive’ art smack bang in the centre of modern art and so forced their viewers, buyers, collectors and curators, to take tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously.

Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists, the Surrealists – they made us see tribal and ‘primitive’ art as more than the relics of ‘savage’ or ‘degenerate’ or ‘backward’ cultures, but as the sophisticated products of cultures every bit as worthy of respect and serious study as any aspect of Western culture.

They created the attitude of taking tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously from which the very critics like Rhodes, who criticise them so fiercely, have personally and morally benefited – and then use this late-coming sense of moral superiority to lambast the very people who helped to develop it.

Gauguin Writing about art – writing about what you actually see, how it is made and how you respond to it – is difficult. It is far easier to give in to the easy temptation of criticising everything you see for not living up to your own impeccable moral standards. Being politically correct. The easy choice.

The forty or so illustrations of tribal artifacts which the book includes are infinitely more powerful than anything Rhodes can write about them. In fact nowhere does he attempt any kind of description of individual pieces of tribal or ‘primitive’ art; by and large they are used as evidence for the prosecution against the wicked, white, male artists who appropriated them.

One of the few really insightful bits of writing about art is a quote from (that wicked cultural appropriator) Gauguin, who wrote in 1888:

I love Brittany; here I find the savage, primitive quality. When my clogs echo on this granite ground, I hear the dull muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting. (quoted on page 26)

‘The dull muted, powerful sound…’ Wow. That’s a really brilliant description of the hard outlines and slabs of colour you get in Gauguin’s works.

So by the end of this ambitious but unsatisfactory book I came to the conclusion that the African and Pacific art itself, the art of the Western painters who copied or were inspired by it, and the writings of those artists and their contemporary critics – are all more illuminating, exciting and inspiring than the clunky prose and lame politics of modern art critics and scholars.


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The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing (p.62)

Part one

Mersault is a young French man, born and bred in Algeria, living and working in the capital Algiers. He is directionless, aimless, never really knows what to say to people, goes along with whatever people suggest. His mother’s been living in a home for over a year and the story opens as Mersault receives news of her death. He doesn’t know which day she actually died on, the telegram could have been delayed a day or two. Doesn’t know and doesn’t really care. He never used to visit her. It would have been too much bother.

Mersault catches a bus out to the village of Marengo and walks to the home to attend a night-long vigil and then the funeral, all of which he finds a chore. When they ask him if he wants a last look at his mother before they put the coffin lid on he says no. They look at him. He realises it was a mistake. The home and church officials talk to him but he hesitates, says whatever comes into his mind and generally makes a bad impression. When asked, he guiltily realises that he doesn’t know how old she was. He looks out the window and thinks what a nice walk he could have had, if only his mother hadn’t gone and died.

Back in Algeria his boss commiserates with him but Mersault, typically, doesn’t know what to say, exactly. Once or twice he lets slip his real feelings which is that he doesn’t feel anything but this goes down badly so he errs on the side of keeping his mouth shut. We meet his neighbours in his shabby tenement block (he can hear his neighbours through the walls), notably the old guy, Salamano, who walks his mangy mutt every day, and spends all his energy shouting and abusing it, until one day it runs off never to return.

Mersault observes the street life of his quarter of Algiers, the hot sun climbing the sky, the shop shutters opening, a bourgeois family going to church. Later, in the evenings, he observes the lads, the local ‘bloods’, coming back from the cinema, eyeing a gaggle of girls on the corner. All very laid back and evocative.

Mersault himself has picked up a girlfriend he meets casually at the beach, Marie Cardona who used to be a typist at his office. There are long sensual descriptions of swimming at the public pool or at a secluded bay. On the beach, in the cinema he touches her breast. They kiss. They go back to his flat and make love. Sunday follows Sunday in this lazy sensual way. When she asks him whether he loves her, he shrugs: probably not. She asks if he wants to get married. OK. Why not? He has no idea how much his indifference hurts her. Doesn’t care, either.

Also in his block is a loud young man, Raymond Sintès, who the neighbours often hear beating up his Arab girlfriend. Local rumour has it he’s a pimp, though he denies it. Mersault, drifting as usual, finds himself getting to know Raymond. He listens passively to Raymond’s harrowing description of how he routinely beats up his girl. In fact he’s recently been in a fight with the girl’s Arab brother. Mersault nods vague approval.

This is enough for rough Raymond to think Mersault is his friend and he asks Mersault to write a letter to the girlfriend, asking her to come to Raymond’s flat so they can make up. Them he explains, he’ll get her sexually aroused, begin to make love to her – and spit in her face.

Mersault can’t see any reason not to. A few days later, after the unfortunate girl does come back to Raymond’s flat, he beats her up, the cops are called, Mersault even allows himself to accompany Raymond to the police station to testify that it was the girlfriend’s fault, that Raymond caught her cheating on him. He doesn’t know whether this is true, it’s just Raymond asked him to help out and, you know, why not.

Thinking Mersault is now his pal, Raymond invites Mersault and Marie out to the house of a friend of his, Masson, on the coast. As they leave the apartment building to head for the bus station, Raymond points out a couple of Arabs watching from across the street: it’s the brother of the woman he beat up, and a mate.

Out at Masson’s place, they swim. They cook. They drink and chat. Raymond flirts with Marie who is uncomfortable but Mersault doesn’t really care. They have a massive lunch, fried fish then steak and chips with lots of wine, till they’re all pretty tipsy.

The menfolk decide to go for a stroll. They notice they’re being followed by the brother and his mate. Suddenly there’s a confrontation. Masson beats up the mate while Raymond takes on the brother. The latter pulls a knife and cuts Raymond badly on the arm and lip but the Europeans manage to fight them off. Masson and Mersault help Raymond back to the beach cottage and Masson recommends a doctor who always spends his Sundays out there, so he takes Raymond off to get patched up. A hour later he reappears, stitched up and in a bad mood. He insists he wants to go for another walk, the others discourage him, he gets cross and sets off with Mersault following.

Inevitably they come across the Arabs, again, tending their wounds by a stream across the beach. Raymond is now packing a gun, a revolver. He asks Mersault whether he should plug the Arabs and Mersault finds himself saying the first thing which comes into his head which is – Not unless they strike first. ‘Here, let me take the gun,’ Mersault says, and Raymond passes it over. All four actors stare at each other, turned to stone under the pitiless sun.

Then the Arabs have gone, ‘like lizards’ disappearing into the rocks. The spell is broken and Raymond and Mersault return to the cottage, Raymond swaggering and happy. As they climb the steps Mersault decides, on a whim to go back along the beach. The sun is pressing on his skull. He’s vaguely thinking of the shade under the rock and the tinkling stream. But the Arab is there, the brother, lounging by the little stream. They look at each other. Mersault walks closer. The Arab pulls a knife and there is a still moment while he holds it up, glinting in the fierce sunlight. Mersault fires the gun. Pauses. Then fires four more shots.

Part two

He’s in prison, charged with murder. Mersault is held on remand for an interminable 11 months during which he carries on feeling nothing whatsoever, either about his plight or his responsibility, while he is interrogated by the magistrate, discusses the case with his lawyer, goes to trial and slowly rumbles along the conveyor belt of the Law.

The magistrate reveals that he is a devout Catholic and claims that if only Mersault will acknowledge God and throw himself on the mercy of the Lord etc will he experience forgiveness and be relieved of his guilt. But Mersault feels no guilt. He doesn’t know what the magistrate’s on about. Instead of regret and guilt Mersault appals the magistrate by saying he feels, on reflection, ‘a kind of vexation’ (p.74). From then on the magistrate humorously refers to Mersault as ‘Mr Antichrist’.

Killing a man has made no difference at all to Mersault. Marie comes to visit him but he can’t get very worked up. She’s in floods of tears, and says they’ll fight for his freedom and when he gets out they’ll get married. Oh. Alright, he shrugs, in his usual listless way.

When the trial finally comes round Mersault discovers that everything he did and said in since his mother’s death (and which we saw being carefully annotated in part one of the book) has been collected up and is now being thrown in his face and used against him. His lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral is reported as ‘great callousness’ (p.68). His listless replies to the people at the Home or at the funeral or to his boss incriminate him. Marie is made to admit that they started their liaison the day after the funeral, swimming on the beach and going to a comic movie. In the hands of the prosecution all this goes to demonstrate that Mersault is:

an inhuman monster wholly without moral sense. (p.97)

His lack of concern for his girlfriend is brought up. Even the way he fired once and then paused before firing a further four times. We know this is all the result of Mersault’s profoundly hollow lack of emotion, of affect or personality – but to the prosecuting lawyer it can all be built up into the image of a cold calculating killer.

The text reports the apparatus of the court and the palaver with the barristers for the prosecution and defence but Mersault, typically, zones in and out of their arguments and the development of the trial.

Finally, he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution by a judge who finds him repellent, cold murderer.

In the last few pages there’s a set piece scene between Mersault and a priest who comes to try and persuade him to repent and have faith in God. This strikes me as unimaginative, a cliché of this kind of meaning-of-life novel stretching back to the vast arid wastes of Dostoyevsky’s obsession with religion. The priests’ persistence in trying to get Mersault repent finally drives him to his only display of emotion in the book, when he grabs the priest’s collar, shaking him, and shouting what right has he got to impose his lifeless creed on Mersault? Mersault’s destiny is what it is, when he’s dead that’ll be it, done, over.

Guards come and release the priest. Mersault collapses on  his bed exhausted and drifts into sleep. When he awakes it is the middle of the night and he can see the stars shining out of a pitch black sky. He knows in the morning he will die. But suddenly he feels cleansed and free.

For the first time, the first time, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. (p.120)

He realises that he is happy.


Commentary

Contemporary critics went mad for this book. It caught the mood of the times and made Camus a literary phenomenon.

  • It chimes with the tough guy films noirs coming out of America at the time (This Gun For Hire, Journey into Fear, The Glass Key), with their brutal but highly stylish violence. I visualised the scene where Marie visits Mersault in prison and has to struggle to make herself heard among the other prisoner-visitor conversations, in black and white, out of a James Cagney movie.
  • It chimes with something fatal about the Second World War, about the Nazi occupation of France and the undermining of French Enlightenment values, the end – possibly – of European civilisation.
  • It seems to say something about our post-Christian age and confirm Dostoyevsky’s worst fears – if there is no God, everything is permitted; Mersault kills with no guilt whatsoever.
  • For others Mersault is a symbol of the mindless superiority complex of European colonialism – a hollow shell himself, he doesn’t give a damn about the Arab woman getting beaten up or about murdering the Other, the Arab, the colonised. None of the Arabs are given names or even speak.
  • Or Mersault is a type of the rootless young European male, no values, no role models, living a casual empty life, a type of the tough or hoodlum threatening society, a precursor to the rebellious rockers of the 1950s.
  • To the Communists Mersault is the type of the rootless petit bourgeois, obsessed with his own petty affairs, whose life is meaningless and aimless – he needs to find solidarity with the working classes and join himself to the Forward March of History by joining the Communist Party.
  • To yet others, Mersault is like the protagonists of Kafka’s novels, an everyman figure who is caught up in a terrifying web of misunderstandings, whose life takes a turn for the worse through no fault of his own.
  • The long trial scene is enough to put anyone off getting involved in the Law, especially criminal law where barristers are paid to twist the truth out of all recognition in order to get a result
  • To the philosophically-minded, Mersault is an epitome of Camus’s own philosophy of ‘the Absurd’ as outlined in The Myth of Sisyphus: the lumbering mechanism of the rational, common sense Law can’t hope to capture the intensity, the weirdness, the irrationality of human nature.
  • To feminists The Outsider is a typical patriarchal story of men fighting over the body of a woman who isn’t even named – all three women in the story – his mother, Marie, the unnamed Arab woman – are victims of male indifference or violence.
  • To literary types Mersault’s central defining act is like the acte gratuit idea of André Gide – the notion that life is empty and meaningless and that we must rebel against its emptiness with one great decisive irrevocable act, which has no meaning in itself but represents our protest against meaningless existence.
  • To other commentators Mersault is a representative of ‘Mediterranean Man’, a kind of throwback to pagan times, untroubled by Christian conscience or guilt, he lives in a permanent present of the senses, a kind of post-Christian hero.
  • To yet others the protagonist of the story isn’t the man Mersault at all, it is the pitiless landscape of Algeria with its blistering heat and inhuman craggy landscape. Arguably, the ‘scorching hot’ sun is as much a character in the book as any human.

The light was almost vertical and the glare from the water seared one’s eyes. (0.58)

The sand was as hot as fire and i could have sworn it was glowing red. (p.59)

It was like a furnace outside, with the sunlight splintering into flakes of fire on the sand and sea. (p.60)

  • Rereading it carefully, it struck me that Mersault is an uneducated, working class man living in a pretty rough milieu. Surprisingly, he admits that he was once a student but, more true to form, says that when he was forced to give up his studies he realised ‘all that’ i.e. studying, was pretty futile anyway (p.48). He gets on just fine with the violent bullying abuser Raymond, Marie is a callow typist, his mate Emmanuel often doesn’t understand what’s going on at the cinema. Noscitur a socio. I think Mersault is rougher, chavvier, than is often realised. This is certainly the impression the prosecution lawyer seeks to give, that Mersault is part of a squalid low-life vendetta.
  • The final chapter, with its protagonist crying out against the ‘brutal certitude’ of his execution could easily be taken for a tract against the death penalty which was only abolished, in France, in 1981.
  • There’s even a theory that Mersault is on the autistic spectrum, possibly with Asperger’s Syndrome: incapable of making out other people, lacking the ability to know what is required in pretty much every social situation he finds himself in. Which also explains why he sees things in such uncomfortable detail – the blobby red ears of an old man, the sopping wet hand towel at work – while not having a clue what to say to people. An indication of this comes late on when we learn that he hasn’t looked once at Marie who has come day after day to support him through the trial. And when he does, for the once and only time, look at her and she smiles wanly and gives him a little wave – his face doesn’t flicker. He neither waves nor smiles back. Heart of stone.

I could go on.

What strikes me rereading The Outsider today is that the descriptions of lazy swimming in the sun are not quite as good as I remembered. I prefer Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of swimming off the Riviera in The Sun Also Rises. I liked the scene where he watches from his balcony a gang of young men sauntering along the boulevard, backchatting with young women – I feel I’ve seen that scene hundreds of times.

I’ve just read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. What bursts from Sartre’s texts is their enormous super-abundance of hyper-sensitive self-awareness, a prolific stream of profuse and varied perceptions, characters bursting with ideas about ‘existence’ and ‘freedom’, sensations turning into ideas, ideas turning into feelings, freedom and anguish mingled with night and the cold snow, a bombardment of ideas and concepts.

Camus’s novel, by contrast, feels empty. The hollow shell which is the central character goes about his life, barely involved in it, certainly not thinking anything, finding himself in situations with other people rather than creating them, and always taking the easy way, out, saying whatever first comes to mind. He is not even stupid, he’s just not there.

  • I just nodded to cut things short. I wasn’t in the mood for talking.
  • I had nothing to say and the silence lasted quite a while.
  • After that I don’t remember much. Somehow the night went by.
  • I nodded… I made no comment… I had no objection… I just listened without speaking… I didn’t say anything… I kept silence… I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I told him I hadn’t expected anything whatsoever… I told him I had no objection…
  • really I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I found him rather boring but I had nothing to do…
  • I said the first thing that came into my head…
  • I said the first thing that crossed my mind…
  • I found that my mind had gone blurred: everything was dissolving into a greyish, watery haze…
  • I had stopped thinking altogether…

As he says, with deliberate downbeat irony, ‘Imagination has never been one of my strong points’ (p.111).

It is a portrait of vacancy. And that’s why so many different critics and interest groups were able to fill the novel up with their own interpretations. It is an empty vessel, a mirror.

Algeria

The Algerian War of Independence broke out in 1954 but there had been violent incidents of rebellion and harsh repression immediately following the end of the Second World War. Knowledge of this later  history sheds a harsh historical light back on Camus’s novels set in Algeria. His people, the pieds noirs, the French settlers in Algeria, would eventually be forced to flee into exile back in France, all one million of them.

At the time of its publication the book was most widely read as an epitome of ‘existential man’, confronting the meaninglessness of existence on a rocky coastline stripped of all colour and help. Seventy years later it is hard not to read it, at least in part, as a record of the hollow, heedless, empty-headed arrogance of French colonial culture… whose days were numbered.


Credit

L’Étranger by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1946, and as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 60p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

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