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

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

Debunking myths

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

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

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

Taylor’s history sets out to blow the Disney version of American history sky high. For a start his text sets the American War of Independence in a much broader time period and much wider geographical frame of reference than is traditional.

But it is the myths and legends about the heroic men who left their simple life as farmers to stand up to British tyranny, defied British demands for outrageous taxes, and forged a new nation out of the thirteen disparate colonies, which take a colossal battering, Not only is the reality neither as simple nor as high-minded as that, but Taylor regularly takes the reader’s breath away with the blunt, matter-of-fact way in which he debunk so many myths, so comprehensively.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

1750 to 1804 sounds like a fairly innocent set of dates, until you realise that it covers:

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

Taylor’s account of the creation of the American Constitution is as riveting as it is eye-opening. I had no idea that the chaos, confusion and violently different goals of post-war Americans led many eminent figures (Adams, Washington, Jefferson) to worry that, following ‘victory’ in the war of independence, there might be a civil war between the southern slave-owning states and the northern anti-slave states. it is a little staggering to realise that the seeds of the great Civil War (1861-65) were evident, and were smouldering, in the 1780s. The question then becomes not Why did it break out, but How did they manage to suppress it for so long?

Such was the suspicion and hatred between the victorious states and their politicians that many commentators feared that the new nation might end up fragmented between the European empires which still surrounded it (Britain in the north [Canada], France in the west, Spain in the south). And – mind-bogglingly – Taylor quotes many who thought the only way to restore order and deference to authority (as opposed to jostling anarchy) was a return to a monarchy.

For not only was there a division between slaver south and slave-free north, but, throughout the thirteen states, huge conflict between those who represented money and property and wanted a strong central government to defend them (who came in time to be called the ‘Federalists’) and those who wanted only a weak central government, and power to remain with the thirteen states, who became known as ‘Republicans’. The Republicans felt keeping power close to the states ensured a better democracy, each state knowing its own special interests best and its leaders accountable to an electorate who knew them.

Taylor’s account of the lengthy debates among the fifty or so representatives from each state who met in Philadelphia to create a new constitution is among the most interesting things I’ve ever read. a) Because if you’re interested in politics, his explanation of the numerous compromises that had to be made to please various factions is a real eye-opener about the realities of power and power-brokering. b) Because the constitution has remained the subject of intense debate and conflicting interpretation right down to the present day. It is really eye-opening to realise that it grew out of tumultuous and vituperative disagreement among men so incensed against each other that key players in the framing (Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton) often despaired of reaching any agreement.

In fact I was reminded as I read Taylor’s clinical account of their endless squabbles of the Magna Carta of England, signed in 1215, which was not, as most people think, some high-minded declaration of human rights, but a peace treaty, the minimum requirements the barons demanded from dictatorial King John. It came at the end of a ruinous civil war as an attempt to bring reconcile warring parties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When, after months of horse-trading was followed by even more trouble when the framers tried to get it ratified by the states, some of whom flatly refused. Taylor brings out the importance of the control of the media, the press and the existence of good, well-educated writers and speakers on the Federalist side, which loaded the scales for them (as opposed to illiterate and badly organised opposition from poor farmers and settlers who lived a thousand miles away from the urban centres of power), until most of the states had ratified it and were able to coerce the last few holdouts (little Rhode Island) until they too capitulated.

It’s a thrilling read which completely alters your view about the origins of the United States and, on almost every page, sheds light on the origins of the economic, political and social problems which it faces to this day (and which it seems impossible to escape from on our America-obsessed media).

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

Myth-busting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An American slave

An American slave

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

The Indians It was news to me that one of the complaints that enterprising Americans had in the 1760s against the British authorities was that the latter tried to protect the Indians by limiting the colonists’ right to seize and trade land west of the Appalachian mountain chain, in the vast valleys of the river Ohio and Mississippi. In 1774 the British passed the Quebec Act, designed to bring order and consistency to their rule in Canada. One of many provisions was to extend Crown control over a huge swathe of land south of the Great Lakes – southern Ontario, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota – areas which American land speculators considered theirs to buy, develop and sell on (at immense profit).

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

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

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

Thus a steady strand in the history of the American Revolution is the whipping up of mobs to attack and burn the houses of anyone who opposed the Patriotic line (compare and contrast mob rule in the French and Russian revolutions).

Naming and shaming and tarring and feathering Hence the extensive examples Taylor gives of the way Patriot communities sought out British governors or anyone else in the British power structure who didn’t have the sense to scarper as soon hostilities broke out. Anybody who collaborated or expressed ongoing loyalty to King George III, or was just too slow to respond enthusiastically to the latest Patriot declarations, risked being rounded up by a vengeful mob, stripped naked, having boiling tar (boiling, so it melted their skin) poured over them and then feathers dumped onto the cooling tar, then placed on a beam of wood and paraded round town. Some courts had Loyalists branded on the face or had their ears cut off, just so everyone could see who ‘the enemy’ was.

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

Lynching a Loyalist, 1773

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

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

Taylor’s style and approach

Taylor’s style is crisp, blunt and forthright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His factual statements are sweeping and nervelessly confident.

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

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

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

Really? Absolutely every Briton who lived between 1700 and 1800 believed this? There were no British critics of the British constitution at all in that entire hundred year period? There is no room for equivocation, doubt or shades of grey in Taylor’s brisk, dismissive prose.

Taylor’s revolutionary aim

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

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

For two hundred years research, thinking and writing about America have been conducted in terms of white European men, focusing on the Pilgrim Fathers and following a lineage of Protestant dissent through to the Founding Fathers. Taylor’s books aim to show this tradition up for the travesty it is, and to utterly transform it.

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

He then describes how the Norse settled Greenland and then reached Newfoundland around 1000 AD.

Then Columbus came in 1492, bringing with him the brutal system of slave plantations which the Spanish had perfected on the Canary Islands. The conquistadors first colonised the West Indian islands, then attacked mainland Mexico, destroying empires and enslaving peoples. The Spanish explored up into Florida, where they spread diseases which ravaged the civilisations of the Mississippi basin, and also sent explorers and Christian missionaries across the arid deserts of New Mexico and up the California coast.

In other words, an absolutely vast amount of human activity had been going on on the American continent for millennia before the English Pilgrim Fathers ever arrived. American history did not start with the Pilgrim Fathers. And to think so is to submit, acquiesce and accept the very narrow, blinkered myth of America as a land of high-minded white Protestant farmers – the myth of American exceptionalism which Eric Foner claims was fostered and crystallised during the Cold War.

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

a) How the different geography and ecosystems of the Atlantic coast determined what could be grown in each region and therefore what kind of social systems developed there. Thus the West Indies turned out to be ideal for growing sugar, which requires enormous amount of physical effort and so it was here that saw the rise of vast plantations worked by enormous workforces of slaves brought over from Africa, and the rise of a relatively small network of rich plantation owners. Sugar grew less well in the land surrounding the big Chesapeake Bay (which became Virginia) but tobacco did. Again requiring intensive labour, and so big plantations of enslaved Africans. But from New York northwards the climate was more like Europe and so farms for livestock or crops were more suitable, which tended to remain smaller, mostly family-run affairs. Hence there was never any need for slaves in the north and, though there were some, the slave population was always small.

b) The intricacy of the Atlantic economy, whereby British ships bought slaves on the west African coast, shipped them to the Indies and Virginia, picked up sugar, rum and tobacco, carried these north to New England and then back to Britain, or swapped them for foodstuffs and linen which could also be taken across the sea to Britain, or back south to feed the ever-hungry slave populations. All parts of this triangle of trade became wealthy, and Taylor is brilliant at conveying the unremitting interlockedness of so many different peoples and cultures, towns and nations, agricultures and technologies, all around the Atlantic coastline.

Background to the American Revolution

This is all recapped at speed in the first 50 or so pages of American Revolutions, as the lead-up to the series of conflicts between Britain and France which took place in Europe and around the world, episodically, from 1689 to 1763. The last of these conflicts took place from 1756 to 1763. The British called it the Seven Years War, although the colonists called it the French and Indian War, as that was who they were fighting.

The British won the Seven Years War, making massive gains in India, but in north America, seizing all of Canada from the French (along with some smaller West Indian islands and Louisiana). But it had been a costly war and when Britain began to raise taxes on the colonists to pay for the British soldiery and the new forts built to protect them, the colonists balked at the new taxes.

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

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

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

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

Sometimes his explanations seem patronising – as when he explains that a society based on deference meant that the ‘common’ people were expected to defer to their ‘betters’ – as if these were ideas nobody had heard of till his book. Similarly, when he explains that colonial high society was based on status, part of which was being seen to wear the latest fashions from London – as if the rich trying to outdo each other was a practice unheard of anywhere else, at any other period, least of all contemporary America, where nobody knows anything at all about fashion or bling. Elsewhere, he explains that ‘Christians’ spurned the rewards of this world because they believed in a place called ‘heaven’ where all their good behaviour would be rewarded for ‘eternity’.

Sometimes he sounds precisely like a politically correct American university professor lecturing 18 year-old American students who appear to have no idea what an ‘aristocracy’ or status symbols are, what Christianity or any other belief system is, until they step into his lecture hall. He takes absolutely no prior knowledge for granted.

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

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

To give an example – Taylor describes the slave rebellion which started in 1791 in the French colony of Haiti that forced the French to decoy troops away from the European front to sail half way round the world to put down the revolt. But the French troops were badly mauled by the black freedom fighters over a series of engagements leading eventually to French capitulation in 1803. Taylor emphasises that it was this experience of having his hand burned that prompted Napoleon to cede the vast territory known as Louisiana to President Jefferson in 1804, doubling the size of America at a stroke.

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

Above all American revolutions makes you realise that – as per Foner’s central insight – America is just another country like any other – and that even in its founding period it was characterised by the same kind of poverty, exploitation, corruption, hypocrisy and violence as was to be found in the European nations it claimed to be superior to. Except it also carried the additional burden of bearing, from birth, the twin Original Sins of 1. the mass enslavement of black Africans, and 2. the calculated wiping-out of the native American peoples – sins which will dog American politics and culture for as long as there is an America.


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

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

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

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

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy held by both sides, and on the actual battles fought during the war. In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small – it follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

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

Britain won because:

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

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

The colonists don’t like new taxes

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

  • radicals like John Adams (b.1735) who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • to Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

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

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

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

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

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

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went to to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise. I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

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

The American War of Independence

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

What should the Americans do?

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

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was ordered out in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts. Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were joined by support and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

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

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front, and then crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland.

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

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

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory, and otherwise melted away. Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was riven by debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back. And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were as fierce, and as partisan arguments in Congress, as there are today.

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

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side. In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777. At several points, for example when he had cornered the American Army on New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage and so let the Americans escape.

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

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

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

Indecisive battles

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

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

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City. The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve before finally blundering into settled territory in Canada was the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the attack, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America. It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

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

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

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey. Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side). But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick in them. It stemmed the tide of defections and desertions, and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something.

There is much more like this. The really detailed (Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony) accounts of so much marching – and of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south – make up the majority of the text. The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

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

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, he was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York, despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces. That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British, another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

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

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

France and world war

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

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

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

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity. I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’.

British defeat

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

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom. But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As so often, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have fled north or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city. But he didn’t, he was soon completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short, giving in to reality, Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender. And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

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

Although the vote was obviously limited to male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes. The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout. A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. Ho hum.

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

And the Battle of Bunker Hill. But all these happened within a few months of each other right at the very start. American history and mythology dwell on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then  the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear less about them.

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

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between the warring sides. As 1781 dawned all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Reviews of other books on American history

John Ferling and the days of the American War of Independence

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

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

Days by Philip Larkin

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

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

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

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

So the American War of Independence lasted about eight years and five months, ‘one hundred and four blood-drenched months’ – some 3,000 days to demarcate and distinguish.

A little way into John Ferling’s long and minutely-detailed military history of the American War of Independence, I began to notice how much attention he pays to the weather and to the quality of important days. Much of Ferling’s content is as dry and factual as any other historian’s, but he consistently slips in little descriptive phrases designed to convey the specificity of important days.

And particularly the crepuscular hours – of dawn or nightfall – the hours when the world seems more pregnant with meaning and possibility than usual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Beauty and barbarism (a note on Banastre Tarleton)

Beauty…

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

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

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

See how he is placed centre stage in an effortful pose which dominates the scene, the storm clouds of war to his right (possibly clouds of smoke from some conflagration on the horizon), while an underling manages two panic-stricken horses on the left, making the link that Tarleton led a notorious troop of British cavalry during the war. The fallen flags – presumably of the defeated enemy – are draped across one cannon to the left, while Tarleton has nonchalantly placed his left book on another fallen cannon while he.. what? Is he adjusting a strap in his shapely jodhpurs or adjusting his boot? Or is he going for his sword?

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

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

… and the beast

Tarleton was phenomenally ambitious. After a spell at Oxford he had joined the army and sailed in the force which tried to take Charleston, South Carolina, in 1776. He had distinguished himself in the campaigns around New York. Within three years he rose from the lowest commissioned rank in the army to be a lieutenant colonel.

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

In 1780 the British decided to try a new strategy and attack the colonists in the south. Tarleton went south with the commander-in-chief of British forces in America, Sir Henry Clinton, and his second in command, Charles Cornwallis, to besiege Charleston, port city and capital of South Carolina. His cavalry group was now named the British Legion.

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

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

Tarleton, always mad for a fight, force marched the 270 men under his command, covering 160 miles in two days in the Carolina heat and humidity. On 29 May the British cavalry caught up with Buford in an area known as the Waxhaws. Buford was without artillery – having sent it ahead, but outnumbered Tarleton two to one. Buford hurriedly assembled his men into one straight line but, without stopping to think, Tarleton ordered his entire force to charge straight into the middle of the line, covering the 300 yards or so which separated the forces in a few seconds at full gallop. Buford’s line had time to get off one thunderous volley – which brought down some of Tarleton’s riders – but then the British were on them.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean to the coast of India where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offered 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 routines 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 the pope to destroy all Muslim bases and ships, to establish forts at all the convenient harbours, to bully all local rulers to proclaim complete subservience to the King of Portugal, to build churches and convert the heathens.

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 is the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

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 factor, or 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.

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, being shot down by muskets and cannon from 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)

which 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 in Calicut harbor. He claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed, 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 mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress and when it wasn’t forthcoming, 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, destroying 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 cultural misunderstanding was continually expanding, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

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

Crowley’s narrative begins with the murderous Portuguese attack on Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa, in 1415, which had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations and which the Portuguese finally stormed and sacked.

He leaps to the next significant moment – When Muslim armies took Constantinople in 1453 it a) made Christian kings all over Europe feel threatened and confined b) cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on.

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

This prompted navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with various projects to reach the Spice Islands by sea. While Christopher Columbus touted his idea of sailing west across the Atlantic to the Indies to the king of Spain in the early 1490s, 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 round 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 the price on the quaysides at Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade, it was to make contact with the Christian communities which were widely believed at the time to exist in faraway remote India – with the geopolitical ambition of outflanking Islam, of attacking the Islamic world from the rear. John I, Manuel I had inherited the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of their 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 it was backed up by the full force of the pope. The whole European apparatus of violent state power, religious intolerance, metal armour and cannons, really big seaborne cannons, was brought to bear.

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 and, if anything displeases them, are then hanged from the yardarms, before being dismembered and their scattered body parts returned to their horrified relatives waiting on shore.

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

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

Conquerors

So this is the story 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 which spanned the west and east coasts of Africa, India and on to the East Indies, through 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.

It’s 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, 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 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 along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west into the big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction 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. That was if things worked out right.

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 round of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Mostly 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 they 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.

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 price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities send spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about Portuguese navigators, and sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo putting pressure on him to take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Which he refused to do.

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 nature of Europe, a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political powers, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends (as is our own time). One was about a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, 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 and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, to the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and 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 him.

Still, it is important to remember that it wasn’t a mission 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, to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

More adventure than analysis

The prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor which leads into a brief few pages describing the epic journeys which he commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. They were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim. A new emperor in 1433 decided they were a waste of time and so banned further trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building of 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.

A few pages later, the main narrative opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483, 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 each chapter with an arresting image and moment. 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 was 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 there I discovered that, ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’ with some detail on the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship. Crowely has some pictures of caravels but not really 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. In another example, he mentions the various instructions issued by the popes who also – famously – brokered the deal for territory between rivals Spain and Portugal. Crowley certainly gives us the right facts in the right order, but nowhere is there any analysis of the role of the papacy in the Age of Discovery.

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 seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander. The personal, not the wider geo-political situation in either Europe or India and Islam.

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a thriller, fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, 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, historical romance. Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that this was going to be 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)

Gripping individual scenes, but not so much incidental 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 fierce, 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 page 330 he has become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it is an account about just him.

But when he died in 1515, the Portuguese Empire had, in a sense, 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 a working empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be 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, 1495-1521.

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 that is pretty misleading.


Related links

Captain James Cook: A Biography by Richard Hough (1994)

A grave, steady man (Boswell, quoted page 342)

I’ve covered a lot of the detail of the three epic voyages of discovery carried out by Captain James Cook in my review of the current exhibition about them being held at the British Library in London.

That review includes detail of the routes, the places ‘discovered’ and first mapped by Europeans (Tahiti, New Zealand, Hawaii, among many others) and the baleful impact which First Contact with white men had on the native peoples of those places.

Having put all that factual information, and discussion of the attendant cultural controversy, down in another place, this in a sense frees me up to enjoy Hough’s rather old-fashioned biography as a straightforward narrative of derring-do and adventure.

Space and detail

Hough (pronounced How) takes us deep into the day-to-day experience of being an officer or ordinary sailor or one of the scientific passengers, on these extraordinarily bold and dangerous voyages – cooped up in a ship 100 foot long by 28 feet wide for months on end in often terrible weather, with food and water which, after about a month, became increasingly inedible and foul. It is no surprise to learn that drunkenness and fighting among the crew were a permanent problem, with some of the crew being drunk from morning to night, and one man on the first voyage drinking himself to death.

Hough wrote a variety of historical books but was mostly a specialist in maritime history. He was born in 1922, which means this biography of Cook was published when he was 72 years old. No surprise then that it is rather old-fashioned in tone and approach.

Hough gives space at the appropriate points to the scientific motives of the voyages, to the behind-the-scenes politicking at the Royal Society and the Royal Navy which provide the context for the voyages, to the way Cook’s discoveries were appropriated by others (the self-promoting naturalist Joseph Banks being the glaring example), misreported in the press and so on.

He deals extensively with Cook’s encounters with the native peoples of the places and gives a better sense of their interactions than the exhibition. The exhibition is at pains to emphasise the baleful consequences of Cook opening up these places and peoples to colonial exploitation, whereas Hough has the space in his 450-page-long book to go into great detail about all the encounters and their diversity: some were friendly and welcoming, some were fierce and antagonistic; some lived in sophisticated cultures with complex religions, others lived stark naked to the elements, with no clothes, or homes or tools of any kind; some, like Queen Obadia and King Tiarreboo of Tahiti, become good friends through repeated visits.

But at its core – and what makes his book, I think, so enjoyable – is Hough’s own deep feeling for the perils and pleasures of sailing the seven seas. Although he nowhere explicitly states it, it is quite clear that Hough knows his ships, was an experienced sailor himself, and had visited at least some of the exotic and distant locations he is writing about.

Anyone who has sailed these waters off present-day Christchurch will appreciate how easy it was for Cook to misidentify Banks Peninsula for an island. (p.158)

This writer, arriving at Easter Island by sea and at early dawn, can attest to the discouragement to landing the fierce visages and giant size of these statues engender. (p.289)

Thus his book contains numerous moments of insight into the precise mechanical workings of an 18th century sailing ship, of the weather and sea conditions to be found on the seas which Cook sailed, and goes into fascinating detail about the great range of jobs and tasks required to keep a ship afloat and sailing. He places you right there, hearing the creak of the rigging, the salt spray in your face, sharing the excitement of the crew when land is sighted after weeks of being cooped up in the stinking, bickering environment of the ship.

It is for example typical that before each of the three voyages, Hough not only takes you through the extensive repairs and refurbishments made to each of the ships Cook sailed in, but goes to great pains to name and describe every member of the crew, their names, where they were from, their sailing experience and personalities, with indications of how they bore up during their three-year-long ordeals, right down to the 12-year-old cabin boy.

Map of James Cook's three voyages

Map of James Cook’s three voyages

Mingled in among the narrative events are moments of pure lyricism with which Hough explains the lure of the sea, and the excitement of discovery. On the ill-fated third voyage Cook took along two junior officers, William Bligh, a young arrogant but competent map-maker whose harshness, 12 years later, was to cause the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty‘ – and young George Vancouver, who joined Cook’s second expedition at the age of 15.  At the moments when they hove into view of new islands, or explore coastlines, discovering new sounds, bays and inlets, we share with them the raw thrill of discovery which drove Europeans all around the world, on the most cockamamie expeditions.

The audience of political correctness

I’ve watched and read over the past 40 or so years as history writing has become more ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’. In practice this hasn’t meant many more black or non-white people writing history, it has meant that the same type of white, upper middle class, private-school-educated academics, writing on the pretty much the same old subjects, but now going out of their way to comment on 1. the presence or absence of women, and 2. the oppression of non-white peoples.

Fine. Some of this I find sheds drastically new light on old subjects, like Alan Taylor’s mind-expanding history of the colonisation of America, which begins 30,000 years ago with the arrival of the first humans in Alaska, and goes on to explain the staggeringly diverse range of ‘races’, nations and cultures which, right from the beginning, made up America’s multi-racial societies.

But in other writers’ hands – and especially in (by necessity) restricted space of exhibition guides and wall labels – it can sound like tokenism and box-ticking.

An aspect of the rise of identity politics and political correctness in history writing is that it can result in text which is surprisingly simple-minded, almost childish. In the several exhibitions about queer art which I’ve visited over the past few years, the curators take it upon themselves to explain that ‘same sex desire’ was once forbidden and even punished by western societies.

Reading something like this makes me wonder what age group the curators are targeting. Most of the people I see at art galleries and exhibitions are quite clearly retired, educated middle-class people in their 60s and 70s. Do you really need to explain to the average, educated, middle-class exhibition-goer that homosexuality used to be illegal? Do you think they didn’t know that?

Similarly, at the British Library exhibition about Cook’s voyages, I was struck by a wall label which pointed out that:

Violence is part of the story of James Cook’s voyages, as it is of other European expeditions of this era.

What age group would you say that is aimed at? 11 year-olds? 8 year-olds? Surely not the grey-haired old retirees I was surrounded by.

And in case you didn’t know what ‘violence’ means, the case the label refers to contains a musket which is a kind of old-fashioned gun. And a ‘gun’ is a ‘weapon’, and ‘weapons’ are often used in ‘violence’.

Next to a map which Cook created of Tahiti is another wall label:

Claiming of already populated lands was a common feature of European exploration.

How old do the curators think we are? 11?

This is what I mean when I say that modern, politically correct identity politics/feminism/post-colonial theory can sometimes end up treating its audience like small children, as if they have to explain every aspect of human nature from scratch, as if we’d never heard of same sex desire, or violence, or colonialism, or slavery before.

Hough assumes we are adults

This is what makes Hough so enjoyable: he treats his readers as adults who know about the world. Thus he takes it for granted that the main entertainment of the tough, illiterate ship’s crew was getting drunk and fighting, which they do again and again and again.

Prostitutes And expects you to understand that it was standard practice for the 80 or so crew members, whenever they hit land, to go looking women. In Westernised ports like Cape Town or Batavia, this meant prostitutes. In the islands of the Pacific, it meant native women, but this is where the voyages were so memorable for the men because there were well-established traditions of native women happily giving themselves to visiting mjen – with the full approval of their own menfolk.

Tahitian women Thus every landfall in most of the Pacific islands, is accompanied by an impressive amount of sexual activity, sometimes in the open, in full view of passersby and Hough, it seems to me, treats us adults who expect rough sailors to behave this way and are not as shocked as feminist art curators. This allows him to move on to the more interesting aspects and consequences, for example the way that many of the English men and native women formed real attachments, which led the women, for example, to follow the ships in canoes when they set sail, and to greet some of the same sailors when they returned three years later, with genuine joy.

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

STDs But it also led to the spread of venereal disease and Hough shows how Cook repeatedly tried to establish the origin of these diseases and tried to enforce bans on his own crew when they arrived at new tropical island (like Hawaii, discovered only on the third voyage) to prevent the natives being infected. The failure of Cook’s strict bans, despite being enforced with flogging, tells us more about the indefatigableness of human nature than all the exhibition wall labels in the world.

Buggery Hough makes a only passing mention to the fact that ‘buggery’ was rife below decks. He takes it for granted that 70 or 80 rough, physically fit men, cooped up in a very small space for long periods will indulge in sodomy, even though it was forbidden and punishable by lashes of the whip. A very different world from the ‘same sex desires’ of the kind of Bloomsbury ladies depicted in Tate’s Queer British Art.

The lash Hough assumes that we understand that maintaining discipline among drunk, potentially violent men, required severe physical punishment, namely tying wrong-doers to a wooden frame and whipping their bare backs till they bled. If the member of crew tasked with doing the whipping refused, he too was whipped.

Crossing the line I’d forgotten the tradition that when the ship crossed the equator, every crewman and passenger who hadn’t done it before, was locked inside a kind of wooden cage, suspended by rope from a yardarm, and then dropped several times its own height into the speeding waves, so that the man trapped inside was totally submerged, three times. One of the several officers who kept diaries of the voyage remarks how some of the men revelled in demonstrating their toughness, while others were visibly distressed after just the first drop and wept after the second. The tradition continues to this day, though much more aware of health and safety.

The purpose of history

For me history has at least three purposes.

1. One is as pure entertainment. I bet most people read history books as they read thrillers or rom-coms, for the entertainment, for the characters, for the amazing things people got up to / endured / achieved and so on. There’s as much sex, intrigue and violence in the Tudors as in a Hollywood blockbuster, which is why books and TV shows about Henry VIII never go out of fashion.

2. A second, more straitlaced motive is to understand how we got here today by reading about our forebears in Britain, Europe, America or wherever, to better understand what happened and why it’s led us to the current situation. The ‘those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ school of thought. Winston Churchill said that, by the way.

3. But for me there’s also a psychological-cum-moral purpose — which is to expand the reader’s mind and broaden his or her sympathies.

Reading about the past not only often amazes us at how people lived then, what they had to endure, what they achieved despite it all – but also transports us into the minds of people with completely different expectations and values from us. The more effort we make to think ourselves into others’ places, hundreds of years ago, thousands of miles away, the more we exercise our minds and extend our sympathies.

Instead of rushing to judge people of the past according to the values of today, I think it is more profitable to make the imaginative effort of really immersing ourselves in their world and values, the better to understand:

  1. what they believed and why they did what they did
  2. the vastly different technological, economic, social and cultural conditions they lived under
  3. and so to better understand at least part of the tortuous, labyrinthine, and often unexpected ways in which the past has led up to the present

This, in a nutshell, is behind all the different ways I’m opposed to what I’ve, rather simplistically, called political correctness, in history and historical exhibitions: it rushes to judge, I think we should be patient and try to understand.

The livestock

I didn’t realise they took so much livestock with them. Many of the sailors had dogs, and Joseph Banks was notorious for his attachment to his two prize greyhounds. But they also took sheep and pigs and goats, partly to butcher and eat, partly to be gifts to native peoples on the other side of the planet, and coops of hens to provide fresh eggs. This meant that wherever they stopped to gather wood and water, they also had to cut grass, a lot of grass, solely as provender for the livestock. And imagine clearing up the piles of poo!

By the time of the third voyage, King George III, the official sponsor of all of the voyages, had seen and learned about conditions among the native peoples which his expeditions had claimed for the British crown. Not least because the second voyage brought home Omai, a Pacific Islander Cook had met in Tahiti, and who became the sensation of fashionable London during his two-year stay in Britain (1774-76).

As a result ‘farmer’ George, as he was nicknamed for his interest in improving agriculture in Britain, decided to send the poor benighted Pacific Islanders a suite of farm animals which they could breed up and so convert their primitive agriculture into modern, mixed British farming best practice.

Thus Cook found himself lumbered with direct orders from the king to transport a number of sheep, rabbits, a mare, a stallion, a large number of sows and several hogs, two cows with their calves and a bull, all to be transported to the other side of the world and given as gifts to the king of Tahiti. Plus a peacock and a peahen, special gifts of Baron Ponsonby of Sysonby.

All on a boat little more than 100 foot long!

For the entire three-year duration of the first voyage, the officers’ tea was provided with milk by a goat, who never failed to deliver, day after day, for a thousand days. It survived all the way back to Britain where Joseph Banks bought her a collar to celebrate her achievement, and commissioned a Latin tag to go on the collar from no less a luminary than Dr Johnson, who obliged with:

Perpetua ambita bis terra preamia lactis
Haec habet altrici Capra secunda Jovis

Which roughly translates as:

In fame scarce second to the nurse of Jove
This goat, who twice the world had traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.

Death and Captain Cook

Most accounts of Cook’s voyages focus on their scientific achievement, their mapping and charting, their discoveries of ‘new’ lands (new to Europeans), and the first interactions of Westerners with native peoples in a variety of locations, some peaceful, some violent, all of which – in the long run – would disrupt and decimate their societies.

But one way in which a past as remote as 250 years ago is distant from us is in its attitude towards death. The politically correct tend to think that any deaths, indeed any violence carried out by people and regimes from the past, should be judged against the highest standards of modern, peaceable Western society and held to account as in a courtroom.

But it’s not defending the behaviour of anyone in the past to point out that, 250 years ago, death from all sorts of causes was much more common than it is now. The ubiquity of death – the deaths of his own family, of soldiers and sailors he served with, of crewmates and colleagues – all help to explain the sometimes apparently ‘casual’ way Cook and colleagues responded to the deaths of the native peoples they encountered.

So in among the amazing stories, the colourful characters and the breath-taking scenery, I became interested in Hough’s relating of the many deaths which surrounded Cook all his life, and therefore the presence of death as a theme in Captain Cook’s biography.

In fact there are so many deaths sprinkled throughout the book, that I’ve restricted this timeline to just the First Voyage.

Death in Cook’s family

  • Cook’s parents, James senior and Grace, had eight children. Four died in childhood, one as he turned 20, leaving only James and two sisters to survive into adult life.
  • Cook had six children with his wife, Elizabeth who lived to the following ages: James 31 (drowned at sea), Nathaniel 16 (lost at sea), Elizabeth 4, Joseph 2 weeks, George 3 months, Hugh 16 of scarlet fever. None of his children lived long enough to have children of their own.

Death in war with France

  • Off Plymouth in 1757 Cook was crew aboard the Eagle which was in a fight with the 50-gun French ship Duc d’Aquitaine, the Eagle‘s cannon killing 50 Frenchmen, their cannon killing 10 of Cook’s shipmates, wounding 80! Imagine the sound and the sights and all the blood and body parts.
  • As warrant officer on the HMS Pembroke Cook observed no fewer than 26 of the crew dying of scurvy with many more ill or permanently incapacitated – as on more or less every European ship sailing any distance during this era.
  • Cook’s ship took part in the siege of Louisbourg, the French fort at the mouth of the St Laurence Waterway in Canada.
  • Cook took part in General Wolfe’s campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada and therefore for the British Empire. During the campaign the Pembroke‘s captain died of an unspecified illness, Cook was involved in trying to repel fireships from the British fleet and, in another incident, was laying buoys from a small boat which was ambushed by canoes manned by French soldiers and native Americans fierce for scalps. Cook’s boat only just made it to land ahead of the canoes, where British soldiers scared the French off. During an abortive amphibian landing Cook’s ship was one of several laying down suppressing fire, but when the landing failed had to receive back on board many wounded and dying soldiers.

Death voyage one (1768-71)

  • ‘Peter Flower seaman fell overboard and before any assistance could be given him was drowned.’ in Rio da Janeiro harbour (p.84)
  • 16 January 1769 Banks leads a disastrous expedition into the interior of Tierra del Fuego, setting off in fine weather, but getting lost in a maze of small trees as the temperature plummeted, it started to snow, and the beleaguered troop of ten men struggled to stay alive through the night. Artist Alex Buchan had an epileptic fit, but it was Banks’s two black servants, Richmond and Dorlton, who had filched a bottle of brandy, drunk it all and died of exposure. (p.95)
  • After being caught stealing some sealskin his comrades were going to divide up and make into tobacco pouches, quiet 21-year-old marine, William Greenslade killed himself by throwing himself overboard. (p.102)
  • On 15 April 1769 in Matavai Bay on Tahiti, after a couple of days of happy interaction with the local inhabitants, one of them makes a lunge for one of the marine’s muskets and, as he runs off, is hit and killed by a fusillade from the other soldiers. (p.114)
  • In the same day, back on the Endeavour, the artist Alex Buchan has a severe epileptic fit and dies. (p.114 )
  • On 26 June 1769 Cook and senior officers were welcomed by King Tiarreboo who proudly displayed his collection of human jawbones, and they learned that the previous year the King’s army had invaded  the territory of neighbouring Queen Obadia, killing a large number of her subjects, burning down their huts and stealing their livestock. This explained the desolate landscape and piles of bones which Cook and Banks had observed. (p.130)
  • Back at sea, on 27 August, the boatswain’s mate, John Reading of Kinsale, County Cork, drank three half pints of raw rum and died as a result.
  • On 9 October 1769 they landed at a wide bay of what they came to realise was New Zealand. When three Maori warriors approached the landing party and one came forward threatening with his spear, the cox in charge of hte boat ordered soldiers to fire over their heads and, when he came very close, at him. Te Maro was the first Maori killed by the British.
  • Next day a Maori whipped the curved sword from the waist of astronomer Green, and the Brits initially fired birdshot which peppered him but, as he ran off, Surgeon Monkhouse fired his musket and killed him.
  • Later the same day, on the way back to the ship, they encountered two rafts paddled by Maoris and tried to corner one in order to take the natives aboard the Endeavour, show them trinkets and prove how friendly we are. But the Maoris put up a stiff resistance, throwing rocks and anything they could reach so that the Brits eventually fired muskets into the canoe, killing four Maoris.
  • 9 November 1769,  in a different bay, while Cook was exploring the man in charge of the landing party, John Gore was trading with natives. When one of them stole a roll of cloth and ran away, Gore levelled his musket and shot him dead. (p.147)
  • 30 April 1770, in Botany Bay Australia, seaman Forby Sutherland died of pneumonia contracted on Tierra del Fuego, the first Briton to die in Australia.

Death in Batavia

In November 1770 the Endeavour reached Batavia, main city of the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta). They were relieved to see white men and have access to all the joys of civilisation again, after more than a year either at sea or among native peoples, and also relieved to be able to make repairs to the Endeavour which was in poor shape after enduring such a long voyage, and a number of fierce storms.

But it proved to be a fatal stay. Batavia had been laid out in a grid of canals by the Dutch East India Company but these had silted up and become reservoirs for mosquitoes as well as a host of other tropical diseases.

  • ship’s surgeon Bill Monkhouse 5 November
  • 11 November the Tahitian native they’d brought along to act as interpreter, Tupia, died, as did his servant, Taita
  • seamen John Reynolds, Irishman Tim Rearden, John Woodman, marines corporal John Truslove, Sydney Parkinson the wonderful artist and illustrator, the Finnish naturalist and artist Spöring, who had been recommended by Linnaeus, John Ravenshill the ship drunk
  • 31 January 1771 ship’s cook John Thompson, carpenter’s mate Benjamin Jordan, and seamen James Nicholson and Archibald Wolfe
  • February 1771 – midshipman John Bootie, gunner’s servant Daniel Roberts, the surgeon’s brother Jonathan Monkhouse, boatswain John Gathrey, marine John Preston, carpenter John Satterly

In all some 34 of the crew died soon, or from lingering effects of disease caught in Batavia on the journey back across the Indian Ocean and up the Atlantic coast of Africa. Both Cook and Banks were laid low for a while with fevers, but recovered. For a man as proud of caring for his men’s health as Cook, it was a devastating blow.

Death and cannibalism

  • 16 January 1770, in a cove on the New Zealand coast, Cook and his translator Tupia are invited to dinner by a Maori family who explain that they are cannibals. A group of enemies had attacked this tribe, seven had been killed and then – eaten. Some of the sailors saw a native eating the meat off a human arm bone. 20 January some Maori canoes come alongside, sporting dried human heads as decoration.

On the second voyage there were two ships, Resolution captained by Cook, and Adventure, captained by Tobias Furneaux. On 17 December 1773 Furneaux sent a cutter with ten men, commanded by midshipman Rowe, to collect wild greens for the crew. It never returned and next day another cutter went in search and, at a beach they’d named Grass Cove, found hundreds of Maoris and the body parts of their colleagues.

Dogs were chewing at the discarded entrails of four or five men, and they found the eyes, hearts, lungs, livers and heads of their comrades … various feet and Rowe’s left hand (identified by its scarred forefinger) roasting on fires or scattered on the ground.

Over the next few years all visits to New Zealand confirmed that the Maori were cannibals who cooked and ate the bodies of the enemies they defeated in battle. Possibly the white men had got angry, maybe fired a few shots, then were lynched. Possibly they interrupted a native religious ceremony, and sparked the wrath of the celebrants. No one will ever know for sure.

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

But one of the notable aspects of this clash of cultures was the relative restraint the white commanders showed: his men wanted Furneaux to launch a massive bombardment with all the ships canon to devastate the area, but he resisted. Three years later, when Cook returned to the same area on his third expedition, the men again urged their captain to take devastating retaliation but Cook resisted. He even hosted the king of the tribe associated with the murders, Kahura, in his cabin.

Cook’s sense of guilt

This brings out a central thread of the book, which is Cook’s consistent concern to be fair to the natives, to be considerate and courteous, to pay for everything the crews bought, and to submit to quite a few (to him) incomprehensible religious and civic ceremonies. When he discovered crew members ill-treating natives, or when his subordinates were found guilty of shooting natives, Cook was always incensed, and quite a few were punished with floggings.

And yet the book also lists a steady litany of misunderstandings on both sides, and a steady pile of native corpses which builds up. The white men had cannon and muskets. With every misunderstanding which degenerated into violence, the white men (usually) triumphed. And every incident was a nail hammered into Cook’s agonised awareness that although he was carrying out his Majesty’s instructions to the letter, although he conducted his scientific enquiries, collected biological specimens and made endless maps as ordered – that despite all his good intentions, Western contact with First Peoples was fated to be disastrous.

At Ship Cove in New Zealand, in June 1773, Cook wrote in his Journal of the native Maori:

To our shame as civilized Christians, we debauch their morals already too prone to vice, and we introduce among them wants and perhaps disease which they never before knew and which serve only to disturb that happy tranquility which they and their forefathers enjoyed. If anyone denies the truth of this assertion, let him tell me what the natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans. (quoted p.264)

And it was, of course, disastrous for Cook himself, who was cut down in Kealakekua Bay, on Hawai’i island, as a result of a series of cultural misunderstandings with the islanders, which escalated into a bloodbath, described in harrowing detail by Hough on pages 412 to 427. Cook’s brutal murder stands to this day as a symbol of the tragic ease with which minor cultural confusions can escalate into mass murder, and a gory prophecy of all the massacres which were to follow.

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

Cook is cooked

After the fight ashore in which Cook and four marines were stabbed and hacked to death, one of the two boats bombarded the shore while Captain Clerke, taking command, evacuated the remaining men ashore. Some of the chiefs, forlorn at Cook’s murder, promised to reclaim his body for the white men. But next day all they were able to offer was some cooked flesh from Cook’s body and some bones.

This gave rise to the enduring myth that Cook was eaten by cannibals.

No – the Hawaiian Islanders who killed Captain Cook were not cannibals. They believed that the power of a man was in his bones, so they cooked part of Cook’s body to enable the bones to be easily removed. It was the cooking of his body which gave rise to the rumour of cannibalism.

A week after his death, what remains of Cook had been recovered (being the captain’s hands, the scalp, the skull, the leg bones, lower jaw and feet, p.433) were buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, Captain Clerke assumed command but soon died of tuberculosis and the expedition was commanded for another fourteen months by the American John Gore, and navigated by 28-year-old martinet and expert chart-maker, William Bligh. They sailed north to chart the Sandwich Islands in greater detail, and then all the way north to Alaska to have another – futile – attempt to find the mythical North-West passage.

Elizabeth Cook

His wife, Elizabeth Cook, survived not only her husband by 56 years (he died in 1779, she died in 1835) but all of their children who died young, the three eldest sons aged 31, 16 and 16. On four days a year, the deathdays of her husband and three boys, she fasted and spent the day reading the Bible, and, according to the memoirs of her second cousin:

like many widows of sailors, she could never sleep in high wind for thinking of the men at sea. (p.444)


Related links

James Cook – The Voyages @ the British Library

2018 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook set off from Plymouth on the first of his three epoch-making voyages of exploration to the Pacific. In 1768 most of the coastlines and islands scattered across this vast body of water – nearly 64 million square miles of ocean – were unknown to Europeans. When Cook’s third voyage returned to Britain in 1780, most of the blank spaces had been filled in as a result of his labours.

This exhibition is an excellently curated and imaginatively staged account of Cook’s big three voyages. It:

  1. sets them in the wider framework of European knowledge of the time
  2. shows how each one was received and assimilated by both the elite scientific community and the broader general public
  3. most significantly of all, goes to great lengths to present the other side of the story, the by and large disastrous consequences for the ‘native’ or ‘first peoples’ of Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific islands not so much of Cook’s visits themselves, but of the consequences – the way these peoples found themselves quickly caught up in the worldwide web of European trade, exploited, marginalised, often decimated by disease and of how their descendants, even today, are fighting to make their voices heard and to re-establish the importance of their culture and their version of history.

Image result for james cook voyages

Voyage One 1768-71

Cook had gained a reputation as a hard working navigator and map-maker during the Seven Years War (1756-63) in Canada, when he had charted the St Laurence Waterway and then, when peace came, made the first detailed charts of the island of Newfoundland off the Canadian coast.

So when the Royal Society approached the Royal Navy for a captain to lead an expedition to the Pacific, to carry scientific equipment and astronomers there in order to observe the transit of Venus across the sun which was due to take place in June 1769, the Admiralty saw an excellent opportunity to combine science with exploration and Cook’s name came into the frame.

The Navy provided the ship, HMS Endeavour which Cook sailed on, and he was under Admiralty orders that, once the transit was observed, he should sail on to try and find the fabled southern land which geographers and explorers of the time were convinced ran along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Cook took along with him Joseph Banks, a charming, privately wealthy botanist, with an extensive retinue of six artists and assistants, plus his servants and pet greyhounds. The huge collections of plants, birds, fish and other life forms which Banks made on the three year journey would later be sent to the new Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and to the Royal Society, for categorisation and study.

The first voyage crossed the Atlantic and touched at Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, before sailing into the Pacific and on to Tahiti. Here the astronomers got to know the native people, built a fort, and observed the transit of Venus – then the Endeavour sailed on to New Zealand. By sailing right round and charting the two islands in detail, Cook proved that New Zealand was not part of the fabled Great Southern continent.

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

In April 1770 Cook anchored on a spot which he named Botany Bay, on a long stretch of the eastern coastline of Australia. The north coast had been mapped by the Dutch but this eastern coast Cook claimed for Britain and named New South Wales. Detecting no human habitation he declared it terra nullius i.e. uninhabited – the start of 250 years of ignoring and marginalising Australia’s aboriginal people.

Cook’s ship was holed on the Great Barrier Reef, and after a very dicey few hours getting the ship afloat again, they found a sheltered cove in which to make extensive repairs. After completing the survey of east Australia, they sailed north-west to reach Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, where a number of Cook’s crew were struck down by malaria and dysentery, and so across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and home.

Banks sent the vast cornucopia of specimens, sketches and descriptions made by him and his retinue to the Royal Society and became what David Attenborough describes as ‘the Great Panjandrum’ of the late-18th century scientific world.

Voyage Two 1772-5

This time Cook was sent with explicit orders from the Admiralty to search for the Great Southern Continent. After a dispute about accommodation Banks didn’t, alas, go on this second trip.

In searching for the Southern Continent, and ultimately proving its non-existence, the expedition would cross the Antarctic Circle three times and, during the winter months, would make two long circuits of the south Pacific, charting a number of islands and island groups not before accurately plotted on European maps.

The voyages among towering icebergs in the southern seas gripped my imagination most, but Cook also made longish stays at Tahiti and Easter Island.

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

Voyage Three 1776-80

Cook was put in charge of the Resolution to be accompanied by the Discovery, captained by Charles Clerke. This time his mission from the Admiralty was to sail via Tahiti to the Pacific North-West coast of America in search of that other great chimera, the fabled ‘North-West Passage’ which sailors, for two centuries – had been hoping would allow ships to sail from the vast Hudson Bay in north Canada, clear through into the Pacific and so on to the Indies.

As no such passage exists, Cook never found it. Instead this voyage was as epic as the others, taking in stops at Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand, Tasmania, Tonga and Tahiti, places they had previously visited.

In January 1778, the expedition called at the Hawaiian islands, which were then unknown in Europe. After taking on supplies here, Cook sailed for the North Pacific coast of Canada. They arrived at the coast of modern Oregon and sailed north around the coast of Alaska looking in vain for some river or channel or outlet which would give access to the fabled short cut around North America.

They landed in the Aleutian Islands to take on water and then proceeded on through the Bering Strait in August 1778, still hoping to find access to a channel. Instead they ran up against a barrier of sheet ice and, following this east, discovered that it extended in an unbroken line from the west coast of North America all the way to the east coast of Asia. In August the expedition reached Russian soil. In other words – there was no way through.

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

The quest was over and Cook now needed to make winter quarters. Rather than stay up in Arctic waters, he decided to return to Hawai‘i. On 26 November 1778 the ships sighted Maui and on 16 January 1779 the ships arrived off Kealakekua Bay on the west coast of Hawai’i. They anchored and resumed friendly relations with the native people, led by King Kalani‘opu‘u, repairing the ship, taking on provisions and resting.

Finally, the ships sailed out of Kealakekua Bay on 4 February to resume their mission. But soon after their departure a storm blew up and the Resolution’s foremast was damaged, forcing them to return. King Kalani‘opu‘u had supervised elaborate farewell ceremonies for Cook and his men and now, according to diarist James Burney, ‘was very inquisitive, as were several of the Owhyhe Chiefs, to know the reason of our return and appeared much dissatisfied with it’.

Overnight on 14 February 1779, the large boat from the Discovery disappeared. As he had done in other places, Cook went on shore with the marines to take a senior figure hostage in order to demand its return. Charles Clerke later recorded that, on finding Kalani‘opu‘u having just woken up, Cook believed him to be ‘quite innocent of what happen’d and proposed to the old Gentleman to go onboard with him, which he readily agree’d to’. As the party returned to the beach, where two or three thousand people had assembled, tensions increased. News may have reached the crowd of the death of a man shot by British sailors who were blockading the harbour. Violence broke out and Cook was killed on the beach alongside four of the marines. Sixteen Hawaiians are believed to have been killed.

Both sides quickly regretted the misunderstanding and violence, but it was too late and – as commentators ever since have pointed out – it was indeed a symbol, a sign, a prophecy, of more misunderstanding and violence to come…

The exhibition

To my mind the British Library sometimes struggles to compete with the other major galleries or the British Museum for the simple reason that whereas the galleries have great works of art and the Museum has fabulous artefacts, for the most part the Library, by definition, is restricted to books and other printed matter, extending to pamphlets, prints, maps and so on, but none of them necessarily that visually impressive.

But the curators have gone to great lengths to overcome this potential drawback and to bring together the widest possible range of sources.

Books Thus, as you’d expect, there are a number of original journals and diaries, of Cook himself, as well as of important colleagues such as Banks and several of the other naturalists, surgeons and scientists who accompanied him.

Maps If you like maps, you’ll love this show. There are European maps from before Cooks’ voyages, maps generated by predecessors like Tasman, and his French contemporary de Bougainville, and then the maps which Cook himself generated.

Cook’s charts It was fascinating to see the very actual maps that Cook himself drew and created. At the end of the day, this was what all this extraordinary effort was about – the charts which were brought back to be used by the Royal Navy and by commercial sailings. These were the core of the project and it is great to have the opportunity to study in real detail the results of Cook’s handiwork, to read the wall labels and have explained to you why there were gaps here or there (for example, a stretch of the Australian coast wasn’t charted in detail because Cook couldn’t penetrate through the Great Barrier Reef to observe it closely), and even his errors. He mistook a peninsula on the South Island of New Zealand for an island, and an island off the North Island for a peninsula. Nobody’s perfect.

Objects But to supplement these obvious selections, the curators have also brought in some interesting objects such as one of the telescopes which was used to observe the transit of Venus and an example of the new timepieces which helped navigators work out longitude and thus establish their position.

Copies of Harrison's chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Copies of Harrison’s chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Oil paintings There’s also a handful of big contemporary oil paintings – of Cook himself and Joseph Banks and of the famous Tahiti Islander, Mai, who Cook brought back to Britain and who made a great splash in London society, being painted by William Parry and Joshua Reynolds among others, as well as having books and poems dedicated to him.

Botanical and scenic sketches Banks was a man obsessed with gathering absolutely every specimen of flora and fauna he could get his hands on throughout the entire three-year voyage. Spurred on by his work ethic, the naturalists and artists he had brought with him generated a wealth of sketches and drawings (including the earliest European depiction of a kangaroo!).

The exhibition sets the sketches alongside the finished oil paintings which were later worked up from them, either by the original artist or by a commercial artist back in London. Often the original sketches were ‘improved’ or ‘finished’ for inclusion in one of the many books which were published about the voyages to capitalise on their popularity, and the exhibition quietly points out how the rough and accurate sketches became noticeably westernised i.e. the landscapes became more soft and ‘sublime’ as per contemporary taste, and the sketches of the native people’s sometimes very rough shelters were transformed into noble dwellings, sometimes complete with ancient Greek columns, again to fit in with prevailing Western tastes for the idea of ‘the Noble Savage’.

One of the highlights is the striking drawings of natives and plants by Sydney Parkinson (who made nearly a thousand drawings of the plants and animals collected by Banks and Daniel Solander on the first voyage). There are evocative drawings of native people decorated by elaborate tattoos by William Hodges, beautiful flowers painted by Georg Foster who went on the second voyage, and so on.

Native objects In stark contrast to all these visual images created from within the western artistic tradition, the exhibition also includes a number of original artefacts by the natives, or aboriginals, or first peoples of the many places Cook visited.

These include, for example, a wooden cuirass or piece of armour from Prince William Sound, a bow and arrow, and a flute and drum, and a beautiful Nootka rattle carved in the shape of two birds.

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

To quote the press release, exhibition highlights include:

  • Paintings depicting Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia by the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia, which are on display as a group for the first time
  • The first chart of New Zealand by James Cook
  • The first artworks depicting the Antarctic by William Hodges on loan from the State Library of New South Wales, reunited with James Cook’s handwritten journal entry describing the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, for the first time in 100 years
  • Specimens from the first voyage, including the mouth parts of a squid, on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons
  • Expedition artist John Webber’s watercolour landscapes, including the first European illustrations of Hawai’i
  • Jewellery and musical instruments, including a necklace from Tierra del Fuego, ceremonial rattle from Nootka Sound (Vancouver Island) and bamboo flute from Tahiti, on loan from Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
  • Natural history drawings, including the first European depiction of a kangaroo by Sydney Parkinson on loan from the Natural History Museum

Quite an assembly, going far beyond books and maps – and from a strikingly wide variety of sources.

Staging In terms of staging and presentation, the curators have gone to a lot of trouble to create a marine atmosphere, by painting the walls with sea-inspired colours. The exhibition is in the form of a kind of maze of differently shaped rooms, some painted light blue to display the voyage material, and deliberately contrasted with ‘brown’ rooms, lit by replica 18th century oil lamps to represent the time spent back in London. In these rooms are displayed the paintings, prints and publications of all sorts which the voyages inspired.

It’s interesting to note the number of literary works, with quite a few epic poems, dramas and satires based on the sea voyages or on the character of the new peoples Cook had ‘discovered’, particularly the peoples of Tahiti and Hawai’i.

It’s also notable that a number of these works were openly critical of Cook, of the occasional violence with natives which – despite Cook’s best efforts – broke out, and accurately predict the likely dire consequences for people suddenly thrown into the ‘modern’ world economy with absolutely no preparation or help.

Videos And there are no fewer than eight shortish (three minutes) videos, specially commissioned for the exhibition and dotted throughout the show, which feature not only maps and charts and the art work listed above, but modern day shots of many of the key (and generally quite stunning) locations, plus a range of interviewees explaining what actually happened on each voyage, and their importance.

Among the European interviewees are David Attenborough who enthusiastically describes Cook as probably the greatest maritime explorer of all time, and Australian anthropologist Nicholas Thomas, whose book about Cook is on sale in the well-stocked exhibition shop.

The controversy

And this brings us to what is maybe the dominant thread running through this exhibition. As Thomas says in one of the films, the past 30-40 years have seen a revolution in attitudes towards Cook and white colonial rule generally.

As recently as the 1970s there is footage of the Queen and Princess Anne sitting on a beach in Australia watching a re-enactment of Cook’s landing with his crew, and making his notorious claim that, the land being ’empty’, he claimed it for the British Crown.

Well, attitudes among educated people throughout the Western world have been completely changed since then and now there is widespread acknowledgement of the possible illegality of those claims, and the definitely devastating impact of white colonial contact with native peoples.

From Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, across the scores of small islands of Polynesia and up into the Arctic Circle among the Inuit Indians, the impact of white explorers on native ‘first’ peoples was almost always catastrophic.

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

As the films make clear, it is only in recent decades that the presence of the native peoples has been fully acknowledged, and the voices and experiences of the first peoples of Cook’s time, and of their contemporary descendants, fully heard.

Thus the eight short videos had contributions from a number of qualified white people – from David Attenborough, Nigel Thomas, Australian historian Dame Anne Salmond, from a male author and a woman biologist. But there were at least as many if not more ‘native’ voices heard – descendants of the Australian Aborigines and a number of the Pacific islanders / Polynesians where Cook stopped. I’d like to name them all, but the captions giving their names and titles only appeared very briefly, and there was – well – a lot to see and take in.

What came over in the words of all the native peoples – aborigine, Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian – was the hurt.

After all these years – after 250 years – their descendants are still very upset about the way that:

  • their lands were taken from them
  • their heritage, their culture, their languages and customs and religions, were ignored, submerged, obliterated
  • their populations were decimated by the many terrible diseases the white men brought (smallpox, syphilis)

Entire peoples found themselves consigned to being second class citizens or not even that – invisible, non-people, with no political or legal rights, no voice, no say.

It is impossible to deny that this was the impact of Cook’s voyages. Without doubt the voyages were themselves heroic endeavours and respect to the men who carried them out. And there is plenty of evidence that Cook himself was a just and fair man, who made efforts to have natives treated fairly, who personally respected the rites and cultures which he encountered, and who rigorously punished any members of the crew found mistreating or exploiting natives.

But even Cook himself was uneasily aware that the technologically backward peoples he was discovering would struggle to survive in the face of Western technology, ships, guns, and trade.

Tupaia Nothing can really make amends for the wrongs which were done to native peoples across the Pacific in the aftermath of Cook’s explorations. The dignity with which the curators treat their often tragic histories is a start. Hearing from their descendants in the eight videos also ensures that the voices of the first peoples will always now be part of the Cook story.

But the exhibition also sheds new light on some specific and named natives. I’ve mentioned Omai – real name Mai – who was befriended and persuaded to travel all the way back to Britain.

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

We also hear about named kings and high priests who Cook and his officers treated fully as equals, giving them gifts, attending their religious ceremonies.

But the exhibition also brings out how vital many natives were to Cook’s success. It was, after all, only with the help and co-operation of the various local peoples that Cook was able to anchor, land, make repairs to the ship, to access vital fresh water and, above all, food.

And communicate. Another Tahitian, Hitihiti, travelled with Cook on to a number of Pacific islands, notably Easter Island, where he was invaluable as acting as an interpreter to first peoples.

Another very notable figure is the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia. He accompanied Cook to New Zealand and Australia and is referenced by many of the aboriginal interviewees in the films as a kind of role model for the power he had and the respect he commanded from the white man.

And now it appears, from evidence in a recently discovered letter of Joseph Banks, that many of the sketches included in the archive of the first voyage were drawn by Tupaia himself, not by British artists. They are shown here for the first time with their proper credit and this knowledge gives them a whole new mystique and poignancy.

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Summary

The voyages of James Cook were a great human achievement, displaying stunning bravery, discipline, determination, scientific and artistic expertise. The long-lasting impact on native peoples all over the vast Pacific region was almost always disastrous.

The exhibition makes a very good effort to capture the complexity of the resulting situation – amazement at a great achievement from the Age of Discovery. Difficult, moving and upsetting testimonials to the sorry centuries which followed.

The video


Related links

  • James Cook – The Voyages continues at the British Library until 28 August
  • The British Library microsite contains links off to quite a few good articles about each of the voyages, the natural history, indigenous peoples, the north-west passage, imperial legacy and much more

Wandsworth Prison Museum

Wandsworth Prison was opened in 1851. It is an all-male prison and can currently hold 1,628 prisoners, making it one of the largest prisons in Western Europe.

You can only visit the prison itself if you have professional credentials or official business, but out in the forecourt of the prison is what is basically a large garden shed which turns out to be the Prison Museum. This you can visit by appointment or on the occasional open day. Over the weekend of 2-3 June it was open to the public, so I went along.

Wandsworth Prison Museum

Although small, the museum contains over 400 separate items, packed, hung, arranged and displayed densely together to make a kind of Aladdin’s cave of memorabilia, ephemera, all sorts of documents, old photographs, prison equipment, warders’ uniforms and much much more, all with informative and interesting labels which shed light on the history of Wandsworth Prison in particular and, by extension, on the broader development and evolution of British prisons as a whole.

Bird's eye view of the Surrey House of Correction, as it was known when it opened in 1851

Bird’s eye view of the Surrey House of Correction, as it was known when it opened in 1851

The free handout gives a useful overview so I’ll quote it verbatim:

Wandsworth Prison was opened in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction at Wandsworth. it was owned and run by the County of Surrey until 1978 when the prison was nationalised and became Her Majesty’s Prison, Wandsworth. The prison opened with both male and female prisoners. An original signature piece by the architect, D.R. Hill, a cast iron pillar with the maker’s name plate from the pump house and a letter to Parliament from the first Governor, Richard Onslow, covers the early period of the prison.

The First World War is covered with stories of military prisoners, conscientious objectors, spies, Irishmen of the Easter rebellion, their offences and treatment by the authorities.

The Second World War includes the bombing of the prison, rocket attack, the formation of the Prison Officers Association, spies, traitors and their executions. The conditions for the staff and their duties, including those called up for military service, especially the Deputy-Governor (later Governor) E.J. Paton-Walsh, who attended the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

Notable prisoners have included the playwright Oscar Wilde (held at Wandsworth for five months before being transferred to Reading Gaol), James Earl Ray, the assassin of the U.S. civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The prison was also the location of the escape of the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, in 1965. Other prisoners have included Train Robber Bruce Reynolds, Reggie Kray, Eddie Richardson and Frankie Fraser.

Events such as the band Hawkwind playing a concert in the 1970s and a visit by musician Elton John are also illustrated with items on display.

The prison was the last to have an operational gallows that had been installed in 1878, re-built, located in three places and finally removed in 1993. An execution box, No.8, is on display and it contains original items including an execution rope. Details of executions including those of Jack the Ripper suspect, George Chapman, William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw), the last man executed for treason, and John Haigh, the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’, are on display. The last execution at the prison (and in London) was in 1961.

Random highlights

There is a chronological order of sorts to the exhibits, but part of the pleasure of the place is the sense of unexpected juxtapositions, strange displays, odd stories, surprising objects and the general air of a Curiosity Shop of wonders.

Wandsworth was the site of 135 executions, between 1878 and 1961. This is an execution box containing some of the equipment required to set up a working gallows.

Execution box

Taking up one corners is a gallows frame complete with rope and tackle. In the background are photos of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s last executioner (behind the rope on the right) and, obscured by the chain in the middle, Pierrepoint’s death mask.

The heavy chain suspended from the crossbeam was used to adjust the length of drop given to a prisoner during judicial hanging. The test bag at the bottom was filled with sand to the same weight as the prisoner, and used in pre-hanging tests to ensure the strength of the rope, the gallows trapdoor, and the cross-beam. The two single ropes with knots in were positioned so to allow prison officers to steady themselves while standing on plank bridges over the ‘drop’ during the execution.

Gallows, chain and ropes

Photo of the hanging room.

The execution room

An edition of the Illustrated London news showing the execution of Kate Webster in 1879, the only woman ever executed at the prison. She had been found guilty of the murder of her elderly employer, Julia Thomas, in Richmond.

The hanging of Kate Webster, 1879

British citizen William Joyce, known because of his radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany as ‘Lord Haw Haw’, was the last person to be executed in Britain for High Treason. The sentence was carried out at Wandsworth Prison on 3 January 1946.

William Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw in the custody of British troops at the end of World War Two

This is a photo of anti-capital punishment campaigner Violet van der Elst, outside the prison in 1935, protesting the execution of Percy Anderson. Van der Elst used up her personal fortune campaigning to end capital punishment, and lived long enough to see if finally abolished in 1965. It’s crying out for a humorous caption in the style of a Private Eye front cover. ‘Oh not ‘er again. She’s always hangin’ round here.’

Anti-capital punishment campaigner, Violet van der Elst, outside Wandsworth Prison, 1935

Anti-capital punishment campaigner, Violet van der Elst, outside Wandsworth Prison, 1935

 

There were other forms of physical punishment than execution. This is a photo of the last corporal punishment frame at Wandsworth Prison, with the punishment position being demonstrated.

Corporal punishment by either birch rod or cat o’ nine tails whip was a court punishment until 1948 and remained a prison punishment until 1967 when it was abolished under the Criminal Justice Act of that year. Its last use in Wandsworth Prison was in 1961.

The corporal punishment frame at Wandsworth prison

There’s lots to be shocked and outraged by here, if you’re of that turn of mind, starting with capital punishment itself and going on to deplore the whole concept of ‘hard labour’, explained here with a number of contemporary illustrations. There are tales of miscarriages of justice and some horrible examples of the very harsh punishment meted out, as so often, to the poor and hungry and uneducated.

For example, the case of Robert Davey, aged ten and sentenced to three months in Wandsworth for stealing rabbits, in 1874.

Robert Davey

All this I sort of expected. But one of the things that genuinely surprised me was the revelation of how much of the Victorian infrastructure of the prison endured right down almost to the present day. The very hospitable and informative curator of the museum (himself a prison officer) explained that after the Second World War Britain was bankrupt and forced to continue with its ageing infrastructure of Victorian prisons. The decades with one Home Secretary after another putting off the enormous cost of rebuilding Britain’s prisons with the result that many of the older ones, especially in London, continued to contain fixtures and fittings dating from their Victorian origins.

This blue door, for example, is Victorian and was painted, repainted and painted again with shiny prison blue, managing to serve its function as a cell door until it was finally replaced in the 2010s. The 2010s!

(Next to it is a mannequin wearing prisoner issue denim jacket and blue striped shirt, a style introduced in the late 1970s, familiar to those of us brought up on the TV sitcom Porridge.)

Prison door and prison uniform

This is a cell card and prisoner information card holder of a design which also dates from the Victorian era, and was still in use as recently as the 1990s. The 1990s!

Prisoner information card holder

This is a blank escaped prisoner reward sheet. Probably the most famous escapee from Wandsworth was Ronald Biggs who escaped by scaling the wall with a rope ladder and dropping onto a waiting removal van. I wonder how much reward was offered for information leading to his arrest. This blank form from the Victorian era is offering a generous £5.

Escaped prisoner reward sheet

In 1932 the Governor of the day, Lieutenant Colonel Rich, invited the film star Charlie Chaplin to visit the prison. Chaplin was given a tour of the prison, including the still-working gallows on F wing. Chaplin had briefly known Jack the Ripper suspect George Chapman, from his boyhood days in Southwark.

Documentation surrounding Charlie Chaplin’s visit to the prison in 1931

James Earl Ray was accused of being the assassin of the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, shot dead on 4 April 1968. Immediately after the assassination, Ray fled to Canada, then used a fake passport to travel on to Portugal and, finally, to England.

Two months after the assassination he was arrested at Heathrow airport attempting to use a forged Canadian passport to board a flight to Belgium. He was held in Wandsworth prison while arrangements were made to have him extradited back to the US. During this remand period, Ray’s lawyer arranged a plea bargain where, in exchange for pleading guilty, he would avoid the usual sentence for murder, at that time, execution by electrocution – the electric chair.

So Ray was extradited, convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison without a trial and without the evidence against him being tested in court. Soon afterwards he changed his plea, and then spent the rest of his life (until 1998) trying to prove his innocence and that the murder had been the act of a widespread conspiracy.

Mugshot of James Earl Ray, on remand in Wandsworth prison

Mugshot of James Earl Ray, on remand in Wandsworth prison

The view from a gallery of the central atrium of the prison at the centre of its famous radial design. On the right,up  against a wall, is the old wooden ‘central desk’, which is now in the museum.

The main prison centre

Prisoner food tray and cutlery.

Prison tray and cutlery

Prison issue shaving kit.

Prison issue toilet kit

Implements of restraint – handcuffs, belt, a whistle etc.

Handcuffs and other instruments of restraint

Prison officers’ equipment, including truncheons and radios.

Prison officer equipment

Modern helmets: from left to right an officer cap with Senior Officer’s badge (1990s), a Control and Restraint helmet (1990s), and an Officer issue baseball cap (2000s).

Prison officer helmets

I always imagined prisoners wearing jackets covered in arrows was a cartoon convention. Not so. Just such suits were worn until 1922. Apparently the idea stems from medieval heraldry where the image of the arrow denotes ‘government property’. It was conceived by Sir Edmund Du Cane in the 1870s after his appointment as Chairman of Convict Directors and Surveyor-General of Prisons. He intended the arrows to be a mark of shame and a hindrance to escape insofar as the characteristic outfit was immediately identifiable to anyone who saw an escaped convict. I was surprised to learn that the nails hammered into convicts’ boots were also arrow-shaped so that he left footprints in mud or sand which were also designed to show he was ‘government property’.

A convict wearing the characteristic arrow uniform

And, in amid the hundreds of factual artefacts and objects, what does it actually feel like to be locked away in prison for years? The museum has a number of examples of prisoner art, creative art, of course, being a technique increasingly used in prisoner rehabilitation.

For me this work stood out, not for any technique or sophistication, but for its simple eloquence. It seemed, to me, to be saying ‘Help’.

Prisoner artwork – Open hands, from the 2000s


To find out more about the museum, correspondence should be directed to:

Wandsworth Prison Museum
c/o POA Office
HMP Wandsworth
Heathfield Road
London SW18 3HS

wandsworthprisonmuseum@hmps.gsi.gov.uk

Related links

Napoleon III A Life by Fenton Bresler (1999)

Fenton Bresler, who died in 2003, was a barrister, newspaper columnist, television pundit and author of many books. He was a popular author rather than a historian, so the tone of this book isn’t scholarly but very much focuses on the personalities, the experiences and feelings of the people involved.

Occasionally this leads the tone to drop into sentimentality or cliché, but for the most part it makes for an entertaining, easy-going and often very illuminating read.

I’m especially glad that Bresler dwells at such length on the origins of Napoleon III’s family: it makes Napoleon III’s relationship with his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, much clearer, and also, in the early pages, amounts to a touching portrait of Napoleon himself and his family circle.

The Napoleonic background

Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in post-revolutionary France emerging as the Republic’s ablest military leader in its war against its European enemies which had broken out in 1792.

In 1799 Napoleon carried out a coup against the so-called Directorate, the five-man government of France, and had himself declared First Consul. He had married Josephine de Beauharnais, a divorcée, in 1795. Josephine came with two children by her first marriage – Eugène born in 1781 and Hortense born in 1783. As Napoleon grew in power, declaring himself Emperor of the French in 1804, it became more pressing that he have a male heir, but Josephine failed to give him one. Thus, in 1810, he divorced her and married an Austrian princess, who soon bore him the much-wanted male child, who Napoleon appointed ‘King of Rome’.

Napoleon had four brothers and, at the height of his power, allotted all of them positions of power on the thrones of the various European countries he had conquered. He also arranged marriages for them with European princesses, in order to expand the family’s reach and power.

One of these plans was to arrange the marriage of his younger brother, Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, to Hortense, daughter of his first wife, Josephine, in 1806, when she was 23 and he was 28.

The couple didn’t get on but managed to have three children, all boys – Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte who died at the age of four, Napoléon Louis Bonaparte (1804 – 1831), and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873)  – who was to become Napoléon III, the subject of this book.

After Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated in 1814, Hortense and her two surviving sons returned to Paris where she was protected by Alexander I of Russia. However, when Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and returned to rule France for 100 days before being finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Hortense loyally supported her step-father during his brief resumption of power, and was punished for it when the Allies re-occupied Paris for the second time.

Amid a White Terror, in which aristocrats settled scores with defenders of the old regime, amid a climate of lynchings, murders and executions, Hortense and her two sons – the future Napoleon III being just six years old – fled to Switzerland and began years of exile, moving from country to country around central Europe.

Within a few months of their flight Hortense’s estranged husband, Louis, by now the ex-King of Holland, demanded custody of the eldest son, Napoléon Louis. From then on it was just Hortense and Louis-Napoléon, wandering Europe for six years before finding a semi-permanent home in Switzerland. Mother and small son formed a very close bond, Louis’ wife later complaining that he never stopped venerating his mother, even long after her death.

Hopefully, the diagram below makes things a bit clearer. it shows how Napoleon’s parents Charles and Letizia had five sons and three daughters, their dates and who they married. It shows how Napoleon (second from left) married Josephine, who already had Eugène and Hortense, how he persuaded his younger brother Louis to marry Hortense, and they had two sons, the younger of which (and the only one shown here) became Napoleon III. Napoleon divorced Josephine and married Marie of Austria by whom he had his only legitimate son, Napoleon, ‘King of Rome’, later referred to as Napoleon II, who died aged only 21 in 1832.

Napoleon III's family tree

Napoleon III’s family tree

Years of exile

Young Louis-Napoléon spent the 1820s subject to a string of overbearing tutors. He grew into a handsome man, a bit on the short side, but dashing in his army uniform, more intelligent than the other men in his family and, as this book shows in some detail, a great seducer of women. All through his life he seduced and bedded almost every woman he came into contact with.

The family tree I gave above may seem like unnecessary detail but it turns out to be vital in several ways.

By focusing on the ambience and influence of Napoleon on all his family Bresler really conveys the sense of entitlement to royal treatment and to a grand destiny which shaped Louis’ life. By giving all his siblings such exalted roles and royal marriages Napoleon I had created an extraordinarily complex web of relations across European royalty and aristocracy. These uncles and aunts and cousins didn’t just disappear when Napoleon fell from power, but their sense of imperial entitlement continued to exert an influence on Louis right up to the end of his life.

Bresler’s vividly written book does what more academic histories often fail to do – it powerfully conveys the real sense of conviction and motivation which fueled Louis. For Mike Rapport or Gareth Stedman Jones or Karl Marx, Louis-Napoleon was a joke, an empty man who believed nothing and was pushed to the surface by the failure of all the other factions of society and politics, a faute de mieux man.

Bresler’s book – personal and sentimental though it often is, wearing its amateur status with pride – nonetheless embeds you right at the heart of this extraordinary family and has you seeing the world from Louis’ point of view, as a theatre onto which he was irresistibly destined to rise to glory and to lead France.

The extraordinary thing is – that it happened just as he dreamed, exactly as he was so convinced that it would.

Death of the other heirs

Louis-Napoléon’s first political involvement was with the Carbonari, the secret society dedicated to achieving unity and independence for the then-fragmented Italy. His brother joined him in the cause, but caught measles on campaign and Bresler paints the affecting scene where Louis-Napoléon holds his elder brother in his arms as he died. It was 1831.

After Waterloo, Napoleon I’s one legitimate son, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, the so-called ‘King of Rome’, had been taken by his mother back to Austria. Here he was raised as a prince of the royal blood but in virtual house arrest, given the new name Franz, Duke of Reichstadt. Although he just about remembered his father before he went off to fight at Waterloo and never returned, the young prince was forbidden to speak French or even to mention his father’s name.

When Napoleon died in 1821, in exile on the island of St Helena, he bequeathed his son a load of priceless memorabilia but the Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, prevented any of it from reaching the boy. As an Austrian prince Franz was raised to join the army and in 1832 given a battalion to command, but soon afterwards he caught pneumonia and died, aged just 21.

The significance of the early deaths of these two young men was that their removal made Louis-Napoleon the heir to the Napoleonic throne (there were two remaining brothers of Napoleon I, who lived in affluent retirement, but neither had any interest in returning to public life). So from this point – 1832 – onwards, through thick and thin, Louis was convinced that it was his destiny to one day rule as his grandfather had. Everyone who met him reported that he had an unalterable conviction that his destiny was to restore the Napoleonic name and rule France.

Napoleonic writings

Napoleon I spent his years of exile on St Helena dictating his memoirs. These are famously economical with the truth, tending to gloss over the fact that his rule saw Europe wracked by 15 years of bloody warfare, and preferring to position himself to posterity as a champion of the revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

His grandson followed in the Emperor’s footsteps and, once he was the heir apparent, published the first of what became a series of political pamphlets, starting with Rêveries politiques or ‘political dreams’ in 1833 at the age of 25. This was followed in 1834 by Considérations politiques et militaires sur la Suisse (‘Political and military considerations about Switzerland’) and in 1839 by Les Idées napoléoniennes (‘Napoleonic Ideas’).

Wordy and pompous, Louis’s books boil down to two central ideas:

  • the primacy of a national interest which transcended all particular class or factional interest
  • and universal (male) suffrage which would allow ‘the people’ to vote for a strong ruler who would implement ‘the advantages of the Republic without the inconveniences’

Napoleonic referendums

I hadn’t realised that the first Napoleon felt it necessary to call a plebiscite in 1804 to approve his move in status from First Consul to ‘Emperor of the French’. Nor that the vote was so overwhelmingly positive, with 99.93% (3,521,675) in favour and only 0.07% (2,579) against.

This was to be Louis’s strategy: it was universal (male) suffrage which got him elected president in 1848, and which he then appealed to again to support his declaration of himself Emperor in 1852. Both times he won by huge majorities.

So one of the fascinations of Bresler’s book is to learn that government by plebiscite, or referendum, was a well-established reactionary strategy for appealing over the heads of the metropolitan (liberal and bourgeois) elite, to the generally more conservative, and uneducated, population at large.

Quite thought-provoking, given the pickle Britain is in following the 2016 EU Referendum…

The advantage of Bresler’s in-depth accounts

The outline of Louis’ biography in the 1830s and 40s is simply stated: he attempted two ‘coups’ designed to raise the army behind his legendary name and to overthrow the then-king, Louis-Philippe – one at a barracks in Strasbourg in 1836, then again in Boulogne in 1840.

Whereas other histories dismiss both these events in a paragraph or so, Bresler goes into as much detail as possible, describing the elaborateness of the preparations, and then how they both unravelled into farce. He drills right down to descriptions of how the conspirators entered the barracks, what Louis said and did, how they tried to persuade the head of each barracks to join them, the misunderstandings, the retreats, the squabbles between the conspirators. He tells us that he has visited the exact sites of both events and walked through the action. Bresler makes it feel like a thriller.

Same goes for all the other key moments in Louis’ career. You might not get the kind of detailed socio-economic or political analysis which you might get from academic history books, but Bresler’s more personal approach not only makes a welcome change, it puts you right there, right on the spot at some of the crucial turning points in French history.

Louis-Napoleon goes to prison

After Louis’ first coup attempt, the government of King Louis-Philippe indulgently exiled Louis to the United States, from where, in fact, he quite quickly returned to be with his dying mother, Hortense, in Switzerland. After the 1840 attempt, however, they lost patience and Louis was tried and sentenced to prison in perpetuity.

Bresler’s account of this imprisonment is absolutely fascinating. He was held in a run-down chateau in the town of Ham in the Somme district of north-east France, along with his loyal doctor and valet. He was kept in a small room at the end of a corridor, with holes in the floor and ceiling and only paper flaps to cover the window, with primitive toilet facilities down the hall. Here he built himself shelves to hold up his books, and spent a lot of time reading.

Louis and the loyal friends who had assisted at the coup and so been sentenced alonside him (General Montholon and Doctor Conneau) were the only inmates. A garrison of 200, of whom 60 soldiers were on duty at any time, was devoted just to oversee them.

One of the most flabbergasting things Bresler tells us is that Louis and the general were both allowed to have their mistresses move in and live with them. How very French! Louis’ mistress, Alexandrine moved in and, over the course of the six years, bore him two illegitimate children, Eugene and Louis, both of which were farmed out to the Cornu family in Paris to look after.

The size of the garrison guarding Louis makes it all the more amazing that in 1846 he managed to escape. Builders had arrived to finally do up the crumbling chateau and Bresler gives a characteristically detailed and nail-biting description of the plan the General, the doctor and the valet concoct, to have Louis disguise himself as one of the workmen and simply walk out the main gate. Which is what he did.

1848 to 1852

I have described the events in France of 1848 to 1852 in my reviews of:

Briefly, King Louis-Philippe of France was overthrown by a popular uprising in February 1848 and a Republic was declared, but there was then a prolonged period of chaos and uncertainty. Liberals tried to form a national government but, when they shut down the workshops which had given work and a dole to the unemployed of Paris, the working men set up barricades which led the government to appoint a general to retake the city which he did during a week of merciless violence in June 1848. Not only were thousands slaughtered but the entire far left / socialist leadership was rounded up and imprisoned.

This helped the drift in both practical politics and the national mood towards the right. His prison sentence having lapsed with the abolition of the old regime, Louis-Napoleon managed to find a new home, and his supporters raised the money for him to stand for election to the new Chamber of Deputies. To everyone’s surprise but his own, he was elected.

In the debates that ensued, Louis was wisely understated and restrained but – in line with his writings – supported the idea of universal (male) suffrage. As the action-packed year of 1848 drew to a close, Louis-Napoleon stepped up from his modest activity in the assembly, to stand in the election for France’s first ever president, running against General Cavaignac, the man responsible for the massacre of the ‘June Days’, and various liberals.

To everyone’s amazement Louis-Napoleon stormed home, with five and a half million votes compared to his nearest rival, the general, who got only one and a half million.

Louis spent the next three years conspiring to convert the four-year presidency to ‘rule for life’, succeeding in December 1851, when he staged a coup against the National Assembly. He followed this up by holding a plebiscite to appeal of the entire male population of France in December 1852, which approved of him declaring himself Emperor Napoleon, taking the number III in memory of Napoleon’s only son who, although he never ruled a country, was now given the posthumous title Napoleon II.

The great strength of Bresler’s book compared to conventional political histories is that they all start from the present – they start from a modern perspective in which the liberal opposition, or even the French socialists – are taken as standard bearers for what we now know ended up happening over the long term i.e. the development of parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, limiting the power of the rich and aristocracy, introduction of the welfare state, right to work, right to strike, trade unions, pensions and so on.

From this perspective Napoleon III was a freak, an inexplicable anomaly, an apparent step backwards to the pomp and trappings of Napoleon I.

But Bresler shows you the world from a completely different perspective, from the perspective of the extremely upper-class sections of French society, not to mention the very cream of European royalty, and the world of privilege and entitlement they inhabited.

What mattered in this world was not the press or the horribly common deputies in the National Assembly: it was the opinion of Louis-Napoleon’s mother or wife or his cousin the arch-duke and so on, an extremely small, closely-knit society. And within this world there was always the expectation that royalty or imperial values would ultimately triumph. It was God’s will. It was inevitable. And Bresler helps you really appreciate how this fondness for Empire, pomp and grandeur, was shared by millions of ordinary Frenchmen.

What, to the secular liberal writers of history appears a freakish accident appears, from the perspective Bresler gives us, quite natural and almost inevitable.

He also makes the point that Louis-Napoleon was good with people. He may have been a poor public speaker – he had a flat metallic voice and a pronounced German accent – so he came over badly in the National Assembly and among the metropolitan elite of journalists and commentators.

But he had a highly developed sense of the importance of people out there and Bresler describes Louis’ very modern campaigns or ‘charm offensives’ in which he toured virtually all of France, getting on easily with crowds and individuals of all stations of life, in towns and villages the length and breadth of the land. Having been an exile on the run and a prisoner himself living in very reduced circumstances, Louis may have insisted on imperial protocol, but as a person was always modest and approachable. Queen Victoria expected to dislike him but was charmed on their first meeting. Everyone was.

Thus, in 1851, while the deputies and political theorists squabbled in Paris, Louis-Napoleon toured the country and was rewarded with a plebiscite confirming his claim to the title Napoleon III – 7.4 million in favour to 641,000 against.

The Empire of Napoleon III

Domestic

I hadn’t realised that the 1851 coup led to such violence and repression. The population of Paris brought out the barricades (again) which the army quickly stormed with the loss of up to 400 lives. But it was the political repression afterwards which surprised me. About 26,000 people were arrested, mostly members of the left-wing opposition, some 4,000 in Paris alone. The 239 inmates who were judged most severely were sent to the penal colony in Cayenne, 9,530 political opponents were sent to Algeria, 1,500 were expelled from France, and another 3,000 were given forced residence away from their homes.

Louis-Napoleon – painted by Bresler as essentially a mild man – set up a commission to review the sentences and some 3,500 were eventually reprieved.

Imprisonment of the left opposition was accompanied by strict press censorship: No newspaper article dealing with political or social questions could be published without the permission of the government, fines for breaches were increased, and the list of press offenses was greatly expanded. After three warnings, a newspaper or journal could be suspended or even permanently closed.

On the plus side, the 18 years of the Second Empire are remembered for the growth of the French economy and boom times, especially in Paris. Having spent time in exile in Britain, Napoleon III had seen the power of the industrial revolution and he encouraged the expansion of the French railway network and the diversification of the French economy into iron and steel works.

Probably the most famous development of his time was the extensive remodelling of Paris by the architect Hausmann, responsible for creating the broad, straight boulevards which cut through Paris’s squalid slums and created the airy, sunny Paris which survives to this day. Bresler shows how closely Louis followed these plans for a new imperial capital.

The Emperor selected the Elysée Palace as his Paris residence and the palace remains to this day the official seat of the French President. He inaugurated a calendar of weekly balls and concerts at which all the great and good could meet and mingle, intrigue and do business.

A new Opera House was built, amid an outpouring of fine arts and gilded decoration. The Second Empire almost exactly corresponds with the output of Offenbach, creator of witty entertaining operettas such as Orpheus in the Underworld and the Tales of Hoffman.

The Emperor Napoleon II in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The Emperor Napoleon III in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Foreign Policy

The Crimean War 1853-56 Napoleon III supported Britain and Turkey in their bid to halt Russian expansion into the Balkans, the reason war broke out. After the long grinding war, horribly mismanaged on the Allies’ side, the conference which agreed the peace was held in Paris, a diplomatic coup for Napoleon.

Mexican adventure Less successful was the scheme Napoleon III was persuaded to support, of sending a European monarch to rule over chaotic Mexico. France along with Britain and Spain had invaded the Mexican Republic in the winter of 1861 in order to reclaim the foreign debts which the Republic had inherited from the monarchy it had just overthrown. Once the money was paid Britain and Spain withdrew but the French decided to stay on and, though his contacts with the Austrian royal family, Napoleon managed to persuade Maximilian, younger brother of the Austrian emperor Francis, to take the ‘throne’ of Mexico, as Emperor Maximilian I.

This bizarre situation was only possible with the backing of the most reactionary elements of Mexican society and due to the simple fact that Mexico’s neighbour, the United States, was bogged down in its own brutal civil war (1861-65).

But:

  1. Maximilian turned out to be a ‘modern’ ‘liberal’ emperor, much to the disgust of the Catholic, landowning autocracy who, therefore, never gave him the unstinted support he required
  2. Even with the backing of over 30,000 French troops, Maximilian was never able to defeat the Republican forces of the republican President Benito Juárez
  3. Once the American Civil War was over, the Americans began to actively support Juárez

Facing increasing opposition at home, Napoleon withdrew the last of France’s army in 1866. Maximilian’s ’empire’ collapsed, and he was captured and executed by the Mexican government in 1867.

True to form, Bresler concentrates less on the international power politics of the tale and more on the personal experiences of those concerned. Before the end, Maximilian’s wife, Carlotta, sailed to France and insisted on an audience with Napoleon III, by this time a sick man, and begged for military help to be sent to her husband. She apparently broke down in front of Napoleon and his wife, before travelling on to see the Pope to beg for help, in front of whom she began raving that everyone was trying to poison her. By this stage seriously unhinged, Carlotta was committed to a lunatic asylum in Belgium where she lived for a further sixty years.

Here, as in so many other places, Bresler really brings history alive by going beyond the dates and geopolitical events to show you the characters and suffering and personalities of the people involved.

The Franco-Prussian War and overthrow

I’ve covered the events of the Franco-Prussian War in other blog posts:

Bismarck tricked Napoleon III into declaring war on Prussia. This was just the patriotic war which Bismarck had been seeking in order to persuade the still-independent states of southern Germany to unite with the North German Confederation which Bismarck had forged under the leadership of Prussia.

It worked beyond his wildest dreams. Not only did Napoleon III declare war on Prussia but the French Chamber of Deputies rose to their feet acclaiming the war, and mobs marched round French provincial towns singing the Marseillaise.

What idiots. Within weeks the main French Army was surrounded and neutralised at Metz and the army marching to their relief was cornered and annihilated at Sedan. The Germans had better weapons, better logistics and better leadership. Many French soldiers were still trying to figure out where they were being deployed to when the decisive engagements of the war were over.

Napoleon, now quite ill with very painful bladder stones, made the quixotic decision to go to the front and lead by example like his grandfather. Except he was nothing like his grandfather. Bresler quotes the accounts of exasperated generals that Louis made and reversed judgements, confusing everyone until he eventually handed over authority to the general on the spot just in time to be captured along with the wreckage of his army at Sedan.

Once peace was made, Louis was accompanied through the lines to parley with his former colleague, the German King Wilhelm I. Must haven been an embarrassing conversation. Bismarck, who Napoleon had entertained at the French court only a few years earlier, was there with his army, and also spent some time condoling with the tired old man.

Napoleon III was moved to a castle in Germany, before being sent into exile in England. He wasn’t in France to see the catastrophe which followed, namely the French government refusing to capitulate and fighting on from Bordeaux while the Germans surrounded and besieged Paris. They eventually broke the siege, fought their way into the capital and the government finally capitulated.

The Germans marched about the place with characteristic arrogance and the German leaders assembled in the Palace of Versailles where King Wilhelm of Prussia was crowned Kaiser of the new German Empire which had been created by Bismarck. The new German Reich was built on the humiliating defeat of France.

And then, when the Germans withdrew, Paris collapsed into chaos as far left socialists declared a socialist republic and started executing the rich and Catholic priests. The new national government responded by embarking on a second siege of Paris – this time by French forces – who, after more privation and hunger, themselves finally broke into the city, the cue for vicious street fighting, in which the enraged government forces were encouraged to take revenge on the ‘communards’ for all the atrocities they were said to have committed, including executing the archbishop of Paris. It is still stunning to read that French forces killed 20,000 of their own people in just one week.

Napoleon III missed all this. He was in England, at Chislehurst. Bresler shares with us his entertaining investigations which tend to suggest that as far back as 1860, Louis – who had spent his entire childhood in exile and six years in prison – had been making plans in case the same thing happened again. Thus a British agent probably acting for him had used a large amount of money to buy Camden Place, a fairly modest (for an emperor) mansion in Chislehurst overlooking a wide expanse of grass and woodland (now home of the Chislehurst Gold Club).

Here he joined his wife, Eugénie, who had fled Paris with their son before the Prussians arrived, and here he was to live for the last three years of his life until his death in January 1873 from complications after an operation to remove his painful bladder stones.

 The Empress Eugénie and her son by James Tissot (1878)

The Empress Eugénie and her son in the grounds of Camden Place, five years after the death of her husband, by James Tissot (1878)

A medical indictment

The last chapter in the book is a surprisingly fierce indictment of the British doctors who, in Bresler’s opinion, killed Napoleon III. The Emperor had suffered from stones in the bladder for some years, which caused him a lot of pain. This ailment flared up severely during the height of the Franco-Prussian War so that even as he attempted to guide the army he was sweating with pain.

Bresler goes into full barrister mode to marshal evidence for the prosecution from two modern specialists in ailments of the bladder – James Bellringer and Sir David Innes Williams.

Bresler met, interviewed and corresponded with these witnesses and uses their testimony to assemble an argument that the procedure to destroy the stone in the bladder – inserting a device down the urethra which grasps and attempts to crush the stone so that the minuscule fragments can be passed in urine – should never have been carried out. What happened was his English doctors carried out a first procedure, but less than half the stone was destroyed and passed. After a few days’ recovery, another procedure took place in January 1873, but again the stone proved bigger than anticipated.

All was in readiness for a third procedure when the Emperor suddenly flagged, weakened, and died of heart failure. According to the modern doctors this was almost certainly due to sepsis i.e. the bladder was infected by the blockage and the medical procedure the English doctors carried out dislodged some infected bladder tissue which got into the circulation and infected the heart, causing it to fail.

Apparently, the Emperor’s death at the hands of ‘incompetent’ British doctors was a source of bitterness among French doctors and a subject of dispute between the two nations’ medics for years afterwards.

All this is fairly interesting but the revelation for me was that Napoleon submitted to these painful operations because he was planning another coup. Elaborate arrangements had been made; he was to join a cousin in Switzerland then ride with supporters to Lyon, recruiting support along the way, raising the Imperial flag and so on., just as he had tried in 1836 and 1840.

But the crucial element in raising the troops was that Napoleon should be able to ride a horse. Over the previous few years this had become pretty much impossible because of the acute pain in his bladder caused by the horse’s jogging movement. So the immediate cause of his death might have been medical ‘incompetence’. But the ultimate cause was his relentless, obsessive refusal to be denied what he saw as his pre-destined fate, to rule France and to hand on the Empire to his son.

This is not quite so completely bonkers as it sounds because Bresler explains how the Third Republic, created after Napoleon’s fall, remained deeply unpopular for years, so much so that there was even talk of restoring the grandson of Charles X, the king who had fled the throne back in 1830, the 60-year-old Comte de Chamborde.

The sensible academic histories I read make history sound like an inevitable unfolding of socio-economic trends. Bresler’s book reinserts the element of populism and mass psychology which combine with the fanaticism or abilities of specific individuals to remind us just how weird and contingent history often is. These apparently anachronistic sentiments of both royalists and imperialists, were to play a role in helping bitterly divide France during the long drawn out Dreyfus Affair and beyond. Reading Bresler’s book helps you understand their strong and abiding emotional appeal to large sectors of the French public.

A personal history

Bresler wears his personal approach on his sleeve. Rather than quote the latest academic texts, he prefers to reference very old previous biographies of Napoleon III, including some he was lucky enough to find in second hand bookshops in Paris.

He tells us about his own personal visits to various key sites in the story, and the chats he has with the local tourist board officials. For example, he shares with us his surprise that the tourist chaps in Boulogne didn’t seem to realise the shattering importance of Napoleon III’s botched coup there. Why isn’t there some plaque or guide to the precise events and locations, things which Bresler recreates for us in dramatic detail?

At another moment he stands on the very same quayside where the Emperor Maximilian reluctantly took ship to set off for his adventure in Mexico and is as affected as a sentimental novelist.

I have stood on the landing stage at Miramar from which they embarked and it seemed as if an air of melancholy still lingers upon the scene. (p.314)

Bresler visits as many of the exact locations where Napoleon lived throughout his life as he can (including a trip to the remains of the Chateau d’Ham where he was imprisoned), and especially all the houses in London which he rented. Lastly of course he visits the grand Camden Place where Louis and the Empress spent their last years in exile – and which stands to this day, as the headquarters of Chislehurst Golf Club.

This is all rather sweet and endearing, a refreshing change from the earnest, statistical and geo-political accounts of history I’m used to reading. Much closer to the personalised way in which most people actually experience life.

A verbal tic or token of Bresler’s very personal involvement with his hero is his repeated use of the word ‘sad’. Academic historians rarely express emotion, and then it’s at most the cliché that this or that decision was ‘tragic’ – but Bresler again and again takes the kind of soft, sentimental and rather naive point of view epitomised by the word ‘sad’.

The two boys [the illegitimate sons of Napoleon III], then aged fifteen and thirteen, were taken away from her [their mother, Lizzie Howard] and sadly, with the callousness of youth, soon forgot her. (p.275)

In later years, Margot married a Prussian named Kulbach and died at the sadly early age of forty-five. (p.322)

As for Louis, he would be a prisoner-of-war (albeit in the soft comfort of the new German Emperor’s summer palace) soon to be released to his last sad exile at Camden Place, with his health so badly deteriorated that he had become a pale, indecisive and sad version of the witty, commanding and assured man he had once been. (p.323)

I believe that two other factors, apart from his ill-health, led to his sad deterioration. (p.328)

Sadly [these criticisms] also apply to Louis himself. (p.332)

The year 1865 began on a sad note for Louis. (p.334)

The sad news of Maximilian’s death was much more in keeping with the reality of French life and the circumstances of Louis’ rule than all the fine uniforms and magnificent spectacles.

Sadly, they were all living in a fool’s paradise. (p.353)

Mathilde’s entry in her diary for that day makes sad reading. (p.366)

And much more in the same ilk. The ghost of Barbara Cartland floats over many of these pages.

Imperial sex

Everything we were brought up to believe about the French is confirmed by this book. The amount of infidelity, adultery, prostitutes, procuring, pandering and debauching taking place among the French upper classes is mind boggling.

Napoleon I had many ‘flings’ and a number of illegitimate children. Josephine had a number of lovers. But their grandson and his peers far outdid the older generation. Louis loved sex and he had it with as many women as possible. I’ve mentioned the lover he had while imprisoned at Ham but she’s just a drop in the ocean. Soon after he became Emperor he realised he needed an Empress and so married the Spanish aristocrat, Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox y KirkPatrick, 16th Countess of Teba, 15th Marchioness of Ardales – Eugénie for short.

But that didn’t stop him having an ‘official’ mistress – Bresler relishes the way the French have a phrase for top mistress, maitresse de titre – who was for a while the Englishwoman Lizzie Howard, but also a steady string of other young ladies who were presented to him at the numerous balls and concerts which Napoleon arranged.

There was a well-established process. After (or even during) the ball, a flunky brought the potential victim into Napoleon’s private study at the Élysée Palace. The Emperor made a quick visual assessment. If he wasn’t interested, he chatted politely for a few minutes then said that his papers called him, the flunky reappeared, the young lady retired, presumably counting her blessings. But if Napoleon liked what he saw, he dismissed the flunky and then, after a bit of chat, took the young lady up some hidden backstairs to a bedroom. Here a servant was waiting who helped the lady disrobe and then led her into the Imperial Bedroom where Napoleon was waiting, also naked.

Bresler includes quite a few gory descriptions of Napoleon’s love-making which was quick and to the point, his point anyway. One young lady recorded that she had barely had time to make a few coy protestations before he grabbed her in an intimate place, manhandled her onto the bed and was in like Flynn. There were a few minutes of grunting noises and – one victim leaves a wonderful detail – the carefully waxed ends of Napoleon’s moustache began to melt and wilt with the heat of his exertion before, with a final grunt and grimace it was all over, the Emperor stood up and the lady was despatched back to the changing room, helped back into her upper class costume, and led away..

For a while the maîtress en titre was the slender, sexy Virginia Castiglione who, Bresler reveals, was very probably a spy sent to seduce Napoleon (not very difficult) and report back on his thoughts about Italian unification to the canny Prime Minister of Piedmont, the Count of Cavour. How novelish this all is!

A propos of Italy, Bresler gives an entertaining description of the surprising crudity of King Victor Emmanuel, who ended up becoming the first king of united Italy. He was once at the Paris opera as a guest of Napoleon’s and pointed out a particularly tasty ballet dancer. ‘How much for the little girl?’ he asked. ‘I’ve no idea,’ replied Napoleon. ‘For your majesty,’ quickly interjected Napoleon’s fixer and procurer, Bacciochi, ‘five thousand francs.’ ‘That’s damn expensive,’ grunted Victor. ‘Never mind,’ said Napoleon turning to Bacciochi. ‘Put it on my tab.’

There’s a strong flavour of Harvey Weinstein about Napoleon III.

From 1863 to 1864 Napoleon’s maîtress en titre was Marguerite Bellanger, a bouncing 23-year-old country girl who catered to Napoleon’s every whim, eventually giving birth to yet another illegitimate child, Charles Jules Auguste François Marie. But none of us get any younger. On one occasion Napoleon returned to the Imperial Palace so exhausted by a prolonged session with Margot that he collapsed and had to be carried to bed – at which point the Empress Eugénie stormed round to Margot’s house in person and shouted that she was killing the Emperor – to which Margot tartly replied that if he got enough at home he wouldn’t have to play away.

(Eugénie emerges as not exactly likeable but as a very tough, independently-minded woman. She caused lots of ructions among Louis’ advisers by insisting on sitting in on Cabinet meetings and, in some of the most fraught decisions, casting the deciding vote. She was, for example, all in favour of declaring war on Prussia in 1870. After meeting the French Cabinet in 1866, Bismarck had described Eugénie as ‘the only man in his Government’, though just as able as all the men to make a catastrophically bad decision – p.340).

But it wasn’t just Louis who was at it. Almost every French figure of note seems to have had a mistress, and quite a few of these were married women whose husbands didn’t mind because they had their own harem of lovers. The atmosphere was rampant with infidelity, and the text is cluttered with countless love children being farmed out or given away.

It all makes quite a contrast with the unimaginative faithfulness of the stiff Prussian Bismarck or the sweet uxoriousness of Victoria and Albert, and goes a long way to explaining the reputation for sexual licence which France, and especially Paris, enjoyed well into the period of my youth.

(In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Christmas Holiday, which I’ve just read, young Charley’s family assume that his main motivation for going to Paris to see his university chum will be to have the kind of sexual adventures i.e. sex, which were considered impossible and unacceptable in the England of the time – and that was published in 1939.)

La gloire

One last point. In accounts of the Franco-Prussian War, the Great War, and then of France’s colonial disasters in Algeria and Indo-China, again and again I’ve come across the obsession of the French military and political class with la gloire – glory.

Glory is an important part of French cultural history and political discourse. Again and again the French have behaved recklessly and stupidly because obsessed with retaining or winning la gloire for la patrie.

Bresler suggests this delusion started with the first Napoleon – within a decade of his fall, many Frenchmen had forgotten the misery of the non-stop wars he’d engaged in, let alone the fact that he was militarily defeated – twice – and become dazzled by the vague blurry memory of the ‘glory’ of the days when France had a land Empire which controlled most of Europe.

‘I swear to rule for the interests, happiness and glory of the people of France,’ said Napoleon as part of his Coronation Oath; and he had used that same vital ‘glory’ when accepting his earlier nomination as Consul for Life.

These two appeals to ‘glory’ are an indication of the psychological appeal of Napoleon I, and later of Napoleon III, to the French nation: it appealed to the average French person’s desire, above all else, for national glory; for France to be perceived as the finest, the best, in whatever context she is engaged. General de Gaulle trumpeted the same message in the 1960s. Even today’s French politicians use it as an essential part of their platform. By contrast, no British politician has ever promised glory to the electorate. It has never been part of a British sovereign’s Coronation Oath to swear allegiance to the achievement of glory as a sacred mission. No British sovereign or politician would dream of making a similar claim but to Napoleon I and Napoleon III such boasting came easily.

‘Boasting’. That’s the word. This will-o’-the-wisp gloire explains much of France’s preposterous pomposity and yet is so weirdly at odds with France’s miserable military record of the past 200 years.

  • Napoleon – defeated and exiled – twice, 1814, 1815
  • 1830 revolution overthrows Bourbon King Charles
  • 1848 democratic revolution – defeated, leads to constitutional chaos, then autocracy
  • Napoleon III – humiliating failure in Mexico 1867, crushing defeat in Franco-Prussian War 1870
  • The Commune – Red Terror then government reprisals lead to massacres in Paris 1871
  • Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906, twelve year long humiliating revelation of corruption and lies in the French army and government
  • First World War 1914-1918 – French narrowly escape defeat thanks to the British – epic mutinies at Verdun and elsewhere in 1917 shame the army
  • Between the wars – political chaos
  • Second World War – defeat and occupation by the Nazis, widespread collaboration, national humiliation
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Indo-China leading up to catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Algeria, leading to French Army attempts to assassinate the French president
  • 1958 the French Army plans a coup d’etat against the government
  • 1968 – chaos leading to near revolution

A few years ago I took the kids to Paris and visited the traditional tourist sights. It was when inspecting the Arc de Triomphe really closely, reading the dates and names of battles, that it began to dawn on me – the history of the French Army for the past two hundred years, 1815 to 2015, is a history of unending defeats.

This is what makes the French obsession with la gloire, with boasting about their ‘achievements’, all the more amusing.

No one has ever lost popular support in France by reminding people of their eternal glory. (p.250)

Bresler’s book is a highly entertaining, insightful, emotional and personal account of the strange life and enduring legacy of this most unlikely of political figures.


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Bismarck: The Iron Chancellor by Volker Ullrich (2008)

Bismarck, a potted biography

Born in 1815, Otto von Bismarck completed university and began the tedious, exam-passing career path of becoming a Prussian civil servant, but rejected it as boring and went back to manage his father’s lands in Pomerania. He gained a reputation as a fast-living, hard-drinking, traditional Prussian Junker (‘minor aristocrat’), who loved hunting, drinking and sounding off about how the world was going to the dogs.

Local politics Because of his status as local landowner, during the later 1830s and early 1840s Bismarck became involved in local administration, local courts and land disputes, then in local parliamentary business, coming to the attention of local conservative politicians, one of whose brothers was a personal adviser to the king of Prussia. Useful connections. Steps up the ladder.

The Vereinigter Landtag In 1847 Bismarck stood in for a member of the Pomeranian provincial parliament, who was ill, and made his first speech on 17 May. He went on to make a mark as an arch conservative, an uncompromising ally of the Crown, and a vehement critic of all liberal ideas.

The 1848 revolution Barely had Bismarck come to the attention of the political classes than the Berlin insurrection broke out in March 1848 which threatened to overthrow Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The king’s advisors wanted him to flee the city and then let the army pound it into submission. The king wisely decided to stay and submitted to ‘shameful’ ordeals such as removing his hat when the victims of the street fighting of March were paraded before the palace. To his courtiers’ astonishment, he then went riding out among his citizenry to talk to them and apologise for the bloodshed. His personal bravery and appearance of compassion won him many converts.

Still stuck on his country estates, at one point Bismarck had considered raising an armed force from the farmers on his lands in Pomerania, to march on Berlin and overthrow the liberal parliament and to ‘liberate’ the king, but was talked out of it. Later in 1848, as the counter-revolution gained momentum, Bismarck set up a counter-revolutionary newspaper, the Neue Preussische Zeitung and also helped to set up a ‘Junker’ parliament of landowners in East Prussia, worried about the radical threat to property.

The counter revolution The liberal revolutionaries had set up a hopefully titled ‘National Parliament’ which, as the king’s forces re-established control, was forced to move from Berlin to Frankfurt and continued sitting and passing decrees, even as power returned to the kings and conservatives. In October 1848 Austrian troops retook Vienna from its rebellious citizens. By November 1848 the counter-revolution was victorious in Berlin, also. The Berlin National Assembly was first moved to Brandenburg and then dissolved. The king granted a new constitution which made a few concessions to liberal views, but kept himself and his army as the ultimate source of power.

MP to the new parliament In 1849 Bismarck was elected to the new Landtag as a prominent advocate of the ultraconservatives. He was then elected onto the ‘Union Parliament’ which sat in Erfurt and was supposed to advise on the constitution of what many hoped would become a federal Germany. Bismarck’s position was always simple and clear: Prussia first. Prussia, its king and power and traditions, must not be subsumed and diluted by absorption into a Greater Germany.

The renewed German Confederation In 1850, after stormy diplomatic exchanges which almost led to war, Prussia acceded to the Austrian demand to set up a new version of the pre-1848 German Bund or Confederation, to be based in Frankfurt. In 1851 Bismarck was appointed Prussian envoy to the Bundestag in Frankfurt – at just 35, a notable achievement over the heads of many older, more qualified candidates.

Prevents customs union with Austria The 1850s saw a sequence of events in which Bismarck emerged as a canny and astute exponent of power politics. The perennial dispute between Austria and Prussia crystallised into Austria’s wish to join a customs union of the north German states. Bismarck helped to exclude Austria, fobbing her off with a subsidiary agreement. Here presence would have diluted the power of  his beloved Prussia.

The Crimean War of 1854-56 showed how much Bismarck had learned and how far he had come from an unquestioning devotion to arch conservatism. Unexpectedly, the war pitched Christian Britain and France in support of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, against Christian Russia, in a bid to stem Russia’s annexation of the Balkans and creeping progress towards the Mediterranean. Arch conservatives, including the King of Prussia, had a lifelong sympathy for the most autocratic crown in Europe (Russia), and for the so-called ‘Holy Alliance’ which in previous decades had bound together the three autocracies of Prussia, Russia and Austria, and so wanted to go to Russia’s support. But Bismarck saw that Prussia’s best course lay in neutrality, which he managed to maintain.

Friendships with France Russia duly lost the Crimean War and was punished in the resulting Treaty of London. The France of Napoleon III emerged as the strongest power on the continent. Bismarck realised that, for the time being, Prussia should ally with France.

The New Era In 1858 Prince Wilhelm became regent for his brother the king of Prussia, who had had a stroke. Wilhelm showed himself much more amenable to liberals and German nationalists than his brother. It was the start of a so-called New Era. Bismarck surprised his right wing allies by showing himself remarkably open to the change. He had become well known for predicting that, sooner or later, Prussia would be forced into conflict with Austria for complete dominance of Germany. If liberals and nationalists contributed to Prussia’s strength and readiness for that battle, all the better. This is Realpolitik, you happily change alliances, friends and enemies and even principles – all in support of one consistent goal.

Diplomatic exile In the new atmosphere, Bismarck’s opponents had him despatched to St Petersburg as Prussian envoy. He was stuck there for three years but although he hated being torn out of domestic politics, he made many useful contacts in Russian circles. Bismarck lobbied hard to be given a high position in Prussia and was recalled in 1862, but Wilhelm disliked his crusty conservatism and despatched him on to Paris.

Appointed Prussian Prime Minister In 1861 the old king died and his brother ascended the throne as King Wilhelm I. In 1862 arguments between the liberal parliament and conservative administration about reforming the Prussian army led to a constitutional crisis. Bismarck was recalled from Paris and single-handedly persuaded King Wilhelm not to abdicate. Impressed by his staunch support, his parliamentary skill and his knowledge of foreign affairs, Wilhelm appointed Bismarck Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Prussia.

1863 Bismarck’s administration found itself embroiled in the ongoing arguments about army reform, as well as problems with the national budget, and sank to record unpopularity. Austria tried to renew the German Confederation on terms favourable to it, but Bismarck persuaded King Wilhelm to reject the demands, and counter-demand Prussian parity with Austria, a joint veto on declarations of war and – in a bold coup – the calling of a new National Assembly based on universal manhood suffrage.

The unification of Germany

30 years ago in my History A-Level, I learned that Bismarck is famous as the man who unified Germany via three short tactical wars. These three wars remain central to his achievement.

1. War with Denmark 

A dispute with Denmark about the ownership of the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein in the Jutland peninsula had been rumbling on since the 1830s. A treaty had been signed in London in 1852. In 1863 the new Danish King, Christian IX, broke the terms of the accord by incorporating Schleswig into Denmark. Bismarck solved the problem by co-opting the Austrians to help, then declaring war and invading the provinces, defeating the Danish army at the Dybøl Redoubt on 18 April 1864. This patriotic victory silenced most of his domestic critics, solved the army problem in favour of substantial extra funding, demonstrated Prussia’s military superiority over Austria, and appealed to all liberal nationalists. Suddenly everyone was behind him.

Hostilities with Denmark rumbled on till October when Bismarck achieved complete control of the two provinces, to be shared between Prussia and Austria.

2. War with Austria 

However, this only delayed the final confrontation between Prussia and Austria for dominance of Germany which Bismarck had been predicting, and planning for, for years. Ever since a new map of Europe was drawn up in 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, German-speaking populations had been divided up into 39 states and free cities, dominated by big Prussia in the north and the enormous Austrian Empire in the south. From Mike Rapport’s great book about the 1848 revolutions, I learned that German nationalists had for some time been fretting about two alternative solutions to the challenge of creating a ‘united’ Germany, namely to include or exclude the German-speaking population of Austria – the so-called ‘Greater’ or ‘Lesser Germany’ positions.

Bismarck cut through the problem by engineering a war with Austria in 1866, which the Prussians decisively won at the battle of Sadowa on 3 July 1866. He had prepared the way by keeping the Russian Czar onside, liaising with his friend Napoleon III of France, and currying favour with liberals by, once again, proposing a new national Parliament.

After the crushing victory at Sadowa hotheads like Wilhelm I wanted to press on and take Vienna. Bismarck demonstrated his grasp of Realpolitik by refusing all such suggestions and engineering a peace treaty which left Austria with all its territory intact, but forced Austria to agree to the dissolution of the old German Confederation and the reorganisation of all Germany north of the river Main under Prussian control.

Thus Prussia annexed Hanover, Hesse, Nassau and the free city of Frankfurt. By making concessions to liberals at home on the budget issue, Bismarck secured widespread support at home as well as establishing the new North German Confederation under Prussian leadership, as the major power in central Europe. Extraordinary canny success.

Bismarck himself drew up the constitution of the new North German Confederation which was designed, at every point, to extend Prussian power. For example the ‘president’ was to be the King of Prussia, who had sole control of the army and power to appoint or dismiss the Chancellor. Bismarck instituted reforms of trade and freedom of movement, unified weights and measures, and published a new criminal code, which laid the basis for a renewed German economy. From a liberal point of view, these were all reforms they’d been calling for for a generation. From Bismarck’s point of view, that may or may not have been true, all he cared about was these reforms self-evidently made Prussia stronger – his undying goal.

However, the various southern states of Germany revolted against Prussian domination, electing liberal and anti-Prussian governments.

3. War with France

What Bismarck needed was war to prompt in the populations and nationalists of the south German states a sense of patriotic Germany unity which he could then exploit to suborn them into his confederation. For the next few years he closely monitored the situation in Europe for an opportunity.

It came when the throne of Spain fell vacant and a young prince from the Hohenzollern dynasty (the same dynasty as the King of Prussia) who happened to be married to a Portuguese princess, was offered the job.

Bismarck orchestrated both the offer and the timing of its release to the press and via ambassadors to the other nations of Europe, perfectly.

Already concerned about German encroachment into Denmark, political and public opinion in France was outraged at this ‘encirclement’ of France by the Hohenzollern monarchy.

But Bismarck cannily provoked the French government to go too far and demand that not only the young prince renounce the offer (reasonable enough) but that King Wilhelm himself renounce the offer, renounce the claim permanently (Prussia would never offer to put one of its royal family on the throne of Spain), and to apologise to France for any insult.

This demand was sent in a telegram to Bismarck while he was staying at the spa town of Ems. Bismarck was gleeful. He carefully doctored the text of the French demand to make it sound even more blunt, rude and threatening than it already was, and then had it widely published and distributed, ensuring outrage among German opinion at these extortionate demands.

Stung by the widespread publication of ‘the Ems telegram’, the french ruler Napoleon III found himself criticised at home for being weak, and let himself be goaded into declaring war on Prussia. The French Chamber of Deputies roared its approval. Patriotic men thronged to the local barracks all across France. Mobs sang the Marseillaise. The people rushed enthusiastically to war, confident that France had the strongest army in Europe.

Bismarck had achieved everything he wanted to. To the Prussian public, to all the south German states and to the world at large he could present himself as the victim of French aggression. A French army penetrated a few miles into German territory but was then halted and pushed back. Prussian forces quickly counter-invaded, surrounded the fortress at Metz and then massacred the army sent to relieve it, at the Battle of Sedan.

Napoleon III had rushed to the front to lead the French army himself, on the model of his glorious uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, but he was no Bonaparte and the French army turned out to be a shambles. Napoleon was himself captured and the Second Empire collapsed. Bismarck had achieved his goal.

However, the French elected a new government and fought on, compelling the Prussians to march on to Paris and subject it to a prolonged siege which dragged into 1871.

The Franco-Prussian War and the rising up of the revolutionary Commune in Paris in 1871, are two long stories in their own right. More important from Bismarck’s point of view, was that the southern German states did indeed a) come in in support of Prussia b) go further and sign up to the German Confederation – Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt in 15 November, Bavaria and Württemburg on 23 November.

This meant that Bismarck could announce the climax of all his ambitions – the declaration of a new German Reich or Empire, with the Prussian King Wilhelm I, as its Kaiser or Emperor.

Symbolically, this grand ceremony didn’t take place on German soil at all but in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France, occupied by the Germans for another four months until a final peace treaty was signed with France.

German unification – which so many nationalists and liberals had been hoping for throughout the nineteenth century, was only achieved thanks to the ruthless destruction of France. Germany was forged amid bloodshed and war. This key fact of modern European history has more than symbolic importance. It was to resonate on through the next 80 years of European history…

A map of German unification

This handy maps shows how extremely fragmented Germany was between 1815 and the 1860s. Note how even Prussia itself was splintered, with the sprawling eastern half separated from Westphalia in the west by tiny statelets like Hanover, Brunswick and Anhalt.

Black arrows show the route of Prussian armies a) north into Holstein and Schleswig in 1864, b) south-east into the province of Bohemia (part of the Austrian Empire) to the battle site of Sadowa in 1866, and c) west through the Palatinate and Alsace into France and towards the decisive battlefield of Sedan in 1870.

The unification of Germany 1815-71

The unification of Germany 1815-71

Preserving the balance of power

Given the unstintingly reactionary Prussian beliefs of the young Bismarck and the blunt brutality with which he was prepared to go to war three times to achieve his aims, I’ve always thought the most intriguing and impressive thing about him was the way that, once he had achieved his stated aims, Bismarck stopped war-mongering and had the wisdom to consolidate.

The European balance of power Admittedly this was partly a reaction to the response of the other powers to the arrival of a large unified new power in the centre of Europe. Britain, a recovering France, and autocratic Russia, all reacted with alarm.

From Bismarck’s perspective it was a gift when trouble erupted in the Balkans, namely nationalistic uprisings of Serbs and others against Ottoman Rule, which led to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. THis distracted everyone’s attention away from Germany, and when the peace conference which ended the war was held in Berlin – the Congress of Berlin 1878 – Bismarck was able to present himself as a genially ‘honest broker’ between the various parties, with no vested interests in the area.

However, Russia was left aggrieved when it didn’t get all it wished, namely access to the Dardanelles (and so the Mediterranean) and felt badly rewarded for the policy of benign neutrality which it had adopted during the Franco-Prussian War.

As a result of this resentment, the ‘League of Three Emperors’ (Russia, Prussia, Austria) fell apart and Russia found herself being drawn into alliance with France.

This created the nightmare scenario, for Bismarck, of facing enemies on two fronts, east and west, and so he sought a rapprochement with Austria to the south, cemented in the Dual Alliance of 1879, and expanded to include Italy in 1882.

Thus this final third of Ullrich’s book shows how the seemingly innocent aims of German nationalism, which sounded so reasonable in the 1840s, led inevitably to a situation where Germany became permanently paranoid of being attacked on both its flanks, and led to the creation of the network of alliances which was to be triggered, with disastrous consequences, when Austria invaded little Serbia, in August 1914.

German colonies Initially Bismarck was dead set against Germany acquiring colonies as a distraction from the more important task of unification and consolidation. But he changed his mind.

He was motivated by a conscious desire to create enmity with Britain, who he was afraid would gain too much influence over the German state, seeing as the Kaiser’s heir, the young Crown Prince (Wilhelm II-to-be) had married a daughter of Queen Victoria.

Partly it would bring Germany into friendly collaboration with France in the South Seas and Africa where their colonies bordered each other.

With this new motivation, Germany took part in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ from the 1880s onwards, acquiring Togoland, Cameroon, German East Africa and German South-West Africa, where they proceeded to behave with genocidal brutality. But Bismarck wasn’t all that interested in the details. Europe was always his focus.

Domestic politics From the 1860s to 1890 Bismarck ruled Prussia, then the newly united Germany. It’s a long period and a lot happened, including:

  • A financial and economic depression starting in around 1873. This provoked anger, frustration, and the rise of modern anti-Semitism, the association of Jews in the popular press and among all classes with cosmopolitan capitalists, financiers, with the alleged bloodsuckers who were bleeding germany dry.
  • The southern states so recently joined to Germany were predominantly Catholic and banded together to form a Catholic party in the new Reichstag. The impeccably Protestant Bismarck saw this as a political threat and implemented a sweeping set of laws designed to restrict Catholic involvement in public life. These sweeping anti-Catholic polities became known as the Kulturkampf or Culture War.
  • Bismarck attacked Social Democratic movements by banning newspapers, political meetings and so on – but this policy rebounded. It hardened the resolve of social democrats and socialists, and created an embattled atmosphere in which radical theories like those of Karl Marx flourished.
  • On the other hand, Bismarck sought to undermine the appeal of radical politics by acceding to many of its policies. Between 1881 and 1889 Bismarck oversaw laws introducing sickness and accident insurance, old age and invalidity pensions – giving Germany the most advanced welfare state anywhere in Europe. Once again not because he particularly ‘believed’ in these policies; but because he saw them as an effective way of neutralising his enemies and retaining his grip on power.

For these next twenty or so years, from 1871 to 1890, Bismarck was the dominating figure in German politics, stamping his personality on the era in the so-called ‘Bismarck System’, and projecting it across Europe into the Concert of Powers.

During the 1880s, Bismarck’s policy of maintaining the status quo at any costs (including himself as Chancellor) came to seem more and more outmoded in a world where large-scale migration from the agricultural east to the industrial west was fuelling the runaway success of German heavy industry, leading to the growth of new cities and industrial areas, with the concomitant rise of working class militancy and new political demands. Economic, technological and social changes increasingly called for new policies.

In March 1888 Kaiser Wilhelm I died and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm succeeded him as Friedrich III. However, he had throat cancer and died after a reign of just 99 days. He was in turn succeeded by his eldest son, who took the throne as Kaiser Wilhelm II – the same Kaiser Bill who ruled Germany during the First World War.

There was no love lost at all between the self-confident young ruler, aged 39, who wanted to change everything and the old Chancellor aged 73, who wanted everything to stay just the same.

The conflict quickly came to a head as Bismarck devised a new law solely designed, in his usual way, to create division among the centrist parties currently in power and keep them weak. The Kaiser refused to begin his new reign with strife and confrontation, and instead expressed a desire to extend the welfare system for the poor.

With typical thoroughness Bismarck worked through all the options available to him, including forming an unlikely alliance with an old bete noire, the leader of the Catholic party. He even, apparently, contemplated some kind of coup in which he usurped the Kaiser. But as his allies deserted him, Bismarck finally realised his time had come and, on 12 March 1890, tendered his resignation to the Kaiser in a letter which, characteristically, blamed the king for forcing him out and made ominous threats about the disasters which must inevitably follow when he had gone.

It was the removal of Bismarck which gave rise to the famous cartoon by Sir John Tenniel (illustrator of the Alice in Wonderland books) first published in the British magazine Punch on 29 March 1890, ‘Dropping the pilot’.

Image result for dropping the pilot

Most educated Germans were grateful that a long period of stagnation was over. Liberals looked forward to an era of reform. But the foreign powers regarded Bismarck most importantly as a man of peace, a lynchpin in the system of European stability, and worried about what would come next.

Bismarck went into disgruntled retirement where he dictated his memoirs in a hodge-podge manner until his death, aged 83 in 1898. He was a crude, blustering, reactionary bully, but cunning, clever and hard-working. By and large, countries get the leaders they deserve.

A liberal summary

Opinions about Bismarck are as divided today as they were at the time. One contemporary critic wrote that:

He made Germany great and Germans small.

Meaning that Bismarck’s policy of dividing and ruling his parliamentary opponents, of allying with particular parties when he needed them and then dropping them when he didn’t; of deliberately undermining any power bases or parties which threatened his own rule – all this conspired to keep German political culture immature, preventing the growth of a diverse and politically mature middle class, the key social element which is the sine qua non of democracy.

Instead, Bismarck acculturated an entire generation to deferring to a Strong Leader. His readiness to muzzle the press, undermine the civil service, ignore parliament, his cultivation of anti-Semitism, his use of foreign wars as a tool for maintaining domestic power, all these set a very bad precedent.

As did the extremist attitude and language he injected into German political culture.

He who is with me is my friend, he who is against me is my enemy – to the point of annihilation.

The violence of his language towards anyone who stood in his way – liberals, social democrats, Catholics, Jews, the French – set a toxic tone to German political culture which was to poison it for the next fifty years.

That Germany would be united sooner or later was probably inevitable. That it was united by such a reactionary, manipulative, authoritarian bully was not necessarily inevitable, and was to have terrible consequences.

Bismarck quotes

An eminent European statesman for such a long period, Bismarck had various quotes attributed to him, including:

Politics is the art of the possible.

Not by speeches and votes of the majority, are the great questions of the time decided – that was the error of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood. (giving rise to the phrase ‘blood and iron’)

The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.

The best one of all is, alas, unverified:

Sausages are like laws: I enjoy them both, but it is best not to enquire too closely into how either of them are made.


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