King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998) – part three

‘To gather rubber in the district… one must cut off hands, noses and ears.’
(Charles Lemaire, Belgian commissioner of the Equator District of the Congo Free State)

William Sheppard

Following his coverage of the black American Baptist minister George Washington Williams, who was appalled by what he witnessed in the Congo in 1890 and wrote an open letter of protest to the Belgian king, Leopold II, Hochschild goes on to describes the career of another black pioneer.

This is William Sheppard, a Baptist minister born in Virginia in 1865, who was sent by the Southern Baptists to the Free State, thus becoming the first black American missionary to the Congo. Hochschild emphasises that the church hierarchy ensured he was supervised every step of the way by a white superior, how it was the white man who actually met Leopold in Belgium while Shepherd was excluded, but how it was Shepherd who built up the mission on the river Kasai. Here he won the respect of the local BaKuba tribe whose language he was the only missionary to bother to learn, by his hard work and sympathetic understanding of their lives. They nicknamed him Mundéle Ndom, meaning ‘the black white man’.

Sheppard was the first Westerner to reach the Kuba capital, Ifuca, whose king usually ordered any outsider to be beheaded. But because he was black and spoke some BaKuba Sheppard was allowed to keep his head and stayed for four months, making detailed ethnographical records of their culture, art and religion (‘The Kuba are among Africa’s greatest artists,’ p.156). When he presented his findings to the Royal Geographic Society in London he was made a fellow, and back in the states presented the President with Kuba artefacts.

(Hochschild also mentions the spangling fact that Shepherd’s arrival at the mouth of the Congo coincided exactly with that of Joseph Conrad who was taking up the position of steamboat captain, and that Shepherd’s diary contains numerous references to the gentlemanly bearing of the exiled Pole who he spent some weeks with (p.154).)

Leopold’s grand plans

Leopold had impractically megalomaniac ambitions. He dreamed of linking his Congo possessions with the upper Nile and leasing Uganda from the British, both ideas gently rejected by Prime Minister Gladstone. He suggested raising a Congolese army to protect the Armenians who were being massacred by the Turks. When there was disturbance in Crete he offered Congolese troops as peacekeepers. His cousin, Queen Victoria’ thought Leopold was becoming delusional (p.168). But about one thing he was never deluded: maximising profit from his personal fiefdom in the Congo.

The rubber terror

‘Botofé bo le iwa!’, meaning ‘Rubber is Death!’ — Congo Proverb

Initially Leopold wanted to colonise the Congo because of ivory. As Frank McLynn makes clear in his chapter on the subject in Hearts of Darkness, ivory was the most valuable product of central Africa next to slaves, and the two trades were inextricably intertwined. Arab slavers destroyed native villages not only to enslave their women (killing most of the men) but also to loot the reserves of ivory many villages held, and use the newly acquired slaves to carry the plundered ivory the hundreds of miles to the coast.

It was the invention of the pneumatic tyre by John Dunlop, who set up the company of the same name in 1890, which made bicycling significantly more comfortable than before, which led to the outbreak of the ‘bicycling craze’ and which then led to a sudden spike in demand for rubber, that Leopold realised he was sitting on a goldmine, and that the farming of rubber from the huge rubber vines which twined up trees in the tropical rainforest almost overnight became a very profitable business (p.158). The West’s appetite for rubber grew for use not only in pneumatic tyres for bicycles and then cars, but for a myriad other uses, for example as insulation on electrical cabling which was undergoing an explosion of use around the world.

It is about this point, exactly half way through the book, and after a fair amount of relatively ‘ordinary’ historical and biographical stuff about Leopold and Stanley and so on, that the text takes a very dark turn and the reader is now plunged into the world of disgusting terror, massacre and mutilation created by the authorities who ran Leopold’s Congo Free State.

Force Publique officials were ordered to fulfil rubber quotas. They did this by kidnapping wives or children of villagers and threatening to mutilate or kill their hostages unless villagers handed in the correct and very onerous quotas of rubber. Natives who resisted were beaten, tortured, mutilated and murdered, had their families held hostage, their wives and daughters raped, or their houses and villages burned. If villages failed to fulfil the quota or showed any resistance, they were burned to the ground. The British traveller Ewart S. Grogan, crossing northeastern Congo, wrote: ‘Every village has been burned to the ground, and as I fled from the country I saw skeletons, skeletons everywhere’ (p.230). The Belgians turned Congo into a charnel house.

Most of the food the locals grew was confiscated by European officials leading to poor diet or starvation in many areas. State official Léon Féviez explained to a visiting official that when the local village didn’t supply enough fish and manioc to feed his troops he had a hundred of them beheaded. After that the villagers supplied sufficient food alright, even at the cost of themselves starving (p.166).

The incursions of black troops from one area into another spread diseases many had never previously been exposed to. Smallpox was carried from the coast where it was endemic, inland to populations who had no resistance to it. Worse was sleeping sickness, which is estimated to have killed half a million Congolese in 1901 alone (p.231).

The net effect of all these factors was a collapse in population. Missionaries and travellers through the Congo spoke again and again of entire regions laid waste and depopulated.

Hochschild singles out four factors and then gives copious evidence for each of them, being:

  • Murder
  • Starvation, exhaustion and exposure
  • Disease
  • Plummeting birth rate

The Reverend A.E. Scrivener was just one of many eye witnesses:

Lying about in the grass within a few yards of the house I was occupying were a number of human bones, in some cases complete skeletons. I counted 36 skulls, and saw many sets of bones from which the skull was missing. I called some of the men and asked the meaning of it. ‘When the rubber palaver began,’ said one, ‘the soldiers shot so many we grew tired of burying, and very often we were not allowed to bury and so just dragged the bodies out into the grass and left them.’

There was no census before Leopold’s murderous regime began but the best estimate is that 10 million Congolese lost their lives. This is based on the fact that in areas where population was known, it fell by a half between 1890 and 1910. Since the first detailed population estimate, in 1924, estimated the current population at around ten million, and most experts estimated that it was half the original number, that gives you some 10 million victims of Leopold’s regime, directly murdered or killed by overwork, famine or disease. (In fact at the end of the book, Hochschild devotes a passage to the estimates of modern demographers, who also agree with the 10 million figure.) More, in other words, than the Nazi Holocaust.

Chopping off Africans’ hands

Hands were used as proof that villages had been punished for failing to fulfil their quotas or rebelling. Force Publique soldiers had to prove that every bullet they were issued with was used to kill a villager (and not going off on hunting expeditions) by bringing in a hand for every bullet fired. Hands became a form of proof of discipline. Many soldiers couldn’t be bothered to wait for all the rubber to be counted and just hacked off a few hands at random to impress their superiors with how zealous they were.

But cutting off hands was also a form of punishment and incentive. Hostages – women and children –had their hands cut off unless their menfolk brought in the required quota of rubber. Some villagers, in desperation, instead of slicing a rubber vine and patiently waiting for the drops of sap to ooze out of it, were so panic-stricken that they cut down the entire vine and squeezed every drop of rubber out of it. This killed the vine rendering it unavailable for future use and so in turn was punished by the authorities, in the form which was now becoming universal – the men or their womenfolk or children having their hands cut off. Hochschild quotes scores of officials and soldiers who boasted about how many hands they collected per day.

‘Many fled and some were mutilated. I myself saw a man at Likange who had had both his hands cut off. Sometimes they cut them at the wrist, sometimes farther up . . . with a machete.’

In some military units there was a job, ‘keeper of the hands’ (p.165). Some units smoked severed hands over fires in order to keep them as decorations to hang on poles or over doors as a constant reminder to the locals of what even the slightest infringement would trigger.

Bestand:MutilatedChildrenFromCongo.jpg - Wikipedia

Mutilated Congolese children and adults. Photos taken between 1900 and 1905 by the English missionary Alice Seeley Harris

Hochschild brings out how atrocity acquires a momentum of its own. As in the Nazi genocide or the Soviet labour camps, cruelty and sadism, once permitted, become endemic. Thus René de Permentier, a Force Publique officer in the Equator district, had all the trees and bushes around his house cut down so he could use passing Africans as target practice for his rifle. If he found so much as a stray leaf in the courtyard swept by women prisoners he had one of them beheaded. If he found a forest path poorly maintained, he ordered a child in a local village executed. That kind of megalomaniac momentum.

Two Force Publique officers ordered a man hung by his feet and a fire lit underneath so he was cooked to death. Morel quoted a message from district commissioner Jules Jacques telling his underlings to warn the locals that if they cut down another vine he will exterminate them to the last man (quoted page 229). As the Reverend Scrivener testified:

A man bringing rather under the proper amount [of rubber to a collecting post], the white-man flies into a rage and seizing a rifle from one of the guards shoots him dead on the spot. Very rarely did rubber come but one or more were shot in that way at the door of the store.

There are hundreds of examples of this kind of psychopathic behaviour. Late in the book Hochschild says speakers of the Mongo language refer to the period as lokeli, the overwhelming (p.300).

Edmund Dene Morel

We know so much about the evil practices of Leopold’s state because of the obsessive work of one man, Edmund Dene Morel, who became a one-man international human rights dynamo.

In the late 1890s Morel was a relatively lowly clerk working for the Liverpool-based trading company Elder Dempster (p.177). He began travelling back and forth across the Channel as his company’s liaison with officials of the Congo Free State. Slowly he began to realise something was wrong. Hochschild attributes his revelation to three elements which he saw or, as a clerk handling the official paperwork for the cargoes, was able to calculate for himself while spending time at the State’s docks in Antwerp:

  1. He learned that huge amounts of arms and ammunition were being shipped to the Congo along with surprising amounts of chains and shackles. Why?
  2. The amount of ivory and rubber brought back by the ships greatly exceeded the amount stated on the manifests and paperwork. Someone was creaming off millions in profit. Who?
  3. Over 80% of the goods being shipped to the Congo were remote from trade purposes. In other words, a huge amount of goods were being brought out but very little was going in to pay for them. So how was this wealth of ivory and rubber being generated. Dene realised there could be only one explanation: slave labour.

‘These figures told their own story…Forced labour of a terrible and continuous kind could alone explain such unheard-of profits…forced labour in which the Congo government was the immediate beneficiary; forced labour directed by the closest associates of the king.’ (Morel, quoted page 180)

He called it: ‘the most gigantic fraud and wickedness that our generation has known’ (p.206).

Morel made his fears known to his superiors who told him to keep quiet. The Free State was a major client of Elder Dempster’s. They tried to coerce him into keeping silent. The company offered him a pay rise, then the role of highly paid consultant. Free State officials in Brussels stopped talking to him. He refused all bribes and insisted on speaking out.

Eventually, in 1901, Morel quit Elder Dempster and, after pondering what to do, set up a newspaper, the West Africa Mail in 1903, backed by philanthropic sponsors. It consisted of Morel’s articles, letters from missionaries, maps, cartoons, and pictures. Morel didn’t hold back:

‘Blood is smeared all over the Congo State, its history is blood-stained, its deeds are bloody, the edifice it has reared is cemented in blood—the blood of unfortunate negroes, spilled freely with the most sordid of all motives, monetary gain.’

Morel intended the West Africa Mail to publish everything he knew about the Congo and encouraged all-comers to send him their reports about ‘the shootings, shackles, beheadings, mutilations and kidnappings of a slave labour system’ they witnessed – and they did, in increasing numbers (p.270).

Morel tapped into the resources of existing anti-slavery organisations, namely the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigenes Protection Society, as well as roping in influential figures such as the politician Sir Charles Dilke and the author Mary Kingsley. He became a writing phenomenon, working 16 or even 18 hours a day to produce books, speeches, articles and pamphlets about the Congo (p.209). In the first six months of 1906 alone, he wrote 3,700 letters (p.214).

Morel requested information from all and any sources, and developed a remarkable knack for getting inside information from all kinds of people, not only missionaries and travellers in the region, but dissident military officers such as Raymond de Grez, who secretly fed him reports and statistics for many years, as well as people involved in the various shipping companies and testimony from their agents in-country, such as the American business agent Edgar Canisius (p.192).

The more Morel’s reputation grew as the doughty opponent of the evil being perpetrated in the Congo, the more people knew he was the man to slip confidential information (p.188).

It snowballed into a vast publicity campaign, featuring hundreds of public meetings, thousands of letters, he received thousands of letters full of facts and figures which Morel was then able to use in his articles or feed to sympathetic journalists and politicians.

With the aid of the charities and sympathetic politicians Morel secured a debate in the House of Commons which was held on 20 May 1903. At its conclusion the British Parliament passed a resolution to allow the British government to negotiate with the other Great Powers over the matter, avowing that the native Congolese ‘should be governed with humanity’ and, incidentally, noting that ‘great gratitude was due’ to Morel for creating public awareness (p.194). It was a truly impressive achievement. As Hochschild summarises:

Almost never has one man, possessed of no wealth, title of government post, caused so much trouble for the governments of several major countries. (p.209)

Pamphlets were followed by excoriating books, namely:

  • Affairs of West Africa (1902)
  • The British Case in French Congo (1903)
  • King Leopold’s Rule in Africa (1904)
  • Red Rubber – The story of the rubber slave trade that flourished in Congo in the year of grace 1906 (1906)
  • Great Britain and the Congo: the Pillage of the Congo Basin

When I read the title of Red Rubber I immediately saw the link with the campaign against ‘blood diamonds’ originating in Africa under war-torn or oppressive conditions from much the same region of Africa, in our own time.

Roger Casement

The Parliamentary debate directly affected another major figure. Parliament set up a commission to investigate the accusations and ordered the British consul to the Congo, Roger Casement, to go in-country to find out more.

Casement evaded the beady eye of Leopold’s officials, paid his own way and independently interviewed missionaries, natives, riverboat captains, and railroad workers. He then wrote up and submitted to Parliament a report containing 39 pages of testimony and a 23-page index of facts, what has been called ‘the most damning exposure ever of exploitation in Africa’. Morel published the ‘Casement Report’ in full in the West Africa Mail and it was picked up and syndicated around the world.

Hochschild devotes a chapter to Casement who is a fascinating figure in his own right, not least because of his principled but ill-fated support for Irish independence a decade later. (Unfortunately, no modern biographer can abstain from prying into the sex lives of their subject, and so we learn quite a lot about the fact that Casement was gay and kept a detailed log of his sexual encounters wherever he went, with Europeans or Africans. Great – and utterly beside the point.)

When they met they instantly clicked. Both respected each other’s fierce integrity and utter devotion to exposing the evil of Leopold’s regime. Casement was a government employee and so had to go where his superiors sent him, but they kept in touch and he offered Morel important confirmation and moral support, becoming a vital colleague and sounding board for Morel’s campaigns. Morel nicknamed him the Tiger; Casement called Morel the Bulldog (p.207). Chaps.

Congo Reform Association (CRA)

Casement and Morel met again, in Dublin, and agreed that it needed more than a newspaper to bring about the change needed. Casement convinced Morel they needed to set up an organisation and so in November 1903 Dene announced the establishment of the Congo Reform Association (CRA) with a founding manifesto filled with names of the great and good and calling for ‘just and humane treatment of the inhabitants of the Congo State, and restoration of the rights to the land and of their individual freedom’.

An American branch was quickly set up which garnered support from such notables as Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Twain was motivated to write a pamphlet, King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A defence of his Congo rule, in 1905, a satirical portrayal of Leopold as a self-pitying old man rambling on, making feeble excuses for the blood on his hands:

‘They burst out and call me “the king with ten million murders on his soul”.’

(It’s interesting that, even at this early point, the figure of 10 million dead was widely accepted. It’s a suspiciously round figure, isn’t it, but one Hochschild backs up with expert testimony at the end of his book)

Illustration from King Leopold’s Soliloquy by Mark Twain (1905)

Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired by his indignation to write The Crime of the Congo in 1908, while Joseph Conrad, in addition to the world famous novella about Leopold’s Congo, Heart of Darkness, co-wrote a novel with Ford Madox Ford, The Inheritors, which contains a devastating parody of Leopold’s greed and mendaciousness and personal oddities (p.257).

In 1904 Morel visited America, meeting with the President and members of Congress, before addressing large audiences around the nation. It took a while for the American campaign to gain traction, but in 1906 public pressure forced Congress to take a stand against Leopold and demand an end to the Congo Free State.

Alice Seeley Harris

Wife of the Reverend John Harris and a Baptist missionary in her own right, it was Alice Seeley Harris who took most of the photos of mutilated Africans which Morel distributed so widely and had such a devastating effect.

The couple had witnessed at first hand numerous atrocities, joined the Congo Reform Association and threw themselves into public activity. One or other of them made over 600 speeches in their first two years with the CRA, displaying implements like the shackles used to chain Congolese and the feared chicotte or whip made of hippopotamus hide, which was used to punish Africans who failed to meet their quotas and sometimes whip them to death (pages 120 and 216). Eventually John and Alice’s activism led to them running the newly combined Anti-Slavery and Aborigenes Protection Society (p.273).

Herbert Strang

The impact of the campaign spread far and wide. Hochschild mentions a British boys’ adventure writer, Herbert Strang, who wrote an adventure story set in the beastly Congo where a stout-hearted English teenager saves the day, titled Samba: A Story of the Rubber Slaves of the Congo. The preface he wrote to his novel is long but gives a fascinating insight into how the issue was seen at the time (1908).

Nearly a generation has passed since King Leopold was entrusted by the great Powers with the sovereignty of the Congo Free State. The conscience of Christendom had been shocked by the stories, brought back by Stanley and other travellers, of Arab slave raids on the Upper Congo; King Leopold, coming forward with the strongest assurances of philanthropic motive, was welcomed as the champion of the negro, who should bring peace and the highest blessings of civilization to the vast territory thus placed under his sway. For many succeeding years it was supposed that this work of deliverance, of regeneration, was being prosecuted with all diligence; the power of the slave traders was broken, towns were built, roads made, railways opened—none of the outward signs of material progress were wanting.

But of late the civilized world has been horrified to find that this imposing structure has been cemented with the life blood of the Congo races; that the material improvements to which the administrators of Congoland can point, have been purchased by an appalling amount of suffering inflicted upon the hapless negroes. The collection of rubber, on which the whole fabric of Congo finance rests, involves a disregard of liberty, an indifference to suffering, a destruction of human life, almost inconceivable. Those who best know the country estimate that the population is annually reduced, under King Leopold’s rule, by at least a hundred thousand. No great war, no famine, no pestilence in the world’s history has been so merciless a scourge as civilization in Congoland.

Yet owing to mutual jealousies, the Powers are slow to take action, and while they hesitate to intervene, the population of this great region, nearly as large as Europe, is fast disappearing.

It has been my aim in this book to show, within necessary limitations, what the effect of the white man’s rule has been.

If any reader should be tempted to imagine that the picture here drawn is overcoloured, I would commend him to the publications issued by Mr E. D. Morel and his co-workers of the Congo Reform Association, with every confidence that the cause of the Congo native will thereby gain a new adherent.

I must express my very great thanks to the Rev. J. H. Harris and Mrs. Harris, who have spent several years on the Upper Congo, for their kindness in reading the manuscript and revising the proofs of this book, and for many most helpful suggestions and criticisms.

By this point the atrocities were so widely known that Leopold had become associated with severed hands and blood in large parts of the press. Countless caricatures in European and American magazines satirised him as a mass murderer, his hands or beard dripping with blood while he hugged his sacks full of blood money (p.222).

Leopold II's Heart of Darkness, by David White | Open History Society

When Leopold’s second wife bore his second child, it was born with a withered hand and Punch magazine published a cartoon with the caption Vengeance from on high. Harsh but an indication of how universally he was despised.

What did Leopold spend his blood money on?

And how did Leopold spend the huge personal wealth he accrued from all this forced labour, slavery, murder and extortion? On grandiose building schemes and his teenage mistress.

1. Buildings

Leopold invested a huge amount of his blood money on buying, building or renovating grand properties. Wikipedia gives a handy summary of a subject which is spread across numerous passages in Hochschild’s book:

The public buildings were mainly in Brussels, Ostend and Antwerp, and include the Hippodrome Wellington racetrack, the Royal Galleries and Maria Hendrikapark in Ostend; the Royal Museum for Central Africa and its surrounding park in Tervuren; the Cinquantenaire park, triumphal arch and complex, and the Duden Park in Brussels, and the 1895–1905 Antwerpen-Centraal railway station.

In addition to his public works, Leopold acquired and built numerous private properties for himself inside and outside Belgium. He expanded the grounds of the Royal Castle of Laeken [one of Europe’s most luxurious royal homes] and built the Royal Greenhouses, the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion near the palace. In the Ardennes his domains consisted of 6,700 hectares (17,000 acres) of forests and agricultural lands and the châteaux of Ardenne, Ciergnon, Fenffe, Villers-sur-Lesse and Ferage. He also built important country estates on the French Riviera, including the Villa des Cèdres and its botanical garden and the Villa Leopolda.

(In a picquant footnote, Hochschild tells us that one of Leopold’s many villas on the Cote d’Azur was  subsequently bought by the English writer, Somerset Maugham, p.276.)

Hochschild contrasts these extravagant building projects with the many, many, many African homes and villages and entire regions which his officers laid waste and burned to the ground.

2. Caroline Lacroix

Leopold had married Marie Henriette of Austria, a cousin of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and grand-daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, on 22 August 1853 in Brussels. She was popular with the Belgians, was an artist and accomplished horsewoman, and the marriage produced four children. However, the couple became estranged and ended up living apart, Marie settling in the town of Spa where she lived till her death in 1902.

Meanwhile, Hochschild tells us, Leopold became a regular customer at high class brothels which specialised in young and very young girls, preferably virgins. Still, it comes as a bit of a surprise when Hochschild tells us that in 1899, in his 65th year, Leopold took as a mistress Caroline Lacroix, a 16-year-old French prostitute, and that they were to stay together for the next decade until his death.

It was on Caroline that a lot of the blood money from the Congo was lavished, in the form of cash, bonds raised against the Congo Free State government, castles and villas and dresses and makeup and holidays. Throughout this period they were unmarried, so Caroline was in effect his teenage mistress and became unpopular with the Belgian public and made Leopold even more of a figure of fun and contempt among international critics and cartoonists.

File:Your Majesty! at your age....jpg - Wikipedia

The priest is saying: ‘O sire! At your age!’ to which Leopold replies: ‘You should try it yourself!’

Leopold finally married Caroline in a Catholic ceremony just five days before his death, on 17 December 1909, aged 74. He left her a huge fortune but their failure to perform a civil ceremony rendered the marriage invalid under Belgian law and the Belgian government tried its best to seize all the king’s assets and fortune, giving rise to a jamboree for lawyers. Despite legal wrangles it is likely that she managed to spirit away $7 million, maybe more.

The Vatican recognised their wedding though, and Catholic priests were with him till the end. It is nauseating to read how the Catholic church stayed staunchly loyal to Leopold despite the most disgusting revelations, whereas a large number of the truth-tellers and reports were Protestant missionaries. A classic example of the stark contrast between the generally servile subservience of Catholic officials and the outspoken truth-telling of Protestant clerics, especially of non-conformists such as Baptists and the ever-principled Quakers. (You should read Hochschild’s wonderful account of the campaign to abolish slavery to be moved to tears by the hard work of the non-conformists and especially the Quakers in devoting their entire lives to ending slavery.)

When Leopold first heard about her, Caroline had been the mistress and sometime prostitute of Antoine-Emmanuel Durrieux, a former officer in the French army. It is somehow pleasing to learn that she tried to keep up a surreptitious relationship with Durrieux throughout her time with Leopold and that, seven months after the old monster died, she married Durrieux. Ah. True love.

In 1937 she published her memoirs, A Commoner Married a King: As Told by Baroness De Vaughan to Paul Faure. It is a classic example of the logocentrism of the West, in the sense that the doctored and sentimental memoirs of a royal prostitute are preserved for all time for scholars to pore over, analyse and re-analyse, while the lives and experiences of the ten million or so Congolese murdered, mutilated and starved to death – apart from a handful of testimonies recorded in the Casement Report and a few other public enquiries – are nowhere, nothing, vanished as if they had never been.

Leopold’s death and the end of the Congo Free State

The real question, reading all this horror, is why, despite widespread knowledge of the appalling atrocities, little or no steps were taken against him and nothing changed for so long. Leopold’s personal rule over his Congo Free State lasted 23 years, from 1885 to 1908.

The decisive step was getting the US government to switch its policy from indifference to Congo to active hostility, and this coincided with a massive newspaper revelation about the extent of Leopold’s behind-the-scenes bribery and manipulation of US government ministers, agencies and media.

The American change of heart crystallised with the hostility of the British government and, indeed, of a decisive majority in the Belgian government itself, and in Belgian popular opinion, to make Leopold realise the game was up and he agreed to hand over the running of the Congo Free State to the Belgian government so that it could become a ‘proper’ colony, subject to scrutiny in the press and by third parties.

Still, the canny old miser and manipulator insisted on selling the Congo to the Belgian government and drove a very hard bargain, emerging tens of millions of francs better off. In the end a compromise was reached whereby Leopold was paid $10 million and a further $9 million was assigned to his various grandiose vanity projects across Belgium as ‘compensation’ for losses which in reality he had never incurred.

And so, after months of wrangling, in November 1908 the Congo was handed over from Leopold’s personal control to the Belgian state (p.259). In August 1908 his closest officials spent a week non-stop burning all the official records of the Congo Free State, destroying all the evidence of malfeasance committed during his rule. Nonetheless, because of Morel and his many contributors, a sizeable amount of documentary evidence remained in the public domain.

As you might expect, conditions improved somewhat but most of the Belgian officials running the place stayed in post, the Force Publique didn’t even bother to change its name (p.271) and the basic economic imperatives – to maximise revenue from rubber – meant that, in practice, the living conditions of most Congolese continued to be wretched and brutalised. Thirteen months after handing over the Congo to the Belgian government, Leopold was dead, surely one of the most infamous brutes in recorded history.

Reluctantly, knowing that many abuses would continue to take place, Morel had to concede that, with the arch villain dead, many supporters of the CRA at home and abroad thought the job had been done and the fire had gone out of the campaign. In 1913 he held a last meeting of the Congo Reform Association then dissolved it. It had lasted from 1904 to 1913 and was, in Hochschild’s view, ‘the most important and sustained crusade of its sort between the Abolitionism of the early and middle nineteenth century and the worldwide boycott and embargo against apartheid-era South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s’ (p.277).

Arthur Conan Doyle, a late convert who became a very enthusiastic supporter of the cause, described the management of the Congo in his pamphlet The Crime of the Congo as ‘the greatest crime which has ever been committed in the history of the world’ (quoted on page 271).

The fact that there are statues and plaques in Belgium to this day commemorating Leopold for his humanitarian deeds and philanthropy is beyond grotesque.

The documentary

In 2006 a documentary was released, based on this book and with the same title, King Leopold’s Ghost, directed by Pippa Scott and narrated by Don Cheadle.

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


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King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998) – part two

I first read this book seven years ago and gave a reasonable summary of its content in a blog post.

Now I’m rereading it after reading three other books which cover at least part of the same subject matter, Frank McLynn’s Hearts of Darkness and Tim Jeal’s biography of Henry Morton Stanley and group biography of the five British explorers involved in the quest for the source of the river Nile. This blog post records impressions from reading Hochschild’s book second time round.

Leopold and Stanley

For a start, it’s quite a long time till the account of the atrocities committed in King Leopold’s Congo Free State kicks in. The book has about 320 pages of text and it’s only around page 130 that we begin to hear about the increasingly rapacious organisation of the Congo state and its appalling police service, the Force Publique. In other words, nearly half the book consists of background and buildup. And this mostly consists of a lot of biographical material on the two central figures, King Leopold himself and the explorer Stanley.

Leopold

Leopold II’s childhood was lonely and cold: he had to make appointments to talk to either his father or mother, who didn’t care much for him, so the king grew up aloof, distant, socially maladroit and compensated by obsessing over the minutiae of royal protocol.

During the course of his researches Hochschild has obviously come to loathe Leopold and he clearly relishes dishing the dirt on him, revelling in the fact that the king was a regular visitor to a chain of high-class brothels which traded in young girls, some as young as 12, who were guaranteed virgins to be deflowered by the cream of British and continental society.

But what comes over in spades from Hochschild’s account is what a two-faced, calculating and cunning manipulator Leopold was of all around him, which included ambassadors from all the major nations as well as leading philanthropists. They all fell for his humanitarian rhetoric and pose of selflessness, but there is much more, Hochschild detailing the care with which Leopold and his fixers bribed and cajoled and pulled the wool over the eyes of politicians, journalists and missionaries, inviting them to his palace, flattering and smooth-talking them. When bad news started to leak out about the atrocities being carried out in his colony, Leopold’s techniques for managing the press and damage limitation would put a modern PR company to shame.

Stanley

But it’s the Stanley material which is more striking. Hochschild is accepts the ‘black legend’ of Henry Morton Stanley hook, line and sinker, giving the kind of relentlessly negative account which Tim Jeal set out to single-handedly overthrow in his epic biography. Hochschild takes at face value:

  • Stanley’s own accounts of the size of his expeditions and the number of personnel lost during them (which Jeal shows to both be exaggerations)
  • Stanley’s own accounts of his brutal punishments of deserters and thieves (which Jeal shows to the exceptions rather than the rule, and shows only took place on particular, unusual occasions)
  • the harsh criticism of Stanley by other explorers (which Jeal says were motivated by jealousy, for example Richard Burton’s rancorous envy) and by the British press (which Jeal said was animated by anti-Americanism)

Hochschild goes out of his way to claim that Stanley’s bad luck with a string of failed fiancées (getting engaged to several young women, then breaking it off when he disappeared into Africa for years) was a result of his pathological ‘fear of women’.

He returns to the theme half way through the book when he describes Stanley’s 1890 grand public wedding in Westminster Abbey in considerable detail, noting that Stanley was chronically ill on the day, had to be helped up the aisle, and spent the entire reception lying in a darkened room in agony from gastritis. Hochschild uses his wedding to write confidently about Stanley’s ‘craving for acceptance’ and ‘fear of intimacy’ before going on to repeat Frank McLynn’s speculation that Stanley’s marriage to the society painter Dorothy Tennant was never consummated because of the lifelong revulsion from sex he picked up during his miserable childhood in a public workhouse (p.151).

God, I’d hate to be famous for anything and know that before the earth is cold on my grave rival biographers would be picking over my relationship with my family and every single woman I ever went out with, speculating the character of my mum and dad, using bucket psychology to pin me with their tawdry labels, using every blog post, letter or diary entry I ever wrote to work up their cheap theories about my psychology and sex life. God. The poor victims of the modern biographer.

That it’s all complete speculation leaps out at you when Hochschild concedes that other biographers think that Stanley did consummate his marriage. Some do, some don’t. You might as well flip a coin.

And not only is this all utterly speculative bucket psychology but it’s all out of date, for when Hochschild describes McLynn as Stanley’s ‘most thorough biographer’ the reader realises his book was written before Tim Jeal’s epic biography of Stanley, which benefited from access to thousands of previously unexamined letters, journals and so on in the royal archives in Belgium and so is in a position to paint a much more subtle, nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Stanley the man.

I find it surreal beyond belief that a whole succession of grown men – professional academics and historians – have devoted so much mental energy to the issue of whether Henry Stanley’s erect penis ever entered Dorothy Tennant’s vagina. In the middle of a book about atrocities committed against millions of Africans this dogged speculation about Stanley’s sex life is bizarre beyond belief.

That Hochschild is simultaneously repelled and bored by Stanley is indicated by his dismissal of everything Stanley did with sardonic repetition:

  • Stanley’s usual two-volume thousand-page bestseller turned out to be only one of many books written about the Emin Pasha expedition…
  • Stanley threw his usual temper tantrums…
  • As always Stanley bungled his choice of subordinates…

But despite his strong anti-Stanley animus, Hochschild can’t directly implicate Stanley in any of the atrocities themselves. The opposite: he shows in some detail how Stanley was edged out of Leopold’s plans as the late 1880s turned into the 1890s, for a number of reasons. 1. Leopold knew Stanley was stroppy and opinionated and would be difficult to manage and manipulate, as he manipulated so many other world leaders, Belgian politicians, missionaries and journalists.

2. More importantly, France. As the 1880s progressed, it became increasingly important to Leopold to placate France, the imperial power which claimed most of the territory to the north of the Congo, represented by the charismatic explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. Soon after completing his epic trek along the Congo in 1879, Stanley wrote letters and articles calling for Britain to take control of the Congo, a suggestion he repeated frequently, in public and which risked antagonising the delicate working relationship Leopold was forging with Paris.

The French were obsessed that Leopold’s amateur venture would collapse and that the hated British would then step in to run this huge area of central Africa and that this would amount to yet another slap in the face for the touchy Frogs.

Leopold managed to quell their anxieties for good by signing an agreement in law that if Belgian rule – and the companies he’d set up to manage it – collapsed, the French would legally have first dibs on the vacated territory. Not the hated British. The French were content with that and backed off, allowing Leopold to continue his plans his own way. But Stanley, far from being an accomplice of Leopold’s, represented a risk which is why the king kept him dangling on a retainer but never gave him the governorship he craved or any other significant work to do once the road was built by about 1884. Stanley was sidelined and out of the picture well before any of the atrocities began.

The post 9/11 perspective

As it happens I’m reading this book just after the Americans completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan on 31 August 2021 and just as we all approach the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on 11 September.

King Leopold’s Ghost is littered with Hochschild’s easy sarcasm about Victorian Europe’s claims to be bringing ‘civilisation’ to barbarians, to want to set up schools for the natives, end the slave trade, create a transport infrastructure, bring commerce and raise the living standards of the impoverished locals.

Absolutely all of this reads very differently as I watch the TV footage of the last American planes leaving Kabul airport and of hundreds of locals desperately chasing after them as the West i.e. America abandons its attempt to bring civilisation to the locals, to set up schools, end the Taliban’s oppressive rule, improve the transport infrastructure, bring commerce and raise the living standards of the impoverished locals.

Hochschild writes with lofty American disdain for 1. the hypocrisy of the European colonial nations who claimed to be bringing ‘civilisation’ but instead brought only hard-headed commercial transactions and exploitation. 2. He says the Europeans rode roughshod over the native culture and the complex web of tribes and traditional political authority which covered the region in multiple complex forms. 3. And his central theme is how quickly so-called ‘enlightened intervention’ descended into barbarism and exploitation, as native uprisings prompted terrible crackdowns and massacres. His book reeks of smug condescension.

But every time he made another sarcastic comment about the discrepancy between the European colonialists’ high-toned claims of bringing ‘civilisation’ and the reality of the crude violence and exploitation they inflicted, I thought: Iraq War. 150,000 dead, at a minimum (Wikipedia). Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ including waterboarding. Extraordinary rendition i.e. kidnapping people and spiriting them away to permanent imprisonment without trial in Guantanamo Bay. The Sunni Insurgency. Improvised explosive devices. An entire nation plunged into violent anarchy for a generation, while a large percentage of the trillion or so dollars America allegedly spent on the country went straight into the pockets of American arms manufacturers and private  security contractors.

Americans show European colonialists how to bring civilisation and respect for human rights to a developing country

And I thought Afghanistan. $2 trillion spent. Vast amounts on training the local security forces to cope with insurgencies. 110,000 Afghans killed or injured, over 3,500 coalition deaths. As many as 30,000 American private contractors making a fortune out of government contracts. And in the end, what was it all for? The security forces which the allies spent hundreds of billions training collapsed like a pack of cards within days of the Americans leaving. And many locals had been permanently alienated from the West and its puppet government by random and unpunished American atrocities. How mass killings by US forces after 9/11 boosted support for the Taliban.

Not as easy as you thought, is it, going into a developing country, overthrowing its government and expecting the locals to love you.

When Stanley flogged members of his caravan who tried to desert or stole precious food supplies in the 1870s, he did it in an age when flogging was still a legal punishment in schools and in the army, such as the Confederate Army which Stanley served in during the American Civil War. When the Americans captured, imprisoned, tortured and waterboarded their Iraqi suspects in the 2000s they were doing it sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was meant to have abolished such practices for ever.

The Wikipedia article about extraordinary rendition quotes former CIA case officer Bob Baer saying:

‘If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear—never to see them again—you send them to Egypt.’

This is the mindset of the greatest military force the world has ever seen as it extended its grasp, overt or covert, across the Arab world after 9/11: kidnap, torture, murder and massacre.

All of this was being raked over on the TV and in newspapers and magazines day after day at the exact moment I was reading Hochschild telling me how wicked and hypocritical the nineteenth century European colonisers were, how bigoted against the Arabs, how quick to extreme violence, how hypocritical in cloaking their real commercial motives under high-sounding rhetoric.

While all around me the serious British media were reflecting on 20 years of US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya. Which Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim nations have not benefited from the carefully planned and skillfully executed interventions of peace-loving America?

In this respect, Hochschild’s book is a good example of the hubris shown by so many contemporary historians who feel free to glibly patronise people in the past and point out their manifold failings on the assumption that we, in our super-digital 21st century, are oh-so-morally superior to our ancestors. But are we?

And it’s all the more vexatious when the historian patronising European colonialists for their wretched interventions in developing countries is an American, writing from amid the ruins of American foreign policy and the beacon of enlightened democracy which was the Trump administration.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)

‘Arab’ slave traders?

Hochschild also deploys his trademark sarcasm whenever the subject of ‘Arab’ slave traders comes up. Unlike the McLynn and Jeal books, and all the passages about the wickedness of the Arab slave trade they quote from the writings of Livingstone, Burton, Speke and Stanley – Hochschild goes out of his way to assert that hardly any of the slave traders were, in fact, Arab. He claims most were ‘Afro-Arab’ at best, ‘Swahili-speaking Africans’ who adopted Arab dress and Islam but ‘only some of them were of partly Arab descent’ (p.28).

Arab was a misnomer; Afro-Arab would have been more accurate. Although their captives often ended up in the Arab world, the traders on the African mainland were largely Swahili-speaking Africans from territory that today is Kenya and Tanzania. Many had adopted Arab dress and Islam, but only some of them were of even partly Arab descent. Nonetheless, from Edinburgh to Rome, indignant books and speeches and sermons denounced the vicious ‘Arab’ slavers – and with them, by implication, the idea that any part of Africa might be colonised by someone other than Europeans. (p.28)

Note the tell-tale sarcastic swipe at European amour propre in the final sentence. Anyway, this assertion is completely contrary to everything I’ve read in the other books on the subject.

1. Consider the most famous slaver of the era, Tippu Tip. According to Wikipedia:

Tippu Tip, or Tippu Tib (1832 to 1905), real name Ḥamad ibn Muḥammad ibn Jumʿah ibn Rajab ibn Muḥammad ibn Saʿīd al Murjabī (Arabic: حمد بن محمد بن جمعة بن رجب بن محمد بن سعيد المرجبي‎), was an Afro-Arab ivory and slave trader, explorer, governor and plantation owner…His father and paternal grandfather were coastal Arabs of the Swahili Coast who had taken part in the earliest trading expeditions to the interior. His paternal great-grandmother, wife of Rajab bin Mohammed bin Said el Murgebi, was the daughter of Juma bin Mohammed el Nebhani, a member of a respected Muscat (Oman) family, and a Bantu woman from the village of Mbwa Maji, a small village south of what would later become the German capital of Dar es Salaam.

So Tippu had a soupçon of African blood in an otherwise solidly Arab geneology.

2. Zanzibar became the centre of the East African slave trade when it was annexed by pureblood Arabs:

In 1832 Said bin Sultan, Sultan of Muscat and Oman moved his capital from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town [on Zanzibar]. After Said’s death in June 1856, two of his sons, Thuwaini bin Said and Majid bin Said, struggled over the succession…Until around 1890, the sultans of Zanzibar controlled a substantial portion of the Swahili coast known as Zanj, which included Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. (Wikipedia)

3. Or take the famous massacre of some 400 Congolese women and children at the village of Nyangwe the river Lualaba which Livingstone witnessed on 15 July 1871. This was carried out by armed men at the command of the notorious Arab slaver Dugumbé ben Habib.

Hochschild may have germs of truth in that some or many of the slave traders might have had African blood. But all the accounts I’ve read and the three salient facts I’ve just quoted tend to confirm that the majority of the trade was solidly in the hand of Muslim Arabs, Arabs who, moreover, I’ve read quotes from saying how much they despised Africans, how Africans’ live meant nothing until they could be sold in the slave markets of Zanzibar, and scores of accounts of Arab slave caravan captains shooting, tying to trees or burning alive slaves too sick to make the long trek from the villages where they were captured to the coast.

So why does Hochschild go out of his way to make his claim that the Arab slave traders weren’t really Arabs and for the rest of the book refer to ‘Arab’ slave traders in quote marks? Because it allows him one more way of slagging off the European nations and the ‘white man’. The tendency of his sarcastic comments is that Britain’s anti-slavery rhetoric was a hollow sham dressing up the fact that it allowed the white man to indulge his anti-Islamic bigotry. It justified rampant Islamophobia. Of those wicked wicked nineteenth century Europeans!

a) This is so contrary to the quotes from Livingstone, Stanley, Speke and even Baker that depict in great detail the genuinely evil ways of what all the witnesses unanimously agree was the Arab slave trade that it comes over as a slightly ludicrous twisting of the facts to fit Californian Hochschild’s anti-European bias. Livingstone really was disgusted and appalled by the wickedness of the slave traders, he wrote heartfelt letters back to England saying something must be done to save the Africans, and this prompted thousands of brave missionaries and educators to set off for darkest Africa to set up schools and guilted the British government into doing more to crack down on slavery, including forcing the Sultan of Zanzibar to close down its famous slave market.

b) His claim of anti-Arab bigotry sits oddly with the evidence that most of the British explorers and later colonial administrators were biased in favour of Arabs. Richard Burton spoke Arabic and admired the Arabs for their culture and religion, as did Samuel Baker, as did Sir Harold MacMichael, administrator of Sudan in the 1920s who respected the Arabs in the north and despised the Africans of the south – all part of a strand of pro-Arab British feeling which continued down to Lawrence of Arabia and bedevilled British attempts to manage their inter-war mandate in Palestine.

c) Hochschild’s defence of – by implication – the innocent ‘Arabs’ so horribly wronged in European accounts of the region reads very amusingly in a post-9/11 world, particularly in the early years after 2001 when you could read some very ripe comments from previously liberal and progressive American commentators about Arabs and Islam. Nothing any Victorian author wrote about Islam was as vitriolic as the opinions of scores of Yankee commentators after the twin towers were bombed.

Overall it now reads like rich, fat hypocrisy for Hochschild to accuse the late Victorians of dressing up commercially-motivated imperialism under anti-Islamic rhetoric, given everything which his country has done in Iraq and Afghanistan over the 20 years following 9/11.

George Washington Williams (1849 to 1891)

Williams was a rare example of a free black man in nineteenth century America who made his mark in an impressive variety of professions and ended up hobnobbing with the president. During his 41 year life Williams managed to serve as a soldier in the American Civil War and in Mexico before becoming a Baptist minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and writer.

He appears in this narrative because during the late 1880s he developed a plan for returning Afro-Americans who were suffering under the so-called ‘Reconstruction’ of the American South back to Africa. The publicity surrounding the great philanthropist Leopold’s plans for the Congo spurred Williams to make the pilgrimage to Brussels (funding himself by contracting to write travel articles for an American magazine) for an audience with the great humanitarian himself who was, as usual, all smooth words and assurances.

So Williams then sailed on to the Congo which he travelled up slowly, taking extensive notes. What he saw shocked and horrified him. Scene after scene of violence, brutality and corruption. Many of the Congolese had been reduced to the level of slaves, whipped with the notorious chicotte and brutally intimidated into collecting what was, at that point, the colony’s key export, ivory.

From Stanley Falls Williams wrote ‘An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo’ in July 1890. Hochschild says it gave a good summary of the methods of exploitation and slave labour the Belgians were already using, as well as laying down the framework of criticism which was to be used by all later campaigners: that everything was done in the king’s name and so he was completely responsible for the mass mutilations and murders. Williams called for an international commission to investigate.

His letter was published as a pamphlet and caused a furore (p.112). Hochschild shows how Leopold set his tame pets in the press and positions of power to rubbish all the accusations. Travelling back to Europe up the Nile, Williams became ill in Cairo, and managed to get as far as Blackpool in north-west England where he died on August 2, 1891, aged 41. By that time over 1,000 Europeans had visited and worked in the Congo but Williams was the only one with the guts, and morality, to be horrified and tell the truth.

And he was, contrary to Hochschild’s sarcasms about the hypocrisy of the Western Christian concern for the African, a Western Christian, a devout and earnest Baptist, for it was Protestant missionaries who were to provide most of the testimony and evidence for the global campaign against Leopold’s brutal regime in the Congo which I will describe in my next blog post.

Notes and details

I’d forgotten that after the Mahdi and his army of Islamic fundamentalists took Khartoum (in January 1885), killed General Gordon and massacred the city’s army garrison and civilian population, he went on to rule the city and region uninterrupted for the next 12 years. And that – here’s the thing – soon after the conquest, the Mahdi sent a message to Queen Victoria demanding that she come to the Sudan, convert to Islam and submit to his rule (p.97).

Now that is a counter-factual scenario worth imagining! I’d love to see a painting in the realist late-Victorian style of a fat Queen Victoria kneeling and bending her forehead right down to the ground before the magnificently robed Mahdi who graciously accepts the obeisance of the queen-empress and the conversion of all her peoples to the True Religion.

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


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King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (1998)

I can’t remember the last time a book made me feel this physically sick. About half way through another description of the murders, rapes, dismemberments, garrotings, hangings, torture and shootings carried out by members of the Force Publique which policed the forced labour system set up by King Leopold II in his colony in the Congo (1885 to 1909), I thought I might throw up.

Leopold II, king of the Belgians, and his genocide

If you like historical horror stories, you’ll love this book. It intertwines a biography of lonely unloved Leopold – aloof, shy king of the Belgians, ignored by his parents, separated from his wife – who conceived a great ambition to own a chunk of the dark continent, Africa, during the 1880s when it was being carved up by the the European powers.

Hochschild describes how, once he’d decided on the Congo to be his slice of the pie, Leopold commissioned the greatest explorer of the age, Henry Morton Stanley, to open it up by building a road running 220 miles beside the mighty river, from the post town of Boma to Stanley Pool, which bypassed its many cascades and waterfalls (a back breaking project which took from 1879 to 1885).

And how Leopold then created a system of concessions to commercial companies extracting first ivory, then rubber, which more or less guaranteed that at every level and in every way, the native peoples of the vast Congo basin would be worked to death, exploited, punished and murdered every bit as cruelly and needlessly as the genocides carried out by Hitler or Stalin.

Villages were razed to the ground, women and children were casually shot or taken as hostages to force the menfolk to drain rubber from the vines which grew high up into the rainforest canopy. If enough rubber wasn’t collected, the women or children were murdered. Or their hands were cut off. Or their brains were dashed out with rifle butts. Or they were raped or tortured to death, or beaten, or tied in sacks and thrown into the river, or flogged to death, or left chained to trees till they died of thirst. And much more.

Leopold’s loot

This happened for 20 years or so, roughly 1890 to 1909, over an area the size of western Europe. The profits to the Belgian, French and British companies who extorted raw rubber were big, but as nothing compared to Leopold’s take. This book details the countless cunning ways the king screwed the maximum revenue out of every aspect of the operation. Hochschild quotes the scholar Jules Marchal who estimates Leopold’s total haul at around $1.1 billion in today’s money.

Leopold’s follies

Leopold spent his loot on turning his palace on the outskirts of Brussels into a new Versailles, building grandiose public monuments in cities around Belgium, on collecting a suite of villas on Cap Ferrat in the south of France, and on an impressive series of prostitutes and mistresses, until he fell in love with a 16-year-old fille de joie, Caroline Delacroix, when he himself was an ageing 65.

The genocide

Modern scholars estimate the population of the Congo region was halved, from about 20 million to around 10 million, during the decades of Leopold’s homicidal rule. Hochschild quotes Alexandre Delcommune, ‘a ruthless robber baron’ of the time, saying that, if Leopold had ruled the Congo for another ten years, there probably wouldn’t have been a single rubber vine left, or, quite possibly, a single native. The genocide would have been complete.

It goes without saying the all this was done in the name of ‘civilisation’ and ‘justice’, of ‘law’ and ‘morality’ and it is nauseating to read how Leopold posed as a philanthropist and promoter of civilisation while presiding over a genocide. It is particularly disgusting that the Catholic church, right up until the end and beyond, supported Leopold, a crime just as egregious as its better known relationship with the Nazis.

The resistance

Speaking of Christians brings us to the resistance to Leopold’s bloody rule and among these were many Protestant missionaries, especially from the non-conformist sects. What eventually became a worldwide campaign against Leopold’s rule was run by two passionate advocates, the doughty English shipping clerk-turned-crusader-for-justice Edmund Morel, and the febrile but effective Irishman, Roger Casement who set up the Congo Reform Association.

Through a brilliant series of books, pamphlets, newspapers and speeches, through fundraising and lobbying and especially via the stark photos of the Baptist missionary Alice Seeley Harris (see below), they managed to discredit Leopold’s rule and make the scandal one of the great issues of the Edwardian world, forcing a parliamentary vote on the issue, keeping it constantly in the papers, and travelling to America to lobby the President and Congress.

Hochschild makes the standout point that the CRA’s campaign was the most important and sustained crusade for human rights between the late-eighteenth century abolitionist movement and the worldwide boycott of South African apartheid in the 1970s and 80s.

Black heroes who campaigned against the horror

Beside Morel and Casement, Hochschild goes out of his way to bring attention to the work of several remarkable black missionaries and campaigners, namely George Washington Williams, William Henry Sheppard and Herzekiah Andrew Shanu who, often at great risk, travelled far, took testimony, and publicised the horrors of what Morel called ‘that infamous System’.

Review

I read Hochschild’s book immediately after Thomas Pakenham’s wonderful Scramble for Africa, which covers the same period and a lot of the same subject. Pakenham’s book has the breadth and scale and depth of War and Peace. It is an epic work which also finds space for detailed portraits of key individuals, ranging across the whole continent throughout the scramble period of 1880 to 1914.

Pakenham’s tone is judicious and, for the most part, detached; only occasionally does he pass judgement on the men he’s describing and his biting criticism is all the more powerful for being rare. By contrast, Hochschild’s book is much shorter, much lighter, and he is ready with sarcasm and criticism from the start.

He is sarcastic about Britain’s claims to abolish slavery after the 1830s, he is sarcastic about the so-called ‘civilising’ mission of the explorer and colonisers, he is quicker to dismiss all high-falutin’ rhetoric and, in doing so, I think he misses the complexity of these rhetorics and discourses. Many people  sincerely believed what they said about bringing civilisation to the ‘savages’. A number of native tribes did practice cannibalism and human sacrifice and a number of people in Britain thought that was wrong. It is wrong, isn’t it?

The slave trade was rampant in East Africa and British authorities did do their best to stamp it out, spending a lot of money on the Royal Navy’s East Africa squadron and bringing pressure to bear on the Sultan of Zanzibar to close his slave market in 1873.

Hochschild is particularly scathing and sarcastic about the character and behaviour of Henry Morton Stanley, quoting the passages in his books where he reported whipping his porters or putting some in chains, taking at face value Stanley’s claims that that he led huge well-financed expeditions.

These are  precisely the accusations which Tim Jeal sets out to refute in his exhaustive 2007 biography of Stanley, which explains how Stanley exaggerated the size of his forces for dramatic affect and places the handful of passages about disciplining his porters in the context of scores of other passages where Stanley explains how he tried to save his hundreds of porters – from violent attack, starvation and the other tribulations of exploring – and went out of his way to praise his expedition managers or ‘captains’ as the finest, bravest men in the world.

But it was interesting to read Hochschild giving the traditional, very negative impression of Stanley which is what Jeal was writing against. Between them you have good epitomes of the case for and the case against this central but divisive figure.

Back to Pakenham’s book: because it is maybe four times longer than Hochschild’s, it has the space and depth to explore the highly complicated ways scores and scores of contemporaries struggled to make sense of their world  they were living in and of the mad scramble for African colonies. As such it is a much deeper and more satisfying read. But what it lacks in scale and depth, King Leopold’s Ghost makes up for in intensity and horror. After you’ve read a certain amount, it’s hard not to share his sense of indignation, his anger, that human beings from so-called civilised, so-called Christian, Europe were allowed to get away with such barbarity and depravity for so long.

The end?

Leopold died of cancer in 1909. Despite the worldwide success of the campaign against him, in the end he was only forced to sell the Congo to the Belgian state a year or so before his death (he had planned to leave it to the Belgian people in his will).

And in a depressing final chapter Hochschild makes clear that, although the scale of wanton murder was reined in, forced labour of some sort continued in Congo, and in neighbouring European colonies, well into the 1930s, and was even intensified during the Second World War in response to the Allies’ bottomless need for tyres for all types of war machinery.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was the link Hochschild draws between the occasional tribes who managed to rebel against the system, who stole arms and killed their white torturers and escaped into the jungle to wage prolonged guerrilla campaigns against their oppressors – and the similar tactics adopted by anti-colonial nationalists fighting the British and French following the Second World War, the Mau-Mau and so on. If, as Hochschild book makes you, you powerfully and emotionally root for the first group of freedom fighters – then surely you must, at the very least, sympathise with their descendants.

European civilisation

‘To open to civilisation the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire people is, I dare to say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.’ (From Leopold’s opening address to the Geographical Conference he called in 1876 to begin his campaign of posing on the international stage as a selfless philanthropist)

Leopold II, king of the Belgians. Note the smart uniform, the shiny medals, the impeccable manners. What a Christian gentleman!

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

And now some of the hundreds of thousands of Africans whipped, chained, mutilated, raped and murdered by Leopold’s officers to incentivise them or their parents to gather more rubber for the wise and good king.

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands were cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold: some of the hundreds of photos taken by Alice Seeley Harris and used by Morel in his lectures, articles, books and campaigns against Leopold’s evil rule

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


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Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal (2011) part two

‘[Dr Livingstone] left an obligation on the civilised nations of Europe and America, as the shepherds of the world, to extend their care and protection over the oppressed races of Africa.’
(Henry Morton Stanley in his obituary of Livingstone published in the Graphic magazine, 1873)

Expeditions covered in the second half of the book

  • Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone, 1871 to 1872
  • Livingstone’s final expedition, 1872 to 1873
  • Stanley’s great expedition across Africa from East to West, 1874 to 1879
  • Stanley working for King Leopold II of Belgium, 1879 to 1885
  • The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

This is the third version of the meeting between Welsh workhouse boy-turned-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley and famous Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone which I have read, and arguably the most effective.

This is because, in the preceding chapter (chapter 18) Jeal had given a clear and vivid description of how utterly prostrate Livingstone was, his obsession with tracing the river Lualaba crushed by porters paid by Arab slavers to refuse to accompany him, forced to return to the miserable slaver town of Ujiji on the west bank of Lake Tanganyika where he discovered that all the trading goods and supplies which had been carefully selected, bought and sent to him by Dr John Kirk, British consul in Zanzibar, had been treacherously sold off by the Arab in charge of delivering them, so that all his native porters abandoned him, leaving the man penniless, betrayed, abandoned and completely demoralised by the complete failure of his expedition to the Lualaba, the crushing of all his hopes as an explorer. That is the moment when Henry Morton Stanley walked into his compound, accompanied by hundreds of porters laden with supplies. So the reader understands why the meeting came as such a huge psychological relief to both men.

As to Stanley’s epic trek across Africa which revealed for the first time that the Luabala was a tributary of the Congo, I have covered that in my review of Jeal’s biography of Stanley.

The origins of the Nile and what is an ‘origin’?

On reflection, I think Jeal would have done better to have started this book with a factual description of the actual geography of the Nile, carefully explaining what we now understand of its modern course; because, with this information imprinted on our minds, the reader would be much better placed to understand the importance of all the discoveries and theories bandied about by the explorers whose expeditions he describes over the next 350 pages.

It is only on page 316, in the context of Stanley proving once and for all that the river Luabala did not flow north and east to form a tributary of the Nile, but instead flowed north and west to become the main tributary of the Congo, thus, in effect, confirming Speke’s discovery that the northern outlet of Lake Victoria is the origin of the White Nile – it is only here that Jeal, almost casually, comes clean and explains the entire modern understanding of the multiple sources of the Nile, referencing subsequent expeditions, in 1891, 1898, 1935, and as recently 2006, which have traced its origins further and further into obscure watercourses in Rwanda and Burundi.

And it is only tucked away in the heart of his book, that he raises a central question which is: How do you define the source of a river? Eventually all major rivers splinter into tributaries which themselves divide into contributory creeks and streams and springs and so on. How many do you include? How do you define The Source? Apparently Stanley said that, if you go that far, it was only a small step to attributing the origins of a river to the clouds passing overhead and the rain that falls.

Jeal, like the explorers, is happy to stop at the assertion that Lake Victoria is the source of the White Nile.

Some incidents

Stanley on the Congo

Stanley’s work for King Leopold II of Belgium, building a road up the river Congo, establishing way stations, transporting sections of steam ships along it which could be assembled above the Congo’s fearsome rapids, are all placed in the context of establishing the infrastructure for the wicked Congo Free State which Leopold was seeking to establish (described in detail in chapter 28).

De Brazza

Stanley’s work for Leopold is also placed in the context of international rivalry with France embodied by the attempts of French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to claim the north side of the river Congo . This led, among other incidents, to the confrontation at Stanley Pool with Brazza, who had soldiers and tried to claim the south bank of the Congo for France. It was only by the resolute action of the British station chief at Kinshasa, young Anthony Swinburne, that the region, and what would go on to become Congo’s capital, remained in Leopold’s control.

The Congo situation was to be stabilised at the 1885 Conference of Berlin by the formal assignment of the vast region of the Congo to Leopold’s personal fief. Jeal covers all this but, because his focus is the Nile, he is most interested in the fate of central and East Africa.

Muslim versus Christian

Here the deep structural issue was whether the region would fall under Muslim or Christian domination. The Christian British were, in a sense, biased, identifying the cause of civilisation and progress with themselves and their religion. But most of the Brits involved knew the simple fact that Islam represented slavery, because east central Africa was being laid waste by a slave trade carried out entirely by Muslim Arabs, seizing black African slaves to ship them to the Arab Middle East, destroying entire villages, laying waste to areas, shooting slaves who were too weak or ill to trek the thousand miles to the coast.

Samuel Baker founds Equatoria

This is why those concerned for the region didn’t want it to fall under the control of Egypt, because Egyptian control would almost certainly involve the extension of slavery into the region of the Great African Lakes, Buganda, Bunyoro and so on.

Nonetheless, it was the noted explorer Sir Samuel White who penetrated south on the Nile with a host of soldiers and riverboats given by the Khedive of Egypt, and simply declared, without consulting any of the native rulers, the existence of a new southern province of Egypt which he named Equatoria, in May 1871.

This incident, peripheral to the quest for the source of the Nile, would go on to have long-term political ramifications which echo to this day.

Retreat to Fatiko

When Baker attempted to penetrate further south, he was met with fierce resistance from the army of king Kabarega of Banyoro and was forced to stage a fighting retreat to Fatiko, one of those defeats in the face of stronger African foes which were to be presented as a kind of moral victory in the British press (Isandlwana, 1879, Gordon and the Khartoum garrison massacred, 1885).

According to Jeal, it was the publicity surrounding Baker’s military expedition which first really publicised to many politicians and businessmen the geographic and commercial potential of opening up central Africa.

Stanley’s call for missionaries

This is why one of the most important events of the period was Stanley writing a letter, in May 1875, which was published in the Daily Telegraph, saying that the region was crying out for Christian missionaries to set up schools, educate the locals, encourage Western style trade, with a view to stamping out slavery and other barbarous practices like human sacrifices, to develop and raise the living standards of Africans. And the numerous missionary societies of Britain responded (p.302).

Almost inevitably, when the missionaries came, they faced the same kind of antagonism and sometimes horrific violence which the explorers had faced or witnessed but, by and large survived, because the latter had guns and were moving through, not settling in, dangerous territories.

Atrocities against missionaries

In January 1885 Mwanga king of Buganda, arrested the missionary Mackay and had three of his young black converts taken from the mission school, their arms hacked off, and then slowly roasted to death on a spit (p.348). In October 1885 Bishop James Hannington who had been sent by the CMS to become the first bishop of East Africa, was arrested by Mwanga and speared to death along with all 50 of his porters (p.349). On 30 June 1886 Mwanga arrested and executed 45 Catholic and Protestant converts, strangling several with his own hands, having the others castrated and burned alive (p.349).

These sorts of atrocities inevitably caused outrage in the newspapers and forced European governments to step in ‘and so something’ to protect our gallant missionaries. Thus the 1890s saw a wave of annexations and mandates, Malawi in 1892, Uganda declared a protectorate on 27 August 1894.

Rivalry with Germany

It must also be noted that, if the British endured a rivalry with a France determined to push east from their West African possessions, beyond Chad, across the desert and into Egyptian and Sudanese territory, and south as far as the Congo, the British also faced rivalry with Germany in East Africa.

Chancellor Bismarck sent envoys to sign deals with local rulers, amassing influence over such a large area that eventually it justified a full-blown diplomatic agreement between the two governments, in 1886, which secured for Germany the southern portion of the region which was to become Tanganyika, and present-day Tanzania.

In response, the British government approved the granting of a royal charter to Sir William Mackinnon’s Imperial British East Africa Company, sowing the seeds of what was to evolve into Uganda and Kenya (pages 362 to 363).

Wikipedia has two maps which vividly contrast territorial ‘ownership’ of Africa in 1880 and 1913, before and after the great ‘scramble for Africa’. Apart from showing the obvious way in which an entire continent was gobbled up by half a dozen European powers, the two things which stand out for me are 1. The extent of French possession, coloured blue. 2. The fact that German East Africa (dark grey) presented an impassible obstacle to imperialists like Cecil Rhodes who wanted to create one unified band of British colonies stretching the length of Africa. How frustrated he must have been!

Political geography of Africa 1880 and 1913. Source: Wikipedia

The Emin Pasha relief expedition 1886 to 1889

I’ve summarised the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in my summary of Jeal’s Stanley biography. Suffice to say that, as in his descriptions of Livingstone’s two last expeditions or Stanley’s trans-Africa trek, arguably the summaries Jeal gives in this book are better than the ones in the Stanley book because they are much shorter, much punchier, and focus on the key events and decisions: I understood the importance of Stanley’s fateful decisions during the Emin Pasha expedition much better from the 10-page summary given in this book (pages 365 to 375) than from the several chapters devoted to it in the Stanley biography which, for me, buried the important things in a sea of details. In particular, the notorious moral collapse of the Rear Column into Kurz-like barbarism is much more vivid when compressed onto just two pages (pages 371 to 372).

Royal Navy anti-slavery

It gets very little publicity but the British government tasked the Royal Navy with maintaining squadrons whose sole purpose was to intercept slave ships and quell the ocean-borne slave trade.

During the nineteenth century, 17,000 members of the Royal Navy died as a result of their service with the West and East African Anti-Slave Trade Squadrons. (p.362)

Part two

Part two of Jeal’s book is titled ‘The Consequences’ and deals with just that, the long term consequences of all this imperial jostling for African territory at the end of the nineteenth century. I’d read almost all the stories Jeal tells of the earlier expeditions in his biography of Stanley or Frank McLynn’s book about African exploration. Part two of Jeal’s book leaves all that Victoriana behind to deal with the dawning era of state-sponsored exploration. It broadens out to be about the general Scramble for Africa during the 1880s and beyond – to my surprise, to a great deal beyond – in some instances (Sudan and Uganda) bringing the story right up to date, with summaries not only of their twentieth century histories, but their post-colonial political histories right up to the year the book was published, 2011.

Sudan

In both countries Jeal says the British made a series of fateful mistakes. In Sudan it was yoking together the utterly different Muslim Arabs of the north with the African animists and Christians of the south. Since the British got on better with the Arabs, who had more Western-friendly economic and social systems, the northerners inherited most of the political, economic and military levers of power and looked down on the black African southerners. Jeal singles out the British commissioner Sir Harold MacMichael (served 1916 to 1933) for refusing to even visit the south for his first seven years in post and then being so shocked by its primitive condition that he perversely refused to encourage investment in it.

All this made it almost inevitable that, once the country was granted independence, many in the south would want their own government. South Sudan tried to secede in 1955, leading to a civil war which continued on and off for over 60 years until South Sudan gained its independence as a nation state in July 2011. (With depressing inevitability a civil war then broke out within south Sudan in 2013 which lasted till last year, 2020.)

In other words, the long term consequence of Britain drawing the borders of the territory as it did, and administering it as it did, was long term instability, war and suffering.

Uganda

The other major British error Jeal lingers on, was not retaining the region of Equatoria, claimed and invented by Baker in 1872 in the name of the Khedive of Egypt, as a distinct country.

Although it contained numerous tribes, the inhabitants of Equatoria had the advantage of being related by language and tradition. Instead the British made the disastrous mistake of dividing Equatoria along a horizontal line through the middle and assigning the northern half to Sudan and the southern half to Uganda, a decision taken by Sir Harry Johnston in 1899. Jeal goes into some detail as to how the inclusion of the Equatorial kingdoms, of Baganda in particular, helped to unbalance the tribal makeup of Uganda from the start.

Jeal gives a brisk summary of Uganda’s history after it gained independence from Britain in 1962, namely: the rise of a typical African dictator or Big Man, Milton Obote; a crisis caused by how to handle the semi-independent nation of Buganda within Uganda: Obote suspends the constitution in a 1966 coup and rules as a dictator until he was overthrown by his military leader Idi Amin, who himself emerged as a murderous tyrant ruling for 8 years until himself overthrown when the army of neighbouring Tanzania along with Ugandan exiles invaded and restored Obote for the next 6 years (1980 to 1986). Currently Uganda is ruled by former general Yoweri Museveni, who overthrew the previous regime in 1986 and has ruled a one-party state ever since.

Summarising the plight of both countries, Jeal says:

Britain should have stayed longer in Sudan and Uganda, should have spent more money there and better prepared these countries for independence. (p.418)

The case for intervention

In his final pages Jeal recapitulates the case for European intervention in the area of central Africa he’s been describing. One of the central motives was to stamp out the slave trade which the big five explorers he focuses on (Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley) witnessed, described and railed against with passion and persistence.

Jeal argues that if the Christian European nations had not intervened in central Africa, the area would not have remained a pristine paradise, as some anti-colonialists claim. It had already been heavily despoiled by the Arab slave trade which was encroaching deeper and deeper into the interior with every year, bringing devastation, mass murder and enslavement.

The whole of central equatorial Africa would have become part of the Muslim world, with slavery an inescapable part of it, unless the colonial powers had come to stay. (p.430)

On this reading the case against the Europeans isn’t that they colonised Africa, as such. Jeal goes out of his way to assert that the British in particular did bring impartial justice, schools, education, railways, roads and economic development which lifted most Africans out of grinding poverty to levels of affluence and literacy inconceivable only a few generations earlier.

No, the case against the European colonialists is that they made terrible decisions about borders and administrative regions, tried to run their colonies on the cheap, ignored native traditions and chieftains and kingdoms in preference for a British style central administration and parliamentary democracy and that, when they handed all this over to African rulers in the 1960s, it quickly became obvious that the countries couldn’t be ruled by Westminster-style politics, but only from the barrel of a gun in the hands of the country’s strongest institution – the army.

The criticism is not that Britain colonised Africa. It’s that the British did it so badly. Upon independence, the continent’s 3,000 ethnic groups ended up divided up into 47 nation states. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy centuries-old beliefs in animism, spirits and personal responsibility, but not long enough to imprint the universal literacy and faith in education which underpins the success of the West. The complete inappropriateness of imposing a Westminster-style parliamentary system onto nations with radically different traditions and definitions of power and authority, led almost all of them to collapse and be replaced by the rule of Big Men backed by the army. In the mid-1990s there were 31 civil wars raging in Africa, resulting either from the terribly drawn boundaries or the deliberate incitements of Big Men (p.434).

Responsibility

It seems to me attributing ‘responsibility’ or ‘guilt’ for the dire post-independence fates of many African nations is pointless. Identifying errors and mistaken decisions with a view to avoiding them in future or using the analysis to try and address current problems might be a worthwhile activity. But blaming some white guy for what he said or wrote 150 years ago seems futile. It’s only a form of self-promoting rhetoric and psychological bonding for the righteous who like to make those kind of criticisms. Blaming ‘the white man’ or ‘the West’ or ‘Europe’ hardly seems very practical to me.

As Jeal candidly admits, the violent and semi-genocidal actions of the Islamic government in Khartoum dwarf anything the colonial authorities ever did. Similarly, Idi Amin’s regime undertook large-scale repression of sections of Uganda’s population, which may led to as many as 500,000 deaths and the wholescale expulsion of the country’s entire Asian population (30,000 came to the UK, some 10,000 to other western nations).

The idea that what exactly Speke said to Burton in Aden 150 years ago is given more space in the book than the massacres commissioned by the governments of Sudan and Uganda almost amounts to a subtle kind of racism, or at the very least, bias, whereby what one white man said or wrote 150 years ago is considered more important than the death of 100,000 Africans in the recent past.

To put it another way, once your mind is contemplating the murderous post-independence regimes of Sudan or Uganda, being concerned about what exactly Speke said to Burton 150 years ago seems absurd and irrelevant. In a way the brutal realities Jeal describes in the last 30 or 40 pages of his book, make the entire account of the Victorian explorers seem like a fairy tale, like a weightless fiction, like Alice in Wonderland.

Attributing some kind of responsibility to the colonial authorities who took bad decisions from the late 1890s through to the 1950s is probably a more worthwhile activity, but Jeal zips through this final part of the book at top speed. The colonial and post-independence history of two nations like Sudan and Uganda are just too big and complex to be managed in such a short space, and by an author who is much more at home investigating Stanley’s father complex or Baker’s love for his slave wife. In other words, is happier retailing ripping yarns of Victorian derring-do than giving a dryer, cold-blooded analysis of contemporary African politics.

Still, I suppose it’s to Jeal’s credit that he doesn’t just end the book with the fiasco of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in 1889, as he might have done but makes an attempt to bring it up to date, skimpy though it feels.

Up until the last 40 or so pages Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure is full of extraordinary stories of Victorian heroism and endurance, illness and obsession. It is entirely fitting that this book was turned into a series of BBC Radio 4. It has exactly that Radio 4 feel of comforting, white bourgeois, public school nostalgia. And if you’re in that kind of mood, why not? But the harsh realities described in the final passages make you realise that that world – of dashing Victorian chaps – only really survives between the covers of this kind of Radio 4-friendly history.

Logocentrism

Mind you, this aspect of Jeal’s book, namely the foregrounding of European written accounts over African oral or unrecorded accounts, is a subset of the larger bias embedded in Western practice, which is the privileging of the written word.

Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley are the subject of so many books not only because they are such epitomes for those who like tales of Victorian adventure, but because they wrote so much and so much of it is stored in libraries and archives. This presents potentially endless opportunities for each generation of biographers to rework the sources and present new versions of their lives. It guarantees a steady little cottage industry which keeps their names in the public eye, sort of (among fans of this kind of thing at any rate).

Whereas where are the biographies of the Africans they met, of King Kamrasi of the Bunyoro or King Mutesa of the Baganda, to name a couple of the most notable? What of all the other chieftains and leaders, let alone their hundreds of thousands of subjects?

There is a profound structural inequality not just in the fact that the West or, in this case, Britain, with its public schoolboy taste for foreign adventure encouraged by its public schoolboy publishing and public schoolboy bookselling industries, will carry on writing, publishing and consuming books of imperial derring-do for the foreseeable future and getting them comfortably serialised on Radio 4. But in the way that we in the West foreground writing and written sources, written accounts and written description, journals, diaries, letters and every form of text over other types of record or history (predominantly oral).

In this deep sense, the very way the subject of history is conceived and practiced in the West militates against cultures with alternative methods of recording the past. Consigns them to eternal silence and subordinateness.

The sources of the Nile

My major practical criticism of the book isn’t any of these: you get what you pay for and Jeal delivers an intelligent and pacy account of the five great Victorian explorers of Africa.

But I think even on its own terms, the book would have benefited from a better explanation of the actual sources of the Nile, which are only partly explained in a throwaway few pages around page 316. I had to google the subject to find out what current knowledge on the sources of the Nile is (and to be surprised that, right up to the present day, explorers are still claiming to have found the ‘real’ source, tucked away in the rainforests of Rwanda, so that there is still, surprisingly, scholarly debate on the subject). I think this could have been stated and explained, with maps, much more clearly; and that, on balance, the best place to have put it would have been at the start so the reader had the clearest sense possible of the geography, before commencing the accounts of the explorations.

Chief Cammorro’s view

‘Most people are bad; if they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they don’t have the strength to be bad.’

The words of Cammorro, chief of the Latuka, as quoted by the explorer Sir Samuel Baker, who is not necessarily a reliable witness and who, possibly, put into the chief’s mouth his own hard-bitten and cynical views. But in the context of the violent Africa described in this book, very apposite whoever exactly said it.

Credit

Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal was published  by Faber and Faber in 2011. All references are to the 2012 paperback edition.


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Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal (2011) part one

‘The mere animal pleasure of travelling in a wild unexplored country is very great.’
(David Livingstone Last Journals, 1874, quoted on page 248. Ironically, Livingstone suffered appallingly from a wide range of African diseases and was in almost constant discomfort and sometimes terrible pain during most of his journeys)

There’s quite a lot of overlap with his earlier books. Jeal published his ground-breaking biography of David Livingstone as far back as 1973. Sections of this were obviously recycled into his huge and meticulously researched life of Stanley (2007) which I’ve just read. I recognised not just facts and events but phrases from the Stanley book repeated in this one.

Jeal’s account doesn’t start chronologically, but plonks us in media res with Livingstone landing on the east coast of Africa in March 1866, and describing his journey to the interior, before going back to recapitulate his career, and then – after this warm-up – to recapitulate the entire history of exploration of the Nile going back to the ancient Greeks. (A lot later, Jeal explains that he opened the entire book with the Livingstone venture because it is virtually a compendium of everything which could possibly go wrong for a European explorer [p.253].)

The Greeks recorded rumours they heard about the Nile and were the first to talk about the ‘mountains of the moon’ (Ptolemy, p.26). Alexander commissioned an expedition which didn’t get far. Nero commissioned another one which got bogged down in the Sudd, the vast expanse of swamp and papyrus 2,000 miles south of Alexandria, fluctuating in size but averaging some 30,000 square kilometres (p.24, 25, ).

The existence of the Sudd explains why it was thought reasonable by the geographical societies of various European nations to try and ascertain the source of the Nile from the south by entering either from east Africa, whose most popular jumping off point was the town of Bogamoy opposite the island of Zanzibar; or, after Stanley had mapped it, from the river Congo in the west (though this remained the longer and more difficult route, because of the Congo’s many cascades and the way it was lined with violent tribes).

So Jeal’s book tells the stories of the (mostly British) explorers who tried to find the source, being:

  • David Livingstone, 1866 to 1871
  • Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, 1856 to 1859
  • Speke and James Grant, 1860 to 1863
  • Samuel Baker and Florence von Sass, 1862 to 1865

Judging and jurying

As in his biography of Stanley, Jeal’s narrative, on the surface, provides what are in effect BBC Bitesize summaries of the long books all these men published about their explorations. His narratives echo other narratives of their explorations for the simple reason that all later authors are reliant on their primary accounts. But another, important motor for the whole thing is his tendency to want to sort out controversies of the period. Thus the Stanley book is, in essence, a long attempt to rebut the many criticisms made of his hero and rehabilitate him.

Burton and Speke

Something similar happens here, especially in the several chapters about the ill-fated expedition of Richard Burton and John Speke, who ended up hating each other and expressing a vituperative feud via the letters page of the Times, in their various books and public lectures. Jeal doesn’t just tell us what happened, he goes to great pains to try and establish a final verdict on who was right, who was to blame, addressing what are obviously cruxes and key moments and then using thorough research to establish the rights and wrongs of each issue.

For example, one of the cruxes of the Burton versus Speke dispute is that Speke caught an earlier ship back to Britain and before the pair parted, in Aden, they made a pact to only present their findings to the Royal Geographic Society when Burton had joined him and they could do it as a pair. But no sooner had he arrived in London than Speke accepted an invitation to do just that and presented the expedition’s findings by himself, an act of perfidy, ‘a blackguard business’, which Burton excoriated Speke for in private and public, criticisms which were repeated by his widow in her biography of him and all six subsequent biographies. So Jeal devotes several pages trying to get to the bottom of the matter and reach a definitive judgement on the two men’s behaviour (pages 112 to 116).

Speke versus Petherick

Similarly, at the end of Speke’s separate expedition accompanied by Captain James Grant (1860 to 1863) Speke hurried through the last stages of the exploration because he was under the impression that John Petherick had been sent up the Nile by the Royal Geographic Society expressly to bring him much-needed supplies – and so was mortified and then livid to arrive at the scheduled meeting place of Gani and find no sign of Petherick or the boats or goods he was pledged to hand over. In the meantime Speke and Grant had been greeted, fed and watered by the freelance explorer Samuel White Baker. Only weeks later did Petherick arrive, with a harrowing tale of endurance and trials overcome to which Speke was obstinately unsympathetic.

This developed into another feud which Speke carried back to England, speaking badly of Petherick to the Royal Geographic Society (who had hired and paid him) in person, in lectures and in print, while Petherick and his feisty wife, replied in kind, fully justifying themselves and describing the terrible ordeals they’d undergone trying to deliver boats and supplies to Speke and Grant. Once again Jeal investigates the matter in detail in order to try and provide a definitive adjudication.

Speke’s suicide

Same again for a major biographical incident pertaining to this subject which was the death of John Speke by a gunshot wound as he was spending an afternoon out shooting on his uncle’s estate in the West Country. He had been scheduled to appear aT a massive, highly publicised debate with Burton the next day in Bath and, when he heard of Speke’s death, Burton immediately attributed it to suicide and fear that his (Speke’s) theories about the Nile would be refuted, an aspersion which has been repeated by Burton supporters down to the present day. Jeal, as you might expect, gives a detailed account of the gunshot, quoting the two eye witnesses on the spot, and uses this and other evidence (Speke had recently been enthusiastically talking about plans to return to Africa on a humanitarian mission to abolish slavery) to refute the suicide theory and promote the ‘death by accident’ theory – which is actually the finding the coroner returned at his post mortem. Jeal devotes an entire chapter to the subject, chapter 14, ‘Death in the afternoon’.

Frankly, I don’t really care and Jeal’s obsession with a careful, annotated forensic analysis of every one of these many contentious issues gets a bit wearing. Half way through the first expedition, Speke lost his temper with his loyal servant Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who had disobeyed a direct order, and resorted to punching him in the mouth, several times, knocking out some of his teeth. Well, it was a long time ago, in the middle of nowhere, when they’d been out of touch with normal Western manners for years, and were constantly ill and worn down, so it doesn’t surprise me very much. But it is typical of Jeal’s approach that he spends some time explaining all the extenuating circumstances to us in order to rehabilitate Speke’s ‘moral reputation’ (a phrase Jeal uses repeatedly, for example, pages 307, 324).

The endless vexations of African travel, and the hypersensitivity caused by repeated attacks of malaria, could sting the most patient of men into violent over-reaction. (p.146)

Jeal’s book contains a lot more explicating and justifying, judge and jurying than you might have expected.

Geography

he book is surprisingly light on the geography of its subject. If you want to find out out about the actual sources of the Nile, you’d do best to google it. This book only intermittently concerns itself with the actual geography of the river Nile, with maps of waterflow and so on. I learned a handful of things about the explorers’ theories: Livingstone thought the river Lualaba, which flows north parallel to Lake Tanganyika, was a source of the Nile. This is completely wrong. A tributary, the river Lukaga, flows out of the Lake Tanganyika west into the Luabala, which then flows north before making a huge curve round to the west to form the core tributary of the might river Congo. Nothing to do with the Nile.

Map showing the river Congo and its tributaries. At the far right is the long vertical blue strip of Lake Tanganyika and half way up on the left is the river Lukaga which drains it into the river Lualaba which flows north and, around Kisangani, changes its name to the Congo and describes a vast arch to the west and south. By contrast, you can see that Lake Victoria (over on the right) drains north, just to the east of Kampala, into Lake Kyoga (not named on this map), continues as a river to the northern tip of Lake Albert before emerging as the White Nile to flow north into Sudan, to Juba and beyond

Burton and Speke fell out because Burton speculated that Tankanyika flowed out into a northern river which must form an origin of the Nile, but he was wrong. The river he placed his hopes on flows into the lake. Lake Tanganyika, it turns out, drains westward via a river which flows into the Luabala i.e. the Congo.

Speke was correct in speculating that the main source of the white Nile was a river leading from the northern end of Lake Victoria and via a succession of smaller lakes. He was, however, prevented from directly following the course of these rivers because the tribal chieftains he stayed with on uneasy terms wouldn’t let him.

On the map below you can see how the stretch called the Victoria Nile flows north from Lake Victoria into Lake Kyoga, then curves north and west to flow to the northern tip of Lake Albert. Here it forms a marshy delta and out of this a river exits Lake Albert flowing north which, for this stretch, is known as the Albert Nile, before crossing the border from Uganda into South Sudan, at which point it becomes known as the White Nile.

But for me the most striking thing about this map is it vividly shows how bewilderingly complicated the river networks of the region are, so that you can fully understand why the handful of white men who were the first to explore it, in incredibly patchy ways, limited in where they could go by rival tribal chieftains or lack of porters or food, and the fact that most of them were very ill most of the time (Burton was too ill to walk for most of his expedition, Speke had to be carried in a litter for months at a time, Baker and his mistress nearly died of fever on several occasions, as described, for example, on pages 230 to 235) found it so hard to arrive at a definitive answer.

Rivers and lakes of Uganda. Source: Wikipedia

It was Baker who proved that most of the flow of the Nile actually derives from the so-called Blue Nile which flows out of the mountains of Ethiopia. It is the heavy rains which falls in theses mountains in late summer which account for the annual influx of the Nile.

Violence

Instead Jeal’s narrative is very much about the human relations between the leaders of the expeditions, their men, being (the often Arab) ‘captains’ of the huge numbers of native African porters they hired (they were contracted and paid in a regular way).

And most vivid of all with the many tribal rulers and kings that they encountered on their long, arduous, and highly dangerous ventures. All kinds of anecdotes, stories atrocities leaped off the page at me.

In July 1870 Livingstone was forced back to the Arab slave-trading depot of Bambarre where he witnessed the rapacious violence of the Arab slave trade. Forty Manyema were killed one day, nine another, a hundred the day after that. He saw the smoke curling up from distant villages and distant shots as settlements were massacred (p.20).

While there one of the six who had deserted him was killed and eaten. Cannibalism was rife in all the experiences of the explorers.  Livingstone learned that slaves who had died of illness or famine, were being exhumed, cooked and eaten (p.22).

Alexandrine Tinné, born 1835, was a rare female explorer. The richest heiress in Holland, she embarked on a well organised expedition up the Nile and got as far as Khartoum where her mother and aunt, who’d accompanied her, died of disease. In 1869, in an attempt to cross the Sahara, she was hacked to death by Tuareg tribesmen, aged 33.

In both books Jeal describes the massacre of Manyema women in the market square of the village of Nyangwe on the right bank of the river Lualaba carried out by Arab slavers keen to spread terror, which Livingstone witnessed at first hand and vividly described (p.32).

Three men of Dugumbé ben Habib massacre women at the market of Nyangwe on the river Lualaba, 15 July 1871. Illustration from the Journals of David Livingstone (p.255)

Johann Ludwig Krapf (b.1810) was a German missionary in East Africa who explored East Africa with Johannes Rebmann. They were the first Europeans to see Mount Kenya, in 1850. He narrowly escaped being killed by a group of Masai warriors who butchered their African porters (p.40).

Richard Burton was immensely talented and clever, speaking half a dozen languages, but never fit in, and was very precious about his reputation, one of the causes of his feud with his companion on the expedition of 1856-59, John Speke. Burton is quoted as describing the society created by the British in India as: ‘like that of a small county town suddenly raised to the top of the tree [where it lost its head] accordingly.’ (p.37).

Jeal gives a full description of the incident on Burton and Speke’s expedition into Ethiopia when their camp at Berbera was attacked and Burton received a spear through the mouth, entering one cheek and exiting the other, shattering several teeth, and how the captured Speke was tied up and then punctured with a spear for entertainment (pages 50 to 54).

To give them a sense of the world they were entering, the British consul on Zanzibar took Burton and Speke to prison to meet an African locked up because he’d been found guilty of playing a drum while tribesmen had tortured, mutilated, then beheaded an explorer named Lieutenant Eugène Maizan. They were Zaramo tribesmen under Hembé, the son of Chief Mazungera, and they tied Maizan to a calabash tree, amputated his limbs and sliced off his genitals while still alive, before beheading him. He was 25 (pages 67 and 129).

Broadly speaking, Burton despised Africa’s blacks, appalled by their illiteracy and lack of culture, and thought the widespread slave trade was their own fault for failing to fight back. Fluent in Arabic, he admired Islamic culture and got on well with the Arabs they met. He thought Britain’s anti-slavery efforts were futile and despised the bien-pensant anti-slavery activists back in Britain who knew nothing of the real conditions of Africa.

Speke, on the other hand, also initially dismissive of black Africans, came to admire and respect them and to loathe the Arabs they met, almost all of whom were involved in the slave trade and implicated in dire atrocities, village burning, massacres, enslaving women and children. Travelling the same route years later, Stanley found many of the African leaders he met spoke warmly of Speke and his respect and sympathy.

That said, Burton did take a five year old slave away from one of the head porters, Mabruki, because he continuously beat and mistreated him, and gave him to the kindlier Bombay (p.105)

None of the locals the explorers met understood their obsession with knowing about lakes and rivers, their names and size and position and flow. For all the Africans they met, these water features were just there. Instead a lot of the locals were made suspicious about the white men’s endless questions, suspecting them of spying or, on a less educated level, were made anxious that their incessant questions and requests would lead to bad luck and disaster (p.87). It was best to say they’d come in search of particular goods or treasures; Africans immediately understood material motives (p.96).

On Burton and Speke’s return journey to Zanzibar (when they both had to be carried in litters, they were so ill) one of the head porters they’d taken on at Ujiji (on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika) had been loitering behind because his woman was too footsore to keep up with the caravan’s pace. Eventually she could go no further and so he cut off her head to prevent her becoming another man’s property (p.105).

Mutesa king of Baganda and his palace on Mengo Hill were the most impressive ruler and royal compound Speke and Grant encountered, an entire hill covered with giant huts (p.147).

Mengo, capital of the Kingdom of Buganda in the time of King Mutesa I (1837 to 1884). Engraving by A. Sargent from Unexplored Africa by Henry Morton Stanley (1887)

Speke was struck by how tall, noble and handsome Mutesa was and drew a sketch which survives to this day. It was only as the days passed that they began to witness sights of casual brutality and murder. They witnessed servants and even some of the king’s 400 or so wives being dragged off to be executed on the slightest whim (p.153). A favourite wife prompted an outburst of psychotic rage when she offered the king a piece of fruit when it was the job of a specified court functionary. Mutesa began beating her with a stick and yelled for his executioner to drag her off and behead her, till Speke intervened to save her life. A royal page who misinterpreted a message from Speke to the king had his ears cut off. A woman ran away from her cruel husband and was sheltered by an old man. They were discovered and both imprisoned, fed and watered while parts of them were amputated each day and fed to waiting vultures. And so on (p.162).

Though they didn’t learn it till later, Mutesa had sacrificed over 400 people in a vast ritual sacrifice to celebrate the coming of the white man (p.144). Every day Speke and Grant walked past the hut of Maula, Mutesa’s chief enforcer, and heard the cries and screams of torture victims (p.164). The longer they stayed, the more nervous they became about the safety of themselves and their porters. And the continuity between the brutal lack of respect for human life of rulers like Mutesa and of post-independence African rulers, for example, Idi Amin, strikes the modern reader. Later on we learn that when Mutesa was dying of illness he had thousands of his subjects killed in ritual executions to appease the ancestral spirits. ‘As many as two thousand were executed in a day.’ (p.374).

One of the features of Mutesa’s court was how fat his wives were. They were force fed milk and goodies until they swelled up like balloons. Speke became very friendly with the women of the court, unashamedly falling in love with one (Méri, pages 158 to 162), and developing a close friendship with Mutesa’s mother, who he treated for her various medical ailments, thus acquiring a reputation as a doctor (p.154). And the fat women allowed him to get a tape measure and take their dimensions.

King Mutesa I affected a stylised way of walking, designed to copy the gait of a lion, which Speke found unintentionally hilarious (Ministry of Silly Walks). He had sense enough to keep a straight face, as did every other member of the king’s court for fear of being dragged off for execution.

When Samuel White Baker and his enamorata Florence von Sass travelled deep into Bunyoro, Baker repeatedly thought he was so ill he was going to die. Florence was so sick of fever she almost stopped breathing and the porters started digging a grave outside her tent. The couple were kept in a form of house arrest by King Kamrasi. On the way into Bunyoro and back again to the Nile, Baker was forced to keep company with the much larger caravan of a slave trader, Ibrahim it was the only way to guarantee protection from attacking tribes. They tried to mitigate the slavers’ habitual cruelty. Baker intervened to prevent a girl slave and her mother who had tried to escape from being hanged; Florence cared for small slave children.

When Baker and Florence finally made it to Khartoum in 1865, it was soon after some 500 of the garrison of 4,000 had died of the plague. Incurable, virulent disease was everywhere (p.240).

On  his 1866 journey along the Rivola river Livingstone saw evidence of the Arab slavers’ brutal treatment of enslaved Africans everywhere: a woman tied round the neck and to a tree and left to die; groups of corpses, some shot, some stabbed to death, some tied together and left to starve and rot. He wrote extended letters to the British Foreign Secretary demanding that the slavers’ island of Zanzibar be blockaded by the Royal Navy (p.249).

African words

Jeal uses these words without explaining what language they’re from. Maybe they are from a variety of languages since they appear derive from various tribes, some from India.

  • banians – merchant (254)
  • bomas – hedges
  • dahabiya – large Nile pleasure boat
  • kabaka – king
  • lukiiko – Mutesa’s senior advisers (150)
  • machilla – hammock for sick white men carried by porters (84)
  • mbugu – triangular bark-cloth bikini bottoms worn by African women (208)
  • omukana – traditional title of the kings of Bunyoro (170)
  • nganga – witch doctor (159)
  • namasole – title of the king’s mother (154)
  • nyasa – large body of water, lake (98)
  • nganga – witch doctor (159)
  • pombé – beer (154)
  • wakil – agent (175)
  • wakungu – courtiers (154)
  • wangwana – name given to free Africans originally brought to Zanzibar by slavers, who gained their freedom and hired themselves out as porters for pay

African kings

  • Fowooka, an ally of Riongo (237)
  • Kabarega, king of Bunyoro in 1871 (338)
  • Kamrasi, ruler of Bunyoro (225)
  • Katchiba, chief of the Obbo (222)
  • Mahaya, the chief at Mwanza
  • Machunda, king of Ukerewe and Mtiza
  • Mutesa, king of the Baganda people
  • Nchuvila of Kinshasa (355)
  • Sekeletu, chif of the Kololo (246)
  • Commoro, chief of the Latuka

According to Speke, Kamrasi of the Bunyoro was a much better ruler than Mutesa of the Baganda, a lot less brutal (p.238).

Summary

You learn something but not that much about the actual geography of the river Nile, although repeated mentions of the names of the major lakes does build up a good mental image of the region. You learn an awful lot about the squabbles and fallings out of the various explorers, and the rivalries and small p politics of exploration, which set them all at loggerheads. More than these, you learn all about the gruelling journeys, the many illnesses they endured and the difficulties of dealing with local tribes and chiefs.

But above all, to open this book is to enter a realm of astonishing brutality, violence, murder, torture and cannibalism.

Credit

Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal was published  by Faber and Faber in 2011. All references are to the 2012 paperback edition.


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Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal (3)

Working for King Leopold, 1879 to 1885

The biggest blot on Stanley’s reputation is that he devoted the longest single part of his working life to working for King Leopold II of Belgium helping to map out and establish the core infrastructure for what would become the notorious Congo Free State. This was the enormous area, corresponding to the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, which Leopold managed to get assigned to his own personal rule at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Leopold posed as a great philanthropist, a promoter of civilisation and Christianity and doughty abolisher of the widespread Arab slave trade which Stanley and all the other explorers had discovered.

It took until the late 1890s for news to leak out of the atrocities Belgian soldiers and overseers were committing on the native population, which slowly brewed up into an international scandal, which led Leopold to hand over the colony to the Belgian government, and the whole humanitarian catastrophe to become the quintessential example of imperialist hypocrisy, exploitation and brutality. The stories which leaked out of unimaginable brutality against the native peoples of the region formed the basis of Joseph Conrad’s harrowing novella, Heart of Darkness (1899). The whole story is told in Adam Hochschild’s harrowing history, King Leopold’s Ghost (published exactly one hundred years after the Conrad, in 1999).

Anyway, the point is that Stanley was approached by representatives of the king, entered discussions and finally agreed to sign a five-year contract to use his knowledge of the Congo to establish a basic transport infrastructure. This consisted of a road from the coast via a succession of small settlements he established or created trading stations at (Boma, Vivi, Isangile, Manyanga, Mfwa) up to the so-called Stanley Pool, designed to bypass the river’s many impassible rapids and cascades. He was a hands-on manager of the other Europeans and the many African labourers co-opted for the work, earning him the humorous nickname Bula Matari or ‘Breaker of Rocks’. Stanley was paid £1,000 a year.

Five years is a long time and much happened, notably: 1. Stanley became incensed by the brutality and racism of the Belgian officers under his nominal command. 2. He very slowly began to suspect Leopold was not the benevolent philanthropist he was posing as and Jeal notes the many letters he wrote Leopold insisting that the white man only had the right to lease property and no right to seize or claim ownership of native land. Stanley insisted that no Belgian officer was entitled to treat the Congolese:

‘as though they were conquered subjects ..This is all wrong. They are subjects – but it is we who are simply tenants.’

Up the roads he built were transported steamships, broken into sections and reassembled above the rapids, which hugely expanded access to the upper Congo.

3. Stanley faced the rivalry of the French explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who entered the Congo from the north and tried repeatedly to claim the entire north bank of the river and its hinterland for France, requiring repeated negotiations, threats and recriminations, carried out not only on the ground in Congo, but in Paris, London and Brussels, as Leopold managed the threat from the French, while Stanley invoked the possibility of the British stepping in – the last thing both the continentals wanted.

Jeal is writing a revisionist biography. His aim is to exonerate Stanley. As such he describes in detail the various meetings between Stanley and Leopold, quotes from letters between them, the contract Stanley signed, correspondence with intermediaries, diary and journal extracts, all tending in the same direction, which is to show that Stanley took Leopold at his word and believed him a genuine philanthropist. To be fair, so did plenty of other politicians, statesmen, journalists, missionaries and concerned parties.

The crimes against humanity Leopold sanctioned (the most notorious was cutting off the hands of natives who had failed to collect a set amount of rubber per week) only began to take place in the 1890s, well after Stanley had completed his five year contract in 1884 – although he was kept on by Leopold on a retainer and a fractious relationship for a few more years. And news about the atrocities only began to leak out to the press via reports of a handful of activists in the later 1890s, over ten years after Stanley had ceased all contact with the king.

King Leopold juxtaposed with just some of the millions of Congolese who were mutilated during his personal rule

Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

When the Khedive of Egypt had gone bankrupt in 1882 the British had stepped in to administer Egypt and Sudan. Partly as a response to Western ‘occupation’ there had arisen the Mahdi, a low-born Egyptian who presented himself as a charismatic Islamic leader and raised impressive numbers of followers. General Gordon had been administering the southernmost province of British Egypt, named Equatoria, since 1873.

Alarmed at the rise of the Mahdist forces, the British government sent General Gordon to Khartoum with instructions to secure the evacuation of loyal soldiers and civilians and to depart with them. In defiance of those instructions, after evacuating about 2,500 civilians he retained a smaller group of soldiers and non-military men and remained, fortifying the town against a siege which lasted almost a year.

During this time there was huge publicity in the press about plucky Gordon holding out against the mad Mahdi and the forces of barbarism. The government hesitated and worried about the cost but eventually sent an expeditionary force to fight its way through to Gordon and rescue him. As is fairly well known they were too late. After a long siege, the Mahdist forces finally breached the defences of Khartoum on 26 January 1885 and killed the entire British garrison including Gordon and most of the population of the town. An estimated 10,000 were killed.

Apart from the penny-pinching reluctance of the government to launch the relief expedition, and the way the British public memorialise British heroic failures (the charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the Somme, Dunkirk) the other notable thing about the incident is the immense power of the press. Gordon’s heroics were very widely reported and the matter became one of general public interest, forcing the government to act.

All the same forces came into play in the Emin Pasha affair. With Gordon dead, there remained a British force even further south into Sudan, led by one Emin Pasha, and the issue now arose of how to rescue him and his ‘heroic’ soldiers. Pasha was depicted as a brave soldier of the Empire and a noble fighter against the evils of slavery. On the back of the outcry over Gordon, a committee was set up to lobby for the rescue of Pasha and his men, whose whereabouts was not known exactly. The money came pouring in from public subscriptions (the campaign raised a total of £32,000) and who was chosen to lead the expedition into a particularly obscure region of central Africa? Stanley.

In Jeal’s account almost every element of the two year long expedition was a fiasco and what wasn’t a fiasco was a catastrophe. It can be divided, maybe, into three components.

1. Pasha’s background

It is quite staggering to discover the discrepancy between the stereotype of the noble Christian administrator and abolisher of slavery which Pasha was painted as by the popular press, and the disappointing reality. The beauty of a biography as long and detailed as Jeal’s is you get to learn so much about minor or secondary figures that it at times has the richness and complexity of a novel.

Pasha was no dauntless Briton but had been born Eduard Schnitzer, to Lutheran parents in the Prussian province of Silesia. In 1864, aged twenty-four, this bearded and bespectacled German had qualified as a doctor in Berlin, but had failed on a bureaucratic technicality to be granted a government licence to practise, he settled in Albania – then a Turkish province – where he set up as a doctor. A brilliant linguist, he soon added Albanian and Turkish to the five other languages he already spoke. He was a first-rate pianist and chess player, and also excelled as a botanist and ornithologist. In 1870 Emin joined the staff of Ismail Hakki Pasha, Governor of northern Albania, and served with him till his death three years later. During this time he had an affair with the Pasha’s wife, and after she became a widow, lived with her as she were his own spouse. In 1875, he ran out of money and took Madame Hakki, her four children and six slave girls to stay with his parents in Germany. While there – realising he could not support ten people indefinitely – he abandoned Madame Hakki, and fled the country. He would not contact his family again for fourteen years. (p.315)

See what I mean by ‘like a novel’? By 1875 Emin had made his way to Khartoum (as far away from h is angry wife as he could get), set up practice as a doctor. He now posed as an Arab of Arab birth and came to the attention of General Gordon, Governor-General of the Sudan. In 1878 Gordon appointed Pasha Governor of Equatoria, then the Mahdi rising occurred, Gordon was massacred after a prolonged siege, and the British press clamoured for the noble Pasha to be found and rescued.

2. The expedition

It was the most gruelling and death-ridden of Stanley’s big three expeditions. The cause was starvation. The expedition was very well funded, it was the largest and best-equipped to go to Africa, had plenty of native porters and more white officers than Stanley had had before. It landed on the west coast with the aim of travelling thousands of miles up the Congo before branching off where the Congo makes its great turn to the south, to head east along the Aruwimi river, in order to strike overland to Lake Albert at the southernmost tip of Equatoria.

Leopold had promised Stanley use of his steamers above the Stanley Pool, which the explorer had been responsible for transporting there several years earlier, but in the event all but one were out of commission, which significantly delayed and complicated logistics.

At Yambuya on the Aruwimi, the expedition was running so low on food, and so many porters had deserted that Stanley took the fatal decision of dividing it in two, leaving the majority of goods with several white officers in the rear, depending on a promise from the notorious Arab slaver, Tippu Tip, that he would provide hundreds of additional carriers. Leaving the rear column behind, Stanley forged on through what turned out to be ruinously difficult terrain through the Ituri forest where his own men died of starvation and disease, before emerging into the territory of inhospitable and violent tribes. Of the 389 who set out from Yambuya, only 169 survived the gruelling trek through Ituri. But they had hired many more porters along the way, not least from the slave trader Tippu Tip, so it’s estimated that over 400 lives were lost in total (p.370).

It took some time to fight off the local tribes, try to negotiate alliances and safe passage, before Stanley located Pasha and his motley garrison of Arabs and Sudanese. The two men finally met on 29 April 1888 and Stanley was disconcerted to discover that Emin was in perfectly good health and none too keen on being ‘discovered’ or ‘rescued’. In fact Pasha and his men were able to feed Stanley’s emaciated and fever-stricken followers, thus ‘rescuing the rescuers.’

And, in a major disillusionment, it turned out Pasha wasn’t very keen to be taken back to ‘civilisation’ where he strongly suspected Madame Hakki would quickly take him to court (he was to be proved right about this) but more importantly he deceived Stanley about the paper-thin authority he had over his own troops, who didn’t want to take Stanley’s route of travelling east along the familiar slave route back to Zanzibar, and preferred to travel back north through their own native lands. Pasha’s men mutinied.

Meanwhile, Stanley trekked back towards the rear column with supplies. It is difficult for a modern reader to get their head around the incredible delays and protracted timeframes. The rear column had, by this stage, not had any word or instructions from Stanley for over a year. Half way back they encountered an officer named William Bonny who told them the disastrous fate of the rear column.

3. Pasha’s downfall

There were a lot of issues persuading Pasha to take the eastwards route to Zanzibar, and managing the potentially dangerous defection of many of his most senior officers, which Jeal describes in great documentary detail. What stood out for me was Pasha’s fate. When the survivors of this huge, devastating and gruelling expedition finally made it back to Zanzibar, the consul’s residence and ‘civilisation’, a big party was held. At the height of the festivities, Emin Pasha, the centre of the entire £32,000, three-year operation which had cost so many lives, was found badly injured in the street outside, having fallen from a second-storey balcony.

Did he get drunk, wander onto the balcony and, being short sighted, not see the low balustrade and simply fallen over it? Or was it a suicide attempt, given that the enormous publicity surrounding the affair, all across Europe, had alerted his long-abandoned wife, Madame Hakki, that Pasha was alive, and she had begun proceedings in German courts, which would not only ruin him financially, but blow the cover he had dedicated years and years to creating in Africa (p.378).

Pasha didn’t recover from his fall for months, till the end of January 1890 but he did not return to Europe. He found employment with the Germans who were Britain’s fiercest rivals in East Africa, but his hopes of claiming Buganda for Germany and being appointed its governor were dashed by the careful arrangements of the 1890 Anglo-German Agreement. Pasha fell out with his German employers and set out for the interior on a mission of his own which has never been clarified.

In 1892, a hundred miles from the Congo, Pasha was beheaded by Arabs in alliance with a warlord called Kibongo. The Pasha’s sixty Sudanese followers were all shot. (p.380)

A. J. Mounteney-Jephson, Stanley’s most loyal lieutenant on the trip, made a different calculation, estimating that they set out on the lower Congo with 708 people of whom only 210 survived (p.381). The numbers are variable because extra porters were hired all along the route, and the number of camp followers (wives and children) fluctuated. But the main point is clear. Hundreds and hundreds of natives and over half the white men who started on the expedition, perished, and for what?

The Emin Pasha relief expedition turned out to be the last of its kind, run by a freelance explorer, funded by a private committee. The era of freelance exploration had come to an end and from this point onwards, expeditions were to be funded and managed by the government departments which were taking over all aspects of colonial administration.

Stanley with the officers of the Advance Column, safely back in Cairo in 1890. From left  to right, Dr Thomas Heazle Parke, Robert H. Nelson, Henry M. Stanley, William G. Stairs, and Arthur J. M. Jephson

Marriage and frustration

Jeal gives detailed accounts of Stanley’s many attempts to find a bride. Obviously his prospects changed overnight when he became super well-known as the hero who had found and supplied Dr Livingstone, a fame boosted by swift publication of his bestselling account, How I Found Livingstone (1871).

It is interesting to read about the rather cold-blooded practicality with which Stanley and his friends set about trying to find an eligible partner for him (p.300). It is pretty clear that the best candidate would have been May French Sheldon, an interesting character in her own right. Born and bred in America, May married a banker and developed as a journalist, essayist and novelist. She and husband Eli moved to London, where she corresponded with and then met Stanley who she found fascinating and inspiring. According to Jeal, May and her husband enjoyed an ‘open marriage’, something she informed Stanley about, and they were much in each other’s company.

However, Stanley wanted a wife and children, not a mistress and so, ultimately, May didn’t work out. This was a shame as she continued to worship him and, after Eli died in 1890, she herself undertook several expeditions to Africa, travelling up the Congo (funded and directed by Leopold’s people who gained good publicity out of her) and, on another trip, travelling from Mombassa to Mount Kilimanjaro unaccompanied by any other white person (p.385). She wrote up her travels and undertook lecture tours, becoming well known and was one of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In other words, she was right up Stanley’s street, and it would have been a match made in heaven

But instead Stanley was hooked by Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Tennant, scion of a rich family, a socialite and reasonably well known artist, exhibiting at the Royal Academy. Tennant came from a rich, well connected family, a family friend was the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone. Dolly appears in the narrative on page 300 and then recurrently till the end of the book.

Dolly’s father, Charles Tennant, a lawyer and politician, was 58 when Dolly was born and died when she was 18. For years after his death she kept a diary in which she started each entry ‘Dear father’. With transparent psychology, she was attracted to father figures, men 10 or 20 years older than her, of high status, wealthy and married. She and Stanley became involved soon after he’d been invited to a dinner party at her family’s swanky London house in Richmond Terrace (June 25 1885), exchanging letters and love tokens.

Dorothy Tennant who married Stanley in 1890, painted by George Frederic Watts

However, Dolly was calculating. Jeal shows us how she spent most of the three years that Stanley was away on the gruesome Emin Pasha expedition (1886 to 1889), carrying on an impassioned (though presumably platonic) affair with Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall, Privy Councillor, member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India, a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and, like most of Dolly’s crushes, twenty years older than her and married. There is no doubt she was in love with him. But, eventually, his detachment, his gloomy personality, and his married status forced her to acknowledge that he was never going to marry her.

Instead, as news arrived back in London that Stanley had reached Zanzibar, and as his fame exploded off the scale, she was happy to revive her correspondence with him and began telling all her friends that she had always had an understanding with the world famous explorer. Stanley, for his part, was naive, inexperienced, all too used to being rejected by the women he wooed, and so was bowled over when this beautiful, clever, rich and well connected young woman agreed to become engaged.

It was a massive, almost a state wedding. They were married in Westminster Abbey to which the blushing bride drove in a closed carriage along Whitehall through cheering crowds (p.400). The bishop of Ripon conducted the service, the signing of the register was witnessed by Gladstone and the two society painters, Millais and Leighton. What more could a girl wish for?

It took a while for them to realise that they were total opposites: she loved living in London, lived for socialising, loved being the centre of attention at high society parties, was perfectly at home with the very cream of London society, Prime Minsters and so on. Stanley was the extreme opposite, self consciously aware of his lower class origin, hating publicity and attention, preferring to be left alone to think and ponder. Stanley records the moment he realised it, after one of their first arguments because he had asked her to leave him alone for just a few hours to write his next book and she couldn’t understand why he wanted to be apart from her and burst into tears.

‘It struck me that is married life was to be a conflict of this nature, between marital duty and that which one owes to the public, there will be little happiness in future. The utter hopelessness of compatibility between her ideas and mine [was] revealed to me so suddenly that I was speechless for a time…’ (Stanley in his diary entry 4 September 1890, quoted page 403)

This caused much conflict until Stanley eventually bought a country house in Pirbright, Surrey, which he devoted himself to doing up and landscaping.

In 1885 Stanley had hoped that Leopold would invite him to become Governor of the new Congo state he was carving out. A large part of the evidence for Stanley’s lack of complicity in Leopold’s crimes of the 1890s is that Leopold never seriously considered this. He realised that Stanley was too fond of Africans and standing up for their rights to be the kind of obedient servant he (Leopold) was looking for. Then came the opportunity of the Emin Pasha expedition and Stanley was totally absorbed in that through till late 1889, then got married in 1890.

When he’d returned from that trip, an exhausted man, Stanley had hoped for several years that he might be asked by the British government to become a governor of the new colonies being legally defined, mapped and established across Africa. His good friend Sir William Mackinnon had been lobbying the government for years to carve out a legally defined British colony in Buganda and Kenya in order to compete against and contain the aggressive colonisation of the area by Germany, to finally stamp out the slave trade and to open the area for British trade.

In December 1892 Mackinnon, by now an old and ailing man, made a final offer of the governorship of the region to Stanley. To his everlasting disappointment, Dolly persuaded Stanley to turn down the offer, saying she couldn’t be parted from him, he was too old and ill, and so on. Instead she strongarmed him into standing for parliament, so he would become more like… her father, the politician. Stanley campaigned for and narrowly lost the election to become Liberal MP for Lambeth North, hating every minute of it, the public scrutiny, the big meetings, the heckling. In July 1895 there was another general election, Dolly again forced Stanley to stand, and he was elected Liberal Unionist MP for Lambeth, serving from 1895 to 1900. He hated it. For a man used to the widest, openest spaces in Africa, being cooped up for 14 hours a day in a badly ventilated, stuffy chamber listening to pontificating windbags, was his idea of hell.

It is heartening to report that the final years of Stanley’s life were made bright and happy after he adopted the six month son of one of his many distant Welsh relatives. The boy was brought to Pirbright and named Denzil and, as Stanley grew older and suffered a series of strokes, the small boy was to become the light of his life. He died in his bed at Pirbright on 10 May 1904, aged 63. Having read this long, thoroughly researched, ultra-detailed, and convincingly argued biography, I’m astonished he managed to last that long. What a life!


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Reflections on The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

In the third of his mighty trilogy of histories of the long nineteenth century, The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914, as in its two predecessors, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to hide his strongly Marxist point of view. Every page shouts his contempt for the era’s ‘bourgeois’ men of business, its ‘capitalists’ and bankers, the despicable ‘liberal’ thinkers of the period and so on. From time to time his contempt for the bourgeoisie rises to the level of actual abuse.

The most that can be said of American capitalists is that some of them earned money so fast and in such astronomic quantities that they were forcibly brought up against the fact that mere accumulation in itself is not an adequate aim in life for human beings, even bourgeois ones. (p.186)

Replace that final phrase with ‘even Jewish ones’ or ‘even Muslim ones’ or ‘even black ones’ to get the full sense of how deliberately insulting it is intended to be and how unacceptable his invective would be if applied to any other group of people.

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to quote Marx (who died in 1883, saddened by the failure of his communist millennium to arrive) or Lenin’s views on late capitalism and imperialism (Lenin published his first political work in 1893), and he loses absolutely no opportunity to say ‘bourgeoisie bourgeoisie bourgeoisie’ scores of times on every page till the reader is sick of the sight of the word.

Hobsbawm’s highly partisan and politicised approach has strengths and weaknesses.

Hobsbawm’s strengths

On the up side, using very simplistic binary oppositions like ‘the developed world’ and ‘the undeveloped world’, the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, helps him to make great sweeping generalisations which give you the impression you are gaining secret access to the engine room of history. If you ignore the complexity of the histories and very different cultures of individual nations such as America, Britain, France and Germany, and lump them altogether as ‘the West’, then you can bring out the broad-brush historical and economic developments of the era, grouping together all the developments in science, chemistry, physics, technology, industry and consumer products into great blocks, into titanic trends and developments.

This gives the reader a tremendously powerful sense of bestriding the world, taking part in global trends and huge international developments. Just as in The Age of Capitalism, the first half or so of the book is thrilling. It makes you feel like you understand for the first time the titanic historical forces directing world history, and it’s this combination of factual (there are lots of facts and figures about industrial production) and imaginative excitement which garnered the trilogy so many positive reviews.

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

Hobsbawm makes obeisance to the Marxist convention that ‘bourgeois’ ideology was riddled with ‘contradictions’. The most obvious one was the contradiction between the wish of national politicians to define and delimit their nations and the desire of ‘bourgeois’ businessmen to ignore all boundaries and trade and invest wherever they wanted around the globe (p.40).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the way the spread of ‘Western ideology’ i.e. education and values, to developing countries, or at least to the elites within European colonies, often led to the creation of the very Western-educated elites who then helped to overthrow it (he gives the London-trained lawyer Gandhi as the classic example, p.77, though he could as easily have mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Cambridge, trained at London’s Inner Temple as a barrister).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the between the way the mid-century ‘bourgeois’ industrial and economic triumph rested on a mechanical view of the universe, the mechanical laws of physics and heat and chemistry underpinning the great technological advances of the later nineteenth century. Hobsbawm then delights in the way that, at the end of the century, this entire mechanistic worldview was overturned in a welter of discoveries, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, the problematic nature of the sub-atomic world which gave rise to quantum physics, and deep discoveries about the bewildering non-rational basis of mathematics.

These are just some of the developments Hobsbawm defines as ‘contradictions’ with the aim of proving that Marx’s predictions that capitalism contained within itself deep structural contradictions which would undermine it and lead inevitably to its downfall.

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

Except that Marx was wrong and Hobsbawm is wrong. His continual mentioning Marx, quoting Lenin, harking back to the high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848, invoking the memory of the Commune (redefined, in good Marxist style, as a heroic rising of the downtrodden working classes, rather than the internecine bloodbath that it actually was), his continual harking forward to the Bolshevik revolution as somehow the climax of all the trends he describes, his insistence that we, he and his readers, all now (in the mid-1980s when he wrote this book) still live in the forbidding shadow of the Russian revolution, still haunted by the spectre of communist revolution — every aspect of his attitude and approach now seems dated and irrelevant.

Now, in 2021, it is 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites revealed:

  1. Their complete failure to build an economic and social system which could be a serious alternative to ‘capitalism’.
  2. The extraordinary extent to which communist regimes had to surveil, monitor and police every aspect of their populations’ behaviour, speech and thoughts, in order to prevent them relapsing into the ways of human nature – the prison camps, the psychiatric wards, the secret police. Look at China today, with its censorship of the internet and its hounding of dissidents, its suppression of Falun Gong and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Seen from our contemporary perspective, Hobsbawm tendentious habit of naming every clash in policies, every development in cultural thinking as some kind of seismic ‘contradiction’ which will bring global capitalism tumbling down, looks like what it is, a biased obeisance to Marxist ideas which have long ago proved to be untrue.

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

To some extent his attitude is based on one particular logical or rhetorical trick which can be proved to be false.

In the later chapters of the book, about the arts, the hard and social sciences, Hobsbawm repeatedly claims that this or that aspect of ‘bourgeois ideology’ of the mid-nineteenth century came under strain, suffered insoluble contradictions, underwent a crisis, and collapsed.

I think this is the crux of the massive mistake he makes. It consists of several steps:

  1. identifying every element of mid-nineteenth century political and cultural theory as some universal thing called ‘bourgeois’
  2. identifying this ‘bourgeoisie’ as the central and necessary figure of the capitalist system
  3. and then claiming that, because in the last few decades of the nineteenth century this ‘bourgeois’ ideology came under strain and in many ways collapsed, that therefore this shows that capitalism itself, as a system, must come under strain caused by its internal contradictions and therefore must collapse

Surely anyone can see the logical error here. All you have to do is stop insistently repeating that mid-nineteenth century ideology was identical with some timeless ‘bourgeois’ ideology which necessarily and uniquely underpins all capitalism, and simply relabel it ‘mid-nineteenth century ideology’, and then all your sentences stop being so apocalyptic.

Instead of saying ‘bourgeois ideology was stricken by crisis’ as if The Great Revolution is at hand, all you need say is ‘mid-nineteenth century political and social beliefs underwent a period of rapid change at the end of the century’ and the portentous sense of impending doom hovering over the entire system vanishes in a puff of smoke – and you are left just describing a fairly banal historical process, namely that society’s ideas and beliefs change over time, sometimes in abrupt reversals resulting from new discoveries, sometimes as slow evolutionary adaptations to changing social circumstances.

Put another way, Hobsbawm identifies mid-nineteenth century liberal ideology as if it is the one and only shape capitalist thinking can possibly take and so excitedly proclaims that, by the end of the century, because mid-nineteenth century ‘bourgeois’ beliefs were quite visibly fraying and collapsing, therefore capitalism would collapse too.

But quite obviously the ‘capitalist system’ has survived all the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crises’ Hobsbawm attributes to it and many more. It is still going strong, very strong, well over a century after the period which Hobsbawm is describing and when, he implies, it was all but on its last knees.

In fact the basic idea of manufacturing products cheap and selling them for as much profit as you can, screwing the workers who make them and keeping the profits to a) enjoy yourself or b) invest in other business ventures, is probably more widespread than ever before in human history, seeing how it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in post-communist Russia but especially across hyper-modernising China.

In other words, Hobsbawm’s use of Marxist terms like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ may have a certain explanatory power for the era he’s describing, but after a certain point they are too simplistic and don’t describe or analyse the actual complexity of even one of the societies he describes, let alone the entire world.

At some point (which you can almost measure in Hobsbawm’s texts) they cease to be explanatory and become obfuscatory, hiding the differences which separate America, Britain and Germany much more than unite them. Use of the terms simply indicate that you have entered a certain worldview.

Imagine a Christian historian identifying mid-nineteenth century ideology as the one and only expression of ‘Christian’ ideology, an ideology which divided the population into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’. Imagine this historian went on to describe how the widespread ‘crisis’ in Christian belief at the end of the century indicated that the entire world was passing out of the phase of Christian belief and into infidel unbelief.

If you read something like that you would immediately know you are inside the particular worldview of an author, something which clearly means a lot to them, might shed light on some aspects of the period – for example trends in religious belief – but which in no way is the interpretation of world history.

a) Plenty of other interpretations are available, and b) despite the widespread laments that Christianity was dying out in the later nineteenth century, contrary to all their pessimism, Christianity now has more adherents worldwide than ever before in human history. And ditto capitalism.

The dominance of the key terms Hobsbawm deploys with such monotonous obsessiveness (capitalism, bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal ideology) don’t prove anything except that you have entered the worldview of a particular author.

The system with the real contradictions, contradictions between a) its utopian claims for equality and the reality of a hierarchical society which privileged party membership, b) between its promises to outproduce the West and the reality of permanent shortages of consumer goods and even food, c) between its rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the reality of the harsh repression of any kind of political or artistic unorthodoxy – was communism, whose last pitiful remnants lie rusting in a thousand statue parks across Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

Because Hobsbawm identifies the mid-nineteenth century worldview with the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ as the indispensable foundation of ‘capitalism’, he tries to pull off the conjuring trick of claiming that, since the mid-nineteenth century worldview drastically changed in all kinds of ways in the last decade of the century, these change invalidate the ‘bourgeoisie’, and that this, in turn, invalidates ‘capitalism’. Proves it is wrong and doomed to collapse.

You can see how this is just a three-card trick which moves vague and indefinable words around on the table at speed to bamboozle the impressionable. For despite the trials and tribulations of the century of extremes which followed, ‘capitalism’ in various forms appears to have triumphed around almost the entire world, and the materialistic, conventional, liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ which Hobsbawm so despises… appears still to be very much with us, despite all Hobsbawm’s protestations about its terminal crises and death throes and contradictions and collapse.

Victimology tends to tyranny

To anyone familiar with the history of communist Russia, communist China and communist Eastern Europe, there is something unnerving and, eventually, worrying about Hobsbawm’s very broad-brush division of the entire world into victims and oppressors.

The first half of the twentieth century was the era of totalitarian governments seeking to gain total control over every aspect of their populations and mould them into better humans in a better society. The first thing all these regimes did was establish goodies and baddies, and rouse the population to be on perpetual guard against the enemy in whatever guise – ‘the bourgeoisie’, the ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘reactionary elements’, ‘the Jews’, and so on.

Dividing the entire huge world and eight billion people into simple binaries like ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘workers’, ‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’, ‘white’ masters and ‘black’ victims, is worryingly reminiscent of the simplistic, binary thinking which the twentieth century showed leads to genocides and mass killing.

Hobsbawm criticises the nationalist parties of the late-nineteenth century for dividing up populations into citizens and outsiders, members of the Volk or aliens, a process of which the Jews were notable victims. And yet he enacts the very same binary oppositioning, the same outsidering of a (large) group of society, by objectifying and insulting the ‘bourgeoisie’ at every opportunity.

It’s the same old mental slum: if only we could get rid of the gypsies / homos / lefties / commies / bourgeoisie / capitalists / Catholics / Protestants / Armenians / Jews / Croats / Serbs / Tutsis / Hutus / men / whites / blacks / immigrants / refugees, then society would be alright. I call it ‘If-only-ism’.

If capitalism and imperialism were inevitable, how can anyone be guilty?

In Age of Capital Hobsbawm describes how the industrial revolution amounted to a lucky fluke, a coming together of half a dozen circumstances (of which the most important was, in his view, Britain’s command of the waves and extensive trading network between colonies) and this helps you realise that some people were able to seize the opportunity and exploit it and become masters of small firms and then of factories etc. Clever, quick, resourceful or well-placed men leapt to take advantage of new opportunities. Any history of the industrial revolution names them and gives biographies of individuals central to the series of inventions or who then set up successful firms to exploit them.

However, the tendency of Hobsbawm’s very high-level Marxist approach, his sweeping surveys which pull together evidence from Austria, or France, from north Italy or New York, is, paradoxically, to remove all sense of agency from the humans involved. Hobsbawm makes it seem almost inevitable that the first industrial revolution (textiles) would give rise to a second (iron and coal) which in turn would give rise to a third (steel, organic chemistry, electrics, oil).

And he makes it seem inevitable that, once the world was fully mapped and explored, then the other ‘western powers’ which by 1890 had more or less caught up with Britain in terms of industrialisation, would join the competition to seize territories which contained valuable minerals or exotic produce (tea, coffee, bananas). That an acceleration of imperial rivalry was inevitable.

But if it had to pan out this way, how can you blame anyone? If, viewed from this lofty godlike perspective, it was inevitable that industrialisation broke out somewhere, that it would spread to all similar regions and states, that the now numerous industrial nations would find themselves in competition for the basic resources (food) and more arcane resources (rubber, oil, rare metals) required to drive the next stage of industrial development – can you blame them?

You could call it Hobsbawm’s paradox, or Hobsbawm’s Choice. The more inevitable you make the entire process sound, the less reason you have to be so cross at the ‘bourgeoisie’.

The reality is that you can, of course, hold the western nations accountable for their actions, but only if you descend to a lower level of historical discourse than Hobsbawm’s. Only if you begin to look at specific actions of specific governments and specific men in specific times and places an you begin to make assessments and apportion praise or blame.

Responsibility and guilt can’t really exist at the level Hobsbawm is operating on because he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning individuals (with only a few exceptions; Bismarck’s name crops up more than any other politician of the period) and instead emphasises that it all unfolded according to almost unavoidable historical laws, implicit in the logic of industrial development.

If humans couldn’t avoid it, then they can’t very well be blamed for it.

In light of Hobsbawm’s theory, is equality possible?

The same set of facts give rise to a parallel thought, which dogged me throughout reading this book, which is — if what Hobsbawm says is true, if industrial and technological developments tend to be restricted to just a handful of certain nations which have acquired the technology and capital resources to acquire ‘liftoff’ to industrialisation, and if, within those nations, the benefits of industrialisation accrue overwhelming to a small proportion of the population; and if this process is so stereotyped and inevitable and unstoppable — then, well… is it even possible to be fair? Is it possible to achieve anything like ‘equality’? Surely the entire trend of the history Hobsbawm describes with so much verve suggests not.

Putting aside the issue of fairness in one nation aside in order to adopt Hobsbawm’s global perspective, he often repeats the formula that countries in the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ (whatever you want to call it) were forced by the demands of consumer capitalism or The Market to turn themselves into providers of raw materials or a handful of saleable commodities – after all, this was era which saw the birth of the banana republic. But, I thought as I ploughed through the book… what was the alternative?

Could undeveloped nations have turned their backs on ‘international capitalism’ and continued as agrarian peasant nations, or resisted the western imperative to become ‘nations’ at all and remained general territories ruled by congeries of local sheikhs or tribal elders or whatever?

At what stage would it have been possible to divert the general trend of colonial takeover of the developing world? How would it have happened? Which British leader would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong; we renounce all our colonies and grant them independence today?’ in the1870s or 1880s or 1890s? What would have happened to the sub-continent or all those bits of Africa which Britain administered if Britain had simply packed up and left them in 1885?

As to all the wealth accumulating in Britain, among its sizeable cohort of ship-owners, traders, factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers and what not. On what basis would you have taken their wealth away, and how much? Half? All of it and shot them, as in Bolshevik Russia?

Having seized the wealth of the entire ‘bourgeoisie’, how would you then have redistributed it to the bedouin in the desert or the native peoples of Australia or the Amazon, to the workers on the rubber plantations, in the tin and gold mines, in the sugar fields, to squabbling tribes in central Africa? How could that have been done without a vast centralised redistribution system? Without, in fact, precisely the centralising, bureaucratic tendencies of the very capitalist system Hobsbawm was criticising?

And who would administer such a thing? Having worked in the civil service for over a decade I can tell you it would take hordes of consultants, program managers, project managers and so on, who would probably be recruited from the host country and make a packet out of the process?

And when was all this meant to happen? When, would you say, the awareness of the wrongs of the empire, or the wrongs done to the ‘undeveloped world’ became widespread enough to allow such policies to be enacted in a democracy where the government has to persuade the majority of the people to go along with its policies? In the 1860s, 70s, 80s?

Live Aid was held in 1985, just as Hobsbawm was writing this book, and which I imagine brought the issue of Third World poverty and famine to the attention of even the dimmest members of the population. But did that global event abolish poverty, did it end inequality and injustice in in the Third World? No, otherwise there would have been no need for the Live 8 concerts and related charity efforts 30 years later, in 2005. Or the ongoing efforts of all the industrialised nations to send hundreds of millions of dollars of support to the Third World every year (hence the furore surrounding the UK government cutting back on its foreign aid budget this year.) Not to mention the continuous work of thousands of charities all across the ‘developing world’.

When you look at the scale of activity and the amounts of money which have been sent to developing countries since the Second World War, it makes you wonder how much would be enough? Should every citizen of every industrialised nation give, say, half their annual earnings to people in the Third World? To which people? In which countries? To India, which has invested tens of billions in a space program? To China, which is carrying out semi-genocidal policy of incarceration and mass sterilisation in its Xinjiang province? Do we need to take money from the British public to give it to Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping? Who would manage that redistribution program, for whatever civil servants and consultants you hired to make it work would earn much, much more than the recipients of the aid.

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

When I was a student, reading this trilogy educated me about the broad industrial, economic and social forces which created and drove forward the industrial revolution in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, doing so in thrilling style, and for that I am very grateful. Hobsbawm’s books highlighted the way that, through the 1850s and 1860s, capitalism created an ever-richer class of ‘owners’ set against a rapidly growing number of impoverished workers; how the industrial and financial techniques pioneered in Britain spread to other Western nations; how the industrial system evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into a) a booming consumer society in the West and b) the consolidation of a system of colonial exploitation around the world.

I had never had the broad trends of history explained so clearly and powerfully and excitingly. It was a memorable experience.

But rereading the books 40 years later, I am now painfully aware that the simplistic Marxist concepts Hobsbawm uses to analyse his period may certainly help to elucidate it, but at the same time highlight their own ineffectiveness.

The confidence that a mass working class movement which will rise up to overthrow the inequalities of the West and liberate the developing world, that this great liberation is just around the corner – which is implicit in his numerous references to 1848 and Marx and the Commune and Lenin – and that all it needs is a few more books and pamphlets to spark it off….goes beyond boring to become sad. Although the historical facts he describes remain as relevant as ever, the entire ideology the books are drenched in feels terribly out of date.

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

In chapter 4 Hobsbawm discusses the politics of democracy. Throughout he takes it for granted that extending the franchise to all adults would result in the revolutionary change he supports. He starts his discussion by referencing the powerful German Social Democratic Party (founded back in 1863) and the British Labour Party (founded in 1900) and their campaigns for universal suffrage, as if giving the vote to ‘the working class’ would immediately lead to a social revolution, the end of inequality and exploitation.

Only in the chapters that follow does he slowly concede that new mass electorates also helped to create new mass, populist parties and that many of these catered not to the left at all, but to right-wing nationalist ideas of blood and Volk. For example, the notorious Karl Luger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, whose Christian Social Party espoused populist and antisemitic politics which are sometimes viewed as a model for Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

In fact it had already been shown that universal male suffrage not only didn’t lead to socialist revolution but the exact opposite, when, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution which overthrew the French monarchy, the French granted universal male suffrage and held a presidential election in which the opera bouffe candidate, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, promptly won with 74% of the entire male adult vote, and then went on to win the plebiscite held after his 1851 anti-leftist coup with 76%.

So any educated person knew in the 1850s that extending the franchise did not, in and of itself, lead to red revolution. Often the opposite. (This is a point picked up in Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 which quotes umpteen later Victorian politicians and commentators arguing against extending the franchise precisely because they’d seen what it led to in France, namely the election of a repressive, right wing autocrat.)

Hobsbawm’s excited description of the way the ‘scary’ working class were ‘threatening’ bourgeois hegemony, were on the brink of ‘seizing power’ and righting the world’s wrongs, underplays the extent to which universal suffrage led:

  1. directly to the rise of populist nationalist anti-left wing governments
  2. and to the fragmentation of the left into ‘reformists’, prepared to compromise their radical principles and ally with liberal parties in order to get into parliament, and the die-hards who held out for radical social change

In other words, extending the franchise led to the exact opposite of what Hobsbawm hopes. Something borne out after the Great War, when the franchise was drastically extended to almost all adults in most European countries and the majority of European governments promptly became either right-wing or out-and-out dictatorships. Mussolini won the 1924 Italian general election; Hitler won the largest share of the vote in the Weimar Republic’s last election. Or Hungary:

In January 1920, Hungarian men and women cast the first secret ballots in the country’s political history and elected a large counterrevolutionary and agrarian majority to a unicameral parliament. (Wikipedia)

Switching from Hobsbawm altogether to the present day, 2021, any reader of the English left-liberal English press must be struck how, since the Brexit vote, it has stopped being a taboo subject to suggest that quite possibly a large proportion of the British electorate is thick and uneducated (terms you frequently meet in the Guardian newspaper). You can nowadays read plenty of ‘progressive’ commentators pointing out that the great British electorate was persuaded, in voting for Brexit (2016) and Boris (2019), to vote for populist right-wing demagoguery and against their own best interests as working people. I have read so many commentators pointing out that it is the very conservative working class communities who voted for Brexit who are most likely going to suffer the prolonged consequences of economic dislocation and decline.

In other words, right now in 2021, you can read representatives of the left openly stating that universal franchise, one person one vote, not only doesn’t lead to the socialist paradise Hobsbawm implies it will, but the opposite – rule by right-wing populists.

As far as I can remember, thoughts like this would have been utterly taboo in the 1980s, or have immediately identified you as a right-wing conservative. But now I read comments like this every day in the Guardian or New Statesman.

So – this is the recent experience and current political discourse I bring to reading Hobsbawm’s chapter about democracy and which makes me think his assumption, his faith, his Marxist belief, that simply expanding the franchise to all adults would of itself bring about social revolution and justice and equality is too simplistic.

  • It doesn’t correlate with the historical fact that, as soon as the franchises of most European nations had been radically expanded (after the Great War), lots of them became very right-wing.
  • It doesn’t speak to our present situation where, it’s true that no-one is openly suggesting restricting the franchise, but many progressives are questioning whether the universal franchise produces the optimum results for a nation and its working class. Trump. Brexit.

The world is not as we would like it to be.

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

I am a Darwinian materialist. I believe there is no God and therefore no purpose or direction to human lives or events. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. Shit happens, people try to cope. Obviously shit happens within a complex web of frameworks and structures which we have inherited, it takes a lot of effort to disentangle and understand what is going on, or what we think is going on, and sometimes it may happen in ways some of which we can broadly predict. But ‘events, dear boy, events’ are the determining feature in human affairs. Take Afghanistan this past week. Who knew? Who expected such a sudden collapse?

This isn’t a very profound analysis but my aim is to contrast my preference for a theory of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of human affairs with Hobsbawm’s profound belief in Marxist teleology, meaning the very nineteenth century, rationalist, scientistic belief that there are laws of history and that human societies obey them and that they can be predicted and harnessed.

Teleology: the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

Teleology is the belief that if you shave away all the unfortunate details of history, and the peculiarities of culture, and the impact of charismatic individuals, in fact if you pare away enough of what makes people people and societies societies, you can drill down to Fundamental Laws of History. And that Karl Marx discovered them. And that these laws predict the coming collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a wonderful classless society. And that you, too, can be part of this future by joining the communist party today for the very reasonable online registration fee of just £12!

Anyway, the teleology (‘sense of direction, meaning or purpose’) which is a vital component of Marxism, the confidence in an inevitable advent of a future of justice and equality, which underpins every word Hobsbawm wrote, evaporated in 1991 and nothing has taken its place.

There will be no Revolution. The ‘capitalist system’ will not be overthrown. At most there will be pointless local revolts like the Arab Spring, revolts which, more than likely, end up with regimes more repressive or anarchic than the ones they overthrew (Syria, Libya, Egypt).

This sort of thing will occur repeatedly in countries which did not enjoy the early or middle benefits of the technological revolutions Hobsbawm describes, countries of the permanently developing world, which will always have largely peasant populations, which will always depend on the export of raw materials (oil being the obvious one), which will always have unstable political systems, liable to periodic upheavals.

The environmental perspective

If there is One Big Thing we do know about the future, it is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere in Hobsbawm’s book, which is that humanity is destroying the environments which support us.

My son is studying biology at university. He says it amounts to having world-leading experts explain the beauty and intricacy of various eco-systems in beautiful places around the planet – and then describing how we are destroying them.

As a result, my son thinks that human civilisation, in its present form, is doomed. Not because of global warming. But because we are killing the oceans, exterminating all the fish, destroying species diversity, wrecking agricultural land, using up all the fresh water, relying more on more on fragile monocultures, and generally devastating the complex web of ecosystems which make human existence possible.

Viewed from this perspective, human activity is, overall, fantastically destructive. And the massive ideological divide Hobsbawm makes between the tradition of the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, Communards, Bolsheviks and communists he adulates, on the other, fades into insignificance.

We now know that polluting activity and environmental destruction were as bad or worse under communist regimes as they were under capitalist ones. It was the Soviet system which gave us Chernobyl and its extended cover-up. Capitalist ones are at least capable of reform in a way communist regimes turned out not to be. Green political movements are a feature of advanced ‘capitalist’ countries but were suppressed, along with every other form of deviance, under communist governments.

But then again, it really doesn’t matter from a global perspective. Looked at from the planet’s point of view, all human activity is destructive.

So this is why, looking at them from a really high-level perspective, as of aliens visiting earth and reviewing the last couple of centuries, these books no longer make me angry at the wicked ‘capitalist’ exploitation of its workers and entire colonial nations and the ‘heroic’ resistance of the proletariat and the exploited peoples of the colonial nations.

I just see a swarm of humans ruining their habitat and leading, inevitably, to their own downfall.

Hobsbawm’s style

Hobsbawm is very repetitive. He mentions bicycles and cars and so on representing new technologies at least three times. I swear he points out that imperialism was the result of increasing competition between the industrial nations at least half a dozen times. He tells us that a number of Germany’s most eminent revolutionaries came from Russia, namely Rosa Luxemburg, at least four times. He repeats President Porfirio Diaz’s famous lament, ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States’ twice. He tells us twice that western governments were keen to invest in medical research into tropical fevers solely because the results promised to help their officers and administrators survive longer in colonial outposts several times. He repeatedly tells us that Bismarck was the master of maintaining peace between the powers (pp.312 and 318).

The impression this gives is of rambling, repetitive and circular arguments instead of linear, logical ones.

Hobsbawm’s discussions are often very gaseous in the sense that they go on at length, use lots of highbrow terminology, but at the end it’s hard to make out or remember what he’s said. The discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital was long and serious-sounding but I emerged at the end of it none the wiser. The long discussion of sociology in chapter 11 of this book left me none the wiser about sociology except for Hobsbawm’s weird suggestion that, as a social science, it was founded and encouraged in order to protect society against Marxism and revolution. Really?

In a similar spirit, although he uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’ intensively throughout both books, I emerged with no clearer sense of what ‘bourgeoisie’ really means than I went in with. He himself admits it to be a notoriously difficult word to define and then more or less fails to define it.

On a more serious level I didn’t understand his discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital or his discussion of the increasing democratisation in the 1890s in this volume, because they were vague and waffly. It seemed to me that as soon as he left his home turf of economic development, his ideas become foggy and repetitive.

And sometimes he comes over as a hilariously out of touch old buffer:

By 1914 the more unshackled youth in the western big cities and resorts was already familiar with sexually provocative rhythmic dances of dubious but exotic origin (the Argentinian tango, the syncopated steps of American blacks). (p.204)

‘The syncopated steps of American blacks’. No wonder American capitalism was doomed to collapse.

Overall conclusion

Hobsbawm’s books are thrilling because of their scope and range and the way he pulls together heterogenous material from around the world, presenting pages of awe-inspiring stats and facts, to paint a vivid, thrilling picture of a world moving through successive phases of industrialisation.

But he is eerily bereft of ideas. This comes over in the later chapters of both books in which he feels obligated, like so many historians before him, to write a chapter about The Arts. This is not his natural territory and the reader has to struggle through turgid pages of Hobsbawm dishing up absolutely conventional judgements (Van Gogh was an unrecognised genius; the arts and crafts movement was very influential), which are so lame and anodyne they are embarrassing.

I had noticed his penchant for commenting on everything using numbered points (‘The bourgeois century destabilised its periphery in two main ways…’; ‘Three major forces of resistance existed in China…’, ‘Three developments turned the alliance system into a time bomb…’, and many others). Eventually it dawned on me that he produces these nifty little sets of issues or causes or effects instead of having ideas. Lists beat insights.

Considering how fertile Marxist literary and art criticism has been in the twentieth century (cf György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Frederick Jameson) it is very disappointing how flat and untheoretical and banal Hobsbawm’s comments about the arts in both books are. In these later sections of each book it is amazing how much he can write without really saying anything. He is a good example of someone who knows all the names and terminology and dates and styles and has absolutely nothing interesting to say about them.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

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  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

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  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution during the communist purges.

Communism in England

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Summary

This is a very mixed bag of a book. The first quarter or so is a thrilling global overview of the main trends and developments in industrial capitalism during the period 1875 to 1914, containing a vast array of fascinating and often thrilling facts and figures. But then it mutates into a series of long, turgid, repetitive, portentous, banal and ultimately uninformative chapters about social change, the arts, sciences, social sciences and so on, which are dreadful.

And underlying it all is Hobsbawm’s unconcealed contempt for the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’ and their ‘bourgeois society’, terms he uses so freely and with so little precision that they eventually degenerate into just being terms of abuse.

And in his goal of insulting the 19th century ‘bourgeoisie’ as much as possible, Hobsbawm glosses over a huge range of crucial differences – between nations and regions, between political and cultural and religious traditions, between parties and politicians, between classes and even periods, yoking a fact from 1880 to one from 1900, cherry-picking from a vast range of information in order to make his sweeping Marxist generalisations and support the tendentious argument that ‘bourgeois society’ was fated to collapse because of its numerous ‘contradictions’.

But when you really look hard at the ‘contradictions’ he’s talking about they become a lot less persuasive than he wants them to be, and his insistence that ‘bourgeois society’ was doomed to collapse in a welter of war and revolution comes to seem like the partisan, biased reporting of a man who is selective in his facts and slippery in his interpretations.

Eventually you feel like you are drowning in a sea of spiteful and tendentious generalisations. I would recommend literally any other book on the period as a better guide, for example:

It is symptomatic of Hobsbawm’s ignoring specificity, detail and precision in preference for sweeping generalisations about his hated ‘bourgeois society’, that in this book supposedly ‘about’ imperialism, he mentions the leading imperialist politician in the world’s leading imperialist nation, Joseph Chamberlain, precisely once, and the leading British cultural propagandist of imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, also only once. These feel like glaring omissions.

When I read this book as a student I was thrilled by its huge perspectives and confident generalisations and breezily Marxist approach. It was only decades later, when I read detailed books about the scramble for Africa, or late-imperial China, or really engaged with Kipling’s works, that I realised how little I actually understood about this period and how much I had been seriously misled by Hobsbawm’s fine-sounding but, in the end, inadequate, superficial and tendentiously misleading account.

Introduction

The Age of Empire is the third and final volume in Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books covering what he termed ‘the long nineteenth century’, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1798 to the start of the Great War in 1914. This third instalment covers the final 40 years, from 1875 to 1914.

In the previous book, The Age of Capital, Hobsbawm had amply demonstrated that he regards the third quarter of the nineteenth century as marking the triumph of the liberal ‘bourgeoisie’, of the ‘capitalist’ middle classes, in industry and technology and finance and politics and the arts.

Having seen off the attempt to overthrow existing regimes across continental Europe in the failed revolutions of 1848, the continent’s ruling classes experienced from 1850 onwards, a period of spectacular economic, technological, business and trade growth which continued on into the 1860s. This boom period was overseen by laissez-faire liberal governments in most countries and reflected in the widespread, optimistic belief that the steady stream of scientific, technological and industrial innovations would produce an endless progress upwards towards peace and prosperity. It was 25 years of what Hobsbawm insists on calling ‘liberal bourgeois triumph’.

It led to the confident conquest of the globe by the capitalist economy, carried by its characteristic class, the bourgeoisie, and under the banner of its characteristic intellectual expression, the ideology of liberalism. (p.9)

At the end of The Age of Capital he gave a short preview of what was coming up in the next era, and it is a major change in tone and subject. Whereas the pace of scientific and technological innovation accelerated, economically, politically and culturally the period which began around 1875 felt like a very different period, witnessing the collapse of much of the mid-century optimism.

Main features of the period

The Long Depression

The period witnessed a long depression, particularly in agriculture, which lasted from 1873 to 1896. A glut of agricultural produce led to a collapse in prices, rural poverty and loss of revenue for the landowning aristocracies. Cheaper food made life better for all those who lived in cities, so the overall impact was very mixed. Commentators at the time didn’t understand what had led to an apparent stalling in expansion and profits and historians have debated its precise causes ever since.

Protectionism

The Long Depression was the main trigger for many western governments to move rapidly from the mid-century free trade model associated with Liberalism towards protectionism, the imposition of protective tariffs on imports etc, especially by America.

New industries

The textile base of the first industrial revolution continued to be important (witness Britain’s huge exports of cotton to its captive markets in India) but the main industrial economies entered a new era driven by new sources of power (electricity and oil, turbines and the internal combustion engine), exploiting new, science-based materials (steel [which became a general index for industrialisation and modernisation, p.35], alloys, non-ferrous metals), accompanied by numerous discoveries in organic chemistry (for example, new dyes and ways of colouring which affected everything from army uniforms to high art).

Monopoly-capitalism

The depression and the consumer explosion led to small and medium-sized companies being replaced by large industrial corporations, cartels, trusts, monopolies (p.44).

New managerial class

The age of small factories run by their founders and family was eclipsed by the creation of huge industrial complexes themselves gathered into regions linked by communications and transport. Hobsbawm mentions the vast industrial conurbation taking shape in the Ruhr region of Germany or the growth of the steel industry around Pittsburgh in America. The point is that these operations became far too large for one man and his son to run; they required managers experienced at managing industrial operations at scale, and so this gave rise to a new class of high level managers and executives. And to the beginnings of management ‘theory’, epitomised by the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (born 1865 in Pennsylvania) which introduced concepts like, to quote Wikipedia:

analysis; synthesis; logic; rationality; empiricism; work ethic; efficiency and elimination of waste; standardization of best practices; disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill sets; the transformation of craft production into mass production; and knowledge transfer between workers and from workers into tools, processes, and documentation.

Population growth

Europe’s population rose from 290 million in 1870 to 435 million in 1910, America’s from 38.5 million to 92 million. (All told, America’s population multiplied over five times from 30 million in 1800 to 160 million by 1900.)

Consumer capitalism

This huge population explosion led to a rapid expansion of domestic consumer markets (p.53). There was still much widespread poverty in the cities, but there was also an ever-growing middle and lower-middle-class keen to assert its status through its possessions. This led to an fast-expanding market for cheap products, often produced by the new techniques of mass production, epitomised by the radical industrial organising of Henry Ford who launched his Model T automobile in 1907.

Department stores and chain stores

Another symbol of this explosion of consumer culture was the arrival of the department store and the chain store in the UK (p.29). For example, Thomas Lipton opened his first small grocery shop in Glasgow in 1871 and by 1899 had over 500 branches, selling the characteristic late-Victorian product, tea, imported from Ceylon (p.53; British tea consumption p.64).

Or take Whiteleys, which began as a fancy goods shop opened in 1863 at 31 Westbourne Grove by William Whiteley, employing two girls to serve and a boy to run errands. By 1867 it had expanded to a row of shops containing 17 separate departments. Whiteley continued to diversify into food and estate agency, building and decorating and by 1890 employed over 6,000 staff. Whiteleys awed contemporaries by its scale and regimentation: most of the staff lived in company-owned male and female dormitories, having to obey 176 rules and working 7 am to 11 pm, six days a week.

Mass advertising

The arrival of a mass consumer market for many goods and services led to an explosion in the new sector of advertising. Many writers and diarists of the time lament the explosion of ads in newspapers, magazines and, most egregious of all, on the new billboards and hoardings which started going up around cities.

The poster

Hoardings required posters. The modern poster was brought to a first pitch of perfection during what critics consider ‘the golden age of the poster’ in the 1890s (p.223) (something I learned a lot about at the current exhibition of the poster art of John Hassell at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner).

Hire purchase and modern finance

New ways for the financially squeezed lower middle classes to pay for all this were invented, notably hire-purchase or instalment payments (p.49).

New popular technologies

Entirely new technologies were invented during the 1880s and 1890s, the most notable being the internal combustion engine and the car, the bicycle, cinema, telephone, wireless and light bulb (pages 19 and 28 and 53).

Competition for resources

New discoveries in industrial chemistry and processes required more recherché raw materials – oil, rubber, rare metals such as manganese, tin and nickel (p.63). The booming consumer market also developed a taste for more exotic foodstuffs, specifically fruits, bananas, cocoa. (Apparently it was only during the 1880s that the banana became widely available and popular in the West.) Where was all this stuff found? In the non-European world.

Imperialism

Growing need for all these resources and crops led to increasing competition to seize territories which contained them. Hence the 1880s and 1890s are generally seen as the high point of Western imperialism, leading up to the so-called Scramble for Africa in the 1880s.

(Interestingly, Hobsbawm notes that the word ‘imperialism’, used in its modern sense, occurs nowhere in Karl Marx’s writings, and only became widely used in the 1890s, many commentators remarking [and complaining] about its sudden ubiquity, p.60.)

Globalisation

During the 1860s and 70s the world became for the first time fully ‘globalised’, via the power of trade and commerce, but also the physical ties of the Railway and the Telegraph (p.13).

The major fact about the nineteenth century is the creation of a single global economy, progressively reaching into the most remote corners of the world, an increasingly dense web of economic transactions, communications and movements of goods, money and people linking the developed countries with each other and with the undeveloped world. (p.62)

During the 1880s and 1890s this process was intensified due to the growth of direct competition between the powers for colonies and their raw materials. Until the 1870s Britain ruled the waves. During this decade international competition for territories to exploit for their raw resources and markets became more intense (p.51). Imperialism.

A world divided

The final mapping of the world, its naming and definitions, led inevitably to the division of the world into ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ parts, into ‘the advanced and the backward’.

For contemporaries, the industrialised West had a duty to bring the benefits of civilisation and Christianity to the poor benighted peoples who lived in all the ‘undeveloped’ regions. Hobsbawm, with the benefit of hindsight, says that the representatives of the developed part almost always came as ‘conquerors’ to the undeveloped part whose populations thus became, in Hobsbawm’s phrase, ‘victims’ of international capitalism.

On this Marxist reading, the imperial conquerors always distorted local markets to suit themselves, reducing many populations to plantation labour reorganised to produce the raw materials the West required, and eagerly helped by the tiny minorities in each undeveloped country which were able to exploit the process and rise to the top as, generally, repressive local rulers (pages 31, 56, 59).

In the second half of the twentieth century, many nations which had finally thrown off the shackles of colonialism found themselves still ruled by the descendants of these collaborationist elites, who modelled themselves on their former western rulers and still ran their countries for the benefit of themselves and their foreign sponsors. Further, truly nationalist revolutions were required, of which the most significant, in my lifetime, was probably the overthrow of the American-backed Shah of Iran by Islamic revolutionaries in 1978.

New working class militancy

Working class militancy went into abeyance in the decades 1850 to 1875, politically defeated in 1848 and then made irrelevant by a general raising of living standards in the mid-century boom years, much to Marx and Engels’ disappointment.

But in the 1880s it came back with a vengeance. Across the developed world a new generation of educated workers led a resurgence in working class politics, fomented industrial unrest, and a significant increase in strikes. There was much optimistic theorising about the potential of a complete or ‘general’ strike to bring the entire system to a halt, preliminary to ushering in the joyful socialist paradise.

New socialist political parties, some established in the 1860s or 1870s, now found themselves accumulating mass membership and becoming real powers in the land, most notably the left-wing German Social Democratic Party, which was the biggest party in the Reichstag by 1912 (chapter 5 ‘Workers of the World’).

Incorporation of working class demands and parties into politics

The capitalist class and ‘its’ governments found themselves forced to accede to working class demands, intervening in industries to regulate pay and conditions, and to sketch out welfare state policies such as pensions and unemployment benefit.

Again, Germany led the way, with its Chancellor, Bismarck, implementing a surprisingly liberal series of laws designed to support workers, including a Health Insurance Bill (1883), an Accident Insurance Bill (1884), an Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill (1889) – although, as everyone knew, he did this chiefly to steal the thunder from the German socialist parties.

Whatever the motives, the increasing intervention by governments across Europe into the working hours, unemployment and pension arrangements of their working classes were all a world away from the laissez-faire policies of the 1850s and 60s. Classical liberalism thought the forces of the market should be left entirely to themselves and would ineluctably resolve all social problems. By the 1880s it was clear to everyone that this was not the case and had instead produced widespread immiseration and poverty which states needed to address, if only to ensure social stability, and to neutralise the growing threat from workers’ parties.

Populism and blood and soil nationalism

But the rise of newly class-conscious workers’ parties, often with explicit agendas to overthrow the existing ‘bourgeois’ arrangements of society, and often with an internationalist worldview, triggered an equal and opposite reaction: the birth of demagogic, anti-liberal and anti-socialist, populist parties.

These harnessed the tremendous late-century spread of a new kind of aggressive nationalism which emphasised blood and soil and national language and defined itself by excluding ‘outsiders. (Chapter 6 ‘Waving Flags: Nations and Nationalism’).

Some of these were harmless enough, like Cymru Fydd, founded in Wales in 1886. Some would lead to armed resistance, like the Basque National Party founded 1886. Some became embroiled in wider liberation struggles, such as the Irish Gaelic League founded 1893. When Theodor Herzl founded Zionism with a series of articles about a Jewish homeland in 1896 he can little have dreamed what a seismic affect his movement would have in the second half of the twentieth century.

But the point is that, from the time of the French Revolution through to the 1848 revolutions, nationalism had been associated with the political left, from La Patrie of the Jacobins through the ‘springtime of the peoples’ of the 1848 revolutionaries.

Somehow, during the 1870s and 80s, a new type of patriotism, more nationalistic and more aggressive to outsiders and entirely associated with the political Right, spread all across Europe.

Its most baleful legacy was the crystallisation of centuries-old European antisemitism into a new and more vicious form. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906, shocked liberals across Europe precisely because the way it split France down the middle revealed the ongoing presence of a stupid prejudice which bien-pensant liberals thought had been consigned to the Middle Ages, eclipsed during the Enlightenment, long buried.

Instead, here it was, back with a vengeance. Herzl wrote his Zionist articles partly in response to the Dreyfus Affair and to the advent of new right-wing parties such as Action Francaise, set up in 1898 in response to the issues of identity and nationhood thrown up by the affair. (In a way, maybe the Dreyfus Affair was comparable to the election of Donald Trump, which dismayed liberals right around the world by revealing the racist, know-nothing bigotry at the heart of what many people fondly and naively like to think of as a ‘progressive’ nation.)

But it wasn’t just the Jews who were affected. All sorts of minorities in countries and regions all across Europe found themselves victimised, their languages and dialects and cultural traditions under pressure or banned by (often newly founded) states keen to create their own versions of this new, late-century, blood and soil nationalism.

The National Question

In fact this late-nineteenth century, super-charged nationalism was such a powerful force that socialist parties all across Europe had to deal with the uncomfortable fact that it caught the imagination of many more members of the working classes than the socialism which the left-wing parties thought ought to be appealing to them.

Hobsbawm’s heroes Lenin and ‘the young Stalin’ (Stalin – yes, definitely a man to admire and emulate, Eric) were much concerned with the issue. In fact Stalin was asked by Lenin in 1913 to write a pamphlet clarifying the Bolsheviks’ position on the subject, Marxism and the National Question. Lenin’s concern reflected the fact that all across Europe the effort to unify the working class into a revolutionary whole was jeopardised by the way the masses were much more easily rallied in the name of nationalistic ambitions than the comprehensive and radical communist overthrow of society which the socialists dreamed of.

In the few years before Stalin wrote, the Social Democratic Party of Austria had disintegrated into autonomous German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Italian and Slovene groupings, exemplifying the way what ought to be working class, socialist solidarity was increasingly undermined by the new nationalism.

Racism

Related to all these topics was widespread racism or, as Hobsbawm puts it:

  • Racism, whose central role in the nineteenth century cannot be overemphasised. (p.252)

This is the kind of sweeping generalisation which is both useful but questionable, at the same time. Presumably Hobsbawm means that racism was one of the dominant ideologies of the period, but where, exactly? In China? Paraguay? Samoa?

Obviously he means that racist beliefs grew increasingly dominant through all strands of ‘bourgeois’ Western ideology as the century progressed, but even this milder formulation is questionable. In Britain the Liberals consistently opposed imperialism. Many Christian denominations in all nations very powerfully opposed racism. For example, it was the incredibly dedicated work of the Quakers which underpinned Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807.The missionaries who played such a vital role in funding expeditions into Africa did so to abolish the slave trade there and because they thought Africans were children of God, like us.

A key point of the Dreyfus Affair was not that it was a storming victory for antisemites but the reverse: it proved that a very large part of the French political and commenting classes, as well as the wider population, supported Dreyfus and condemned antisemitism.

It is one thing to make sweeping generalisations about the racism which underpinned and long outlasted the slave system in the American South, which Hobsbawm doesn’t hesitate to do. But surely, in the name of accuracy and real historical understanding, you have to point out the equal and opposite force of anti-racism among the well organised, well-funded and widely popular anti-slavery organisations, newspapers and politicians in the North.

I can see what Hobsbawm’s driving at: as the nineteenth century progressed two types of racism emerged ever more powerfully:

1. In Europe, accompanying the growth of late-century nationalism went an increasingly bitter and toxic animosity against, and contempt for, people identified as ‘outsiders’ to the key tenets nationalists included in their ideology (that members of the nation must speak the same language, practice the same religion, look the same etc), most obviously the Jews, but plenty of other ‘minorities’, especially in central and eastern Europe, suffered miserably. And the Armenians in Turkey, right at the end of Hobsbawm’s period.

2. In European colonies, the belief in the intrinsic racial superiority of white Europeans became increasingly widespread and was bolstered in the later period by the spread of various bastardised forms of Darwinism. (I’ve read in numerous accounts that the Indian Revolt of 1857 marked a watershed in British attitudes, with the new men put in charge maintaining a greater distance from their subjects than previously and how, over time, they came to rationalise this into an ideology of racial superiority.)

I don’t for a minute deny any of this. I’m just pointing out that Hobsbawm’s formulation is long on rousing rhetoric and short on any of the specifics about how racist ideology arose, was defined and played out in actual policies of particular western nations, in specific times and places – the kind of details which would be useful, which would aid our understanding.

And I couldn’t help reflecting that if he thinks racism was central to the 19th century, then what about the twentieth century? Surely the twentieth century eclipses the nineteenth on the scale of its racist ideologies and the terrible massacres it prompted, from the Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, the Nazi Ostplan to wipe out all the Slavs in Europe, the Japanese massacres in China, the anti-black racism which dominated much of American life, the Rwandan genocide, and so on.

Hobsbawm confidently writes about ‘the universal racism of the bourgeois world’ (p.289) but the claim, although containing lots of truth a) like lots of his other sweeping generalisations, tends to break down on closer investigation and b) elides the way that there were a lot of other things going on as well, just as there were in the twentieth century.

The New Woman

In 1894 Irish writer Sarah Grand used the term ‘new woman’ in an influential article, to refer to independent women seeking radical change and, in response, the English writer Ouida (Maria Louisa Rame) used the term as the title of a follow-up article (Wikipedia).

Hobsbawm devotes a chapter to the rise of women during the period 1875 to 1914. He makes a number of points:

Feminism

The number of feminists and suffragettes was always tiny, not least because they stood for issues which only interested middle-class women, then as now. The majority of British women were poor to very poor indeed, and most simply wanted better working and living conditions and pay. It was mostly upper-middle-class women who wanted the right to vote and access to the professions and universities like their fathers and brothers.

The more visible aspects of women’s emancipation were still largely confined to women of the middle class… In countries like Britain, where suffragism became a significant phenomenon, it measured the public strength of organised feminism, but in doing so it also revealed its major limitation, an appeal primarily confined to the middle class. (p.201)

Upper class feminism

It is indicative of the essentially upper-class nature of suffragism and feminism that the first woman to be elected to the UK House of Commons was Constance Georgine Gore-Booth, daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet, and Georgina, Lady Gore-Booth.

Nancy Astor

In fact, as an Irish Republican, Constance refused to attend Westminster, with the result that the first woman MP to actually sit in the House of Commons, was the American millionairess, Nancy Astor, who took her seat after winning a by-election for the Conservative Party in 1919. Formally titled Viscountess Astor, she lived with her American husband, Waldorf Astor, in a grand London house, No. 4 St. James’s Square, or spent time at the vast Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire which Waldorf’s father bought the couple as a wedding present. Hardly the stuff of social revolutions, is it? The exact opposite, in fact. Reinforcing wealth and privilege.

Rentier feminism

In the same way, a number of the most eminent women of the day lived off inherited money and allowances. They were rentiers, trustafarians aka parasites. When Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman writer needed ‘a room of her own’ what she actually meant was an income of about £500 a year, ideally provided by ‘the family’ i.e. Daddy. The long-running partnership of the founders of the left-wing Fabian Society, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, was based on the £1,000 a year settled on her by her father at her marriage i.e. derived from the labour of others, mostly working class men (p.185).

New secretarial jobs for women

Alongside the rise of a new managerial class, mentioned above, the 1880s and 1890s saw the rise of new secretarial and administrative roles, what Hobsbawm neatly calls ‘a tribute to the typewriter’ (p.201). In 1881 central and local government in Britain employed 7,000 women; by 1911 that number was 76,000. Many women went into these kinds of secretarial jobs, and also filled the jobs created by the spread of the new department and chain stores. So these years saw a broad social change as many middle-class and lower middle-class single women and wives were able to secure reasonable white collar jobs in ever-increasing numbers (p.200).

Women and education

Education began to be offered to the masses across Europe during the 1870s and 80s, with Britain’s patchy 1870 Education Act followed by an act making junior school education compulsory in 1890. Obviously this created a huge new demand for schoolteachers and this, also, was to become a profession which women dominated, a situation which continues to this day. (In the UK in 2019, 98% of all early years teachers are women, 86% of nursery and primary teachers are women, 65% of secondary teachers are women. Overall, 75.8% of all grades of school teacher in the UK are female).

Secretarial and admin, shop staff, and schoolteachers – the pattern of women dominating in these areas was set in the 1880s and 1890s and continues to this day (p.201).

Women and religion

Hobsbawm makes one last point about women during this period which is that many, many more women were actively involved in the Christian church than in feminist or left-wing politics: women were nuns, officiants in churches, and supporters of Christian parties.

Statistically the women who opted for the defence of their sex through piety enormously outnumbered those who opted for liberation. (p.210)

I was surprised to learn that many women in France were actively against the vote being given to women, because they already had a great deal of ‘soft’ social and cultural power under the existing system, and actively didn’t want to get drawn into the worlds of squabbling men, politics and the professions.

Even within the bourgeois liberal society, middle class and petty-bourgeois French women, far from foolish and not often given to gentle passivity, did not bother to support the cause of women’s suffrage in large numbers. (p.209)

Feminism, then as now, claimed to speak for all women, a claim which is very misleading. Many women were not feminists, and many women were actively anti-feminist in the sense that they devoutly believed in Christian, and specifically Catholic, values, which allotted women clear duties and responsibilities as wives and mothers in the home, but also gave them cultural capital, privileges and social power.

These anti-feminists were far from stupid. They realised that a shift to more secular or socialist models would actually deprive them of much of this soft power. Or they just opposed secular, socialist values. Just as more than 50% of white American women voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and did so again in 2020.

Sport

Hobsbawm mentions sport throughout the book. I knew that a lot of sports were given formal rules and their governing bodies founded during this era – the Football League founded in 1888, Rugby Football Union founded 1871, Lawn Tennis Association founded 1888. I knew that tennis and golf in particular quickly became associated with the comfortably off middle classes, as they still are to this day.

But I hadn’t realised that these sports were so very liberating for women. Hobsbawm includes posters of women playing golf and tennis and explains that clubs for these sports became acceptable meeting places for young women whose families could be confident they would be meeting ‘the right sort’ of middle class ‘people like them’. As to this day. The spread of these middle class sports significantly opened up the number of spaces where women had freedom and autonomy.

The bicycle

Another new device which was an important vehicle for women’s freedom was the bicycle, which spread very quickly after its initial development in the 1880s, creating bicycle clubs and competitions and magazines and shops across the industrialised world, particularly liberating for many middle class women whom it allowed to travel independently for the first time.

Victorian Women's Cyclewear: The Ingenious Fight Against Conventions - We Love Cycling magazine

The arts and sciences

I haven’t summarised Hobsbawm’s lengthy sections about the arts and literature because, as a literature graduate, I found them boring and obvious and clichéd (Wagner was a great composer but a bad man; the impressionists revolutionised art by painting out of doors etc).

Ditto the chapters about the hard and social sciences, which I found long-winded, boring and dated. In both Age of Capital and this volume, the first hundred pages describing the main technological and industrial developments of the period are by far the most interesting and exciting bits, and the texts go steadily downhill after that.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback edition.

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The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon (1974)

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 was written to be the eighth in the ‘Paladin History of England’ series. I read it at university back in the 1980s as background to the literature of the period.

A month ago I took it off my shelf to remind myself about the run-up to the Edwardian period (1901 to 1914) and insofar as it sheds light on the worldview of the noted Edwardian satirist, Saki, who I’ve been reading and whose stories often refer to social and political events of the 1900s.

This is a slightly odd, rather idiosyncratic book which I found strange but beguiling.

Shannon’s view of history – desperate men grappling with blind forces

Most histories describe the major events which took place during the period they cover, explain their origin and build-up, with pen portraits of the key figures involved in each issue, explaining in more or less detail who did what, what happened, what its after-effects were and why it matters. That’s the approach taken in, say, Crossroads of Freedom by James M. McPherson.

Shannon’s approach is strikingly different. If you know the board game Risk you’ll know it consists of a board representing the entire world, divided up into 40 or so territories. The aim of the game is for the 2, 3 or 4 players to seize all the territories and push the other player(s) off the board. Winner takes all.

Shannon applies a Risk approach to history. Key incidents from this crucial half century (for example, the rise of trade unions at home, the annexation of Egypt abroad, Britain’s response to Bismarck’s wars, the issue of educating the poor which became more pressing everywhere in the second half of the century) are mentioned only fleetingly, often only in passing, often barely explained, because they are not at all where Shannon’s interest lies. Shannon’s interest lies overwhelmingly in the Great Game played by the most senior political leaders throughout the period of winning power and staying in power.

Disraeli’s calculations logically centred on…immediate parliamentary advantage. (p.66)

Shannon doesn’t see politics as a set of logical and understandable events which can be clearly explained, which were clearly understood at the time, and to which rational solutions were offered. Instead he sees human history as the product of blind, inchoate forces – economic, industrial, financial, cultural and demographic – which propel societies forward, willy-nilly, whether planned or understood or not.

The aim of politics, in Shannon’s view, is to harness chaotic human events in order to stay in power.

From time to time Shannon does sound for a few pages like a ‘traditional’ historian. He gives a brisk summary of some of these social changes, with an appropriate blizzard of statistics, particularly in the short opening introduction which is a handy anthology of stats about population increase, migration abroad or into British cities, the rise in agricultural wages and productivity, the doubling of GNP per capita and much more, during his chosen period. It is, for example, striking to learn that during the 1860s, in the UK, agricultural workers and the labouring poor ceased to make up the majority of the population for the first time in any country, ever; for the first time in human history (p.30). All very interesting, but then he gets back to his real, underlying worldview:

These were the blind forces at work, unconscious and undirected. Conscious or directed aspects of the social system – broadly, ‘politics’ – did not relate to these blind forces in a neat one-to-one ratio. Very often indeed the relationship was at best tangential…

And:

The picture as a whole is not that of a society moving surely and confidently in self-possession of its destiny. Rather, it is the story of a society at odds with itself, the blind forces working very often at cross-purposes with the conscious wishes and efforts of those who felt it their task to define the ends, the purposes, to which the ‘movement’ would best be directed…

And:

During the fifty years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the forces of conscious purpose and design in Britain struggled to avert the threats of the blind, largely uncontrollable internal forces and of the dangerously uncontrolled external forces. (Pages 15 to 16)

And:

Domestic debate ceased comparatively to be free as the blind forces moving society imposed irresistible pressures. (p.36)

Why I mention Risk is because, for any one of the five decades his book covers, Shannon’s focus is almost entirely on the highest of high politics and on the handful of men who clawed their way to the top of the main political parties (being the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Liberal Party) only to find themselves caught up in the melée, in the maelstrom of these ‘blind’ forces and thrown into the high stakes game of risk management, opportunity and gamble, which is how Shannon conceptualises all high politics. He sees all of political history as a very complicated game of Risk. All tactics are permitted. Winner takes all.

Shannon’s fundamental idea is that people like Gladstone and Disraeli (the famous antagonists from the early part of his period) came to power with little or no idea what to do with it. They came to power by exploiting the forces at large:

  1. internationally
  2. within British society with its changing and emerging economic and political forces
  3. within British political society i.e. within the complex and often contradictory traditions and ideologies of the nation’s two ruling parties
  4. within the intensely power-hungry, jostling Machiavellian milieu of Parliament itself (made up of the very different institutions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords)

Gladstone, Disraeli and their successors were caught up in a game much more complicated than Risk, more byzantine than three-dimensional chess, a terrifyingly complex game in which the rules are continually changing and all the goalposts move overnight. Shannon makes a number of references to chess, talking about the pieces ‘on the political board’ and how those who had scrabbled into positions of power sought to move them to their best advantage.

For example, the book opens with the death of Lord Palmerston in 1865. Palmerston’s death ‘opened up the board’ after 10 years of his political dominance.

Palmerston acted as checkmate. His position on the political board was such that so long as he remained a force no other forces were either strong enough or sufficiently motivated to free the board for manoeuvres. (p.20)

And:

This situation on the political board is the key to all the complicated manoeuvrings of 1866 and 1867. (p.22)

So what makes this book unusual, distinctive and even a little odd are two things: one, Shannon’s casual disinterest in what actually happened (i.e. the events of the period) in preference for extended descriptions of the Great Game of Westminster politics.

And the second thing is Shannon’s extreme scepticism about the effectiveness of these Westminster politics, his belief that society is moved by blind, inchoate social forces which no-one understands, least of all the men who manipulate their way to the top of the greasy pole.

Shannon goes to great lengths to show that even when they get there, Britain’s politicians often had no idea what is really going on, generally act according to old fashioned ideas, out of date notions, either their own or their party’s, in the search for a correct alignment or balance of social forces which repeatedly turns out to be a chimera, a delusion.

Disraeli imagined that there was a ‘normal’ posture of things which could be got back to without too much trouble. The story of Disraeli’s great ministry is how both kinds of normality evaded him… (p.102)

Lowe’s misguided fears of 1866 were the consequences of applying middle-class intellectual calculations to working-class situations. (p.104)

They certainly take advantage of political opportunities to create new coalitions and alliances, to co-opt elements of broader society or of the seething Westminster cauldron to secure power and then try to pass laws or formulate foreign policy. Shannon describes at length the continual manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces, of conjunctions and alignments of different interest groups, he even talks at one point about ‘the Gladstonian matrix’ (p.53).

And then he tries to assess whether their ‘solutions’ are adequate to the challenges and problems thrown up by a society undergoing continual massive social and economic change. And concludes, on the whole, that no, the politicians were heirs to complex political traditions and alliances, moved in a world of sophisticated political theorists and commentators (John Bright, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot) and yet routinely failed to understand what was really going on or to solve the problems they faced. It is a chronicle of bungling and muddling through.

Like dinosaurs at the onset of a new and uncongenial epoch, the generation at its prime in the 1860s, still at the head of affairs in the 1870s and 1880s, groped about in the wreckage of their familiar landscape, already being transformed and imposing new conditions of adaptation and survival. (p.199)

Domestic versus foreign affairs

At several points Shannon distinguishes between the relative limitedness of the chaos in the domestic as opposed to the international sphere. Put simply, there was less scope for choice or disagreement about domestic policy: by 1870 something quite obviously needed to be done about educating the general population, extending the vote, regulating the power of trade unions, about providing sewerage and clean water to the unhygienic cities and so on. In the big picture, the squabbles between parties about these were often trivial.

It was in foreign affairs that there was real scope for differing opinions. As Shannon puts it, Britain was not ‘free’ to begin to lay the foundations of what later became known as the welfare state (all European nations were doing something similar; something similar obviously had to be done here) in the same way that it was ‘free’ to choose whether to go to war in  South Africa in 1899 or with Germany in 1914, in both of which we had the ability to say No right up till the last minute (p.36).

This greater scope in foreign affairs for a variety of choices and actions is one reason why the period from the 1880s to 1914 saw foreign affairs acquire a greater and greater importance and intrude its issues and decisions more and more into domestic political considerations.

A token of this was the rise of the word ‘imperialism’, which only took on its modern meaning during this period, specifically in the 1890s, and whose claims became a major dividing line between the parties, and between different factions within each of the parties (p.77).

Above all, Shannon presents the high politics of the period not as something carried out by powerful men in full command of the facts who had a well-worked-out series of policies to enact; but as the shambling attempts of men under tremendous pressure to keep their parties and supporters onside while responding to events whose significance they often didn’t understand at all.

They were almost always motivated by the quixotic attempt to restore some kind of equilibrium or political stability which they remembered from their youths, but in most instances were laughably out of date and irrelevant. Thus:

An analysis of British foreign policy between 1865 and 1885 reveals essentially the persistence of received traditions and attitudes, attempts to reassert policies based on assumptions inherited from the past… [There was] an inability to understand why policies which had hitherto appeared to answer requirements with complete satisfaction had suddenly ceased to carry conviction and credibility. (p.41)

Documenting the search by politicians of this period for this illusory balance or equilibrium is the key theme of Shannon’s account.

Avoiding teleology

The 1860s, 70s and 80s were not straining to become the 1890s and 1900s. They had no idea what the future held in store. With hindsight many things are obvious to us, now. Nobody knew them, then. Shannon’s attempt is to recreate the mindset of each decade, each year, in order to make clear the context in which the politicians fought for power.

One must above all be careful to avoid teleological assumptions about the nineteenth century… It is obvious, looking back from the twentieth century, that the blind forces at work in the nineteenth century inevitably caused profound changes in political behaviour… But this was not at all the context of consciousness in which the debate of 1866-7 took place… 1867 was not a promise to the future that happened; it was an attempt to settle questions left over from the past, and a promise in another sense to a future that aborted, that never happened. (p.59)

Their concerns are not our concerns. In fact we struggle to make sense of their concerns. The debates around the extension of the franchise in 1867 didn’t see it (as almost all of us today do) as a stepping stone to the nirvana of universal suffrage, but instead were around finding a new equilibrium which would generate the best outcomes for the ‘national interest’ and avoid pandering to narrow class interests. One recurring argument put by people on all sides was that the 1832 settlement had produced a nice balance between the interests of the landed aristocracy, the new business-based bourgeoisie, and the skilled working class. It wasn’t extending the franchise to the lower middle classes and rest of the working class they objected to, it was upsetting this delicate balance by giving too much prominence to one particular part of the population.

Shannon sheds a brilliant bolt of light on our present situation by saying that almost all mid-19th century thinkers would have been appalled at the late 20th and 21st century assumption that democratic politics is about governments bribing particular sections of the electorate with promises of tax cuts or benefit increases and so on. That would have been seen as the ultimate in political immorality.

Their debates were about how best to arrive at the best expression of the ‘national interest’, debates which, of course, clashed over the notion of what the national interest was and who was best qualified to identify it and to implement it. Disraeli knew what it was: the landed aristocracy who he had glamorised in his novels of the 1830s:

Like Palmerson, Disraeli wanted to be able to call on the support of many interests as a means of preserving the one great interest, ‘the national interest’, which he identified centrally with land. (p.68)

I was very interested to learn that the famous social philosopher John Stuart Mill (who himself became an MP) did not want universal suffrage; he wanted a limited suffrage arranged in such a way that the balance of power would shift from (what he regarded as) a limited, unintelligent and reactionary landed aristocracy to a well-educated, modern, business-minded intelligentsia.

Shannon’s warning not to think teleologically makes explicit the notion that we live amongst the countless ruins of the plans and ideas and schemes and manifestos to build a better country and a better political system which have been worked out and proposed with such passion and sincerity by so many of our ancestors, and which came to nothing. So many futures, which never took place.

Disraeli

We can illustrate Shannon’s approach in his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881; leader of the Conservative Party from 1868 till his death in 1881). Shannon paints Disraeli as a man who started his political career facing one central political challenge which was how to repair the catastrophic fragmentation of the Conservative Party caused by the highly divisive campaign to repeal the Corn Laws which reached its climax in 1846 (p.48).

Conditions…since 1847 had made a Conservative majority virtually impossible. (p.73)

The Corn Law campaign had split the Conservative Party down the middle and the chaotic political scene which ensued was exploited by Lord Palmerston who rose to become Prime Minster for the next 9 or so years. Palmerston had combined elements of different political traditions in order to create a very distinctive power base held together by the force of his personality. When he died this particular matrix of forces collapsed leaving a vacuum which presented a complex opportunity for his successors (most notably the two ‘coming men’ of the younger generation, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli) to reorganise and redefine the various political strands and traditions into new combinations.

Disraeli wanted to be a politician, he wanted to be a success, he wanted to be prime Minister, but following Palmerston’s death, he faced the huge challenge of trying to give the Conservative Party a new identity or direction whereby it could once again represent the entire ‘nation’ and represent what Shannon calls the ‘national’ policy.

Disraeli’s task was to manoeuvre the Conservative Party into the posture of natural and legitimate exponent of the ‘national’ policy. (p.52)

In the coming years, Disraeli would scavenge solutions to this challenge from anywhere; he would use any opportunity to try and repair the breaches among the ruling class opened the Corn Law debacle and create a workable majority in the House of Commons and consolidate the in-built Conservative majority in the House of Lords.

For Disraeli, and therefore for Shannon, it doesn’t matter what these issues are, whether it be the administration of India after the great rebellion of 1857, the correct line to take towards the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) or to Bismarck’s series of wars starting with Prussia’s war with Denmark in 1864.

Disraeli’s approach wasn’t about taking a consistent or principled line. It was about analysing each event or crisis and assessing what was the best outcome for the Conservative Party and for himself. What would play best among the (still very limited) electorate? How would a given policy play to the landed aristocrats in the House of Lords? Could it be reconciled with the need to win over support among the factory owners in the House of Commons?

The governing Liberals were traditionally the party of small government and non-intervention abroad. Classical Liberalism, as defined by the Manchester school of Richard Cobden and John Bright, thought that left to itself, universal free trade would connect all nations in fair and equal economic arrangements and thus war would not be required. That is why they had founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838, in order to abolish the restrictive tariffs which kept the price of corn artificially high (in order to benefit the landed aristocracy) thus making the price of food substantially cheaper in order to feed the populations of the new industrial cities.

By contrast with the Liberals’ boring ideas of universal free trade, as the 1860s turned into the 1870s Disraeli realised there was a big opportunity here to position the Conservatives as the party of imperial adventure and derring-do. Thus Disraeli is most remembered for two flashy, publicity-seeking gestures, buying up shares in the Suez Canal when the owner, the Khedive of Egypt went bankrupt in 1875, and awarding Queen Victoria the title Empress of India, much to her satisfaction, in 1876. Both hugely popular, both the swift seizure of opportunities.

But none of this implies that Disraeli had a fully-worked out foreign policy. Far from it. These were mere chance opportunities which he grabbed with the instinct of a true opportunist. Only later would succeeding leaders and theorists of the Conservative Party (Disraeli died in 1881) concoct the convenient idea that Disraeli had formulated some Grand Theory of Imperialism. Disraeli had no such thing. And his heirs only did this because this fiction helped them in their times (the 1880s through the 1900s) try to make sense of the ‘blind forces’ at work in the domestic and international spheres of their era. They were looking backwards for clues and ideas, just as Disraeli had been, in his day.

Similarly, when the Liberals brought forward plans to extend the franchise (the vote) from about 1.4 million men to 2.4 million men in 1866, Disraeli again spotted an opportunity, first of all to defeat the Liberals by assembling coalitions of reactionary forces against them. And then, quite hilariously, once the Liberal government resigned after losing a vote on the  reform bill, and the Queen was forced to appoint Disraeli her Prime Minister, he brought forward more or less the same bill, this time persuading reactionaries in the Commons and Lords that a carefully defined and carefully managed extension of the vote wouldn’t hand it to the illiterate mob but would do the opposite; would win over for the Conservatives the grateful lower-middle-class and skilled working class who would benefit from it. And that is, in fact what happened, once the new Reform Act was passed in 1867.

So Victorian politics wasn’t about ‘principle’, having grand theories and manifestos. It was all about shrewdness and adaptability, and adeptness at climbing to the top of what Disraeli very aptly described as ‘the greasy pole’ – and then using any event, and harnessing whatever social forces, and rethinking whatever traditions and schools of thought necessary, to stay in power.

A propos the 1867 Reform Act I was a little staggered to learn that in the election which followed, in 1868, only about half the seats were contested by both parties. We are talking about in which the interest of the Conservatives in country constituencies and of the Liberals in urban constituencies, was so definitive, that it wasn’t even worth contesting half the seats (p.73). Although it later came to be seen as highly symbolic that the high-minded, if eccentric, Liberal John Stuart Mill, lost his Westminster seat to W.H. Smith, the news agent, a harbinger of the rise of the new suburban middle and lower middle class vote which was to become a mainstay of Conservative elections and flavour much of national culture going into the 1880s and 1890s (p.73).

Power politics

Hopefully this example gives you a flavour of the way Shannon’s book takes you right into the heart of power, assessing how leaders like Gladstone and Disraeli (and later on, Lord Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman and the rest) struggled to:

  1. understand what was going on
  2. fit events into the framework of their own personal ‘beliefs’
  3. fit events into the framework of the ideologies and traditions of the parties they purported to lead (often at odds with their own personal beliefs)
  4. and then try to manage coalitions and constituencies of voters out there in the country, and their representatives in Parliament, in such a way as to a) take meaningful action b) all the time ensuring they remained in power – in a process of endless risk and gamble

That is what this book is about; it is less about the actual events of the period than how the successive leaders used these events to claw their way to power and then how they manipulated the traditions and ideologies, assembled and broke coalitions, recruited this or that member of the party into their cabinet, kept important players onside by offering them this or that reward, and so on.

Gladstone himself, in a note written at the end of his life, in 1896, tried to analyse what it was that distinguished him from the other politicians of his time. He wrote that what it boiled down to was the way Providence had endowed him with a special gift of being able to see, to analyse, right into the heart of situations.

It is an insight into the facts of particular eras, and their relations to one another, which generates in the mind a conviction that the materials exist for forming a public opinion, and for directing it to a particular end. (Quoted p.71)

This book focuses exclusively on the highest of high politics, which explains why there’s little or no social history, very little about people’s lived experiences, little or no gossip about kings and courtiers, very little about new technologies or food or sport or fashion, very little about the regions, or even Scotland or Wales (although Ireland bulks large for obvious reasons).

Instead, the focus is very narrowly on Westminster and the power politics played out between a tiny handful of men at the top, detailing their schemes and strategies to gain and hold on to power. So if you’re looking for any kind of social history or lots of colourful anecdotes this is emphatically not the book for you. To give a fashionable example, in the Edwardian section of the book, there is almost no mention of the suffragettes or any kind of portraits of their leaders or their cause; the emphasis is entirely on the how they were just one of 3 or 4 social and political issues which Edwardian leaders were trying to assess and juggle in order to pursue the endless quest to stay in power.

Preserving the balance

So little or no social or economic history, then. What the book is good on is political theory. At what you might call the academic end of the spectrum, Shannon gives accounts of the political thought of Liberal ideologues such as John Bright and John Stuart Mill, showing how the latter in particular derived from his Utilitarian mentors and then evolved to reflect the times (not least in Mills’s powerful defences of women’s rights).

Shannon refers to the at-the-time well-known collection Essays on Reform, published in 1867 as ‘part of the propaganda of the “advanced party” for a “more national Parliament”‘. In the Essays leading political commentators made suggestions about how to improve the franchise and the voting system. Shannon dwells on the contribution of John Morley (1838 to 1923), nowadays a forgotten figure, but who was not only an influential journalist and editor but went on to be a reforming politician in his own right from the 1890s through to the 1920s, and who in the 1880s consciously positioned himself as the heir to Mill (who had died in 1873) as chief ideologue of classical Liberalism (p.98).

Some of the writings in Essays on Reform turn out to be disconcertingly relevant today, 150 years later. Shannon quotes Lesley Stephen, in his essay on reform, proposing that England is an essentially conservative country with an instinctive liking for the established order of things which led all the upper classes, a lot of the middle classes and a surprising number of the working classes instinctively deferential and reluctant to change. This leapt right off the page and spoke to me now, in 2021 as I read endless articles about why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly and why so many people continue to support the Conservative Party despite it so obviously being led by corrupt fools and incompetents. Reading Stephen’s words suggest the short answer is because it’s always been like that; because that’s what England is like.

But theorising and essay writing wasn’t only done by intellectuals and the higher journalists. Politicians also made speeches or wrote articles, and thus Shannon liberally quotes from speeches or articles by the likes of Disraeli, Gladstone and their heirs, to indicate what they said they believed and what they thought they were trying to do.

The thing is, though, that Shannon rarely takes them at face value. In line with his basic credo about the ‘blind forces’ driving society, Shannon is not shy of pointing out when these figures got it completely wrong.

In practically every respect Gladstone’s assumptions about the shape of the future were belied by events, just as were Disraeli’s assumptions about the possibilities of perpetuating a traditional Palmerstonian past. (p.70)

It would take nearly twenty years for Gladstone to reconcile himself to the inadequacy of his assumptions of 1868. (p.79)

The politicians of the period were engaged in what Shannon calls:

A contest in misapprehension. (p.70)

Or, more likely, were writing articles and making speeches not to convey eternal political truths, but to play the game and position issues or ideas in such a way as to maximise the author’s appeal, not necessarily to the bulk of the population (who couldn’t vote), but to key stakeholders or constituencies or even to specific individuals whose support they need.

As well as 1. intellectual ideas and 2. the strategic ideas promoted by politicians for political gain, there is a third category, 3. underlying commonplaces and beliefs.

These are the ideas which aren’t necessarily articulated in their own day and yet exist as widely accepted commonplaces and traditional values in all political parties (or social organisations such as the Anglican Church). Shannon is very good at  bringing these underlying Victorian beliefs out into the open and so helping you understand not just what the Liberal and Conservative leaders said they stood for, but what the crusty old supporters of both parties actually believed they stood for, which was often very something completely different.

Put more simply, Shannon is a really interesting guide to the ideologies and values which underpinned not only high politics but also the political culture of the times, and which was often not very well expressed at the time.

For example, I found his summary of Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, very useful. Arnold, Shannon explains, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t want to leap forward into a radical future, he wanted to preserve the best elements of the past in troublesome times.

Arnold’s fear was that Britain was moving away from reliance on the disinterested morality of the landowning aristocracy and at the same time losing its religious faith, and that this collapse risked the triumph of the Philistines, the name he gave to the rising middle classes, the factory owners and entrepreneurs who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Arnold’s solution was that literature, art and culture should be promoted as the way to defeat the tide of philistinism and preserve the ‘sweetness and light’ of traditional culture, which he defined as ‘the best that has been thought and known’. In effect, ‘culture’ was to replace religion as the great binding glue and underpinning ideology of society (p.33).

This notion was to have a phenomenal impact and arguably to hold sway across the arts until well into the 1960s. I think it affected the way I was taught my literature degree in the 1980s. But reading it in the context of Shannon’s hard-headed exposition of power politics gives it a whole new meaning.

Arnold is just one of many Victorians who were looking backwards, who were trying to preserve what they idealised as a kind of balance or equilibrium between forces in society, which they hoped would solve all social issues and return life to the idyllic days of their youths.

Shannon shows in detail that Gladstone and Disraeli were, in this way, just the same, both men trying to return Britain to an imagined land of peace and plenty of their youths. Both men only promoted supposedly ‘radical’ policies (such as extending the franchise or extending state support for education in the 1870 Education Act) because they thought it would shut down dissent, end the debate, and restore this mythical equilibrium.

The essence of the question of reform [in 1867]…was a problem of striking a settlement that would satisfy the country and provide the point of rest and stability for a reconstituted Victorian equilibrium. (p.62)

The second stage of the Liberal effort to create a new Victorian equilibrium in the Liberal image fulfilled itself in the great programme of reforms between 1869 and 1873. (p.76)

The essence of the conduct of affairs in the decade 1874-85 was the effort of both Conservative and Liberal governments to operate on the basis of a desired and assumed Victorian equilibrium. Conservatives interpreted this equilibrium to mean a return to ‘normal’ procedures as defined in Palmerstonian pre-1867 terms… Liberals of most strains interpreted the equilibrium in terms of a revised dispensation required by the country to fulfil the potential of 1867… (p.101)

Some later Victorian schools of political thought

Maybe ‘theory’ is too grand and French a word to use for British political thinking, which has always been pragmatic, ad hoc and short term. As I read some of Shannon’s summaries of Victorian schools of thought, it crossed my mind that it might be useful to list and briefly summarise them:

Matthew Arnold

Arnold believed religion had been wounded by science, old aristocratic ideals damaged by democracy. He suggested replacing them with a new national ideology based on Culture which he defined as the best which has been thought and written, meaning, essentially, English literature.

John Stuart Mill

Mill helped define the ‘harm principle’ of freedom, namely that citizens should be free to do just about anything so long as it doesn’t harm, or cause harm to, others. He strongly defended complete freedom of speech on the basis that society could only progress if all ideas were freely expressed and openly discussed, confident that good opinions would defeat bad opinions. (p.32) Under the influence of his wife he became a fervent advocate of women’s rights, and spoke in favour of votes for women in the 1860s.

But Shannon takes us beneath the popular image of Mill as champion of modern human rights, to show how odd and of his time much of his thought was. For Liberals in the 1860s the issue wasn’t about steering the country towards universal suffrage: the pressing concern was to wrest power from the landed aristocracy, the estimated 10,000 or so families who essentially ran Britain, not in order to create a mass democracy, but to relocate power to the Most Intelligent people in the nation who Mill, not surprisingly, identified with himself and his friends.

In other words, Mill didn’t want to abolish the mindset of deference as so many Radicals did. He simply wanted to shift the focus of the population’s deference from the (in his opinion) worthless aristocracy, to the forces of liberal industry and economy and intelligence.

Leslie Stephen

Stephen believed that occult and unacknowledged forces kept England a predominantly aristocratic society, the majority of the population liking to keep things as they are and to defer to their betters. (p.28) (If you wanted to think big, you could say this attitude goes back to the Norman Conquest and the establishment of a two-tier society which, in many occult and unacknowledged ways, endures to this day. Being able to speak French or drop French tags into conversation, for example.)

Whig aristocrats

believed that only possession of land could guarantee independence and freedom. A tenant is forced to vote the way his landlord tells him. The owner of vast acres can, by contrast, stand up against almost any authority (including, back at the origin of the Whig Party, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the king himself). English freedom therefore depends on the existence of a well-educated and independent aristocracy, and their existence depends on respect for property. From this perspective, any attempt to tax, confiscate or redistribute someone’s land represents not an attack on them or even the propertied class, but on the entire basis of English freedom and this explains the attitudes and speeches of most MPs and ministers from the landed aristocracy (p.26).

The Manchester School

The Manchester school of economic and political theorists, led by John Bright and William Cobden, believed that free trade between nations would maximise everyone’s wealth and guarantee peace, because eventually every nation would be so tied  together by international trade that war would wreck their own economies. After the death of Palmerston in 1865, the Manchester School thought that Britain’s foreign policy should be one of complete non-intervention, showing the rest of the world by the example of how free trade led to prosperity. The Manchester School passively supported the attempts by peoples across Europe to liberate themselves from foreign (generally reactionary) oppressors, such as the struggle for Italian Unification, completed by 1871, because this would lead them all, in time, to have a constitution and economy as glorious as Britain’s, but we must on no account intervene in those struggles (p.43)

Castlereagh’s foreign policy

The Conservative view looked back to the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when Britain had a vested interest in never letting a continent-wide dictator arise again, and so was active in creating and supporting a supposed ‘balance of power’ in Europe, creating a ‘concert of powers’ between France, Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia, without ever actually joining sides. (pages 43 and 47).

Unfortunately, the illusion of this concert was seriously damaged by the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) in which a lot of Britons were surprised to find themselves fighting with Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia. And then Bismarck definitively wrecked this model by defeating Denmark, Austria and France in order to create a unified Germany in 1871, from which point the old theories became increasingly irrelevant and British leaders, both Conservative and Liberal, had to cast around for a new model and a new role for Britain in Europe (p.45).

Beneath the surface of a general retraction of diplomatic initiative following the Denmark fiasco, the phase from 1865 to 1874 is characterised by a great deal of manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces… (p.53)

The Crimean System

The Crimean War was fought to contain Russian expansionism, to prevent Russia extending its control right through the Balkans to threaten Constantinople and the Straits i.e. the Bosphorus, where the Black Sea joins the Mediterranean.

If Russia attained control of the Straits it would allow her navy to enter the Mediterranean at will and hugely shift the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Therefore Britain found itself fighting alongside Turkey and propping up the Muslim Sultan against a Christian European power. Many people at the time thought it was a mistake in principle and the actual mismanagement of the war confirmed their worst expectations.

The war ended with the 1856 Treaty of Paris and this goal of propping up Turkey in order to contain Russia became known as the Crimean System, which British politicians then tried to maintain for decades, way after it had become irrelevant to the changing realities on the ground.

Shannon’s theory of drag – the way politicians look backward, trying to maintain or recreate the systems and equilibriums they fancy existed in their youths – explains why, 20 years after the war, Disraeli, when Turkey carried out a brutal suppression of Bulgarians seeking independence in 1876, could only conceive of maintaining the ‘Crimea System’ and so continued to prop up a Turkey which had become notably more feeble and maladministered in the interim. Which in turn gave Gladstone the opportunity to score a massive public hit with his speeches giving gruesome details of the Turkish massacres of Bulgarian villagers, the so-called ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’, and decrying Disraeli’s immorality in defending them.

Politics isn’t about principles. It is about attacking your opponent at their weakest point until they collapse. It is about seizing opportunities for political gain.

Liberalism

One of the fundamental ideas of Liberalism, of the classical kind advocated by Cobden and Bright, was that different social groups and forces can, ultimately, be reconciled, not least by the growing science of society – sociology – by the use of reason and good will. It is optimistic about society’s prospects for eventually finding balance and peace (p.31), and the same belief in extends into a foreign policy which believes that free trade between nations is the best way of ensuring peace.

Nonconformism

It is difficult for many moderns to grasp the importance of religion in British politics until relatively recently. Certainly it was of vast importance in the Victorian period. The religious scene still bore the marks of the civil wars and the 1688 revolution which followed it. Basically the Church of England was the settled theological and organisational basis of the Establishment, of most of the landed aristocracy, of Oxford and Cambridge and the elite professions it produced.

After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 an Act of Uniformity and a series of Test Acts were put in place to ensure that nobody could hold any formal office or take a degree unless they swore to uphold the theology of the Anglican church and enforcing episcopal appointment of all ministers of religion.

Now the civil wars of the 1640s and 50s had brought out into the open, and into public life, a large minority of devout Christians who could not swear to the theology of the Anglican Church. They either disagreed about the entire idea of an ‘established’ church, or disagreed with the fact that its leaders, the bishops, were appointed by the civil power i.e. the monarch, or disagreed on a wide range of theological points. Before and during the wars they were known as ‘Puritans’ but the wars’ freedom to debate and define their positions led to a proliferation of sects then and in the decades after 1660, including Presbyterians and Congregationalists, plus Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and (originating in the 18th century) Methodists.

Because they refused to ‘conform’ to the Act of Uniformity and the various Test Acts they became known as the Nonconformists and came to form a distinct element of British society, large in England, probably a majority in Wales. There’s a lot of ongoing debate about whether the Nonconformists caused the industrial revolution, but there’s no doubt that, because they were excluded by law from holding civil posts (in local or national government) or entering any of the professions, Nonconformists were forced into business and into the worlds of science and industry.

The Test Acts were repealed by 1830 in what amounted, in its day, to a social and political upheaval, alongside Catholic Emancipation i.e. the removal of similar restrictions from Roman Catholics.

The point of all this for our period is that the Nonconformists, despite being split into various sects and subsidiary groupings, by and large formed a large part of British society.

A census of religion in 1851 revealed Nonconformists made up about half the number of people who attended church services on Sundays. In the larger manufacturing areas, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members of the Church of England. (Wikipedia)

And this large body of Nonconformists constituted a bedrock element of the Liberal Party which they hoped would continue to remove obstacles to their full legal rights, many of these hopes focusing on the (utopian) wish for the disestablishment of the Church of England, so that it would become merely one more religious grouping among many.

But their presence in large numbers meant that the Liberal leader who emerged after Palmerston’s death, Gladstone, had to always take the Nonconformist vote into account when devising his policies and strategies.

You might have thought the Nonconformist influence, like religious belief generally, was slowly declining during the nineteenth century, but it was the opposite. The 1868 general election led to an influx of Nonconformist MPs, the largest cohort ever, who from now onwards had to be taken into all political considerations, and added a substantial layer of complexity to a host of policies, especially regarding Ireland, the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland and then all the discussions about Irish Home Rule.

With the result that 40 years later the coming man in the Liberal Party, David Lloyd George, still had to cultivate and maintain Nonconformist support in the 1900s.

I was really surprised to learn about the tremendous complexity of passing the 1870 Education Act which was caused because of the conflict between the Church of England which ran the majority of state schools and the Nonconformists who wanted more state schools to be set up but not run by the Church and certainly not funded from local rates, a very English, very muddled situation which led to an unsatisfactory and patchy solution, the establishment of ‘Board schools’ which ‘became one of the great shaping factors of later nineteenth century society’ (pp.86 to 92).

In summary, it is impossible to understand a lot of political events between 1868 and the Great War unless you have a good feel for the importance of the Nonconformist interest in politics and in Britain’s broader cultural life.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 to 1895)

Although famous as a vigorous defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Huxley was solidly on the side of the angels and made speeches and wrote articles (notably Evolution and Ethics) pointing out that just because nature works through violent competition and extermination, doesn’t mean that humans have to. In fact humans have the capacity to do the exact opposite and use the reason evolution has handed us in order to devise rational and compassionate solutions to social problems which transcend the whole vulgar notion of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’.

Gladstone

Shannon credits Gladstone with realising that politics had to move on from the old notion that it was about balancing categories of ‘interest’ (for example, trying to frame policies which reconciled the landed interest and the industrial interest, and so on) to categories of ‘morality’ (p.55).

In making this shift of the basis of politics the essential task of the Liberal party Gladstone made it into a vehicle of political moralism. (p.55)

Hence the intensely moralising tone Gladstone adopted as he came to political prominence from the 1860s onwards, the increasing emphasis on judging government policies and bills on the grounds of social morality and hence Gladstone’s long, high-minded lectures which many found inspiring, but many (including, famously, Queen Victoria herself) found patronising and infuriating. Maybe Gladstone was the first mansplainer.

Reasons for losing

The Liberal government, convinced of its own virtue and its mission to reform and rebalance society, was flabbergasted when it lost the 1874 general election badly. Lots of commentators and the Liberal leadership itself were deeply puzzled why this had happened. Gladstone took it very personally and resigned the Liberal leadership in 1875. Journalist and soon-to-become politician John Morley wrote a book, On Compromise, giving his explanations for the defeat:

  • the example of French demagogy i.e. populism; appealing to the vulgar mob
  • the intellectual trend of the ‘historical method’ which had undermined the moral authority of the Bible
  • the corruptions of the popular press
  • the influence of the reactionary Church of England

But the deepest cause, Morley thought, was the material prosperity which had mushroomed during these years and had impaired ‘the moral and intellectual nerve of our generation’ (p.98). A generation later, the Liberal commentator Charles Masterman would attribute Tory victory to flag-waving jingoism and imperialism which rallied the uneducated masses to the Conservative cause.

Sound strangely familiar don’t they, these excuses for losing an election, 150 years later. No reflection on your own policies: instead, blame the electorate for being uneducated, venal and easily corrupted.

The Victorian balance unravels

Between 1865 and 1915 a devil of a lot of things happened, but from Shannon’s narrow focus on power politics, he places almost everything within the context of one overriding thesis.

This is that the High Victorian period (1850 to 1870) had been characterised by balance, by a synthesis of opposing forces, by what you could call the Liberal conviction that conflicting beliefs, ideas, ideologies, policies and political movements would, in the end, be reconciled, and the less interference by government, the quicker these solutions would come about.

Thus in the realm of culture, even critics of traditional Christian theology thought that the shocks of the Higher Criticism originating in Germany academia and, in a later generation, the discoveries of Charles Darwin and the geologists, could be absorbed by society, maybe into a new science of society, maybe into the new ideas of positivism articulated by August Comte. Scientific optimism.

In society at large the rise of working class militancy (the Chartists) was largely contained, an extension of the franchise in 1867 drew the sting from anti-establishment protest, a new education act in 1870 looked set to address long-running concerns about the shameful illiteracy of the underclass.

In foreign affairs Britain’s navy had unparalleled control of the seas, underpinning British possession of a huge range of colonies, while affairs on the continent of Europe remained mostly peaceful (apart from the relatively small skirmishes surrounding Bismarck‘s campaign to unify Germany under Prussian control) and the blundering shambles of the Crimean War which didn’t take place in Europe.

The entire worldview was underpinned by the immense pomp and circumstance surrounding Queen Victoria who was made empress of India by a grovelling Disraeli in 1877.

But by the 1880s this optimism was under strain in every direction. Working class militancy increased. Journalism and charitable work exposed the appalling poverty in Britain’s cities.

Abroad, trouble in the Balkans as the power of the Ottoman Empire declined led to flashpoints at the meeting points of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Britain watched and then became involved in various attempts to set up alliances and pacts to ensure security, all of them unstable.

The colonies grew restive. There was a religious uprising against British rule in Egypt led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah in 1881. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885.

The really big colonial issue was on Britain’s doorstep as the pressure for Irish Home rule grew relentlessly, and this brings us to a really big theme of the period, which is, the splitting up of the major parties by huge political issues.

Even more than the first half, the second half of the book views all the political developments through the lens of attempts to retain or restore this mythical social and political ‘balance’.

Shannon’s view is that social and political events presented a challenge and that the two main political parties, and their successive leaders, struggled to address these challenges. It explains the structure he gives to the last three parts of his book as he first of all enumerates the problems facing later Victorian society and then weighs the responses of, first the Unionist Party, then the Liberals, and finds them both, in the end, inadequate to the task.

Part III: The forming elements of a modern society

  • Social dynamics 1886 to 1895
  • The politics of Unionism and Home Rule 1886 to 1895
  • New directions in external problems 1886 to 1895
  • Victorianism and Modernism: cultural themes and variations in the 1880s and 1890s

Part IV: The search for adequate responses: the Unionist version 1895 to 1905

  • The Unionist domestic bid 1895 to 1902
  • Unionist efforts to save the external situation 1895 to 1905
  • The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905

Part V: The search for adequate responses: the Liberal version 1905 to 1915

  • The Liberal domestic bid 1905 to 1911
  • Liberal responses in foreign affairs 1905 to 1911
  • The Liberal impasse 1912 to 1915

As the Victorian equilibrium and Liberal confidence that social problems would, basically, sort themselves out, both unravelled in the 1880s, two really major themes come to dominate the book, namely the ruinous impact of trying to conceptualise and implement Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards, and the equally divisive attempt led by Joseph Chamberlain to create an Imperialist party and policy, which coalesced around the policy of tariff reform in the early 1900s.

The really striking thing about both issues is the extent to which:

  • they dominated political discussions and calculations from the 1880s through the 1900s
  • they ended up fatally dividing existing political parties, with the Liberals splitting over Home Rule and the Conservative party splitting over tariff reform
  • and that both issues ended in abject failure

The failure of Liberalism

The 1885 general election resulted in a parliament where Home Rule MPs from Ireland held the balance of power. This helped crystallised the great leader of Liberalism, William Gladstone’s, conviction that Ireland deserved home rule, in effect a revision of the terms under which Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom since the merger of the kingdoms in 1800. Gladstone made Irish Home Rule a central policy of the Liberal Party.

But a large number of traditionalist Liberals disagreed and, in 1886, broke away to form the Liberal Unionist Party which soon found a leader in the charismatic figure of Joseph Chamberlain. Eventually, the Liberal Unionists formed a political alliance with the Conservative Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed the ten-year-long coalition Unionist Government 1895 to 1905 but were swept to defeat by a Liberal landslide in the 1906 general election.

But not only did the precise nature of Home Rule stymie Gladstone in the final years of his political career (he died in 1898) but it returned as a major political crisis at the end of the Edwardian era and it is always striking to be reminded that, as Europe rushed towards war in August 1914, the British cabinet was far more concerned about the possibility of real civil war breaking out in Ireland between the nationalist majority and the Protestant die-hards of Ulster.

In other words, long and very complicated and tortuous as the issue of Irish Home Rule was, the liberal Party failed to solve it.

The failure of Unionism

The Conservatives successfully positioned themselves as the party of the British Empire during Disraeli’s leadership (mostly, as we have suggested, out of sheer opportunism). Imperial ambition reached its peak with the attempt from the turn of the century by Joseph Chamberlain to promote a policy of Tariff Reform designed to bind together the major Anglo-Saxon colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) into a protectionist trading bloc.

The policy had a rhetorical or branding appeal to the imaginations of many, but it hit at least two very big rocks which were:

  1. It would almost certainly lead to higher prices for basic foodstuffs for most Britons; hence its opponents could set up lobbying groups with names like the Free Food organisation.
  2. Chamberlain organised a series of conferences attended by the Prime Ministers of the Anglo colonies, but they never got anywhere near agreeing trading terms – it was a nice idea, but never fleshed out in practice.

A third aspect was the disastrous showing of the British army in the Boer War, 1899 to 1902. This had the effect of discrediting the Unionist government which was in power at the time and, although Britain ultimately defeated the Boers on the battlefield, in the years that followed, the Boers won back all their political rights and more. It was a colossal moral defeat.

Obviously there’s a lot more detail, but overall it was widely felt, by 1906, that the Imperial project of the Unionists had failed. This is what is explained in detail in Shannon’s chapter, ‘The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905’.

High numbers

The naive and simple minded think that democratic politics is about ideals and principles. This is why they are continually disappointed by actual political events, because what politics is really about is numbers.

From 1885 to 1915, Shannon’s history shows how a huge amount of political energy went into detailed political calculations about how to win and maintain power and that these boiled down again and again to the numbers: will you get enough votes in a general election? (GEs were held in 1885, 1886, 1892, 1895, 1900, 1906 and twice in 1910). Will a high enough percentage of voters turn out?

Is it necessary to do deals with other parties, as the young Labour Representation Committee did in the 1906 election when the LRC won 29 seats because of a secret pact between its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, and Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone, to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote between Labour and Liberal candidates?

If you extend the franchise (as the UK did in 1867 and 1884 and 1918), how will it affect your vote? This was one of the elements in the government’s calculations about whether to bow to suffragette pressure and extend the vote to women. If so, which women and how many and what would be the impact on the balance of power? It wasn’t about principle. It was about calculating the numbers.

Would the growth of trade unions affect the working class vote? Would legalisation of trade unions garner support for the party (Liberal or Conservative) which did it, or would it lead to the creation of a new radical party?

And you may be able to form a government, but do you have a big enough majority to pass all the laws you want to? Will you have to make alliances with other parties (as the Liberals did with Irish Nationalists and the small Labour Party in 1910 to get is social policies and radical budget passed)?

If the House of Lords refuses to pass laws which have been approved by the House of Commons, will having a second general election (as there was in 1910) increase or decrease your majority? Will you be able to persuade then king to create so many new Liberal peers that they will swamp the House of Lords and guarantee the passage of your bill (as the Liberal government threatened to do in 1910 to get its contentious Finance Bill past an obstructive House of Lords)?

And within so-called parties, will you be able to win round some groups or elements in an opposition party to your way of thinking, without alienating too many members of your own party?

High finance

Another way in which politics is obviously all about numbers is the finances and the basic, entry-level question: how are you going to pay for your fancy policies?

This is why almost all policies are, in the final analysis, subject to the control of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and why there often end up being such fierce rivalries between the Prime Minister, who is in charge of policy and strategy and creating alliances and support for policies; and his Chancellor who has great power to wreck all these plans if the figures don’t add up.

If you plan mighty new policies who is going to pay? Take the famous naval rivalry between Britain and Germany which took a leap in intensity after Britain launched its first Dreadnought class warship in 1906. The initial dreadnoughts cost £1,783,000, compared to £1,540,000 for the previous largest ships, but eight years later the new Queen Elizabeth class was costing £2,300,000 each. Who was going to pay for them?

In 1909 David Lloyd George wanted to complete the Liberal agenda of tackling poverty in the shape of caring for the elderly and for the unemployed, so he introduced the so-called People’s Budget. Half the attention given to it by historians concerns the way its provisions began to lay the foundations for what, a generation later, would be called the Welfare State. But Shannon is more interested in the numbers, namely who was going to pay for this new state largesse? A central point of the budget was that it introduced unprecedented taxes on the lands and incomes of Britain’s wealthy (it introduced higher rates of income tax, higher death duties and a 20% tax on increases in value when land changed hands).

No wonder the members of the class very obviously targeted by these changes, who populated the House of Lords, rejected it, which led to a great constitutional crisis, which pitted the House of Commons and ‘the will of the people’ against the representatives of the landed elite.

Déjà vu all over again

One of the pleasures of reading history and, in particular, fairly recent history (i.e. not medieval or ancient history) is to read the past through the prism of the present, or read the past with the issues and pressures of the present in mind. In this respect, it never fails to amaze me how some things never change. Thus we read that:

1. Why did we lose?

The high-minded Liberals just couldn’t understand how they could lose the 1874 election to the elitist, land-owning and greedy and reactionary Conservative Party. The best reasons they could come up with was that the voting public had been corrupted by a new, more aggressively populist press and by a new and unprecedentedly high standard of living. They were wallowing in luxury and had forgotten their high-minded responsibility to build a better, fairer society, instead the sustained prosperity of the 1850s and 60s had caused:

‘a general riot of luxury in which nearly all classes had their share…[in which] money and beer flowed freely.’ (p.97).

Which sounds to me very like the excuses the Labour Party made about losing three successive elections to Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and, again, about their thumping defeat in the 2019 election.

2. The progressive coalition in disarray

As Shannon is at pains to demonstrate, the Liberal Party had only recently been founded – the conventional date for its establishment is 1859 – and was made up of a diverse coalition of forces: the traditional land-owning Whig aristocracy; urban Radicals; Irish nationalists; high-minded Anglicans like Gladstone but also a very large number of Nonconformists who Gladstone conscientiously courted. During its ministry from 1868 to 1874 the Liberal government had achieved much but also alienated many of these key constituents.

3. Cosmopolitans versus patriots

I was fascinated to read that in his landmark speech at Crystal Palace in 1872, Disraeli attempted some political positioning and branding, by accusing the Liberals of being elite and out of touch with the ordinary voter, but in particular of being ‘cosmopolitan‘, meaning too quick to truckle to foreigners, not willing to defend the ‘national’ interest, which, of course, Disraeli strongly identified himself and the Conservatives with (p.53). The Conservatives had lost touch with the people and ‘cosmopolitan’ doctrines had been imported from the continent and foisted on the innocent British public under the guise of ‘Liberalism’. The Liberals had tried to ‘substitute cosmopolitan for national principles’ (p.95).

During this period Disraeli tried to reposition the Conservatives as the party which would defend a) the constitution and the great historic institutions of England, b) our national interests, our place as a Great Power, and combine these with c) a comprehensive programme of social reform.

The combination of flag-waving patriotism with the promise of robust reform and prosperity for all sounds very reminiscent of the 2019 Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, another unprincipled but eerily successful chancer.

4. Working class conservatism

Shannon emphasises that British trade unions didn’t want to overthrow the system, they just wanted a greater say in the fruits of the system and a share in its profits for their members (p.29). The majority of the great unwashed just wanted to be left alone, without a nanny state sticking its nose in their business and insisting they were ‘improved’, whether they wanted to be or not (p.103).

Again, resentment at the tendency of high-minded Liberals to poke their noses into people’s private affairs and educate and inform them and force them to become more progressive sounds eerily similar to the resentment in at least some parts of the 2019 electorate towards the urban, college-educated cadres of the modern Labour Party who want to force everyone to be more aware of racial issues and feminist issues and transgender issues and LGBTQ+ issues and take the knee and defund the police and fight for justice for Palestine. Many people, then as now, just want to be left alone to get on with their lives and not be continually hectored and lectured, thank you very much.

5. The sorry state of English education

In the 1860s education in England lagged far behind standards on the continent, especially by comparison with Germany, especially in the area of technical education. Lots of committees wrote lots of reports. Lots of commentators agonised (including the wordy school inspector, Matthew Arnold) (pages 86 to 95). 160 years later, has much changed or does the UK still languish behind the best in Europe in its maths and literacy and technical education?

6. Ireland

Obviously Irish nationalism evolved throughout the 19th century, taking many forms, and characterised by different leading elements from Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association and Repeal Association of the 1840s to the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Brotherhood led by Michael Davitt.

It is a vast subject with a powerful mythology and huge literature of its own which I don’t have any space to go into. I’m just making the point that I’m reading about Gladstone’s attempts to solve the Irish Question in the 1870s and 1880s in July 2021 at the same time I am hearing on the radio about the issues caused by Brexit, the Northern Irish Protocol and its possible breaches of the Good Friday Agreement. In other words, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘Irish Question’ will be with us (and the Irish) forever.

Credit

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon was published in 1974 by Hart-David, MacGibbon Books. All references are to the 1976 Paladin paperback edition.


Related links

The Square Egg and Other Sketches by Saki (1924)

Eight amusing short pieces by Hector Hugh Munro (pen name Saki) who was shot dead by a sniper while serving on the Western Front during the First World War. These last few pieces were collected and published posthumously in 1924.

The Square Egg: a badger’s eye view of the mud war in the trenches

The first few pages are a humorous description of life in the First World War trenches, whose main points can be summarised as:

  • snuffling around in the mud is like being a badger
  • though engaged in a titanic struggle against one of the greatest armies in the world, the average soldier thinks about the enemy relatively little
  • the subject which does consume the soldier’s every waking minute is the mud and how to avoid it; now the narrator knows what it’s like to be one of those animals you see at the zoo wallowing in muddy enclosures
  • he describes the nature of the many estaminets just behind the front lines, a cross between coffee houses and bars, and the way they always manage to have small children running round and getting in the way

At which point the text morphs into an anecdote about a chap he met in such an estaminet, a shifty French bloke who talked to him about eggs, specifically the way he’s noticed one of the many hens kept by his aunt lays eggs with the hint of angles. Consider how, through a programme of selective breeding, one could eventually create hens which produce only square eggs! Well, this guy claims to have done just that!! (Saki’s narrator makes wry, sardonic references under his breath).

The shifty Frenchie then explains how he had set up a thriving square-egg business but then came the war, he has been sent to the Front and his aunt is now selling his square eggs without any special consideration about keeping the breeding line secure and keeping the money she owes him. Therefore he has decided to take her to court to stop her, but the law is so expensive, monsieur. So, could Saki please lend him a small sum towards his legal fees, 80 francs should do it! The whole thing is, in other words, a scam.

This was a mildly amusing story which confirmed my sense of how many Saki’ stories are set on farms or involve farmyard animals.

Birds of the Western Front

These texts written at the Front highlight, almost exaggerate, Saki’s characteristic upper class nonchalance; everything is cast into an ironical manner which, for example, amuses itself by making elaborate and ironic comparisons. Thus, since the war began:

Rats and mice have mobilized and swarmed into the fighting line, and there has been a partial mobilization of owls, particularly barn owls, following in the wake of the mice, and making laudable efforts to thin out their numbers. What success attends their hunting one cannot estimate; there are always sufficient mice left over to populate one’s dug-out and make a parade-ground and race-course of one’s face at night.

Crows and rooks have become habituated to shellfire and machine guns. Drolly, Saki describes observing a pair of crows fighting a pair of sparrowhawks while above them the same number of English and German airplanes were fighting. Nature red in tooth and claw. He observes that magpies have been bereft of the poplar trees they used to love to nest in, and so on with further observations about buzzards, kestrels, larks and a hen-chaffinch which he noticed unaccountably hanging around a wrecked woodland, even during the most intense bombardment.

He ends with the sardonic observation that English gamekeepers as a breed believe their precious gamebirds and pheasants and whatnot must be protected from the slightest disturbance. They should come to the Western Front and learn how hardy birds are in face of even the most ruinous disruption.

The Gala Programme: an unrecorded episode in Roman history

The scene shifts abruptly from the present war, jumping back in time 2,000 years to ancient Rome.

It is the birthday of the Roman Emperor Placidus Superbus who has arrived at the Circus Maximus to enjoy the games, but just as the first entertainment is about to begin – a thrilling chariot race – hundreds of shouting women are lowered by ropes into the track and completely prevent the race taking place.

‘Who are these furies?’ the emperor demands. ‘The dreaded Suffragetae,’ his miserable Master of Ceremonies explains. The emperor has a brainwave. ‘Skip the chariot race,’ he tells the MC, ‘let’s go straight to part two, the combat of wild animals.’ And so a horde of beasts are let loose among the protesting women, to really very entertaining effect :).

Takes its place with the other 3 or 4 Saki stories entirely dedicated to commenting on / ridiculing the suffragettes.

The Infernal Parliament

Bavton Bidderdale (a typically Sakian preposterous name) dies, but the medical authorities contest the exact cause of death etc and so, although his soul has gone down to hell, the officials there keep it in a kind of limbo until the paperwork is sorted out.

While he’s waiting, the officials offer to show him round and suggest taking a tour of the infernal Parliament, a relatively new innovation. As he arrives the infernal Parliament is having a debate to lodge a formal complaint with the human race for describing events or activities as ‘devilish’ or ‘fiendish’ when they are, in fact, nothing of the sort, but entirely human.

Other details obviously mock contemporary parliamentary debates (and, in the final passage, mock a living playwright, possibly George Bernard Shaw) but these references are lost without some kind of annotation. You can see the comic intention but it would have more bite if included in my dream idea of an ‘Annotated Saki’.

The Achievement of the Cat

A wonderfully suave and ironical tribute to the qualities of the domestic cat:

It is, indeed, no small triumph to have combined the untrammelled liberty of primeval savagery with the luxury which only a highly developed civilization can command; to be lapped in the soft stuffs that commerce has gathered from the far ends of the world; to bask in the warmth that labour and industry have dragged from the bowels of the earth; to banquet on the dainties that wealth has bespoken for its table, and withal to be a free son of nature, a mighty hunter, a spiller of life-blood. This is the victory of the cat.

The Old Town of Pskoff

Not a story at all, but a straightforward description of how this city in west Russia, now referred to as Pskov, represents a kinder, quainter, more colourful and older Russia than the unpleasantly nouveau riche style of Petersburg. Sounds like it’s based on a real visit and the real views of Hector Munro who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, wrote a history of it.

Clovis on the Alleged Romance of Business

The last appearance of Clovis Sangrail, the witty, ironic, ‘languidly malicious’ young man who embodies key aspects of Saki’s droll, langorous, ironic humour.

This one is a short squib, a return to the format of his early Reginald ‘stories’, and amounts simply to a 2-page speech by Clovis, declaiming, fairly predictably, against the so-called Romance of business. In his view, business is deadly dull, which is why all the best adventures have been written about the young men who ran away from it:

The romance has all been the other way, with the idle apprentice, the truant, the runaway, the individual who couldn’t be bothered with figures and book-keeping and left business to look after itself.

The Comments of Moung Ka

Moung Ka is a wise man who lives by the banks of the River Irrawaddy (whichm, upon looking it up, I discover is the longest river in modern Burma).

The opening description of the landscape and birds where Moung Ka lives is a final reminder that, although people routinely describe Saki as a deliciously malicious critic of Edwardian upper class society, he was also obsessed with animals, and wrote a lot of vivid descriptions of landscapes and the wild animals living in them. A collection of excerpts titled ‘Saki’s nature and animal writing’ would be surprisingly extensive.

In the tall reed growth by the riverside grazing buffaloes showed in patches of dark slaty blue, like plums fallen amid long grass, and in the tamarind trees that shaded Moung Ka’s house the crows, restless, raucous-throated, and much-too-many, kept up their incessant afternoon din, saying over and over again all the things that crows have said since there were crows to say them.

Anyway, the story, such as it is, is another political satire. Old Moung Ka reads the paper which is brought up the river and then interprets its contents for his village followers. He comments on two related pieces of news. The recently announced division of Bengal by the (British-run) government of India has been cancelled. In 1905 Lord Curzon divided Bengal along sectarian lines, into a Hindu and Muslim province. The policy was a disaster, leading to an outburst of terrorism and sectarian violence and so was reversed in 1911. This is the news Moung Ka reads out to his followers.

And contrasts with the fact that the newspaper tells him that the United Kingdom itself is about to be partitioned. It isn’t explained what he means so it took me a moment to realise he must have been referring to the granting to Ireland of home rule, which led to vehement protests from Protestant Ulster and a serious crisis which dominated Edwardian politics from 1911 up to the outbreak of the Great War.

The very last joke in this, Saki’s very last published story, is a satirical and political one. Earlier Moung Ka had explained to his followers that Britain is what is called a Democracy. One of the followers doesn’t understand how come, if Britain is a Democracy, it can enact such a big and impactful decision  (the partitioning of Ireland) without consulting its people.

Moung Ka clarifies – and this, one imagines, is the point of the whole ‘story’ – that he didn’t say Britain was a democracy; he said Britain is what is called a democracy. The implication being that its alleged democracy is in fact a sham. The implication being that Saki is a Unionist and considers the prolonged political haggling about granting Ireland independence to be squalid and destructive.

There’s plenty of meat in this short text to chew over, it confirmed my sense of Saki as an unrepentant Unionist and conservative and anti-suffragette reactionary, and review in my mind the reactionary views which crop up periodically through the short stories and underpin the entire novel When William Came.

Then again, the world is more full than ever before of division, dispute and angry argument. For my part, I like to take leave of this long journey through Saki’s complete works by remembering the grazing water buffalo like plums fallen amid long grass, and the eternal crows in the tamarind trees.


Saki’s works

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