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 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.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn (2)

The collision between Europe and Africa came at a time when European self-confidence, based on the wonders of science, was at a peak, and African social conditions were at their worst. (p.175)

This book turns out to be longer and more complex than it initially seems. In the first section, which makes up around a third of the text, McLynn details all the important European expeditions and explorers of note from 1788 to the end of the explorer era around 1890 in a packed hundred pages. It feels quite rushed and hectic.

But as you proceed on into the text it emerges that the first part is by way of being a glorified timeline or chronology, merely a sketch of the main series of expeditions, because McLynn’s real interest is in writing a thematic history of the subject, which aims to consider wider the issues and problems and practicalities of African exploration.

Once the timeline and the key figures are roughly established in our minds, McLynn goes on to examine the issues surrounding exploration at some length, considering the problems, the obstacles, the solutions and the compromises common to the entire era of European exploration of Africa, roping in aspects of specific expeditions or explorers whose names we’ve already encountered in part 1, quoting from books and diaries and letters, as required. In the preface McLynn himself describes this book as:

A sociology of African exploration rather than a history [in which I stress] the common problems and experiences faced by the explorers rather than their unique exploits. (my italics)

So while part one (pages 1 to 128) is by way of being an introductory chronology, the subsequent three parts then re-approach the subject from various angles. In doing so we get to see other sides, aspects and interactions of the key explorers and this goes to build up a more rounded and thought-provoking portrait of the era.

The topics, each addressed in its own chapter, are:

Transport and porterage

In a continent without roads and without viable pack animals, where every animal the explorers tried to use as carriers (horses, mules, oxen, even elephants) died without fail, everything, on all these expeditions, had to be carried by humans. McLynn explores the long list of supplies included on every expedition, including: medicines, alcohol, clothes, helmets, tents, soap and toiletries, weapons and ammunition, food and lots of fresh water, trade goods such as cloth, beads and wire.

Many tribes were used as porters but the Nyemwezi emerged as the most effective and reliable, able to carry up to 70 pounds of equipment and goods. Portering for the white man became big business. By the 1890s it’s estimated that some 20,000 porters a month were leaving Bagamoyo for the interior (p.209).

The importance of hongo or tribute which had to be paid to a tribe to pass their territory.

‘Dark companions’

(‘Dark companions’ was the phrase Stanley used for the many African porters he knew, a phrase he used as the title of a collection of stories he claimed the porters told around campfires at night, ‘My Dark Companions and Their Strange Stories’, published in  1893.)

Without help from the Africans there would have been no exploration of Africa by Europeans. (p.170)

Looks in details at the profession of porter on these expeditions. Porters were known by the generic term wangwana.

In opening up the Dark Continent the wangwana played a key role. (p.170)

The most important fact to grasp was that portering work was, for most Africans, well paid. If they made it back to the expedition starting place (most often Zanzibar on the east coast) they could live as relatively rich men. But the conditions were challenging and many porters were laid low by disease (either dying outright or becoming unable to work) while many others simply absconded. Of the 708 wangwana who left Zanzibar with Stanley in November 1887 on the Emin Pasha expedition, only 210 returned in December 1877.

This chapter looks at how the porters were ordered, how they were managed, a typical day’s march, the problem of discipline – how to read the fine line between being too weak and being too brutal, in charge of a large number of malingering, mutinous and absconding natives He looks in detail at the careers of three wangwana who rose to become senior figures in the portering business, and senior managers on a succession of expeditions, namely Bombay, Baraka, Susi and Chuma. The latter two became the most famous porters of the age after the took the decision, by themselves, to carry Livingstone’s embalmed body from Ilala, where he died in May 1873, nearly a thousand miles down to the sea opposite Zanzibar.

An object lesson in obstacles

A consideration of the many obstacles which dogged all African expeditions demonstrated through a detailed description of just part of the 1874 to 1877 Stanley expedition, the three months spent crossing of modern Tanzania to Lake Victoria, which featured a harrowing list of experiences, including virulent disease, famine and starvation, mutiny of the porters, flash floods, sustained attack by warlike tribes, death of all the pet dogs and two of the five white men from disease, a catalogue of horrendous trials and misery.

The impact of disease

The impact of disease was catastrophic. The porters died, the horses died, the mules died, the dogs died and the Europeans died. McLynn lists virulent African diseases which, in the absence of effective traditional medicine or any real Western medicine, ran rampant through explorers and their porters, and included: smallpox, fever, ague, amoebic and bacillic dysentery, guinea worm, ulcers acquired when scratches (from thorn bushes or tall sharp grass) got infected and festered in the heat and humidity, bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatism, sciatica, asthma, dropsy, emphysema, erysipelas, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis), bilharzia, filariasis, hookworm infestation (ankylostomiasis), river blindness (onchocerciasis), exanthematic typhus, yaws and leprosy, for each of which he proceeds to give a stomach-churning description of symptoms, explorers who caught it, and various attempts by Africans and Europeans at cures.

McLynn gives us excerpts from journals of explorers which describe the symptoms of fever in graphic and gruelling detail, the most notable parts of which were not the cold, the shivering, the fever, vomiting, difficulty breathing, inability to eat or drink, and so on, but the sometimes vivid hallucinations, dreams and nightmares fever gave rise to.

He also points out that fevers often led to feelings of paranoia, which might explain why some of the white explorers fell out so vitriolically and might also explain the sometimes unusual violence of white explorers towards local tribes or their own porters, the result of fever-inspired paranoia or aggression (p.237).

McLynn comes to the sweeping conclusion that, because almost all Africans were exposed to these devastating illnesses (as many are to this day), that all Africans ‘operated at very much less than full energy or efficiency.’ That the severity and widespreadness of these severe illnesses resulted in: smaller crop reduction, reduced calorie intake and hence widespread ‘malnutrition and apathy’ (p.252).

Armed clashes

The use of force was endemic to Africa; the most admired human beings were warriors ans conquerors. (p.253)

McLynn emphasises the traditional patriarchal values of African tribes. He describes how, in some tribes, heirs to a throne had to fight it out between themselves (as in medieval Europe), before going on to look at the violent behaviour of the Europeans, contrasting the fiercely anti-African Sir Samuel Baker with Henry Morton Stanley.

In the late Victorian period Stanley acquired the unenviable reputation of being a hard man, violent and sadistic, using beatings, stealing, intimidation and armed attacks to get his way, but McLynn suggests Stanley was more subtle and strategic than that, whereas Baker genuinely enjoyed nothing more than massacring Africans with rifle and machine gun.

A key text is when Baker admitted he had done much worse than Stanley but was wise enough to hush it up and never to write it up in print. Stanley, naively, included his violent engagements with Africans in his various books and, what is more, exaggerated them, and was therefore was his own worst PR enemy.

McLynn sketches a spectrum of anti-African violence with the saintly David Livingstone at one end, genuinely believing in his Christian mission and that kind words and deeds recruited natives to his side; with Baker, Chaille-Long, Frederick Lugard and Carl Peters at the explicitly racist, hyper-violent end; beside whom Stanley was a lot less violent, used his superior arms strategically (to fight his way down the Congo against a never-ending succession of aggressive tribes), was prepared to use peaceful negotiation when he had the time, and often spoke highly of the native Africans. But while the former are forgotten, Stanley’s name is the one which has gone down in the annals of infamy (p.273).

Animals dangerous to man

McLynn selects stories from explorers’ accounts of encounters with the most dangerous fauna in Africa, working thematically through lions (only attack if provoked), leopards (far more dangerous) hyenas, elephants, rhinoceros on land, terrifyingly aggressive crocodiles and easily enraged hippopotami in the water. He has a passage about snakes and various terrifying encounters with cobras and pythons. And lastly a section on the deepest enemy of man in Africa, insects, bees, wasps, locusts, white ants which ate anything and the fearsome soldier ants who devoured everything in the path of their huge armies. And, of course, the malaria-carrying mosquito and the ruinous tsetse fly.

The main story, though, is that in doing the discovering, drafting the maps and pioneering the routes into various parts of Africa, the Victorian explorers opened the way for big game hunters and tourists who, as early as the 1870s had driven some unique African species extinct (the textbook example is the quagga), by 1900 had emptied regions which only 50 years earlier had teemed with wildlife, and on into the twentieth century’s long, sorry record of extermination.

Explorers and imperialism

Obviously the explorers drafted the maps, joined up the rivers and lakes, established routes and provided a wide range of information about geography, flora, fauna, tribes and societies which was then used by those who argued for greater British involvement in Africa which, by the late 1880s/early 1890s was becoming known as the New Imperialism. McLynn points out that many Africa watchers expected British intervention in Africa to come in the shape of chartered companies on the analogy of the East Indian Company. The British government didn’t get directly involved until it annexed its first African territory, Uganda, in 1894.

Formal empire began with the annexation of Uganda in 1894. (p.316)

In fact the explorers were very different men with a wide range of attitudes towards Africa, Africans and the commercial opportunities there, some believing fortunes could be made, some believing (with Livingstone) that western commerce would help develop Africa into a thriving economy, others (like Baker) believing nothing could redeem the African from his savagery.

McLynn groups the views justifying imperial interventions of the very diverse Africanists into five overall arguments (p.314):

  1. There was no alternative. The explorers depicted a continent riven by tribal wars, mired in poverty and ignorance, and prey to the brutal activities of Arab slave traders. Could European Christians stand by and let this situation continue forever? Or intervene.
  2. Piecemeal measures were inadequate. Baker and Gordon tried to annex territory round the source of the Nile and abolish slavery there, but the distances were too great, the lack of communications infrastructure too weakening, the local rulers too corrupt, the Arab slavers too flexible. Only wholesale annexation and complete administrative control by well-funded European bureaucrats could shift the situation.
  3. Experience showed that formal agreements to end slavery, such as that between Sir Bartle Frere and the Sultan of Zanzibar, were ineffective unless backed by systematic state force.
  4. In the era of liberal free trade economics it was thought iniquitous that the African lived in poverty, squalor and famine in a land which, if it was only ‘developed’ properly by European masters, could provide ample food, material goods, education and progress towards European standards of living.
  5. Racial theorists, and the more anti-African explorers such as Burton and Baker, thought Africans were children in terms of intellect, emotion, ability to reason and so on, and therefore needed to be taken in hand and guided by wise parents. Westerners, of course.

Reputation and impact

McLynn examines the impact of the explorers on African tribes and societies. Their reputations, obviously, varied, from the very positive memories of Livingstone and Speke, to the negative folk memories of Burton and Baker, with Stanley a complex mix of both.

The most striking thing about this chapter is the profound ignorance of the Africans, who, across many tribes and regions, thought the white men were spirits returned from the dead or arriving from a different realm, who thought the cloth they bought was woven by spirits contained in their steamships, who didn’t understand how their weapons or any other technologies worked and so thought they were magicians, had supernatural powers, and so on.

As to impact, it was universally disastrous: the white men uprooted settled societies and beliefs, undermined local religions and practices, undermined traditional methods of transferring or holding power (by backing usurpers who supported European aims), undermined the currency, disrupted trading patterns, and again and again, opened up previously inaccessibly areas to the evil attentions of the Arab slave traders.

The psychology of the explorers

McLynn mixes up a number of ideas. He contrasts the mentality of the explorer and the mere traveller (the traveller seeks out the little known, the explorer the unknown). Obviously there was a Romantic thirst for grandeur and spectacular scenes. There is the highly driven ambition to be the ‘first to set eyes on’ or ‘the first man to establish’ some geographical fact, the most famous one being the intense quest to establish the source of the Nile.

Many explorers expressed the same deep feeling that only in Africa, far from the constraints and conventions of European civilisation, did they feel really free, did they feel truly themselves, a feeling vividly expressed by Burton and Stanley, who revelled in demanding physical endurance and the exercise of untrammeled power over large numbers of men. McLynn ropes in psychoanalysis and one of its founding mothers, Melanie Klein, but we don’t really need her theories to understand that Africa represented a vast canvas on which highly motivated individuals could act out all kinds of fantasies of power over other men, direct personal struggles against physical limitations and death, and psychological rewards, in terms of achieving goals, completing epic journeys, answering huge geographical speculations, which in turn brought fame, wealth and the love of women.

Livingstone was a subtler more complex man and described complex feelings, which included the ‘far from England’ liberation but also the warmth of feeling one was doing good work in a good cause. Livingstone enjoyed unerring confidence that God was guiding him, that Providence was on his side, that Stanley observed at close quarters, envied, but thought ultimately deceptive.

Something Livingstone and Stanley had in common was the extreme poverty of their backgrounds. Exploring offered an opportunity for freedom, power and, when the results were published back in Blighty, extraordinary fame. As the age of exploration drew to an end many of the explorers transitioned to holding official and extensive power under the new colonial dispensations, such as de Brazza and Lugard.

This chapter ends with extended psychoanalytical speculation of four leading figures, Livingstone, Speke, Stanley and Burton, all of whom had larger than life, obsessive and florid personalities which they were able to express freely in the wilderness and then embroider even further in their many published writings.

I found McLynn’s speculations a bit tiresome in the same way so many modern biographer’s psychological speculations about their subjects are. a) It is an old, worn-out creed, Freudianism. b) McLynn, like so many of his ilk, is not a trained psychologist or psychoanalyst, so all his speculating is that of an amateur.

Reading McLynn’s speculations that Livingstone was obsessed with sex, Speke was dominated by a death drive, and Stanley was a repressed homosexual don’t really add to the preceding accounts of their extraordinary achievements against so many odds. This kind of amateur psychosexual speculation degrades the biographer’s subjects and demeans the biographer himself. It sullies the reader. Yuk.

************

All these subjects are interesting in themselves but the chapters which really stood out for me were the one about guns and the one about slaves. These contain some really Big Ideas.

Guns

Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel sets out to give a materialist explanation for why some parts of the world, specifically the Eurasian land mass, supported cultures and civilisations which advanced in complexity and sophistication, while others remained primitive and backward. The two key ones are the presence of domesticatable animals and a wide variety of grasses which could be carefully bred and modified to improve food yields (wheat, barley, oats) are two important ones. This enabled agricultural surpluses which could support non-labouring classes, kings, warriors, priests, administrators and bureaucrats, the kinds of people who invented writing and art to tally up the king’s possessions and record the king’s mighty deed.

Writing meant later generations could read about the achievements of previous generations and try to better them. For thousands of years all aspects of the culture could be improved from agricultural techniques, breeding livestock, improvements in military and other technology. But the big lift-off came with the industrial revolution which gathered pace in Britain from the mid-18th century onwards and led to the development of the factory production of a huge range of goods.

All this explains why, when white men first appeared on the coasts of Africa and then slowly penetrated inland, they might as well have been aliens from another planet for all they had in common with the local inhabitants, who had no writing or history or technology, had no pack animals, survived on subsistence agriculture, had no cities or roads or canals, whose only water transport was canoes.

Everything the white arrivals wore and carried and bartered was produced in factories and economies driven by technologies and linked by international trading routes beyond the comprehension of most Africans.

But nowhere was this more important than in the realm of weaponry. All Africans used bows and arrows and spears and primitive knives. None of them had seen guns. It was like aliens invading with ray guns. ‘Bunduki sultani ya bara bara,’ – ‘the gun is the ruler of Africa’, as Stanley’s wangwani are alleged to have told him.

McLynn goes into great detail about the makes of gun and their technical spec and the munitions carried and preferred by the various explorers. But it is the central idea of the magic of killing from afar, killing from a distance, which makes you stop and reflect on the relationship between the gunned and the non-gunned or (once they start acquiring old flintlocks from some European traders) the outgunned.

The heyday of exploration, 1870 to 1890, happened to coincide with a quantum leap in western armaments, with the invention of the breech-loading rifle in the 1860s, the magazine rifle (first used in the Russo-Turkish war in 1877) and the Maxim machine gun in 1884. The early explorers overawed the Africans they met with their Snyder rifles. The last generation, in the 1890s, annihilated them with machine guns. These instruments of death burst upon an African scene which was already characterised by tribal rivalry:

The pre-existing structural instability of Bantu tribalism, with raiding, looting and tribal war a way of life, and a worldview that exalted power over all attributes and held human life cheap, were all part of an essential indiscipline likely to be made worse when the rifle arrived. (p.175)

Almost as devastating was the way the advent of Western firearms undermined traditional structures of power and authority. Previously, there were village elders and councils and traditional wisdom of sorts which bolstered traditional hierarchies of power. The advent of guns meant power was transferred to the ones with guns, to the most tooled-up. Traditional hierarchies were replaced by charismatic warlords who led roving bands of raiders, generically referred to as the ruga-ruga, a situation which still obtains in parts of Africa, and resurfaces wherever modern authority structures collapse in civil war (Somalia, Eritrea, Darfur, eastern Congo).

Did the explorers take many weapons? The very earliest ones, not so much. But fifty years later Stanley led expeditions huge in manpower (up to 800 porters) and massively armed. On the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, Stanley took 510 Remington rifles with 100,000 rounds, 50 Winchester repeaters with 50,000 cartridges, 2 tons of gunpowder, 350,000 percussion caps, 30,000 Gatling cartridges and 35,000 special Remington cartridges (p.176).

Makes me reflect that it is true to this day. America was able to overthrow the rulers of Iraq and Afghanistan because of the awesome power of their weapons, and the shattering way they were able to co-ordinate mass attacks, wave after wave of carefully targeted bombs. It was when the fighting came down to the ground level, with gangs of men with guns shooting at other gangs of men with guns, that the technical superiority faded away, and the occupying forces, American and British, found themselves in such difficulties in the narrow alleyways of Lashkar Gah or the Sunni Triangle.

As I read detailed accounts of how Europeans at first shot, then fought, and then massacred native Africans with steadily escalating weaponry (climaxing in the gatling gun which mowed down Sudanese warriors by the thousand at the notorious battle of Omdurman in 1898) I reflected that the situation in today’s world is unchanged.

World peace is maintained by America’s vast spending on its military. Much of it may be useless or corrupt and siphoned off into the accounts of America’s vast arms manufacturers and traders. But they can deploy overwhelming force to any part of the world in a way Russia certainly can’t and China doesn’t want or need to. Only the vast superiority of their weaponry gave the Americans the confidence to intervene in Somalia and Iraq and Afghanistan.

What I’m driving at is that everybody nowadays mocks the Victorian explorers-cum-imperialists for their hypocrisy, for the discrepancy between their high-minded rhetoric about civilisation and culture and freedom – and the reality of the brute force they actually deployed. But wherein are we different? All liberal rhetoric about human rights boils down to who has the better guns (the Americans) and whether they’re prepared to use them (not any more, or not for a while, anyway)

Slavery

This is a vast subject which is becoming ever more fashionable. An unending tide of books and movies and art works and activism and political movements and statue toppling is going to keep the issue of historical slavery in the headlines for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t dominate McLynn’s book but crops up throughout and he is wise to devote an entire chapter to it.

Firstly, he explains that there were two types of slavery, domestic i.e. internal African slavery, and external or export slavery (p.189). Domestic slavery had been a fact of African life since time immemorial and was widely accepted. Slaves were taken as prisoners of war after battle. Slaves could be traded on the open market for other goods. Family members, especially children, could be offered as requital for homicide.

Buying and selling human beings was a culture already widespread in the Dark Continent. (p.204)

Most slaves were women. Verney Cameron estimated 90% of slaves in Ujiji as women and children. Men were too risky, and so were generally slaughtered on the spot. Women slaves could potentially become wives of their owners and, if they bore children, well treated. Women slaves to Arab traders and on the coast were treated less well. Slaves could be put to work as servants, retainers, canoe paddlers, to work the fields. They could be bought to be made human sacrifices. German explorer E.J. Glave watched two slaves being bought, killed, cooked and eaten (p.191).

Like any system, slavery could be gotten around. All observers noted that the systems were varied from place to place and tribe to tribe, and included a bewildering number of rules and exceptions and traditions and customs. It wasn’t just One Thing.

The Atlantic slave trade

The British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and liberated all slaves across the empire in 1833. Other empires weren’t so willing. The Portuguese continued shipping slaves from Mozambique to Brazil for decades to come. Brazil didn’t abolish slavery till 1888.

In 1841 Britain organised the Quintuple Treaty whereby Britain, France, Austria, Prussia and Russia agreed to impound all ships fitted out for slave trading. The Portuguese were forced into signing a year later but ignored it and the American government vigorously protested the right of the British to stop and search it ships, in fact the issue became so heated there was some talk of a war.

The East African slave trade

The Muslim-Arab trade in African slaves had been going on since the 7th century, if not before. It received a boost when Omani Said, Sultan of Muscat, transferred his entire court to Zanzibar in 1833. By the time the British arrived it was estimated about two-thirds of the population of 200,000 were slaves. The trade moved inland, with trails commencing from the major port of Bagamoyo on the coast opposite Zanzibar, leading to the waystation of Tabora and on to Lake Tanganyika.

The British consul estimated that about 40,000 slaves were brought to Zanzibar each year of which half were exported north to the Arab world. In 1866 Livingstone observed the slave market where between 100 and 300 slaves were sold off every day. As many as half the original captives died on the long march to the coast, and significant numbers then died in the 24 hour crossing from the coast to Zanzibar, packed like sardines into filthy and boiling conditions below decks.

In 1873 Sir Bartle Frere arrived in Zanzibar as British consul and delivered an ultimatum to the sultan, which forced him to sign a treaty abolishing the slave trade. But the sultan himself didn’t control it and Arab slavers simply moved their routes and markets to other islands.

McLynn describes the process whereby Arab traders entered new territory, bribed their way into the favours of local rulers with trade goods, assisted in their wars in exchange for a cut of the slaves. Mostly these were women and children who were place in the sheba or forked pole which fit round the captive’s neck. Shackled together, they then began the long trek to the coast in blistering heat with inadequate food and water. Anyone who fell sick or protested was killed out of hand.

Cameron estimated that to achieve a haul of 52 female prisoners, the slavers had to destroy 10 villages, each with a population of 1,500 to 2,000, burned to death when the villages were torched, or shot down if they tried to escape, or dying of starvation in the jungle. Thomson thought about 2 in 3 died on the way to the coast. Livingstone observed it at close quarters and thought the figure was closer to 1 in ten. The tremendous loss of life explains why, once the Arabs entered an area, it was devastated.

In 1863, on reaching Gondokoro, [Baker] found a populous region teeming with vast herds of cattle. On his second journey in 1872, he found the area denuded of people; the slave trade had wiped the land of milk and honey off the face of the earth. (p.206)

This was the trade that all the explorers without exception, and the British government, were committed to ending but found hard to do so with so little power on the ground. If the British were serious about ending slavery, then they needed more than a few scattered explorers and single-handed consuls. They needed to take over full administrative and security responsibility for entire regions.

Towards the end of the book McLynn quotes historian Dorothy O. Helly making the startling point that, if the British were serious about completely stamping out slavery in Africa, then imperial rule was the only way to achieve it.

‘Played out to its logical end…the British antislavery impulse led to empire.’ (quoted on page 309)

On this view, the extension of the British Empire into Africa was nothing to do with the Hobson-Lenin thesis that the empire existed to soak up excess capital, to provide opportunities for profitable investment which had dried up at home.

On the contrary, it was a moral crusade which ended up being costly and impractical and involving the British in an ever-deepening mire of repressing rebellions and independence movements which eventually proved unstoppable.

The end of slavery?

Frederick Lugard’s attempts to eliminate slavery around Lake Nyasa in 1888 were a humiliating failure. It took the post-Berlin Congress takeover by the Germans to begin serious eradication. As the Germans advanced along the classic route from Bagamoyo to Tabora to Ujiji, they captured and punished slavers as they went. Only in 1900 had they wiped out all traces of slavery around Tanganyika. Domestic slavery, however, endured with the result that when war broke out in 1914 there were still some 50,000 domestic slaves in German East Africa. After the war the British took over the territory but it wasn’t until 1939 that slavery in the area was completely extirpated.

African rulers

Leading African rulers of the era included kings Mutesa, Lobengula, Mzilikazi, Mirambo and Kabbarega.

Insults

Glave reported that on the upper Congo the imprecation Owi na nlorli was a mortal insult. It means ‘May a crocodile eat you’ (p.290).


Credit

Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn was published in 1992 by Hutchinson. All references are to the 1993 Pimlico paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

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Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn (1992)

Frank McLynn

McLynn, 80 this year, has made a very successful career as an author, biographer, historian and journalist, having written some 30 books. He clearly aims to produce enjoyable, accessible and non-scholarly histories and biographies for a wide audience. This is suggested, among other things by his use of casual and rather boys’ own adventure story diction:

  • It was the Moors who had done for Major Houghton. (p.16)
  • His plight was grim. His horse was on its last legs. (p.16)
  • The Landers shook the dust of Badagry off their shoes with gusto and plunged into the wilderness… (p.27)
  • The master of the Thomas proved to be a blackguard. (p.30)
  • Speke would not have to fear the supercilious basilisk eye from a superior beetling brow, as with Burton, every time he wandered off to slaughter a few dozen of Africa’s wildlife.
  • Once again the expedition came within an ace of disaster… (p.104)
  • Meanwhile the Upper Nile was proving a hell on earth… (p.119)

I found McLynn’s book about the Mexican Revolution very useful, accessible and gripping, and was impressed by his talent for shaping the complicated facts into a compelling narrative. But that book had the advantage of telling the story of a huge social upheaval through the lives of just two legendary figures who are central to the entire drama, which itself only covered a period of about 20 years.

Here the challenge is the reverse: there were hundreds of European explorers to Africa, most of them undertook more than one expedition, many stayed for years carrying out complex sequences of explorations, and the total period of Western exploration lasted about a century (from 1788 to around 1890). In other words, there’s a lot more subject matter to cover and so it’s harder for this book not to feel more scattered and diffuse.

Brief history of exploration up to the European era

The ancient Greeks and Romans probed into Africa but never crossed the barrier of the Sahara or managed to penetrate far up the Nile. From the seventh century, Muslim Arab traders explored the east coast of Africa, set up numerous settlements and established a lucrative trade in black slaves. From the 1480s onwards the Portuguese created stopping off points on their circumnavigation of Africa to reach India. But McLynn tells us that the accepted date for the start of the ‘modern’ exploration of Africa is 1788. For it was in this year that the African Association was set up in London by a dozen London businessmen led by Sir Joseph Banks, the noted botanist who accompanied Captain Cook on his journeys to the South Seas.

The African Association (to give it its proper name, The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa) sponsored a series of expeditions throughout the 1790s, then activity went into abeyance for the duration of the wars with France (1793 to 1815) before being revived once peace returned. As soon as you google this subject you discover it is extremely well covered online and there is a recognised and much repeated canon of early explorers, namely:

Pre-Napoleonic war explorers

  • John Ledyard, set off 1788, died in Cairo aged 37.
  • Simon Lucas, departed Tripoli 1788; forced to abandon expedition south by tribal wars.
  • Daniel Houghton, 1790, penetrated deep up the river Gambia in West Africa before being robbed and murdered aged 51.
  • Mungo Park, 1795, penetrated further into West Africa than any European to date, discovering that the Niger flowed east, but died in the attempt to travel the length of the Niger by canoe, murdered or drowned it’s not clear to this day, age 35.
  • Friedrich Hornemann, 1797, set off from Cairo to travel across the Sahara to Timbuktu and was never heard of again; if he died around 1800, he would have been 28.

Post-Napoleonic war explorers

  • Alexander Gordon Laing, Scottish, first European to reach Timbuktu in 1826, being murdered by Tuareg soon afterwards, aged 31.
  • René Caillié, son of a convict (!) first explorer to visit Timbuktu (in 1828) and return to tell the tale, before dying of ill health and tuberculosis aged 38.
  • Heinrich Barth, considered one of the greatest of the European explorers of Africa for his scholarliness and commitment to learning Arabic, spent five years living in Sudan, crossing the Sahara to West Africa, first person to visit remote Timbuktu since Caillié (in 1853).
  • Charles John Andersson, explored south-west Africa from his base in Cape Town, at one stage was a war lord to the Damara tribe, died of fever aged 40.
  • Karl Mauch, son of a Bavarian carpenter, taught himself and scraped the money to travel to South Africa, where he worked to earn the funds to pay for an expedition up into south-east Africa. He discovered the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in 1872, but was ignored when he returned to Germany and died in poverty aged 37.

General conclusions

McLynn draws a handful of conclusions from these early pioneers:

1. Exploring Africa was a young man’s game.

2. All the explorers fell ill, very seriously ill, multiple times, and a high percentage, even of the young and fit, died.

3. This didn’t stop the obsessive ambition of many of the most successful ones to be ‘the first man to see’ whatever feature they had been sent by the Association to discover: the fabled city of Timbuktu, the origins of the river Niger, various waterfalls and so on.

4. African exploration was connected to low birth. It presented an opportunity to people condemned to lifetimes of lowly obeisance in Britain’s class structure, to make a splash, to make a name for themselves, to achieve wealth and status. Simon Lucas was the son of a vintner. David Livingstone was one of seven children who grew up in a tenement in a grim Scottish mill town and was sent aged ten to a cotton mill where he and his brother John worked twelve-hour days as piecers, tying broken cotton threads on the spinning machines. Henry Morton Stanley was abandoned by his mother and spent ten years from the ages of 6 to 16 in a remote Welsh workhouse.

5. Many of the explorers were Celts, outsiders to the English establishment: Mungo Park and David Livingstone came from lowly backgrounds in Scotland, Stanley from a wretched workhouse in rural Wales. Hugh Clapperton from Annan, Dumfriesshire (died of dysentery in Sokoto, aged 38). Richard Lander, son of a Truro innkeeper (died on the Niger river, aged 29) and so on.

6. Expeditions do not bring people together. Many of these trips are notorious for the extreme hatred and bitterness they engendered between the protagonists. Most notorious is the tremendous falling out between the famous Arabist Richard Francis Burton and the big game hunter John Hanning Speke on their 1858 expedition from Zanzibar into East Africa, during which they mapped Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria, which lasted after they returned to England and pursued a feud against each other in the press right up till the day of Speke’s death (or suicide?) in 1860.

A blizzard of names and dates

McLynn plunges straight into accounts of these early expeditions, telling them in pared-down, summary style with the result that I felt bombarded by names – of European explorers and of the countless villages and towns they discovered/arrived at, and the plethora of Africa tribes with their kings and sheikhs who they encountered, traded with, fought against and so on. I soon realised I was never going to remember.

Much more interesting and enduring are the broader points he makes about Africa in general and the perils of European exploration in particular.

The African scene

Pitiful agriculture

Most African cultures lived right on the breadline, on the border of starvation (p.146). This was caused by poor soil, poor climate and erratic rains which, in the tropical regions, fell almost constantly all year round. Many Africans lived on a very basic diet of yams, manioc, corn, supplemented by berries and fruits, only rarely fish or meat protein. There was rarely the kind of guaranteed agricultural surplus which had allowed for the creation of complex civilisations in the Fertile Crescent and then across the Middle East and Europe for millennia.

Therefore, even a slight incursion by outsiders, let alone domineering white men leading a train of 300 porters, could upset delicate ecological balances and plunge villages and entire regions into famine. In fact the explorers regularly came across whole regions which were in famine conditions, where the locals were starving and where, therefore, no food could be bought for their huge trains for any amount of calico or beads (e.g. pp.217 to 219)..

And this explains many tribes’ fierce protectiveness of their territory and the often hostile response of African leaders to the arrival of the explorers and their huge hungry trains.

Tsetse flies

Tsetse flies were a menace to humans and livestock in Africa. They are to this day.

Tsetse flies, through the cyclical transmission of trypanosomiasis to both humans and their animals, greatly influence food production, natural-resource utilization and the pattern of human settlement throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that the annual direct production losses in cattle alone amount to between US$6bn and $12billion, while animal deaths may reach 3 million. (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)

Lack of pack animals

There was a lack of pack animals or domesticable animals such as had underpinned the development of civilisation across Eurasia, which was home to oxen, cattle, donkeys but above all horses, which had performed a key economic function for millennia.

The evidence was overwhelming that all domesticated animals, whether oxen, camels, mules, horses or camels, succumbed very soon to the effects of climate and disease once taken north of 5°N. (p.132)

Later on he links the lack of pack animals to one central factor, the tsetse fly which transmitted the trypanasomes which caused ‘sleeping sickness’.

It was the tsetse that has barred passage to black Africa by killing off the Arabs’ horses and camels. The fly also kept the technology of black Africa primitive, since, deprived of animals, the African could hand plough only small plots of land, had no transport and lacked a source of first class protein. (p.240)

Lacking any kind of pack animals, most sub-Saharan cultures were primitive in the extreme. (The importance of domesticatable animals and of the wide range of edible grasses to the rise of Eurasian civilisations is explained in Jared Diamond’s 1997 classic Guns, Germs and Steel.)

Hundreds of porters

Therefore, an enduring feature of African exploration was simply that humans had to carry everything. (McLynn does describe a handful of explorations which experimented with horses, donkeys and even elephants, but in every case the animals wasted and died, leaving the human porters with even more to carry.) Hence native porters numbering in the hundreds. McLynn reports that of all the different tribes the Nyamwezi were head and shoulders the most reliable, foresightful and organised of porters. On the east Africa coast, at Zanzibar and the vital coastal town of Bagamoyo, huge numbers of porters were available and certain individual porters rose to prominence, were able to organise and manage their peers and so were hired by successive explorers and feature in accounts of successive expeditions.

Expeditions routinely included two to three hundred porters, and Stanley’s exceptionally well funded ones, up to 800! He had to be a master of organisation, man management and discipline, and McLynn gives examples of moments when European masters either a) managed to, or b) miserably failed to, maintain discipline and rank.

Lack of roads

Explorers discovered an almost complete lack of transport infrastructure. Most of the rivers were too large to be navigable or presented obstacles such as rapids and waterfalls. Roads through tropical jungle were impossible to maintain, so most people used narrow tracks.

‘The pathway seldom exceeded two feet in width, with tress and tall grasses growing up to its edges.’ (Alfred Swann, quoted on page 133)

There were few if any roads as understood in the developed world, nothing like canals and nothing remotely like Western railways. McLynn tells us Western-style tarmaced roads, and railways, didn’t really arrive in Africa till the 1930s.

The perils of European exploration

Sub-Saharan Africa remained unexplored for so long for a number of reasons.

No navigable rivers

Most African rivers debouch into sandbanks and have neither natural bays nor deep estuaries which characterise European and American rivers and allow ships to anchor and navigate upstream. If ships did anchor, water-borne explorers found it impossible to proceed far upriver because of rapids, cascades and waterfalls.

Violent humans

Anyway, chances are they would be attacked by any of the complicated patchwork of tribes and regional warlords who fiercely protected their territory. A simple motive for African violence and resentment was related to the dire poverty of most African communities but there were also continual low-level conflicts between neighbouring tribes; there are calculated to have been around 700 distinct tribes. But as MacLynn emphasises, Africans owed far more allegiance to their villages, village elders and traditions. There were hundreds of religions, mostly primitive ancestor or fetish worship.

What this amounts to in the book is a blizzard of names of the kings of umpteen different tribes and regions which the explorers pass through, most at war with all their neighbours, thus making negotiating with them for safe passage very dicey, plus all these rulers tended to want presents and dues. Hence the enormous trains of porters the explorers required to carry not only their food and weapons and tents etc, but also a sizeable treasury of Western goodies to be handed over to the series of rulers they had to mollify. The African word for it was hongo which translates as ‘tribute’ or ‘bribe’, depending on your worldview. As the (admittedly rabidly anti-African explorer) Samuel White Baker complained:

‘It is the rapacity of the chiefs of the various tribes that render African exploration so difficult.’ (quoted on page 75)

And plenty of explorers were just murdered outright by nomads, bandits, lawless tribals. McLynn gives a vivid account of the attack by the Eesa tribe on the expedition of Burton, Speke, Stroyan and Herne along with 42 porters encamped just outside the town of Berbera on the coast of Somaliland on the night of 19 April 1855. Lieutenant Stroyan was killed outright, Burton took a spear thrust through one cheek and out the other but managed to run to the beach and safety while Speke was captured, suffered spear thrusts in eleven places including right through one thigh, was tied up and threatened with castration until he was left in the care of one armed guard who he managed to knock out before also running to the sea where he was discovered by rescuers then following morning (p.255).

Violent animals

No continent has so many fierce animals as Africa. Lions routinely attacked and killed members of exhibitions. If travelling by water, crocodiles and the surprisingly aggressive hippopotamus were a peril. Aggressive birds attacked larger animals, for example camels, leaving wounds which festered and killed.

Heat

Explorers died of simple heatstroke or from the combo of heat and high humidity in forest regions.

Disease

But disease was the most obvious peril. All Europeans attempting travel into sub-Saharan Africa quickly became ill, often seriously ill. Malaria, typhoid, ophthalmia, and any number of causes of diarrhoea, afflicted almost all European explorers with devastating consequences. Half the explorers who set out were killed by disease; most of the survivors emerged severely weakened by prolonged illness with lingering debilitating effects. McLynn mentions smallpox, fever, ague, amoebic and bacillic dysentery, guinea worm, ulcers acquired when scratches (from thorn bushes or tall sharp grass) got infected and festered in the heat and humidity, bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatism, sciatica, athsma, dropsy, emphysema, erysipelas, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis), bilharzia, filariasis, hookworm infestation (ankylostomiasis), river blindness (onchocerciasis), exanthematic typhus, yaws and leprosy.

Regularly you read that the explorers were laid up for months on end with fever and dysentery, or rendered so weak they literally couldn’t walk and had to be carried in hammocks. In fact McLynn devotes an entire chapter, chapter 11, to the subject (pages 227 to 252).

Attrition rates

Thus it was that all the expeditions suffered appalling death rates. For example, Stanley left Bagamoyo in mid-November 1874 with 4 white companions and 342 African porters. By the end of February 1875, 181 had been lost to famine, illness, desertion or attacks by tribesmen. On the Emin Pasha expedition, Stanley left Zanzibar in spring 1887 with 708 men. Two and a half years later only 210 returned (p.152). The situation was summed up by the German explorer Wilhelm Junker:

‘Famine and disease are the chief causes of the depopulation of Central Africa; in comparison with these the export of slaves is but a small item.’ (quoted on page 117)

No profit

And, despite all the rumours of treasure and secret cities and rare gems and valuable resources, it turned out to be impossible to make a profit from any of these expeditions. They were either sponsored by national geographic associations, by missionary organisations, or by wealthy backers (p.146). None of the explorers McLynn describes got involved in any businesses set up to trade with Africa, there were few if any businesses involved there. Stanley came the closest, in the sense that he was central to helping King Leopold of Belgium set up his evil and rapacious regime in the Congo, but that was more slave exploitation than a ‘business’. A number of explorers ended their days as colonial administrators, such as da Brazza, Frederick Lugard and Carl Peters. But most came home, wrote up their experiences and lived off their ublications and lectures.

The great British explorers

Having skated through the early pioneers McLynn slows down and pays more attention to the famous expeditions of David Livingstone, Richard Burton (the first European to see Lake Tanganyika, which he wrongly thought must be the source of the Nile) and John Hanning Speke whose joint expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society and lasted from 1856 to 1859.

Burton and Speke were involved in the great quest to find the source of the mighty river Nile. Speke won, showing that its main source is Lake Victoria, to the anger of the far more scholarly and conscientious Burton, who made the wrong call when he attributed the source to Lake Tanganyika. On their return to England in 1859 they embarked on a long and bitter war of words through the press and pamphlets.

And Samuel White Baker, who I’d never heard of but, apparently, was second only to Livingstone in popular fame, for his extensive 4-year-long explorations around the Great Lakes region of central east Africa (1861 to 1865).

Baker was the first European to see Lake Albert and a substantial waterfall on the Victoria Nile which he named Murchison Falls after the then-president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Murchison. Back in Blighty he wrote a considerable number of books and published articles which bolstered his reputation as the grand old man of Africa exploration and an expert on the Nile, though he was almost as famous for his extravagant big game hunting on four continents, Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.

Suppressing the slave trade

Britain abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1807. The actual state of enslavement i.e. slavery as a whole, wasn’t abolished, and existing slaves freed, until 1833. By the 1850s suppression of the slave trade carried on by other nations had become a major moral crusade for the British. The Royal Navy had an Africa squadron specifically tasked with patrolling the west African coast and intercepting slave ships, forcing them to return their captives to Africa.

In east and central Africa where the great competition to find the source of the Nile played out, there was a long established slave trade run by Arabs, capturing and transporting black Africans up the coast to the Muslim world. High-minded missionaries like David Livingstone raised funds and publicity by their stated aim of combining geographical exploration with steps to suppress the slave trade. Baker was another Brit who boosted his reputation among high-minded Victorians by emphasising his anti-slavery credentials, without much justification, in McLynn’s view.

Yet McLynn brings out how ambiguous the relationship between British explorer and Arab slaver could be on the ground, in reality. This is epitomised in the career of Hamad bin Muhammad bin Juma bin Rajab el Murjebi, better known by his nickname, Tippu Tip, which is Swahili for ‘gatherer of wealth’. Born in 1832 in Zanzibar, Tippu rose to become one of the wealthiest men of his time, based on his twin trades in ivory and slaves. Eventually he became the leading slave trader in East Africa, supplying the Muslim world with hundreds of thousands of black slaves and himself owning plantations worked by an estimated 10,000 enslaved blacks.

The point is that if you were a white man who wanted to explore central Africa from the most reliable starting point of Zanzibar, you had to reach an accommodation with Tippu who had established and ran the key trading posts, watering holes, provision stores and so on on the main routes inland from the coast to the great lakes, from Bagamoyo on the coast via the trading entrepot of Tabora, which was equidistant from Lake Tanganyika in the west and Lake Victoria in the north. And so David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, to name the most famous, were forced to forge working relationships with Tippu.

It was one thing to make grand declarations in Britain about abolishing the east Africa slave trade; it was quite another to find yourself amid rich, powerful men who ran it, who had everything to lose by its abolition, and try to reach practical accommodations with them.

Tippu Tip was famous enough to feature on the front cover of the Illustrated London News, 7 December 1889 issue.

Later, non-British explorers

After the high profile, super-publicised expeditions of Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Speke and Baker, the narrative goes on to describe scores of lesser figures. The Big Names are big because they sketched out the really central issue of African geography, they were the ones who traced the paths of the major rivers (the Niger, Congo, Zambezi and Nile) and discovered the complex of great lakes in east-central Africa. The created the frame and established the broad shapes, like completing the border round a jigsaw.

But there was still a huge amount of work to be done to join the dots, for example to work out the order of flow between the umpteen lakes in the African lake district which eventually led into the sources of the Nile, or to identify each of the scores of tributaries of the river Congo – and this was done by a host of lesser names, most of them not British and therefore not enshrined in our national history.

McLynn notes that two other nationalities became prominent: Belgian explorers, once King Leopold had established his ‘right’ to the vast Congo basin at the 1885 Congress of Berlin; and the same event crystallised the urgency among German politicians and scientists to secure their slice of the African pie, so there was a notable upswing in the number of German explorers, for example George Schweinfurth.

This left the French who, as usual, burned with envy and at the successes of their hated rivals, the British, and spurred them on, post 1880, to map and seize as much territory as possible. The national rivalry was made plain in the individual rivalry between Stanley, who was contracted to explore and establish waystations along the river Congo by Leopold of Belgium well into the 1890s, and the lead French explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who also explored the Congo basin in the 1870s and 80s, going on to become a French colonial administrator in the 1890s. The capital of the Republic of the Congo was named Brazzaville in his honour and retains the name to this day.

A body of work was done by ‘Gordon’s men’, a set of adventurers hired by General Gordon when he was governor of Equitoria province in the service of the Khedive of Egypt in the 1870s, who included Emin Pasha (despite his name, actually a German Jew born Isaak Eduard Schnitzer), Frederick Burnaby, Rudolph Slatkin, Romolo Gessi, Mason Bey, Gaetano Casati, Linant de Bellefonds, Carlo PIaggia and others. McLynn gives us brief pen portraits of these men and their exploratorial adventures.

Kenya, of all African countries the one with the climate most congenial to Europeans, was, surprisingly, one of the last to be explored, an achievement credited to the trio of Joseph Thomson, Harry Johnston and Samuel Yeleki.

The end of exploration

The era of exploration by dashing individuals drew to an end during the 1880s and may be considered over by 1890 (p.128). It was replaced by the era of colonialism i.e. the now-surveyed and mapped areas passed into the administration of the European nations which had drawn lines on maps and defined administrative areas at Berlin. Administrative regions were consolidated into ‘nations’. The map of Africa as we know it today crystallised during the 1890s and turn of the century. In most cases it was a continual process of ongoing accretion and centralisation.

To take Nigeria as an example. Britain annexed the coast region of Lagos as a crown colony in August 1861. At the Berlin Conference in 1885, Britain’s claims to a West African sphere of influence were recognised. The next year, in 1886, Britain set up the Royal Niger Company under the leadership of Sir George Taubman Goldie, which proceeded to subjugate the independent kingdoms along the Niger River, conquering Benin in 1897 and other regional leaders in the Anglo-Aro War (1901 to 1902). In 1900, the company’s territory came under the direct control of the British government which established the Southern Nigeria Protectorate. The British then moved north to subdue the Sokoto Caliphate, which was defeated at the Battle of Kano in 1903 and the British set up the Northern Nigeria Protectorate. By 1906 all resistance to British rule had ended. On 1 January 1914 the British formally united the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. 46 years later, Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom on 1 October 1960.

A thumbnail sketch of how exploration passed on to patchwork colonial administration, government takeover, integration of various territories into a nation, which then fought for and gained its independence.

Bad maps

The maps are terrible. You’d have thought the people producing a book entirely about exploration would realise the importance of maps showing just what was explored, when and by who.

1. The book does contain about 14 maps but, as my vagueness implies, there is no list or index of them at the front.

2. Far worse, though, is that none of the maps have titles or numbers. So a map suddenly appears in the text but you have no idea what it’s meant to be showing. Of course, you can see it depicts a bit of Africa, but there’s no indication why, you have to deduce this from the text.

3. When I read the accounts of the first few explorers described, Daniel Houghton, Mungo Park, Joseph Ritchie, Hugh Clapperton and others, the text mentioned the African villages and towns they travelled to but none of these appeared in the map. I spent ten minutes trying in vain to find any of the placenames mentioned in these expeditions on the bloody map. There were lots of places indicated on the map but none of these appeared in the text! What?

4. Worst of all hardly any of the maps show the single most important thing you want to know, which is the routes of the actual expeditions. The first couple of maps, which show the river Niger and the region around Lake Chad appear to be there to show the first few explorations of the region in the late 1700s but there is no indication of the routes taken by the explorers named in the text. Later maps, relating to Burton and Speke or LIvingstone and Stanley, do bother to have routes marked on the maps but no title indicating whose journeys they were. In every instance a quick google of the expedition in question produced umpteen maps on the internet showing quite clearly the route you need to be able to see in order to make sense of the narrative.

The poorness of the maps is a real limitation of this book.

African words

Obviously, hundreds of languages were and are spoken across this vast continent. McLynn’s text mentions certain key words in Swahili:

  • askaris – soldiers
  • chikote – strip of hide used as a whip
  • hongo – bribes or tribute to chiefs
  • kanda – long, narrow canvas carry bag
  • karaba – a brass measure for rations
  • kitanda – litter (to carry people in)
  • madala – weights hung at each end of a pole carried over the shoulders
  • masika  – season of heavy rain
  • mukongwa – slave fork in which the slave’s head was fastened
  • pagazi – porter
  • posho – daily rice ration
  • ruga-ruga – irregular troops or mercenaries
  • tembe – camp or base
  • wangwana – ‘sons of the free’

English words

McLynn enjoys writing and is a pleasure to read. Along with his occasional boys’-own-adventure register, he sprinkles the text with recherché terms which are a pleasure to look up in a dictionary and savour.

  • febrifuge – a medicine to reduce fever
  • feculent – of or containing dirt, sediment, or waste matter
  • fuliginous – sooty, dusty
  • lacustrine – relating to or associated with lakes
  • ophiolatry – worship of snakes
  • riverine – relating to or situated on a river or riverbank; riparian
  • rugose – wrinkled or corrugated
  • thaumaturge – a worker of wonders and performer of miracles, a magician
  • the veridical – the truth

Credit

Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn was published in 1992 by Hutchinson. All references are to the 1993 Pimlico paperback edition.

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Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day by Eric Hobsbawm (1968)

Eric Hobsbawm (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading Marxist historians. Of Jewish parentage he spent his boyhood in Vienna and Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. With Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, the family moved to Britain in 1933, although his Wikipedia page is at pains to point out that, because his father was originally from London’s East End, he had always had British citizenship. Hobsbawm excelled at school and went to Cambridge where he joined the communist party in 1936.

Twenty-two when the Second World War broke out, Hobsbawm served in the Royal Engineers and the Army Educational Corps, though he was prevented from serving overseas due to his communist beliefs. In 1947 he got his first job as a lecturer in history at Birkbeck College, University of London, the start of a long and very successful career as a historian, which included stints teaching in America at Stanford and MIT.

As a Marxist Hobsbawm had a special interest in what he called the ‘dual revolutions’ i.e. the political revolution in France in 1789 and the parallel industrial revolution in Britain. His most famous books are the trilogy describing what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

A series he completed with a fourth volume, his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes (1994).

Industry and Empire was commissioned by the high-minded Pelican books back in the mid-1960s, as the third and concluding volume in a series about economic history (part 1 being The Medieval Economy and Society by M.M. Postan, part 2 Reformation to Industrial Revolution by Hobsbawm’s fellow Marxist historian, Christopher Hill).

I read it as a student and had a vague memory of finding it rather boring, but on rereading I found it riveting. Setting out to cover such a huge period of just over 200 years means that individual chapters are relatively brief at around 20 pages long and highly focused on their subjects.

State of England 1750

Arguably the most interesting section is the opening 50 pages where Hobsbawm sets the scene for the industrial revolution which is to come, describing the state of England (the book focuses overwhelmingly on England with only occasional remarks about the other three nations of the UK) around 1750, and making a number of interesting observations.

The most interesting is that, although England was ruled by an oligarchy of a relatively small number of mighty families – maybe as few as 200 – who owned most of the land, the key thing about them was that they were a post-revolutionary elite (p.32). Their equivalents in France or the German or Italian states were genuinely hidebound reactionaries obsessed with aping the accoutrements and etiquette of kings and princes. By sharp contrast England’s elite had survived not one but two revolutions (the execution of Charles I in 1649, then the Glorious Revolution of 1688). As a result they did not submit to their monarch but had reached a position of constitutional ascendancy over their king in the form of a dominating Parliament. They were powerful and independent.

Above all, England’s elite were devoted to commerce and profit. One of the motive forces of the civil war of the 1640s had been King Charles’s insistence on granting monopolies of trade to favoured courtiers and spurning genuine entrepreneurs who came to form a powerful bloc against him. But all that had been sorted out a century ago. Now this politically independent oligarchy was interested in trade and profit of all sorts.

But these were only one of the many differences which distinguished 1750s England from the continent. Foreign visitors also remarked on the well-tended, well-organised state of the land and the thoroughness of its agriculture. They commented on the flourishing of trade: England was noted as a very business-like nation, with well-developed markets for domestic goods of all kinds.

Multiple origins of the Industrial Revolution

Hobsbawm points out that the industrial revolution is one of the most over-determined and over-explained events in history. He amusingly rattles off a list of reasons which have been given by countless historians over the years for why the industrial revolution first occurred in Britain, for why Britain was for several generations the unique workshop of the world and pioneer of revolutionary new ways of working, new industrial machinery, new ways of producing and distributing goods. Historians have attributed it to:

  • Protestantism and the Protestant work ethic
  • the ‘scientific revolution’ of the 1660s
  • Britain’s political maturity compared with Europe (i.e. the Glorious Revolution)
  • the availability of large sources of coal
  • the presence of numerous fast-flowing streams to provide water power
  • a run of good harvests in mid-18th century
  • Britain’s better road and canal infrastructure

And many more. The list is on page 37.

Hobsbawm’s explanation – colonies and colonial trade

Hobsbawm lists all these putative causes in order to dismiss them and attribute Britain’s primariness to one reason. The first wave of the industrial revolution was based on the mass processing of raw cotton into textiles. 100% of Britain’s cotton was imported from the slave plantations of the American South and a huge percentage of it was then exported to foreign markets, in Africa and then to India where, in time, the authorities found it necessary to stifle the native cloth-making trade in order to preserve the profits of Lancashire factory owners. The facts are astonishing: Between 1750 and 1770 Britain’s cotton exports multiplied ten times over (p.57). In the post-Napoleonic decades something like one half of the value of all British exports consisted or cotton products, and at their peak (in the 1830s), raw cotton made up twenty per cent of total net imports (p.69). So the industrial revolution in Britain was driven by innovations in textile manufacturing and these utterly relied on the web of international trade, on importing raw materials from America and then exporting them in huge quantities to captive markets in British colonies.

Cotton manufacture, the first to be industrialised, was essentially tied to overseas trade. (p.48)

If Britain had had to rely on a) domestic sources of raw materials and b) its domestic market to sell the finished product to, although the native population was growing during the 1700s it wasn’t growing that fast. What provided the crucial incentive to the cloth manufacturers of Lancashire to invest and innovate was the certainty of a vast overseas market for manufactured cloth in the British Empire, which was finally made safe for British control after the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763).

Britain had established itself as master of the world’s seas as a result of the Seven Years War and already had a thriving trade infrastructure at ports like Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and London. What kick-started things, in Hobsbawm’s view, was the opening up of overseas markets. It was the ability to send ships full of cloth products to India and other colonial markets, to make large profits and then reinvest the profits in further innovations that led a generation of Lancashire entrepreneurs to experiment with new devices and machines and ways of working.

So, Hobsbawm’s thesis rests on a set of linked propositions, that:

  • Britain had a uniquely warlike series of governments through the 18th century (pp.49 to 50)
  • Britain was able to rely on a far more advanced and sizeable navy than its nearest rival, France, which was always distracted by wars on the continent and so preferred to spend resources on its army, thus, in effect, handing rule of the oceans over to Britain
  • in the mid-1700s a series of foreign wars conquered all of north America, most of the Caribbean and India for Britain
  • and it was the complex web of international trading thus established by its a) warlike government and b) its world-dominating navy which provided the economic framework which motivated the technological and business innovations which led to the Industrial Revolution (pages 48 to 51)

This vast and growing circulation of goods…provided a limitless horizon of sales and profit for merchant and manufacturer. And it was the British – who by their policy and force as much as by their enterprise and inventive skill – captured these markets. (p.54)

And again:

Behind our industrial revolution there lies this concentration on the colonial and underdeveloped markets overseas, the successful battle to deny them to anyone else…the exchange of overseas primary products for British manufactures was to be the foundation of our international economy. (p.54)

And:

The Industrial Revolution was generated in these decades – after the 1740s, when this massive but slow growth in the domestic economies combined with the rapid – after 1750 extremely rapid – expansion of the international economy; and it occurred in the country which seized its international opportunities to corner a major share of the overseas market. (p.54)

1. Manufacturers in a pre-industrial country, in agriculture and artisans in trade, have to wait fairly passively on market requirements. But an aggressive foreign policy which seizes territory overseas creates new markets, potentially huge markets with massive opportunities for rapid and massive expansion (p.42).

2. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that it wasn’t the inventions per se that accelerated and automated cotton manufacture. The level of engineering skill required to start the industrial revolution was very low. Most of the technology and ideas already existed or had been lying around for decades (pages 59 to 60). It was the guarantee of tasty profits by exporting finished goods to captive colonial markets which gave individual entrepreneurs the certainty of profit and so the incentive to experiment and innovate. One factory owner’s innovation was copied by all his rivals, and so an ever-accelerating cycle of innovation was created.

All the other conditions historians have suggested (listed above) were present and many were important contributors. But it was the spur of guaranteed profits abroad which, in Hobsbawm’s opinion, provided the vital spark.

Is British industrialisation a model for the developing world?

It is an odd feature of the book that Hobsbawm has barely articulated his thesis before he is worrying about the plight of the developing world. He keeps asking, particularly in the opening ‘Origins’ chapters, whether Britain’s experience of industrialisation could be a model for the newly industrialising and newly independent post-colonial nations of the 1960s to emulate?

The short answer is an emphatic No and in answering it, Hobsbawm makes clearer than ever the uniqueness of Britain’s history. Britain was unique in being able to fumble its way towards industrialisation slowly and piecemeal and on a very small scale, one factory owner here trying out a new machine, another, there, devising a more efficient way of organising his factory hands and so on.

There was no ‘barrier to entry’ into the industrialised state for Britain because it was the first nation ever to do so, and so had the luxury of making it up as it went along. It started from 0. A little bit of tinkering could produce surprising rewards. There were no leaps but a series of pragmatic steps. And there was no competition and no pressure from anyone else.

Obviously, 150 years later, any nation trying to industrialise in the 1960s (or now) is in a totally different situation in at least two obvious ways: the shift from non-industrial to modern industrial production now represents an enormous leap. The technology and scale and infrastructure required for industrialisation is huge and can only begin to be achieved by dint of enormous planning (to create a co-ordinated energy and transport and distribution infrastructure) and huge investment, money which by definition a non-industrialised country does not have, and so has to go cap-in-hand to international banks which themselves dictate all kinds of terms and conditions.

Above all, a newly industrialising nation will be entering a very crowded marketplace where over a hundred nations are already fighting tooth and claw to maintain competitive advantage in a multitude of areas and practices, not least trade and tariff and tax and financial arrangements which a country with few financial resources will find difficult to match.

At first I found Hobsbawm’s adversions to this question of whether Britain’s history and example could be useful to developing nations a modish digression (it occurs on pages 38, 39, 61 to 62 and many more). But in fact placing British history in this contemporary frame turns out to be very thought-provoking. It not only sheds light on the challenges developing nations face, still, today – but also highlights the huge advantage Britain enjoyed back in the later 18th century by virtue of being the pioneer.

Because it industrialised and developed a transport infrastructure and financial systems first, Britain could afford to do them pretty badly and still triumph. Nobody, nowadays, could industrialise as amateurishly as Britain did.

To contemporaries who didn’t understand economics (pretty much everyone) the transformation and inexorable rise of Britain seemed inexplicable, miraculous, and it was this that gave rise to the simplistic, non-economic, cultural explanations for Britain’s success – all those explanations which foreground the anti-authoritarian, Protestant spirit of free enquiry, the independence of thought and action guaranteed by the Glorious Revolution, the nonconformist values of thrift and discipline and hard work espoused by dissenting tradesmen and factory owners excluded from politics or the professions by the Test Acts and so forced to make their way in the world through business, innovation and investment. And so on.

All these are aspects of the truth but are, ultimately, non-economists’ ways of trying to explain economics. And Hobsbawm is first and foremost an economic historian and proposing a Marxist thesis – Britain’s industrial primacy was based on a) her aggressive control of the seas and b) the huge and complex web of transoceanic trading arrangements which linked foreign suppliers with endless marketing opportunities in her foreign colonies.

The second industrial revolution

The second industrial revolution is the term commonly applied to the second wave of industrialisation associated with the rise of the new capital goods industries of coal, iron and steel, generally credited with starting in the 1840s.

Hobsbawm pauses to consider the teasing counter-factual notion that the industrial revolution based on textiles alone might conceivably have fizzled out in the 1830s, for the 15 years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars saw a catastrophic depression with much rural poverty. If nothing new had come along, it is conceivable that industrial development might have stalled or even stopped and the world remained at the level of having highly efficient machines to turn out cloth and no more.

But the railways came along. Hobsbawm explains that the great railway ‘mania’ of the 1840s was the result of the huge accumulation of capital derived from textiles looking for something to invest in (p.112). This explains the hysterical tone of wild investment and speculative mania which surrounded the early railways, and the irrationality of many of the lines which were opened with great fanfare only to go bust within years. To quote Wikipedia:

The mania reached its zenith in 1846, when 263 Acts of Parliament setting up new railway companies were passed, with the proposed routes totalling 9,500 miles (15,300 km). About a third of the railways authorised were never built — the companies either collapsed due to poor financial planning, were bought out by larger competitors before they could build their line, or turned out to be fraudulent enterprises to channel investors’ money into other businesses.

Between 1830 and 1850 6,000 miles of railways were opened in Britain (p.110) soaking up an investment of £240 million of capital (p.112), most of them during the intensest period of railway mania in between 1844 and 1846. By way of comparison, the total mileage of the modern UK railway network is around 11,000 miles.

Social historians dwell on the immense cultural changes the coming of the railways created. I remember being struck as a student when I learned that the standardisation of time and clocks across the UK required for railway timetables to work, was a huge innovation which dragged even the remotest locations into a modern, synchronised timeframe. If you visit any of the seaside towns of Britain you’ll discover their fortunes were transformed with the coming of the railways which allowed large numbers of visitors to travel cheaply to the coast, causing a building boom in hotels. And so on.

But as an economic historian, Hobsbawm makes the more obvious point that the building of all these railways required a vast expansion in the production of iron and then, quickly, of the more durable material, steel.

The railways acted as an immense spur to technical innovations in all aspects of metal manufacture, which in turn created a huge increase in demand for the coal to fuel all this industrial production, which in its turn created a need for quicker, more cost-effective bulk transportation, and so commercial motivation for yet more railways, and for trains which were more powerful, more cost effective, and so on. Innovation in one field spurred innovation all down the line.

British investors were able to invest because the act of investing in business speculations was itself a fast-growing area of business activity, creating cadres of stockbrokers and financial lawyers, jobs which didn’t exist 50 years earlier.

And this matrix of industries and professions spread abroad, with a huge growth of British investment in foreign companies, especially in the USA and South America. Profits from these foreign holdings gave rise to an entirely new class of rentiers, people able to afford a moneyed middle-class lifestyle without doing a day’s work, solely off the profit of shrewd investments.

By 1870 Britain had about 170,000 people of rank and property, living lives of luxury without any visible occupation. Hobsbawm emphasises that most of them were women (p.119). These were the ladies of independent means swanning off to spa resorts in Switzerland or villas in Italy who festoon the pages of late Victorian and Edwardian novels, like the Italophiles of E.M. Foster, like the continent-trotting Aunt Mary in Somerset Maugham’s novel Mrs Craddock. These comfortably-off parasites were still living a wonderful life between the wars, floating around Tuscany vapouring about Art and Life, as documented in the early novels of Aldous Huxley, living lives of luxury off the sweat and labour of working men in three continents.

Competitors and the long decline

The scale and speed of development, particularly of the second wave of the industrial revolution, with entire cities mushrooming into existence stuffed with factories, and a country swiftly criss-crossed by the loud, noisy new technology of the railways, awed contemporaries and again and again gave rise to essays and books and speeches extolling the miraculous qualities of the British nation.

It was only when competitor nations such as America and Germany began to harness the new technologies of the second industrial revolution, the ones which rotated around the production of coal, iron and the new material of steel, taking and improving techniques in the area of metal and machine production which rotated around the great boom in railways from the 1840s onwards, that the shortcomings of British production methods and efficiency began, very slowly, to be revealed.

The entire developed world entered a prolonged agricultural depression in the 1870s which lasted a decade or more (different historians give different start and end points but contemporaries thought it lasted from about 1873 into the 1890s) and when Britain emerged from this depression in the 1890s, she had been decisively overtaken in all measures of industrial production by Germany and America.

Between 1890 and 1895 both the USA and Germany passed Britain in the production of steel. During the ‘Great Depression’ Britain ceased to be ‘the workshop of the world’ and became merely one if its three greatest industrial powers; and, in some crucial respects, the weakest of them. (p.127)

The wealth pouring in from protected imperial trade with an empire was now vastly bigger than it had been in 1750 and so hid our industrial shortcomings from the unintelligent (which included most of the ruling class) and the Daily Mail-reading middle classes. But even the rousing jingoism of Kipling the imperialist poet and Joseph Chamberlain the imperialist politician during the 1890s couldn’t conceal Britain’s relative decline. The pomp and circumstance of the turn of the century was a fool’s paradise.

After the middle of the nineteenth century [the British cotton trade] found its staple outlet in India and the Far East. The British cotton industry was certainly in its time the best in the world, but it ended as it had begun by relying not on its competitive superiority but on a monopoly of the colonial, and underdeveloped markets which the British Empire, the British Navy and British commercial supremacy gave it. (p.58)

While the Germans and Americans developed new ways of organising industrial concerns, with huge cartels and monopolies, developed ever-better methods of mass production, invested heavily in technical education and pioneered new ways of selling high quality products to their domestic markets, Britain was still expending its time and energy expanding its already huge empire and trying to create a global imperial market with preferential treatment of what slowly came to be seen as inferior British goods. This remained the case into the period between the wars and even into the 1940s and 50s.

Imperialism, which reached its peak of rivalry and competition in the 1890s and 1900s, concealed the deep structural reasons for Britain’s long decline, which were already well established by 1900 (p.131).


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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)

I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.
(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, chapter X)

Brief bio

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to Harriet Bailey, a slave woman, and an unknown white father, probably in February 1818. He speculated that his father was the plantation master, but he never had any proof.

Fred Bailey, as everyone called him, was about seven years old when his mother died, and soon after that he was given to Lucretia Auld, who sent him to serve her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld in Baltimore and his wife, Sophia, who was the first to teach him to start to read and write, until her husband forbade her.

After seven years of relative good treatment as a domestic slave in Baltimore, Bailey was sent to a plantation to work in the fields and subjected to brutal treatment. He made good comrades among the other male slaves and helped organise a group escape of about 6 slaves in April 1836, but the conspiracy was discovered and Bailey was severely punished.

Two years later, in September 1838, aged 20, he finally managed to escape to the free North. In 1837, Bailey had met and fallen in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore about five years his senior. She encouraged his aspirations to be free, lent him money and helped his escape. The escape was quite elaborate, requiring Bailey to take a train north, then a steam ferry across the Susquehanna River, and then resume the train journey, to arrive at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an anti-slavery stronghold.

To do this he required a sailor’s uniform provided to him by Murray, who also gave him part of her savings to cover his travel costs and he needed to carry identification and protection papers certifying that he was free, which he had obtained from a free black seaman. Full details of the thrilling escape are given in the Wikipedia article.

Three points about this:

  1. Anna’s help was absolutely central to Bailey’s escape.
  2. Bailey gives no details whatsoever of the escape in this book: in this narrative he says that even hints about how he did it would close the escape route for any who wanted to follow him.
  3. It reads like one of the accounts of Allied airman escaping Nazi-occupied France, what with the need for a disguise and false papers. They are two very similar genres.

Bailey moved on from Philadelphia to New York where he was married to Anna Murray then, to be safe, they moved further north, to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Here he was welcomed by a network of  abolitionists who helped freed slaves. He wanted to change his name to establish a new identity and one of these white supporters suggested the name Douglass, the name of a character in Walter Scott’s novel The Lady of the Lake, which the supporter happened to be reading at the time (explained in chapter XI).

After the newly named Frederick Douglass made a speech at an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket he was hired by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to lecture about his life as a slave. He was so eloquent that auditors doubted such an articulate man could ever have been a slave and that was the spur for him to write this autobiography, the Narrative, which became an international bestseller.

The publicity the Narrative brought made him made Douglass fear he might be tracked down and recaptured by his previous owner, so he fled to England. Here he became a free man when a group of supporters purchased his liberty for $700. In spring 1847 Douglass returned to America and launched his own newspaper. He published a second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855.

Following the outbreak of the civil war in April 1861, Douglass lobbied President Lincoln to allow black men to enlist as soldiers in the Union cause and lobbied for the emancipation of slaves to become a Union war aim and so his joy when Lincoln finally makes the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863 is often quoted by historians. After the war he campaigned for the swift passage of the Fifteenth Amendment granting suffrage to freed slaves. It was finally ratified in 1870.

Douglass rose to hold a series of official positions, serving the US government as a Federal Marshall in the District of Columbia, as consul to Haiti and chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic. These experiences form the basis for his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881.

Douglass died in 1895 shortly after delivering a speech about women’s rights.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

It’s a short text. In the Oxford University Press edition, it’s 92 pages. But a little like another short book, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, it manages to convey an entire world of suffering and humiliation in a short span.

The text is packed with examples of the wickedness and evil of slavery which appal and disgust the reader. But what really strikes home is the universal perversion of normal human relationships which slavery brings. He never knew his birthday, no-one told him. He was separated from his mother when he was months old; she was sent off to slave from dawn to dusk at another of his master’s holdings. On a handful of occasions, when her day’s work was done, she walked miles to see him and bed down with him for a few hours but she was always gone in the morning. When he was seven he learned, some time after the fact, that she had died.

He explains how frequent it is that a master impregnates one of his female slaves and goes on to raise the child, his own child, as another slave. On the one hand it is ‘cheaper’ than buying new slaves. But on the other, it leads to terrible perversions of human relations. Think about it: a man makes his own child a slave. If he shows any partiality for the child, his white children or wife and even the other slaves will resent it. And he looks on while overseers whip his own child, or watches his half-brothers whip his own child.

The slave narrative genre and its conventions

The notes in the OUP version I read mention the 1839 book, American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. This was an anthology of documents assembled by the American abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, his wife Angelina Grimké, and her sister Sarah Grimké. They bought thousands of old newspapers from libraries and scoured them for all references to slavery, personal accounts, letters, articles and hundreds of adverts, especially for runaway slaves, written by slavers themselves.

When cut and pasted together the book formed a harrowing testimony to the brutality of the slave regime which completely contradicted the lying speeches of southern politicians and commentators.

But from a literary point of view, the important thing about American Slavery As It Is is how influential it was. Harriet Beecher Stowe used it as the direct inspiration for her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which itself influenced millions. Charles Dickens’s American Notes quotes whole ads from American Slavery. And  also Frederick Douglass quoted extensively from the book in the many speeches he gave.

My point is that the recycling and formatting of descriptions meant that anti-slavery books quickly became a genre with its own conventions and formats. Certain topics were expected. Certain arguments were repeated. As I read through the Narrative I was certainly horrified by Douglass’s experiences of the systematic heartlessness, cruelty and brutality of the American slave system. But I also began to notice that the narrative is artfully arranged to press its readers’ buttons.

Consider his audience. It was the educated, bien-pensant, North American nineteenth-century middle-classes, the same high-minded New England abolitionists who attended his lectures. What were their values? They believed in family, in home, in chastity and fidelity. They believed in religion, the ten commandments, we should love our neighbour as ourselves. They believed in the sanctity of the Sabbath, that men should use chaste and dignified language and refrain from swearing. They had a sentimental post-romantic ideology of fine feelings and romantic attachments. They disapproved of alcohol and many advocated complete abstention.

As I read Douglass’s Narrative it almost felt like he had a checklist of these Victorian values in front of him and went out of his way to show how slavery, slave owners and their overseers were the exact opposite of everything the Victorians held precious, and embodied the diabolical anti-type of every single Victorian value.

Chastity

Many male slave owners had sex with their female slaves. Female slaves were unable to maintain their chastity and there was no-one to protect them. All those fair damsels being rescued from dragons in sentimental Victorian art and literature were mocked by the reality of the systematic raping of millions of helpless black women.

Family values

Rape

Male slave owners completely inverted the idea of family values by siring multiple mulatto children with numerous slave women, obviously out of wedlock. Douglass himself thought his father was probably the white owner of the plantation he was born on. It is doubtful if his mother gave anything like what we mean by ‘consent’ to him raping her. Douglass must have gone through his life knowing he was the result of white master rape.

Destroying families

Not only that, but slave owners thought nothing of breaking up families, dividing husband and wife or parents from children, at the drop of a hat, with no warning, and forever. After Colonel Lloyd hears criticism of himself from a slave who didn’t even realise Lloyd was his master (Lloyd had some 1,000 slaves), he acts decisively and cruelly.

The poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader. He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death.

Douglass being separated from his mother while still a baby was no accident; it was an intrinsic part of a system which went out of its way to destroy all natural family feeling.

My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labour. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.

Anti-fathers

The fathers of these half-breed slave children were happy to watch them be degraded, worked to death, punished and whipped to shreds. Pretty much the exact opposite of what the ideal, caring and loving Victorian paterfamilias ought to be. A diabolical inversion.

Truth telling and lies

Colonel Lloyd had met the slave about an errand on a road, asked him who he belonged to, was told ‘Colonel Lloyd’ and when he asked what kind of owner Lloyd was, the slave (not realising he was talking to the man himself) replied that he wasn’t treated well. Tearing him away from his family was the slave’s punishment.

OK, upsetting story: but, as is his way, Douglass then goes on to make a much wider sociological point, which is that it was this kind of event which taught all slaves never to tell the truth. Again, for the Victorians this was a much more important issue than it is to us today. Douglass was addressing the Victorian value which goes something like ‘a gentleman always tells the truth’. All Victorian mummies told their little boys and girls to always tell the truth. Well here, Douglass shows his reader, is a vast system which indoctrinates millions of slaves into never telling the truth, into hesitating to reply to any enquiry, of being afraid to tell the truth to anyone, in any situation, in case they are a spy for their owner trying to catch them out (which does, Douglass assures us, frequently happen).

Slavery was not only based on multiple lies about human nature but it created a culture of systematic lying. For God-fearing Victorian evangelists this was horrifying for who is the Father of Lies in the Bible? The Devil. Slavery does the Devil’s work by turning its wretched subjects into sinners.

Chivalry towards the fairer sex

As we all know Victorian ladies fainted at the sight of a grand piano’s legs and Victoria chaps were aroused by an exposed ankle. Slave culture drove a coach and horses through these fancy pretensions with slave women regularly stripped naked and degraded.

I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.

Male slave owners could have sex with any slave they wanted to. Apart from anything else the system institutionalised rape on an industrial scale. He tells the story of his Aunt Hester, a good looking woman who he now realises his master was raping. When his master catches her in the company of a male slave from another property:

Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d——d b——h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, ‘Now, you d——d b——h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!’ and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.

If chivalry means something like respect towards and consideration for ‘the fairer sex’, then slavery was its diabolical antitype, combining systematic rape, stripping naked and degradation, along with the most violent and cruel physical punishment imaginable.

Decency

Not only were the women regularly raped and/or stripped and whipped, but most slaves had very few clothes to cover their bodies with, to maintain what the Victorians thought of as their ‘decency’, and then only of the poorest quality. These often degenerated to rags. Where Douglass grew up, the children weren’t given any underclothes or garments to his their privates, just one long shirt.

The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.

This indecency would have scandalised Douglass’s high-minded, religious readers.

Christian values

Slave owners simply deny that slaves are human and therefore ineligible for the rights and respect preached by Christianity (see below). By direct contradiction, Douglass makes plain at various points in the narrative that he is a practising Christian who believes the series of incidents which led to his eventual freeing were the results of a special Providence. In fact he devotes the final section of the text, the Appendix, to making an unambiguous extended declaration of his profound Christian faith.

As to whether religion had a positive effect on slave owners, the answer is No. In 1832 Douglass was transferred to the ownership of young Master Thomas Auld who turns out to be a mean and cruel owner. In August 1832 his master attends a Methodist camp meeting and is converted to the new religion, and yet it in no way moderates his behaviour. He continues to whip and punish Douglass for  numerous infringements of his petty rules. In fact, Douglass states that conversion to more active Christian belief made his master’s behaviour worse:

I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.

Douglass routinely watches Auld whip a helpless young slave woman, Henny, and piously quote scripture to justify doing so: ‘“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes’ (Luke 12:47).

Not really up to managing slaves, Auld loans Douglass out to a Mr Covey, a notorious ‘nigger breaker’, even though he was a professor of religion—a pious soul—a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. Once again this Mr Covey manages to be super-pious and extremely violent to his slaves. Covey whipped Douglass more than any other master. Later on Douglass is totally explicit on this issue:

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.

Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.

It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighbourhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, ‘religious’ wretch.

For pious, religious Northern readers, what could be more horrifying than this hypocrisy and the devilish quoting of scripture to justify cruelty and sadism?

Bad language

The Victorians disapproved of bad language. D—n and b——h are spelled with the central letters omitted so as not to offend the gentle reader. By contrast, the overseers who managed their slaves on the owners behalves are consistently depicted as swearing their heads off and uttering all the worst oaths available.

This ‘profanity’ was far more offensive to Victorian readers than it is to us today. The height of this sin was blasphemy, to take the Lord’s name in vain, to use the name of God or Jesus in angry outbursts instead of contexts of veneration. Profanity had been a serious crime in early modern (Elizabethan and Restoration) times and was still highly frowned on in polite society in the nineteenth century. Whereas:

Mr. Severe [the overseer] was rightly named: he was a cruel man. I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release. He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity. Added to his cruelty, he was a profane swearer. It was enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man to hear him talk. Scarce a sentence escaped him but that was commenced or concluded by some horrid oath. The field was the place to witness his cruelty and profanity. His presence made it both the field of blood and of blasphemy.

Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women’s heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself.

Drunkenness

Same with alcohol. Overseers are often depicted as the worse for wear, another value whose transgression meant much more to Victorians than to us. Drunkenness was seen as a vice, and one which degraded its practitioner.

In this respect, as so many others, Douglass goes out of his way to show how Southern slaveowner behaviour was the exact antitype of ‘true’ religion and civilised values.

Whipping and blows

So much for Douglass’s enumeration of the way the institution of slavery mocked and inverted traditional Christian and Victorian values.

At a kind of higher level, slavery mocked the very idea of a civilised society. The most obvious way is that, in a civilised society, men show respect and courtesy to each other, whereas slave society was drenched in wanton cruelty and, in particular, the universality of whipping.

It would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things, of which to make occasion to whip a slave. A mere look, word, or motion,—a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,—one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself; and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while ploughing, break a plough,—or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped.

Douglass shows that pretty much all slaves are whipped, some to a hair-raising degree, whipped for half an hour solid till the overseer is exhausted and strips of skin hang off the slaves’ bloody backs.

I have seen Colonel Lloyd make old Barney, a man between fifty and sixty years of age, uncover his bald head, kneel down upon the cold, damp ground, and receive upon his naked and toil-worn shoulders more than thirty lashes at the time. Colonel Lloyd had three sons—Edward, Murray, and Daniel,—and three sons-in-law, Mr. Winder, Mr. Nicholson, and Mr. Lowndes. All of these lived at the Great House Farm, and enjoyed the luxury of whipping the servants when they pleased, from old Barney down to William Wilkes, the coach-driver. I have seen Winder make one of the house-servants stand off from him a suitable distance to be touched with the end of his whip, and at every stroke raise great ridges upon his back.

At the other end of the spectrum, less devastatingly violent but just as demoralising, are the frequent blows and cuffs and beatings which some slave owners handed out to their chattel, sometimes on a constant level, for almost all a slave’s waking hours. He evidences the household of Mrs Hamilton in Baltimore, who sat in the middle of her living room with a bullwhip by her side and:

Scarce an hour passed during the day but was marked by the blood of one of these slaves. The girls seldom passed her without her saying, ‘Move faster, you black gip!’ at the same time giving them a blow with the cowskin over the head or shoulders, often drawing the blood.

Compare and contrast with all those Victorian novels where the weak and fey female politely accepts the visitation of a charming young gentleman and they politely discourse over tea and cakes. The reality of slave society’s continual, constant violence makes a mockery of those scenes.

Injustice and murder

Obviously slavery was a vast system of injustice which gave rise to countless millions of daily instances of injustice. But Douglass is careful to include some instances of what he regards as murder, where a slave overseer simply murders a slave dead. Now entire mid-Victorian novels could rotate around just one murder, the newspapers went mad every time a salacious murder was committed and there were outcries against the heartless perpetrators or such heinous crimes. As long as the victims were white.

Douglass goes out of his way to describe the murders of several slaves, namely when the grave and serious overseer Mr Gore shoots dead Demby, a slave, for running away during a whipping and hiding in a creek. Mr Gore tells him to come out of the creek, says he’ll count to three, counts to three then shoots Demby through the head.

Or Mr Thomas Lanman of St Michael’s who murders two of his slaves, one of them by knocking his brains out with a hatchet.

The individual stories are upsetting, but the point Douglass is making is that both times the overseers got away with it. They were never charged or ‘brought to justice’. Even if the white ‘justice’ system made a few cursory attempts at an investigation it soon fizzled out, the whole thing was hushed up, and the overseers continued on their career of whipping and occasionally killing their slaves.

Slavery was a system which literally got away with murder, thus undermining the fundamental basis of all civilised society, which is the sanctity of human life.

Suicide

Nowadays we think of suicide as the result of mental illness or mental problems to which we must be sympathetic and supportive. But for the Victorians it was first and foremost a terrible sin which automatically condemned its practitioner to hell.

Which is the relevance of Douglass’s admission that it was only when he could read and began to read abolitionist tracts against slavery that the full force of the horrific iniquitous system in which he found himself became clear and he began to have suicidal thoughts. Reading had shown him the hellhole he was in but offered no escape. Anyone who has had suicidal feelings will recognise that mental condition, the feeling that you are trapped, in a box, in a cell, in a hole, with no way out except to do away with yourself.

Thus Douglass’s admission of his own suicidal ideas is an example of the double-sidedness of the narrative: it is a true and accurate first person description of his feelings. But at the same time makes a massive general point about the effect of the system on its victims, creating widespread feelings of hopelessness and despair, so frowned on by Victorians, and which often led to the actual act of suicide, which was an unambiguous sin which condemned its practitioner to hell.

In its way, suicide was more iniquitous and evil than murder, in which the victim, according to Victorian theology, at least stood the chance of going to heaven. Douglass shows that slavery was not just a system of universal violence, rape and sadistic punishment, but also spread the sin of suicidal thoughts and actions.

Are slaves human?

The fundamental crux of the issue was whether slaves were fully human. Southerners said no. They used a wide variety of arguments to support this position, but sooner or later all the arguments boil down to claiming slaves are a difference race, a different species: they were cursed to slavery in the Bible, they enjoy slavery, they were animals so they couldn’t be reasoned with and needed the firm discipline of slavery, they were congenitally unfit for freedom, and so on.

Whereas abolitionists argued that, yes, slaves are human, as human as all other humans, with the full set of human feelings, emotions, perceptions, thoughts and intellect, they are creatures of God like you and me, and so are due the entire panoply of human rights, freedom under the law, equal access to justice and so on.

It is to address the slaver accusation that slaves are somehow not fully human in their a) intellect and b) feelings that Douglass goes out of his way to prove the opposite.

Feelings

This motivation (to prove that slaves are capable of all the human emotions) underlies the passages in the first few chapters about his mother, Harriet Bailey, how they were separated when he was a baby but how she still made long pilgrimages to see her son. These passages are not only heart-breaking in their own right but are making a fundamental point: slaves have feelings, too. They are capable of just the same fine family sentiments as the most dignified of white people.

This is not a trivial issue. A key plank in the defence of slavery was that slaves were incapable of finer feelings and emotions. You could split up their family units as if they were livestock because they were incapable of feelings, you could whip them like you whipped a donkey because they didn’t feel it. Passages like the ones about his mother are at pains to utterly discredit this argument.

Intellect

As to intellect, slavers were able to use the circular argument that their slaves were ignorant, illiterate and stupid and so it was pointless trying to educate them. Douglass singles out the key moment in his escape from slavery as coming when his mistress in Baltimore, Mrs Sophia Auld, naively offered to teach him to read and write. In fact she didn’t get very far before her husband learned what she is doing and delivers a key speech:

‘If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.’

Hearing this was like a thunderbolt to Douglass’s mind. It lay bare in a flash the key to the white man’s domination over the black. Education. Literacy. Those were the sources of the white man’s power:

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man…From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.

And although his mistress obeyed her husband and abruptly stopped teaching him his letters, the next few chapters give a moving account of how Douglass picked it up on the streets, doing favours for white boys and getting them to identify the different letters for him, picking them out in the dirt or on brick walls, slowly learning to spell out the words in adverts and shop signs, painfully teaching himself to read. Also his master’s son, Master Thomas, was attending junior school and so Douglass was able to sneak looks at his schoolbooks and even swipe his old ‘copy books’ and use them to teach himself to write out letters. And once he could read, it opened up the vast treasure house of knowledge, law and power.

So Douglass’s narrative not only describes the author’s slow, painful self-education and the path to empowerment which he undertook – but the narrative itself, its sheer existence, is a massive rebuttal and disproof of a central plank of the slaver argument that blacks are somehow intrinsically incapable of thought and intellect.

This book at a stroke demolished that argument forever. Give a black child the same education as a white one and he or she can go on to become easily the equal of any white person, arguably their superior because they have had to overcome so many obstacles in a white persons’ society.

A treasury of arguments and examples

Douglass’s narrative became such a central text in abolitionist literature not only because it is a vividly written, easily accessible and heart-breaking first-hand testimony to an evil system; but also because it was a cannily assembled series of counter-arguments to all the slavers’ justifications for their system.

It can be plundered for scenes which graphically depict the stomach-churning violence or the subtly corrupting effect of slave-owning on initially ‘good’ people. But it was also a goldmine of anti-slavery arguments which could, and would, be quoted extensively in abolitionist lectures, articles and speeches for decades to come.

P.S.

I had included some photos of slaves taken for Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz in 1850 for a study in which he tried to prove that black people constituted a different and inferior race to whites. The ownership and purpose of these images is now highly contested, as is Agassiz’s reputation. I had included the photos as visual evidence of the abjection and humiliation to which slaves were subjected. But, on reflection, I think a) I was perpetuating that very objectification and humiliation by including them, and b) the people in the photos have living descendants who have complained to Harvard about the ownership and use of the images, and, to be blunt, how would I like to see photos of my great-great-great grandparents stripped naked and humiliated? So I’ve removed them.


Related links

Other posts about slavery and racism

Origins

Slavery

The civil war

20th century racism

Art

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave by Aphra Behn (1688)

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689) is generally considered the first known professional female writer in England. She was a very successful playwright, producing at least 15 plays, mostly Restoration comedies. She was a widely published poet, translator, essayist and writer of prose fictions.

She lived through troubled times – growing up during the civil wars (1637 – 53) she was 9 or so when King Charles was executed in January 1649, lived through the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and was 20 or so when Charles II was restored. There are at least four biographies of Behn, plus numerous introductions to her work. They all agree that she welcomed the return of the Stuart dynasty, was popular with Charles II, and even did some spying for him abroad (on a journey to Antwerp). Back in London she was part of the set of rakish poets and playwrights which included John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, to whom she dedicated a poem.

‘Behn was a lifelong and militant royalist, and her fictions are quite consistent in portraying virtuous royalists and put-upon nobles who are opposed by petty and evil republicans/Parliamentarians.’ (Wikipedia)

Charles II died in 1685 (in Oroonoko he is referred to as ‘his late Majesty, of sacred Memory’) and was succeeded by his brother James II, triggering an uprising by Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, in the Protestant cause.

Monmouth’s rebellion was successfully defeated, but three years later:

  1. James’s Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, giving birth to a son, who everyone knew was set to be raised a Catholic, with the threat that Britain would become a Catholic country
  2. coincided with James’s foolish decision to prosecute seven Anglican bishops for seditious libel

The combination of these events triggered a rebellion by England’s richest Protestant landowners, who a) expelled James b) invited Prince William of Orange (a state in the Low Countries) – who had a sort of legitimacy because he was  married to James’s (solidly Protestant) daughter, Mary – to come and rule Britain in his place.

This seismic event in British history and all its political and legal consequences, for a long time referred to as The Glorious Revolution, had barely bedded in when Behn died, aged (if her birth date is correct) just 49.

Oroonoko

Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave is the longest and most successful of Behn’s prose pieces. It was a bestseller in her lifetime, was quickly turned into a successful stage play and went on to have at least three other stage adaptations and revivals.

Basically, it’s a tragic love story. Oroonoko is a prince of Coramantian, the 17th century name for what later became known as the Gold Coast, and later still became modern-day Ghana. Oroonoko is the grandson of the king of Coromantian, who has an impressive harem of wives. By the age of 17 Oroonoko is a heroic warrior and goes to war under the guardianship of the people’s greatest general, and blossoms into:

one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars: so that he was ador’d as the Wonder of all that World, and the Darling of the Soldiers.

The text has that tone throughout – Oroonoko is depicted as the greatest, noblest, most educated, wisest and wittiest and bravest and manliest man that ever lived.

Oroonoko is available in several OUP and Penguin paperback editions, all of which are introduced by feminist scholars, all of whom make the same point that Behn was an ‘outsider’ in the ‘man’s world’ of literary Restoration England. Thus they all point out the poignancy / structural appropriateness of Behn depicting another type of outsider to the ‘white supremacist, racist, misogynist discourse’ of Restoration England – a black man. One outsider writing about another.

Except that, as I read Oroonoko, it seemed to me Behn makes her black hero less of an outsider than you might expect. In fact he comes over as an epitome of civilisation, conceived very much along European lines:

for his Discourse was admirable upon almost any Subject: and whoever had heard him speak, would have been convinced of their Errors, that all fine Wit is confined to the white Men, especially to those of Christendom; and would have confess’d that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a Soul, as politick Maxims, and was as sensible of Power, as any Prince civilis’d in the most refined Schools of Humanity and Learning, or the most illustrious Courts.

Not least because Oroonoko has had European tutors and governors:

Some Part of it we may attribute to the Care of a Frenchman of Wit and Learning, who finding it turn to a very good Account to be a sort of Royal Tutor to this young Black, and perceiving him very ready, apt, and quick of Apprehension, took a great Pleasure to teach him Morals, Language and Science; and was for it extremely belov’d and valu’d by him. Another Reason was, he lov’d when he came from War, to see all the English Gentlemen that traded thither; and did not only learn their Language, but that of the Spaniard also, with whom he traded afterwards for Slaves.

Thus:

Oroonoko, who was more civiliz’d, according to the European Mode, than any other had been, and took more Delight in the White Nations; and, above all, Men of Parts and Wit.

So Oroonoko is not quite the ‘outsider’ or ‘other’ figure that the politically correct introductions led me to believe.

It’s also striking that Behn deliberately removes from her hero some of the most prominent physical characteristics of people of colour.

His Nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat: His Mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turn’d Lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so nobly and exactly form’d, that bating his Colour, there could be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome. There was no one Grace wanting, that bears the Standard of true Beauty. His Hair came down to his Shoulders, by the Aids of Art, which was by pulling it out with a Quill, and keeping it comb’d; of which he took particular Care.

He does not have a large nose, or ‘great turn’d lips’, or frizzy Afro hair, but a Roman nose, flat lips, and shoulder-length, straight hair. He sounds more like a native Indian than an African. As educated as a European? Looking more like an Indian than an African? this is not quite the African prince I had expected.

Anyway, back to the love story. In the heat of the battle, the brave old general sees an arrow heading for Oroonoko and throws himself in front of it, dying from his wound. The general had one daughter, Imoinda, so Oroonoko goes to see her to tell her how bravely her father died.

Imoinda is, of course, a stunning beauty. The leading quality of Behn’s mind is exorbitance: everything is the bestest of the best.

This old dead Hero had one only Daughter left of his Race, a Beauty, that to describe her truly, one need say only, she was Female to the noble Male; the beautiful Black Venus to our young Mars; as charming in her Person as he, and of delicate Virtues. I have seen a hundred White Men sighing after her, and making a thousand Vows at her Feet, all in vain and unsuccessful. And she was indeed too great for any but a Prince of her own Nation to adore.

And Imoinda’s wonderful appearance is confirmed when Oroonoko actually visits her:

When he came, attended by all the young Soldiers of any Merit, he was infinitely surpris’d at the Beauty of this fair Queen of Night, whose Face and Person were so exceeding all he had ever beheld, that lovely Modesty with which she receiv’d him, that Softness in her Look and Sighs, upon the melancholy Occasion of this Honour that was done by so great a Man as Oroonoko, and a Prince of whom she had heard such admirable Things; the Awfulness wherewith she receiv’d him, and the Sweetness of her Words and Behaviour while he stay’d, gain’d a perfect Conquest over his fierce Heart.

The point of giving these three long quotes is to show how Behn’s prose works – with long sentences which swell with Romantic clichés and stereotypes – the language of Restoration poetry which was devoted to describing a narrow group of stereotyped qualities – Beauty of body and face; Love with its world of sighs and passions; Warrior qualities of sternness and bravery; and the Tragic Mode of grief and tears.

And every Important word is in Capitals.

Slavery

In another reversal of the politically correct interpretation of Oroonoko as a victim of white imperialism, he quite calmly gives the fair Imoinda a gift of slaves which he captured in the recent battle. The casualness with which Behn describes this suggests that slave-taking, selling and giving were part and parcel of the African societies of the time, or at least that Behn thought so:

So that having made his first Compliments, and presented her an hundred and fifty Slaves in Fetters, he told her with his Eyes, that he was not insensible of her Charms; while Imoinda, who wish’d for nothing more than so glorious a Conquest, was pleas’d to believe, she understood that silent Language of new-born Love; and, from that Moment, put on all her Additions to Beauty.

Note how the 150 slaves are mentioned only in passing and don’t merit as much space as the looks of love which the two lead characters exchange.

In fact the text then goes on to make it perfectly plain that Oroonoko is a slave trader in his own right. When an English ship arrives on the coast:

The Master of it had often before been in these Countries, and was very well known to Oroonoko, with whom he had traffick’d for Slaves, and had us’d to do the same with his Predecessors… To this Captain [Oroonoko] sold abundance of his Slaves…

So when Oroonoko is himself made a slave, it is no more than the fate he has dealt out to hundreds of his countrymen. In fact, when he is caught and sold into slavery Oroonoko he will meet many of the blacks he himself sold into slavery in the previous years.

Some of the mechanics of slavery are explained from what is, presumably, first hand experience.

  • how merchants in the West Indies contract with the captains of slave ships to bring back specified numbers of slaves
  • how the slave traders break up the slave into ‘lots’, deliberately mingling men, women and children from different tribes, so that they often speak different languages and dialects, to prevent them conspiring together
  • how the slave owners ignore the slaves’ real names and give them simpler, easier English names (as Oroonoko will be renamed ‘Caesar’, see below)

The narrator

The tale is told in the first person by a woman narrator, made plain in several places, including:

his Misfortune was, to fall in an obscure World, that afforded only a Female Pen to celebrate his Fame; tho’ I doubt not but it had lived from others Endeavours, if the Dutch, who immediately after his Time took that Country, had not killed, banished and dispersed all those that were capable of giving the World this great Man’s Life, much better than I have done.

The narrator tells us that she lived in Surinam, and spends a couple of pages describing the character of the native inhabitants with whom she and the other white colonists deal and trade. Among these is the description of an elaborate native head-dress the narrator was given and which she later donated to ‘the King’s Theatre’ for a production of The Indian Queen.

Now this was a real historical play which was produced in Behn’s London, so many critics see the story as overt autobiography, linking the narrating voice directly with Behn herself which – along with the vividness of her descriptions of the local climate, flowers and wildlife (armadillos) – persuades some modern scholars that Behn did indeed travel to Surinam and personally witness much of what she describes.

Whereas other modern scholars completely disagree, and point out that Behn could have gathered every scrap of detail she uses in the narrative from current books of exotic travel and description.

You pays your money and you believes whichever version takes your fancy.

The plot

Oroonoka falls in love with Imoinda and they perform a ceremony of troth-making, though not officially getting married.

The king of Coramantia – Oroonoka’s grandfather – hears about Imoinda’s wondrous beauty and also that Oroonoka is wooing her. He has her brought to his palace to join his harem, specifically to join him in the royal bath. Imoinda throws herself on his mercy and begs her innocence. The king ignores her pleas, takes her into his bath and into his bed. However, we are assured quite a few times that he is old and impotent – therefore he may ogle her and caress her but cannot ‘possess’ her. This is to ensure she remains a virgin for Oroonoka.

A word about virginity

In The Vicar of Wakefield, and Pamela and Oroonoko I am fascinated by the intense importance – the moral and emotional and legal and religious importances – that are put on the quality of female virginity, and also by the numerous flowery periphrases which are used to tastefully describe it.

 whether she was robb’d of that Blessing which was only due to his Faith and Love.

I am not yet known to my Husband.

’Twas not enough to appease him, to tell him, his Grandfather was old, and could not that Way injure him

for Imoinda being his lawful Wife by solemn Contract, ’twas he was the injur’d Man,

I believe he omitted saying nothing to this young Maid, that might persuade her to suffer him to seize his own, and take the Rights of Love.

… the Vows she made him, that she remained a spotless Maid till that Night, and that what she did with his Grandfather had robb’d him of no Part of her Virgin-Honour; the Gods, in Mercy and Justice, having reserved that for her plighted Lord, to whom of Right it belonged.

the old King had hitherto not been able to deprive him of those Enjoyments which only belonged to him,

But as it is the greatest Crime in Nature amongst them, to touch a Woman after having been possess’d by a Son, a Father, or a Brother, so now he looked on Imoinda as a polluted thing wholly unfit for his Embrace;

In part, then, Oroonoko joins the vast record of humanity’s complete inability to sensibly organise relationships between the two sexes which we find the human species cast into.

Millennia from now visitors from Mars will leaf through these records in disbelief at the enormous weight of importance which was put on the insertion of a part of the male anatomy into a part of the female anatomy – an event of such vast importance that it inspired murders, suicides, drove people to ruin their own and other’s lives, inspired tribes and entire nations to go to war about it. The Martians will flick through these records and their coy circumlocutions in disbelief at the trouble it caused.

More plot

Oroonoko is struck down with despair at the news his beloved has been taken off by the king. But his own life is in danger if the king thinks he still loves her. So Oroonoko has to feign indifference to Imoinda, even when they are both at court, even when he sees her, at the end of the evening’s entertainment, being led off into the king’s bed-chamber.

Luckily, Oroonoko recruits one of the king’s courtiers, the handsome Aboan, to his cause. This young man chats up one of the older ‘discarded’ mistresses of the king’s harem, Onahal, and persuades her to let him and Oroonoko in a back entrance of the palace one night. Oroonoko goes straight to Imoinda’s chamber, where:

I believe she was not long resisting those Arms where she so longed to be; and having Opportunity, Night, and Silence, Youth, Love, and Desire, he soon prevail’d, and ravished in a Moment what his old Grandfather had been endeavouring for so many Months.

While Aboan has to pay the price of old Onahal’s helping them, namely allowing the old woman to take him to bed. Here you can see the deliberate pairing of the Serious and the Comic, our hero’s coupling with the beautiful heroine paralleled by the essentially comic coupling of May and December in another bedroom nearby. You can see how this is designed to prompt fine sentiments about the former, interspersed with comedy or comic revulsion, at the latter.

Dawn comes too quickly, servants try to enter Imoinda’s chamber, Oroonoko threatens to kill them, calls the chamber the chamber of love, kisses her one last time then makes his escape. The servants report back to the king, confirming all his worst suspicions. Well, now she has been ‘possessed’ by another man, she is not fit for the harem and so the king orders Imoinda (and Onahal, who obviously helped her) to be sold as slaves.

Then he repents (or Behn contrives for him to repent) in such a way as to come round to respecting the couple’s young love. According to the twisted of the day, the king cannot undo Imoinda’s fate, but he can make it ‘respectable’ by declaring he had her executed. That is less shameful than being sold a slave. And so the king sends messengers to Oroonoko telling him he’s had Imoinda executed.

Oroonoko was at the army camp expecting an attack from the enemy. He slumps onto the carpet in suicidal despair. The enemy attacks and is winning and the captains come to beg Oroonoko snap out of it. Eventually he does, declares he will die in battle, storms out of his tent, and leads the army to a famous victory. He captures the enemy leader, Jamoan, single-handed, and comes to respect his nobility and dignity.

You can see how it is less a plot than a succession, a kind of gallery of scenes presenting the highest type of noble figure – kings, princes, generals – displaying the noblest emotions – true love, true grief, valour in battle, chivalry to a defeated opponent.

The weeks and months pass and Oroonoko becomes an accepted figure at the court; he has forgiven the king and the two rub along OK, but he has never overcome his grief at the supposed execution of his true love.

And English ship docks in the port and the captain, a man of culture and education, treats Oroonoko and his followers to a grand feast and tour of the ship – at the climax of which they seize them, throw them in chains and sail away. Oroonoko tries to kill himself, first by beating his head against the floor or walls, then starving himself to death, but the captain and he have a lengthy wordy exchange which results in the Oroonoko being given liberty of the ship on the basis that he will be freed when they reach the next port.

But they’re not. They arrive at Surinam, an English colony. Here Oroonoko is sold off in a lot of seventeen slaves. He throws a parting curse at the captain of the ship and worthlessness of the God he swore his vows by.

Oroonoko is sold to a Cornish man, Trefry, who hears Oroonoko speak and realises he not only speaks English but us a man of ‘quality’. He impresses everyone who meets him. Trefry gives him the slave name Caesar. They travel upriver for days. When they arrive Caesar behaves more like a governor than a slave – many of the other blacks on the plantation were slaves he himself consigned to their condition but, recognising natural Nobility, instead of stoning him, they flock to worship him and prostrate themselves at his feet!

Trefry entertains him at the plantation mansion telling him, among other things about a beautiful young slave woman they’ve christened Clemene, and who everyone is in love with. Trefry takes Caesar to see her and, of course, she is none other than Imoinda! She faints, he runs to catch er, Trefry is delighted this little romance has played out on his plantation. Hidden in all the alarums is the surprising news that Imoinda is only 15 or 16. Or, as Behn puts it, in her operatic baroque style:

Trefry, who was naturally amorous, and delighted to talk of Love as well as any Body, proceeded to tell him, they had the most charming Black that ever was beheld on their Plantation, about fifteen or sixteen Years old, as he guess’d; that for his Part he had done nothing but sigh for her ever since she came; and that all the White Beauties he had seen, never charm’d him so absolutely as this fine Creature had done; and that no Man, of any Nation, ever beheld her, that did not fall in love with her; and that she had all the Slaves perpetually at her Feet; and the whole Country resounded with the Fame of Clemene, for so (said he) we have christen’d her: but she denies us all with such a noble Disdain, that ’tis a Miracle to see, that she who can give such eternal Desires, should herself be all Ice and all Unconcern.

Then again, we know that Oroonoko entered the army and had become a noted captain by the age of seventeen:

as soon as he could bear a Bow in his Hand, and a Quiver at his Back, was sent into the Field, to be train’d up by one of the oldest Generals to War; where, from his natural Inclination to Arms, and the Occasions given him, with the good Conduct of the old General, he became, at the Age of seventeen, one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars:

So it’s a love story between a 17 year-old and a 16 year-old.

At this point the narrator enters the story. She has been introduced to Oroonoko, who has told her the story of  his life to date, corroborated by the French tutor who was captured along with the prince and his courtiers, and brought across the ocean, though cannot be enslaved (because he’s a Christian). She has assured Oroonoko she will petition the governor to get him freed. We also learn that Imoinda’s body is decorated, as is Oroonoko’s:

and tho’ from her being carved in fine Flowers and Birds all over her Body, we took her to be of Quality before, yet when we knew Clemene was Imoinda, we could not enough admire her. I had forgot to tell you, that those who are nobly born of that Country, are so delicately cut and raised all over the Fore-part of the Trunk of their Bodies, that it looks as if it were japan’d, the Works being raised like high Point round the Edges of the Flowers. Some are only carved with a little Flower, or Bird, at the Sides of the Temples, as was Cæsar; and those who are so carved over the Body, resemble our antient Picts that are figur’d in the Chronicles, but these Carvings are more delicate.

‘Carved’? ‘Cut and raised’? Does this mean tattooed, or scarred so as to create patterned ridges of scar tissue?

Oroonoko and Imoinda live – and are accepted by everyone – as man and wife. She becomes pregnant. The couple are always at the narrator’s house, eating, and she teaches them about history and Christianity which, however, Oroonoko doesn’t understand and mocks.

There is a pause in the narrative while the narrator explains that she sailed to Surinam with her father who was meant to become Lieutenant-General of 36 islands ‘beside the continent of Surinam’ but died on the voyage out. Nonetheless, she is put up in the finest house in the colony, Parham House.

It is important to grasp that Orinooko does not live the life of a slave at all – occasionally they go and visit the ‘Negro villages’ where the slaves live. Instead, he lives a life of leisure and diversion with the narrator and other white gentry. In this holiday capacity Oroonoko has several adventures:

  • he’s one of a party with the narrator who are surprised by a massive female tiger which threatens them but Oroonoko kills with one sword stroke
  • he hunts and kills another tiger which has been terrorising the neighbourhood
  • he fishes for the legendary numb-eel and is struck so numb by it he falls into the river and is carried some distance downstream, unconscious, before being rescued

Some kind of war breaks out with the native Indians, who attack white settlements and kill white settlers. The narrator, some others and Oroonoko go on a long journey down the river to visit a village of Indians and we are treated to an extended ethnographic description of their appearance and customs.

They meet some Indians of a different height and style, who tell them they’ve returned from the mountains where gold tumbles down in the streams. Once known this spurs gold fever in the settlers. More than once the narrator laments that the British government (well, Charles II) let the Dutch take over the colony of Surinam as a result of the third of the three brief Dutch wars of the 1660s (under the Treaty of Breda in 1667).

As Imoinda becomes more heavily pregnant, Oroonoko chafes more and more at, not exactly his slavery, because he isn’t used as a slave, but certainly at his lack of freedom. He calls together the Negroes on their free day and inspires, not a rebellion, but an exodus: they pack up all their stuff and leave, planning to cross rivers, mountains and forests and set up their own colony of the free.

They are followed by the governor-general, William Byam, and about 600 men. They catch up with the renegades and there’s a fierce fight, but the rebel blacks are slowly defeated or persuaded to stop fighting by their womenfolk, until only Ceasar and his most loyal lieutenant, Tuscan, are fighting on.

The governor promises them safe passage if they yield, and honourable Trefry goes talk to them and persuades them to surrender. They are all taken back to the plantation where Caesar and Tuscan are suddenly seized, tied to stakes, and whipped till the flesh falls off their bones. Many of the whippers are the very slaves he tried to free and who pretended to worship him. They rub pepper into the wounds and tie him to the ground.

The narrator didn’t witness this. She and the other white women, when they heard Caesar had led the slaves away, all fled to the safety of the river (?) where they were put in charge of the gallant Colonel Martin. When they hear the rebellion is put down they return to their house on the plantation (Parham House) then go to see Caesar in his wretched condition. They have him released, put into a bath to wash away the pepper, and surgeon called to administer healing balm. Caesar thanks them and respects Colonel Martin but says he vows to live solely to take his revenge on Governor Byam.

The Governor calls his council (of white trash, exiles and renegades) who call for Caesar to be hanged. But Trefry nobly points out the council has no authority over his estate (where they’ve brought Caesar to recuperate) and so he lives.

He lives but he vows eternal vengeance on Byam. But then he quavers in his determination, knowing he will not survive the murder and – worse – his beautiful Imoinda will be punished, maybe raped or gang-raped. Therefore (in the twisted logic of high opera) he resolves to kill her first.

He takes her up to a hilltop, explains his plan – to kill Byam, then take the punishment, but doesn’t want to leave her exposed – and she agrees, and amid tears and noble declamations – he stabs her to death!

while Tears trickled down his Cheeks, hers were smiling with Joy she should die by so noble a Hand, and be sent into her own Country (for that’s their Notion of the next World) by him she so tenderly loved, and so truly ador’d in this: For Wives have a Respect for their Husbands equal to what any other People pay a Deity; and when a Man finds any Occasion to quit his Wife, if he love her, she dies by his Hand; if not, he sells her, or suffers some other to kill her. It being thus, you may believe the Deed was soon resolv’d on; and ’tis not to be doubted, but the parting, the eternal Leave-taking of two such Lovers, so greatly born, so sensible, so beautiful, so young, and so fond, must be very moving,

Mind you, the details are extraordinarily gory:

All that Love could say in such Cases, being ended, and all the intermitting Irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young and ador’d Victim lays herself down before the Sacrificer; while he, with a Hand resolved, and a Heart-breaking within, gave the fatal Stroke, first cutting her Throat, and then severing her yet smiling Face from that delicate Body, pregnant as it was with the Fruits of tenderest Love.

He waits two days by the body but is then distraught to discover that excess of grief and lack of food have made him weak. When he tries to stand, he staggers. He rests another six days but only becomes weaker and weaker.

Meanwhile the narrator and his friends have become alarmed at the disappearance of Caesar and Imoinda and send out no fewer than hundred servants and slaves to find him. They find him in a clearing thanks to the smell of Imoinda’s rotting corpse.

Good God, why has he murdered his beautiful wife? He explains his plan but is too weak to move. He cuts flesh from his neck, then disembowels himself.

He stabs to the heart the first man who approaches him, but then Tuscan disarms him (be receiving the knife in the arm) and the other catch him and carry him back to Parham House. He is now skin and bone, like a death’s head.

Then one of the governor’s wretched criminal confederates comes and seizes Orookoko, not realising all he wants is to die and be with Imoinda. So when they tie him to the whipping post and announce they are going to kill him, Oroonoko is delighted.

Piece by piece they dismember his living body – cutting off his ‘members’, then his ears and nose and throwing them into the fire. Then hacking off one arm, then the other, at which point he dies. They quarter his body and send the quarters to different plantations to frighten the slaves.

Thus died this great Man, worthy of a better Fate, and a more sublime Wit than mine to write his Praise: Yet, I hope, the Reputation of my Pen is considerable enough to make his glorious Name to survive to all Ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful and the constant Imoinda.

Anti-colonialism

Nowhere does Behn express any explicit statements against slavery: it was too much a part of contemporary society, not just in Europe but in Africa and the colonies, for it to have come to seem monstrously unjust. Its evils and injustice and cruelty is amply described, but without any sense that the trade and institution itself could or should be stopped.

Instead, what Behn focuses on is the unfairness of enslaving a prince, a man of natural Nobility and Culture. The Wikipedia article and Penguin introduction both emphasise that the central pillar of Behn’s beliefs was her devotion to the principle of Monarchy. Nations need kings. Hence her enthusiastic support for Charles II. Once you grasp that this is the central principle of Behn’s worldview, then you understand:

– why she doesn’t criticise slavery, as an institution, but she does criticise the injustice of seizing Oroonoko

– why the issue of keeping one’s word is much more laboured over than slavery; for Behn, keeping one’s promise was the basis of trust, faith and society; her harshest criticism isn’t reserved for slavers as such, but for people like the sea captain who invites Oroonoko and his followers to a feast, then breaks his word to them – who promises to set them free at the next port, but breaks his word again; and for the governor of Surinam, Byam, who promises Oroonoko safe passage after his rebellion, but instead, once he gives himself up, orders his extreme whipping. In Behn’s view, men like that undermine the possibility of a civilised society, which must be based on trust and good faith.

– why the narrator is at such pains to repeated that Surinam lacks a proper governor, a representative of the king who would underpin good government. Instead it has the troth-breaking and treacherous governor Byam, and his treachery is intimately connected to the lack of his monarchical abilities. Without a True King a colony, like a nation, collapses.

– and this principle explains why Oroonoko’s Nobility and natural dignity outshine and shame the squalid brutality of his persecutors. The final scenes in which he continues smoking a pipe while his punishers cut off his members, his ears and nose and arms, is absurd from a ‘realist’ point of view, but an important token of Behn’s fervent belief in Royalism. Oroonoko is a king in the same way that Jesus was a king, full of sanctity and dignity, and beside his natural princely dignity the colonists seem like barbaric animals.

– and finally, it explains the narrator’s repeated disparaging references to the Dutch. The Dutch received the colony of Surinam as part of the Treaty of Breda of 1667 (the British received the settlement of New Amsterdam, which was to grow into New York City) and the narrator laments King Charles’s short-sightedness in giving away such a rich colony. But edge is added to her criticism because the Dutch were republicans and democrats. In Behn’s royalist view, every nation needs a king, and this is why she laments what she sees as the inevitable decline of the colony once it was handed over to democrats who, by definition, have no idea how to run a state.

Feminist scholars and critics have written scores of books and thousands of articles about Aphra Behn, raising her to sainthood in the pantheon of women writers. In doing so, they tend to equate her with their own politically correct and ultra-liberal views. They prefer to overlook the central fact that Behn was, from start to finish, in all her poems, prose and plays, a fervently right-wing, anti-democratic royalist. She would have voted for Mrs Thatcher.

Feminism

Behn is a feminist saint but it doesn’t prevent her depiction of the female lead, Imoinda, being the most clichéd and stereotypical imaginable, which will have come over from my plot summary.

On the other hand, the narrating voice, the persona she creates for herself within the text, is interesting, flexible and highly intelligent. She begs the reader’s indulgence for having a merely ‘female pen’, but this comes over as merely one of the polite formalities of the day, like the dedication and the preface and the verse prologue and so on attached to the text.

These conventional disclaimers shouldn’t distract us from her intelligence and skill, and the interest and curiosity she displays about the wildlife and climate of both the Africa of Oroonoko’s youth and the Surinam where the second half is set.

Feminist scholars and critics by the thousands have written scores of books and thousands of articles about Aphra Behn, raising her to sainthood in the pantheon of women writers. In doing so, they tend to equate her with their own politically correct and ultra-liberal views.

They prefer to overlook the central fact that Behn was, from start to finish, in all her poems, prose and plays, a fervently right-wing, anti-democratic royalist. She would have voted for Mrs Thatcher.

Is it a novel?

No, would be my answer, it is more like a Restoration play than a novel, and a restoration play – with its stock in trade of princely heroes and only the noblest and most highfalutin’ of emotions – is more like an opera than a modern play.

And towards the end it becomes more like the kind of sensationalist, penny-dreadful tracts hawked around scaffolds when criminals are to be executed, hanged or beheaded, another genre altogether.

One moment struck me as exemplifying the gap between the high-minded rhetoric of the text and the probable realities which underpin it. When Trefry describes the beautiful Clemene whose beauty ravishes everyone, Caesar asks him why he doesn’t just ‘ravish’ her, and Trefry replies:

‘I confess (said Trefry) when I have, against her Will, entertained her with Love so long, as to be transported with my Passion even above Decency, I have been ready to make Use of those Advantages of Strength and Force Nature has given me: But Oh! she disarms me with that Modesty and Weeping, so tender and so moving, that I retire, and thank my Stars she overcame me.’

I think a moment reflecting on this testimony, or text, or bit of discourse, suggests how utterly unlike the real world Behn’s fiction is, how it exists not to depict a ‘reality’ but to showcase the finest sentiments from a succession of noble characters. Indeed:

The Company laugh’d at [Trefry’s] Civility to a Slave, but Cæsar only applauded the Nobleness of his Passion and Nature…

(I wrote this observation before the final passages describing Oroonoko being whipped and peppered, murdering his wife, then wasting away, then being hacked to pieces. These final scenes seem, to me, to belong to a different genre altogether, certainly to a different register, and I wasn’t surprised to read, in the Wikipedia article about Oroonoko, that many of the details of the whipping and dismemberment might have been copied from written accounts of the appalling end of a white settle in Surinam, John Allin, which was described in detail in a contemporary publication.)

Is Oroonoko a novel? Well, it’s a long, connected narrative fiction, which is one definition. And you do get a cumulatively persuasive view of the narrator – the narrator’s tone and intentions and explanations seem assimilable to modern logic and understanding.

But the text itself, the actual story, seems to me too much like a Restoration tragedy, a contrived scaffold for unrealistically high sentiments all the way through – until it collapses in the last pages into its polar opposite, a blood-thirsty account of ‘true life crime passionel‘.

It is undeniably a precursor of the flexible, adult type of narrative which we call ‘the novel’, and yet…


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