American Colonies by Alan Taylor (2001)

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies is the first volume in the multi-volume Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric Foner. It is a big-format book, with 470 densely packed pages covering the colonisation of America from the arrival of the first humans 15,000 years ago up to AD 1800. It is an extraordinarily thorough, wide-ranging, thought-provoking and exhilirating read, but which dealswith some extremely grim and depressing subject matter.

Broad canvas

Most of the histories of America I’ve read start with Sir Walter Raleigh and the early English settlements of the 1580s and 90s, and then briskly run through the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Atlantic coast in the 1600s, in a hurry to get to the War of Independence (in the 1770s) when the ‘true’ story of America begins.

Taylor’s approach couldn’t be more different. His canvas is longer and broader and much, much bigger. Longer, in that he starts with the arrival of the first humans in America some 13,000 BC. Echoing the picture painted by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, he describes how a probably small group of hunter-gatherers in Siberia moved across what we now think of as the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and then, as the climate improved, a) the land bridge flooded, separating America and Asia and b) the early settlers were able to move south into the huge empty continent.

Domesticable mammals

As we know from Guns, Germs and Steel, their arrival coincided with the mass extinction of all the large mammals in America – presumably through human overhunting – leaving no mammals on the continent capable of being domesticated. According to Jared Diamond this is perhaps the decisive difference between the inhabitants of Eurasia – which domesticated pigs, goats, cows and sheep and, crucially, the horse – and the inhabitants of all the other continents, which had hardly any or simply no domesticable mammals.

Animal diseases

The domesticated animals of Eurasia were important not only for their use as food, in providing skins and hides, manure to fertilise crops and the pulling power of horses and oxen – large numbers of farm animals allowed the fomenting of terrible epidemic diseases, which jumped the species barrier into humans and then spread through our densely populated towns and cities. We are the descendants of the survivors of repeated epidemics of plague, smallpox, tuberculosis and so on which devastated Asia and Europe.

Thus when the first Europeans arrived in the New World (on Columbus’s First Voyage of 1492), it wasn’t the gunpowder or steel swords or even the warriors on horseback which did for the natives – it was the diseases we brought. Again and again and again, Taylor tells harrowing stories of how our diseases – especially smallpox- devastated the populations of the West Indies, of the Aztec and Inca empires, then of the Mississippian civilisation, and then all up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

It’s only recently that historians have taken the measure of this devastating biological warfare: for a long time it was thought that the Native American population was about 1 million when the English started colonising the Atlantic coast; but now it is thought the original population, before the Spanish arrived in 1492, may have been as high as 20 million. I.e. in about a century (1490-1590) 95% of the Indian population was wiped out by European diseases.

Thus, Taylor emphasises, until recently historians thought that the Indian tribes which the European settlers encountered had inhabited their territories from time immemorial. The new ‘disease-aware’ theories suggest the exact opposite: that Europeans encountered survivors who were still reeling from the devastation of their populations by disease, which in turn had led to internecine warfare and the seizing of territory, to regrouping and realliancing (p.74). Often this occurred before the main body of European explorers arrived – after all it only took a few sailors going ashore from a Spanish ship to fill water barrels on the south coast to infect an Indian, who then took the disease back to his tribe, which passed it up along the Mississippi and to decimate the entire population.

Thus Taylor shows again and again that the social and ecological and political arrangements of the Indians which Europeans encountered, and took to be timeless, had in fact only come about because of the disruptive activities of the Europeans themselves.

The Spanish

So – number one – Taylor’s vastly broader canvas starts thousands of years before the conventional histories, in order to place the Native Americans within the fullest possible context.

It then – number two – very sensibly takes the time to give a thorough account of the Spanish conquests starting with Columbus’s first voyage of 1492. In fact, Taylor goes back before Columbus to give us enough European history to place the entire ‘Navigation Revolution’ in its full global context. The biggest single element of this was the continuing success of imperial Islam. The Turkish or Ottoman Empire finally captured Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, in 1453, and spread up into the Balkans (thus creating the hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions which has caused instability and conflict right up to the present day).

These Ottoman conquests closed off overland trade routes from Europe to India and the Spice Islands far to the East. And it was this closure of the Eastern route which gave a big financial incentive to adventurers and explorers to try and find a route west, across the seas, to the Spice Islands. As countless commentators have pointed out, it is one of the greatest ironies in history that the discovery of America was a terrible disappointment to the explorers and their royal patrons back in the capitals of Spain and Portugal and France and England. (And Taylor’s book is brutal about the terrible consequences for the native peoples everywhere the Europeans went.)

Taylor explains the economic and technological background to the Spanish conquests of Central and South America not just for their own sake, but because the Spanish also expanded up into what was later to become the USA. The Spanish colonised Florida and sent expeditions deep into what would later become California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In doing so they established a particular pattern of landholding – vast haciendas farmed by natives turned into serfs – which would remain influential in the south-west USA for centuries, as well as bringing disease and disruption to the native peoples.

The West Indies

Taylor devotes a lot of space to the settlement of the numerous islands of the West Indies, firstly by Spain in the early 1500s. He describes how French and English pirates took to preying on the regular Spanish shipments of silver and gold from central America back to Europe via the Indies. Then how France and England set about establishing colonies of their own in this scattered archipelago of islands.

Taylor describes tells in great detail the settlement of Barbados and then of Jamaica. Several points emerge.

  1. The original settlers dropped like flies. The climate was inimical to white men, who also didn’t know – for a long time – what to farm in these places. It took some time before the invaders worked out that sugar cane was the perfect crop for the climate. Unfortunately, working cane is – as Taylor explains in detail – extremely labour-intensive.
  2. So the Europeans then proceeded to enslave and work to death as many of the native population as they could capture, waging genocidal wars with the rest, all the while spreading their fatal germs.
  3. It was when they’d worked the natives to annihilation, that the settlers began buying African slaves. The trade had existed for over a hundred years, but the Spanish and Portuguese had mainly made do with enslaving the local Indians. It was the sugar economy of the West Indies which converted the Slave Trade into an industrial concern.

The British colonies

There then follow a sequence of chapters which describe the English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay area. I learned that originally, the entire coast from the Spanish colony of Florida up to the French territories in Canada, was all known as ‘Virginia’, after the supposedly virgin queen, Elizabeth I. A familiar pattern is established. The original settlers drop like flies (mostly from water-borne diseases caused by the low tidal movement of the bay – for decades they were drinking water polluted by their own faeces). So it takes a long time for settler deaths to be outweighed by new arrivals and the colony to really take hold. The ‘indenture system’ is widespread i.e. poor whites from England sell themselves into 4 or 5 years servitude, to pay for the transatlantic crossing. After 4 or 5 years they are released, having paid their debt, and given a basic amount of land and tools to make it themselves. Initially weak in numbers and understanding of the environment, the colonists rely on trade with the Indians to get by. But as soon as they are strong and numerous enough, they start expanding their settlements, inevitably coming into conflict with the Indians who, in any case, are regularly devastated by the diseases the colonists have brought, especially smallpox.

Eventually, in Virginia the settlers discovered that tobacco is the crop of choice, hugely profitable when shipped back to Europe. But Indians refused to work in the kind of prison-camp labour the crop requires, and the flow of indentured servants dried up in the 1650s as economic conditions in England – the bad economy, overcrowding and unsettled social conditions of the British Civil Wars (1637-60) – improved. Solution: African slaves.

Slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, slaves to the tobacco plantations of Virginia. Taylor describes how large planters flourished, picking off smaller planters who tended to go under in bad periods of trade fluctuation. This set the pattern for what would later be seen as the ‘Old South’ of vast plantations worked by slaves and overseen by fine white lords and ladies living in grand style, in big mansions, with countless servants to organise their lavish feasts etc. The lifestyle of Gone With The Wind. Very hard for a modern white liberal not to despise.

Taylor then goes on to describe the settlement of New England, the northern colonies settled by English Puritans – religious exiles from the old country – arriving in the 1620s. A key distinction which sticks in my mind is that, whereas the Virginia settlers were mostly single men, the Puritans came in well-organised groups of families. Those Virginian men were aggressive competitors who broadcast their success once they’d ‘made it’. The Puritans, by contrast, set up tightly organised and disciplined townships, each with local administrators based on their numerous churches and congregations, and closely monitored each others every word and action to make sure they conformed with ‘godly’ practice. In time the New England Puritans were to get a reputation for republicanism and democracy, both dirty words in the 17th century.

I knew some of this already, but it is all given in more detail, more intelligently and with more insight than I’ve ever read before. Also I hadn’t appreciated just how thoroughly New England fed into the Atlantic Economy. Put simply, New England farmers produced the staple food crops which were traded down to the West Indies sugar plantations. Ships from the West Indies and Virginia brought sugar and tobacco to Boston, where it was transferred into ships to carry it across to Bristol and Liverpool. The empty ships carried back food to the sugar and tobacco colonies. The ships which sailed east across the Atlantic emptied their goods in England, then sailed down the coast of Africa to buy slaves, before catching the Trade Winds which carried them west across the Atlantic to the West Indies and up to Virginia where they sold the slaves, and loaded up with sugar and tobacco.

I knew about the Atlantic Economy and the Slave Trade but Taylor’s book is the first I’ve ever read which explains lucidly and thoroughly the background, the climatological, environmental, social and economic forces behind the growth of this immense money-making machine.

New York and Pennsylvania

Different again was the settlement of New York, which was originally carried out by the Dutch. I knew that the Dutch had created a surprisingly far-flung empire, given the smallness of their country and population (1.5 million to England’s 5 million). And I knew that the British fought three wars (1652-4, 1665-7 and 1672-4) with the Dutch, because they loom large in the history and literature of the British Civil Wars (1637-60).

Taylor explains the fundamental reason the British were able to seize the few Dutch territories on the Atlantic coast (famously New Amsterdam, which we renamed New York after the Duke of York, Charles II’s brother and future King James II). Because a) the Dutch lacked the manpower to defend it b) it wasn’t making much money, unlike their colonies in South America, at the Cape in South Africa, and especially in the Far East.

Taylor gives a characteristically thorough account of the creation of Pennsylvania, a huge tract of land simply given to the aristocrat William Penn by Charles II in 1681 to pay off a gambling debt, and which Penn then settled in a systematic and well-organised way with members of his own non-conformist sect, the Quakers, naming its first main town Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love.

New France

Meanwhile, up in what would become Canada, the French had been exploring and settling the St Lawrence Waterway, the long river which penetrates at an angle deep into North America, ultimately linking up with the Great Lakes. They founded settlements at its mouth, Louisbourg, and along its length at Quebec and Montreal. In the cold north, the French could barely grow wheat let alone the hot-climate crops of tobacco or sugar. Therefore they pioneered trading with the Native Americans for furs and pelts: because of the climate and this economic model ‘New France’ was always thinly populated, mainly by hunters who worked closely with their Indian allies and often went native, marrying Indian women and adopting their ways. All the chapters about the French echo with the lamentations of the French governor or military commander, that they barely have the men or resources to hold the territory.

This is all the more puzzling since France was the largest, most powerful nation in Europe, population 20 million, compared to England’s 5 million, and the Dutch 1 million. In chapter 16 Taylor gives some reasons:

  • In France the peasantry was more rooted to the land. In England the 17th century saw a movement of ‘enclosure’ acts in which the gentry seized common land and drove the rural poor off it, creating a pool of unemployed keen to travel to find work.
  • If French peasants did want work all they had to do was walk south into Spain where there were labour shortages.
  • The English encouraged their religious dissidents (the Puritans) to emigrate to the colonies, where they turned out to be hard working and disciplined pioneers. The French banned it. French protestants – known as Huguenots – were forbidden by law from going to new France. Instead some 130,000 artisans, craftsmen and merchants fled to Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England, especially after the fool King Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had previously granted them religious freedom.
  • Word came back that New France was freezing cold, with poor agricultural prospects – all true enough.
  • Finally, the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV was determined to make France the greatest power on the Continent and so built up a massive war machine, inheriting an army of 20,000 in 1661 and growing it to 300,000 by 1710. England’s surplus population created America; France’s created an army.

The furs and pelts never covered the cost of the colony. This is the single most important fact about New France: it always needed to be subsidised by the Crown, and was a constant drain on French finances. This was even more true of ‘Louisiana’, the vast area either side of the Mississippi which the French optimistically claimed for themselves in the 17th century. In reality this boiled down to a poverty-stricken settlement at New Orleans, which suffered from disease, lack of crops, periodic flooding, hurricanes and constant harassment by local Indians (pp. 384-385).

The sole reason the French crown continued to subsidise both wretched settlements was geopolitical – to hem in and contain England’s settlements along the Atlantic coastline. As I know from reading about The Seven Years War (1756-63) the simple geography of the situation made conflict between the two empires inevitable, indeed French and Indian raids were a menace to settlers in New York state and Pennsylvania from as early as the 1690s. The surprising thing is that it took until the 1760s for the British to defeat the French, but this is the benefit of hindsight. During the later 1600s and early 1700s both sides were too weak and geographically separated to engage in proper conflict.

Indian torture and European brutality

At several places Taylor goes into detail about Indian beliefs and religion (granting, of course, that different nations and tribes often had different practices). Broadly speaking:

  • men were warriors, seeking opportunities to display their prowess, which they proved through the number of scalps i.e. the skin and hair from the top of an enemy’s head
  • in wars among themselves, the Indians sought plunder and increased hunting territory
  • the loss of warriors prompted grief but also fear of the dead which was assuaged by loud mourning and ritual feasts
  • deaths in battle prompted further ‘mourning wars’, in which they raided enemy tribes and seized prisoners
  • these prisoners were then incorporated into the tribe, replenishing its numerical and spiritual power
  • most tribes were matrilinear i.e. power descended through the female line and so the older women of the tribe decided the fate of captives: women and children were invariably adopted into the tribe and given new names; young male captives were generally tortured to death
  • death was inflicted as slowly and painfully as possible: the Iroquois tied the captive to a stake and villagers of both sexes took turns to wield knives, torches and red hot pokers to torment and burn the captive to death
  • ‘the ceremony was a contest between the skills of the torturers and the stoic endurance of the victim, who manifested his own power, and that of his people, by insulting his captors and boasting of his accomplishments in war’ (p.103)
  • once dead, the victim was dismembered, his parts put in a cooking kettle and the resulting stew served to the entire tribe to bind them together in absorbing the captive’s power
  • torture and cannibalism bound the tribe together, gave them spiritual power, hardened adolescent boys for the cruelties of war and dramatised the tribe’s contempt for outsiders

It goes without saying that the Europeans had their own grisly punishments. Accounts of the conquistadores’ behaviour to captured Aztecs and Incas are stomach-turning, and the slave-owning British invented all kinds of brutal punishments for rebellious or insubordinate slaves. What surprised me was the brutality of the French in Louisiana to their own men. I’m disgusted but not really surprised to learn that the French turned over rebel or runaway slaves to their Indian allies to be tortured or burned to death as only the Indians knew how – to deliberately inspire terror of rebellion or flight in their slaves. But the French paid their own soldiers so badly that they lived in conditions little better than the slaves – a visitor reported them lacking shirts or boots and on starvation rations – leading to repeated desertion and runaways. And if these runaway soldiers were caught, ‘the lucky died on the gallows; others died as their backs were broken on the wheel or severed by saws’ (p.387). Severed by saws!

This is why I described the book as depressing at the top. Maybe grim and hateful would be better words. The breadth of Taylor’s view, the grasp of detail, the clarity of the narrative and the incisiveness of his insights all make this a brilliant read. But the subject matter is appalling: the catalogue of suffering and violence and epidemic disease and starvation and torture and more violence call for a very strong stomach.

Summary

All of this is covered in just the first half of this long and fascinating account.

You can see how Taylor’s account restores to ‘the colonisation of America’ its full historical scope (stretching back to the very first human arrivals) and fullest geographical scope (making it abundantly clear that any telling of the story must include the economic and social colonisation by the Spanish and explain the colonisation of the West Indies a) because the Caribbean economy established the pattern of slave-worked ‘plantations’ which was to be copied on the mainland, and b) because the West Indies sugar colonies formed the lynchpin of the entire Atlantic Economy which allowed the North American colonies to flourish).

His account explains the surprising variety of types of European settlement made in American – in terms of their economies and cultures, their crops and religions – and how this variety left a legacy of diverse and conflicting social ideals to later Americans.

It explains in great detail the tragic encounter between Europeans and native peoples, with scores of examples of how initial co-operation turned sour as both sides failed to understand each other’s notions of law and rights and property, leading to violence and counter-violence, to wars large and small – and how the Indians always ended up on the losing side, partly because the whites controlled their access to guns and ammunition, but mostly because the Indians everywhere fell victim to the terrible diseases the whites didn’t even realise they’d brought with them from the Old World.

And it explains in thorough and appalling detail the scale and brutality of the transatlantic Slave Trade, explaining why it became ‘necessary’ to the one-crop economies of sugar in the West Indies and tobacco in Virginia, why the nature of these crops demanded exhausting and back-breaking labour which couldn’t be supplied by either local Indians or indentured labourers from England, but why – as a result – the white owners lived in constant fear of rebellion by blacks who came to outnumber them by as much as 9 to one and so were forced, by a bitter logic of fear, into more and more brutal discipline and punishments of slaves who ran away or organised any kind of rebellion.

His book paints an enormous canvas, full of startling and terrible revelations, which for the first time fits together every element in the story into what must become a definitive account for our times of the very troubled origins of the ‘United States’ of America.

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris (1932)

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The Global Seven Years War by Daniel A. Baugh (2011)

(This long book is part of the Routledge ‘Modern Wars in Perspective’ series. Since some of the wars date back to 1460 you have to query the definition of ‘modern’.)

Although an American, the author, Daniel A. Baugh, is a distinguished historian of the British Royal Navy from the Restoration to the mid-Victorian era. In many ways this book is the summit of his career.

Baugh was born in 1931 so was 80 years old when this book was published. This may partly explain why it is so very readable. Baugh was brought up in a more leisurely, less technocratic age and his prose is relaxed and amiable, devoid of modern academic jargon and in many places has a sweet, human touch. Though long, the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

Baugh’s naval background

Also, Baugh himself served in the American navy. This gives his accounts of the naval battles a special authority, but more particularly underpins his accounts of naval and military discipline. When Admiral Byng’s flotilla fails to prevent the French seizing Minorca (May 1756) or when General Braddock’s forces are massacred in woods beside the river Monongahela (9 July 1755) Baugh not only describes the events but gives thorough explanations of the mistakes the commanders made, what they should have done differently, and continues on to explain in detail why this or that action was rewarded or blamed, according to the military code of the day.

It’s one of the learnings of the book that praise and blame was so immediate and extreme; a general or admiral who won a battle might be knighted (as the admiral George Pocock was, for his aggressive engagements with the cowardly French fleet off the Indian coast) whereas losers might pay the ultimate price – Admiral Byng, court martialled and executed by the British for losing Minorca; Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally, tried and executed by the French for losing their main base in India, Pondicherry, or Charles François Emmanuel Nadeau du Treil, governor of Guadeloupe, forced to surrender it to superior British forces, for which he was sent to prison for twenty years.

There was obviously a lot at stake for each nation-state in major battles – it is a revelation to learn how much was at stake for the military leaders on the ground.

A big complex war

Including the index, this book weighs in at a hefty 736 pages. It claims to deal mainly with the global aspect of the Seven Years War i.e. the fighting between France and Britain in North America, India, the West Indies, with two campaigns late in the war against Spain, in Cuba and the Philippines – and the war in Europe is specifically addressed by a sister book in the same series, The Seven Years War In Europe by Franz A.J. Szabo, itself a weighty 530-page tome.

But in fact Baugh does devote substantial space to the European war. He has to, because his aim is to give a comprehensive overview of the strategy of the two protagonists of the global war – France and Britain – an aim which involves detailed consideration of the key personnel on both sides. These were, on the French side, King Louis XV, his mistress and adviser Madame de Pompadour and their Foreign Minister, the duc de Choiseul – and on the English side, King George II, the Duke of Newcastle and ‘the Great Commoner’ as he was nicknamed, William Pitt. And the global strategy of both sides was inextricably linked with their strategy on the continent; the one just doesn’t make sense without the other.

Therefore this book has much, much more about the war in Europe than the two other books I’d read on the subject to date, 1759 by Frank McLynn and Battle For Empire by Tom Pocock, and is vastly better for it. In fact, it’s the first account I’ve read that really makes sense of the whole war.

Understanding in depth

The Pocock and McLynn books emphasised that everyone suspected hostilities would break out again after the cessation of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748, but only Baugh’s book explains why that was.

The treaty which concluded that war – the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle – was drawn up in a hurry, as both sides were exhausted and running into unsustainable debt. It left many issues about who owned what unresolved, kicking them into the long grass by declaring they’d be sorted out by a ‘Boundary Commission’. But this commission never really got established with the result that conflict on the frontier between French and British North America festered on and, although the British were handed back Madras (in south-east India) in the Treaty, the lack of clarity about Indian affairs also made conflict there inevitable.

The Diplomatic Revolution

Thus (for example) Baugh’s account is the first one which fully explained to me the importance of the abrupt reversal of a century of tradition which took place when Louis XV surprised Europe by suddenly allying France with Austria in the so-called Diplomatic Revolution. They had been enemies for decades.

It happened because in the 1740-48 war Prussia had seized the Hapsburg territory of Silesia and Austria wanted it back. So Prussia was scared of an Austrian attack. Now France wanted to terrorise and/or seize Hanover, the north German principality which was still ruled by George II of England, in order to wrest maximum concessions from Britain when the war ended. If France attacked Hanover, Prussia would see that as a threat to its hegemony over northern Germany. So Britain could see that it would be in her interests to pay King Frederick of Prussia to defend Hanover for her.

And thus a constellation of interests crystallised into the alliances which dominated the war: France and Austria (and Russia, which threatened Prussia’s eastern front) allied against Prussia – who was herself supported by money, and then by troops, sentPhi from England.

Map of the territories involved in the Seven Years War

Map of the territories involved in the Seven Years War

Bargaining chips

The biggest single thing that comes over from reading this long enjoyable account is that warfare was just an aspect of Diplomacy. Nobody expected to fight a war to the complete unconditional surrender of the enemy (as in 20th century wars). Battles were fought to capture strategically important cities or islands or territory, with more than half an eye on the final and inevitable peace negotiations, where they would be used simply as bargaining chips.

Thus the French captured Minorca not because it had any economic or strategic usefulness, but solely to use as a chip in the endlessly complex game of diplomacy which gripped all the nations of Europe: first, they thought they could use it to bribe Spain into entering the war on the French side; when Spain refused, Minorca became just another bargaining chip to be played in the negotiations which led up to the Peace of Paris in 1763. Sure enough, it was handed back to Britain in exchange for the (far more valuable) West Indies islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. (It is striking to learn that little Guadeloupe produced more sugar than all the British islands combined, worth about £6 million a year.)

Similarly, thousands of British soldiers and sailors died in the twin campaigns to capture Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines, so it is disconcerting to the modern reader to find out the British government never intended to keep either of them, but just wanted them as bargaining chips with Spain in the final settlement. And, sure enough, shamefully, both ports were simply handed back to Spain, a mockery of the immense suffering of the soldiers and sailors on both sides who perished.

At every point, from before the war even began, statesmen of all the European nations were engaged in playing this game at multiple levels not least because, as Baugh, again, amply shows, the government of each nation was itself made up of sharply conflicting visions, strategies and goals.

Thus, in Britain, King George II was understandably obsessed with his hereditary territory of Hanover in Germany, and so detested William Pitt who had built a parliamentary career on criticising the government’s attachment to a distant and unimportant bit of Europe while ignoring the colonies which were vital to its commerce and economy. Following Henry Pelham’s death, George’s other ministers had to work hard to persuade the king to take Pitt into the government – he was widely admitted to be the most capable parliamentarian of his time – and Pitt proved to be a strategist of genius, but they never got on. When the old king died in 1760 and was replaced by his grandson, George III, Pitt’s days were numbered, and so all the other countries of Europe knew a change of British policy was inevitable.

Much the same level of back-stabbing and politicking took place at the top of the French government, except it’s obvious from Baugh’s account how much more limited and limiting the French setup was: King Louis XV didn’t want to be bothered with details, he was in thrall to his former mistress-turned-confidente Madame de Pompadour, and all their ministers had to tread carefully not to cross her strong opinions.

And no-one in the French government was prepared to face up to the acute financial crisis the war created – Baugh shows the king and Pompadour repeatedly not wanting to be bothered with petty details of money – in their minds, France had a God-given right to be top dog in Europe. But this was to lead to financial ruin, specifically to a financial collapse prompted by the loss of Quebec to the British in 1759.

Both Pocock and McLynn give lively accounts of the battle for Quebec (both probably better, more vivid, than Baugh’s) – but only Baugh goes on to explain in detail how the military and strategic loss led to a cataclysmic financial crash in which virtually all the French government’s paper credit became worthless, scores of bankers and contractors to the army and navy went bankrupt and the king and nobility were reduced to sending their silver plate to the mint to be melted down to create coins to keep the economy going (pp.447-452).

So the actions of generals in Canada could have seismic impacts on their home governments of Europe, which in turn affected how all the other players in the game assessed their ally/enemy, and adjusted their diplomatic and military plans accordingly. It’s like reading about a true life and vastly complex combination of the board games ‘Risk’ and ‘Monopoly’.

Unpopular bargaining

Some of these bargaining chip exchanges were very unpopular. American colonial forces had been involved in a bitter 46-day siege of Louisbourg, the main French port on Cape Breton Island which protected the mouth of the long St Lawrence Waterway, in 1745. There was widespread resentment when statesmen in faraway England simply handed the port and island back to the French in exchange for Madras at the peace in 1748. (I was amused to learn that Aix-la-Chapelle was so unpopular in France that it gave rise to a popular expression, bête comme la paix = as stupid as the peace.) Apparently, being treated by pawns in this giant game was one (of the many) grievances which slowly bubbled under among the men who went on to spark the American Revolution.

So it was only reading Baugh’s book that made me realise quite why a renewed outbreak of war was inevitable and made sense of the way statesmen on both sides spent the intervening years calculating how their countries could best benefit from another war, and drawing up and debating various strategies.

The rise of William Pitt

I now understand much better that the cautious Duke of Newcastle owed his place as prime minister to the king because of his steady adherence to the cause of Hanover’s safety but how, when Newcastle’s man in the Commons, Leader of the House Henry Pelham died in 1754, he needed someone who could command authority in the Commons but also fall in with his policies. William Pitt fulfilled the first criterion but had publicly criticised the government for its adherence to Hanover-based policies (thus incurring the undying enmity of George II). So when Newcastle promoted him to secretary of state and took him into the small wartime cabinet he knew he was recruiting a man entirely devoted to pursuing Britain’s overseas interests in America and India (and the West Indies). But the gamble paid off.

It is one of the many merits of this book, and the reason why it’s so long, that Baugh takes you right into the heart of these continual political debates and discussions among the most senior statesmen, quoting letters, diaries and journals to show how strategic thinking about each theatre of war changed and evolved, but how the statesmen also had to keep an eye on how things would play out both among the public at large, and in the clamorous House of Commons, and how they’d be taken by the continental-minded king, and how they might be used against them as weapons by the uneasily jostling members of the cabinet itself.

Baugh’s account reveals the layer upon layer upon layer of power politics and Machiavellian manoeuvring which underpinned every event in the long war; it makes for a fascinating and gripping read.

Specific things

I learned some specific things from this book:

  • The Seven Years War actually lasted eight years, since Baugh shows that hostilities broke out in early summer 1755. Quite a lot of naval and land battles took place before war was formally declared the following year.
  • Privateering – It is astonishing how lawless the sea and land were. Before the war proper is declared, in 1755, the British started simply intercepting legitimate French merchant ships, sailing them to English ports, stealing them and their cargo and putting the crews in prison. Some 400 ships were sequestered like this and some 10,000 seamen imprisoned. Whenever any army appeared anywhere it thought it had the right at the very least to plunder the surrounding countryside (in Europe as much as India) and sometimes ravage it (burn crops, food, stores, towns and villages) in order to deprive its enemy forces of food or shelter. Baugh mentions these continual acts of piracy and devastation in passing, but the modern reader is appalled at the sheer scale of wanton destruction.
  • Silhouette – Étienne de Silhouette tried to sort out France’s pitiful finances and his name became synonymous with penny-pinching. Around that time a fashion for cutting out black outlines of people became fashionable as a stylish and cheap alternative to painted portraits. In derision these were given the insulting name of ‘silhouettes’ which has stuck to this day.
  • The Watershed principle – France claimed that if any of its explorers had named a river they automatically owned all the territory encompassed by all the tributaries right up to each tributary’s watershed. Hence the its territory of Louisiana looked like a balloon on the map since it covered every single tributary of the massive Mississippi.
  • Wilderness warfare – handy term for the style of fighting required in the vast virgin forests of Eastern America.

Maps

There are 17 maps in this long book, and all are better, clearer and more detailed than those in Pocock or McLynn – but it still isn’t nearly enough. A book like this needs 100 maps. When Baugh says that Frederick II launched his surprise attack on Saxony in August 1756, seizing Dresden before marching on to besiege Prague and fighting a big battle at Lobositz in Bohemia on 1 October … there is no map of this at all; no map showing the borders of Prussia, Saxony or Austria; no map showing the route of Frederick’s army or the location of Lobositz. Why not? I had to google them all. Why? You can never have too many maps.

The Treaty of Paris February 1763

The wars I’m familiar with (especially the first and second world wars) have generated vast mountains of analysis devoted to explicating their beginnings. Apparently, the great controversy about the Seven Years War was how it ended. The French had been thrashed to a standstill, unable to supply their army in Germany (which kept being defeated), defeated in India and Canada and driven out of the disputed Ohio territories, then losing the key islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; the Austrians were fought to a standstill and had to accept they could never regain Silesia and, when the Empress Elizabeth died and was replaced by the pro-Frederick Peter III they realised they had to quit; while the Spanish failed in their attempt to invade Portugal and then lost Havana and Manila to the British, who destroyed a fifth of their fleet and kept the French fleet locked up impotently in its ports.

Tentative moves to peace began in 1760 but the conflict dragged on for two more years of almost unalloyed British victories and the extraordinarily complex machinations not only between the main nations’ ministers and ambassadors, but also disagreements within governments, especially within the British government, take Baugh over 100 pages of describe. This is a little difficult to follow and then a little hard to care about. The main points that come over are:

  1. Given the hopelessness of their position, credit must go to France’s duc de Choiseul who managed to wring significant concessions out of Britain.
  2. How? It is difficult not to feel contempt for the Earl of Bute – who replaced the meticulous and visionary Pitt as Prime Minister on the accession of George III – and was devoted to achieving peace as quickly as possible regardless of the cost, strategic, financial or reputational. Both Bute and the king lied to Parliament and their own cabinet colleagues, continually reassuring and coaxing the (heavily beaten) French and in the event handing over completely unnecessary concessions in India and Newfoundland.

Ten years later the French would be conspiring how to support the American Revolutionaries and subvert British interest yet again (1775-83), a dedicated enmity which would blossom after the French Revolution (1789) into the twenty year war against Republican and then Napoleonic France (1794-1815). With hindsight Bute’s craven appeasement of France looks unforgiveable.


Credit

The Global Seven Years War by Daniel Baugh was published by Pearson Education Ltd in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2014 Routledge paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World by Frank McLynn (2004)

The war in the wilderness of North America was a nasty, brutal, vicious war, fought without quarter on both sides. (p.352)

The basic idea is simple. The Seven Years War (1756-63) was a major European conflict which was of critical importance in world history. It had two components:

The European War – Six years of fighting on the continent of Europe which involved the armies of France, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Poland and Russia responding to the tortuous diplomatic manoeuvres of those nations’ rulers – Louis XIV (France), Czarina Elizabeth (Russia), Frederick the Great (Prussia), the Empress Maria Theresa (Austria) and so on. In many ways the conflict was a continuation of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) and to really understand what was at stake you would have to read hundreds of pages about each of the different combatant countries and the complexity of their territorial ambitions.

The World War – by contrast the global dimension was much simpler: during these years France and Britain battled for world domination in two major cockpits, East India and North America – with additional conflict in the Caribbean and the Philippines when, towards the end (in 1762), Spain got dragged into the fighting.

Although British armies fought on the continent – not least because King George II of England was also king of Hanover, one of the many minor states in Germany – British historians have been less interested in the bewilderingly complex diplomatic manoeuvring of the Europeans than in the life-or-death struggles for control of India and North America which we fought with the French. The European situation established by the Peace of Paris in 1863 was to go on changing through another 150 years of warfare i.e. is only part of a continuous and complicated narrative – whereas it was this war which saw the decisive emergence of Britain as the dominant global power.

Louis XV, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1748)

King Louis XV of France painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1748) ‘neurotic, weak and indecisive… vindictive and vengeful’ (p.71)

Pocock and McLynn

This explains why Tom Pocock’s popular account, Battle for Empire, which I read recently, barely even mentions Europe or its numerous bloody battles, instead giving vivid accounts of the campaigns in Bengal, Canada, the Caribbean (the British siege of Havana) and the Philippines (the British siege of Manila).

This book, by popular historian and biographer Frank McLynn, focuses on just one year of the war, arguably the key year, of 1759 – the year the British won decisive victories in India and Canada, expelling the French from both and opening the way to the dominance of the British Empire. Hence the blurb on the back which claims that 1759 ought to be as well-known a date in British history as 1066 or 1588 or 1815.

Between this and the Pocock, I prefer Pocock. McLynn is a lot longer – some 400 pages of small print versus Pocock’s 300 of larger print. But the Pocock is very tightly focused. At first I was put off by the way he opens each section with thumbnail sketches of leading personalities, generally admirals and key naval officers. But as the book progressed, this approach helped me to grasp the connections between the relatively small number of senior military and naval personnel involved and who pop up i different theatres of the war. Pocock’s method allows the reader to follow careers, promotions, demotions, deaths and injuries in battle – to get a flavour of the jostling for power, ambition and often quite crass stupidity, which determined the outcome of key battles.

Pocock also describes the fights in quite bloodthirsty detail – I am still reeling from the appalling butchery at the Battle of Ticonderoga on 8 July 1758 where, misled by faulty intelligence and his own apparent stupidity, General James Abercromby ordered British forces to charge uphill towards a powerfully built timber stockade manned by French and Indian forces who cut down the Brits like wheat, turning the hillside into an abattoir (Battle For Empire pages 100-112). McLynn only mentions this harrowing disaster in a passing sentence:

His [Pitt]’s 1758 strategy had worked in the Ohio Valley and on Lake Ontario but came to grief at Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) when General Abercromby foolishly sent his much larger army on a frontal assault on Montcalm’s entrenchments, where it was shot to pieces. (p.138)

Portrait of a year

But then McLynn is aiming for something quite different. He is not aiming for a military or diplomatic history, but for a ‘portrait’ of the whole year in all its cultural, literary, artistic and philosophical aspects as well as battles – to give you a feel of everything that was going on in this fateful year.

Which explains why McLynn’s book is massively and deliberately digressive. There is more about Dr Johnson and David Hume, about Casanova’s love life, the plays of Goldoni, Madame de Pompadour’s early years, about the alcoholic Bonny Prince Charlie or the brutal Duke of Cumberland – than there is about some of the crucial military encounters earlier in the war. McLynn is setting out to give the broadest possible social, cultural and biographical context for the whole year.

Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher (1756)

Madame de Pompadour painted by François Boucher (1756) ‘a multi-talented woman with many different gifts and charms’ (p.72)

It is an immensely gossipy book, wandering off to give us a five-page description of Venice in the 1750s, complete with profiles of the city’s leading composers and painters and playwrights, or a pen portrait of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (56), and his (surprisingly) unhappy marriage. 1759, we learn, is the year that Arthur Guinness (34) bought a brewery in Dublin, James Watt (23) opened a shop in Glasgow, the Duke of Bridgewater (23) got the first Canal Act through Parliament, John Smeaton (35) built the Eddystone Lighthouse, Kew Bridge – designed by John Barnard – was opened and the British Museum opened to the public. You get the picture. George Washington (27) got married. So did Tom Paine (22). Thomas Arne (composer of ‘Rule Britannia’, 49) received an honorary degree. As did Benjamin Franklin (53). And so on.

Even when we come to the actual history being described, it is pre-eminently history seen through the personalities and biographies of powerful people – with all their quirks and oddities, their feuds and obsessions, their endless scheming, bickering, gossiping and bitching behind each other’s backs.

Thus the ultimate failure of the French to keep New France (or Canada, as ‘we’ called it) is seen as a failure of the indecisive French King Louis XV, his former mistress and primary adviser Madame de Pompadour, and his bickering Conseil d’en Haut, to realise Canada’s importance and keep it properly supplied or armed.

This strategic failure was exacerbated by the bitter rivalry of the two men on the ground, head of the army Louis-Joseph Montcalm and the Governor General of the colony, Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial. Montcalm despatched an ambassador to Versailles to plead his case. (This was the noted mathematician, Antoine Comte de Bougainville, who had joined the army and risen to be Montcalm’s aide-de-camp. In a typically diverting aside McLynn describes his later career as a noted explorer, in fact the first french officer to circumnavigate the globe, claiming Tahiti for France and getting plants and part of Papua New Guinea named after him). But Vaudreuil sent his own representative and the two gave conflicting accounts and lobbied rival camps of supporters back in France. It was a viper’s nest of intrigue.

Louis Antoine de Bougainville

Louis Antoine de Bougainville, award-winning mathematician who became aide-de-camp to Montcalm and was sent by him to lobby Versailles for more resources in Canada. In the 1760s Bougainville undertook the first voyage round the world by a French officer, claiming Tahiti for France, getting an island off Papua New Guinea and the genus of plant named after him.

Why the French were doomed

Amid the lengthy descriptions of the Canadian landscape and the potted biographies of all the key players, there emerges some analysis of the challenges the French faced and which, set down in black and white, seem insuperable. They were:

  • outnumbered by British forces five to one
  • poorly supplied and paid by France, which was erratic in its support compared to Britain’s commitment of large resources, arms and men to its colonies
  • hampered by France’s chaotic and failing finances which was administered by nobles who themselves refused to pay taxes, compared with Britain’s much more effective tax system backed up by the lending capacity of the Bank of England
  • crippled by the vast ‘pyramid of corruption and defalcation’ created in New France by world-class embezzler and swindler, the Finance Minister, François Bigot – McLynn’s account of his swindles and scams is breath-taking
  • restricted by the British navy’s control of the Atlantic which amounted to a blockade of French traffic
  • daunted by the British ability to recruit American colonists from the densely populated Thirteen Colonies with their settled farming communities and towns (total population maybe 1 million), compared to the very thin, scattered nature of French settlers, often itinerant trappers (population maybe 70,000)

The more you read about the situation in Canada the more inevitable the French defeat and expulsion seems. The French commander in the field, Montcalm, knew it, writing to the Minister of War, Belle-Isle, that Canada would inevitably fall to the British in the next fighting season because:

  • The British have 60,000 men, the French have only 11,000
  • The British are well organised, the French government of Canada was ‘worthless’
  • The British had food and supplies; the French had none (p.135)

But it is characteristic of McLynn’s book that the first few pages of his Canada section are devoted not to an analysis of the economic, social or military situation – but to an exposition of Edmund Burke’s landmark treatise on ‘the Sublime’, which distinguished between Beauty (symmetrical, pleasurable) and the Sublime (huge, overpowering and containing elements of fear and/or pain). McLynn goes on to relate this idea of the Sublime to the grandeur of the North American landscape as described by 18th century travellers and tourists, quoting diaries and letters which describe the mountains, the Great Lakes and, of course, Niagara Falls, in term of their size and majesty.

This leads naturally to a consideration of the Canadian climate – especially the biting cold endured by both sides in the conflict, stories of frostbite and amputated toes among both armies – before leading on to the structure of the Indian nations, with profiles of the various Indian leaders and their complex treaties and alliances with either the French or British. All very interesting, often fascinating & thought provoking – but if you don’t already have quite a good grasp of the key political and military events, eventually quite confusing.

Étienne-François, comte de Stainville, duc de Choiseul, Foreign Minister of France 1758-1761

Étienne-François, comte de Stainville, duc de Choiseul, Foreign Minister of France 1758-1761 – apparently ‘a compulsive and frenzied womaniser’

In defence of McLynn’s personality-based approach, it does seem to have been an age where the quirks and characters of leading figures were hugely important. In Europe the Austrian Queen Maria Theresa pulled off a diplomatic coup by making flattering overtures to Madame de Pompadour who in turn persuaded Louis XV to completely reverse French policy – and astonish Europe – by making a pact with France’s traditional enemy, Austria. Direct personal contact between rulers could change the course of history – in this case, badly for France, since I’ve read that French soldiers were dragged into Austria’s continental campaign which would have been much more effectively deployed in either India or Canada. Another example of the importance of personality is the rivalry between Montcalm and Vaudreuil which does seem to have been particularly poisonous and helped weaken New France.

Pitt & Newcastle

Compare and contrast the disunity in the French camp with McLynn’s account of the famously close and effective partnership between Britain’s Prime Minister, the master strategist William Pitt (Pitt the Elder), and his one-time political opponent and temperamental opposite, Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, ‘an amoral, cowardly, unprincipled, vacuous man’ (p.96) who ended up becoming one of the great ‘odd couples’ of political history.

So in some ways, McLynn’s chatty, gossipy approach is appropriate for a chatty, gossipy age which was dominated by powerful personalities, their alliances, feuds, friendships and enmities. But some of his digressions stray so far beyond the political and military sphere, off into remote regions of culture and art and topography that, interesting though they all are, these excursions ultimately, I think, rather muddle the central thesis. In among the welter of general knowledge and historical trivia, it’s easy to lose track of which events directly impacted the war – and therefore of the book’s central thesis i.e. just why 1759 was so important.

India

Thus (relatively brief) chapter on the Anglo-French conflict in India (the majority of the book is about Canada) is introduced by a long excursus into the work of Samuel Johnson whose popular short novel, Rasselas, was published in 1759, part of the fashion for tales and accounts of exotic far-off countries (Persia, Canada, India). This leads into the role played by exotic animals in the popular imaginary of India, specifically elephants and tigers; of the role of the elephant in classical Hinduism; the efforts of the famous horse painter, George Stubbs, to paint exotic animals; and the way later British imperialists took over the Mughal tradition of hunting tigers on elephant-back. All very interesting, but quite a while before we arrive at the political and military situation in India.

The India chapter highlights the other, fairly obvious, drawback with concentrating so much on one year, which is that, no matter how momentous it is, key geopolitical and military events happen either side of it. Thus the decisive battle which secured Bengal for the British East India Company was fought at Plassey in 1757. Pocock’s account of the build-up and the battle itself are a revelation to someone like me, who didn’t know much about it beforehand. Whereas in McLynn’s account it is briefly mentioned in order – fair enough, according to his own prospectus – to concentrate on the events of his magic year 1759. Here we are given detailed (and withering) portraits of the two key French military figures –

  • Thomas Arthur Lally, comte de Lally-Tollendal, in charge of the French army in India, failed to capture Madras, lost the Battle of Wandiwash, then surrendered the remaining French post at Pondicherry. After time as a prisoner of war in Britain, Lally voluntarily returned to France to face treason charges for which he was eventually beheaded. McLynn accuses him of ‘stupidity and incompetence’ (p.178)
  • Anne Antoine, Comte d’Aché, in charge of the French fleet, a timid and indecisive man who fought a series of inconclusive battles with his aggressive British counterpart Admiral Sir George Pocock, failed to provide adequate naval support to French troops trying to capture Madras in 1759 and failed to support the French forces defending Pondicherry, the French capital in India, which was subsequently surrendered to the British. ‘A prickly, difficult individual’ (p.179)

It was more complex than this, as McLynn explains how Lally’s high-handed approach to Indian princes lost him alliances and territory in the interior and alienated all his subordinates and colleagues, before ending in complete failure. He gives a gossipy profile of Lally the (very flawed) man – ‘imperious, short-tempered and despotic’ (p.167) – as well as a detailed account of the plans and marches and sieges and retreats and battles and skirmishes which took place throughout the year. But ultimately, this account of the Anglo-French conflict in India suffers rather than benefits for concentrating so much on one year, without placing the events of 1759 in the continuum of what came before or after, a drawback for which no amount of entertaining digressions about Johnson or Voltaire can really compensate.

Admiral Sir George Pocock (1706–1792) by Thomas Hudson

Admiral Sir George Pocock (1706–1792) though never winning a decisive sea battle, his aggressive tactics eventually forced his French rival, Admiral D’Aché, to abandon the East Coast of India to British control.

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham 13 September 1759

On 13 September 1759 General James Wolfe won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. This was high ground to the west of Quebec, the capital of New France i.e. Canada. He had been sent there by Pitt with a large naval force and plenty of soldiers, irregulars and Indians. The problem he faced was breaking through the French defences to the east of the city and McLynn shows in detail how he failed to do this, with many casualties, in a frontal assault and then resorted to terrorising the neighbourhood of the city, systematically burning remote settlements to the ground in order to demoralise the French. His own officers objected to this policy and, predictably, it stiffened French resolve.

It was only after months of stalemate that he acted on what some historians take to be more or less impulse – and there is a great deal of controversy about who gave him the idea – a renegade Indian, a deserting Frenchman, a Brit who had been held prisoner in Quebec and escaped; but someone suggested landing on the narrow shingly beach upstream of Quebec and that there was a path up the 300 foot cliffs to the plain above. Wolfe had good luck all the way, with the flood tide being just right to carry his ships upstream but not too much to cover the beach; the French sentries had been told to expect a flotilla of supplies going upstream and so mistook the British for that; French sentries on the heights were palmed off by a Scot who happened to speak fluent French – until enough British forces had scrambled up the track to the top, overpowered the scanty French forces and to allow Wolfe’s army to come up, bringing artillery with them.

Thus the commander of the French forces awoke to discover to his horror that a full British Army was drawn up in battle ranks on the sloping plain above the city. He transferred his troops from the eastern approaches which they’d been defending for months and battle commenced. Even now it was a close run thing, with British forces mauled on the east and west flanks by Indian and irregular forces, until the British eventually broke the French army and forced them to retreat beyond the city to the east. At the height of the battle Wolfe was shot in the wrist and groin and bled to death. Coincidentally, the leader of the French forces, Montcalm, was also killed. Their deputies acted according to the book, Townshend lining up his guns above the town ready to blast it to pieces, the French withdrawing the remainder of their forces to a distance to regroup and await reinforcements from the north.

Battle of the Plains of Abraham based on a sketch made by Hervey Smyth, General Wolfe's aide-de-camp

Battle of the Plains of Abraham based on a sketch made by Hervey Smyth, General Wolfe’s aide-de-camp

What I didn’t know is that the actual surrender hung by a thread. A relief force under Major-General François de Gaston (aka the Chevalier de Lévis) was appalled at the cowardly Governor de Vaudreuil’s decision to withdraw. Lévis regrouped all his forces and marched back towards the city. But delay in assembling all the logistics for the march allowed the governor of Quebec, Jean-Baptiste Nicolas Roch de Ramezay, to believe the army had abandoned him. Stuck in charge of a large number of sick and wounded, his already heavily bombarded town thronged with women and children and seeing the British lining their guns up to pound the city to oblivion, Ramezay took the decision to hand over the city. Thus on 18 September British forces entered Quebec and took control. There was, as McLynn emphasises, no looting or pillage, the French were guaranteed security, freedom of religion etc; all comparatively civilised. But Lévis’ force arrived one day later. If Ramezay had held out for one more day the history of North America might have been completely different.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 20 November 1759 part one

The seizure of Quebec wasn’t decisive in itself. A French army remained in the field and, as McLynn points out, in some ways it was a relief for the French not to be responsible for feeding the civilian population, including all the sick and wounded, during the harsh Canadian winter. In fact the British forces in Quebec suffered badly during the winter, not least from scurvy caused by their poor diet, and were considerably weakened when the French returned to give fight in the spring.

But although fighting continued up until the end of the war in 1763, the British never relinquished the city and the strategic advantage it gave them. An important reason they could hang on was the Royal Navy’s great victory at Quiberon Bay off the French coast on 20 November 1759. All through the year the French had been planning to mount an ambitious amphibious invasion of Britain, landing some 100,000 troops, defeating the Brits and marching on London.

This theme threads throughout the book and McLynn is good on the continual vacillations among the French high command for this huge project, which saw the site of the invasion being switched from the South Coast of England to Ireland or Scotland. At one point the French tried to persuade the Swedes to lend them ships to ferry troops to the east coast of England. It is against the backdrop of this ambitious if ever-changing plan that McLynn threads his descriptions of Bonny Prince Charlie.

Bonny Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellions

Charles Edward Stuart was the grandson of King James II of Britain. In 1688 James was expelled by a coup of leading British aristocrats, because he was a Catholic and had had his baby son christened as a Catholic. The coup leaders invited the Protestant William, Prince of Orange (part of Holland) to come and be Britain’s king, because he was married to James II’s (Protestant) daughter, Mary. Mary died comparatively young in 1694. When William died in 1702 he was succeeded by Mary’s sister i.e. another daughter of James II, Anne. She reigned until 1714 and died without children. Parliament had planned for this contingency and decreed that the crown should then go to Sophia, Electress of Hanover, the granddaughter of James VI and I through his daughter Elizabeth. As it happened, Sophia had died earlier the same year, and so the law decreed the British throne should then pass to her son, George, Elector of Hanover, who became King George I of Great Britain. His son would be George II, his grandson George III, his son George IV, collectively giving their name to the Georgian era, Georgian architecture etc.

These elaborate machinations obviously made a mockery of any notion of the ‘divine right of kings, and there were many in England who pined for the ‘true’ line of descent to be followed, and for King James (and later on his son) to be restored to their ‘rightful’ throne. This feeling was even stronger in Scotland, where many felt that the English could do what they wanted, but Scotland deserved to have her ‘rightful’ Stuart dynasty restored, instead of some preposterous German prince.

Collectively the cause of restoring the Stuart king was called Jacobitism (from Jacobus, the Latin for James, the name of the deposed king, and his heirs) and its followers were Jacobites. In 1715 there was a major Jacobite rising beginning in Scotland, in which armed forces captured a lot of the country, and coinciding with a rising of English Jacobites in Northumberland and the West Country. The Hanoverian government (as it had become known) successfully quashed this, only after months of manouevring and several major battles, in 1716. James (the Old Pretender) returned to France a disappointed man.

In 1745 his son, Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender also known as Bonny Prince Charlie) led a much more substantial rising. The collective Jacobite forces took the Hanoverian army by surprise and marched as far south as Derby, only 120 miles from London, before losing their nerve, halting and then withdrawing. This turned into an increasingly desperate retreat all the way back into Scotland and then into the Highlands where, at the notorious Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746, the Jacobite forces were decimated, survivors being hunted down and killed. The rising led to a brutal backlash in which vast areas of the Highlands were cleared of their suspected treacherous inhabitants, the kilt and other signs of the clan system were banned, all the ringleaders were arrested and many hanged, drawn and quartered.

It was this smouldering resentful Jacobite cause which the French government hoped to revive in 1759. Hence repeated bad-tempered meetings between the Young Pretender and Louis XV’s exasperated ministers: they wanted him to land in Scotland and spark a Highland rebellion to distract Hanoverian forces from the south of England, where the invasion would then take place. Charlie knew from bitter experience where that led (Culloden), suspected most of the surviving Highland chiefs would be reluctant to support him, and realised he was, in any case, only being used as a pawn. He insisted on significant French forces to support him and that he lead an assault on England. London or nothing. Repeated suggestions that he lead an assault on Scotland, Ireland or (bizarrely) Canada, were swept aside.

In the event, Charlie played no part in the decisive events of 1759, but McLynn is fascinating about his character (he had become a grumpy alcoholic), the collapse of the Jacobite cause in England and Scotland (when Charlie took a mistress he lost many of his Puritanical followers), and the intense and frustrating negotiations, as seen from both sides.

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (1720 – 1788) known as The Young Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (1720 – 1788) also known as ‘The Young Pretender’ and ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. By 1759 an embittered alcoholic.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 20 November 1759 part two

Preliminary to the victory at Quiberon Bay, was the Battle of Lagos Bay on 18 and 19 August 1759. McLynn devotes a chapter to this battle where the Royal Navy defeated the French Mediterranean fleet in a running fight coming out around the south coast of Spain, which ended with the French survivors limping into Lagos Bay, Portugal. This ended all hopes of a Grand Invasion plan (which required multiple French naval forces to fend off the Royal Navy in the English Channel) and forced the French to lower their ambitions. Still, they had built hundreds of flat-bottomed barges in the Channel ports and just needed the Atlantic fleet to protect them. Pitt and his cabinet knew there was a plan to invade and the location of the barges, and so he ordered the Navy to enforce a blockade on the key Atlantic port of Brest.

McLynn is full of admiration for Admiral Edward Hawke, who spent months itching for a fight, compared to his timid opposite number, the Comte de Conflans. Finally the French were sighted exiting the port, word got back to Hawke in Torbay and he gathered as many ships as possible to sail south. Both fleets struggled to manage stormy Atlantic weather, but Hawke chased the French back towards their port in the Gulf of Morbihan, attacking the stragglers first then engaging with the main fleet.

24 British ships of the line engaged a fleet of 21 French ships of the line under Marshal de Conflans. McLynn gives a vivid and terrifying account of the battle, which amounted to huge ships firing at virtually point blank range into other huge ships, destroying rigging, obliterating human bodies, turning the decks into bloody slaughterhouses. Result: the British fleet sank or ran aground six ships, captured one and scattered the rest, giving the Royal Navy one of its greatest ever victories.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay a) led the French to abandon any plans for an invasion, b) established the Royal Navy as the most powerful in the world c) meant the French were from that point onwards hampered in trying to send provisions and troops to the other theatres of war, namely Canada. Although French forces fought on in Canada for another few years, they were never able to receive the reinforcements of troops or provisions which they British did, which was weakening in itself but also demoralising. The Peace of Paris in 1763 falls outside McLynn’s remit, and was a complex deal in itself, whereby various territories seized by one side or the other were returned or exchanged. But the key element was French ceding of almost all their North American territory to the British. And in many ways the treaty merely reflected the reality on the ground: the Royal Navy ruled the seas and so made much easier, or maybe inevitable, British overlordship of America and India.

Britain won

So we won and, as the Wikipedia entry on Madame de Pompadour puts it, ‘France emerged from the war diminished and virtually bankrupt.’ Weakening the prestige of the monarchy, allowing the revival of the great and reactionary aristocrats, and crippling France’s finances, the Seven Years War in many ways sowed the seeds for the French Revolution of 1789.

But, paradoxically, it also sowed the seeds of the American War of Independence and the loss of Britain’s American colonies, as is made clear in Tom Pocock’s account. The weakening of the American armies which the British used in the Caribbean, where they were decimated by disease, was one of the reasons the Pontiac Indian rebellion of 1763 was able to take hold, causing many colonists to complain about the lack of protection from ‘their’ government. The British beat Pontiac and his forces after a long struggle and proceeded to build forts to protect the frontier with the Indians, but then made the fateful decision of taxing the colonists to pay for their own defence. The Stamp Act of 1765 was the seed around which all kinds of grievances and complaints against the mother country crystallised, leading to riots alongside the formation of corresponding societies to co-ordinate the new demands for ‘independence’.

These events occur well past McLynn’s set year of 1759, but they – as well as the decisive victory of the British on the world stage – are its important legacy.

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham by William Hoare

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, the strategic genius who led Britain to victory in the Seven Years War. The American town of Pittsburgh is named after him. ‘He could not understand friendship and had no real friends’ (p.282)

Punishing profiles

McLynn has more of a writerly sensibility than a scholar’s concern for references and theories, and his prose often slips into gushing novelette style. This is particularly noticeable in his enthusiastic criticisms of almost all the main characters:

  • Choiseul was a ‘compulsive and frenzied womaniser’ (p.60)
  • Benedict XIV was ‘undoubtedly one of the great popes of the ages’ (p.61)
  • Louis XV was ‘a great ditherer and prevaricator’ (p.61) as well as being ‘neurotic, weak and indecisive… vindictive and vengeful’ (p.71)
  • King Ferdinand of Spain was ‘under the thumb of his termagant queen’ (p.65)
  • In the 1750s the high aristocracy began to reassert the powers they’d lost under Louis XIV, with the result that ‘patronage-hungry great families crowded to the trough, snouts a-quivering’ (p.70)
  • ‘The classic bull in a china shop, Lally was a hopeless politician’ (p.167)
  • D’Aché ‘was a stickler for protocol and paranoid about imaginary slights…a malcontent who groused eternally about the lack of support given him by the Ministry of Marine’ (p.173)
  • Georges Duval de Leyrit, Governor General of Pondicherry between 1754 and 1758 was’ cold, bureaucratic and venal’ (p.176)
  • ‘One of the most striking things about Wolfe was his physical ugliness.’ (p.201)
  • Townshend, one of Wolfe’s three brigadiers, was ‘aloof, quarrelsome, malicious, pompous and generally dislikeable’ (p.207)
  • The Duc de Richelieu, ‘hero of a thousand bedroom conquests’ was a ‘lazy, sybaritic commander’ (p.260)

And so on… After a while I looked forward to the introduction of new characters to the narrative purely in order to enjoy McLynn’s ‘acidulous’ (a favourite word of his) character assassinations of them. The parade of backstabbing buffoons threatens to turn into Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year, 1759 edition.

  • The 3rd Duke of Marlborough was ‘ignorant, careless and insouciant’ (p.262)
  • Lord George Sackville, commander of British forces on the Continent, was ‘sharp-tongued, arrogant, ambitious, unsure of himself, depressive and hyper-sensitive to criticism.’ (p.262) After his disgraceful behaviour at the Battle of Minden he was court-martialled and expelled from the army. ‘Probably more stupid and incompetent than cowardly in the normal sense.’ (p.283)
  • Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise, was ‘a nonentity, timid and indecisive as a commander, possessing no military talent’ (p.263)
  • General Freiherr von Spörcken was ‘an unspectacular plodder’ (p.274)
  • The Comte de Conflans ‘vain and self-regarding’ (p.357), ‘a true prima donna’ (p.358)

Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally at the siege of Pondicherry - guilty of 'egregious stupidity'

Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally at the siege of Pondicherry – ‘pigheaded’ (p.181), ‘a martinet and petty disciplinarian… [guilty of] egregious stupidity’ (p.176)

When he’s not being wonderfully bitchy about these long dead heroes and villains, much of McLynn’s phraseology slips into thriller-ese or cliché:

  • Native Indians ‘presented an awesome military spectacle, armed with musket or rifle, tomahawk, powder-horn, shot-pouch and scalping knife, seemingly the perfect killing machine’ (p.133)
  • The umpteen forts which are besieged by one side or the other are generally ‘tough nuts to crack’
  • Embattled forces fight ‘tigerishly’
  • ‘Morale in Lally’s forces plummeted alarmingly; confidence was at rock-bottom… [Lally is] not a white abashed…The French were now in a parlous state…’ (pp.182-183)

His long descriptions of landscape often read like adventure fiction. There are several extended descriptions of the Canadian landscape, lush and verdant in summer, turning to a white inferno of snowdrifts and frostbite in winter.

After leaving the northern end of Missisquoi Lake, the Rangers entered a spruce bog, with water at least a foot deep and sometimes deeper, where the current had carved brook-like channels. For nine days they splashed through mud and icy water, often stumbling and sometimes falling full-length into the noisome tarn. There was no firm ground anywhere, and the entire area was plashy marsh, with water everywhere between the trees, concealing irregularities in the ground. Young and choked trees of every height provided invisible tripwires; huge trunks lay rotting in the water with small spruces sprouting thickly along them; there were dead branches sharp as razors concealed in the water and if a man trod on them, he would be raked from ankle to thigh on jagged points. It seemed as if living malevolent branches clutched and tore at their clothes, gored them through the holes, plucked the caps from their heads and tried to scratch their eyes out. (p.339)

In many places this long work feels more like a novel than a work of history, and certainly has more of a writerly sensibility than a scholarly, historical one. Compared with the tremendous intelligence, the sheer force of ideas and analysis present on every page of John Darwin’s brilliant book Unfinished Empire, McLynn’s work reads like a series of entertaining magazine articles.

An enjoyable symptom of his writerly approach is McLynn’s attraction to out of-the-way vocabulary, his fondness for rarely-used words:

  • adipose – fat
  • contumacity – wilfully and obstinately disobedient
  • defalcation – misappropriation of funds by a person trusted with its charge
  • escalade – the scaling of fortified walls using ladders, as a form of military attack
  • feculent – of or containing dirt, sediment, or waste matter
  • fetch – the length of water over which a given wind has blown (part of a long explanation of the origin of monster waves in the North Atlantic)
  • gallimaufry – a confused jumble or medley of things
  • hellion – a rowdy or mischievous person, especially a child
  • lacustrine – relating to or associated with lakes
  • Manitou – the spiritual and fundamental life force understood by Algonquian groups of Native Americans
  • persiflage – light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter
  • phratry – a descent group or kinship group in some tribal societies
  • sept – a division of a family or clan
  • tourbillion – a vortex especially of a whirlwind or whirlpool

The book is not only an interesting conspectus of the 18th century as seen through the prism of one year, but an entertaining tour of the English language as well.

The death of Wolfe by Benjamin West

The Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West. Wolfe is not such a hero to McLynn, who sees him as ‘impetuous, headstrong and brave to the point of folly’ (p.202) and, incidentally, guilty of war crimes.

Further reading

In the sections about Quebec and Wolfe, McLynn often disagrees with someone he refers to as ‘Parkman’, accusing him of naivety and propaganda. It took a bit of research to find out he’s referring to Francis Parkman, a Harvard-educated American historian, who published a seven-volume history of France and England in North America in 1884, the sixth volume of which is titled Montcalm and Wolfe. The whole thing is available online at Project Gutenberg, and just reading through the chapter headings and summary of contents gives you a good sense of the story and issues.

Both McLynn and Pocock’s accounts, though long, are deliberately narrow in scope. For a comprehensive scholarly account I’ll need to read something like The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest by Daniel Baugh. Even this only focuses on the global Anglo-French rivalry i.e ignores the European conflict, but still manages to be a whopping 750 pages long!

The book Amazon pairs it with, The Seven Years War in Europe: 1756-1763 by Franz A.J. Szabo, which does focus on the European theatre of war, is over 500 pages long. Just this one war feels like it could easily become a lifetime’s study.


Credit

1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World by Frank McLynn was published by Jonathan Cape in 2004. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Pimlico paperback edition.

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Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin (2012)

Empire – as the assertion of mastery (by influence or rule) by one ethnic group, or its rulers, over a number of others – has been the political rule of the road over much of the world and over most of world history: the default mode of state organisation. (p.7)

This is a much more sober, earnest and thoughtful account of the British Empire than Niall Ferguson’s popular blockbuster, Empire. Whereas Ferguson references popular myths and preconceptions in order to puncture them in the manner of a swashbuckling columnist, Darwin is the cautious scholar, thoughtfully engaging with the voluminous literature of other historians on the subject – which makes his book a much denser, more challenging, but hugely more rewarding read.

The medieval origins

Ferguson’s account starts with the Elizabethans establishing plantations in Ireland and America at the same time as they set up their own offshoot of the Atlantic slave trade (roughly the 1590s). Darwin takes the more interesting and, characteristically more thorough, approach of going back much further, to the Norman Conquest, to trace the origins of the attempts by the conquering Normans to take an ‘imperial’ approach to the British Islands.

Among the hundreds of rewarding points Darwin makes is that the entire left-wing critique of the British Empire tends to treat it as if it was a historical freak, a one-off, as if only this empire ever existed and was uniquely evil, racist and sexist. In fact, as Darwin calmly points out, empire has been the normal form of rule for most of the world for most of history. Thus, just looking at Britain, we were part of the Roman Empire for 400 years; were invaded and part-colonised by the Vikings (800-950), before becoming part of Canute’s Danish Empire from 1014 to 1042. Were then invaded and colonised by the Normans (1066), brutal subjugators who imposed their economic system, language and laws on their subjects, as well as confiscating vast swathes of their land.

Darwin picks up the story with the Plantagenet kings (1154-1485), who ran an Empire which included a large chunk of western France (wine-producing Gascony), which they extended west into Wales (it was the Plantagenet Edward I who built all those Welsh castles in the late 1200s), and tried with varying success to push into Scotland and Ireland.

In the 14th century England hung on to her possessions in south-west France in the face of growing power of the centralised French state, but eventually lost them in 1453. In fact the steady consolidation of the European kingdoms of France and Spain effectively locked Britain out of Continental Europe and forced us to look elsewhere for growth. In other words, Britain’s efforts to find gold and wealth abroad were bound to be maritime, not continental. Locked out of Europe, Britain had to look further across the seas for conquest and colonies.

Protestant paranoia

Darwin adds to Ferguson’s account of the Elizabethan period, the importance of Protestant paranoia. It’s worth remembering that, after Henry VIII’s declaration of independence from the Roman Catholic church in the 1530s, English monarchs lived in fear of being invaded and conquered by the military superpower of the day for the next 250 years, first Spain, then France. The campaigns to pacify Wales and Scotland were wars of conquest designed to protect the English monarchy’s exposed flanks. Scotland remained an entry point for invasions long after the Scottish Reformation partly calmed English fears. Even after the semi-forced Act of Union of 1707 created a country called ‘Great Britain’, there were still threatening Scottish insurrections, the last one, armed and supported by the Catholic French, as late as 1745, and only defeated after the Catholic army had got as far as Derby, just 130 miles from London.

Unrepentantly Catholic Ireland, though, remained an enduring problem for England’s Protestant monarchs, from the first attempts to assert authority over it in the 1100s right up to the present day (today I read a news story saying the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, warned David Cameron that a Brexit from the EU might jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement).

Rivalry with other empires

My recent visit to the British Museum reminded me of the long list of empires which battled for supremacy throughout  history: just in the Middle East, the so-called ‘cradle of civilisation’, we have the Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians, the Babylonians and so on – while successive emperors ruled the vast area known as China, and waves of imperial invaders conquered and tried to bind together enormous India, leading up the Mughal emperors that the British had to deal with in the 18th century. When Cortes and Pizarro arrived in Mexico they didn’t discover vegan environmentalists but well-organised, centralised empires – Aztex, Inca – which had been vying for supremacy for centuries, complete with their blood-thirsty religions.

What we think of as the Tudor period, when Henry and his successors tried to conquer and bind together the people on these British islands, was also the era when the kings of Spain and France were doing the same in their realms, fighting to create strong centralised states. In this as in so many other ways, England was just one among many European nations doing the same thing at the same time.

And so, whenever we consider the complex, byzantine history of all the enterprises and entities which eventually coalesced into something we call ‘the British Empire’, we shouldn’t forget that:

a) it was always in rivalry and competition with the other, often more powerful and better-established European empires
b) in many places it came up against existing ‘native’ empires, for example the Mughal empire in India or the Zulu empire in South Africa

Complexity

From the first pages Darwin emphasises the complexity of the imperial story, that there were a myriad stories of negotiation, business deals, trades, coercion, attack, rebuff, invasion and so on. And they jostled against each other. The imperialists and colonisers, the traders and soldiers, the central government and the men on the ground, not to mention the Christian missionaries, often had wildly different aims and strategies.

Throughout his book Darwin defines different ‘types’ of empire, which immediately make you realise that what later history too glibly thinks of as the ‘rulers’ of ‘the Empire’, always had conflicting aims, which often led to confusion, sometimes disaster. And even a cursory reading of the history soon makes you aware of the arguments, often bitter angry arguments, between the so-called ‘ruling classes’ back home.

The most obvious example is the fierce arguments surrounding the anti-slavery movement which overcame the angry resistance of the plantation owners and slave traders to eventually ban the institution of slavery, then ban the slave trade, and from the 1830s onwards become the world’s leading agent against slavery. The ruling classes were anything but monolithic – they were at daggers drawn.

Similarly, a strong anti-imperial party always existed in British society, arguing from morality, from Christian principle or just for pragmatic reasons, that ruling an empire was immoral, it distorted the economy and made it too reliant on cheap external commodities or foreign trade, and so on. I studied the later Victorian period for A-Level and had drummed into me the level of personal and political dislike between Disraeli, the slippery impresario of Empire, and Gladstone, its pompous opponent who carried on vigorously arguing against it into the 1890s. By the late 19th century you have organised socialist parties giving coherent economic and social reasons against Empire, a set of arguments encapsulated in the classic text, Imperialism: A Study (1902) by the British political scientist John Hobson, which argued that imperialism is an immoral and unnecessary extension of capitalism.

There was always opposition to ‘Empire’, and imperial rule itself was bedevilled by the frequent changes of government and sudden changes of attitude and strategy caused by the pesky democratic system. A central strand of Rudyard Kipling‘s work is real anger and hatred of idiot politicians, especially Liberal politicians, who are constantly meddling with things they don’t understand and making the lives of the men on the spot, the men trying to run things, impossible and often dangerous.

And this is one of the ways in which the Empire was always ‘unfinished’ – giving the book its title. It never achieved stasis; it was always too big, too complex, too unstable, in a permanent state of crisis dealing with local wars or rebellions, the threats of rival European empires, economic woes like depressions or agricultural blights, the disruptive impact of new technologies like electricity or the wireless. Darwin quotes the historian John Gallagher who wrote, ‘Once the British Empire became world-wide the sun never set on its crises.’

Each generation of rulers felt it had been handed a vast can of worms to try and make sense of, organise, maintain and keep secure. It was like the game show challenge of keeping all those plates spinning on the top of the poles, and it is amazing such a small country managed to keep so many plates spinning for so long, until during the Second World War, they all began crashing to the ground.

Types of empire

  • Entrepôt empire – from the 1690s to 1790s British merchants thrived on the Atlantic trade, moving around slaves and sugar to make profits
  • Free trade empire – from the 1790s onwards, diversifying into the spices, calico and other stuffs supplied from Asia
  • Conquest empire – military conquest to make existing territories secure, to overthrow troublesome ‘native’ rulers
  • The English Atlantic empire – based on a series of early, coastal bridgeheads around the Atlantic
  • The Trading empire in India – run by the East India Company and dependent on the goodwill of local rulers

And what do you call the ‘colonies’ themselves? There were at least five large categories: Company Rule; Colonies; Protectorates; Dominions; Mandates.

However many you count, the point is that they were diverse: from tiny Hong Kong to vast Canada, from almost empty land settled by convicts (Australia) to countries teeming with well-established populations, cultures and rulers (India) – each required different handling, legal and trade arrangements.

Strength in diversity

This is a brilliant book which quietly, calmly, confidently dispenses with left-wing rhetoric about the British Empire and shows, again and again, what a weird, peculiar hodge-podge of entities ‘it’ really was. Darwin refers to Edward Said and his ground-breaking work, Orientalism, as the source of the theory that the European empires and the British Empire above all, were ruled by a monolithic ideology which drummed home the repressive messages of racism, white supremacy, gender stereotyping, masculine violence and so on, via a set of channels which were completely controlled by an Imperialist ruling class – the press, magazines, music hall, literature, art and so on. According to this view, all our modern ills – racism, sexism, inequality etc – directly stem from an imperial ideology which oppressed the British population as much as the foreign peoples it was used to control.

Darwin says it was more or less the opposite. It was precisely the extremely diverse nature of British society, with a strong central spine of monarchy and a settled parliamentary and legal framework providing the base for a huge diversity of religious belief, cultural practice and even languages among the populations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, which meant that Britain was uniquely well-placed to ‘engage’ with the lands its settlers, merchants and missionaries discovered in a kaleidoscopic variety of ways.

It was the diversity of Britain which helped it cope with, engage with, conquer, negotiate with and manage the extraordinary diversity of the world, of the peoples, races, cultures, civilisations and traditions which it met.

*********

All these ideas are conveyed in the first 50 pages of this brilliantly insightful, calm, measured and fascinating book, which is too crowded and packed with insights to do proper justice to in a summary. Do your mind a favour and read it.

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Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work by Charles Carrington (1955)

Since the true story of the British, fifty years ago, was the story of the British Overseas, in the age of Cromer, Curzon, Kitchener, Milner, Johnson, Lugard and Rhodes, it was Kipling’s task to reveal the secrets of their actual life to his contemporaries. (Rudyard Kipling His Life and Work by Charles Carrington, Penguin paperback edition p.398)

Charles Carrington’s biography of Kipling is a masterpiece, thoroughly researched, beautifully written, and above all packed with good sense and grounded judgments.

Charles Carrington  (1897 — 1990)

Carrington was himself a military man. Although under-age, he enlisted in the British Army in 1914, and wangled a posting to France, where he spent six months on a quiet part of the Western Front before taking part in the Battle of the Somme. In 1929 he published memoirs of his time as an officer on the Western Front, A Subaltern’s War. He rejoined the Army during the Second World War, working as liaison with the RAF. In his book and in later text and TV interviews, he consistently took the line that the Great War was worth fighting, and that it had to be seen out to the end, a view – having read a number of revisionist histories on the subject in recent years – which I agree with.

After the Second War Carrington was approached by the Kipling family to write the official biography. He was given access to family correspondence by Kipling’s only surviving child, Elsie, who is deeply thanked in the Preface, where Carrington says she was so closely involved that she ought to have been credited as joint author. Although this sounds limiting, his biography has stood the test of time and is still the standard work which all others refer to.

Carrington’s unique position

1955 was less than twenty years after Kipling’s death (1936) and Carrington was old enough to remember the tremendous influence Kipling had as a creative and cultural force through the 1890s, 1900s and into the post-war years – to have experienced it himself as a patriotic schoolboy.

But the biography itself was written after the watershed of the Second War, in the era of decolonisation, as Kipling’s beloved India and Pakistan were given independence, followed by a long stream of Asian and African colonies.

What makes Carrington so valuable, then, is that – as a military man – he has a good working knowledge of the British Army which Kipling revered so much and whose values he promoted – and throughout the book is sympathetic to Kipling’s super-patriotism (and often disdainful of the educated artistic elite which held Kipling’s – and by extension – much of the nation’s values in contempt). Yet Carrington lived on into the disillusioned, decolonising and unrecognisably more liberal post-War era and so is able to distance himself from Kipling’s more extreme political and social views.

So this biography inhabits two eras, brilliantly interpreting and translating the earlier one for the later one. It is consistently sympathetic but not afraid to be critical, and I think it’s this balancing act which makes the book so attractive and which later writers on Kipling have found difficult to repeat. In our politically correct times it is all too easy to dismiss Kipling as the sadistic, racist Imperialist which so much of his writing reveals him to be and so never to experience the imaginative power and force that his best writing, particularly the poetry, without doubt still possesses.

My attitude to Kipling

I am not an ancient Greek, but I have spent many days and weeks trying to imagine my way into the intellectual, psychological and cultural world of Agamemnon and Achilles, of Aeschylus and Plato. Neither am I a Roman Catholic, but I have spent many weeks imagining myself into the mental world of the Fathers of the Church, of early English Catholics like Gildas and Bede, of the medieval Scholars, of Chaucer and his pilgrims. I am not a Viking, but I have spent months reading the Norse sagas and trying to understand the world-view and beliefs which gave rise to their appalling ferocity and effectiveness. I am not a medieval zealot, but I have spent weeks reading about the millenarian cults and witch-burning frenzies of the Middle Ages. I am not a Nazi, but I have spent long periods reading about Nazi Germany and trying to imagine myself into the minds of both the demented Nazi leaders and fanatical rank and file. I am not a Stalinist, but I have spent time imagining my way into the minds of the comrades who oversaw the mass famines and then the show trials of the 1930s.

Similarly, I am not a racist but I am spending these weeks rereading Kipling’s life and stories and poetry in order to feel my way into the minds of sometimes unpleasantly arrogant and racist white Sahibs, the better to understand the complex of beliefs and behaviours which existed in Imperial India and the broader British Empire in Kipling’s time (the key years from 1885 to the 1930s) – in order to understand how people lived and believed then – and how we, now, today, are still living amid the heritage of those views and beliefs.

The biography – childhood

This is a long and thorough account of a fascinating life, which would take far too long to summarise – and anyone can read a good outline on Kipling’s Wikipedia page or at the Kipling Society (links below). For me the key learnings are:

  • Very artistic family Kipling’s father, (John) Lockwood Kipling, was an artist, designer and writer in his own right, who spent his career in Bombay then Lahore, dedicated to reviving and teaching traditional Indian crafts during his thirty years’ service in the sub-continent. Kipling’s mother was one of the four MacDonald sisters, who were famous in their day and have had several books devoted to them. Alice MacDonald married Lockwood Kipling. Her sister, Georgiana, married the pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. The third sister, Agnes, married the artist Sir Edward Poynter. And the fourth sister, Agnes, married the MP Alfred Baldwin, whose son Stanley was to become British Prime Minister. So, although he was sent to a fierce boarding school set up to train the sons of Army officers (the basis of the Stalky and Co stories) and although it was his proud boast to prefer the company of rough soldiers and sailors to long-haired aesthetes – Kipling also had this completely different Arts’n’Crafts heritage and eminent artistic family environment to draw on (as he did when he created the artist protagonist of his novel The Light That Failed) and to support him, emotionally, artistically, psychologically.
  • Toddler years in India Kipling was born and spent his first five years in his parents’ house in Bombay, with a native ayah, snakes in the garden, dust and the searing heat – sights, sounds and smells which never left him.
  • Cruelty in Southsea In 1870 Kipling’s parents brought him and his sister Trix back to England to visit the various in-laws, before they heartlessly abandoned them both in the house of a working class couple in Southsea (part of Portsmouth) who advertised as ‘caring’ for the children of India Army officials. Although the father, a retired captain, was sympathetic, the little Rudyard was routinely beaten by the cruel mother, Sarah Holloway, and then beaten by the bully son. He was sent to attend a prep school, which also featured routine physical punishment. The Mrs Holloway was a fervent Evangelical Christian and beat the whole of the Old Testament and every element of the church services into the quivering boy – arguably his deepest artistic influence.
  • Army boarding school In 1878, aged 13, he was moved to the United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon, a boarding school for the sons of Army officers. Here there was more bullying and cruelty but, as the years passed, Kipling found his feet and a few sympathetic teachers who opened his eyes to literature and cultivated his talent for writing.
  • Kipling never went to university He wasn’t bright enough for Oxbridge, which his parents couldn’t have afforded anyway. So, aged 17, he graduated from the College, sailed back to India and started work as a journalist on the small Lahore-based local newspaper, the Civil and Military Gazette.

These early years set the pattern:

  • Emphatic support of the Army and the Empire, particularly of the working men, the soldiers and sailors and engineers at the cutting edge, who made things work.
  • A strong streak of violent physical bullying and punishment (it is hard not to be revolted by the number of ‘natives’ who get casually kicked in Kipling’s earlier stories and his idea of a practical joke always involves cruelty and humiliation; even the Just So stories often feel harsh), let alone the cruelty in the various Stalky stories.

In terms of style, the two hugely important influences of his childhood are:

  • A complete soaking in all aspects of the Bible, a deep working knowledge of the most recondite characters and stories from the Old Testament, along with word-perfect recall of the various collects and services in the Book of Common Prayer. These dominate his prose and poetic style (and his letters), allowing him to whistle up portentous and deep-sounding phrases at will when he moves into ‘Nation Addressing’ mode, but also appear as frolics and casual references throughout the works, references which almost all need footnotes now in our post-Christian age.
  • A complete absence of classical references. Contemporaries as diverse as Oscar Wilde or Thomas Hardy could confidently refer to the Greek gods and myths and legends and authors, as part of the broader shared heritage of a classical education. Kipling has none of that; it is a great gap in his imaginative world. Instead, Kipling has India and the vast multifarious faiths of the East to draw on. And, as he travelled the world in his 20s and 30s, he was fascinated by the native gods of everywhere he went, from Africa to Greenland. Its almost complete absence in Kipling’s oeuvre makes you realise the effect they have in almost everyone else’s writings – that is, a reassuring effect, reassuring the reader that we are all operating/writing/reading within the same realm of shared values and references. But it is also a big plus as well, since the casual way Kipling can mention Eskimo or Ashanti or Aborigine or Afghan gods is one of the things which give his works such an incredible global range – the sense of reaching into the lives of peoples and races which most of his audience had barely even heard of. And this was one of the reasons for his huge impact on his generation, the sense of One Man single-handedly opening up to them the vast and disparate new territories of the Empire, in all its mystery and exoticism.

Journalism

Instead of going to university Kipling returns to India and starts working, aged 17, on Lahore Civil and Military Gazette, quickly learning the ropes of newspaper production and seeing at first hand every aspect of British rule in India as experienced at the hard end, by the working soldiers and administrators and doctors, working themselves to death for little or no thanks and a steady chorus of denigration and criticism from Liberals back home.

Kipling learned how to write features and articles to order and to length. He develops a cult of ‘work’ and the fitness of ‘the day’s work’, putting in long hours in the newspaper’s offices and print rooms, and then spending thousands of hours wandering the native quarters of Bombay or Lahore at night, seeking out mystery and strangeness.

Plain Tales from the Hills

Not only did Kipling learn to write all kinds of copy to order – articles, interview, reviews – and to length and to a deadline, but he was secretly converting anecdotes and incidents large and small which he came across, into ‘stories’. Carrington’s pages devoted to the creation and publishing of the Plain Tales stories is fascinating, as is Kipling’s unbelievable productivity: Some thirty-nine stories appeared in the Gazette between November 1886 and June 1887 and were republished in Plain Tales from the Hills, his first prose collection, printed in Calcutta in January 1888.

London

By 1889 Kipling had learned everything he could in the newspaper and a new editor suggested it was time to move on. He travelled to London in 1889 (characteristically going right round the world, via the Far East, Japan and sight-seeing all across America) before crossing the Atlantic to arrive in Liverpool, then travel to London.

a) His art world contacts and his father provided him introductions to various magazine editors and publishers who, between them, promptly flooded the literary world with Kipling’s accumulated stories and poems, creating a massive Boom and the impression of a superstar appearing from nowhere. He was just 22.

b) I’ve always been fascinated by the way he found digs in Villiers Street, next to Charing Cross station, over a pie and mash shop and opposite Gatti’s music hall. It was the rhythms and diction of music hall songs which inspired the phenomenally popular Barrack Room Ballads (1892).

The 1890s

Like many bohemian students I tended to associate the 1890s with ‘the Decadence’, the fin-de-siecle, with Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and the Yellow Book. It is chastening to realise how wrong this is, and that it was really the decade of Kipling’s greatest popularity. He bombarded the reading audience with stories and novels and poems about worlds they’d barely heard of before, in a phenomenal outpouring of stories, novels and poems;

  • The Light That Failed (novel, 1891)
  • Life’s Handicap (short stories, 1891)
  • Barrack Room Ballads (poems, 1892)
  • The Naulahka, A Story of West and East (novel, 1892)
  • Many Inventions (1893)
  • The Jungle Books (short stories, 1895, 1895)
  • The Seven Seas (poems, 1896)
  • Captains Courageous (1897)
  • The Day’s Work (short stories, 1898)
  • Stalky and Co (short stories, 1899)

What emerges from this list is:

  1. His equal facility in verse and prose (not unique for that period: Wilde wrote successful poems, stories, a novel and plays; Thomas Hardy was equally fluent in novels and poems).
  2. The weakness of the novels –
    • The Light That Failed is about an artist who has a frustrated love affair, realises he is going blind and goes off to the Sudan to die a ‘hero’s death’ in the desert. Respectable but not rave reviews.
    • Nobody liked The Naulahka, which was a collaboration with his American friend Wolcott Balestier (who died half way through writing it).
    • Captains Courageous is really a short story (the licking into shape of a spoilt millionaire’s son aboard a tough New England trawler) stretched out and told in Kipling’s impenetrable attempt to convey New England trawlermen diction.

And what is so hard to capture is how quickly and completely he came to dominate the tone and discourse of the period. Carrington quotes a very useful description of Kipling’s influence from a man at the opposite end of the political spectrum, H.G. Wells, in his novel The New Machiavelli (1910).

The prevailing force in my undergraduate days was not Socialism but Kiplingism. Our set was quite exceptional in its socialistic professions. And we were all, you must understand, very distinctly Imperialists also, and professed a vivid sense of the ‘White Man’s Burden.’ It is a little difficult now to get back to the feelings of that period; Kipling has since been so mercilessly and exhaustively mocked, criticised and torn to shreds;—never was a man so violently exalted and then, himself assisting, so relentlessly called down. But in the middle nineties this spectacled and moustached little figure with its heavy chin and its general effect of vehement gesticulation, its wild shouts of boyish enthusiasm for effective force, its lyric delight in the sounds and colours, in the very odours of empire, its wonderful discovery of machinery and cotton waste and the under officer and the engineer, and ‘shop’ as a poetic dialect, became almost a national symbol. He got hold of us wonderfully, he filled us with tinkling and haunting quotations, he stirred Britten and myself to futile imitations, he coloured the very idiom of our conversation. He rose to his climax with his “Recessional,” while I was still an undergraduate. What did he give me exactly? He helped to broaden my geographical sense immensely, and he provided phrases for just that desire for discipline and devotion and organised effort the Socialism of our time failed to express, that the current socialist movement still fails, I think, to express. (H.G. Wells The New Machiavelli, Chapter 4)

Marriage and America

When Wolcott Balestier died suddenly in Germany, Kipling cut short a Christmas trip to his family in India, returned to London for the funeral, and proposed to Wolcott’s sister, Caroline Starr Balestier. They were married on 18 January 1892 (with Henry James giving away the bride) in a service with just four attendants – but ‘Carrie’ was to be an invaluable rock to him for the rest of his life.

They moved to America, to rural Vermont, to be near the other Balestier sibling, Beatty and here they had their three children, Josephine, Elsie and John. Kipling helped build the family home and furnished it exactly according to his requirements, with a big study window looking out over beautiful New England scenery, carpeted with rugs from India. Here he wrote The Jungle Books and, a few years later, took the trips to the New England cod harbours with a friend, an American doctor, to collect the factual, technical and above all slang and diction of the sailors which makes Captains Courageous almost unreadable.

The crisis of Imperialism

For me the most compelling section of Carrington’s brilliant biography covers the years 1898 to 1902. A massive falling out with Carrie’s brother made their Vermont home unpleasant, and this was compounded by a wave of Anglophobia whipped up by the administration of President Cleveland when American nearly went to war with Britain about the border between Venezuala and British Guiana in South America.

The Kiplings returned to England and settled, first in Torquay, then in Ringwood in Hampshire. Kipling wrote the first of a series of grave, sombre admonitions to The Nation, Recessional, about the state of the nation at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897. It is an extraordinarily sombre, serious poem, notable for not mentioning the Queen at all.

But it was the two white men’s wars at the turn of the century which form the axis in Kipling’s career and reputation:

  • The Spanish-American War (1898) during which the US defeated Spain in the Philippines.
  • The Second Boer War (1899-1901) which Kipling went out to South Africa to contribute and report on, for which he wrote his immense bestseller, The Absent-Minded Beggar, and where he saw how mismanaged the war was, how ill-prepared the British were, how badly organised and badly led, and was shocked to realise that a large part of the population and most of the intelligentsia were strongly against it.

Anti-imperialists at the time and all the way to our time, see both wars as grotesque bullying of small peoples and unashamed wars of conquest designed to open up areas of the world for British economic exploitation. Carrington’s is a useful corrective, emphasising that Kipling and the millions of patriots like him saw them as wars to ensure Progress – material, economic and social – and Freedom. The Boers oppressed the indigenous Africans and refused to give any legal or political rights to the three-quarters of the population who were Uitlanders – white settlers from Britain or the colonies. The Boer War was fought to defend their rights and freedoms – and this, Carrington points out, explains why thousands of men volunteered from Australia and New Zealand to fight the Boers: they were fighting for mates like themselves.

Kipling and those like him felt that Britain and America were united in being at the cutting edge of Civilisation and Progress: they were pledged to bring political freedom and the blessings of civilisation – law, order, agriculture, irrigation, proper drains, schools, hospitals – to areas where many millions of native peoples lived in breath-takingly primitive conditions and savagery.

To inhabit this point of view, no matter how briefly, is the only way to get inside Kipling’s famous booming national poems, like The White Man’s Burden. We may disagree with every shred of its utterance and assumptions, but it is important, historically, to get inside the mind of its maker and its many, many, fans. As I write these words the British House of Commons is debating whether we, the British Army or Air Force, should intervene somehow in Syria to stop the Russians bombing Aleppo, to arrange peace agreements which will allow the return of law, order and all the blessings of civilisation – hospitals, schools etc, and plenty of bien-pensant newspapers, TV and radio programmes feature pictures of the bombings and voices calling for Western intervention.

But why? Why should British armed forces personnel put their lives on the line for people five thousand miles away who, as the examples of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya show us, will not thank us and will not do as we wish and adopt the nice, human rights-based democracies we’d like ’em to, any more than they did during Kipling’s day? Because we are still labouring under the delusions of Kipling and his time, that ‘the West’ somehow has a duty, a responsibility and a ‘burden’ to bring peace, civilisation, law etc etc to troubled parts of the world. Why?

The engineers of Empire

Over and over Carrington places Kipling’s stories and poems in their historical and technological context, celebrating the tremendous achievements and breakthroughs of the age.

To write poetry and prose about steamships, for the men who worked in the engine-rooms, was so new a practice that it left the literary critics gasping, but Kipling’s own public was to be found among the makers of the world as it was at the turn of the century. They found no difficulty in his vocabulary, no unfamiliarity in his subject-matter. The generation that bridged the Forth, built the Uganda Railway, damned the Nile, laid the Pacific Cable, irrigated the Punjab, sent radio messages across the Atlantic, crushed the ore of the Golden Mile at Kalgoorlie, servid with the Mounties at the Klondyke, tunneled through the Rockies, revealed the last secrets of the earth’s surface, and learned to fly, had found its own laureate and not upon the advice of the approved literary critics. (p.398)

From the mid-1890s Kipling took an increasing interest in the Royal Navy and, by this stage, had the friends and contacts to be taken out on various naval vessels and shown round the Fleet. Carrington makes the point that in every year from 1889 to 1908 Kipling took a long sea voyage, and his love of the sea and seafaring men grew and grew. This resulted in a series of short ‘stories’ (many really just glorified reportage) aboard RN ships – not least the half dozen ‘stories’ about Petty Officer Emanuel Pyecroft. These are, frankly, pretty poor.

Far more impressive are the poems he wrote about the sea, about the naval engineers who keep the ships running, such as the famous McAndrew’s Hymn (1894). And they are just part of Kipling’s commendable and admirable interest in the practicalities of WORK and in the astonishing scientific and technological achievements of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Carrington captures this mood of a generation really well:

They [Rhodes and Kipling and Theodore Roosevelt] lived in a world in which the British and the Americans were immeasurably the most progressive of nations; in which their standards of conduct prevailed wherever civilisation spread; in which they were in fact spreading those standards over all the world. The partition of Africa, of South-East Asia, and of the Pacific, the revelation by explorers of the last secrets on the earth’s surface, the linking of all the world’s seaports by telegraph cables and steamship routes, the crossing of all continents by railways, the bridge-building, the engineering, and the commerce: these astonishing achievements made a revolution in history unlike anything that had ever happened before, and Kipling’s genius had revealed to his generation what it was that they had done. (p.335)

The Edwardian Kipling

After the Boer War his contempt for Liberals and anyone who questioned the ‘civilising mission’ of the Empire makers hardened, his fictional and poetic satires of them grew more savage, the brutality of his brutal stories tougher and harder to read.

And yet the 1900s were also the decade of The Just So StoriesPuck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, overtly light and dainty children’s stories, after he settled into his final home at ‘Bateman’s’. a comfortable country house near the village of Burwash in Sussex, and fell in love with the English countryside and its traditions.

Carrington’s biography continues to be informative and to provide fascinating background, especially around the political crises of the years 1910 to 1914, during which Kipling made increasingly vehement statements in defence of the Empire, against Irish Nationalism, in defence of the Ulster Unionists and so on, speeches and articles which crystallised his reputation as a fiery demagogue of the Right. Many of his earlier fans and supporters fell away, disappointed and alarmed at the ferocity of his political opinions, but also at their increasing estrangement from reality.

For the events of the Great War and then of the post-war years, see my reviews of the two key collections of short stories, A Diversity of Creatures (1917) and Debits and Credits (1926).

Early adopter

One of the minor themes which emerges is that Kipling was a gadget freak. He not only was riveted to learn everything possible about every piece of technology which was shown him – and then stuffed his stories with show-off facts and jargon, from steamships to the new wireless – but he himself adopted, bought and experimented with them.

While in Vermont he took delivery of one of the first pairs of modern skis and off he went. He was an early adopter of the new-fangled bicycle in the 1890s, until he and his wife fell off their tandem in Torquay and gave it up. He was one of the first motorists, buying a steam-driven ‘Locomobile’ in 1900, a breakdown-prone machine which features in the story ‘Steam tactics’. In fact, from that point onwards Kipling was fascinated by cars and owned a sequence of steadily better and better spec machines – while the joys and perils of motoring appear in quite a few of the Edwardian short stories – as well as creating the frame for one of his best supernatural stories, ‘They’ (1904). In fact, he was inspired to write a series of parodies of classical and English poets writing about motor cars, which was eventually collected in the light-hearted volume The Muse Among The Motors.

He was fascinated by the new technology of electric lights, got Bateman’s rigged up and then wrote an eerie ‘comic’ story about a cat and rat and the millwheel and water, all of whom get speaking parts in a story about how an old mill gets fitted with a blazing electric light, ‘Below The Mill Dam’ (1902). Similarly, he describes an amateur and very early radio ham in Sussex trying to fix an aerial to the roof of the local chemists’ shop in another supernatural tale, ‘Wireless’.

His 1904 story ‘Mrs Bathurst’ contains one of the earliest references to the new cinematograph in fiction: in it a man obsessed with a remote love affair he had with a woman in New Zealand drags the narrator of the tale along to see an amazing coincidence – that the subject of his long distance love has been captured on a few seconds of film walking towards a very early movie camera in a London railway station, a film which is now being shown as part of a sideshow attraction in South Africa. The man insists on paying the entry fee again and again to sit through forty minutes of jerky black and white figures, just to see the few seconds of his beloved jerking towards the camera. An eerie premonition of the circular relationship between film, repetition and obsession which was to haunt the medium throughout the 20th century.

Conclusion

Carrington’s biography is compulsory reading for anyone interested in Kipling. It has at least four inestimable strengths:

  1. Access to the family’s private papers, to Kipling’s correspondence and to his wife’s diary, alongside the guiding hand, anecdotes and personal memories of Kipling’s own daughter.
  2. It offers sensible, grounded, unideological insights into scores of the poems and stories, thoroughly explaining their background and genesis, and shedding new light wherever he turns his attention.
  3. Carrington was a military man himself who served in both world wars, and shares some of Kipling’s animus against both the elite urban intellectuals who looked down on Kipling and his vulgar little ways, and against the Liberal politicians who campaigned so violently against Kipling’s Conservative party friends during the Edwardian era. This makes Carrington an unusual right-wing voice in the world of academia, of modern introductions and editions and commentary on Kipling which is uniformly politically correct, feminist, post-colonial and often shrilly critical of the man and all his works. I don’t agree or disagree with his views; but it is just fascinating to see the world from that point of view and to be forced to reconsider a whole set of issues and events from a different perspective.
  4. Finally, Carrington is simply a good critic. He has interesting things to say about almost every aspect of Kipling’s output and sheds light on every poem or story which he considers. This is why you often come across him being quoted in later editions and essays and introductions to Kipling’s work: because Carrington got there first and often said it best. This is an indispensable work.

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson (2004)

Sir Richard Turnbull, the penultimate Governor of Aden, once told Labour politician Denis Healey that, “when the British Empire finally sank beneath the waves of history, it would leave behind it only two monuments: one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression ‘Fuck off’.” (p.365)

Niall Ferguson is a bit of a rock star among historians – youngish, good looking in a rugged Scottish way, he’s been the presenter of a number of TV history series for Channel 4, writes combative articles for newspapers and magazines here and in the States, has been a contributing editor to Newsweek, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, has actively helped US Presidential campaigns, appears regularly as a pundit on TV shows – all logged and available on his busy website.

Three things make him stand out:

1. He is an economic historian He has an impressive grasp of the economic and banking and business aspects of history. Most history books rely on government and administrative documents and interpret policy in terms of political parties or the individual psychology of a Disraeli or Churchill, with a smattering of culture (quoting poems) thrown in. For their part, most economic historians are dry specialists, working deep in the bowels of Treasury or corporate archives to produce very technical tracts.

But in the book which brought him to general attention, The Pity of War, Ferguson combined his economic perspective with a popular style and approach, taking a detailed look at defence budgets, steel production, armaments output and so on, to present the Great War from a purely economic point of view, resulting in a number of surprising insights & conclusions.

Ferguson’s unique selling point is his ability to cut through political discourse to show the economic realities – the profit and loss, the problems of issuing bonds, obtaining credit, securing loans, paying back interest, finding new markets, keeping down overheads – the sheer business of the Empire, and the challenges it threw up and the difficult decisions political and business leaders had to take as a result.

2. He is an unashamed capitalist He’s not a Marxist or a socialist or a liberal, he isn’t into cultural studies or feminism or post-colonial studies, as so many contemporary historians are. He is an unabashed Thatcherite capitalist. He has been employed by New York investment banks and has worked for Republican presidential candidates. Despite its obvious inequalities, he defends free market capitalism as the bringer of prosperity and freedom to all the countries which embrace it. After all – look at the alternatives.

3. He is a populist Three of his books are based on Channel 4 TV series which he wrote and presented – this history of the British Empire, another on the Rise of America, and the third on reasons why the West beat the Rest to world domination (all handily available to view on YouTube). He is not shy of tackling the Big Subjects.

Having worked for Channel 4 myself, I know that they value controversy above anything else, they like to encourage contrary and unexpected viewpoints, they like to feel they are stimulating debate. Ferguson, with his confidently conservative views, his brash way with economic statistics, and his Celtic good looks (it is a visual medium, after all) was perfectly placed to present the series and write the books on these epic subjects. He will have mapped out the overall approach or message – broken it down into hour-long episodes / chapters, which are built around key (ideally, controversial and ‘against received opinion’) propositions. Then teams of assistants will have been despatched to assemble the material required to fill them out. ‘We want striking locations, powerful stories, strong messages!’

This, the first of the three books-of-the-series, is hugely enjoyable, fluently written, full of deliberate provocations and journalistic summaries, pithy phrase-making and telling stories (I liked his quip that if Britain was a nation of shopkeepers, Australia started out as a nation of shoplifters) – liberally studded with graphs and diagrams displaying impressive-looking arrays of figures for the economically illiterate. It is designed to impress and persuade a broad popular audience, of which I am one.

Empire is a solid-looking Penguin paperback of medium length for such a vast subject (380 pages) and divided into six chapters which summarise the narrative arc of the story – Why Britain?, White Plague, The Mission, Heaven’s Breed, Maxim Force, Empire For Sale.

The British Empire A Good Thing

The biographical background sketched above helps to explain why Ferguson’s history ruggedly and abrasively declares the British Empire was a Good Thing. It had its fair share of atrocities, terrible behaviour, oppression and subjugation. But overall, on balance, from a high-level perspective, Ferguson in his Introduction asserts the British Empire was a civilising, globalising influence, and then spends the rest of the book going into detail to back his assertions.

The Empire was a good thing because it:

  1. Imposed free market capitalism around the globe, encouraging the free movement of goods, capital and labour on a vast scale.
  2. Spread the rule of law, specifically English common law, fairer, quicker, more efficient than other systems.
  3. Spread English forms of land tenure, which encouraged investment and development.
  4. Spread representative democracy: this has survived in eg India, to the ex-colonies’ lasting benefit.
  5. Spread the idea of a small, incorrupt state: its critics may have criticised Imperial administrators for arrogance and sometimes criminal neglect; but they weren’t venal and corrupt, and the administration was astonishingly small: at its height, the Indian Empire of 250 million was administered by a civil service of 1,000.
  6. Spread the English language.
  7. Spread Anglican Protestantism.

British ideals

Lastly, he emphasises the way the Empire disseminated English ideas of personal liberty. Critics immediately reply, ‘How could an Empire devoted to freedom have made so much money out of slavery?’ Ferguson doesn’t underplay the cruelty or neglect of the Imperial authorities. There are strong passages about slavery, including his description of visiting the slave cells on the West coast of Africa. But the history of the Empire can be split into two parts, Slavery and post-Slavery. Anybody who condemns the British Empire for its use of slavery needs to be reminded that it was the British who were the first nation anywhere in the world to outlaw the slave trade (1808), to abolish slavery altogether (1833), and then to enforce that ban on other nations. The Americans, famously, fought to defend Slavery into the 1850s.

Ferguson makes the profound point that, no matter how rapacious, violent or unjust its activities abroad, there was always a strong party at home which tried to hold the Imperialists to account against the highest standards. Even if the ideal of liberty was betrayed again and again in practice, it was nonetheless an ideal that a significant number of Britons aspired to, and the anti-slavery movement is proof of its power. (After all, a generation earlier, the American colonists had rebelled against their king in the name of a higher ideal than monarchy, in the name of Freedom, and a lot of 18th century Englishmen sympathised with them.) Thus, throughout the nineteenth century, economic and political Liberals criticised the idea and the implementation of Empire, against a range of higher ideals about freedom and national independence.

It was the very power of this British notion of liberty, holding the Empire’s rulers to account against nobler ideals, which meant the Empire’s days were always numbered. By about 1900, as domestic discourse became divided between shrill Imperialists (Kipling, Rhodes) and even shriller opponents (Gladstone’s heirs like John Hobson, author of the stinging critique, Imperialism) the whole idea of Empire was becoming difficult to defend, when it was dealt a body blow by the stupidity of the Boer War.

The alternative empires

The grossest, the most obvious defence of the British Empire is – Look at the alternatives. Empire critics tend to base arguments on the notion that, if the British hadn’t arrived, the ‘native’ red Indians, or Indians or Africans or Maoris or Aborigenes would have continued living their environmentally-friendly, spiritual lives. But no they wouldn’t have. They would have been colonised by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, or God forbid, the Belgians or Germans. And, after the Great War, in the 1930s, the new empires were the totalitarian ones of the Japanese, the Russians and the Nazis. Without a shadow of a doubt, much much worse.

The Soviet Union, the Nazis, the fascist Japanese did not emphasise the rule of law, did not have powerful parties at home holding the Imperialists to account. Critics of their totalitarian policies were shot. Opponents in colonised countries were shot. Anyone complaining about British rule in the 1930s should spend a few minutes reading about the Japanese Rape of Nanking, or the way Germany behaved in its new East European colonies after 1939.

The economic end of empire

Ferguson is perhaps deliberately controversial, when he asserts that what ended the British Empire wasn’t the various rag-tag nationalist movements which agitated in their countries (Sinn Fein, the Indian Congress, Mau Mau) it was that in a few short years Britain comprehensively bankrupted itself fighting off other empires which were significantly worse, undoubtedly evil.

He gives pages of figures showing the collapse of Britain’s economy in the 20th century, begun in the Great War and ruined in the second. We were only able to continue fighting after 1940 because of huge American loans. Whatever the military or diplomatic facade, the baton for policing the world and combating evil empires had been handed on to America, an America reluctant to take on the role.

How the British made the modern world

Despite listing the things the British Empire gave to the 25% of the world it governed, I thought the book didn’t really address its subtitle, ‘How the British made the modern world’. In the introduction and again in the conclusion, Ferguson repeats the roll call listed above, but I don’t think that’s quite the same as showing how Britain made the modern world. All kinds of other things made the modern world as well. Oil. Coffee. Cars. Airplanes. Computers. Some Brits might have had a hand in some of them, but so did Germans, French, Americans.

Instead, the lion’s share of the text is taken up with a fairly traditional narrative of the key events in the Empire’s history, with a kind of running economic commentary. Insofar as it is a chronological narrative, it covers an awful lot of familiar ground, albeit littered with entertaining stories and stunning stats. So we get:

  • The early years, the Elizabethan settlements in Ireland and America.
  • A history of the East India Company as it takes over pieces of India piecemeal, fights off the French, in the 1700s, develops its own army.
  • The Slave Trade: the triangle of trade taking slaves to Africa, sugar from the Caribbean to Britain, then gewgaws to buy more slaves back in West Africa, from the 1600s until  the rise of the Evangelical anti-Slavery movement in the 1790s.
  • As we move into the Victorian era, the narrative thickens, becomes slower and more detailed, as:
    • Britain invents loads of stuff, better maps, theodolites, the steamship, the steam engine, iron, coking coal, factories, the telegraph – and sends explorers deeper into Africa.
    • The Indian Mutiny (1856) transforms Imperial power in India from its old relaxed amateurish basis, onto a more formal, hierarchical affair.
  • And thickens further in the era of High Imperialism from the 1880s onwards, as we fought small wars all across Africa and northern India – the era of the Great Game, Kipling, Pomp and Circumstance etc etc.
  • Then the twin catastrophes of the Boer War which sowed the seeds of doubt about the morality of the whole thing, and then the catastrophe of the Great War.
  • The odd twilight between the wars when we still had an Empire, in fact it reached its widest geographical extent, but somehow nobody took it seriously any more, except pompous administrators collecting gongs.
  • And then the hurried decolonisation between 1947 and the 1960s, marred by last-minute crackdowns in Cyprus, Malaysia, Kenya.

An over-familiar story?

A lot if not all of this is familiar from other books I’ve read, like Robert Hughes’ harrowing history of Australia, The Fatal Shore (1986), Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery (1997), Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble For Africa (1991), Lawrence James’s The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1994), The Crisis of Imperialism by Richard Shannon (1974), Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica trilogy (1968–78), Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (1987).

Like these predecessors Ferguson takes this well-worn story and tries to make it new by studding it with telling anecdotes or accounts of significant figures, garnished by sections on the economics of imperial trade or slavery or the East India Company etc. These economic sections, frequent though they are, somehow don’t have the same impact. A graph about, say, English net migration 1601-1801, while mildly interesting, has little or no impact compared to the 40 or more pages he devotes to a long biographical sketch of David Livingstone, from his impoverished childhood, through his training as a doctor and missionary, and then a thorough account of his adult explorations. Or the long account of Indian Viceroy Lord Curzon, seen as epitomising the cultural moment of high Imperial pomp in India.

Imperial legacy?

In this book and in the Tate Britain exhibition about Artist and Empire I went to recently, I read that the legacy of Empire is ‘all around us’. Hmm. I don’t really agree. My daily commute to Clapham Common, travelling by Tube to Old Street, walking through dirty streets to a 1970s concrete tower block where I work for part of the NHS – not much of that strikes me as a legacy of the British Empire. It all happens to take place in the capital city of the same country, but none of those things were created by or for the British Empire. (Indeed, Ferguson points out that the cost of the NHS and the new welfare state, created after the Second World War, was one of the reasons running an empire became unaffordable.)

To me the most obvious and by far the most important legacy of the British Empire is America. America is the world’s superpower. We founded it, gave it its language, religion and political ideals, and then it grew up and went its own way.

The next most important thing we gave the world was the Industrial Revolution: coal and iron and steam power, railways, electricity, the telegraph and telephone, preparing the way for the oil economy – cars, airplanes and computers. These are the real and immediate physical and technological presences in the life of me and most Londoners. The fact that Indians have parliamentary democracy or Ghana’s judges wear British wigs or Australians play cricket are nice aspects of the world, but as irrelevant to me as the statues of all the generals and viceroys who line Whitehall.

Grace notes

In such a densely researched account, packed with stories, quotes, biographical accounts, facts and figures about such a vast undertaking over such a long period, a number of thoughts stood out, things I never knew or had forgotten, twists or turns in the familiar story:

  • The composer of the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton, became a slaving captain after his born-again religious conversion.
  • Obviously I knew about David Livingstone: I didn’t know (or had forgotten) that Livingstone’s explorations were based on an economic theory ie mid-Victorian laissez-faire capitalism. Livingstone was a life-long opponent of slavery but he completely failed to make Christian converts among the Africans he visited or to persuade the African and Arab slavers to cease trading. Therefore, he switched his activities to a messianic mission to ‘open up’ Africa, to carve trade routes into deepest Africa, in the belief that, once British traders and businesses could be persuaded to set up trading posts, to start to grow coffee or cotton or whatever in the areas he opened up, free trade would kill off the slave trade. It would simply become more profitable to let Africans do honest labour in their own regions and rake in a profit, than to capture them and drag them down to Zanzibar in chains.
  • By the 1830s and 1840s 40% of the total value of Indian exports took the form of opium. The fact of the Opium Wars against China in which we stole Shanghai and Hong Kong never ceases to amaze me.
  • The very Evangelical Christians who powered the anti-slavery cause and successfully abolished the slave trade, then set their sights on converting the heathen in India, but the rapid growth of missionary societies and missionaries in the field trying to convert Hindus and Muslims was to have a disastrous result. Ferguson says that one of the main contributory factors of the Indian Mutiny was that the soldiers of the Indian Army felt their religion was under threat from the floods of missionaries.
  • The Indian Army was a vital support of the Empire. By the 1880s 62% of all the soldiers of the Queen were Indian. In autumn 1914 about a third of British forces in Flanders were from India. By the war’s end a million Indians had served, as much as the four white Dominions put together.

The Channel 4 TV series

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past @ Tate Britain

In six rooms the curators of this exhibition have gathered a jumble sale, a hodge-podge, a gallimaufry of maps and flags, oil paintings and watercolours, photographs and sculptures, swords and spears from all over the vast territorial range of the British Empire, dating from the 1500s to the post-colonial art of the present day. These objects, quite obviously, can only represent a tiny fraction, a miniscule sampling of the vast, overwhelming multitude of artefacts and stories which remain or could be told about the largest empire in history.

Thematic arrangement or jumble sale

On the one hand, it probably makes sense to try and arrange such a vast subject into themes or topics; and so the exhibition is organised into six rooms each with a distinctive theme, with a room each of maps, of portraits, of history paintings and so on, giving each piece at least a conceptual context.

The drawback of this approach is its randomness – so you get a portrait of Laurence of Arabia (1918) next to a Van Dyck of a Stuart explorer (1635) next to some Indian miniatures from a prince’s court during the Raj (1860). The leaps in time and space and context and meaning between different objects are breath-taking.

Another drawback is that the wall labels explaining each object have only two or three paragraphs to do so and in which to cover sometimes large topics; they risk being rather superficial. Thus we learn that the Empire involved some violence. There were acts of suppression. It involved ‘unequal power relationships’. Hmm.

(Given that the creation and running of the Empire was such a massive event in world history and that, as the commentary points out, the repercussions of the Empire are still with us in many places, maybe there should be a Museum of the British Empire, a really big museum, dedicated to telling the story of the central administration, along with galleries for each subject country or colony, galleries which could explore in detail the histories of trade and barter and war and invasion and resistance and administration and rebellion and independence for each of the 50 or so countries the Empire once ruled.)

There is a chronological underpinning of sorts to the exhibition, with the first room – the map room – containing some of the earliest objects and the last room clearly set apart for post-colonial and contemporary art by artists from former colonies. But otherwise, you have to be quite alert to bits of Empire popping up in scattered places.

For example, did you think the British colonisation of Ireland was a complex and important story? In the first room there’s a primitive map of Enniskellen from Elizabethan times, in the last room a contemporary art work showing a map of Ulster overshadowed by the Troubles. And that’s your lot on Ireland. Not much to get your teeth into. Next it’s native statues from Sierra Leone, an 18th century portrait of Joseph Banks, 19th century wood carvings of Queen Victoria, a 1937 photo of John Buchan in Red Indian head-dress, a chess set from India. And so on.

The Empire in art

The curators claim the exhibition ‘looks at the British Empire through the prism of art and explores some of the ways in which Empire has shaped practices and themes in British art from the early colonial period to the present day.’ In an obvious way, everything here – maps, flags, portrait painting, sculpture, history paintings – references Imperial subject matter – battles, rulers, land. But to say the Empire shaped practices and themes in British art is a more ambitious claim. The portrait, the landscape, animal paintings, history paintings, watercolours of plants or ancient ruins – surely all these existed in other European countries too, including those which never had an Empire.

What the British emphatically did do, and uniquely well, was trade -trade and expand, sometimes by war, sometimes by negotiation, buying land, acquiring land, conquering land, replacing corrupt local rulers with British law or just defeating them in countless ‘small wars’, introducing accurate maps and renaming places, carrying out censuses, introducing new crops, new landholding patterns and then – after the Industrial Revolution – bringing in steam trains, telegraph cables, metal warships to bind it all together.

Of this – the administrative, trading and commercial, the deal-making and buying and selling, the technological and engineering underpinnings of Empire, what amounted in fact to the main engines and sinews of Empire – there was little or nothing. I missed depictions of the economic, technological and military might which made the British Empire so unstoppable for centuries. After the map room, the exhibition features a few pictures of plants and animals, a few spears and native carvings – but overwhelmingly it consists of pictures of people and their stories.

British indifference to Empire

One of the most interesting things about the British Empire was the way it was largely ignored in the country which supposedly ran it. The English syllabus I studied at university included Dryden and Pope, Dr Johnson and Fielding, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Jane Austen and George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Which of them was the cheerleader for Imperialism? Which of them even mentioned the British Empire? There are occasional references to the snobbish, nouveau riches nabobs who come back from India and offensively flaunt their wealth (in Thackeray). Mr Micawber goes off to Australia at the end of David Copperfield (1850); Magwitch returns from Australia in Great Expectations (1861). But for the most part the Empire is a distant place where people go to and sometimes return from or just not mentioned at all.

It’s only at the very end of the nineteenth century, in the age of Kipling and the boys’ own adventures of Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard, from the 1880s onwards, that a really triumphalist Imperial Jingoism asserts itself in British culture and that its remote and exotic locations start to feature in fiction and the broader culture. And this had barely got going before it was called into question by the national humiliation of the Boer War (1899-1902). There was another decade of pomp and circumstance, and then the Great War shipwrecked the whole thing. Then you have the troubled inter-war years, with increasingly shrill hard-core Unionists and Imperialists on one side, pitched against outraged liberals and socialists who support the growing independence movements. The cataclysmic second war when the Dominions rally round Britain while she stands alone against Hitler and bankrupts herself in the process. Then, between 1945 and 1965, a flood of independences and ‘liberations’.

The truly Imperial Moment was a very short period in British history. A few weeks ago I systematically visited every room in Tate Britain, looking at every painting and sculpture. I can’t remember a single work ‘about’ the British Empire. There must have been a few history paintings touching on imperial battles, but what’s really remarkable about the British Empire is its absence from British culture.

For most of our history it was an offshore enterprise, a bit like North Sea oil, employing a small number of people very intensively, bringing massive profits to a small number of companies. You might have read about it when something went wrong (some military setback or other), but most people here just got in with their lives. That’s what the literature records (Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Hardy, James) – a sublime indifference.

Anti-imperialism

The curators refer a few times to the notion that the Empire is still viewed by the British people as a wonderful achievement. Their stated aim is to probe and question this supposed attitude of patriotic pride. But I would have thought it’s the opposite. My children were taught from infant school all about the horrors of slavery, they know more about Nelson Mandela than Admiral Nelson, they are quick to jump on any suggestion of sexism or racism, which they have been fully trained to recognise and denounce. I’d have thought the commonest view was embarrassment shading into shame about the Empire.

In any case, Britain had a long history of internal criticism of Empire throughout its history. The 18th century economist Adam Smith thought it was a bad thing. Victorian free traders like Cobden thought it would ruin the home country. Gladstone dedicated his life to opposing Imperial adventurism (and its wily advocate, his opponent, the slippery Disraeli). Some of the most stinging critiques of Empire were published immediately after the Boer War. Conditions in the concentration camps created during that stupid struggle were widely publicised at the time (surely a rampaging feminist movie could be made from the heroic campaigns of Emily Hobhouse to publicise their evils?). The nakedness of the greed, the futility of the fighting undertaken to enrich a handful of Rand millionaires, was well publicised at the time. By the 1930s George Orwell was writing of his disgust at the Empire, Evelyn Waugh was taking the mickey.

I’d have thought most educated people are very well aware of the shameful aspects of Empire, the brutality of British rule in India, our wicked involvement in the slave trade. Who hasn’t seen Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi with its depiction of the Amritsar Massacre? That was released in 1982. 34 years ago. To claim that any Briton anywhere has an uncritically patriotic pride in the British Empire is to set up a straw man.

Individual stories

Once you realise the exhibition isn’t attempting a coherent narrative, or a sustained analysis, of the British Empire it becomes easier to enjoy it for what it is – a potpourri, a salmagundi, a miscellany and medley of objects large and small, old and new, each with its own ‘Oooh gosh’ story behind it. These are the very spears Joseph Banks collected in 1763! Those bronze heads were looted from Benin City in 1898!

Watching the elderly, grey-haired (and 100% white) visitors shuffling from one interesting artefact to another reminded me of The Antiques Roadshow. I couldn’t help smiling at the incongruity between the curators’ use of post-modern critical language – where art works are always ‘questioning’ and ‘subverting’ and ‘interrogating’ colonial ‘practice’ – and the chatty, antiquarian enthusiasm of the elderly visitors with their walking sticks and glasses, their taste for intriguing objects and historical gossip. And I was happy to be part of that oohing and aahing audience, too.

The rooms

Room one: Mapping and marking

A room full of maps, with some flags hanging from the ceiling, five flags created by Fante artists from the former Gold Coast. How many flags do you think were used during the entire British Empire? A million? Five seems a small selection. The big map of the world hanging on the wall with the Empire marked in pink wasn’t nearly as impressive as I thought it would be. If anything it emphasised how America, South America, a lot of Africa, all Russia and China weren’t in the Empire.

There were two splendid paintings:

  • Triple portrait of Thomas Cavendish, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins Note the globe: Drake was only the second man to sail round the planet (presumably with some other sailors involved). What lads they look! Drake was a pirate, remembered in South America as a crook and privateer, and was second-in-command of the fleet which held off the Spanish Armada. Hawkins is fingered as one of the Elizabethans who began to dabble in the slave trade. The slave trade was a bad thing, children. And so Hawkins was a Bad Man.
  • Sir John Everett Millais The North-West Passage (1874) In my old age I’ve given up fighting a taste for cheesy Victorian narrative paintings. If it’s OK to enjoy realistic Victorian novels, why not enjoy their realistic paintings? If you’ve cared for old family members this has added poignancy.

Room two: Trophies of Empire

My recent tour of the British Museum, especially room one, devoted to housing and explaining a selection of 18th century collections, showed me the huge importance of collecting, of the urge to collect and compare and contrast artefacts, which became fashionable in the 18th century and formed the basis of our Western knowledge in a huge range of subjects, from archaeology to botany. The existence of the Empire, of course, enabled the collecting of all kinds of artefacts from all around the globe, especially flowers and plants.

  • Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians The two paintings in this room by George Stubbs seemed dire to me. Portrait of a Large Dog (The Dingo) They’re here to demonstrate the impulse to record, log and record the fauna of new exotic destinations (India, Australia).
  • Best painting was the imposing portrait of the great naturalist Joseph Banks by Benjamin West. Banks was a founder and one of the earliest directors of Kew Gardens. He accompanied Captain Cook on his voyages of exploration. To his left are a Maori paddle and quarterstaff and almost identicial examples are hung either side of the painting, creating an impressive and haunting effect.
  • Talking of Kew, there’s an oil painting of an Indian temple by the prolific Victorian artist Marianne North. At Kew an entire gallery is dedicated to her hundreds of detailed pictures of exotic flora.
  • There were some wonderful botanic prints by Shaikh Zain-ud-Din, one of the many ‘native’ inhabitants taught and trained by the schools the British set up.
  • My favourite works in the British Museum are the ‘bronzes of Benin’, extraordinary works of art which were looted after our troops seized Benin City at the end of the 19th century. Obviously they should be returned to their country of origin (like the Elgin marbles and lots else). On show here are Head of an Oba and Head of a Queen Mother. In one way these were quite the most perfect, complete, finished and powerful exhibits in the show.
  • These and some of the other ‘primitive’ sculptures by native artists struck me as vastly more exciting, compelling, vibrant and alive than something like the dull and dreary Tomb and distant view of the Rajmahal hills by William Hodges.
  • The poster for the whole show is one of the three oil portraits by Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda painted for Queen Victorian, namely Bakshiram (1886).

Room three: Imperial heroics

A room of big oil paintings depicting heroic moments from Imperial history. The commentary makes the interesting point that Imperial history paintings tended to select moments of solo heroism or martyrdom or depict our chaps facing overwhelming odds – glossing over the many times we and our machine guns massacred the natives. This explains:

On the other hand, there were a lot of military disasters in the history of the Empire. We did get massacred at Isandlwana (1,300 killed), in the retreat from Kabul (nearly 17,000 killed or captured). In fact the history of the Empire is coloured by the cult of Heroic Failure which makes England such an odd country. The conquest of Canada from the French always focuses on the death of Colonel Wolfe at the climax of the Battle for Quebec (1775). We beat the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and as a result dominated the world’s oceans for a century but, once again, depictions all tend to focus on the death of Admiral Lord Nelson, killed by a French sniper. This assemblage of martyr paintings was thought provoking.

Not particularly related to any of this was the chess set carved from ivory and depicting one side as the army of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, the other side dressed as the army of the East India Company, created in 1795.

Room four: Power dressing

Imperial portraits focusing on the ‘cross-dressing’ ie the keenness with which some of the chaps liked to dress up in native outfits. Illustrating, or bringing to mind, the tension between the sympathetic colonisers and those who felt we must keep our distance, maintain our difference, at all costs. Big theme, little room.

  • William Feilding, 1st Earl of Denbigh by Anthony van Dyck c.1635–6
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1919) by Augustus John
  • Sir John Buchan, Governor General of Canada by Yousuf Karsh. Pleasing to learn that Buchan had been given the native American head-dress by Indians for his support of First Nation cultural traditions. In fact the head-dress which features in the photo is also on display nearby, crafted by a Kainaiwa artist and presented to Buchan by a Kainaiwa chief apparently named Shot-on-both-sides. From the earliest to the final periods, there were plenty of colonists sympathetic to ‘native’ cultures.

Room five: Face to face

The rationale of this room seems to be an exploration of more informal works: it features journals and diaries with impressive amateur illustrations, wooden carvings by ‘natives’ and so on – but still includes walls of oil paintings. God, but Johann Zoffany painted a lot of stiff, awkward paintings in the 18th century! I liked:

Room six: Out of Empire

After the Second World War artists from the ‘colonies’ came to London to study and pursue careers. In these final two rooms there was the same kind of mish-mash of styles and approaches as can be seen in the main galleries upstairs, in the rooms representing the 1940s and 50s, except done by artists from the decolonising Empire.

I was struck by a bronze bust, Head of a Girl by Benedict Enwonwu, a so-so pastiche of a traditional western-style bust, because it was so much less interesting than the fabulous Benin busts from a hundred years previously. Something had been lost in the transition from ‘traditional’ style to the attempt to copy Western models.

Just because an artist comes from a former colonial country and may have many stories of repression to tell, doesn’t automatically – alas – give them some kind of ‘authenticity’, doesn’t mean their art is any good. It may shed light on aspect of the colonial experience, on the humiliation and suffering of the colonised, on their personal feelings – but doesn’t guarantee these feelings are effectively converted into an art work. For example:

  • Midonz by Ronald Moody (1937)
  • Hills of Gold by Avinash Chandra (1964)
  • Three figures I by Isabel Rawsthorne (1961)

I usually like mocking and satirical works but I found the big photos by Hew Locke somehow cheap and unfunny. They failed, for me, to engage with the ideas or history they mock.

I liked Eve by Eric Gill (1928) as I like all Gill’s work, but I don’t know why it was in this room. It was all a bit so-so; maybe the only piece I could say I liked was:

The irrelevance of anti-imperialism

Central to room six is Donald Locke’s Trophies of Empire, (1972-74) a landmark work in its day, apparently – a see-through bookshelf in the middle of the room containing a variety of candles, some of which look very phallic, some of which are chained together. Probably it refers to slavery and is meant to make me feel guilty about something which ended 150 years before I was born, but the chains reminded me of Fifty Shades of Grey.

In the earnest 1970s righteous Marxism was a viable worldview, and angst about slavery or imperial humiliations, about exploitation of the workers and native peoples, seemed pressing and important, because various forms of armed struggle against lingering colonialism and wars to overthrow capitalism were actually raging around the globe. There was apartheid in South Africa, civil wars in Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia, to take just a part of just one continent.

Now all that has gone. The doctrines of neo-liberal capitalism have completely conquered the world. The main political parties in most Western countries have become indistinguishable front men for big business and international banks, and their populations are restive and frustrated but ultimately accept it. Only in the Academy, in university humanities courses and in the Arts, do Marxism and various other ‘radical’ -isms continue to have a ghostly, unreal afterlife, detached from the actual world most people inhabit.

The curators of this exhibition believe it is time we started a debate about the real legacy of the British Empire and faced the facts about its darker side, apparently ignorant that its darker side has been well-publicised by politicians, writers and polemicists for over a hundred years (even in the very obvious level of pop culture, I remember the TV series Roots from 1977 or the movie Gandhi from 1982. A generation ago.)

But watching my teenage kids makes me realise that in our post-colonial, post-modern era, dominated by likes, shares and selfies on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, everything is just a gag. Cats who look like Hitler has more followers than the Prime Minister. My kids know more about Miley Cyrus than the Indian Mutiny. Their lives will be about trying to get jobs in a world with 8 billion inhabitants, trying to find somewhere to live in a city of 10 million, and coping with the slowly spreading impacts of global warming.

So when their old Dad tries to interest them in the iniquity of British rule in India 150 years ago or shock them with facts about the slave trade 250 years ago, they just yawn and say, ‘Yeah Dad, we learned all about that at school,’ and turn back to their X-boxes. And who’s to say they’re wrong to be getting on with their lives in the here and now, unhindered by the pomps and atrocities of the past.

This is a very thought-provoking exhibition, in more ways, I think, than the curators intended.

Related links

Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)

This is the second of Buchan’s five thrillers told in the first person by the bluff, straight-talking South African mining engineer-cum posh chap Richard Hannay. Whereas the Thirty-Nine Steps which is about foiling a German plot to smuggle military secrets out of England, is set just before the outbreak of the Great War, this sequel was written between February and June 1916 and is very much set during the Great War: the  plot starts in November 1915 and goes on into early 1916. (NB In June 1916 Buchan joined the intelligence department of the Foreign Office and in July the first installment of the Greennmantle appeared in Land and Water magazine. Buchan’s role working for British propaganda is worth bearing in mind when reading any of his books, and I will discuss more fully in the next blog post, about Mr Standfast.)

The plot

Hannay is joined in his adventure by three friends: Sandy Arbuthnot, a dashing hero who is blood brother to half the tribes of bedouin and gypsies throughout the Middle East (‘He rode through Yemen, which no white man ever did before.’); Peter Pienaar, a grizzled old big game hunter friend of Hannay’s from South Africa; John S. Blenkiron, a tubby and extremely knowledgeable American on our side.

Sir Walter Bullivant, the senior intelligence man who came to Hannay’s aid in the Steps, now informs them there is a dastardly German plot to cause a muslim uprising against the British in the Middle East and beyond, down the east coast of Africa. Our heroes are tasked with finding out who’s organising it and stopping it.

This rather vague commission leads them to plan to journey via separate routes to Istanbul to find out everything  they can along the way, rendezvous, and come up with a plan. While Blenkiron travels in style through Germany posing as an outspoken opponent of the War and of the Allies and Sandy plans his own mysterious journey via the Med, Hannay poses as a disgruntled South African Boer ready to throw in his lot with the Germans, and this leads him to be presented to the sinister Hun General von Stumm, to overhear vital conversations, and then to escape and go on the run through the winter snows of Germany, involving extremes of physical endurance, car chases, fake identities and so on.

Plot shift – a volta?

In the Alistair MacLean novels I identified the frequent use of an abrupt volta or shift, whereby the hero reveals he is something completely different from what he’d led us to believe for the first half of the text. Something similiar though less calculating happens in the Thirty-Nine Steps: the first half of the plot is driven by Hannay’s need to hide from the German spy organisation until he can get news to the authorities about their plot to assassinate the Greek Prime Minister on a state visit to London. But in the last chapter or so, the Greek PM is assassinated and, suddenly, it doesn’t matter because it has become a much more chamber affair of a German spy impersonating the First Sea Lord – an incident Hannay happens to witness through incredible coincidence as he happens to be waiting outside the meeting to see Bullivant, the head of British intelligence. It is only by the slenderest of accidents that Hannay spots this and realises the true meaning of the fragmentary message about the 39 steps ie they are steps down to the sea from a coastal house for a German spy to escape taking the information the imposter has learned at this high-level meeting.

Well, the same thing happens in Greenmantle. The first half or more relates Hannay’s dashing adventures in wintry Germany, before he finally makes it to Istanbul where our heroes meet up and establish that a new muslim prophet has arisen and is being steered and managed by a fiendish German mastermind. BUT then the book’s focus changes. Whereas the uprising had formerly been a general jihad of all muslims in the Middle East, now it becomes focused on the battle around the eastern city of Erzerum where the Russians are besieging the Turkish Army, bolstered by German forces – and then, in exactly the kind of slender coincidence on which the Steps turned, Hannay – escaping over rooftops from pursuing soldiers – accidentally sees the General poring over plans before leaving the room, so – in a typical moment of dash and pluck – Hannay opens the window, nips across the room and snaffles the plans, returns to the window, and completes his rooftop escape. The plans turn out to be the enemy deployments around Erzerum and, in a further adventure, our heroes smuggle them through enemy lines to the Russians who, thus informed, are able to storm the city and capture that front.

(Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that the final scene, the climax of the book, where the attacking Cossacks not only rescue Hannay and pals from being shelled by the wicked von Stumm, but also lend them horses so they can lead the cavalry charge into Erzerum, is genuinely exciting and thrilling.)

A small world of toffs

The upper class world Hannay inhabits is small: everyone of importance in England knows everyone else or has heard of them via the public school network; and similarly, everyone abroad is connected with that network somehow, creating an international matrix of acquaintances. For example, when Peter Pienaar arrives after perilously crossing the front line between the Turkish and Russian armies, it is absolutely classic that the Russian general he is presented to turns out to be a decent feller who he once went wild game shooting with in Matabeleland. Of course.  In this world there are only two or three hundred people of note who all went to school together or are related to each other or a few foreigners who one has had scrapes with.

This small world is, to quote Auden, ‘everso comfy’. It is part of the childishness of these thrillers not only that our chaps will get out of their scrapes, but that their and our values are correct, the only decent ones – and shared by all good-hearted people everywhere ie all the upper crust people or chaps who’ve knocked about and done a bit of hunting. There is none of the anxiety or alienation which has struck most writers as characteristic of the 20th century world. This uber-confidence is most apparent in Buchan’s amazing prose style.

Style

People say Buchan’s adventures are fast-paced. Sure, things happen and, after a generally slow start, at an accelerating rate – but I suggest the sense of ‘pace’ is created by his amazingly crisp and no-nonsense style. By pacy I mean his ability to describe a person, place or situation in a minimum of words, with precise, well-turned phrases. This lack of dawdling, no hesitation or doubt, this ability to say things fast, creates a sense of speed even when not much is actually happening. The opening sentences are:

I had just finished breakfast and was filling my pipe when I got Bullivant’s telegram. It was at Furling, the big country house in Hampshire where I had come to convalesce after Loos, and Sandy, who was in the same case, was hunting for the marmalade. I flung him the flimsy with the blue strip pasted down on it, and he whistled. (Chapter 1)

Setting: breakfast, pipe, marmalade. the same super-English atmosphere of cosy domesticity that characterises Sherlock and Watson. Actions: flung, whistled; aristocratic gestures of nonchalance, calm, confident, urbane. This is the tone throughout, the unflustered Englishman. When they meet to plan it is in Claridges, the Savoy, their club.

There was a motor-car waiting—one of the grey military kind—and we started at a terrific pace over bad forest roads. Stumm had put away his papers in a portfolio, and flung me a few sentences on the journey. (Ch 5)

Pace, speed, flung. Cars were relatively new and almost as soon as they were invented they were being stolen and involved in high speed chases: Hannay steals one in Germany and then another in Turkey. Here he is ditching his stolen car, sounding like Raymond Chandler 20 years later.

Presently I came on a bit of rough heath, with a slope away from the road and here and there a patch of black which I took to be a sandpit. Opposite one of these I slewed the car to the edge, got out, started it again and saw it pitch head-foremost into the darkness. There was a splash of water and then silence. Craning over I could see nothing but murk, and the marks at the lip where the wheels had passed. (Ch 7)

Pen portraits and memorable scenes

The precision and briskness of his style lends itself to acute pen portraits and memorable scenes, written with verve and clarity. Probably the most tremendous is when he is accompanying von Stumm as a potential helper and ally, and finds himself being presented to the Kaiser himself!

At the far side of the station a train had drawn up, a train consisting of three big coaches, chocolate-coloured and picked out with gold. On the platform beside it stood a small group of officers, tall men in long grey-blue cloaks. They seemed to be mostly elderly, and one or two of the faces I thought I remembered from photographs in the picture papers.

As we approached they drew apart, and left us face to face with one man. He was a little below middle height, and all muffled in a thick coat with a fur collar. He wore a silver helmet with an eagle atop of it, and kept his left hand resting on his sword. Below the helmet was a face the colour of grey paper, from which shone curious sombre restless eyes with dark pouches beneath them. There was no fear of my mistaking him. These were the features which, since Napoleon, have been best known to the world.

I stood as stiff as a ramrod and saluted. I was perfectly cool and most desperately interested. For such a moment I would have gone through fire and water.

‘Majesty, this is the Dutchman I spoke of,’ I heard Stumm say.

‘What language does he speak?’ the Emperor asked.

‘Dutch,’ was the reply; ‘but being a South African he also speaks English.’

A spasm of pain seemed to flit over the face before me. Then he addressed me in English.

‘You have come from a land which will yet be our ally to offer your sword to our service? I accept the gift and hail it as a good omen. I would have given your race its freedom, but there were fools and traitors among you who misjudged me. But that freedom I shall yet give you in spite of yourselves. Are there many like you in your country?’

‘There are thousands, sire,’ I said, lying cheerfully. ‘I am one of many who think that my race’s life lies in your victory. And I think that that victory must be won not in Europe alone. In South Africa for the moment there is no chance, so we look to other parts of the continent. You will win in Europe. You have won in the East, and it now remains to strike the English where they cannot fend the blow. If we take Uganda, Egypt will fall. By your permission I go there to make trouble for your enemies.’

A flicker of a smile passed over the worn face. It was the face of one who slept little and whose thoughts rode him like a nightmare. ‘That is well,’ he said. ‘Some Englishman once said that he would call in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. We Germans will summon the whole earth to suppress the infamies of England. Serve us well, and you will not be forgotten.’

Then he suddenly asked: ‘Did you fight in the last South African War?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ I said. ‘I was in the commando of that Smuts who has now been bought by England.’

‘What were your countrymen’s losses?’ he asked eagerly.

I did not know, but I hazarded a guess. ‘In the field some twenty thousand. But many more by sickness and in the accursed prison-camps of the English.’

Again a spasm of pain crossed his face.

‘Twenty thousand,’ he repeated huskily. ‘A mere handful. Today we lose as many in a skirmish in the Polish marshes.’

Then he broke out fiercely.

‘I did not seek the war … It was forced on me … I laboured for peace … The blood of millions is on the heads of England and Russia, but England most of all. God will yet avenge it. He that takes the sword will perish by the sword. Mine was forced from the scabbard in self-defence, and I am guiltless. Do they know that among your people?’

‘All the world knows it, sire,’ I said.

He gave his hand to Stumm and turned away. The last I saw of him was a figure moving like a sleep-walker, with no spring in his step, amid his tall suite. I felt that I was looking on at a far bigger tragedy than any I had seen in action. Here was one that had loosed Hell, and the furies of Hell had got hold of him. He was no common man, for in his presence I felt an attraction which was not merely the mastery of one used to command. That would not have impressed me, for I had never owned a master. But here was a human being who, unlike Stumm and his kind, had the power of laying himself alongside other men. That was the irony of it. Stumm would not have cared a tinker’s curse for all the massacres in history. But this man, the chief of a nation of Stumms, paid the price in war for the gifts that had made him successful in peace. He had imagination and nerves, and the one was white hot and the others were quivering. I would not have been in his shoes for the throne of the Universe … (ch 6)

Similarly, he meets the leader of Turkey, Ismail Enver Pasha, a leader of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and effective leader of the Ottoman Empire in both Balkan Wars and World War I.

But the great event was the sight of Enver. He was a slim fellow of Rasta’s build, very foppish and precise in his dress, with a smooth oval face like a girl’s, and rather fine straight black eyebrows. He spoke perfect German, and had the best kind of manners, neither pert nor overbearing. He had a pleasant trick, too, of appealing all round the table for confirmation, and so bringing everybody into the talk. Not that he spoke a great deal, but all he said was good sense, and he had a smiling way of saying it. Once or twice he ran counter to Moellendorff, and I could see there was no love lost between these two. I didn’t think I wanted him as a friend—he was too cold-blooded and artificial; and I was pretty certain that I didn’t want those steady black eyes as an enemy. But it was no good denying his quality. The little fellow was all cold courage, like the fine polished blue steel of a sword. (ch 13)

Racism

Anti-semitism No point denying it. Hannay is given to quick stereotypes of all sorts of races and nationalities – it’s part of the speedy summing-up of people and places which is an aspect of his upper-class English confidence and of his style. Nonetheless, his comments about Jews go above and beyond this stereotyping to have an unpleasant, vengeful flavour.

In Germany only the Jew can get outside himself, and that is why, if you look into the matter, you will find that the Jew is at the back of most German enterprises. (Ch 6)

Poor old Peter had no greatcoat, so we went into a Jew’s shop and bought a ready-made abomination, which looked as if it might have been meant for a dissenting parson… Peter and I sat down modestly in the nearest corner, where old Kuprasso saw us and sent us coffee. A girl who looked like a Jewess came over to us and talked French, but I shook my head and she went off again. (Ch 11)

Blacks There is one stunning reference to blacks which recalls Hannay’s character as a man who’s spent a lot of time in South Africa based, of course, on Buchan’s own time as assistant to the High Commissioner in South Africa from 1901 to 1903.

He liked the way I kept the men up to their work, for I hadn’t been a nigger-driver for nothing. (Ch 9)

Whites the corollary of these stereotypes of other races is, if you like, a stereotype of the good white man, phrases which assume his unquestioned place at the top of the racial pyramid. In particular I was startled to read the phrase ‘like a white man’ used to denote, well, being a sound chap.

That fellow gave me the best ‘feel’ of any German I had yet met. He was a white man and I could have worked with him. I liked his stiff chin and steady blue eyes. (Ch 4)

Gaudian was clearly a good fellow, a white man and a gentleman. I could have worked with him for he belonged to my own totem. (Ch 5)

Still the ride did us good and shook up our livers, and by the time we turned for home I was feeling more like a white man. (Ch 14)

Good Germans

But Buchan is wise enough not to belabour the stereotypes: in the race across Germany section of the book he goes to great lengths to describe good Germans: the engineer Gaudian is honest and open. There is a maybe sentimental but nonetheless moving account of the poor woman who takes Hannay in in the depths of winter and allows him to have his malaria bout in her quiet attic room and in return Hannay carves toys for her poor children. And there’s a long sequence where Hannay manages to get a berth on a set of barges from Essen which is chugging south through Austria and, as he does so, gets to know the captain and crew and gets, as usual, to like them.

It is one of Hannay’s endearing qualities that he is quick to see the good side of people, or to admire them, even if he disagrees with them or they are sworn enemies.

Gynophobia

As with She, Rider Haggard’s classic boys adventure story about the Eternal Woman, Greenmantle suggests the English public school boy has made little or no progress in being able to accept or understand women as women. Buchan’s Hilda von Einem must run Ayesha a close second in the stakes of being a shocking collection of feminine (and sexist?) clichés.

Although she’s meant to be the wicked mastermind behind the whole uprising plan, the entire new prophet-von Einem-muslim uprising part of the plot doesn’t come alive for me. It is the monstrous General von Stumm and the intense period Hannay spends with him in Germany, and then the long escape through the snow, and the long barge ride down the Danube, and then von Stumm’s magical reappearance in Erzerum to chase and corner Hannay and chums on an isolated hilltop, it is these elements of the book which have real life because they are the physical tests and tribulations which are the core of the good thriller – the sense of a fit man pushed to the physical and mental limit – and are described with such vividness.

I must have run miles before the hot fit passed, and I stopped from sheer bodily weakness. There was no sound except the crush of falling snow, the wind seemed to have gone, and the place was very solemn and quiet. But Heavens! how the snow fell! It was partly screened by the branches, but all the same it was piling itself up deep everywhere. My legs seemed made of lead, my head burned, and there were fiery pains over all my body. I stumbled on blindly, without a notion of any direction, determined only to keep going to the last. For I knew that if I once lay down I would never rise again. (Ch 7)

Jihad and the muslim world

A hundred years after this novel speculated about a muslim uprising in the Middle East against the Western powers, the forces of ISIS are storming through Iraq and claiming Syria as part of the Caliphate. Is it a topical subject, or just a subject which never goes away in the muslim world, a world which seems to permanently long to return to the imagined purity of some fictional middle ages. What is a bit more characteristic is Buchan/Hannay’s assumption that this is a world only Brits can really understand – unlike the blundering Germans and – later – Americans.

Buchan knows his and Hannay’s limits, so he gives the role of special insight into the Arab mind, and into the muslim prophet who is called Greenmantle, to fellow hero Sandy Arbuthnot:

‘I never saw such a man. He is the greatest gentleman you can picture, with a dignity like a high mountain. He is a dreamer and a poet, too – a genius if I can judge these things. I think I can assess him rightly, for I know something of the soul of the East, but it would be too long a story to tell now. The West knows nothing of the true Oriental. It pictures him as lapped in colour and idleness and luxury and gorgeous dreams. But it is all wrong. The Kaf he yearns for is an austere thing. It is the austerity of the East that is its beauty and its terror…  It always wants the same things at the back of its head. The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by the by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked. And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft. They want to prune life of its foolish fringes and get back to the noble bareness of the desert. Remember, it is always the empty desert and the empty sky that cast their spell over them – these, and the hot, strong, antiseptic sunlight which burns up all rot and decay. It isn’t inhuman. It’s the humanity of one part of the human race. It isn’t ours, it isn’t as good as ours, but it’s jolly good all the same. There are times when it grips me so hard that I’m inclined to forswear the gods of my fathers!

Probably critics would damn this and Buchan’s entire approach as Orientalist ie assuming Western superiority to a stereotype of the corrupt, lazy East. But it feels to me an accurate enough dramatisation of that mentality, of the mentality of the jolly rugger captain whose soul is captured by the simplicity and purity of bedouin life and becomes a devotee of Arab culture, from Sir Richard Burton to the TE Lawrence who was making a name for himself among the Arabs just as Greenmantle was published.

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Cover of Greenmantle, 1916

Book cover of Greenmantle, 1916

The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham (1991)

In his short introduction to this long (700 pages) book, Pakenham says the Scramble for Africa bewildered contemporaries as much as it puzzles historians. Well, anyone reading Pakenham’s wonderfully readable and comprehensive chronicle of the shambolic and squalid land grab will be considerably less puzzled as a result.

This is a vast, authoritative, accessible and thrilling book. The story, or multiple interlinking stories, are told in a series of shortish chapters each of which focuses on a particular episode for a key year or so. These pieces interweave to form a mosaic which slowly covers all of Africa, all the key figures and incidents, throughout the period of the Scramble which Pakenham dates 1880-1912. Each chapter tends to start with a vivid scene or tableau depicting a key figure and then set them in their context and their challenge.

Because above all the scramble presented itself as a set of challenges and problems for statesmen, explorers and businessmen alike.

Egypt was a millstone round the British government’s neck from the moment the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. It immediately became the cheapest communication route with India and the East. Therefore any threat to the canal was a threat to the Empire. Therefore Britain must control the Egyptian government, at the risk of alienating her partner in the so-called Dual Power arrangement, France.

The Urabi revolt (1879-82) was a nationalist revolt against European rule and Turkish corruption. After the leader or Khedive, Isma’il Pasha, ran up vast debts, the French and British governments stepped in to protect the bondholders – the banks who had lent lavishly and unwisely – installed Isma’il’s son Tewfik Pasha as puppet leader, and ruled jointly. Quite apart from trying to manage Egyptian nationalist feeling, this made the British permanently worried about French actions in Egypt, a weakness Bismarck was quick to exploit.

In June 1882 unrest flared into anti-European rioting in Alexandria. The British fleet bombarded the city (destroying much of its historic seafront), Parliament voted to intervene and sent an army to the canal zone which was defeated in the battle of Kafr-el-Dawwar. On September 13, 1882 the British forces defeated ‘Urabi’s army at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. This victory marked the de facto establishment of Egypt as a British colony (although Turkish sensibilities had to be respected) and guaranteed the enmity of the French who spent the next twenty years feeling they’d been cheated and trying to get their own back anywhere in Africa that they could.

Gladstone and the Liberals spent the next twenty years trying to extract us from Egypt while successive Conservative administrations tended to involve us deeper. This ambivalence helps explain why General Gordon, sent to relieve Khartoum and withdraw in the face of the Mahdi’s Islamic uprising, was so poorly supported that he was surrounded, starved and killed before the extremely slapdash expeditionary force could come to his aid.

South Africa was similarly a source of endless of trouble. As with Egypt it was felt the Cape colony was a vital part of the supply line to India and the East. Therefore we had to keep the Boers (the Dutch farmers who farmed the land before the British seized the colony from the Dutch in 1807) under control and this led to two disastrous wars, the small and stupid First Boer War (1880) and the big disastrous Second Boer War (1899-1902) during which we discovered just how badly organised and badly led the British Army was.

  • 1879 First Zulu War started with catastrophic defeat at Isandlwana before the British rallied and took the Zulu capital Ulundi and captured and exiled king Cetshwayo.
  • 1880-1 First Boer War With the defeat of the Zulus the Boers felt emboldened to rebel against the British annexation of the Transvaal which had been imposed in 1877. They rose from nowhere and besieged five small Brit forts. Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley gathered a force to relieve the sieges but was defeated at a number of small engagements and then crushed and killed at Majuba Hill 27 February 1881, a national humiliation. Gladstone insisted a peace treaty be agreed to end the war before it escalated. It lasted ten weeks with only three military engagements and only a few thousand participants.

How did we manage an Empire with such a shambles of an army, staggering from one national humiliation to the next?

Themes

It is a vast subject which Pakenham covers with wonderful confidence and authority, leading us by the hand from complex diplomatic negotiations in Berlin to explorers undertaking mind-boggling treks through the darkest Congo rainforest. Multiple themes run throughout the history, for example:

  • the mounting competition between the European powers
  • the sudden late entry into the Scramble by Germany
  • the variety and power of various kingdoms and empires within Africa, from the Zulus in the south-east, to the Ethiopian empire in the north across to the realms of Samori and Sultan Ahmadu on the upper Niger
  • and running beneath everything is France’s sulky inferiority complex to the British; forever seeking to restore the mythical gloire they fondly associated with Napoleon, and failing time after time, most glaringly at the Fashoda Crisis of 1898 when they rattled sabres and then were forced to ignominiously back down. Surrender monkeys indeed.

But if there is one big takehome it emerges in the last hundred pages which drastically change tone. For the first 500 pages or so we are sharing the adventures of the explorers who are penetrating unknown territory all over the continent, the first to name these mountains, this lake, discover this river. We share their boyish enthusiasm, at the same time as we watch the convoluted and often half-baked strategies of the politicians back in Europe. In a sense, this is all innocent enough, as all parties are getting to grips with new situations and challenges and the book is thrilling and entertaining in turn.

The disgusting reality of colonialism

But in the last hundred pages or so the tone darkens considerably as Pakenham shows how the now-discovered, mapped and settled colonies came to be exploited by their European masters. Almost without exception it is a story of the rankest greed enforced by disgusting levels of violence against the native Africans.

I knew about the notorious Belgian Congo where upwards of 8 million Africans were exterminated in vast and systematic forced labour to deliver the area’s rubber back to a greedy Europe.

I didn’t realise the French carried out pretty much the same forced labour-virulent punishment-murder, rape, mass killing and burning and shooting policy in French Congo, a policy exposed by the heart-broken French explorer Brazza (who gives his name to Brazzaville) who had opened up the area for his nation in the heroic 1880s and told the Africans they could trust to the civilisation and justice of the French. How his legacy was defiled.

I’d forgotten about the deliberate policies of extermination carried out by the German Reich in south west and east Africa. As many as 300,000 Africans died in the famine engineered by the Germans to bring them to heel in the east. In the south-west about three quarters of the original 80,000 inhabitants were killed.

And of course, despite what do appear to be generally higher standards and more humane intentions, we British went and ruined our reputation by creating concentration camps during the ruinous Second Boer War, the one in which some 28,000 Boer women and children died from preventable diseases, due entirely to our incompetence and the indifference of the military leadership, namely Kitchener.

Delusory El Dorados

For another theme which runs like a delusory thread of precious metal through the book is the way that, in the early years of exploration (1870s and 80s) explorer after explorer gouged money out of their nations’ exchequers or from commercial companies with visions of great El Dorados in the interior, lands larded with undreamt-of riches in diamonds, gold, copper, or natural resources of rubber and teak, or the richest farmland in the world.

The sorry reality was all too often barren drought-plagued veld, or impenetrable jungle home only to catastrophic diseases – or to natural resources so thinly spread (like the rubber in the Congo) that only systematic forced labour ie production with almost no overheads, could turn a profit. Most of the countries involved made a loss on their colonies. Only enforced slave labour stood a chance of ‘making money’ for a tiny white elite of colonists and their parent companies.

Given that their economic survival depended on keeping the natives in virtual slavery, and their cultural survival depended on enforcing the strongest possible punishments/reprisals against native populations which vastly outnumbered the white settlers, it is no surprise that in colony after colony, all the brave talk about white man’s civilisation and justice and religion turned out to hypocritical garbage.

Greater or lesser Kurtzes emerged everywhere, quick to take advantage of the all the forces which made it possible and even necessary to treat the natives like animals. It is a miracle the European colonies staggered on for the 50 or so years after the Scramble was more or less complete in 1912.

Some of the chaps involved in the Scramble for Africa

1 National leaders

Otto von Bismarck Prussian Chancellor, during the first part of his career he focused on uniting the Germanic states into the new nation of Germany (achieved in 1871) and despised colonial adventures. In 1884 he suddenly reversed his position partly due to changes in public opinion, pressure from merchants, and to undercut anti-colonial liberals allied with the the heir to the throne. Eventually Germany owned Togoland (now Togo and part of Ghana), German Kamerun (now Cameroon and part of Nigeria), German East Africa (now Rwanda, Burundi, and the mainland part of Tanzania), German South-West Africa (now Namibia).

Bismarck convened the Berlin Conference (1885) which established rules for the acquisition of African colonies, in particular, protecting free trade in certain parts of the Congo basin. He was suddenly dismissed in 1890 by the young Kaiser Wilhelm II who went on to rule the German Reich with increasingly unpredictably, but who gave fulsome support to his genocidal administrators.

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1815 – 1898)

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1815 – 1898)

William Ewart Gladstone, prime minister 1880-85, 1886, 1892-4, high-minded leader of the Liberal party, a fierce opponent of colonialism and empire who nonetheless kept finding himself dragged into imperial adventures or calamities and thus despised as a highminded hypocrite by his enemies. He ordered the First Boer War to be concluded with a peace treaty conceding the Boers the self-government they wanted, was blamed for failing to rescue Gordon in 1885, oversaw Britain’s exploration of East Africa inland of Zanzibar and West Africa up the Niger river.

Gladstone

Jules Ferry (1832-93) premiere of France 1880-1 and 1883-85. After France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Ferry conceived the idea of acquiring a great colonial empire for economic exploitation. In a speech before the Chamber of Deputies on 28 July 1885, he declared that ‘it is a right for the superior races, because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races.’ Ferry supervised the conquest of Tunis in 1881 – a shameful fiasco whereby the native ruler was tricked into acquiescing in his own overthrow – he prepared the treaty of 17 December 1885 for the occupation of Madagascar; directed the exploration of the Congo and of the Niger region; and organized the conquest of Annam and Tonkin in what became Indochina. Algeria. Vietnam. Just two countries whose names testify to France’s excellent colonial skills.

Jules Ferry, Prime Minister of France

Jules Ferry, Prime Minister of France

Lord Salisbury Conservative Prime Minister during the defining era of high imperialism – 1885-6, 1886-92, 1895-1902. Prime Minister and his own Foreign Secretary, the relatively unknown Salisbury comes over as a cautious, sane and sensible guider of Britain’s destiny during a time of increasing international rivalry and tension who managed to defuse the Fashoda Crisis (1898) but was outflanked by Milner and the South African gold bugs who bear the responsibility for starting the ruinous Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

King Leopold of Belgium king from 1865 to 1909, his name is forever associated with what is now referred to as the genocide in the Belgian Congo where anything between 6 million and 10 million native Africans died in his system of merciless forced labour designed to extract as much rubber ( along with some ivory, teak etc) from a rainforest the size of Europe. All masquerading under a sham pretext of selfless philanthropy and civilisation. Possibly the greatest hypocrite in the entire history of European imperialism.

Leopold II of Belgium

Leopold II of Belgium

2 Soldiers and explorers

David Livingstone (1813-73) the Scottish missionary, despite his poor leadership and ultimate failure to estalish Christianity anywhere, through his writings and example of ceaseless exploration of the unknown centre of the continent, Livingstone created a swell of popular opinion against the slave trade in central Africa, and established the premise that slavery could only be abolished by a combination of the three Cs – Christian missionising and Commerce which would lead to Civilisation. He died a generation before it became clear, in the early 1900s, that it led to exactly the opposite.

David Livingstone (1813-73)

David Livingstone (1813-73)

Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) an illegitimate child abandoned by his mother who spent most of his youth in workhouses where he was probably abused before making  his way to America where he was adopted by a wealthy trader named Stanley whose name he took, before getting embroiled in the American Civil War and taking to record keeping on a Union Navy ship which led to journalism. He undertook trips to Persia and India, on the basis of which he was retained by the New York Herald whose owner he persuaded to let him undertake an expedition to find the missionary Livingstone who hadn’t been heard of for some years and who he found in Ujiji near Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania in 1871. ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume.’ 

The unlikely pair explored together before Stanley returned to publish articles then a book. On the back of this he was commissioned by the New York Herald in 1874 to solve one of the great geographic mysteries of the age, the route of the river Congo. It took 999 days to follow it from source to sea and he lost 240 bearers and natives along the way. He was employed from 1876 by Leopold of Belgium in building the road and railway and making treaties with natives along the Congo, before a series of further adventures climaxed in the epic and ultimately absurd expedition to rescue the last of Gordon’s emissaries in the Sudan, Emin Pasha. There’s been a recent, comprehensive biography by Tim Jeal: Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer

Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley

Major-General Charles George Gordon of Khartoum (1833-85) after service in the Crimean War, Gordon commanded a force of Chinese soldiers which helped to put down the Taipeng rebellion, earning the thanks of the Chinese emperor and the nickname ‘Chinese Gordon’. He entered the service of the Egyptian Khedive in 1873 and later became the Governor-General of the Sudan, where he did much to suppress revolts and the slave trade. Exhausted, he resigned and returned to Europe in 1880.

When the Mahdi’s Islamic revolt broke out in the Sudan Gordon was despatched to evacuate the 2,500 Europeans from Khartoum and return. He did the first part but stayed on in Khartoum with local troops, holding out against a sporadic siege for a year, earning fame back in Blighty. Reluctantly the Liberal government sent reinforcements which proceeded with criminal slowness up the Nile and arrived two days after Khartoum had fallen and Gordon been murdered. It was 13 years before a large British army returned under Herbert Kitchener, recaptured Khartoum and laid Gordon’s ghost.

Gordon of Khartoum

Gordon of Khartoum

Sir John Kirk (1832-1922) served as consul to the Sultan of Zanzibar for decades and managed to persuade him to ban slavery in his domains, a major achievement for which he is given much credit in a recent book about him: The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End the East African Slave Trade. While the Belgians and French employed enforced labour on a vast scale in the Congo, and the Germans actively sought ethnic extermination in Namibia and Tanzania, it really does seem that at least some elements of the British regime sought and achieved the liberation of the Africans under their rule.

Africans

King Cetshwayo (1826 – 1884) is remembered as the last king of an independent Zulu nation. In 1878, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, British Commissioner for South Africa, began to demand reparations for border infractions by traditionally independent Zululand into neighbouring colonial Natal. Cetshwayo kept his calm until Frere demanded the king effectively disband his army. His refusal led to the Zulu War in 1879. After initial victories, including the famous massacre at Isandlwana, the British recovered to defeat the Zulu armies before capturing and burning the Zulu capital of Ulundi 4 July 1879. Cetshwayo was deposed and exiled, first to Cape Town, then to London.

Cetshwayo kaMpande (1826 – 1884) King of the Zulus

Cetshwayo kaMpande (1826 – 1884) King of the Zulus

Emperor Menelik II (1844 – 1913) emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to his death. The history of the Ethiopian empire is complex, involving power struggles with neighbouring tribes and rival kings, as well as the Mahdist forces in the Sudan and the encroaching European powers. In summary – Menelik gathered the forces which annihilated an Italian army at the Battle of Adowa (1 March 1896) and as a result the borders of Abyssinia/Ethiopia were guaranteed and the country continued as an independent state until the Italian invasion under Mussolini in the 1930s.

Emperor Menelik II

Emperor Menelik II

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Buy The Scramble for Africa on Amazon

Nada the Lily by Henry Rider Haggard (1892)

13 August 2012

Nada the Lily is Rider Haggard’s sixth novel. Haggard distinguished between his “Romances” – which included the She and Allan Quatermain series, both featuring a large element of fantasy and the supernatural – and his “Novels”, which are more naturalistic, where the emphasis is more on human relationships than the fantastic.

Blacks The most striking feature of Nada the Lily is that it is set entirely among South African blacks.  An (unnamed) white man only appears in the few pages of the frame narrative where he meets an ancient witch-doctor. I don’t know of any other novels of the time which are set only among blacks, and where the thoughts of black characters good, bad and indifferent are described in great detail.

Tragic romance The last hundred or so pages of the novel describe the love affair between the the mighty warrior Umslopogaas and the beautiful Zulu maiden, Nada, which gives the book its title. (It’s true that, early in the book the narrator hints that Nada might have white blood in her, from a Portuguese trader who stayed with the Swazi tribe from whom Mopo’s wife, Mcropha, came.)

Chaka the tyrant But this love story is completely overshadowed by Mopo’s long servitude to the Zulu tyrant, Chaka, and the multiple examples of Chaka’s appalling cruelty and sadism which dominate the first 200 pages. Chaka (nowadays known as Shaka) was a real historical character, founder of the Zulu nation as the predominant military force in south-east Africa, a dominance they held from his kingship (1816-28) until the Zulu wars with the invading British in the late 1870s. Chaka is portrayed as a precursor of Stalin, paranoid and cruel in the extreme, given to ordering the extermination of whole tribes, the casual execution of complete innocents on the slightest pretext. The Wikipedia article on Shaka says some of the legends about Shaka’s cruelty might be colonial and apartheid propaganda; but still says there’s plenty of evidence of the large areas laid waste, of murder, torture, cannibalism carried out under his unhinged edicts:

“After the death of his mother Shaka ordered as a sign of mourning that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people who were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed, though it wasn’t restricted to humans, cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like.”

Violent African novels The novel is like this only more so, and for 200 long pages. It cast a cloud of misery and murder over me for the week it took to read. The sadistic cruelty and casual violence found on every page reminded me of other African novels I’ve read –

  • the psychopathic African leader, Sam, at the heart of Chinua Achebe’s 1987 novel, Anthills of the Savannah
  • the sadistic father, Eugene, at the heart of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2003 novel, Purple Hibiscus
  • the psychopathic Idi Amin at the heart of Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, The Last King of Scotland
  • the sadism and cruelty taught to child soldiers during the war in Sierra Leone described in Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s 2005 novel,  Moses, Citizen and Me
  • several books about the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in the Congo, about Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, about the Sudan and Darfur, about the civil wars in Mozambique and Namibia..
  • I might as well mention Heart of Darkness (1899)

Thus, most of the books about Africa I’ve ever read, whether fiction or non-fiction, detail a stupefying level of violence and cruelty, so Nada, extreme though it is, fits right in with what I’ve read elsewhere.

An African Epic However Haggard isn’t detailing Chaka’s psychopathic behaviour for racist reasons (unlike later Boer and apartheid propagandists). The opposite. Haggard is deliberately setting out to write an African epic, a genre which raises its characters to the level of archetypal heroes and is written in a high, unflinching and sombre style. The story of how Umslopogaas is rescued at his birth reminds me of the legend of Moses and even the childermass; the harsh man-to-man combats in the dust and heat of the African veldt remind me over and over of the unforgiving brutality of The Iliad.

Haggard, like many of his contemporaries, was fascinated by folk tales, ancient myths and legends but, unlike most, his vast output includes attempts to rewrite them or bring them into the modern age: Haggard actually wrote a Viking saga, Eric Brighteyes, and a continuation of the Odyssey, The World’s Desire. To my mind, in Nada, he is consciously striving for an epic oral style to give Homeric dignity to his Zulu protagonists. The long story is told out loud over a succession of evenings by the old witch-doctor, Mopo, to the anonymous white man who takes it down and publishes it. The opening echoes conventions of the epic form:

“You ask me, my father, to tell you the tale of the youth of Umslopogaas, holder of the iron Chieftainess, the axe Groan-maker, who was named Bulalio the Slaughterer, and of his love for Nada, the most beautiful of Zulu women. It is long; but you are here for many nights, and, if I live to tell it, it shall be told. Strengthen your heart, my father, for I have much to say that is sorrowful, and even now, when I think of Nada the tears creep through the horn that shuts out my old eyes from light.”

It doesn’t quite invoke a Muse, but it does justify the purpose and form of the text, it foretells the tragic ending of the tale right at the start, and it uses multiple epithets to build up the heroic stature of the male protagonist, Umslopogaas. The whole text is cast in this style, an imagining by Haggard of the elevated yet also laconic style of a pre-literate, oral people. The deeper you read, the more completely convincing it becomes, and you find yourself entranced, sitting in the gloom of a cramped African hut, listening to the low voice of an eerie old man as he tells his long and tragic tale.

“All that day till the sun grew low we walked round the base of the great Ghost Mountain, following the line of the river. We met no one, but once we came to the ruins of a kraal, and in it lay the broken bones of many men, and with the bones rusty assegais and the remains of ox-hide shields, black and white in colour. Now I examined the shields, and knew from their colour that they had been carried in the hands of those soldiers who, years ago, were sent out by Chaka to seek for Umslopogaas, but who had returned no more.”

 I think it’s a triumph!

Jacket illustration of Nada the Lily

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