The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell (1941)

In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly.

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius was published in February 1941, well into the Second World War, after Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. It is a long essay, divided into three parts.

  1. England Your England (35 pages)
  2. Shopkeepers at War (19 pages)
  3. The English Revolution (9 pages)

The three essays 1. describe the essence of Englishness and records changes in English society over the previous thirty years or so 2. make the case for a socialist system in England 3. argue for an English democratic socialism, sharply distinct from the totalitarian communism of Stalin.

Now, at this distance of 76 years, the political content seems to me almost completely useless. After the war, the socialist policies carried out by Attlee’s government, thirty years of ‘Butskellism’ and Britain’s steady industrial decline into the 1970s which was brutally arrested by Mrs Thatcher’s radical economic and social policies of the 1980s, followed by Tony Blair’s attempt to create a non-socialist Labour Party in the 1990s, and all the time the enormous social transformations wrought by ever-changing technology – the political, social, economic, technological and cultural character of England has been transformed out of all recognition.

That said, this book-length essay is still worth reading as a fascinating social history of its times and for its warm evocation of the elements of the English character, some of which linger on, some of which have disappeared.

England Your England

By far the longest section is part one which is an extended evocation of all aspects of English character, so powerful, well-written and thought-provoking that it is often reprinted on its own. In its affection for all aspects of England it continued the nostalgia for an older, less commercialised, more decent England which marked his previous book, the novel Coming Up For Air.

What really marks it out is not the truth or otherwise of Orwell’s statements, but the tremendously pithy lucidity with which he expresses them. If they are not true, many of us older white liberals wish they were true. The essay invites you to play a sort of ‘Where’s Wally’ game of deciding whether you agree or disagree with his generalisations, and why. It has a kind of crossword-y kind of pleasure.

What, he asks, is England?

The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

Other aspects of Englishness, as Orwell perceived it in 1941, include: solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes, love of flowers and gardening, hobbies and the essential privateness of English life. An Englishman’s home is his castle means he can tell the authorities to buzz off and mind their own business.

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

Religion?

The common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.

This strikes me as true. A kind of buried Anglicanism flavours most mid-century English culture, in Auden the Anglican returnee, Vaughan Williams the agnostic Anglican or Larkin the atheist Anglican. This idea of the softening influence of a non-fanatical, non-Catholic, barely believed religion, leads on to the next idea. If you have read his writings of the 1930s it comes as no surprise when he says:

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as ‘decadence’ or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class.

This reminds me of a consistent thread in Kipling’s writing which is righteous anger at the hypocrisy with which the general population despise and abuse soldiers – until they need them!

I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, ” We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ” Tommy, go away ” ;
But it’s ” Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play… (Tommy, 1890)

This anti-militarism has a comic side in that the English only seem to remember their terrible defeats: the Somme, Dunkirk. As Orwell puts it with typical pithiness:

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.

This anti-militarism goes alongside a profound respect for the law; not necessarily obeying it, but knowing it is there and can be appealed to at all times. ‘Oi, you can’t do that to me, I aven’t done anything wrong’ is a universal cry of the English crook and trouble-maker. The law may be organised to protect the property of the rich but it isn’t as absolutely corrupt as in other countries, and it certainly hasn’t ceased to matter, as it has in the totalitarian states.

Abroad? An old saying had it that ‘wogs begin at Calais’ and the recent Brexit vote confirms the underlying xenophobia of the British who have a proud tradition of never learning a word of a foreign language, even if they’ve lived in France or Spain for decades. This rejection of the foreign partly accounts for English philistinism:

The English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual.

Class?

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.

Towards the end of the essay Orwell analyses the role of the ruling class. Basically, they have been unable to get to grips with the modern world and retreated into Colonel Blimpish stupidity.

One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.

The great public schools, the army, the universities, all teach the upper classes to rely on forms and behaviour which was suitable to the 1880s. The fact that Germany was out-producing British industry by 1900, that America was emerging as the strongest economy in the world, that the working classes were becoming organised and demanding a say in the running of the country? Go the club and surround yourself with like-minded cigar-puffing buffoons and dismiss it all as easily as dismissing the waiter.

This refusal to face the world, this decision to be stupid, explains much. It explains the astonishing sequence of humiliating military defeats – in the Crimea, the Zulu War, the Boer War, the Great War the British ruling class, as epitomised by its upper class twit general, consistently failed in every aspect of war-making. In each case initial defeats were only clawed back when a younger, less ‘educated’ cohort of officers took charge.

Orwell continues the sheer stupidity of the ruling class in his description of the terrifically posh Tory politicians who ran British foreign policy during the 1930s. Two things happened: the empire declined and we completely failed to understand the rise of the totalitarian states. To take the second first, upper-class numpties like Lord Halifax (Foreign Secretary 1938-40) and Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister 1937-40) were paralysed during the 1930s. They were terrified of Stalin’s communism and secretly sympathised with much of Fascist policy, but couldn’t bring themselves to deal with the vulgar little Hitler. Their upbringing at public schools and running an empire where everyone said, Yes sahib, completely unprepared them for the modern world.

They could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face. They dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine-guns – by ignoring it.

(Lord Halifax’s Wikipedia page relates that he almost created a massive scene when he first met Adolf Hitler and handed him his overcoat, thinking him to be the footman. Exactly. To Halifax’s class, everyone who didn’t go to their school must be a servant.)

And what about the British Empire? On the face of it between 1918 and 1945 the British Empire reached its greatest geographical extent, not least due to the addition of the various mandates in the Middle East carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. But despite the razamataz of the 1924 Empire Exhibition and so on, it’s quite clear that for most ordinary people and pretty much all intellectuals, the age of empire was over. it just took the ruling classes another 30 odd years to realise it. Orwell gives a reason for this decline in belief in the empire which I hadn’t heard before.

It was due to the rise of bureaucracy. Orwell specifically blames the telegraph and radio. In the golden age of empire the world presented a vast playground for buccaneering soldiers and ruthless merchants. No more.

The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it.

And of course, Orwell had seen this for himself, first hand, as an imperial servant in Burma from 1922 to 1928.

Lastly, the final section of part one describes the undermining of the rigid old class system since the Great War by the advent of new technologies, by the growth of light industry on the outskirts of towns, and the proliferation of entirely new types of middle-class work.

Britain was no longer a country of rich landowners and poverty-stricken peasants, of brutal factory owners and a huge immiserated proletariat. New technology was producing an entire new range of products – cheap clothes and shoes and fashions, cheap movies, affordable cars, houses with inside toilets etc, at the same time as the new industries no longer required thick-muscled navvies or exhausted women leaned over cotton looms, but educated managers, chemists, technicians, secretaries, salesmen and so on, who call into being a supporting class of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, etc. This is particularly noticeable in the new townships of the south.

In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely OF the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.

It is fascinating to learn that this process, the breakdown of old class barriers due to new industries, new consumer products and a new thrusting classless generation, which I tended to associate with the 1960s – maybe because the movies and music of the 1960s proclaim this so loudly and are still so widely available – was in fact taking place as early as the 1920s.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together.

2. Shopkeepers at War

In this part Orwell declares that the old ruling class and their capitalism must be overthrown for the simple reason that

private capitalism, that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit — DOES NOT WORK.

The war so far has shown that a planned economy will always beat an unplanned one. Both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have states and economies guided from the top downwards towards clearly articulated political ends (winning wars). A capitalist society is made up of thousands of businesses all competing against and undermining each other, and undermining the national good. His example is British firms which right up to the declaration of war were still aggressively seeking contracts with Hitler’s Germany to sell them vital raw materials required for weapons, tin, rubber, copper. Madness!

Only a modern centralised, nationalised economy can successfully fight off other centralised nationalised economies. This, argues Orwell, is why some kind of socialist revolution must take place. In order to win the war, the British government must, in the name of the people, take over central running of all aspects of the economy.

In this section Orwell gives us a good working definition of socialism, the definition which was promised and then so glaringly absent from The Road To Wigan Pier four years earlier. Maybe it took those four years, Spain and distance from England, to be able to define it for himself.

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea etc etc) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it. In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.

However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class system. Centralised ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government.

Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted.

The nature of the revolution

So what would this English revolution consist of? The complete overthrow of the useless ruling class which is bedevilled by its own stupidity and simply unable to see the genuine threat that Hitler posed, able only to read him as a bulwark against Bolshevism and therefore a defender of all the privileges of England’s entrenched ruling class. Away with it in –

a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas — in the true sense of the word, a revolution… It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power… What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old… Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better fitted for command than an intelligent mechanic… Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.

In this section he speaks right to the present moment and lists the agents of defeat, from pacifists through Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts to some Roman Catholics. But the real enemy, he says, is those who talk of peace, of negotiating peace with Hitler, a peace designed to leave in place all their perks and privileges, their dividends and servants. These are the worst, the most insidious enemies, both of the war effort and of the English people as a whole.

3. The English Revolution

We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century.

Orwell gives a sweeping trenchant review of the current political scene in England, 1941. All the parties of the left are incapable of reform, the Labour Party most of all since it is the party of the trade unions and therefore has a vested interest in the maintenenace and flourishing of capitalism. The tiny communist party appeals to deracinated individuals but has done more to put the man in the street off socialism than any other influence.

The Labour Party stood for a timid reformism, the Marxists were looking at the modern world through nineteenth-century spectacles. Both ignored agriculture and imperial problems, and both antagonised the middle classes. The suffocating stupidity of left-wing propaganda had frightened away whole classes of necessary people, factory managers, airmen, naval officers, farmers, white-collar workers, shopkeepers, policemen. All of these people had been taught to think of Socialism as something which menaced their livelihood, or as something seditious, alien, “anti-British” as they would have called it.

Therefore, the revolution must come from below. Sound utopian? It is the war which has made it a possibility. The policy of the ruling class in the run-up to the war, the shameful incompetence of the opening year – Dunkirk – have made obvious to absolutely everyone that change is needed. Now, for the first time in its history, a genuinely revolutionary socialist change is thinkable.

A Socialist movement which can swing the mass of the people behind it, drive the pro-Fascists out of positions of control, wipe out the grosser injustices and let the working class see that they have something to fight for, win over the middle classes instead of antagonising them, produce a workable imperial policy instead of a mixture of humbug and Utopianism, bring patriotism and intelligence into partnership – for the first time, a movement of such a kind becomes possible.

Here, at the climax of the essay, he gives six practical policies:

  1. Nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
  2. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
  3. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
  4. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
  5. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.
  6. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers.

The general tendency of this programme is unmistakable. It aims quite frankly at turning this war into a revolutionary war and England into a Socialist democracy.

Wow! The verve, the intellectual confidence, and the optimism of these passages is thrilling!

In the final pages Orwell guesses what kind of revolution it will be, namely a revolution ‘with English characteristics’, the characteristics he so lovingly enumerated in the first section. He gives a complicated analysis of the many forces against it, including comparisons with Vichy France and guesses about the strategies of Hitler and Stalin, too complicated to summarise. The essays ends by repeatedly attacking the pacifism and defeatism of English intellectuals, left-wing intellectuals and so-called communists. It is an all-or-nothing struggle. We can’t go back. the world has completely changed. We must recognise these changes, grasp them, and take them forward in a sweeping social revolution which alone can guarantee victory.

It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging “democracy”, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

Wow! It must have been amazing to read this at the time.

And then what happened?

Churchill’s government did grasp the need for total war mobilisation on an unprecedented scale. Rationing was introduced and every effort made to quash luxury. If we ‘won’ the war it was because Hitler made the mad decision to invade Russia at the same time as the Japanese foolishly attacked America. Britain became the baby buoyed up between Russia and America.

And the war was barely over (May 1945) when Britain held a general election (July 1945) which to everyone’s amazement swept the victorious war leader Churchill from power and produced a socialist government with a huge majority. For the one and only time in its history the British enacted a sweep of revolutionary policies, nationalising the entire health service, extending free state education, and nationalising the key industries of coal, steel and so on. Within two years India was granted its independence. Surely these fulfilled most of Orwell’s definitions of revolution.

And yet… Private schools weren’t abolished and continued to serve as a beacon for privilege and snobbery. The banks and entire financial system was left untouched to flourish, continuing to orchestrate an essentially capitalist economy and redistribute money upwards towards the rich. Income was in no way controlled and so soon the divide between rich and poor opened up again. Massive social changes took place and yet – as Orwell had clearly seen, England’s essential character remained unchanged. Attlee’s government achieved much in five brief years but then was tumbled from power and England reverted to being ruled by upper-class twits, the twits who, like all their ilk live in the past, thought Britain was still a global power, and so took us into the Suez Crisis of 1956. But by then Orwell was long dead.

Conclusion

This is a brilliant long essay, one of the greatest in all English literature, a wonderful combination of nostalgic description for an idealised England, with a fascinating analysis of the social and political scene of his day, and then onto a stirringly patriotic call to fight not only to defeat fascism but to create a new, fairer society. It is impossible not to be stirred and inspired by the combination of incisive analysis, the novelist’s imaginative evocation of English character, and then a speech-writer’s stirring peroration.

However, it is all too easy, in my opinion, to let yourself get swept along by the unashamed patriotism and the bracing insights into ‘the English character’ so that you end up acquiescing in what turned out to be Orwell’s completely inaccurate predictions of the future and his completely unfounded faith in an English revolution.

A social revolution of sorts did take place during and immediately after the war, but what made it so English was the way that, deep down, it didn’t change anything at all.

London 1940 - seat of a socialist revolution?

London 1940 – seat of a socialist revolution?


Credit

The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell was published by Secker and Warburg in 1941. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

Related links

The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010)

This was the first war in history in which public opinion played so crucial a role. (p.304)

This a brilliant book, a really masterful account of the Crimean War, a book I reread whole sections of and didn’t want to end. It covers the military campaigns (along the Danube, in Crimea) and battles (at the Alma river, Balaklava, Inkerman) competently enough, maybe with not quite the same dash as the Crimea section of Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars – but where it really scores is in the depth and thoroughness and sophistication of Figes’ analysis of the political and cultural forces which led to the war in the first place and then shaped its course – his examination of the conflict’s deep historical roots and in its long lasting influence.

Thus the first 130 pages (of this 490-page text) deal with the background and build-up to conflict, and drill down into the issues, concerns, plans and fantasies of all the main players. Not just the British (though it is a British book by a British historian) but a similar amount of space is devoted to the Russian side (Figes is a world-leading expert on Russian history), as well as the situation and motives of the French and the Ottoman Turks, with insights into the position of the Austrian and Prussian empires.

The Holy Places

The trigger for the war has always struck anyone who studied it as ridiculously silly: it concerned the conflict about who should have control of the ‘Holy Places’ in Jerusalem, the Catholic church (championed by France) or the Orthodox church (championed by Russia). (Who could have guessed that the acrimonious theological dispute about the meaning of the word filioque which split the two churches in the 11th century would lead to half a million men dying in miserable squalor 800 years later.)

To recap: the life and preaching and death of Jesus took place in Palestine; by the time of the Emperor Constantine (c.320), Roman Christians had supposedly tracked down the very barn Jesus was born in, at Bethlehem, and the precise site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem – and begun to build chapels over them.  By the 1800s there were well-established Churches of the Nativity (at Bethlehem) and of the Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem) with attendant monasteries, chapels and so on stuffed with Christian priests and monks of all denominations.

The situation was complicated by two factors. 1. In the 700s the Muslim Arabs stormed out of Arabia and by the 900s had conquered the Middle East and the North African coast. The Muslim world underwent a number of changes of leadership in the ensuing centuries, but from the 1300s onwards was ruled by the Ottoman dynasty of Turkish origin. The Ottoman Empire is alleged to have reached its military and cultural peak in the late 1500s/early 1600s. By the 1800s it was in obvious decline, culturally, economically and militarily. Many of the ‘countries’ or ‘nationalities’ it ruled over were restive for independence, from the Egyptians in the south, to the Christian ‘nations’ of Greece and Serbia in the Balkans.

What Figes’ account brings out in fascinating detail is the extent to which the Russian Empire, the Russian state, Russian culture, Russian writers and poets and aristocrats, academics and military leaders, were all drenched in the idea that their entire Christian culture owed its existence to Constantinople. The founding moment in Russia’s history is when missionaries from Greek Orthodox Byzantium converted the pagan ‘Rus’ who inhabited Kiev to Christianity in the 9th century. This newly-Christian people went on to form the core of the ‘Russians’, a people which slowly extended their empire to the Baltic in the North, the Black Sea in the south, and right across the vast territory of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.

In a really profound way, which Figes’ book brings out by quoting the writings of its poets and philosophers and academics and Christian leaders, Russia saw itself as the Third Rome – third in order after the original Christian Rome and the ‘Second Rome’ of Constantinople – and felt it had a burning religious duty to liberate Constantinople from the infidel Turks (Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, being of course the capital of the Ottoman Empire). It is fascinating to read about, and read quotes from, this broad spectrum of Russian nationalist writers, who all agreed that once they’d kicked the Turks out of Europe they would rename Istanbul ‘Tsargrad’.

Alongside the deep and varied rhetoric calling for a ‘Holy War’ against the infidel Turks was the linked idea of the union of all the Slavic peoples. Russians are Slavs and felt a deep brotherly feeling for the Slavic peoples living under Ottoman rule – in present-day Serbia and Bulgaria in particular. The same kind of Russian intelligentsia which wrote poems and songs and pamphlets and sermons about liberating Constantinople, and – in extreme versions – going on to liberate the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, also fantasised about a great pan-Slavic uprising to overthrow the shackles of the infidel Turk, and uniting the great Slavic peoples in an Empire which would stretch from the Adriatic to the Pacific.

Intoxicating stuff, and this is where Figes is at his tip-top best, taking you deep deep inside the mind-set of the Russian educated classes and leadership, helping you to see it and understand it and sympathise with it.

The only snag with this grand Russian vision was the unfortunate fact that there is such a thing as Catholic Christianity, and that a number of the ‘nations’ of the Balkans were not in fact either Slavs or Orthodox Christians – e.g. the Catholic Romanians. In fact, there was a lot of animosity between the two distinct versions of Christianity, with the Catholics, in particular, looking down on the Orthodox for what they regarded as their more primitive and pagan practices.

The simmering conflict between the two came to a head at the two churches mentioned above, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The churches had become rabbit warrens themselves, with holy grottoes underneath and vestries and side chapels sprouting onto them, with both Orthodox and Catholics clerics building monasteries and so on in the immediate vicinity and claiming complete access and ownership to the sites.

The Ottoman Turks had done their best to resolve disputes between the squabbling Christians and there had even been a succession of treaties in the 1700s which laid down the precise access rights of each Christian sect. But when the silver star embedded in the floor of the Church of the Nativity by the Catholics was dug up and stolen in 1847 the ‘dishonour’ was so great that the new ruler of Catholic France became involved, demanding that the Ottomans cede the French complete control of the Holy Sites to ensure there wasn’t a repetition of the sacrilege.

In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity. In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the “sovereign authority” in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century. The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in “authority,” citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)—and deployed armies to the Danube area. (Wikipedia)

Egged on by the pan-Slav and religious zealots in his court, Tsar Nicholas I saw the opportunity to teach the Ottomans a lesson, to reassert Orthodox authority over the Holy Places, to spark the long-awaited Slavic uprising in the Balkans and to extend Russian power to the Mediterranean. Hooray! In May 1853 Russian forces moved into the two principalities which formed the border between Russia and the Ottoman Empire – the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, ‘Danubian’ because the river Danube ran through them. The Ottomans moved armies up to face them, and the war was on!

Politics in depth

What sets Figes’ account apart is the thoroughness with which he explains the conflicting political and cultural pressures within each of the countries which then got drawn into this conflict.

France, for example, had recently been through a revolution, in 1848, which had eventually been crushed but did manage to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy and usher in the Second Republic. To people’s surprise the man who managed to get elected President of the Republic was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoléon’s presidential term expired in 1851, he first organised a coup d’état in that year, and then the following year, reclaimed the imperial throne, as Napoleon III, on 2 December 1852. At which point the Second Republic changed its name to the Second Empire. (19th century French history is a hilarious farce of revolutions, coups, republics and empires, each one more incompetent than the last. Mind you, 20th century French history isn’t much better – between 1946 and 1958 the French Fourth Republic had 22 Prime Ministers!)

But that’s not the interesting stuff, that’s just the basic factual information: the interest Figes brings to his account is his analysis of the various political pressures which the new president found himself under from within France. Obviously the Catholic Right and many actual churchmen were calling for action to defend the rights of Catholics in the Holy Places; but there was a large left-wing grouping in France whose hopes had been crushed by in the 1848 revolution. Napoleon realised that he could reconcile these opposing factions by depicting war against Russia as a pro-Catholic crusade to the Church and as a setback to the autocratic Tsarist regime – which was widely seen on the Left as the most repressive and reactionary regime in Europe. On top of which a glorious French victory would of course cover secure his place as successor to his famous uncle.

Polish liberation was a big cause in France. It wasn’t so long since 1830 when Polish nationalists had risen up to try and throw off Russian control of their country. The rebellion was brutally put down and Tsar Nicholas I (the same Tsar who launched the Crimean offensive 20 years later) had decreed that Poland would henceforward be an integral part of Russia, with Warsaw reduced to a military garrison, its university and other cultural activities shut down.

A stream of Polish intellectuals and aristocrats had fled west, many of them settling in France where they set up presses, publishing newspapers, pamphlets, books and poems and establishing networks of lobbyists and contacts. Figes investigates the writers and activists who made up this Polish lobby, specifically Prince Adam Czartoryski, and explains how they went about demonising Russia (and you can understand why), losing no opportunity to exaggerate Russia’s threatening intentions and, of course, lobbying for the liberation of Poland. Figes is excellent at showing how the Polish activists’ influence extended into both British and French ministries and military hierarchies.

But this was just one of the many forces at work across Europe. All the way through his account of the war, which lasted two and a half years, the constellation of forces at work in France shifted and changed as public opinion evolved from feverish support of a war against the Russian aggressor to increasing war-weariness. It is absolutely fascinating to read how Napoleon III tried to manage and ride the changing positions of all these factions, the vociferous press, and fickle public opinion.

And the same goes for Britain. In the 1830s and 40s conflicts in the Middle East – not least the rebellion of Mehmet Ali, pasha of Egypt, who rebelled against his Ottoman masters and demanded independence under his personal rule for Egypt and Syria – had forced the British to realise that, corrupt and collapsing though it may be, it was better to have a weak Ottoman Empire imposing some order, rather than no Ottoman Empire and complete chaos over such a huge and crucial region.

Thus the French and British governments, though perennially suspicious of each other, agreed that they had to prop up what became known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Again where Figes excels is by going much much deeper than standard accounts, to show the extent of the ‘Russophobia’ in British politics and culture, identifying the writers and diplomats who showed a fondness for Turkish and Muslim culture, explaining how British diplomats, the Foreign Office, and the cabinet staked their hopes on British-led reforms of Turkey’s laws and institutions.

Figes presents not a monolithic slab called ‘Britain’, but a complex country made up of all kinds of conflicting interests and voices. For example, it’s fascinating to learn that the British had the most varied, free and well-distributed press in the world. A side-effect of the railway mania of the 1840s had been that newspapers could now be distributed nationally on a daily basis. The prosperous middle classes in Bradford or Bristol could wake up to the same edition of The Times as opinion leaders in London.

This led to the first real creation of an informed ‘public opinion’, and to a huge increase in the power of the press. And Figes is fascinating in his depiction of the robust pro-war politician Lord Palmerston as the first ‘modern’ politician in that he grasped how he could use the press and public opinion to outflank his opponents within the British cabinet. Thus the British Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was against war and supported the moderate Four Points which a peace conference held in Vienna suggested be put to the Russians. But Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary, had a much grander, much more aggressive vision of attacking Russia on all fronts – in the Baltic, Poland, the Balkans, the Crimea and in the Caucasus.

Figes’ account goes into great detail about these other little-known fronts in the war – for example the repeated efforts by the British to storm the Russian naval port of Kronstadt on the Baltic, with a view to ultimately marching on St Petersburg! (The successive British admirals sent out to size up the plan consistently declared it impossible pp.337-339.) Or the plan to foment a Muslim Holy War amongst the tribes of the Caucasus, who would be levied under the leadership of the charismatic leader Imam Shamil and directed to attack the Russians. In the event there were several battles between Turks and Russians in the Caucasus, but Palmerston’s Holy War plan was never implemented (pp.336-337)

The summary above is designed to give just a taste of the complexity and sophistication of Figes’ analysis, not so much of the actual events which took place – plenty of other histories do that – but of the amazingly complex kaleidoscope of political forces swirling in each of the combatant countries, of the various leaders’ attempts to control and channel them, and of the scores of alternative plans, alternative visions, alternative histories, which the leaders were considering and which could so nearly have taken place.

Being taken into the subject in such detail prompts all kinds of thoughts, big and small.

One is that history is a kind of wreck or skeleton of what is left when leaders’ grand plans are put into effect and come up against harsh reality. History is the sad carcass of actual human actions left over when the glorious dreams of night time meet the harsh reality of day.

The Tsar dreamed of liberating the Balkans, creating a great pan-Slavic confederacy and throwing the Turks completely out of Europe, liberating Istanbul to become the centre of a reinvigorated empire of Orthodox Christianity.

The Polish agitators dreamed of throwing off the Russian yoke and creating a free united independent Poland.

Napoleon III dreamed of establishing French supremacy over a weakened Ottoman Empire, thus consolidating his reputation at home.

Palmerston dreamed of a grand alliance of all the nations of Europe – Sweden in the Baltic, France and Prussia in the centre, Austria in the Balkans, allied with the Turks and Muslim tribesmen in the Caucasus to push back the borders of the Russian Empire a hundred years.

Figes is just as thorough in his analysis of the forces at work in the Ottoman Empire, which I haven’t mentioned so far. The Ottoman Emperor also struggled to contain domestic opinion, in his case continual pressure from Muslim clerics, imams and muftis, and from a large section of educated opinion, who all dreamed of an end to the ‘humiliation’ of the Muslim world by the West, who dreamed of a ‘Holy War’ to repel the Russians and restore Muslim power and dignity.

All these shiny dreams of glory, honour, liberation and holy war ended up as battlefields strewn with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of men blown up, eviscerated, decapitated, butchered, bayoneted, as well as plenty of civilian women and children raped and murdered – all rotting in the blood-soaked soil of the Crimea, the Danube, the Caucasus.

No matter what glorious rhetoric wars start off with, this is how they always end up. In rotting human bodies.

Figes brilliantly shows how, as reality began to bite, the various leaders struggled to control the rising tides of disillusionment and anger: Napoleon III deeply anxious that failure in the war would lead to another French revolution and his overthrow; the Tsar struggling to contain the wilder pan-Slavic fantasies of many of his churchmen and court officials on the one hand and a steady stream of serf and peasant rebellions against conscription, on the other; and, strikingly, the Ottoman Emperor (and his British advisors) really worried that unless he acted aggressively against the Russians, he would be overthrown by an Islamic fundamentalist revolution.

In standard histories, the various nations are often treated as solid blocks – Britain did this, France wanted that. By spending over a quarter of his book on an in-depth analysis of the long cultural, historical, religious, technological and social roots of the conflict, Figes gives us a vastly more deep and sophisticated understanding of this war, and of the deeper social and historical trends of the time.

Relevance

Many of which, of course, endure into our time.

Why read history, particularly a history of a forgotten old war like this? Because it really does shed light on the present. In a number of ways:

1. The area once ruled by the Ottoman Empire is still desperately unstable and racked by conflict – civil war in Libya, military repression in Egypt, chaos in northern Iraq, civil war in Syria. Almost all Muslim opinion in all of these regions wants to restore Muslim pride and dignity, and, whatever their factional interests, are united in opposing meddling by the West. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were living through the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, in lands where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians were raping and murdering each other.

2. In other words, the religious and cultural forces which lay behind the Crimean War still dominate the region and still underpin modern conflicts. Again and again, one of Figes’ quotes from the pan-Slavic visions of the Russians or the Muslim doctrine of Holy War read exactly like what we read in the newspapers and hear on the radio today, in 2017. After all it was only as recently as March 2014 that Russia annexed the Crimea, an act most UN member states still consider an act of illegal aggression, and the Foreign Office consequently advises against any foreign travel to the Crimea.

165 years after the events analysed so brilliantly in this book, Crimea once again has the potential to become a flashpoint in a wider war between East and West.

What could be more relevant and necessary to understand?

3. And the book continually stimulates reflection not just about the possible causes of war, but about how national and religious cultures have eerily endured down to the present day. Figes paints a fascinating portrait of the fundamentally different social and political cultures of each of the belligerent countries – I was particularly struck by the contrast between the essentially open society informed by an entirely free press of Britain, as against the totalitarian closed society of Russia, which had only a handful of state-controlled newspapers which never criticised the government, and where a secret police could cart people off to prison and torture if they were overheard, even in private conversations, to utter any criticism of the tsar or the army. 160 years later Britain is still a raucously open society whereas journalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a risky occupation and open opposition to the President has landed many of his opponents in gaol, or worse. Plus ca change… Also, it becomes quite depressing reading the scores and scores of references to Muslim leaders, mullahs, muftis and so on, insistently calling on the Sultan to put an end to Western interference, to declare a Holy War on the Western infidels, to attack and punish the Christians. Again, almost every day brings fresh calls from Al Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS to defeat the infidel West. How long, how very, very long, these bitter hatreds have endured.

4. And the book offers another, more general level of insight – which is into the types of political pressure which all leaders find themselves under. The leaders of all the belligerent nations, as described above, found themselves trying to manage and control the often extreme opinion of their publics or churches or courts or advisors. How they did so, where they gave in, where they stood firm, and with what results, are object lessons modern politicians could still profitably study, and which give fascinating insight to us non-politicians into the sheer difficulty and complexity of trying to manage a big modern industrialised country, let alone a modern war.

The Crimean War was a shameful shambles for nearly all the participants. This book not only describes the squalor and suffering, the disease and dirt, the agonising deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in a pointless and stupid conflict – it sheds fascinating light on how such conflicts come about, why they are sometimes so difficult to avoid and almost impossible to control, and why sequences of decisions which each individually may seem rational and reasonable, can eventually lead to disaster.

This is a really outstanding work of history.


Memorable insights

The trenches The Siege of Sevastopol lasted from September 1854 until September 1855. Criminally, the British were completely unprepared for winter conditions in Russia (like Napoleon, like Hitler) resulting in tens of thousands of British soldiers living in pitifully inadequate tents, with no warm clothing, amid seas of mud and slush, so that thousands died of frostbite, gangrene and disease. In an eerie anticipation of the Great War both sides created elaborate trench systems and settled into a routine of shelling and counter-shelling. In between times there were pre-arranged truces to bury the dead, during which the opposing armies fraternised, swapped fags and booze and even toasted each other. In this element of prolonged and frustrating trench warfare,

this was the first modern war, a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War. (p.373)

Alcohol 5,500 British soldiers, about an eighth of the entire army in the field, were court-martialled for drunkenness. It was rampant. Some soldiers were continually drunk for the entire 11-month siege.

Disease As usual for all pre-modern wars, disease killed far more than weapons. For example, in January 1855 alone, 10% of the British army in the East died of disease. Died. Cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases, combined with gangrene and infection from wounds, and frostbite during the bitter winter of 1854-55. Figes has a splendid few pages on Florence Nightingale, the tough martinet who tried to reorganise the wretched hospital facilities at Scutari, on the south side of the Black Sea. I was staggered to read that the Royal Inquiry, sent out in 1855 to enquire why so many soldiers were dying like flies, despite Nightingale’s intentions, discovered that the hospital barracks was built over a cesspit which regularly overflowed into the drinking water. As Figes damningly concludes, the British wounded would have stood a better chance of survival in any peasant’s hut in any Turkish village than in the official British ‘hospital’.

Nikolai Pirogov Figes goes into some detail about Florence Nightingale (fascinating character) and also Mary Seacole, who is now a heroine of the annual Black History Month. But Figes brings to light some other heroes of the 11-month long siege of Sevastapol, not least the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov. Pirogov arrived in Sevastapol to find chaos and squalor in the main hospital, himself and the other doctors operating on whoever was put in front of them by harassed orderlies and nurses, as the allies’ continual bombardment produced wave after wave of mangled bodies. Finally it dawned on Pirogov that he had to impose some kind of order and developed the  system of placing the injured in three categories: the seriously injured who needed help and could be saved were operated on as soon as possible; the lightly wounded were given a number and told to wait in the nearby barracks (thus not cluttering the hospital); those who could not be saved were taken to a rest home to be cared for by nurses and priests till they died (pp.295-298). He had invented the triage system of field surgery which is used in all armies to this day.

Irish A third of the British army consisted of Catholic Irish. This surprising fact is explained when you learn that the army was recruited from the poorest of the urban and rural poor, and the poorest rural poor in the British Isles were the Irish.

The camera always lies The Crimean War is famous as seeing the ground breaking war reporting of Russell of The Times and some of the earliest photographs of war, by the pioneer Roger Fenton. However, Figes points out that the wet process of photography Fenton employed required his subjects to pose stationary for 20 seconds or more. Which explains why there are no photographs of any kind of fighting. He goes on to explain how Fenton posed many of his shots, including one claiming to be of soldiers wearing thick winter wear – which was in fact taken in sweltering spring weather – and his most famous photo, of the so-called Valley of Death after the Light Brigade charged down it into the Russian guns – in which Fenton carefully rearranged the cannonballs to create a more artistic effect.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

This reminded me of the account of Felice Beato I read in Robert Bickers’ The Scramble for China. Beato was an Italian–British photographer, one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. Beato was allowed into the Chinese forts at Taku after the British had captured them in 1860 towards the climax of the Second Opium War and – he also arranged the bodies to create a more pleasing aesthetic and emotional effect.

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato


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Victoria’s Wars by Saul David (2006)

The 2nd Europeans, 31st and 70th Regiments of Native Infantry drove the enemy from their cover with great slaughter. I only saw one European amongst the dead; at least a part of one. He was a sergeant of the 2nd Europeans; his cap, grog bottle, and his head was all we saw. There was a letter in the cap, but I could not make out any of it, for it was saturated with blood. (An anonymous British private describing the aftermath of the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, quoted p.136)

This book is unashamed good fun, intelligent, gripping, informative and horrifying by turns.

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire consists of 400 pages of lucid compelling prose which retell the rattling stories of the British imperial conflicts during the 24 years between Queen Victoria ascending the thrown in 1837 and the death of her much-beloved husband, Albert, in 1861. The period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dual Monarchy’ and saw the size of the British Empire almost quintuple in size from 2 million to 9.5 million square miles. But this didn’t happen peacefully: the British Army fought 30 or so campaigns during the period. David explains this book will cover the two major and nine medium-sized wars of the period. That’s a lot of fighting.

David disarmingly admits in the Author’s note that he first got addicted to the thrill and swashbuckling adventure of Britain’s early Victorian imperial wars from a boyhood reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. When he came to research the period as a mature historian, he discovered that Victoria and Albert had more say in some of these conflicts than had previously been reported.

Thus he had the idea of interweaving his accounts of these (pretty well-known) imperial conflicts with the key events in the lives of the royal couple – how Victoria inherited the throne (in 1837), her coronation (in 1838), her wooing and wedding to Albert (February 1840), and then their periodic interventions in politics through till Albert’s death in December 1861. So a central thread of this narrative is the surprisingly detailed interest the royal pair took in Britain’s imperial conflicts: David quotes the letters which show Victoria being surprisingly sharp and critical of her governments for the way they (mis)managed both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and the other conflicts of the period.

The early Victorian wars

The wars are:

  • 1st Afghan War (1839-42)
  • 1st Opium War (1839-42)
  • 1st Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46)
  • 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (1848–49)
  • 2nd Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3)
  • The Crimean War (1853-6)
  • 2nd Opium War (1856-60)
  • The Anglo-Persian War (1856-7)
  • Indian Mutiny (1857-9)

The nature & scope of these ‘wars’

This is essentially a military history, not a political or diplomatic or strategic or cultural history – these accounts take us right into the guts of the fighting and this approach, as always, has numerous benefits.

For a start they make it clear what ‘war’ actually means in each instance, in terms of geographic location and strategic intention. I’ve never really read in detail about the Crimean War before, and so was surprised and enlightened to learn that Britain and France, for a start, need never have fought it.

The conflict arose because the Czar insisted on bullying Turkey into granting authority over all Christians in the ailing Ottoman Empire to Russia. The Turks vacillated between agreeing or giving in to France who, under Napoleon III, also wanted control of the Turkish Christians, and Britain, who saw the whole thing as yet another pretext for Imperial Russia to extend her power south and take control of the entire Black Sea, thus threatening Britain’s supply lines to India.

If the allies had managed to pull Austria into the alliance of France, Britain and Turkey this would probably have sufficed to make Russia back off, but instead, while the diplomats wrangled, Russia sent her armies into the Balkans to besiege strategic towns there with a view to marching on Constantinople. Britain and France decided Russia must not only be threatened out of the Balkans but taught a lesson. This lesson, it was decided, would be the seizure of Russia’s main military port in the Black Sea, Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula.

That was it. That was the aim of the Crimean War: to teach Russia a lesson by seizing Sevastapol. But the allies landed 20 miles away to the north of the port, took ages to get all the equipment ashore, slowly marched to the city and then dithered about attacking – all of which gave the defenders of Sevastapol time to create awesome defences around it, thus setting the stage for a long and bloody siege which dragged on through the cruel Russian winters in which thousands of men slept in mud and water and snow and, not surprisingly, died like flies from cholera.

What a miserably mismanaged cock-up. The three battles I’d heard of – at the River Alma, Inkerman and Balaklava – were all subsidiary battles fought only to achieve the main goal, seizing Russia’s only warm water port.

We are used, in our time, to the Total Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 and so tend to think of ‘war’ on the same epic scale, fought to obliterate the opponent. It is thought-provoking to read about ‘wars’ of much more limited geopolitical, geographical and military scope and aim, fought with much smaller numbers, using much more primitive weapons.

Blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts

The second feature of a military history like this is its detailed, blow-by-blow description of the actual fighting, the battles and encounters, feints and charges and stands. (David’s book is graced with lots of charming hand-drawn maps – perfectly clear but in a whimsical deliberately archaic style – maps of the whole country affected, and then detailed maps of specific battles. These are vital.)

Thus David’s account of the ill-fated Kabul expedition, or the Crimea, or the Sikh Wars or the Mutiny, are studded with eye-witness accounts, scoured from letters, journals, diaries and official battle reports, which take the reader right into the sweat and fury of battle. Again and again we read the specific actions of named individuals and their vivid terrifying descriptions of fighting off Pathan warriors with swords, parrying Russian soldiers with bayonets, of rushing walls and stockades or helping comrades under fire. This is from the account of Private Wightman of the 17th Lancers describing how the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, disorientated and riding back through dense smoke, veered by mistake up the sides of the valley only to encounter Russian infantry:’

My horse was shot dead, riddled with bullets. One bullet struck me on the forehead, another passed through the top of my shoulder; while struggling out from under my dead horse a Cossack standing over me stabbed me with his lance once in the neck near the jugular, again above the collar bone, several times in the back, and once under the short rib; and when, having regained my feet, I was trying to draw my sword, he sent his lance through the palm of my hand. I believe he would have succeeded in killing me, clumsy as he was, if I had not blinded him for the moment with a handful of sand.’ (quoted on p.233)

I guess this sort of thing is not for everyone but if you’re a certain sort of boy or man then you’ll find these hyper-detailed accounts of combat thrilling and exciting. ‘Why do men fight?’ girlfriends have asked me over the years. For the simple reason that it is the most exciting thing a man can experience – or a certain sort of man, at any rate.

One example can stand for thousands: here the young British officer Garnet Wolseley describes the feeling of standing on the battlefield shouting for volunteers, then charging a well-defended enemy stockade in Burma in 1853.

Wolseley could see the numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’ (p.169)

Or Lieutenant E.A. Noel of the 31st Foot describes the exhilaration of charging the Sikh artillery at the Battle of Ferozeshah on 22 December 1845. The battle was:

‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive.’ (quoted p.101)

Most of the common infantry fought because a career in the army offered the security and pay their lives in Britain couldn’t provide, as well as training and camaraderie and a sense of identity. The officers – as David brings home – were mostly upper-class twits, not least because throughout this era officers could simply buy their ranks and saw the army as a means to social and financial advancement.

Nevertheless, ragamuffin proles or chinless toffs, all or any of them could be swept up in the heat of actual battle and find themselves performing super-human feats.

Heroism

For men under pressure reveal extraordinary capacities. There are accounts of mind-boggling heroism here, of men fighting on single-handed, manning guns after all their comrades are killed, racing across open ground towards walls stuffed with musketeers shooting at them, and so on.

It was during this early period, in 1857, that a new medal, the Victoria Cross was instituted for just such acts of stunning bravery. (David has a fascinating section about the creation, the design and casting of the first Victoria Crosses: they were, and still are, cast from the bronze cascabels – the large knobs at the back of a cannon used for securing ropes – of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastapol, hence the dull gunmetal colour. The remaining metal from these cascabels has still not all been used up; there is said to be enough metal for eighty-five more medals, p.282)

At the battle of the Alma the defeated Russians were limbering up their guns and withdrawing them, when Captain Edward Bell of the 23rd Fusiliers ran forward alone and, armed only with a pistol, surprised the Russian driver, who fled, while Bell seized the horse and led horse and Russian gun back to the British side of the breastworks. For this he later won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the Crimea (p.207).

At the Battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854) Captain John Crosse of the 88th Foot found himself defending the Saddle Top Ridge against advancing Cossacks:

‘I found myself close to a knot of six Russians who were advancing to attack me… I shot four of the Russians, the fifth bayoneted me & fell pulling me down on top of him, the sixth then charged on me & [with my sword] I cut down his firelock on to his hands and he turned back.’ (quoted p.241)

Who needs movies?

Butchery

But, of course, scattered moments of heroism are all very fine, and tend to be remembered by all concerned for the fine light they shed on combat, but fighting boils down to men killing each other in hair-raisingly grisly ways, hacking at each others’ bodies with blunt swords, stabbing and gouging and strangling and bludgeoning, while others are shooting bullets which smash bones, joints, shoot through your eyes or mouth or skull.

Take the relief column under Lieutenant Robert Pollock which was sent to rescue the British hostages held in Kabul (those held back and so not slaughtered in the mountains). As this force went back over the ground taken by the retreating Kabul garrison, it walked over bodies the whole way.

All along the road from Fatiabad lay the remains of the Kabul garrison, the corpses ‘in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun-wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard.’ (quoted p.71)

Having rescued the British hostages, this column also withdrew back to India, but was harried all the way by the fierce Ghilzai tribesmen. One of the last to die was Ensign Alexander Nicholson of the 30th Native Infantry. The following day, John Nicholson, just released from Afghan captivity and following the same path to safety, came across his brother’s mutilated corpse, with his penis and balls cut off and stuffed into his mouth, as was the local custom (p.72).

After the Battle of Sobraon (Sikh War, 10 February 1846), the British drove the Sikh defenders back onto a narrow bridge over the River Sutlej which quickly broke. Thousands tried to swim across but were slaughtered by rifle fire and grape and canister shot being poured into the swimming mass at point blank range. Gunner Bancroft described the river water as:

‘a bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’ (p.109)

By the same token as he uses eye-witness accounts to describe the progress of battles, giving the sense of total immersion in the gripping, terrifying experience of combat, so David also details the appalling gory butchery and bloodshed of battle. He gives a harrowing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, on 25 October 1854:

A corporal who rode on the right of the 13th was ‘struck by a shot or shell in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near’. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, ‘yet for about thirty yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm.’ (p.232)

There is an appalling price to pay for all these conflicts and the pages of this book are drenched in blood and brains. Describing the Indian ‘rebels’ at Sikandarbagh, Fred Roberts recalled:

‘Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion , and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. there they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead or dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… ‘ (quoted p.342)

I wonder if David did a tally of how many people died during these imperial conquests, men killed in battle, and women and children murdered in the accompanying atrocities by both sides: to the casual reader it must have been several million – the Crimean War alone accounted for some three quarters of a million dead on all sides. So much blood. So many human bodies composted back into the soil.

‘We overtook numbers of their infantry who were running for their lives – every man of course was shot. I never saw such butchery and murder! It is almost too horrible to commit to paper.’ (An officer of the 9th Lancers at the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, p.137)

One example from thousands sticks in my mind: at the siege of Cawnpore, when the ‘rebel’ Indian regiments rose up against their European officers and families, pushing them back into a hastily defended cantonment, a ball from an Indian canon decapitated the son of the British commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, leaving the boy’s hair and brains smeared on the wall of his father’s wall. His brains and hair (p.310). In fact, the rebels promised the garrison safe passage down the river, but as they loaded into the boats treacherously opened fire, killing 800 or more. The survivors were thrown into a small building along with Brits from other locations, nearly 200, almost all women and children, and kept prisoner in the blistering heat, without food or water for weeks. When a relief column of British forces approached all of them – 194 women and children – were hacked to death with swords. it is recorded that the killers needed replacement swords because the first ones became blunt hacking on human bone. Then all the bodies were thrown down a well, quite a few still alive at the time, only to asphyxiate under the weight of bloody bodies.

Yes. I know – the butchery, on both sides, during the Indian Rebellion, requires a book of its own. But still, it’s the father having to see the hair and brains of his son smeared across the wall which has stayed to haunt me at nights…

Incompetence

But maybe the main learning from the book is the staggering level of blundering incompetence shown by so many Brits at so many levels. As a survivor of the catastrophic retreat from Kabul, put it, the complete destruction of the allied force was due to the ‘incompetency, feebleness and want of skill’ of the military leaders (p.70) and this story is echoed again and again during these 24 fraught years.

The absolute epitome of mismanaged confused dunderhead behaviour was the Charge of the Light Brigade, sent into the wrong valley against well-placed Russian guns which wiped them out – an event David goes into in great detail (pp.227-237) and which just gets worse the more you understand it.

The entire Crimean campaign became byword for mismanagement, not least in the inability to feed, clothe and medicate British troops who died in their thousands during the first winter besieging Sevastapol. It was this dire situation which prompted T.J. Delane, the editor of The Times, to write an editorial excoriating the incompetence of the army and the government.

The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastapol, in the harbour at Balaklava, in the hospitals of Scutari, and how much closer to home we dare not venture to say. (p.254)

How the devil did these clodhoppers manage to acquire and run the greatest empire the world has ever known? The book suggests a number of levels at which British incompetence and stupidity operated:

1. The wrongness of basic aims Was it even worth fighting the Crimean War or the Afghan war in the first place? Diplomatic pressure was already making the Russians withdraw from the Balkans; after three years of war, the peace treaty didn’t achieve much more than had been on the table at the start.

Similarly, the First Afghan ‘war’ amounted to an armed expedition into Afghanistan to overthrow the existing ruler – Dost Mohamed – for being too friendly to the Russians and replace him with an exile of our choosing, Shah Suja, who would then owe us undying loyalty. The British force with some 10,000 camp followers fought its way through south Afghanistan, finding it harder than predicted, and eventually took Kabul, forcing Dost to flee and imposing the new ruler. But the people rejected him, we never controlled the outlying settlements, we promised subsidies (bribes) to various tribes which we failed to pay or cut back – and so shouldn’t have been surprised when there was a popular uprising which quickly took Kabul, besieging the Europeans in an indefensible cantonment.

The divided British leadership patched up an agreement with Dost Mohamed’s son in which we were promised free passage over the mountains back to Jelalabad but a) it was winter – the first weeks of January – b) nobody told the various angry tribes who controlled the mountains, and so the vast retreating force of several thousand soldiers and over 10,000 camp followers, were picked off at leisure or died of exposure in the sub-freezing temperatures. Notoriously, of the 16,000 or so total who went into Afghanistan, one – ONE – survivor, a Dr Brydon, made it alive to Jelalabad.

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of William Brydon, sole survivor the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

2. Strategic blundering The Kabul disaster reads like a textbook example of how not to do it. For a start leadership of the expedition was divided between the military leader Elphinstone and the political emissary, Macnaghten. The cantonment where the British Army based itself was significantly outside the city of Kabul; we didn’t build a citadel of strength to act as a secure base; and we relinquished control of the only secure building in the city, the Bala Hissar fort, to the new playboy ruler we had installed, and his harem.

3. Indecision and hesitation This really comes across as a key cause of failure in almost all these conflicts. Even after fighting broke out in Kabul the British leaders refused to take it seriously. Quick and decisive action might have stamped it out, captured the ringleaders and dissipated the local aggression; but the military leaders on the ground hesitated or plain refused to march into the city and so it was lost and the rest followed logically.

The same hesitation or plain refusal to attack leaps out of the account of the Crimean War where a quick attack on Sevastapol immediately after the allied forces had landed might have taken the city and prevented two years of costly siege: but the generals in charge – Lord Raglan for the British, Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud for the French – wanted to wait until everything was ready and everyone had landed etc, thus giving the Russkies time to defend Sevastapol to the hilt. After the hard-fought Battle of the Alma River, with Prince Menshikov’s army retreating in disarray, both generals lost the opportunity to devastate them with the as-yet unbloodied British cavalry.

Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of the Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war… [but] neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day – with disastrous long-term consequences for the allies. (p.212)

The same reluctance and refusal shines out of David’s account of the Indian Mutiny, a much bigger more complex event, in which there’s one silver thread concerning how the British garrison forced out of Delhi by the ‘rebels’, joined by reinforcements, took the cantonment to the north-west of the city: had they attacked immediately they might have driven the rebels out and squashed the rebellion at its heart. Instead, just like Raglan and Saint-Arnaud in Crimea, they waited, they prevaricated, they said they needed more forces – and the moment was lost (p.307).

Months passed and then waited: had they attacked straightaway who find a secure base above the city and then prevaricate for months and months and months, under the reluctant leadership of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who drove his officers mad with frustration by continually claiming he needed just a few more guns, ammunition, soldiers, before he launched the attack to retake the city.

A very crude rule emerges from all of these accounts which is: If you see an advantage – SEIZE IT! Even if all your regiments, cavalry, artillery or whatever haven’t totally arrived – if you see the enemy retreating or vulnerable – GO FOR IT. Time and again opportunities were lost for quick, decisive knockout blows because the men in charge hesitated, were afraid, wanted to be sure of total success… and all too often that turned what would have been quick campaigns into brutal struggles of attrition in which tens of thousands died needlessly.

4. Penny pinching Prevarication was often caused by the wish to save money, for another thread which emerges is the way the British wanted to have an empire on the cheap. It’s striking to realise how nothing has changed in the national culture in 180 years – we’ve always been an austerity nation. Garnet Wolseley complained that all the logistics support for the army had been shut down ‘on so-called economical grounds’ and much of the rest contracted out to private suppliers – hence the revolting inedibility of the food provided for the soldiers in the Crimea. Ring any bells?

Thus the disaster at Kabul was partly caused by the Treasury demanding cuts to the costly expedition so that its political leader, Macnaghten, halved the subsidy/bribe being paid to a northern tribe of Afghans – who promptly rose against us; and, in order to save money, ordered a column out to meet a relief force coming from the north instead of waiting – which was promptly massacred.

The Crimea was a classic example of a major war which we tried to fight on the cheap, resulting in military stalemate (we won the side battles of Inkerman and the Alma but obstinately failed to take Sevastapol for years) and the deaths, due to lack of equipment (proper winter uniforms, tents, even food) of thousands and thousands of poor bloody infantry. ‘The Army is a shambles’, he quotes one officer as commenting (p.186). Eventually, the government was shamed by the extensive newspaper reporting of Russell (among others), the reports of Florence Nightingale, and pressure from the Queen, to face the facts that it was going to cost money to win the damn thing.

And David highlights the same mindset at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion: the government didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t want to take it seriously because it didn’t want to spend the money which ended up being required to put it down. By this stage, twenty years into her reign, Queen Victoria had the confidence to write to her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, criticising the government for, yet again, being:

anxious to do as little as possible, to wait for further news, to reduce as low as possible even what they do grant…’ (quoted p.327)

I’ve read so many times that the Empire was a device for looting and creaming off vast wealth from colonised countries that I am genuinely puzzled how come an account like this gives the strong impression of a colonial government in a permanent financial crisis, consistently underfunding and under-equipping the army it needed to police the empire, acting slowly, refusing to recognise the severity of the crises it faces and always trying to get away with the cheap option.

David gives a handy checklist for responsibility for the Afghan disaster, which serves as a useful checklist for many of these imperial fiascos. Who was to blame?

  • The political ruler of India, Lord Auckland, for ordering an invasion of Afghanistan which was never really necessary in the first place – the existing ruler was fairly friendly and could have been bribed to be on our side without the loss of a single life.
  • The Tory government, which, in order to save money, demanded a reduction in troop numbers and reduction of local bribes – thus helping to spark the rebellion.
  • General Cotton, the senior military man on first arrival in Kabul, who acquiesced in making the large, indefensible, out-of-town cantonment the main British base.
  • Sir William Macnaghten, the senior political agent on the spot, who deliberately played down the rebellion when it started, refusing to give permission for quick decisive suppressing action, then made a hash out of negotiating with the enemy chieftains (for which he was shot dead on the spot by one of them).
  • Brigadier-General Shelton, the man in charge of the British forces, who made a series of decisions all based on hesitation and caution, which allowed the rebellion to spiral out of control.

5. Unwanted freelancing Another theme is the regularity with which the men on the spot far exceeded their orders from the home government which then found itself forced to back them up. For example, the governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier in 1842 with a force designed to bring the amirs of Sind, in north-west India, into submission to the British. Instead, Napier fought a series of battles and annexed the territory outright, to the horror of the board of the East India Company (who still, technically, ruled India) and the government of Robert Peel. It was felt to have been unnecessarily aggressive but also – more importantly – incurred unwanted cost: all very well for these soldier chaps to go a-conquerin’ territory, but then someone had to pay for the new lands to be garrisoned, manned, administered and so on, which cost a fortune.

6. Disease Three quarters of the 20,000 British deaths in the Crimea were caused by disease: 10,000 allied lives were lost to cholera, dysentery and fever before the allied armies even arrived at the Crimea, due to the squalid conditions at the base camp of Varna. In the winter of 1855 it was clear both sides in the Crimean War desired peace, but Napoleon III of France let himself be persuaded by the British to keep his forces at the Sevastapol siege through the winter to keep the pressure on Russia. With the result that the French lost more men – at least 30,000! – to disease in the final three months of the war than they lost in all combat operations of the previous two years.

Disease was the bane of all these ‘wars, fought in extreme heat or freezing cold in the plains of India, the jungles of Burma, the snowbound Afghan mountains or the frozen trenches of the Crimea.

The grim dynamic of imperialism

Again and again the same pattern and sequence of events took place: local rulers of land bordering the existing empire refuse to become our allies (Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan) or harass British traders (the ruler of Burma the Qing Emperor in China) so a British force is dispatched to bring them to heel/punish them/force them to let free trade continue.

If they resist in any way, especially if any of our chaps is killed, then the whole thing is converted into a massive Insult and Dishonour to Queen and Country and suddenly the entire nation is whipped up by the government/popular press to avenge/right/redeem this Insult, carrying out ‘the just retribution of an outraged nation’ (p.71) – and a large force is sent to sort them out.

Then it turns out to be tougher going than we thought, there are unexpected defeats, casualties mount up, it takes longer than we expected, soldiers start dying of heat and disease, they have the wrong uniforms (winter for summer or vice versa), run out of ammunition, reinforcements are delayed, individual acts of amazing heroism help to conceal systematic failings of strategy, funding and logistics and so the whole thing drags on, sometimes for years.

Eventually, enough extra forces, ammunition and cannon finally arrive to force a ‘victory’ of sorts or face-saving compromise, news of which is cabled back to a jubilant nation, there’s dancing in the streets, pubs and streets are named after the various bloody battles – the Alma, the Balaklava – medals are handed out, victory parades, the native rulers are arrested, exiled, replaced, the native peoples brutally massacred and cowed into submission… for the time being.

All in all, it is a shameful narrative of bullying, exploitation and hypocrisy but almost everyone was caught up in it, the national narrative. It is inspiring that there were radical thinkers and even MPs who were solidly against the notion of Empire, who consistently thought it directly contradicted Britain’s own rhetoric about Freedom and Liberty. But they made little impression on the jingoistic national culture, which only became more and more imperialistic as the century progressed.

Vandalism

A summary of these years wouldn’t be complete without some mention of European vandalism and destructiveness.

  • After the gruesome retreat from Kabul in which over 10,000 died, British forces were despatched to rescue the European hostages being held west of the city. They successfully rescued them and fell back on a pacified Kabul but realised they couldn’t hold it and retreated back to British India. But not before the force, under Lieutenant Robert Pollock and widely nicknamed the ‘Army of Retribution’, had blown up Kabul’s ‘magnificent Great Bazaar’ amid widespread looting and destruction (p.71), as punishment for the murder of the British envoys whose dismembered bodies had been hung there a year earlier (p.54).
  • During the Crimean War Sir George Brown was despatched with a force to capture Kertch, a vital supply port on the east coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Once they’d captured the relatively undefended town the allied troops went wild, looting homes, murdering civilians and raping women. They also burnt to the ground Kertch Museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art (p.261)
  • The Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperors at Beijing was (to quote Wikipedia) ‘widely conceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design… an architectural wonder, known for its extensive collection of garden, its building architecture and numerous art and historical treasures.’ Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, as an Anglo-French expedition force approached Beijing, two British envoys were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. When news emerged that the delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace. It was comprehensively looted and then burned to the ground. The Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven this crime.

Footnotes & insights

This is the kind of fact-packed popular history where even the footnotes are packed with interesting information. There’s a footnote on almost every page and every one is worth reading – from details of the  several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, the Indian origin of the words sepoy, sirdar, pundit and so on, what a regiment’s ‘colours’ actually are (two flags, one regimental, one for the queen), how the town of Ladysmith in South Africa got its name, and an extended sequence on how the famous Koh-i-noor diamond came to be handed over the British and included in the crown.

The evolution of military hardware

Alongside the thread about Victoria and Albert’s interventions is another thread which dwells on the evolution of military technology during this period. I was fascinated to read about the arrival of steam warships. At first battleships continued to have masts and depend on sail power – if there was wind – but were also equipped with steam engines for when there wasn’t. Only slowly did they make the full transition to steam. I was particularly interested in the advent of a new design of much smaller warship, only 200-foot long, powered by steam and equipped with a small set of rotatable guns. Because of their size these could penetrate up even minor rivers and still deliver punishing artillery fire. They were called gunboats and for the first time really allowed the Royal Navy (and Britain) to extend its might/force/violence into the remotest river frontages all over the globe (p.159).

And so for the first time I really understood the hoary old expression ‘gunboat’ diplomacy’, which is always used to describe Lord Palmerston’s belligerent foreign policy during this period. The use of gunboats is exemplified here by their use in the Second Burma War, 1852-3.

Just as interesting was David’s detailed description of how new ‘rifles’, manufactured at the new workshops on the River Lee at Enfield, hence the ‘Lee Enfield rifle’, were developed to replace the old flintlocks which were still in use at the start of the period, much more accurate at a longer distance, giving our boys a distinct advantage.

A little less interesting, but still giving you the sense of getting a complete overview of the military world of this era, is David’s attention to the evolution of uniforms, away from the heavy double buttoned tunic and the clumsy tall shako hat towards more practical (but still to us, improbably unwieldy) uniform.

Conclusion

This is a compellingly written, exciting and illuminating book on many levels – popular history at its best.


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Other blog posts about Empire

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.

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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.

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

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.

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

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

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