Diego Rivera: The Detroit Murals and the Nightmare of War controversy

This really is a beautifully produced book, giving the reader access to loads of preparatory sketches and cartoons made by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera before he painted the vast murals depicting the Ford motor factory at Detroit onto the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts, along with photos of the great man in action (and catching sneaky kisses from his wife, Frida Kahlo) and a detailed analysis of each of the 27 murals’ design and meaning.

The Nightmare of War and Dream of Peace

In the epilogue, the book’s author, Linda Bank Downs, describes the fascinating incident of the political controversy which suddenly engulfed the murals almost 20 years after they were painted.

Rivera had been expelled from the Mexican Communist Party in 1929, following a visit to Moscow during which he criticised Stalin’s leadership. For the next twenty years he remained, rather pathetically, desperate to be readmitted to the party.

In 1952 Rivera was commissioned to paint a portable mural for a Mexican art exhibition in Paris. He chose as subject The Nightmare of War and Dream of Peace. Now, the Korean War had broken out in 1950 and was still ongoing. The communist North Koreans were backed by Stalin, were soon lent troops from China, which had only just come under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Tse-Tung. The portable mural Rivera created caused an international scandal.

Rivera’s mural is not only packed with detail but is, in fact, a painting within a painting. It is a mural of a mural. On a wall in some Mexican city is painted the political mural. This mural ends three quarters of the way to the right, ending along with the wall it’s painted on, beyond the end of the building we can see a panoramic view of the modern Mexican city, with its bustling traffic, high rise buildings and billboards.

In front of the mural a load of inhabitants of the city are being moved along the pavement from right to left. They are being handed copies of ‘the Stockholm Appeal’ by a man in a black suit at far right, by Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo in her wheelchair, by the central figure of the worker who acts as the dynamic fulcrum of the action, and on to the two chaps standing behind a makeshift table, who are persuading citizens – be they peasants or smart suited urban types – to add their names to the petition.

The Stockholm Appeal was a short, simple text, launched in 1950, which called for an absolute ban on nuclear weapons. The appeal was launched by the French Communist physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie, and the petition gathered a supposed 273,470,566 signatures. Joliot-Curie is depicted to the left of the central worker, facing us, wearing a black beret.

Behind this bustling scene of street-level politics is the mural itself. This depicts, at left, Uncle Joe Stalin and Chairman Mao offering a peace treaty to the Western powers – France personified as a woman with a liberty cap, pugnacious John Bull standing behind her, resting a hand with knuckle dusters on the globe which stands between them, and a white-top-hatted Uncle Sam behind her.

The two-thirds of the mural to the right depict the horrors of war. Behind a vast atomic mushroom cloud, steel-helmeted soldiers whip, hang, crucify and shoot the victims of war, peasants with Asian faces.

The Nightmare of War and Dream of Peace by Diego Rivera (1952)

The Nightmare of War and Dream of Peace by Diego Rivera (1952)

The Korean War

The point is that Rivera painted this mural at the height of the Cold War and two years into the bitter Korean War (1950-53). The Korean War began when communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea, with no warning or pretext. They pushed the unprepared South Koreans and their handful of peacetime American allies right back to the south-east of the peninsula and very nearly conquered it all.

Until the hero of the war in the Pacific, American General MacArthur, launched a daring amphibious landing half way up the peninsula, not far from the southern capital of Seoul, threatening to cut the North’s supply lines and take them in the rear. The victorious allies forced the North right back up to the original border between the countries, and then pushed them back up towards Korea’s border with China.

It was at this point that Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist China – which had only’fallen’ to the communists as recently as 1950 – sent huge numbers of Chinese Red Army cadres to reinforce the North Koreans, while the Americans, leading a supposedly United Nations force, reinforced its armies – and so the war settled down to a brutal war of attrition.

Rivera wasn’t wrong in depicting a world brought to the brink of nuclear war. When the Chinese joined the war and pushed the allied forces right back to the middle of the peninsula, MacArthur seriously suggested to President Harry Truman that they launch a nuclear attack on Chinese cities. He was promptly sacked, but that’s how close to a nuclear war the world came.

Controversy in Detroit

How does this affect the Detroit murals? For the simple reason that Rivera’s depiction as heroes of peace the two brutal communist dictators, Stalin and Mao, which the USA was at war with, against whose armies American boys were fighting and dying, inflamed public, political and artistic opinion against him. He was vilified in the right-wing and liberal press, artists, and politicians. The McCarthyite hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee were just about to start, with their hounding of anyone suspected of even the slightest left-wing leanings.

In this mood of war fever and patriotic paranoia, it’s no surprise that voices were raised criticising the Detroit murals, the largest example of Rivera’s work outside Mexico: Why was Detroit promoting the work of a war-mongering commie?

The city’s council took up the cry, and one councilor, Eugene Van Antwerp, called for the murals to be whitewashed over. However, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Edgar Richardson, admirably stood his ground. He argued that the murals were great works of art and an obvious tribute to the capitalist inventiveness and industriousness of America, which were in no way affected by the changing political beliefs of their creator.

Richardson had a massive sign painted and hung up outside the institute, which read:

Rivera’s politics and his publicity seeking are detestable.
But let’s get the record straight on what he did here.
He came from Mexico to Detroit, thought our mass production industries and our technology wonderful and very exciting, painted them as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.
This came just after the debunking twenties when our own artists and writers had found nothing worthwhile in America and worst of all in America was the Middle West.
Rivera saw and painted the significance of Detroit as a world city.
If we are proud of this city’s achievements, we should be proud of these paintings, and not lose our heads over what Rivera is doing in Mexico today.

The politicians insisted that there be a public consultation about the work’s future but, in the event, Richardson only received a handful of letters and the protest, such as it was, fizzled out.

Rivera and the Communist Party

The Mexican organisers of the show in Paris pleaded with Rivera to change his depiction of the dictators. When he refused, they decided not to exhibit the painting. This prompted the Mexican Communist Party to express righteous indignation, propagandise about ‘freedom of expression’ and to hold a public viewing of it, attended by numerous communist officials, writers and fellow travellers.

It didn’t help Rivera in his almost obsessive attempts to rejoin the Party. His fourth application to join was rejected. In 1953 Rivera sent the mural – which was always designed to travel – to China. It subsequently disappeared and has never been seen again. It would be fitting if it was destroyed by radical students in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. In 1954 Kahlo, now very ill, committed suicide. Rivera made her funeral into a Communist Party demonstration, and his fifth application for readmission to the Mexican Communist Party of Mexico was finally accepted. Three years later Rivera died.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in front of the unfinished mural, The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace (1952) Photo by Juan Guzmán

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in front of the unfinished mural, The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace (1952) Photo by Juan Guzmán


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Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has a unique international appeal, as both an artist and a personality. Her image in oil paintings and photographs is instantly recognizable.

This is a beautifully curated and designed exhibition which left me with a much deeper understanding of Kahlo’s life, her work, her toughness in the face of terrible adversity, and the Mexican roots of her distinctive and powerful self-image.

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The treasure trove

The pretext or premise or prompt for the exhibition was the discovery of a treasure trove. After Frida died at the horribly early age of 47, her mourning husband, the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, ordered all her belongings in the famous ‘Blue House’ they shared together, to be locked up and sealed away.

Rather incredibly, it was only in 2004 that this room was re-opened, to reveal a treasure trove of Kahlo-iana – including her jewellery, clothes, prosthetics and corsets, along with self-portraits, diary entries, photos and letters. Together they shed a wealth of new light on her life, personality, illness and endurance, on her art and on her extraordinary achievement in fashioning herself into an iconic image and brand.

And this is what the exhibition is based on.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Biography

The show is smaller than some recent ones at the V&A. Not so much a blockbuster, as an intimate portrait. It starts with a corridor-like room divided into small recesses, each of which take us briskly through a chapter in her early life, using black and white photos, a few early paintings and some home movies.

The key elements for me were that:

  • Her father was German, emigrated to Mexico in the 1890s and set up a photographic studio. She helped him and learned photographic technique, how to compose and frame a subject. No accident, maybe, that she is best known for her painted and photographic self portraits.
  • Her full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. She always preferred Frida because it her father’s name for her. I was mulling this over when I came to the section describing her marriage to the, by then, already famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, in 1928, who was a lot older than her, 43 to her 22. I.e. a big, reassuring father figure. Daddy.
  • When Frida was 6 she contracted polio and was seriously ill. She was left with one leg shorter than the other.
  • When she was 18 she was on a bus which was in a collision with a tram, resulting in her being both crushed against the window and having a piece of metal penetrate her abdomen. This accident and her long recovery put paid to the idea of studying to become a doctor. Confined to bed for months, she began to expand the sketching, drawing and painting she’d already been toying with.

In the late 1920s she developed a kind of naive, symbolic style, drawing inspiration from Mexican folk culture. After marrying Rivera, she accompanied him on a number of trips to the United States, where he had been commissioned to paint murals, socially conscious murals being a big part of 1930s American artistic activity.

Here’s a good example, from 1932. I don’t know if I like it. I understand the fairly simple ideas: on the left are images of Mexico, Aztec ruins and figurines, flowers and agricultural produce, with their roots in the good earth: on the right is Detroit, highly industrialised ‘Motor City’ (the name FORD is spelled out on the smoking chimneys), the American flag, skyscrapers, and growing out of the soil are not beautiful flowers but lamps and fans.

And in between is a self portrait of Frieda in a formal pink dress holding the Mexican flag. Between two worlds, eh? I get it.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Her naive symbolism matches the simple-minded ‘political’ attitude of Rivera’s murals. They both thought of themselves as communists and went on marches supporting strikers etc, but, nonetheless, liked visiting the heart of capitalism, America – or ‘Gringolandia’, as Frida called it. The money was good and there were lots of opportunities for Rivera to get commissions. And it was in New York, in 1939, that Frida held her first successful one-woman show. Capitalism is an awful thing – unless you can get money, commissions, promotions and sales out of it: the attitude of many 20th century artists.

One of the most interesting biographical facts is that Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky, having been exiled from the Soviet Union, was offered refuge by the revolutionary government of Mexico and came to stay with the Riveras, not for a few weeks, but for two years.

The exhibition includes a b&w film of Comrade Trotsky explaining, in English, how badly he has been treated by comrade Stalin. He insists he is really a man of honour – as anyone whose family was murdered by the Red Army he set up, would surely have testified.

Mexican roots

These early biographical roots are interesting but they are eclipsed by the power of the later rooms.

These start with the room on Kahlo’s Mexican roots. It explains that during the 1920s and even more so the 1930s, Mexico underwent a cultural renaissance. Part of this was the exploration and promotion of the country’s pre-Colombian culture, but it also included the first real appreciation of the folk customs and costumes of peasants and the poor around the country.

Interest in the country spread abroad, with American artists, photographers and film makers attracted to its sunny, bright and passionate culture. John Huston made films here. Even the young British writer Graham Greene made a tour of the country (he hated it) and then set his most powerful early novel here, The Power and the Glory. I’ve reviewed them both.

Frida and Diego were part of this revival of interest in Mexico’s culture and history. They both sought inspiration in the folk and workers culture of their country. In particular they were attracted to the area called Tehuantepec in the Oaxaca region. People here followed traditional ways, and the exhibition includes a whole wall of traditional icons of the Virgin Mary, establishing a link between these images of saintly femininity and Kahlo’s self portraits and explorations of her identity.

The dress room

The final room in the show is the biggest and I involuntarily exclaimed ‘wow’ as I walked into it.

Centre stage is a huge central glass case displaying some 20 of Frida’s dresses. Full length, made of colourful fabrics and bright designs, each one has been carefully displayed and annotated, giving a powerful sense of Frida’s sense of colour and dress.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

There are only 10 or so paintings in the whole exhibition and six of them are in this room. They’re later works, when she had realised that she was her own best subject and that self portrait was her best medium.

Looking out at the viewer, flat and unemotional, her iconic features by now well established – the monobrow, the faint moustache on her top lip, her strong brown eyes, the sideways pose – she is flatly, unashamedly, blankly herself.

In the painting below even the tears don’t really affect the expressionless face. Or they appear as surreally detached embellishments of the fundamental design. Much weirder is the ‘ruff’ dominating the image. The exhibition explains that this is a huipil de tapar, a traditional Mexican item popular in Tehuantepec, designed to frame the face and extend over the neck and shoulders. There is another larger painting of her wearing the same outfit and a full scale example of a huipil de tapar on a display mannequin for us to compare and contrast reality with painted depiction.

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Kahlo is, you realise, a perfect subject for the V&A because she was not only an artist, but someone with a fascination for clothes and costumes – in her case, of her native Mexico. The exhibition is less about the ar per se and more about how she drew heavily on these costume traditions and elaborated them into a highly colourful style of her own.

Hence there are more than twice as many dresses as there are Kahlo artworks. Hence, also, the display cases devoted to the heavy and ornate jewelry she wore, the elaborate ear-rings and thick heavy necklaces, set off against the bright and colourful hair ribbons.

In this respect it is fascinating to watch the 9-minute tourist film from the Tehuantepec region which is on view just next to the dresses and necklaces. Look at the colours and designs of the dresses, the heavy gold jewellery, and the brightly coloured ribbons in the women’s hair. In a flash you understand. Kahlo was a conduit for these traditional dresses, colours, fabrics and jewellery, into the international art world.

She gave it her own style. She combined it in her own way and, above all, gave it the imprimatur of her own face, of her very distinctive features (eyes, monobrow, moustache) and her unsmiling, detached, dream-like appearance.

But a great deal of her ‘look’ quite obviously stems directly from the traditions of the women of Tehuantepec.

Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo on a bench (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The sick room

The big dress room is the climax of the exhibition, in terms of dresses, design, jewellery, paintings and photos.

But arguably the biographical core of the exhibition is the room before it, entitled ‘Endurance’. In an imaginative but spooky display, the curators have commissioned the creation of six small four-poster beds and made each into a display case which, along with photos and text along the walls, give a quite harrowing account of Kahlo’s many illnesses, ailments, treatments, and lifelong suffering.

The polio left her with a limp. The bus accident left her with serious internal injuries. In the 1930s she began to experience back problems and underwent a series of treatments and operations to fix them. At the end of her life one foot became infected and then gangrenous, requiring the whole leg to be amputated. It’s gruesome stuff.

This room includes examples of the medical equipment she was forced to wear or endure. There are platform shoes for the shorter leg, a prosthetic leg made for her to wear after the amputation but, most evocative of all, a series of corsets, plaster casts and back braces to help support her failing spine.

Kahlo decorated, painted and embellished as many of these as she could. The plaster casts, in particular, are painted with abstract patterns. The most elaborate one carries a painted hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and, underneath, an image of the foetus she was carrying before she had a miscarriage in 1932.

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

The record of her illnesses and, in her later years, the almost constant pain she endured, make for harrowing reading, but there are also two really powerful insights in this room.

1. Painting in bed

One is that she was, at various periods, confined to her bed, it being too painful for her to walk or even stand. (Imagine!) So she had a mirror rigged up in the canopy above her and an easel on the side of the bed. From here she could paint, but paint what?

The answer is dreams – surreal images based on dreamlike symbolism, repeated images of her or a body in a bed – and her face. Over and over again the face of someone in discomfort or pain, staring, blankly, inscrutably, down from the ceiling.

Photos show the actual set-up, with Frida lying in bed, beneath a big mirror, the easel right next to her, on which she is painting.

This sheds quite a lot of light on her subject matter, and lends a depth and dignity to the pictures. Modern critics, obsessed with feminism and identity, may well write about the paintings ‘transgressing’ this or that convention and ‘subverting’ ‘gender stereotypes’.

But they are also the image of someone in tremendous pain. Knowing this, getting the really deep feel for her physical suffering which the ‘Endurance’ room gives you – lends tremendous depth of character and meaning to the detached, slightly dream-like expression you encounter again and again in her paintings.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

2. The construction of the self

The other insight is easy to miss. Off to one side is a set of three black and white photos taken of Frida topless. They were taken by Julien Levy, the owner of the New York art gallery where she had her first solo show in 1939 and with whom she had an affair.

The insight comes in the text underneath, where Levy is quoted describing Frida doing and undoing her braids. First she undid the braids, carefully removing all the objects which were in them and held them in place, arranging them all carefully and in order on the dressing table. Later, she remade the braids, carefully and meticulously taking the ribbons and clips and other elements from their place on the dressing table, and putting them back in just the right places to create just the right effect.

In the context of the ‘Endurance’ room, next to so much physical pain and discomfort and demoralising bad luck – this ritual takes on a whole new significance.

You realise it was a way of controlling and ordering her life, a life of illness and pain which might so easily slip into indiscipline, depression or addiction. Instead she maintained control by paying minute attention to every element of her self-presentation. There are several cases showing the lipstick, and makeup, and nail polishes and eye liner and other accoutrements she used to create her image. To make herself up. To control, create and bolster herself.

Might sound stupid, but this knowledge makes the dazzling inventiveness of her self-creation seem genuinely heroic.

3. Long dresses

That’s why she liked to wear long dresses – because they hid her polio limp. This explains why all twenty dresses in the dress room are full length, reaching right down to and covering the feet. It’s a very Victorian effect, in some of the photos every inch of her body is covered save for her hands and face. But a Victorian outfit on acid, blitzed with brilliantly coloured fabrics and designs.

Conclusion

If you like Frida Kahlo this exhibition is a dream come true. There was a long queue to get in and the rooms were quickly packed out.

That said, there is remarkably little about her art, as art. A few mentions of the influence of Rivera’s socialist murals, a bit about Mexican symbolism, mention that the Godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, heavily promoted her, writing at length about the more surreal and dreamlike of her fantasy paintings (none of which are on display here).

But all in all, surprisingly little commentary or analysis of the paintings as paintings, except for comments about the dresses she’s wearing in them, the hair, the jewellery, the way she presents herself in them.

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

A moment’s googling shows that Frida Kahlo painted hundreds of paintings. Only ten are on show here. This exhibition is much more about the creation of her image, all the exhibits inhabit concentric circles spreading out from that premise.

I found it hard to get very worked up about 70 or 80 year-old makeup sets (in the outer circle). Her dresses and fabrics are colourful and interesting but, at the end of the day, not really my thing – though I could see plenty of women visitors being riveted by their designs and fabrics. Kahlo’s mural-style, political or symbolic art is sort-of interesting – although murals aren’t a format I warm to – and I found them less compelling than comparable murals by Stanley Spencer or Thomas Hart Benton.

No, it’s only when I came to her paintings of herself that I felt a real power and forcefulness in the image, the way they bring out her stern, unsmiling expression.

But even more central than her self portraits, and – in my opinion – at the absolute heart of the exhibition are the contemporary photos of Frida. It is the photos which bring together all the elements mentioned above, her great taste for colourful fabrics, bright designs, adventurous headgear, stunning jewelry and vivid lipstick to match, her deep sense of Mexican folk art and culture – all this funneled, channeled and focused in a series of stunning and powerful photos.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray

Thus it was often the photos which impressed me most in any given room. And looking closely, it quickly became clear that the photos we know, the ones we’re familiar with, and by far the best ones, were taken by Nickolas Muray.

There is almost no information about Muray in the exhibition, which is a shame because his images are iconic. According to Wikipedia, Muray had a ten-year-long affair with Frida, from 1931 to 1941. (During this period she divorced, then remarried Rivera. And sometime in there, she also managed to have the affair with Levy, which led to the nude photos. Those bohemian artists, eh?)

The only flicker of recognition of Muray’s role in helping to crystallise the Kahlo brand is a wall label next to one of the portraits. Here Muray is quoted as saying

colour calls for new ways of looking at things, at people

This struck me as pointing towards something very profound. Most of Kahlo’s paintings are striking in composition (and for their generally ‘naive’ style) but are surprisingly drab, especially the earlier, political ones. the later paintings are marvellously colourful and inventive. But in a way it is these photos alone which do justice to the tremendous colourfulness of her self-presentation.

According to Wikipedia, Muray was:

famous for his creation of many of the conventions of color advertising. He was considered the master of the three-color carbro process. (Nikolas Muray Wikipedia article)

In other words, Muray wasn’t just quite a good colour photographer – he was one of the inventors of colour photography for the modern age.

This knowledge goes a long way to understanding why Muray’s photos of Kahlo stand out from the other contemporary photos of her, done at the same time, by other photographers. The coming together of Muray and Kahlo’s bodies in their long affair is trivial compared to the coming together of their shared understanding of colour and design – with phenomenal results.

The (admittedly black and white) photo of her by Florence Arquin makes her look like a person, an ordinary human being, squinting in the sun. But the three photos I’ve included by Muray give Kahlo a feeling of power, self-control, majesty, an almost goddess-like calm. In Muray’s hands Kahlo becomes an icon to be worshiped.

You can imagine these images of Frida Kahlo carrying on being iconic for a very long time. Iconic of what, exactly? Whatever you want: our current cultural obsessions are with gender, sexuality, race, identity and so on. But I think her image transcends any one set of ‘issues’ and lends itself to infinite reformulation. Which is one of the characteristics of great art.

The movie

A film of her life was released in 2002. According to the trailer, Frida was ‘one of the most seductive, and intriguing women, of ours or any time’, and it features numerous clips of her jumping into bed with men and women, with little of no mention of the physical disabilities and ailments.

The shopping

Kahlo was an ardent communist. Today she is marketed as a fashion icon, feminist saint, and, more to the point, the inspirer of a whole world of merchandise.

In the shop you can buy some 134 items of merchandise including at least 20 books about her, notebooks, greeting cards, pencils, lapel badges, earrings, necklaces, brooches, jewellery, sunglasses, scarves and shawls, t-shirts, handbags, tote bags ( I counted 20 different design of bag), a Mexican cookbook and ingredients, pillows and socks – yes, socks.

Here’s the full list of Kahlo merch:

The promotional video

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


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The War of 1812 by Carl Benn (2006)

‘Free trade and sailors’ rights’ (American rallying cry for the 1812 war)

In June 1812 the United States, under president James Madison, declared war on Great Britain. The war lasted three years and fighting took place along the America-Canada border, around the Great Lakes, off the American coast, and in the Deep South, in the region then called West Florida, now called Louisiana.

Why? Why did America attack Britain in 1812?

I borrowed the Osprey ‘Illustrated History’ of the war of 1812 from my local library, to find out.

Osprey Publishing produce a series titled ‘Essential Histories’. They are short (90 pages) lavishly illustrated texts describing the political and (especially) the military aspects of wars and conflicts, ancient and modern, ranging far and wide from the conflicts of Ancient Israel to Russia’s offensives in Chechnya.

The volume on the war of 1812 is a good example of the format.

Reasons

The reasons American politicians gave for declaring war were that:

  1. Royal Navy ships had been stopping and searching American vessels. They did this to retake fugitives and deserters from RN ships, since Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France. But they often went further and press ganged men who claimed to be citizens of the United States, causing outrage.
  2. The French and British had spent a decade or more imposing a complicated sequence of trade bans and embargos on each other and the Americans, to which the Americans responded with their own. The British ones were policed more effectively because of the strength of the Royal Navy – the 1811 bans on the export of American salted fish hit the Yanks particularly hard.

So the Americans went to war because:

  1. The British trade embargos seriously threatened their trade
  2. Because of the embargos, British America (i.e. Canada) threatened to replace America as a supplier of a number of staples to France and Britain
  3. Seizing the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Waterway system would cripple Canadian trade and greatly boost America

There were other reasons too.

Native Americans Many colonists had fought the War of Independence because they wanted to expand westwards into ‘the Old Northwest’ (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana). But the native Algonkian-speaking Americans of the region weren’t happy about American expansion, and there was evidence that the British were arming and supporting them to repel American incomers. A key moment was when American forces clashed with warriors of a western native confederacy at Tippecanoe in November 1811. War felt inevitable to both sides.

Manifest Destiny Many Americans thought that their nation had God-given destiny to control the entire North American continent. This vision and policy were named Manifest Destiny. Hawkish American expansionists hoped that another war would drive Britain from the North American mainland completely, vastly expanding American territory and economy. They thought that only God himself could set natural bounds to America, from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Arctic wastes in the north. Everything in between should be theirs. Hero of the independence struggle Thomas Jefferson, who had himself recently been president (1801-1809), declared that, if there was war, the Americans would capture Quebec in the first year, ready to march on Halifax (on the Canadian coast) in year two, and soon afterwards clear the Brits out of the continent altogether. Hooray.

Mississippi East and West Florida nominally belonged to Spain. President Madison had proclaimed the annexation of West Florida in 1810. But the war party thought that they could use any conflict with Britain to consolidate their control in the region. In the event, the Florida theatre of the war was to be most notable for the successful American defence of New Orleans, although the British did manage to take some other strategic points on the Gulf coast. In 1819, well after the war had ended, America bought both Floridas from Spain.

Re-election President Madison had made mistakes in his negotiations with both France and Britain in the preceding years, prompting criticism even from inside his own party. He had served one term as president and was up for re-election in 1812. Declaring war was a traditional way of rallying support and quelling domestic criticism. In the event, Madison received his party’s nomination and was re-elected in November of 1812.

The war

No-one expected the war to last three years.

And nobody expected the Americans to quite so useless. It is pretty amusing to read about the first few American attacks across the border into what was called ‘Upper Canada’, and how easily they were beaten back or defeated by the Brits.

But the Americans didn’t give up and there followed a complex sequence of battles and skirmishes on land, a few naval engagements on the great lakes, many more at sea on the Atlantic, as well as a separate campaign fought down around New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a long, detailed account on Wikipedia.

America’s main military aim was to seize Upper Canada i.e. British territory lining the Great Lakes. They launched eight invasion attempts at different places, yet all but one failed, and that one only secured a small part of south-west Ontario, and this ended up being handed back at the 1815 peace treaty. Hardly driving the British from the continent.

The outcome of 1812 invasion attempts at Detroit, Niagara and Montreal was that:

The United States had lost every engagement of significance and suffered huge losses in prestige, supplies, land and men.

Further American losses followed in two major invasion attempts of 1813. However, the small American navy of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry (9 ships) did win the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813 against 6 British ships, compelling the British to fall back from Detroit.

American General Harrison launched another invasion of Upper Canada, which culminated in the U.S. victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813.

Up to now the British had relied for support on a confederation of native Americans led by the warrior Tecumseh. He was killed in the Battle of the Thames and with his death the confederation collapsed and many native Americans withdrew west into America away from the war zone, or east alongside retreating Canadian citizens. Many Indians had fought hoping that the British would guarantee them a territory of their own in the north-west. This dream was now dead.

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory in the War of 1812 against Great Britain, on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader Tecumseh

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader, Tecumseh

The war followed the same pattern in 1814. Despite some victories, and fiercely fought battles e.g. at Lundy’s Lane and around the besieged Fort Erie, the Americans failed in their twin objectives of retaking Macinac on the north shore of Lake Huron or breaking out of the mouth of the Niagara River and crossing Lake Ontario into Canada.

The 1814 American Macinac and Niagara campaigns had come to a failed end.

War on sea and land

There were quite a few encounters between Royal Navy and US navy ships, victory generally going to the larger ship or greater number. Both sides encouraged ‘privateers’ i.e. licensed pirates, to board and seize the opponent’s merchant vessels. This causes both sides inconvenience, the seizures sometimes escalating to combat and associated deaths of merchant mariners.

The most important aspect of the war at sea was that the Royal Navy imposed an effective naval blockade, initially on the southern states then, once Napoleon was defeated in 1814, extending it to the entire American seaboard. US import-export trade plummeted from $114 million in 1811 to just $20 million in 1814.

The British also launched amphibious assaults on ports up and down the coast. In August 1814 they landed 4,000 men near Washington. Advancing up the River Potomac, Royal Marines and sailors destroyed a privateer, 17 gunboats, 13 merchant schooners and any dwellings which resisted. At the Battle of Blandenburg 2,600 British regulars whipped 6,000 American militia, sailors and regulars.

On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg (‘the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms’), a British force led by Major General Robert Ross continued into the young nation’s capital city, Washington D.C., where they burned down the White House, the Capitol, the Treasury and the War Office, plus other military facilities. Another detachment of Brits took the nearby port of Alexandria. Both forces seized vessels, arms and munitions as well as general loot, before falling back to the river, and so back to sea.

The British then tried something similar at Baltimore, the coastal base of America’s much-hated fleet of privateers, but were rebuffed by the strength of American defences.

Criticised for these attacks by the opposition in Parliament, British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool justified the burning as retaliation for:

a) December 1813 when withdrawing American forces turned the people of Niagara out of their houses into the snow then burned the town to the ground, the next day similarly burning Queenston to the ground
b) the American destruction of the Parliament buildings and other public buildings in York, the provincial capital of Upper Canada, early in 1813
c) the Americans started the war

In the south the British launched an amphibious attack on New Orleans but the city was skilfully defended by Major-General Andrew Jackson, winning the reputation which helped him twenty years later become president, 1829-37.

War’s end

Diplomats in Europe had begun trying to end the war as soon as it started. The British had made concessions on the trade embargos before America even declared war.

Both sides had many aims they were reluctant to abandon which delayed things, but negotiations inched to a conclusion on Christmas Eve 1814, in the European city of Ghent.

The most fundamental war aim of America had been to seize ‘upper Canada’, hawks hoping to seize all of Canada. In this respect the war was what my kids call an epic fail. America gained no Canadian land whatsoever. Both sides agreed to set up a commission to finalise the border between America and Canada, a border which has endured to this day.

The retention of British America – whose states came together to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867 – had two large consequences:

  1. It allowed the British Empire access to a wide range of North American goods – wheat, timber, furs – but within Imperial trade arrangements
  2. In 1914, and then in 1939, Canadian soldiers and resources played what this book calls a ‘vital’ role in reinforcing Britain as it entered the two world wars.

Despite having gained nothing that it set out to achieve – the British categorically refused to back down on the contentious issue of press-ganging and the issue only went away because the war with Napoleon had ended – the American president, his party, and their supporters in the press all hailed the war as a Great Victory, with the handful of outright American victories, especially the defence of New Orleans, growing in legend and inaccuracy as the years passed.

The star-spangled banner

35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key had witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbour by Royal Navy ships during the Battle of Baltimore. He was inspired to write a poem about it – ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry – on September 14, 1814.

The poem was quickly set to the pre-existing tune of a popular British song of the day, and became known as the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1931 it was recognised as the national anthem of America.

Summary

The Essential Histories lack much subtlety or nuance. There isn’t enough space. They’re only 90 or so pages long, and all of them include several 2- or 3- or 4-page featurettes on quirky aspects of the conflict – this one has a section on the native American Black Hawk’s War, and another section profiling the experiences of the Anglican vicar of York (later to become Toronto), John Strachan, during the town’s siege and occupation by American forces (and it is a fascinating account).

Given that there has to be an introduction, half a dozen pages on the background, and a similar amount on the outcome, and given that the Osprey books are generously illustrated with – wherever possible – contemporary pictures and full-page maps, there isn’t much room left for anything except a bald recital of the facts – in the case of the War of 1812 a steady series of skirmishes and battles – on land, on the Great Lakes, on the Atlantic and around New Orleans – spaced over three fighting seasons, none of which led to a decisive knock-out victory.

It’s a handy introduction, but at some stage I’ll probably want to read a more in-depth account, probably the prize-winning one by the great Alan Taylor.


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

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