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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transport and porterage

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

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

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

‘Dark companions’

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

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

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

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

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

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

An object lesson in obstacles

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

The impact of disease

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

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

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

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

Armed clashes

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

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

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

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

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

Animals dangerous to man

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

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

Explorers and imperialism

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

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

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

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

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

Reputation and impact

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

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

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

The psychology of the explorers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slavery

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

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

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

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

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

The Atlantic slave trade

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

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

The East African slave trade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of slavery?

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

African rulers

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

Insults

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


Credit

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

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

Frank McLynn

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

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

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

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

Brief history of exploration up to the European era

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

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

Pre-Napoleonic war explorers

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

Post-Napoleonic war explorers

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

General conclusions

McLynn draws a handful of conclusions from these early pioneers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A blizzard of names and dates

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

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

The African scene

Pitiful agriculture

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

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

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

Tsetse flies

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

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

Lack of pack animals

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

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

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

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

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

Hundreds of porters

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

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

Lack of roads

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

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

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

The perils of European exploration

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

No navigable rivers

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

Violent humans

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

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

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

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

Violent animals

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

Heat

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

Disease

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

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

Attrition rates

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

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

No profit

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

The great British explorers

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

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

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

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

Suppressing the slave trade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, non-British explorers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of exploration

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

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

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

Bad maps

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

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

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

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

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

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

African words

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

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

English words

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

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

Credit

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

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Bartholomew Fair is a very long comic play set in London’s huge and sprawling Bartholomew Fair. The fair had been held every year on 24 August since the 12th century in the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside the Aldersgate, and by Jonson’s day had grown into a massive, teeming festival of entertainment, sideshows and crime.

Reflecting the size and complexity of its subject matter, Bartholomew Fair is a very decentralised play. There is no hero or central authority figure, although a couple of the more monstrous caricatures come to dominate the narrative. Instead there are some 33 speaking parts which sprawl across an unusually long text.

The characters can be divided into two categories: the regular fair stallholders who remain their colourful selves throughout the play, such as fat Ursla, keeper of the roast pig stall, and Edgworth the cutpurse; and the visitors to the fair, a more disparate crew who can be sub-divided into three groups:

  1. A citizen family made up of John Littlewit – immensely proud of his own cleverness and of his beautiful wife Win-the-fight, her mother Dame Purecraft, and Purecraft’s spiritual father, the vehement Puritan, Zeal-of-the-land Busy. Win is pregnant, so one motive for the family going to the fair is to buy some of the roast pig it was famous for and she is yearning for; but another is so Littlewit can see the puppet show he has written.
  2. Another family party led by Bartholomew Cokes, a legendarily simple-minded idiot, his tiny angry tutor Humphrey Wasp (who Cokes winds up by referring to throughout as ‘Numps’), his fiancee Grace Wellborn (who is reluctant to marry Cokes) and Cokes’s married sister, Mistress Overdo.
  3. A pair of witty gallants – Winwife who is a suitor for the hand of Dame Purecraft, and Quarlous (who at one point accuses his friend of ‘widow-hunting’). These two only go to the fair once they’ve learned the Cokes family are going, because they reckon the latter will behave so stupidly as to be good entertainment.

Omitted from this list is Justice Overdo. One of the main themes of this complex play is the legal situation of wards of court. Through the Court of Wards, Justice Overdo has ‘bought’ Grace Wellborn, i.e. become her guardian, expressly in order to marry her – and her fortune – off to his idiot brother-in-law Cokes. One of the complex ironies of the play is that Justice Overdo ploughs through the fair seeking out relatively minor misdemeanours while all the time blind to the gross moral (albeit legal) crime which he was committing (the issues is explained in detail on page 98 of the New Mermaid edition).

Similarly short-sighted and troublesome is the butt of the other Big Theme of the play, which is Puritanism. For over forty years, ever since the earliest plays began to appear on Elizabethan stages in the 1570s, Puritan preachers and writers had been violently denouncing plays and, by implication, most forms of imaginative writing. They accused them of dramatising and thus glamorising all manner of crimes, including murder and adultery, stirring up bawdry at every point, and also as providing a cockpit for gallants and fine ladies and city merchants and prostitutes and petty criminals to meet and indulge their basest passions.

When the play was presented to James I in 1614 Jonson wrote a short verse prologue specifically addressing the king and the trouble he had with non-conformists and Puritans – ‘the zealous noise of your land’s faction’ and their ‘petulant ways’ – is mentioned as early as line 3 and makes up most of the content:

Your Majesty is welcome to a Fair;
Such place, such men, such language, and such ware
You must expect: with these, the zealous noise
Of your land’s faction, scandalised at toys,
As babies, hobby-horses, puppet-plays,
And such-like rage, whereof the petulant ways
Yourself have known, and have been vext with long.

So an overbearing city official (Overdo) and an overbearing humbug (Busy) are the two main, serious, satirical butts of the play – but there are plenty of other victims, large and small.

Cast

Visitors to the fair

John Littlewit, a Proctor
Solomon, Littlewit’s man
Zeal-of-the-land Busy, suitor to Dame Purecraft, a Banbury Man
Winwife, his rival for Dame Purecraft, a Gentleman
Tom Quarlous, companion to Winwife, a gamester
Bartholomew Cokes, an Esquire of Harrow
Humphrey Wasp, his tutor
Adam Overdo, a Justice of Peace

Win-the-fight Littlewit
Dame Purecraft, her mother, and a widow
Mistress Overdo
Grace Wellborn, Ward to Justice Overdo

Fair people

Ezechiel Edgworth, a cutpurse
Nightingale, a Ballad-singer, who Edgworth slips the purses after he’s cut them
Mooncalf, dim and slow tapster to Ursula
Dan Jordan Knockem, a horse-courser, and a ranger of Turnbull – who talks continually about ‘vapours’
Lanthorn Leatherhead, a hobby-horse seller (toyman)
Valentine Cutting, a roarer or bully
Captain Whit, a bawd with a thick Irish accent
Trouble-all, a madman
Bristle, Haggis } Watchmen
Pocher, a Beadle
Filcher, Sharkwell } door-keepers to the puppet-show
Northern, a Clothier (a Northern Man)
Puppy, a wrestler (a Western Man)

Joan Trash, a gingerbread-woman, always bickering with Leatherhead the toy-man
Ursula, an immensely fat pig-woman
Ramping Alice, a prostitute

Costard-monger, Mousetrap-man, Corn-cutter, Watch, Porters, Puppets, Passengers, Mob, Boys, Etc.

The plot

Before it even starts, there is an unusual prologue in that the first person on-stage is a young stage-sweeper who gives a lengthy moan about how the play they’re about to see is nothing like Bartholomew Fair, he (the sweeper) knows it much better and gave the playwright many useful suggestions which he mocked and ignored.

The stage sweeper is then shooed offstage by two new arrivals, a book holder and scrivener, the former announcing he has come to make a deal with the audience. He gets the scrivener to read out a mock legal contract between author of the new play and the audience, which goes into some detail about how they are only allowed to criticise the play according to the entrance fee they’ve paid, and if one man has treated others audience members he can criticise to the extent of his payment but the others must be silent, and other humorous joshing about audiences and their criticisms. He says the play isn’t going to hearken back to former glories, nor is it going to feature servant-monsters from a Tale or Tempest (usually taken as a reference to Shakespeare’s recent plays The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest). He also goes out of his way to tell the audience to beware of spies and ‘politic pick-locks’ who would interpret this or that character as a libel on the famous and powerful. Such people must be exposed and mocked. All is for entertainment.

Act 1

The entire first act is set in Littlewit’s house, as we meet the man himself, in a good mood and fussing over his wife Win, lovely Win, la Win what a lovely day etc. Then one by one other characters are introduced: Winwife who, it is explained, is a suitor for Win’s mother, Dame Purecraft. Quarlous, who also fancies the Dame. To both Littlewit explains 2 things, 1. that Dame Purecraft has taken to visiting Bedlam to see the mad people, so anyone wooing her would do well to act a bit crazy and 2. just a few days ago her superior in the Puritan religion, Zeal-of-the-land Busy has come from Banbury to stay with them.

The act ends with Littlewit persuading his wife, Win, that she wants to go to the fair to eat pork at the famous pig shop – Littlewit also telling his wife that he has written a play for the puppets that he is itching to see performed.

Key characters

It is a vast play, 180 pages of solid prose whereas others in the New Mermaid hover around 100 to 120 pages, half of that in verse. In other words, it’s just packed with words and verbiage. Some of the characters are given whole pages of dense prose without paragraph breaks to explain their character and purposes.

Quarlous and Winwife play the role of The Observers, a pair of smart alec gentry who are cleverer than all around them. Having observed Littlewit and his compliant wife in the latter’s house – and then the arrival of Coke, the gangling, 19-year-old idiot heir – they declare to each other that following these dimwits to the fair will amount to excellent sport. And so they saunter through the rest of the play, sardonically observing the follies of the rest of the cast, pretending to sympathise while egging them on.

Thus they spend several pages outdoing each other with insults and abuse of Ursla, the pig woman, telling her how fat she is, while she replies with rich Bartholomew insults, until she is so infuriated she goes into her stall and emerges with a red hot scalding-pan, and gets into a fight with the two cocky young men, which she loses and in falling over manages to badly burn her leg so that half a dozen of the fair people have to carry her into her stall (II, v).

Master Overdo dresses up as a madman in order to infiltrate the world of the lowlife stallholders and is amusingly over-shocked by even the slightest scams and adulterations of food or drink or tobacco which he overhears, and has the stage to himself at quite a few early points to make mock heroic speeches about his bravery in going undercover and what he has to put up with in the performance of his duty – pomposity which is clearly intended to be mocked. Specially after he gets into dispute with Edgworth the cutpurse and ends up getting beaten up.

‘It is a comfort to a good conscience to be followed with a good fame in his sufferings. The world will have a pretty taste by this, how I can bear adversity; and it will beget a kind of reverence towards me hereafter, even from mine enemies, when they shall see, I carry my calamity nobly, and that it doth neither break me, nor bend me.’

Zeal of the Land Busy is a conspicuous hypocrite, depicted as endlessly stuffing his face (‘he eats with his eyes as well as his teeth’) while making long speeches about the sins of the flesh. He rails so loudly against Leatherhead’s toy stall and upsets Joan Trash’s basket of gingerbread men all over the floor, so that Leatherhead calls officers who, seeing all this, arrest Busy and take him off to the stocks.

Act 4

In a separate storyline Overdo (in his disguise) is placed in the stocks and learns that a man who he convicted the year before lost his place at the fair and his mind, and Overdo is chastened, and listening to other stories it dawns on him that compassion is suitable for a judge (IV, i).

After this chastening experience they take him out the stocks just as new officers rock up with Zeal-of-the-land who they had intended to put in the stocks but now the ravings of the madman Trouble-All has persuaded to take Busy in front of Justice Overdo instead.

Coke wanders round the fair being an imbecile. He has two purses. When the one containing only a little silver is pick-pocketed he makes a great show of waving around the other one and telling everyone it is full of gold, interspersed with joining in a long ballad about cutpurses sung by Nightingale, in the middle of which Edgworth does indeed pick Coke’s pocket, cutting the strings which attach his purse to his hose, and slipping it to Nightingale when no-one is looking (III, 5).

Except that Quarlous and Winwife are watching and see everything. They approach Nightingale and Edgworth, tell them they saw everything but won’t tell the officers, so long as the two crooks carry out some scams on simple-minded Cokes. Thus in a later scene they arrange for a pear-seller to stumble and drop his pears at Cokes’s feet. So naive is Cokes that he hands his hat, cloak and sword to a kind bystander as he stoops down to collect all the pears – and the bystander – Edgworth – promptly runs off with Cokes’s stuff – who stands up again, looks around, then starts shouting ‘Thief thief!’

Quarlous and Winwife – Quarlous is really the ringleader – commission Edgworth and Nightingale to steal from Wasp the black box containing the warrant for Coke’s marriage to the (very reluctant) Grace Wellborn III, v).

Meanwhile, in their flaneuring round the fair stirring up trouble, Quarlous and Winwife have been accompanied a lot of the time by Grace Wellborn, the poor young woman engaged to Cokes. In Act 4 she explains the situation. Her parents died leaving her a ward of court. Justice Overdo ‘bought’ her from the court and has now engaged her to his idiot brother-in-law, Cokes. Grace has now choice. If she refuses the marriage she will have to herself pay Overdo the value of the estate which he bought to buy her.

This outrageous story lights a spark of love in both men’s hearts and before we know what’s happening, Act 4 scene iii opens with the two men in a swordfight over Grace’s favours She begs them to desist. They say she must choose one of them. She says that’s ridiculous, she only met them a few hours ago. Instead she suggests they write in some writing tablets a name apiece, and then ask the first person to come past to choose one. They agree, write their names and the next person to appear is the madman, Trouble-All, whose every sentence is asking whether people have Justice Overdo’s warrant for their behaviour. He has difficulty understanding the task then ticks one of the two names more or less at random.

Now, Grace made the two suitors promise she wouldn’t show them which name was chosen till she was safely home, but in any case at this moment Edgworth rolls up to tell the pair of gallants that Wasp has fallen in with a droll set of company and that, if they come to watch, they enjoy his discomfiture and watch the box being foisted off him.

Quarlous watches half a dozen of the fair lowlifes playing a stupid game of ‘vapours’ where each person just has to contradict the speaker before him. Edgworth makes sure a fight breaks out between testy little Wasp and the Irishman, Captain Whit, and in the confusion steals the marriage licence (intended for Cokes and Grace) out of Wasp’s black box. Officers arrive to arrest Wasp (their role seems to be to punish everyone who is uppity and overbearing) and meanwhile, Mistress Overdo has been left without her man in the company of these rowdy gamesters and has been trying to calm them and stop them fighting.

Now she asks Whit if he can arrange for her to go for a pee somewhere. Just then fat Ursla enters and Whit asks her if Mistress O can use the ‘jordan’ in her booth to which she points out it is already being used by Win, Littlewit’s wife who we saw, in an earlier scene, saying she needed a leak. Knockem comes upon Whit in a corner with Mistress Overdo trying to help her and the conversation takes a bawdy turn as the rough fairmen make rude innuendos to Mistress Overdo which – I think – she quite enjoys.

Anyway, as Mistress Overdo goes into Ursla’s booth or tent, Littlewit and Win emerge – her presumably relieved to have had a pee – and Littlewit announces he is off to see the puppet show that he wrote and off he goes.

The point is – this leaves Win by herself just by Ursla’s booth and Mistress Overdo within it and sets Ursla thinking – the various rascals and cutpurses she knows will be tired and randy by the end of the fair and she has no ‘plover or quail’ (meaning wenches, meaning whores) ready for their entertainment. And here are two posh and rather silly women abandoned, Win and Mistress O. Ursla suggests to Kockem that they ‘work on’ the two women, with a view to making them compliant with the wishes of the whore customers they know will be arriving soon.

Kockem and Whit immediately set about persuading dim Win that a married woman’s lot is a terrible thing and she would be much better if she became a ‘lady’, wore fine clothes bought for her by her countless male lovers. Win is immediately dazzled, but the plan is knocked awry because, inside Ursla’s tent, Mistress Overdo encountered a real whore / punk, Alice of Turnbull, Ramping Alice, who has started beating and belabouring her. The men – Whit and Knockem – quickly dispatch Alice – after some choice insults have flown about – and resume seducing Win with visions of fine clothes and a coach of her own.

Enter Edgworth who has given the marriage licence he stole out of Wasp’s black box to Quarlous. Edgworth offers Quarlous the women in Ursla’s booth, fine green women he promises, but Quarlous scorns such an offer and warns Edgworth he saw him cut a purse so holds the threat of the hangman over him.

Edgworth exits and enter the watchman, Haggis, bearing Wasp to the stocks which they lock him in. (If you remember Wasp got into a fight with a bunch of roughs and Mistress Overdo shouted for the watch to come and restore peace, and because testy old Wasp wouldn’t stop shouting ‘A turd i’ your teeth’ at everybody, they arrested him.) Quarlous saunters by and enjoys teasing Wasp in the stocks.

As he does so the other officers bring back Zeal-of-the-land Busy and Justice Overdo still in disguise. They lament that they can’t find Justice Overdo anywhere and his assistants don’t know where he is so, in the absence of his authority, they’ll clap these two troublemakers min the stocks and proceed to do so – so for a while Wasp, Overdo and Busy exchange moans.

Trouble-All enters. Now Quarlous has been looking for him ever since he indicated in Grace Wellborn’s writing tablets which man should marry her to ask him which he chose – but the officers now tease Trouble-All and call him a madman so Quarlous is taken aback to learn that the man who has made the decision of whether he will marry Grace or not is insane. By a ruse Wasp escapes from the stocks and the officers, when they return, argue about whether they were locked properly, undo them with a view to redoing them tighter but at that moment Trouble-All enters and the mocking escalates into a fight, during which Overdo and Busy take advantage to escape. When they stop fighting the officers look round and are horrified that their prisoners have escaped.

During this confusion, improbably enough, Dame Purecraft, the widowed Puritan falls in love with Trouble-All because, like many stage madmen, he speaks clearly and nobly (if obsessively and repetitively). While Dame Purecraft declares her love for Quarlous-as-Trouble-All, Quarlous has dressed like this in order to ask Grace to see the chapbook and see which name ‘he’ ticked. Turns out it wasn’t him, it was Winwife. The secret is out.

So: Grace admits it to Winwife who is over the moon and they exit. Quarlous is sunk in dejection as Dame Purecraft tells him she loves him – at which he rounds on her with a snarling abuse of all Puritans. To which she reveals that she is indeed a hypocrite and gives a long list of the deceptions and cons she has been carrying out under cover of being a deacon for the past seven years, not least mulcting gifts from all the suitors she’s led on – and goes on to indict Zeal-of-the-land as ‘the capital knave of the land’ and listing his crimes and deceits – presumably to the enthusiastic applause of the audience.

Quarlous turns to the audience and ponders. Well, he’s definitely lost Grace and has no other prospects in sight. Dame P has just said she’s worth some £6,000. Well… why not marry her, he has Cokes’s marriage licence in his pocket, all he has to do is scratch out the name, marry the widow and come into a fortune and a juicy wife. Yes. He’ll do it.

At this point Justice Overdo-in-disguise approaches Quarlous, thinking he is Trouble-All who he has so much offended, and reveals his true identity and offers to do anything to make reparations, offers him a blank warrant signed and sealed by him. Quarlous jumps at the opportunity, Overdo gives him such a warrant, and Quarlous is left reflecting how powerful this disguise of insanity can be.

Act 5

Act five centres around the puppet theatre and the play Littlewit has written for it. But of course various other plotlines come to a climax.

Enter Leatherhead (who for the rest of the play takes the alias Lantern) and Filcher and Sharkwell, who are going to stage the puppet theatre. Leatherhead reflects that although Biblical subjects are topical (like the fall or Nineveh or Sodom and Gomorrah) domestic subjects like the Gunpowder Plot are best.

Enter a) Overdo in a new disguise, that of a porter, still bent on his misguided mission to seek out ‘enormity’ before, as he plans, bursting forth in all his magnificence to rain down justice on his people. At least that’s how he sees himself; b) Quarlous, who has disguised himself as Trouble-All the madman.

The playmen and their booth: enter Cokes followed, as he now is everywhere, by a flock of children who’ve realised he’s an idiot, he reads out loud the playbill for the benefit of the audience i.e. it is going to be a parody of Marlowe’s heroic poem, Hero and Leander. Enter Lovewit who one of the boothmen owners won’t let enter though he protests he is the author of the damn play!

Littlewit greets Cokes and is surprised to see him without a cloak or hat – Cokes laments how he has lost everything at the fair – both his purses, his clothes and all his friends. Like an idiot, Cokes is excited about the play and asks if he can meet the actors or visit the changing room. Amused, Lantern explains that both are a little small.

This conversation takes in references to contemporary actors, including Richard Burbage and Nathan Fields, before Lantern explains that they commissioned Littlewit to adapt Hero and Leander for modern times and modern audiences. Indeed, we learn that the Hellespont has been translated into the River Thames, Leander is a dyer’s son from Puddle Wharf, and Hero a wench of Bankside, who is rowed one morning over to Old Fish Street and Leander, spying her alighting at Trig Stairs (these are all real locations in Jacobean London) falls in love with her. Or with her white legs. It is a crude, funny burlesque of the Marlowe poem.

Other character arrive for the play: Overdo still in disguise as a porter; Winwife now attached to Grace (they both hear Cokes being very dismissive of Grace who he’s never liked); and the two posh women who have been talked into becoming whores, silly Win and pompous Mistress Overdo, both wearing masks, swanking in fine clothes and enjoying having chairs pulled out for them, men dancing attendance; and Wasp – when Cokes tells Wasp he knows he’s been in the stocks, Wasp laments that his authority over his pupils is now at an end. (To be honest this doesn’t make much impact, because Wasp never seems to have had any influence at all over the idiot Cokes.)

They settle down to watch the play in bad rhymed verse as the puppets play the parts of Hero the fishmonger’s daughter, and Leander the dyer’s son. Cokes keeps interrupting when he doesn’t understand bits, or to praise bits he does understand.

This is by far the funniest part of the play, not least because it is the most self-contained and comprehensible. The reader easily understands that the puppet play is an outrageous burlesque of two classical stories, the tragic love affair and Hero and Leander and the legendary friendship of Pythias and Damon. In Littlewit/Jonson’s hands these become raucous fishwives and drunks. The famous friends fall out as they compete to hurl insults at the lovers which descends into a fight. And a little later puppet Damon and Pythias comes across puppet Hero and Leander snogging, start insulting her as a whore, she turns, bends, flips up her skirts and says they can kiss her whore arse, at which they kick her arse, and all the puppets descend into fighting again. All this while Cokes, like an idiot, repeats various parts of the bad verse, telling everyone else how much he admires it, and then cheering when the puppets start fighting. It’s also funny the way the puppetmaster, Leatherhead/Lantern, whispers asides to Cokes, about the onstage action, as if the puppets are real people.

So as a scene it is by far the most coherent and comprehensible and the comedy is as funny now as it was 400 years ago.

All this argy-bargy wakes up the puppet ghost of Dionysius but he’s barely delivered a speech before into the whole scene bursts Zeal-of-the-land Busy, fired up with rage and fury against the play and against the fair in general. But his wrath against the puppetmaster, Leatherhead, is neatly diverted against the puppets themselves, and Busy finds himself engaged in a Public Debate About Morality with a puppet – much to the derision of the onlookers.

The debate reaches a climax when Busy accuses the puppets of what Puritans had been accusing the theatre and actors for 40 years or more, namely that theatre was an unnatural abomination for encouraging men to dress up as women and women to dress up as men. The puppet Dionysius gleefully refutes Busy by lifting up his skirts and revealing that – he has no sex at all!

Deflated, Busy acknowledges defeat and sits down.

But this is the moment Justice Overdo chooses to throw off his disguise and carry out his Grand Promise to discover the ‘enormities’ of the fair and punish them all.

OVERDO: Now, to my enormities: look upon me, O London! and see me, O Smithfield! the example of justice, and Mirrour of Magistrates; the true top of formality, and scourge of enormity. Hearken unto my labours, and but observe my discoveries; and compare Hercules with me, if thou dar’st, of old; or Columbus, Magellan, or our countryman Drake, of later times. Stand forth, you weeds of enormity, and spread.

Immediately all the shady characters – Knockem, Whit – start sneaking away. But the real point is that, instead of dispensing justice and creating order, Overdo’s presence raises confusion to new heights. Ursla comes running in chasing the real Trouble-All, who has stolen her pan because, as Ursla explains, some nasty man stripped Trouble-All and borrowed all his clothes. Overdo turns to the man he thought was Trouble-All, who is in fact Quarlous and now admits it. Overdo orders the two masked women in the audience to unmask and they are revealed as Win – so Littlewit is appalled to see his wife dressed up as a whore – and Mistress Overdo – and the Justice is dumbstruck to see his wife dolled up like a trollop. Worse, she is immediately sick into a basin having drunk to excess (explains how the rogues got her to dress that way in the first place).

While Overdo is struck dumb, Quarlous – the witty cynical gallant who has in many ways been a chorus and instigator of scams – now steps forward and takes the Justice’s function, pointing out the true state of affairs.

  • The man Overdo took a liking to early on in the fair and has been protecting throughout is none other than Edgworth the cutpurse, who stole both Cokes’s purses and helped stir up the fighting which got Overdo and Wasp landed in the stocks.
  • Grace Wellborn, who Overdo intended to marry off to Cokes, has now become ward to Quarlous, who filled in the blank seal and signature he gave him to this effect.
  • Quarlous hands Grace over to Winwife, who won her in the little game where she wrote their names down and got the first passerby (who happened to be Trouble-All) to choose one. But since Quarlous is now Grace’s guardian, Winwife must pay him the value of her estate in order to free her for marriage. (This is a little difficult to follow, but it was the law of the land at the time.)
  • Quarlous hands Trouble-All back his cloak and gown and thanks him for the loan.
  • Then turns to his wife, Dame Purecraft, whom he has married in the guide of the madman Trouble-All, and who he now promises he can be mad whenever he pleases.
  • And then points to Wasp and facetiously thanks him for the marriage licence (which Quarlous got to steal out of Wasp’s black box) which he has used to marry the widow.

So Zeal-of-the-land Busy has been publicly humiliated and revealed as a hypocrite; Justice Overdo revealed as a man puffed up with own self-importance who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, and his wife was on the verge of becoming a drunken whore; Wasp has lost all authority over his pupil; Littlewit has realised his wife was also easily led to become a fairground bawd; Winwife did win a wife, but only by default, not out of his own abilities.

And Quarlous is the clear winner and impresario of the entire play. As such he reprimands the justice:

QUARLOUS: Remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood! you have your frailty

And then goes on to perform the traditional role of inviting everyone to an end-of-comedy celebration feast at Overdo’s house:

QUARLOUS: Forget your other name of Overdo, and invite us all to supper. There you and I will compare our discoveries; and drown the memory of all enormity in your biggest bowl at home.

And then the Epilogue steps forward to address the king and asked if he was pleased. Presumably he was, as Jonson wasn’t thrown into prison! In fact by this stage, Jonson was well into his second career as a writer of masques for the royal court, and was in the highest favour.

Thoughts

Long Bartholomew Fair is so epically long – twice as long as a play like The Shoemaker’s Holiday – and consists of walls of solid prose unrelieved by passages of verse like all the other Jacobean comedies I’ve read – that I was just relieved to get to the end of it.

Numerous characters Both Volpone and The Alchemist have a much smaller cast of characters, much more focused plots and move much faster. There are so many characters in Bartholomew Fair that I found it difficult to distinguish many of the minor ones, especially the rogues who only appear in a few scenes, like Puppy and Cutting and Northern and Haggis and Filcher and Sharkwell.

Difficult prose This is compounded by the fact that 17th century prose is difficult to read. It’s unusual to get even a single sentence that doesn’t contain at least one obscure word or expression, or isn’t part of an elaborate metaphor which is incomprehensible without a good footnote. So you are continually stopping to read the notes and understand what they’re saying.

Different motivations And at a level just above the verbal, it’s often difficult to understand what the characters are trying to say or do. Even when you’ve understood every word in a speech it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve understood why the character said it or what they were driving at. You are constantly rubbed up against the fact that, on a verbal and minor psychological level, the people of 400 years ago had different moment by moment concerns, and expressed them in language, metaphors and elaborate conceits, which are hard to grasp.

Disease Despite these obstacles, several things do come over loud and clear. The first is how utterly unlike our times the Jacobean era was in two obvious respects: the brutality of its punishments and the virulence of disease. There was no medicine worth the name and not only the recurring pandemics of plague, but smallpox, typhoid, syphilis and a host of other diseases killed or maimed a large percentage of the population and there was nothing the so-called doctors or anyone else could do about it.

Brutality As to the punishments, it is hair-raising the way even minor offences led to hanging, and the play refers throughout to the ritual whereby the condemned were taken in carts from the various London prisons to Tyburn to be hanged amid much popular celebration. But even worse in its way was the commonness with which whipping and scourging was applied. Ramping Alice the prostitute was whipped and scourged simply for being a prostitute.

Therefore the people in this time, as for centuries before and for some time to come, lived between two dire threats, the threat of catching, suffering horribly and dying from appalling diseases – and the threat of infringing one of any number of man-made laws and being subjected to capital punishment or extremely violent punishments.

Sex The next most obvious aspect is the absolute drenching of the play in sex and sexual innuendo. As with most comedies there’s a marriage plot (who will marry Grace Wellborn?) surrounded by seemingly endless jokes about marriage and adultery, endless references to the cuckold’s horns which arise when a man’s wife is unfaithful to him. But it’s far deeper than that, not a page of the text, not a minute of the play goes by without someone making a comment which has a sexual implication or double meaning. In these plays sex is everywhere, all the time.

Theatrical convention Now you could take this at face value and say something like, the Elizabethans and Jacobeans lived in a society which was massively less sexually repressed than our own, in which everyone all the time is making sexual comments and innuendo. Except that, as the editor of the Mermaid edition of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, D.J. Palmer, emphasises, plays like this should not be taken as documentary evidence of 1600s London life – far from it. They are entertainments and follow the conventions of entertainment, many of which have stayed the same from Chaucer to TV sitcoms like ‘Allo ‘Allo, Open All Hours or Last of the Summer Wine.

For centuries – in fact for millennia, because the Greeks and Romans did it, too – playwrights have used bawdiness and double entendre to make people laugh and have flooded the stage with sexual innuendo and byplay precisely because it was and is so lacking in everyday life. Characters on stage are licensed to be outrageously forward and suggestive (just as they are licensed to fall into despair and kill themselves or rage and storm and murder people) precisely as an outlet for feelings and impulses which most people, most of the time, in most societies we have records of, have been forced to repress and contain.

Overdo As to the obvious themes of the play, these are embodied in arguably the two key figures are Justice Overdo and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. The justice is probably the more important one and his storyline concerns the way he adopts a disguise to seek out ‘enormity’, but this is problematic. Arguably going in disguise means abdicating the responsibility he has to be there in person – we see the watchmen at a loss what to do without his authority – and has a secondary indictment in that the ‘enormities’ he thinks he discovers are trivial. The main point of his storyline though, is seeing close up the impact a casual judgement of his against Trouble-All had on the poor man, namely to drive him mad.

Busy Zeal-of-the-Land Busy has less stage time than Overdo but is a more vivid character, not least because the Puritan rhetoric he uses is so very distinctive and, in its way, attractive. Here he is warning his little flock about the perils of the fair:

BUSY: The place is Smithfield, or the field of smiths, the grove of hobby-horses and trinkets, the wares are the wares of devils, and the whole Fair is the shop of Satan: they are hooks and baits, very baits, that are hung out on every side, to catch you, and to hold you, as it were, by the gills, and by the nostrils, as the fisher doth; therefore you must not look nor turn toward them.—The heathen man could stop his ears with wax against the harlot of the sea; do you the like with your fingers against the bells of the beast.

He is taken down twice, once when the widow, Dame Purecraft, reveals to Quarlous and the audience all the scams she and he have been foisting on their ‘brethren’ for seven years, and then when he loses his Public Debate to a puppet.

Conclusion

Complicated and obscure as some of it is, the broad plotlines are still totally accessible and Bartholomew Fair is not only sometimes very funny but turns into a thought-provoking meditation on social and cultural power which is still relevant to our times.


Social history

  • The Hope theatre where the play was performed, was also used for bear-baiting. On bear days the stage was taken down to allow packs of dogs to try and maul bears to death while the bears defended themselves and spectators gambled on the outcome.
  • King James opened a public lottery in 1612 to raise funds for the colonisation of Virginia (a colony often mentioned in these plays). James Fort, Virginia, had been founded in 1607, and would be renamed Jamestown.
  • It was a popular stereotype that Dutchmen consumed excessive amounts of butter.
  • Bridewell prison specialised in sexual offenders. The sex worker Ramping Alice was recently an inmate where she was flogged and scourged i.e. cut with the scourge.
  • A waistcoat, when worn without a gown over it, was the sign of prostitutes, who were sometimes known as ‘waistcoateers’.
  • Words for sex worker: prostitute, whore, bawd, jade, punk, waistcoateer, green woman,
  • Tailors were supposed to be a) bawdy, presumably because they saw their clients in states of undress b) greedy, having enormous appetites.
  • Colliers, black from their trade, were thought to be a) notorious cheats b) associated with hell.
  • The trade of working with feathers to make and sell fans and puffs and perukes was associated with Puritans, especially in the Blackfriars area (location of the Blackfriars theatre and also where Jonson lived). The contradiction between their vehement raging against worldly vanity, and the fact they made a handsome profit out of catering to that vanity, did not escape the Puritans’ critics.

Related links

Jacobean comedies

Cavalier poetry

17th century history

Restoration comedies

Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson (2010)

Introduction

This is an enormous book (weighing in at 997 pages, including index and notes) which covers an enormous subject, in enormous depth.

The Thirty Years War lasted from 1618 to 1648. It was in fact made up of a series or sequence of wars featuring different antagonists. The central strand linking them is that the staunchly Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II was fighting mainly Protestant opponents, and that he mostly won. The war is usually divided into four phases:

  • The Bohemian Revolt 1618-20, a rising of the Protestant Bohemian ‘Estates’ against Habsburg rule (‘The revolt was not a popular uprising, but an aristocratic coup led by a minority of desperate militant Protestants’, p.269), which was decisively crushed at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620.
  • The Danish intervention 1625-30, also referred to as the Low Saxon War or Emperor’s War, when Christian IV of Denmark (who was also Duke of Holstein and Schleswig which lay within the Empire) led an army in support of north German protestant states against Imperial forces. After five or so years of fighting, the war was concluded with the Treaty of Lübeck in 1629.
  • The Swedish intervention 1630-35, when King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden led an invasion of north (and mostly Protestant) Germany. He was motivated by a) alarm at the Emperor’s harsh reimposition of Catholicism on the German states under the Treaty of Lübeck b) the goal of gaining economic influence in the German states around the Baltic Sea. Like Christian IV before him, Adolphus was heavily subsidized by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII of France, who gave him a million livres a year. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle in 1632 but his forces continued the war until the Peace of Prague in 1635 brought peace between most of the Empire’s Protestant states and the Emperor.
  • The French intervention 1635-48, as you can see this is the longest single part of the war. Cardinal Richelieu feared the power of the Habsburg empire on his eastern border and used innumerable policies, treaties with the Danish and Swedes to try and limit and hamper Ferdinand. Finally this broke out into overt war.

This summary nowhere near conveys the complexity of the wider context within which these conflicts took place. When the war broke out, Spain was stuck in a never-ending conflict with its provinces in the Netherlands, what would eventually be called the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and where its brutal suppression, inquisition, torture and execution of Protestant rebels laid the foundation for the Black Legend of Catholic Spain’s scheming brutality, compounded, in 1588, when the Spanish launched the Great Enterprise, the plan for an amphibious invasion of England to overthrow the Protestant monarch and return to England to being a good Catholic country under Spanish tutelage – what we refer to as the Spanish Armada.

France was a fellow Catholic country and so should have supported both the Emperor and Spain, but in fact politicked against both of them at every turn. For example, the French government supported the Dutch against the Spanish in order to keep the Spanish bogged down, wasting money in the Netherlands, and so presenting less of a threat to French power.

There were other flashpoints such as in Italy where Spain controlled the duchy of Milan. Italy was where the (relatively small-scale) War of the Mantuan Succession (1628–31) broke out and drew in the other European powers in parallel to the 30 Years War. Savoy in north-west Italy, which maintained a precarious independence from the Empire while being eyed by France, was another flashpoint.

In the south-east of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was threatened by attack from the Ottoman Empire, whose power stretched far into modern-day Hungary (although for long stretches the Turks were distracted by the war they were fighting on their Eastern border against the Persian Empire under Shah Abbas the Great (p.100) who launched a fierce invasion capturing Baghdad in 1623 (p.103.)

North of Hungary there were repeated clashes over the border territory of Transylvania, and this drew in two other powers to the East of the Empire, namely Russia (or the Duchy of Muscovy, as it was commonly referred to), and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who periodically fought each other.

When Gustavus Adolphus invaded north Germany it was not only to support the struggling Protestant German states, but in order to solidify his power in the Baltic as a whole, specifically projecting his power into Polish territory, who Sweden was, at one stage, directly at war with.

In other words, the Thirty Years War only makes sense – or you can only understand the motives of all the sides – if you appreciate a) the total context of European geopolitics of the time and b) you grasp that all the numerous states of Europe and beyond were continually prepared to use ‘war’ to further their ends.

Accustomed to two disastrous world wars, it is hard for us to reach back to a mindset in which wars were envisioned as relatively limited operations and completely acceptable methods to achieve power-political and territorial ends. To give an example of how it worked, we read time and again of kings or emperors continuing to deploy their armies, while at the same time hosting peace talks and negotiations, each victory or defeat in a local battle, strengthening or weakening their bargaining positions.

Discussions, negotiations, conferences and diets and assemblies, embassies and missions continued between all parties even while armed conflict broke out, was carried on, or suspended during truces.

The role of individual rulers

After the first 500 pages or so I realised I was becoming heartily sick of reading about the endless fighting over the same bits of territory, mainly because the little battles and squabbles come to seem utterly senseless. From the hundreds of separate micro-conflicts which made up the big ‘wars’, what came over most strongly to me was how many of them were driven by personal ambitions.

The entire social structure of the day was build around a fractious, rivalrous and competitive aristocracy who paid nominal homage to their king or emperor but who in reality were endlessly jostling for titles and land and possession. Apparently this was particularly true in France, with senior members of families related to the royal line (‘princes of the blood’) continually conspiring and politicking against each other (p.372).

The Holy Roman Empire was different and vastly more complex because it was made up of four major ‘states’, within which sat 40 or so duchies and princedoms, within which or alongside existed a large number of free cities and autonomous regions – from the very large to the very small, each with their own rulers and constitutions and parliaments or ‘Estates’, as they were called, their traditions and fiefs and privileges and customs and taxation systems, who were joined by a variety of links to the figure of the Emperor.

There were seven Electors, so-named because they were the electorate who chose each new emperor, being the archbishops of the imperial cities Mainz, Cologne and Trier, then the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg. There were fifty spiritual and 30 lay fiefs held by lords of princely rank and then some 200 lesser fiefs, and then 400 or so baronial and knightly families. There were 80 ‘free and imperial cities’. States which were large enough earned the right to attend the imperial Reichstag which was more of a consultative body than a parliament, where the emperor was meant to get his way through negotiation and concessions.

Everyone was competing against everyone else. Everyone wanted more land, more power, to expand their territory, seize new towns and ports and cities and bishoprics and titles and forests and land. And warfare offered a quick way of achieving these ambitions, not only for the rulers who owned armies but for their generals. A massive motivation for being a general in the army was that, if you were successful, you were rewarded with titles and land.

At a very high level the wars can be presented as conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, or between France and the Empire, or between Spain and the Dutch. But at the level Wilson describes, the conflict breaks down into scores of micro-conflicts between Electors and local rulers who had their eye on this or that piece of nearby territory, fighting or negotiating to acquire bishoprics or cities or control of fisheries or forests.

And when large states were defeated, the leader of the victorious forces (for example Gustavus Adolphus or Ferdinand, in the middle Swedish part of the war) was able to parcel out and award all the conquered territory to his successful generals and followers. Thus ‘ownership’ of land could pass through multiple hands which, of course, created an ever-expanding set of grievances and wishes for revenge or reconquest etc.

Seen from a really high level the war amounted to a succession of armies tramping across the same old territory, fighting each other to a standstill or dropping like flies from dysentery and plague, while ravaging the land around them, burning villages and towns, consuming all available food and ruining agricultural land and livestock, devastating the very territories their lords and masters were squabbling over like spoilt children. It is estimated that around a third of the Empire’s cultivable land had been abandoned by 1648 (p.802). Grain production didn’t return to 1618 levels until 1670 (p.806).

And this is what amounted to statecraft in early modern Europe. Endless rivalry and conflict, continually spilling over into ruinous wars.

Why is the Thirty Years War important?

Wilson explains why the Thirty Years War was and is important in his (relatively brief) introduction:

About 8 million people died in this huge, prolonged and devastating war. Many regions and cities of Germany didn’t recover for a hundred years.

The war occupies a place in German and Czech history similar to that of the civil wars in Britain, Spain and the United States, or the revolutions in France and Russia. A defining moment of national trauma that shaped how a country regards itself and its place in the world.

For most Germans the war came to symbolise national humiliation, and was blamed for retarding the economic, social and political development of the country, condemning Germany to 200 years of internal division and international impotence, until Bismarck began the process of German unification in the 1850s.

Wilson’s interpretations

Right at the start Wilson explains that his huge history has three big underlying aims which deliberately set it apart from most ‘traditional’ histories of the conflict:

1. Most accounts simplify the extraordinary complexity of the war. Wilson seeks to restore all of its complexity and the complex way it evolved out of, and interacted with, other parallel conflicts in the Europe of the time (notably the Spanish-Dutch war). But above all he wants to show how the central thread running through the war is their common relationship to the imperial constitution. The emperor wanted to secure peace in his Empire, to enforce the imperial constitution.

2. Thus Wilson wants to assert that the war was not a war of religion. It is true that the Emperor was a staunch Catholic and the Bohemian rebels, the king of Denmark and the king of Sweden were Protestants, and Protestant imperial states (notably the Palatinate and Saxony) allied with them. But Wilson wishes to emphasise that the primary causes were not religious but were – in his view – driven by conflicts over the rights and freedoms allowed the states by the imperial constitution, a constitution the Emperor Ferdinand II had sworn to uphold. Contemporaries rarely spke or wrote abour rarely about Protestants or Catholics – they spoke about Saxons or Bavarians or Swedes or Danes or French or Spanish troops. In Wilson’s view, the focus on Protestants and Catholics is a construction of 19th century historians who a) had their own religious culture wars to fight and b) sought to simplify the war’s complexity.

3. It was not inevitable. The Empire had been at peace after the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg, in fact the period from 1555 to 1618 was the longest period of peace Germany experience until after 1945. Meanwhile civil war raged in France and a bitter struggle in the Netherlands. So war was not inevitable and not the result of inevitable religious divisions. It was more the result of fortuitous and contingent events, starting with the decision taken by a small number of Bohemian aristocrats to rebel against imperial rule, which triggered a conflict in which some of the Protestant states (namely Saxony and the Palatinate) decided to take sides, before the king of Denmark made an unpredictable and personal decision to take advantage of the confusion in north Germany to try and expand his territory. And when the Danish venture had clearly failed, by 1629, the king of Sweden then decided to have a go himself, in order to seize north German territory and solidify his power in the Baltic.

None of these three events were inevitable, they were the contingent decisions of small groups of individuals, kings and their advisors, who decided to use warfare for the traditional goals of expanding their territories and power.

The deep historical context of the Thirty Years War

Wilson’s account doesn’t arrive at the outbreak of actual hostilities until page 269, nearly a third of the way into the book.

This is because, to understand a) why the war broke out b) why it spread c) why it became so horribly complicated – you need to have as full a grasp as possible of the history and complex constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, and of all the neighbouring countries which had an interest in what was happening in Central Europe.

This includes (going in clockwork direction) Spain, France, Britain, the Spanish Netherlands, the Dutch, Denmark, Sweden, Russia (Muscovy), Poland (the Commonwealth of Poland), Transylvania, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, Croatia, the Republic of Venice and various other Italian states, not least the Papacy, and Savoy.

Wilson gives us the deep history not only of the Holy Roman Empire itself, but of all these other countries, for each of them delving back into the 1500s, often into the 1400s, sometimes as far back as the 1300s, in order to explain the dynastic struggles, arranged marriages, land grabs and redistributions and wars which formed the mind-bogglingly complex web of political and military relations across the Europe by the start of the 17th century. (I think the earliest reference is to 1160, the year when the Hanseatic League was founded, page 176.)

The war was deeply bound up with the complex practices of inheritance, for example the routine appointment, in noble families, of younger sons as prince-bishops or prince-abbots, and the complexities of dynastic marriages between ruling families of different states and principalities.

The Holy Roman Emperors

I found the sequence of Holy Roman Emperors a little hard to follow, though on the face of it there’s a simple enough succession:

  • Rudolph II (1576-1612)
  • Matthias (1612-1619)
  • Ferdinand II (1619-1637)

Looks simple, doesn’t it, but Wilson places this trio and their reigns within the context of the vast Habsburg empire ruled by Charles V (1519-1556). Charles inherited extensive domains, including all of Spain and its new colonies in South America, Austria and territories scattered all across Germany, Hungary and Bohemia, in the Netherlands, and large chunks of Italy (e.g. Sicily and Naples). (Wilson gives an extended description of the growth of Spanish colonies in the New World, their use of slavery, and the importance of the silver trade, pp.116-121.)

It was Charles V who decided he had to divide this unwieldy entity into two massive parts (p.50), the Habsburg Partition of 1558. He gave Spain, the Netherlands and the New World to his son Philip II of Spain, and Austria and the Imperial territories of central Europe to his younger brother, the Emperor Ferdinand I (1556-1564).

Thus the creation of a Spanish branch and an Austrian branch of the Habsburgs or ‘family firm’.

But of course it was more complicated than that because 1. the Austrian emperor had numerous other titles, and these were awarded by a range of bodies within his scattered states, each with its own constitution and procedures. Thus the Austrian ruler was at the same time King of Bohemia, King of Hungary and Croatia. But he needed to be elected King of Germany by the seven electors (see the list, above). In general the next-in-line to the throne was elected while the current one was still alive, and received the honorary title ‘King of the Romans’ (a bit like our Prince of Wales).

Incidentally that title indicates the deeply held belief that the emperor was descended from the rules of ancient Rome and, like the later Roman emperors, carried the responsibility for the defence of all Christendom.

And 2. because the emperor was elected, this meant there were other candidates – although in practice this meant only other Habsburgs, in Ferdinand’s case, his brothers. Nonetheless these might be supported by various nations or special interest groups within the Empire because they thought this or that candidate would give them advantages and payoffs.

So as the Holy Roman Emperor who ruled just before the war broke out – Rudolf II – sank into madness or mania, his eventual successor Matthias had not only to face rival candidacies from his brothers Ernst, Maximilian and Albert, but found himself drawn into a prolonged conflict with Rudolf which lasted so long and was so destructive that it gained a name of its own, the Brothers’ Quarrel. As Wikipedia puts it:

The Brothers’ Quarrel was a conflict between Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and his brother, Matthias in the early 17th century. Their other brothers – Maximilian III and Albert VII – and their cousins – especially Ferdinand II and Leopold V – were also deeply involved in their dispute. The family feud weakened the Habsburgs’ position and enabled the Estates of their realms to win widespread political and religious concessions.

Supporters and opponents in this intra-Habsburg rivalry came not only from within the Empire, but from the other wing of the Habsburg firm, in Spain, as well as a range of nations bordering the Empire. (So, for example, we find the King of Spain leaning on Matthias to make his older cousin, Ferdinand, his successor [which is what happened] in preference to the more unpredictable cousin, Leopold.)

So, even before he was elected, the Holy Roman Emperor had to have advanced political and diplomatic skills.

Early 17th century issues facing the Holy Roman Emperor

And when he finally did come to power, the Emperor faced a number of ongoing issues, which Wilson describes in detail, including:

  • the religious wars in France from 1562 to 1598, which the emperor had to be careful not to get involved in
  • the immense Eighty Years’ War or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), the revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands – which frequently spilled over into north-western territories of the Empire
  • ongoing wars between Denmark and Sweden for primacy in the Baltic
  • the Time of Troubles, a period of anarchy, famine and civil war in Russia, 1598 to 1613
  • war between Poland and Russia
  • and, of course, the largest threat of all – from the Ottoman Empire, ‘the terror of Europe (p.76), whose power stretched into Hungary and which permanently threatened to invade up the Danube into the Austrian heartland itself. This threat has flared up most recently in the Long Turkish War or Thirteen Years’ War, fought over the Principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia from 1593 to 1606.

These were just some of the geopolitical issues which the Emperor inherited, continually having to assess which side, if any, to back in all these wars, and prevent physical or political damage to polities within the Empire. And that was before you get to the issues and conflicts bubbling away in the territories which he directly ruled.

In this high-level map of the European context, note:

  • how far into Europe the Ottoman Empire extended, pressing up through Hungary, and why Wallachia and Transylvania were important border states
  • Spain’s territory in Italy, and the south or Spanish Netherlands
  • the distinction between the Holy Roman Emperor’s inherited Austrian holdings (in pink) and the German states which he ruled over but which had independent princes, Electors, margraves and so on (in orange)

The Thirty Years War in its European context (source: International History blog)

The role of religion in the Thirty Years War

And then there was religion. The disaffected monk Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation in 1517. His reformed version of Christianity spread quickly through some parts of the empire, gaining princely converts who were able to protect the feisty monk and theological rebel.

Despite Catholic attempts to crush it in the 1520s and 30s, by the 1540s the existence of large populations and important leaders who had converted to the new religion quickly became a fact of life within the Empire, which was finally ratified in the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555.

But this new religious conflict was just the latest in a litany of conflicting histories, traditions, cultures and languages, constitutions and processes which differentiated and separated inhabitants of the 1,800 or so states which made up the Empire(!).

What distinguished religion was that religious belief struck home to the real core of a person’s identity and psychology; and that the more devout the believer, the more they considered religion a matter of life and death, not only for themselves but for the world. Wilson has a fascinating passage (pp.261-262) describing the rise of apocalyptic writings and end-of-the-world interpretations of Bible texts which, he thinks, were partly sparked by the economically disruptive change in Europe’s climate which we now refer to as the Mini Ice Age.

That said, Wilson goes out of his way to emphasis that religion wasn’t an inevitable cause of conflict, and describes in detail a number of religious clashes in the late 16th and early 17th centuries where rulers sought and achieved compromise and peace. Thus it’s true that a Protestant Union was set up in 1608 and a Catholic Liga in 1609, but by 1618 the Liga had been dissolved and the Union marginalised (p.239).

Religion – like other cultural differences – only becomes a problem if some people are determined to make it a problem, in either of two obvious ways, 1. as a cynical tool to gain advantage or power 2. because the trouble-makers genuinely believe that theirs is the Only Religion, and that their opponents are infidels, heretics, the Devil’s spawn etc.

Some leaders and some states were determined to use religion as a tool, namely the Protestant ruling class of the Palatinate, a fragmented territory in central and west Germany. For zealots like these the election of the devoutly Catholic Ferdinand II presented a threat.

But the Important Point to grasp is that, although all the successive Emperors were devout Catholics, they also had a good grasp of Realpolitik and so realised that they had to find peaceful accommodations and practice toleration for all their citizens. The emperors tried to hold the ring and contain and limit religious conflicts wherever they arose.

Another flaw with the argument that it was a religious war, is the fact that both ‘sides’ – the Catholic and Protestant ‘sides’ – were deeply divided among themselves, something Wilson explores in great detail (chapter 7), not only among themselves (there was a big gap between Lutherans and Calvinists), but also with their foreign sponsors or backers, e.g. Catholic Spain was at odds with Catholic France who, in 1635 went directly to war with the Catholic Emperor.

Thus Wilson opposes historians who see the war as an ‘inevitable’ result of the religious divide which ran through the Empire. He gives much more importance to the prolonged uncertainty about the Imperial Succession i.e. the Brother’s Quarrel, which pitted the ailing Rudolph against his likely successor Matthias (p.255 ff). In this prolonged struggle both sides conspired to weaken the other which, of course, merely weakened the Habsburg Dynasty as a whole, and handed more power to the Parliaments and Estates and other constitutional bodies which ran the Empire’s numerous constituent states, from big kingdoms like Bohemia and Hungary, through large German states like Saxony and Bavaria, down to the tiniest principalities.

Wilson sees the real cause of the war more in the wish of the states to consolidate the power they had wrested from a weakened Habsburg administration and, if possible, to opportunistically extend it.

Events leading up to the Thirty Years War

Having described this complicated situation in great detail, Wilson then describes a series of events which didn’t cause the war, but help to explain the attitudes and policies of the key players when the war broke out, including such little-known incidents as:

  • The Bocskai Revolt 1604-6
  • The Donauwörth Incident 1606
  • The Jülich-Cleves crisis 1609-10
  • The Uskok War 1615-17

There are others and with each one, I realised a) the complexity of European politics in the 17th century b) that I know nothing about it.

The defenestration of Prague 1618

The elite of upper-class Bohemian nobles (just to explain that Bohemia was for centuries the name of the territory which, in the 20th century, was renamed Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic) felt aggrieved by Imperial decisions and appointments. A small number of conspirators decided to take direct action and one evening stormed the castle in Prague and three a couple of Imperial representatives (and their servant) out the window of their state apartment and into the moat.

However the three men did not die, but limped away, were hidden and made good their escapes. This was a bad omen, for the rising of the Protestant Bohemian nobility which the conspirators were aiming for wasn’t as whole-hearted as they wishes and, although some of the Empire’s Protestant states joined their rebellion (Saxony and the Palatinate) most didn’t, wisely waiting the outcome of events.

Briefly, after two years of battles and skirmishes across Bohemia and beyond, the Bohemian rebellion was crushed at the decisive Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620 and Prague was occupied by Imperial forces.

However, the rebellious Protestant provinces of central Germany still had to be brought to heel and this took three more years. And that process was only just being wound up when King Christian of Denmark decided to invade, so inaugurating the second of the four main phases of the war listed above.

I don’t have anything like the time or space or energy to even summarise what happened next. For a detailed account read the Wikipedia article.

The Edict of Restitution 1629

So the really key turning points are:

  • 1618 start of the Bohemian rebellion
  • 1620 The Battle of the White Mountain, where the initial Bohemian rebellion was crushed
  • 1625 The entrance of Denmark under King Christian IV into the war
  • 1630 the entrance of Sweden under King Gustavus Adolphus

But there’s another one – the passage of the Edict of Restitution in 1629. Having defeated Denmark’s forces, the Emperor Ferdinand II felt in a strong enough position to impose the Edict of Restitution. This attempted to turn back all the changes in ownership of religious land and property which had taken place since the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. In the intervening years there had been a steady flow of archbishopric, churches, monasteries (‘the secularised archbishoprics of Bremen and Magdeburg, 12 bishoprics and over 100 religious houses’) which had been expropriated by Protestant princes and rulers. The Edict attempted to reverse all these changes.

The result in 1629 and 1630 was a great transfer of power and property away from the Protestants to the Catholics. Thousands of Protestants had to leave places they’d lived in for generations and flee to Protestant territory.

The Edict applied especially to north-eastern Germany where the Emperor’s writ had been weak for a century. Ferdinand appointed Imperial administrators to take over the secularised states and cities in a bid to re-establish Imperial authority in areas where his control had become weaker.

Apart from alienating a lot of Protestant opinion, the Edict had two consequences. In 1630 Frederick had to call a meeting of Electors to have his son, also named Ferdinand, elected King of the Romans i.e. emperor in waiting.

However, some of the Protestant Electors stayed away from the meeting in protest at the Edict and others demanded, in exchange for supporting his son, that the Emperor sack his hugely successful but contentious general, Wallenstein. Reluctantly, Ferdinand did so, a victory for the dissident Electors and Protestant faction – and evidence for Wilson’s central thesis, that the war was more tied up with the complexity of the Imperial constitution and Imperial power than with religion per se, i.e. the Emperor could never just do what he wanted, but always had to work through the Reichstag, the Electors, the Estates and so on, in an ever-changing web of complicated negotiations.

Anyway, the second result was that the Edict provided the figleaf the king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, needed for undertaking his invasion of north Germany.

The role of Sweden

As a newcomer to this vast and tortuous history, it’s hard to avoid the fairly simple conclusion that most of the war was Sweden’s fault. The Bohemians, the Danes and many of the Protestant states had been fought to a standstill by 1630, and the war could have been ended. Gustavus Adolphus’s invasion of north Germany meant that the war continued for another eighteen years – and, from what I understand, it was these later years which were by far the most destructive.

So the entry-level questions, for me, are: 1. why did Gustavus invade, and 2. – more importantly – why did the Swedes stay on in Germany for sixteen years after Adolphus died in battle in November 1632?

There appear to be three answers to question 1. Because Gustavus saw the chaos in north Germany as a) an opportunity to seize territory there and b) to consolidate Swedish control of the Baltic (against rivals Poland and Russia). And c) he and his chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, presented themselves as ‘Champions of Protestantism’, rescuing the Protestant German states threatened by the Emperor’s Edict of Restitution (cynically or sincerely, who can say?).

So much for question 1. But it seems to me that the biggest question about the whole war is: Why did the Swedes stay on for a further 16 years, causing epic destruction and ruination across vast swathes of central Europe? The war caused devastation across all central Europe, but the Swedish armies alone may have destroyed up to 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns in Germany, one-third of all German towns! They presented themselves as the champions of the Protestant cause, but in the final months before peace, the Swedes attacked and pillaged the area around Protestant Prague. Surely they weren’t ‘saviours’ but great destroyers?

(Wilson confirms my two-part interpretation on page 719, where he explains that, from Ferdinand’s point of view, the war fell into two parts – 1. the initial Bohemian rebellion which triggered revolts among various other Protestant rulers in Germany (namely the Palatinate and Saxony) and which was finally concluded with the Peace of Lübeck and the Restitution Edict); and 2. the Swedish part, by far the longest and most ruinous part.)

Historical events alongside the Thirty Years War

Eighty years war Throughout the duration of the war, Spain was at war with the rebellious northern provinces of the Netherlands, although both sides managed to keep their conflict from the German war going on next door, even if there were localised incursions or aid, specially from the Protestant Dutch to some of the Protestant states.

British civil wars In 1639, rebellion by Presbyterian Scots led to the First Bishops War, which triggered the descent of Britain into what is variously called the British Civil Wars or the Wars of Three Kingdoms (or the Great Rebellion by contemporary Royalists). It is fascinating to learn that irritation at Charles I’s support for the Emperor led Sweden to send arms and some officers to support the Scottish rebellion. (And also to learn that so many Scots served in the Swedish army, sometimes for decades, and had built up a wealth of practical knowledge of modern warfare. Meaning that, when in 1639 they returned to their homeland they were able to help Scotland thrash England in both Bishops’ Wars, 1639 and 1640).

I was also fascinated to read about two rebellions Spain faced, which added to her long-running war with the Dutch and the conflict with France. These were the rebellions of Portugal and Catalonia.

Portugal The Portuguese rebelled in 1640, in what became known as the Portuguese Restoration War and lasted until 1668, eventually bringing an end to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crown (the Iberian Union) and establishing the House of Braganza as Portugal’s new ruling dynasty, replacing the Spanish Habsburg who had ruled the country since 1581. It was a member of this ruling dynasty, Catherine of Braganza, who Charles II of Britain married in 1662, soon after his restoration, thus acquiring the territory of Tangiers, not much money, and a wife who proved incapable of bearing an heir, thus indirectly triggering the eventual overthrow of the Stuart dynasty.

Catalonia The Reapers’ War Catalan revolt sprang up spontaneously in May 1640, leading King Philip IV sent an army to suppress it, which sacked several Catalan towns before being defeated outside Barcelona. The French seized the opportunity to take the country of Roussillon from the Spanish and sent arms and soldiers to help the Catalans in exchange for which the Catalans half-heartedly accepted the French king Louis XIII as King of Catalonia. The rebellion dragged on until 1659 when it was wound up as part of the wider peace settlement between Spain and France (the Peace of the Pyrenees).

Brazil A small but fascinating sidelight is Wilson’s detailed account of the rivalry between the Dutch and the Portuguese in Brazil. Basically the Dutch in the 1630s confidently seized a lot of Portugal’s colonial holdings, but Portugal fought back, retaking most of the colony, leaving the Dutch to concentrate on their new colonies in the East Indies.

The Peace of Westphalia

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Thirty Year War was its conclusion, and the long peace conference which led up to the Treaty of Westphalia. Wilson makes the – to me – fascinating point that the peace conference invented the model of international negotiation which was consciously copied at all complex European peace negotiations ever since, at Utrecht in 1714, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, at the Versailles Conference in 1918-19 and which underpins the modern system reflected in the United Nations.

Early modern society was utterly drenched in the notion of hierarchy, starting with God at the top and moving down though his Son, to the angels, to the created world which had Christian kings at the top and their aristocrats, sharing top billing with the Pope and the top notables of the church on one wing, before finally reaching the urban bourgeoisie, and so on down to the peasants, squatting at the bottom. Then the animals.

In this hierarchical view, various nations of Europe fiercely competed to be Top Dog, which in their world meant being the Most Christian nation. It was a status claimed by Spain whose monarchs, after Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled the last Arabs in 1492, thus winning the title of Their Most Catholic Majesties – but also claimed by the Holy Roman Emperor who thought of himself as the Protector of all Christendom – while French kings tried to dignify themselves as the Arbiters of Christendom, and so on.

Certainly, there were lots of flunkeys and carriages and servants and grand display at the peace conference venues in the two Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster. And yet, when it came down to negotiating, the various powers (chief among them the Emperor, Spain, France and Sweden, but also the Electors and other key German princes) were forced to acknowledge the interests and concerns of each other as free and independent entities.

In other words, through the long course of the negotiations (which began in 1643, and so lasted some five years) the conflicting parties were forced to abandon the Early Modern theory of Hierarchy, and adopt what we think of as the Modern Theory, that all nation states are free and independent, have absolute rights and interests and must be negotiated with as individuals.

The positive interpretation of Westphalia regards it as the birth of the modern international order based on sovereign states interacting (formally) as equals within a common secularised legal framework, regardless of size, power or internal configuration. (p.754)

The Emperor could no longer intimidate his dependent states with fine words and a big crown, but had to address their anxieties and requirements.

The final deal consisted of two treaties: the Peace of Osnabrück in which the Emperor settled all issues with Sweden and the states within the Empire, and the Peace of Münster, which settled outstanding issues with France, although carefully excluding the duchy of Lorraine which remained occupied by French troops (p.747).

Devastation and disease

The Thirty Years War became a byword for savagery and brutality even while it was going on. Contemporary accounts emphasised the burning and looting, raping and casual murders which infested the territory, and many artists captured this in disturbing visual form, such as the contemporary engravings of Jacques Callot.

Pillaging a house, plate 5 from the engraving series The Miseries and Misfortunes of War by Jacques Callot (1633)

(Other artists who documented the atrocities of war include Valentin Wagner, Rudolf Meyer and Pieter Snayers.)

But as you might expect, Wilson takes a sophisticatedly revisionist attitude to this as to every other aspect of the war. He labels the view that the war was an unmitigated catastrophe the ‘Disastrous War’ school of thinking, pointing out that different regions had widely differing experiences, which also varied over time. He takes a long cold look at the figures, pointing out all kinds of problems with contemporary records and definitions (for example ’cause of death’).

Nonetheless, it is clear that some regions of Germany saw a loss of 50% or more of their populations. There is agreement that some areas didn’t see a return to their 1618 population figures until 1710 or 1720 (p.795).

It used to be said that around a third of the total population of the Empire perished, but more recent figures revise this down. Still, to put it in context, Wilson points out that the Soviet Union is widely seen to have suffered extraordinary levels of death and devastation as a result of the 1942 Nazi invasion – yet fewer than 12% of the population perished. So even a ‘low’ estimate of 15% of the Empire perishing implies spectacular destruction.

But for me the standout insight is the usual one about almost any war, even into modern times:

Disease proved more potent than muskets, swords and cannon. (p.790)

And again:

The pattern of civilian deaths conforms the general picture of military casualties. Disease was the main killer. (p.792)

Human societies are very fragile things, often only just about able to provide food, clean water and sewage facilities for their existing populations. The second you start a war, and start displacing people, you interrupt the growth, harvesting and distribution of food and deprive people of clean water and sewage facilities. Within days populations begin to starve and become prey to waterborne diseases like typhoid and dysentery.

Human efforts are feeble compared to the forces of nature which are poised all around to massacre us as soon as we let our highly organised but fragile defences slip. This felt like a slightly eccentric minority view till the spring of this year. Hopefully now everyone can agree with it.

Anyway, the usual diseases of war (typhoid, dysentery) were compounded by plague, still a common disease and one which ravaged specific areas. Beyond the bounds of the war, large parts of Italy were decimated by plague in the 17th century, but troops of dirty soldiers traipsing all across the Empire brought it too, and some areas of Germany were laid low. As a tiny example, Wilson describes the town of Ingelfingen where 241 people died in 1634, of whom precisely 7 died during its violent capture but 163 died of plague. 20 times as many.

Although, even here, Wilson is cautious and careful, making the good point that a large number of these people might have died anyway, because plague recurred at ten-year periods throughout Europe. How many died of illnesses they would have got anyway, and how many died because the privations of living in a warzone made them susceptible? Contemporary records are not sophisticated to let us calculate.

Summary

I found this a very hard book to read.

Long

Partly because it’s long, very long – very, very long – and very detailed, so it is easy to put down, then pick up again and have completely forgotten where you were and who Maximilian, Frederick or the Elector Georg are, or which precise part of Germany their armies are tramping over and where they’re headed and why.

Writing about war requires special skills

Eventually I came to realise that Wilson doesn’t write about war very well. Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor manage the brilliant trick of giving a full and clear explanation of the high-level reasons for a war and the strategic changes and developments which develop as a result, alongside brutal eye-witness accounts which convey the fury and horror of individual battles. They clearly signpost key moments, key personalities and key decisions so that they stand out amid the endless sequence of events.

Not enough signposting of key events

Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that Wilson can do neither. On page after page I found myself lost or confused as I read that Georg marched east to take the three main towns of Upper Saxony while Tilly was heading west to join up with the forces of Wallenstein who had recently seized the imperial cities of x, y and z. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of pages made up of prose like this.

The truce allowed Oxenstierna to move Lennart Tortensson and 9,700 men from Prussia. These troops began arriving in Pomerania in late October 1635 along with a morale-boosting delivery of new clothes for Banér’s ragged army. Tortennson’s units surprised Marazzino, prompting Johann Georg to fall back to protect Berlin in December, while Banér retook Werben and relieved Magdeburg in January 1636. The unpaid, hungry Saxons retreated to Halle. (p.578)

Maybe I’m dim, but by the end of that sentence I was thoroughly confused, and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages just like it.

Ferdinand regarded the third army of the Guelphs as already lost. He formally enfeoffed the elector of Cologne with Hildesheim on 22 August, and authorised Hatzfeldt to enforce this in October and compel the Guelph troops to join the imperial army. Piccolomini had already moved his 15,000 men from Luxembourg in September to assist. Duke Georg responded by tightening his mutual defence pact with Hessen-Kassel on 9 November, while Melander broke the Hessian truce to capture Bielenfeld. (p.617)

All these endless troop movements eventually blurred into one, and I lost any sense of why they were important, who their leaders were and where any of these places were. At first I thought it was me, but eventually concluded it is Wilson.

Suddenly out of the blue he’ll mention that all this marching has led up to one of the key battles of the war or marked some decisive turn — but there isn’t nearly enough scene-setting or signposting in the text. He doesn’t prepare us for the Big Events well enough, and then doesn’t bring out their consequences fully enough. I began to drown in the endless tide of detail.

When I did an apprenticeship in journalism, years ago, this was called ‘burying the lead’. If something Big happens you make sure it is flagged up with a headline and a clear statement of the main event at the top of the copy. The headline and the opening sentence grab you and convey the key information.

The most glaring example of Wilson’s failure to think or write dramatically is the following. The Emperor Ferdinand II was the leading figure of the war from his accession in 1619. He is mentioned on every page, it is he who makes key decisions large and small, appoints generals, sets strategy and negotiates with other states and rulers. Ferdinand is the dominating figure of the narrative and the war. And yet his death only casually mentioned in parentheses on page 586.

Archduke Ferdinand was duly elected as King of the Romans on 22 December 1636 (just in time, because his father died a month after the congress closed).

That’s it, that’s all you get on the passing of this gigantic figure, and then the tide of details flows on as if nothing had happened. There is no build-up, no lead-up to this signal event – not even any explanation what Ferdinand died from, no mention of a funeral, no summary of what he had achieved during his reign. It’s a quite astonishing dereliction of the historian’s responsibility to explain.

Same happens with two other massive figures, Cardinal Richelieu of France and the French King Louis XIII, whose deaths in 1642 are briefly mentioned in the same sentence before the text moves briskly on with no mention anywhere of their importance, what their goals were and whether they achieved them, their responsibility in the war. Nothing.

It is a staggeringly cavalier attitude, and a prime example of the way Wilson is not writing history in a way designed to engage you with individuals and personalities, to make the story exciting or gripping, but with other aims in mind.

Wilson’s revisionist intentions Part of the reason for this lack of good storytelling is that Wilson is more of an academic writer than Hastings or Beevor. You feel he is not setting down the welter of details in order to tell a good story, but because Wilson wants to make academic points. You begin to realise his primary motivation is overturning ‘traditional interpretations and asserting his revisionist account.

And you begin to recognise the moments when he does this as they all follow a similar template or formula – he writes that so-and-so event is usually interpreted as meaning x, but that he is going to reinterprets it as meaning y.

The general conclusion is that Wallenstein represented the last of the condottiere, or great mercenary captains who emerged in the Italian Renaissance. Such figures are thought to represent a transition in historical development as expedients employed by states until governments were capable of organising armies themselves. This is misleading. (p.542)

Or:

The war is customarily portrayed as entering its most destructive and meaningless phase after 1640, as it allegedly descended into ‘universal, anarchic and self-perpetuating violence.’ The development is often attributed to the deaths of the ‘great captains’ like Gustavus, Wallenstein and Bernhard, and is associated with the supposed internationalisation of the war… Much of this is a myth. (p.622)

In other words, for Wilson the text doesn’t exist as a dramatic story studded with key moments which represent massive historical and cultural turning points (like the Czech defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain or the death in battle of Gustavus Adolphus or the murder of the legendary Imperial general Wallenstein). These highly dramatic moments are almost peripheral to his real concern which is to take on the received ideas and interpretations of previous historians and to give key moments his own interpretation.

Thus in chapter 21, towards the end of the book, Wilson goes to great lengths to proves that, far from leaving the Empire a ‘hollow shell’, as many, especially 19th century critics of the treaty claimed, it in fact rejuvenated the Empire,

injected new life into its constitution and strengthened its political culture. (p.778)

But there’s another problem with this approach, beyond making the book lack narrative drive and consistently failing to signpost key moments so that the book ends up feeling like one damned thing after another for 850 pages of dense and detailed text.

This problem is that, to really get the most out of his new takes on old issues – to really understand how Wilson is upending traditional interpretations and giving new readings and slants on well-known events, people or policies – you have to know what the traditional interpretations are.

You have to have a good grasp on how historians have traditionally interpreted, say, Wallenstein’s character or Gustavus Adolphus’s motives, in order to really appreciate how Wilson is giving them a new interpretation, but the feeling that this would help your understanding of what Wilson is trying to do adds to the levels of complexity and slight anxiety I experienced reading his book.

This is, quite simply, asking too much of the average reader – that they should have a detailed enough knowledge of the traditional picture of the Thirty Years War in order to appreciate Wilson’s innovations and new readings.

Wilson’s interest in the finances of the war Just a mention that Wilson’s book is very, very thorough about the financial aspects of the war. He devotes a great deal of space to the ongoing financial tribulations of the Emperor, and the kings of Spain, France, Denmark and Sweden. He explains how they all had to borrow to finance the war, and then were reduced to various extreme expedients, raising taxes, extorting money from conquered territories, looting gold and silver, squeezing Jewish financiers, a whole range of desperate measures, to pay the money back, and often never did.

Towards the end of the book he has a fascinating passage about the so-called ‘Kipper and Wipper’ hyperinflation which afflicted the Empire as states debased their currencies to pay for the exorbitant costs of war, which itself mostly meant paying the wages of the huge numbers of mercenary troops employed by both sides (pp.795-798).

Included in this theme is the fascinating fact, which I knew from other sources but still blows my mind, that although Spain was extracting huge amounts of silver from its mines in the New World (working to death slave labour populations of local Indians and then importing African slaves to carry out the work) it still managed to go bankrupt repeatedly throughout the later 16th and most of the 17th century. Basically, the Spanish Empire wasted all that treasure and more, on its stupid, futile wars, chief of which was trying to suppress the Protestant Dutch for 80 years. An epic example of historic futility.

Back with Wilson’s focus on finances, his summary of the Westphalia settlement includes a detailed consideration of the demobilisation of the troops of all sides stationed in garrisons, castles and cities all over the empire, and the cost of demobilisation. Peace treaties of the time usually included a so-called ‘satisfaction’ money i.e. money given by the loser to the victor to pay off his armies. Earlier in the book, Wilson explained the fascinating fact that it was often difficult to end local conflicts and even entire wars, because armies refused to be demobilised until they were paid.

This book contains an astonishing amount of information and shows an encyclopedic knowledge of the myriad of issues and subjects involved in the history of the period.

Lack of maps Finally, it is a scandal that an 850-page-long book about the most complicated conflict in European history has precisely one map. And quite early on I realised that many places mentioned in the text aren’t even on it. This made it difficult-to-impossible to understand page after page after page of the text which describes this army marching from x to y via the river z, and meeting up with the army of p near the town of m not far from the lake of c — if none of these places are indicated on the book’s one and only map.

Of course, you can try googling all these placenames and, sure enough, find the places on Google Maps (although sometimes the names have changed and it takes a while of checking and double checking to be sure you’ve got the right one). But of course Google Maps doesn’t show the way the territory looked in the 17th century, nor does it show you the route of the complicated army manoeuvres you’ve just read about, or where the armies camped or set up and fought, or anything that you really need to see in order to understand the text.

The complete impossibility of establishing where half the things Wilson was describing were taking place was another big reason why the text eventually became a blur of similar-sounding names and places which became impossible to keep track of.

Conclusion

This book is an awe-inspiring achievement. To have reviewed so much material, to have consulted so many sources, in so many languages, in so many libraries, and to have mastered the early modern history of almost all European countries, and not least the terrifying complexity of the Holy Roman Empire and the complex web of power structures whose failure helped to trigger the war – and then to set it all down into an enormous, lucid, calm, reasonable, well-judged and balanced account like this is an awesome, almost a supernatural achievement.

Nonetheless, my conclusion would be that you should only consider reading this book if you want a really, really, really detailed account of the minutiae of the Thirty Years War, complete with academic reassessments of received historical opinions, and stripped of almost all excitement, drama and interest.

For most normal people, reading the Wikipedia article about the war (and all the related conflicts and key figures) will be more than they’ll ever need to know.

Video

Here’s a video of Peter H. Wilson himself delivering a lecture about the war. The main thing that comes over in this lecture which isn’t obvious from his book, is his simple explanation of why the war lasted so long – which is that both the Dutch and the French wanted to prevent it ending – for if it ended, the Austrian Habsburgs would be in a position to fully support their Spanish cousins to finally defeat the Dutch rebels.

Obviously the Dutch didn’t want this to happen, but neither did the French who were worried about being surrounded by Habsburgs to the south, east and north – and so first the Dutch and then, increasingly, the French, subsidised first the Danish intervention, and then the longer-lasting Swedish invasion of the empire, and then finally, the French themselves became directly involved in the war in 1635.


Appendix: Where does the word ‘Protestant’ come from?

A ‘diet’ or imperial conference was convened at the city of Speyer, in Germany in 1529. Its aims were:

  1. organising the German states to deal with renewed Ottoman Turkish attacks in Hungary
  2. to settle the religious question

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, himself a devout Catholic, was prepared to take a conciliatory approach to the Empire’s princes and dukes who had converted to the new ‘reformed’ religion of Martin Luther. But the diet was managed by his brother Ferdinand who took a harsher, non-negotiable line. He condemned all those princes who had interpreted a previous diet held at Speyer just three years earlier as allowing them to choose what religion was practiced in their states. No, they couldn’t, Ferdinand said. On the contrary, Ferdinand ordered that all states within the Empire must follow Catholicism, that all church reforms must be scrapped, and that any further reform was punishable by death. The Lutherans’ lives were to be spared, but more radical reformers like Zwinglians and Anabaptists were simply to be executed out of hand. Ferdinand and the Catholic rulers present – the majority – voted for these proposals.

The Lutheran members of the Diet (namely the rulers of Saxony, Brandenburg, Braunschweig-Luneburg, Hesse, Anhalt and the representatives of fourteen imperial cities) entered a formal protest against the decision and appealed to the Emperor Charles V (who had not attended the diet) to reverse its dictates.

Their protest against the harsh results of the second Diet of Speyer led to them becoming known as the protestors or the Protestants and the name became attached to all followers of reformed religion, whatever their precise thrology or practice.

The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it tacks a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008. Obviously quite a lot of water under the bridge since 2008, so probably need to supplement this with a modern modern history of LA.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire, pages 3 to 192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World, pages 195 to 310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century, pages 313 to 566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is being recorded and stored. Soon we will drown in data.

The conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How Spain applied the Reconquista to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians 

One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side

It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)


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