After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 by John Darwin (2007)

Empires exist to accumulate power on an extensive scale…
(After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 page 483)

Why did the nations of Western Europe rise through the 18th and 19th centuries to create empires which stretched around the world, how did they manage to subjugate ancient nations like China and Japan, to turn vast India into a colonial possession, to carve up Africa between them?

How did white European cultures come to dominate not only the territories and peoples who they colonised, but to create the modern mindset – a vast mental framework which encompasses capitalist economics, science and technology and engineering, which dominates the world right down to the present day?

Why did the maritime states of Europe (Britain, France, the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) end up either settling from scratch the relatively empty places of the world (America, Australia), or bringing all the other cultures of the world (the Ottoman Empire, Hindu India, Confucian China and Shinto Japan) under their domination?

For a hundred and fifty years politicians, historians, economists and all kinds of academics and theoreticians have been writing books trying to explain ‘the rise of the West’.

Some attribute it to the superiority of the Protestant religion (some explicitly said it was God’s plan). Some that it was something to do with the highly fragmented nature of Europe, full of squabbling nations vying to outdo each other, and which spilled out into unceasing competition for trade, at first across the Atlantic, then along new routes to India or the Far East.

Some credit the Scientific Revolution, with its proliferation of new technologies from compasses to cannons, an unprecedented explosion of discoveries and inventions. Some credit the slave trade and the enormous profits made from working to death millions and millions of African slaves to create the profits which fuelled the industrial revolution and paid for the armies which subjugated India.

Lenin thought it was the unique qualities of European capitalism which had perfected techniques to exploit the proletariat in the home countries and then to subjugate less advanced nations, which would inevitably lead to a global capitalist war once the whole world was colonised.

So John Darwin’s book, which sets out to answer all these questions and many more, is following an extremely well-trodden path. BUT it does so in a way which feels wonderfully new, refreshing and exciting. This is a brilliant book. If you were only going to read one book about imperialism, this is probably The One.

For at least three reasons:

1. Darwin appears to have mastered the enormous revisionist literature generated over the past thirty years or more, which rubbishes any idea of innate European superiority, which looks for far more subtle and persuasive reasons – so reading this book means you can feel yourself reaping the benefits of hundreds of other more detailed & specific studies. He is not himself oppressively politically correct, but he is on the right side of all the modern trends in historical thought (i.e. is aware of feminist, BAME and post-colonial studies).

2. Darwin pays a lot more attention than is usual to all the other cultures which co-existed alongside Europe for so long (Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Chinese Empire, Japan, all are treated in fascinating detail and given almost as much space as Europe, more, in the earlier chapters) so that reading this book you learn an immense amount about the history of these other cultures over the same period.

3. Above all, Darwin paints a far more believable and plausible picture than the traditional legend of one smooth, consistent and inevitable ‘Rise of the West’. On the contrary, in Darwin’s version:

the passage from Tamerlane’s times to our own has been far more contested, confused and chance-ridden than the legend suggests – an obvious enough point. But [this book places] Europe (and the West) in a much larger context: amid the empire-, state- and culture-building projects of other parts of Eurasia. Only thus, it is argued, can the course, nature, scale and limits of Europe’s expansion be properly grasped, and the jumbled origins of our contemporary world become a little clearer.

‘Jumbled origins’, my God yes. And what a jumble!

Why start with Tamerlane?

Tamerlane the Eurasian conqueror died in 1405. Darwin takes his death as marking the end of an epoch, an era inaugurated by the vast wave of conquest led across central Asia by Genghis Khan starting around 1200, an era in which one ruler could, potentially, rule the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Tamerlane was born the ‘known world’ still stretched from China in the East, across central Asia, through the Middle East, along the north African shore and including Europe. Domination of all of China, central Asia, northern India, the Middle East and Europe was, at least in theory, possible, had been achieved by Genghis Khan and his successors, and was the dream which had inspired Tamerlane.

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

But by the death of Tamerlane the political situation across Eurasia had changed. The growth in organisation, power and sophistication of the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in north India and above all the resilience of the new Ming dynasty in China, meant this kind of ‘global’ domination was no longer possible. For centuries nomadic tribes had ravaged through Eurasia (before the Mongols it had been the Turks who emerged out of Asia to seize the Middle East and found the Ottoman Dynasty). Now that era was ending.

It was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe (p.5)

Moreover, within a few decades of Tamerlane’s demise, Portuguese mariners had begun to explore westwards, first on a small scale colonising the Azores and Canary Islands, but with the long-term result that the Eurasian landmass would never again constitute the ‘entire world’.

What was different about European empires?

Empires are the oldest and most widespread form of government. They are by far the commonest way that human societies have organised themselves: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire, the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe, the Chinese empire, the Nguyễn empire in Vietnam, the Japanese Empire, the Ottoman empire, the Mughal empire, the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, to name just a few.

Given this elementary fact about history, why do the west European empires come in for such fierce criticism these days?

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

  1. Because they affected far more parts of the world across far more widespread areas than ever before, and so ‘the constituency of the aggrieved’ is simply larger – much larger – than ever before.
  2. Because they were much more systematic in their rapaciousness. The worst example was surely the Belgian Empire in the Congo, European imperialism stripped of all pretence and exposed as naked greed backed up by appalling brutality. But arguably all the European empires mulcted their colonies of raw materials, treasures and of people more efficiently (brutally) than any others in history.

The result is that it is going to take some time, maybe a lot of time, for the trauma of the impact of the European empires to die down and become what Darwin calls ‘the past’ i.e. the realm of shadowy past events which we don’t think of as affecting us any more.

The imperial legacy is going to affect lots of people, in lots of post-colonial nations, for a long time to come, and they are not going to let us forget it.

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided up into nine chapters:

  1. Orientations
  2. Eurasia and the Age of Discovery
  3. The Early Modern Equilibrium (1750s – 1800)
  4. The Eurasian Revolution (1800 – 1830)
  5. The Race Against Time (1830 – 1880)
  6. The Limits of Empire (1880 – 1914)
  7. Towards The Crisis of The World, 1914 – 42
  8. Empire Denied (1945 – 2000)
  9. Tamerlane’s Shadow

A flood of insights

It sounds like reviewer hyperbole but there really is a burst of insights on every page of this book.

It’s awe-inspiring, dazzling, how Darwin can take the elements of tremendously well-known stories (Columbus and the discovery of America, or the Portuguese finding a sea route to India, the first trading stations on the coasts of India or the unequal treaties imposed on China, or the real consequences of the American Revolution) and present them from an entirely new perspective. Again and again on every page he unveils insight after insight. For example:

American Take the fact – which I knew but had never seen stated so baldly – that the American War of Independence wasn’t about ‘liberty’, it was about land. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) the British government had banned the colonists from migrating across the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley (so as to protect the Indians, and because policing this huge area would be ruinously expensive). The colonists simply wanted to overthrow these restrictions and, as soon as the War of Independence was (after the British gave up in 1783), set about opening the floodgates to colonising westward.

India Victorian apologists claimed the British were able to colonise huge India relatively easily because of the superiority of British organisation and energy compared with Oriental sloth and backwardness. In actual fact, Darwin explains it was in part the opposite: it was because the Indians had a relatively advanced agrarian economy, with good routes of communication, business hubs and merchants – an open and well-organised economy, which the British just barged their way into (p.264).

(This remind me of the case made in The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson that Cortés was able to conquer the Aztec and Pissarro the Incas, not because the Indians were backward but precisely because they were the most advanced, centralised and well organised states in Central and South America. The Spanish just installed themselves at the top of a well-ordered and effective administrative system. Against genuinely backward people, like the tribes who lived in the arid Arizona desert or the swamps of Florida or hid in the impenetrable Amazon jungle, the Spanish were helpless, because there was no one emperor to take hostage, or huge administrative bureaucracy to take over – which explains why those areas remained uncolonised for centuries.)

Cultural conservatism Until about 1830 there was still a theoretical possibility that a resurgent Ottoman or Persian empire, China or Japan, might have reorganised and repelled European colonisers. But a decisive factor which in the end prevented them was the intrinsic conservatism of these cultures. For example, both Chinese and Muslim culture venerated wisdom set down by a wise man (Mohammed, Confucius) at least a millennium earlier, and teachers, professors, civil servants were promoted insofar as they endorsed and parroted these conservative values. At key moments, when they could have adopted more forward-looking ideologies of change, all the other Eurasian cultures plumped for conservatism and sticking to the Old.

Thus, even as it dawned on both China and Japan that they needed to react to the encroachments of the Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, both countries did so by undertaking not innovations what they called restorations – the T’ung-chih (‘Union for Order’) restoration in China and the Meiji (‘Enlightened rule’) restoration in Japan (p.270). (Darwin’s description of the background and enactment of both these restorations is riveting.)

The Western concept of Time Darwin has a fascinating passage about how the Europeans developed a completely new theory of Time (p.208). It was the exploration of America which did this (p.209). America gave the Europeans an entirely new understanding of human Time. Because here they encountered, traded and warred with Stone Age people who used bows and arrows and (to start with) had no horses or wheeled vehicles and never developed anything like a technology. This led European intellectuals to reflect that maybe these people came from an earlier phase of historical development. In fact, maybe societies evolve and change and develop.

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting how societies progressed from the x age to the y age and then on to the z age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

And once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere definitely lower or backward on these paths or stages of development. And being at the top of the tree, why naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

18th and 19th I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the way that, if you read accounts of then European empires, there is this huge difference between the 18th century and the 19th century. Darwin explains why: in the eighteenth century there were still multiple European players in the imperial game: France was the strongest power on the continent, but she was balanced out by Prussia, Austria and also Spain and Portugal and the Dutch. France’s position as top dog in Europe was admittedly damaged by the Seven Years War but it wasn’t this, it was the Napoleonic Wars which in the end abolished the 18th century balance of power in Europe. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the new top dog, with a navy which could beat all-comers, which had hammered the French at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, and which now ruled the waves.

The nineteenth century feels different because Britain’s world-encompassing dominance was different in kind from any empire which ever preceded it.

Africa If I have one quibble it’s that I’d like to have learned more about Africa. I take the point that his book is focused on Eurasia and the Eurasian empires (and I did learn a huge amount about Persia, the Moghul empire, China and Japan) and that all sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from Eurasia by the Sahara, but still… it feels like an omission.

And a woke reader might well object to the relative rareness of Darwin’s references to the African slave trade. He refers to it a few times, but his interest is not there; it’s in identifying exactly where Europe was like or unlike the rival empires of Eurasia, in culture and science and social organisation and economics. That’s his focus.

Russia If Africa is disappointingly absent, an unexpected emphasis is placed in each chapter on the imperial growth of Russia. I knew next to nothing about this. A quick surf on Amazon suggests that almost all the books you can get about the Russian ’empire’ are about the fall of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution and then Lenin or Stalin’s creation of a Bolshevik empire which expanded into Eastern Europe after the war. That’s to say it’s almost all about twentieth century Russia (with the exception of a crop of ad hoc biographies of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great).

So it was thrilling to read Darwin give what amounts to a sustained account and explanation of the growth of the Kingdom of Muscovy from the 1400s onwards, describing how it expanded west (against Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden), south towards the Black Sea, south-west into the Balkans – but most of all how Russian power was steadily expanded East across the vast inhospitable tundra of Siberia until Russian power reached the Pacific.

It is odd, isn’t it, bizarre, uncanny, that a nation that likes to think of itself as ‘European’ has a huge coastline on the Pacific Ocean and to this day squabbles about the ownership of small islands with Japan!

The process of Russian expansion involved just as much conquering of the ‘primitive’ tribal peoples who hunted and trapped in the huge landmass of Siberia as the conquest of, say, Canada or America, but you never read about it, do you? Can you name any of the many native tribes the Russians fought and conquered? No. Are there any books about the Settling of the East as there are thousands and thousands about the conquest of the American West? Nope. It is a historical black hole.

But Darwin’s account of the growth of the Russian Empire is not only interesting as filling in what – for me at any rate – is a big hole in my knowledge. It is also fascinating because of the role Russian expansion played again and again in the game of Eurasian Risk which his book describes. At key moments Russian pressure from the North distracted the attention of the Ottoman Empire from making more offensive thrusts into Europe (the Ottomans famously encroached right up to the walls of Vienna in 1526 and then again in 1683).

When the Russians finally achieved one of their territorial goals and seized the Crimea in 1783, as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, it had the effect, Darwin explains, of cracking the Ottoman Empire open ‘like an oyster’. For centuries the Black Sea had been an Ottoman lake and a cheaply defensible frontier. Now, at a stroke, it became a massive vulnerability which needed costly defence (p.175).

And suddenly, seeing it all from the Russian perspective, this sheds new light on the timeworn story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire which I only know about from the later 19th century and from the British perspective. For Darwin the role of Russian expansionism was vital not only in itself, but for the hemming in and attritional impact it had on the other Eurasian empires – undermining the Ottomans, making the Chinese paranoid because Russian expansion around its northern borders added to China’s sense of being encircled and endangered, a sense that contributed even more to its risk-averse policy of doubling down on its traditional cultural and political and economic traditions, and refusing to see anything of merit in the Westerners’ technology or crude diplomacy. A policy which eventually led to complete collapse in the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

And of course the Russians actually went to war with imperial Japan in 1905.

Numbered lists

Darwin likes making numbered lists. There’s one on almost every page. They rarely go higher than three. Here are some examples to give a flavour of his careful, forensic and yet thrillingly insightful way of explaining things.

The 18th century geopolitical equilibrium The geopolitical revolution which ended the long equilibrium of the 18th century had three major effects:

  1. The North American interior and the new lands in the Pacific would soon become huge extensions of European territory, the ‘new Europes’.
  2. As a result of the Napoleonic war, the mercantile ‘zoning’ system which had reflected the delicate balance of power among European powers was swept away and replaced with almost complete control of the world’s oceans by the British Navy.
  3. Darwin gives a detailed description of why Mughal control of North India was disrupted by invasions by conquerors from the north, first Iran then Afghanistan, who weakened central Indian power at just the moment the British started expanding from their base in Bengal. Complex geopolitical interactions.

The so-called stagnation of the other Eurasian powers can be characterised by:

  1. In both China and the Islamic world classical, literary cultures dominated the intellectual and administrative elites – the test of intellectual acumen was fitting all new observations into the existing mindset, prizes went to those who could do so with the least disruption possible.
  2. Cultural and intellectual authority was vested in scribal elites backed up by political power, both valuing stasis.
  3. Both China and the Islamic world were profoundly indifferent and incurious about the outside world.

The knowledge revolution Compare and contrast the East’s incuriosity with the ‘West’, which underwent a cognitive and scientific revolution in which merit went to the most disruptive inventors of new theories and technologies, and where Darwin describes an almost obsessive fascination with maps. This was supercharged by Captain Cook’s three huge expeditions around the Pacific, resulting in books and maps which were widely bought and discussed, and which formed the basis of the trade routes which followed in his wake, and then the transportation of large numbers of convicts to populate Australia’s big empty spaces (about 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868).

Traumatic impact of the Napoleonic Wars I hadn’t quite realised that the Napoleonic Wars had such a traumatising effect on the governments of the main European powers who emerged in its aftermath: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. Very broadly speaking there was peace between the European powers between the 1830s and 1880s. Of course there was the Crimean War (Britain, France and Turkey containing Russia’s imperial expansion), war between Austria and Prussia (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War. But all these were contained by the system, were mostly of short duration and never threatened to unravel into the kind of general conflict which ravaged Europe under Napoleon.

Thus, from the imperial point of view, the long peace had four results:

  1. The Royal Navy’s policing of all trade routes across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia kept trade routes open throughout the era and kept costs down for everyone.
  2. The balance of power which the European powers maintained among themselves discouraged intervention in either North or South America and allowed America to develop economically as if it had no enemies – a rare occurrence for any nation in history.
  3. The post-Napoleonic balance of power in Europe encouraged everyone to tread carefully in their imperial rivalries.
  4. Geo-political stability in Europe allowed the growth across the continent of something like a European ideology. This was ‘liberalism’ – a nexus of beliefs involving the need for old-style autocratic power to be tempered by the advice of representatives of the new middle class, and the importance of that middle class in the new technologies and economics unleashed by the industrial revolution and in founding and administering the growing colonies abroad.

Emigration Emigration from Europe to the New World was a trickle in the 1830s but had become a flood by the 1850s. Between 1850 and 1880 over eight million people left Europe, mostly for America.

  1. This mass emigration relieved the Old World of its rural overcrowding and transferred people to an environment where they could be much more productive.
  2. Many of the emigrants were in fact skilled artisans. Moving to an exceptionally benign environment, a vast empty continent rich in resources, turbo-charged the American economy with the result that by the 1880s it was the largest in the world.

Fast His chapter The Race Against Time brings out a whole area, an entire concept, I’ve never come across before, which is that part of the reason European colonisation was successful was it was so fast. Not just that Western advances in military technology – the lightning advances in ships and artillery and guns – ran far ahead of anything the other empires could come up with – but that the entire package of international finance, trade routes, complex webs sending raw materials back home and re-exporting manufactured goods, the sudden flinging of railways all across the world’s landmasses, the erection of telegraphs to flash knowledge of markets, prices of goods, or political turmoil back from colonies to the European centre – all of this happened too quickly for the rival empires (Ottoman, Japan, China etc) to stand any chance of catching up.

Gold rushes This sense of leaping, hurtling speed was turbo-charged by literal gold rushes, whether in the American West in the 1840s or in South Africa where it was first gold then diamonds. Suddenly tens of thousands of white men turned up, quickly followed by townships full of traders and artisans, then the railway, the telegraph, the sheriffs with their guns – all far faster than any native American or South African cultures could hope to match or even understand.

Shallow And this leads onto another massive idea which reverberates through the rest of the book and which really changed my understanding. This is that, as the spread of empire became faster and faster, reaching a kind of hysterical speed in the so-called Scramble For Africa in the 1880s (the phrase was, apparently, coined by the London Times in 1884) it meant that there was something increasingly shallow about its rule, especially in Africa.

The Scramble for Africa

Darwin says that most radical woke historians take the quick division of Africa in the 1880s and 1890s as a kind of epitome of European imperialism, but that it was in fact the opposite, and extremely unrepresentative of the development of the European imperialisms.

After all the Scramble happened very quickly – unlike the piecemeal conquest of Central, Southern of North America, or India, which took centuries.

The Scramble took place with almost no conflict between the European powers – in fact they agreed to partitions and drew up lines in a very equable way at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Other colonies (from the Incas to India) were colonised because there were organised civilisations which could be co-opted, whereas a distinctive feature about Africa (‘historians broadly agree about one vital fact’ p.314) was that people were in short supply. Africa was undermanned or underpeopled. There were few organised states or kingdoms because there simply wasn’t the density of population which lends itself to trading routes, settled farmers and merchants – all the groups who can be taxed to create a king and aristocracy.

Africans hadn’t progressed to centralised states as humans had in Eurasia or central America because there weren’t enough of them. Hence the poverty and the lack of resistance which most of the conquerors encountered in most of Africa.

In fact the result of all this was that most of the European governments weren’t that keen on colonising Africa. It was going to cost a lot of money and there weren’t the obvious revenue streams that they had found in a well-established economy like India.

What drove the Scramble for Africa more than anything else was adventurers on the ground – dreamers and fantasists and ambitious army officers and business men and empire builders who kept on taking unilateral action which then pitched the home government into a quandary – deny their adventurers and pass up the opportunity to win territory to a rival, or reluctantly support them and get enmeshed in all kinds of messy responsibilities.

For example, in the mid-1880s a huge swathe of West Africa between the desert and the forest was seized by a buccaneering group of French marine officers under Commandant Louis Archinard, and their black rank and file. In a few years these adventurers brought some two million square miles into France’s empire. The government back in Paris felt compelled to back them up which meant sending out more troops, police and so on, which would cost money.

Meanwhile, modern communications had been invented, the era of mass media had arrived, and the adventuring soldiers and privateers had friends and boosters in the popular press who could be counted on to write leading articles about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the torch of civilisation and ask: ‘Isn’t the government going to defend our brave boys?’, until reluctant democratic governments were forced to cough up support. Modern-day liberals often forget that imperialism was wildly popular. It often wasn’t imperialist or rapacious governments or the ruling class which prompted conquest, but popular sentiment, jingoism, which couldn’t be ignored in modern democracies.

Darwin on every page, describes and explains the deep economic, trade and financial structures which the West put in place during the nineteenth century and which eventually underpinned an unstoppable steamroller of annexation, protectorates, short colonial wars and long-term occupation.

The Congress of Berlin

The Congress of Berlin helped to formalise the carving up of Africa, and so it has come to be thought of as evil and iniquitous, particularly by BAME and woke historians. But once again Darwin makes you stop and think when he compares the success of the congress at reaching peaceful agreements between the squabbling European powers – and what happened in 1914 over a flare-up in the Balkans.

If only Bismarck had been around in 1914 to suggest that instead of rapidly mobilising to confront each other, the powers of Europe had once again been invited for tea and cake at the Reichstag to discuss their differences like gentlemen and come to an equable agreement.

Seen from this perspective, the Berlin Congress is not so much an evil colonialist conspiracy, but an extremely successful event which avoided any wars between the European powers for nearly thirty years. Africa was going to be colonised anyway because human events have a logic of their own: the success was in doing so without sparking a European conflagration.

The Scramble for China The Scramble for China is not as well known as its African counterpart,  the competition to gain ‘treaty ports’ on the Chinese coast, impose unfair trading terms on the Chinese and so on.

As usual, though, Darwin comes at it from a much wider angle and makes one massive point I hadn’t registered before – which is that Russia very much wanted to seize the northern part of China to add to its far eastern domains; Russia really wanted to carve China up, but Britain didn’t. And if Britain, the greatest trading, economic and naval power in the world, wasn’t onside, then it wouldn’t happen. There wasn’t a genuine Scramble for China because Britain didn’t want one.

Why not? Darwin quotes a Foreign Office official simply saying, ‘We don’t want another India.’ One enormous third world country to try and administer with its hundreds of ethnic groups and parties growing more restive by the year, was quite enough.

Also, by the turn of the century, the Brits had become paranoid about Russia’s intentions to conquer Afghanistan and march into North India. If they partitioned China with Russia, that would mean policing an even longer frontier even further way against an aggressive imperialist power ready to pounce the moment our guard was down.

Summary

This is an absolutely brilliant book. I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many dazzling insights and revelations and entirely new ways of thinking about a time-worn subject in one volume.

This is the book to give anyone who’s interested not just in ‘the rise of the West’ but how the whole concept of ‘the West’ emerged, for a fascinating description not just of the European empires but of all the empires across Eurasia – Ottoman, Persian, Moghul, Chinese and Japanese – and how history – at this level – consists of the endless juggling for power of these enduring power blocs, the endless and endlessly

complex history of empire-, state- and culture-building. (p.490)

And of course it all leads up to where we are today: a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine and Crimea; China wielding its vast economic power and brutally oppressing its colonial subjects in Tibet and Xinkiang, while buying land, resources and influence in Africa. And both Russia and China using social media and the internet in ways we don’t yet fully understand in order to undermine the West.

And Turkey, keen as its rulers of all colours have been since the Ottoman days, to keep the Kurds down. And Iran, as its rulers have done for a thousand years, continually seeking new ways to extend its influence around the Gulf, across Syria and to the Mediterranean, in eternal rivalry with the Arab world which, in our time, means Saudi Arabia, against whom Iran is fighting a proxy war in the Yemen.

Darwin’s books really drives home the way the faces and the ideologies may change, but the fundamental geopolitical realities endure, and with them the crudeness and brutality of the tools each empire employs.

If you let ‘morality’, especially modern woke morality, interfere with your analysis of this level of geopolitics, you will understand nothing. At this level it always has and always will be about power and influence, dominating trade and ensuring raw resources, and behind it all the never-ending quest for ‘security’.

At this level, it isn’t about following narrow, English notions of morality. Getting hung up on that only gets in the way of grasping the utterly amoral forces at play everywhere in the world today, just as it’s always been.

Darwin stands up for intelligence and insight, for careful analysis and, above all, for a realistic grasp of human nature and human society – deeply, profoundly flawed and sometimes pitiful and wretched though both routinely are. He takes an adult view. It is absolutely thrilling and a privilege to be at his side as he explains and analysis this enormous history, with such confidence, and with so many brilliant ideas and insights.


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Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

This is a really enjoyable book and feels like a return to form for Kundera. I hate to say it because it sounds like such a cliché, but it feels that the reason for this is simply to be that, after three novels set predominantly in France and in a Western consumer capitalist culture which Kundera can’t help but loathe and despise – this one returns to Czechoslovakia, to his homeland – and feels significantly more confident, relaxed, integrated, deep and thoughtful as a result.

It’s a novel about returning from exile. It’s set soon after the collapse of communism in 1989 and the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Russian rule, and describes the journeys back to newly-liberated Czechoslovakia of two émigrés, one man, one woman.

But it is a Kundera novel, so the narrative, such as it is, is routinely interspersed with digressions and thoughts and analyses, primarily about the characters’ perceptions and feelings, then of their personal situations, then of their positions as symbols of ‘the émigré’, then explanations of the broader historical background to their situation, and then, stepping right back from the present, Kundera aligns their ‘returns’ with a) the classical legend of Odysseus, maybe the greatest symbol in European literature of the Returner, and b) with passages about the different words in European languages which attempt to convey the many feelings of the returner, nostalgia, longing for home, and so on.

Ignorance

Thus we discover he is using the word ‘ignorance’ not at all in the common or garden sense of ‘lack of knowledge or information’, but in a subtler sense moderated by placing all around it words from other languages (such as the German Sehnsucht and the Czech stesk) which express ‘nostalgia’, longing, the act of missing something or someone – then by examining its Latin root, to produce a wider deeper definition:

To be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss. In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there. (p.6)

Arguably, the rest of the text is an extended mediation on the meaning of this concept, the suffering of the exile, and the bewilderment of return.

Odysseus is doubly relevant: not just as a returner, but a returner after an absence of twenty years, he is surprisingly close to Kundera’s fictional character. It was in 1968 that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed of the Prague Spring, but only in 1969 that they imposed their new government which proceeded to implement its harsh crackdown on all liberals and dissidents. So it was 20 years later that Russian communism collapsed and the Russia-backed Czech communist government fell.

And Odysseus was away from his homeland (Ithaca) for a long 20 years: 10 years fighting at Troy, three wandering across the Mediterranean and having the extraordinary adventures all children learn about; then seven trapped by the magician Calypso, who was also his lover.

Now these disparate elements – geopolitics, personal stories, etymological precision and ancient myth – could easily have hung apart and pulled in different directions. In my opinion his use of these kinds of disparate elements, or different levels, failed to gel in the previous couple of novels.

But here they meld perfectly. All four of these levels or themes naturally complement each other. The feelings and experiences of the present-day émigrés really does illuminate your understanding of how Odysseus must have felt, pitching up in his homeland twenty years after leaving it. And Kundera’s subtle insights into Odysseus’s plight really does help to amplify the bitter experiences of his émigrés in the present day.

To both of them Kundera applies his insights about memory and forgetting, namely the idea developed in Identity that part of the point of friendship it to tell each other stories about the old days and keep memories alive. Exiled to a foreign land, with no friends, those memories atrophy and die. The more intense Odysseus’s longing for his native land – the less he can remember anything about it.

Émigrés gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, like Irena or Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia. The stronger their nostalgia, the emptier of recollections it becomes. (p.33, emphasis added)

Plus (as a big history fan) I am fascinated by the light Kundera sheds on the political and social and cultural changes which took place in a communist-dominated society, how it changed so quickly after the fall of communism, and the myriad little insights thrown up as his two protagonists move among this familiar but alien world.

For me, all of these elements come together to make a really fascinating and engaging book.

The characters

Irena

The woman protagonist, Irena, fled Czechoslovakia with her husband Martin, with one little girl and pregnant with another, back in the 1970s. Émigrés from communist countries weren’t all that welcome in the Paris of the 1970s, dominated by its communist party and the fashion for left-wing students. Her husband fell ill and died, and she had a hard time bringing up the girls (cleaning houses, caring for a paraplegic, p.28).

Emigration-dreams

All the émigrés have them, both she and her husband are plagued by them, dreams in which you are wandering the streets of a strange city and the see the uniforms of the Czech police and awake sweating in panic. Dreams like that. Sometimes they came during the day, in the middle of a meeting, a sudden shaft of memory, walking through a green part of Prague, for a moment, becomes more real than the real world. The continual eruption of the unconscious.

Gustaf

Then she met Gustaf, a Swede who’s fled his homeland to get away from his homeland. They become friends then lovers, then partners. He disconcerts her by saying his company are going to open up a small office in Prague. She wants to get away from the old life, not have it hanging over her all the time. Especially her self-centred, garrulous mother. After the fall of communism his company expands this to buying a house in central Prague, with a flat in the eaves where Gustaf stays on his business trips.

Now Irena flies back to Prague and is able to stay there, while she looks up her old friends and has a sort of hen night for women friends only. This scene registers their different reactions, some jealous, some bitter, everyone keen to tell how much they suffered, the ‘suffering contests’ (p.41).

All of this is interesting and moving and subtly described – very unlike the sex comedy shenanigans of the previous novels, Slowness and Identity, which I didn’t like. When references to Odysseus’s experiences as an exile returning after twenty years are interleaved with Irena’s it doesn’t feel contrived or arch; the two complement each other really well.

Josef

In the airport Irena spots a man she knew twenty years earlier. He had been someone else’s boyfriend who she had flirted with at some party downstairs in a bar in Prague. But then she got married and left the country. But she’d always wondered what would have happened. When she introduces herself to him, he is flustered and shy.

Then we cut to his point of view and learn why he is flustered. He is called Josef and he has absolutely no memory of her whatever, can’t even remember her name. He also fled Czechoslovakia, settling in Denmark and marrying. Now his wife is dead and he is making the pilgrimage home.

The great broom

He wriggles free of her and goes on his own quest in Prague, his own odyssey. He goes to the cemetery where his parents are buried and is appalled by how cramped it is, overshadowed by high rise blocks and freeways. He reflects than an invisible broom has swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar.

And it seems to be getting faster. Things changed slowly ‘back in the day’, now they change before your eyes. This is brought home in the dining room of the hotel where he’s staying and he realises spoken Czech has changed in intonation and tone in the twenty years he’s been away. Now it feels like ‘an unknown language’ (p.55)

Josef’s brother

Then Josef goes on to meet his brother and the sister-in-law who never liked him. I really liked this scene, the way his sense of the feelings of the other two fluctuate, how Kundera captures the changing mood, the sudden embarrassing silences. He realises he must have been seen as The Betrayer, the lucky younger son who ran away. His flight bedevilled his brother’s career as a surgeon, casting a blight over it. Josef had turned his back on a career as a doctor (turning his back on the family tradition pursued by his grandfather and father) in order to become a vet. The motives for his flight are examined.

Josef left in a hurry and mailed his brother the key to his apartment, saying take what he wanted. Now his brother gives him a bundle of notes and journals and diaries and letters. Back at his hotel he goes through them. He realises he has forgotten most of his childhood.

The law of masochistic memory: as segments of their lives melt into oblivion, men slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer. (p.76)

He is disconcerted at the combination of ‘sentimentality and sadism’ (p.83) displayed by the diaries of himself as a frustrated virginal teenager.

The teenage girl

Kundera now creates ‘out of the mists of the time when Josef was in high school’ a virginal girl his own age who has just split up with her first boyfriend. She enjoys the fist pangs of ‘nostalgia’, the first teenage tryouts of that feeling of wanting to ‘go back’ (in her case to the happy days when she was going out with X; but you see how this mention of nostalgia ties in with the book’s theme).

She goes out with young Josef. He is petulant and frustrated. When she announces she is going off on a school skiing trip he has a tantrum and dumps her.

Josef tears up his diary and throws the pieces away. But,

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

I thought the book was about Irena’s first and major visit back to Prague, but this passage makes it clear that, her partner Gustaf having opened an office in the city, she found herself spending more and more time there, watching as Prague rapidly becomes westernised, repaints itself and fills up with tourists.

Meanwhile her relationship with Gustaf peters out. They stop having sex. They stop even talking because he enjoys talking in American English, talking loud and long, whereas she clings to the French she had learned in Paris, and behind that to the Czech she grew up with, neither of which Gustaf understands. Now, meeting the strange man (Josef) in the airport has revived something in her. He had given her the number of his hotel and when she gets through after trying half a dozen times, she is thrilled and aroused at his voice.

All this contrasts with the gabby loudmouth Gustaf who she can hear downstairs keeping her horrible chatterbox mum in stitches. Josef represents escape from two people she’s come to loathe.

The teenage girl attempts suicide

The narrative cuts back to that teenage girl after her second boyfriend cruelly dumps her. We are intended by now, I think, to realise that the sentimental and sadistic boyfriend was none other than Josef, and I think the distraught girl was a young Irena.

We are told how the teenage girl goes on the school ski trip, one evening walks away from the chalet, as far as she can, swallows a bunch of sleeping pills she’s stolen off her mother, and lies down in the snow to die.

Burying the dead

This narrative breaks off to revive a thought that had been mentioned earlier (and which recurs in Kundera’s later fiction) which is the correct disposal of the dead. When Josef’s wife dies, he fights an almighty battle to stop her family claiming the body and burying it in the family plot. Josef feels she would be abandoned among strangers. (This parallels Chantal’s anxiety in Identity about what happens to the bodies of the dead the instant they’ve gone i.e. they lose all privacy and pored over by pathologists and police and strangers, cut open and humiliated. Which is why she insists on being cremated.)

The suicide survives

She had lain down under a beautiful blue Alpine sky, her head woozily full of images of a beautiful death. She wakes up under a black night sky feeling awful and in fact unable to feel half her body. Evidently she is not dead, and she staggers back to the ski chalet where the doctor diagnoses her with frostbite and says part of her ear will have to be chopped off. Word goes round the other kids and teachers about the girl who tried to kill herself. She is mortified. Now her life divides into two halves – the innocent years under the blue sky of childhood, and the years of knowledge under a black sky.

The implications of human lifespan

There now follow some fascinating passages about the human condition. Nothing impenetrable or difficult, it’s all very accessible. It’s as if he’s made philosophy entertaining. It’s like Heidegger turned into a newspaper editorial.

First idea is a consideration of how much our lifespan – say 80 years – affects meaning. If human beings lived for, say 160 years, then the notion of a Great Return which his book is about, would dissolve into just one of the many peregrinations 180 year-olds would be prone to.

Human memory

Next, Memory. The fact is that human memory retains no more than a millionth, maybe a hundred millionth of our actual lived experiences. If human beings remembered everything they would cease being human and be a different species. One of the things that defines us is the way we forget almost everything.

And why do we remember some things and not others? Because they are part of the complex narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. And these narratives, obviously, vary hugely from person to person.

It’s not just that people remember the same event differently (as Kundera has given us ample examples of throughout his work), but that quite often two people don’t even remember the event at all. Thus Irena powerfully remembers her first meeting with Josef, and remembers him as a symbol or talisman of the single life she left behind when she married her husband soon after. Whereas Josef doesn’t remember her at all.

Kundera evinces both Irena’s experience after he husband died and Josef’s after his wife died: for both of them the shared memories which made up their relationships required constant discussing and sharing. Once the sharing ended, the memories started to decay, worryingly quickly.

Kundera’s discussed some of these issues before but, as I’ve said, they seem to arise more naturally from the subject matter and setting in this book than they do in its immediate predecessors. The result is that it feels more graceful. There are fewer abrupt handbrake turns.

Back to the narrative

Irena goes strolling round Prague, revising the middle class area where she grew up. She walks through woodland to the back of the famous castle. She thinks about her upbringing, the poets and storytellers and the little theatres with their humour – the ‘intangible essence’ of her country.

Josef reflects

He drives out into the country. He reflects on the destiny of the Czechs, a small nation, whose history has been one of fear and domination, yet have refused to bow to their larger neighbours, like the Danes he has settled among.

He and his sister-in-law had bickered about a painting, a painting by a painter friend of his depicting a working class neighbourhood in the flamey colours of the Fauves. Now he realises he doesn’t want it anyway. It would be a splinter of old Prague in his clean, windswept Danish existence. Out of place.

Man cannot know the future because he doesn’t understand the present

This point is made very amusingly though the example of Schoenberg the revolutionary Austrian composer. In the 1920s he announced that his new twelve-tone system would ensure the dominance of German music for a century. Barely ten years later he, a Jew, was forced to flee Nazi Germany, to America. Here he continued to write and developed the fans and acolytes who were to dominate post-war classical music and impose the atonal ‘system’ onto serious music until well into the 1970s.

But where is he now? In Kundera’s view forgotten and ignored (I’m not sure that’s quite true, but his system certainly doesn’t dominate classical music the way it used to).

Anyway, Kundera introduces another level to explain what he means. Imagine two armies meet to determine the fate of the world but unknown to either one carries the plague bacillus which will wipe out the civilisation they’re fighting over.

Same with Schoenberg and his arch-enemy Stravinsky who he spent fifty years slagging off. In the event both were blown away by radio. The advent of radio in the 1920s was the start of the great plague of noise and din and racket which, in Kundera’s view, has ruined music forever. Kundera lets rip with some classic cultural pessimism:

If in the past people would listen to music out of love of music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, ‘regardless of whether we want to hear it’, it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form); sewage-water music in which music is dying. (p.146)

So who cares any more whether Schoenberg or Stravinsky was right. Both have gone down under a tsunami of sewage-water music.

Irena and music

As so often in Kundera, having shared a thought or idea with us for a couple of pages, he then applies it to one of his walking experiments, also known as ‘characters. Thus we eavesdrop on how much Irena hates the way music blares from every outlet, how much she wants to get away from it to a realm of quiet. On one side of her the bedside radio which, even in its speech programmes, contains snippets of sewage music; on the other side Gustaf snoring like a pig. (This trip to Prague has crystallised how much she hates him.)

She is tense because it is the day when she’s made an appointment to meet Josef.

Josef and N

Before he left the country, Josef had been helped by N., a devout communist who stood up for people like him. Josef goes to meet him, his head full of questions about how he felt about collaborating in the oppression of his people, how things changed towards the end, what he feels now. But N.’s house is packed full of his grown-up kids milling around and he and Josef can’t manage to get a conversation started. He laments the capitalist commercialisation he sees all over the country. N. nods his head. ‘National independence has been an illusion for some time, now.’

Josef abandons his plans to engage in Weighty Conversation and, as soon as he does so, experiences a sudden release and sense of liberation. Suddenly he and N. are like two old friends chatting and gossiping about the past. (There is a certain polemical purpose in the notion that Josef the émigré has more in common with a former communist than with his own brother. His brother represents bitterness, and his wife, Josef’s sister-in-law, would string up the old communists if she could. Josef’s relaxed and warm conversation with his old friend shows how irrelevant that witch-hunting mentality is to the situation. Celebrate what we have in the here and now. Not least because ‘they’ – N. nods towards his adult children – have no idea what they’re talking about.)

The memory theme reappears because N. thanks Josef for acting as his alibi to his wife, on an occasion when N. was off with his mistress. Josef has absolutely no memory of this happening and doubts it was him, but acquiesces in the story. Earlier, his brother had reminded him of some boyhood lines he had supposedly uttered, and his sister-in-law reminded him that he used to scandalise the family with his anti-clerical sentiments. Josef remembers none of this, none of it.

Irena and Josef

They meet at his hotel. They chat and get on. She describes how alien she feels in Prague and yet how she has been cold-shouldered in Paris. The French accepted her and Martin as Heroic Exiles. When the wall came down and she could go back, she realised her few friends slowly lost contact with her because she was no longer interesting.

The suicide girl grown into a woman

I was wrong about the suicide teenager being Irena. It’s her best friend from the old days, Milada, who alone of the cackling women at the hen night reception for Irena, makes the effort to talk to her and understand her. At the time Kundera had told us that she had a very particular hairstyle, the hair cut to perfectly frame her face. Now we realise it is to hide the ear she had cut off because of the frostbite. For her, while Josef and Irena get to know each other in the Prague hotel bar, it is another boring day driving out to a suburb, having a beer and a sandwich alone in a bar.

Except that she has learned that he has come back, the teenage boy who rejected her and prompted her suicide attempt and the loss of her ear. Him. Josef.

Irena and Josef

It’s so noisy with sewage-water music in the bar that Josef invites Irena up to his bedroom. He’s reading the Odyssey. They explicitly compare Odysseus’s 20 year exile with Irena’s own. Talk swiftly moves to Odysseus and Penelope’s first night back in bed. Irena describes it then, half drunk, describes it again using coarse sex words. Both are immediately aroused and tumble into bed. Yes. It is a Milan Kundera novel where, no matter how artful, erudite and thought-provoking the ideas and discussion, straightforward heterosexual penetrative sex is never far away.

It was the sound of those rude words in their native Czech. Both have been married to or living with people who don’t speak Czech. The sound of those words in their native tongue, certainly stimulates Irena to ecstasies of sexual abandonment, she wants to do everything, try every position, and then describe out loud her crudest fantasies, voyeurism, exhibitionism (to be honest, in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey, these do not sound like the wildest fantasies).

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

She is a loud bossy vulgar woman who Irena has been trying to escape all her life. She lives in one of the rooms of the big house Gustaf’s company bought after the liberation. He gets back after a heavy lunch with clients. She has put on some dance music and playfully dances round the room. She takes his hand and makes her dance with her. She pulls him over towards the wall-length mirror. She places her hand on his crotch. They continue dancing. She lets her robe fall open so he can see her breasts and pubic triangle. They continue dancing. She slips her hand down his trousers to touch his hardening member.

Irena and Josef

Irena is exhausted and drunk. She bursts into tears. One thing leads to another and suddenly she realises the awful truth – he doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t on the plane, or in their follow-up phone calls, or downstairs in the bar, or now. She stands and demands he tell her her name. He is silent. Oh dear.

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

Gustaf withdraws from Irena’s mother’s quavery wobbly body. In the darkness she intones that he is quite free to make love to her whenever he likes, but under no obligation. Now, throughout the book we’ve been gently reminded that Gustaf is a bit of a mother’s boy, who fled the responsibility of his wife and child. Now, we realise, he has finally arrived home. Irena’s mother offer him precisely the reassurance and mother love he’s always sought. He reaches out to stroke her cellulite-wobbly buttocks.

Irena and Josef

Abruptly drunk tearful Irena collapses on the bed and passes out. She starts snoring. Josef knees beside her naked body and wonders: could he spend his life with her? she is so obviously in love with him? is she the sister-lover he’s been seeking (on and off) throughout the book?

The suicide girl

Alone and sad, she is in her flat, she is a vegetarian because she is terrified by the thought of eating bodies, that we are all bodies, that she is a body. She has a sad snack dinner and looks at herself in the mirror. She lifts up her hair and looks at her damaged ear. She became a scientist and dreams about flying off into space to find a world where people don’t have bodies.

I thought she and Josef would have had some dramatic reunion in which she blamed him for ruining her life (after he, the selfish teenager, dumped her, she made her suicide attempt, then had part of her ear cut off due to frostbite and gangrene, then she was too scared to show herself to men and never married). But it doesn’t happen, and it feels like an opportunity (deliberately) missed. Remember when he wrote:

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

I thought this was a strong hint that the jilted girlfriend was going to step out of the shadows to confront Josef. Shame. It feels a little like coitus interruptus, a little like the flirting with the reader Kundera does in all his books, promising big things which, somehow, don’t quite come off.

Josef leaves

He writes sleeping snoring Irena a brief sincere note, telling her she has the hotel room till noon the next day. Then packs his bags, goes downstairs, tells reception there’s a guest sleeping in the room who’s not to be disturbed, takes a taxi to the airport and catches his flight. The plane flies up through the clouds and into the big empty black empyrean of night dotted with stars.

Credit

Ignorance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2002 All references are to the 2003 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Amateur Emigrant by Robert Louis Stevenson (1895)

Humanly speaking, it is a more important matter to play the fiddle, even badly, than to write huge works upon recondite subjects.

Introduction

This is the third of Stevenson’s short autobiographical travel books, following An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879).

Stevenson had met in France and fallen in love with the short, feisty American, Fanny Osbourne, ten years his senior and married to a feckless American prospector and philanderer, who she’d separated from  in order to come and learn to paint in France. Stevenson was totally smitten by Fanny, this tough-talking shrewd independent lady, completely free from the airs and graces of polite British society, and so when she decided to return to California to try and patch things up with her husband, she left Stevenson feeling dejected and rejected in France.

He travelled south and spent August 1878 deeply miserable in a village near Le Puy in southern France – then conceived the idea of going on a walk with a donkey as material for another book, looked around for a likely donkey and finally set off on a 12-day walk, which lasted from late September to early October 1878.

Although it has plenty of Stevensonian fancy, the donkey book feels more oppressed than the Inland Voyage – and a number of references to unrequited love and how things are better experienced as part of a loving couple, alert the reader to Stevenson’s lovelorn condition.

After concluding the donkey book, Stevenson spent a long year mooning about in France, then back in London, visiting friends round the Home Counties, travelling back to Edinburgh to see his parents, trying and failing to write anything, before he finally came to a momentous decision: in August 1879 he decided that he must see Fanny again and bring the relationship to a head. He would travel to California and force a decision: did she want reconciliation with her no-good husband or would she choose him – a shabby, unhealthy, unknown Scottish author?

In this determined spirit Stevenson bought a ticket on a transatlantic steamer, the Devonia, to New York and went aboard on 7 August 1879.

(An Amateur Emigrant should, logically, have been the third of his published travelogues and followed fairly quickly on the heels of the other two, but his friends, and especially his family, were so shocked by his descriptions of conditions among the rough working class steerage passengers, and Stevenson’s shameless hobnobbing with them, that they suppressed the book during his lifetime; it was only published after his death, in 1895.)

An Amateur Emigrant

Stevenson is a great one for chucking you right into the action at the start of his texts. All three of the travel books get stuck right in, with no long-winded Victorian preparations. The first sentences are:

We made a great stir in Antwerp Docks. (An Inland Voyage)

In a little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy, I spent about a month of fine days. (Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes)

and so with Emigrant:

I first encountered my fellow-passengers on the Broomielaw in Glasgow.

No preliminary remarks, just straight in, the Broomielaw being the ferry boat which takes Stevenson and his fellow passengers from the Glasgow docks down the River Clyde to where the transatlantic steamer, the Devonia, is anchored.

Steerage

Some critics (Andrew Noble is mentioned as one in the Wikipedia article about The Amateur Emigrant) think this is Stevenson’s best book because it confronts the squalor and economic tribulations of Victorian working class life – epitomised by the thin walls through which Stevenson can hear the chavs of his day being seasick, eating their meals, smacking their children and having drunken fights – ‘the usual sounds of a rough night at sea, the hateful coughing and retching of the sick and the sobs of children’, and so on.

Maybe.

At the other end of the scale, his biographer, Claire Harman, thinks it is one of Stevenson’s worst books (pp.171-173) because his attempts to rough it, to blend in with the genuine working classes, so obviously fail. She thinks the ‘pose’ of detached bohemian which worked so well in the first two travel books, is unsuitable in this context.

That aspect comes as no surprise to this reader. The young man who had spent years perfecting a bohemian nonchalance, playing the part of the knowing littérateur, of the Parisian flâneur, the alert and witty observer, was never going to blend in with illiterate Irish peasants and scouse navvies he found himself among. He is interested in the whimsies of character, in flights of fancy, not in economic plights, social theory or political analysis – as he goes to some lengths to explain.

We may struggle as we please, we are not born economists. The individual is more affecting than the mass.

So: no facts and figures; instead japing paras about the ship-borne beverages:

At breakfast we had a choice between tea and coffee for beverage; a choice not easy to make, the two were so surprisingly alike. I found that I could sleep after the coffee and lay awake after the tea, which is proof conclusive of some chemical disparity; and even by the palate I could distinguish a smack of snuff in the former from a flavour of boiling and dish-cloths in the second. As a matter of fact, I have seen passengers, after many sips, still doubting which had been supplied them.

Stevenson presents himself, at least initially, as a witty, self-sufficient man of letters talking directly to other witty, well-off men of letters about the oddities of the crazy world – with the occasional moment of sublimity and nature worship thrown in just so everyone can confirm the superiority of their finer feelings.

Is was a bleak, uncomfortable day; but at night, by six bells, although the wind had not yet moderated, the clouds were all wrecked and blown away behind the rim of the horizon, and the stars came out thickly overhead. I saw Venus burning as steadily and sweetly across this hurly-burly of the winds and waters as ever at home upon the summer woods. The engine pounded, the screw tossed out of the water with a roar, and shook the ship from end to end; the bows battled with loud reports against the billows: and as I stood in the lee- scuppers and looked up to where the funnel leaned out, over my head, vomiting smoke, and the black and monstrous top-sails blotted, at each lurch, a different crop of stars, it seemed as if all this trouble were a thing of small account, and that just above the mast reigned peace unbroken and eternal.

He is a student with a student’s shallow flashiness, his lack of human experience revealed in his lack of empathy and understanding. Soon enough he has paired off with a preposterous Welshman named Jones, the equivalent of his sidekick Simpson in the Inland Voyage, and they take to strolling the decks pointing out the oddities and absurdities of their fellow passengers:

If he had one taste more strongly than another, it was to study character. Many an hour have we two walked upon the deck dissecting our neighbours in a spirit that was too purely scientific to be called unkind; whenever a quaint or human trait slipped out in conversation, you might have seen Jones and me exchanging glances; and we could hardly go to bed in comfort till we had exchanged notes and discussed the day’s experience.

In this mood, other people aren’t hell, or fellow pilgrims – they are a source of unending entertainment. They are a God-given source of material on which Stevenson can practice his prose pirouettes. Hence an entire chapter titled, simply, Steerage Types:

We had a fellow on board, an Irish-American, for all the world like a beggar in a print by Callot; one-eyed, with great, splay crow’s-feet round the sockets; a knotty squab nose coming down over his moustache; a miraculous hat; a shirt that had been white, ay, ages long ago; an alpaca coat in its last sleeves; and, without hyperbole, no buttons to his trousers. Even in these rags and tatters, the man twinkled all over with impudence like a piece of sham jewellery; and I have heard him offer a situation to one of his fellow-passengers with the air of a lord. Nothing could overlie such a fellow; a kind of base success was written on his brow. He was then in his ill days; but I can imagine him in Congress with his mouth full of bombast and sawder. As we moved in the same circle, I was brought necessarily into his society. I do not think I ever heard him say anything that was true, kind, or interesting; but there was entertainment in the man’s demeanour. You might call him a half- educated Irish Tigg.

Emigration – myth and reality

However, as the days go past Stevenson is prompted to be a bit more reflective. Quite early on there is an honest attempt to contrast his own, youthful (naive and shallow) images of emigration with the reality he found around him.

As I walked the deck and looked round upon my fellow-passengers, thus curiously assorted from all northern Europe, I began for the first time to understand the nature of emigration. Day by day throughout the passage, and thenceforward across all the States, and on to the shores of the Pacific, this knowledge grew more clear and melancholy. Emigration, from a word of the most cheerful import, came to sound most dismally in my ear. There is nothing more agreeable to picture and nothing more pathetic to behold. The abstract idea, as conceived at home, is hopeful and adventurous. A young man, you fancy, scorning restraints and helpers, issues forth into life, that great battle, to fight for his own hand. The most pleasant stories of ambition, of difficulties overcome, and of ultimate success, are but as episodes to this great epic of self-help. The epic is composed of individual heroisms; it stands to them as the victorious war which subdued an empire stands to the personal act of bravery which spiked a single cannon and was adequately rewarded with a medal. For in emigration the young men enter direct and by the shipload on their heritage of work; empty continents swarm, as at the bo’s’un’s whistle, with industrious hands, and whole new empires are domesticated to the service of man.

This is the closet picture, and is found, on trial, to consist mostly of embellishments. The more I saw of my fellow-passengers, the less I was tempted to the lyric note. Comparatively few of the men were below thirty; many were married, and encumbered with families; not a few were already up in years; and this itself was out of tune with my imaginations, for the ideal emigrant should certainly be young. Again, I thought he should offer to the eye some bold type of humanity, with bluff or hawk-like features, and the stamp of an eager and pushing disposition. Now those around me were for the most part quiet, orderly, obedient citizens, family men broken by adversity, elderly youths who had failed to place themselves in life, and people who had seen better days. Mildness was the prevailing character; mild mirth and mild endurance. In a word, I was not taking part in an impetuous and conquering sally, such as swept over Mexico or Siberia, but found myself, like Marmion, ‘in the lost battle, borne down by the flying.’

Labouring mankind had in the last years, and throughout Great Britain, sustained a prolonged and crushing series of defeats. I had heard vaguely of these reverses; of whole streets of houses standing deserted by the Tyne, the cellar-doors broken and removed for firewood; of homeless men loitering at the street-corners of Glasgow with their chests beside them; of closed factories, useless strikes, and starving girls. But I had never taken them home to me or represented these distresses livingly to my imagination.

A turn of the market may be a calamity as disastrous as the French retreat from Moscow; but it hardly lends itself to lively treatment, and makes a trifling figure in the morning papers. We may struggle as we please, we are not born economists. The individual is more affecting than the mass. It is by the scenic accidents, and the appeal to the carnal eye, that for the most part we grasp the significance of tragedies. Thus it was only now, when I found myself involved in the rout, that I began to appreciate how sharp had been the battle. We were a company of the rejected; the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in the one land, were now fleeing pitifully to another; and though one or two might still succeed, all had already failed. We were a shipful of failures, the broken men of England.

‘A shipful of failures’. It is a sustained critique of his own romantic delusions and, in that third paragraph, a vivid depiction of the economic hard times which had fallen on Britain, which so few other writers of the time seem even to have been aware of.

Aspects of Victorian society

In fact Stevenson’s entire writing career took place against a prolonged depression across the industrialised world, which began with the Panic of 1873 and lasted twenty years in Britain. (The Long Depression Wikipedia article) This book is a rare concession – or description – of the economic calamity which affected millions.

Stevenson must also have been aware of the steady trickle of ‘small wars’ which characterised the later Victorian period, British colonial wars on the periphery of India and the stirrings of what would become the Scramble for Africa i.e. the ruthless competition among European powers to gain control of as much of Africa as possible. This is generally dated to the 1880s but Stevenson read the papers and was aware of its tremors. Here, they only impinge insofar as the emigrants he meets might have been involved or suffered in them.

Nearly all with whom I conversed upon the subject were bitterly opposed to war, and attributed their own misfortunes, and frequently their own taste for whisky, to the campaigns in Zululand and Afghanistan.

Politics

If there’s a spectrum between Harman (this is a bad book) and Noble (this is his best book) I find myself at the Noble end. Stevenson’s writing is so attractive, so sharp and quick, that it always wins you over. And slowly, through a patchwork of observations and through a gallery of characters which he paints with depth and insight, a picture of the wrong end of 1870s British society emerges.

Take the chapter titled ‘The Sick Man’. It starts off with RLS and chums coming across a man half conscious in the scuppers and chronicles their earnest attempts to get him seen by the pretty indifferent ship’s doctor. But next day, when RLS seeks out The Sick Man, and finds him quite recovered, the tone completely switches, as Stevenson gives a long account of the man’s emblematic career – born in Ireland, worked as a trawlerman out of Newcastle for 25 years, married a Scots lass, he has saved enough to have a house of  his own and is on a pleasure trip to visit his brother in the States.

This slow accumulation of biographical detail makes it all the more powerful when Stevenson goes on to describe The Sick Man’s political opinions: he thought the masters selfish and greedy, but also the unions who carried out so many strikes nowadays. In fact, he despaired of England under its current masters and dispositions and Stevenson ends the chapter with a kind of bombshell summary of the man’s astonishingly apocalyptic belief that only a full-scale violent revolution could save Britain.

He had so little faith in either man or master, and so profound a terror for the unerring Nemesis of mercantile affairs, that he could think of no hope for our country outside of a sudden and complete political subversion. Down must go Lords and Church and Army; and capital, by some happy direction, must change hands from worse to better, or England stood condemned. Such principles, he said, were growing ‘like a seed.’

From this mild, soft, domestic man, these words sounded unusually ominous and grave. I had heard enough revolutionary talk among my workmen fellow-passengers; but most of it was hot and turgid, and fell discredited from the lips of unsuccessful men. This man was calm; he had attained prosperity and ease; he disapproved the policy which had been pursued by labour in the past; and yet this was his panacea, — to rend the old country from end to end, and from top to bottom, and in clamour and civil discord remodel it with the hand of violence.

When I read this kind of thing in the mouths of people from so long ago, I am struck all over again that one of the most remarkable things in history is that there wasn’t a violent revolution in Britain in the subsequent 140 years – as there was almost everywhere else in the world with, generally catastrophic, results. The history of Britain for the last 200 years is a history of the flexibility, the arts of accommodation, which managed all the social stresses and inequalities generated by the industrial revolution, and yet contained and defused them.

Working class talk versus literary writing

The penultimate chapter is a long meditation on what it is to be a ‘gentleman’. It starts with the ways Stevenson managed to get himself accepted into the society of working men on board, so much so that he was disconcerted to find himself looked down on by the posh passengers in 1st class when they came tour the ship’s ‘slums’.

Stevenson gives a dispassionate analysis of the people he met and so – maybe it’s counter-intuitive, but maybe it fits with his Tory mind-set – that one of his most striking findings is how lazy and work-shy the average working man is, epitomised in the story of the ‘tapper’.

More interesting from a literary point of view is his meditation on why working people are often such good talkers and storytellers.

There were many good talkers on the ship; and I believe good talking of a certain sort is a common accomplishment among working men. Where books are comparatively scarce, a greater amount of information will be given and received by word of mouth; and this tends to produce good talkers, and, what is no less needful for conversation, good listeners. They could all tell a story with effect. I am sometimes tempted to think that the less literary class show always better in narration; they have so much more patience with detail, are so much less hurried to reach the points, and preserve so much juster a proportion among the facts. At the same time their talk is dry; they pursue a topic ploddingly, have not an agile fancy, do not throw sudden lights from unexpected quarters, and when the talk is over they often leave the matter where it was. They mark time instead of marching. They think only to argue, not to reach new conclusions, and use their reason rather as a weapon of offense than as a tool for self-improvement. Hence the talk of some of the cleverest was unprofitable in result, because there was no give and take; they would grant you as little as possible for premise, and begin to dispute under an oath to conquer or to die.

I was struck by the implication that what literary writing has that non-literary talking doesn’t have, is ‘an agile fancy… [which throws] sudden lights from unexpected quarters.’

There’s a lot of different literature and definitions and traditions of what literature is. But the ‘agile fancy’ which throws ‘sudden lights from unexpected quarters’ is a good definition of the core, appealing element of Stevenson’s own writing.

Conclusions

This is another very good book. I think it taught me a basic lesson that the novelist proceeds through people, characters, human types, rather than generalisations. The generalisations (and there are lots) are generally the icing on top of the real bulk, which is the real observation of people.

And so you close the book a bit better informed about the economic depression which prompted so many to emigrate from the British Isles in the 1870s and 80s, about the squalid conditions in ‘steerage’, and with a much better idea of what ’emigration’ actually meant, and who it affected.

But overwhelmingly what we have experienced is a gallery of late Victorian characters – Jones the purveyor of a miracle snake oil, the Sick Man who has done well out of life but still reckons there should be a revolution, the stowaway Alick who can charm the birds out of the trees, the amateur fiddler who can make anyone get up and dance a jig, the stern but fair bosun, and so on and on.

It is completely different in feel from the two previous travel books, but just as good in the speed and penetration of his perceptions. He was a travel writer of genius.

the Last of England by Ford Maddox Brown (1855)

The Last of England by Ford Maddox Brown (1855)


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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