Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day.
(Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biographer, friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe, to produce an ‘official’ biography (published in 1963) in which he continued to perpetrate all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera’s imagination and, maybe, of Mexico more generally. The opening chapter is a wonderful description of Marnham’s own visit to Rivera’s home town during the famous Day of the Dead festival, in which he really brings out the garish, fantastical and improbable nature of Mexican culture – a far far better introduction to Rivera’s world than a simple recital of the biographical facts.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three aspects:

  • via its turbulent and violent politics
  • in its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, sharp cacti and brilliantly-coloured parrots
  • and its troubled racial heritage

As to the whoppers – where Rivera insisted that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasquez and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had only recently been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

So it was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, for the first time grasping the importance of the Cubism, which had already been around for a few years. For the next four years Diego painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, a friend of Picasso, and a fully paid-up member of the avant-garde – all mistresses, models and drinking late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up until 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And it is a compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that, in this world of bohemian artists, whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door. The artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and also intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – in one sitting! Whoever gave up, to full to carry on, had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the ‘Paintings’ section of the Wikipedia gallery of his art. First half is all homely realism and landscapes, then Boom! a dozen or so hard-core cubist works.

Rivera returned to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help the Mexican revolutionary bandit leader Zapata hold up trains. He simply wanted to see his family and friends again.

But upon arrival, he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of the corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture had organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910, soon after his return, to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

As it happens, this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s reactionary government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead supervising his art exhibition in Mexico City and spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and where he had established himself with his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War (rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso) while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, with a seemingly endless series of raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later…

Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, during which he progressed from being a talented traditionalist and established himself at the heart of the modern movement with his distinctive and powerful brand of cubism. Some of the cubist works showcased in the Wikipedia gallery are really brilliant.

But all good things come to an end. Partly because of personal fallings-out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. Faure’s arguments seemed to be backed up by history. Both the First World War and the Russian Revolution had brought the whole meaning and purpose of art into question and the latter, especially, had given a huge boost to the notion of Art for the People.

It was with these radical new thoughts in mind that Diego finally got round to completing the Grand Tour of Europe which his grant from the Mexican government had been intended to fund. off he went to Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters. Here was art for the people, public art in chapels and churches, art which any peasant could relate to, clear, forceful depictions of the lives of Jesus and the apostles and the saints. Messages on walls.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, Diego had been contacted by Vasconcelos in 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the same time that Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies of Renaissance frescos in Italy.

In 1921 Rivera returned to Mexico and was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

Rivera was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was as natural as the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Mexican Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives (basically, they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives). Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, also named Diego (1916–1918)
1918 affair with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, aka ‘Marevna’, mother of a daughter named Marika in 1919, whom he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 Diego married Guadalupe Marin, who was to be the mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe; she modelled for some of the nudes in his early murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– possible affair with Guadalupe’s sister
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals including ‘Earth enslaved’, ‘Germination’, ‘Virgin earth’ 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic ‘art for the people’.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

There is an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest socialist murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists.

In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca (in Mexico) from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this, Diego went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the San Francisco School of Arts.

His argument in his own defence was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses – but there’s no doubt that these commissions also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 Diego helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic about this event, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich, American multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Mexican Communist’. ‘Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this publicity, Diego was then invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever painted, anywhere. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong.

Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, into the mural the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building.

A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair, was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1934, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’ as he called it. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

Diego was ill for much of 1934, and started an affair with Frida Kahlo’s sister. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he had abandoned when he set off for America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. That was a bad idea. They caused so much offence to the powers that be that, once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by José Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Thus he found himself being more or less forced out of mural painting – and forced back into painting the kind of oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals. They were relatively quick and easy to do (compared to the back-breaking effort of the murals) and so for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as yet another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 but left it in 1925. He went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing. During his visit he made some tactless criticisms of the Party and so was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, a separate organisation from the Communist Party, which was affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist.

Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. For the next 8 years he wandered as an exile, with spells in Turkey, France and Norway. As this last refuge became increasingly difficult, Diego gave his support to a suggestion by Mexican intellectuals that Trotsky be given refuge in Mexico. They persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at Diego’s home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (at one point in the company of the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise the dictatorial turn which Soviet communism was taking, and the point was rammed home for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces than combating the common enemy, Franco) and then by the outrageous Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38.

Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida Kahlo had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger by hosting Trotsky. We now know that Stalin commissioned no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House (the home he shared with Kahlo), the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, were fixed up in a house only a few hundred yards away.

It was here that Trotsky was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom. Amazingly, the gunmen managed to miss Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run.

Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the endlessly violent Mexican Revolution, I was not at all surprised: McLynn shows that this was the routine method for handling political disagreements in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, also hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leaned down to read a letter Mercader had handed him, attacked Trotsky with a small ice-pick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky who fought back, and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically  toSan Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

Also, a new president had taken office in Mexico with the result that the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted. He returned to his home country and, in 1940, began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, running around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete and weren’t finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds? Who are the Mexicans? What is the nation and its true heritage?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of Diego’s life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham devotes his final pages to developing a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He starts from the fact that Frida’s illness limited her mobility and made her a world-class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her various miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations, prosthetic legs and other physical ailments.

But overlaid on almost all of Frida’s paintings was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which presents her as a a pure victim.

And yet she was a powerful victim. Biographical accounts and some of the paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship, Diego could become the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became Frida’s ‘baby’, the baby she was never able to have. Apparently, Frida often gave Diego baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women dismiss men as big babies: it can be a consolation for their (women’s) powerlessness. But it can also be true. Men can be big babies.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much that sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida apparently poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts.

Marnham shows how their early childhoods had much in common: both had close siblings who died young and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not to their boring white European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their very mixed feelings for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful dresses, and earrings and head-dresses which she largely copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when the couple divorced in 1940, Frida promptly cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian.

The conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress and symbolism – and his murals, which obsess about the native inheritance of Mexico – were both ingredients in a psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders which they jointly created.

Their mutual infidelities upset the other, but they also found that they just couldn’t live apart. Sex between them may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they had created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated but in its complexity prompted the core of the artworks, in particular the endless reworking of her own image which have made Frida more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband.

Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for a spurious clarity, where the whole point was the hazy, messy, creativity of very non-academic, non-Western, non-judgmental, very Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This despite the Moscow Show Trials, Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky had told them from his unparalleled first-hand experience of the corrupt dictatorship Stalin was creating. None of that mattered.

Because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal and artistic mythology. Just as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than Frida – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forbears, and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican. Is being Mexican to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith, were, in other words, among the most reactionary elements in Mexican society.

Neither of them wrote clear, logical works of politics and philosophy. They both created fantasias into which their devotees and critics can read what they will. That, in my opinion, is how art works. It opens up spaces and possibilities for the imagination.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months later, one of Diego’s repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was successful.

He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says that after Frida’s death, he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – Diego was married his deceased wife’s art dealer while simultaneously having an affair with her principal customer.

In September 1957 Diego had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art, full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, strange and inspiring murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

Villa and Zapata by Frank McLynn (2000)

Almost immediately Villa lost his temper and began ranting at Obregón… Obregón replied in kind and both men seemed on the point of drawing their guns.
(Description of a typical political discussion between ‘revolutionary’ leaders, page 253)

In the autumn of 1913 the young American journalist John Reed spent four months embedded in the army of Mexican ‘revolutionary’ Pancho Villa. He was present at the general’s meetings with fellow leaders, met ordinary soldiers and peasants fighting for change, and rode into battle with the villistas. During one conversation Villa suddenly asked Reed: ‘And the war in America? How is that going?’ Puzzled, Reed replied that there was no war in America. ‘No war,’ exclaimed the amazed Villa. ‘Then how do you pass the time?’

Exactly. Fighting was a full-time activity for Villa and the various bandits, rebels, criminals, psychopaths, idealists, chancers and mercenaries he led in the so-called Army of the North, as it was for an array of other rebel leaders who flourished throughout Mexico, not to mention their counterparts in the various state militias and in the Federal Army.

Combine their itchy trigger fingers with the spectacularly two-faced, corrupt and scheming politicians who made a mess of running the country, and you have the toxic social and political mix which plunged Mexico into anarchy and violence between 1910 and 1920.

Frank McLynn is a popular historian who assimilates scholarly works on historical topics and turns them into rip-roaring narratives. In the introduction to Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution, McLynn candidly admits he has piggy-backed on Alan Knight’s two-volume history of the Mexican Revolution (Knight makes regular appearances in the text, quoted as giving the definitive view on this or that event) on Friedrich Katz’s award-winning biography of Pancho Villa, and on John Womack’s biography of Emiliano Zapata, to produce this book – although the ten-page bibliography gives evidence of a mass of other reading as well.

As the writer Patrick Marnham puts it, the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’ presents ‘a fiendishly complicated story’, and it is quite an achievement by McLynn to have converted it into one coherent, and very readable, narrative. As the title suggests, McLynn builds it on the scaffold of the twin biographies of Zapata and Villa, but ranges far further afield to end up giving a panoramic portrait of the whole period.

Mexico: a whistlestop history

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The following decades were characterised by political turmoil dominated by the figure of general-turned-president Antonio López de Santa Anna: hence it is known as the era of Santa Anna.

Attempts at stability weren’t helped by the big war with America, from 1846 to 1848, which resulted in Mexico losing over a third of its territory to the Giant in the North, a vast area which became the American states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

In 1858 civil war between liberals and conservatives broke out and was won by the liberals in 1861. But when they stopped repaying foreign debt to their European creditors, France sent an army to invade, claim the money, and impose on the Mexicans an Empire ruled by the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria.

Resistance to this bizarre foreign imposition was never quelled in the more far-flung provinces and, when threats from post-Civil War America forced Napoleon III to withdraw the French army in 1867, Maximilian’s remaining forces were quickly defeated and Maximilian was executed outside Mexico City. This was the War of the Intervention.

The decade or so after Maximilian’s death was dominated by the Liberal politician, Benito Juárez. In 1876 Porfirio Díaz, a republican general during the French intervention, was elected president. He lost the 1880 election but was re-elected in 1884, and ruled continually from then until 1911. Hence this period of Mexican history is known as the Porfiriato.

Diaz encouraged foreign (mainly American, but some British) investment and influence, invested in the arts and sciences, expanded the railroad network and telecommunications, all resulting in a period of economic stability and growth. ‘Order, peace and progress,’ was his motto. He created concentric circles of advisers, cronies, bankers, financiers and big landowners, to bolster his rule, known as the scientificos.

All great and good – if you were rich. But the Porfiriato did little or nothing for the majority of Mexico’s population, the extremely impoverished peasants and peons who worked the land.

McLynn paints a vivid portrait of Mexican society on the eve of the Revolution. The most important feature was the power of the hacendados, owners of the vast haciendas, centralised settlements which owned most of the agricultural land in Mexico. They ’employed’ millions of peons, debt slaves who were born or compelled into debt to the hacendados, forced to do back-breaking work seven days a week, for a pittance (25 cents a week) which they were then obliged to spend in the hacienda stores. The hacendados as a class were wealthy and, of course, backed Diaz. Beyond the cities, towns and haciendas lay the hundred thousand or more dusty villages where ‘free’ peasants, only a notch or two above the peons, scratched a living from whatever common land was left over.

During the 1900s many of the hacendados, in all of Mexico’s thirty states, made illegal attempts to co-opt and fence in what had previously been common land, using their armed militias to make examples of any villagers foolish enough to try to defend traditional ‘rights’. This included beating up or plain murdering uppity villagers.

It was during the early 1900s that Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (born in 1878), Emiliano Zapata Salazar (born in 1879) and thousands like them, born and raised in big peasant families, saw at first hand how their fathers and fellow villagers were treated with contempt by hacendados who could beat, kill and even rape at will, and who, since they controlled the local police and legal system, got off scot-free. Resulting in a mounting sea of anger and frustration.

The challenge from Madero

The so-called ‘revolution’ was triggered by a mild-mannered, well-educated and rather other-worldly liberal, Francisco Madero, who announced his intention to run for president in 1910 against Diaz who was, by now, nearing his 80th birthday. Diaz tried to use state power to intimidate Madero and then ran him out of Mexico. From exile in America, Madero announced that he would lead an ‘uprising’ against Diaz commencing on November 20.

A number of rebel or bandit forces rallied to Madero’s call, including those led by Villa, already a noted bandit, train and bank robber.

Key fact: Villa throughout his career operated in the northern state of Chihauaha, Mexico’s largest state. Emiliano Zapata operated mainly in the state he grew up in, Morelos, a fairly small state just to the south of Mexico City.

Villa was a larger-than-life bandit-turned revolutionary, who loved publicity and the high life and, when he won power, redistributed land and money to his loyal followers, while continuing to support American-owned mines and oil wells, in order to cream off big money from them, which he used to a) buy arms b) enjoy life.

Zapata, by contrast, was an intensely honest, upright peasant with a peasant’s mystical attachment to the land. When he gained power in Morelos, Zapata instituted widespread land redistribution which in effect simply gave the peasants more land on which to practice their back-breaking work. He was against big cities, factories, capitalism and the future. He wanted his people to live in a timeless peasant utopia. Principled and incorruptible.

So Madero’s contest with Diaz sparked uprisings all across the country, led by a kaleidoscope of local leaders, sometimes of small criminal gangs, sometimes of larger supposedly ‘revolutionary’ groupings.

Pressure from inside and from international sponsors, most notably the States, eventually forced Diaz to hold genuine elections, which Madero won in 1911. Diaz went into exile in France. Phase one of the ‘revolution’ was over. But, in McLynn’s account, Madero made the fatal mistake of acquiescing in Diaz’s parting plan which prevented the new president from taking active power for a long five months, while civil servants prepared a handover phase.

In practice, this was long enough for the well-entrenched forces of reaction to consolidate and plan their resistance to the incomer.

Villa and Zapata, among numerous other rebel leaders who had led wide-ranging attacks on Diaz’s Federal troops, thought the job was done when Madero was elected.

It took everyone a year or so to realise that Madero, even when fully in power, was not prepared to make the slightest changes to the economic and especially landholding system. He had only ever been a liberal pursuing the idea that elections ought to produce a genuine change of leader. He was a sort of theoretical democrat. Once a meaningful election had been held, he thought his job was done. He didn’t actually plan to change anything about Mexican society. The hated hacendados remained in power.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

The hundred or so pages which bring us to this point have consisted of an incredibly detailed account of the military campaigns of not only Villa in the north and Zapata in the south, but of numerous other rebel or revolutionary leaders, plus the elaborate politicking which went on in Mexico City, and in the Modera and Diaz camps, plus the machinations of other political players, plus the changing attitudes of the American president Taft and his diplomatic advisers. It is all fiendishly complicated.

And this, I’m guessing, is the main reason that most educated people don’t know much about the Mexican Revolution: it went on for such a long time, and was so incredibly complex. Not only that, but at no point did one actual revolutionary socialist leader come to power.

Compare and contrast with the Russian Revolution, which was not only more important in its impact, but easier to remember: 1. the Tsar was overthrown and executed 2. Lenin took power and 3. instituted a communist society. Easy to understand.

1911 to 1920

The sequence of events from 1911 to 1920 is unbelievably complicated, which explains why it takes McLynn 300 more large-format pages to explain them – but the outline can just about be summarised.

In February 1913 Madero was murdered by the military leader he had himself appointed, Victoriano Huerta in La Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days, during which Mexico City itself became a battlefield between Army and Constitutionalist forces.

Madero’s murder sparked further uprisings all over Mexico which amounted to a ‘second revolution’. (It is grimly fascinating to read about the role played in the overthrow of Madero, the elected liberal leader, by the American ambassador to Mexico, the unhinged Henry Lane Wilson.)

All the old rebel leaders rose against General Huerta. The Constitutionalist army of Venustiano Carranza created an alliance of Northern states, the most powerful component of which was Pancho Villa’s ‘Army of the North’, which won a series of military victories taking them right to the perimeter of Mexico City. With his own army collapsing and even arch-conservatives turning against the economic and military anarchy he had precipitated, Huerta fled the country in 1914.

By 1915 Carranza had consolidated his power to become president, going on to create a new constitution in 1917, and then set about quelling his former allies, who included Villa, leader of rebels in the north, and Zapata, leader of rebels in the south.

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

After a great deal more complicated fighting and toing and froing of alliances, the great generation of ‘revolutionary leaders’ was assassinated – Zapata in 1919, Carranza himself in 1920, Villa in 1923, and another key leader, Villa’s rival in the north, who made the transition to political office, Álvaro Obregón in 1928.

That’s a high-level summary, but it’s precisely the details of the countless battles with the federales, of the tentative relationship between Villa and Zapata, of the Machiavellian politicking of Carranza, of kaleidoscope of alliances, pacts, backstabbing and betrayals, which make the story so human and enjoyable. And appalling.

Socialism or personalism?

None of these leaders was a socialist. None of them had much following among the urban working class which, in Marx and Engels’s view, ought to be at the forefront of a communist revolution.

Their followers, who made up the bulk of their ‘armies’, which fluctuated wildly in size depending on success or failure, were made up of peasants, escaped peons, criminals, bandits and psychopaths, with a handful of literate educated men who liked to think they were fighting for a national cause.

The only thing remotely like a political policy which they had was a wish for land reform – Tierra y Libertad was the rather vacuous cry of all the ‘revolutionaries – but they had no idea how to carry it out with the result that… it wasn’t carried out.

Instead, the fighting was intensely regionalised and the rebel groups followed not a ’cause’ but their regional leader – the leader who was strongest and most effective in their region, who won battles and embodied the ideals of machismo better than their rivals. In this respect, it reminds me of Beowulf and the Germanic warrior tribes of the 5th century AD.

This explains – or is typified by the way that – Mexican politics of the period was not characterised by political ideas (or nothing more sophisticated than that the rebels wanted land reform and the conservatives didn’t), instead what you get is that every one of these leaders created an –ism or, in Spanish, an –ismo, which simply reflected whatever that leader proposed; and the followers of each macho leader were given the leader’s name plus –ista at the end to indicate who they were followers of.

Thus something called villismo was attributed to rebel leader Pancho Villa, even though he was illiterate and uneducated and unintellectual, and changed his mind about key decisions from day to day – and his followers were called villistas.

Emiliano Zapata was the exponent of Zapatismo – embodied in his so-called Plan of Ayala of 1911 – and was followed by zapatistas.

But merely having an –ismo didn’t make this pair special or unique; the same rule applied to all the leaders of the time. Followers of Pascual Orozco were Orozquistas, followers of Ricardo Flores Magón were Magónistas, followers of Carranzo were Carrancistas, followers of the dictator Huerta were Huertistas and so on.

The thirty odd years of economic progress before the Revolution were and still are referred to as the Porfiriato, after Porfirio Diaz. Which in turn was followed by the Maderism of Madero. Maderismo? ‘Its main objective was to achieve democratic regeneration of the country through effective suffrage and no re-election of public officials.’ People not ideas. Personalities not policies,that,arguably, has been Mexico’s curse, as of many developing countries.

Villa in Chihuahua

McLynn devotes a chapter to Villa’s rule over the state of Chihuahua from 1913 to 1914 which he managed with surprising effectiveness. He imposed law and order, provided pensions, free food and cheap meat for his followers and their families. Cut the cost of food and other basics, organised rationing, abolished abuses and corruption with a draconian code (execution for almost any wrongdoing), got his army to repair railroads and telegraph lines, expanded the school budget, raised teachers’ pay, built more than 100 new schools and set up a military college. (p.190)

But Villa and even the most educated of his followers were economic illiterates. Most of these ‘reforms’ were paid for by simply stealing money from rich hacendados and levying punitive taxes on the wealthy mining operations in Chihuahua (themselves profitable because it was so easy to ship iron, silver, copper and so on over the border into nearby America.)

Once income from these sources ran dry, Villa simply printed money – which caused runaway inflation. Like so many illiterate dictators, he then blamed ‘saboteurs’ and set up a secret police to track them down. McLynn gives a colourful portrait of Villa’s court at the time, which included literate managers and secretaries, but also genuine psychopaths such as Rodolfo Fierro, ‘el carnicero’, who shot men for the fun of it – although even he eventually overstepped the mark when he killed English landowner William Benton and sparked an international incident.

None of this was made to introduce equality – the focus was on redistributing land and resources to his followers, just like, say, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe redistributed land to his followers, and with the same net effect.

The labouring peons and peasants remained dirty poor, and simply had a new class of even more anarchic and unpredictable rulers lording it over them. It was, in the words of John Reed who saw all this in action, ‘the socialism of a dictator’ (p.191) or, in Alan Knight’s judgement – ‘Villa’s “socialism” was a figment of the Brooklyn Eagle.’

Zapata in Morelos

Of the 15 points in Zapata’s 1911 Plan of Ayala, only three were actually about economics or reform, articles 6 to 8 stating that:

6. property taken from the people by ‘landlords, científicos, or bosses’ will be returned to the citizens who have the titles to that property
7. one third of property of Mexican monopolies will be redistributed to villages and individuals without land
8. owners of monopolies that oppose this plan will lose the remaining two thirds of their properties which will be used as war reparations and as payment to the victims of the struggle of the revolution.

After Huerta’s ouster in 1914, Zapata set about implementing these proposals in his home state of Morelos but found it difficult in practice. Much remained to be done when he was assassinated in 1919. Permission for agrarian reform was sought by Zapata’s successor from Carranza’s successor, Álvaro Obregón, by then president of Mexico, in 1920, but was only ever implemented in Morelos, and then only partially.

If any of these characters had had clear, wide-reaching social and economic policies for the entire country – towns and cities as well as simply the peasants of one small state, industries and utilities as well as agriculture – then maybe they could have acted as a foundation on which to build coalitions, create political parties, attract voters and take the issue towards some kind of settlement.

But instead, leaders of both right and left encouraged – or simply operated in – a culture soaked in personality. The only question that ever mattered was, Are you for or against Villa or Carranza or Zapata or Modera or Huerta – or any of their hundreds of representatives at regional, state and local level?

The result was a style of politics based around personal alliances and vulnerable to all kinds of psychological whims and disagreements between the main players – a system which seems almost guaranteed to ensure that no one individual or party can ever come to uncontested power, and that armed uprisings, and the violence, looting, pillage and rape which this book is absolutely full of, spread across your country uncontrollably.

Since none of them were proposing clearly defined political ideologies with specific policies, you couldn’t co-opt them, pinch them, incorporate them into your policies, discuss them or reach compromises – as we do in democratic countries. The only way to end a cult of personality is to eliminate the personality. The only way to end villismo or zapatismo was to kill Villa, to kill Zapata.

That’s certainly what it looked like to the newspaper readers in the great big neighbour to Mexico’s north – an exasperated sense that the uprisings and violence never seemed to end, that whichever bloodthirsty leader rose to the top would soon be overthrown by another bloody coup.

'What?...Again?' Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

‘What?…Again?’ Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

Fame and the media

Zapata and Villa remain names to conjure with because, at various times, and in their respective states (Morelos for Zapata, Chihuahua for Villa) they both managed to pull off impressive military feats, often against superior Federal Army forces, which hit the headlines, sometimes around the world.

To a U.S. readership puzzled by the issues at stake, these military victories brought the two men to a peak of fame about 1914, and climaxed with the overthrow of Huerta and the triumphant entry of rebel armies into Mexico City.

In this the duo were helped by enthusiastic newspaper promoters like John Reed, and, strikingly, by the new medium of film. Rather mind-bogglingly, Pancho Villa signed with a Hollywood studio to make several films about his life and struggle while he was still fighting in the revolutionary war – namely the Life of Villa (1912), Barbarous Mexico (1913), With General Pancho Villa in Mexico (1913), The Life of General Villa (1914) and Following the Flag in Mexico (1916).

Villa’s name was further kept before the American public when, in 1916, the U.S. Army under General Pershing was sent to Mexico in response to an uncharacteristic raid Villa made on the American town of Columbus. Pershing led no fewer than 5,000 troops and employed aircraft and trucks in a huge co-ordinated manhunt, with the public kept informed by regular newsreel footage. He spent eight months in the hunt but failed to catch the wily bandit – thus adding to Villa’s latterday Robin Hood, Jesse James, Ned Kelly glamour.

Zapata’s legacy is completely different. Shy of the floodlights, far less garish, Zapata is associated to this day with inflexible, incorruptible, unflinching commitment to the issue of the peasants and their land. His example has been cited by land reform movements around the world and as recently as the 1990s a neo-Zapatista movement was started in Mexico’s impoverished south-east.

But, as far as I can tell, his only idea was a semi-mystical one that the land belongs to he who tills it: a notion generally referred to as ‘Agrarianism’. Still very relevant to the places in the world where landless peasants, peons and serfs are still forced to work for big landlords – it is totally irrelevant to the urbanised majority of the modern world’s population.

The revolutionary legacy

As to the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’, it did not lead to any revolutionary or socialist policies. Venustiano Carranza, who claimed political suzerainty over both Villa and Zapata (in an uneasy relationship which becomes a central theme of the story) replaced Huerta as president in 1917.

Carranza wasn’t a cold-blooded killer like Huerta, but he ruthlessly pursued the centralisation of all political power, and continued what was effectively a civil war against the remaining warlords which lasted from 1915 to 1920. This apparently endless turmoil prevented anything much in the way of ‘reform’ except for continuing burning, looting, pillaging, raping and murder on an epic scale all across Mexico.

Carranza’s Constitution of 1917 was written by young professionals and, among other political changes, called for the expropriation of hacienda lands and redistribution to peasants, empowered the government to expropriate holdings of foreign companies, demanded an 8-hour work day, a right to strike, equal pay laws for women, and an end to exploitative practices such as child labour and company stores.

But just writing and ‘adopting’ a constitution doesn’t change anything on the ground and meanwhile the style of Mexican politics carried on unchanged.

Carranza was finally forced to flee when his one-time puppet Obregón launched a political campaign for the presidency in 1920. Before running away, Carranza looted the chancellery of all its gold and the capital of as much treasure as he could transport on the so-called Golden Train which he headed to the port of Vera Cruz. From here he planned to sail off into exile, as more or less every Mexican leader before him. Instead, the Golden Train was ambushed and Carranza was squalidly shot down in a mud hut where he had been taken by bandits who then betrayed him. Horrible.

Obregón won the presidential vote of 1920. The northern ‘revolutionary’ general Elías Calles succeeded him in 1924. Obregón ran again but was assassinated in 1928, allowing Calles to plan to become another long-term power behind the throne, another Diaz.

Since he wasn’t allowed to be president two terms in a row, Calles appointed Lázaro Cárdenas to be a puppet front-man for four years till he could himself return, but Cárdenas took the role seriously, won a power struggle with Calles, and expelled him from the country. Intoexile trotted another Mexican ex-president.

Same old story. In polities with a cult of personality, civilised negotiation is impossible. Either x is ruling or y is ruling. Whoever loses doesn’t go and get a job with a big corporation and cease commenting on politics – they have to be run out of the country in order for the country to function.

In the late 1920s Cárdenas set up the Party of the Mexican Revolution designed to be ‘a big tent corporatist party’, to bring political factions and interest groups (peasantry, labour, urban professionals) together, while excluding conservatives and the Catholic Church.

In 1946 the party was reorganised and renamed the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party (‘a mesh of corruption’, according to McLynn, p.399), the party which went on to run Mexico until 2000.

The PRI declared itself the embodiment of the glorious ‘Mexican Revolution’ in order to justify its existence and its hold on power for nearly 70 years.

Who knows whether the social and economic changes which Mexicoexperienced in the 1930s and 40s would have come about anyway, without any of the raveing bloodshed, as a simple result of unstoppable technological and economic change, population growth, better exploitation of natural resources and so on?

But, in the Mexican way, social progress ended up requiring so much violence. So many brutal and cruel deaths. So much breathtakingly duplicitous, dishonourable backstabbing.

My view is influenced by this two-hour documentary which seems to conclude that the ‘revolution’ led to some big political changes (i.e. a readjustment about who ran the political system) but absolutely did not lead to the fair redistribution of land, or to anything like ‘equality’. Even now, over a hundred years after the ‘revolution’ began, there is still mass poverty in Mexico, and large numbers of workers still toil miserably on the land.

The Storm That Swept Mexico

A two-hour-long American documentary covering the Mexican Revolution, which includes contributions from Friedrich Katz, author of the prize-winning biography of Pancho Villa which McLynn quotes from extensively.

Why 1910 to 1920?

1910 is usually given as the start date of the Mexican Revolution because it was in this year that Francisco Madero launched his bid to become president and to end the Porfiriato. 1920 is often taken as the end date (though historians still squabble about this) because it marked:

  1. The murder of the man who had lorded it over Mexico after the flight of military strongman Huerta, Venustiano Carranza – Head of the Constitutionalist Army, 1913–1915, Head of the Preconstitutional Government, 1915–1917, President of Mexico, 1917–1920 – who had himself been the unremitting enemy of Villa, Zapato and the leaders of uprisings in other provincial states.
  2. The surrender of Pancho Villa, who was granted an amnesty for himself and his closest supporters, who were allowed to go and live in peace on a hacienda in Chihuahua.

Although Mexican politics continued to be a treacherous and dangerous business for decades to come (‘the years 1924-28 were dark and barbarous’), the half-war, half-bandit violence which had brought terror and destruction to most of Mexico for the decade since 1910, substantially came to an end.

Unlike the obsessive centraliser Carranza, who couldn’t allow any other centres of power, Obregón was a natural politician and fixer who was able to negotiate peace with all factions and create genuine stability. Well. For a few years…

The assassination of Pancho Villa

However, as the 1923 presidential election approached, the two likely contenders to replace Obregón were De la Huerta from the Right and Calles from the Left. Obregón had indulged Villa in peace and quiet on his hacienda as the old revolutionary became more right-wing and took to drink, but a series of misunderstandings led Obregón and his cronies to suspect Villa was about to throw in his lot with De la Huerta, possibly in exchange for a state governorship.

Numerous other enemies with a grudge against Villa had never given up their determination to take revenge. Obregón appears to have given his blessing to the complicated assassination conspiracy against Villa which McLynn lays out in great detail.

On 20 July 1923 Villa was driving a car packed with friends and bodyguards out of the town of Parral, where he’d been visiting one of his many mistresses, when it was bombarded with bullets by a gang of gunmen and Villa’s body was riddled with bullets. Think Bonnie and Clyde.

The Cristero Rebellion (1926–29)

In 1926 a massive rebellion broke out among Catholic peasants against the fierce anticlerical campaign of Obregón’s successor, Calles, which eventually spread across 13 of Mexico’s states, leaving as many as 100,000 dead, with some 250,000 fleeing to America.

The assassination of Alvaro Obregón

In 1927 Obregón announced his intention to run again for president. The various factions who tried to stop him found themselves blackmailed or stitched up, arrested or murdered, but powerful forces were determined to stop him.

On 17 July Obregón was shot five times in the face at point blank range by a devout Catholic linked to the Cristeras during a banquet in his honour. Obregón was the last of the generation of Villa and Zapata. he had fought alongside them, and then turned into their political enemy – which is why McLynn takes his book up to this point, eight years past the official end of the ‘revolution’, but long enough to make the reader realise there was plenty more political and social violence following the nominal ‘end’ date. What a country!

Zapata’s son

Almost at the end of the book McLynn tells us that the son of Emiliano Zapata the incorruptible, Zapata the peasants’ friend, ended up becoming a landowner himself, got elected mayor of Cuautla, sold out to the old élites and became a contented member of the Morelos plantocracy. Ha!

Conclusions

McLynn’s conclusion is that the bandit groups of both Villa and Zapata were co-opted, despite their best intentions, into struggles not to change the ruling class, but between different factions within the ruling class. Villa and Zapata were suborned to the death-contests fought between Diaz, Madero, Huerta, Carranza and Obregón.

The net result of these ten violent years was to replace an ageing, traditionalist ruling class with a younger, more thrusting ruling class – but one which went on to use the same age-old Mexican techniques of treachery and violence to seize power and, almost as an afterthought, drag Mexico into the twentieth century.

The old landowning aristocracy was killed or fled into exile, the hacienda system was broken up and replaced by more modern forms of industrial farming, cash crops, mining and so on. The look and dress of the old ruling class was abandoned. Superficially, to look at, Mexico and Mexicans had become more ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’. But,as the documentary makes clear, plenty of Mexicans still live in grinding rural poverty.

McLynn’s final, damning, conclusion, is that the ‘revolution’ made Mexico safe not for its peasants – but for the new brand of 20th century capitalism.


Related links

Related reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pocock and McLynn

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of a year

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

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

Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher (1756)

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

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

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

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

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

Louis Antoine de Bougainville

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

Why the French were doomed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pitt & Newcastle

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

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

India

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham 13 September 1759

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 20 November 1759 part one

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

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

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

Bonny Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 20 November 1759 part two

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

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

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

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

Britain won

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

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

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

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham by William Hoare

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

Punishing profiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The death of Wolfe by Benjamin West

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

Further reading

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

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

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


Credit

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

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