Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith (2002)

It is Tokyo, December 1941, and Harry Niles is a fast-talking, streetwise American nightclub owner, one-time American movie importer, gambler and fixer with friends in low – and high – places. He was brought by his parents (Roger and Harriet Niles) to Japan soon after the First World War. They were Southern Baptist missionaries who came to convert the Japanese and left young 10- and 11-year-old Harry in charge of drunk Uncle Orin while they went off for long journeys around the country.

So while uncle was off drinking, Harry grew up speaking fluent Japanese and running wild in the red-light district of Asakusa. The book opens with a scene of the boy Harry being chased by his Japanese schoolboy friends as they re-enact an ancient Samurai legend (which requires an inordinate amount of fighting with bamboo sticks), running through the streets till they tumble through a building, and up against a closed door which, under pressure of their fighting bodies, springs open and lands Harry and the most aggressive of his native Japanese pursuers, Gen, suddenly into the dressing room of a small theatre, the Folies.

Harry and Gen become friends with the manager, with a camp artist Kato who hangs around the theatre and draws and sketches the clientele, and some of the showgirls at the theatre, and are quickly running errands for them and gaining all kinds of new insights into adult life. He develops a crush on the beautiful actress and sometime geisha Oharu, who is fond and kind to him in return.

This is all set in 1922 in the opening chapter of the book, and the narrative for the first half of the book alternates chapters between grown-up Harry, ‘now’, in 1941, and boy Harry, ‘then’, back in 1922, giving us more of Harry’s childhood memories, which explain his character, and also relationships with some of the central adult characters.

But the ‘now’ of 1941 is where most of the narrative takes place and which entirely takes over the second half of the story. It is December 1941, in December. Tension between Japan and America is becoming intense. America has long since imposed an oil ban on Japan, along with a ban on a wide range of modern textiles and produce, but it’s the oil ban that’s hit hardest, with the result that all cars are having to be propelled by charcoal-burning stoves set up in their rears.

All the talk is of conflict, and most of the Americans who can leave Tokyo have already done so. But Harry remains, a puzzle to his acquaintances, happy-go-lucky, blessed with an intimate knowledge of Tokyo, not so lucky in his mistress, Michiko, a fervent communist who he rescued from being beaten up by the ferocious Tokyo police after a protest march some two years earlier, and who latched onto him ever since. He has installed him as the Record Girl in his bar, standing by the jukebox, changing records and mouthing along to the words, dressed in a dinner jacket and sexy stockings. Give the place sex appeal. Encourages the male clientele to buy more drinks. Unfortunately, Michiko is fiercely almost insanely jealous, continually threatening either to shoot Harry or kill herself. Yes, she is quite a strain to be with.

The last plane to leave Tokyo is scheduled to take off on Monday December 8. Unfortunately, as we the readers know, the Japanese launch their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December, so we know the plane will probably be cancelled and Harry trapped. Ooops.

So the book follows Harry through three or so days of feverish, against the backdrop of mounting war hysteria, as half a dozen or more complicated plotlines meet and clash to provide a complex plot and mounting tension. Among these are:

Eight months earlier Gen, now a lieutenant in the Japanese Navy, introduced Harry to a man in the back of the geisha house opposite Harry’s Bar who turns out to be Admiral Yamamoto. As a notorious con-man Harry is taken to see the experiments of a certain Dr Ito to turn water into oil. These are impressively staged with lots of electric arcs and sparking, but Harry immediately sees it is a confidence trick and helps Gen expose it.

Now, eight months later, Harry repeatedly makes it clear to anyone who will listen that any coming war will be entirely decided by access to oil. America has vast supplies of it, not least from its own Texas oil ranges. Japan has no oil in its territory but will have to invade and conquer the oil-producing islands of the Dutch East Indies. Hence the willingness of the desperate High Command to believe in the ridiculous Dr Ito and his experiments.

Now we discover that Harry has been involved in falsifying the shipment papers of American oil tankers coming to Japan, to the harbour of Yokahama. He makes it look as if they set off with ten thousand barrels of oil and arrive with only one thousand. Where do they stop off? Hawaii and the naval base of Pearl Harbour. So Harry’s fiddling with the accounts seems to imply that the Americans are building up stocks of oil in secret oil storage tanks somewhere at the harbour. But are they?

Why is Harry bothering to do this? We learn that nobody is paying him to. In fact, he is definitely persona no grata with the American authorities, a position he consolidates by making an outrageously anti-American speech at the Chrysanthemum Club, the club for Tokyo’s most important businessmen and politicians. Here Harry makes a big speech explaining why there is no need for a war. This is because he genuinely doesn’t want there to be a war, but it has the effect of setting both the American and powerful British community against him as a traitor.

As a sideline, there is the thread of Willie Stauber, a German emigre, fully paid-up Nazi, but who Harry worked with in Nanking four years earlier, and who returned from China with a Chinese bride in tow. He is desperate to get out of Tokyo but to make sure his Chinese bride can accompany him. At odd moments, in the midst of his other concerns, we see Harry purposefully working to try and help Willie, eventually by securing faked official documents, into which he, Harry, writes an official text declaring Iris a fit person to travel, sealed with an official seal which he himself makes and stamps, using one of his many underworld skills, this time as a forger.

Colonel Ishigama 1

But the central driving force of the narrative is definitely is the fact that, right from the start of the book, Harry is being hunted by a certain Colonel Ishigama, who has vowed to kill him. Why?

Their paths have crossed twice before. Once, back in 1922, the artist Kato had asked Harry to deliver a fine print to a client. Harry had already taken several to the tall severe figure inside an opulent-looking house. This time he wants to see a new movie so asks his friend Gen to take it. Bad mistake. Hours later, when Gen has not returned, Harry goes to the house and is invited in by the forbidding owner. He finds gen lying sideways on a large pillow with an odd look on his face, while the owner proceeds to show Harry his collection of antique swords, and then to demonstrate samurai moves with it. Eventually, he ushers both boys out of his house, giving Gen a white chrysanthemum as he leaves.

Back at Kato’s studio, the artist explains that this is because Colonel Ishigama (for this is the man’s name) has deflowered Gen, taken his homosexual virginity. This is why he had wanted Harry to take the print; Harry is too ugly for a connoisseur like Ishigama to be attracted to. Now he has spoilt everything.

Kato and Oharu

In fact Kato is so disappointed with Harry that he decides, on the spot, to sever friendship with him, to see him no more. Harry is devastated. the past few months have given him a wonderful insight into art and adult life, and wonders and mysteries. But Kato is unbending and Harry is kicked out to wander the streets in tears.

That night boy Harry tracks down Kato to a walled garden. Sneaking over the wall Harry is transfixed to discover that Kato is sketching Harry’s beloved actress Oharu being fucked in various positions by one of the comedians from the Folies theatre. Having become drenched in Japanese aesthetic values Harry is able to appreciate the subtlety of the positions, and the rapid way Kato sketches lines and form, writing scribbled notes in the margins indicating what colours later to use when he works them up to prints in his studio.

But a sudden flash of lightning reveals Harry standing in the garden watching the scene. Quick as a flash he turns and leaps back over the garden wall, scampering way through the alleyways of Asakusa in the pouring rain back to the house where he’s meant to be supervised by drunk Uncle Orin, but where he is, as usual, alone, and hunkers down into his bed cold and wet and miserable. Except that, a few minutes later, Oharu knocks meekly at the door, comes sits by the bed and apologises. ‘It was only sex, Harry,’ she says, voicing the very different attitude the Japanese take to copulation from us shame-filled Westerners. it was just poses and positioning for her friend the artists, Kato, nothing more. She strokes his head. He is cold and feverish. She insists on getting him out of his wet things. She climbs in behind him and Harry feels her nipples hardening. She takes his hand and guides it between her legs. In short, she guides him through the mysteries of sex, and takes his boyish virginity.

All novels are, at some level, wish fulfilment. The wish fulfilment and fantasy is nearer the surface in ‘genre’ fiction. What man reading this could not be transported and wish this was how he lost his virginity.

Unfortunately, Harry is just falling asleep in Oharu’s arms when the light is brutally turned on to reveal Harry’s parents standing over them, unexpectedly returned from a long missionary tour, accompanied by the bleary-eyed and mortally embarrassed Uncle Orin.

Harry’s father brutally yanks Oharu by the hair out of Harry’s bed and when Harry protests belts him so he reels across the room. He would have pushed Oharu naked out into the street, except that his wife points out the neighbours will see, the humiliation etc, so they let her hurriedly dress in her kimono before kicking her out then Roger Niles takes his belt to Harry and beats him till he bleeds.

Suffice it to say this experience crystallises Harry’s love for everything fine, refined and Japanese and his contempt for everything big, blundering and brutal about America. Within days they are on a boat sailing back to the States. A few months later Tokyo is devastated by the vast earthquake and firestorm known as the Great Kanto earthquake, an appalling disaster in which some 144,000 people lost their lives in the unimaginable holocaust of out of control firestorms. Harry later learns that Kato died trying to protect his prints, and nothing was heard of Oharu: like so many other she simply disappeared, burned without trace.

Colonel Ishigama 2

Anyway, it is only two-thirds of the way into the book that we discover the cause of Ishigama’s ire and why Harry has been trying to evade him for the first 300 pages, in a prolonged flashback. The story is actually told by the German Willie Staub. Four years earlier Willie had been in China when the Japanese invaded. He had been in the capital Nanking when the Japanese arrived and began their reign of fear. They gang raped all the women they could find. they rounded up men and shot them in squads of up to a hundred. NCOs arranged for the still raw recruits to use live Chinese as bayonet practice in order to perfect their technique.

In the midst of this holocaust Willie and the handful of other Europeans tries to set up a safe quarter of town to protect the Chinese fleeing there. From nowhere appears an American who can speak fluent Japanese and becomes Willie’s driver. He tells several stories about how Harry used his con-man confidence to interrupt executions and gang rapes.

Best technique was to muscle through the Japanese soldiers holding down the woman, take out a stethoscope and examine her groin (having first gotten the Japanese penis removed) and announce confidently that she had venereal disease, reminding the soldiers that they don’t want to infect themselves and bring this pollution back to their wives and sweethearts. The Japanese desisted. Harry and Willie took the traumatised woman to their lorry, to join all the others, and, once the lorry was full, be driven back to the (relative) safety of the European zone.

Anyway, one day on their tour of the atrocities, they come across a crowd of soldiers surrounding a line of ten Chinese civilians who have their hands tied behind their backs and have been made to kneel in a line. At the end of the line is Colonel Ishigama. Harry recognises him instantly. And recognises the beautifully crafted, infinitely sharp samurai sword he is holding. He is about to see if he can behead ten people in a row in under 60 seconds. As he flexes his wiry forearms, and as his aide de camp prepares the bucket of water and cloth with which he will wipe the sword between strikes, Harry grabs all the cash he and Willie have in the cash box in the lorry, jumps down and walks confidently into the ring of soldiers, yelling that he will give Ishigima 100 yen and every man in the watching soldiers ten yen each, if Ishigama can behead them all in under thirsty seconds, those left unbeheaded to walk free. The soldiers cheer for the money and Ishigama reluctantly agrees (refusing would lose face) and Smith then describes the grisly decapitation of the first five civilians, with Ishigama losing time because he’s flustered, because the aide de camp drops the wiping cloth, accidentally hitting his own aide de camp on one backswing: the upshot is that Ishigama only manages five before the thirty seconds is up.

The crowd of soldiers roar, Harry gives them the huge bundle of yen to distribute and hustles the surviving five civilians – including a 13-year-old boy who has pooed and peed himself – into the back of the lorry alongside the raped women, and they carefully reverse, through the cheering soldiers and drive off before Ishigama can do anything.

This is why, when Harry hears, right at the start of the story, that Ishigama is back from China in Tokyo, it fills his mind with anxiety and drives the narrative.

Ishigama’s revenge

There are a lot of other plot strands. Harry meets with his mistress (Lady Alice Beechum – wife of Sir Arnold, the British ambassador), tries to hide the fact from Michiko, runs his bar, the Happy Paris, makes his speech at the Chrysanthemum Club, meets other friends Japanese and American, for drinks and gossip, is present at the small group for drinks where Willie tells the story about Ishigama, meets his schoolboy friend and nemesis Lieutenant Gen, now in the Japanese Navy, for conversations about oil or lack thereof for the Japanese war effort.

In a separate plotline he is being investigated and followed by Sergeant Shozo of the Special Higher Police, also known as the Thought Police, and his goon assistant Corporal Go. They have been tipped off about his involvement in the Magic Oil experiments of Dr Ito, and turn up at the Yokohama dockside offices of one of the oil companies whose books Harry is fiddling to make it look like oil is being offloaded in Hawaii.

Also we run into several of Harry’s small gang of boyhood Japanese friends, and discover how they’ve turned out. One is a sumo wrestler, Taro, twin of Jiro, who had joined the navy and been killed and who, in a series of scenes, Harry promises to accompany to the office where they collect his ashes and official war box (containing the ashes, military citation and so on) to be given to the dead hero’s family.

Plus involvements with various local gamblers and a strand where Harry swaps all the cash he has for gold from a friendly pawnbroker.

Altogether, these intertwining plotlines and strands form a wonderful fabric, a tapestry of stories and adventures and scams, each of them shedding light on different aspects of Japanese culture, and tradition, building up a persuasive sense of life in Japan of the period.

But it is only in the last 100 pages or so that Ishigama finally catches up with Harry. It is in the willow house, a geisha house opposite his bar. Harry has returned from various meetings and adventures to discover his own bar dark and locked up. Unusual. He didn’t give instructions for this. And the willow house opposite is strangely quiet. It is unlocked. He takes his shoes off and tiptoes along the hall until he hears a voice calling his name.

In a genuinely bizarre scene, he discovers Colonel Ishigama quietly kneeling at a traditional Japanese table with his immense super-sharp samurai sword lying on it, attended by an immaculately painted geisha girl. Harry knows everything about Japanese culture and so this scene is stuffed with facts about geishas and the intricacy with which they are painted, their social and cultural role, as well as lots of information about Ishigama’s background.

Ishigama is infinitely polite and solicitous. He asks the geisha for hot sake. They drink each other’s health. Harry knows that if he makes one false move or says something wrong, Ishigama will whip up the sword and behead him faster than he can move.

It is the standout scene in a novel full of strikingly vivid, beautifully imagined scenes. Ishigama calmly and politely informs Harry that he (Harry) owes him (Ishigama) five heads, the five heads he never got to take off back in China. Of course Harry’s will be last, but he, Harry, will select the identities of the other four. Harry’s mind races…

At which point one of Harry’s acquaintances, Al DeGeorge, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor, knocks on the door. He is drunk as a skunk. He stumbles inside shouting Harry’s name wanting to know why his bar isn’t open. He makes it right up to the entrance of the back room when Ishigama abruptly swoops to his feet, with one stride is at the doorway, and with one enormous sweep of the sword cleaves DeGeorge from shoulder blade to belly button. the dying man grunts a last syllable and falls in two halves.

Neither Harry nor the geisha has moved. As I say, powerful scene. In the event it slowly dawns on Harry, to his amazement, that the geisha is none other than his fierce lover, Michiko. All kinds of speculation goes through his mind. Was she always a geisha on the side. Who painted her so elaborately, every geisha needs an assistant? Was it Ishigama, a psychopath famed for his aesthetic abilities? In which case, did she service the brutal sadist?

Harry’s mind is swimming while he all the time makes no movement as Ishigama ritually cleans his sword and returns to the kneeling position opposite Harry at the low table. More sake! And the three toast each other as if nothing had happened. Then suddenly Michiko has a small dagger at Ishigama’s throat. She makes him put down the sword and Harry grabs both it and the smaller ceremonial sword from Ishigama’s sash.

Ishigama is neutralised. He smiles. Now he knows Michiko’s true relationship with Harry. Then he stands up and, of course, Michiko can’t bring herself to stab him. Before they can stop him he leaps through the paper wall of the room and is into the garden and beyond. Harry collects up the swords, grabs Michiko’s hand and they run back across the road towards his bar, letting themselves in, locking the door, Harry fumbling for the pistol he has hidden under the floorboards.

Then Harry is picked up by the Thought Police and taken to a prison where he sees the manager of one of the oil companies whose records he had faked, bound to a table and beaten senseless with bamboo rods. Sergeant Shozo is very polite, offers him a cigarette, says this will happen to him unless he tells them what he knows about the secret oil tanks at Pearl Harbour. They only beat Harry a little and eventually (and a bit inexplicably, to me) they let him go.

Harry makes his way back to central Tokyo and spends the remaining 100 or so pages of the book in increasingly desperate attempts to inform the American ambassador, and then his mistress, Lady Beechum, that he is now convinced a Japanese attack is coming very soon. The ambassador, cornered at a swish Japanese golf course, simply pretends to ignore him. Lady Beechum tells him noone will believe him; he is the most discredited man in Tokyo.

Then there is another encounter with Ishigama, in the street which is interrupted by news announcers blaring from every streetside loudspeaker – that Japan has launched a surprise attack on the American fleet and utterly destroyed it. People stream out of their houses, cheering. Ishigama is lost in the torrent of people. All the plotlines come together. Harry drives through the throng to the American embassy only to discover, amid scenes of panic as all the embassy staff gather and burn all their secret information, that Harry’s name is not on the list of Americans who will be repatriated. His old schoolboy friend Hooper explains it is partly because he is persona non grata with both the American and British ex-pat community. But more because the Japanese want him.

Finally Ishigama catches up with him, helped by his oldest schoolboy frenemy, Gen, giving rise to a prolonged chase through shops and back alleyways until Harry finds himself, unwittingly, tumbling once again through the door into the dressing room of the Theatre Folies, where he had tumbled all those years ago. Now it is dusty and abandoned and now, on its empty stage, the last gruesome scene of the novel takes place.

You will not be surprised to learn that heads roll. But I think you should read this immensely enjoyable to find out whose.

Dramatis personae

Whites

Lady Alice Beechum – wife of Sir Arnold, British ambassador, Harry’s sexually athletic mistress, who has also worked in the British code room for two years, very well informed about international affairs

Sir Arnold Beechum – purple faced blimp who knows full well Harry is having an affair with his wife and, late on in the novel, ambushes Harry with a cricket bat, knocking him unconscious, as if Harry didn’t have enough to worry about already

Willie Staub – member of the Nazi Party, former managing director of China Deutsche-Fon – who was with Harry back in Nanking, China, then married Iris, a Chinese woman, who he is desperate to help get away with him back to Europe

Al DeGeorge – sceptical journalist for the Christian Science Monitor

Japanese

Agawa – keeper of a local pawnshop who exchanges Harry’s cash for small gold ingots

Corporal Go of the Thought Police, a grinning sadist

Goro – reformed pickpocket friend of Harry’s, gone straight and married the owner of a stationery shop he once tried to rob

Haruko – waitress at Harry’s bar, the Happy Paris

Ishigami – the young army officer who deflowers the boy Gen, and gives him and Harry a display of samurai swordsmanship, who Harry cheats out of his Chinese beheadings in Nanking, and then pursues Harry implacably through the second half of the novel like an avenging Fury

Kato – artist and printmaker, who teaches Harry (and the reader) the aesthetics of Japanese prints and design; after Harry lets Gen take a print to Lieutenant Ishigama – who seduces him – Kato drops Harry as unreliable

Kondo – bartender at the Happy Paris

Michiko Funabashi – young woman communist who Harry saves from a riot, sleeps with and thereupon becomes  his fiercely jealous mistress, she serves as the Record Girl in his bar, and pops up unexpectedly painted as a geisha girl in the central scene with Colonel Ishigama

Oharu – actress in the theatre who wipes the boy Harry’s face when he tumbles into the changing room, and becomes his muse, and who later takes his virginity: lost in the great earthquake of 1922

Sergeant Shozo of the Special Higher Police – thoughtful and playful officer who unwaveringly pursues Harry to find out if he was lying about the oilfields at Hawaii

Taro – sumo wrestler, twin of Jiro, who joins the navy and is killed, whose ashes Taro receives on the main day

Tetsu – one of their boyhood gang who becomes a yakuza and is covered in tattoos

Gen – the leader of their gang when they were boys, now a lieutenant in the Japanese navy

Admiral Yamomoto – head of the Imperial Japanese Navy who Harry is introduced to by a nervous Lieutenant Gen eight months earlier, whose trust Harry wins by playing poker with him, and who then asks for Harry to come and watch the conman Dr Ito perform his fraud of supposedly turning spring water into oil

Cruz Smith’s prose

Cruz Smith’s writing has two obvious pleasures: one is that he really transports you to his locations, making you feel and smell and breathe them. The bustling, noisy cityscape of 1940s Tokyo is vividly conveyed, from the pomp of the British Embassy, via the top businessmen at the Chrysanthemum Club, to the umpteen bars and pawnshops and sumo training gyms and artists studios which Harry’s numerous interests take us to.

Second is the way he can make language jive and shimmy. I’ve just read a couple of thrillers by the Englishman Robert Harris, which are written in clear efficient journalistic prose, the text’s ‘grip’ deriving from the mounting tension implicit in the increasingly fraught situations he describes. the prose is meant to be transparent as a reporter’s and let the fraught scenarios snag the reader.

By contrast Cruz Smith is a poet. He can make the language jive and shimmy in totally unexpected ways. You know the old archive footage where an artist like Picasso draws a couple of lines onto paper and… it is a bull! Same with Cruz Smith. A couple of ordinary words are arranged in a novel combination which opens up an entirely new idea or sensation.

In this way, not only are the novels exciting and informative but they supply a steady stream of moments when the prose leaps up and performs tricks for you. I’m not saying he’s Shakespeare. Just that he can do in a phrase what other authors need a paragraph to do, and then injects something extra.

For example, here is Tokyo as the loudspeakers at every road corner blare the news that Japan has launched and won the Pacific war.

Each radio report began with the opening bars of the ‘Warship March’, and with every account, Tokyo seemed to rise farther above sea level. (p.407)

When Harry is planning to ditch Michiko in order to be on the last plane out of Tokyo sitting next to his mistress, Lady Beechum, he thinks:

He’d garb his betrayal with small decencies… (p.233)

Lady Beechum is all-too-aware of Harry’s crooked shortcomings, as she sums up in a Wildeish paradox:

‘Harry, it’s a fantasy. You and I were not meant to be with anyone. it’s sheer incompatibility that keeps us together.’ (p.172)

Sometimes it’s more in the zone of American street smarts, descended from a long line of pulp writers, and crafted to reflect Harry’s own rueful self-awareness.

A crow trudged up the road and shared a glance with Harry, one wiseguy to another. (p.330)

It was one of those moments, Harry thought, when your life was put on the scale and the needle didn’t budge. (p.342)

But at others, it’s poetry, moments when you see a new aspect of human behaviour.

The man spoke with such intensity that it took Harry a moment to find the air to answer. (p.191)

Sometimes it’s the poetry of description.

Every few minutes a fighter plane would pass overhead, towing its shadow across the baseball diamond and up over the slope to the airfield across the road. (p.130)

This immediately and vividly made me recall all the times an airplace shadow has passed over or near me. I was there.

Maybe my favourite is the moment when the boy Harry pops over the wall into the garden of the house where he is to discover Ohasu having sex and being sketched by Kato, in a heavy summer downpour of rain, and:

The house was larger than it had appeared from the street, with a side garden not of flowers but  of large stones set  among raked pebbles. In a brief illumination of lightning, Harry saw the garden as it was meant to be contemplated, as small islands in a sea of perfect waves. The pebbles chattered in the rain. (p.250)

‘The pebbles chattered in the rain.’ Not show-offy, witty or paradoxical. Only six common little words. But which convey the moment perfectly, the garden of Japanese pebbles glistening and minutely jostled by the heavy downpour. You are there. With Harry. At the heart of the story. And Cruz Smith does this again and again with acute details and snappy phrases. His books are not only gripping and thoroughly researched, but deliver a really verbal, literary pleasure.


Related links

Other Martin Cruz Smith reviews

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’

Also:

1986 Stallion Gate

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia (2) by Dominic Lieven (2015)

Lieven concludes his rather exhausting history of the diplomatic build-up to the First World War as seen from Russia, with some Big Ideas.

Big ideas

– The First and Second World Wars were essentially wars fought between Russia and Germany for control of Europe. The first war ended in stalemate; Russia won the second one.

– This explains why both the world wars started in eastern Europe, in the badlands between the two empires – with the Austrian attack on Serbia in 1914, and the Nazi attack on Poland in 1939.

– The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 led to a vacuum. It led to the creation of a host of smaller nations (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, alongside the existing weak powers of Bulgaria and Romania), none of which was strong enough by itself to stand up to either Germany or Russia, making the second war, if not quite inevitable, then a lot more likely.

– In both these wars France was the only liberal democracy on the continent of Europe, and both times was too weak by itself to decide the outcome.

– Britain was in some ways an onlooker to both wars: her armies fought and suffered, horribly in the first war, but in neither was she defending her own territory – in both she was fighting in line with her centuries-old policy of preventing any one of the ‘powers’ from establishing dominance of Europe; to make sure her ‘back’ was protected while she concentrated her efforts on building and maintaining her overseas empire. In the eighteenth century this threat had come from France – in the early twentieth century it came from a unified Germany.

– In both 1914 and 1939 the German leadership gambled that Britain would not get involved in a European war, and, indeed, both times there were influential British voices raised against involvement. But both times we surprised and dismayed the Germans by plunging in, thus preventing her from getting the quick wins she’d gambled on.

– America was even more of a spectator than Britain, and reluctant to get involved in either war, until forced to in 1917 and 1941, respectively – i.e. three years and two years after they’d both started.

– In Lieven’s eyes the Treaty of Versailles which ended the Great War had two great weaknesses:

  1. The two powers at the centre of the conflict, the two powers likely to tear Europe apart, were both excluded from the peace treaty. Soviet Russia wasn’t interested and was too busy fighting her own civil wars (1917 to 1920) or trying to invade Poland (in 1920) to take part in Versailles. Germany was deliberately excluded by the triumphant Allies, and had the treaty imposed on it — thus allowing German politicians and especially the Nazis, to claim they had never agreed to it, had had it imposed on them, it was victors’ justice, profoundly unfair, and to justify her attempts to unravel the treaty agreements during the 1930s.
  2. The Versailles treaty was largely the creation of the United States and its idealistic President Wilson. When the United States Congress refused to either ratify the treaty or join the League of Nations which was set up to safeguard it, they effectively removed the treaty’s most powerful support. Given that Great Britain was busy during the 1920s pursuing its imperial aims in the Middle East, India and Far East, the onus of defending the terms of the treaty ended up being left to France which – once again – was simply too weak to resist a resurgent Germany.

The situation today?

The European Union is a massive geopolitical experiment designed to address the same ongoing problems.

  • It was born from the attempt to bind Germany and France together with such intricate economic ties that they can never again fight a war.
  • For the first forty years of its existence, the EU was an attempt to create an economic and political bloc which could stand up to the Soviet Union and its communist satellite nations in eastern Europe, an economic counterpart of the NATO military alliance.
  • Nowadays it is an attempt to create a sort of European ’empire’, i.e. a geopolitical power bloc which can compete with the global superpowers of America and China. Huge argument goes on within the EU about its ability to convert this economic power into political power.

To return to the idea of 20th century history consisting of a war between Russia and Germany for control of Europe, for 44 years after the end of the Second European War, the Russians had, in effect, won.

They had achieved everything the most ambitious Russian generals and politicians of 1914 could have imagined. They had extended the reach of Russian control through the Balkans almost as far as Constantinople, they had swallowed the Baltic nations and Poland, they had extended their grip across Europe as far as Berlin.

With the collapse of Soviet power in 1990, the pendulum swung the other way, with Germany rapidly reuniting into one super-nation, and the other, newly liberated East European states all joining NATO, whose membership now extends right up to the traditional borders of Great Russia.

It was this rapid extension of the NATO alliance right up to Russia’s borders – with the threat that even Georgia on her southern border in the Caucasus might join, and the threat that Ukraine, pointed like a dagger into the heart of Russian territory, and which many Russians regard as part of their spiritual homeland, was about to join forces with the West – which prompted Russian intervention in both Georgia and eastern Ukraine, and the present atmosphere of Russian anxiety, paranoia and bravado.

Maps of NATO in 1990 and 2015 showing how NATO has extended its reach right to the borders of Russia

Maps of NATO in 1990 and 2015 showing how NATO has extended its reach right to the borders of Russia © Stratfor http://www.stratfor.com

In other words the issue which plagued the Edwardian era, the struggle which defined European and to some extent world history for most of the 20th century, is continuing in our time – a Germanised Europe faces an anxious, unpredictable, and increasingly nationalistic Russia.

What will happen next? Who knows? But Lieven’s book, in supplying such a detailed account of Russian diplomatic and strategic thinking in the build-up to the first war, forms a kind of training manual of all the possible permutations which the problem, and its solutions, can take.

It certainly made me want to understand Russo-Turkish history better, particularly at a moment when the nationalist leaders of both countries are causing liberal Europe such concern.

Towards The Flame prompts all kinds of thoughts and ideas about how we got where we are today, and gives its readers the long historical perspective as they watch current Russian foreign policy play out.


Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

The War of 1812 by Carl Benn (2006)

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

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

Why? Why did America attack Britain in 1812?

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

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

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

Reasons

The reasons American politicians gave for declaring war were that:

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

So the Americans went to war because:

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

There were other reasons too.

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

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

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

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

The war

No-one expected the war to last three years.

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

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

There is a long, detailed account on Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War on sea and land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War’s end

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

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

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

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

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

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

The star-spangled banner

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

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

Summary

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Figures

It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.


Related links

Other posts about American history

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