Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) and multi-ethnic societies

Mutual suspicion, brinkmanship, arrogance, belligerence and, above all fear were rife in the halls of power across Europe in the summer of 1914. (p.8)

I’m very surprised that this book won the ‘2014 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History’ and the ‘Society of Military History 2015 Distinguished Book Award’ because it is not really a military history at all.

It’s an epic book – 788 pages, if you include the 118 pages of notes and 63 pages of bibliography – and it gives an impressively thorough account of the origins, development and conclusion of the First World War, as seen from the point of view of the politicians, military leaders and people of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

But I found it much more of a sociological and economic history of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society, than a narrative of military engagements.

Watson gives a broad outline of the German invasion of Belgium and northern France, but there are no maps and no description of any of the vital battles, of the Marne or Aisnes or Arras or Ypres. Instead he spends more time describing the impact on Belgian society of the burning of villages and the atrocities carried out as the Germans overcompensated for what they claimed were guerrilla and francs-tireurs (free-shooter) attacks by civilian snipers.

I was specifically hoping to learn more about the famous three-week-long battle of Tannenberg on the eastern front, but there is no account of it at all in this book. Instead Watson gives a detailed description of the impact on society in Galicia and East Prussia of the ruinous and repressive Russian advance. Little or nothing about the fighting, but a mass of detail about how individual villages, towns and cities were subject to Russian administration and violence, and a lot about the impact of war on the region’s simmering ethnic tensions. I didn’t realise that the Russians, given half a chance, carried out as many atrocities (i.e. massacring civilians) and far more forced movements of population, than the Germans did.

Watson does, it is true, devote some pages to the epic battle of Verdun (pp.293-300) and to the Battle of the Somme (pp.310-326), but it’s not what I’d call a military description. There are, for example no maps of either battlefield. In fact there are no battlefield maps – maps showing the location of a battle and the deployment of opposing forces – anywhere at all in the book.

Instead, there are lots of graphs and diagrams scattered throughout the text showing things like ‘Crime rates in Germany 1913-18’, ‘Free meals dispensed at Viennese soup kitchens 1914-18’, ‘German psychiatric casualties in the First and Second Armies 1914-18’ (p.297) and so on. Social history.

Longer than the accounts of Verdun and the Somme put together is his chapter about the food shortages which kicked in soon after the war started and reached catastrophic depths during the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-17. These were triggered by the British naval blockade (itself, as Watson points out, of dubious legality under international law), but also due to the intrinsic shortcomings of German and Austro-Hungarian agriculture, compounded by government inefficiency, and corruption (pp.330-374).

So there’s more about the food shortage than the actual battles. Maybe, in the long run, the starvation was more decisive. Maybe, he would argue, there are hundreds books devoted to Verdun and the Somme, whereas the nitty-gritty of the food shortages – much more important in eventually forcing the Central Powers to their knees – is something you rarely come across in British texts. He certainly gives a fascinating, thorough and harrowing account. But it’s not military history. It’s social and economic history.

A lot later in the book, he gives gripping accounts of the German offensive of spring 1918, and then the Allied counter-offensive from July 1918 which ended up bringing the Central Powers to the negotiating table. But in both instances he gives a very high-level overview, and only enough detail to explain (fascinatingly) why the German offensive failed, but the Allied one succeeded – because his real motivation, the meat of his analysis, is the social and political impact of the military failure on German and Austrian society.

Something else I found disappointing was his neglect of campaigns even a little outside his main concern with German and Austro-Hungarian military politics and social impacts.

He gives a thrilling account of the initial Austrian attack on Serbia – which was, after all, the cause of the whole thing – and how the Austrians were, very amusingly, repelled back to their starting points. But thereafter Serbia is more or less forgotten about and the fact that she is later successfully invaded is skated over in a sentence. Similarly, none of the fighting on the front between Austria and Italy is described, and there is only one reference to Romania being successfully occupied and nothing at all about Bulgaria until a passing mention to her capitulation in 1918. In other words, I had been hoping that the book would give an account of the First World War in the East, but it doesn’t. The text – as the title, after all, indicates – is pretty ruthlessly focused on the military capabilities, mobilisation, economy and society of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Ethnic tension

If there’s one theme which emerges from this very long book it is the centrality of ethnic and nationalist divisions in the Central Powers themselves, and in the way they treated their conquered foes.

Throughout its examination of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society – on employment, women’s roles, propaganda, agriculture and industry, popular culture and so on – the book continually reverts to an examination of the ethnic and national fracture lines which ran through these two states.

For example in the food chapter, there are not only radical differences in the way the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities dealt with the crisis (the effectiveness of different rationing schemes, and so on) but we are shown how different national regions, particularly of Austria-Hungary, refused to co-operate with each other: for example, rural Hungary refusing to share its food with urban Austria.

What emerges, through repeated description and analysis, is the very different ethnic and nationalist nature of the two empires.

Germany

Germany was an ethnically homogenous state, made up overwhelmingly of German-speaking ethnic Germans. Therefore the fractures – the divisions which total war opened up – tended to take place along class lines. Before the war the Social Democrat Party (much more left-wing than its name suggests) had been the biggest socialist party in Europe, heir to the legacy of Karl Marx. However, when war came, Watson shows how, in a hundred different ways, German society closed ranks in a patriotic display of unity and so the SDP, after some debate, united with all the other parties in the Reichstag in voting for the war credits the Chancellor asked for.

Watson says contemporaries called this the Burgfrieden spirit of the time, meaning literally ‘castle peace politics’ but more accurately a political policy of ‘party truce’, all parties rallying to the patriotic cause, trades unions agreeing not to strike and so on. The sense that Germans were encircled by enemies and must all pull together.

Typical of Watson’s social-history approach is his account of Liebesgaben or ‘love gifts’ (pp.211-214), the hundreds of thousands of socks and gloves and scarves knitted and sent to men at the front by the nation’s womenfolk, and the role played by children in war charity and some war work.

He has three or four pages about the distinctive development of ‘nail sculptures’, figures of soldiers or wartime leaders into which all citizens in a town were encouraged to hammer a nail while making a donation to war funds. Soon every town and city had these nail figures, focuses of patriotic feeling and fundraising (pp.221-225).

Watson is much more interested by the impact of war on the home front than by military campaigns.

Austria-Hungary

The spirit of unity which brought Germany together contrasts drastically with the collapse along ethnic lines of Austria-Hungary, the pressures which drove the peoples of the empire apart.

The Empire was created as a result of the Compromise of 1867 by which the Austrians had one political arrangement, the Hungarians a completely different one, and a whole host of lesser ethnicities and identities (the Czechs, and Poles in the north, the Serbs and Greeks and Croats and Bosnians in the troublesome south) jostled for recognition and power for their own constituencies.

Watson’s introductory chapters give a powerful sense of the fear and anxiety stalking the corridors of power in the Austro-Hungarian Empire well before the war began. This fear and anxiety were caused by the succession of political and military crises of the Edwardian period – the Bosnia Crisis of 1908, the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, the rising voices of nationalism among Czechs in the north and Poles in the East. There was a very clear First Division of empires, a class of Great Powers, and the rulers of Austria-Hungary were petrified that the collapse and secession of any part of their heterogenous empire would relegate them to the class of also-rans, beginning them on the path to humiliation and impotence being experienced by the disintegrating Ottoman and powerless Chinese empire.

Watson shows how, as soon as war broke out, the empire began dividing. Vienna ceded control of large regions to localised governments best placed to mobilise the war effort among their own peoples, not least in Galicia, inhabited by a majority Polish community.

This tended to have two consequences:

  1. one was to encourage nationalism and the rise of nationalist leaders in these areas (it was via wartime leadership of the Polish Legions, a force encouraged by Vienna, that Józef Piłsudski consolidated power and the authority which would enable him to establish an independent Poland in 1918 and successfully defend its borders in 1920, before eventually becoming Poland’s strongman in the interwar period)
  2. the second was to encourage inter-ethnic tension and violence

The difference between homegenous Germany and heterogenous Austria-Hungary is exemplified in the respective nations’ responses to refugees. In Germany, the 200,000 or so refugees from Russia’s blood-thirsty invasion of East Prussia were distributed around the country, welcomed into homes and communities all over the Reich, and were recipients of charity from a popular refugee fund which raised millions of marks. Even when the refugees were in fact Polish-speaking or Lithuanians, they were still all received as loyal members of the Fatherland (pp.178-181).

Compare and contrast with the bitter resentment which greeted refugees from the Russian invasion of the Austro-Hungarian border region of Galicia. When some 1 million refugees were distributed round the rest of the empire, the native Hungarians, Austrians or Czechs all resented having large number of Poles, Ruthenians and, above all, Jewish, refugees imposed on their communities. There was resentment and outbreaks of anti-refugee violence.

The refugee crisis was just one of the ways in which the war drove the nationalities making up the empire further apart (pp.198-206).

Two years ago I read and was appalled by Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands, which describes the seemingly endless ethnic cleansing and intercommunal massacres, pogroms and genocides which took place in the area between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

Watson’s book shows how many of these tensions existed well before the First World War – in the Balkans, going back centuries –  but that it was this massive pan-European conflict which lifted the lid, which authorised violence on an unprecedented scale, and laid the seeds for irreconcilable hatreds, particularly between Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Jews.

The perils of multi-ethnic societies

Although I bet Watson is a fully paid-up liberal (and his book makes occasional gestures towards the issue of ‘gender’, one of the must-have topics which all contemporary humanities have to include), nonetheless the net effect of these often harrowing 566 pages of text is to make the reader very nervous about the idea of a multinational country.

1. Austria-Hungary was a rainbow nation of ethnicities and, under pressure, it collapsed into feuding and fighting nationalities. 2. Russia, as soon as it invaded East Prussia and Galicia, began carrying out atrocities against entire ethnic groups classified as traitors or subversives, hanging entire villages full of Ukrainians or Ruthenians, massacring Jewish populations. 3. The to and fro of battle lines in the Balkans allowed invading forces to decimate villages and populations they considered dangerous or treacherous.

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915)

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915) No doubt ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’

In other words, everywhere you have a mix of ethnicities in a society put under pressure, you get voices raised blaming ‘the other’, blaming whichever minority group comes to hand.

Unable to accept the objective truth that their armies and military commanders were simply not up to winning the war, the so-called intelligentsia of Austria-Hungary, especially right-wing newspapers, magazines, writers and politicians, declared that the only reason they were losing must be due to the sabotage and treachery of traitors, spies, saboteurs and entire ethnic groups who were declared ‘enemies of the state’.

Just who was blamed depended on which small powerless group was ready to hand, but the Jews tended to be a minority wherever they found themselves, and so were subjected to an increasing chorus of denunciation.

Ring of Steel is a terrible indictment of the primitive xenophobia and bloodlust of human nature. But it is also a warning against the phenomenon that, in my opinion, has been ignored by generations of liberal politicians and opinion-formers in the West, who think that importing large groups of foreigners can only be a good thing which ‘enriches’ our rainbow societies. Maybe, at innumerable levels, it does.

But import several million ‘foreigners’, with different coloured skins, languages, cultures and religions into Western Europe – and then place the societies of the West under great economic and social strain thanks to an epic crash of the financial system and…

You get the rise of right-wing, sometimes very right-wing, nationalist parties – in Russia, in Poland, in Hungary, in Germany, in Sweden and Denmark, in Italy, in France, in Britain and America – all demanding a return to traditional values and ethnic solidarity.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying the evidence seems to be that human beings are like this. This is what we do.

And I’d have thought this was one of the main lessons of history. You can’t look at the mass destruction of the Napoleonic Wars and say – ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the appalling suffering created by industrialisation and say, ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mind-blowing racist attitudes I’ve been reading about in the American Civil War and say, ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mad outbreak of the First World War and the stubborn refusal to give in which led to over ten million men being slaughtered and say – ‘Well, we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the Holocaust and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’.

Because in my lifetime the savagery of the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the genocide in Darfur, the failure of the Arab Springs and the civil war in Syria, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS, the war in Yemen, the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prove, if they prove anything, prove that —

WE ARE STILL LIKE THAT

We are just like that. Nothing has changed. Given half a chance, given enough deprivation, poverty and fear, human beings in any continent of the world will lash out in irrational violence which quickly becomes total, genocidal, scorched earth, mass destruction.

In the West, in Britain, France, Germany or America, we like to think we are different. But in my opinion, we are not intrinsically different at all. We are just protected by an enormous buffer of wealth and consumer goods from having to confront our basest nature. The majority of the populations in all the Western nations are well off enough not to want, or to allow, any kind of really ethnically divisive politics or inter-ethnic violence to take hold. Or are they?

Because creating multi-cultural societies has created the potential for serious social stress to exacerbate racial, ethnic and nationalist dividing lines which didn’t previously exist. When I was growing up there was no such thing as ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain. 40 years later there are some 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, some 5% of the population – and I read about people being accused of ‘Islamophobia’ almost every day in the newspapers.

It’s not as if we didn’t know the risks. I lived my entire life in the shadow of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland which were based entirely on ethnic or communal hatred. And now not a day goes past without a newspaper article bewailing how Brexit might end the Good Friday Agreement and bring back the men of violence. Is the peace between the ethnic groups in Northern Ireland really that fragile? Apparently so. But British governments and the mainland population have always had an uncanny ability to sweep Ulster under the carpet and pretend it’s not actually part of the UK. To turn our backs on 40 years of bombings and assassinations, to pretend that it all, somehow, wasn’t actually happening in Britain. But it was.

Anyway, here we are. Over the past 40 years or so, politicians and opinion makers from all parties across the Western world have made this multicultural bed, and now we’re all going to have to lie in it, disruptive and troubled though it is likely to be, for the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

Although it certainly includes lots of detail about the how the societies of the Central Powers were mobilised and motivated to wage total war, and enough about the military campaigns to explain their impact on the home front, overall Watson’s book is not really a military history of the Central Powers at war, but much more a social and economic history of the impact of the war.

And in the many, many places where he describes ethnic and nationalist tensions breaking out into unspeakable violence, again and again, all over central and eastern Europe – Watson’s book could very easily be read as a manifesto against the notion of a multicultural, multi-ethnic society.


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Lenin on The Train by Catherine Merridale (2016)

Dominic Lieven’s book about the diplomatic build-up to the Great War – Towards The Flame – was very demanding, every page full of analyses and counter-analyses of complex international situations, which took a good deal of concentration to understand.

By contrast, Catherine Merridale’s book is like a series of articles in a toney travel supplement, or the book version of a TV script – chatty, opinionated, entertaining, lightweight and, in the end, a bit disappointing.

The story

In April 1917 the German High command laid on a sealed train to transport Lenin and 30 or so communist colleagues to war-weary Russia, in the hope that his subversive activities would weaken the Russian war machine. It was a well-established strategy. At the same time, the Germans were arming independence fighters in Ireland and trying to foment rebellion against British rule in India.

This book sets out to recreate the fateful journey, describing the broader context of the war and wartime St Petersburg, the nexus of German agents and dodgy Russian businessmen who arranged the deal, the journey itself, and the fraught political situation in  which Lenin found in wartime St Petersburg when he arrived.

Lenin's train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Lenin’s train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Three parts

Merridale’s book isn’t formally divided into three parts, but that’s what it feels like, to this reader at any rate.

Part one – Catherine’s adventures and pukka Brits

For such an important and, in its consequences, tragic subject, the introduction and part one are light, chatty and disconcertingly frivolous.

In the introduction Merridale describes her own attempt to recreate Lenin’s journey on modern-day trains and ferries, with a great deal of travel magazine observations – people smuggle booze on the ferry from Germany to Sweden, it’s very cold in Finland, and so on. Her observations are often disappointingly trite – in one place she points out that when Lenin took the journey Europe was at war, whereas in 2016 – Europe is at peace! Back then it was a dangerous and uncomfortable journey – but now crossing frontiers is easy and the seating is nice and comfy!

Then, in the first 80 or so pages of the text proper she plunges us not into the fraught economic, military and political situation of 1917 Europe but… into the world of quirky upper-class characters who populated the British Embassy and diplomatic corps in 1917 St Petersburg (which is, she tells us, a simply magical city!).

The journey ends in the magical city of St Petersburg, Lenin’s wartime Petrograd, the second Russian capital. (p.17)

Chaps like Sir Samuel Hoare, Sir George William Buchanan, Major-General Sir Alfred William Fortescue Knox, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, and so on.

When Dominic Lieven introduces diplomatic personnel or political leaders into his narrative it is always to summarise their ‘line’, their views on geopolitical issues, and to feed them into his intricate portrait of the complex debates about prewar Russian strategy.

When Merridale introduces key players it is generally to tell us a funny story about their parrot or their umbrella.

When Lieven introduces Marxist revolutionaries, it is to explain their theories and how they had developed out of the economic and social situation of Russia, the threats they posed to the Tsarist order, and to clarify the convergence of circumstances which made them viable.

When Merridale introduces her revolutionaries it is to tell us about their love lives and taste in wine.

So, for example, she tells us that in 1905 Trotsky and his wife arrived at the Munich apartment of Alexander Helphand, known as ‘Parvus’, Marxist theoretician, revolutionary, and activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany. You might expect Merridale to give us at least a hint of their theoretical discussions and how they influenced the man who went on to be number two in the Russian Revolution, but no. The Trotskies:

became unofficial lodgers at the big man’s place, sharing all the news and imbibing Parvus’ theories of revolution along with his strong coffee and delicious late-night wine. The two men talked about the revolutionary potential of the general strike, they honed their idea of a world revolution (for Russia was only ever meant to be a starting point) and they dared each other to get tickets for the next train east. (p.60)

Instead of anything about his theoretical contribution or political strategy, we learn that Parvus was so fat that the children of German Marxist leader, Karl Kautsky, nicknamed him ‘Dr Elephant’.

When Parvus persuades the German High Command to fund his plan to send revolutionaries to Russia, with the initial downpayments he sets himself up in Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel where he establishes an entourage of bosomy blondes and orders champagne for breakfast (p.63).

This may all be true, but these first hundred pages or so present serious, tragic, even catastrophic history, as jolly japes retold by Bertie Wooster. The British Embassy, we learn, was situated in the impressive Saltykov Palace, although the diplomats had to share it with:

an ancient princess, Anna Sergeyevna Saltykova, who still lived in the back with her servants and a loquacious parrot. (p.31)

The British ambassador to Petersburg was supported by his wife, Georgina, his daughter Meriel, and – a bad-tempered Siamese cat.

The acting head of intelligence at the time was Major Cudbert Thornhill, an old India hand and ‘a good shot with rifle, catapult, shot-gun and blowpipe.’ (p.33)

It feels a lot like ‘Miss Marple investigates the Russian Revolution’.

Part two – the Russian revolution and train journey

Around page 100 things pick up. Merridale begins to pay more serious attention to Lenin’s beliefs and theories. We still get a lot about his haircut, his boots and how he was dragged off to a department store in Stockholm to buy new clothes so that he would look more presentable on arriving in Russia (and pleasant travelogue about how Merridale herself has visited as many of these shops and cafes and sites as remain).

But for the central hundred and fifty pages or so Merridale’s narrative becomes genuinely gripping.

The genesis of the idea to send Lenin to Russia remains a bit murky. Some communist fixers-cum-shady businessmen (hence the portrait of Parvus and others of his type) appear to have volunteered their services as go-betweens with the communist agitators, at just the time that the German secret services were casting around for characters likely to cause the most damage to the Russian state.

Contacts and discussions had been floating in the foggy atmosphere of war more or less since the outbreak of hostilities. What suddenly kick starts everything is the February Revolution – covered in gripping detail by Merridale – when a march of women to celebrate International Women’s Day attracts other protesters, swells in size and then – crucially – the soldiers sent in to suppress it refuse to obey orders, and even turn on their own officers.

After a winter of escalating strikes and unrest, exacerbated by severe food shortages, it was the mutiny of the soldiers in garrisons all across Petersburg which led to the Revolution.

The members of the Duma, the Russian Parliament, were confused by events: the conservatives fled, many resigned, but a hard core of liberals stayed on to set up what they called a Provisional Government, under the benign figurehead of kindly old Prince Lvov. Meanwhile, there was unstoppable momentum from politicised workers (especially from the working class Vyborg area of Petersburg) and representatives of the mutinous regiments, to set up their own council or soviet.

Meanwhile the Tsar had been forced to abdicate, excluding his sickly son from the succession, and passing the throne on to his brother, Grand Duke Michael, who himself deferred taking it up until until ‘the people were allowed to vote through a Constituent Assembly for the continuance of the monarchy or a republic’. This never happened, and it was Grand Duke Michael’s demurral which, in effect, brought the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty to an end.

Thus in a few hectic days came about a situation in which Russia had become a republic, but was lumbered with two governing bodies – the Provisional Government and the Petersburg Soviet – who eyed each other with suspicion. The initial euphoria of the revolution settled down into a pattern of all-night debates and arguments in smoke-filled rooms – while all the while Russia was still fighting a war against an extremely professional opponent, imperial Germany, and trying to motivate a huge army of some seven million men who now wondered what on earth they were fighting for.

Merridale explains all this very well, not least because she draws heavily on the eye witness accounts of the British diplomats and writers present in Petersburg. It is only now that the reader understands why we were introduced to all these upper-class twits in the first 80 or so pages – it was because they would turn out to be invaluable source material for describing and interpreting the confusing chaos of events in Petersburg that fateful spring.

It would have helped a lot if Merridale had prefaced her opening chapters by saying: ‘I am now going to introduce you to a florid collection of British upper class eccentrics, incompetents and curiosities which might seem odd but, trust me, they will turn out to be vital eye-witness testimony to one of the most seismic events in history.’

Anyway, Merridale now skillfully intersperses pretty much everything that is known about the eight-day journey of the train – the organisation of the train by German authorities, the gathering up of Lenin’s associates, the setting off, the stops, the delays, the invasions by drunken soldiers, the professional and personal rivalries of many of the figures aboard it, the border passports control (which I was surprised to read included humiliating strip searches) – all interspersed with sections describing the fast-moving events in Petersburg.

Above all, for the first time, the narrative starts to sound political. For the first time she descends into the feverish mesh of argument and counter-argument which engulfed every educated person living in Russia, and gives it a sense of urgency:

Should Russia continue fighting? Some socialists thought Russia should offer an immediate ceasefire in what was, after all, a brutal imperialist war. Liberal pacifists agreed. But right-wing traditionalists thought Russia must fight on to defend her honour, the Holy Church etc. And many socialists thought to surrender would be simply to allow imperial Germany to invade and conquer European Russia.

Among socialists there was fierce and bitter debate about whether the ‘revolution’ needed to be continued or whether it had achieved its aim. You have to understand that Marx thought that Western societies would inevitably and unstoppably pass through certain fixed stages of development, and that orthodox Marxists therefore thought that Russia had to pass from a peasant autocracy into a bourgeois democracy, before it could go on to have a workers’ revolution. The Tsarist autocracy had quite clearly been overthrown and the new provisional Government, made up mostly of lawyers, academics and some industrialists, quite clearly represented the triumph of the bourgeoisie. This stage should be given a chance to bed in, to establish western norms of democracy, a free press and so on, while the socialists continued to educate the workers and peasants in order to prepare for the next stage, the socialist revolution which was just around the corner. Manana. Soon. Probably.

Merridale’s very English, pragmatic, unintellectual approach to the situation brings out some more basic, humdrum psychological explanations for delay – namely that many of the so-called socialists and communists were in fact scared of assuming responsibility in such a perilous situation. Power looked like a poisoned chalice. Russia was losing the war and the people were starving. With the convenient scapegoat of the Tsar removed, whoever took the reins would get all the blame.

This is the backdrop against which Lenin’s train finally steams into the Finland station and he is greeted by a large cheering crowd and dignitaries with bouquets of flowers etc.

Merridale has, by this stage, done such a good job of bringing out Lenin’s spartan, puritan, obsessive personality that we’re not surprised that he throws away the bouquets, ignores the pompous welcome speeches and goes straight out onto the balcony to address the crowd of workers to announce that – the Time Is Here, the time is now for uncompromising revolution. No-one must cooperate with the bourgeois provisional government. It must be stormed and overthrown and all power vested in soviets or communes of workers and peasants.

Merridale brilliantly conveys the shock Lenin’s unbending zealotry had on absolutely everyone: the bourgeois liberals, the meek-minded socialists, let alone conservatives and reactionaries. Even the more radical Bolshevik faction which Lenin had himself founded back in 1903 was surprised, with Bolsheviks just back from Siberian exile such as Kamenev and Stalin having to readjust their positions to match Lenin’s. No-one else was thinking so radically and violently.

Merridale shows how Lenin was in a minority of one even among his own followers, and quotes both socialists, and provisional government officials, who were eye-witnesses in the days and weeks that followed, to meetings, debates, speeches and presentations in which Lenin was booed and roundly lost the argument. The acting premier, Kerensky, initially worried by his return, watched Lenin alienate his entire party and confidently concluded that he was ‘finished’.

How to end?

If you think about it, Merridale and her publishers had always faced a problem with this book which is, where to end it? The train journey lasted just eight days, from 9 to 17 April. How far either side of the actual journey should the book extend?

You can see how you’d need a build-up to the journey, in Merridale’s case using the accounts of British diplomats to paint in the privations and discontents of wartime Petersburg.

You can see how you’d need a section describing the very shady activities of the immense swamp of spies, middle men, entrepreneurs, smugglers, double agents, conspirators, fanatics, political zealots of all colours and so on who infested wartime Switzerland, in order to give a flavour of the struggle the German High Command had to weed out hundreds of absurd plots from the handful of ideas which might really contribute to their war effort. And how you’d then drill down to the specific contacts between Russian Bolshevik supporters (often themselves pretty shady businessmen) and named individuals in German secret service. using whatever archive material still exists.

Merridale does all this and summarises what is currently known about the contacts, agreements, payments and practical details fixed up among these men.

Then you’d want a detailed description of the train journey itself, right down to the most trivial detail, right down to the way Lenin hated smoking and insisted that people use the only toilet in his set of ‘sealed’ carriages to smoke in – which made it uncomfortable for people who actually wanted to use the loo as a loo. So that, in the end, Lenin devised a ticketing system: second class tickets for those who wanted to smoke in the lav, first class tickets for those who needed to use it for its primary function.

Then you’d want to gather all the eye witness accounts that exist, from the memoirs and diaries and letters of survivors, to describe Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station.

And then you’d want to follow the excitement of his arrival and the stimulus it gave to the left wing cause, on into the days and weeks afterwards to gauge the impact Lenin had on the political situation (and, incidentally, to assess the value for money which the German High Command got for what, it turns out, was quite a hefty investment in the train plan).

But where should the book end? One week after Lenin arrives? One month? Six months were to pass between Lenin’s arrival in April and the October Revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Is Catherine going to describe all six months in the kind of intense detail with which she had described the crucial eight days of the journey and the first week or so of his arrival?

No.

It would be too much, it would be too long. Other people have done it better, more comprehensively and thoroughly following the immensely complicated twists and turns of the revolution – and the ongoing fighting – for that six months. Even if you took the story up to the October Revolution, you’d still have to stop at some stage, before the peace with Germany, before the Russian civil wars break out.

Merridale continues her account of the fierce arguments among all shades of political opinion which Lenin’s arrival had brought to a head, up until the writing of the ‘April Theses’, the set of ten directives which Lenin hammered out immediately upon his arrival, announced in speeches on 17 April and subsequently published in Pravda.

The core of Merridale’s book is devoted to showing how Lenin’s absolute, unwavering insistence that the next stage of the revolution needed to take place now, with the declaration of peace with Germany, the complete overthrow not only of the Provisional Government but of all the bourgeois instruments of the state, and the assumption of power by workers’ and soldiers’ soviets.

With the April Theses Lenin established clear blue water between the Bolsheviks and every other party in Russia, and positioned them as more or less the only alternative to the bodged ‘dual government’ situation of Provisional government and Petersburg Soviet. There is a compelling logic to stopping here.

Then something odd happens. The book changes tack completely.

Part three – German money and Catherine’s reflections

The historical narrative morphs into a chapter (‘Gold’, pp.242 to 266) devoted to investigating one specific issue: how much did the German High Command fund the Bolshevik revolution?

Quite clearly the German High Command laid on the train to carry Lenin back to Russia. His opponents weren’t blind to the propaganda value of this simple fact, and many of them – both rival socialists and opposition liberals and conservatives – set out to prove that the entire Bolshevik operation was in fact a German front designed to take Russia out of the war and let Germany win. That the Bolsheviks were German agitators, and traitors. Were they right?

Merridale lays out the pros and cons of these claims and shows how. down the years, they continued, until well into the 1950s and even 60s. Russians in exile after the Revolution continued the accusations and, periodically, dubious individuals popped up, both in Russia and later in Europe, even including an American (Frank Chester) – all of whom claimed to have been involved and to have proof that the entire Russian Revolution was a German scam.

I found Merridale’s exposition of all this a little confusing. I think in the end she is saying that (apart from the obvious fact of the Germans laying on the train, making all the practical arrangements, arranging all the passports and visas etc) the initial operations of the Bolsheviks in Petersburg – the running of the printing press, distribution of pamphlets and so on – must have cost a lot more money than the party was making simply through membership fees (although membership of the Bolshevik party did rocket from some 13,000 to around 80,000 by the time of the October coup). Where did this money come from?

Well, there is archive evidence that several of the dubious middle-men who we met earlier, socialist-minded fixers who ran a healthy smuggling trade from Germany through Sweden to Russia – did receive substantial payments from German authorities, which can’t be accounted for solely by their business activities – so, yes, it is quite possible that the Germans funded the Bolsheviks, after Lenin’s arrival, via various middle-men.

But this is all very murky. It was wartime. The Germans didn’t keep full accounts of their off-the-record espionage activities and anyway Berlin was bombed to the ground in 1945, destroying most archives. For their part, the smugglers didn’t exactly keep legitimate accounts. The Bolsheviks had no incentive to tell the truth at the time and, under Stalin, became past masters at suppressing any inconvenient truths.

This was sort of interesting in a gossipy, John le Carré sort of way, but I mentally consigned it to the same place as speculation about who killed JFK.

Does it really matter? Even if it could be proved that the Germans actively funded the Bolsheviks in the months between Lenin’s arrival and the October Revolution, it is only really icing on the basic fact that they sent Lenin back to Russia. Moreover, no-one denies the fact that the Germans were pouring millions of Marks into funding all kinds of subversive activity in Russia (in April 1917 alone, the German Foreign Ministry authorised five million Marks to be used for propaganda, and there were numerous other German agencies doing the same, p.257).

And in any case, once the war in Europe was over, the civil wars in Russia got into full swing, and the sums of money pouring into Russia to support the different sides dwarfed anything the Germans might have spent on the Bolsheviks.

The money, important on one level, is only really of interest to obsessives who think that somehow the Russian Revolution could have been averted – exactly like the geeky types who think that, if only JFK hadn’t been assassinated, the Americans would never have gone into Vietnam and brought their own country to the brink of civil war. If only if only.

But, in my opinion, ‘if onlies’ like this, counterfactuals and hopeful speculations, are rendered irrelevant by the sheer scale of the economic and political crisis, the enormity of the vast social collapse Russia found itself in. It was falling to pieces. It was the Titanic sinking.

For me, this and the other accounts I’ve read tend to show that Lenin’s unflinching extremism matched up to the extremism of the situation.

If it hadn’t been Lenin, Russia would still have collapsed into chaos and probable civil war between red and white factions, maybe allowing Germany to have advanced into undefended territory and establishing a Germanic empire in Russia. Other extremists would have been pushed to the surface and into leadership roles, and any of these would have found it very difficult if not impossible to resist the soldiers’ calls for peace and the hundred million peasants’ clamour for land reform. Extreme circumstances called for extreme solutions, no matter who provided them.

But none of these alternatives took place. Deeper realities prevailed. And even though sending Lenin to Russia did lead to not only political disruption, as the Germans hoped, but to a comprehensive revolution – which must have exceeded their wildest fantasies – and then to a hugely advantageous peace settlement in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, precisely what they wanted in order to free up their eastern armies to take part in the massive Spring 1918 offensive against the West —-

The Germans still lost the war. In the end, the entire policy of the Lenin train and payrolling the Bolsheviks was a failure for the Germans.

Aftermath and Catherine’s views

Having brought her historical narrative to and end with the discussion of the funding issue, Merridale then concludes the book with a chapter outlining the fates of many of the key characters and personalities we have met through the book, before jotting down a few final reflections.

Most of the Bolsheviks who greeted Lenin so enthusiastically, and were either appalled or enthused by the fierce line he took, were murdered in the 1930s during Stalin’s judicial purges. So the final pages turn into a litany of gruesome and ironic deaths. The shrewdest members of the Provisional Government, such as the egregious Kerensky, managed to escape, living on in exile in Paris or New York. And the British embassy staff, with their Siamese cats and expertise at blowpipes, lived on to claim their knighthoods from a grateful monarch.

Merridale’s concluding thoughts mix reflections on the characters we’ve met in the narrative, and of her own visits to museums enshrining the memory of Lenin – in Zurich, or at his sisters’ flat (where he stayed in the period before the October Revolution) – with reflections about the lasting significance of Lenin in Russian history.

These are, to be polite, disappointing. Having worked hard to read up to the level of Dominic Lieven’s intellectually demanding account of prewar Russian and European diplomacy, it was a long plummet back down to the Readers Digest level of many of Merridale’s reflections.

She is, basically, a nice Radio 4-type of white, middle-class professional lady, who often finds herself wondering why the world is such a beastly place.

There is as much instability across the planet now as there once was in Lenin’s day, and a slightly different collection of great powers is still working hard to make sure that they stay on top. One technique that they use in regional conflicts, since direct military engagement tends to cost too much, is to help and finance local rebels, some of whom are on the ground, but some of whom must be dropped in exactly as Lenin was. I think of South America in the 1980s, of all the dirty wars in central America since that time. I shudder at the current conflicts in the Middle East. (p.9)

This paragraph contains almost no useful information at all, in fact it blunts understanding. Great powers use regional conflicts to their advantage? This is elementary, GCSE level knowledge.

The most salient feature of the paragraph is the centrality of Catherine herself to it. The way she ‘thinks’ of South America in the 1980s doesn’t tell us anything at all about South America but is designed to emphasise what a thoughtful and concerned soul she is. And then, whenever she thinks about the current conflicts in the Middle East, Catherine shudders, yes shudders.

In these final pages we learn that Stalin used the cult of Lenin to underpin and validate his authority, and so Lenin’s reputation was whitewashed as thoroughly as his body was preserved in its mausoleum.

That both Lenin’s memory and his body rotted in the stagnant decades of the 1960s and 70s due to incompetent mummification techniques. That the 1980s period of glasnost under Gorbachev was a period of ‘dangerous’ change. That after a decade of chaos in the 1990s, Russia reverted to the strong man rule of Vladimir Putin.

We learn, in other words, nothing that any fifth former studying history or anybody who reads serious newspapers, doesn’t already know.

Merridale’s book ends with sentimental descriptions of her visits to the fading museums of Leninism and chats with their sad curators.

Shame. There are few if any insights or ideas worth recording or summarising.

But, to emphasise the positive, the long central section of the book detailing the personalities and circumstances surrounding the train journey, and Merridale’s description of the incredibly intense political crisis into which Lenin arrived, are thrilling, convey a gripping sense of the chaos and confusion and knife-edge political atmosphere of the time, and are worth reading.

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917 by Nicolai Babasiouk (1960)

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917, painted by Nicolai Babasiouk in 1960

Nowhere man

Maybe the most symptomatic of the various encounters Merridale describes having with railway officials, passport checkers, museum keepers and so on when she undertakes her own version of the Lenin journey, is when she arrives at the swanky Savoy Hotel in Malmö, where Lenin and his entourage stopped for lunch after an unpleasant crossing of the stormy Baltic Sea.

Merridale knows that Lenin ate here. In fact she later finds a plaque commemorating his visit tucked away in a corridor. But when she asks about him, the concierge looks blank. ‘Lenin? Lenin? Do you mean John Lennon?’

The world moves relentlessly on. People forget their history and – it could be argued – that’s a blessing.


Credit

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale was published by Allen Lane in 2016. All quotes and references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

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

Towards the Flame is a diplomatic history of imperial Russia in the years 1905 to 1920. By diplomatic history, I mean a detailed, a really detailed, account of the men who ran Russia’s Foreign Ministry and its embassies (with sometimes a nod to the heads of the army, navy or other government ministers), their policies, debates and disagreements. We are given pen portraits of Russia’s premiers, foreign and finance ministers, and key ambassadors to London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and beyond.

And the guts of the book is a history of their diplomacy – the papers and memos they wrote laying out Russia’s strategies – the information they gathered about rival nations’ aims and goals – the assessments each nations’ military attaches made about their rivals’ readiness for war. (Position papers like the brilliantly prescient memorandum former head of secret police Petr Durnovo gave Tsar Nicholas in February 1914 which said the biggest risk of a prolonged war was that it would trigger a massive social and political revolution (p.304).)

In intricate detail Lieven builds up a picture of the web of political and diplomatic intrigue which took place in the crucial run-up to the Great War, not only between nations, but within nations, as ruling elites were riven by conflicting strategies and visions, by political and personal rivalries, under pressure from often rabidly nationalistic newspapers, and harassed along by a series of international crises which repeatedly threatened to plunge the continent into war.

In Lieven’s account the question is not, ‘Why did the First World War happen’, but ‘How did they manage to put it off for so long?’

Like many historians of twentieth century Europe, Lieven tells us he has benefited enormously from the opening of Russian archives after the fall of the Soviet Union. He has obviously used the opportunity to track down pretty much every diplomatic telegraph and memo and report and study written by all the key ambassadors, Foreign Ministers, the Tsar and his prime ministers, during these fateful years, and summarises and contextualises them.

This is what gives the book its character and distinction. At every crux – say, over the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 – Lieven briefly tells us what happened on the ground (his book deliberately skips over purely military details, just as it skips over detail of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand – all this can be found in thousands of other sources) in order to analyse the attitude of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Lieven details disagreements in overall strategy between the Foreign Minister, his Deputy, the Finance Minister, the Tsar and the Tsar’s unofficial advisers (like his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas, leader of the so-called Panslavic tendency).

He gives us summaries of the reports and recommendations coming in from the embassies in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, as well as opinions from the Russian officials on the ground in the Balkans: Count so and so reports back on a conversation with the King of Bulgaria, Prince such and such writes a long summary of the political situation in Serbia.

Lieven explains:

  • how each of these varying opinions fit in with their authors’ visions of what Russia is or could be (because over the course of the book we get to know most of these diplomats and get a sense of their individual capacities and opinions)
  • how they fit in with conflicting views in the Russian elite about whether Russia should be allying with France and Britain, or with Austria and Germany
  • how the reports map onto the enduring belief in Russian elite opinion that Russia’s ‘history destiny’ was to conquer the Turks, take Constantinople and become leader of the world’s Slavic peoples
  • how they effect ongoing debates in the Russian government about whether Russia should be focusing its energies and resources to the east, to settle Siberia, or should cleave to its traditional role in the European balance of power

And so on. It is a deep, deep immersion into the small, densely populated and fiercely argued world of the government officials, and particularly the men of the Russian diplomatic service, who managed Russian foreign relations in the buildup to the war.

World War One an eastern war

Lieven opens his book with a bold claim: Contrary to all Western writing on the subject, the First World War was an east European war, triggered by events in eastern Europe, exacerbated by rivalries between east European empires, and with seismic consequences across east and central Europe.

So his focus in this book is on Russia and the East and his aim is to reorientate our thinking away from France and the Somme, towards the Eastern powers and the problems they faced, which he proceeds to describe in absorbing detail.

His core focus is Russian history 1905 to 1920, but to even begin to understand this period you have to range back in time by about a century, as well as comparing Russia’s imperial problems with the challenges faced by other countries around the world, as far afield as America and Japan.

The balance of power

The backdrop to all this – the worldview of the time – is the diplomatic and military game which dominated the world for the century leading up the Great War, and the idea of a balance of power.

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious Allies who had defeated Napoleon tried to parcel out Europe’s real estate to ensure that no one power could ever secure domination over the continent (pp.120, 124).

The 1848 revolutions, the Crimean War (1853-6), the Franco-Prussian War (1870), unification of Germany (1870), the unification of Italy (1871), the spread of nationalism, the spread of the industrial revolution – all these events were processed by the leaders of every European nation insofar as they affected this will o’ the wisp, this fictional entity – the balance of power.

Every large nation was kept on constant tenterhooks about whether the latest little war in the Balkans, or the bids for independence by Hungary or Bulgaria or the Czechs, whether the Austrian alliance with Germany, or the Russian alliance with France, or Britain’s influence over Ottoman Turkey, would affect the balance of power.

And not only nations were concerned. Every nation contained factions, ruling parties, opposition parties and, increasingly, ‘public opinion’, which had to be taken into account. (It is one of the many ironies of history that the spread of literacy, education and ‘civil society’ i.e. newspapers and a free press, which is so assiduously promoted by liberals, in actual fact, in the event, tended to encourage rabble-rousing nationalism. The press in Serbia comes in for special criticism for its ferociously nationalistic warmongering, but the panslavic Russian newspaper, Novoe Vremia, was so consistently anti-German that the authorities in Berlin singled it out as a prime cause of the poisoning of German-Russian relations, pp.215,220, 289.)

One of the few critics of the entire balance of power idea was Baron Roman Rosen (Russian minister to Tokyo during the Russo-Japanese War, posted to Washington, then served on the Tsar’s Council of Ministers until 1917). Rosen thought that, far from creating a secure basis for peace, the so-called balance of power had merely created two armed camps which lived in constant fear of each other. As you read on in the book you can’t help agreeing with Rosen’s view (p.138). Lieven himself appears to agree, stating that the problem with the diplomacy of the 1900s was it was armed diplomacy, with the constant threat of violence behind it. This is what made it so inherently unstable – the slightest misunderstanding threatened to escalate into armageddon (p.339).

Age of empires

It was an age of empires – the British empire, the French empire, the German Reich, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire and the Russian empire. But Lieven’s book is at pains to make you put aside the traditional Anglophone notion of ’empire’ as power exerted over black and brown people far overseas in Africa and Asia. He is concerned with the great land empires of Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans and Russia, the empires which were mostly land-locked and had to expand, if at all, into territory contested by the other empires.

It was a zero sum game, meaning that Russia could only gain territory at the expense of the Ottomans or the Austrians; the Austrians, when they formally annexed Bosnia Herzegovina in 1908, did so at the cost of the humiliation of Russia, which considered itself to have a special leading role in the Balkans. And both Russia and Austria expected to seize or annex territory at the expense of the failing Ottoman Empire.

In fact it was almost an age of super-empires, for around 1900 there was a lot of chatter from journalists, writers, commentators and even politicians from the larger nations about consolidating themselves into ethno-religious power blocs.

What does that mean? An example is the way the hugely popular British politician Joseph Chamberlain proposed to create a new federation out of the white nations of the British Empire, bringing together Canada, Australia and New Zealand into a confederation with the UK, creating a free trade organisation, bringing their laws into harmony, to create a ‘British white empire-nation’ (p.21).

On an even bigger scale, some Brits and Yanks fantasised about bringing America into this union, to create a massive trading, political and military bloc – the Anglosphere.

(This is the background to a lot of Rudyard Kipling’s writings at the turn of the century, his marriage to an American, his friendship with America’s buccaneering president Teddy Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, his hopes for a union of white English-speaking peoples. This explains conservative support for the Boer War, the Boers being seen as a backward people who were blocking Cecil Rhodes’ great vision of a corridor of white imperialist rule running the length of Africa, from Cape Town to Alexandria. They had a vision, not of power for its own sake, but for the union of white English-speaking peoples to bring economic development and liberal civilisation to the non-white world.)

For their part, diplomats and statesmen in both Germany and Austria continued to speculate about a merger between the two countries to create a Greater Germany, something which had been debated since Bismarck had wondered whether to bring Austria into, or leave it outside, his project for a United Germany in the 1860s. Gross-Deutschland would of course want to reclaim the German-speaking populations of the Czech lands and of Poland. The other continental powers were well aware that this tendency to expansion was a powerful strand in German political thought (and, of course, it was revived by the Nazis with their claim for Lebensraum which led them to invade first Poland, then the Soviet Union).

The price of failure And all the empires were nervously aware of what happened if your empire failed. They had before them the woeful examples of the Ottoman empire and, further away, the Chinese Qing empire, both of which were visibly falling to pieces. (Interestingly, Lieven uses the phrase ‘scramble for China’, which I don’t think I’d heard before, saying that if the 1880s saw a scramble for Africa, the 1890s saw a ‘scramble for China’.)

Everyone could see what happened to a failing empire. The great powers imposed unequal trade treaties on you, humiliated your government, annexed the tastiest parts of your lands, dismissed your culture and traditions. Total humiliation. Indeed, Russia and Japan were to sign conventions in 1910 and again in 1912 agreeing ‘spheres of interest’ in China’s north-east borderlands (p.195).

None of these rulers could see forward a hundred years to our happy European Union of liberal democracies. The only alternative they could see in their own time to building up strong, aggressive empires was total collapse, anarchy and humiliation.

In the age of high imperialism, there was nothing strange in Austrian arrogance towards lesser breeds. In this era, Anglo-American Protestants most confidently stood at the top of the ladder of civilisation and looked down on everyone. The Germans were climbing the ladder fast, but their sense of superiority still lacked the confidence of their British rivals and could be all the more bruising as a result. The Russians knew that they stood well down the ladder of civilisation in Western eyes, which helps to explain many undercurrents in Russian culture and society of the time.  By despising and measuring themselves off against the weak, barbarous and un-Christian Turks, they in turn asserted their membership in the world’s exclusive club of European, civilised great powers. (p.208)

Hence the stress, hence the anxiety in so many of their calculations. It was a dog eat dog world. It was win, or be eaten alive.

Russian rearmament reflected a desperate search for security and status born of a deep sense of weakness and humiliation. (p.226)

But then running counter to all these trends to expand and build up empires, the latter half of the 19th century was also the age of nationalism. In his epic biography of Karl Marx, Gareth Stedman Jones shows in detail how the virus of nationalism was spread by the troops of Napoleon’s army to the Rhineland of Marx’s boyhood, and the rest of Germany. The French took it everywhere as they tramped across Europe in the early 1800s, telling peoples and ethnic groups that they should be free.

The struggle for Greek independence in the 1820s was an early example of the trend which was then eclipsed by the massive central European struggles for the unification of Germany and Italy which dominated the mid-century.

But it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the spread of industrial technology led to the dissemination of at least basic education and literacy to more remote populations, and that the growth of interest in folk stories, languages and traditions among newly educated intelligentsias helped to foment ‘independence’ and ‘nationalist’ movements among smaller nationalities – the Czechs, the Bulgarians, the long-suffering Poles, the Ukrainians and, fatefully, among the squabbling peoples of the Balkans.

Nationalism was, to use the Marxist notion of the dialectic, the antithesis to the thesis of imperialism. One bred the other. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century nationalisms popped up all across Europe as a result of the civilising impact of their imperial rulers, threatening to undermine the great land empires, and continually jeopardising the famous balance of power.

So, the central political problem of the age for the administrators of empires was – how to handle the nationalist demands for independence which threatened to undermine the homelands of empire.

Ireland Lieven takes the unexpected but illuminating example of Ireland. Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards was so bitterly opposed by the British Conservative and Union Party because the British elite was well aware how relatively small and fragile the homeland of the global British empire – i.e. the four nations of the British Isles – really was. Knock away one of the four legs supporting the table and maybe the whole thing would collapse.

Austro-Hungary It is one of the many insights thrown up by Lieven’s book that he applies the same logic to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Balkans. In the late 19th century virtually all the European nations clambered on the bandwagon of empire building, seeing it as the only viable way to maintain economic and political equality with the leading nations, France and Britain. Hence the ‘scramble for Africa’ in which even little Italy and puny Spain took part (claiming Libya and the north of Morocco, respectively).

Even landlocked Germany seized some choice parts of Africa (German South West Africa, Cameroon, German East Africa).

But Austro-Hungary was not only landlocked but – having lost territory in Italy and France in the 1870s – its rulers were struggling to hang on to what they’d got, struggling to manage the rising tide of Czech nationalism in the borderlands with Germany on the north, and the bickering of Balkan nationalities (Bosnians, Croats, Serbs) at the south-east fringe of Europe (p.205).

(Lieven quotes the opinion of Alexander Giers, ambassador to Montenegro, that there was little to choose between the Serbs, the Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Romanians: ‘They all hate each other’, quoted p.142).

Permanently anxious about her alliance with Germany, and permanently twitchy about the presence of the huge Russian Empire on her borders, the Austrians felt about the Serbs something like the British felt about the Irish. And reacted with just the same over-violence born out of stress and anxiety, as the British did to the Irish.

Serb nationalism Thus when Serb nationalists assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in July 1914, hawks in the Austrian government thought it would make an excellent opportunity to crush little Serbia’s bid for independence and put paid to bickering in the Balkans for good. Show them who’s boss. Make the Austrian empire secure for a generation.

This is just one of the many insights and fruitful comparisons thrown up Lieven’s deliberately non-Anglocentric perspective.


Russia

The majority of his content is about Russia. He takes you swiftly by the hand through the highlights of the previous two hundred years of Russian history – Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, 1812, Crimea, the emancipation of the serfs – Russia’s geographical situation and economic and political development – and shows how parties or factions naturally and logically arose from the specific Russian situation.

Court and country parties

For example, Lieven goes heavy on the idea that there were ‘court’ and ‘country’ parties in Russian government. The court party surrounded the young, inexperienced and shy Tsar Nicholas II. Sophisticated St Petersburg liberals, they thought Russia should welcome Western influences, Western industrialisation, Western technology and Western values. They promoted alliance with France and Britain. (p.106)

By contrast, the ‘country’ party despised Petersburg intellectuals. Half of them had foreign (often German) names or Jewish ancestry, for God’s sake! The country party were based in Moscow, good old patriotic, heart-of-Russia Moscow (p.129). They thought the Tsar should reject western values. They thought Russia should ally with the most powerful nation in Europe, Germany, and her handmaiden, Austria. (p.70)

Some of the country party subscribed to various shades of ‘Slavophilia’ i.e. the notion that Russia was special, had a special Orthodox culture, a special social system, a special ruler etc, and so should emphatically reject all Western ideas and the Western route to ‘modernisation’, which were corrupt, decadent and irrelevant to Russia’s special traditions.

A major thread of ‘Slavophilia’ was the notion that the Slavic Russians should support their Slav brothers in the Balkans, the peoples of Serbia or Bulgaria, defend and lead the noble Slavic inheritance.

Onwards to Constantinople

A complicated mix of motives kept the issue of Constantinople bubbling at the top of the agenda. One was religious-ethnic. Some Russian thinkers thought that Russia had a historic destiny to sweep through the Balkans and recapture Constantinople from the weak and failing Ottoman Turks. This would

  1. Unite all the Slavic peoples of the Balkans, reviving and glorifying Slavic culture.
  2. Allow Constantinople to be reborn as a great Christian capital, as it had been until conquered by the Turks as recently as 1453. It would unite the ‘second Rome’ of Byzantium with the ‘third Rome’ of Moscow.

Less quixotic than these millennial religious fantasies, hard-headed military men also thought a lot about Constantinople. Russia possessed the largest territory in the world, with immense land, people and resources. And yet it was prevented from projecting that power outwards, unlike all the nations on the ocean e.g. Britain, France, Spain, Holland, and especially America, sitting astride the two great oceans. (The importance of naval power was crystallised in the widely read book by American theorist Alfred Mahan, summarised on page 160).

Russia possessed three big fleets and naval ports, in the Baltic, at Vladivostok in the far Pacific East, and at Crimea in the Black Sea, but all of them were problematic. The Baltic was nearest to homeland Europe but was frozen half of the year, and egress was blocked by Germany and Denmark. Vladivostock was too far away from the European centres of power.

All thoughts were therefore focused on the Black Sea, where Russia’s main shipyards were, and Crimea which was the base for a large, modern naval fleet.

Yet it was a permanent irritation to the Russian military that this fleet was blocked up in the Black Sea, prevented from sailing through the Dardanelles and into the Mediterranean. The subtle way round this perennial problem was to negotiate alliances and pacts with the other European powers to bring pressure to bear on the Ottoman controllers of the Dardanelles to allow the Russian fleet out to patrol the high seas and claim her rights as a Great Power.

The not-so-subtle approach was to launch the umpteenth Russo-Turkish War, march on Constantinople and seize the Straits, solving the problem once and for all. After all – as Lieven points out in a thought-provoking comparison, the British had bullied their way to seizing Egypt and the Suez Canal in 1882, and the Americans had created the country of Panama in 1903 solely in order to drive a canal joining the Pacific and Atlantic, both empires acting in unashamed self-interest.

The only catch being that the major European nations would probably pile in to stop Russia – as they had during the disastrous Crimean War when Britain and France came to Turkey’s aid against aggressive Russian incursions into Ottoman territory.

All of these ‘country’ party ideas – pan-Slavism, conquering Constantinople – were deprecated by the ‘court’ party, who thought they were:

  • low and vulgar, usually whipped up by rabble-rousing nationalist newspapers
  • contrary to Russia’s true interests – Russian peasants and workers couldn’t give a damn about Constantinople
  • and anyway, Russia’s course was best left to the professional aristocratic diplomats like themselves, who knew best

Nonetheless, Russian leaders of all parties looked on with dismay as British ascendancy over the Turks, which had lasted into the 1880s, was slowly replaced by the influence of Germany, which sent soldiers to train the Turkish army and engineers to build a railway from Berlin to Baghdad (as Lieven points out, the Germans were the only European power who had not at some stage tried to seize Ottoman territory – you can see how that might work in their favour.)

(And, of course, Turkey would end up coming in on the side of the Germans in the Great War. With the result that the Allies in 1915 took up the Constantinople Question, floating the possibility that Russia would be encouraged to take the city. Prince Grigorii Trubetskoi was even named the future Russian commissar of the city.)

West or East?

Another school of thought, and advisers, recommended leaving the complex problems of Europe to sort themselves out, and focusing on what Russia already possessed, namely the vast extent of Siberia and the East – a policy which, after the Revolution, would come to be known as ‘Eurasianism’ (p.143).

It was under Nicholas II that the great Trans-Siberian Railway was built. Proponents of an Eastern policy pointed out that Siberia had huge untapped natural resources, it just needed:

  • the infrastructure to join up the tens of thousands of settlements scattered across this vast waste of steppe and tundra
  • the emigration of settlers into the vast empty spaces
  • the creation of new towns and cities
  • the harvesting of the country’s natural and human potential

Given peace in the troublesome West, given enough time – Russia could develop its economy and resources enough to compete with Germany, even compete with America, to become a truly great power.

The Russo-Japanese War 1904-5

All of these hopes came crashing down when Russia came into conflict with the new, aggressive and confident Japanese Empire in 1904 and was badly beaten. Beaten for a number of reasons – their army was big but badly trained and under-equipped, the navy had to steam all the way from the Baltic to the Far East, by which time the major land battles had already been lost, and it was then comprehensively trashed by the much better-led Japanese navy.

Defeat rocked all the traditional pillars of Russian society. The Tsar was personally blamed, the Army and Navy looked like fools, even the Orthodox Church which had blessed the war as a ‘crusade’ was made to look powerless and irrelevant.

The war gave rise to a revolution whose specific trigger was when troops fired on a protest march in Petersburg on 22 January 1905, which went down in folklore as ‘Bloody Sunday’, and rebellion, mutiny, strikes and insurrection spread like wildfire across the country.

The revolution was, in the end, only quelled when the Tsar issued the October Manifesto of 1905 which pledged major political reforms such as the creation of a parliament – called the Duma – with elected representatives, plus land and industrial reforms. The strikes ended, the agrarian disturbances subsided, the mutinies were crushed – but to many, even committed supporters of the Romanov Dynasty, the clock was ticking.

Towards the flame

Believe it or not, this is all just introduction to the book’s core and is covered off in just the first 100 pages or so. If you recall, the text’s main focus is on the period 1905 to 1920, i.e. beginning after the war and the revolution.

Having set the scene and established many of the enduring themes of Russian politics and diplomacy in the first hundred pages or so, Lieven now goes into very great detail about the personnel, the men who manned the key roles in the Russian government – Foreign Ministry, Finance Ministry, Army, Navy and so on. These men’s backgrounds, their families and family connections, their beliefs and the policies they pursued are all described in a long chapter titled The Decision Makers (pages 91 to 181).

Lieven gives pen portraits of the main diplomats, their careers and their views, including:

  • Count Vladimir Lambsdorff, Foreign Minister to 1906
  • Count Alexander Izvolsky, Foreign Minister 1906 to 1910, architect of the alliance with Britain
  • Sergey Sazonov, Foreign Minister from November 1910 to July 1916 i.e. during the crisis of 1914
  • Pyotr Stolypin, Prime Minister of Russia and Minister of Internal Affairs from 1906, who tried to counter revolutionary groups and pass agrarian reforms, until he was assassinated in 1911
  • Prince Vladimir Meshchersky, editor of the Monarchist newspaper, Grazhdanin, the only paper Tsar Nicholas read, unpopular reactionary
  • Count Vladimir Kokovtsov, replaced Stolypin as Prime Minister of Russia from 1911 to 1914
  • Count Sergei Witte, Finance Minister 1892 to 1903, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers 1903 to 1905, first Prime Minister of Russia 1905-6 during which he designed Russia’s first constitution – intelligent businessman who thought Russia needed a generation of peace to blossom
  • Prince Grigorii Trubetskoi, epitome of liberal imperialists and the panslavic policy, head the Near Eastern Department of the Foreign Ministry, which was responsible for Balkan and Ottoman affairs 1912-14 i.e. at the heart of the 1914 crisis
  • Baron Roman Rosen, 1903 ambassador to Tokyo, ambassador to USA 1905, State Council of Imperial Russia 1911-17 – believed Russia should forget Constantitnople and the Balkans and focus on developing Siberia and the East
  • Alexander Giers, Consul General in Macedonia, Press Council 1906, saw at first hand how rubbish the Balkan Slavs were and warned that the Serbs were manipulating Russia into backing them against Austria
  • Nikolai Hartwig, Russian ambassador to Persia (1906–1908) and Serbia (1909–1914), strong pro-Slav, sometimes described as ‘more Serbian than the Serbs’

Lieven then gives similar treatment to the main military leaders of the period – heads of the army and navy, major military thinkers, their dates, relationships and the often bitter in-fighting between them for resources and about strategy.

Having established a) the deep themes or concerns of the Russian state and its ruling elite, and having b) described in some detail all the key personnel, all the ‘decision makers’ of the period – Lieven then takes us through the years leading up to Armageddon, with chapters devoted to:

  • the emergence of the Triple Entente 1904-9
  • the sequence of crises 1909-13, being:
    • The First Moroccan Crisis, 1905–06 – Germany challenged France’s control of Morocco – worsening German relations with both France and Britain
    • The Bosnian Crisis, 1908 – Austro-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been under its sovereignty since 1879 but which infuriated the Serbs and pan-Slavic nationalism in the region
    • The Agadir crisis in Morocco, 1911 – the French sent troops into Morocco, angering the Germans who sent a gunboat to Agadir, eventually backing down but the crisis cemented the alliance between France and Britain
    • The Italo-Turkish War, 1911–12 – Italy invaded what is today Libya but was then a province of the Ottoman Empire. Nobody came to Turkey’s aid which showed that Turkey was now friendless – which meant that land grabs in the Balkans would go unopposed – i.e. the delicate balance of power had vanished
    • The First Balkan War, October 1912 to May 1913 in which the Balkan League (the kingdoms of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro) defeated the Ottoman Empire and seized almost all of Turkey’s territory in Europe
    • The Second Balkan War, June to August 1913, in which Bulgaria, dissatisfied with the settlement of the first war, attacked Greece and Serbia, and also managed to provoke neighbouring Romania, all of whom defeated Bulgarian forces, forcing it to concede territory to all of them
  • the crisis of 1914
  • The First World War and the Russian Revolution

Some thoughts

The backwardness and repressiveness of Russia bred a special kind of fanatic – extreme socialists or anarchists – who thought they could bring about change through strategic assassinations.

Russia was riddled by extremist political factions for the fifty years before the revolution, and plagued by the assassinations of high officials. As Lieven points out, it is no coincidence that the Russian aristocracy and gentry produced the two greatest anarchist thinkers of the nineteenth century, Prince Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin (p.119)

It is another great irony that the assassins who murdered Tsar Alexander II in 1881 did so just as he was about to authorise a set of liberal laws. His successor, Alexander III, was an old-style, clumsy, bearish, paternal reactionary who inaugurated thirty years of repression, thus condemning Russian radicals to decades of repression, arrest, Siberian imprisonment and exile, and polarising the intelligentsia.

The view from the upper classes

Lieven is posh. From Wikipedia we learn that:

Dominic Lieven is the second son and third child (of five children) of Alexander Lieven (of the Baltic German princely family, tracing ancestry to Liv chieftain Kaupo) by his first wife, Irishwoman Veronica Monahan (d. 1979).

He is the elder brother of Anatol Lieven and Nathalie Lieven QC, and a brother of Elena Lieven and distantly related to the Christopher Lieven (1774–1839), who was Ambassador to the Court of St James from Imperial Russia over the period 1812 to 1834, and whose wife was Dorothea von Benckendorff, later Princess Lieven (1785–1857), a notable society hostess in Saint Petersburg.

Lieven is ‘a great-grandson of the Lord Chamberlain of the Imperial Court’ of Russia.

He was privately educated at Downside School, the famous Benedictine Roman Catholic boarding school.

Having just read Edmund Wilson’s long study of the communist tradition, and Engels’s powerful pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, my head is full of revolutionary thoughts about the industrial proletariat and about the way the ruling classes everywhere use repressive ‘ideologies’ to keep the exploited in their place, ideas like ’empire’ and ‘tsar’ and ‘religion’, ‘honour’ and ‘duty’ and ‘fatherland’.

There is little of that sensibility present here. Lieven takes it for granted that there were empires and that they were ruled by an extraordinarily privileged aristocratic elite. I’m not saying he’s naively in favour of them. But he takes them on their own terms. This became obvious during the long, sometimes pretty boring chapter, about the Decision Makers. Prince so and so of the court party was related to Count so and so who took a slavophile line, while his cousin, the archduke so and so was more a supporter of the policy of eastern expansion. And so on for a hundred pages.

In a way typical of prewar European diplomacy, the Foreign Ministry and Russian diplomacy were a nest of the aristocracy and gentry. The nest was very, very small: in 1914, there were fewer than two hundred men of all ages who had passed the diplomatic exam and in principle were eligible for mainstream posts. (p.119)

Later he points out the importance of notions of honour to the Russian aristocracy, and the vital importance of remaining a great power to the entire diplomatic, military and political leadership.

But to the ordinary Russian, these concepts were all but meaningless. The Russian ruling classes thought that, when push came to shove, the masses would demonstrate their love for the Tsar and for Mother Russia and the Great PanSlavic Cause, but they were wrong, so wrong.

Exciting the Russian masses about Constantinople or their Slave brothers proved an impossible task. In 1909, Grigorii Trubetskoy’s brother Prince Evgenii Trubetskoy wrote that only someone who believed Russia to be a ‘corpse’ could imagine that when it stood up for its honour and the Slave cause against Germany, there would not be a surge of ‘powerful and elemental patriotism’.

The First World War was to prove him wrong. (p.131)

What makes it puzzling is that the Russian elite had already had the test drive of the 1905 revolution in which they should have learned that – far from rallying to the cause of Mother Russia – peasants and workers all across the country rose up against the court, the aristocracy, the police, the Church and everything the elite believed in.

For me the big question is, ‘How was the Russian ruling elite able to persist in their obtuse ignorance of the true nature of the country they were living in?’

Without doubt the tiny coterie of men Liven describes made up the diplomatic and foreign policy elite, and their decisions counted, and it was the clash of their policies and ideas which made up ‘debate’ in the ruling elite and determined Russia’s strategy through the decade of crises leading up to 1914.

Without doubt this is precisely the point of Lieven’s book, to give an unprecedentedly detailed account of the sequence of events 1905 to 1920 from the Russian point of view, explaining the key personnel and their ruling ideas and concerns.

In this aim the book doubtless succeeds and can’t help impressing you with the depth of its research and the thoroughness of its analysis.

But it feels so airless, so claustrophobic, so oppressively upper class. Clever, well educated, sensitive and sophisticated though the Russian ruling class so obviously are, you can’t help cheering when the enraged workers storm their palaces and throw all their fancy paintings and porcelain out into the street.

To rephrase it, as Lieven himself does half way through the book, the Russian ruling élite believed its own ideology, defined itself in terms of its preposterously unreal, disconnected value system – forged its identity in terms of Russian dignity and nobility and honour and the need to remain an Empire and a Great Power.

They were staggered when they discovered that the overwhelming majority of the Russian people didn’t give a toss about these fantasies, was incapable of defending them, and eventually rebelled against them. In a nice detail, Lieven tells of a German officer during the Great War, whose job was to debrief Allied prisoners of war. He discovered that the French and British soldiers had a clear sense of what they were fighting for, but the Russian soldiers didn’t have a clue. Pan-Slavism – what was that? Controlling the Turkish Straits – what were they? Preserving the European Balance of Power – what on earth was that?


Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (5) by James M. McPherson (1987)

Stepping back from the detail, this reader’s general sense of the American Civil War – having just finished this 860-page book about it – was that the slaughter steadily escalated, until tens of thousands were being killed and wounded at brutal, bloody, slogged-out battles – but that there was a terrible fatality or weakness about the commanding generals on both sides which prevented them landing really knockout blows.

The reader gets very impatient with general George B. McClellan who was in charge of the north’s largest army, the Army of the Potomac, and an excellent organiser of armies and inspirer of men who, however, turned out to be pathologically reluctant to risk his shiny machine in actual battle. And, on the occasions when he did engage and repel the Confederates, consistently failed to pursue and crush them. Eventually, President Lincoln became so impatient with his inactivity that he sacked him.

But the same goes for his replacement, Major General George Meade, who commanded the northern army at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3 1863) massacring the rebels as they tried to storm his entrenched men along Cemetery Hill. But then, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee called off the rebel attack and withdrew, Meade refused the calls from his officers, and from Lincoln himself, to pursue and crush the exhausted southern survivors – thus ensuring Lee could withdraw, regroup, and that the war went on for another two years!

Apparently a contemporary satirist described the armies of the American Civil War as little more than armed mobs wandering over the Virginia countryside at random, occasionally bumping into each other, massacring each other, then wandering off again with no decisive result. For long periods of time this satire does seem to be true.

According to McPherson, the siege and capture of the rebel stronghold of Vicksburg, which took place at the same time as the enormous Battle of Gettysburg, marked a turning point in the war – but quite clearly neither was a knockout blow, and the South continued to field armies for a further two years.

Two years of bludgeoning, desperate bloodletting as bigger and bigger armies engaged for longer and longer at the costs of tens of thousands of eviscerated mangled bodies, at enormous loss of life and treasure.

Meanwhile, as the generals of both sides failed to win the war, the conflict was nonetheless a time of rapid social, economic and technological change.

Military innovation

The generals carried on implementing Napoleonic battle strategy i.e. close ranked men march forwards, protected by cavalry on the flanks, until they’re within range to charge and close the enemy with bayonets – at which point the enemy breaks and runs, hopefully.

However, this was the war during which the rifle replaced the smooth-bore musket. Rifling made a bullet fly longer and more accurately. This meant rifle fire could now kill men at three or four times the distance i.e. advancing infantry in the old style were cut down like grass.

Suddenly the advantage was with well-entrenched defenders. This explains the carnage at the Battle of Antietam as attacking Federals were funneled into a lane towards Confederate positions and mown down in their thousands. Or the carnage at Fredericksburg where Federals walked towards a solid wall at the base of St Marye’s Heights lined with Confederates who fired in sequence – it was like walking towards machine guns.

It’s in the last two hundred pages, in the year 1864, that the power of defensive trenches really comes into its own, with the enormous losses suffered by Union soldiers trying to take rebel trenches at Spotsylvania and Petersburg. Here the fighting anticipated the appalling attrition rates of the First World War.

Arguably it was the development of the rifle, and the advantage it gave defenders, which explains why the war was so long and so bloody. (pp.477ff)

The scale of the slaughter

Some of the slaughter was awe-inspiring. The massacre at Antietam creek outside Sharpville left 6,000 men dead and some 17,000 wounded, four times the total number suffered on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, more than all American casualties in the War of 1812, the Mexican war and the Spanish-American war combined. Gettysburg was an abattoir. Even relatively minor encounters seemed to result in appalling rates of death and maiming.

Some 620,000 men from both armies died in combat.

Disease the biggest killer in most wars

But disease was a bigger killer than rifles and artillery. For every soldier who died in battle, two died of disease. The biggest killers were intestinal complaints such as dysentery and diarrhea, which claimed more men than did battle wounds. Other major killers were measles, smallpox, malaria and pneumonia.

The fundamental basis of modern medicine – the fact that microscopic bacteria spread infections – had not yet been discovered. Medicine was, as McPherson puts it, still in the Middle Ages. The result was that no-one appreciated the importance of sterile dressings, antiseptic surgery, and the vital importance of sanitation and hygiene.

The impact of disease was so severe that it disrupted or led to the cancellation of a number of military campaigns. (p.488)

The changing role of women

McPherson goes out of his way in several places to discuss the changing positions of women. Especially true of his section on medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women took the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These impressed the medical establishment the army and the politicians, and made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness.

Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483). In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, specially in the North, where women were called in to replace men, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

Financial innovations

These were arguably the most profound, and pretty certainly the most boring to read about. To finance the war the northern government instituted the first federal income tax on 5 August 1861. Taxes on other goods followed quickly, under the Internal Revenue Act of 1862 which taxed ‘almost everything but the air northerners breathed’ (p.447) including liquor, tobacco and playing cards, carriages, yachts and billiard tables, taxes on newspaper adverts and patent medicines, licence taxes on virtually every profession, stamp taxes, taxes on the gross receipts of corporations, banks, insurance companies and the dividends or interest they paid investors.

The relationship of the American taxpayer to the government was never the same again.

This was accompanied by a Legal Tender Act of 1862 which issued, for the first time, a federal currency. Until this point each of the states had had their own treasury and their own forms of payment. Now the Federal government set out to supersede all these with the green dollar bills it produced by the million. These soon became known as ‘greenbacks’ and endure to this day.

Having revolutionised the country’s monetary and tax structures, the 37th Congress (1861-62) did the same for public land, higher education and railways.

McPherson shows how the economic dynamism of the north had been hampered and blocked for decades by southern states suspicious that every attempt to spread its free market, industrial culture was an attack on the South’s slave based agricultural economy.

Once the southern states seceded the Congress representing solely northern states was set free to unleash its vision. A homestead act granted 160 acres of land to settlers who developed it for five years, underpinning the explosive expansion westwards.

A Vermont congressman developed a bill to make 30,000 acres of public land in each state available for the founding of further education, and especially agricultural colleges – establishing a network of institutions which ensured the most efficient exploitation of farmland by American farmers for generations to come.

And the Pacific Railroad Act granted land and money for a railway which eventually ran from Omaha to San Francisco. Much of the land dealing and speculation about the construction of this and later railways became notorious for corruption and sharp practices. But the railways were built, connecting people, services and supplies across this vast continent.

Taken together these changes amounted to a ‘blueprint for modern America’, a

new America of big business, heavy industry, and capital-intensive agriculture that surpassed Britain to become the foremost industrial nation by 1880 and became the world’s breadbasket for much of the twentieth century… (p.452)

The capitalists, labourers and farmers of the north and west superseded the plantation aristocracy of the South in the economy and political system, permanently remodelling America as a high-finance, industrialised, capitalist country.

Reconstruction

And this is the background to the idea of ‘Reconstruction’.

As in any war, the war aims of both sides changed over time. Initially most northern Democrats and many Republicans simply wanted the southern states to de-secede and return to the Union, more or less as they were.

But savvier radicals realised that there would have to be drastic changes in southern economy, culture and politics if the whole nation wasn’t simply to return to the permanently blocked political deadlocks of the decades which led up to the conflict. Even slow-to-change Abe Lincoln realised that the South would have to be remade on the model of the industrialised, capitalist North. Having been devastated, economically, in terms of war dead, in terms of goods and assets destroyed, burned and bombed to bits, and having had the fundamental underpinning of its entire economic existence – slavery – abolished and vaporised – the South would need to be entirely rebuilt from scratch.

This is what the term ‘Reconstruction’ came to mean and McPherson stops before it begins. His book ends with the end of the war, with the moving encounter between old enemies as Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, and then Confederate troops came in and surrendered their weapons to their federal victors.

A short epilogue fleetingly references the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865, the vast funeral, the flight of Jefferson Davis and half a dozen other events which quickly followed in the wake of peace, but that’s it as far as McPherson’s account is concerned.

The whole enormous story of what came next:

  • the attempts to reconstruct the South and their long-term impact, in terms of poverty and ongoing racial prejudice
  • the conquest of the West and the so-called Indian Wars
  • the astonishing industrial and financial rise of the North until it had eclipsed the European powers

remains to be told in the next book in the series.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left) signs the terms of surrender to Union General Ulyses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, as painted by Tom Lovell in 1964

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left) signs the terms of surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, as painted by Tom Lovell in 1964


Related links

Other posts about American history

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (4) by James M. McPherson (1987)

Slavery is the normal condition of the negro… as indispensable to his prosperity and happiness… as liberty is to the whites .
(A petition sent to Confederate president Jefferson Davis from the 56th Virginia regiment against allowing black soldiers to fight for the Confederacy, quoted on page 836)

Racism…

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were wrong if they meant to include Negroes among ‘all men’, said Alexander Graham after he had become vice president of the Confederacy.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery… is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. (quoted on page 244)

Repeatedly, every few pages in this long book, the reader is slapped in the face by quite breathtakingly racist statements made by all classes of Americans in the 1860s. Here is the southern newspaper, the Richmond Whig, in 1865 discussing the heretical idea of arming the South’s slaves to fight for it. The idea was

a repudiation of the opinion held by the whole South… that servitude is a divinely appointed condition for the highest good of the slave. (quoted p.834)

It is one of the characteristics of McPherson’s immensely thorough account of the American Civil War that he lards his text with quotations – from speeches by presidents, senators and congressmen, from newspaper articles and editorials, from the diaries and letters on both sides of the argument, and from statements from the lowliest, barely literate farmhands-turned-soldiers. In other words, he gives you deep insight into the minds of people at every level of society on both sides of the war.

And one of the big things that comes over is a level of anti-black racism at all levels of 1860s American society, which is staggering, almost beyond words to describe. Nowadays the word ‘racism’ is quickly applied to the slightest verbal slip or misspeak. It is eye-opening to come to understand what institutional racism really means, in the sense of a quite overt, explicit, unashamed and widely popular belief, promoted by politicians from the (Confederate) president at the top, throughout the entire (Confederate) press – that black Africans are a separate and inferior race, quite incapable of education, higher thought, or serious mental activity, a race set aside by GOD specifically to perform the most menial, humdrum, mindless activities. And a race which posed a permanent terrorising threat to all decent white folk.

As the Charleston Mercury put it, emancipation would mean:

the poor man… reduced to the level of the nigger. His wife and daughter are to be hustled on the street by black wenches, their equals. Swaggering buck niggers are to ogle them and elbow them. (p.836)

I suppose it was obvious that this would be the mindset of the southern plantation-owning class but it is still shocking to read.

But almost worse is the revelation that, in the north whose politicians were anti-slavery and who eventually turned the war into a crusade to emancipate the slaves, there was, to be sure, a strong abolitionist movement, particularly in snooty, Puritan New England – but there was also anti-black sentiment almost as strong as in the south, and just as profoundly racist.

Many northern soldiers, and their newspapers and congressmen, went out of their way to explain that they were fighting the war against rebels but certainly not for uppity Negroes. In the north, there were protests against the new draft introduced in July 1862, where protesters carried banners saying things like:

We won’t fight to free the nigger (p.493)

MacPherson quotes a Union soldier as writing: ‘I am not in favour of freeing the negroes and leaving them to run riot among us’. It was the state legislatures of Illinois and Indiana who called the Emancipation Proclamation ‘wicked, inhuman and unholy’. It was an Ohio newspaper editor who described it as ‘monstrous, impudent and heinous… insulting to God as to man, for it declares those “equal” whom God created unequal.’ (p.595)

In the 1863 congressional elections in the north the remaining Democrats campaigned as the peace party, expressing such vehement opposition to the war that one of their leaders, Clement Vallandigham fled the country and campaigned from Canada. He wrote:

In considering terms of settlement we should look only to the welfare, peace and safety of the white race, without reference to the effect that settlement may have on the African. (quoted page 592)

The editor of New York’s leading Catholic weekly told a mass meeting that:

when the president called for them to go and carry on a war for the nigger, he would be damned if he believed they would go. (quoted p.609)

The Democrat Party in the north split into war democrats and Peace at any price Democrats. The most outspoken wing of the peace Democrats got the nickname ‘copperhead’, after a particularly venomous American snake. A copperhead campaigning in the Ohio elections wrote:

Let every vote count in favour of the white man, and against the Abolition horses, who would place negro children in your schools, negro jurors in your jury boxes,  and negro votes in your ballot boxes. (quoted page 686)

Being a democratic politician means you have to listen to the people, you have to take their beliefs into account, even if you think they are ignorant and prejudiced beliefs. As Lincoln himself put it:

A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. (p.128)

Which all explains why Lincoln had to proceed slowly, retaining as many allies as he could, in the political class as well as among the broader population, in a culture awash with anti-Afro-American thoughts and prejudices.

But it’s still a shock to read the remarks he made to a group of black leaders in the White House on 14 August 1862. Slavery was:

the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.

But even if slavery were abolished, racial differences and prejudices would remain.

Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.

Blacks had little chance to achieve equality in the United States.

There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free coloured people to remain among us… I do not mean to discuss this, but to propose it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I could.

This fact, Lincoln thought, made it necessary for black people to emigrate to another land where they would have better opportunities. He asked the black leaders present to ask for volunteers for a government-sponsored pilot scheme to resettle black Americans in Central America. (p.508) So even the leader of the North and the proclaimer of the emancipation of the slaves thought the only real solution to the ‘Race Problem’ was to pack off the ‘other’ race to a different country. Wow.

It makes for a lot of unpleasant reading, but it also gives the reader a sense of the deep, deep, deep racist, anti-black sentiments which were central to American society, had been for decades beforehand, and would continue to be for decades afterwards. It helps you understand why profoundly racist attitudes continued in full flood well into the 1960s and beyond, and had to be combated by black movements which themselves were often radical and violent.

It makes you understand that African slavery and the racism it engendered is the Original Sin which just can’t be cleansed from the American soul.

… and constitutional law

It’s easy to overlook because it’s so much less shocking than the racism, but in among the descriptions of the economy, of banking and then – of course – of the paraphernalia of war, the recruitment, arms factories, train lines and battles – a steady hum which once you notice it you realise makes up most of the book, is the continual engagement with the law.

Having read Alan Taylor’s book about the American War of Independence I now understand that the American constitution wasn’t some pristine and perfect theory of government devised by political philosophers working in a vacuum, but an extremely hard-headed set of compromises between the squabbling thirteen colonies who all had particular interests to protect, not least the southern slave states who ensured that slavery was protected although nowhere explicitly mentioned.

Reading this book helps the reader to understand the uniquely complex and legalistic nature of American society, whereby each state has its own elected officials and supreme court, which may – or may not – be overridden by federal i.e. national president, congress and Supreme Court. In other words, any two parties caught in a civil or criminal case, has at least two sets of authorities to appeal to, state and federal. When U.S. society split from top to bottom in the civil war there became in effect four sets of law. And since each state had its own traditions, made its own laws, and elected its own officials, the reality was something more like 30 squabbling states, plus two overriding federal authorities who were at war with each other.

What is fascinating is the extent to which neither side really appealed to moral or religious principles, but tried to dress up their decisions in the cloak of the Constitution. The argument was at the place where Law meets Political Theory. What I’m struggling to express is that both sides appealed to the Constitution but gave their own politico-legal interpretation of it.

Thus the most obvious thing about the quote from the Confederate vice-president at the top of this review is its repellent view of race: but what’s symptomatic is that it is couched not in terms of scientific theory or morality or religion – but as a theory of government.

When politicians argue in this book (and they argue all the way from page one to page 860) of course they sometimes express themselves in terms of race or religion but, when push comes to shove, they argue about laws and the basis of the laws, the Constitution. They argue whether the Kansas-Nebraska Law is constitutional, whether the president has powers to proclaim emancipation, they argue whether states have the right to secede under any circumstances, about what a state actually is (early in the war West Virginia seceded from Virginia – was it allowed to? who said?).

What’s easy to forget in all the bloodshed and in the inflammatory rhetoric of racism, is that this was a highly articulate, well-educated argument among sometimes blunt and rude but often very subtle and clever lawyers.

If one obvious element of the book is to rub your face in some very unpleasant racist ideology and make you appreciate how deep and enduring anti-black racism has been in America – a less immediately obvious but just as important conclusion is the extent to which America is a country meshed in a fascinating and endlessly complicated web of states and federal laws and courts and legal powers. Something which goes a long way to explaining why outsiders often find American politics confusing and end up with a simple-minded focus on whoever happens to be in the White House (Barack, Donald), ignoring the complex web of political, legal and constitutional wrangling which go on continually at lower levels of American political life, and are often more important in determining the lives and livelihoods of most Americans.

And explains Americans’ apparently ceaseless appetite for TV shows about lawyers. Are there any British TV series about solicitors? No, because their work is very boring. Whereas American law really is a) more complex, challenging and swashbuckling; b) offers the possibility of a career progressing into state politics and then, potentially, national politics.

In terms of its racial heritage, and its legal-political arrangements, this books helps the reader really come to appreciate that America is a very different country from our own.


Related links

Other posts about American history

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (3) by James M. McPherson (1987)

This is a long book. It takes McPherson about 280 pages before he gets to the outbreak of hostilities, just to paint in the complicated political, economic, legal and social background to the war. This build-up section is absolutely fascinating, giving insights into a number of deep, enduring aspects of American history and culture.

Cuba

I had no idea that freelance forces raised in the southern states repeatedly tried to invade and capture Cuba (this was after President Polk offered Spain $100 million for it and Spain haughtily refused). The so-called ‘Ostend Manifesto’ of 1854 declared that Cuba was as vital for American interests as any of the other united states. Invasion attempts were led by Narciso Lopez among others. Cuba was attractive because it had a slave population of some 500,000 i.e. annexing it to America would create a) another slave state b) a big new territory in which slaves could be bought and sold and moved.

And Nicaragua. In 1855 adventurer and mercenary leader William Walker managed to get himself appointed head of the Nicaraguan army, from where he usurped the presidency, ruling as President of Nicaragua for a year, 1856-57, before being defeated in battle by an alliance of other Central American states. (Walker had previously ‘conquered’ La Paz, the capital of sparsely populated Baja California, with a force of 43 men, and concocted various plans to seize territory from Mexico. McPherson’s book conveys a wonderful sense of this era of bandits, adventurers, filibusters and mercenaries.)

Plenty of southern ideologists thought that, blocked by the free states in the north, their destiny was to seize and conquer all the nations surrounding the Gulf of Mexico (Mexico, all of Central America, all the Caribbean islands), institute slavery in all of them, and corner the market in all the world’s coffee, sugar, cotton and other tropical goods.

What an epic vision!

The various invasion attempts reinforced Latin American countries’ sense of America’s boundless arrogance and her barely controlled aim to control the entire hemisphere, which lasts to this day.

Reviving the slave trade

Many southerners wanted to renew the slave trade, and some went as far as commissioning private ships to go buy Africans and ferry them back to America e.g. Charles Lamar, although Lamar was arrested (and released) and no sizeable trade was, in the end, established.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

In McPherson’s opinion the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was ‘the most important single event pushing the nation towards civil war (p.121).

The territories of Kansas and Nebraska needed to be defined and organised. The process was led by Senator Stephen Douglas. He needed senate support. A key block of southerners made it clear they wouldn’t support the bill unless Douglas allowed slavery in the new states. To be precise, unless he repealed the ban on slavery north of 36° 30’ which had a been a central part of successive compromises with the slave states.

Douglas inserted such a repeal into the Act and the bill’s supporters then forced a meeting with President Pierce (1853-57) during which they threatened him, Endorse repeal or lose the south.

The act passed and caused a storm of protest. McPherson details the process by which it precipitated the collapse of the Whig party, which had had northern and southern wings which increasingly struggled to find common ground. The furore over the K-N Act precipitated its collapse. From the ashes arose a variety of anti-slavery parties, which eventually crystallised into a new, entirely northern, Republican party.

Nativism

Immigration quadrupled after the great potato blight of the mid-1840s. Immigration in the first five years of the 1850s was five times higher than a decade earlier. Most of the immigrants were Catholic Irish fleeing the famine or Germans fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848. They tended to be poor peasant labourers who crammed into urban tenements, driving up crime, squalor, disease and drunkenness.

Pope Pius IX (1846-78) helped anti-Catholic feeling among liberals and the American Protestant establishment by making the Catholic Church a beacon for reactionary beliefs – declaring the doctrine of papal infallibility and publishing a Syllabus of Errors which forbade Catholics from praising or practicing liberalism, socialism, public education, women’s rights and so on. American Catholic archbishop Hughes published an inflammatory book declaring that Protestantism was declining and would soon be replaced by Catholicism in America.

Unsurprisingly, in reaction, spokesman arose for a movement called ‘nativism’, which promoted the Protestant virtues of sobriety and hard work. There were riots, and fights in cities between nativist mobs and Catholic groups.

Nativism overlapped with a growing temperance movement, which sought to close down bars and ban hard liquor – an anticipation of the Prohibition of the 1920s.

Secret societies grew up dedicated to keeping America Protestant by organising their members to only vote for Protestant candidates. There may have been up to a million members of these societies who were told that, if anyone asked about the name or membership of their local branch, they were to say ‘I know nothing’. As a group, they became known as the Know-nothings, and in the few years up to the Civil War knownothingness became a sort of political craze.

The Catholic Irish also tended to be strongly against blacks, with whom they competed for the roughest labouring jobs. The Irish vote prevented blacks being given equal voting rights in New York, in 1846. One journalist summarised the conflict as:

freedom, temperance and Protestantism against slavery, rum and Catholicism (p.137)

Abraham Lincoln

The trigger for civil war was the election of Abraham Lincoln as president on 6 November 1860. The less well-known of the two candidates for the Republican party, it wasn’t so much him personally, as the sweeping triumph of the essentially northern antislavery Republican party running on a platform of opposing the spread of slavery to any more U.S. states which prompted southern slave states to finally carry out the acts of secession they’d been threatening every time there was a political clash or controversy for the previous decade or more (for example, South Carolina had threatened to secede in 1850 over the issue of California’s statehood).

Indeed, it was South Carolina which first seceded from the United States as a result of a political convention called within days of Lincoln’s election, the official secession declared on December 20, 1860. South Carolina was quickly followed by Mississippi (January 9, 1861), Florida (January 10, 1861), Alabama (January 11, 1861), Georgia (January 19, 1861), Louisiana (January 26, 1861), Texas (February 1, 1861), Virginia (April 17, 1861), Arkansas (May 6, 1861), North Carolina (May 20, 1861), and Tennessee (seceded June 8, 1861).

The seceding states joined together to form the Confederate States of America (CSA). In April 1861 President Lincoln made a speech saying the seceded states did not form a separate country, and that he would take steps to protect Union property and assets in Confederate states.

Almost immediately a flashpoint arose at Fort Sumter built on a sandbar at the entrance to the harbour of Charleston, South Carolina. Reports that the Union navy was planning to resupply the small Union garrison in the (unfinished) fort prompted the South Carolina militia to make a pre-emptive strike and bombard the Fort into surrender on April 12, 1861. These were the first shots fired in the Civil War and Lincoln had been astute in managing to ensure it was a rebel state who fired them.

A political war

It was a political war. From start to finish the aims of both sides were political, broadly speaking the survival of their respective political, economic and social systems (one based on slave labour, one not) i.e. it was not a war fought about land or conquest.

Although it quickly escalated (or degenerated) into a total war, mobilising the resources of both sides, and leading to terrible casualties, the political aspect of the struggle was always important.

Neither side was monolithic. There were moderates in the south, there were even unionists in the upper southern states, to whom Lincoln had to hold out the possibility of negotiation and reconciliation. Similarly, not all northerners were in favour of total war, and one plank of southern rhetoric was to reach out to constitutionalists by emphasising the southern states’ cause as a logical consequence of the American Constitution’s concern for each state’s individual autonomy.

Whose rights came first – the states or the Union as a whole? Who ruled – central or states governments? This had proved a thorny problem for the drafters of the Constitution and was, at least to begin with, the core issue of the war. It’s certainly the one Abraham Lincoln focuses on in his early speeches, which assert that you simply can’t have a government if large parts of the country threaten to secede every time laws are passed which they disagree with.

We must settle this question now: whether in a free government the minority have the right to break p the government whenever they choose.

But the south didn’t think it was a matter of this or that law – they thought the Republicans’ stated aim of stopping slavery from spreading and, in time, forcing it to wither and die, represented an existential threat their entire economic and cultural existence. As the South’s reluctant president, Jefferson Davis, said, the Confederate states had been forced:

to take up arms to vindicate the political rights, the freedom, equality, and state sovereignty which were the heritage purchased by the blood of our revolutionary sires.

Length and complexity

This is why the first 300 pages of McPherson’s book are so important. They need to paint a really thorough picture of the confused and contradictory political scene right across American society in the decades preceding the conflict:

  • explaining the arguments over slavery which tore both the pre-war Whig Party and Democrat Parties apart
  • explaining the rise of the new antislavery Republican party; describing the importance of nativist and racist movements in the north (not only anti-Catholic and anti-Irish but also anti-negro)
  • describing in detail the sequence of political crises which flared up over the admission of each new state to the union, the blizzard of arguments on both sides about whether the new state should be slave or free
  • and detailing the complicated compromises which just about papered over the cracks for decades until the election of Lincoln.

And you need a good grasp of the kaleidoscopic and shifting complexity of American political scene in these years to understand why Lincoln took the decisions he did; for example why he appointed to his first cabinet his major political rivals, even from other parties, in order to build the widest coalition. Why he appointed a soldier from the rival Democrat party George B. McClellan head of the army on the Potomac, and stuck with him as he failed to press the North’s military and logistical advantage. Similarly, why Lincoln delayed so long before declaring the Emancipation of the Slaves – namely that he had to keep onside  Democrat i.e. slave-friendly politicians in the north who had continued attending the Union Congress and Senate, and avoid offending opinion in the border stats of Missouri and Kansas.

The American Civil War really is a classic example of the old saying that war is politics by other means as, throughout the conflict, both leaders, Lincoln and Davis, had to manage and negotiate with unending squabbles on their own sides about goals and strategies – both leaders at various points felt like quitting in exasperation – and both sides found their war aims changing and evolving as political feeling changed, and as the value of various alliances also changed in importance.

Killers

Meanwhile, as in any war, some men discovered that they liked killing.

You need the background and buildup in order to understand why the border states between north and south (for example Missouri and Virginia) found themselves torn apart by opposing political movements and descending into their own mini civil wars, which generated gangs of raiders and freelancers beholden to neither side.

One of Quantrill's Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James.

One of Quantrill’s Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James (pp.292 and 303)

It takes some time to explain why such a large, rich, bustling, vibrant nation managed to tear itself to pieces and descend, in many places, into violent anarchy. Battle Cry of Freedom is a very long book because it needs to be – but it never ceases to be completely absorbing and continually illuminating.


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1) by James M. McPherson (1987)

‘Our political conflicts must be in future between slavery and freedom.’ Whig Congressman Joshua Giddings at the Free Soil convention in 1848 (quoted page 61)

This massive volume (900 pages) is just part of the Penguin History of America.

The civil war is far the most written-about event in American history, not least because more Americans died in it than in all other wars America has fought put together.

The civil war tore the young Republic apart, and the schism between north and southern states is in some ways still evident to this day. Certainly the bitterly divisive issue of race in America shows no signs of going away, ever.

Social background

McPherson gives a good run-up to the war with a fascinating profile of economic and social progress in America in the half century from 1800.

I was particularly struck by his interpretation of the movement of women from being cottage industry producers, to heads of nuclear households in which the male went out to earn a wage, as a big step up in power and autonomy for women. (Not what they’re teaching my daughter in her Sociology A-Level.) Also the importance of women in creating a market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century.

And in creating an enormous market for an explosion of magazines and papers dedicated to women and women’s issues (homes and beauty etc). The bestselling novel of the entire 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was written by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Women also established their dominance in the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female; the figure is 80% in the UK).

In 1848 a convention in New York state launched the modern women’s rights movement (pp. 33-36).

Inevitability

What comes over strongest is the inevitability of the war. Conflict – bitter and angry conflict – between slave and free states exists from the very start of his account. (McPherson doesn’t mention it, but reading Alan Taylor’s account of the drafting of the American Constitution, it’s clear that slavery caused problems even then, with the northern participants having to find loose and ambiguous forms of words to take into account problems raised by slavery – for example, what was the population of a slave state, should you include slaves as ‘people’ or not?).

It takes McPherson about 300 pages to cover the period from about 1820 to the outbreak of war. Almost every page features rancour and disagreement among the states caused by slavery.

The curse of slavery

In fact slavery comes over as a curse of Biblical proportions on America. There is no way round it, no way out of it, no way of escaping the fact that the wealth of half the country depended on whip and chains. It fatally undermines all the vaunting rhetoric about freedom and independence spouted by northerners and the rebels of 1775, and they knew it.

Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty had become mostly an empire for slavery. Territorial acquisitions since the Revolution had added the slave states of Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida and Texas to the republic, while only Iowa, admitted in 1846, increased the rank of free states. (p.51)

Slavery had been absolutely vital for the economic success of the southern states when the mainstay crops were rice and tobacco. As the nineteenth century progressed, cotton rose in importance, not least to be exported to feed the mechanised cotton looms of Manchester. Economically, slavery increased its importance in the southern economy and culture as the century progressed.

Whipping a slave

Whipping a slave while his family watch

As America expanded, should the new states be slave or free?

The most fundamental fact of American history in the 19th century was its relentless progress westwards, settling, staking out, defining and creating new states as it went. Every time this happened, there was virulent debate about whether the new state would be slave or free.

Northern states, roughly represented by the Whig party, campaigned for all new states admitted to the union to be slave free. Politicians, journalists, businessmen and activists all across the south saw this as:

  • a threat to their livelihood
  • a block to them expanding their economic model
  • in effect reserving each  new state for the northern economic model of free farming or industrialisation
  • and so an insult to the much-vaunted ‘honour’ of the South

Politicians and journalists were talking about a clash between the slave-owning southern states and the free northern states from the turn of the century. As early as 1820 a compromise had to be hammered out about just how much of the new territory of the Louisiana Purchase should be slave and free (free above latitude 36′ 30) and the accession of each new territory caused a repeat of the same arguments, except louder and more bitter each time.

Map of America in 1854 showing free and slave states

Map of America in 1854 showing free and slave states and the enormous contested area of Kansas-Nebraska

The Mexican-American War

The book gets going with the arguments in the wake of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. After American forces beat the Mexican army at a series of battles and then occupied Mexico City, the Mexican government was forced to cede California and New Mexico to America, and to give up hope of retrieving Texas which, for a while had been an independent state, before being absorbed in the USA. Mexico accepted the course of the Rio Grande river as its new border with America, losing a third of its territory to America.

But even as the war was being fought, politicians, lobbyists and so on were bitterly arguing whether the new states were to be slave or free. The crisis lasted from 1846 to 1851, with a series of political expedients and compromises in Congress under successive presidents. McPherson goes into very great detail about the centrality of the argument in the campaigns for party nominations, in the presidential campaigns and in various congressional and senate contests.

The American party system comes over as confusingly fragmented (with Conscience Whigs, Cotton Whigs, the Liberty Party, Barnburners, southern ‘fire-eaters’, the Free Soil convention and many more floridly-named splinter groups), but roughly there were:

  • northern Whigs, representing industrialisation and civil liberties
  • and southern Democrats representing slavery, the rights of property and the slave economy

Although a central thread of the book is how this rough grouping was torn apart and refashioned by the war.

Arguments for and against slavery

One of the most interesting aspects of history is the study of reasons or arguments which lost. Historians often skip over these, assuming that nowadays we all agree, that the values of the present are self-evident and eternal. But for me that’s precisely a major value of the study of history: to enter fully into the economic, social and political mindset of people in completely different times and circumstances, to fully understand what drove them to believe and fight for their cause.

McPherson usefully summarises the arguments for and against slavery, conceived in the broadest sense:

AGAINST SLAVERY

  • free labour was more efficient than slave labour because it was motivated by the inducement of wages and ambition for upward social mobility rather than coercion
  • slavery undermined free white labour wherever the two existed side by side
  • slavery inhibited education and social improvement, keeping not only blacks but poor whites in a state of low education
  • because it was best suited to a small number of labour-intensive crops, slave labour prevented the development of a diverse economy with innovation motivated by social improvement

Northerners thought these economic arguments explained why the northern free states were ahead of the South on almost all metrics, such as capital investment, literacy, industrialisation, innovation, and so on. And explained what was at stake in deciding whether new states should be slave or free: allowing slavery in them condemned them to being second class economies.

FOR SLAVERY

Intellectual southerners invoked the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought that freedom amounted to economic independence based on the possession of property. He envisioned a nation made up of independent farmers and artisans who defined their own work rate, hours and products. Followers of Jefferson strongly opposed the spread of industrialisation in the north. Industrialisation converted free farmers into ‘hands’ who worked regimented hours in large factories, losing all their skills except the handful necessary to fit into mass production. Hence the expression ‘wage slaves’. By the 1840s everyone knew that industrialised society was prey to periodic depressions when trade collapsed and factories laid off workers in droves, to beg in the streets.

Therefore, intellectual southerners could position themselves as principled opponents of capitalism, maintaining what they saw as older ideas of ‘liberty’ (for white people).

  • slavery was a blessing to the slave and to the master
  • slavery had civilised African savages
  • slavery introduced heathen savages to Christianity
  • slavery provided slaves with a paternalistic cradle-to-grave care not available to northern ‘wage slaves’
  • it raised up white labourers by freeing them from the most menial tasks
  • slavery eliminated the spectre of class conflict among whites by eliminating class and caste differences between them, bringing whites closer together, unlike the widening gap between rich and poor in the industrialised north
  • slavery generated the wealth to create a leisured class of gentleman who create civilisation, culture and fine living – unlike the hustling hucksterism of northern capitalism
  • all previous great civilisations had been based on slavery – the Greeks, the Romans etc

These proslavery arguments are fascinating because you can see there is a grain of truth in some of them (in the virtues of an agricultural over an industrialised economy, for example). They were certainly enough to mobilise opinion right across the south, enough to produce a torrent of speeches and articles fulminating against northern arrogance and soulless industrial capitalism, enough to prompt endless threats that the south would secede or take up arms to protect her special interests – enough to drown out the simple, undeniable fact that slavery was an outrage against human decency, dignity and any ideas ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’.

To see how so many educated southerners – politicians, lawyers and journalists – managed to suppress this basic truth amid a flood of secondary arguments and justifications, is quite mind-boggling, and an education in human beings’ limitless ability to delude themselves when self-interest is at stake.

But it’s only if you make an imaginative attempt to understand, to internalise these arguments as much as their proponents, that you can hope to understand what came next. Thus McPherson quotes Senator John C. Calhoun as saying that slavery was:

the most safe and profitable basis for free institutions in the world (p.56)

Incomprehensible to us. But unless we make the effort to understand the almost unbelievable things people in the past have devotedly adhered to, we condemn ourselves to live in a world we don’t fully understand.


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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.


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John Ferling’s descriptions of days in the American War of Independence

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Days by Philip Larkin

The historian’s problem with days

Historians deal with periods of time. Since these are generally longer than a few hours, they can or have to be measured in days, days which make up weeks, months, years and sometimes centuries. Nonetheless, when it comes to recording key events (births, marriages, deaths, battles, treaties), historians, like the rest of us, tend to think of them as happening on specific days. D-Day. Independence Day. Days are what we attach meaning to. Days are where we live.

How can you distinguish and separate out all the days which make up all of human history? How can you convey the passage of time, the passage of days, how can you make it more than a colourless recitation of numbers and dates?

Take the American War of Independence. There is debate both about when the war both started and when it ended. The consensus view is that hostilities began on April 19, 1775, when British regular forces tried to arrest rebel leaders in the Massachusetts villages of Concord and Lexington. This sparked skirmishes with Patriot militiamen, which escalated into a running battle as the British soldiers were forced to retreat back to their stronghold in Boston.

And, officially, the war ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783 – although after the British lost the siege of Yorktown in October of 1781 they decided not to continue hostilities and there was no full scale fighting after that date.

So, officially, the American War of Independence lasted about eight years and five months, ‘one hundred and four blood-drenched months’ – some 3,000 days to demarcate and distinguish. How do you make the key ones stand out?

John Ferling’s feel for days

A little way into John Ferling’s long and minutely-detailed military history of the American War of Independence, I began to notice how much attention he pays to the weather and to the quality of important days.

Much of Ferling’s content is as dry and factual as any other historian’s, but he consistently slips in little descriptive phrases designed to convey the specificity of important days. He is particularly fond of the crepuscular hours – of dawn or nightfall – the hours when the world seems more pregnant with meaning and possibility than usual.

  • The brilliant midday sun stood high in the sky over Pell’s Point, transforming the bite of dawn into a comfortable fall day. (p.9)
  • First light came at 4am on this historic day. Thirty minutes later, with streaks of orange and purple visible in the eastern sky, an advance party – six companies totalling 238 men – reached Lexington Common… (p.30)
  • As darkness gathered on September 12 [1775], twenty four hours after their departure from Newburyport, the last of the eleven vessels in Arnold’s armada reached Gardinerstown, Maine, a tiny village with a shipyard some thirty miles up the Kennebec. (p.90)
  • By around 7am, with day breaking under a grey snowy sky, the battle [of Quebec] was over and the Americans who could do so were on the retreat back to the Plains of Abraham, leaving their dead and wounded behind. (p.98)
  • As the dark stain of night gathered over Long Island, Howe, together with Clinton and guided by three Loyalists, set out with half his army over a maze of back roads leading toward the Jamaica Pass eight miles away. (26 August 1776, p.133)
  • When night tightened over Brooklyn, and the black storm clouds obscured the moon, the boats, manned by two Massachusetts regiments under Colonel Glover, and consisting almost exclusively of experienced mariners, were brought across the East River. [Washington’s army flee Long Island for Manhattan after their crushing defeat on 26 August 1776, p.136]
  • As the slanting shadows of late afternoon gathered, [General Howe] decided to wait until morning before launching his frontal attack. (p.147)
  • The British reached Hackensack on November 22 [1776]. The American army had departed twenty-four hours earlier, continuing to move to the west, crossing the Passaic River into Acquackononck Landing (modern Passaic), as the pale sun of the late day glinted off the water. (p.164)
  • The crossing out of New Jersey [by the retreating American army] began immediately and continued through the sullen night under an eerie orange-yellow illumination provided by giant fires  built on the shores, making for what a Pennsylvanian militiaman thought was ‘rather the appearance of Hell than any earthly scene.’ (p.170)

Ferling’s descriptions are like paintings, aren’t they, although paintings from a later era. Ferling brings an essentially romantic sensibility to what was still a pre-Romantic, eighteenth century world.

  • To preserve secrecy [for their surprise attack on German mercenary forces at Trenton], the Americans could not stir until darkness gathered, leaving much to be accomplished in a short period before morning light streaked the eastern sky. (p.176)
  • Washington had divided his forces about three miles west of Trenton. Greene led a division along the northern road to the village. It consisted largely of veterans of the long retreat across New Jersey. Sullivan, who for the most part commanded the men that Lee had brought down from New York, proceeded along a southerly artery near the river, the frozen breath of men and horses visible in the early morning light. (p.177)
  • Time and again the Americans ambushed the British, waging time-consuming firefights before melting away to take up new positions further down the road, from which they opened up yet again on their prey. At one juncture, rebel pickets tied down the enemy for two precious hours. When the lead elements in Cornwallis’s force finally reached the [river] Assunpink, the long, sloping black shadows of late day swaddled the landscape. (p.182)
  • The last lonely streaks of daylight slanted through the leafless trees as the Continental army entered Morristown, New Jersey, on January 6. 1777. (p.204)
  • [General St Clair] ordered the withdrawal [of the American army from Fort Ticonderoga] to begin in the wee small hours of the morning, when the landscape, under a new moon, would be shrouded in sooty darkness. (p.220)
  • The surrender of 5,895 men [after the British General Burgoyne’s ill-fated march south from Canada to the river Hudson ended in total defeat] took time, more than four hours. When the last man had departed the field of surrender, [American General] Gates hosted an outdoor dinner on this sun-soft autumn afternoon for Burgoyne and his brigade and regimental commanders… When the meal was done, and the shadows of late day stretched over the idyllic fields that recently had witnessed untold agony, the British and German officers stood, stiffly said their goodbyes, mounted their horses, and rode off to join their men in the march to Boston and an uncertain future. (p.241)

Ferling is careful to give a pen portrait of each of the many military leaders who appear in these pages, the generals and brigadiers and colonels on both sides. We are told the biography and character of scores of leading military men. But it is to the weather, the light and the mood of key days, that he pays particular attention.

Sometimes his description of the light is more persuasive than his description of the people.

  • The men gathered early under a soft linen-blue sky and marched smartly to their designated spots where they stood in the delectable sunshine listening as the summary of the treaties [with new ally, France] were read out… (p.294)
  • After fighting for three hours or more in ‘weather… almost too hot to live in’, as one American soldier put it, the British abandoned their bloody charges and for two final hours, until 6pm, when the evening’s cooling shadows swaddled the bloody landscape, the battle morphed into an artillery duel. (p.306)
  • Three days later, in the pale sunshine of winter, the bulk of the British invasion force entered Richmond unopposed. (p.478)
  • About 5.30am in the last throes of the dark, starry night, [Tarleton’s cavalry] splashed across muddy Macedonia Creek to the cups of Cowpens. As they began to organise in the still, cold darkness – the temperature was in the low to mid-twenties – the first low purple of day glazed the eastern sky. (p.483)
  • Around noon on March 15, a gloriously cool day, the rebels heard, then spotted, the first column of red-clad soldiers as it emerged through a cuff of leafless trees and marched grandly up New Garden Road, awash with the soft, spring sun… (p.497)
  • Washington got all that he wanted [from the French delegates in March 1781] and at sunset on March 8, as he and Rochambeau stood shoulder to shoulder on the cold wind-swept shore watching, the [French] squadron sailed off into the gathering darkness. (p.502)

Romantic descriptions, romantic paintings

Ferling includes some 40 paintings and illustrations in the book. When I came to analyse them I realised that only four are illustrations of actual battles – a few are technical pictures of contemporary ships, but the great majority, over 30, are portraits of the many military men and political leaders on both sides – emphasising the care he takes to give portraits of all the key military leaders.

But then I noticed that, whereas the military portraits are all contemporary i.e. drawn or painted from life in the 1770s and 1780s, the battle pictures are from over a century later, painted at the height of late-Victorian realism (1898, 1903, 1898), in the style of boys’ adventure stories — almost as if the history had to wait for a sufficiently ‘manly’ painting style to develop to depict the tough heroism of those days.

Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga by artist Percy Moran (1911)

Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga by artist Percy Moran (1911)

Or as if only paintings in the late-Victorian style can match Ferling’s own romantic feel for the weather, for the mood, for the changing light, for the fogs and blazing sunshine, for the first dawns and the quick-falling nights with which his enthralling account is laced.

He rode through the afternoon and most of the following day, one of the last soldiers yet on the road home from this war. At last, as the sun hung red and low in the sky on Christmas Eve, George Washington, private citizen, emerged through the bare trees and onto the path that led to the front door of Mount Vernon. The War of Independence was truly at an end. (p.561)

Ferling has a stylish, highly descriptive, and memorable way with the days of the American War of Independence.


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Captain James Cook: A Biography by Richard Hough (1994)

A grave, steady man (Boswell, quoted page 342)

I’ve covered a lot of the detail of the three epic voyages of discovery carried out by Captain James Cook in my review of the current exhibition about them being held at the British Library in London.

That review includes detail of the routes, the places ‘discovered’ and first mapped by Europeans (Tahiti, New Zealand, Hawaii, among many others) and the baleful impact which First Contact with white men had on the native peoples of those places.

Having put all that factual information, and discussion of the attendant cultural controversy, down in another place, this in a sense frees me up to enjoy Hough’s rather old-fashioned biography as a straightforward narrative of derring-do and adventure.

Space and detail

Hough (pronounced How) takes us deep into the day-to-day experience of being an officer or ordinary sailor or one of the scientific passengers, on these extraordinarily bold and dangerous voyages – cooped up in a ship 100 foot long by 28 feet wide for months on end in often terrible weather, with food and water which, after about a month, had become inedible and foul. It is no surprise to learn that drunkenness and fighting among the crew were a permanent problem, with some of the crew being drunk from morning to night, and one man on the first voyage drinking himself to death.

During his career Hough wrote a variety of historical books, but was mostly a specialist in maritime history. He was born in 1922, which means this biography of Cook was published when he was 72 years old. No surprise, then, that it is rather old-fashioned in tone and approach.

Hough gives space at the appropriate points to the scientific motives of the voyages, to the behind-the-scenes politicking at the Royal Society and the Royal Navy which provide the context for the voyages, to the way Cook’s discoveries were appropriated by others (the self-promoting naturalist Joseph Banks being the glaring example), were frequently sensationalised and misreported in the press, and so on.

He deals extensively with Cook’s encounters with the native peoples of the places he ‘discovered’, and gives a better sense of their interactions than the exhibition does. The exhibition is at pains to emphasise the baleful consequences of Cook opening up these places and peoples to colonial exploitation, whereas Hough has the space in his 450-page-long book to go into great detail about the complex mutuality of many of these encounters and their diversity: some natives were friendly and welcoming, some were fierce and antagonistic; some lived in sophisticated cultures with complex religions, others lived stark naked to the elements, with no clothes, or homes or tools of any kind; some, like Queen Obadia and King Tiarreboo of Tahiti, become good friends of Cook and his officers through repeated visits.

But at its core – and what makes his book, I think, so enjoyable – is Hough’s own deep feeling for the perils and pleasures of sailing the seven seas. Although he nowhere explicitly states it, it is quite clear that Hough was an experienced sailor himself, and had visited at least some of the exotic and distant locations he is writing about, by boat.

Anyone who has sailed these waters off present-day Christchurch will appreciate how easy it was for Cook to misidentify Banks Peninsula for an island. (p.158)

This writer, arriving at Easter Island by sea and at early dawn, can attest to the discouragement to landing the fierce visages and giant size of these statues engender. (p.289)

Thus his book contains numerous moments of insight into the precise mechanical workings of an 18th century sailing ship, of the weather and sea conditions to be found on the seas which Cook sailed, and goes into fascinating detail about the great range of jobs and tasks required to keep a ship afloat and sailing.

Hough places you right there, hearing the creak of the rigging, feeling the salt spray in your face, sharing the excitement of the crew when land is sighted after weeks of being cooped up in the stinking, bickering environment of the ship.

It is, for example, typical that before each of the three voyages, Hough not only takes you through the extensive repairs and refurbishments made to each of the ships Cook sailed in, but goes to great pains to name and describe every member of the crew – their names, where they were from, their sailing experience and personalities, with indications of how they bore up during their three-year-long ordeals, right down to the 12-year-old cabin boy.

Map of James Cook's three voyages

Map of James Cook’s three voyages

Mingled in among the narrative events are moments of pure lyricism with which Hough explains the lure of the sea, and the excitement of discovery.

On the ill-fated third voyage Cook took along two junior officers, William Bligh, a young arrogant but competent map-maker whose harshness, 12 years later, was to cause the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty‘ – and young George Vancouver, who joined Cook’s second expedition at the age of 15.  At the moments when they hove into view of new islands, or set out to explore new coastlines, discovering new sounds, bays and inlets, we share with them the raw thrill of discovery which drove Europeans all around the world, on the most cockamamie expeditions.

The audience of political correctness

I’ve watched and read over the past 40 or so years as history writing has become more ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’. In practice this hasn’t meant many more black or non-white people writing history, it has meant that the same type of white, upper middle class, private-school-educated academics, writing on the pretty much the same old subjects, but now going out of their way to comment on 1. the presence or absence of women, and 2. the oppression of non-white peoples.

Fine. Some of this approach sheds drastically new light on old subjects, like Alan Taylor’s mind-expanding history of the colonisation of America, American Colonies, which begins 30,000 years ago with the arrival of the first humans in Alaska, and goes on to explain the staggeringly diverse range of ‘races’, nations and cultures which, right from the beginning, made up America’s multi-racial societies. A book like that completely changes your view of the subject.

But in other writers’ hands – and especially in (by necessity) the restricted space of exhibition guides and wall labels – it can sound like tokenism and box-ticking.

An aspect of the rise of identity politics and political correctness in history writing is that it can result in text which is surprisingly simple-minded, almost childish. In the several exhibitions about queer art which I’ve visited over the past few years, the curators take it upon themselves to explain that ‘same sex desire’ was once forbidden and even punished by western societies. Golly.

Reading something like this makes me wonder what age group the curators are targeting. Most of the people I see at art galleries and exhibitions are quite clearly retired, educated middle-class people in their 60s and 70s. Do you really need to explain to the average, educated, middle-class exhibition-goer that homosexuality used to be illegal? Do you think they didn’t know that?

Similarly, at the British Library exhibition about Cook’s voyages, I was struck by the naivety of some of the wall labels, like the one which pointed out that:

Violence is part of the story of James Cook’s voyages, as it is of other European expeditions of this era.

What age group would you say that is aimed at? 11 year-olds? 8 year-olds? Surely not the grey-haired old retirees I was surrounded by.

And in case you didn’t know what ‘violence’ means, the display the label refers to contains a musket which, it explains, is a kind of old-fashioned gun. And a ‘gun’ is a ‘weapon’. And ‘weapons’ are often used in ‘violence’. Get it now?

Next to a map which Cook created of Tahiti is another wall label:

Claiming of already populated lands was a common feature of European exploration.

How old do the curators think we are? 11?

This is what I mean when I say that modern, politically correct identity politics/feminism/post-colonial theory can sometimes end up treating its audience like small children, as if they have to explain every aspect of human nature from scratch, as if we’d never heard of same-sex desire, or violence, or colonialism, or slavery before.

Hough assumes we are adults

This is what makes Hough so enjoyable: he treats his readers as adults who know about the world. Thus he takes it for granted that the main entertainment of the tough, illiterate ship’s crew was getting drunk and fighting – which we know about because of the litany of disciplinary measures Cook recorded in his logs.

Prostitutes And Hough expects you to understand that it was standard practice for the 80 or so crew members, whenever they hit land, to go looking women. In Westernised ports like Cape Town or Batavia, this meant prostitutes. In the islands of the Pacific, it meant native women. But this is where the voyages were so memorable for the men because there were well-established traditions of native women happily giving themselves to visiting men – with the full approval of their own menfolk. Which obviously made a big impression on British sailors brought up in our sexually repressed culture.

Tahitian women Thus every landfall in most of the Pacific islands was accompanied by an impressive amount of sexual activity, sometimes in the open, in full view of passersby. Hough, it seems to me, treats us adults who expect rough sailors to behave this way, and so are not as shocked as feminist art curators. Taking the human nature of humans for granted allows Hough to move on to the more interesting aspects and consequences of these cultural encounters, for example the way that many of the English men and native women formed real attachments, which led the women, for example, to follow the ships in canoes when they set sail, and to greet some of the same sailors when they returned three years later, with genuine joy.

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

STDs But it also led to the spread of venereal disease and Hough shows how Cook repeatedly tried to establish the origin of these diseases and tried to enforce bans on his own crew when they arrived at new tropical island (like Hawaii, discovered only on the third voyage) to prevent the natives being infected. The failure of Cook’s strict bans, despite being enforced with flogging the sailors, tells us more about the indefatigableness of human nature than all the exhibition wall labels in the world.

Buggery Hough makes only a passing mention of the fact that ‘buggery’ was rife below decks. He takes it for granted that 70 or 80 rough, physically fit men, cooped up in a very small space for long periods, will indulge in sodomy, even though it was forbidden and punishable by lashes of the whip. A very different world from the ‘same sex desires’ of the kind of Bloomsbury ladies depicted in Tate’s Queer British Art but one any man who went to a boys’ school will know about.

The lash Hough assumes that we understand that maintaining discipline among drunk, potentially violent men, required severe physical punishment, namely tying wrong-doers to a wooden frame and whipping their bare backs till they bled. If the member of crew tasked with doing the whipping refused, he too was whipped. Unbelievably harsh to modern thinking, but Hough expects us to have an adult appreciation that most lives, for most of the past, have been bloody and brutal.

Crossing the line I’d forgotten the tradition that when the ship crossed the equator, every crewman and passenger who hadn’t done it before, was locked inside a kind of wooden cage, suspended by rope from a yardarm, and then dropped several times its own height into the speeding waves, so that the man trapped inside was totally submerged, three times. One of the several officers who kept diaries of the voyage remarks how some of the men revelled in demonstrating their toughness, while others were visibly distressed after just the first drop and wept after the second. The tradition continues to this day, though nowadays is an excuse for a party. bring back the dunking cage, I say 🙂

The purpose of history

For me history has at least three purposes.

1. One is as pure entertainment. I bet most people read history books as they read thrillers or rom-coms, for the entertainment, for the characters, for the amazing things people got up to / endured / achieved and so on. There’s as much sex, intrigue and violence in the Tudors as in a Hollywood blockbuster, which is why books and TV shows about Henry VIII never go out of fashion.

2. A second, more straitlaced motive is to understand how we got here today by reading about our forebears in Britain, Europe, America or wherever, to better understand what happened and why it’s led us to the current situation. The ‘those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ school of thought. Winston Churchill said that, by the way.

3. But for me there’s also a psychological-cum-moral purpose — which is to expand the reader’s mind and broaden his or her sympathies.

Reading about the past not only often amazes us at how people lived then, what they had to endure, what they achieved despite it all – but also transports us into the minds of people with completely different expectations and values from us. The more effort we make to think ourselves into others’ places, hundreds of years ago, thousands of miles away, the more we exercise our minds and extend our sympathies.

Instead of rushing to judge people of the past according to the values of today, I think it is more profitable to make the imaginative effort of really immersing ourselves in their world and values, the better to understand:

  1. what they believed and why they did what they did
  2. the vastly different technological, economic, social and cultural conditions they lived under
  3. and so to better understand at least part of the tortuous, labyrinthine, and often unexpected ways in which the past has led up to the present

This, in a nutshell, is behind all the different ways I’m opposed to what I’ve, rather simplistically, called political correctness, in history and historical exhibitions. Political correctness rushes to judge people in the past. I think we should be patient and try to understand them on their own terms.

The livestock

I didn’t realise 18th century sailors took so much livestock with them. Many of the sailors had dogs, and Joseph Banks was notorious for his attachment to his two prize greyhounds. But they also took sheep and pigs and goats, partly to butcher and eat, partly to be gifts to native peoples on the other side of the planet, as well as coops of hens to provide fresh eggs. This meant that wherever they stopped to gather wood and water, they also had to cut grass, a lot of grass, solely as provender for the livestock. And imagine clearing up the piles of poo every day!

By the time of the third voyage, King George III, the official sponsor of all of the voyages, had seen and learned about conditions among the native peoples which his expeditions had claimed for the British Crown. Not least because the second voyage brought home Omai, a Pacific Islander Cook had met in Tahiti, and who became the sensation of fashionable London during his two-year stay in Britain (1774-76).

As a result ‘farmer’ George, as he was nicknamed for his interest in improving agriculture in Britain, decided to send the poor benighted Pacific Islanders a suite of farm animals which they could breed up, encouraging them to convert their primitive agriculture into modern, mixed British farming best practice.

Thus Cook found himself lumbered with direct orders from the king to transport a number of sheep, rabbits, a mare, a stallion, a large number of sows and several hogs, two cows with their calves and a bull, to the other side of the world and given as gifts to the king of Tahiti. Plus a peacock and a peahen, special gifts of Baron Ponsonby of Sysonby.

All on a boat little more than 100 foot long!

For the entire three-year duration of the first voyage, the officers’ tea was provided with milk by a goat, who never failed to deliver, day after day, for a thousand days. It survived all the way back to Britain where Joseph Banks bought her a collar to celebrate her achievement, and commissioned a Latin tag to go on the collar from no less a luminary than Dr Johnson, who obliged with:

Perpetua ambita bis terra preamia lactis
Haec habet altrici Capra secunda Jovis

Which roughly translates as:

In fame scarce second to the nurse of Jove
This goat, who twice the world had traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.

Death and Captain Cook

Most accounts of Cook’s voyages focus on their scientific achievement, their mapping and charting, their discoveries of ‘new’ lands (new to Europeans), and the first interactions of Westerners with native peoples in a variety of locations, some peaceful, some violent, all of which – in the long run – would disrupt and decimate their societies.

But one way in which a past as remote as 250 years ago is distant from us is in its attitude towards death. The politically correct tend to think that any deaths, indeed any violence carried out by people and regimes from the past, should be judged against the highest standards of modern, peaceable Western society and held to account as in a courtroom.

But it’s not defending the behaviour of anyone in the past to point out that, 250 years ago, death from all sorts of causes was much more common than it is now. The ubiquity of death – the deaths of his own family, of soldiers and sailors he served with, of crewmates and colleagues – all help to explain the sometimes apparently ‘casual’ way Cook and colleagues responded to the deaths of the native peoples they encountered.

So in among the amazing stories, the colourful characters and the breath-taking scenery, I became interested in Hough’s relating of the many deaths which surrounded Cook all his life, and therefore the presence of death as a theme in Captain Cook’s biography.

In fact there are so many deaths sprinkled throughout the book, that I’ve restricted this selection of examples to just the First Voyage.

Death in Cook’s family

  • Cook’s parents, James senior and Grace, had eight children. Four died in childhood, one as he turned 20, leaving only James and two sisters to survive into adult life.
  • Cook had six children with his wife, Elizabeth who lived to the following ages: James 31 (drowned at sea), Nathaniel 16 (lost at sea), Elizabeth 4, Joseph died at 2 weeks, George died at 3 months, Hugh died at 16 of scarlet fever. None of his children lived long enough to have children of their own.

Death in war with France

  • Off Plymouth in 1757 Cook was crew aboard the Eagle which was in a fight with the 50-gun French ship Duc d’Aquitaine, the Eagle‘s cannon killing 50 Frenchmen, their cannon killing 10 of Cook’s shipmates, wounding 80! Imagine the sound and the sights and all the blood and body parts.
  • As warrant officer on the HMS Pembroke Cook observed no fewer than 26 of the crew dying of scurvy with many more ill or permanently incapacitated – as on more or less every European ship sailing any distance during this era.
  • Cook’s ship took part in the siege of Louisbourg, the French fort at the mouth of the St Laurence Waterway in Canada.
  • Cook took part in General Wolfe’s campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada and therefore for the British Empire. During the campaign the Pembroke‘s captain died of an unspecified illness, Cook was involved in trying to repel fireships from the British fleet and, in another incident, was laying buoys from a small boat which was ambushed by canoes manned by French soldiers and native Americans fierce for scalps. Cook’s boat only just made it to land ahead of the canoes, where British soldiers scared the French off. During an abortive amphibian landing Cook’s ship was one of several laying down suppressing fire, but when the landing failed had to receive back on board many wounded and dying soldiers.

Death voyage one (1768-71)

  • ‘Peter Flower seaman fell overboard and before any assistance could be given him was drowned’ in Rio da Janeiro harbour (p.84)
  • 16 January 1769 Banks leads a disastrous expedition into the interior of Tierra del Fuego, setting off in fine weather, but getting lost in a maze of small trees as the temperature plummeted, it started to snow, and the beleaguered troop of ten men struggled to stay alive through the night. Artist Alex Buchan had an epileptic fit, but it was Banks’s two black servants, Richmond and Dorlton, who had filched a bottle of brandy, drunk it all and died of exposure. (p.95)
  • After being caught stealing some sealskin his comrades were going to divide up and make into tobacco pouches, quiet 21-year-old marine, William Greenslade killed himself by throwing himself overboard. (p.102)
  • On 15 April 1769 in Matavai Bay on Tahiti, after a couple of days of happy interaction with the local inhabitants, one of them makes a lunge for one of the marine’s muskets and, as he runs off, is hit and killed by a fusillade from the other soldiers. (p.114)
  • In the same day, back on the Endeavour, the artist Alex Buchan has a severe epileptic fit and dies. (p.114 )
  • On 26 June 1769 Cook and senior officers were welcomed by King Tiarreboo who proudly displayed his collection of human jawbones, and they learned that the previous year the King’s army had invaded  the territory of neighbouring Queen Obadia, killing a large number of her subjects, burning down their huts and stealing their livestock. This explained the desolate landscape and piles of bones which Cook and Banks had observed. (p.130)
  • Back at sea, on 27 August, the boatswain’s mate, John Reading of Kinsale, County Cork, drank three half pints of raw rum and died as a result.
  • On 9 October 1769 they landed at a wide bay of what they came to realise was New Zealand. When three Maori warriors approached the landing party and one came forward threatening with his spear, the cox in charge of the boat ordered soldiers to fire over their heads and, when he came very close, at him. Te Maro was the first Maori killed by the British.
  • Next day a Maori whipped the curved sword from the waist of astronomer Green, and the Brits initially fired birdshot which peppered him but, as he ran off, Surgeon Monkhouse fired his musket and killed him.
  • Later the same day, on the way back to the ship, they encountered two rafts paddled by Maoris and tried to corner one in order to take the natives aboard the Endeavour, show them trinkets and prove how friendly we are. But the Maoris put up a stiff resistance, throwing rocks and anything they could reach so that the Brits eventually fired muskets into the canoe, killing four Maoris.
  • 9 November 1769,  in a different bay, while Cook was exploring the man in charge of the landing party, John Gore was trading with natives. When one of them stole a roll of cloth and ran away, Gore levelled his musket and shot him dead. (p.147)
  • 30 April 1770, in Botany Bay Australia, seaman Forby Sutherland died of pneumonia contracted on Tierra del Fuego, the first Briton to die in Australia.

Death in Batavia

In November 1770 the Endeavour reached Batavia, main city of the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta). They were relieved to see white men and have access to all the joys of civilisation again, after more than a year either at sea or among native peoples, and also relieved to be able to make repairs to the Endeavour which was in poor shape after enduring such a long voyage, and a number of fierce storms.

But it proved to be a fatal stay. Batavia had been laid out in a grid of canals by the Dutch East India Company but these had silted up and become reservoirs for mosquitoes as well as a host of other tropical diseases.

  • ship’s surgeon Bill Monkhouse 5 November died of malaria
  • 11 November the Tahitian native they’d brought along to act as interpreter, Tupia, died, as did his servant, Taita
  • seamen John Reynolds, Irishman Tim Rearden, John Woodman, marines corporal John Truslove, Sydney Parkinson the wonderful artist and illustrator, the Finnish naturalist and artist Spöring, who had been recommended by Linnaeus, John Ravenshill the ship drunk
  • 31 January 1771 ship’s cook John Thompson, carpenter’s mate Benjamin Jordan, and seamen James Nicholson and Archibald Wolfe
  • February 1771 – midshipman John Bootie, gunner’s servant Daniel Roberts, the surgeon’s brother Jonathan Monkhouse, boatswain John Gathrey, marine John Preston, carpenter John Satterly

In all some 34 of the crew died soon, or from lingering effects of disease caught in Batavia on the journey back across the Indian Ocean and up the Atlantic coast of Africa. Both Cook and Banks were laid low for a while with fevers, but recovered. For a man as proud of caring for his men’s health as Cook, it was a devastating blow.

Death and cannibalism

  • 16 January 1770, in a cove on the New Zealand coast, Cook and his translator Tupia are invited to dinner by a Maori family who explain that they are cannibals. A group of enemies had attacked this tribe, seven had been killed and then – eaten. Some of the sailors saw a native eating the meat off a human arm bone. 20 January some Maori canoes come alongside, sporting dried human heads as decoration.

On the second voyage there were two ships, Resolution captained by Cook, and Adventure, captained by Tobias Furneaux. On 17 December 1773 Furneaux sent a cutter with ten men, commanded by midshipman Rowe, to collect wild greens for the crew. It never returned and next day another cutter went in search and, at a beach they’d named Grass Cove, found hundreds of Maoris and the body parts of their colleagues.

Dogs were chewing at the discarded entrails of four or five men, and they found the eyes, hearts, lungs, livers and heads of their comrades … various feet and Rowe’s left hand (identified by its scarred forefinger) roasting on fires or scattered on the ground.

Over the next few years all visits to New Zealand confirmed that the Maori were cannibals who cooked and ate the bodies of the enemies they defeated in battle. Possibly the white men had got angry, maybe fired a few shots, then were lynched. Possibly they interrupted a native religious ceremony, and sparked the wrath of the celebrants. No one will ever know for sure.

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

But one of the notable aspects of this clash of cultures was the relative restraint the white commanders showed: his men wanted Furneaux to launch a massive bombardment with all the ships canon to devastate the area, but he resisted. Three years later, when Cook returned to the same area on his third expedition, the men again urged their captain to take devastating retaliation but Cook resisted. He even hosted the king of the tribe associated with the murders, Kahura, in his cabin.

Cook’s sense of guilt

This brings out a central thread of the book, which is Cook’s consistent concern to be fair to the natives, to be considerate and courteous, to pay for everything the crews bought, and to submit to quite a few (to him) incomprehensible religious and civic ceremonies. When he discovered crew members ill-treating natives, or when his subordinates were found guilty of shooting natives, Cook was always incensed, and quite a few were punished with floggings.

And yet the book also lists a steady litany of misunderstandings on both sides, and a steady pile of native corpses which builds up. The white men had cannon and muskets. With every misunderstanding which degenerated into violence, the white men (usually) triumphed. And every incident was a nail hammered into Cook’s agonised awareness that although he was carrying out his Majesty’s instructions to the letter, although he conducted his scientific enquiries, collected biological specimens and made endless maps as ordered – that despite all his good intentions, Western contact with First Peoples was fated to be disastrous.

At Ship Cove in New Zealand, in June 1773, Cook wrote in his Journal of the native Maori:

To our shame as civilized Christians, we debauch their morals already too prone to vice, and we introduce among them wants and perhaps disease which they never before knew and which serve only to disturb that happy tranquility which they and their forefathers enjoyed. If anyone denies the truth of this assertion, let him tell me what the natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans. (quoted p.264)

And it was, of course, disastrous for Cook himself, who was cut down in Kealakekua Bay, on Hawai’i island, as a result of a series of cultural misunderstandings with the islanders, which escalated into a bloodbath, described in harrowing detail by Hough on pages 412 to 427.

Cook’s brutal murder stands to this day as a symbol of the tragic ease with which minor cultural confusions can escalate into mass murder, and a gory prophecy of all the massacres which were to follow.

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

Cook is cooked

After the fight ashore in which Cook and four marines were stabbed and hacked to death, one of the two boats bombarded the shore while Captain Clerke, taking command, evacuated the remaining men ashore. Some of the chiefs, forlorn at Cook’s murder, promised to reclaim his body for the white men. But next day all they were able to offer was some cooked flesh from Cook’s body and some bones.

This gave rise to the enduring myth that Cook was eaten by cannibals.

No – the Hawaiian Islanders who killed Captain Cook were not cannibals. They believed that the power of a man was in his bones, so they cooked part of Cook’s body to enable the bones to be easily removed. It was the cooking of his body which gave rise to the rumour of cannibalism.

A week after his death, what remains of Cook had been recovered (being the captain’s hands, the scalp, the skull, the leg bones, lower jaw and feet, p.433) were buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, Captain Clerke assumed command but soon died of tuberculosis and the expedition was commanded for another fourteen months by the American John Gore, and navigated by 28-year-old martinet and expert chart-maker, William Bligh. They sailed north to chart the Sandwich Islands in greater detail, and then all the way north to Alaska to have another – futile – attempt to find the mythical North-West passage.

Elizabeth Cook

His wife, Elizabeth Cook, survived not only her husband by 56 years (he died in 1779, she died in 1835) but all of their children who died young, the three eldest sons aged 31, 16 and 16. On four days a year, the deathdays of her husband and three boys, she fasted and spent the day reading the Bible, and, according to the memoirs of her second cousin:

like many widows of sailors, she could never sleep in high wind for thinking of the men at sea. (p.444)

This may be an old-fashioned book, but partly for that reason, it is sympathetic and moving.


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