SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 1

SPQR is a long book – including the notes and index, it totals a chunky 606 pages. I picked it up at the British Museum’s Nero exhibition, my mind fired up by a couple of hours looking at exhibits illustrating all aspects of ancient Roman life.

Mary Beard’s ubiquity

By the bottom of page one I was disappointed. Mary Beard DBE FSA FBA FRSL is a tiresomely ubiquitous presence across all media:

  • she has a regular column in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘A Don’s Life, columns which have been gathered into not one but two books
  • she has fronted umpteen TV series – Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town (BBC 2), Meet the Romans with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Caligula with Mary Beard (BC 2), Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard (BBC 1), Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit (BBC 2), Julius Caesar Revealed (BBC 1), she wrote and presented two of the nine episodes in Civilisations (BBC 2) and she hosts a new BBC arts programme Lockdown Culture
  • she regularly appears on Question Time and other BBC panel shows
  • she is very ‘vocal’ on her twitter account and has been ‘controversial’ enough to trigger a number of twitterstorms
  • she’s written nineteen books and countless articles and reviews

To churn out this huge volume of content requires compromises in style and content, especially when making TV documentaries which have to be lucid and simple enough to appeal to everyone. Enumerating her enormous output is relevant because it helps to explain why this book is so disappointingly middle-brow.

What I mean is, SPQR is a readable jog through all the key events and people from ancient Rome – and God knows, there are thousands of them. But it contains few if any ideas worth the name and is written in a jolly, chatty, empty magazine style.

Compare and contrast with Richard Miles’s book about Carthage which combines scholarly scrupulousness with teasingly subtle interpretations of ancient history, propounding interesting and unusual ideas about the cultural struggle waged between Rome and Carthage. Well, there’s nothing like that here.

On the back cover there’s a positive review from the Daily Mail:

‘If they’d had Mary Beard on their side back then, the Romans would still have an empire!’

and this jolly knockabout attitude accurately captures the tone of the book. Beard is the Daily Mail‘s idea of an intellectual i.e. she’s at Cambridge, she knows about a fairly obscure subject, and she can speak a foreign language. She must be brainy!

And she’s gobby, too. She’s what TV producers call ‘good value’. She can be relied on to start a twitterstorm by being outspokenly ‘controversial’ on statues or black lives matter or #metoo or any of the usual hot topics – she first came to public notice when she wrote in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that America ‘had it coming’; more recently she sparked ‘controversy’ through to her apparent defence of Oxfam workers practising sexual exploitation in third world disaster zones, and so on.

Like so many other people on social media, Beard mistakes being provocative for actually having anything interesting to say; in which respect she is like thousands of other provocateurs and shock jocks and arguers on social media, all of whom think they are ‘martyrs to the truth’ and ‘saying the unsayable’ and ‘refusing to be silenced’, exactly the kind of rhetoric used by Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage. She is the Piers Morgan of academia.

Mary Beard’s reasons to study ancient Rome

The superficiality of her thinking becomes horribly clear on page one of SPQR where Beard gives us her reasons why ancient Rome is still relevant to the present day, why it is important for us all to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

As a lifelong specialist in Classics you’d hope these would be pretty thoughtful and persuasive, right? Here are her reasons, with my comments:

1. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world, and think about ourselves.

No it doesn’t. I imagine you could study economics and international politics, biology and geography, climate science and sociology and psychology without ever needing to refer to ancient Rome. Marx, Darwin and Freud go a long way to defining how we understand the world. Cicero a lot less so.

2. After 2,000 years, Rome continues to underpin Western culture and politics.

No, it doesn’t. Brexit, Boris Johnson’s current problems, Trump’s popularity, modern music, art and design; all these can be perfectly well understood without any knowledge whatsoever of Roman history.

3. The assassination of Julius Caesar…has provided the template..for the killing of tyrants ever since.

Has it?

4. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond.

Well, yes and no. Italy and France and Spain are undoubtedly similar to the Roman territories of the same name and many cities in western Europe have Roman origins – but everywhere north of the Rhine or Danube was untouched by the Romans, so the borders and cities of modern-day Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Czech republic, Slovak republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Croatia have bugger-all to do with ancient Rome. It’s a tendentious fib to say ‘modern Europe’ owes its political geography to Rome.

5. The main reason London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province of Britannia.

Well a) after the Romans left in 410 London, like all other British cities, fell into disrepair. The reason London slowly rose again as a trading centre during the early Middle Ages has more to do with the fact that it is the logical place to build a major city in England, being close to the continent and at the lowest fordable point of a major river which reaches into the heart of the country and is thus a vital transport hub; b) London is capital of the United Kingdom because of political developments vis-a-vis Wales, Scotland and Ireland which took place a thousand years after the Romans left.

6. Rome has bequeathed us the ideas of liberty and citizenship.

This is true, up to a point, although these ideas were developed and debated in ancient Greece well before the Romans came along, and have undergone 1,500 years of evolution and development since.

7. Rome has loaned us catchphrases such as ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’.

It was when I read this sentence that I began to doubt Mary Beard’s grasp on reality. Is she claiming that ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ is by any stretch of the imagination a ‘catchphrase’ which anyone in Britain would recognise, who hadn’t had a classical education?

She’s closer to the mark when she goes on to mention a couple of other catchphrases like ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ or ‘bread and circuses’, which I imagine a large number of people would recognise if they read them in a magazine or newspaper.

But lots of people have given us comparable quotes and catchphrases, from Shakespeare to the Fonz. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes over 20,000 quotations. Citing just three quotations as the basis for persuading people to study an entirely new subject is far from persuasive. If the number of quotations its generated is a good reason for studying a subject, then Shakespeare would be a hugely better relevant subject for everyone to study, to understand where the hundreds of quotations which float around the language deriving from him come from (Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? To be or not to be? Is this a dagger I see before me? All that glitters is not gold. The be-all and end-all. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.)

And then came Beard’s showstopper claim:

8. Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were.

Is Mary Beard seriously claiming that ‘Ancient Rome is important’ (the first sentence in the book) because ‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’? Let’s ponder this sentence and this argument for a moment.

Can Beard possibly be saying that actual gladiators, trained professional warriors who fight each other or wild beasts to the death in front of huge live audiences, ‘are as big box office now as they ever were’? Well, not literally, of course. She must be referring to in the entertainment industry. I’m guessing it’s a throwaway reference to possibly three items: the television show Gladiators, which started broadcasting in 1992, some of whose expressions became jokey catchphrases (‘Contender ready! Gladiator ready!!’).; to the 2000 movie Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, that was very successful and won five Oscars, and possibly to the 2010 American TV series Spartacus. Have I missed any other media product about gladiators? Two TV shows and a movie about gladiators in 30 years. Hardly a deluge, is it?

Beard’s argument appears to be that, because a successful game show, movie and TV series have been made on the subject of ‘gladiators’ that is a sufficient reason for everyone to drop everything and study ancient Rome.

a) That’s obviously a rubbish argument on its own terms, but b) it ignores the wider context of modern media, of the entertainment industry, namely that there is a huge, an enormous output of product by film and TV companies, all on the time, on every subject under the sun. If your argument is that the fact that a subject has been chosen as the topic of immensely popular movies or TV shows proves that we must study that subject, then we should all be studying the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The reality of modern media is it chews up and spits out any subject which it thinks will make money. In the last twenty years I have been dazed by the enormous explosion in the number of science fiction movies and TV shows, about alien invasions and artificial intelligence and robots and androids, which have hit our screens. Does this mean we should all study artificial intelligence and robotics? No. These are just entertainment products which we may or may not choose to watch.

Placed in the broadest context of cultural product, then, gladiators, or even the overall subject of ancient Rome, pale into insignificance. Ancient Rome is just one of half a dozen hackneyed historical settings which TV and film producers return to from time to time to see if there’s some more profit to be squeezed from them, up there with Arthur of the Britons, Henry VIII and the Tudors, Regency-era dramas like Bridgerton, Dickens adaptations, the Wild West, not to mention the perennial subject of the two world wars which never go out of fashion.

If you base your case for studying an academic subject on its TV and movie ratings (‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’) then it follows that a) subjects with higher ratings are even more necessary to study (the Edwardian society of Downton Abbey, say) and b) low ratings for the subject you’re promoting undermine your argument. My son told me about an HBO series titled simply ‘Rome’ which only ran for two series (2005 to 2007) before it was pulled due to huge expense and disappointing ratings. Maybe ancient Rome isn’t as popular a subject as a professor of Classics likes to think.

Summary

Anyway, the eight sentences I’ve listed above constitute the list of the reasons given by ‘Britain’s leading Classicist’ for studying ancient Rome.

Not very persuasive, are they? Every one of these instances sounds plausible enough at a first glance, if you read it quickly, skimming over it as you skim over a magazine on a plane flight or listen to the script of a big budget documentary about Pompeii you’re half paying attention to.

But stop and ponder any of the eight arguments for more than a moment and they disintegrate in your hands. They are all either factually incorrect or laughably superficial, and they strongly indicate the fluent but facile nature of the mind which selected and wrote them.

Missing obvious arguments

In passing, it’s odd that Beard misses several obvious arguments from her list.

Because I’m interested in language, I’d say a good reason for studying Classics is because Latin forms the basis of a lot of contemporary English words. If you grasp a relatively small number of principles about Latin (such as the prefixes e- for ‘out of’ and in- for ‘into’ and ab- for ‘from’) it can help you recognise and understand a surprising number of English words.

Easily as important as Rome’s impact on political geography is the obvious fact that three major European languages are descended from it, namely Italian, French and Spanish. That’s a really massive lasting impact and people often say that studying Latin helps you learn Italian, French or Spanish.

In fact, having studied Latin, French and Spanish i don’t think it’s true. The main benefit of studying Latin is that it forces you to get clear in your head the logical structure of (western) language, understanding the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs, the arrangement of adjectives and adverbs – in other words, it gives you a kind of mental map of the basic logic of western languages, a mental structure which then helps you understand the structure of other languages, including English.

My son studied Latin at school and remembers his teacher trying to persuade his class that Latin was a ‘cool’ subject by telling them that the Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard had studied it. Beard’s efforts are on about the same level of clumsiness.

But maybe I’m missing the point because Beard is talking about history and I’m talking about languages.

Once we got chatting about it, my son went on to suggest that arguably the most obvious legacy of ancient Rome is its architecture. All over the western world monumental buildings fronted by columns and porticos, sporting arches and architraves, reference and repeat the Architecture of Power which Rome perfected and exported around the Mediterranean and which architects copy to this day.

But again maybe I’m missing the point talking about architecture when Beard is determined to focus very narrowly on the history, on the events and personalities of ancient Rome.

Then again, having discussed it with my son made me realise that how narrow that focus is. If we agree that the biggest legacy of Rome was its political geography, the founding of important towns and cities in western Europe, its ancestry of widely spoken languages, and its hugely influential style of architecture, then this places the actual history of events, long and colourful though they may have been, in a relatively minor role – in terms of direct enduring influence on our lives, now.

Feminists can be boring old farts, too

Just because she doesn’t wear make-up and makes a big deal on the radio, on TV, in the TLS, in countless reviews and in all her books about being a ‘feminist’ doesn’t make Mary Beard any less of a privileged, out of touch, Oxbridge academic. She attended a girls private school, then the all-women Newnham college Cambridge, and went onto a long and successful academic career at Cambridge, rising to become Professor of Classics.

This is all relevant to a book review because I am trying to convey the powerful impression the book gives of someone who is fantastically pleased with themselves and how jolly ‘radical’ and ‘subversive’ and ‘outspoken’ they are and yet:

a) who is apparently blind to the fact that they are exactly the kind of amusingly out-of-touch, white, privileged academic which they themselves have expended such effort in books and articles criticising and lambasting; more importantly

b) who mistakes sometimes dated references to popular culture or trivial ‘provocations’ about gender or race on twitter, for thought, for real thought, for real deep thinking which sheds new light on a subject and changes readers’ minds and understanding. As the Richard Miles’ book on Carthage regularly does; as this book never does.

Facebubble

A Facebubble is what is created among groups of friends or colleagues on Facebook who all befriend each other and share the same kinds of values and are interested in the same kind of subjects and choose the same kinds of items from their newsfeeds. Over time, Facebook’s algorithms serve them what they want to read, suggesting links to articles and documentaries which reinforce what they already know and like. After a while people become trapped in self-confirming facebubbles.

It is a form of confirmation bias, where we only register or remember facts or ideas which confirm our existing opinions (or prejudices).

Again and again Beard’s book confirms your sense that, despite her rhetoric about making the subject more accessible and open, she is in fact addressing a relatively small cohort of readers who are already interested the history of the ancient world but that she is under the odd misapprehension that these already knowledgeable readers are somehow representative of the broader UK population.

Of course this is true of more or less any factual book which addresses a specific audience for a specialised subject, it assumes a tone of general interest. What makes Beard’s book irritating is the references to the notion that ‘we’ are ‘all’ still fascinated by ancient Rome, that ‘everyone’ ‘needs’ to be engaged with the subject. That ancient Rome ‘demands’ our attention. Those are the words she uses.

Not it doesn’t ‘demand’ our attention and no ‘we’ are not ‘all’ fascinated by Rome. My Chinese postman, the three Albanians who put up my new fence, the Irish navvies who took away the wreckage of the old fence, the Asian woman on the checkout at Tesco, the Jamaican guy who blows leaves out the road for the council, the Turkish family who run the delicatessen round the corner – are they ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome? Does it ‘demand’ their attention?

On page two she tells us how:

SPQR takes its title from another famous catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (p.16)

Is this a famous catchphrase, though? Roughly how many people know what SPQR stands for? What percentage of the population do you think could translate Senatus PopulusQue Romanus? People with degrees in the humanities, well in the arts and literature, probably ought to. And anybody who’s been to Rome as a tourist might have noticed its ubiquity. I know what it stands for and what the Latin means because I happen to have studied Latin to GCSE level and then did a very history-based literature degree, which is precisely why I bought and am reading this book. But I have the self awareness to know that I represent a fairly small, self-selectingly bookish percentage of the total population.

Myth busting

On page 3 of the introduction, Beard says her book will set out to smash some of the ‘myths’ which ‘she, like many’ grew up with’ (p.17). These are:

  1. that the Romans started out with a plan for world domination
  2. that in acquiring their empire the Romans trampled over peace-loving peoples
  3. that Rome was the thuggish younger sibling of classical Greece

Are these myths which you grew up with? Is it very important that ‘we’, the British people, have these ‘dangerous’ myths corrected? No, not really. They are only remotely important in the mind of someone who specialises in the subject.

All this rhetoric of ‘need’ and ‘must’ and ‘demand’ builds up an impression of special pleading, defined as when someone ‘tries to persuade you of something by only telling you the facts that support their case’. Beard is a Professor of Classics. Her job is to teach students Classics. She has taken it upon herself to make Classics more ‘accessible’ to a wider public, which may well be admirable. She tries to persuade us that everybody ought to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

But the arguments she uses to do so are weak and unconvincing.

I am not attacking her or her subject. I am critiquing the poor quality of her arguments.

First impressions

All these arguments and my responses to them occurred in the first few pages of the book. I hope you can see why, before the end of the 5-page introduction to SPQR, I realised that this was not going to be a scholarly book, and certainly in no way ‘intellectual’. It is a long, thorough and competent Sunday supplement-level account of its subject, stuffed with interesting facts, with some novel spins on things I thought I knew about (for example, the latest thinking about the legend of Romulus and Remus).

But it is disappointingly magaziney, features article-y, lacking in real depth. Instead of really unsettling and disrupting your ideas, of opening new vistas of understanding, as Richard Miles’s book does, Beard’s ideas of ‘controversy’ are on a disappointing twitter level – telling us that ancient Rome was a very sexist society, that its political debates about freedom versus security are very like our own, that there’s a lot we still don’t understand about its origins, that the archaeology is still much debated.

These are all ideas you could have predicted before you opened the book. That’s what I mean by middle-brow: a very long magazine article which is packed with the latest knowledge and hundreds of dates and historical personages, but doesn’t really change your opinion about anything.

Very disappointing.


Related links

Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles (2010)

According to legend Carthage was founded in 814 BC. Its history came to an end in 146 BC, the year in which Rome defeated and utterly destroyed it. Richard Miles is a young historian whose book, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, sets out to record everything we know about Carthage, from the legends of its founding, through its umpteen wars, up to the final catastrophe.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed is long, 373 pages of text, 77 pages of notes, 34 page bibliography and a 66-page index = 521 pages.

It is not a social or political history. There is hardly anything about Carthage’s form of government, a reasonable amount about its economy (trade and some agriculture), a surprising amount about the evolving design and metallurgy of its coinage (in the absence of other evidence, coins are a good indicator of cultural changes and economic success), and quite a lot about its religion, in particular a recurring thread about the syncretistic melding of the Phoenician god of Melqat with the Hellenistic demigod Heracles, about which Miles has a real bee in his bonnet.

But what the text is really filled with is relentless details of Carthage’s endless wars, wars, wars. It is an overwhelmingly military history. Countless battles, an apparently endless stream of generals with the same four names (Hannibal, Hamilcar, Hasdrubal or Hanno) and gruesome references to torture. Failed generals, defeated enemies, rebellious mercenaries, overthrown tyrants, unlucky hostages or ambassadors, an endless stream of unfortunates are publicly tortured, beheaded or crucified (pages 131, 147, 152, 165, 173, 203, 208, 211, 212, 219, 273, 358). The ideal reader of this book will really love details of ancient wars and sadistic punishments.

The single most surprising thing about the history of Carthage is how much of it took place on the island of Sicily. The western half of Sicily was colonised by Carthage from about 900 BC, the eastern half by Greek colonists from different mother cities from about 750 BC, and the economic and territorial rivalry led to almost continuous warfare between the two sets of colonists between 580 and 265 BC, a period known as the Sicilian Wars.

If you know nothing whatever about Carthage, here are the key facts:

The Phoenicians

is the general name given to the people who, 3,000 years ago (1,000 BC) inhabited the trading cities situated along the coast of modern-day Lebanon, ports like Byblos, Sidon and Tyre. The Phoenicians invented new types of more efficient sailing ships with which they established trading routes all round the Mediterranean, trading in precious metals and manufactured goods such as jewellery, ceramics, and food. The high point of Phoenician culture and sea power is usually placed between about 1,200 to 800 BC. They founded trading settlements on all the Mediterranean islands (Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia) and as far afield as Gades (modern Cadiz) beyond what the ancients called the Pillars of Hercules, i.e. beyond the Mediterranean, onto the Atlantic coast of modern-day Spain.

Carthage

The most successful of these settlements was Carthage. Carthage was founded in the 9th century BC on the coast of North Africa, in what is now Tunisia, by traders from Tyre in Phoenicia (Phoenicia being the coastal strip of the what is now Syria and Lebanon). It was a pivotal position, half way along the trade routes from east to west and also handy for the short routes north to and south from Italy and its two big islands, Sardinia and Sicily.

Map of the Mediterranean showing position, central to various trade routes (source: Politeia website)

In the following centuries Carthage became independent of its mother city (which was eventually subjugated by the Asian empire of Assyria) to become a trading empire in its own right, creating its own colonies around the Mediterranean and spreading inland from its coastal location to conquer territory originally occupied by Libyan tribes.

New city

Carthage’s status as a colony or settlement is indicated by its name: the Punic term qrt-ḥdšt directly translates as ‘new city’, implying it was a ‘new Tyre’ (p.62). The city states of Phoenicia – the leading ones being Sidon and Tyre – had thrived in the vacuum caused by the late Bronze Age collapse (about 1,200 to 1,100 BC). But from 900 to 800 onwards the big land empires returned, namely Egypt to the south and Assyria to the east, and repeatedly invaded and conquered the city states. Miles shows how they allowed some, Tyre in particular, a measure of independence because the Assyrian rulers relied on the luxury goods, and especially the rare metals, which were brought in from their trade around the Med (copper from Cyprus, silver from southern Spain).

Nonetheless, as the mother city, Tyre, lost power, its strongest child, Carthage, grew.

Punic wars

From the 300s BC onwards Carthage found its maritime empire threatened by the fast-growing new power of Rome, half-way up the west coast of the Italian peninsula. The Romans used the adjective poenus to refer to the Phoenicians and, by extension, the Carthaginians, and so the three wars Rome fought against Carthage are referred to as ‘the Punic Wars’:

  • First Punic War (264–241 BC)
  • Second Punic War (218–201 BC)
  • Third and final Punic War (149–146 BC)

Rome wins

Rome won the Third Punic War, stormed the city and utterly destroyed Carthage in 146 BC, leading away the survivors into brutal slavery and razing the buildings to the ground. During the final war a leading Roman politician, Cato the Censor, made a reputation by, whatever subject he was nominally addressing in the Senate, ending all his speeches with the same words, ‘Carthago delenda est’, meaning ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. It is this famous catchphrase that gives this book its title.

Not only did the Romans destroy all buildings, but all statues, inscriptions and records, emptying the libraries of Carthage and giving away the manuscripts and codices to local tribes. None have survived. This explains why, despite its long history and one-time predominance, the historiography of Carthage is so shadowy, and has to be reconstructed from references in the writings of its enemies or from the often obscure or ambiguous archaeological evidence.

Archaeology

The victorious Romans razed Carthage to the ground. Generations later, the first emperor, Augustus, ordered the erection of a new city on its ruins, Colonia Iulia Concordia Carthago (p.364). Both are now embedded in the huge modern city of Tunis, capital of Tunisia (current population 11 million), which makes archaeological investigation difficult to this day. However, the Carthaginians had established many of their own colonies both across northern Tunisia and on many Mediterranean islands, and from time to time new Punic sites are discovered, or new discoveries are made at existing sites, which provide information which keep our view of Carthage’s history slowly changing and updating.

Punic gods

All written records were destroyed, all the poems and hymns and inscriptions which we have for the Greek or Roman pantheons. From archaeological evidence and references in Greek or Roman works it appears the main gods of Carthage were a couple, the god Baal Hammon and the goddess Tanit (list of 3 triads of gods on page 289).

Baal was a Phoenician name for ‘Lord’, so there were a lot of gods whose first name was Baal. In fact the common Carthaginian men’s name Hannibal is a combination of the Carthaginian name Hanno with the word ‘Baal’.

Melqart was the tutelary god of Carthage’s mother-city, Tyre, sometimes titled the ‘Lord of Tyre’ (Ba‘al Ṣūr), King of the Underworld, and Protector of the Universe. Miles shows how worship of Melqart was encouraged at all Phoenician colonies across the Mediterranean as a way of binding them together culturally.

Miles also shows how Melqart became identified and merged with Greek worship of Heracles, the hugely popular Greek figure who could be taken as both a demigod or a mortal hero, depending on context, and who was the signature figure for Greeks colonising westwards through the Mediterranean in the sixth century and later (pages 105, 221). Heracles was even adopted as a patron and icon by Alexander the Great.

In fact the prevalence of Melqart-Heracles becomes a recurring theme of Miles’s book, popping up wherever Carthage creates colonies, for example becoming the god/face or brand of the new colony in south Spain in the third century (p.221), depicted on the coins of Hannibal (p.227), and then co-opted by the post-Punic emperor Augustus. Miles develops what almost amounts to an obsession with Heracles, turning his myths and legends into a kind of central narrative to the five or six centuries leading up to the Christian Era which are fought over by Greeks and Carthaginians and Romans in turn, who each seek to commandeer and appropriate him as ancestor and avatar for their own colonial ambitions.

By contrast with the hundreds of mentions and extended passages about Heracles, the goddess Astarte is only mentioned a handful of times. She was a goddess of the Levant, of not only Phoenicians but the Canaanites too, rather than distinctively of the Phoenician diaspora. Still, I could have done with more about Astarte.

Carthage as ‘the other’ for Rome

Miles’s central point is that, for the reasons explained above, almost everything we know about ancient Carthage comes down to us from Greek, and then Roman sources, and that both of them were bitter rivals of Carthage’s trading and military might. In other words, all the written evidence we have about Carthage comes from her enemies.

Miles uses ideas derived from Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism about how colonial conquerors project onto their victims their own vices, to suggest that in these accounts the ancient Greeks and Romans projected onto the Carthaginians all the moral and social sins and transgressions and weaknesses they could think of. These included cruelty, dishonesty, effeminacy, luxuriousness, barbarity, sexual immorality, and so on. The notion of the unreliability or deceitfulness of the Carthaginians gave rise to a Roman proverb, fides Punica, meaning Punic or Carthaginian ‘faith’ – ironically indicating the exact opposite. Towards the end of the book he spends three pages describing how the Roman comic playwright Plautus’s play, The Little Carthaginian, performed in the lull between the second and third Punic wars, attributed all these perfidious characteristics to the hapless protagonist (pages

So Miles’s mission is to use the latest up-to-the-minute archaeological and scholarly knowledge to penetrate back through centuries of Greek and Roman prejudice and anti-Carthage propaganda to try and establish who the Carthaginians really were.

There are two problems with this approach:

1. It assumes that you are already fairly familiar with all the Roman prejudices against Carthage which he is setting out to overthrow. If you’re not familiar with Roman slurs against Carthage, then the book has to explain the prejudiced view first, before going on to rebut it and, in doing so, it turns out that the accusations of the Greeks and Romans are often so florid and vivid that you remember them more than Miles’s myth-busting antidotes.

2. This is especially the case when Miles’s anti-prejudice myth-busting is not as exciting or as clear-cut as you might hope, substituting a clearly defined line with the uncertain speculations of modern scholars.

The most obvious example is when Miles sets out to undermine the Greek and Roman accusation that the Carthaginians practised the ritual sacrifice of babies. But to do so he has to present all the evidence supporting the baby-killing view and this turns out to be pretty persuasive. He explains that a ‘tophet’ was the general term the Carthaginians used for a site where infants were sacrificed. It was a Hebrew term derived from a location in Jerusalem in the Gehinnom where worshippers, influenced by the ancient Canaanite religion, practised the human sacrifice of children to the gods Moloch and Baal by burning them alive.

Miles then goes on to look very thoroughly at the archaeological evidence from the cemeteries which have been found in Carthage itself and in the surrounding towns, where urns have been found which contain the ashes of infants. Up-to-the minute scholarly research using DNA and other types of scientific technology seem to have established that many of the infants who were (undoubtedly) burned to ashes, were so young as to maybe have been still-born. Maybe it was only still-born infants or infants who died within months of birth (i.e. who were already dead) who were burned as offerings to the gods. But still… the accusation is not completely baseless… the Carthaginians did burn babies… So Miles’s attempt to overthrow a modern ‘prejudice’ against the Carthaginians ends up bringing the prejudice more prominently to my attention and not really decisively rebutting it.

The endlessness of scholarly debate

And that’s the trouble with any book which sets out to take us into the heart of scholarly debate – the trouble is that scholarly debate is endless. And it is particularly exacerbated with a subject like Carthage where the Romans went out of their way to destroy every building, statue, stele or inscription, and all the books and manuscripts which recorded Carthaginian religion, culture or history.

What we are left with is an admittedly copious amount of archaeological evidence from the city itself and its numerous colonies around the Mediterranean, but evidence which is always partial, fragmentary, complex and open to differing interpretation.

Therefore Miles’s book doesn’t tell ‘the’ story of Carthage, it tells one possible story and, as his narrative proceeds, it is very scrupulous in pointing out where scholars differ and mentioning different interpretations. In fact he does this so often you feel you are reading not one but multiple versions, multiple possible histories of Carthage.

Take something as simple as the start of the Punic period itself, the period of Phoenician economic hegemony in the Mediterranean, presumably, after two and a half thousand years, historians are fairly clear when this began, right? Wrong.

The advent of what we call the ‘Punic’ era is notoriously difficult to define. (p.88)

Presumably historians have a clear sense of what ‘Punic’ culture was, right? Wrong. Turns out that Punic culture was highly ‘syncretic’ i.e. incorporating elements from many other Mediterranean cultures:

What we refer to as ‘Punic’ culture is an umbrella term for a whole series of diffuse cultural experiences that took place all over the western and central Mediterranean. (p.89)

In other words, wherever you look in the subject of Punic or Carthaginian history, there are scholarly problems of interpretation which the steady trickle of modern archaeological discoveries only makes more complex, sometimes bewilderingly so. In fact rather than one coherent story, the text can more accurately be described as a succession of puzzles, historical teasers for which Miles presents the evidence for and against particular solutions or interpretations.

For example, does the existence of the Ara Maxima altar and temple in the Forum Boarium in Rome testify to the early Roman adaptation of a local legend about a hero-brigand with the Greek legends about the wandering hero Heracles? Or, on the contrary, might it point towards early Rome being a mish-mash of Etrurian, Greek, Phoenician, Punic and other peoples in a typically Phoenician cosmopolitan trading community?

Miles devotes pages 108 to 111 to presenting the evidence for either interpretation, which were intriguing to follow but, ultimately, quite hard to remember or care about – and my point is that a good deal of the book is like this, a sequence of puzzles and mysteries and obscurities which scholars are wrangling over right up to the present day, and which Miles shares with us in some detail.

  • There is no consensus on the meaning of the Nora stone… (p385)
  • There has been considerable debate over the provenance of the Cacus myth… (p.404)
  • The identification of the goddess figure has been controversial… (p.405)

Greece, the first rival

For centuries before Rome rose, Carthage’s rival was Greece or, more precisely, the numerous Greek colonies around the Mediterranean. Not a lot of people know that the Greeks colonised or, more accurately, set up trading centres which became towns and sometimes fortified citadels, at points all round the Mediterranean coast, the ones Carthage clashed with dotting the coasts of Sardinia and Sicily. I’m always surprised to reread that the southern coast of Italy was for centuries known as Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece, because of the dominance of Greek towns.

The ubiquity of Greek colonisation was reflected in the spread of the cult of the Greek hero and demi-god, Herakles, whose legendary travels, labours and womanising, as Miles shows, became a symbol of ‘the Greek colonial project’, the ‘Greek colonial endeavour’ (p.171). Temples were built for him all over the Mediterranean littoral and local towns and cities and even ethnic groups claimed descent from the far-travelling bully. A particularly striking example is the way that the Celtic race claimed to be descended from Heracles after he slept with the daughter of the king of Galicia and fathered a son named Kelta (p.399).

Sicily, the endless battlefield

Sicily is separated from Italy by a strait just 1.9 miles wide at its narrowest point and is only 87 miles from the African shore.

Around 500 the narrative emerges from speculation based on archaeology into more reliable history documented by Greek sources, in the form of military campaigns in Sicily. A glance at the map shows why Sicily was important to anyone trying to set up a trading empire in the Mediterranean and Miles devotes several chapters to accounts of the long-running conflict between towns founded by Carthage in the west of the island, and towns founded by Greeks in the east, specifically Syracuse, founded by Greek settlers from Corinth.

The Sicilian Wars, or Greco-Punic Wars, were a series of conflicts fought between ancient Carthage and the Greek city-states led by Syracuse over control of Sicily and the western Mediterranean between 580 and 265 BC. (Wikipedia)

The Carthaginians set up small trading settlements on Sicily as early as 900 BC but never penetrated far inland. They had traded with the local peoples, the Elymians, Sicani and Sicels. Greek colonists began arriving after 750 BC.

  • 580 BC – The Phoenicians in Sicily and the Elymians unite to defeat the Greeks of Selinus and Rhodes near Lilybaeum, the first such recorded incident in Sicily
  • 540 – Carthaginian Malchus is said to have ‘conquered all Sicily’ and sent captured booty to Tyre
  • 510 BC – Carthage helped the town of Segesta defeat the expedition of the Greek Dorieus
  • early 5th century; the higher 400s BC were the era of Sicilian ‘tyrants’ i.e. rulers who ruled a town and its surrounding area without consulting the landed elite; examples of these ‘tyrants’ crop up in the writings about contemporary political theory of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle; for example, Gelon who captured the main Greek city, Syracuse, in 485 BC and then deployed a policy of ‘ethnic cleansing, deportation and enslavement’
  • 483 – Terrilus, tyrant of Himera, was deposed by the tyrant Theron of Acragas, and called on Carthage to help; Carthage was motivate to defend its Sicilian territory against Theron who threatened to take over; Carthage sent a large army, maybe as many as 50,000, many mercenaries, under general Hamilcar; the fleet suffered heavy losses en route to Sicily and was then slaughtered at the Battle of Himera; the defeat was a catastrophe and had political ramifications back in Carthage, leading to the replacement of government by an aristocratic elite with the institution of a special form of republic managed by a Council of 104 and an Assembly of Elders (pages 116, 130, 215); Carthage didn’t intervene in Sicily for 70 years, allowing the Greeks to undergo an era of expansion and building, although they themselves then collapsed into a dozen or so bickering commonwealths
  • 410 – Carthage got involved in the complicated internecine Sicilian wars when Hannibal Mago helped the town of Segesta defeat the town of Selinus and then destroyed Himera, thus avenging the disastrous defeat of 73 years earlier
  • 406 – second expedition led by Hannibal Mago was ravaged by plague which killed Hannibal but his successor Himilco, captured and sacked Akragas, then captured the city of Gela, sacked Camarina and repeatedly defeated the army of Dionysius I, the new tyrant of Syracuse, before plague brought the fighting to a halt

And so on for another 150 years. I’m not going to explain the details of this map from the Turning Points of Ancient History website, I’m including it to show how the island of Sicily was characteristically divided up into a surprising number of territories and towns all of which were, at some point, attacking each other, besieged, surrendered, burnt down and so on during the 300 years of the Sicilian Wars. Basically, for most of that period Carthage held the west of the island, various Greek rulers held Syracuse in the south-east, and then they got embroiled in scores of alliances to try and grab as much of the territory between them.

Map of Sicily 483 BC showing its division between different rulers.

What was surprising to me about this was:

  • realising just how much of a colonising, imperialist peoples the Greeks were: I had a very limited image of the ancient Greeks as philosophers in togas strolling round the agora in Athens or heroically defending themselves against the Persians at Thermopylae; it’s chastening to read about their ambitious imperial aims and their success at founding Greek towns on coastlines all around the Mediterranean; in this respect the long chapter Miles devotes to the cult and legends of Herakles and the way his cult was used to both explain and justify Greek imperialism, is genuinely eye-opening
  • and of course, where you have colonies you have people being colonised; Miles’s book and the Wikipedia article devote all their time to the names of Carthaginian and Greek leaders and their battles and only in passing mention the names of the local ‘peoples’ whose land and livings were stolen from them by one or other set of invaders – the natives being the Elymians, Sicani and Sicels – having read so much about the European colonisation of Africa recently, I was struck by the similarities, only on a much smaller scale, in the sense that we hear a lot about the colonists because they were literate and left records, and almost nothing about the illiterate subject tribes who have gone down in history without a voice

Rome’s civic nationalism

Most people think of Carthage in connection with its rivalry with Rome, which led to the three Punic wars (264 to 146 BC) and which climaxed in the conquest and utter destruction of the city. Miles describes the long prehistory to the conflict, describing the slow but steady rise of Rome from a Carthaginian point of view.

Putting to one side the blizzard of dates, events and individuals, what is fascinating is Miles’s analysis of Rome’s success. It had a number of causes. One was that Rome was ruled by a pair of consuls who were elected for one year’s service. This meant they were in a hurry to make their name in history and were encouraged to aggressive policies now. A contrast to most other polities led by kings or tyrants who could afford to take their time. Miles explains that this ‘war without respite’ was a new thing, and economically exhausted Carthage (p.192).

Another was that when the Romans were defeated they simply raised more troops and came back to avenge the defeat, unlike the Carthaginians who tended to withdraw.

Another big reason for Rome’s success was its astonishing ability to integrate newly conquered territory and peoples into the Roman state (pages 158-9 and 197). This was done via infrastructure – conquered territory soon benefited from the building of the famous roads and aqueducts and laying out towns rationally and efficiently. But also by law, whereby newly integrated populations became equal under Roman law. Rome espoused what Michael Ignatieff calls ‘civic nationalism’ – all Roman citizens were treated equally under the law regardless of race or religion – as opposed to the ‘ethnic nationalism’ which most other states (then and for most of history) employed to unite its populations.

The ancient Latin identity survived, but only as a set of duties, rights and privileges enshrined in Roman law. (p.159)

A huge consequence of this is that Rome was able to recruit its armies from citizens, albeit only recently incorporated into the Roman state, but still, freeborn Roman citizens, who were inculcated with a sincere belief in Roman laws and values. This was in striking contrast to most other Mediterranean powers, including Carthage, which relied heavily on mercenaries to fill their armies, mercenaries who were both unreliable (often mutinied or defected) but also very expensive (a fact pointed out by the contemporary historian Polybius, quoted page 241). One of the reasons for Carthage’s relative decline was it bankrupted itself paying mercenaries to fight the wars against Rome.

(The best example of this was the Mercenary War which began at the end of the first Punic War when a huge force of some 20,000 mercenaries mutinied and turned on Carthage because they hadn’t been paid. Under canny leaders, who allied with neighbouring African tribes who would benefit from the overthrow of Carthage, it turned into a full-blown war on its own account which lasted from 241 to 237 BC when the mercenaries were finally defeated and massacred. Miles describes it in vivid detail pages 200 to 211. The mutiny contributed to the further weakening of Carthage in her long-running feud with Rome and vividly demonstrated the weakness of relying on foreign mercenaries. It is also the vivid and barbaric background to Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbô.)

To be honest, this was one of the seven main things I took away from this long detailed book:

  1. The Carthaginians sacrificed (or were widely accused of sacrificing) babies to their gods.
  2. The huge cultural importance of the figure of Heracles to Greek imperialism and how he was incorporated into the Carthaginian cult of Melqart.
  3. Rome’s success was in large part to its efficiency at incorporating conquered territory and peoples into the civic nationalism of its polity.
  4. Rome’s military success was attributable, in part, to the way they just would not stop or admit defeat, put pressed on relentlessly till they won. (A point seconded by Adrian Goldsworthy’s book about the Punic Wars.)
  5. The gigantic role played by Sicily in Carthage’s history.
  6. The Mercenary War.
  7. The origins and career of Hannibal Barca.

The Punic Wars

Obviously Miles gives a very thorough account of the Punic Wars although here, as in his account of the Sicilian Wars, the immense detail and the explanation of scholarly debate about various key points and cruxes, often threatened to obscure the outline of the bigger picture. For example, in Miles’s narrative, it wasn’t exactly clear when each of the Punic wars either started or ended, since they merged into peace negotiations and visits by ambassadors and skirmishes and violent rebellions or coups and so on.

The overall message seems to be that the three Punic wars accelerated the rise of Rome, in all sorts of ways, militarily, culturally, economically and culturally.

The first war (264 to 241 BC) was fought mainly on the island of Sicily. Rome’s involvement was the first time that a Roman army was sent outside Italy (p.357). However, even having just read about it, it pales into the background compared to the second one (218 to 201 BC) which is dominated by the ‘romantic’ figure of Hannibal. Part of the reason is that, apparently, we have far better sources for the second war, not least because a number of biographies of the famous Hannibal survive in whole or part.

Slavery

In case it’s not clear, all these societies the ancient Greeks, the Romans and the Carthaginians, relied on slaves. In all the wars, the populations of captured towns and cities were routinely sold into slavery by the victors (pages 127, 140, 281, 296, 315, 347, 352).

Iberia

A fascinating aspect of the final period of Carthage was the success of its sub-colony in the south of Spain, which was established and triumphed due to the region’s extensive silver deposits. The Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca invaded and subdued the locals in 237 BC, putting them to work on the silver mines on an industrial scale. Eventually there were something like 40,000 slaves working in the silver mines to generate the precious metal to prop up Carthage and its military campaigns. (The town of Cartagena in south-east Spain was founded by Hamilcar as qrt-ḥdšt, which the Romans called ‘Cartago Nova,’ which was corrupted by the locals to Cartagena. So the city of Cartagena in Colombia owes its name to the same origin in the Phoenician language of the Middle East, page 224.)

The Barcids

Hamilcar’s success really brought to prominence the family of Barca whose era or influence is referred to by the adjective ‘Barcid’. Hence ‘Barcid Spain’. In fact the most famous Hannibal of all, the one who took his elephants over the Alps in 218 BC, was a Barcid, the son of the Hamilcar Barca who subjugated the Iberian tribes. When Hamilcar died in the early 220s, his son-in-law Hasdrupal took over, with Hannibal becoming a senior officer in the army aged just 18. When Hasdrupal was assassinated in 221 Hannibal was acclaimed leader by the army (and promptly issued new coinage depicting Heracles/Melqart, just one of the way in which Hannibal consciously associated himself with the oldest iconography of Carthaginian power, pages 227, 245, 247, 250-258).

Hannibal and the second Punic war (218 to 201 BC)

I remember Hannibal taking his elephants over the Alps from boyhood history books. I must have wondered why he did it. This book makes things clear.

1. Hannibal was seeking revenge or, more accurately, restitution from the peace settlement of the first Punic war (264 to 241 BC) which had given Sicily to Rome as a Roman province – the first ever Roman province – and cemented Rome as the leading military power in the western Mediterranean and, increasingly, the Mediterranean region as a whole. (Coming 20 years after the end of the first war, and seeking to correct the ‘injustices’ of the peace treaty which ended it, reminds me of the 20 year gap between the first and second world wars.)

2. Having been acclaimed general of the Carthaginian army in Spain Hannibal was ambitious to make his mark and confident, having been raised in an army family, gone on campaigns from an early age and been an officer at age 18, that he could do it.

3. But instead of trying to invade and conquer Sicily – graveyard of so many Carthaginian campaigns in the past – he would strike direct at the enemy and invade Italy.

4. But why over the Alps? Simples. The Romans controlled the seas. A sea-borne invasion was just too risky.

As it was, as soon as Hannibal’s left Carthage-occupied Spain they were attacked by Celtic Iberian tribes. Crossing the Pyrenees was dangerous. Then crossing the entire south of France, again, involved armed confrontations with a succession of local Gaulish tribes. Finally they were shown by guides how to ascend one side of the Alps, go through passes, and descend into Italy in late autumn 218, with 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and an unknown number of elephants – the survivors of the 37 with which he left Iberia.

Here Hannibal spent several years marching and fighting and campaigning. He won one of the most famous victories of the ancient world, crushing a Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC, but the description of the war quickly gets bogged down and complicated. Overall the war makes the point that you can be the best general of your day and win stunning battles but still lose a war which is being fought on numerous fronts. While he was in Italy the Romans shrewdly sent an army to Iberia; although they suffered numerous setbacks, the Iberian tribes the Carthaginians had oppressed were happy to defect to them and so, eventually, the Romans defeated them, and, despite mutinies in their own army and local rebellions, eventually forced all Carthaginian forces, led by Hasdrubal Gisco, out of Iberia. The thirty-year Punic occupation of south Iberia was over, and it became a Roman province, as Sicily had at the end of the first war.

Hannibal was in Italy from 218 to 203. 15 years. Long time, isn’t it? Lots of battles. Early on the Roman authorities panicked and appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator. Fabius introduced the strategy of avoiding open battle with his opponent, instead skirmishing with small detachments of the enemy. This was unpopular with the army, public or Roman elite, as Hannibal marched through the richest and most fertile provinces of Italy wreaking devastation as he went. (This softly, slowly approach explains the name of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884 as a British socialist organisation which aims to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist effort in democracies, rather than by revolutionary overthrow.)

At one point he seized key towns in the very south, Magna Graecia, notably Capua, not as Punic fiefs but giving them their independence. His aim was not to destroy Rome but to mortally weaken it by giving Rome’s Latin and Italian allies their independence. This explains why he only once marched on the actual city and then was rebuffed by its thorough defences. In the end, though, all the cities he’d liberated ended up being retaken by the Romans.

Nonetheless, in the book’s conclusion, Miles says that these fifteen years during which an alien invader roamed more at less at will across the sacred territory of Rome left a deep psychological scar on the Roman psyche which took generations to exorcise (p.361).

In 203 Hannibal was recalled to Africa because in his absence, Publius Cornelius Scipio who had led the Romans to victory in Iberia, had led a force to Africa. Scipio destroyed an army of 50,000 sent against him but failed to capture the town of Utica and realised that besieging Carthage itself would probably be a long drawn-out process, costly in men and resources.

Thus both sides had fought themselves to a standstill and were ready to sue for peace. The Romans imposed very harsh terms but when Hannibal finally arrived back in Carthaginian territory the stage was set for a massive battle between the two old enemies. At the Battle of Zama in October 202 BC Scipio won a decisive victory and brought the war to an end (p.316).

Wikipedia has a cool animated graphic which sums up the change in territorial holdings over the course of the wars:

Changes in Rome and Carthage’s territories during the three Punic Wars, 264 to 146 BC. (Image by Agata Brilli ‘DensityDesign Integrated Course Final Synthesis Studio’, Polytechnic University of Milan)

The third Punic war

Surprisingly, shorn of its empire, Carthage flourished after the second war, quickly paying off the reparations owed to Rome and actively supplying her with vast amounts of wheat and food to support Rome’s wars against Macedon and other kingdoms in the East. When the end came it was entirely of Roman prompting. Factions in the Senate warned endlessly of the threat Carthage could still pose. Cato visited Carthage and was appalled at its prosperity. Eventually argument in the Senate led to an embassy being sent to demand impossible conditions of the Carthaginians – to uproot their city and move inland and cease to be an ocean-going, trading nation at all.

The embassy withdrew into the city and a 3-year siege commenced. Scipio adopted grandson of the great Scipio Africanus. Eventually stormed the walls and broke into the city and destroyed it and massacred its population. There is no doubt in Miles’s mind the Carthaginians did everything they could to abide by the letter of the treaties and to avoid war, and that the Romans would accept nothing but utter destruction. Once again it was Roman inflexibility and relentlessness which triumphed. Miles notes how this was recorded around the Mediterranean where Rome’s determination was noted but many lamented its bad faith, its falling short of the values it claimed to promote, of fairness and good faith.

Appropriating Carthage

At the end of the book, Miles shows how Carthage served numerous ideological purposes for Rome. For a start, in later works it became THE enemy which Rome had to overcome to in order to become great. In a sense, if Carthage hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent her (p.373).

Closely connected, as mentioned above re. Said, even as it was being besieged and for centuries afterwards, Carthage became the anti-type of all the virtues the Romans congratulated themselves on, perfidious compared to Roman fides, with a disgusting baby-killing religion compared to Rome’s dignified ceremonies. Rome’s self-image was built by contrasting itself with the imagined vices of Carthage.

Third, however, a series of poets and historians wondered whether, in defeating Carthage, Rome had somehow peaked. The existence of a potent rival in a sense kept Rome on her toes, not just militarily but morally. For some later moralists, the defeat of Carthage marked the start of the internal squabbles, factions and corruption which were to lead to the civil wars, starting in the 80s BC.

The many dead

Deep down, the book made me marvel and gape at just how many, many men, throughout history, have miserably lost their lives in war. As Adrian Goldsworthy writes in his book on the Punic Wars:

In just one battle, in 216, the Romans and their allies lost 50,000 dead. During the second Punic war a sizeable part of Rome’s adult make population perished, mostly in the first few years of the conflict.

Between one and a quarter and one and three quarter millions of men died in the 120-year war. God knows how many civilians perished or were sold into slavery.


Related links

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh (1952)

‘I’m what’s called a “conducting officer”. I take American journalists round fighter stations. But I shall find something else soon. The great thing is to get into uniform; then you can start moving yourself round. It’s a very exclusive war at present. Once you’re in, there’s every opportunity.’
(Lord Ian Kilbannock explaining to Guy the importance of getting on in a war, Men at Arms)

Men at Arms is the first in what developed into a trilogy of novels about the Second World War which Waugh named The Sword of Honour trilogy. It tells the story of devout Catholic, conservative, standoffish but honourable and frequently depressed fellow, Guy Crouchback:

Thirty-five years old, slight and trim, plainly foreign but not so plainly English, young, now, in heart and step…

The novel starts with the outbreak of the Second World War and follows Guy’s long, clumsy and sometimes very funny progress through the military machine, with a world of details about the farcical bureaucratic aspects of army life.

But the book also includes, like a persistent background hum, Guy’s deep Catholic faith and his feel for the ‘old’ values of religion and an older traditional way of life embodied in the figure of Guy’s venerable father, Mr Crouchback.

And the book’s other understated but persistent theme is for Guy’s loneliness and isolation, his unhappiness, sometimes sinking as low as actual despair. For too long, the narrative tells us, Guy has inhabited a ‘dry, empty place’ of the soul.

The Crouchback family

How so? Well, Guy’s character is carefully constructed to evoke the same kind of pity and compassion he was seeking to evoke in Brideshead Revisited, the sense of the decline and fall of a once noble family, the sense of quietly heroic old buffers trying to keep up ancient values and dignity in a world gone to hell.

Guy’s father is over 70, a quiet, decent man of deep devout Catholic faith who has nobly weathered a series of setbacks. He is the representative of a family which can trace its lineage back to the time of Henry I. For centuries the Crouchback family have lived in a country estate named Broome, somewhere in north Devon. But the family suffered a) personal and b) financial setbacks.

On the personal front, Mr Crouchback’s wife gave him four children then died young, leaving him with a permanent sense of sadness. Worse was to come because, at the outbreak of the Great War, the eldest son and heir, Gervase, went straight from his Catholic private school, Downside, into the Irish Guards, where he managed to get himself killed on his first day in the trenches. Then the second son, Ivo, always a loner and oddball, when he was 26 went missing from home and was discovered months later, holed up in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was deliberately starving himself to death. He was brought home but the damage was done and he died soon after.

There was an only daughter, Angela, who married a non-Catholic, an ambitious chap who’s gone on to become a successful Conservative MP, Arthur Box-Bender.

And Guy himself. Guy also ‘married out’ of the family religion, marrying the beautiful non-Catholic socialite, Virginia. He took his younger son’s share of the diminished family fortune and settled in Kenya, running a farm beside a mountain lake where the flamingos rose at dawn first white then pink. Wow. But his wife pined and said she needed to go to England for a break and then, after 6 months or so, wrote to announce she was leaving him, for a mutual friend named Tommy Blackhouse.

‘Poor Guy, you did get in a mess, didn’t you? Money gone, me gone, all in one go. I suppose in the old days they’d have said I’d ruined you.’
‘They might.’

Now, Guy is a Catholic, his father is a Catholic, his sister is a Catholic and so they all take it for granted that, although he can get divorced according to the law of the land, he cannot be divorced in the eyes of God. In other words, he will never be able to remarry, never be able to have children, in particular a son. Therefore the family name is doomed to die out. This is the pessimistic scenario Waugh has engineered for his characters, one source of the sense of loss and mild depression which hangs over the figure of Guy Crouchback.

His non-Catholic brother-in-law Box-Bender is just the most prominent of their friends who think this is all nonsense: Guy should just remarry, have children, reclaim the home farm, revive the estate and the family name. Where’s the problem? When Guy meets up with his ex-wife again in London, she also is blissfully light-hearted about it all:

‘You never married again?’
‘How could I?’
‘Darling, don’t pretend your heart was broken for life.’
‘Apart from my heart, Catholics can’t remarry, you know.’
‘Oh, that. You still keep to all that?’
‘More than ever.’

But Box-Bender, Virginia and all the rest of them are pagans, non-believers, not part of the clique, not part of sinn fein (Irish for ‘ourselves’), of the cosa nostra (Italian for ‘our thing’), of the special ones. They are not Catholics, and Catholicism, at least in Waugh’s hands, is not only a theological but a sociological marker, which sets the believer apart and, though he doesn’t overplay this, pretty obviously marks them as morally and spiritually superior to everyone else around him.

So much for a) the personal; as to b) the financial situation, in the aftermath of the First World War the estate became slowly too large and costly for Mr Crouchback to run. So he sold off the contents (attending the auction himself), let the house to a convent and retired to a hotel in Matchet, a nearby seaside resort.

However, it is important for Waugh and his characters that the ancient rituals do not completely die out and so ‘the sanctuary lamp still burned at Broome as of old’ and Guy’s father attends mass there once a year.

So, both financially and personally, the Crouchback family has fallen a long way and Guy is its embattled, lonely, often depressed last representative.

Guy is a loner

Guy’s Kenya period is underplayed, referred to only in a couple of sentences. Much more is made of the family’s Italian property, ‘Castello Crouchback’, on the idyllic Italian island of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, a property bought by Guy’s grandfather back in the time of Queen Victoria. In fact the novel opens with a historical passage describing the first arrival of those grandparents on a yachting holiday at the island and their decision to buy the run-down ruins.

You might have thought these opening passages would afford luxury descriptions of pre-war Italy, and they do, a bit, but what they’re really for is to establish a) the penumbra of sadness which hangs over Guy ever since his wife left him eight years earlier, and b) the way he can never really make friends. He’s always an outsider. The Italian villagers take to nearly all the other expats on the island, they are sympatico, but Guy is not simpatico.

He was not loved, Guy knew, either by his household or in the town. He was accepted and respected but he was not simpatico.

Guy is lonely. Inside him is a blankness, an emptiness he can’t put into words, his imagination a prey to mournful images:

Sometimes he imagined himself serving the last mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world.

It is against this complex family and personal background that the declaration of war comes on 3 September 1939 and (like many other men) Guy is hugely relieved to escape the frustrations and unhappiness of personal life, and make a clear and unambiguous commitment: to return to England to serve his king and country and fight against unambiguous evil.

Guy back in England

All the above is explained in a sort of prologue to the book. The main action of the novel opens with the declaration of war and Guy packing his stuff to return from his Italian island home to England to serve king and country.

Guy arrives in London hoping to find a role in the army straightaway. He goes to his club, Bellamy’s, every day. Everyone is in turmoil. Everyone has evacuated their families from their London places and sent them down to the country. Box-Bender is locking up his London place and moving in with two male friends. Guy embarks on a campaign to get himself into the army, buttonholing military friends and writing countless letters to ministries and old contacts. No joy.

So he goes to stay with his sister Angela at her home in Gloucestershire.

Box-Bender’s house was a small, gabled manor in a sophisticated village where half the cottages were equipped with baths and chintz.

In a typically comic/farcical detail, their hallway is stuffed with crates of ‘Hittite tablets’ evacuated from the British Museum.

Guy is impressed by Arthur and Angela’s son, Tony, young and keen, who’s already got himself a place in the army, lucky blighter. They gossip about all the local families, some who’ve left the country altogether (the Abercrombies have decamped to Jamaica) and about the numerous accidents resulting from the blackout. Scandalised reports of the crime wave prompted by the blackout, lots of muggings.

After staying the night Guy travels down to see his father at the pub, the Marine Arms, in Matchet, where he took rooms as a long-term resident after he relinquished the estate at Broome. Like everywhere in England it’s in a tizzy because of the war, packed with an unusual numbers of guests, some of the staff have been conscripted etc. In the dining room, his father introduces him to Tickeridge, a hairy old cove who’s a major in the Halberdiers. When Guy expresses a genuine wish to be in the army, Tickeridge says he’ll see what he can do. Ha! Contacts. It’s not what you know, or who you know – it’s who your father knows!

Guy joins the army

And so Guy finds himself one of a new cohort of officers in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, nicknamed the Apple Jacks and the Copper Heads, a fictional regiment which is going to be central to his career in the army and all three novels. His closest associate is a lightly eccentric fellow called Apthorpe.

Both being that much older, they find themselves referred to as ‘uncle’. Lots of detail of army protocol, an extension of the strict rules around correct dress which were drummed into him at school, then university. Regimental traditions. Pen portraits of the other new officers, namely de Souza, Sarum-Smith, Leonard and a slightly shifty chap called Trimmer.

Guy joins his regiment

Guy joins the Halberdiers at their peacetime barracks. There is basic training and squarebashing i.e. drill on parade grounds. There is a lot of fuss about dressing correctly for different functions at different times of day, for example, the officers have to dress appropriately, and immaculately, for dinner in the mess hall.

It is obvious to me, at any rate, how life in the army follows naturally from life at prep school, life at private school, life at Oxford or Cambridge, and then life in the kind of upper class country house which Waugh idealises. What they all have in common are servants who do all the drudgery, change bedding, do all laundry, clean shoes and boots and cook and bring drinks. Their country houses are full of servants, their junior boys fag for the seniors at private school, there are ‘scouts’ to clean their rooms at Oxford and waiters bring meals in hall dinners, but on the other side of the ledger, in return for all these privileges, it is expected that the beneficiary, the boy growing up in a country house, at private school or Oxford, and then an officer in a good regiment, will follow the rules and there are lots and lots of rules governing all aspects of behaviour, dress, speech and thought.

It is a world of huge privilege but also of tremendous constraints. There is often no legal punishment for breaking the rules, but the army has a wide variety of sanctions for chaps who do not behave like an officer and a gentleman, and the narrow society of London clubs which Guy moves in also has its sanctions, its ability to cut or snub anyone who behaves incorrectly.

Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook

We are introduced to the feared and renowned figure of Ben Ritchie-Hooke, who will become their brigadier. I don’t really understand the structure of the British army, but I think what is happening is that , now war has been declared, all regiments, which had been allowed to dwindle in peacetime, are being rapidly up to full strength, recently retired officers asked back in and new officers being recruited. This is the new intake of officers which Guy is part of. First they will be trained, then newly recruited and conscripted ordinary soldiers will arrive and be put in their charge. At some point the regiment will become fully operational and Ben Ritchie-Hook will come into full command.

Throughout the first part of this novel this process takes place, observed from Guy’s point of view, sometimes, confusing the reader, sometimes confusing even Guy who’s in the thick of it.

Anyway, Ritchie-Hook is an almost Monty Python level of a caricature of a senior army officer. He wears an eye patch and a black leather glove on one hand, having lost an eye and fingers and thumb in battle. A sharp line is drawn between the initial commander in chief of the barracks who oversees thorough but pedestrian training, and the terrific change in mood which takes place when Ritchie-Hook arrives and takes over. He is all about biffing the enemy.

For example, the initial rifle range practice consists of long boring afternoons loading your gun, lying down, firing at a distant target, and having the target monitor flag whether you got a hit, a bullseye etc. By contrast, under Ritchie-Hook the brigadier himself runs up and down the trench at the end of the range waving a stick with a tin hat on it above ground level and defies his men to hit it. Later they have to crawl on their hands and knees just under a barrage of live fire.

Ritchie-Hook is a wonderful comic creation and the trigger for a series of comic incidents. For example he first appears at a drinks party held by a senior officer where, through a series of verbal misunderstandings, he mistakes Guy for Apthorpe the fellah who was in Africa for years, gruffly dismissing the fact that one of his officers seems to have spent the 1930s in Italy, no good that, don’t like the sound of that – which of course refers to Guy who keeps very silent about the fact for the rest of the evening. Comedy of manners.

but he also allows Waugh to create the kind of war he wants, which is farce. If you read war books from the Great War you are left in no doubt that it was a tragedy of enormous scale. Anyone coming to Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy expecting the same will be surprised. It is overwhelmingly concerned with the boring humdrum details of training and office politics (as officers jostle for promotion) and bureaucracy and pettifogging rules, interspersed with moments of ludicrous farce. Only at the very end are any guns fired in anger and then only a dozen or so and for a few pages, on a tiny night-time excursion onto a beach in Africa which is over half an hour after it began and achieves nothing.

Southsand prep school

The officers are sent to a place called Kut-al-Imara House at Southsand-on-sea. It is a preparatory school, vacated by staff and pupils so the army can take over. Its rooms are named after World War One battles and, as Guy explores it on arrival, he paints a very vivid picture of a certain kind of lower league school, redolent of embarrassment and shame.

He leant against a coil of antiquated iron pipes and was surprised to find them hot. They seemed to lack all power of radiation; a yard from them there was no sensible warmth. He could imagine a row of little boys struggling to sit on them, tight-trousered boys with adenoids and chilblains; or perhaps it was a privilege to sit there enjoyed only by prefects and the First Eleven. In its desolation he could see the whole school as it had been made familiar to him in many recent realistic novels; an enterprise neither progressive nor prosperous. The assistant masters changed often, he supposed, arriving with bluff, departing with bluster; half the boys were taken at surreptitiously reduced fees; none of them ever won a scholarship or passed into a reputable public school or returned for an Old Boys’ Day or ever thought of his years there with anything but loathing and shame. The History lessons were patriotic in design, turned to ridicule by the young masters. There was no school song at Kut-al-Imara House. All this Guy thought he snuffed in the air of the forsaken building.

It’s one more image which brings the reader up short and makes you realise just how much Waugh was writing for readers of his own class and not for the humble likes of you and I. And also one more example of the way this class obsesses about its prep and private schools. It’s a common observation that Waugh’s generation of writers – including George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, W.H. Auden and many others – never really seem to have escaped the clothes, drill, mannerisms and world view inculcated by an English public school system which reached a kind of acme in their day.

And then the equally commonly commented-on fact that so many of the institutions of English public life – the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge, the quadrangles of the inns of court for lawyers, the quads and committee rooms of Westminster, the parade grounds and officers messes of the army – are a continuation of that ordered, regimented, elite, blinkered, narrow but highly effective view of life.

The characters frequently compare this or that army regulation to ‘school’, the narrator compares this or that situation to something similar at a public school. It comes as no surprise when a prep school moves into Malchett and hire old Mr Crouchback as a supply teacher, teaching, of course, not maths or geography or something useful, but, of course, Classics, ancient Greek to be precise. Apthorpe even takes Guy, one drunk night, in a taxi out to the location of his prep school Staplehurst, now, he discovers to his horror, demolished and a modern estate built over it. Sic transit…

Anyway, life at Southsand is the backdrop for Waugh giving a thousand and one little details of army life, starting with the typical ‘foul-up’ that Guy and his cohort of officers arrive at Southsand station an hour after the bus arranged to pick them up had left and having to make their own way by taxi. Bureaucratic cock-up typical of hundreds and hundreds more which Guy will become used to in army life.

There are comic incidents. At a guest night for the regiment the officers end up getting drunk and playing a game of rugby with a waste paper basket and when everyone piles onto Guy his knee is painfully wrenched. It swells up and so for weeks afterwards, he wears a bulky dressing, needs a cane to walk and is excused drill practice.

When his fellow older officer, Apthorpe also manages to injure his leg on a drunken night out, the two eldest new officers, who had both already gained the ambivalent nickname ‘uncle’, both appear limping and using canes, to general hilarity. The comedy is like that. Schoolboy comedy.

Similarly, Guy discovers he can’t actually see the targets at the firing range at the statutory 300 yard distance, thus discovering that he needs glasses, but on a whim, instead has a monocle made by a local optician, which solves his firing range problem but, of course, also contributes to making him a figure of fun.

Another little plot strand is the Italian restaurant kept by Mr Pelecci which they take to frequenting, chatty Mr Pelecci often sitting with them and chatting about the news. They don’t at first realise that he is a spy.

Catholic theology on Guy’s marriage

The officers are allowed out to explore the town. Guy and Apthorpe join the town yachting club, chiefly for its bar. He meets a Mr Goodall, Ambrose Goodall, who turns out to be a Catholic convert with a hobby of studying the old Catholic families of England. They have lunch and dine and go to the yacht club bar and it emerges that Goodall knows the history of Broome and Guy’s own family. And then, in the context of another family, in passing remarks that, theologically, it is no sin or crime for a man to have sex with his divorced wife as, in the eyes of God, she has never been separated from him. Although Virginia has been unfaithful, he hasn’t, and so the marriage is still, theologically speaking, valid.

Seduction of Virginia

This leads to disastrous episode where Guy tracks Virginia down in London. She is, typically for him and the circles they move in, staying at Claridge’s hotel. He moves into a room down the hall and she is initially delighted to bump into him, as she is delighted to bump into everyone, darling, during this beastly ghastly war. He invites her round for drinks and it is then that he puts his arm along the back of the sofa and makes an attempt to kiss her. Virginia thinks he’s being ridiculous. If you’re going to do it, do it properly, and puts down her drink and kisses him back.

But then she asks what’s brought this one and Guy makes the disastrous mistake of explaining the theological position i.e. she is still his wife in the eyes of God and it is still theologically permitted for him to have sex with her. This shocks and horrified her much more than if it were a casual attempt at sex and she stands up and moves to the fireplace expressing horror, at which point Guy really screws things up by venting 8 years of frustration and accusing her of being a tart. Then there is a big silence when they both react to what has happened and been said.

Virginia: ‘You take too much for granted.’
Guy: ‘That’s an absolutely awful expression,’ said Guy. ‘Only tarts use it.’
Virginia: ‘Isn’t that rather what you think I am?’
Guy: ‘Isn’t it rather what you are?’

Guy grovellingly apologises, more because it’s bad form and poor manners than untrue, and they sort of patch things up. But, later, leaving Claridge’s, the incident does have the positive effect that it seems to have laid a ghost. His true feelings for Virginia have come out and he feels some sense of closure. It is  14 February 1940.

Apthorpe

His fellow ‘new’ officer, Apthrope, is arguably the dominant figure of the novel. Indeed the three main sections the book is divided into each use a Latin word to describe the three stages of Apthorpe’s progression, namely: Apthorpe Gloriosus, Apthorpe Furibundus and Apthorpe Immolatus where gloriosus is self evident, furibundus means ‘frantic, frenzied, maddened’ and immolatus means ‘having been immolated or sacrificed’.

Apthorpe’s character fascinates Guy from the start, his comic obsessions and behaviour. Thus, when Apthorpe is promoted to rank of captain ahead of Guy, he insists Guy salute him, and asks him to ask all the other new officers to do so, too. This, apparently, was technically correct but not necessary and makes Apthorpe look like a pedantic fool; in fact his fellow officers play various games with the act of saluting or not saluting when Apthorpe expects it which drives the poor man into a frenzy.

A platoon of signallers are billeted with the Halberdiers and Apthorpe insists they conform to Halberdier discipline and procedure, which leads to a long and increasingly embittered feud with their commanding officer, Dunn, which eventually escalates up to commanding officer level. Although he has been promoted. Apthorpe is acquiring a reputation as an eccentric.

Apthorpe and the saga of the Thunder-Box

One of Apthorpe’s eccentricities has been carrying round an enormous amount of lumber and ‘kit’ and ‘gear’ with him which he insists was vital to his much-mentioned but obscure ‘time in Africa’. ‘Somewhere among these possessions lay something rare and mysterious which Apthorpe spoke of as his “Bush Thunder-box”.’

This develops into the book’s best-known comic sequence, the kind of extended comic digression which characterised the best of his 1930s comic novels, reminiscent of Basil Seal’s scams in Put Out More Flags. The thunder-box is a beautifully made Edwardian chemical toilet, a cube of solid wood, which opens to reveal a porcelain seat and bowl. But why? asks Guy: there are toilets just down the hallway. ‘The clap old chap,’ Apthrope confidently explains. ‘A chap can never be too careful.’ So Guy watches Apthorpe surreptitiously, one evening, when the other chaps are in the game room, haul this big box out of the general lumber room and drag it across the prep school playing fields into a little games storeroom hidden among the bushes. For a couple of days Apthorpse disappears for ten minutes at a time and only Guy knows where he’s going.

However, disaster strikes when one evening Apthorpe encounters fearsome Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke exiting the clump of bushes which conceal his secret. Both are forced to salute each other but very uneasily. Apthorpe tells Guy the terrible news but worse is to follow. Next day Apthorpe goes for his daily evacuation and is horrified to see a sign pinned on the little outhouse saying the place is out of bounds to everyone below the rank of brigadier.

Apthorpe anxiously discusses the situation with Guy and ropes him into moving the dread device. So one evening they sneak down to the outhouse and manhandle it some distance away to another hiding place, returning very satisfied with their work. A few evenings later Apthorpe makes his usual excuses and slips off and a few minutes later Guy hears a muffled explosion. He knows at once what it is, and sets off running across the playing fields and into the bushes. He discovers a dazed Apthorpe sprawled on his face a few yards from the thunder-box which is now a splintered smoking wreck. Ritchie-Hook, in one of his famous practical jokes, had rigged the thing with a small explosive device.

The sequence of events themselves are fairly funny, but what turns it into award-winning farce is the tremendous seriousness with which Apthorpe takes it all, and the completely straight-faced way Guy plays along with him.

Penkirk

The regiment is moved to Penkirk not far from Edinburgh in a camp of tents. A castle is nearby. Here Apthorpe’s eccentricities continue to flourish. It is here that he commences his long-running vendetta against the officer in the Signalling regiment.

It is here that the first division of commands is given and Guy is bitter to be given only a platoon while Apthorpe is promoted above him. Only later does a friendly superior explain this is because Apthorpe is actually fingered for promotion into purely administrative positions whereas the Brigadier doesn’t want anyone in command of actual fighting units who hasn’t started out with experience of commanding a platoon. That cheers him up a bit.

A new commander is assigned, one Hayter, who Guy comes to dislike. There is a great deal about relations between the new officers of his rank and the complex array of commanding officers who come and go as the regiment is restructured and reorganised.

There is a long sequence which Waugh cleverly arranges around the one hundred and forty-three questions in the Army Training Memorandum No. 31 War. April 1940 which all the officers receive and are ordered to complete.

On 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, replacing the hapless Neville Chamberlain. It is worth lingering over what Waugh, or at least his character Guy, thinks of him:

Guy knew of Mr. Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and of Lloyd George.

He thinks he’ll be better than the other chap. But this is a novel and another character, Major Erskine, who, in the dim-witted nature of these characters is thought to be ‘brainy’ because he reads novels and is a bit scruffy, this Erskine is made to say, prophetically:

‘Churchill is about the only man who may save us from losing this war.’

The difference between history and novels is in novels opinions, ideas, perspectives are distributed among different characters for dramatic effect. Might be worth also quoting the place where Waugh gives his clearest explanation of Guy’s motive for fighting, for taking part in this war:

[Guy] was a good loser, but he did not believe his country would lose this war; each apparent defeat seemed strangely to sustain it. There was in Romance great virtue in unequal odds. There were in morals two requisites for a lawful war, a just cause and the chance of victory. The cause was now, past all question, just. The enemy was exorbitant. His actions in Austria and Bohemia had been defensible. There was even a shadow of plausibility in his quarrel with Poland. But now, however victorious, he was an outlaw. And the more victorious he was the more he drew to himself the enmity of the world and the punishment of God.

Note the complete absence of political analysis. Waugh doesn’t, for example declare his protagonist an enemy of fascism or Nazism (in fact, having lived in Italy for most of the 1930s, Guy has a relaxed attitude to the reality of Italian fascism on the ground). Certainly not in the way that English left-wing or liberal thinkers thought of Nazism as unambiguously evil and a threat to all notions of freedom. Guy just seems to think that in invading Poland, Nazi Germany has gone a bit too far. And then this phrase ‘the enmity of God.’ Is Waugh serious? Well, his character probably is. Guy is a devout and in many ways simple Catholic, with a simple sense of right and wrong.

The flap

All this is taking place in the spring and early summer of 1940 which saw, in the wider world of war, the Russian invasion of Finland and the German invasion of Norway, this latter prompting a badly organised and chaotic British attempt to land troops and hold the German advance. (Waugh’s earlier novel, Put Out More Flags, includes towards the end a passage describing the ill-fated involvement of one of the characters, Cedric Lyne, in this badly organised fiasco.) And then, of course, the evacuation of Dunkirk, 26 May to 4 June 1940.

All kinds of rumour reach our chaps and this is a useful social history aspect of the novel, what makes it more than history, that it doesn’t record what happened, but what educated people of the time thought was happening and was going to happen.

Aldershot

So they’re sent to Aldershot in Surrey, with some description of the surrounding sandy heathland. Apthorpe distinguishes himself again by, the second he’s put in charge when the commander in chief is briefly absent, causing a great panic when he claims he has reports of German paratroopers landing.

Maps of Calais are issued as if they’re going to be shipped across to fight there, the officers memorise them, discuss lines of defence and so on. Guy’s platoon is dominated by the impressive figure of Company Sergeant Major Rawkes. Guy leads his men on a training exercise on the big barren heathland, everyone gets lost, some men go absent without leave, no-one knows what is going on, rumours fly in all directions.

Tony

Guy receives two letters from his father, the first one (2 June 1940) lamenting that his nephew, Tony, appears to be missing presumed killed in France, the second one (12 June 1940) with the reassuring news that he is in fact a prisoner of war, but the doleful commentary that a) it was shameful that his regiment surrendered to the Germans, but they were ordered to and b) it is likely to be a long war and so a shame that such a fine fellow is going to spend the best years of his young manhood behind bars. He receives both letters on the day the Germans march into Paris, 14 June 1940.

The world has shifted on its axis. Nobody expected France to fall at all, and certainly not so quickly. Now Britain really is alone. Churchill gave his ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech on 4 June 1940.

North Cornwall

The regiment is moved to Cornwall. Waugh details the boredom of hanging round not knowing what the future holds. There are wild rumours that the Germans are about to take Limerick in Ireland and the Halberdiers are about to be shipped over to defend it. Much studying maps of Limerick. Nothing happens. The officers have to cook up ways to keep the men entertained, lectures (Guy gives a well received one about wine making, knowledge he gained in Italy). Football. Evening games of bingo which, surprisingly, Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke recommends and calls ‘housey-housey’.

Extraneous figures came to add to the congestion. An odd, old captain like a cockatoo in the gaudy service-dress of a defunct regiment of Irish cavalry. He said he was the cipher officer and was roped in to lecture on ‘Court Life at St. Petersburg’.

Seen from Waugh’s perspective, army life is one surreal and farcical event after another. This is what makes the books so supremely readable and enjoyable, the tone of quiet humour which suffuses them, occasionally rising to moments of supreme farce.

South Cornwall

Then they are ordered to pack up everything and shunted on a series of trains across to the South Cornwall coast where they are ordered to guard several miles of heavily barbed wired beach. Top brass come for an inspection and one of the intelligence officers goes out of his way to emphasise the risk of fifth columnists, a concept and phrase which had only recently been coined, by General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

This leads to an incident when Guy has a touch of the Apthorpes and reacts with paranoia when two officers turn up at his HQ (a requisitioned hotel) claiming to be from A Company, the 5th Loamshires. Guy suspects them of being fifth columnists, is impressed by their accurate seeming papers and posh English accents, but nevertheless instructs the sergeant major to take over the bren gun next on the clifftop and cover the pair as they’re taken down for a dip in the sea by a soldier he deputes for the job. If they make one funny move, the sergeant major is to shoot them. The dismay of Sergeant Major Rawkes who had, until this moment, thought Guy wasn’t too bad, for an officer, is very funny.

Brook Park

They’re ordered to pack up yet again and entrain for Brook Park in Surrey. Here occurs an event which the sardonic and witty fellow officer, de Souza, nicknames ‘the Languishing of Leonard’. Early on we had met officer Leonard’s wife, Daisy, who is distinctly not the right class, who drops her aitches and speaks out of turn at dinners or drinks for the regimental officers. She has followed her man from base to base, taking hotel rooms and now announces that she is pregnant. She kicks up an immense fuss and wants Leonard seconded to a safe domestic posting so he can be with her. Very sheepishly Leonard falls in line with her demands, secures his posting, from which point onwards the Adjutant, or acting head of the regiment, requests that his name never be mentioned again. Shame.

Liverpool

Next thing they know they are given two days leave (Guy goes to visit his father and finds him, of course, knee deep in the classics text he’s teaching the little chaps at the evacuated prep school) before returning to barracks at which point the entire regiment is packed up and sent to Liverpool.

After the usual chaos, embarking, disembarking and so on, they finally set sail to the Bay of Biscay, are joined by a fleet and sail on to the coast of Africa, near Dakar, to be precise (capital of what is now Senegal).

Here the fleet moors and numerous high level meetings are held. Initially Brigadier Ritchie-Hook is excited because they are finally going to get to land and biff the enemy. But this turns to bitter frustration when the raid is called off. The ordinary soldiers celebrate but Guy is called to a meeting of senior officers, namely the Brigadier, Colonel Tickeridge and the ship’s captain.

The beach raid in Africa

Ritchie-Hooke is furious that the raid has been called off because naval intelligence has some aerial photos of the beaches which could be interpreted to indicate that they’re criss-crossed with wire. But in this little meeting he is gleeful because he and Tickeridge have persuaded the captain of the ship to let them send a tiny little landing party to ascertain whether this is true. And Guy is to lead it.

He is told to go and choose a dozen men who will be taken aboard a launch by a navy captain, shuttled ashore under cover of darkness, faces blacked, carrying minimal equipment. Their mission is to ascertain the existence or not of ‘wire’ and capture a souvenir, a coconut, say, as proof of their trip.

The atmosphere of tense excitement is beautifully conveyed. There’s a beautiful little description as Guy and his men wait in the hold for the little sally-port, or door low down in the side of the ship, to be opened so they can climb a short distance down a rope ladder into the launch:

The lights were all turned off in the hold before the sally-port was opened by one of the crew. It revealed a faintly lighter square and a steamy breath of the sea.

Well, to be brief, they chug onto the beach, slip over the side and wade through the warm water, tiptoe up the ashore and do, indeed, find wire, rows of wire amateurishly strung across it. Then sounds and someone starts firing and then lots of guns start firing. Guy blows his whistle for general retreat but one of his chaps goes haring forward into the darkness. The rest return to the boat unharmed and the sailor captaining it reports everyone present and correct but Guy knows he saw someone else and goes back to check.

Just as well he did, for he discovers one of his men crawling back through the dunes, wounded in the leg. Guy curses, runs forward, supports him arm over shoulder back to the launch, heaves him in and the launch turns and putters back to the ship. As he helps him Guy realises this disobedient man is none other than… Ben Ritchie-Hook. Not only that, but after he is manhandled into the launch he slips into Guy’s lap the object he’s been hugging close all this time. It is the severed head of an African soldier.

The ‘gruesome’ in Waugh

What to make of this? It is at the same time farcical, comic and gruesome. But readers will remember this is the sometimes puzzlingly extreme tone he takes in many of his books. It is as if part of his approach to humour is to occasionally crank it up to broad farce, and then sometimes to take farce way over the top into The Gruesome.

It’s easy to forget that in his very first novel, Decline and Fall, when the young innocent Paul Pennyfeather finds himself in prison, he discovers that the padre is none other than one of his teachers at the crappy private school he taught at in Wales, Prendergast, who has retrained as a chaplain, and how the prison governor with his fancy ideas, decides it is a good thing to try and reform one of their most notorious prisoners by allowing him to express himself in the carpentry shop – and how this prisoner takes the first opportunity to saw off the padre’s head.

Ritchie-Hooke later explains that the man raised his gun at him so Ritchie chucked a grenade which blew him to bits, one of the bits of which was the head (which he proceeded to ‘trim’ a bit). The beheading of the African is no more offensive than the decapitation of Prendergast i.e. a bit offensive against good taste and restraint. What definitely is offensive is the way Ritchie-Hook refers to the head as his ‘coconut’ and so does everyone else concerned during the incident’s repercussions.

The repercussions are that Ritchie-Hooke has gone too far this time and is recalled to London for a bollocking and possibly the end of his military career. Guy was only obeying direct orders but finds himself also condemned to have a black mark against him.

Freetown

Having abandoned the attack on Dakar the allied fleet sails on to Freetown, the port capital of Sierra Leone (a British colony which remained secure during the war). Damaged ships turn back. The two ships carrying the Halberdiers dock and they go ashore.

There is a new brigadier. He calls Guy in, tells him that during the journey he was promoted captain but that, in light of his involvement in the Dakar fiasco, he has been demoted again. He is to be recalled to London. He will be flown there along with Ritchie-Hooke as soon as the latter is fit enough to travel.

Here in Freetown he makes his second mistake. Apthorpe took the opportunity of leave to go up country. Now word comes back that he is ill. In fact he has been brought back by native bearers in a Victorian style ‘sheeted hammock’ and deposited in hospital.

The brigade major gives Guy permission to visit Apthorpe and recommends he take a bottle of whiskey along, it’s always a nice gesture, though strictly speaking advised against. Guy does so and has a long rambling encounter with Apthorpe who is genuinely ill. Guy slips the whiskey under his bedclothes. A nurse coming in smells it on their breath and says the doctor has forbidden it but Guy lies and says he just gave Apthorpe a nip from his flask.

During this interview Apthorpe, in his comically earnest and tragic way, entrusts Guy with a last wish, which is to ensure that he (Guy) hands over Apthorpe’s legendary pile of kit and equipment to his old friend ‘Chatty’ Corner (who we met earlier in the book when he attended one of the regimental drinks parties). Guy promises and leaves.

A few days later the brigade major calls him in to tell him that Althorpe is dead. Drank the whole bottle of whiskey in a day. Guy is shocked but then more shocked to learn that he is being blamed. The brigade major was the one who suggested the idea, but now holds him responsible.

(Throughout Apthorpe’s dying scenes there is another thread of Waugh’s irrepressible cheeky comedy, which is that Apthorpe solemnly assures him that when he told him, all the way back at the start of the book, that he had two aunts, he was, in fact, fibbing: he only has one. Guy accepts this deathbed confession with a straight face. But this misconception, that Apthorpe had two aunts who will grieve his loss, is then repeated by every other officer and official involved in the case, adding a wonderful thread of humour to counterpoint the rather grim fact of his actual death.

Again, as in the story of the decapitated African, grim death is inextricably intertwined with farce. It is a conscious policy.

So anyway, now Guy has two black marks against him. A flying boat lands in the harbour. It is to take him and Ritchie-Hook back to London and at this point the novel ends.

Cutaway ending

Except that, as Guy flies back to Blighty and an uncertain future, Waugh uses his characteristic technique of cutting away from the protagonist to have him and his plight be discussed by people at some distance from the action who, therefore, treat it with the levity and half attention we all give to gossip about people we half know or have vaguely heard of. It is a home counties version of the Alienation Effect. It is half humorous, half-despairing. It is the way human life is, never really understood, immediately transformed into gossip, all our lives, ultimately, dust. Sarum-Smith and de Souza attend the funeral of Apthorpe, laid to rest in the English cemetery in Freetown, and then remark on the fact that both of the oldest ‘new’ officers, the ones they nicknamed ‘uncle’, have left on the same day (one being buried, the other flying home under a cloud):

‘Both Uncles gone the same day.’
‘Funny, I was thinking the same. I rather preferred Crouchback on the whole.’
‘He seemed a nice enough fellow. I could never quite make him out. Pity he made an ass of himself.’
Already the Second Battalion of the Halberdiers spoke of Guy in the past tense. He had momentarily been of them; now he was an alien; someone in their long and varied past, but forgotten.

The old truth: life is intense tragedy to the person living it, but comedy to everyone else.


Waugh’s worldview

Snobbery

Only members of his class count. The narrator is scornful of anyone outside his circle and its very limited extension into the narrow circle of People Like Us.

The vulgar middle class

Throughout his works Waugh is snooty about people who make a living through trade, shopkeepers, merchants, and what you might call the lower professions, accountants and the like. Thinking about the professions, the very big gap in his oeuvre is the legal profession. If you think about Dickens, his works are full of lawyers and legal cases. None in Waugh. The central profession is, in the 1930s comedies, journalism and, in the novels from Put Out More Flags, the army.

The working classes

The working class is invisible except for servants, publicans, waiters and waitresses (in civilian life) and batmen, valets, servants and drivers (in the army). Oh and the actual soldiers, the common soldier, the private. Almost none of these are mentioned and none are named. When Guy takes his little troupe ashore at Dakar the sergeant has a name but none of the men. They are anonymous extras.

But what interests me is not Waugh’s snobbish, privileged, entitled elitism, as such. It’s more to do with the way that, operating within this closed, super-narrow, elite worldview – the upper class, private school and Oxbridge, country house and the-old-regiment kind of world, bolstered by the exclusiveness and elitism of his upper-class Catholic faith – enables his discourse, allows the texts to be written. A writer can’t write about the entire world; you have to pick a subject. Waugh isn’t trying to describe the great shambling chaos of the modern world. His bright, alert, highly regimented, policed and orderly world is the unshakeable foundation which allows him to create these comic, satirical and, occasionally, devastating fictions.

The elitism is as much a genre as a worldview, with its own customs and conventions. If, for the purpose of reading and enjoying his books, you accept this worldview, then the interest moves on from anatomising the worldview itself, to enjoying the way Waugh subverts, bends and occasionally breaks it.

Private schools and prep schools

Authors of his generation just can’t get away from memories of their childhood prep schools and boyhood private schools. They make endless comparisons to them, something reminds them of this or that at prep or public school, somehow prep schools are always cropping up as actual items: thus the location of training in Southsea is a requisitioned prep school and Mr Crouchback finds a private school evacuating to near his hotel and is invited to become a teacher, a Classics teacher, of course. I wasn’t at all surprised when (in the third book in the trilogy) de Souza tells Guy:

‘All army courses are like prep schools–all that welcoming of the new boys.’ (Unconditional Surrender, page 97)

It’s the first point of comparison for all these privately educated men.

Mental illness

I’ve mentioned it repeatedly in my reviews of Waugh’s novels, but a surprising number of them feature characters or passages dealing with mental illness or mental breakdown. Thus the nervous collapse of Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies, the teetering on the brink of shocked breakdown of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, the decline into depressed alcoholism of former High Society doyenne Angela Lyne in Put Out More Flags, the mental collapse of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, not one but two suicides in The Loved One. Several of his short stories are about homicidal lunatics (Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing and The Sympathetic Passenger).

In the trilogy Waugh continues his interest in several ways, at several levels. Guy’s elder brother, Ivo, has a complete collapse into psychosis and starves himself to death. Guy himself has been down enough to qualify as depressed and there are plenty of descriptions of his sense of hollowness, emptiness and futility:

He [was] himself destitute, possessed of nothing save a few dry grains of faith.

His brother-in-law, Box-Bender, frankly expects Guy to go mad at any moment, like his older brother, which doesn’t help. And then there’s something odd, ‘rum’, about the central figure, Apthorpe, mounting in eccentricity all the way through to his final collapse.

It feels like madness is constantly lurking just around the corner in any Waugh text. For the most part Waugh manages to keep the lid on it, contain it, and express it in socially acceptable form as a sense of the ludicrous or the farcical. But sometimes, pop! madness or despair emerge into the open.

Influence of film

1. As I’ve pointed out in other reviews, the film technique of quick cutting between scenes is something Waugh absorbed and used to great effect, most notably in an early novel like Vile Bodies but more subtly throughout all his fictions. He is still using it liberally throughout the trilogy, which often features sequences of 2 or 3-page scenes, moving quickly from one setting to another.

2. At moments, like so many of us, like so many characters in twentieth century fiction, Guy compares his behaviour to what people would do in a film and finds himself failing to live up to the Hollywood ideal of dashing masculinity.

3. And then, sometimes, he just takes the mickey out of movies, very amusingly:

Once Guy saw a film of the Rising of ’45. Prince Charles and his intimates stood on a mound of heather, making a sad little group, dressed as though for the Caledonian Ball, looking, indeed, precisely as though they were a party of despairing revellers mustered in the outer suburbs to meet a friend with a motor-car who had not turned up.

An awful moment came when the sun touched the horizon behind them. The Prince bowed his head, sheathed his claymore and said in rich Milwaukee accents: ‘I guess it’s all off, Mackingtosh.’

Influence of books

The comparing oneself with cultural ideals comes over more clearly in his comparisons with popular fiction. Early on in the book Guy recalls a story of derring-do he was read at prep school (naturally) during the Great War, and which inspired him and his friends with images of dashing heroism. The memory comes when the Brigadier addresses the men:

‘Gentlemen,’ he began, ‘to-morrow you meet the men you will lead in battle.’

It was the old, potent spell, big magic. Those two phrases, ‘the officers who will command you…’, ‘the men you will lead…’ set the junior officers precisely in their place, in the heart of the battle. For Guy they set swinging all the chimes of his boyhood’s reading…

‘…”I’ve chosen your squadron for the task, Truslove.” “Thank you, sir. What are our chances of getting through?” “It can be done, Truslove, or I shouldn’t be sending you. If anyone can do it, you can. And I can tell you this, my boy, I’d give all my seniority and all these bits of ribbon on my chest to be with you. But my duty lies here with the Regiment. Good luck to you, my boy. You’ll need it”…’

The words came back to him from a summer Sunday evening at his preparatory school, in the headmaster’s drawing-room, the three top forms sitting about on the floor, some in a dream of home, others – Guy among them – spell-bound.

This passage explains much, about ideals and identity and the centrality of his bloody private school in both of them. But it also, on a comic level, gives rise to a recurring trope which is when Guy finds himself in a tight corner and wonders what this ‘Truslove’ character from his boyhood stories would have done in his place. Thus he refers, later on, to an officer volunteering for a mission ‘Truslove style’, and ironically nicknames the farcical episode on the beach of Dakar ‘Operation Truslove’.

It is a variation on the deep central issue I’ve mentioned above, of the way so many men – well, writers, anyway – of this generation, never escaped their public school manners, morals and essentially immature, schoolboy worldview.


Credit

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1952. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Peru: a journey in time @ the British Museum

This is a magnificent exhibition. I think the British Museum is my favourite museum/gallery in London, not only because of the beauty of the building, its sense of size and spaciousness, the awesome breadth and range of its holdings – but because it also combines two of my favourite subjects, art and deep history: art in the widest sense, from the high art of imperial courts to the folk art of Inuit or African tribes; and ‘history’ meaning 50 or 100 years ago, but 5,000 or even 50,000 years ago, the full depth and breadth of all human history.

Copper and shell funerary mask, Peru, Moche, AD 100 to 800. Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru. Donated by James Reid

What

In fact the quality of the objects on display in this exhibition is one of its most striking points. I’ve been to scores of exhibitions about ancient cultures and often the curators are forced, through lack of archaeological evidence, to display shards of pottery or fragments of swords and so on and reconstruct their appearance.

By striking contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an exhibition where the quality of every single piece on display was so high. Peru: a journey in time is an exhibition of physically complete, highly finished and dazzling masterpieces!

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

I was fascinated to learn that this is in large part because of the dry desert conditions of coastal Peru where a lot of its ancient cities were sited meant that all objects, even rugs and tapestries, remained beautifully preserved in the sand for centuries. Apparently these deserts are among the driest in the world, and the exhibition opens with a huge 4-minute video projected onto the wall showing aerial shots of (presumably a helicopter) flying over Amazon jungle, then the breath-taking Andes mountains, through winding river valleys and then, finally across the beautiful bone dry deserts and so to the sandy shoreline. I sat and watched the whole thing several times. It’s awesome.

The exhibition brings together over 40 objects transported from nine museums across Peru to join 80 other pieces from the British Museum’s own collection, many of them rarely if ever exhibited before, including beautiful pots and ceramics, gold headpieces and gauntlets, highly decorated fabrics used to wrap royal corpses and much more.

So it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such an extensive exhibition of such wonderful, beautiful objects from remote and ancient cultures most of us have never heard of.

Where

So where are talking? Right at the start the show features a big map showing the borders of modern Peru. I can’t find it anywhere online and this is the least worst available alternative. In the centre is the modern state of Peru with key archaeological sites highlighted. To the north is Ecuador, the north-east Colombia, to the east Brazil, to the south-east Bolivia.

Map of ancient sites in Peru

But the point is that, until a few hundred years ago, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1530s, all the South American states didn’t exist, in fact the modern state of Peru didn’t come into existence until 200 years ago (and the Museum does point out that the exhibition is by way of celebrating Peru’s bicentennary).

Before the 1530s the central part of the west coast of South America was ruled by a succession of native states and empires, the mountains of the Andes were more sparsely populated, though containing some towns and holy sites, and the Amazon rainforest was inhabited by countless indigenous tribes who have left little or no trace.

When

As to when, the big, big revelation of this show is that the Incas, who most of us have heard about, were only the last and relatively short-lived of a whole series of empires which rose to eminence and ruled various parts of the mountain and coastal regions of what we now call Peru for centuries, the first empires dating from thousands of years BC.

As the co-curator of the exhibition, Cecilia Pardo, puts it:

‘While the Incas are one of the most well-known civilisations from Peru, they were actually relatively recent in terms of the long history of this region. We’ll be taking visitors back many thousands of years earlier.’

The Museum provides an illustrated timeline:

And the exhibition is arranged in simple chronological order, with a room (or, since the spaces are actually marked off by fine bead curtaining) a ‘space’ assigned to the six most important empires or cultures. Each one is introduced by a wall label giving a brief overview of the culture’s dates, rise and extent, cultural practices, a map showing that particular culture’s centres, ritual sites, and one or more big big photos of a key site.

The wall labels are just the right length, but it still requires an effort to get the timeline clear in your head, to try and remember the names of the successive cultures and then to remember the cultural practices associated with each.

Pottery vessel in the shape of a contorted body, Peru, Cupisnique,1200 to 500 BC. Museo de Arte de Lima. Donated by Petrus and Verónica Fernandini. Photo by Daniel Giannoni

The timeline can be summarised as:

  • 15,000 BC first humans arrive in South America
  • 2,500 to 1,800 BC first pottery remains
  • 1,200 to 200 BC Chavin culture
  • 900 to 200 BC Paracas culture
  • 200 BC to 650 AD Nasca culture
  • 100 to 800 AD Mosca
  • 600 to 900 AD Wari
  • 900 to 1400 AD coastal kingdom of Chimú
  • 1400 to 1533 Inca Empire

So the Inca ‘room’ is the last one in the show (well, there’s a kind of epilogue showing how some of the practices, patterns and designs of the earlier cultures linger on among peasants or high-end artists in modern Peru), and it goes heavy on the famous ruined city of Machu Picchu, with the usual breath-taking photos, architectural diagrams showing its structure and layout and so on. But we know about Macchu Picchu sitting atop its mountain, 8,000 feet above the tropical forest and the spectacular views which we routinely see in screensavers or travel brochures. (I’m always disappointed to be reminded that Machu Picchu, from the Quechua Indian language, simply means ‘old mountain’. As so often, the foreign words are so much more evocative than the bald English translation.)

But it’s the other spaces, devoted to the other cultures, which are the real revelation. Here they are in order with a few of the outstanding highlights.

1. Living landscapes

Introduction to the breath-taking but challenging environments of Peru, rainforest in the east, high Andes mountains, and desert down to the coast. Introduces ideas from the various cultures, suggesting how the peoples lived in tune with nature, developed agriculture, commerce and art, and their own theories of time and history, and of death and the afterlife.

2. Early cultures and the Chavin (1200 to 500 BC)

3. Life and death in the desert

How the Paracas and Nasca peoples lived along the south coast of Peru, one of the most arid places on the planet. the most outstanding achievement of the Nasca people couldn’t be included in the exhibition because it is the huge ‘geoglyphs’, outline shapes of animals which they carved in the desert. They did this by removing the top layer of earth and exposing the lighter sediment beneath to create stylised depictions of animals and other natural objects. And there aren’t just a handful: to date between nearly 100 new figures had been found with the use of drones and archaeologists believe there are more yet to be discovered.

The Monkey geoglyph, Nasca, Peru. ©Walter Wust / PROMPERÚ.

As to the Paracas, the standout thing here was their cult of severed heads. One of the biggest exhibits is a big tapestry aid flat in a case which you can stroll round. At first I took that busy pattern to be of stylised figures, a bit reminiscent of  the early video game, Space Invaders.

Mantle depicting mythical beings holding severed heads. Museo de Arte de Lima. Prado Family Bequest. Restored with a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

It was only when I looked closer that I realised every single one these figures was carrying in their hand a severed head. At first I thought this was a gruesome proof of human sacrifice comparable to the Aztec cult of cutting human hearts out of the defeated in battle. This seemed to be confirmed when in realised several of the pots in this section also depicted figures holding a rope tied to the top of a severed human head.

And then saw a set of wood carvings (rare survivals from the period which have been in the British Museum vaults for over a century, apparently, and never before been put on public display). These were of naked figures (we know they are naked because they had prominent wooden penises) again with thick rope around their necks.

The curator explained it all. In most societies war means unbridled violence between large armies, all too often rampaging across territory and considering it a valid war aim to kill all civilians, destroy all buildings and agriculture. Not so the Paracas. According to the curator, if conflict arose between groups, representatives were chosen to take part in something more like the games in the Roman amphitheatre. The losers were not killed there and then but submitted to this ritual of abasement and execution. The penises are important not as symbols of fertility but because they emphasise the captors’ naked status.

The losers were taken by boat to a holy island just off the coast, where were priests or religious officials who performed the beheading according to rituals. This explains why this section of the exhibition included a beautifully complete and detailed ceramic of a boat being sailed, with a fully dressed sailor at the tiller and several naked captives on deck, all with the stylised short thick rope round their necks.

To return to the funerary wrapping, the curator now explained that the 70 or so figures depicted are gods or protective spirits of the afterlife, and the head each one is holding by a rope represents an ancestor of the person being wrapped in this covering. So, by the end of his presentation, I realised what a precious object this was and how highly charged with religious and ritual symbolism.

(The exhibition features half a dozen or so videos, each devoted to particular exhibits, and this funeral cloth was accompanied by a video showing exactly how it would have been used to wrap the body of its high status owner.)

4. The Moche (AD 100 to 800) and the Chimu (AD 1000 to 1400)

These two cultures dominated along the coast and inland valleys of northern Peru. The outstanding artefacts from the Moche period were the stunningly finished and lifelike pottery heads and figurines.

Painted pottery vessel in the form of a warrior holding a club and a shield, Peru, Moche AD 100 to 600. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

This is what I meant when I said that the exhibits are in astonishing condition. If these pots were from ancient Greece or Rome, you’d put up with half the decoration being scratched off, chips and fragments. But all the pottery heads and figurine included in the exhibition were in immaculate condition. They looked like they’d been made and glazed last month instead of two thousand years ago.

You might have expected that the portrait heads and figurines were stylised and stereotyped or standardised. But the curator  pointed out that archaeologists have discovered a set of pottery heads depicting a man with a distinctive facial disfiguration, and the three pots clearly show him as a youth, a mature man and an old man. In other words, these ceramic heads are portraits of real people. I found that breath-taking.

5. The Wari (AD 600–900) and Inca (AD 1400–1532)

The two great empires of the highlands of the Central Andes, this part of the exhibition overshadowed, as mentioned above, by stunning images of Machu Picchu.

6. The Andean legacy

The final part of the Inca space shows Western influences impinging on native traditions, Christianity apparently wiping out native religions and rituals, books written entirely by Spanish clerics (all the cultures listed above were illiterate so we can never know the detail of their beliefs or practices) giving a very one-sided account of the native peoples, often misunderstanding or distorting their beliefs and traditions.

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

But then the final (small) space is devoted to a more optimistic vision, showing how many of the native traditions, despite Spanish attempts at obliteration, survived and went underground, emerging centuries later in enduring traditions of arts and crafts, in native words and traditions kept alive in rural areas..

Why

Why go? Because it is a magnificent exhibition. All the exhibits are in stunningly good condition. The photos of the Peruvian landscape are breath-taking, made me want to jump on a plane and go see for myself. The sense of history it gives, of how deep history works, of the growth and overlap and intermingling of distinct cultures over long periods of time on similar or adjacent territories, fire the historical imagination.

If you like images of severed heads, this is the exhibition for you! And I haven’t even mentioned the frequency of other images and motifs taken from the natural world, such as the recurring motifs of pumas or panthers, and the sly presence of snakes in many images. For example, the stunning 2,500-year-old gold headdress and pair of ear plates decorated with embossed motifs of human faces with feline fangs and snakes’ appendages, part of an elite burial found at Kuntur Wasi.

It’s a feast for the eyes and the mind. Go.

A video review

Here’s a rather home-made but accurate depiction of what the exhibition looks like, made by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh (1936)

On Monday night there was a bacchanalian scene at Mme Idot’s, where, among other songs of international popularity, ‘Giovanezza’ was sung in a litter of upturned tables and broken crockery.
(Waugh in Abyssinia, page 107)

In 1935 Italy declared war on Abyssinia, an independent sovereign state in north east Africa, and Evelyn Waugh was hired by a British newspaper (I think it’s the London Evening Standard) and sent to the capital, Addis Ababa, to cover the conflict. This was because it was widely assumed that he knew about the country because of the hilarious and colourful, but also detailed and thoughtful, account of the 1930 coronation of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie which he had covered for The Times and then expanded into his book, Remote People.

Serious opinions

Waugh in Abyssinia opens a lot more seriously than its predecessor, with a chapter he jokingly titles ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to the Ethiopian Question’. (This is a humorous reference to the book ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism’, published George Bernard Shaw in 1928.)

This opening chapter reads like an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It gives a detailed history of Abyssinia from the turn of the nineteenth century till the present day. The facts he gives are illuminating but what’s really striking is his opinions: this dyed-in-the-wool Tory repeats at face value the standard Marxist critique of Empire, that the scramble for Africa, although dressed up in pious sentiments, was mainly motivated by the need of Western capitalists for:

new sources of raw material, new markets, but, more than anything, for new fields of profitable investment.

Even more surprisingly, he frankly agrees with modern ideas that Africa was seized by force from its traditional owners, who were swindled or simply out-gunned out of their land.

The most remarkable feature of the partition was the speed with which it was accomplished. In less than ten years the whole of pagan Africa was in the hands of one or other of the European Powers. Explorers pushed on from village to village armed with satchels of draft treaties upon which hospitable chiefs were induced to set their mark; native interpreters made gibberish of the legal phraseology; inalienable tribal rights were exchanged for opera hats and musical boxes; some potentates, such as the Sultan of Sokoto, thought they were accepting tribute when they were receiving a subsidy in lieu of their sovereign rights, others that it was the white man’s polite custom to collect souvenirs of this kind; if, when they found they had been tricked, they resisted the invaders, they were suppressed with the use of the latest lethal machinery: diplomats in Europe drew frontiers across tracts of land of which they were totally ignorant, negligently overruling historic divisions of race and culture and the natural features of physical geography, consigning to the care of one or other white race millions of men who had never seen a white face. A task which was to determine the future history of an entire continent, requiring the highest possible degrees of scholarship and statesmanship, was rushed through in less than ten years.

These are the kind of progressive sentiments which authors writing in the 1990s or 2000s pride themselves on and yet here they are, forcefully and clearly stated as long ago as 1935, as not just the property of the left or progressives, but as a universally acknowledged truth held by all educated people of the day:

But the avarice, treachery, hypocrisy and brutality of the partition are now a commonplace which needs no particularisation…

Not only that, but this Tory patriot then zeroes in on the record of his own country and the particular brand of hypocrisy which the English brought to their colonising.

It is worth remembering indeed, in the present circumstances, the particular nature of the reproach which attaches to England. France, Germany and Belgium were the more ruthless; we the more treacherous. We went into the shady business with pious expressions of principle; we betrayed the Portuguese and the Sultan of Zanzibar, renouncing explicit and freshly made guarantees of their territory; we betrayed Lobenguela and other native rulers in precisely the same method but with louder protestations of benevolent intention than our competitors; no matter into what caprice of policy our electorate chose to lead us, we preached on blandly and continuously; it was a trait which the world found difficult to tolerate; but we are still preaching.

And then his comments about the important impact of African art on Western art:

For centuries Africa has offered Europe successive waves of aesthetic stimulus…the gracious, intricate art of Morocco or the splendour of Benin…the dark, instinctive art of the negro — the ju-ju sculpture, the carved masks of the medicine man, the Ngomas, the traditional terrifying ballet which the dancing troops carry from the Great Lakes to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.

Although we might bridle at some of his phrasing, nevertheless this is the kind of claim you find made in up-to-the minute art exhibitions by the wokest of curators (for example, Tate’s self-flagellating exhibition about British Imperialism) . I was genuinely startled that a man who’s often seen as a blimpish reactionary held views 90 years ago which are identified with the most progressive of progressives in 2021.

Abyssinia and Ethiopia

As to Ethiopia’s origins:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Abyssinia consisted of the four mountain kingdoms of Amhara, Shoa, Tigre and Gojjam, situated in almost complete isolation from outside intercourse.

Waugh says the word ‘Abyssinia’ is a corruption of the Arabic Habasha, variously said to mean ‘mongrels’ or ‘members of the Arabian Habashat tribe.’

They believed they had migrated from Arabia at some unrecorded date, probably before the Christian era; they employed a common literary language, Ghiz, which had some affinity with ancient Armenian, and spoke dialects derived from it, Tigrean and Amharic; they shared a common culture and feudal organisation and recognised a paramount King of Kings as their nominal head.

He says he will use the term ‘Abyssinian’ to describe the Amharic-speaking, Christian peoples of the four original kingdoms, and Ethiopian to describe the tribes and naturalised immigrants subject to their rule.

He describes the series of kings who sought to unite the four squabbling kingdoms, namely Emperor Theodore and Emperor Johannes, and then goes on to describe the rule of Menelik II, who is the key figure in the story. It was Menelik II (ruled 1889 to 1913) whose organisation, diplomacy and buying up of Western guns and ammunition allowed the well organised Ethiopian army to massacre an Italian army which had been sent to colonise his country, at the decisive Battle of Adowa in 1896. For the rest of his reign, from 1896 to 1913, Menelik devoted himself to expanding his ’empire’, and is a record of conquests, treaties and submissions by neighbouring tribes and chieftains until, by 1913, he had quadrupled the size of his ‘country’.

This long opening chapter is designed to show that the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 was far from being a simple act of unprovoked aggression. His aim is to show that Ethiopia was a much more complex place, with a complex and troubled history, than the simple shape on the map of Africa suggested. It was itself the product of imperial conquest, above all by the legendary King Menelik II, who attacked Tigray in the north, Somalia in the south and East, seizing territory, forcing countless chieftains, sheikhs and local leaders into obeisance. ‘Ethiopia’ was the result of conquest every bit as brutal as the European conquest of Africa, a ‘country’ which was more a:

vast and obscure agglomeration of feudal fiefs, occupied military provinces, tributary sultanates, trackless no-man’s-lands roamed by homicidal nomads; undefined in extent, unmapped, unexplored, in part left without law, in part grossly subjugated; the brightly coloured patch in the schoolroom atlas marked, for want of a more exact system of terminology, ‘ Ethiopian Empire’.

Return to farce

So the opening chapter is surprisingly serious, factual and (liberally) opinionated. But as soon as we move to chapter two we enter the more familiar territory of Waugh farce and fiasco.

He describes for comic effect the panic throughout London’s media as war in Abyssinia looms and companies scrabble to capitalise on the fact: publishers dust off rubbish old books about the north east Africa, which suddenly sell like hot cakes, press agencies buff up photos of Borneo head hunters or Australian aborigines to flog them as pics of Abyssinian natives.

Above all anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Ethiopia is suddenly in great demand and thus it is that Waugh finds himself able to wangle another commission as a foreign correspondent, sent by his paper to buy a mountain of comic equipment, catching the boat train to Paris, train to Marseilles, boarding a steamer along with hordes of other journalists, steaming across the Med and through the Suez Canal to Djibouti, then scrambling aboard the shabby stopping train across the barren desert and then up into the Ethiopian highlands to Addis Ababa.

Comedy

There is ample comedy about the farcical aspects of journalism, war, and Africa. Here is Waugh at his magisterial comic best, this paragraph like a magnificent galleon sailing though a comic extravaganza of his own devising.

There were several hotels in Addis Ababa, all, at the time of our arrival, outrageously prosperous. The ‘Splendide,’ at which we all assumed we should stay — the Radical had had the name painted in large white letters on his medicine chest — was completely full with journalists and photographers living in hideous proximity, two or three to a room even in the outbuildings. It was a massive, shabby building of sepulchral gloom, presided over by a sturdy, middle-aged, misanthropic Greek, who had taken it over as a failing concern just before the troubles. There was something admirable about the undisguised and unaffected distaste with which he regarded his guests and his ruthless disregard of their comfort and dignity. Some attempted to be patronising to him, some dictatorial, some ingratiating; all were treated with uniform contempt. He was well aware that for a very few months nothing that he did or left undone could affect his roaring prosperity; after that anything might happen.

Deadpan

A very Waughesque effect is the deadpan statement of bizarre or extreme facts.

Presently [the Italian consul’s] luggage arrived, prominent in its midst a dripping packing case containing bottled beer on ice, and a caged leopard.

Charles G. had had the fortune to witness a fight between two of the European police officers. As a result he had lately been expelled on a charge of espionage. His parting act was to buy a slave and give her to Mati Hari as a tip.

We secured [a cook] who looked, and as it turned out was, all that a cook should be. A fat, flabby Abyssinian with reproachful eyes. His chief claim to interest was that his former master, a German, had been murdered and dismembered in the Issa country. (p.125)

The chauffeur seemed to be suitable until we gave him a fortnight’s wages in advance to buy a blanket. Instead he bought cartridges and tedj, shot up the bazaar quarter and was put in chains. (p.125)

[The soldiers] were ragged and dilapidated, some armed with spears but most of them with antiquated guns. ‘ I am sorry to disturb you,’ said James [our servant] politely, ‘ but these people wished to shoot us.’ (p.129)

Waugh doesn’t approve of a slave being given as a tip any more than he approves of a German being murdered and dismembered. His records a world brimful of violent absurdities. It is the harshness of some of these absurdities which gives his books their bite, and also helps to explain the depth of his Roman Catholic faith. Only faith in a benevolent God could stay him against the panorama of violence, futility and fiasco he saw all around him. He reports it deadpan for its comic effect. But sometimes his despair peeks through.

Before the war

Although there were armed clashes in late 1934, and Mussolini made a steady stream of blustering warnings throughout the spring and summer of 1935, in reality Italy was happy to bide its time till the right time and place to commence hostilities.

With the result that ship after shipload of correspondents arrived from all over Europe, America, Japan and beyond, booking up all the rooms at every hotel and, like Waugh, spilling over into neighbouring boarding houses, engaging in feverish rounds of press conferences, meetings with diplomats, interviewing every official they could find, creating an over-excited community of feverish scribblers liable to over-react to every new rumour no matter how far fetched, and yet – long weeks went by and nothing happened.

Waugh is tempted to go on excursions to locations said to be vital in the strategic planning of the attackers, and so find himself going with an old friend (Waugh’s world is full of old friends from public school or Oxford or London’s narrow literary clique) back to Harar, the town he first visited in 1930, which is east of Addis. They had an interesting time, he gives an evocative description of how the place had changed in just 5 years since he was previously there. They press on further east to the town of Jijiga on the border with Somalia (p.70) and here Waugh and Balfour stumble on the story of a French aristocrat, Count Maurice de Roquefeuil du Bousquet, who runs a mining concession in the district and  who has just been arrested, along with his wife, for spying for the Italians. He had been taking photographs of Ethiopian defences and sending the rolls of film by secret courier to the Italian Consulate at Harar (p.74). Balfour and Waugh take photographs of all the relevant locations, of the count himself in prison and send off excited despatches to their papers back in Blighty.

Slowly, however, their excitement at having secured a scoop fades and by the time they arrive back at Addis they realise that, by being absent for those few days, they have missed one of the great scoops of the period, which was that the emperor had granted to an American consortium, led by one Mr Rickett, the mineral concession for the entire north of Ethiopia, precisely the territory an invading Italian army would have to cross, in a typically canny attempt to invoke international law and get the international community on his side (p.80). In fact it failed, as a diplomatic ploy, because the US government refused to ratify the concession and by doing so, in effect, gave the green light to Italy to invade.

Comic characters

In Waugh’s hands every person he meets becomes a comic character: Mr Kakophilos the gloomy Greek owner of the Hotel Splendide; Herr and Frau Heft, owners of the Deutsches Haus boarding house, also home to two fierce geese and a pig; the Radical journalist, a high-minded reporter for, presumably, the Manchester Guardian; Mme Idot and Mme Moriatis, French owners of the only two places of entertainment in town and bitter enemies; Dr Lorenzo Taesas, the beady-eyed Tigrayan head of the Press Bureau; the accident-prone American newsreel cameraman, Mr Prospero; the avaricious Greek owner of the only hotel in Harar, Mr Caraselloss; the bibulous chief of police in Harar; a spy Waugh hires, an imposing old Afghan named Wazir Ali Beg who roams the country sending Waugh ever-more ludicrous reports (p.68); the spy his friend Patrick Balfour hires, who they all nickname Mata Hari (p.69); Gabri, Patrick’s Abyssinian servant who speaks eccentric French; the wily customs officer of Jijiga, Kebreth Astatkie; the Swiss chef hired by the emperor who, when he doesn’t get paid for a few months, quit in high dudgeon and the emperor tried to persuade to return by arresting his entire kitchen staff (p.93).

These aren’t people so much as a cast, the cast of a wonderful comic extravaganza. At several points Waugh just lists the weird and wonderful types who have washed up in Addis, for their oddity value.

There was a simian Soudanese, who travelled under a Brazilian passport and worked for an Egyptian paper; there was a monocled Latvian colonel, who was said at an earlier stage of his life to have worked as ringmaster in a German circus; there was a German who travelled under the name of Haroun al Raschid, a title, he said, which had been conferred on him during the Dardanelles campaign by the late Sultan of Turkey; his head was completely hairless; his wife shaved it for him, emphasising the frequent slips of her razor with tufts of cotton-wool. There was a venerable American, clothed always in dingy black, who seemed to have strayed from the pulpit of a religious conventicle; he wrote imaginative despatches of great length and flamboyancy. There was an Austrian, in Alpine costume, with crimped flaxen hair, the group leader, one would have thought, of some Central-European Youth Movement; a pair of rubicund young colonials, who came out on chance and were doing brisk business with numberless competing organisations; two indistinguishable Japanese, who beamed at the world through hornrimmed spectacles and played interminable, highly dexterous games of ping-pong in Mme. Idot’s bar. (p.81)

And:

Two humane English colonels excited feverish speculation for a few days until it was discovered that they were merely emissaries of a World League for the Abolition of Fascism. There was a negro from South Africa who claimed to be a Tigrean, and represented another World League for the abolition, I think, of the white races, and a Greek who claimed to be a Bourbon prince and represented some unspecified and unrealised ambitions of his own. There was an American who claimed to be a French Viscount and represented a league, founded in Monte Carlo, for the provision of an Ethiopian Disperata squadron, for the bombardment of Assab. There was a completely unambiguous British adventurer, who claimed to have been one of Al Capone’s bodyguard and wanted a job; and an ex-officer of the R.A.F. who started to live in some style with a pair of horses, a bull terrier and a cavalry moustache—he wanted a job to.

In my review of Remote People I remarked that these collections of eccentrics and oddballs reminded me of the Tintin books from the 1930s and 40s, a seemingly endless supply of screwball eccentrics.

Dodgy dossier

I was fascinated to learn that the Italians compiled a dossier of grievances against Ethiopia which they presented to the League of Nations in Geneva as justification for their invasion. It brought together all the evidence they could muster from the legalistic to the cultural.

Thus they claimed the emperor had signed a contract giving an Italian firm the job of building a railway from Addis to the coast but in the event gave the work to a French company. They complained that Ethiopia had breached various clauses of the 1928 Treaty of Friendship between the two states. The new arterial road, which was specifically provided in the 1928 agreement, joining Dessye with Assab was abandoned and, instead, Selassie concentrated in opening communications with the British territories in Kenya and Somaliland. The construction of a wireless station at Addis Ababa was undertaken by an Italian company, heavily subsidised by the Italian government, but on completion was handed over to the management of a Swede and a Frenchman. They documented slights, insults, abuse and even the arrest of Italian citizens.

The Italians accused Ethiopia of what we would nowadays call ‘human rights abuses’, namely the fact that slavery and slave-raiding were universal (and this isn’t a bootless accusation; Waugh meets many officials or rich Ethiopians who are accompanied by one or more slaves). The Italians claim that justice, when executed at all, was accompanied by torture and mutilation; the central government was precarious and only rendered effective by repeated resort to armed force; disease was rampant, and so on.

How similar to the ‘dodgy dossier’ assembled by our own dear government to justify our attack on Iraq back in 2003.

The state of the prisons was confirmed by Waugh who made a horrified visit to one, discovering prisoners manacled to the walls of tiny hutches by chains which barely let them crawl a few yards into a courtyard to catch a little sun, no food or water provided, the prisoners surviving amid their own excrement. It was ‘the lowest pit of human misery’ he had ever seen (p.94)

The feverish press pack attend various ceremonies connected with the week-long festival of Maskar, some officiated over by the emperor, understanding little or nothing of what was going on.

Waugh becomes so bored he buys a baboon who, however, turns out to be ‘petulant and humourless’, and ‘added very little to the interest of these dull days’ (p.101)

The war

War finally broke out – that’s to say Italy invaded northern Ethiopia without any formal declaration of war – on 3 October 1935. It immediately resulted in a ramping up of baseless rumours and shameless speculation. The Italian forces consisted entirely of natives; a Red Cross hospital full of women and children had been obliterated by Italian bombing; the Italians were deserting in droves. All turned out to be utterly false.

The absurdity intensifies. The press pack in Addis is remarkably isolated from the front and the outside world. Therefore they routinely find themselves discovering by telegraph or even in newspapers, events which are happening in the war they’re meant to be covering. Waugh discovers a perverse law is at work: the London editors imagine stereotyped scenes, for example riots at the Addis railway station as desperate refugees fight their way onto the last train out of town weeks before anything like that happens; so that when there finally is something approximating to fights to get onto what everyone believes (erroneously, as it turns out) will be the last train, the newspaper editors aren’t interested: it’s old news even though it’s only just happened. Again and again Waugh has the dizzy experience of seeing the media-manufactured fictions precede the facts, creating ‘an inverted time lag between the event and its publication’ (p.113).

Eventually the press pack begin to discuss leaving. The most experienced foreign correspondent does in fact depart. Waugh embarks on another visit to Harar where there is a serious interlude when he talks to venerable Muslim elders of the town, who tell him, at some risk to themselves, how saddened they are by the attrition of the Muslim culture and customs of the place by the swamping Abyssinian Christians with their drunkenness, prostitution and corruption. It is to Waugh’s credit that he listens and retails their concerns with sympathy.

Back in Addis he discovers the press have been granted permission to head north to the town of Dessye, nowadays called Dessie. He decides to travel there with the Radical journalist and they buy a knackered lorry off a shifty looking Syrian. In the event the outing is a total farce. At the first little town on the way they are pulled over and given the third degree by the officious chief of police who their servant, ‘James’ buys off with a half pint of whiskey. But a few hours drive further along the road, at Debra Birhan, the shabby mayor and chief of police conspire to forbid their further progress. When they return from the chief’s shabby office they find the locals have built barricades of stone in front and behind their lorry. They are obliged to spend the night camping there, and in the morning the chief removes the barricade behind them and obliges them to trundle back to Addis. Oh well.

Barely have they got back than the Press Office gives the entire press corps permission to travel to Dessie, so now our heroes set out on the same road but this time accompanied by many other cars and lorries packed with journalists and are not hindered or stopped.

In other words, Waugh at no time gets anywhere near a front, sees no fighting, doesn’t even hear the roar of distant artillery, never sees an enemy airplane. The text is entirely about the fatuity of the press corps and the obstructiveness of the Ethiopian authorities.

The emperor arrives at Dessye which would thenceforward be his headquarters for the war, until, in the spring, he was forced to flee the Italian advance, driving fast back to Addis, then catching the train to the coast and then by ship into exile.

By now it was December and the European press and American film companies were bored of the lack of action, coverage, footage, photos and stories. One by one the journalists find themselves being withdrawn. Everyone expects the war to drag on and end with some kind of diplomatic fudge which would revert to the status quo ante, Italy with a bit more influence, maybe Britain and France intervening under cover of a League of Nations mandate, foreign companies seeking concessions, then demanding justice if there was any murder or harassment. Same old.

Waugh’s newspaper terminates his contract. Having come this far he toys with staying on as a freelancers but, like everyone else, expects nothing will happen. He blags a seat in a Red Cross car heading back for the capital.

The German driver — an adventurous young airman who had come to look for good fortune after serving in the Paraguayan war — kept a rifle across the wheel and inflicted slight wounds on the passing farmers at point-blank range. (p.142)

Bereft of its emperor, the capital is dead. The bars are empty. The thronging press pack has gone, He packs his things and gets the train to Djibouti where he discovers a little community of journalists who never even bothered to go to the capital, but were making a perfectly happy living reporting events which they entirely invented. Ship back up through the canal, to Palestine where he fulfils an ambition to see Christmas in Bethlehem. And so by easy stages back to dear old Blighty.

Collapse

The final chapter reports events as a historian, from England. The Italian advance through February and March 1936, the sudden complete collapse of Ethiopian forces and the flight of the emperor to Djibouti and into exile. It had to compete with the German occupation of the Rhine and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

But he follows events, aware as few others how much being printed in the papers was nonsense, eventually overcome by curiosity he applies for permission to return to Abyssinia and, one year after his initial setting off, once again crosses France, then the Mediterranean, then down the Red Sea and so to Djibouti. It is packed with Italians and native hawkers.

Waugh is amused at the sight of the Italian soldiers having to travel from Djibouti, which was in French Somaliland, as far as the border with Ethiopia proper, in mufti. At the border they were allowed to change back into the garish uniforms. Absurdity.

Immediately things are counter-intuitive. He had read that his favourite town of Harar had been bombed and devastated. His friend Patrick Balfour wrote an eloquent obsequy for it in a newspaper. Except it hadn’t. If anything it was cleaner. the pavements had been fixed. The town was packed with Italians. The Hararis looked happy as sandmen to replace the oppressive rule of the Abyssinians with the more permissive – and lucrative – rule of the bon vivant Italians.

He discovers currency chaos with seven different currencies in circulation. There have been attacks on the train by ‘bandits’ prompting ‘pacification’ measures by the Italians in the surrounding villages. When the emperor left there was wholescale looting in Addis Ababa. Waugh discovers no building was untouched, curtains ripped down, electric light fittings torn out.

Waugh meets the Italian general running the new imperial administration, the Viceroy, Field Marshall Graziani. He is frank and forthright, happy to give Waugh whatever help he needs. Slowly it is revealed how extensively Addis was not only looted but burned down. The main hotel looted, the boarding house where Waugh stayed, attacked and burned. Accommodation is difficult. Everywhere is overflowing with the new Italian soldiers and administrators. The streams of lazy Abyssinians riding mules in their white cloaks have disappeared. Crops have not been sown. Food prices are astronomical. There will be famine.

Addis feels besieged. Groups of armed men, sometimes in their hundreds, penetrate the defences on raids. In the four days he spends there, Waugh hear of a substantial attack on the airdrome, and numerous other incursions. Waugh’s trademark deadpan humour:

I had an appointment that afternoon to visit Ras Hailu ; drove out to his house beyond the American hospital and was politely informed that his Highness was unable to see me ; he had gone out to a battle. (p.157)

The Europeans fear for the day a massed attack will be met by an insurrection of blacks within the city and they’ll all be murdered in their sleep. Uneasy sleeps the colonist.

Waugh gives his view frankly and openly, as he did at the start about the process of Western colonialism, as he did in the previous book about the cause of the white settlers in Kenya. For him the central fact is nobody expected the Abyssinian nation to collapse to quickly and completely. Instead of Abyssinians fighting against the Italians and their former subject peoples (which he and other intelligent commentators expected) the Abyssinians themselves had disintegrated into scores of warlords and warrior bandits, living off the peasantry and fighting each other. Complete anarchy, in other words.

As always, the colonists hold the cities and towns, the railway and most of the roads, during the day at least. but the vast expanse of the country is the home of warring bandits as per Afghanistan in our time, as per Vietnam, as per so many colonially occupied countries. Waugh thinks the Italians are tougher than opinion credits them and they’ll make a go of their new empire, but it will be hard.

The road

The book closes with a short chapter describing progress on the new modern motorway the Italians are constructing to run the length of their new colony, praising the engineers and navvies who have built a wide, modern trunk road from the north coast through the heart of the country to Addis and which is still being constructed south towards Somalia and Mogadishu as he writes.

Waugh is positively propagandistic about the new Italian empire. He sees white men working very hard to build the road, something incomprehensible to the Abyssinians who watch them.

The Italian occupation of Ethiopia is the expansion of a race. It began with fighting, but it is not a military movement, like the French occupation of Morocco. It began with the annexation of potential sources of wealth, but it is not a capitalistic movement like the British occupation of the South African goldfields. It is being attended by the spread of order and decency, education and medicine, in a disgraceful place, but it is not primarily a humane movement, like the British occupation of Uganda. It can be compared best in recent history to the great western drive of the American peoples, the dispossession of the Indian tribes and the establishment in a barren land of new pastures and cities.

Very surprising that someone with such a shrewd, pitilessly realistic eye, and a temperament disposed to ennui and sometimes depression, should write such rose-tinted hogwash.

He goes on a whistlestop tour of the occupied north of the country: Asmara, Axum, Adowa and many more now made accessible in hours via the modern autostrada which only a year before had been inaccessibly remote hypothetical places marked on the journalists’ maps, which would have taken weeks of driving then mule trekking to reach. Quite obviously, it is this incredible turnaround in wretched, backward, squalid Ethiopia’s landscape which prompted his raptures about the Italian occupation.

Abandoning everything which makes him such good company, such an alert, malicious, eagle-eyed observer, such a cynic, with such an acute eye for human foibles and follies, right at the very end Waugh delivers a ridiculous hymn of praise to Italian Fascism. I quote it in full a) to give the full mounting rhythm of the thing but b) because it reviews and summarises some of the places he visited and experiences he described and c) it’s an important passage:

They [the engineers and navvies] are at work there at this moment, as I write. They will be at work there when these words appear, and in a few months the great metalled highway will run uninterrupted along the way where the Radical and I so painfully travelled a year before, past the hot springs where our servants mistook the bubbles for rising fish, past the camping ground where Dedjasmach Matafara entertained us to breakfast, up the immense escarpment, past Debra Birhan, where the one-eyed chief held us prisoner, to Addis, where a new city will be in growth — a real ‘New Flower’ — to take the place of the shoddy ruins of Menelik and Tafari. And from Dessye new roads will be radiating to all points of the compass, and along the roads will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, as they came to our savage ancestors in France and Britain and Germany, bringing some rubbish and some mischief; a good deal of vulgar talk and some sharp misfortunes for individual opponents; but above and beyond and entirely predominating, the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgement — the two determining qualities of the human spirit, by which alone, under God, man grows and flourishes.

What utter horseshit. I wonder what Evelyn’s friends, let alone his enemies, made of this misplaced paean seven short years later when many of them were fighting against and being killed by these same charming Fascists in the Italian campaign of the Second World War.

Pondering Waugh’s imperialist rhetoric

This florid passage is such a contrast with the entirely progressive, left-wing view of colonialism which he expressed in chapter one of the book. Then again revisiting that opening rhetoric may be a clue to its meaning or its origin. Waugh lived in a world where there were no aid agencies (with the notable exception of the International Red Cross which, however, restricted itself to treating victims of war). There was none of the long-established mechanisms of international aid, foreign loans, ministries of overseas aid, ministries of international development, nor the hundreds and hundreds of charities which medical, teaching, water aid, famine relief, mine clearing, humanitarian assistance and so on, which I have grown up with and take entirely for granted. (Thinking about it, I realise that there were quite a number of missionary agencies which had been operating since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and supported schools and, to a lesser extent, hospitals.)

Waugh had visited the country twice, travelled round it more extensively than most Westerners. He had learned that it was a ramshackle ’empire’ built on the conquest and suppression of neighbouring peoples and tribes. He had seen that, even at the centre, it was characterised by backward obscurantism, inefficiency, endless delay and inaction. No roads worth the name, hardly any hospitals, rarely any schools, and a population mostly illiterate living in poverty in the towns and absolute destitution in the countryside, where famine often brought starvation, many parts of which were prey to wandering bands murdering bandits.

It is worth, therefore, mentally trying on the position, I mean experimenting with the view he is clearly expressing, that Italian colonisation genuinely offered the best way forward for the people of Abyssinia. If you genuinely cared for the population, if you wanted to see roads built, and the economy developed, and modern commerce, and schools and hospitals built in regional centres and the population educated…then the building of the big new trunk road to run right across the country was a symbol of a new life for Ethiopia’s people.

This goes some way to explain his enthusiasm, that and maybe the decision to end the book on an upbeat, positive note. It still doesn’t justify the extravagance of his rhetoric, which seems ludicrous to us now. And, as with his support for the white settlers in Kenya which he expressed in Remote People, we have the immense advantage of hindsight, of knowing that his view was swept away by three or four cumulative forces: that Italian colonisation would be short-lived and ineffectual; that Mussolini’s government would be swept away by the Second World War; that the entire ideology of imperialism and colonisation would a) be swept away in the early 1960s and b) become associated with criminal exploitation.

I’m not defending his position, I’m just pointing out that Waugh knew none of this was going to happen and that, at the time of writing, while the colonisation process had barely even begun, he was genuinely inspired with hope that Italian hegemony would bring a new era of education and enlightenment to a country he had ample evidence for thinking backward and, in some areas (take his harrowing description of Addis Ababa’s prison) positively barbaric.

It is also worth remembering that we, in our fabulously enlightened modern era, despite knowing vastly more about international development than Waugh, have been prone to the same triumphalist rhetoric. Witness the gushingly positive commentary that surrounded the Western invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, when Western nations invaded third world countries and overthrew their dictatorial regimes, promising a new dawn of peace and prosperity, the rule of law, hospitals, schools and all the rest of it – only to find themselves bogged down in years of violent conflict with unreconciled resistance fighters.

The opening chapter of the book makes it clear that Waugh was all too aware that high-minded European involvement in a developing country all too often covered self-serving commercial and strategic considerations. This makes it all the odder that he gave way to such a booming passage of high-minded rhetoric at the end of the narrative.

Well, a Western country hadn’t invaded a developing country in quite that way, with quite the modern facilities Italy brought to Ethiopia in the 1930s, for quite a while, when Waugh wrote. Presumably he thought this time it’ll be different.

And he had actually seen with his own eyes the impressive new trunk road being built across the country and seen the contrast between the dynamic Italian navvies and the shiftless, poverty stricken native peasants who looked on in amazement. So he has the excuse that he was writing about what he had actually seen at first hand and this included his genuine excitement that genuine change was at hand for the country’s people.

Whereas 70 years later, the armchair commentators, politicians and populations of Western countries who greeted America’s invasion of first Afghanistan then Iraq had no excuses. 70 years of brutal, disillusioning global history had intervened and they should have known better. But hope springs eternal in the human breast and the supporters of those invasions, just like Waugh supporting the Italian invasion, thought this time it’ll be different.

But it’s never different. It’s always the same.

Some Ethiopian words

  • dedjasmatch = civic leader or commander in the field
  • khat = wild plant whose leaves, when chewed, release a stimulant drug which produces mild euphoria and makes people feel more alert and talkative
  • tedj/tej = a honey wine, like mead, that has an alcohol content generally ranging from 7 to 11%
  • tukal/tukul = a traditional thatched roof hut

Credit

Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh was published by Longmans in 1936. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Africa-related reviews

History and journalism

Fictions, memoirs and travel writing set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith (2005)

Meredith’s big book (770 pages) does what it says on the tin and tells the history of every African country from the run-up to independence, i.e. starting in the mid-1950s, to the time of writing, i.e. about 2004, covering half a century of tumultuous history. It’s a vast subject but Meredith’s book is an easy and pleasurable read. He writes a wonderfully clear, expressive prose which effortlessly conveys a huge amount of information and profiles countries, leaders and events with deceptive ease.

The narrative is chock-a-block with facts and dates, central figures and key events, but a handful of general principles emerge all too clearly.

Imperialism’s mistakenly long-term view

The colonial powers thought they were in it for the very long haul. As the Second World War ended, most thought the colonies they ruled wouldn’t be ready for independence for centuries, certainly not till the end of the twentieth century. This, in retrospect, was never viable. The idea that generations of natives would be happy to live out their entire lives as second class citizens, die, and hand on to their children who would themselves be content to live as second class citizens and so on indefinitely shows a poor grasp pf human nature.

Instead, as we know, the generation who came to maturity after the war insisted on independence now, in their own lifetimes.

Lack of provision

The fact that the colonial powers didn’t expect to hand over independence for a very long time goes some way to explaining why they made so little provision for education, political inclusion and other aspects of statehood. They didn’t think they needed to; they thought they had decades and decades to slowly, incrementally introduce the elements of a modern state, not least an extensive cohort of properly trained professional administrators, engineers, lawyers and so on.

Rush to independence

But instead of resigning themselves to waiting for decades or centuries, and inspired by the independence of India, Pakistan, Burma in 1948, native political leaders began lobbying hard for independence as soon as possible.

Independence became a shibboleth, an indicator of ideological purity, so that rival parties in colonial countries fell over themselves to demand it soon, sooner, soonest. You can see this at work in Congo where the conference called to discuss independence found itself being bounced into bringing the date ever forward, until it was set at barely 4 months after the conference ended (the first part of the conference ended in February 1960 and set the date of independence for June 30, 1960).

The mad scramble for independence, regardless of whether any of the conditions of statehood were actually in place, explains a lot of what came after.

A tiny educated elite

Thus when independence came, the educated and political class which clamoured for it was still small, a tiny elite (‘no more than about 3 per cent of the population’, p.169). This was to have important consequences. In fact it’s staggering to read Meredith explain just how ill-prepared African countries were to manage themselves. Most African societies were predominantly illiterate and innumerate. In all of black Africa, in the late 1950s as independence dawned, the entire population of 200 million produced 8,000 secondary school graduates. No more than 3% of children of secondary school age actually attended a school. Few new states had more than 200 students at university. In the former French colonies there were no universities at all. Hence the pitiful statistics about the handful of graduates available in countries like Congo or Angola at independence.

Utopian dreams of ‘independence’

Another fundamental fact was that no-one involved really understood what ‘independence’ meant or involved: what it actually took to run a) a functioning state b) a functioning economy.

The prophet of African independence, Ghanaian statesman Kwame Nkrumah, is quoted as stating that, once independence was granted, everything would flow from that i.e. freedom and prosperity for all; that once they had overthrown the colonial economy, they would create for themselves:

a veritable paradise of abundance and satisfaction (quoted on page 144)

You can tell from the phrasing that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Independence became identified, in every country, with everyone’s hopes and dreams, no matter how utopian. In David van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo, he describes how Congolese peasants and street people were led to believe that, at independence, they would all be given a big house like the Europeans lived in, with a free car and a rich white woman as a wife.

African socialism

Africa gained independence during the height of the Cold War. Many African leaders, such as Tanganyika’s Julius Nyerere, sought to distance themselves from both the capitalist West and the Soviet East, and hoped Africa could carve a middle way, a new way, an African way, but most were also swayed by the utopian rhetoric of socialism. As capitalism was associated with the (often brutal) rule of exploitative imperialists, it was no surprise that, given a choice, leaders rejected ‘capitalism’ for ‘socialism’ but socialism with African characteristics, African socialism. They thought rapid industrialisation of the kind carried out by Stalin in backward Russia, and just about to be carried out by Mao in backward China, would also provide a ‘great leap forward’ for backward Africa. Nkrumah declared:

‘Socialism is the only pattern that can within the shortest possible time bring the good life to the people.’ (quoted page 145)

Meredith quotes several leaders and thinkers who thought that ‘socialism’ was more in line with African traditions, in which there had been communal ownership of land, decisions were taken by consensus, in which members of tribes or kingdoms worked together, without an exploiting class severed from the mass of the population. In old Africa there hadn’t been the flagrant inequalities associated with white western capitalism, everyone was more equal.

You can see how the revival of African traditions, the rejection of white western capitalism, the promotion of new ways of doing things, the hope for a revolution in living standards, and socialist rhetoric about equality and wealth for all, were combined into a heady brew of nationalist and socialist slogans, posters, banners, speeches, books, announcements. In the mid-1960s African leaders and their liberal western supporters were brimful of optimism.

Economic reality

There were, unfortunately, quite a few problems with this millenarian vision, but the obvious one was economic: The majority of the population of most of Africa barely scraped a living by subsistence agriculture. In times of drought or conflict they starved, as their forefathers had. In fact Meredith gives a sober and bleak assessment of the economic state of Africa at independence in 1960:

Africa was the poorest, least developed region on earth. Its climate was harsh and unpredictable. Drought was a constant risk, bringing with it famine. Rainfall in half the continent was inadequate. African soil in many regions was thin, poor in nutrients, producing very poor yields. By far the majority of the population, over 80%, was engaged in subsistence farming, without access to even basic education or health care. Severe disease was common and the blight of tsetse fly, which spread sleeping sickness among animals as well as humans, prevented animals being reared or used as beasts of burden on a huge area exceeding 10 million square kilometers. Poverty and disease ensured death rates for children in Africa, in 1960, were the highest in the world and general life expectancy, at 39 years, was the lowest in the world.

The white colonists in all the colonies lived the life of Reilly only because they enjoyed the profit derived from the labour of huge numbers of African workers in plantations, fields and so on, slaving away to produce coffee, tea, rubber, groundnuts and other cash crops, which were gathered, processed, shipped abroad by companies set up and run by Europeans and on whose profits the Europeans lived their fabulous lifestyle, complete with big houses, swimming pools, chauffeur-driven cars, servants and maids and cooks.

That kind of lifestyle, by definition, was only available to a small minority who could benefit from the labour of a huge majority. When independence came, nothing changed in the economic realities of these countries. Instead two things happened:

1. White flight

The Europeans fled, taking their technical and administrative expertise with them. In the two examples I’ve been studying, Congo and Angola, the Belgians and the Portuguese fled in their entirety, leaving the mechanisms of the state but, much more importantly, the management of the economy, to people who had no idea how to do it. Hence, instead of a shangri-la of riches for all, newly independent countries more often than not, found themselves plunged into economic anarchy.

2. Failure of the post-independence elite to live up their promises

The small political/educated elite (a product of the imperialists’ failure to invest in education) found the task of ‘redistributing wealth’ in the socialist sense of the word completely beyond them. a) They found the task of keeping the economic and business models inherited from the Europeans very challenging and, even if they could, b) discovered that the kind of wealth the whites had enjoyed derived from the fact that they were a tiny minority exploiting the labour of an impoverished majority ie there could never be wealth for all.

It was very tempting, then, for the new leaders to abandon any thoughts of redistributing wealth and, instead, fight to keep it for themselves.

Arbitrary nature of African ‘countries’

The whole problem was exacerbated by one of the best known facts about Africa, which is that all the colonies had been arbitrarily carved out on abstract maps which completely cut across the sociological realities on the ground, ignoring the existence of traditional kingdoms or tribal or ethnic groupings.

Very often the imperialists, in their profound ignorance of peoples who lived in the ‘states’ they were creating, either:

  1. broke up homogeneous groupings into separate countries (such as the Bakongo who found themselves carved up between the French Congo, Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola). ‘In all the new boundaries cut through some 190 cultural groups’ p.1)
  2. or forced together antagonistic groups, such as the rival kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro forced to coexist in Uganda or the profoundly different cultures, ethnic groups and religions of north and south Sudan forced into a very uneasy co-existence (p.2).

Secessions and civil wars

This simple fact explains the tendency for almost all the African colonies to experience civil wars, often long running and deeply destructive wars. Some of the wars resulted from two or more parties competing for power in a given state, such as the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique. Others took the form of secessionist movements where entire provinces and ethnic/tribal groups sought independence from a state they felt little or no attachment to, as in the attempt at secession of Biafra in Nigeria, and of Katanga in Congo.

The tendency of these made-up countries with their irrational borders bristling with rival groups to collapse into various types of secession, civil war and anarchy, quickly brought to the fore the only group which could hope to hold the state together, the army.

Inevitable failure of the first generation of independent leaders

So being handed often ridiculously unviable countries almost guaranteed that the idealistic, utopian, often socialist leaders who came to power in the first wave of independence in the early 1960s, would be confronted by a) the collapse of the economy b) the intensification of poverty leading to unrest c) fragmentation, secession and civil war, and so d) would be replaced by military strongmen who a) reimposed order through bloody repression, and b) grasping that the limited amount of wealth generated by their ailing economies would never be enough to lift their countrymen out of poverty c) quickly made the cynical but realistic decision to keep as much of the country’s wealth as possible for themselves and d) for their clients and supporters.

Net effect – military coups, strong men and kleptocracy

In a throwaway sentence, Meredith makes what I think is a major insight, possibly the central point:

The political arena became a contest for scarce resources. (p.156)

There very quickly emerged a dichotomy between the soaring rhetoric of African socialism and African nationalism and African unity on the one hand, and the sordid reality of strong men clambering to power via coups and revolutions, who saw the state not as a vehicle for governing in the best interests of the nation, but as a mechanism to steal as much wealth as they could for themselves, their clients, their hangers on, their clan and their tribe.

Hence unstable countries, characterised by recurring civil wars or civil strife, and recurrent military coups, almost always leading to the rule of Strong Men, Big Men, dictators of one sort or another, who quickly became kleptocrats i.e. stole from the state, creamed off international aid, lived lives of stunning luxury, while abandoning their people to lives of grinding poverty, often falling victim to the random violence of corrupt, generally unpaid, soldiers and police.

All the high-sounding rhetoric about African socialism gave way to a deeper African tradition, that of the chieftain, the king, the emperor, one-man ruler of a one-man state, who encouraged outsize personality cults, playing up the leader’s visionary, even magical, powers.

In practice it turned out that overwhelmingly illiterate populations put their faith not in sophisticated political theories or complex constitutional mechanisms, but in the Great Leader, the Helmsman: the Great Son of Africa, the Scourge of Imperialism, the Doctor of Revolutionary Science, as Sékou Touré, the autocratic ruler of Guinea, called himself (p.64), or the Man of Destiny, Star of Africa, His High Dedication of Redeemer which is how Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah lkiked his state-controlled media to refer to him – just two among the impressive cast of megalomaniacs, tyrants and dictators with which Africa has kept the rest of the world entertained for the past 60 years.

‘System? What system?’ retorted president Bourguiba, when asked about Tunisia’s political system. ‘I am the system!’ (p.169)

Summary

In some countries, such as Rwanda and Burundi, you can throw in vicious ethnic hatred and genocide; in some others, long wars eventually led to independence for seceding states (South Sudan, Eritrea). But the core narrative outlined above applies to most African countries since independence, explains their  troubled histories, and underpins the situation many find themselves in today. As Meredith comments, the odd, almost eerie, thing is how consistently almost all the African colonies followed the same pattern:

Although Africa is a continent of great diversity, African states have much in common, not only their origin as colonial territories, but the similar hazards and difficulties they have faced. Indeed, what is so striking about the fifty-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes. (p.14)


Credit

The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith was published by The Free Press in 2005. All references are to the 2013 paperback edition.

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Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuściński (1976)

The image of war is not communicable – not by the pen, or the voice, or the camera. War is a reality only to those stuck in its bloody filthy insides. To others it is pages in a book, pictures on a screen, nothing more.
(Another Day of Life, page 108)

Ryszard Kapuściński

Ryszard Kapuściński (1932 to 2007) was a Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author. He received many awards and was at one point considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Kapuściński started working as a journalist soon after leaving Warsaw University in 1955. He was sent abroad and ended up developing an award-winning career as Poland’s leading foreign correspondent, working for the communist government-approved Polish Press Agency. By the end of his career, Kapuściński calculated that he had lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups, been jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences.

In the 1960s developed a reputation for reporting from Africa, where he witnessed first-hand the end of the European colonial empires. But he was quite the globetrotter, reporting from central Asia in 1967, then from South America before moving to Mexico for a spell (1969 to 1972) and then returning to Poland.

In 1975 Kapuściński flew out to Angola to cover the chaos surrounding the country’s independence from Portugal after a long and bitter war for independence (1961 to 1974). He witnessed the wholesale flight of the country’s 300,000 Portuguese and the outbreak of civil war between the three largest independence movements: the MPLA based in the capital Luanda, the FNLA based in the north, and UNITA based in the rural east and south.

It was this trip and reporting which formed the basis for his first book, Another Day of Life, the first in a series of six or so book-length accounts of key coups and overthrows, which established his reputation in the English-speaking world (others in the series described the overthrow of Haile Selasse in Ethiopia and the Shah of Iran).

Another Day of Life

First things first, this is a very short book, weighing in at just 136 pages. It’s divided into five ‘parts’, topped and tailed by empty pages so it’s more like 120-something pages. So it feels both literally and content-wise a very light book. 123 pages of text.

This is reinforced by the almost complete absence of hard facts. Once you start reading, what becomes quickly obvious is that this isn’t traditional reporting. It doesn’t have the close description of actual events found in Fergal Keane’s book about Rwanda or the fact-heavy account by Daniel Metcalfe of his journeys through Angola. Both contained a lot of facts, dates, places, names. By contrast Kapuściński’s text has almost no dates, very few references to specific identifiable historical events.

And as for the names, there are named people in the text but they are suspiciously emblematic, idealised representations of the kinds of people you ought to find in the kinds of scenes he describes. They are often suspiciously like characters in a play, undergoing archetypal experiences such as you’d expect in a novel or play or movie rather than the ragged realities of life.

In fact by about page 30 I realised this is more like a fairy tale than either journalism or history. His stories are very pat, they fall just so, are very rounded and neat. They have the rounded perfection and the symbolic weight of allegory.

All this explains why you can read clean through the entire 136-page text and not be slowed down by a single fact. There are only two or three actual facts in the entire book. All the effects are literary and derive from his conceptualising of scenes as scenes, staged and arranged for literary effect.

Part one (25 pages)

In the first sentence he tells us he stayed in Angola for three months, in a room in the Hotel Tivoli. It is notable that he doesn’t say which months or the year, although after a few pages he mentions spending September there and we know he’s there I suppose we’re for the runup to independence ie September, October, November 1975.

Books of this sort always require eccentric neighbours so he supplies some, Don Silva a diamond merchant who has diamonds sewn into the lining of his suit but can’t leave town because his wife is in the final stages of terminal cancer and therefore deep in her deathbed.

Instead of facts, what Kapuściński conveys is mood and atmosphere. The stricken Silva’s are heavily symbolic of the entire white European culture which is coming to an end in Angola, rich but stricken and trapped.

Kapuściński describes the rumours circulating among the panicking Portuguese that the Holden Roberto’s guerrilla movement, the FNLA, has thousands of members hiding in the capital just waiting for the signal to attack the terrified whites and murder them in their beds. He describes everything as a novelist would:

Rumour exhausted everyone, plucked at nerves, took away the capacity to think. The city lived in an atmosphere of hysteria and trembled with dread. People didn’t know how to cope with the reality that surrounded them, how to interpret it, get used to it. Men gathered in the hotel corridors to hold councils of war. (p.6)

Because it is about panic-stricken people trapped in a city it reminds me a bit of The Plague by Albert Camus, but also because Kapuściński plays up the generic and allegorical aspects of the situation, as does Camus.

People escaped as if from an infectious disease, as if from pestilential air that can’t be seen but still inflicts death. Afterwards the wind blows and the sand drifts over the traces of the last survivor. (p.13)

Because it’s specifically about the slightly hysterical inhabitants of one building it reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s shocker High Rise (published the same year Angola’s independence cause the Great Flight).

You can tell almost immediately that Kapuściński’s prose is translated from another language. English is full of phrases and idioms. Very often all these get omitted by translators keen to translate the sense of the foreign text into smooth, untroubled English. Hence the rather rounded, smooth finish of the prose, which always plumps for the euphonious word and the mellifluous phrase. This is one of the reasons why reading Kapuściński is like eating ice cream in a nice restaurant. Smooth and pleasurable and flavoursome without any sharp angles or surprises.

Everybody was in a hurry, everybody was clearing out. Everyone was trying to catch the next plane to Europe, to America, to anywhere. Portuguese from all over Angola converged on Luanda. Caravans of automobiles loaded down with people and baggage arrived from the most distant parts of the country. The men were unshaven, the women tousled and rumpled, the children dirty and sleepy. (p.10)

He conveys the sense of bad-tempered bickering among the queues of hot impatient white refugees, with whites saying the country will go to the dogs once the blacks take over (as, indeed, it did), how they’ve worked here for forty years, given the best years of their lives etc etc. They argue about who should have priority onto the flights, pregnant women, women with babies, women with young children, women with children, women with no children, well, why not men, then? And so on.

He has an extended riff about crates, about how Luanda was transformed into a city of crates for people to pack their stuff into, big create, small crates, wide crates, narrow crates, crates for the wealthy, crates for the poor. In high allegorical style Kapuściński describes how the ‘city of stone’ (ie bricks and mortar, buildings, homes) was transformed into a city of wood (crates piled high in every direction. Then they were loaded onto ships and sent off into the blue.

Nowhere else in the world had I seen such a city, and I may never see anything like it again. It existed for months, and then it began suddenly disappearing. Or rather, quarter by quarter, it was taken on tricks to the port. Now it was spread out at the very edge of the sea, illuminated at night by harbour lanterns and the glare of lights on anchored ships. (p.17)

See what I mean by fairytale simplicity. Although it’s about a war and fighting and refugees somehow it  is told with the clarity and simplicity of a children’s story, or a certain kind of simplified science fiction story.

The nomad city without roofs and walls, the city of refugees around the airport, gradually vanished from the earth. At the same time the wooden city deserted Luanda and waited in the port for its long journey. Of all the cities on the bay, only the stone Luanda, ever more depopulated and superfluous, waited. (p.22)

See what I mean by ice cream? Kapuściński’s simplified, smoothed-out prose slips down a treat. Then he begins a new riff, based around the categories of basic worker who are leaving. First all the policemen leave, with a paragraph pondering what that means for a city. Then all the firemen leave, ditto. And then all the garbagemen. How do we know? Because very quickly the rubbish starts piling up in heaps. For some reason all the cats start dying. Luanda turns into an abandoned city from a science fiction story.

In a way what’s most interesting in this long enjoyable semi-fictional description is the absence of Africans. Kapuściński reports on a worldview in which, when the Europeans leave, Luanda is deserted. But of course, it wasn’t. Far more blacks lived in Luanda than whites. But they were confined to the black slums at the edge of the city, unknown slums renowned for their lawlessness and extreme poverty.

Two points. One: it is fascinating to enter, through this text, into a worldview of Africa where Africans are banished, invisible and don’t count even in their own country. Two: as a kind of spooky proof of this enormous conceptual divide, even after the whites have mostly left, the Africans don’t come pouring into the abandoned capital. They continue living in their slums even while properties throughout the city fall empty, while the nice, European part of the city become a ghost town.

Having just soaked myself in Dan Metcalfe’s travelogue of modern Angola which is, of course, populated almost entirely by black Angolans, it is striking, strange and mysterious to be taken back to the weeks of independence, not because of their political importance, but because they represented an enormous imaginative shift; from a capital city run by and for Europeans, to one which was inhabited, run by and for Africans.

Part two (11 pages)

Having watched the capital empty of its European owners, Kapuściński goes to be with the soldiers at the front, to the town of Caxito 60 km north of Luanda where MPLA forces have held off an attack by the FNLA.

Part two rotates around Commandante Ndozi of the MPLA, who explains the capital city is being threatened by the FNLA from the north and UNITA from the south. He has been fighting for a long time and Kapuściński portrays his experience through a sort of extended monologue in which Ndozi shares his experiences.

But the highlight of the little chapter, and one of the memorable moments of the book, is the insight into the way inexperienced soldiers fire so much and so loudly so as to drown out their own terror.

A green soldier fears everything. When he is transported to the front, he thinks death is watching him on every side. Every shot is aimed at him. He doesn’t know how to judge the range or direction of fire, so he shoots anywhere, as long as he can shoot a lot without stopping. He is not hurting the enemy, he is killing his own terror. (p.32)

This segues into a description of the MPLA commissar attached to the unit, Commandante Ju-Ju. Despite his name Ju-Ju is a white Angolan. Kapuściński explains that the way to be white and part of The Struggle is to have a beard, the bigger the better. Then the soldiers will call you camarada and assume you are someone important.

Kapuściński watches Ju-Ju politely question FNLA soldiers the MPLA captured. What comes over is how young, uneducated, illiterate and simple they are. A man of the Bakongo people explains that he, like many of his tribe, was pressganged in Kinshasa by Joseph Mobutu’s soldiers, then packed off to join the FNLA. He liked in the FNLA because they gave you something to eat, goat and rice during the week and beer on Saturdays. Better than starving. Another prisoner looks about 12, claims he’s sixteen, and explains that he was told that if he went to the front as a fighter, they’d let him go to school, which is what he really wants to do, so he can become an artist.

Walking round the little town Kapuściński comes to the compound where the 120 or so prisoners are being watched over by a dozen armed guards. They’re all very young men and they’re engaged in a good natured argument about football, as young men everywhere ought to be. Only these men are going to continue fighting and dying. (We modern readers know they would continue fighting and dying for another 27 years. It’s just as well we can’t see the future, isn’t it?)

Part three (18 pages)

Having visited the north, he wants to head south. A digression on the management of roadblocks, which are everywhere. There are 3 phases to the roadblock:

  1. the explanatory section
  2. bargaining
  3. friendly conversation

From a distance you can’t be sure which side is manning the roadblock. Since none of the 3 forces have regular uniforms but ragged combinations of whatever they’ve been able to purloin, it’s difficult to tell. If you hail the soldiers as camarada! and they belong to Agostinho Neto’s MPLA they will hail back. But if they belong to the FNLA or UNITA who prefer to call each other irmão or brother, then they’ll kill you. You need the right papers but it also helps if you take time to chat. Kapuściński gives an example of how he likes to distract the soldiers by telling them about Poland, basic facts which the mostly illiterate soldiery refuse to believe.

He travels all the way south to Benguela, through countless checkpoints, perfecting his essay on the metaphysics of the checkpoint.

There’s a passage which told me more about the physical terrain of Angola than anything in the Metcalfe book, which really brings out how hot and barren and dusty the landscape is.

The road from Luanda to Benguela passes through six hundred kilometers of desert terrain, flat and nondescript. A haphazard medley of stones, frumpy dry bushes, dirty sand, and broken road signs creates a grey and incoherent landscape. In the rain season the clouds churn right above the ground here, showers drag on for hours and there is so little light in the air that day might as well not exist, only dusk and night. Even during heat waves, despite the excess of sun, the countryside resembles dry, burnt-out ruins: It is ashy, dead, and unsettling. People who must travel through here make haste in order to get the frightening vacancy behind them and arrive with relief at their destination, the oasis, as quickly as possible. Luanda is an oasis and Benguela is an oasis in this desert that stretches all along the coast of Angola. (p.53)

Paints a vivid picture, doesn’t he? He finds Benguela even more deserted than Luanda and reflects on the strangeness of the way the blacks haven’t moved into the empty houses and flats abandoned by the whites.

Because it didn’t actually happen while he was there this enormous shift in imaginative possibilities is nowhere directly addressed, but it peeps out from cracks in the narrative.

Kapuściński meets Commandante Monti a white man who is MPLA commander here in Benguela. While he’s waiting to talk to the commandante, a four-man TV crew from Portugal arrives (p.55). They start squabbling about whether to proceed to the front or not. It’s dangerous. But then Monti assigns them an escort, the 20-year-old woman fighter, Carlotta.

Kapuściński is funny and shrewd about the way the Portuguese immediately start vying for her affections but, more than that, the way all five of them conspire to create a kind of collective myth about her, all conspiring to find her attractive and romantic and glamorous. Later on, Kapuściński develops the photos he took of her and realises she isn’t at all attractive. But at that time and that place they needed her to be.

In this slightly delirious mood, they agree when Commandante Monti rustles up a couple of civilian cars for them to be driven the 160 kilometers to the frontline town of Balombo. Through the landscape of war: a damaged bridge, a burned-out village, an empty town, abandoned tobacco plantations.

They arrive at Balombo, a village in the jungle which was taken by 100 MPLA only that morning. Almost all the ‘troops’ are 16 to 18, high school kids. The boys are driving an abandoned tractor up and down the high street. The camera crew film, Kapuściński takes photographs. The sun falls and they get impatient to get away. The jungle comes right up to the houses. The enemy could counter-attack at any moment.

As they climb into the waiting cars to drive them the 160km back to Benguela, all five foreigners remember it was exactly the moment when the driver put the car in gear that Carlotta decided she must stay with the fighters and gets out. Sad goodbye and they roar off into the deepening twilight.

Later they learn that UNITA counter-attacked, took the town and Carlotta was killed. Tough guy sentimentalism not a million miles from Hemingway. They insist they hadn’t been fleeing fighting, there wasn’t any fighting when they left. But if they’d heard gunshots would they have been brave enough to turn round etc?

So there probably is a village called Balombo and it probably was taken by the MPLA then retaken by UNITA and maybe there was someone called Carlotta, but the factual basis of the story has been rounded out, perfected in order to become allegorical, a symbol of the collective male delusions involved in war, and a sentimental tear for its sadness and waste.

Part four (23 pages)

Next day Kapuściński watches the plane carrying the camera crew fly out heading for Portugal. There happens to another small plane at the airport, but this one is heading south to collect a last bunch of white refugees from Lubango, which also happens to be base to the southern command of the MPLA. On an impulse Kapuściński blags his way onto the flight. Having landed, he moves through the desperate white refugees and finds someone who can take him to MPLA HQ. The man in charge is an Angolan white, Nelson, who scribbles Kapuściński a pass for the front and pushes him out the front door where a big, knackered old Mercedes lorry piled with ammunition and six soldiers is about to set off on the long drive south. Kapuściński crams into the cab and off they rumble.

The leader of the little troop, improbably named Diogenes, explains to Kapuściński that they are driving 410km south to the town of Pereira d’Eça, the MPLA’s most remote outpost. They hold the towns but the entire countryside is in the hands of UNITA who may attack at any moment. They have ambushed all previous convoys and killed the troops. Kapuściński conveys the enormous sterility of the Angolan desert very vividly, in fact I remember his invocation of the country more than the people.

Time is passing, but we seem to be stuck in place. Constantly the same glimmering seam of asphalt laid on laid on the loose red earth. Constantly the same faded, cracked wall of bush. The same blinding white sky. The same emptiness of a deserted world, an emptiness that betrays life neither by movement nor by voice. Our truck wobbles and rolls through this unmoving, dead landscape like a small tin car in the depths of a carnival shooting gallery. The owner turns the crank and the toy, stamped out of tin, bucks from side to side, and whoever wants to take a shot is welcome. (p.71)

You can see why the literary reviewers of the time compared him to Graham Greene or V.S. Naipaul the two British writers of the 1970s most associated with exotic settings and colonial conflicts. The text is packed with evocative literary descriptions like this.

After a long day’s drive of nail-biting stress, expecting bullets to fly at every bend in the road, they arrive at the dusty abandoned settlement of Pereira d’Eça which is run by Commandante Farrusco (another white Angolan). They are welcomed. The sun sets. They meet the commandante. Food, cigarettes, conversation. Backstory on Farrusco who during the independence war fought in a Portuguese commando unit, but on the outbreak of hostilities between the three independence armies, volunteered for the MPLA and showed them how to take Lubango and Pereira d’Eça.

Then there is one of Kapuściński’s highly finished, semi-symbolic incidents. A dishevelled man is brought in by the troops to face the Commandante. He is a Portuguese named Humberto Dos Angos de Freitas Quental. He fled with his wife and four children to Windhoek, capital of Namibia to the south. But his 81-year-old mother refused to leave. She is deaf and has run the town bakery time out of mind. All she told him was to come back with some flour, which is running low. So having settled his family in Windhoek, against his better judgement, the man returned with a carful of bags of flower and was picked up by the MPLA troops.

But he has something very important to say. In Windhoek and a couple of settlements on the road in Namibia, everyone is saying the South Africans are about to launch an attack into southern Angola in support of UNITA. Kapuściński realises this is Big News and asks Farrusco for help getting back to Luanda so he can file his story. But nothing moves along the road at night. He has to stay.

Next morning he is up and in a different vehicle, a Toyota being driven by 16-year-old Antonio, along with the Commandante, heading back along the 400km road to Lubango. En route the commandante explains a basic fact about the war which is that the territory is so vast and the number of troops in it so pitifully small that it is like no conventional war. There is nothing like a ‘front’.

On any road, at any place, there can be a ‘front’. You can travel the whole country and come back alive, or you can die a meter from where you’re standing. There are no principles, no methods. Everything comes down to luck and happenstance. (p.83)

Again, you have the feeling of an allegorical, metaphysical force behind these words, spoken by a character in a kind of modern version of Pilgrim’s Progress, with Kapuściński as Pilgrim, stumbling through panic-stricken cities, empty towns and the wide stony desert.

In a new section Kapuściński and the reader are rudely awakened by banging. He made it to Lubango safe and sound and slept in the building commandeered by Commandante Nelson. Now he’s being woken in the early hours because Nelson is going to be driven by his aide Manuel and whiskey-swilling colleague Commandante Bota, all the way back to Benguela. Only catch is there’s some kind of battle going on somewhere on the road.

Sure enough, a few hours later they start to hear bangs as of mortars, then some kind of grenade goes off raining shrapnel on the car roof. As the slow to avoid a parked lorry a soldier leaps out in front of them. He is MPLA and terrified. He tells them UNITA have them surrounded and he needs gasoline to fuel the vehicles to make an assault. Nelson tells him they have none to spare, to get some from the nearest town and then – heartlessly – Manuel the aide steps on the gas and they accelerate through the firefight, such as it is, seeing tracer bullets flying through the night sky. Then the road dips between walls of earth where there’s no firing and they encounter two young black soldiers who are running away from the fighting. They stop and Commandante Nelson tells them sternly to return. But he and Manuel and Kapuściński drive on.

As dawn rises they reach the town of Quilengues which is eerily, surreally empty, not only of humans but any form of life. They tiptoe through the town to make sure there’s no enemy soldiers, no sudden ambush. And then, suddenly confident, Commandante Nelson announces, “Another day of life” and starts to do a round of vigorous callisthenics!

Part five (46 pages)

The fifth part is by far the longest. After his adventures our hero is back in Luanda, in familiar room 47 in the Hotel Tivoli. After a night of feverish dreams he wakes determined to phone or telex his Big News Story about an impending South African invasion of southern Angola through to his employers in the Polish Press Agency. After days of intense travel he feels delirious and has a metaphysical moment:

I looked at the calendar, because I no longer had a feeling for time, which means that time had lost all sense of division for me, all measurability, it had fallen apart, it had oozed out like a dense tropical exhalation. Concrete time had ceased to signify anything and for a long while now the fact that it was Wednesday or Friday, the tenth of the twentieth, eight in the morning or two in the afternoon, had meant nothing to me. Life had propelled me from event to event in an undefined process directed towards an unseen goal. I knew only that I wanted to be here until the end, regardless of when it came, or how. (p.94)

Then he shakes himself and gives us one of those rarities in a Kapuściński narrative, namely a specific concrete fact. It is, he tells us, Saturday 18 October 1975. Four weeks before the date set for independence.

One of the hotel staff gives him a number to call. Secretive voices answer and switch to Spanish. They come round to his room, a big black guy and a stocky white guy, and reveal they are military ‘advisers’ from Cuba, sent to train the army, only they can’t find an army, only small units scattered over a wide area. Kapuściński tells them what he’s heard about the South Africans being about to launch an invasion, and they mull over the scenarios, then leave.

He tells us about Operation Orange which was South Africa’s plan to mount a three-pronged attack on the MPLA designed to seize Luanda by 6pm on 10 November i.e. the day before independence, in order to announce a western-friendly joint government by UNITA-FNLA. He describes how Commandante Farrusco drove south towards the border, until he suddenly encounters the South African column which opens fire, badly wounding him, his driver reverses and drives like a madman back to Pereira d’Eça.

Meanwhile, back in Luanda Kapuściński describes the weird atmosphere in the big empty city, abandoned by its European owners, as the stayers-on hear the sound of artillery fire from the north and  FNLA leaflets are dropped from a plane announcing Holden Roberto will be in the city centre in 24 hours.

He walks to the offices of a local newspaper where the journos tell him that all the FNLA forces, five battalions from Zaire plus mercenaries are attacking from the north. One of the reasons this last part is longest is because Kapuściński includes the texts of telex conversations he has with his managers back in Poland, as they offer to fly him out, he insists on staying but warns communications may be cut at any minute, no-one knows what is happening, anything might happen.

Kapuściński sardonically counterpoints the ‘grand plans, global strategies’ (p.108) he hears on radio discussions – call in the UN, convene a conference, get the Arabs to pay, get behind Vorster the leader of South Africa etc etc – and the cruder reality on the ground. For example the way, in the absence of working radio, one of the few people with any idea what’s going on is Ruiz who flies a beaten up old two-engine DC3 to various MPLA-held points of the country, dropping supplies picking up news and gossip.

He is woken in the middle of the night and has a fearful presentiment that it is the FNLA come to arrest him as a spy. In the event it is Commandante Nelson, along with Bota and Manuel, filthy and hungry and exhausted after a long drive from their southern outpost. They tell him the South Africans have rolled up all the MPLA’s southern positions and are at Benguela, 540km to the south.

Then the format of the text changes to diary entries for the last key week leading up to independence, a day-by-day account of life in Luanda starting on Monday 3 November 1975.

Monday 3 November 1975

The Cubans pick him up and drive him to the front line just beyond the city limits. Earlier in the book Kapuściński had a whole passage about the etiquette of roadblocks and checkpoints, the sussing out, the demand for papers, the drawn-out negotiations, the attempts to extort money of cigarettes. But all the Cubans have to do is say “Cubano” and they are waved through as though they have magic powers.

Kapuściński surveys the landscape all the way to the enemy lines. A message is brought to the Cuban that Benguela has fallen, all the Cubans there were killed. He sees lorries full of Portuguese troops. They have lost all discipline, have no belts, beards, they sell their rations on the black market and loot houses, packing everything into crates. They are scheduled to leave the day before independence and have nothing to lose.

Ruiz the pilot of the only plane the MPLA possesses flies south carrying sappers and explosives to blow the bridge over the Cuvo River which will cut the road between Benguela and Luanda. That night Kapuściński telexes Polish Radio the news.

Tuesday 4 November

Kapuściński is woken along with all the other guests and the hotel manager, Oscar, by armed men, who claim they are infiltrators, fifth columnists. They are sweating and tense and might shoot at any moment. While they wait for transport to take their prisoners away the MPLA press attaché arrives and sends them packing. Kapuściński clearly enjoys privileged status.

It is nowhere stated but I wonder how much this was because he was with the official press agency of an Eastern Bloc country, Poland i.e. a country controlled by the Soviet Union which the Marxist-Leninist MPLA needed as a backer for its attempts to become the new government.

A week earlier he had gone with four other journalists to the town of Lucala 400km east of Luanda which had recently been recaptured from the FNLA. The road to the town was strewn with corpses. The FNLA killed everyone and then decapitated or eviscerated them. Women’s heads littered along the road. Bodies with liver and heart cut out. Cannibals. Drunken cannibals. Hence the panic-fear in Luanda a week later that these are the people threatening to take the city by storm.

Wednesday 5 November 1975

A friend of a friend drives him to Luanda airport. It is almost abandoned and covered in litter and detritus, the wreck left by the hundreds of thousands of Portuguese who have fled. The friend, Gilberto, takes him up the control tower. And as they watch a pinprick of light appears in the dark sky and grows larger. then three more. Minutes later four planes land, taxi to a halt in front of the control tower and disgorge their passengers – scores of Cuban soldiers, battle-ready in their combat fatigues. Next day they are despatched to the front. Lucky Kapuściński happened to be there right at that moment. Or is it another one of his embellished, polished, symbolic fictions?

Right here at the end of the book he makes what is maybe a subtle self defence. He describes the challenges facing any journalist sent by their editor to Luanda and told to report on the fighting: the government will tell him nothing; the MPLA press office stays silent; he can’t get to any front because Luanda is a closed city and he is turned back at the first checkpoint; rumour is rife but there is no radio or any other communication with any part of the country. Brick wall. Hence the temptation to write the story his editors want to hear.

At this point he gives a page and a half long definition of the concept of confusão being a specially Portuguese notion of impenetrable, causeless, fruitless chaos, a handy explanation for all life’s screw-ups. Daniel Metcalfe liked this concept and explanation so much he quotes it in its entirety in his book about Angola written forty years later. Maybe every nation, or culture, has its own distinctive form of confusão.

Monday 10 November 1975

On Monday the last of the Portuguese garrison sailed away, ending nearly 500 years of Portuguese occupation. There is no love lost with the locals who look forward to freedom, but Kapuściński became friendly with some of the officers who he thought behaved with professionalism and courtesy. He notes that they at no point threatened the Cuban military advisers who, after all, were flying in to what was still Portuguese territory.

That night a lorry goes round Luanda removing all statues of Portuguese from their plinths, goodbye to the sailors and geographers and soldiers and administrators and kings, goodbye.

Tuesday 11 November 1975

At midnight it becomes Tuesday, independence day after 500 years of oppression. Kapuściński is with the big crowd assembled in Luanda’s central square. A handful of international dignitaries had flown in for the ceremony, not many because there were rumours one or other of the attacking forces would bomb the airport therefore making departure impossible. MPLA leader and Angola’s new president, Agostinho Neto, makes a short speech then the lights are put out for fear of air raids.

Kapuściński sends a dispatch back to Poland explaining that the FNLA and UNITA have come to a deal and declared their own independent government of Angola to be based at the inland city of Huambo.

He hops a lift with Ruiz and flies down to the southern front at Porto Amboim on the Cuvo River where the bridge has been blown up, leaving South Africa armoured units on the south side and MPLA bolstered by an ever-increasing number of Cubans on the north side. He investigates the front in a downpour of rain. Troops are leading women and children who’ve crossed the river from the south in search of food. That night he flies back in a plane carrying soldiers wounded in a firefight further up the river.

In one of his last dispatches to Warsaw he says the nature of the war has significantly changed in his time there. To begin with it was a conflict of pinpricks without a formal front, as explained by Commandante Farrusco. But the incursion of the South Africans changed that. They have armoured vehicles, artillery and good military discipline. They expect to fight battles. On the other side the MPLA army has been feverishly recruiting and is being whipped into shape by significant numbers of battle-hardened Cuban officers and trainers. In three short months it’s gone from being a desultory guerrilla  conflict to something much more like a conventional war.

He asks to come home. He’s shattered. His managers agree. He says his goodbyes, most notably to the new president, Agostinho Neto who, we learn at this late stage in the day, Kapuściński knows well enough to pop in on. Neto is, among many other things, a poet, and Kapuściński can quote some of his poetry by heart. They sit in the president’s book-lined room chatting. Friends in high places.

Next day he flies back to Europe, itself awash with troops and frozen in a Cold War which was to divide the continent from 1945 to 1990.

Coda

There’s a two-page coda dated 27 March 1976 i.e. four months later. He reports that the last South African units have left Angola, crossing a bridge over the Cunene River where they were reviewed by the South African Defence Minister Piet Botha. Kapuściński writes as if the war is over.

We, now, 45 years later, know that it was only just beginning. There were to be 26 more years of civil war in Angola, leaving 800,000 killed, 4 million displaced, and nearly 70,000 Angolans amputees as a result of the millions and millions of land mines planted throughout the land. Well done, everyone. Bem feito, camaradas.

Thoughts

No doubt most of this did happen. The big picture stuff certainly. Probably most of Kapuściński’s excursions also, yes. But the way he shapes the material, turning the ordinary ramshackle events of life into symbolic moments, turning ugly, stupid or drunk people into Emblems of War – this is all done with the artistry of the imaginative writer, the novelist or playwright. He paces his scenes so as to create maximum impact, giving his characters wonderfully lucid and meaningful dialogue to speak, and punctuating the narrative with profound asides about the nature not only of war, but of time, the imagination, fear and compassion.

At first sight only a skimpy 126 or so pages long, this book nevertheless packs a range of profound punches to the imagination and intellect.

Map of Kapuściński’s Angola

Locations mentioned in Another Day of Life in the order they appear in the text.

  1. Luanda – capital of Angola
  2. Caxito – 60km north of Luanda where MPLA forces have held off an attack by the FNLA
  3. Benguela – 540km south of Luanda, to the MPLA garrison run by Commandante Monti, where he hooks up with the Portuguese TV crew and Carlotta before driving on to…
  4. Balombo – the recently taken town where Carlotta is killed
  5. Lubango – where Kapuściński cadges a flight to, base of the southern command of the MPLA run by Commandante Nelson; and then further south to…
  6. Pereira d’Eça – (subsequently renamed Ondjiva, which is how it appears on this map) the MPLA’s most remote outpost, run by Commandante Farrusco
  7. Quilengues – the deserted town they arrive at having run the gauntlet from Lubango, where Commandante Nelson utters the sentence which gives the book its title and then does his callisthenics
  8. Lucala – town 400km east of Luanda where he sees evidence of FNLA cannibalism
  9. Huambo – city 600km south east of Luanda where the FNLA and UNITA set up their rival government to the MPLA
  10. Porto Amboim – where he hitches a ride to in Ruiz’s plane, 260km south of Luanda to the new southern front, to see the South Africans hunkered down on the other side of the Cuvo River
  11. Chitado – the crossing over the Cunene River where South African troops exit Angola at the end of the narrative

Map of Angola showing locations referred to in the text. Source map © Nations Online Project


Credit

Jeszcze dzień życia by Ryszard Kapuściński was published in Polish in 1976. It was translated into English as Another Day of Life in 1987. All references are to the 1987 Pan paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions and memoirs set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola by Daniel Metcalfe (2014)

Having read quite a lot about Rwanda and Congo, I felt I needed to read up on their neighbours, finding out about other African nations radiating out from the central core of the Congo. Trouble is that books about them are hard to find, for example, there don’t seem to be any books about Burundi’s civil war, 1993 to 2005. Either that, or the existing books are heavy academic works, often collections of essays, which weigh in at £30 or £40 and can’t be found second hand. Reading between the lines, no-one in Britain cares enough about these countries to write, publish or read books about them.

Daniel Metcalfe’s travelogue was one of the few paperbacks I could find about Angola and seemed like an affordable way of finding out about the recent history and current shape of Angola, Congo’s large nation to the south, and one of the participants in the Great War of Africa. I didn’t really take to the personality created in the text and found it a grim read whose occasional attempts at humour didn’t come off. Nonetheless, I’d recommend it as giving a very good overview of Angolan history, along with first hand accounts of the tremendous disparity between the oil super-rich and the majority of the population which remains dirt poor, and for the vivid descriptions of his excursions into the (generally very unattractive) interior. The net effect of the book is to make Angola sound like an awful place.

Angola historical overview

Angola is the seventh largest country in Africa (Wikipedia). It was first reached by Portuguese sailors in 1484 and the current capital city, São Paulo de Loanda (Luanda), was founded in 1575. (It was conquered by the Dutch in 1640 and briefly ruled by them till 1648, when the Portuguese resumed control.)

The Portuguese didn’t penetrate far inland, instead creating a series of coastal ports and trading entrepots. The main commodity was Africans as Angola became one of the main locations of the transatlantic slave trade, which was well established by 1600, with around 10,000 slaves a year transported. Most of them went to Portugal’s other vast colony, Brazil, a thousand miles across the stormy Atlantic.

Throughout the 18th century Portugal slowly conquered various tribes and kingdoms in the territory they claimed, and pulled natives into the global economy, forcing them to produce raw materials such foodstuffs and rubber. Brazil won its independence in 1822 and Portugal abolished the slave trade in 1836, illicit trading being policed by the anti-slavery Royal Navy. But generally Portugal still only had a very thin, coastal presence.

It was only at the time of the Berlin Congress of 1885 and the late nineteenth century Scramble for Africa that the Portuguese made sustained attempts to penetrate further inland, to explore, conquer and claim the territory of what was to become the modern territory of Angola.

Part and parcel of this late 19th century conquest was the widespread imposition of forced labour on the hapless natives, hard forced labour under the compulsion of the whip, to turn out agricultural goods to be shipped back to the motherland. (It was a Brit, Henry Woodd Nevinson, who exposed the extent of the exploitation in his book A Modern Slavery, published in 1908, the year King Leopold was forced to hand over his barbaric rule in the Congo over to the Belgium state.)

Soon afterwards Portugal entered a period of political turmoil triggered by a coup in 1910 which overthrew the Portuguese monarchy (the same year, as it happens, as the Mexican Revolution) to establish what became known as the First Republic. One of the republic’s many liberal reforms was ending forced labour in the colonies.

However, the First Republic suffered from chronic instability and was overthrown in 1926 with the advent of António de Oliveira Salazar, who established the so-called Estado Novo in the 1930s. This new regime came to be known as the Second Republic as Salazar established an authoritarian corporatist state in Portugal. As part of the ‘return to order’ the New Order reimposed brutal forced labour in its colonies.

Portugal stayed neutral throughout the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War while millions of Angolan natives slaved to produce agricultural products for Portuguese consumers and profits for Portuguese companies. Appalling conditions led to a high death rate among workers and a scandalously high infant mortality rate of 60%. Critics wrote reports calling for change in the 1940s and 50s but were ignored or imprisoned.

A workers’ protest starting in a cotton company in 1961 led to widespread rebellion across Angola which was suppressed with much bloodshed (p.114). This and the uprising of Bakongo in northern Angola are now seen as marking the start of the Portuguese Colonial War, which lasted from 1961 to 1974 and involved not just Angola but Portugal’s other colonies in Africa, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

The wars were as ruinous and futile as the Vietnam War and ended in the full independence of the three African countries involved, after elements in Portugal’s own army overthrew the authoritarian civilian government on 25 April 1974 in what came to be known as the Carnation Revolution (pages 71 and 135).

There was a year delay while the new regime established itself and while peace talks to end the colonial wars dragged on. The Alvor Agreement of January 1975 called for general elections and set the country’s independence date for 11 November 1975. Hooray!

Except that the country was almost immediately plunged into a civil war between the three main anti-colonial guerrilla movements: the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

The FNLA were eliminated in the first year but the conflict between the other two refused to be settled and dragged on for decades, becoming one of the leading proxy wars between the Cold War adversaries, the USA and the Soviet Union, with the Soviets and Cuba backing the communist MPLA government and the Americans funding and supplying the anti-communist UNITA.

UNITA developed some bases inside Zaire, to Angola’s north, with the support of Joseph Mobutu, Zaire’s western-backed dictator, but were mostly based in the south, enjoying support from the apartheid South African regime which was funneled through the state immediately south of Angola, Namibia, itself a colony of South Africa which was experiencing its own war of independence. (Namibia won independence from South Africa in March 1990.)

This being Africa there was also a strong tribal element in the civil war. The MPLA was primarily an urban-based movement in Luanda and its surrounding area and was largely composed of Mbundu people. UNITA was a predominantly rural movement mainly composed of Ovimbundu people from the Central highlands who make up about a third of the population (pages 123 and 133). Obviously there was overlap and complexities. There are many more tribal groupings in the country and allegiances and membership shifted and complexified over time.

The Angolan civil war raged from 1975 to 2002, 27 years of massacre and destruction which not only left an estimated 800,000 dead, but displaced over 4 million people and devastated the country’s infrastructure, leaving it one of the poorest in the world. In 2003 the UN estimated that 80% of Angolans lacked access to basic medical care, 60% lacked access to water, and 30% of Angolan children would die before the age of five, with an overall national life expectancy of less than 40 years of age. 70% of the population lives below the poverty line (p.70).

Whole families sat and begged on the rubbish-strewn streets [of Luanda] that stank of animal and human excrement. (p.49)

Metcalfe writes that the population of Luanda is 4 million, but a recent Guardian profile (see below) gives it as 7.8 million and that this number is set to double by 2030.

So from the start of the independence struggle in 1961 to the end of the civil war in 2002, Angola suffered 41 years of hurt and wasted lives.

Daniel Metcalfe

Daniel Metcalfe studied classics at Oxford then went to work in Iran and travelled around central Asia, material which he used for his first book, Out of Steppe: The Lost Peoples of Central Asia (2009). This is his second book, and is actually not so much one journey as an account of three journeys across Angola undertaken in (I think) 2010, with follow-up visits.

Right from the start Metcalfe describes himself as a financial journalist and his bio says he’s written for the Economist, Guardian, Financial Times, Foreign Policy and the Literary Review. In other words, he initially appears just the kind of pukka chap that has formed the backbone of English travel writing for the last hundred years, all of whom went to top private schools (Evelyn Waugh [Sherborne], Wilfred Thesiger [Eton], Eric Newby [St Paul’s], Colin Thubron [Eton], Bruce Chatwin [Marlborough], Jan Morris [Lancing]). So I was expecting references to tiffin and cricket, or a trip to the little known Luanda polo club or some such. Posh boy eccentricity.

I was wrong. Metcalfe doesn’t have the de haut en bas tone of the classic English chap abroad; quite the opposite, he’s keen to rub in what a man of the people he is, travelling with only a grubby backpack in the cheap and chaotic minivans ordinary Angolans use, cadging a night’s kip on the sofas or packed beds of all sorts of random acquaintances, and having at least two severe bouts of food poisoning.

But with the thought of the Great Tradition of English Travel Writing in mind I couldn’t help being struck by a sense of the text’s belatedness. What I mean is that earlier travel writers described to their readers distant and exotic lands a) which none of the readers had travelled to or knew much if anything about and b) which were largely ‘unspoilt’.

Metcalfe’s book arrives in the internet age when:

a) there is no ‘distance’ or ‘remoteness’ any more – any of us can Google articles about Angola and its history, geography, tourist features, festivals, national costume and so on and find out more or less everything contained in this book; and

b) Angola is definitely ‘spoilt’, ruined in fact, but in two senses of the word: i) the cities, towns and landscape are still recovering from 40 years of destruction, for example tourists are advised not to wander anywhere off the beaten track because the country is still covered in millions of unexploded mines; and ii) every conceivable tourist attraction has been photographed, thoroughly documented, posted on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest.

Metcalfe is therefore labouring in a genre which is almost obsolete. These days a travel writer has to work very hard to find anywhere that millions of Western tourists haven’t already trampled and photographed to death, and then has to work up in their prose a sense of enthusiasm for sights or experiences which bored locals experience every day and post on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on.

The book’s structure

São Tomé and Príncipe then mainland Angola

In a bid to be quirky and original Metcalfe starts his journey by flying in to the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, two archipelagos based round the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which are themselves about 87 miles apart and about 150 miles off the northwestern coast of Gabon. This far from the mainland, they were uninhabited till the Portuguese discovered them and populated them with Africans. The islands became an important entrepot for the slave trade as well as slave plantations producing coffee and cocoa. The islands became independent alongside Portugal’s other colonies in 1975 and form the second-smallest African state after the Seychelles.

Metcalfe visits the capital cities of each island and is shown round a rotting old plantation house. He learns about the semi-fictional slave king who led a Spartacus-style slave rebellion, ‘Rei Amador. He tells us it has the smallest economy in Africa, 80% of which is contributed by foreign donors ie it’s not really a viable state at all.

But the main story is that oil has been located near the islands, which are therefore teetering on the brink of becoming very wealthy, but there is general anxiety that, as with every other ‘petrostate’ (like in nearby Nigeria), the money will end up funneled into the hands of a tiny super-rich elite while the rest of the islanders continue living in poverty.

Then he flies to mainland Angola where he makes three journeys, carefully indicated on the book’s one and only map. A throwaway remark reveals he seems to have made at least two trips to the country: he tells us he first visited Angola in 2010, then two years later, in 2012 (p.83).

Anyway, it’s not really a journey into Angola but maybe five distinct journeys:

  • down the coast from Luanda to Benguela
  • from Benguela inland to Huambo and then to the remote town of Cuito Cuanavale
  • then, after returning to Luanda, from Luanda directly inland to Malange and then Saurimo
  • then north up the coast into Zaire province, to the heartland of the old Kongo kingdom, M’banza-Kongo, to the oil town of Soto
  • then flying into the enclave of Cabinda which is part of Angola but separated by the mouth of the river Congo which is inside the Democratic Republic of Congo

A well-ruined country

The bottom line about Angola seems to be that it has been ruined at least three times over. First by the brutality of Portuguese rule which enforced harsh forced labour on most of the population well into the 1960s, doing little to create a decent infrastructure such as roads and schools, or to foster an educated middle class. Second, by the 40 years of warfare, first for independence, then the terrible, futile and ruinous civil war.

But what really strikes Metcalfe is the ruin brought since the civil war ended by the arrival of OIL. The Angola he flies into is now a ‘petrostate’ with a huge gulf between the overclass of politicians and businessmen who have made themselves fabulously rich on the proceeds of oil, drive huge four by fours, live in gated mansions, stay in gleaming hotels – and the great majority of the population (of 33 million) who scrape a living off the land (periodically stepping on one of the millions of abandoned landmines) or make a living by working the utterly corrupt life of the cities. Thus despite the billions of dollars pouring into the treasury from oil revenue, Angolan life expectancy is among the lowest in the world, while infant mortality is among the highest. A third of the population can’t read or write.

José Eduardo dos Santos, the leader of the MPLA, once, back in the olden days, a ‘Marxist’ party, was Angola’s president for almost four decades. During the oil boom his daughter, Isabel dos Santos, was ‘awarded’ numerous lucrative contracts, thus becoming Africa’s richest woman. She is nicknamed ‘the Princess’ and at the time this book was written, was said to be a billionaire. So much for Marxism. Interestingly, she attended the elite fee-paying St Paul’s School for Girls in London before going on to become a billionaire.

London, where you can launder your drug or organised crime money through any number of willing banks, invest in shiny new riverfront developments, pick up some multi-million dollar artworks for your portfolio, and drop in to see your son or daughter being educated at one of its elite private schools. Convenient for oligarchs and kleptocrats from all nations.

Angola is a country divided between a small, super-rich, oil-rich elite, and the rest which helps to explain why everything is diabolically expensive, even the most basic food and drink. Luanda is routinely voted the most expensive capital city in the world (p.45). This is apparently because the agricultural sector is in such a state that almost everything has to be expensively imported. Even the most basic hotels and restaurants are beyond his budget. This isn’t a tropical paradise where you lounge in cheap cafes enjoying the streetlife. Luanda is a city where he trudges along busy with his backpack while shiny four by fours roar past on their way to hotels, cocktail bars and restaurants which are wildly beyond his reach.

Author’s persona

I felt vulnerable, exposed and ill equipped. (p.44)

Right from the start Metcalfe presents himself as a down-at-heel traveller with a backpack, ‘an unaffiliated writer’ (p.68), himself slightly confused about his motives for going, blessed with some contacts but relying on wit to busk a lot of the journey.

This pose would have been cool in the 1960s or 70s but in the age of the internet and modern, luxury, all-expenses-paid travel journalism, it comes over as a bit forced and contrived. I did the backpacking thing back in the day. In the 1970s I hitch-hiked round Europe and then round America because I was 18 and genuinely didn’t have any money or ‘contacts.

But it seems to me that worldview, that cultural possibility, has gone. A few short years later friends with their first jobs in the City were flying Club Class to New York or Sydney. In the 1990s the barely employed could afford to fly to Ibiza or Phuket. Hitching with a backpack was no longer at the cutting edge of anything. As airplane tickets and travel costs, generally, plummeted in the 1980s and 90s, ‘roughing it’ became a quaint throwback to a simpler age.

And as the internet has given access to every hotel and every restaurant and almost every person anywhere in the world, there’s no excuse not to have rung ahead, booked and organised everything.

I arrived at Saurimo at midnight, with not a clue where to stay. (p.225)

For a journalist who’s written for the Financial Times and the Economist, who mentions elsewhere that he looked up contacts and had names and addresses of businesspeople, NGOs, charities and various other contacts before he left London, to reduce himself to this impoverished state seemed a bit contrived.

It’s a running gag that Metcalfe’s backpack gets put on the wrong plane and flown to the other side of the world by mistake and it takes a week or so for it to be returned to Luanda airport for him to collect. In another age, and in another writer’s hands, this might be funny, but here it comes over as pathetic.

On not one but two occasions he manages to get food poisoning – once from eating the in-flight sandwich on the plane from Sao Tome to Luanda, once from eating prawns at an all-day party in Luanda – and we are treated to descriptions of him lying on a sofa moaning for days on end punctuated by sudden dashes to the shared toilet. Possibly this is meant to be comic but it comes over as squalid.

Because he can’t afford to stay in the ruinously expensive hotels, he cadges beds for the night on the sofas of strangers. As I say, in another age and in the hands of a more stylish writer, this might come over as cool or funny, but in this account it comes over as shabby, and wilful, a choice to do things the most difficult, dirty and sordid way. The impatient reader thinks, ‘Enough with the backpacker chic, already. You should have just negotiated a better advance from your publishers or with the FT Travel section or with any number of upmarket travel mags. Then you could have stayed in all those gleaming hotels and we wouldn’t have had to read about you roughing it on the sofas of hospitable Luandans who barely know you.’

When Metcalfe sticks to the fact he is very interesting indeed. He gives solidly researched, thorough and authoritative accounts of a wide range of historical issues from the first founding of the country, the slave trade, the ups and downs of 20th century Portugal. He is especially good on the history of the long bloody civil war, which he cuts up into passages which are deployed throughout the book at appropriate moments or in the relevant towns where key battles occurred.

A good example is his trip to the remote town of Cuito Canavale in the south-east of the country, where a 6 month long ‘battle‘ brought together all the combatants in the war for a confrontation whose ending can now, in retrospect, be seen as a turning point not only in the Angolan war but for the wider region (leading Cuba to withdraw its forces and South Africa to grant Namibia its independence).

His encounters with numerous people like businessmen and entrepreneurs, staff at NGOs like the HALO mine-clearing charity or Save The Children, passengers on numerous coaches, cafe owners and academics, geologists and ‘oilies’, street rappers and hawkers, manic minibus drivers and drunk taxi drivers, miserable bar owners and fierce museum keepers, Congo kings and holy men, each shed factual information on Angola’s past and present and are uniformly interesting.

But when he tells anecdotes about the travelling itself, they come over as strangely limp and dead. This is a really good factual primer for Angola (albeit ten years out of date) but when he writes about himself and his ‘adventures’, Metcalfe is a peculiarly charmless writer. Maybe part of this is because so many of the people he meets are depressed, defeated and downbeat and their negative mood affects the author and, thus, the reader, too. Angola does sound like a grim place.

  • We sat down, exhausted and somehow a bit sad. (p.211)
  • Living in Luanda seemed to drive him to despair. (p.215)
  • The king was playing his part but I couldn’t help feeling it was all a bit sad. (p.238)
  • I sat, by now stained and a bit depressed, pondering my destination, unaware of how bad the next eighteen hours would be. (p.286)

I wasn’t surprised when the tough son of the household where Metcalfe dosses in Luanda, Roque, reveals that he tried to commit suicide a few years previously (p.258). Somehow it’s that kind of book. There are flickering attempts at humour, but for the most part it’s pretty downbeat.

One of the saddest things about Angola is the decimation of the wildlife. Most of the wild mammals have been exterminated. He has a passage about the last few remnants of the once flourishing giant sable or palanca negra gigante and meets a worn-down conservationist who is trying to save it from extinction (pages 214 to 219). Despair and sadness. Metcalfe even travels through a region where there are no birds. The skies are empty. Everything is dead.

Anti-tourism

The book amply demonstrates why Angola is on no-one’s tourist trail.

There is really no tourism here. There is nothing to visit in Luanda, except for one or two clapped-out museums that are invariably closed. Walking is pretty much out, due to the threat of muggings, not to mention the polluted and pungent streets. There are no taxis… Excursions into the country are generally a no-go. The few eccentric tour leaders who do venture into the empty national parks explain that most of the game has been shot and eaten and numbers haven’t recovered yet. Hiking or bush-walking is definitely not an option, due to the millions of landmines and unexploded ordnance, most of them unmapped. And there are diseases, lots of them: yellow fever, dengue fever, sleeping sickness, typhoid, rabies and rampant falciparum malaria (that’s the worst kind)…

In short, Angola is an anti-tourist destination, and certainly no place for a backpacker. The only sane kind of visit is brief and on business, with someone to meet you, lodge you and cover your laughable expenses, before you are gratefully shuttled out on a non-Angolan liner. (p.46)

Then there are the police, ‘feared for their erratic behaviour and drunken extortion of passersby’ (p.47). And the absurd expense of everything. And the street crime. And the dedicated stonewalling obstructive Soviet-style bureaucracy you face every step of every process designed to wear down and crush any applicant for anything, as he finds out when he tries to get his visa extended or goes the labyrinthine process required to apply for an audience with king Muatchissengue Watembo of the Chokwe people (pages 232 to 239).

Eastern bloc-style obstructionism which is reflected in the hyper-suspicions of the police who stop him and demand to see his papers countless times, with or without then bullying him into giving them a bribe to let him go on his way (the Angolan police being ‘renowned for’ their demands for gasosa, p.230). Far from being relaxed and casual like Congo, Angola has overtones of being a police state. ‘Basic education, sanitation and health care are all awful’ (p.45).

Basically, Don’t go.

Highlights

Marxist capitalism

Metcalfe is good at explaining the hypocrisy of the so-called ‘Marxist’ MPLA government. Even as it bought communist textbooks printed in Moscow and Havana to indoctrinate generations of schoolchildren against the capitalist enemy, it set up a massive corporation, Sonangol, which functioned on purely capitalist lines. When the first oil was found in the 1970s the franchise and money was handled by Sonangol who, over the following decades, developed into a huge corporation with interests in every aspect of the economy, almost a parallel economy in its own right.

At its heart was MPLA leader and president José Eduardo dos Santos, known as ‘the magician’ for his skill at keeping all political factions onside by the skilful doling out of contracts and backhanders. The elite surrounding him were known as ‘the Futunguistas’ after one of the many presidential palaces. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the MPLA made a smooth transition to capitalism because they had, in fact, for years, already been practising it (pages 72 to 75). These former Marxists now have their noses ‘deep in the trough’ of the purest capitalism. Mobutu only with oil. Transparency International ranks the country as almost bottom of the league table of corruption.

The ruling class of Angola has misplaced, disappeared, embezzled and creamed off tens of billions of dollars for themselves, leaving most of their compatriots in abject poverty. Why on earth should Western governments give them loans and Western aid agencies step in to treat the poor and ill when more than enough money exists in the government system but Angola’s leadership refuses to use it for good, preferring to loot their own country?

Slavery and degredados

He gives a good brief history of the slave trade, pages 100 to 106. The academic he interviews, Fernando Gamboa, makes the familiar point that slavery was already a well-established practice among African tribes before the Europeans arrived, but they massively increased its scale and ‘efficiency’ as a business (p.198).

I was more intrigued to learn that a) Angola’s second city, Benguela, was founded in 1615 in totally unsuitable location near a swamp which resulted in the earliest settlers dying like flies (very like the early English settlements in Virginia at the same period); and b) that, like Australia, it was forcibly settled by transported convicts or degredados. Unlike the convicts Britain sent to Australia, who were often guilty of relatively minor offences such as stealing a loaf of bread, these degredados were hard core villains, mostly murderers. Being hard core urban villains they were unsuited to agriculture but took to the slave trade like ducks to water, and also ensured the city had a ‘hellish reputation well into the nineteenth century’ (p.100).

The Salazar regime (1932 to 1968)

What comes over about Salazar’s Estado Novo regime is its dusty, down-at-heel backwardness, its narrow-minded closedness, its petty bureaucracy and inefficiency. Visiting diplomats, especially Americans, thought he lived in a parallel universe. This helps to explain his response to the rebellions of 1961 which was total refusal to accept reality, negotiate or relinquish the colonies, and instead his insistence on fighting on to the bitter end which meant that, long after Europe’s other imperial nations had bitten the bullet and given their colonies independence, Portugal continued fighting its bitter wars to retain them (pages 114 to 118).

White flight

As the scale of the civil war became clear, between 1975 and 1976 pretty much the entire white population of about 300,000 left, flying back to Portugal in what Metcalfe refers to as ‘the great airlift’ (p.124). That included all the administrators, civil servants, the police, engineers, designers, builders, architects, managers of the education and health systems, doctors and teachers, everyone who ran everything left the relatively unskilled, untrained Angolans to figure out how to run a modern country in the middle of a brutal civil war. The result: services ceased to function, education and health ceased, ministries shut down, the rubbish piled up in the streets, no-one knew what to do (pages 72 and 136).

The irony is that once the civil war had ended and the oil boom began in the Noughties, lots of Portuguese flocked back to the country for its boomtown opportunities and, by a spooky coincidence, there are, once again, about 300,000 expatriate Portuguese in Angola.

Sex trade

Oxfam’s regional director Gabriel de Barros explains how girls as young as 12 are traded by families to rich men in return for financial support, the resulting rise in teen pregnancies, STDs and AIDS (pages 108 to 111).

Huambo

Originally named Nova Lisboa, Huambo is the capital of the fertile highlands and was beautifully laid out by Portuguese planners to become the new centre of their empire in the 1920s and 30s. Unfortunately, it then became an epicentre of the civil war, the landscape around ravaged by war, littered with mines, and the town fought over again and again, climaxing in a 55-day-long siege in 1993 which eviscerated it. The government enforced a press blackout and in 1993 international journalists were busy in Somalia and Yugoslavia so the world never got to hear about it.

Landmines

The countryside is littered with millions of mines, anywhere between 6 and 20 million, no-one knows. Never stray off the path, don’t climb rocks or walk round a bridge. Any prominent or beautiful natural feature was targeted. For the foreseeable future they must all remain off limits (p.124).

Queen Njinga

An extended passage giving the life of the remarkable Nzingha Mbande (1583 to 1663) who rose to be Queen of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba in present-day northern Angola. She fought for 30 years to maintain the independence of her kingdoms against the encroaching Portuguese and to later generations became a symbol of resistance. The most notable things to emerge from the account are that she supported the slave trade, but insisted it be carried out according to the old customs; and the stories that she dressed as a man, insisted on being called a man, dressed her guard of women as men, and made her many male lovers dress as women if, that is, these later stories are true (pages 198 to 206).

Chockwe art

Metcalfe visits Chockwe country and even manages a (bizarre) audience with the old but still revered Chockwe king. The Chokwe people once ran an empire which covered parts of modern-day Angola, southwestern Congo and northwestern parts of Zambia. There are about 1.3 million people living across that territory. The Chockwe are famous for their sculpture art, which fetches high prices in the West.

Wooden statuette of a Chockwe princess

The role of Cuba in the civil war 1975 to 2000

Castro’s communist Cuba saved the Marxist MPLA government. In 1975 as Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA took more and more territory and advanced on the capital, Cuba flew in thousands of soldiers who stabilised the situation then reversed UNITA’s advance. Cuba’s involvement in Angola was deep and long. Between 1975 and 1988 over 300,000 Cubans served in Angola (p.212). Rejected in most of South America, snubbed by the North Vietnamese, unable to get a purchase in Mobutu’s Congo, Angola provided an opportunity for Castro to dream of spreading his revolution around the developing world. Now all that sacrifice seems utterly pointless. You could say that the 300,000 Cubans who fought to keep the MPLA in power ended up helping Isabel dos Santos to become the richest woman in Africa. Thus, as Shakespeare put it, does the whirligig of Time bring in his revenges.

The last phase

The last phase of the civil war from 1999 to 2002 was the most brutal. Metcalfe dwells on the character of the larger-than-life, brutal, charming, paranoid UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi. Like president Habyarimana of Rwanda, like Mobutu and Kabila of Zaire and the Congo, Savimbi genuinely believed in black magic, spirits and witches.

By the 1990s there were frequent burnings of dissidents and accusations of witchcraft in UNITA areas. In one case, Savimbi himself ‘discovered’ a woman spying on him by flying over his house at night. Suspected women and children would be dragged to a stadium and set alight. Anyone who dared to speak against o mais velho risked execution, including any woman who refused his advances. (p.246)

Lovely to see the old traditions being kept alive. Jeane Kirkpatrick, America’s representative to the United Nations, called Savimbi ‘one of the authentic heroes of our time.’ Hundreds of thousands of rural inhabitants were terrorised by UNITA, press-ganged into working as porters, cooks or prostitutes. The MPLA government rounded up entire regions and confined them in camps. In the final months of the war as many as 4 million people were displaced, a third of the entire population.

M’banza Kongo

On his third journey, Metcalfe cadges a lift north in a battered Land Rover with the staff from a Save The Children refuge in the town of M’banza Kongo in the north-west of Angola. Back in the 1480s when the Portuguese discovered the river, the Kongo empire stretched for hundreds of miles north and south of the river mouth and far inland. Metcalfe retells the sorry saga of how initial optimism on both sides of the cultural contact quickly deteriorated as the Portuguese realised the potential of the Kongo people as slaves. In Metcalfe’s account it was the discovery of Brazil in 1500 and the quick realisation that it had great potential for sugar plantations but lacked manpower, which transformed the situation.

500 years later Metcalfe visits the homes and refuges in M’banza Kongo which house the large number of children who are thrown out of their families every year for being evil spirits. Belief in witchcraft, spirits, kindoki (a kind of witchcraft or possession by evil spirits) and the power of fetishes is universal and when any ill luck befalls a family its most vulnerable members – children and to a lesser extent the elderly – are blamed.

Update

Metcalf’s book was published in 2013. Apparently, since then, some of the gloss has gone off the oil boom so that the planes and top hotels are no longer as busy as they were. But the structural divide between super-rich elite and everyone else remains, as evidenced in this photo essay published in the Guardian.

MCK

Protest song by anti-government rapper MCK who Metcalfe interviews (pages 83 to 88).

Portuguese terms

Recurring words and ideas include:

  • assimiliado = African who, according to the Portuguese colonial system, had reached an approved level of civilisation; comparable to the évolués in francophone colonies
  • bom dia = good morning
  • candongueiro = mini bus
  • confusão = a metaphysical state of chaos and confusion before which mere humans are helpless
  • contratado = Portuguese form of forced labour
  • empregada = home help /servant
  • feitiço = fetish or the spell is controls
  • garimpeiro = unofficial diamond miner
  • mestiço = mixed race
  • musseques = shanty town
  • pula = slang for white person
  • roça = plantation-type farm run on forced labour
  • soba = official

Fluffs

The book is generally well proof-read and typeset, but I did spot a couple of errors which humorously point towards a new use of language:

  • As she flocked cigarette ash out of the window… (p.27)
  • I felt huge a sense of excitement. (p.54)
  • There are railroads totally some ten thousand miles. (p.124)
  • They grew rich on commerce between the Zanzibar and the Atlantic… (p.229)
  • A strange period ensued when neither war nor peace reined… (p.243)

The title of the book is explained on page 144.


Credit

Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola by Daniel Metcalfe was published by Hutchinson books in 2013. All references are to the 2014 Arrow Books paperback edition.

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Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck – 3. The Great War of Africa

“General Bosco Ntaganda told us: ‘When you’re a soldier, women are free. Everything is free.’”
(former child soldier talking to David van Reybrouck)

David van Reybrouck’s complete history of Congo includes a chapter devoted to the conflict variously known as ‘the Second Congo War’ or ‘the Great War of Africa’ which is reckoned by commentators to have lasted from 1998 to 2003. I reread this chapter to compare it with the book-length account by Joseph Stearns, which I’ve just read.

Great War of Africa dates

The war began in August 1998, little more than a year after the First Congo War ended, when the joint forces of Rwanda and Uganda invaded eastern Congo for a second time, this time not to overthrow the old dictator Mobutu – which they had achieved in the first Congo war (October 1996 to May 1997) – but to overthrow the figurehead they’d replaced him with as president, Laurent Kabila. Kabila had come to power solely on the back of Rwandan and Ugandan army units, but once he was firmly established as new ruler of Congo, he expelled the very military advisers who had helped him win power a year earlier. This wasn’t as ungrateful as it sounds. The Rwandans in particular quickly aroused a lot of popular resentment, particularly among the population of the capital, Kinshasa, who they treated badly.

This new, second war of the Congo lasted till July 2003, a complex peace treaty was signed which allowed for the ‘Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’ to take power. During the war Kabila was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards but the regime in Kinshasa smoothly replaced him with his son, a senior officer in the army who turned out to be a surprisingly effective ruler. Despite the peace treaty, violence continues in many parts of the country, particularly in the Kivu region in the east of the country, to this day.

What made it a ‘great’ war is the way so many neighbouring countries got drawn into it. Ultimately, nine African countries and around thirty local militias became involved in the conflict. By 2008, the war and its aftermath had caused an estimated 5.4 million deaths, hardly any through actual fighting, a fair number through massacre and murder of unarmed civilians, but the vast majority caused by disease and starvation. Another 2 million people were displaced by the conflict.

David van Reybrouck versus Jason K. Stearns

Basically, although van Reybrouck’s account is almost exactly one tenth the length of Stearns’ book-length account (32 compared to 337 pages) it feels, paradoxically, more factual and comprehensive. If asked which text a beginner should read, I’d recommend the van Reybrouck chapter rather than the Stearns book.

Stearns engages in extended digressions based around in-depth interviews with key players, for example the ageing Marxist professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba who was made the main spokesman of the rebel RCD. He gives profiles of some of the gung-ho entrepreneurs who took part in the Congo government’s firesale of its mining assets which leads into an entire chapter about blood diamonds and so on. By contrast, van Reybrouck manages to include some interviews of his own, but only after he has given a good, clear overview of the conflict.

He divides the war into 4 phases:

1. The invasion August 1998

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In August 1998 Rwanda, backed by Uganda and Burundi, invaded Congo. The cities in the east were taken immediately, and General James Kabarebe led a daring air assault on the military base at Kitona on the Atlantic Ocean west of Kinshasa with the aim of making a lightning strike on the capital. Rwanda-Uganda made the invasion out to be the work of a domestic rebel movement, the Congolese Rally for Democracy or RCD, which they cobbled together for the purpose (hence the appointment of hapless professor Wamba dia Wamba who was way out of his depth, and whose extended interview with Stearns provides an interestingly oblique angle on events).

2. The stalemate September 1998 to July 1999

images

The central fact of the war was that, unlike the assault in the first war, the Rwandan invasion failed to overthrow Congo’s leader. In 1997 Mobutu had no friends and was easily overthrown but, for their own reasons, several neighbouring countries wanted Kabila to remain in power and intervened to make sure he did.

At the last minute Zimbabwe and Angola sent contingents of soldiers who halted then threw back the RCD advance. After Zimbabwe and Angola, Namibia joined in as well. Northern allies were found in Sudan, Chad, and Libya, each of which had its own reasons for preventing Kabila’s fall. Sudan offered  help because of its ongoing conflict with Uganda over the latter’s support for rebels in southern Sudan. Libya provided a few planes in order to break out of its international isolation. Chad sent 2,000 soldiers as a gesture of solidarity with Sudan and Libya. In the end, Kabila had a seven-nation army at his disposal. This was enough to blunt and then halt the Rwandan-Ugandan advance.

The front stabilised. In the east of the country, the rebels were engaged by the informal groups: the fanatical Congolese patriots who formed the Mai-mai, which had emerged during the refugee crisis after the Rwandan genocide; and the Rwandan Hutu militias who had also emerged from the same event. Both were now supported by Kinshasa. So now you have ‘official’ armies from Rwanda and Uganda fighting heavily armed and loosely organised militias.

When Chad withdrew from Équateur province in 1998, that part of the country fell into rebel hands but the occupying force was not the RCD but a new rebel army supported exclusively by Uganda: the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (MLC), commanded by Jean-Pierre Bemba, son of the wealthiest businessman of the Mobutu era.

So by about this point the map of the conflict sort of settled into place. To the west and south were Kabila with his Angolan and Zimbabwean allies; up in the northern jungle was Bemba with his Ugandan-supported MLC; and to the east Wamba dia Wamba with his Rwandan-supported RCD, which fought against the Kinshasa-backed Interahamwe and Mai-mai.

In July 1999 the heads of state of the seven nations involved in the war signed the Lusaka Peace Agreement. It contained complex provisions and the details of what was and what was not implemented but the summary is, it didn’t work. The conflict continued.

3. The dissension August 1999 to July 2000

images

Having given up on taking Kinshasa, Rwanda and Uganda who, along with local militias, now controlled the eastern half of Congo, turned to looting it. It wasn’t long before the former allies fell out. Ugandan forces had captured Kisingani, centre of the lucrative diamond trade and Rwandas forces now tried to seize it, leading to prolonged urban warfare which devastated the city. Locals remember a series of street battles, nicknamed the ‘one-day war’ (August 1999), the ‘three-day war’ (May 2000) and the ‘six-day war (June 2000), the latter despite the presence in the city of the UN in the shape of the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo (MONUC) to supervise the supposed peace deal.

The rebel movement spit into a pro-Rwandan and a pro-Ugandan schism, the RCD-G (for Goma) and the RCD-K (for Kisangani) led by the egregious Wamba dia Wamba. And then another splinter group, the RCD-N for National. Schisms and splinters.

4. The anarchy aka the looting July 2000 to December 2002

In the north, the rebellion crumbled completely. Pro-Ugandan rebels no longer fought against Kinshasa or pro-Rwandan rebels, but simply among themselves. New, smaller armies arose. In Ituri, in the far north-east, the maze of conflicting militias became ever-more complicated. Each side, each militia, looted whatever it could, murdering and intimidating anyone who stood in their way.

Van Reybrouck gives an explanation of Rwanda and Uganda’s expropriation of Congo’s mineral wealth which is shorter but punchier than Stearns’. Both countries suddenly started exporting gold and diamonds and tin, none of which came from their own territory, all stolen from Congo. In a really ringing sentence he sums up the situation:

The scramble for Africa was now being organised by the Africans themselves.

On an almost daily basis I read references to white European colonists and imperialists looting Africa because those sentiments are used as power plays in contemporary political and cultural discourse. You rarely read the extent to which African rulers, in Congo, Nigeria and countless other countries, have mercilessly pillaged and robbed their own countries and peoples.

Van Reybrouck explains that this final phase, the looting phase, dragged on for so long because it was so profitable for so many people. War became business with guns. Violence was commercialised. Locals made more money in coltan or gold mines than subsistence farming, and all manner of middle men up to the exchequers of Rwanda and Uganda profited. For many dirt-poor Congolese joining a militia and looting food, goods, demanding payoffs, partying, destroying property and raping women was a tempting career. Hence the proliferation of militias and the spread of violence across this huge region.

Non-involved nations, especially South Africa, spent a lot of energy trying to negotiate a peace. In July 2002 the Pretoria Accord was signed which pacified a large part of the area, with Rwanda agreeing to the withdrawal of its estimated 20,000 troops from the DRC in exchange for an international commitment to the disarmament of the Hutu militia Interahamwe and ex-FAR fighters.

images

5. The long tail

This isn’t part of van Reybrouck’s schema, but there was obviously a fifth phase, post 2003, whereby the war, or sustained unrest, continues to this day in the extreme eastern part of Congo, in the areas that border directly on Uganda (Ituri) and Rwanda (Kivu). These areas have been subjected to bouts of extreme violence, massive human rights violations and tremendous human suffering.

Stearns interviews the hapless professor Wiamba put in ‘charge’ of the RCD, who is appalled by details of the massacres he tells him about. But in the second part of his chapter, Van Reybrouck is if anything even more insistent on the organised violence and intimidation, especially as practiced by the RCD.

He interviews a lorry driver who took dissidents and journalists and, after a while, anyone someone had a grudge against and had paid the RCD to get rid of, describing how they were rounded up into a draughty warehouse where they were kept till they were strangled to death or tied with ropes and taken in speedboats out into Lake Kivu and chucked over the side. He describes it all as he and van Reybrouck sit in a cafe, sipping beers and looking out over beautiful Lake Kivu where they disposed of hundreds and hundreds of bodies.

He interviews a doctor whose family were wiped out by shelling but who continued to treat the wounded throughout the six-day war in Kisingani. He tells the extraordinary story of Lieutenant Papy Bulaya who ends up lost deep in the jungle with a handful of comrades and forced to submit to the local warlord and ivory hunter.

Listening to Papy was like rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an immersion in a gloomy, dark-green world full of lethargic violence. A world of shady characters as cruel as they were bleak and drunken.

Both Stearns and van Reybrouck complain that ‘the West’ and ‘the media’ and ‘the public’ are repelled by Africa and focus only on the bad news from Africa, associate Africa only with images of savagery and massacre, and so on. Somehow they both miss the obvious fact that their own books partake in this process: do nothing but ram images of African violence and cruelty and pointless war and disease and famine deep into their readers’ imaginations.

Bulaya tells van Reybrouck how one of the RCD spin-offs he was associated with captured Pygmies and ate them:

The Pygmies’ family members were even forced to consume parts of their murdered relatives’ bodies. The hearts of newborn babies were cut out and eaten…Papy sneered, snorted. His sombre words dripped with contempt. “One day I lost track of my friend, my comrade. At first we couldn’t find him. Then we saw him at a bend in the road. Ramses had got hold of him. His head was impaled on a stick. His penis was tied to the stick a little farther down.”

In Ituri district the two major population groups, Hemas and Lendus, revive ancient ethnic hatreds in their struggle over the lucrative local goldmines. Van Reybrouck interviews a Hemas man who underwent the following experience at the hands of a local féticheur or witch doctor:

“He had two eggs. They tied me up, I was scared to death. He rolled the eggs over the ground at my feet. I was told that if the eggs rolled away from me I would be considered innocent. But if they rolled toward me, then I was a Hema and therefore guilty. I was lucky, the eggs rolled away. But Jean, who was with me, was not as fortunate. The eggs rolled the wrong way and they told him to run for it. While he was running away, the Lendu shot arrows at him. He fell. They cut him to pieces with their machetes, right before my eyes. Then they ate him.”

The books I read a few months ago about the Victorian explorers Henry Stanley or the explorers involved in the quest for the source of the Nile repeat the modern, politically correct view that those old white Victorians exaggerated the extent of cannibalism in the Congo in order to justify their ‘civilising’ mission. It’s typical of our mixed-up values that suggesting Congolese were cannibals in the 1870s is an outrageous racist slur and you have to be careful how you repeat it, whereas absolutely no-one is denying that some Congolese were practising cannibalism just a few years ago. Cannibalism and disgusting human butchery.

“It was in 2000. We were at our own home. My husband imported goods from Dubai. The soldiers came in. They were Tutsis. They spoke Rwandan. They sacked everything and wanted to kill my husband. ‘I’ve already given you everything,’ he told them, ‘so why do you want to kill me?’ But they said: ‘We kill big traders with the knife, not with a gun.’ They had machetes. They started hacking at his arm. ‘We have to chop hard,’ they said, ‘the Nande are strong.’ Then they butchered him, like in a slaughterhouse. They took out his intestines and his heart…. I had pick up all the pieces. They held a gun to my head. I wept. All the pieces of my husband’s body. I had to gather them together. They cut me with a knife, that’s how I got this scar. I have another one on my thigh….I wept and they started raping me. There were twelve of them. And then my two daughters in the next room.” (Masika Katsua in interview)

Summary

Jason K. Stearns’ book about the Great War of Africa is very good. But arguably David van Reybrouck’s chapter is better. It is not only more concise but gives a much better overview of the different phases of the conflict, bringing out its internal logic. And it contains interviews with participants and eyewitnesses which are the equal of anything in Stearns, and – in the case of Lieutenant Papy Bulaya’s narrative – surpass it and almost anything else you could ever read in the most improbable adventure yarn or most stomach-churning horror story.


Credits

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns was published in 2011 in the United States by Public Affairs. All references are to the 2012 Public Affairs paperback edition.

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.

Surprisingly for a contemporary book, Congo: The Epic History of a People is available online in its entirety.

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Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide by Linda Melvern (2004)

“You have missed some of the enemies. You must go back there and finish them off. The graves are not yet full!”
(Radio Milles Collines)

“Go everywhere, spare no one, not even babies.”
(Lieutenant Bizumuremyi)

“No amount of its cash or its aid will ever wash its hands clean of Rwandan blood.”
(Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire who led the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, talking about the UN’s guilt)

Linda Melvern

Melvern is a seasoned investigative journalist who worked on the Sunday Times in the 1980s. In her introduction, she tells us she was putting the finishing touches to The Ultimate Crime, a history of the United Nation’s first fifty years, at the UN headquarters in New York, when the first reports of the Rwanda genocide started to come in in April 1994.

She was able to interview people within the UN hierarchy and monitor the institution’s ham-fisted response as events unfolded, and this forms the basis of her first book on the subject, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (1995).

So why write another book on the same subject ten years later? The central reason is that during that time the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was set up and went to work, tracking down and bringing to justice the Rwandan army and government officials responsible for the genocide. The ICTR’s work resulted in a wealth of new evidence, the coming to light of countless documents, letters, faxes and so on, as well as extensive eye-witness accounts of key meetings and events.

In addition, documents and paperwork regarding the role of Western nations such as Belgium, France, the US and UK had emerged, as well as memoirs by central players, most notably Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire who led the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) and whose book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda was published in 2003.

Using her contacts at the UN Melvern has amassed extensive records of communications, faxes, memos which passed between its senior officials, such as the Secretary-General himself, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and his appointment as head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, who didn’t get on at all with Dallaire, and did everything to subvert his authority.

And then there are documents and quotes from the international charities involved such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Africa Watch and more.

In other words, this book is an update of her previous one which takes account of the huge number of new documents and testimonies which had become available, and this explains why the book is littered with references to witnesses, witness accounts, interrogations, statements under oath, quotations from papers, memoirs, faxes, interviews and much more.

Scholarly apparatus

This explains why there is such a scholarly apparatus to the book, which has 100 pages of notes and appendices. The notes themselves are very thorough and I enjoyed reading some of the random factoids as much as the main text (such as the fact that ‘There are no surnames in Rwanda. Women do not take the name of their husbands, and children do not bear the name of their parents.’ p.285; or that Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana had his predecessor, Grégoire Kayibanda, who he overthrew in a coup, locked up and starved to death because Habyarimana had a voodoo superstition that if he spilled Kayibanda’s blood in any way, he would be haunted by his spirit, p.287).

The notes are followed by a long section on sources, detailing books, reports, papers and journals relating to the genocide. I can imagine these would be very useful for a scholar setting out to study the genocide.

There’s a 13-page chronology of Rwanda which starts in the colonial period, but once it arrives at the commencement of the civil war with the invasion of the RPF in October 1990 becomes surprisingly gripping.

And, most striking of all, Melvern includes the full text of The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It’s only five pages long. And – according to my present understanding – completely failed to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, Saddam’s attempts to exterminate the Kurds, the mass murders in former Yugoslavia (Srebrenica, Kosovo), the Darfur genocide, mass murders in the Syrian civil war and what, nowadays, seems to be accepted as China’s repression and mass murders of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Apart from these blips, it’s been a roaring success.

It’s worth quoting the official UN definition of genocide in full:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

I’m interested to see the words ‘in part’. I thought genocide meant the intent to completely wipe out a group; I’m interested to see it’s significantly broader than that. I bet there’s vast scholarly debate on the subject…

Conspiracy to murder – the downsides

Terrible style

So much for the provenance of the book, what’s it like to read? Well unfortunately, despite the huge amount of research which Melvern has obviously put into the book, it suffers from some severe deficiencies. Very quickly you realise she writes a clunky, repetitive form of English, with odd, uncomfortable phrasing of even simple facts. Quite a few sentences felt like they’d been translated from another language and I frequently wondered whether English is Melvern’s first language, she sometimes struggles so badly to express herself in it.

Poor narrative skills

Bigger than that, though, is Melvern’s struggle to fully work through the material she’s amassed. The clunky English is often the expression of tortuous thinking.

The opening chapters giving the earlier history of Rwanda through the colonial period, the Hutu Revolution of 1959, the Habyarimana coup of 1973 and the build-up to the invasion of Rwanda by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1990, all these are basic facts which are admirably described in the books by Philip Gourevitch, Fergal Keane, David van Reybrouck or the Wikipedia entries.

But in Melvern’s hands they are told in a contorted way which I sometimes found hard to follow. For example, it was only because I’d read the other, much more clearly expressed accounts, that I could follow her description of the RPF’s origins in Uganda. She doesn’t bring out the key role played by the RPF leaders in Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement which overthrew Uganda’s dictator Milton Obote, and how that experience inspired them to think about attempting to overthrow their dictator, Juvénal Habyarimana.

The facts are all here but Melvern often lacks the ability to bring to the fore the ones that matter while leaving others in the background, to shape the facts into a narrative. Reading a book like this which completely lacks that skill makes you realise how important it is, particularly in factual-historical narratives.

Lack of interpretation

The same goes in spades for the end of the book. One of the concluding chapters looks in detail at the numerous (conspiracy) theories which have arisen around the shooting down of the Rwandan president’s private jet, which was what triggered the crisis. Melvern lists all the theories which have been put forward over the previous ten years by an impressive roster of interested parties, but she never manages to come to a conclusion. The more I read, the more confused I became. She doesn’t state which one she, as an investigative journalist who’s given it more time than you or I will ever manage, believes in (pages 260 to 266).

Even more glaring is the crude and clumsy way the book ends. The final chapter describes the setting up of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) but fails to stand back and give us an overview of its work. Instead it dives right into a detailed account of the proceedings against one of the central figures, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, drilling down to such a detailed level that she quotes the cross-questioning Bagosora was subjected to in court by prosecuting council, Canadian lawyer Drew White (pages 281 to 283).

And then the book just stops, not quite in mid-sentence, but right in the middle of quoting the accusations White put to Bagosora and the latter’s indignant denials. It just stops, without any attempt at a conclusion or perspective.

I think all these flaws stem from Melvern’s apparent inability to think about the events she’s describing, to step back and place them in a wide-ranging intellectual or conceptual framework. Compare and contrast the terrific books on international affairs by Michael Ignatieff which I’ve just read. Ignatgieff is an intellectual to his fingertips, which means that he can’t describe any event in the real world without bringing to it fascinating and thought-provoking insights, placing it in a rich intellectual context, broadening individual moments out to make useful and interesting generalisations about civil war, humanitarian intervention and so on.

Melvern, by contrast, rarely if ever provides any insight into anything. She has amassed an awesome amount of documentation and arranged it in precise and accurate order, but this book doesn’t really reflect on any of it in any significant way.

Conspiracy to murder – the upsides

So far, so negative, and at moments in the first 50 or so pages I was tempted to put the book down for good and move on to something less clunky and more thoughtful. However, around page 60 the narrative is transformed with the UN decision to set up the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). From this point onwards the book becomes first interesting and then absolutely riveting. I found myself gripped and thrilled by the narrative.

As explained, this isn’t because of any storytelling skills on Melvern’s part – selecting light and shade, carefully modulating the pace, dropping in selected insights and context – no, it’s because she has assembled a precise and specific and detailed account of the events of the genocide and these are, in themselves, gripping, horrifying and addictive. I went from feeling very meh about her so-so attempts to describe the historical background, to being utterly riveted. From page 60 to 260 I couldn’t put the book down.

The documents she has so carefully assembled allow Melvern to put together a meticulous day-by-day, and often hour-by-hour account of the key decisions made by the key players. Since she uses eyewitness testimony which emerged during ICTR trials, we are taken right into the rooms where the key decisions were made. You can see the sweat on the foreheads of the army chiefs as they agonise over what to do in the emergency meeting called as soon as news of the president’s plane crash (on 6 April 1994) arrives. You can smell the cigarette smoke and the paranoia.

Eyewitnesses testify to the specific words and phrases used by the senior army figures as they debate who should assume power, as they agree it must not look like a coup, as they allow Hutu Power exponents like Théoneste Bagosora to insist that the civilian Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana (a moderate Hutu) must not be allowed to take power. Witnesses testify to adjutants being sent into side rooms to phone through orders to the Presidential Guard. Within the hour Uwilingiyimana’s house was surrounded, then she was beaten and murdered (p.163).

Melvern includes transcriptions of phone calls made by ministers in the supposed interim government as the Presidential Guard knocked on their doors, made them and their families lie on the floor, then murdered them (p.151). It is terrifying.

On the government side, Melvern explains more clearly than anything else I’d read how the shot-down plane was carrying not only the president but the army chief of staff and key ministers so a real power vacuum appeared at the top of the Rwandan state (p.137). She shows how, although the exponents of Hutu Power had for a long time been developing a detailed plan for the complete extermination of the 10% or so of the population who were ethnic Tutsi, there was nonetheless initial confusion about who was to do what, and where power ultimately lay. It took some days before Jean Kambanda, a regional leader of the Hutu extremist party, the Republican Democratic Movement (MDR), was appointed Prime Minister of the caretaker government and was its nominal leader throughout the genocide.

In fact one of the many fascinating things that comes over from her super-detailed account is that power shifted throughout the three month period of the genocide. By the end even the senior army officers were scared of the lawless, murderous Interahamwe militia and the men who controlled it who are, at one point, named as Robert Kajuga, Bernard Maniragaba, and Ephren Nkezabera (p.232) with their political master being Mathieu Ngirumpatse, chairman of Habyariman’s party, the MRND (p.198).

One of the absolutely key things which comes over in her account is the centrality of the Rwandan Civil War. I hadn’t quite grasped that UNAMIR was solely set up to oversee the implementation of the Arusha Accords, signed in August 1993, which gave the RPF positions in a Broad-Based Transitional Government (BBTG) and in the national army.

Thus Dallaire arrived in the country 6 months before the genocide occurred and the early sections about his arrival are devoted to a very detailed consideration of what the accords demanded and how the Hutu Power die-hards within President Habyarimana’s cabinet and army absolutely refused to implement them. They would literally rather die than see RPF Tutsis in positions of power in the cabinet or the army.

Habyarimana’s government put as many obstacles as possible in the way of implementing the accords, and Melvern’s detailed explanation of how they did this, and which ministers in the government were responsible, and General Dallaire’s exasperated attempts to get the two side to co-operate, make for fascinating reading.

It also reinforces everything I’ve read in other accounts which is the idea that, as the Western sponsors of the peace deal, namely France, Belgium and America, brought pressure on Habyarimana, and as he showed signs of buckling, giving in and starting to implement the accords (i.e. integrating the Tutsi RPF into the Rwandan army and cabinet) that’s when the hardline Hutu faction decided to get rid of him. Hence the widely-held theory that it was soldiers, militia or even mercenaries following orders from Hutu Power extremists, who assassinated their own president and then blamed it on the Tutsi RPF.

And immediately put into force a long-gestated plan to exterminate the entire Tutsi population of Rwanda, some 1.5 million men, women, children and babies.

Radio Milles Collines

Her treatment of Radio Milles Collines is a good example of Melvern’s strong points. All the other accounts certainly mention the radio station and its role in spewing poisonous racist genocidal propaganda from its founding in July 1993 and then going into overdrive during the period of the actual genocide (7 April to 15 July 1994).

It is typical that Melvern gives it its full name – Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines – and thereafter refers to its proper initialism (RTLMC).

But, more importantly, Melvern explains who founded it, how it was funded, how it was run. She names the director-general Félicien Kabuga; the director Ferdinand Nahimana who was a respected historian; Jean Bosco Barayagwiza, chairman of the executive committee, who was also policy director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and so provided a direct conduit from the genocidal government; editor-in-chief Gaspard Gahigi, and the day-to-day manager, Phocas Habimana. She gives us pen portraits of the four main broadcasters:

  • Kantano Habimana, who called for “those who have guns [to] immediately go to these cockroaches [and] encircle them and kill them…”
  • Valérie Bemeriki, the only female presenter, who encouraged the use of machetes not guns to eradicate the Tuti, telling her listeners to “not kill those cockroaches with a bullet — cut them to pieces with a machete”
  • Noël Hitimana
  • and Georges Ruggiu, a white man from Belgium who urged listeners to kill Tutsis and told them that “graves were waiting to be filled”

So Melvern’s great strong point is that, in the words of the old cliché, she names the guilty men. And by naming them she makes the entire thing incredibly more real and present. Instead of being a faceless emitter of toxic propaganda, Radio Milles Collines becomes a much more real institution, populated by flesh and blood people with specific personalities. Via eyewitness accounts we sit in on some of the editorial meetings, we are told how the poison messages were sent by named officials in the army or Hutu Power leadership, she quotes from the broadcasts.

We get a feel for the smirkingly jokey style of Valérie Bemeriki and we get several pages of the account Ruggiu gave years later to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda of, on several occasions, being shown round roadblocks in Kigali by the side of which were piles of bodies of people who had been hacked to pieces. He noticed that some of them were still breathing and suggested to the Interahamwe that they shoot dying to put them out of their misery, but the blood thirsty young men just laughed and said the ‘cockroaches’ weren’t worth a bullet (p.209).

So every element of the genocidal regime is treated in much more detail than in other accounts, and the repeated references to specific named individuals responsible for specific genocidal decisions and actions begins to build them up into real people. You can see why Melvin’s research was quoted in court proceedings against the génocidaires and why she is liberally quoted on the Wikipedia pages about many of them. It’s because she does such a good job of associating named individuals with specific meetings in specific locations which took specific murderous decisions.

She appears to have set out to document every single instance in which Tutsi were killed, even when it was ‘only’ a handful, documenting the time and place and numbers and the police or militia or army leaders in charge. In this sense the book is like a very long charge sheet.

The trials

And this brings us to another positive aspect of the book, which is the way she then follows these named individuals into their afterlives, on the run from the authorities, arrested, and then their court proceedings at the ICTR.

All the other books I’ve read roll straight on from the genocide to the refugee crisis in eastern Zaire, to the regrouping of the génocidaires in the camps, to the eventual invasion of eastern Zaire by the RPF, on to the overthrow of President Mobutu and so on, in a continuous sweep of unfolding history.

Melvern ignores all that, ends her main narrative with the victory of the RPF in July 1994, and then switches her focus to the efforts to bring the génocidaires to justice. And because she has named them so consistently throughout the text and, as far as the evidence allows, pinned them to specific meetings and decisions, by the end of the book these guys are more than just names, they have the same kind of monstrous reality as Goebbels or Himmler.

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Twelve of the leading Rwandan génocidaires and the sentences they received at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

This focus on trials prompted me to do a bit of searching on the internet and Immediately discovered  the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s website. As far as I can see this shut down in 2015, along with the court, some 20 years after it was set up. But it contains a simple but fascinating page listing all 92 genocidaires who were brought to with full details of the charges and their sentences.

Once I discovered this I began to look up the individuals Melvern mentions, for example the man who emerges as the closest thing to a mastermind of the genocide, Bagosora and then go on to surf through the documents relating to his trial.

Fascinating to see how so many of the people she mentions in the book were indeed brought to justice (including the popular singer Simon Bikindi, who wrote songs and made speeches inciting the Hutu majority to liquidate the Tutsi.)

We learn about the trial of Hassan Ngeze, director and editor of the Kangura magazine which published the ‘Hutu Ten Commandments’ in its December 1990 edition and played a key role in spreading Hutu supremacist ideology. During the genocide, Ngeze helped organise the Impuzamugambi militia and is  said to have personally supervised and taken part in torture, mass rape and killings of Tutsis.

About Matthieu Ngirumpatse and Edouard Karemera, key figures in organising the genocide who were both sentenced to life imprisonment. The RTLM directors Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean Bosco Barayagwiza, mentioned above, were both given life sentences.

Venturing beyond the ICTR website, I discovered that the smirking RTLM announcer Valérie Bemeriki was convicted by a gacaca or local community court and sentenced to life imprisonment which she is currently serving in Gikondo prison, Kigali.

Main findings and insights

The Rwandan genocide was preventable. Decisive intervention by a sizeable and properly armed force could have stopped it.

The West behaved shamefully. After ten of its peacekeepers were murdered, Belgium withdrew the rest and the Belgian foreign minister Willy Claes rang round other nations telling them to withdraw their troops as well, claiming they’d all be massacred (p.219).

It’s a complicated series of events, and Melvern documents how arguments and debates and discussions influence a body like the United Nations, but there was a catalogue of failings which she anatomises in great detail. One of these was that Dallaire’s alarmed messages were often intercepted and superceded by the far more calm and complacent assessments of the situation by Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh.

I knew the US not only downplayed the genocide but actively undermined the UNAMIR force. As the genocide got underway, the Americans argued for downscaling the UN presence against all Dallaire’s protests.

The US put every obstacle in the way. (p.234)

But it was news to me that the UK took America’s side and also made every effort to downplay the situation, to resist requests for help, only reluctantly sending a fleet of clapped out lorries towards the end of the murdering. David Hannay, Baron Hannay of Chiswick (Winchester and New College, Oxford) was our man at the UN, arguing that we shouldn’t intervene to save the genocide victims. John Major was British Prime Minister. Eternal shame.

To be fair to the Western powers, Melvern’s account brings out how a number of players, starting with the Rwandan government, managed to hoodwink people for some time by portraying the violence as a fresh outbreak of the civil war. In other words, some Western officials and most of the Western media thought it was just a resumption of the hostilities which had characterised the country since the October 1990 invasion.

These people, exemplified by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright, later claimed they weren’t properly briefed by the UN bureaucracy, and she shows how there’s a flicker of truth in this, for example the way Booh-Booh doctored and toned down the accurate factual briefs an anguished Dallaire was sending daily from Kigali.

But it doesn’t hold up as much of a defence, because the foreign ministers of some other countries quickly grasped what was going on and spoke out against it early and strong, notably Colin Keating ambassador from New Zealand and the ambassadors from the Czech Republic, Spain, Argentina who lobbied hard for the massacres to be formally defined as a genocide. But the representatives of America and Britain vetoed this and they had the decisive say. Shame.

It goes without saying that the French government:

  • helped the genocidal regime at every opportunity
  • had military advisers at every level of the Rwandan army and Presidential Guard who did absolutely nothing to intervene or prevent the massacre
  • continued to break sanctions and fly in weapons to arm the murderers even after the genocidal massacres had begun
  • offered refuge to the wife and relatives of the assassinated president – some of the hardest core promulgators of racist, supremacist, genocidal Hutu Power ideology – in Paris
  • and then sent in a massive consignment of troops and equipment, not to stop the genocide, but to set up a safe haven in the western part of Rwanda into which over a million Hutu refugees, including the entire genocidal government, leaders of the murderous militias, could flee and be safe from the advancing RPF

“It was the French government which facilitated the cohesive migration of the interim government, in effect the political, military and administrative leadership of the genocide.” (p.250)

  • and then, when the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established, sent emissaries, journalists and historians to meet its new head, South African judge Richard Goldstone, to tell him that the stories about the genocide were simply untrue (p.275)

And then when the genocide was over… the French ambassador to the UN, Jean-Bernard Mérimée, blamed the UK and the USA for everything (p.260)

The French government stood shoulder to shoulder every step of the way with the administrators of the greatest genocide since the Holocaust. Even after the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had conquered the whole of the country and brought the genocide to a halt – the only power on earth which acted to do so – the French continued to undermine them in every way possible, blame them for shooting down the president’s plane, accusing the RPF of massacres while conveniently sheltering, supporting and overlooking the crimes of their own Hutu clients. Viva la France!

RPF official Tito Rutaremara documented fifty-six ways in which the militias killed people in the genocide the French claimed never happened, including using machetes, clubs studded with nails, screwdrivers, hammers, hoes, spades and so on (p.253). Pregnant women were commonly disembowelled. Men had their penises cut off. Young children were chopped in half.

Accounts tend to focus on the anti-Tutsi propaganda and massacres, but Melvern brings out in some detail that many of the victims were moderate Hutus, who the Hutu fanatics saw as traitors to their own race, starting with the Hutu Prime Minister and all the moderate members of Habyarimana’s cabinet who were murdered in their homes within hours of the plane crash.

She also brings out the north-south divide in the country. The Hutu Power heartland was in the north and sometimes Hutus from the south were murdered indiscriminately simply because they were southerners. Up to 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered, but as many as 200,000 Hutus were, too.

Main conclusion

Arriving exhausted at the end of the book, after 284 pages of gruellingly detailed evidence, one big conclusion leapt out at me. Gourevitch and Keane’s accounts both betray their nice white guy bewilderment and incomprehension at the scale and ferocity of the killing. Both men say, in effect, I have no idea why this happened.

Reading Melvern’s book totally explains why it happened. She explains how Hutu-Tutsi tension was over a century old, but received its modern animus as long ago as 1959 when the Hutu Revolution swept away the Tutsi monarchy, amid the usual feverish revolutionary rhetoric about overthrowing the exploiters and taking back their country for themselves.

She shows how this rhetoric never subsequently went away but became entrenched and embedded at every level of Rwandan society. Hutu propagandists, of which there were many, tried to make it a central plank of state education that the Tutsi were not Rwandan at all, but invaders from the North who had oppressed and enslaved the virtuous Hutu.

There was continual low-level harassment of Tutsis from independence in 1962 right through to 1994, which occasionally rose to the higher level of localised massacres. Real massacres. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of innocent Tutsis were hacked to pieces or hammered to death at intervals and various locations throughout the 1960s and 70s.

“I would like to inform the chamber that this hatred existed for a very long time, since 1959 in particular, until the time when the genocide took place in 1994.” (Militia leader and ICTR prosecution witness Omar Serushago, quoted on page 169)

So this was emphatically not a harmonious society living in peace. It was a society riven with inter-ethnic tension, in which localised pogroms broke out again and again, in which media at all levels – papers, magazines and radios – pumped out a continuous stream of anti-Tutsi propaganda.

In other words, closer familiarity with the problems of Rwandan society turns your attitude around 180 degrees, from wondering how such a thing could ever have happened, to wondering why it didn’t happen sooner.

In a sense the interest in the story is that such ferocious hatred had to wait so long to burst out into the open. And it’s interesting that it only did so under the stress of three Big Events:

  1. In 1989 there was a worldwide glut of raw materials which led to a collapse in the price for Rwanda’s main exports, tea and coffee, which itself led to widespread poverty, misery and the traditional search for scapegoats. The government encouraged the 90% Hutu population to blame ‘Tutsi exploiters’ in much the same way the Nazi government encouraged the German population to blame all their tribulations on the Jews. So: Economic stress.
  2. In October 1990 the small Rwandan Patriotic Force, soon to be led by Paul Kagame, invaded the north of the country, starting what became known as the Rwandan civil war, which underwent fluctuating fortunes for the invader and the government but led, eventually, to a peace treaty, the Arusha Accords, signed in the autumn of 1993. So: Civil war.
  3. Assassination of the president. On the night of 6 April 1994 Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down as it came in to land at Kigali airport. It was the middle of the night so families across the country heard about it on the TV news, which spread the rumour that the country was once again, suddenly, under treacherous attack. All the people the journalists spoke to remember where they were when they heard the news. It was a JFK or 9/11 moment. Everyone knew something terrible was going to happen, a state of extreme crisis was created. So: mysterious assassination of the country’s leader.

And then there’s the fourth factor or element, which isn’t quite an event but rather the thing Melvern devotes her book to, which is:

  1. The plan. Rwanda was a highly regimented, hierarchical and organised society. Since the RPF invasion of October 1990, influential elements in the cabinet, the civil service and above all the military, including the sinister Zero Network, had been making detailed plans to carry out a systematic, well-organised extermination of all the Tutsis which would end the Tutsi Problem forever.

So if you want a summary of why the Rwandan genocide took place, it goes something like this:

  1. Generations-long inter-ethnic hatred directed from the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority.
  2. Deep rural depression, affecting the living standards of most of the population and exacerbating existing tensions and resentments.
  3. Invasion of the country by a largely Tutsi force leading to civil war which could easily be portrayed as an attempt to reverse the Hutu revolution and re-subject the Hutu population to slavery and serfdom.
  4. The sudden, terrifying and mysterious assassination of the president leading to widespread panic and hysteria.
  5. At which (perfect psychological) moment the Hutu Power strategists immediately began implementing a far-reaching and well-worked-out plan for mass extermination, rousing a hard core of about 100,000 fanatical Hutu nationalists, at all levels of local government, who used lists of Tutsi names and addresses to drive from one neighbourhood to another, from one village to another, systematically rounding up all the Tutsi ‘spies and traitors’ who they accused of planning to help the invaders complete the reconquest of their country, and methodically hacking them to pieces with machetes, in a bid to end the ‘Tutsi Problem’ forever.

Surely if you put it like that, the Rwandan genocide is far from incomprehensible but can be seen as the result of a series of stresses (poverty, civil war) applied to a society already boiling over with seething hatred, all of which were ruthlessly exploited by the genocidaires who Melvern goes to such lengths to identify and provide evidence directly relating them to the killing.

Surely a good grasp of the background and the sequence of events makes the genocide seem the reverse of incomprehensible – it comes to seem human, all too human.

Credit

Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide by Linda Melvern was published by Verso Books in 2004. All references are to the revised 2006 paperback edition.


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