Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave by Aphra Behn (1688)

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689) is generally considered the first known professional female writer in England. She was a very successful playwright, producing at least 15 plays, mostly Restoration comedies. She was a widely published poet, translator, essayist and writer of prose fictions.

She lived through troubled times – growing up during the civil wars (1637 – 53) she was 9 or so when King Charles was executed in January 1649, lived through the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and was 20 or so when Charles II was restored. There are at least four biographies of Behn, plus numerous introductions to her work. They all agree that she welcomed the return of the Stuart dynasty, was popular with Charles II, and even did some spying for him abroad (on a journey to Antwerp). Back in London she was part of the set of rakish poets and playwrights which included John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, to whom she dedicated a poem.

‘Behn was a lifelong and militant royalist, and her fictions are quite consistent in portraying virtuous royalists and put-upon nobles who are opposed by petty and evil republicans/Parliamentarians.’ (Wikipedia)

Charles II died in 1685 (in Oroonoko he is referred to as ‘his late Majesty, of sacred Memory’) and was succeeded by his brother James II, triggering an uprising by Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, in the Protestant cause.

Monmouth’s rebellion was successfully defeated, but three years later:

  1. James’s Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, giving birth to a son, who everyone knew was set to be raised a Catholic, with the threat that Britain would become a Catholic country
  2. coincided with James’s foolish decision to prosecute seven Anglican bishops for seditious libel

The combination of these events triggered a rebellion by England’s richest Protestant landowners, who a) expelled James b) invited Prince William of Orange (a state in the Low Countries) – who had a sort of legitimacy because he was  married to James’s (solidly Protestant) daughter, Mary – to come and rule Britain in his place.

This seismic event in British history and all its political and legal consequences, for a long time referred to as The Glorious Revolution, had barely bedded in when Behn died, aged (if her birth date is correct) just 49.

Oroonoko

Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave is the longest and most successful of Behn’s prose pieces. It was a bestseller in her lifetime, was quickly turned into a successful stage play and went on to have at least three other stage adaptations and revivals.

Basically, it’s a tragic love story. Oroonoko is a prince of Coramantian, the 17th century name for what later became known as the Gold Coast, and later still became modern-day Ghana. Oroonoko is the grandson of the king of Coromantian, who has an impressive harem of wives. By the age of 17 Oroonoko is a heroic warrior and goes to war under the guardianship of the people’s greatest general, and blossoms into:

one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars: so that he was ador’d as the Wonder of all that World, and the Darling of the Soldiers.

The text has that tone throughout – Oroonoko is depicted as the greatest, noblest, most educated, wisest and wittiest and bravest and manliest man that ever lived.

Oroonoko is available in several OUP and Penguin paperback editions, all of which are introduced by feminist scholars, all of whom make the same point that Behn was an ‘outsider’ in the ‘man’s world’ of literary Restoration England. Thus they all point out the poignancy / structural appropriateness of Behn depicting another type of outsider to the ‘white supremacist, racist, misogynist discourse’ of Restoration England – a black man. One outsider writing about another.

Except that, as I read Oroonoko, it seemed to me Behn makes her black hero less of an outsider than you might expect. In fact he comes over as an epitome of civilisation, conceived very much along European lines:

for his Discourse was admirable upon almost any Subject: and whoever had heard him speak, would have been convinced of their Errors, that all fine Wit is confined to the white Men, especially to those of Christendom; and would have confess’d that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a Soul, as politick Maxims, and was as sensible of Power, as any Prince civilis’d in the most refined Schools of Humanity and Learning, or the most illustrious Courts.

Not least because Oroonoko has had European tutors and governors:

Some Part of it we may attribute to the Care of a Frenchman of Wit and Learning, who finding it turn to a very good Account to be a sort of Royal Tutor to this young Black, and perceiving him very ready, apt, and quick of Apprehension, took a great Pleasure to teach him Morals, Language and Science; and was for it extremely belov’d and valu’d by him. Another Reason was, he lov’d when he came from War, to see all the English Gentlemen that traded thither; and did not only learn their Language, but that of the Spaniard also, with whom he traded afterwards for Slaves.

Thus:

Oroonoko, who was more civiliz’d, according to the European Mode, than any other had been, and took more Delight in the White Nations; and, above all, Men of Parts and Wit.

So Oroonoko is not quite the ‘outsider’ or ‘other’ figure that the politically correct introductions led me to believe.

It’s also striking that Behn deliberately removes from her hero some of the most prominent physical characteristics of people of colour.

His Nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat: His Mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turn’d Lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so nobly and exactly form’d, that bating his Colour, there could be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome. There was no one Grace wanting, that bears the Standard of true Beauty. His Hair came down to his Shoulders, by the Aids of Art, which was by pulling it out with a Quill, and keeping it comb’d; of which he took particular Care.

He does not have a large nose, or ‘great turn’d lips’, or frizzy Afro hair, but a Roman nose, flat lips, and shoulder-length, straight hair. He sounds more like a native Indian than an African. As educated as a European? Looking more like an Indian than an African? this is not quite the African prince I had expected.

Anyway, back to the love story. In the heat of the battle, the brave old general sees an arrow heading for Oroonoko and throws himself in front of it, dying from his wound. The general had one daughter, Imoinda, so Oroonoko goes to see her to tell her how bravely her father died.

Imoinda is, of course, a stunning beauty. The leading quality of Behn’s mind is exorbitance: everything is the bestest of the best.

This old dead Hero had one only Daughter left of his Race, a Beauty, that to describe her truly, one need say only, she was Female to the noble Male; the beautiful Black Venus to our young Mars; as charming in her Person as he, and of delicate Virtues. I have seen a hundred White Men sighing after her, and making a thousand Vows at her Feet, all in vain and unsuccessful. And she was indeed too great for any but a Prince of her own Nation to adore.

And Imoinda’s wonderful appearance is confirmed when Oroonoko actually visits her:

When he came, attended by all the young Soldiers of any Merit, he was infinitely surpris’d at the Beauty of this fair Queen of Night, whose Face and Person were so exceeding all he had ever beheld, that lovely Modesty with which she receiv’d him, that Softness in her Look and Sighs, upon the melancholy Occasion of this Honour that was done by so great a Man as Oroonoko, and a Prince of whom she had heard such admirable Things; the Awfulness wherewith she receiv’d him, and the Sweetness of her Words and Behaviour while he stay’d, gain’d a perfect Conquest over his fierce Heart.

The point of giving these three long quotes is to show how Behn’s prose works – with long sentences which swell with Romantic clichés and stereotypes – the language of Restoration poetry which was devoted to describing a narrow group of stereotyped qualities – Beauty of body and face; Love with its world of sighs and passions; Warrior qualities of sternness and bravery; and the Tragic Mode of grief and tears.

And every Important word is in Capitals.

Slavery

In another reversal of the politically correct interpretation of Oroonoko as a victim of white imperialism, he quite calmly gives the fair Imoinda a gift of slaves which he captured in the recent battle. The casualness with which Behn describes this suggests that slave-taking, selling and giving were part and parcel of the African societies of the time, or at least that Behn thought so:

So that having made his first Compliments, and presented her an hundred and fifty Slaves in Fetters, he told her with his Eyes, that he was not insensible of her Charms; while Imoinda, who wish’d for nothing more than so glorious a Conquest, was pleas’d to believe, she understood that silent Language of new-born Love; and, from that Moment, put on all her Additions to Beauty.

Note how the 150 slaves are mentioned only in passing and don’t merit as much space as the looks of love which the two lead characters exchange.

In fact the text then goes on to make it perfectly plain that Oroonoko is a slave trader in his own right. When an English ship arrives on the coast:

The Master of it had often before been in these Countries, and was very well known to Oroonoko, with whom he had traffick’d for Slaves, and had us’d to do the same with his Predecessors… To this Captain [Oroonoko] sold abundance of his Slaves…

So when Oroonoko is himself made a slave, it is no more than the fate he has dealt out to hundreds of his countrymen. In fact, when he is caught and sold into slavery Oroonoko he will meet many of the blacks he himself sold into slavery in the previous years.

Some of the mechanics of slavery are explained from what is, presumably, first hand experience.

  • how merchants in the West Indies contract with the captains of slave ships to bring back specified numbers of slaves
  • how the slave traders break up the slave into ‘lots’, deliberately mingling men, women and children from different tribes, so that they often speak different languages and dialects, to prevent them conspiring together
  • how the slave owners ignore the slaves’ real names and give them simpler, easier English names (as Oroonoko will be renamed ‘Caesar’, see below)

The narrator

The tale is told in the first person by a woman narrator, made plain in several places, including:

his Misfortune was, to fall in an obscure World, that afforded only a Female Pen to celebrate his Fame; tho’ I doubt not but it had lived from others Endeavours, if the Dutch, who immediately after his Time took that Country, had not killed, banished and dispersed all those that were capable of giving the World this great Man’s Life, much better than I have done.

The narrator tells us that she lived in Surinam, and spends a couple of pages describing the character of the native inhabitants with whom she and the other white colonists deal and trade. Among these is the description of an elaborate native head-dress the narrator was given and which she later donated to ‘the King’s Theatre’ for a production of The Indian Queen.

Now this was a real historical play which was produced in Behn’s London, so many critics see the story as overt autobiography, linking the narrating voice directly with Behn herself which – along with the vividness of her descriptions of the local climate, flowers and wildlife (armadillos) – persuades some modern scholars that Behn did indeed travel to Surinam and personally witness much of what she describes.

Whereas other modern scholars completely disagree, and point out that Behn could have gathered every scrap of detail she uses in the narrative from current books of exotic travel and description.

You pays your money and you believes whichever version takes your fancy.

The plot

Oroonoka falls in love with Imoinda and they perform a ceremony of troth-making, though not officially getting married.

The king of Coramantia – Oroonoka’s grandfather – hears about Imoinda’s wondrous beauty and also that Oroonoka is wooing her. He has her brought to his palace to join his harem, specifically to join him in the royal bath. Imoinda throws herself on his mercy and begs her innocence. The king ignores her pleas, takes her into his bath and into his bed. However, we are assured quite a few times that he is old and impotent – therefore he may ogle her and caress her but cannot ‘possess’ her. This is to ensure she remains a virgin for Oroonoka.

A word about virginity

In The Vicar of Wakefield, and Pamela and Oroonoko I am fascinated by the intense importance – the moral and emotional and legal and religious importances – that are put on the quality of female virginity, and also by the numerous flowery periphrases which are used to tastefully describe it.

 whether she was robb’d of that Blessing which was only due to his Faith and Love.

I am not yet known to my Husband.

’Twas not enough to appease him, to tell him, his Grandfather was old, and could not that Way injure him

for Imoinda being his lawful Wife by solemn Contract, ’twas he was the injur’d Man,

I believe he omitted saying nothing to this young Maid, that might persuade her to suffer him to seize his own, and take the Rights of Love.

… the Vows she made him, that she remained a spotless Maid till that Night, and that what she did with his Grandfather had robb’d him of no Part of her Virgin-Honour; the Gods, in Mercy and Justice, having reserved that for her plighted Lord, to whom of Right it belonged.

the old King had hitherto not been able to deprive him of those Enjoyments which only belonged to him,

But as it is the greatest Crime in Nature amongst them, to touch a Woman after having been possess’d by a Son, a Father, or a Brother, so now he looked on Imoinda as a polluted thing wholly unfit for his Embrace;

In part, then, Oroonoko joins the vast record of humanity’s complete inability to sensibly organise relationships between the two sexes which we find the human species cast into.

Millennia from now visitors from Mars will leaf through these records in disbelief at the enormous weight of importance which was put on the insertion of a part of the male anatomy into a part of the female anatomy – an event of such vast importance that it inspired murders, suicides, drove people to ruin their own and other’s lives, inspired tribes and entire nations to go to war about it. The Martians will flick through these records and their coy circumlocutions in disbelief at the trouble it caused.

More plot

Oroonoko is struck down with despair at the news his beloved has been taken off by the king. But his own life is in danger if the king thinks he still loves her. So Oroonoko has to feign indifference to Imoinda, even when they are both at court, even when he sees her, at the end of the evening’s entertainment, being led off into the king’s bed-chamber.

Luckily, Oroonoko recruits one of the king’s courtiers, the handsome Aboan, to his cause. This young man chats up one of the older ‘discarded’ mistresses of the king’s harem, Onahal, and persuades her to let him and Oroonoko in a back entrance of the palace one night. Oroonoko goes straight to Imoinda’s chamber, where:

I believe she was not long resisting those Arms where she so longed to be; and having Opportunity, Night, and Silence, Youth, Love, and Desire, he soon prevail’d, and ravished in a Moment what his old Grandfather had been endeavouring for so many Months.

While Aboan has to pay the price of old Onahal’s helping them, namely allowing the old woman to take him to bed. Here you can see the deliberate pairing of the Serious and the Comic, our hero’s coupling with the beautiful heroine paralleled by the essentially comic coupling of May and December in another bedroom nearby. You can see how this is designed to prompt fine sentiments about the former, interspersed with comedy or comic revulsion, at the latter.

Dawn comes too quickly, servants try to enter Imoinda’s chamber, Oroonoko threatens to kill them, calls the chamber the chamber of love, kisses her one last time then makes his escape. The servants report back to the king, confirming all his worst suspicions. Well, now she has been ‘possessed’ by another man, she is not fit for the harem and so the king orders Imoinda (and Onahal, who obviously helped her) to be sold as slaves.

Then he repents (or Behn contrives for him to repent) in such a way as to come round to respecting the couple’s young love. According to the twisted of the day, the king cannot undo Imoinda’s fate, but he can make it ‘respectable’ by declaring he had her executed. That is less shameful than being sold a slave. And so the king sends messengers to Oroonoko telling him he’s had Imoinda executed.

Oroonoko was at the army camp expecting an attack from the enemy. He slumps onto the carpet in suicidal despair. The enemy attacks and is winning and the captains come to beg Oroonoko snap out of it. Eventually he does, declares he will die in battle, storms out of his tent, and leads the army to a famous victory. He captures the enemy leader, Jamoan, single-handed, and comes to respect his nobility and dignity.

You can see how it is less a plot than a succession, a kind of gallery of scenes presenting the highest type of noble figure – kings, princes, generals – displaying the noblest emotions – true love, true grief, valour in battle, chivalry to a defeated opponent.

The weeks and months pass and Oroonoko becomes an accepted figure at the court; he has forgiven the king and the two rub along OK, but he has never overcome his grief at the supposed execution of his true love.

And English ship docks in the port and the captain, a man of culture and education, treats Oroonoko and his followers to a grand feast and tour of the ship – at the climax of which they seize them, throw them in chains and sail away. Oroonoko tries to kill himself, first by beating his head against the floor or walls, then starving himself to death, but the captain and he have a lengthy wordy exchange which results in the Oroonoko being given liberty of the ship on the basis that he will be freed when they reach the next port.

But they’re not. They arrive at Surinam, an English colony. Here Oroonoko is sold off in a lot of seventeen slaves. He throws a parting curse at the captain of the ship and worthlessness of the God he swore his vows by.

Oroonoko is sold to a Cornish man, Trefry, who hears Oroonoko speak and realises he not only speaks English but us a man of ‘quality’. He impresses everyone who meets him. Trefry gives him the slave name Caesar. They travel upriver for days. When they arrive Caesar behaves more like a governor than a slave – many of the other blacks on the plantation were slaves he himself consigned to their condition but, recognising natural Nobility, instead of stoning him, they flock to worship him and prostrate themselves at his feet!

Trefry entertains him at the plantation mansion telling him, among other things about a beautiful young slave woman they’ve christened Clemene, and who everyone is in love with. Trefry takes Caesar to see her and, of course, she is none other than Imoinda! She faints, he runs to catch er, Trefry is delighted this little romance has played out on his plantation. Hidden in all the alarums is the surprising news that Imoinda is only 15 or 16. Or, as Behn puts it, in her operatic baroque style:

Trefry, who was naturally amorous, and delighted to talk of Love as well as any Body, proceeded to tell him, they had the most charming Black that ever was beheld on their Plantation, about fifteen or sixteen Years old, as he guess’d; that for his Part he had done nothing but sigh for her ever since she came; and that all the White Beauties he had seen, never charm’d him so absolutely as this fine Creature had done; and that no Man, of any Nation, ever beheld her, that did not fall in love with her; and that she had all the Slaves perpetually at her Feet; and the whole Country resounded with the Fame of Clemene, for so (said he) we have christen’d her: but she denies us all with such a noble Disdain, that ’tis a Miracle to see, that she who can give such eternal Desires, should herself be all Ice and all Unconcern.

Then again, we know that Oroonoko entered the army and had become a noted captain by the age of seventeen:

as soon as he could bear a Bow in his Hand, and a Quiver at his Back, was sent into the Field, to be train’d up by one of the oldest Generals to War; where, from his natural Inclination to Arms, and the Occasions given him, with the good Conduct of the old General, he became, at the Age of seventeen, one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars:

So it’s a love story between a 17 year-old and a 16 year-old.

At this point the narrator enters the story. She has been introduced to Oroonoko, who has told her the story of  his life to date, corroborated by the French tutor who was captured along with the prince and his courtiers, and brought across the ocean, though cannot be enslaved (because he’s a Christian). She has assured Oroonoko she will petition the governor to get him freed. We also learn that Imoinda’s body is decorated, as is Oroonoko’s:

and tho’ from her being carved in fine Flowers and Birds all over her Body, we took her to be of Quality before, yet when we knew Clemene was Imoinda, we could not enough admire her. I had forgot to tell you, that those who are nobly born of that Country, are so delicately cut and raised all over the Fore-part of the Trunk of their Bodies, that it looks as if it were japan’d, the Works being raised like high Point round the Edges of the Flowers. Some are only carved with a little Flower, or Bird, at the Sides of the Temples, as was Cæsar; and those who are so carved over the Body, resemble our antient Picts that are figur’d in the Chronicles, but these Carvings are more delicate.

‘Carved’? ‘Cut and raised’? Does this mean tattooed, or scarred so as to create patterned ridges of scar tissue?

Oroonoko and Imoinda live – and are accepted by everyone – as man and wife. She becomes pregnant. The couple are always at the narrator’s house, eating, and she teaches them about history and Christianity which, however, Oroonoko doesn’t understand and mocks.

There is a pause in the narrative while the narrator explains that she sailed to Surinam with her father who was meant to become Lieutenant-General of 36 islands ‘beside the continent of Surinam’ but died on the voyage out. Nonetheless, she is put up in the finest house in the colony, Parham House.

It is important to grasp that Orinooko does not live the life of a slave at all – occasionally they go and visit the ‘Negro villages’ where the slaves live. Instead, he lives a life of leisure and diversion with the narrator and other white gentry. In this holiday capacity Oroonoko has several adventures:

  • he’s one of a party with the narrator who are surprised by a massive female tiger which threatens them but Oroonoko kills with one sword stroke
  • he hunts and kills another tiger which has been terrorising the neighbourhood
  • he fishes for the legendary numb-eel and is struck so numb by it he falls into the river and is carried some distance downstream, unconscious, before being rescued

Some kind of war breaks out with the native Indians, who attack white settlements and kill white settlers. The narrator, some others and Oroonoko go on a long journey down the river to visit a village of Indians and we are treated to an extended ethnographic description of their appearance and customs.

They meet some Indians of a different height and style, who tell them they’ve returned from the mountains where gold tumbles down in the streams. Once known this spurs gold fever in the settlers. More than once the narrator laments that the British government (well, Charles II) let the Dutch take over the colony of Surinam as a result of the third of the three brief Dutch wars of the 1660s (under the Treaty of Breda in 1667).

As Imoinda becomes more heavily pregnant, Oroonoko chafes more and more at, not exactly his slavery, because he isn’t used as a slave, but certainly at his lack of freedom. He calls together the Negroes on their free day and inspires, not a rebellion, but an exodus: they pack up all their stuff and leave, planning to cross rivers, mountains and forests and set up their own colony of the free.

They are followed by the governor-general, William Byam, and about 600 men. They catch up with the renegades and there’s a fierce fight, but the rebel blacks are slowly defeated or persuaded to stop fighting by their womenfolk, until only Ceasar and his most loyal lieutenant, Tuscan, are fighting on.

The governor promises them safe passage if they yield, and honourable Trefry goes talk to them and persuades them to surrender. They are all taken back to the plantation where Caesar and Tuscan are suddenly seized, tied to stakes, and whipped till the flesh falls off their bones. Many of the whippers are the very slaves he tried to free and who pretended to worship him. They rub pepper into the wounds and tie him to the ground.

The narrator didn’t witness this. She and the other white women, when they heard Caesar had led the slaves away, all fled to the safety of the river (?) where they were put in charge of the gallant Colonel Martin. When they hear the rebellion is put down they return to their house on the plantation (Parham House) then go to see Caesar in his wretched condition. They have him released, put into a bath to wash away the pepper, and surgeon called to administer healing balm. Caesar thanks them and respects Colonel Martin but says he vows to live solely to take his revenge on Governor Byam.

The Governor calls his council (of white trash, exiles and renegades) who call for Caesar to be hanged. But Trefry nobly points out the council has no authority over his estate (where they’ve brought Caesar to recuperate) and so he lives.

He lives but he vows eternal vengeance on Byam. But then he quavers in his determination, knowing he will not survive the murder and – worse – his beautiful Imoinda will be punished, maybe raped or gang-raped. Therefore (in the twisted logic of high opera) he resolves to kill her first.

He takes her up to a hilltop, explains his plan – to kill Byam, then take the punishment, but doesn’t want to leave her exposed – and she agrees, and amid tears and noble declamations – he stabs her to death!

while Tears trickled down his Cheeks, hers were smiling with Joy she should die by so noble a Hand, and be sent into her own Country (for that’s their Notion of the next World) by him she so tenderly loved, and so truly ador’d in this: For Wives have a Respect for their Husbands equal to what any other People pay a Deity; and when a Man finds any Occasion to quit his Wife, if he love her, she dies by his Hand; if not, he sells her, or suffers some other to kill her. It being thus, you may believe the Deed was soon resolv’d on; and ’tis not to be doubted, but the parting, the eternal Leave-taking of two such Lovers, so greatly born, so sensible, so beautiful, so young, and so fond, must be very moving,

Mind you, the details are extraordinarily gory:

All that Love could say in such Cases, being ended, and all the intermitting Irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young and ador’d Victim lays herself down before the Sacrificer; while he, with a Hand resolved, and a Heart-breaking within, gave the fatal Stroke, first cutting her Throat, and then severing her yet smiling Face from that delicate Body, pregnant as it was with the Fruits of tenderest Love.

He waits two days by the body but is then distraught to discover that excess of grief and lack of food have made him weak. When he tries to stand, he staggers. He rests another six days but only becomes weaker and weaker.

Meanwhile the narrator and his friends have become alarmed at the disappearance of Caesar and Imoinda and send out no fewer than hundred servants and slaves to find him. They find him in a clearing thanks to the smell of Imoinda’s rotting corpse.

Good God, why has he murdered his beautiful wife? He explains his plan but is too weak to move. He cuts flesh from his neck, then disembowels himself.

He stabs to the heart the first man who approaches him, but then Tuscan disarms him (be receiving the knife in the arm) and the other catch him and carry him back to Parham House. He is now skin and bone, like a death’s head.

Then one of the governor’s wretched criminal confederates comes and seizes Orookoko, not realising all he wants is to die and be with Imoinda. So when they tie him to the whipping post and announce they are going to kill him, Oroonoko is delighted.

Piece by piece they dismember his living body – cutting off his ‘members’, then his ears and nose and throwing them into the fire. Then hacking off one arm, then the other, at which point he dies. They quarter his body and send the quarters to different plantations to frighten the slaves.

Thus died this great Man, worthy of a better Fate, and a more sublime Wit than mine to write his Praise: Yet, I hope, the Reputation of my Pen is considerable enough to make his glorious Name to survive to all Ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful and the constant Imoinda.

Anti-colonialism

Nowhere does Behn express any explicit statements against slavery: it was too much a part of contemporary society, not just in Europe but in Africa and the colonies, for it to have come to seem monstrously unjust. Its evils and injustice and cruelty is amply described, but without any sense that the trade and institution itself could or should be stopped.

Instead, what Behn focuses on is the unfairness of enslaving a prince, a man of natural Nobility and Culture. The Wikipedia article and Penguin introduction both emphasise that the central pillar of Behn’s beliefs was her devotion to the principle of Monarchy. Nations need kings. Hence her enthusiastic support for Charles II. Once you grasp that this is the central principle of Behn’s worldview, then you understand:

– why she doesn’t criticise slavery, as an institution, but she does criticise the injustice of seizing Oroonoko

– why the issue of keeping one’s word is much more laboured over than slavery; for Behn, keeping one’s promise was the basis of trust, faith and society; her harshest criticism isn’t reserved for slavers as such, but for people like the sea captain who invites Oroonoko and his followers to a feast, then breaks his word to them – who promises to set them free at the next port, but breaks his word again; and for the governor of Surinam, Byam, who promises Oroonoko safe passage after his rebellion, but instead, once he gives himself up, orders his extreme whipping. In Behn’s view, men like that undermine the possibility of a civilised society, which must be based on trust and good faith.

– why the narrator is at such pains to repeated that Surinam lacks a proper governor, a representative of the king who would underpin good government. Instead it has the troth-breaking and treacherous governor Byam, and his treachery is intimately connected to the lack of his monarchical abilities. Without a True King a colony, like a nation, collapses.

– and this principle explains why Oroonoko’s Nobility and natural dignity outshine and shame the squalid brutality of his persecutors. The final scenes in which he continues smoking a pipe while his punishers cut off his members, his ears and nose and arms, is absurd from a ‘realist’ point of view, but an important token of Behn’s fervent belief in Royalism. Oroonoko is a king in the same way that Jesus was a king, full of sanctity and dignity, and beside his natural princely dignity the colonists seem like barbaric animals.

– and finally, it explains the narrator’s repeated disparaging references to the Dutch. The Dutch received the colony of Surinam as part of the Treaty of Breda of 1667 (the British received the settlement of New Amsterdam, which was to grow into New York City) and the narrator laments King Charles’s short-sightedness in giving away such a rich colony. But edge is added to her criticism because the Dutch were republicans and democrats. In Behn’s royalist view, every nation needs a king, and this is why she laments what she sees as the inevitable decline of the colony once it was handed over to democrats who, by definition, have no idea how to run a state.

Feminist scholars and critics have written scores of books and thousands of articles about Aphra Behn, raising her to sainthood in the pantheon of women writers. In doing so, they tend to equate her with their own politically correct and ultra-liberal views. They prefer to overlook the central fact that Behn was, from start to finish, in all her poems, prose and plays, a fervently right-wing, anti-democratic royalist. She would have voted for Mrs Thatcher.

Feminism

Behn is a feminist saint but it doesn’t prevent her depiction of the female lead, Imoinda, being the most clichéd and stereotypical imaginable, which will have come over from my plot summary.

On the other hand, the narrating voice, the persona she creates for herself within the text, is interesting, flexible and highly intelligent. She begs the reader’s indulgence for having a merely ‘female pen’, but this comes over as merely one of the polite formalities of the day, like the dedication and the preface and the verse prologue and so on attached to the text.

These conventional disclaimers shouldn’t distract us from her intelligence and skill, and the interest and curiosity she displays about the wildlife and climate of both the Africa of Oroonoko’s youth and the Surinam where the second half is set.

Feminist scholars and critics by the thousands have written scores of books and thousands of articles about Aphra Behn, raising her to sainthood in the pantheon of women writers. In doing so, they tend to equate her with their own politically correct and ultra-liberal views.

They prefer to overlook the central fact that Behn was, from start to finish, in all her poems, prose and plays, a fervently right-wing, anti-democratic royalist. She would have voted for Mrs Thatcher.

Is it a novel?

No, would be my answer, it is more like a Restoration play than a novel, and a restoration play – with its stock in trade of princely heroes and only the noblest and most highfalutin’ of emotions – is more like an opera than a modern play.

And towards the end it becomes more like the kind of sensationalist, penny-dreadful tracts hawked around scaffolds when criminals are to be executed, hanged or beheaded, another genre altogether.

One moment struck me as exemplifying the gap between the high-minded rhetoric of the text and the probable realities which underpin it. When Trefry describes the beautiful Clemene whose beauty ravishes everyone, Caesar asks him why he doesn’t just ‘ravish’ her, and Trefry replies:

‘I confess (said Trefry) when I have, against her Will, entertained her with Love so long, as to be transported with my Passion even above Decency, I have been ready to make Use of those Advantages of Strength and Force Nature has given me: But Oh! she disarms me with that Modesty and Weeping, so tender and so moving, that I retire, and thank my Stars she overcame me.’

I think a moment reflecting on this testimony, or text, or bit of discourse, suggests how utterly unlike the real world Behn’s fiction is, how it exists not to depict a ‘reality’ but to showcase the finest sentiments from a succession of noble characters. Indeed:

The Company laugh’d at [Trefry’s] Civility to a Slave, but Cæsar only applauded the Nobleness of his Passion and Nature…

(I wrote this observation before the final passages describing Oroonoko being whipped and peppered, murdering his wife, then wasting away, then being hacked to pieces. These final scenes seem, to me, to belong to a different genre altogether, certainly to a different register, and I wasn’t surprised to read, in the Wikipedia article about Oroonoko, that many of the details of the whipping and dismemberment might have been copied from written accounts of the appalling end of a white settle in Surinam, John Allin, which was described in detail in a contemporary publication.)

Is Oroonoko a novel? Well, it’s a long, connected narrative fiction, which is one definition. And you do get a cumulatively persuasive view of the narrator – the narrator’s tone and intentions and explanations seem assimilable to modern logic and understanding.

But the text itself, the actual story, seems to me too much like a Restoration tragedy, a contrived scaffold for unrealistically high sentiments all the way through – until it collapses in the last pages into its polar opposite, a blood-thirsty account of ‘true life crime passionel‘.

It is undeniably a precursor of the flexible, adult type of narrative which we call ‘the novel’, and yet…


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A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr

I had no idea the French were behaving so tyrannically’ (Winston Churchill, when informed how the French were planning to rig the supposedly ‘free’ elections to be held in Syria in 1943, quoted page 249)

One should kill the British wherever one finds them. They are pathological liars and that is how they have ruled the whole world. (French policeman chatting with a released Jewish terrorist, quoted on page 342)

This is a really shocking book about the long-running rivalry between the British and French in the Middle East from the outbreak of the First World War through to Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from Palestine in 1947. It makes you really despise, and even hate, the French for their corruption, cowardice, brutality and pomposity.

The book’s last part is a detailed account of Jewish terrorist campaigns against the British, not only in Palestine but in London, where clubs, government buildings and even cabinet members were targeted. I hadn’t realised how extensive it was – Churchill and young Princess Elizabeth were among targets considered for assassination. The terrorist plans of the Jewish Irgun and Stern Gangs put al-Qaeda to shame.

And the murder of hundreds of soldiers and officials in Palestine (not to mention hundreds of innocent Arabs) and the bomb attacks and letter bomb campaign in mainland Britain were aided and supported by France. Barr has the documentary evidence to prove it.

Imagine if the British secret service had given money and guns to the Islamic terrorists who carried out the Bataclan nightclub massacre. Same thing. The Jewish gangs convinced themselves that terrorism was a valid method of freeing their people from imperialist rule, just like Islamic terrorists want to overthrow the West, liberate the Holy Places and re-establish the Caliphate etc. And you do that by machine-gunning kids in nightclubs. Genius.

It’s not often a book leaves me feeling physically sick and revolted by the moral bankruptcy of the people described, but this one did. The pompous prick de Gaulle, the French diplomatic corp and security services, or the murdering Jewish terrorists – it’s hard to decide which are the more disgusting.

French failure

The French education system tells its citizens that France is home to a unique civilisation and a tradition of unparalleled military gloire. When you look closely, however, you realise it’s a lie. The French were soundly beaten by the British throughout the 18th century, when we seized both Canada and India from useless French forces in the 1750s.

After causing 25 years of mayhem across Europe in the Napoleonic Wars, the French were finally crushed at Waterloo in 1815, and went on to suffer a series of political revolutions in 1830 and 1848.

The failed 1848 revolution in France evolved, through three years of tortuous  political shenanigans, into the rule of the characteristically jumped-up, pompous ‘Emperor’ Napoleon III.

The rule of this ‘grotesque mediocrity’ (in Marx’s words) came to an inglorious end when the French were crushed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and Paris collapsed into a blood-thirsty civil war.

The French came off second best in the Scramble for Africa and were constantly irritated by the feeling that somehow the British had beaten them unfairly, had seized India, Canada and their African colonies using ‘underhand’ tactics.

Running beneath everything is France’s sulky inferiority complex to the British; forever seeking to restore the mythical gloire they fondly associated with Napoleon, and failing time after time, most glaringly at the Fashoda Crisis of 1898, when they rattled sabres and then were forced to ignominiously back down. (My notes on The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham)

France’s most notable social achievement at the turn of the century was the Dreyfus Affair which revealed the vast extent of French anti-semitism and just how culturally polarised a nation it was.

Battle lines were drawn between secular liberals and Catholic reactionaries, deep hatreds revised, Frenchmen murdered each other on the issue, the far-right proto-Fascist Action française movement was founded.

Although nationalist politics were confined to the margins in France, the ideas at their heart – a nation defined by the exclusion of those deemed not fit to belong to it, Jews quite specifically – remained undiluted as one part of a divided French culture. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 18)

At the outbreak of the First World War the French only managed to stem the German attack in 1914 with the help of a British Army. While the British Army (amazingly) held its morale throughout the war, the French army experienced widespread mutinies in 1917.

As this quick review of the history indicates, educated French people suffer from cultural schizophrenia: everything in their tradition tells them that France is unique, a beacon of civilised values, a nation of unparalleled military genius – and yet their actual historical record is one of defeat, division and civil war. The French Revolution developed into a civil war, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 split the nation, the Commune of 1870 left enduring scars, the Dreyfus Affair revealed how divided the country was.

This schizophrenia continued after the First World War. The French people were told they had won the war and yet France experienced a profound economic slump, mass unemployment and a succession of short-lived governments. Something was wrong. Something was undermining French gloire. Someone was conspiring against them. Who could it be? Of course! The British! The old enemy.

Even before the First World War there were tensions between Britain and France. We managed to sign an Entente Cordiale in 1904 but this was less a sign of friendship than a way to try and limit and control their ongoing imperial rivalry, which had led to clashes in Sudan (which the British claimed) and Morocco (which the French claimed).

Britain and France worked reasonably well together in managing the Western front during the First World War, despite recriminations and blame about the various catastrophic military initiatives. But away from the fields of Flanders, the two nations continued their fierce competition. One of the flashpoints was in what we now call the Middle East but which was still, right through the Great War and up until 1923, called the Ottoman Empire.

The sick man of Europe

Throughout the second half of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was thought to be on its last legs, staggering from one crisis to another in each of which it tended to lose another bit of territory, from the 1878 Russo-Turkish War when the Russians yet again tried to advance as far as Constantinople, through the British annexation of the theoretically Ottoman territory of Egypt in 1882, to the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 which saw bits of the formerly Ottoman Balkans handed over to Serbia and Bulgaria, and the Turco-Italian War of 1912-13 in which Italy seized the Ottoman provinces to the west of Egypt which were eventually consolidated into Italian Libya.

The Ottoman Empire attacks Russia; Russia vows revenge

After some reluctance, and only on the basis of the promise of arms, ammunition, lots of money and German military aid, the ‘Young Turk’ rulers of the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary (in October 1914).

They signaled their entry by a surprise attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet. From that point onwards, an angry Russia was determined to grab big chunks of Ottoman territory, namely Constantinople and its environs in the West, and an extended bite into Anatolia from the Russian-controlled territory of the Caucasus, in the East.

Italians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Russians all had their eyes on seizing more Ottoman territory.

The Sykes-Picot plan

This was the context in which two civil servants, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, one British, one French, drew up a map of how the Ottoman Middle East would be divided by the two countries (assuming the Allies won the war). The plan allotted a French sphere of influence in the north and a British sphere of influence in the south, with the dividing line running from Acre on the Mediterranean coast to Kirkuk in northern Iraq, near the border with Persia.

This map has four colours because the diplomats made a distinction between areas of ‘direct control’ and areas merely of ‘influence’. The yellow area roughly corresponding to modern Israel, was left open subject to further discussion.

The Sykes-Picot plan for the Ottoman Middle East (Source: The Institute for Curriculum Services)

A Line In the Sand

This is the starting point of James Barr’s history, A Line In The Sand, which is notable not so much for its coverage of the wartime context of the plan (which is thin) as for his very detailed survey of what came afterwards i.e. the consequences of the plan over the next 30 years.

This is where the book feels like it adds new and fascinating information.  It’s divided into four parts which give you a good feel of the content:

  1. The Carve-Up, 1915-1919
  2. Interwar Tensions, 1920-1939
  3. The Secret War, 1940-45
  4. Exit, 1945-49

The Sykes-Picot agreement is portrayed in conventional liberal historiography as a wicked imperialist ‘land grab’ which took no account of the wishes of the native peoples of these areas. But like all such agreements, it can also be seen as an attempt to prevent conflict between rival powers.

In fact, to gain even a basic understanding you need to realise it was just one among many post-war agreements between numerous states, all of which had to do with drawing lines on maps in an attempt to be fair to people’s nationalist aspirations while also reconciling the conflicting wishes of rival governments. Thus the treaties of:

  • Brest-Litovsk, March 1918
  • Versailles, June 1919
  • Saint-Germain-en-Laye, September 1919
  • Neuilly, November 1919
  • Trianon, June 1920
  • Sevres, August 1920
  • Rapallo, November 1920
  • Riga, March 1921
  • Lausanne, July 1923

All of these consisted of drawing lines on maps and trying to get warring parties to agree to them, and all of them ignored the interests of numerous national and ethnic groups on the ground: for example, the Poles and Ruthenians left on the wrong side of the new Polish border with Ukraine, or the three million Germans who found themselves stuck inside the newly invented nation of Czechoslovakia, the Germans isolated in the newly ‘free’ city of Danzig, the Romanians caught inside Bulgaria, the Bulgarians caught inside the new Hungary. And so on and so on.

It was an era of bad maps, of diplomats trying their best to create viable states out of the enormous chaos left by the collapse of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

To single out Sykes-Picot for special opprobrium seems silly to me. Bad maps pregnant with all kinds of future problems were being created all over Europe.

Post-war rivals

The 1920s in Syria

Barr doesn’t mention any of these other treaties or situate Syke-Picot in the broader post-war settlement (which is, admittedly, huge and horribly complex). For a really sophisticated account of the agreement (and of the key role played in it by Russia, who Barr doesn’t mention at all) I strongly recommend Sean McMeekin’s brilliant account of the period:

Instead Barr focuses very narrowly on the rivalry between Britain and France in the Middle East which followed the Great War and it’s here that his detailed account of the politicking between the two supposed allies is genuinely eye-opening.

Broadly speaking the French, acting on the Sykes-Picot deal, moved into Syria and Lebanon, where they had long-standing cultural links, with French schools and institutions etc, although it is a mark of French arrogance, insensitivity and stupidity that they also based their claim on the legacy of the crusaders (!), the majority of whom had been French and had only been kicked out of the region as recently as 1291. French premier Clemenceau claimed that France had:

a centuries-old Protectorate, the origins of which date back to the Crusades.’ (quoted page 75)

In fact it was British forces who had first entered Damascus at war’s end (General Edmund Allenby captured Damascus on September 30, 1918) and allowed a political body set up by Syrian intellectuals and politicians, the Syrian Congress, to elect Faisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca, first King of Syria in 1919 and to set up an independent Syrian parliament. The French were furious and insisted that the British bring pressure to bear on Faisal to allow the French to take over Syria in the form of a ‘mandate’.

As so often the French liked to think of themselves as ‘a great power’ and yet somehow, yet again, found themselves beholden to the damn British.

The sequence of events is complex, but basically the Syrians proclaimed an independent state under King Faisal and this triggered the French to a) assert their rights at the international San Remo conference of April 1920, armed with which they b) issued an ultimatum to Faisal to stand down as king and disband his forces. Reluctantly, Faisal did so and fled south into British-controlled Palestine (p.103). King Faisal’s defense minister Yusuf al-‘Azma, ignored the king and led the poorly armed Syrian army to Maysalun where it was crushed by superior French forces, who went on to enter Damascus and assert full French political control.

The first thing the French general who crushed the Syrian army, General Gouraud, did when he entered devastated Damascus was go straight to the tomb of the the great warrior Saladin who fought the Christian crusaders, to tell him: ‘Saladin! We’re back!’ (quoted page 103). The French mandate over Syria ran from 1920 to 1946.

All through this tortuous series of events the French felt the British hadn’t adequately supported them, a feeling which was crystallised by the next event. British forces occupying ‘Iraq’ had been troubled with their own violent uprisings but took a different strategy; rather than impose military rule, the British cast around for someone to make a nominal Arab figurehead of an Iraqi government and settled on… Faisal, the very same Faisal who the French had just run out of Syria. Thus in August 1921, Faisal was crowned Faisal I, king of Iraq (at what was, by all accounts, a sad and miserly ceremony: p.126).

The story of Faisal’s changing fortunes is colourful enough, as is Barr’s account of the initial French and British losses to well-armed and motivated Arab rebels against both their ‘mandates’. But for Barr’s purposes the point of the story is that the French felt that the British choice of Faisal was, yet again, a deliberate snub and insult to them. Touchy bastards.

French rule in Syria proved to be distinctly different from Britain’s rule in Iraq and Palestine, and quickly acquired a reputation for corruption and brutality. This sparked successive Arab risings and armed insurrections. It didn’t help that France herself was undergoing a severe economic crisis in the early 1920s, reflected in political instability as one short-lived administration followed another, creating a national sense of paranoia and bewilderment (p.142). They had supposedly won the war but seemed to be badly losing the peace.

Barr gives a detailed account of the Great Druze Revolt of 1925 to 1927 by the obstinately independent Druze Muslims who lived in the region south of Damascus, sparked by ‘French mistreatment of the Druze population’ (pp.128-152). At its climax the French High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail ordered the shelling of the capital city Damascus to flush out rebels, which led to the destruction of much of the Old City. A good example of French civilisation and gloire.

(In fact the French were to shell and bomb Damascus again, in May 1945, after refusing the Syrian government’s request to hand over the French troupes speciales. Instead de Gaulle sent French army reinforcements and then used them to mount a major attack on all the offices of the Syrian government, bombing the parliament building, shooting up Syrian and British offices. The shooting went on for days. One Russian holed up in Damascus’s main hotel said it was worse than Stalingrad. It was described as a ‘reign of terror’, in line with the Terror of the French Revolution, and the Terror unleashed during the 1870 Commune. Some 800 Syrians were killed. Syrian gendarmes were found buried in a mass grave, some of them having been mutilated by the French troops. The Parliament building was left a smoking shell. Eventually, the British government announced they would intervene militarily unless the French desisted. The Syrian authorities were livid and wanted the French officers in command to be tried for war crimes. And de Gaulle? De Gaulle blamed the British and their secret agents for everything. The man was a colossal turd. pp.303-310)

But why were the Arab population of Syria rebelling against them, the French, with their wonderful civilisation and poetry and art? Just because they hanged the natives and used them for forced labour and taxed them to the hilt to run their corrupt administration and displayed the corpses of dead Arabs in the town square? No. Natives love that kind of treatment. There must be something else behind it. Yes! It must be the British aiding the Syrian rebels! (p.152)

French soldiers, administrators and diplomats at all levels came to believe that the Arab insurgents were being funded by the British. Some of the Druze warriors confirmed these suspicions – but they were only repeating propaganda put around by their own leaders to hearten them (p.150).

This wasn’t true – it was not British policy to support Arab insurgents against the French. But, on the other hand, the British had to consider Arab opinion in their area – stretching from the Sinai Peninsula, across the bare desert north of Arabia and then down into the region then known as Mesopotamia, making up the inhabited centres of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, modern Iraq. The British wanted to distinguish liberal British rule from what quickly became known as the corrupt and very brutal French rule in their zone.

To take a small but symbolic example, the British refused to hand over the terrorist leader Muhammed al-Ashmar who the French thought was behind atrocities in Syria, when he crossed over into British territory. This understandably infuriated the French. A host of little issues like this crystallised the French sense that the British were doing everything in their power to undermine their rule.

The Mosul oil pipeline

Another issue which caused bad feeling between the so-called allies was oil. At the very end of the war Britain campaigned hard to seize Mosul in the far north of Iraq, in fact British troops only took possession of the city the day after the armistice of Mudros with the Ottoman Empire took force, and it remained contested territory until the League of Nations confirmed its inclusion in the British mandate in 1926 (p.145).

But that was a trivial detail compared to the long, drawn-out wrangling about who should share the proceeds of the vast oil reserves which were finally discovered around Mosul in 1927 (p.153). A joint venture was set up with American and French companies under the aegis of the Turkish Petroleum Company, around which a great deal of haggling, arguing and threatening took place, gleefully recorded by Barr.

All sides agreed that the pipeline carrying the oil should run west to the Mediterranean coast. It was much cheaper than running the shorter distance south to the Persian Gulf because then it would have to be shipped around Arabia and through the Suez Canal. But should the pipeline run directly west from Mosul, in which case it would pass through French-controlled Syria to a French-controlled port – or take a more southerly route through the empty deserts of north Arabia and hit the coast at Haifa, in British-controlled Palestine. Obviously the Brits preferred this option, but it cost a lot more and was an obvious snub to the French. Barr details the convoluted political, strategic and financial arguments which dogged the project until it finally opened in a bifurcated route, with spurs heading off to British Haifa and French Tripoli, in 1934. The French resented the fact that, yet again, they’d been ganged up on (p.163).

The 1930s in Palestine

Rancour between the two countries came back to bite the British as the crisis in Palestine bubbled up during the 1930s. Small-scale Jewish immigration had been allowed throughout the 1920s not least as a consequence of the notorious Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which a hard-pressed British government tried to rally Jewish support for the Allies by promising the world’s Jews – especially the rich and influential Jews in the United States – a homeland in Palestine. But it was relatively small, in fact it’s surprising to learn that there was net emigration of Jews out of Palestine in 1927.

Still, there was a steady low-level hum of Arab-Jew antagonism, which occasionally flared into serious incidents such as the riots in 1929 which left 271 dead and 580 wounded (p.160).

What changed everything was the rise of the Nazis. The number of Jewish immigrants began to grow as the Nazis seized power of Germany (1933). Although they were often desperate, the Jews nonetheless tended to have more resources than the dirt-poor peasants of Palestine, were much better educated and organised, and so began to buy up extensive tracts of land (p.167). This soon led to resentment, petty disagreements escalated into shooting, then both Arabs and Jews took to carrying out terrorist atrocities, chucking hand grenades into marketplaces, and so on.

Initially a lot of this violence was committed by Arabs, under the supervision of the Arab Higher Committee led by Hajj Mohammed Amin al-Husayni, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. When assassins shot the British assistant district commissioner for north Palestine, the British authorities moved to arrest members of the Higher Committee but it’s military leadership fled to nearby Damascus in French territory, where they were received… like heroes. And when the British turned to the French for help the latter, with a characteristic Gallic shrug, refused (p.175). This period of well organised Arab attacks on British soldiers and locations is known as The Great Arab Revolt, 1936-39.

The British authorities recruited Jews as special constables to go on increasingly illicit ‘night raids’ against suspected Arab terrorist strongholds. One such was Moshe Dayan, future leader of the Israeli Army. But in 1938 a Jew who had shot at an Arab bus, Schlomo Yusef, was hanged by the British – the first Jew to be hanged by the British in Palestine – and this crystallised the opposition of hard-line Jews, specifically the Hagana, to abandon their sympathetic attitude to the Brits and to mount full-blown attacks. On 6 July 1938 two bombs were thrown into a Haifa marketplace killing 21 Arabs (and 6 Jews). On 15 July a bomb in Jerusalem killed ten Arabs. And we’re off on a rollercoaster ride of non-stop killings and atrocities by both Jews and Arabs, with the British authorities haplessly trying to keep order.

Vichy France

The final part of the book turns away from Syria and Iraq to focus on the long, tortured story of the conflict in Palestine. I found the accounts of Jewish terrorism upsetting and the revelation that the French security services aided and abetted Jewish terrorists targeting British soldiers in Palestine and British civilians in London absolutely disgusting.

De Gaulle comes over as an arrogant, lying prick. The British gave him home, shelter, broadcast facilities in London and helped the French Resistance, often at the cost of British lives, so it was disgusting beyond words to read again and again and again and again, the recorded statements of De Gaulle’s haughty contempt for Britain, his disdain of Britain, and the rampant anglophobia which ran right through the French political and military establishment.

In his memoirs de Gaulle recalled with relish how Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, once asked him whether he realised that he had caused “more trouble than all our other European allies put together.” “I don’t doubt it,” de Gaulle replied. “France is a great power.” (p.206)

It is worth remembering that, once Hitler attacked, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys (the ones who were defeated in 1870 and then only survived in 1914 because of British help) capitulated in just five weeks (the Battle of France lasted from 10 May to 25 June 1940).

This was due not least to the profound divisions among the French themselves.

France [in 1936] remained a completely divided country. The hatred of the nationalist Right for the Popular Front went far beyond conventional political opposition. Special vitriol was directed at its leader, Léon Blum, a Jewish intellectual who had been an early supporter of Dreyfus. Blum had been physically assaulted by a nationalist mob in February 1936. And the previous spring, the leader of the far-right Action Française, Charles Maurras, had appallingly denounced Blum as ‘a man to be shot – in the back.’ (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 to 1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 298)

A popular right-wing slogan was ‘Hitler rather than Blum’. Many – many – French people preferred to be ruled by Hitler than by a Jew. Ponder that fact.

The French political scene [in the 1930s] was notoriously venal and corrupt. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-49 by Ian Kershaw, page 237)

The opening part of this episode of The World At War gives a summary of just how chaotic and divided France and its governments were during the build-up to the Second World War.

After their defeat, the French set up the Vichy regime, a right-wing semi-fascist government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis to round up French Jews and send them off to concentration camps (75,000 French Jews were deported to Nazi death camps). Blum was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp where, luckily, he survived.

Yes, proud France! That is how to treat your Jewish politicians! Liberty, Equality, Fraternity indeed. La gloire. La mission civilisatrice.

Somehow de Gaulle blamed all this on the British. Why? Because whenever anything bad happens in France, it isn’t France’s fault – it must be Britain’s fault.

The Vichy government inherited control of Syria and Lebanon. The British led a campaign to oust the Vichy forces – the Syria-Lebanon Campaign of July 1941 – because Vichy had signed an agreement with the Nazis to let them use Syria and Lebanon’s airfields, for possible attacks on Greece or Crete.

The British (and Australian) forces were accompanied by Free French forces supplied by de Gaulle, who assured us that the Vichy army would quickly collapse. He was confident they would rally to him, the Greatest Frenchman in the Word. But they didn’t. They fought back very fiercely. When shown the evidence that he was completely wrong in his military estimate, de Gaulle characteristically said it showed how valiantly Frenchmen fought for any cause and went on to blame Britain’s lack of resources and commitment for the setbacks. It’s always the British fault (p.221).

When the Free French (backed by the British) eventually did succeed in overthrowing the Vichy regime in Syria, they discovered they didn’t have enough personnel to administer it, so a lot of French personnel swapped sides (as they do so easily) and discovered a new-found love of de Gaulle. ‘Ah, mon brave, mon cher, mon ami‘ is the sound of self-serving hypocrisy (p.225).

The British had publicised their campaign to the Arab world by saying they were going to overthrow the brutal Vichy administration. Then de Gaulle kept almost all the Vichy administration in place, thus placing the British in the position of appearing to have lied.

De Gaulle’s unbearable ingratitude and arrogance make reading anything about him difficult. He cultivated a strategy of ‘bad manners and a foul temper’. He gave interviews to American newspapers blaming all setbacks on the British (the same British who were fighting and dying to establish a Free French regime in Syria) (p.228).

When the British tried to make good on the promises they’d made to the Syrian Arabs during the Syria-Lebanon Campaign, to hold free and fair elections, de Gaulle, characteristically, refused. He said it was out of the question for Glorious France to diminish her Glory. He and Churchill had a bitter shouting match about his refusal, after which the British simply cut off de Gaulle’s telegraph links with the outside world for a week to show him that he wasn’t a Great Power, he was just a man in an office with a phone which didn’t work (p.242).

Re. de Gaulle, it’s worth recalling from Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby, that American President Roosevelt really, really, really despised de Gaulle, as did most of the American administration. They saw him for the jumped-up boaster he was, refused to allow him to attend meetings of the Big Three, and tried to manoeuvre a rival candidate, General Giraud, to replace de Gaulle as leader of the French Committee for National Liberation (p.257).

In November 1943 the French army staged a coup against the democratically elected Arab government of Syria, rounding up the President, the Prime Minister, Faris al-Khoury, and most of the cabinet, throwing them in prison, and letting their Senegalese troops run riot through the streets of Damascus.

It was incidents like this which convinced Roosevelt that de Gaulle had authoritarian, if not actual fascist tendencies, and didn’t deserve to be present at meetings of the Big Three (p.261). Syrian rebels began assembling forces in the hills. The situation threatened to descend into anarchy. And to solve it all…. de Gaulle blamed the whole situation on the British for interfering in French affairs, and threatened to resign (p.261).

Eventually Churchill threatened to use superior British forces to declare martial law in Syria and so de Gaulle, his man on the spot, The General Delegate to the Levant, the alcoholic Jean Helleu, was recalled to Paris along with all of his team responsible for the coup, the Syrian President, Prime Minister and his cabinet were restored to power and France’s name, very gratifyingly, was mud (p.263).

Jewish terrorism and Israel

What makes the last part of the story – from 1943 to 1948 – really weird – was the way these formerly very right-wing Vichy French allied with the Jewish resistance against the common enemy, the British. After reading over 100 pages documenting the virulent anglophobia and Brit-hatred of all the senior French politicians, from de Gaulle downwards, the sensible assumption just becomes, If they’re French, they hate the British and, if they’re in a position of power, almost certainly funding anti-British terrorism.

Thus we arrive at the devastating final section in which we learn that, Anglo-French rivalry became so venomous that, in the last days of World War Two, even as British soldiers were fighting and dying to liberate France, the French government was financing and arming Jewish terrorists who were attacking and killing British soldiers in Palestine. What a bunch of bastards.

With the war years and the growth of the Jewish resistance forces, you enter a surreal world of unlikely alliances.

Lehi [often known pejoratively as the Stern Gang] initially sought an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, offering to fight alongside them against the British in return for the transfer of all Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine. Believing that Nazi Germany was a lesser enemy of the Jews than Britain, Lehi twice attempted to form an alliance with the Nazis. (Wikipedia)

Jewish freedom fighters seeking an alliance with the Nazis? (p.268) You can see how real history, the real record of human affairs, like human beings themselves, is faaar more complex, contradictory and irrational than the baby morality of political correctness and identity politics allows.

The British had been forced to make a strategic decision. They were at war with Hitler who controlled the entire continent of Europe. Meanwhile, along with a host of other responsibilities around the world, they were theoretically in charge of Palestine. If more Jews immigrated into Palestine it would inflame the low-level conflict between Arabs and Jews which was already burning there. Arabs or Jews, which side do you want to alienate? Well, the Arab world stretches from the Atlantic to Persia, so the answer is simple: keep the Arabs onside, specially as they populated the lands around the Suez Canal, which was the carotid artery of the British Empire.

Thus, in order to try and keep the Arabs onside, the British government issued a White Paper in 1939 which restricted both Jewish immigration and Jewish land purchases in Palestine. This one step turned the Jews into fierce enemies, and as the war went on and the Holocaust began to be enacted, Jewish anger at the perceived anti-Jewish bias of the British soured into military operations carried out by gangs of terrorists. Helped by the French.

  • The Haganah put its intelligence network in Syria at the disposal of the Free French (p.267)
  • When the Allied attack on the Levant took place the Haganah provided members of its elite units to serve as guides
  • British police trailing suspected members of the Stern Gang saw them get a taxi to the Syrian border, cross the border, and be welcome by a French officer (p.269)
  • In his memoirs a member of the Stern Gang confirmed that the gang was supplied with arms and ammunition by the French regime in Syria, knowing they would be used to kill British soldiers and officials (p.271)
  • A Stern Gang member on trial stated that if Palestine was under a French mandate he was sure the British (who were trying him) would instead be giving him arms (the implication being… like the French were doing) (p.272)
  • A Hebrew-language publication of the gang admitted they were getting arms from the French (p.272)
  • In November 1944 MI6 uncovered proof that the French secret service was supplying money and guns to the Haganah and the Stern Gang – who had, that month, assassinated Britain’s Minister-Resident for the Middle East, Lord Moyne (p.289)
  • The French secret service was sharing with the Zionists information sourced from a French spy inside the British legation (p.290)
  • ‘The French are in collusion with right-wing Jews and known terrorists have lunched with Alessandri [top French security service official]’, (Jewish Agency liaison officer and future mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, quoted page 292)
  • ‘The British government, beset by French-sponsored Jewish terrorism in the Levant…’ (p.298)
  • ‘Now, deeply alarmed at the prospect that France going to be thrown out of the Levant, both the Jewish Agency and the terrorist organisations made contact with the French government to offer their services, (p.309)

France helps the Jewish terrorist campaign in Britain

‘The British government had known for some time that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to use Paris as a base for assassinations of key British politicians including Churchill and Bevin… (p.337)

Barr describes the extensive contacts and meetings between members of the Irgun and Stern Gang with French officials in Paris who supported them in their plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain. Lawyer and advisor to Léon Blum, André Blumel, hoped the LEHI would get all the assistance it needed to launch attacks on Britain. (p.338). Senior French lawyer helps terrorists attack Britain.

The first attack was carried out by a student of Jean-Paul Sartre’s, Robert Misrahi, who left a bomb in a raincoat at the Officers Club off Trafalgar Square (p.339).

When a Zionist shipment of arms was impounded by French police in south-west France, the minister of the Interior intervened to ensure that they were sent on to the Zionists in Palestine. When five members of the Stern Gang broke out of a British prison in Eritrea and managed to reach the French colony of Djibouti, the French offered them asylum in France (p.340).

A young woman terrorist, Betty Knout, left a bomb in the toilets of the Colonial Office in Whitehall, which failed to go off and fingerprints and equipment indicated its manufacture by Stern Gang members. When British Special Branch tried to track her down in Paris, the French security services did what they could to block the hunt (p.340).

They launched a letter bomb campaign, sending letter bombs to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Anthony Eden among others.

When a new Zionist point man arrived in Paris, he discovered his predecessor had reached an understanding with the French government: the Irgun and Stern Gang could use Paris as their base providing they didn’t carry out any attacks on British targets on French soil. When Princess Elizabeth paid a visit to France, the French police met the Irgun face to face to make sure they didn’t have a plan to assassinate her. Nice of them, don’t you think (p.343).

Semi-fascist views of the Zionist terrorists

It’s important not to be under the illusion that these were ‘nice’ or sympathetic people:

According to Yaacov Shavit, professor at the Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University, articles Lehi publications wrote about Jewish ‘master race’, contrasting them with Arabs who were seen as a ‘nation of slaves’. Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes: ‘Lehi was also unabashedly racist towards Arabs. Their publications described Jews as a master race and Arabs as a slave race.’ Lehi advocated mass expulsion of all Arabs from Palestine and Transjordan or even their physical annihilation. (Wikipedia)

Timeline of violence in Palestine

Jewish terrorism, and British attempts to stop it, only intensified once the Germans were defeated and peace was declared in Europe on May 1945. Wikipedia has a timeline:

Note how Jewish attacks on British forces are interspersed with British Army attacks on terrorists, the handling of prison breakouts, issues with immigrant ships trying to dock.

Reading this sorry story, the puzzle is why the British government persisted as long as it did. Remember, this was the government of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan which is routinely remembered in folklore as founding the National Health Service (as memorialised at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games).

It’s easy to say they screwed this up, but what choice did they have? A government’s first responsibility is to try and maintain peace and security by enforcing law and order. This becomes difficult to do in any insurgency situation, and the British authorities made the same mistakes as they had during the Black and Tan period in Ireland 1920 to 1922 and with the same generally negative effects, i.e they often targeted innocent civilians, missing the real culprits but managing to alienate the wider population. Which is what your insurgents want (p.185).

The British just give up

The British unilaterally terminated their Palestine ‘mandate’ on 15 May 1948. The Zionist leadership announced the Israeli Declaration of Independence and Arab armies attacked from north and south.

The role of the Americans

In the later stages of the war and the post-war years America plays a bigger and bigger role. The American administration and American public strongly supported the Jews and raised millions of dollars for them. Jewish intellectuals and businessmen lobbied President Truman very hard. Barr gives a fascinating account of the very effective work of the American league for a Free Palestine run by Hillel Kook, which took out full-page ads in the newspapers, got celebrity endorsement, organised all kinds of publicity campaigns – with texts written by Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Hecht – and significantly influenced American public opinion in favour of the Jewish cause.

All those dollars and all that moral support made a big difference to the Zionists, gave them confidence that they wouldn’t be abandoned or left in the lurch, and the moral encouragement to fight on.

No solution

And finally, the obvious observation that – nobody could come up with a solution. It wasn’t like there was an easy solution to hand and the British stupidly ignored it. All the best diplomats and politicians on the planet had plenty of time and motivation to think up a solution. The Peel Commission, the Woodhead Commission, the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry, the United Nations Commission On Palestine, all tried to find a solution.

But nobody could. They still can’t, to this day, because there is no solution.


My view of the book

I knew nothing about this era (Middle East in the 1920, 30s and 40s) and so was fascinated by everything Barr had to tell.

His book is notable for the immense attention he pays to specific meetings and conversations between key figures on both sides. We are introduced to a large cast of diplomats, soldiers and politicians, with quick pen-portraits of each of them, before Barr, typically, gives us precise exchanges and conversations.

Much of this must be sourced from the minutes of all these meetings, because they often describe the exact words used by, for example, French premier Clemenceau and British Prime Minister Lloyd George, to give one example from hundreds. Barr is strong on the exact words used in crucial meetings, diplomatic notes, letters and diaries and also recently declassified documents, both in the UK and in France.

The book’s weakness is that sometimes this deep immersion in the precise sequence of meetings and notes and memos and speeches and diaries obscures the real significance of key issues or turning points. Big things get buried. Sometimes I had to reread sections to understand what just happened.

The other obvious shortcoming is Barr’s neglect of the wider geopolitical context. I felt this most acutely in the first section about Sykes-Picot which completely ignores the role played by Tsarist Russia, by Germany and, of course, by the Ottoman rulers themselves because I just happened to have read Sean McMeekin’s excellently thorough and insightful account of the same period.

For example, Barr doesn’t mention the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, who co-signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement because, in addition to the carve up of Syria/Palestine/Iraq, the deal allotted Tsarist Russia a big chunk of Eastern Anatolia, and also gave her her long-cherished dream of Constantinople and the territory around it. Because of the Russians’ heavy involvement, McMeekin thinks the agreement should be known as the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot agreement.

And nowhere does Barr mention the extraordinary fact that one of the baits the Allies dangled in front of Italy while she dithered whether to join the war or not (Italy didn’t enter the war, on the Allies side, until May 1915) was a big slice out of southern Anatolia.

Therefore, a full picture of the Sasonov-Sykes-Picot map looks like this. Note the flesh-coloured patch on the right which was to be given to Russia, along with the city of Constantinople and the territory north and south of it (at the top left), and the extraordinary amount of territory which was going to be handed over to Italy.

Sykes-Picot map showing the territory promised to Russia and Italy

None of this is in Barr’s account, which therefore comes close to being seriously misleading about this period.

It is symptomatic of Barr’s Anglocentrism that instead of all this vital context involving other major powers, he devotes entire chapters (chapters 2 and 3, Enter TE Lawrence and Allenby’s Man, pp.37-64) to Lawrence of Arabia, the pukka English hero, who in fact comes to dominate the whole of the first part of the book. We get a blow-by-blow account of Lawrence’s (rather feeble) military exploits as well as quotes from his letters, diaries, newspaper articles and quotes from his friends.

By ‘Anglocentric’ I mean we get 100-pages about Lawrence and his influence, but nowhere does Barr mention the names of the last two Ottoman sultans who ruled during and after the war (Mehmed V 1909-1918, Mehmed VI 1918-1922) nor does he name the three Turkish politicians who ruled the Ottoman Empire during the war, Enver, Talaat, and Cerman. The great military and political leader who dominated the final 1923 settlement of the Ottoman Empire at the Treaty of Lausanne, Mustafa Kemal, later to be given the title Ataturk, is mentioned just once.

It’s as if the Ottoman Empire, whose territory the entire book is about, barely exists or matters.

The book’s strength is its weakness. It isn’t interested in the broader geopolitical implications. It is a narrow and very deep dive into the diplomatic minutiae of the troubled relations between Britain and France in the Middle East 1916 to 1946. Barr goes into extreme detail – apparently writing from the minutes and notes taken at specific meetings of various French and British civil servants, ambassadors and leaders – to give you a memo-by-memo account of the behind the scenes conversations and decisions.

But sometimes so detailed, you lose the thread of what’s actually happening. And always, so focused on just Britain and France, that you get no sense at all of the wider geopolitical situation, of events in Turkey, the Caucasus or neighbouring Russia or Persia. Silence.


My view of the two key issues

I think received liberal opinion about Sykes-Picot and the Balfour declaration is too simple-minded.

1. Sykes-Picot

I’m no expert but it seems to me simplistic to attribute all the conflicts in the Middle East to just one agreement out of scores and scores of similar treaties and a whole sequence of very complex events, which flowed before and after it.

If you read Barr, with his exclusive focus on the British and French governments, you get the impression they were responsible for everything bad that ever happened. But if you read McMeekin’s much more comprehensive account, you are immediately plunged into the maze of ethnic tensions and rivalries which plagued the region, from the poisonous enmities all across the Balkans (Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, Bosnians, Greeks, they all hated each other) to the huge divides which split the Middle East, from the conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims, to that between ethnic Turks and all their subject peoples – the squabbling tribes of desert bedouin, the Christian Armenians in the East, the Kurds in south-east Anatolia, and so on and on.

Barr doesn’t, for example, even mention the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to 1917, a prime example of the extreme ethnic violence which had roots far back in the 19th century way before the British and French started planning their ‘carve-up’ – or the horrifying ethnic cleansing surrounding the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-23.

When you read McMeekin on the other hand, you reach a really good understanding of why the entire region was a powder keg which had, in fact, already exploded several times before the Great War broke out. The Ottomans had repressed Armenian and Bulgarian uprisings with great brutality and bloodshed throughout the later 19th century.

That’s why the ante-penultimate sultan, Abdul Hamid II (reigned 1876 to 1909) was nicknamed ‘the bloody sultan’ or ‘the red sultan’. It was the historical track record of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and massacres which gave liberals like David Lloyd George such a deeply engrained antipathy to the Ottoman Empire (and, as it turned out, an inclination to give the Greeks deeply misplaced encouragement in their ambitions to invade Anatolia).

Whoever ended up ruling over these regions was going to inherit a very poisoned chalice of ethnic rivalries and enmities. Indeed it’s one of the many strengths of McMeekin’s book that he makes you realise how very astute Mustafa Kemal was, the man who rose to become Turkey’s post-war ruler, when he allowed most of the former empire to be hived off to the British and French by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. All these bickering minorities were their problem now, the fools.

Attributing all the problems of the entire region to one agreement just strikes me as foolish. The Sykes-Picot agreement was merely the formal recognition of at least four nations’ claims on Ottoman territory, was provisional and was soon superseded by a whole raft of other agreements such as:

  • the Anglo-French Declaration promising to establish independent states in the Middle East with freely chosen governments (November 1918)
  • the Agreement of San Remo (April 1920) which defined three ‘class-A’ mandates, ‘Palestine’, ‘Syria’ and ‘Mesopotamia’
  • the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920) which was a first attempt to ‘carve up’ the Ottoman Empire including Anatolia and its European territory
  • the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which marked the official end of the Allies war against the Ottoman Empire and established the borders of modern Turkey

Why not blame those treaties too? They all contributed to what was, in fact, a continuous flux of conflict, resolution, treaties and agreements which continued throughout the Mandate period and afterwards, right up to the present day.

2. The Balfour Declaration

Similarly, a lot of people blame the Arab-Israeli Conflict on the British government’s Balfour Declaration of 1917. But Zionism existed well before the declaration. Wikipedia defines Zionism as:

the nationalist movement of the Jewish people that espouses the re-establishment of and support for a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (roughly corresponding to Canaan, the Holy Land, or the region of Palestine)

And points out that it originated ‘in the late 19th century’ and in Austria and Germany not Britain.

Jews were already emigrating from Europe, and especially anti-semitic Russia, into Palestine well before the Balfour Declaration. To ponder a counter-factual, do people think that, if there had been no Balfour Declaration, Jews would not have emigrated to Palestine? Of course not. A Jewish homeland in Palestine was a central plank of Zionism for decades before Balfour, whether the British government supported it or not, in fact whether any Western government supported or tried to block it.

We shall migrate to Palestine in order to constitute a majority here. If there be need we shall take by force; if the country be too small – we shall expand the boundaries. (speech by David ben-Gurion, quoted page 274)

The fact that net Jewish migration to Palestine was negative in 1927 – ten years after the declaration – shows that the declaration in itself had a negligible effect, it certainly didn’t open any ‘floodgates’.

The most important cause of modern Arab-Israeli conflict was Hitler. The Nazis not only caused the trickle of migration to Palestine to turn into a flood, they – and the experience of the Holocaust – made an entire generation of Jews absolutely determined to establish a Jewish state come what may, no matter who they had to assassinate, murder, letter bomb, massacre and hang to achieve it.

That wasn’t Balfour’s doing. That was Hitler. Hitler made the creation of the state of Israel inevitable.

France’s great 20th century diplomatic achievements

  • Syria
  • Indochina
  • Algeria

La gloire!


Credit

A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2011. All references are to the Simon & Schuster paperback edition of 2012.

The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908–1923 by Sean McMeekin (2015)

This is a very good book, maybe the definitive one-volume account of the subject currently available.

McMeekin’s earlier volume, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918, although full of solid history, was conceived and structured as an entertainment, using the erratic history of the Berlin to Baghdad railway project as a thread on which to hang an account of the German High Command’s attempt to raise a Muslim Holy War against her enemies, Britain and France, across the entire territory of the Ottoman Empire and beyond, into Persia and Afghanistan.

It had a chapter apiece devoted to the quixotic missions which the Germans sent out to try and recruit various Muslim leaders to their side, very much dwelling on the colourful characters who led them and the quirky and sometimes comic details of the missions – which, without exception, failed.

In Berlin to Baghdad book McMeekin had a habit of burying references to key historic events in asides or subordinate clauses, which had a cumulatively frustrating effect. I felt I was learning a lot about Max von Oppenheim, the archaeological expert on the ancient Middle East who was put in charge of Germany’s Middle East Bureau – but a lot less about the key events of the war in Turkey.

Similarly, as McMeekin recounted each different mission, as well as the various aspects of German policy in Turkey, he tended to go back and recap events as they related to this or that mission or development, repeatedly going back as far as the 1870s to explain the origin of each thread. I found this repeated going over the same timeframe a number of times also rather confusing.

This book is the opposite. This is the book to read first. This is the definitive account.

In 500 solid pages, with lots of very good maps and no messing about, following a strict chronological order, McMeekin gives us the political, military and diplomatic background to the Ottoman Empire’s involvement in the First World War, a thorough, authoritative account of those disastrous years, and of their sprawling aftermath through the disastrous Greco-Turkish War (1919-23) ending with the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in July 1923, which established the modern republic of Turkey and brought that troubled country’s decade of tribulations to an end.

McMeekin suggests that the bloody decade which stretched from the first of the two Balkan Wars in 1912/13 through to the final peace of the Greco-Turkish War as, taken together, constituting The War of The Ottoman Succession.

Gallipoli

This is the first detailed account of the Gallipoli disaster I’ve read, which clearly sets it in the wider context of a) the broader Ottoman theatre of war b) the First World War as a whole. I was a little shocked to learn that the entire Gallipoli campaign was in response to a request from Russian High Command to draw Ottoman troops away from the Caucasus, where the Russian High Command thought they were being beaten.

One among many bitter ironies is that the Russians were not, in fact, being defeated in the Caucasus, that in fact the Battle of Sarikamish (December 1914 to January 1915), which the Russian leadership panicked and took to be a rout, eventually turned into the worst Ottoman defeat of the war.

But the Russians’ panicky request to the British at Christmas 1914 was enough to crystallise and jog forward British ideas about opening a second front somewhere in Turkey. From a raft of often more practical options, the idea attacking and opening up the Dardanelles (so British ships could sail up to and take Constantinople, and gain access to the Black Sea) soon acquired an unstoppable momentum of its own.

Armenian genocide

As with Gallipoli, so McMeekin also presents the Armenian Genocide in the context of the bigger picture, showing, for example, how the Christian Armenians did rise up against their Ottoman masters in the eastern city of Van, and did co-operate with the attacking Russians to expel the Ottomans and hand the city over, and so did justify the paranoia of the Ottoman High Command that they had a sizeable population of fifth columnists living in potentially vital strategic areas.

For it was not only in the far East of the Empire, in Armenia, a fair proportion of the Armenian population of Cilicia, over on the Mediterranean coast, was also prepared to rise up against the Ottomans, if provided with guns and leadership from the British (pp.223-245).

So McMeekin’s measured and factual account makes it much more understandable why the Ottoman High Command – under pressure from the ongoing British attack at Gallipoli, and terrified by the swift advances by the Russians through the Caucasus – took the sweeping decision to expel all Armenians from all strategically sensitive locations.

None of this excuses the inefficiency they then demonstrated in rounding up huge numbers of people and sending them into the Syrian desert where hundreds of thousands perished, or the gathering mood of violent paranoia which seized local authorities and commanders who took the opportunity to vent their fear and anxiety about the war on helpless civilians, which led to localised pogroms, execution squads and so on. But it does help to explain the paranoid atmosphere in which such things are allowed to happen.

McMeekin emphasises that, once it saw what was happening on the ground, the Ottoman leadership then tried to moderate the expulsion policy and explicitly forbade the punishment of Armenians, but it was too late: at the local level thousands of administrators and soldiers had absorbed the simple message that all Armenians were ‘traitors’ and should be shown no mercy. The net result was the violent killing, or the starving and exhausting to death, of up to one and a half million people, mostly defenceless civilians, an event which was used by Allied propaganda at the time, and has been held against the Turks ever since.

Siege at Kut

Again, I was vaguely aware of the British army’s catastrophe at Kut, a mud-walled town a few hundred miles (230 miles, to be precise) up the Tigris river, where an entire British army was surrounded and besieged by a Turkish army, in a situation reminiscent of the Boer War sieges of Mafeking and Ladysmith (pp.263-270, 290-293).

But McMeekin’s account helps you see how the Kut disaster was a climax of the up-to-that-point successful campaign to seize the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Shatt al-Harab, and to win towns as far north as Basra, Qurna and Amara.

He takes you into the British thinking strategic thinking behind the ill-advised decision to push on towards Baghdad, and explains why the Turks turned out to be better dug-in and better led around that city than we expected (p.269). There’s a fascinating thread running alongside the slowly building catastrophe, which was the extreme reluctance of the Russian commander in the field, General N.N. Baratov to come to our aid (pp.290-292).

In fact Russian tardiness / perfidy is a recurrent theme. We only mounted the Gallipoli offensive to help the bloody Russians, but when it ran into trouble and British leaders begged Russia to mount a diversionary attack on the Black Sea environs of Constantinople to help us, the Russians said the right thing, made a few desultory naval preparations but – basically – did nothing.

British take Jerusalem

Similarly, I vaguely knew that the British Army ‘took’ Jerusalem, but it makes a big difference to have it set in context so as to see it as the climax of about three years of on-again, off-again conflict in the Suez and Sinai theatre of war.

Early on, this area had seen several attempts by Germans leading Turkish armies, accompanied by Arab tribesmen, to capture or damage parts of the Suez Canal, which McMeekin had described in the earlier book and now tells again, much more thoroughly and factually. The capture of Jerusalem was the result of a new, far more aggressive British policy  of not just defending the canal, but of attacking far beyond it – known as the Southern Palestine Offensive of November to December 1917, carried out by the Egypt Expeditionary Force led by General Edmund Allenby.

Balfour Declaration

Similarly, the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. I knew about this but hadn’t realised how it was related to the Russian Revolution. Apparently, world Jewish opinion was split for the first three years of the war about who to support because:

  1. Zionism, as a movement, was actually an Austro-German invention, the brainchild of Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl
  2. the World Zionist Executive was based throughout the war in Berlin
  3. most powerfully, the Western democracies were allied with Russia which had, from time immemorial, been the traditional enemy of Jews and Judaism

But the overthrow of the Tsarist government, and the transition to what everyone hoped would be more liberal democratic rule, tipped the balance of world Jewish opinion, especially in America, where the money came from (pp.352-3), against the Central Powers. The Balfour Declaration was a pretty cynical attempt to take advantage of this shift in Jewish opinion.

The Russian Revolution

God knows how many histories of the Russian Revolution I’ve read, but it was fascinating to view the whole thing from the point of view of the Ottoman Empire.

1916 was actually a good year for the Russians in the Ottoman theatre of war. They won a series of sweeping victories which saw them storm out of the Caucasus and into Anatolia, seizing Van and then the huge military stronghold at Erzerum.

And McMeekin shows how, even as the central government in faraway Petrograd collapsed in early 1917, the Russian Black Sea navy under Admiral Kolchak, chalked up a series of aggressive victories, climaxing with a sizeable naval attack force which steamed right up to the Bosphorus in June 1917.

But the collapse of the Tsarist regime in February 1917 had led to slowly ramifying chaos throughout the army and administration, and the the arrival of Lenin in the capital in April 1917, with his simple and unequivocal policy of ending the war, sowed the seeds of the complete collapse of Russian forces.

McMeekin leaves you with one of those huge historical what-ifs: What if the Russian revolution hadn’t broken out when it did – maybe the Russians would have taken Constantinople, thus ending the war over a year early and permanently changing the face of the Middle East.

The best history is empowering

As these examples show, this is the very best kind of history, the kind which:

  1. lays out very clearly what happened, in a straightforward chronological way so that you experience the sequence of events just as the participants did, and sympathise with the pressures and constraints they were under
  2. and places events in a thoroughly explained context so that you understand exactly what was at stake and so why the participants behaved as they did

McMeekin is slow to judge but, when he does, he has explained enough of the events and the context that you, the reader, feel empowered to either agree or disagree.

Empowerment – and this is what good history is about. 1. It explains what happened, it puts it in the widest possible context, and it empowers you to understand what happened and why, so you can reach your own assessments and conclusions.

2. And it has another, deeper, empowering affect which is to help you understand why things are the way they are in the modern world, our world.

McMeekin explains that, on one level, the entire history of the later Ottoman Empire is about Russia’s relationship with Turkey and the simple facts that the Russians wanted:

  1. to seize all of European Turkey, most of all Constantinople, to reclaim it as a Christian city to be renamed Tsargrad
  2. to make big inroads into eastern Turkey, creating semi-independent states of Armenia and Kurdistan which would be Russian protectorates
  3. the net affects of 1 and 2 being to give Russia complete dominance of the Black Sea and easy access to the Mediterranean

This is the fundamental geopolitical conflict which underlies the entire region. The intrusion into bits of the Empire by the British (in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq) or the French wish to colonise Lebanon and Syria, are in a sense secondary to the fundamental Russo-Turkish conflict whose roots stretch back centuries.

Competition for the Caucasus

McMeekin covers the ‘scramble for the Caucasus’ in the Berlin-Baghdad book but, as with the rest of the subject, it feels much more clear and comprehensible in this version.

It’s the story of how, following the unilateral declaration of peace by the Bolsheviks, the Germans not only stormed across Eastern Europe, sweeping into the Baltic nations in the north and Ukraine in the south – they also got involved in a competition with the Turks for the Caucasus and Transcaucasus.

In other words the Ottoman Army and the German Army found themselves competing to seize Armenia, Georgia, Kurdistan and, above all, racing to seize Baku on the Caspian Sea, important not only for its strategic position, but because of the extensive oil fields in its hinterland.

The story is fascinatingly complex, involving a British force (led by General Dunster) which at one point held the city for 6 weeks (the British got everywhere!) but was forced to withdraw by boat across the Caspian as the hugely outnumbering Turks moved in – and a great deal of ethnic conflict between rival groups on the spot, specifically the native Azeri Muslims and the Christian Armenians.

Events moved very quickly. Local political leaders across the region declared the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic which included the present-day republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia which existed from just April to May 1918, but the area around Baku was engulfed in ethnic violence – the so-called March Days massacres from March to April 1918 – and then in May 1918, the leading party in Baku declared independence as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

Nice for them but irrelevant as the Ottoman Army then routed the British and seized the city in September 1918. And only a few years later, most of these countries were reinvented by the Bolsheviks as Socialist Soviet Republics strongly under the control of Moscow, as they would remain for the next 70 years till the collapse of the Soviet Union (so in this region, the Russians won).

The end of the Great War…

The race for Baku was just one example of the chaos which was unleashed over an enormous area by the collapse of the Russian state.

But for McMeekin, it was also an example of the foolishness of the main military ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the entire Great War, Enver Pasha, who over-extended the (by now) under-manned and under-armed Turkish army, by dragging it all the way to the shores of the Caspian in what McMeekin calls ‘a mad gamble’ (p.400) ‘foolish push’ (p.409).

This left the Anatolian heartland under-defended when it suffered attacks by the British from the north in Thrace, from the south up through Palestine, and in Iraq – not to mention the French landings in Cilicia and Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.

The Empire was forced to sign the Armistice of Mudros with Great Britain on 30 October and Ottoman troops were obliged to withdraw from the whole region in the Caucasus which they’d spent the summer fighting for.

… was not the end of the fighting

The war between France and Britain and the Ottoman Empire theoretically ended with the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October 1918. But McMeekin’s book is fascinating because it shows how invasions, landings, fighting and massacres continued almost unabated at locations across the Empire.

Specifically, it was a revelation to me that the Allied decision to allow the Greeks to land troops in the city of Smyrna on the Aegean coast turned out to be the flashpoint which triggered the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Disgruntled Ottoman officers had been gathering in central Anatolia, away from Constantinople, now occupied by the Allies, who bitterly resented the way the civilian politicians were handing over huge tranches of the Empire to the Allies. These men rallied in Eastern Anatolia under Mustafa Kemal, who became the leader of the hastily assembled Turkish National Movement.

And thus began, as McMeekin puts it, one of the most remarkable and successful political careers of the twentieth century, the transformation of Mustafa Kemal from successful general into Father of his Nation, who was awarded the honorific Atatürk (‘Father of the Turks’) in 1934.

Big ideas

As always, when reading a history on this scale, some events or issues leap out as new (to me) or particularly striking. Maybe not the ones the author intended, but the ones which made me stop and think.

1. The First World War ended in Bulgaria

Brought up on the story of the trenches, I tend to think of the war ending because the German Spring offensive of 1918 broke the Allied lines and advanced 25 miles or so before running out of steam, at which point the Allies counter-attacked, pushing the Germans back to their original lines and then ever-backwards as more and more German soldiers deserted and their military machine collapsed. That’s how it ended.

I knew that Bulgaria had surrendered to the Allies as early 24 September and that that event had had some impact on German High Command, but it is fascinating to read McMeekin’s account which makes the end of the First World War all about the Balkans and Bulgaria.

The British had had a large force (250,000) defending Macedonia and the approach to Greece from Bulgaria, which was allied with Austria and Germany. But the Bulgarians were fed up. In the peace treaties imposed on the new Bolshevik Russian government in May 1918 the Bulgarians got hardly any territory. When the Germans advanced into Ukraine the Bulgarians received hardly any of the grain which was seized. The Bulgarians are Slavs and so there was widespread sympathy for Russia while many ordinary people wondered why their young men were fighting and dying for Germany. And there was abiding antagonism against the Ottomans, their supposed ally, who Bulgaria had had to fight to free itself from and had fought against in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

All this meant that when an aggressive new French general, Louis Félix Marie François Franchet d’Espèrey, arrived to take command of Allied army in Macedonia, and sent exploratory probes against the Bulgarian line, discovered it was weak, and then unleashed a full frontal assault in the Vardar Offensive of September 1918, that the Bulgarian army and state collapsed.

The Bulgarian army surrendered, mutinied, part even declared an independent mini-republic, and the Bulgarian government was forced to sue for peace on 24 September 1918. When he heard of the Bulgarian surrender, the supreme leader of the German Army, Ludendorff, said they were done for. The Turkish generalissimo, Enver Pasha, said we’re screwed.

The collapse of Bulgaria gave the Allies command of the Balkans, allowing the channeling of armies south-east, the short distance to capture Constantinople, or north against the vulnerable southern flank of Austro-German territory.

In McMeekin’s account, the collapse of Tsarist Russia was certainly a seismic event but it didn’t, of itself, end the war.

The trigger for that event was the surrender of Bulgaria.

2. East and West

Another of the Big Ideas to really dwell on is the difference between the First World War on the Western Front and on the other theatres of war – the Eastern Front in Europe, but also all the warzones in Ottoman territory, namely Gallipoli, the Black Sea, Suez, Mesopotamia, Persia and the Caucasus.

Any English person brought up, like me, on the history and iconography of the Western Front, with its four-year-long stalemate and gruelling trench warfare, will be astonished at the dynamism and tremendously changing fortunes of the combatants on all the other fronts I’ve just listed.

Not only that, but events in the East were intricately interlinked, like a vast clock.

Thus it is one thing to learn that Serbia, the cause of the whole war, which Austria-Hungary had threatened to demolish in the first weeks of the war, was not in fact conquered until over a year later, in November 1915. So far, so vaguely interesting.

But it took my understanding to a whole new level to learn that the fall of Serbia to the Central Powers was the decisive event for Gallipoli. Because, while Serbia was holding out, she had prevented the Germans from shipping men and material easily down through the Balkans to their Ottoman ally. Once Serbia fell, however, the transport routes to Turkey were open, and this was the last straw for strategists in London, who realised the bad situation of the Allied troops stuck on the beaches of the Dardanelles could only deteriorate.

And so the decision to abandon the Gallipoli campaign and remove the troops from the beaches.

This is just one example from the many ways in which McMeekin’s account helps you see how all of these events were not isolated incidents, but how, all across the region from Libya in the West to the Punjab in the East, from the Balkans via Palestine to Suez, across Syria, down into Arabia, or up into the snowy Caucasus mountains, events in one theatre were intricately connected with events in all the others – and how the entire complex machinery was also influenced by events on the immense Eastern Front to their north, which ran from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Basically, the First World War in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, was vastly more complicated, dynamic and interesting than the war in the West. And also pregnant with all kinds of long-running consequences.

3. The ends of wars are incalculably more complex than the beginnings

Real peace didn’t come to Turkey till 1923. In this regard it was not unlike Germany which saw coups and revolutions through 1919, or the vast Russian Civil War which dragged on till 1922 and included an attempt to invade and conquer Poland in 1920, or the political violence which marred Italy until Mussolini’s black shirts seized power in 1922.

Across huge parts of the world, violence, ethnic cleansing and actual wars continued long after the Armistice of November 1918. In fact McMeekin goes so far as to describe the Battle of Sakarya (23 August to 12 September 1921) as ‘the last real battle of the First World War (p.456).

Thus the book’s final hundred pages describe the long, complex, violent and tortuous transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish Republic, a story which is riveting, not least because of the terrible decisions taken by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, often against the advice of his entire cabinet, namely:

  1. to allow the Greek Army to occupy Smyrna, which led to riots, massacres, and outrage right across Turkey
  2. to occupy Constantinople on March 20 1920 – I had no idea British warships docked in the harbour, and British soldiers backed by armoured cars set up control points at every junction, erecting machine-gun posts in central squares – God, we got everywhere, didn’t we?

And bigger than both of these, the folly of the Allies’ approach of imposing a humiliating peace without providing the means to enforce it.

That said, America also played a key role. Much is always made of the Sykes-Picot Plan to divide the Ottoman Empire up between Britain and France, but McMeekin goes to great pains to emphasise several massive caveats:

1. Sazonov That, when it was drawn up, in June 1916, the Sykes-Picot Plan was largely at the behest of the pre-revolutionary Russian government which had more interest in seizing Ottoman territory than the other two combatants, so the plan ought, in McMeekin’s view, to be called the Sazonov-Sykes-Picto Plan because of the dominant influence of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Sazonov.

2. Sèvres I was astonished to see that the Treaty of Sèvres (imposed on the new Turkish government in May 1920, reluctantly signed in August 1920) handed a huge amount of territory, the bottom half of present-day Turkey, to Italy – in fact pretty much all the contents of the Treaty of Sèvres are mind-boggling, it enacted ‘a policy of forcefully dismembering Turkey’ (p.447). As McMeekin brings out, a document better designed to humiliate the Turks and force them into justified rebellion could barely be imagined.

Map showing how the Ottoman Empire was carved up by the Treaty of Sèvres, not only between the French and British, but the Italians, Greeks and Russians as well (Source: Wikipedia, author: Thomas Steiner)

3. States That the key player in the final year of the war and the crucial few years after it, was the United States, with some plans being drawn up for America to hold ‘mandates’ over large parts of the Ottoman Empire, namely Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia. Given a choice the native populations wanted the Americans in charge because they thought they would be genuinely disinterested unlike the colonial powers.

Here, as across Central Europe, it was a great blow when, first of all Woodrow Wilson had a stroke which disabled him (October 1919), and then the American Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations.

As the chaos continued, and as David Lloyd George listened to his influential Greek friends and supported a Greek army invasion of Smyrna on the Turkish coast (with its large Greek population), and then its pushing inland to secure their base, only slowly did I realise McMeekin was describing events which are nowadays, with hindsight, referred to as the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922.

I had no idea the Greeks penetrated so far into Anatolia.

Map of the Greco-Turkish War, blue arrows showing the advance of the Greek Army into undefended Anatolia and coming within 50 miles of the new Turkish capital at Ankara before being halted at the Battle of Sakarya (source: Wikipedia, author: Andrei Nacu)

And no idea that the Greeks were encouraged to the hilt by David Lloyd George right up until it began to look like they would lose after their advance was halted by the vital Battle of Sakarya just 50 miles from Ankara.

Nor that the Greeks then forfeited the backing of the French and British and world opinion generally, by the brutality with which they pursued a scorched earth policy in retreat, torching every town and village and railway and facility in their path, also committing atrocities against Muslim Turkish civilians. It’s gruelling reading the eye-witness descriptions of destroyed villages, raped women, and murdered populations. What bastards.

Mustafa Kemal’s impact on Britain

It was a revelation to me to learn that, once Kemal’s Turkish army had driven the Greeks back into the sea and forced the evacuation of Smyrna, and with his eastern border protected by a rock-solid treaty he had signed with Soviet Russia, Kemal now turned his attention to the Bosphorus, to Constantinople, and to Thrace (the thin strip of formerly Turkish territory on the northern, European side of the Straits), all occupied by (relatively small) British forces.

It was news to me that Lloyd George, backed by Winston Churchill, was determined that Kemal would not have either Constantinople or the Straits back again, and so a) wrote to the premiers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa asking them to contribute forces to a second defence of Gallipoli – they all said No – and b) the British public were by now so sick of the war in Turkey, and war generally, that they, and all the newspapers, roundly called for an end to British involvement – STOP THIS NEW WAR! shouted the Daily Mail.

And that it was this crisis which caused the collapse of the coalition government which had ruled Britain and the Empire since 1916.

The Conservatives abandoned the coalition, it collapsed, the Liberals split into two factions and the election of October 1922 resulted in not only a Conservative victory (344 seats) but the Labour Party emerging for the first time as the largest opposition party (142 seats), with the two factions of the Liberal party knocked into third and fourth place. The Liberals, even when they finally recombined, were never to regain the power and influence they enjoyed throughout the nineteenth century.

Thus, McMeekin points out with a flourish, Mustafa Kemal had not only divided the wartime Alliance (the French wanted nothing to do with Lloyd George’s foolish support for the Greeks) and atomised the Commonwealth (all those white Commonwealth countries refusing to help the Old Country) but ended the long history of the Liberal Party as a party of power.

Fascinating new perspectives and insights

Conclusion

Nowadays, it is easy to blame the usual imperialist suspects Britain and France for all the wrongs which were to beset the Middle East for the 100 years since the Treaty of Lausanne finally finalised Turkey’s borders and gave the rest of the area as ‘mandates’ to the victorious powers.

But McMeekin, in his final summing up, is at pains to point out the problems already existing in the troubled periphery – there had already been two Balkan Wars, Zionist immigration was set to be a problem in Palestine no matter who took over, Brits, Russians or Germans – Arabia was already restless with the Arab tribes jostling for power – Mesopotamia had been a hornet’s nest even during Ottoman rule, with the Ottoman authorities telling non-Muslims never to visit it. All this before you get to the smouldering cause of Armenian independence.

All these problems already existed under the last years of Ottoman rule, the British and French didn’t invent them, they just managed them really badly.

Ataturk’s achievement was to surgically remove all these problems from Ottoman control and delegate them to the imperial powers. He was clever, they were dumb, inheriting insoluble problems. He created an ethnically homogenous and ‘exclusionary state’ whose borders have endured to this day.

As a very specific example, McMeekin cites Kemal’s readiness to hand over the area around Mosul to British control, even though he was well aware of its huge oil deposits. He made the very wise assessment that the benefit of the oil would be outweighed by the disruptive issues he would inherit around managing the ethnic and religious conflicts in the region (between Kurds and Arabs, between Sunni and Shia Muslims). And indeed, the low-level conflicts of the region are alive and kicking to this day.

The Allies for 25 years struggled to rule Palestine, Arabia, Syria, Iraq and eventually withdrew in various states of failure. McMeekin’s mordant conclusion is that the ‘the War of the Ottoman Succession rages on, with no end in sight’ (p.495, final sentence).

For the clear and authoritative way it lays out its amazing story, and for the measured, deep insights it offers into the period it describes and the consequences of these events right up to the present day, this is a brilliant book.


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Other blog posts about the First World War

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The Byzantine Empire

Which describe the first arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the region, their conquest of Anatolia, Byzantine territory and, finally, Constantinople itself.

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin

Memorandum on revolutionizing the Islamic territories of our enemies (Title of a paper written in October 1914 by German archaeologist and Orientalist Max von Oppenheim which argued for enlisting the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to call on the world’s Muslims to engage in a Holy War or jihad against the colonial powers, France and Great Britain)

This is a colourful and entertaining book about Germany’s military and diplomatic involvement with the Ottoman Empire in the decades leading up to, and then during, the Great War of 1914-18.

Kaiser Wilhelm’s enthusiasm for Islam

The first 80 pages or so provide background, describing Kaiser Wilhelm’s first state visit to Turkey in 1889 when he met the reigning Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, and his second visit in 1898 when Wilhelm grandiosely rode into Jerusalem through a breach specially made in its walls.

And they detail the very slow progress made on an ambitious commercial scheme to extend the railway line which already stretched from Hamburg on the Baltic Sea via Berlin to Constantinople, onwards across Anatolia, Syria and Iraq, to Baghdad and thence onto the Persian Gulf at Basra.

This railway project – to create a Berlin to Baghdad Railway – the focus of the opening 70 or 80 pages, although described in detail with lots of facts about the funding, selling bonds on various stock markets, the setting up of companies, the engineering challenges and so on – is really only a pretext or way in to the wider story about German-Ottoman relations, and how cultural, economic and political factors drew the two countries closer together in the years leading up the Great War.

McMeekin describes the Kaiser’s over-excitable whims and enthusiasms. One of the most notorious of these saw Wilhelm make a speech at Saladin’s tomb in Damascus on the 1898 trip, when he declared himself and his Reich a friend to the world’s 300 million Muslims. In private letters he announced that Islam was superior to Christianity, he was intoxicated by his visits and his receptions… only to largely forget his enthusiasms once he was back in Berlin.

German High Command develop an eastern strategy

But key elements in the German diplomatic and military didn’t forget; they built on this new idea of expanding German influence down through the Balkans into the Middle East. Germany’s European rivals, France and Britain, already had extensive empires with territories all round the world. Even the Dutch and the Italians had farflung colonies.

It was true the Germans had grabbed a few wretched bits of Africa during the notorious scramble for that continent in the 1880s, but now German strategists realised that extending her influence south and east, through the Balkans and into the Middle East was:

  1. a far more natural geographical extension of Germany’s existing territory
  2. fed into all kinds of cultural fantasies about owning and running the origins of Western civilisation in Babylon, Jerusalem and so on
  3. and offered the more practical geopolitical goals of:
    • forestalling Russian expansion into the area, via the Balkans or the Caucasus
    • breaking up the British Empire by seizing control of its most vital strategic asset, Suez Canal, and sparking an uprising of the tens of millions of ‘oppressed’ Muslim subjects of the British, specifically in British India

So the book isn’t at all a dry and dusty account of German-Ottoman diplomatic relations from 1889 to 1918 (although it does by its nature contain lots of aspects of this).

It is more a description of this GRAND VISION which entranced generations of German political and military leaders and a score of German entrepreneurs, spies and adventurers, a VISION which inspired official reports with titles like Overview of Revolutionary Activity We Will Undertake in The Islamic-Israelite World and Exposé Concerning The Revolutionising of The Islamic Territories of Our Enemies, a VISION of Germany sparking and leading a Great Uprising of Islam which would overthrow the British Empire and… and…

Well, that was the problem. The Big Vision was intoxicating, but working out the details turned out to be more tricky.

Apparently there’s controversy among historians about whether the German leadership had any kind of conscious plan to raise the Muslim East against the British before the First World War broke out in August 1914. But once war was declared, a combination of military and diplomatic officials dispatched to the Ottoman Empire and a colourful cast of freelance archaeologists and regional experts who fancied themselves as spies and provocateurs, give McMeekin the raw material for a book full of adventures, mishaps, farcical campaigns, ferocious Young Turks and double-dealing Arab sheikhs.

The book proceeds by chapters each of which focuses on an aspect of the decades building up to the First World War, then on specific historical events during 1914-18, or on leading personalities, often repeating the chronology as he goes back over the same pre-war period to explain the origins of each thread or theme. Topics covered include:

  • the brutal reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) which combined attempts to modernise the Ottoman Empire with some notorious repressions of Armenians calling for independence, specifically the Hamidian Massacres of 1893 during which up to 300,000 Armenians were killed and which earned Hamid the nickname ‘the Bloody Sultan’
  • the revolution of the Young Turks who overthrew Abdul Hamid, and replaced him with a more compliant ruler during a series of complex events stretching from 1908 into 1909
  • the complex diplomatic manouevring which followed the outbreak of the war in 1914 by which the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) tried to persuade the Young Turk government to take the Ottoman Empire in on their side
  • the intricate tribal rivalries in Arabia between fiercely rival tribes such as the ibn Saud, the Ibn Rashid of the Shammar, An-Nuri’s Rwala bedouin and so on

Why the Ottoman Empire joined the First World War

And of course, some time is spent explaining why the Ottomans did, eventually, come into the war, by launching an attack on Russian ports in the Black Sea on 29 October 1914, although this isn’t rocket science.

The Ottomans:

  1. resented French incursions into Lebanon and Syria
  2. really disliked the ongoing British ‘protectorate’ over Egypt (established in the 1880s) and encroaching British influence in Arabia and the Persian Gulf
  3. and very much feared the permanent threat of attack from Russia, their historic enemy, whose military chiefs and right-wing hawks harboured a long-standing fantasy about invading right down through the (mostly Slavic) Balkans and conquering Constantinople, restoring it as an Orthodox Christian city

This sense of being beset by enemies was steadily compounded through the 1900s as first France and Britain signed an Entente (the Entente Cordiale, 1904), and then Britain reached out to Russia to create the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907, thus creating what became known as the Triple Entente.

Compared to these three known and feared opponents who were slowly drawing together, the Germans were a relatively unknown quantity who, led by the Kaiser’s impulsive gushing enthusiasm for Islam, and combined with the Germans’ undoubted a) money b) engineering abilities, made them welcome partners in not only building the railway but trying to rejuvenate the crippled Ottoman economy.

The Ottoman Caliph proclaims his fatwas against the infidel

But the Germans didn’t just want the Ottomans as military allies. They saw huge potential in getting the Sultan, in his capacity as Caliph of the Muslim world, to raise the entire Muslim world in a Holy War against the infidel… well… the British and French infidel, not the German or Austrian infidel. Maybe the Italian infidel too, although at this early stage of the war nobody knew which side Italy would come in on (Italy entered the First World War on 23 May 1915 on the side of the Entente Powers).

So McMeekin details the diplomatic shenanigans (and the bribes, always the bribes) which led up to the great day, Wednesday November 11th, 1914, when Shaykh al-Islam Ürgüplü Hayri, the highest religious authority of the caliphate in Constantinople, issued five fatwas, calling Muslims across the world for jihad against the Entente countries (Britain, France, Russia) and promising them the status of martyr if they fell in battle.

Three days later, in the name of Sultan-Caliph Mehmed V, the ‘Commander of the Faithful’ (the puppet caliph who had been put in place by the Young Turk government) the decree was read out to a large crowd outside Constantinople’s Fatih Mosque and then huge crowds carrying flags and banners marched through the streets of the Ottoman capital, calling for holy war. Across the Ottoman Empire, imams carried the message of jihad to believers in their Friday sermons, and so on.

This was a seismic even and it had been very expensive – McMeekin calculates German payments to the Young Turk government of £2 million of gold, a loan of £5 million more, and massive shipments of arms on credit to persuade them to join the German side (p.233).

Missions and characters

OK, now the Germans had gotten the highest authority in the Muslim world to issue a holy order to rise up against the infidel (the British and French infidel, that is), now all that was needed was to organise and lead them. Simples, right?

The book devotes a chapter apiece to the missions of a number of idiosyncratic German adventurers who were sent out by the German military authorities to recruit Muslim allies in their fight against the allies.

Key to the whole undertaking was Max von Oppenheim, archaeologist and Orientalist who, in October 1914, had published a Memorandum on revolutionizing the Islamic territories of our enemies which argued for enlisting the Sultan to call on the world’s Muslims to engage in a Holy War against Germany’s enemies, France and Britain. Seeing the possibilities, the German High Command set up an Intelligence Bureau for the East in Berlin and made Oppenheim its head.

From this position Oppenheim helped plan, equip and select the personnel for a series of missions to be led by noted German archaeologist / linguists / explorers all across the Muslim world, with a view to raising it against the British (the French Muslim colonies of the Maghreb are mentioned a few times but were too far West along North Africa to be of any strategic importance to the European war).

These colourful expeditions included:

  • the mission given the ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius to stir up the Muslims of Abyssinia and Sudan against the British (pp.145-151)
  • the mission led by Austrian orientalist and explorer Alois Musil to recruit the bedouin of Arabia to the German cause (pp.154-165)
  • an ill-fated military campaign of Turks and Arabs to try and capture the Suez Canal, led by Freiherr Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, which was badly mauled by the British defenders (pp.167-179)
  • Max Oppenheim’s own negotiations with Feisal, son of Hussein, Sherif of Mecca, to recruit the guardian of the Muslim Holy Places onto the German side (pp.191-195)
  • the mission of Captain Fritz Klein to the leader of the Shia world, Sheikh Ali el Irakein, the Grand Mufti of Karbala in modern-day Iraq, ‘to spread the fires of Ottoman holy war to the Gulf’ (pp.203-8)
  • the even more ambitious mission of Oskar von Niedermayer to the Emir of Afghanistan, with a view to recruiting a force which could invade North-West India through the Khyber Pass and raise all the Muslims of India in rebellion against their imperial masters (pp.209-229)

Several things emerge very clearly from McMeekin’s detailed accounts of each of these missions, and slowly dawned on the German High Command:

1. The Muslim world was the opposite of united; it was surprisingly fragmented.

2. The Germans were disconcerted to discover that none of the Arabs they met gave a toss what the Turkish Sultan-Caliph declared in faraway Constantinople; in fact, on one level, the ineffectiveness of the Sultan-Caliph’s call to arms ending up emphasising his irrelevance to most Muslims and, in a roundabout way, undermining the authority of the Ottoman Empire as a whole over its non-Turkish subjects (p.258).

3. Again and again, in different contexts, different German emissaries made the same discovery – the Turks and the Arabs distrusted or even hated each other.

4. When it came to fighting the Germans could trust the Turks but not the Arabs. At Gallipoli the Arab regiments ran away, and had to be replaced by Turks, who held the line under the brilliant leadership of Mustafa Kemal’ (p.189). As soon as the shooting started during the Turco-German attack on the Suez Canal (3 February 1915), all the bedouin who had been so carefully recruited, turned tail and fled, followed by all the Arab conscripts in the Turkish ranks (p.177). The Turks didn’t trust any of the Arab regiments in their army, and made sure they were all led by Turkish officers.

5. All the Arabs were only in it for the money: whether it was the Arabian bedouin, the north African Arabs of Libya or Sudan, the Shia ruler in Karbala or the Emir of Afghanistan, all of them were currently being subsidised by the British and often their people were being supplied with grain and basic foodstuffs by the British. Therefore, the Germans found themselves having to outbid the British subsidies and handing over eye-watering amounts of money. The Emir of Agfhanistan demanded an annual payment of $15,000 before he signed up with the Germans. Ibn Rashid, headman of the Shammar tribe, had negotiated payment from Turkey of 50,000 rifles, a one-off bribe of 15,000 Turkish pounds (worth $20 million today), a luxury car and a monthly stipend of 220 Turkish pounds – but all that didn’t prevent him carrying out secret negotiations with the French to see if he could get a better deal out of them (p.163). And the Emir of Afghanistan demanded a lump sum of £10 million, the equivalent of $5 billion today, before he signed a treaty allying himself to the Central Powers on 24 January 1916 (p.228).

Gallipoli and the Armenian genocide

The book covers a couple of the best known episodes of the Great War in the Middle East, namely:

  • the catastrophic Gallipoli Campaign – February 1915 to January 1916 (pp.180-190)
  • the Armenian genocide – April 1915 to 1917 (pp.241-258)

But McMeekin is not interested in presenting comprehensive factual accounts of either. Plenty of other books do that. Both disasters feature in his account insofar as they affected German plans and policies.

For example, through German eyes the main aspects of the Armenian genocide were that:

  1. it could be used by Western propagandists against the German war effort
  2. most of the skilled labour on the still-unfinished Baghdad railway was Armenian, and now they were being rounded up and sent off to the wild interior of Anatolia, thus depriving the Germans of their labour forc

Hence the German authorities making complaints all the way up the chain of command until the Head of the German General Staff himself made a formal complaint to the Young Turk government, saying elimination of the Armenian workers was hampering work on the railway which was still – in 1915 – seen as a key logistical asset in carrying arms and ammunition to the Arab Muslims in Mesopotamia or the Gulf so they could rise up against British influence in the region.

The symbolism of the Berlin to Baghdad railway

The Berlin to Baghdad railway which dominated the first 70 or 80 pages of the book thereafter disappears from view for long stretches. As and when it does reappear, it snakes its way through the narrative as a symbol of the tricky and ultimately unworkable relationship between the Reich and the Ottoman Empire (the railway was still not completed in 1918, when the war ended in German and Ottoman defeat).

But the railway also stands as a symbol of McMeekin’s approach in this book, which is to approach an enormous subject via entertaining episodes, a peripheral approach.

This isn’t at all dry, factual and comprehensive account of Germano-Turkish diplomatic and military relations in the years leading up to, and then during, the First World War.

It is more a collection of themes and threads, each chapter focusing on a particularly exciting episode (whether Gallipoli or Niedermayer’s gruelling trek to distant Afghanistan) and McMeekin deliberately presents them in a popular and rather sensational style, emphasising the personal quirks of his protagonists. We learn that leading German Orientalist Max von Oppenheim built up a collection of some 150 traditional Turkish costumes, that the Emir of Afghanistan owned the only motor car in the country, a Rolls Royce, that the leader of the military mission to the Ottomans, Liman von Sanders was partly deaf which explained his aloof, distracted manner, and so on. Wherever he can, McMeekin adds these personal touches and colourful details to bring the history to life.

The end of the war

McMeekin’s account of the end of the war feels different from the rest of the book. Up till now we had spent a lot of time getting to know Max von Oppenheim or Liman von Sanders or Young  Turks like Enver Bey or Mehmed Talaat, leading amabassadors in Constantinople, Arabs like Feisal of Mecca or non-Arab Muslims like the Emir of Afghanistan. It had, to a surprising extent, been quite a human account, I mean it focuses on individuals that we get to know.

The end of the war completely changes the scope and scale and tone because, to understand it, you have to fly up to take a vast God-like view of the conflict. McMeekin has to explain the February revolution in Russia, how and why the Russian offensives of the summer failed and were pushed back, the dazzling success of the German scheme to send Lenin to St Petersburg in a sealed train, the success of the Bolshevik coup in October, Lenin’s unilateral declaration of peace, the long drawn out peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, and all the while describe the impact of these increasingly fast-moving developments on the main front between the Ottoman Empire and the Russians, fought in the Caucasus.

In other words, the last 60 or so pages of the book cease to have the colourful and sometimes comic tone of the earlier accounts of individual adventurers and two-faced Arab sheikhs, and become something much more faceless, high-level and brutal.

And complex. The fighting in the Caucasus involved not just the Russians and Turks, but a large number of other nationalities who all took the opportunity of the Russian collapse to push their hopes for independence and statehood, including the Georgians, the Armenians, the Kurds, the Azerbaijanis and many others. I can tell I’m going to have to reread these final sections to get my head round the chaos and complexity which carried on long after the supposed peace treaties had been signed…

Two big ideas

1. Bismarck had made it a lynchpin of his foreign policy to maintain the Holy Alliance first established as far back as 1815 at the Congress of Vienna and promoted by the Austrian diplomat, Metternich during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Holy Alliance bound together the three Central and East European autocracies, Prussia (and its successor state, Germany), Austria-Hungary and Russia. According to McMeekin, within weeks of sacking Bismarck (in 1890), the cocky young Kaiser rejected overtures from Russia to renew Germany and Russia’s understanding, determined to throw out everything the boring old man (Bismarck) had held dear, and to embark on new adventures.

The impact on Russia was to make her even more paranoid about the ambitions of Germany and Austria in ‘her’ backyard of the Balkans – shutting down lines of communication which might have contained the Balkan Crises of the 1910s – and made Russia cast around for other alliances and, in the end, improbably, forge an alliance with the ditziest of the western democracies, France.

All this was explained on page ten and struck me as the most fateful of all the Kaiser’s mistakes and, in a sense, the key to everything which came afterwards.

2. After the peace treaties are finally signed, McMeekin presents an epilogue, which goes on for a long time and develops into a complicated argument about the links between Wilhelmine Germany’s encouragement of an anti-western, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish jihad – which his book has described at some length – and the rabid anti-Semitism which emerged soon after the German defeat of 1918, and which carried on getting evermore toxic until the Nazis came to power.

This strikes me as being a complex and controversial subject which probably merits a book of its own not a hurried 20-age discussion.

But before he goes off into that big and contentious topic, McMeekin makes a simpler point. Modern Arabs and Western Liberals like to blame the two colonial powers, Britain and France, for everything which went wrong in the Arab world after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the years after the Great War ended, and obviously there is a lot to find fault with.

But this over-familiar line of self-blame among Western liberals completely omits, ignores, writes out of history, the baleful impact of the prolonged, deep (and very expensive) engagement of Wilhelmine Germany with the Ottoman Empire, with Arabs from Tunisia to Yemen, with the Muslim world from Egypt to Afghanistan. And the fact that it was the Germans who went to great lengths to summon up jihad, to set the Muslim world on fire, to create murderous hatred against Westerners and Europeans, and at the same managed to undermine the authority of the Turkish Caliphate, the one central authority in the Muslim world.

Summary

So if there’s one thing The Berlin-Baghdad Express sets out to do, and does very well, it is to restore to the record the centrality of the role played by the Germans in the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, and the long-term legacy of German influence across the Middle East.


Other blog posts about the First World War

Art & music

Books

The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2nd edition, 2013)

Westerners bore some blame for China’s plight, but the prime cause lay in the empire itself and its rulers. (p.94)

The bloodshed! The murders! The killings! The massacres! The public beheadings! The drownings! The executions! The torture! The mass rapes! The famines! The cannibalism! It’s a miracle China exists after so much death and destruction.

This is a huge book with 682 pages of text and on every page there are killings, murders, massacres, pogroms, famines, floods, executions, purges and liquidations. 150 years of murder, massacre and mayhem. It is a shattering and gruelling book to read.

An estimated 20 million died in the Taiping Rebellion which dragged on from 1850 to 1871. 20 million! Maybe 14 million died in the 8-year-war against Japan 1937-45. And then maybe as many as 45 million died during the chaotic thirty-year misrule of Chairman Mao!!!!

Throw in the miscellaneous other rebellions of the Taiping era (the Nian Rebellion, 100,000+ killed and vast loss of property), the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (about 100,000 civilians and soldiers dead), the chaos of the Warlord Era (1916-28), immense losses during the long civil war between Nationalists and Communists (1927-49), and Fenby comes up with the commonly accepted figure that between 1850 and 1980 around 100 million Chinese died unnatural or unnecessary deaths.

100 million! The sheer scale of the killing, the torture and executions and butchery and burnings and beheadings and starving to death and burying alive is difficult to comprehend, and also difficult to cope with. Several times I lay the book down because I was so sickened by the butchery. Contemporary China is soaked in the blood of its forefathers as no other country on earth.

Here’s a few examples from just the opening pages:

  • In 1850 Han officials massacred tens of thousands of Muslims in remote Yunnan (p.18)
  • When the Taiping army reached the Wuhan cities in 1851, it massacred the inhabitants. When it took Nanjing it ‘systematically butchered’ all the Manchu inhabitants (p.20)
  • The mandarin in charge of putting down the revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded over 100,000 rebels and only lamented he couldn’t exterminate the entire class (p.22)
  • When the Xianfeng emperor died in 1861 he left the throne to a minor. A regency council was formed by a senior censor, Sushun. He was outwitted by the former emperor’s concubine Cixi, and was beheaded (the original plan had been to skin him alive) and two allied princes allowed to hang themselves. (p.24) Can you imagine anything remotely similar happening at the court of Queen Victoria? Skinning alive?
  • 13 days after the death of the emperor, a gentry army took the river port of Anqing. The river was full of the headless bodies of rebels (p.26)
  • The silk city of Suzhou was held by 40,000 Taiping rebels. General Li Hongzhang besieged it and the rebel leaders surrendered. Li had all the leaders executed and half the defenders massacred, then the city was comprehensively looted (p.28)
  • When the poet and Taiping rebel leader Shi Dakai surrendered to save his troops from imperial forces, he himself was slowly sliced to death in the process sometimes translated as ‘death by a thousand cuts‘ (a form of punishment and torture commonly used in China until it was officially banned in 1905), and 2,000 of his troops were massacred (p.28)
  • The last engagement of the Taiping Rebellion was the imperial reconquest of the rebels’ capital at Nanjing in 1864. At least 100,000 rebels were killed in the three-day battle and the imperial army went on to massacre the entire population of Nanjing (p.29)
  • While the Taiping devastated the south, northern China was rocked by the Nian Rebellion with its snappy motto: ‘kill the rich and aid the poor’. (The more you learn, the more the disasters of Mao’s communism reveal their deep roots in Chinese tradition i.e. he was invoking and repeating well-established cultural practices.)
  • Having finally conquered the Taiping rebels, Qing imperial forces went north to exterminate the Nians, at first by surrounding and starving them. In one canton the population was reduced to eating the crushed bones of the dead and then to cannibalism. Then they were massacred (p.30).
  • In 1872 the leader of the rebellious Hui Muslims in Yunnan, surrounded in his capital Dali by imperial armies, swallowed an overdose of opium and had his corpse carried in a sedan chair to the imperial camp, where it was ceremonially decapitated. Then the imperial army launched a ferocious attack on Dali, an eye-witness claiming that not a single Muslim man, woman or child was left living, while the streets ran ankle deep in blood. The ears of the dead were cut off and more than 20,000 ears were sent in baskets to the court in Beijing. Any surviving women and children were sold as sex slaves (p.30)
  • Imperial general Zuo Zongtang besieged the leader of the anti-Qing rebellion in Gansu province, Ma Hualong, in his capital at Jinjipu. Having reduced the population to cannibalism, Zuo accepted the surrender of Ma before having him sliced alive, executing his son and officials, then massacring the town’s inhabitants, and burning it to the ground (p.31).

That’s just 13 pages out of 680. On and on it goes, the mind-boggling violence and cruelty – with murders, massacres, battles and pogroms, torture and beheadings, floods and famine on nearly every page.

The complete absence of democracy or debate

If the accumulated disasters ram home one bitter lesson, it is that Chinese politics and culture entirely lacked the ability to cope with dissenting voices and differing opinions. The Imperial system was based on total obedience. It was backed up by the phenomenally hierarchical philosophy of Confucius, in which everyone is subordinate to superiors and must obey (sons obey fathers, wives obey husbands etc).

From the court down, through the gentry class, the army, intellectuals and students – it was either Total Obedience or Total Rebellion, no middle way was possible because no middle way was conceivable, was – literally – capable of being thought.

This top-down mindset was inherited by the Nationalist Party which imposed a sort of government over most of China between the wars – and then was repeated once again in the terrifying dictatorship of Mao Zedong from 1949 till his death in 1976.

The messy polyphony of Western democracies, with its satire, criticism, proliferating parties, all sorts of newspapers, magazines and outlets for opposition and dissent – with its free speech – was just one of the many things the Chinese despised about the West, and considered themselves loftily superior to.

Whether it was imperial China or Nationalist China or communist China: all Chinese disdained and mocked the uncultured buffoonery of western democracy.

And the result was war upon war upon war – your opponents weren’t guys you could just invite round for a smoke and a chat about their demands and do deals with: they were ‘impious rebels’, ‘imperial running dogs’, ‘idolatrous demons’, ‘surrenderists’, ‘mountaintopists’ and so on.

China doesn’t appear to have much political theory. Instead it has a rich vocabulary of abuse based on one fundamental idea – he who is not with me is against me. Hence a litany of dehumanising insults designed to turn your opponents into non-human vermin who must simply be exterminated. And exterminated they were, on an industrial scale.

None of this changed when the empire fell in 1911: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek carried on using the same language both about all their enemies (‘foreign devils’, ‘communist dogs’), while the communists developed their own special language of abuse and dehumanisation.

As Fenby shows in excruciating detail, both Nationalists and communists not only massacred each other, but were riven by internal splits which led to pogroms and mass liquidations of their own side.

People couldn’t just agree to disagree (and what a beautiful achievement of English civilisation that phrase seems in this context): they felt compelled to exterminate the ‘capitalist roaders’ or ‘communist dogs’ on their own side.

For, as Fenby shows, from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to this day, the Chinese communist party leadership, despite having transformed their country into a peculiar type of state capitalism, is still incapable of managing dissenting voices and opinions. From mass movements like the Falun Gong, to the wishes of the Tibetan people kindly not to have their culture destroyed, to the Muslim separatists of Xinjiang, through to individual dissidents like the high-profile artist Ai Weiwei – there are no mechanisms for dialogue, there never have been: there is only the language of demonisation and total repression.

This utter inflexibility buried deep in the Chinese psyche, this inability of its leaders to tolerate any form of free speechers, combined with an unbending sense of their own superiority and rectitude, is the enduring characteristic of Chinese leaders and one which has plunged their country again and again and again into bloodshed and terror on an unimaginable scale.

This book covers the 170 years from 1850 to the present. It feels like it skimps a bit on the earlier years – not telling me much more about the vast, calamitous Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) that I hadn’t learned from John Keay’s history of China – in fact I wonder if there’s a good up-to-date history devoted to just the Taiping…

It’s really in the 1870s and 80s that the text becomes increasingly detailed, that you feel you are beginning to get to grips with the minutiae of the period, and to get a feel for the enormous cast of characters. The later 19th century in China rotates around the cunning dowager empress Cixi and the constellation of young emperors and courtiers who circle round her.

As with Keay’s book, there is no point trying to summarise such a vast and complex history. Instead, I’ll give a basic timeline and then highlight a few of the thoughts and issues that arose.

China timeline

  • 1644-1912 Qing Dynasty Although the Qing rulers adapted quickly to traditional Chinese rule they were ethnically different from the majority of the native, Han Chinese, hailing from Manchuria in the north. This provided a pretext for all sorts of nationalist rebellions against their rule from the 1850s onwards. The later Qing emperors are:
    • Emperor Xianfeng (1850 – 1861)
    • Emperor Tongzhi (1861 – 1875)
    • Emperor Guangxu (1875 – 1908)
    • Emperor Xuantong (1908 – 1911)
  • 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion – led by a religious zealot, Hong Xiuquan. Convinced he was Jesus’s younger brother, Hong whipped up his followers to expel all foreigners, which included not only westerners but the ‘alien’ Manchu dynasty. Wherever they triumphed, they massacred Manchus, and established a reign of terror based on countless public beheadings. The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war and the largest conflict of the 19th century, one of the bloodiest wars in human history, with estimate of deaths ranging as high as 70 million – more reasonably set at 20 million.
  • 1894-95 First Sino-Japanese War Fought over possession of Korea, until then a Chinese vassal, to secure its coal and iron and agricultural products for Japan. The Japanese seized not only Korea but the Liaodong Peninsula and Port Arthur, within marching distance of Beijing, as well as the island of Taiwan.

Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese POWs as a warning to others, illustration by Utagawa Kokunimasa

  • 1898 The Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform is stopped in its tracks and reversed by the Dowager Empress Cixi.
Empress Dowager Cixi, maybe the central figure of the last 50 years of the Chinese empire

Empress Dowager Cixi, the central figure of the last 40 years of the Chinese empire

  • 1899-1901 The Boxer Rebellion – Han Chinese rose up against foreigners, the highlight being the siege of the Western embassies in Beijing.
  • 1911 Anti-Qing rebellions break out accidentally and spread sporadically across China with no single unifying force, just a wave of local strongmen who reject Qing rule.
  • 1912 The last Qing emperor abdicates Temporary presidency of republican hero Dr Sun Yat-sen.
  • 1912-1915 presidency of General Yuan Shikai, a military strongman who works through a network of allies and placemen around the provinces. Power goes to his head and he has himself declared emperor of a new dynasty, before dying of blood poisoning.
  • 1916-1928 The Warlord Era – China disintegrates into a patchwork of territories ruled by local warlords, creating a ‘meritocracy of violence’.
  • 1919 May 4th – Student protests against the humiliating terms of the Versailles peace Treaty (China, who sent over 100,000 coolies to help the Allies, was given nothing, while Japan, who did nothing, was given all the territory previously held by the defeated Germany, including territory in the province of Shandong, birthplace of Confucius, creating the so-called Shandong Problem).
  • 1919 October – foundation of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party of China, a right-wing reaction against the pro-democracy 4th of May movement, which emphasised traditional Chinese values and, led by Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1920s and 30s, went on to form the nearest thing to a government China had, until defeated by the communists in 1949.
  • 1921 Inspired by the Fourth of May protests against imperialism and national humiliation the Communist Party of China is formed with help from Russian Bolsheviks
  • 1937-45 Second Sino-Japanese War (see the book about it by Rana Mitter)

Themes & thoughts

Mass killing

Wow, the sheer scale, the numbers who were killed. In the hundred and ten years from the Taiping Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution, maybe 100 million Chinese died unnatural deaths, actively killed or dying from avoidable starvation or drowning. The Taiping Rebellion itself was responsible for maybe 20 million deaths. The war with Japan caused another 14 million or so. Mao’s famine and general mismanagement maybe 45 million. 45 million.

Even what sound like fairly minor revolts in cities and towns, rural disturbances, seem to result in thousands of deaths almost every year. Every dozen or so pages Fenby quotes another western journalist arriving at the scene of another massacre by the Taiping rebels or Boxer rebels or warlord rebels, by the imperial forces or Muslim rebels, by the Nian or the nationalists or the communists – and finding the city razed to the ground and the river choked with corpses

  • In 1895 James Creelman of the New York World finds Port Arthur devastated and the unarmed civilians butchered in their houses, the streets lined with corpses and heads stuck on pikes by the rampaging Japanese army (p.51)
  • In 1900 Richard Steel witnessed the aftermath of Boxer rebels’ attempt to take the foreign section of Tianjin, where they were mown down by Japanese and Russian soldiers, leaving the city in ruins and the river choked with Chinese corpses (p.90)

Brutality

Being made to kneel and have your head sliced off with a scimitar was a standard punishment for all sorts of crimes. As the empire crumbled and was subject to countless rebellions small and large across its vast territory, their suppression and punishment required an astonishing number of Chinese to chop each others’ heads off.

The Mandarin in charge of suppressing the Taiping Revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded 100,000 rebels (p.22). During the 1911 revolution the new governor of Sichuan had his predecessor decapitated and rode through the streets brandishing his head (p.121).

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, then head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Resistance to change

I was staggered by the absolute, dead-set determination from top to bottom of Chinese society to set its face against modernisation, industrialisation, liberalisation, democracy and all the other new-fangled ideas from the West, which it so despised. From 1850 to about 1980, all Chinese governments were determined to reject, deny, censor and prevent any incorporation of corrupt, decadent, capitalist Western ideas and techniques.

As John Keay remarked, a central characteristic of the Chinese is an ingrained superiority complex – their leaders, from the emperor to Chaing Kai-shek to Mao, just know that China is the centre of the world and is superior to the rest of the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Fenby describes the late-imperial world as ‘a system which was not designed to accommodate, let alone encourage, change’ (p.38.) As the late 19th century reformer Li Hongzhang admitted in 1884,

‘Affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.’ (p.41)

The first railway in China, built by the British in Shanghai, was bought by the local council who had the rails torn up and the station turned into a temple. Railways interfered with feng shui and local customs. They brought in foreign devils. Like every other western innovation i.e. like every single aspect of the modern world, they were resisted hammer and tong by Chinese at all levels. As an edict from the Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform put it, China was afflicted by:

‘the bane of the deeply-rooted system of inertness and a clinging to obsolete customs.’ (p.67)

Reformers were always in a minority, within the court itself, let alone in a country overwhelmingly populated by illiterate peasants. Which explains why it took China about 100 years – from the 1880s when it began to grasp some of the implications of capitalism – until well into the 1980s, to even begin to implement it.

Fenby’s immensely detailed picture takes account of the endless war, violence and conflict China was caught up in. But what comes over most is that Chinese of all ranks and levels of education didn’t want it – western ‘democracy’, ‘free speech’, competition, egalitarianism, innovation, entrepreneurism, disruptive technologies.

没有! Méiyǒu! NO!

Foreign devils

Rana Mitter’s book about the China-Japanese war contains a surprising amount of anti-western and anti-British feeling and he frequently refers to the ‘unequal treaties’ of the nineteenth century between European powers and a weakened China, but since his book is about the war of the 1930s, he doesn’t give a lot of detail.

Fenby’s book by contrast covers exactly the period of ‘unequal treaties’ (where European countries took advantage of China’s weakness to get her to sign away rights to trade, legal coverage of foreigners, entire treaty ports like Hong Kong), gives a lot more detail, and really drills home why the century from 1840 to 1940 was a period of sustained national humiliation for the Chinese – it is in fact known as ‘the century of humiliation’ or ‘the hundred years of national humiliation’.

Basically, Westerners imposed an unceasing stream of treaties designed, initially, to create special trading cantonments on the coast, but which one by one encroached further inland, ensured Westerners were exempt from Chinese law (in effect, free to do what they wanted) and could force trade with the Chinese on unfavourable and biased terms.

Moreover, there were so many foreign nations each scrambling to get a piece of the action in China – most obviously trading basic commodities but also competing for the broader opportunities which opened up later in the 19th century, for example building railways or setting up banks. I hadn’t realised how many western countries queued up to get their slice of the action.

I knew about the usual suspects – Britain with its powerful navy, and France encroaching up from its colony down in Indo-China i.e. Vietnam-Laos. But Bismarck’s unification of Germany by the 1870s announced the arrival of a new, more brutal competitor who was determined not to miss out in either Africa or China.

And Fenby makes clear that the Chinese feared neighbouring Russia more than all the others, because of its steady expansion into the north of the country and Manchuria (‘The British, French and Germans were a constant irritant, but the Tsarist empire and its communist successor represented a much greater territorial threat to China.’ p.31). And above all, the Chinese should, of course, really have been most scared of Japan, another ‘divine empire’, which turned out to be by far its worst destroyer.

I was startled when Fenby gives the process the overall title ‘the Scramble for China’, since this is a term usually reserved for the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ – but as he piled example on example of the countless unequal trading deals, the intimidation of Chinese authorities with gunships and punitive armed raids by European armies, I came to realise how true it was, how carved up, humiliated and exploited China became – and so why getting rid of foreigners and foreign influence came to be such a dominating strand in the mindset of 20th century Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries.

'China - the cake of kings and emperors' French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

‘China – the cake of kings and emperors’ French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

Ratcheting A key element of the unequal treaties was the way each of the European nations was able to out-trump the others… and then all the others demanded parity. Some German missionaries were harmed in a remote province? Germany demanded reparations and increased trading rights. At which the British, French, Russians and Americans all demanded a similar ratcheting up of their rights and accessibility. Some British merchants were attacked in Canton? The British sent in gunboats, demanded reparations and the rights to entire industries – and all the other European nations then demanded parity or they’d send in their gunboats.

So it went on with an apparently endless ratcheting up of the legal and commercial privileges and the sums demanded by the rapacious Europeans.

Unequal treaties

  • 1839–42 The First Opium War leading to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing – granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island
  • 1844 The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, which was signed by Théodore de Lagrené and Qiying on October 24, 1844, extended the same privileged trading terms to France as already exacted by Britain
  • 1845 The Treaty of Wanghia between China and the United States, signed on July 3, 1844 in the Kun Iam Temple.
  • 1856-60 The Second Opium War pitting the British Empire and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China.
  • 1858 – British attack on Canton after Chinese sailors were arrested aboard a ship carrying the British flag. British houses were burned and a price put on the heads of foreigners. British forces secured Canton. British and French forces attacked Tienjin, the coastal area east of Beijing. The westerners marched on Beijing and burned down the emperor’s Summer Palace (1860), among the looters being Charles Gordon, later to make his name at Khartoum. In the final peace treaty the allies were paid a large indemnity, trading concessions and Russia was given 300,000 square miles of territory in the far north!
  • 1884-5 The Sino-French War, also known as the Tonkin War, in which the French seized control of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).
  • 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the first Sino-Japanese war cedes to Japan Taiwan, the Pescadores islands and the Liaodong Peninsula, along with an indemnity of 16.5 million pounds of silver as well as opening five coastal ports to Japanese trade.

Fenby’s account makes vividly and appallingly clear the kind of treadmill of endless humiliation and dismemberment which educated Chinese felt their country was being remorselessly subject to. And the hypocrisy of the Western nations who went on about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, while all the time lining their pockets and showing no morality whatsoever.

Western advantages

All that said, the Chinese needed the West and Fenby (thankfully) paints a nuanced and complex picture. Just as not all Chinese were pigtailed ignoramuses, so not all Westerners were hypocritical exploiters. A shining example is Robert Hart, an Ulsterman from a poor family, who rose to become the head of the China’s Customs Service, just one of many Westerners employed by the imperial court for their (Western) knowledge and expertise. Hart ran the service from 1863 to 1911 and transformed it from a corrupt, antiquated and inefficient sinecure into a well-run organisation which ended up being one of the main contributors to imperial finances. He became a byword for honesty and dependability, and was awarded a number of China’s highest honours.

Hart’s story reminds us that it is a complicated world, then as now, and that many Westerners made significant contributions to China, establishing a range of businesses, banks, building railways, developing areas of the economy. If there was a lot of shameful gunboat diplomacy, there was also a lot of genuine collaboration and contribution.

Fleeing to the West

It is also notable the number of times that native Chinese reformers, dissidents, disgraced court officials and so on fled to the European ports to find sanctuary. Here they found law and order, cleanliness and hygiene which, if not perfect, were vastly superior to the dirt, zero plumbing and violence of their native China.

In 1912, as revolutionary violence swept China, many members of the Imperial court took refuge in the foreign compounds.

After the Tiananmen Square ‘Massacre’ of June 1989, as many of the student leaders as could manage it fled abroad, most ending up in America, for example prominent student leader Chai Ling who went on to head up a successful internet company.

The Japanese

‘As we entered the town of Port Arthur, we saw the head of a Japanese soldier displayed on a wooden stake. This filled us with rage and a desire to crush any Chinese soldier. Anyone we saw in the town, we killed. The streets were filled with corpses, so many they blocked our way. We killed people in their homes; by and large, there wasn’t a single house without from three to six dead. Blood was flowing and the smell was awful. We sent out search parties. We shot some, hacked at others. The Chinese troops just dropped their arms and fled. Firing and slashing, it was unbounded joy. At this time, our artillery troops were at the rear, giving three cheers [banzai] for the emperor.’
– Diary of Japanese soldier, Makio Okabe, describing the capture of Port Arthur, November 1894

Multiply this several million times to get the full impact of what it meant to be a neighbour of Imperial Japan in the first half of the twentieth century: Korea, Manchuria, mainland China all benefited from Japan’s goal of building a glorious Asian empire. This is described at great length in Rana Mitter’s history of the China-Japanese war.

Maoist madness

The madness of the Mao Zedong era is described in my reviews of Frank Dikotter’s book:

But Fenby dwells at length on the paranoia and crazed whims of the Great Helmsman, with results that eclipse the horrors of the late Qing Empire. The famine which resulted from his Great Leap Forward policy (1958 to 1962) resulted in anything from 30 to 55 million deaths. And that’s before the separate category of deaths actively caused by the security forces implementing their brutal policy of forced collectivisation.

Plus ça change…

Countries are like people, they rarely change. The modern history of Chinese history is a fascinating case study. Again and again Fenby points out that certain patterns of behaviour recur and recur, the most notorious being the attempt to impose reform of Chinese society from the top, reform which threatens to get out of hand, and then is harshly repressed. As predictable as a, b, c.

Thus his description of a) the attempted reforms of the Guangxu Emperor in 1898, which b) began to get out of hand c) were brought to an abrupt halt by the power behind the throne, the Dowager empress Cixi, eerily pre-echo a) Mao’s unleashing of revolutionary change from above in the Cultural Revolution b) which even he realises is getting out of hand and c) represses.

Or the way the a) very mild liberal reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to b) the unpredictable outburst of student protests in Tiananmen Square which the party hierarchy tolerated for a few weeks before c) brutally suppressing.

To this day the rulers of China daren’t institute anything like real democracy because they know the chaos they would unleash, they remember the history of the Warlord Era, indeed the terrifyingly violent history this book describes. Maybe such a vast and varied terrain, containing so many ethnicities and levels of economic development, can still only be managed by a strong central authority?

And the more you read and learn about the Chinese history of the past century – the more you sympathise with them. Fenby’s long and gruelling narrative ends with the repeated conclusion that China’s rulers are as repressive as ever – indeed, given the arrival of the internet, they are able to practice surveillance and social control of their populations which previous dictators could only have dreamed of.

And yet they are all too aware that they are sitting astride a bubbling cauldron of vast social inequality, political corruption, popular resentment, ethnic division (most obvious in Tibet and Xinjiang but present among a hundred other ethnic minorities), and the pressures and strains caused by creating a dynamic go-head 21st century economy controlled by a fossilised, top-down, 20th century Leninist political structure.

This is an extraordinarily insightful and horrifying book. Anybody who reads it will have their knowledge of China hugely increased and their opinion of China and the Chinese irreparably damaged.


Related links

Other reviews about China

Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics @ the House of Illustration

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement and its allies defeated the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. The new revolutionary government enacted a wide array of new domestic laws and policies, but Castro always saw the revolution in Cuba as just the beginning of the liberation of the oppressed masses in not just Latin America but war-torn Africa and around the world, wherever the poor and downtrodden were oppressed by colonial or neo-colonial masters.

OSPAAAL

And so the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (in Spanish the Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina – abbreviated to OSPAAAL) was set up to fight globalisation, imperialism, neoliberalism and defend human rights, in Havana, in January 1966, after the Tricontinental Conference, a meeting of over 500 delegates and 200 observers from over 82 countries.

One of the first things the organisation did was establish a magazine to publicise its causes and titled Tricontinental. From 1966 into the 1990s more than fifty designers working in Havana produced hundreds of posters and editions of the magazine which expressed solidarity with the U.S.A.’s Black Panther Party, condemned apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War, and celebrated Latin America’s revolutionary icons, as well as criticising the ongoing existence of U.S. military bases in Guantanamo Bay, calling for the reunification of North and South Korea and many other radical causes.

The exhibition includes some 33 of the total of 50 or so artists and designers who worked for OSPAAAL, including leading lights such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Helena Serrano, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila.

Unlike artists in the Soviet bloc the OSPAAAL designers weren’t shackled by the deeply conservative doctrine of Socialist Realism, but were free to pick and choose from all the best streams of current art, including Pop Art and psychedelia. They also co-opted images and ideas from capitalist adverts into what they called ‘anti-ads’.

The plan was for the posters to be stapled into copies of Tricontinental, and so distributed around the world. Because the posters were intended to be internationalist they had to use strong primal languages or find inventive ways of conveying their message. If any writing was used it was generally in the three major languages of Spanish, English, French, and sometimes Arabic.

By the mid-1980s heavy trade embargos and sanctions imposed by American had created such shortages that it ultimately forced the organization out of production. By that time approximately 326 OSPAAAL posters had been produced.

Altogether it’s estimated that some nine million OPSAAAL posters were distributed around the developing world. At its peak the magazine had more than 100,000 subscribers, mostly students. At one time, it was common for posters from issues of Tricontinental to be put up on the walls of student community centres.

This exhibition brings together 170 works (100 posters and 70 magazines) produced by 33 OSPAAAL designers, created between 1965 and 1992, which are not only striking and dramatic art works in their own right but shed unexpected insights onto the long history of the Cold War.

The Mike Stanfield Collection

While originally distributed freely in editions of thousands, OSPAAAL posters and magazines are now rare and highly sought-after. The works in the exhibition are all drawn from a single UK private collection – The Mike Stanfield Collection, the largest collection of OSPAAAL material in the world, gathered by British collector Mike Stanfield over a 25-year period. Every work in the exhibition is drawn from his collection.

Posters

The poster designers used every trick in the toolbox of capitalist advertising plus a lot more they invented. The diversity and inventiveness of approaches is astonishing. Obviously the cause, the fundamental political aim of the posters, was deadly serious – but this didn’t stop them using scathing satire to make their points.

And above all they didn’t limit themselves to one aesthetic but seized an extraordinary freedom to experiment, with the result that you see everything from bold typography and photomontage to psychedelic colours and pop culture-inspired graphics, iconic modern imagery or ancient native objects pressed into service, silhouettes, psychedelic reverberating, cartoons and biting satire.

Cuba

The first edition of Tricontinental included an article by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a folded poster by Alfredo Rostgard, thus inaugurating its two-pronged approach to radical propaganda: text for those who could read, stirring images for those who couldn’t.

Che Guevara (1969) © Alfredo G. Rostgaard, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

It’s almost too obvious to point out but, in the Soviet bloc, the canon of revolutionary heroes from Marx through Lenin, Stalin on down, were all portrayed in real, or heroically socialist realist style. It takes a moment’s reflection to realise how utterly unlike that dull stifling tradition the OPSAAAL images are, freely taking from contemporary pop and op art and psychedelic art.

Africa

The designers were tasked with distilling complex anti-colonial conflicts down into simple but striking images, symbols which would require little or no explanation. This image of African women in traditional costume and carrying their babies in baby-carriers is made vivid and powerful by the addition of the semi-automatic rifles slung over their other shoulders.

The all-consuming nature of the struggle, the need to balance ordinary life with the struggle, the empowered role of women in the struggle, and the lack of facial features indicating that these are just two out of millions and millions anonymous fighters across the continent, are all brilliantly conveyed.

After Emory Douglas (1968) © Lízaro Abreu Padron, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Apartheid

Apartheid was a sore on the conscience of the world throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many of the OPSAAAL posters were simple images of oppression. This is unusual in being a more narrative image, with its four pictures showing the progressive, and inevitable, collapse of the repressive regime. Note the use of the four cardinal languages, Spanish, English, French and Arabic.

Day of Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of South Africa (1974) Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Asia

The Vietnam War came to symbolise neo-imperialist Western super-violence against nationalist independence struggles and crystallised America’s reputation as the great enemy of freedom for many Third World countries.

This clever poster shows the word Saigon slowly morphing from being dominated by the Stars and Stripes to bearing the flag of the communist North, suggesting that the rebels would win in the end. As they did.

Saigon, International Week of Solidarity with Vietnam (1970) © Rene Mederos Pazos, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Anti-America

Cuba is just 90 miles from the American mainland.

From the moment Castro’s revolution succeeded, the Americans tried to overthrow it. In 1961 they launched the embarrassing Bay of Pigs invasion which ended in humiliation, but continued making intermittent attempts to assassinate Castro, as well as imposing crippling sanctions on its tiny neighbour.

In response Cuba helped to focus the world’s attention on America as the heartland of neo-colonial oppression. Some of the most powerful images in the exhibition distort and subvert imagery and symbols central to American culture, such as the Great Seal, the Bald Eagle, the Statue of Liberty or, as here, Uncle Sam himself, zapped by the power of the World Revolution.

World Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution (1980) © Victor Manuel Navarrete, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Using native cultural heritage

As a way into contemporary liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia or the Far East, some OPSAAAL designers had the idea of taking traditional indigenous artefacts and giving them a modern spin, mostly putting a machine gun in their hands. Some of these aboriginal peoples also represented the very first resisters to the colonial oppression which their distant descendants were now fighting against.

This approach tapped into nationalist feelings in the respective countries, and also made contemporary protesters feel, or realise, that they were in fact part of a long, long lineage of resistance and protest. The ten or so images which used old imagery like this were among my favourites.

Guatemala (1968) © Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Magazine covers

To some extent the designers’ style was dictated by a shortage of materials, including good quality paper and printing ink, embargoed by the United States. This encouraged the designers to eschew subtlety in shade and contour and favour high-contrast photography and large areas of clearly defined colour. Tricontinental’s often starkly simple covers were printed in four colours by offset lithography.

Anti-America

Although little Cuba suffered badly from American sanctions, during the 60s and 70s there were many radical American supporters of the revolution. The San Francisco-based People’s Press published a North American edition if Tricontinental, and images created by Emory Douglas for the Black Panther Party newspaper were adapted for use by OPSAAAL.

There are posters here supporting the imprisoned black activist Angela Carter, as well as memorials for various black radicals shot or imprisoned in America. But in a way, it was the imaginative symbols of American oppression which make the most impact.

Tricontinental magazine 33

Anti-apartheid

Apartheid was in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. It was only the most extreme version of institutionalised white racism, which also included the segregation laws in America, so vehemently protested by the Civil Rights Movement.

For me the OPSAAAL posters and Tricontinental cover art are at their best when they embody a really strong design idea, as in this simple but scathing image, a piece of Pop Art collage used to withering effect.

Tricontinental 76

Thoughts

1. Taken together they make up a fascinating review of visual styles and approaches available to political poster makers in the late 60s and 70s. In many ways the magazine covers are even more inventive and biting than the posters. Lots and lots of them have a really strong visual and intellectual impact, like the image – blown up, here, into a wall-sized hanging – of an American astronaut reaching out to the moon while standing on the backs of two prone African Americans.

2. It’s a reminder of just how much conflict there was around in the world in the 1970s when I grew up, with military dictatorships running most of South America, with colonialist regimes and apartheid South Africa still repressing millions of Africans, while millions of others were caught up in brutal civil wars, and then topping everything the nightmare of Vietnam which was promptly followed by the living hell of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

When you factor in that half of Europe was under Communist tyranny and there was an endless diet of scares about whether this or that incident might trigger World War Three, the world I grew up in seemed a much more violent and dangerous place than it does today.

3. This is embodied in the way there are so many guns in the posters. Almost all the native artefacts-updated ones simply put guns in the hands of tribal gods. In the last room in particular, almost every poster seemed to feature a man or woman or sometimes an inanimate object, holding a sub-machinegun. Stepping back from the rights and wrongs of the causes, the final room in particular gave me a claustrophobic sense of violence and fighting going on in every part of the world.

That’s maybe the main feeling the exhibition gave to me, but other visitors will find their own threads and meanings. Above all I defy you not to be thrilled by the sheer inventiveness and exuberance of so many of the works on display.

Installation view of Designed in Cuba at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

And it’s worth pointing out that the curators of the exhibition flew to Cuba specially to interview the surviving OPSAAAL designers and that the exhibition includes the resulting video, in which leading designers such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila explain at length their motivation and approach, the design ideas and technical constraints, which lay behind the Tricontinental phenomenon.

This is another brilliantly conceived and beautifully laid out exhibition from the House of Illustration.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For at least three reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

Why start with Tamerlane?

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

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

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

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

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

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

What was different about European empires?

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

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

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

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

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

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

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided up into nine chapters:

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

A flood of insights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting the various ‘stages of development’ which societies progressed through, from the X Age to the Y Age and then on to the Z Age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines when they were discovered in the 1760s) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

Once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise all the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere lower or backward on these paths or stages of development.

And being at the top of the tree, why, naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbered lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scramble for Africa

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

The Scramble happened very quickly whereas – markedly

unlike the piecemeal conquest of Central, Southern of North America, or India, which took centuries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Congress of Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Exhibitions

History

Imperial fiction

Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The history of Latin America has fascinated observers as much as it has mystified them. There is something apparently alien about the continent, an exoticism that derives perhaps from it having once been perceived as a ‘new world’, although there survive monuments and relics of ancient societies whose cultures remain poorly understood by us even today. This elusiveness – hinting simultaneously  at a former state of grace and some original corruption – has rendered interpretation of Latin American history peculiarly vulnerable to speculation and myth-making.
(Edwin Williamson in the introduction to his Penguin History of Latin America, 1990 revised 2009)

Urban Impulses

This is an epic exhibition, if not quite in scale, then certainly in scope. Across four rooms and two floors, the Photographers’ Gallery is showcasing some 200 works by 73 photographers from all across Latin America.

They use a wide range of techniques and approaches to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban population, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers are represented by only one or two images and so as you move from photo to photo, you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades, which I found it quite challenging to get a handle on.

Cuba in the 1950s was very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. In this review the texts in italics are copied from the thorough and very useful free handout which accompanies the exhibition.)

Calle Alameda, Santiago, 1983 by Álvaro Hoppe © Álvaro Hoppe. Courtesy of the artist

The history of Chilean photography over the past thirty years is above all that of a rupture, or a ‘tectonic shift’ caused by the military coup of 1973. Until that time, democracy had allowed the history of the medium to evolve without major disruption, but what happened in September 1973 created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago during the 1970s and 80s.

As I wandered among this cornucopia of images and histories and countries and events, it struck me that there are many ways to group and arrange it – by subject matter, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

Or you could divide them up by technique – grouping together black-and-white photos (most of them are, in fact, in black and white), colour photos, montages, collages, photojournalism, photocopies, and art works made of photos chopped up and attached to canvases. The curators back up the visitor’s sense of an impressive diversity of medium and approach:

Here a hybrid iconography emerges where photography exists in tandem with other media of mass circulation such as graphics, photo-copying and print media, often involving the marking, cutting and defacement of images where the notion of appearance and disappearance exist in tandem.

Take this striking artwork which features a collage of commercial adverts cut with urgent news photos, and then treated and painted over.

Equis (1985) by Herbert Rodríguez © Herbert Rodríguez. Courtesy of the artist

Rodriguez denounces the injustices suffered by the populations of the Andean and Amazonian regions, dominated by a process of gradual urbanisation, and, more generally, the exploitation of one part of Peruvian society by another. The approach is experimental, the materials – often salvaged from public spaces – are banal, and the collage technique allows them to be gathered together and reordered in different ways.

Another approach would be to zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers who won international reputations during the period and seek them out first – such greats as Alberto Korda from Cuba who created the iconic images of Che Guevara, or Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, or Sergio Larrain from Chile.

Again you could group the photographers by country because many of the photos are political, in the broadest sense, and require a knowledge of the political history of the country in question, foe xample the military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina.

In fact I realised I needed to stop and remind myself just what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. Upon looking into it I discovered there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity about defining and framing the geography.

The term ‘Latin America’ can be taken to refer solely to ‘South America’, or to also include the many nations of Central America and the Caribbean. (Cuba always gets included, despite not being in South or Central America.)

Nations of South America by population

  1. Brazil
  2. Colombia
  3. Argentina
  4. Peru
  5. Venezuela
  6. Chile
  7. Ecuador
  8. Bolivia
  9. Paraguay
  10. Uruguay
  11. Guyana

We know these nations all have one big thing in common which is that they were colonnised by Spain or Portugal in the 16th century, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. So they speak the ‘Latin’ languages of Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the umbrella term ‘Latin’ America – as opposed to ‘Anglo’ America, settled by English speakers in the later 17th and 18th centuries.

Flying low, Mexico City, 1989 by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio © Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Courtesy of the artist

Mexico is a post-apocalyptic city. It has refused to accept the many declarations of its death. it survived the devastating earthquake of 1985, and has withstood overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance. The country has attempted to enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth. – Mexican poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer José Emilio Pacheco Berny

To my surprise there’s debate about whether Mexico should be included in Central America, with lots of people, including many Mexicans, considering themselves part of North America. Incorrectly, I have included Mexico in this list of Central American nations.

Nations of Central America by population

  1. (Mexico)
  2. Guatemala
  3. Honduras
  4. El Salvador
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Panama
  8. Belize

Maybe the curators should have included a map, a big map, to help remind us of the precise location of all these places. (But then I’m biased. I love maps.)

Most of these nations gained their independence in stormy conflicts against the colonial powers in the early 19th century only to find themselves saddled with legacies of huge inequality and grinding rural poverty.

It was the enduring legacy of these inequalities which led to the revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups of the twentieth century. I well remember the era of military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-83), Brazil (1964-85), Chile (1973-90), and Paraguay (1954-89). Back in the 1970s we associated Latin America (and Greece and Spain and Portugal) with semi-fascist military dictatorships such as the notorious rule of General Pinochet of Chile. In one sense, then, many of these images fro the 1970s felt nostalgic to me.

Pinochet, 1987 by Fernando Bedoya © Fernando Bedoya. Courtesy of the artist

Fernano Bedoya is a key figure in the artistic activism of Peru and Argentina, involved notably in the latter country in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by mothers of young men who went missing during the military dictatorship. An irreverent artist, he plays with mass production – photography, screen printing, photocopying – and employs a hybrid iconography strongly influenced by pop culture. Committed to the democratisation of art, he has worked with several artists’ collective on participative projects with a distinctly political focus.

The nations of Latin America all have ethnically diverse societies, beginning with the fact that the native peoples of most of the colonised countries lived on, working as serfs or slaves for their European overlords, sometimes interbreeding with them, a racial mix which was then added to by large-scale importation of African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and then by migration from other, non-Iberian European countries – mostly in the 19th century.

This much most of them have in common. But each of the countries has its own geography and history and ethnic mix and traditions, which are hard to capture in such a variegated display. That’s the problem talking about this ‘region’, it’s so big and encompasses such a confusing diversity of peoples and places that it’s too easy to fall back on casual stereotypes – machismo, military dictatorships, Che Guevara guerillas, remote villages up the Amazon, the destruction of the rainforest, oh and a collection of cheesy dances that your grandparents used to like – the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha.

In fact three or four of the photographers here are represented by pics they’ve taken of more or less the same scene, namely unglamorous, middle-aged couples from back in the day, dancing in (presumably hot and sweaty) dance halls. It’s a recurring topic.

Untitled, from the series Tango (1988) by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz. Courtesy of the artist

‘The tango image of Paz Errázuriz, without words, music or movement, frozen at one of those key moments when the dance danced by the dancers comes into its own, affirming the authenticity of the representation of a representation.’ – Chilean poet, playwright, and novelist Enrique Lihn

In fact all this pondering and wondering how to make sense of the profusion of countries and images and artists which I spent some time trying to group or arrange, has already been partly done by the curators themselves. They have divided the exhibition up into just two big parts (one on each of the two floors across which the show is presented), and titled them Shouts and Pop-ular.

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

Shouts considers photography’s role not only in documenting identities and presences, but also to explore absences: in the face of kidnappings and forced disappearances carried out by authoritarian regimes, photography has been a weapon against silence. Public spaces and the city walls have also played an important role: when pen and paper, laws and rights, courts and judges have failed to obtain justice, the walls of the cities have taken on a life of their own. And photographers have portrayed these walls, covered with the slogans and cries of protest of those demanding political, social, and economic recognition, and reflecting the anger and cynicism, the hopes and frustrations of the cities’ residents.

Thus a raft of images depicting street protests, street fighting, street riots, protesters fighting cops. This is one of the rare colour photos in the show.

The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 20 December 2001 by Eduardo Longoni © Eduardo Longoni. Courtesy of the artist

Longoni documented in colour the disturbances that took place in 2001 in response to the economic crisis and the measures taken by the government of Fernando de la Rúa, which limited cash withdrawals from the banks to 250 pesos a week. The Argentinians, with humour and irony, soon found a name for the policy: the corralito (the diminutive form of the Spanish word for ‘corraling’, which also designates, in popular Argentine Spanish, a tollders’ playground.) On 19 December 2001 a state of emergency was announced. On 20 december, early in the evening, President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. The suppression of the disturbances had taken a toll of thirty-eight deaths all over the country, including seven in Buenos Aires.

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

In Pop-ular, artists’ mine the tropes of mass media and their manifestation in public spaces. Since the 1960s, as Latin America has undergone rapid development, advertising images have diversified and multiplied, marked by the rapid transition to a consumer society. The first widespread use of colour photography was in advertising, and the richness of pop culture imagery, often associated with commerce and advertising, marks the visual identity of the Latin American metropolis. Signs, patterns and typographies, often created by self-taught hands, confer on the display windows an almost innocent beauty.

Thus there are quite a few photos depicting the most obvious aspect of a consumer society, shop windows, featuring shop window mannequins, or surreal subversions of them like the shapely, naked, young woman posing amid mannequins by Jorge Vall.

This all feels very retro since, as we know, the era of physical shops is on the decline.

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

This is the place to point out that the selection hasn’t been made from all the photographs taken by all 73 of these photographers from their entire careers. That would be an epic, maybe impossible, task.

No, this selection has been made from the large, but finite, collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who collected original prints throughout the period in question. 

Maybe this explains why, when I tried to link to some of these images, I couldn’t find any of them on the internet. Maybe they are very tightly controlled – although I did find plenty of other images by many of these photographers. As usual an exhibition like this makes a good starting point to go off on explorations of your own. But the fact that this is a selection from a selection explains some things.

Fifteenth Birthday Party in Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mixtecos Norte/Sur series (1989) by Eniac Martínez © Eniac Martínez. Courtesy of the artist

Produced for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the series Mixtecos Norte/Sur consists of photographs taken in Oaxaca and along the US-Mexico border. ‘It is the story of Mixtec indigenous people who leave their increasingly unproductive lands in the state of Oaxaca to enter the industrialised world of the United States.’ A girl’s fifteenth birthday party is a cultural milestone, not only in Mexico but all over Latin America. It involves a highly codified celebration, often accompanied by a religious ceremony, at which friends and relatives are given a lavish demonstration of the host’s generosity.

Alongside the street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there was also a stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of Latino urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or stripped posters on peeling walls.

Several photographers had captured the distinctive patters of tiles or brickwork to be found in local buildings, some of which harked back, maybe, to ancient Mayan or pre-Colombian sensibilities. For example, the attractive suite of photos by Pablo López Luz entitled Neo Inca.

Neo Inca LVIII, Pisac, Perú, 2016 by Pablo López Luz © Pablo López Luz. Courtesy of the artist

In the localities near Andean tourist destinations, Pablo López Luz photographs the doorways and facades of buildings and houses, adorned with the stucco relief work of Inca walls. The visual repertory drawn up in this way reflects the local taste for Inca motifs and shows how these have been grafted onto the urban context and brought up to date.

The photographers

So who exactly are the 73 photographers represented here? I’m glad you asked:

  • Carlos Aguirre (b.1948, Mexico)
  • Luiz Alphonsus (b.1948, Brazil)
  • Édgar Álvarez (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Yolanda Andrade (b.1950, Mexico)
  • Jaime Ardila (b.1942, Colombia)
  • Ever Astudillo (1948-2015, Colombia)
  • Álvaro Barrios (b. 1945, Colombia)
  • Juan Enrique Bedoya (b.1966, Peru)
  • Fernando Bedoya (1952, Peru)
  • Enrique Bostelmann (1939-2003, Mexico)
  • Bill Caro (b.1949, Peru)
  • Anselmo Carrera (1950-2016, Peru)
  • Jesús Reyes Cordero (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Armando Cristeto (b.1957, Mexico)
  • François Dolmetsch (b.1940, UK/Colombia)
  • Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017, Mexico)
  • Virginia Errázuriz (b.1941, Chile)
  • Paz Errázuriz (b.1944, Chile)
  • María Elvira Escallón (b.1954, Colombia)
  • José Alberto Figueroa (b.1946, Cuba)
  • Fernell Franco (1942-2006, Colombia)
  • RenéFreire (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Carlos Gallardo (b.1954, Chile)
  • Héctor García (1923-2012, Mexico)
  • Paolo Gasparini (b.1934, Venezuela)
  • Lourdes Grobet (b.1940, Mexico)
  • Billy Hare (b.1946, Peru)
  • Alejandro Hoppe (b.1961, Chile)
  • Alvaro Hoppe (b.1956, Chile)
  • Helen Hughes (b.1948, USA-Chile)
  • Graciela Iturbide (b.1942, Mexico)
  • Beatriz Jaramillo (b.1955, Colombia)
  • Mario García Joya (nee Mayito, b.1938, Cuba)
  • Alberto Korda (1928-2001, Cuba)
  • Sergio Larrain (1931-2012, Chile)
  • Adriana Lestido (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Diego Levy (b.1973, Argentina)
  • Eduardo Longoni (b.1959, Argentina)
  • Marcos López (b.1958, Argentina)
  • Héctor López (b.1955, Chile)
  • Pablo López Luz (b.1979, Mexico)
  • Ayrton de Magalhães (1954-2017, Brazil)
  • Eniac Martínez (b.1959, Mexico)
  • Agustín Martínez Castro (1950-1992, Mexico)
  • Sebastián Mejía (b.1982, Colombia)
  • Ernesto Molina (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Luis Molina-Pantin (b.1969, Venezuela)
  • Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Mario Cravo Neto (1947-2009, Brazil)
  • Viki Ospina (b.1948, Colombia)
  • Adolfo Patiño (1954-2005, Mexico)
  • Claudio Pérez (b.1957, Chile)
  • Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Jaime Razuri (b.1956, Peru)
  • Santiago Rebolledo (b.1951, Colombia)
  • Miguel Rio Branco (b.1946, Brazil)
  • Herbert Rodríguez (b.1959, Peru)
  • Miguel Ángel Rojas (b.1946, Colombia)
  • Jesús Ruiz Durand (b.1940, Peru)
  • Osvaldo Salerno (b.1952, Paraguay)
  • Francisco Smythe (1952-1998, Chile)
  • Carlos Somonte (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Milagros de la Torre (b.1965, Peru)
  • Nicolás Torres (b.1957, Peru)
  • Juan Travnik (b.1950, Argentina)
  • Sergio Trujillo (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Jorge Vall (b.1949, Venezuela)
  • Pedro Valtierra (b.1955, Mexico)
  • JoséLuis Venegas (b.1944, Mexico)
  • Leonora Vicuña (b.1952, Chile)
  • Jaime Villaseca (b.1949, Chile)
  • Enrique Zamudio (b.1955, Chile)
  • Helen Zout (b.1957, Argentina)
  • Facundo de Zuviría (b.1954, Argentina)

And where would any exhibition of modern photography be without images of transvestites and transgender sex workers?

From 10 to 11 p.m., Mexico City (1985) by Agustín Martínez Castro © Agustín Martínez Castro Estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

In the photographs of Agustín Martínez Castro, the city is embodied in the anonymous inhabitants of its nights. The photographer is one o the most sensitive and profound chroniclers of the world of transvestism. Far removed from all sense of visual pathos, Martínez Castro offers an dmirable photo essay on private life, understood as a realm of intimacy, which is celebrated here, and on the stripping away of that intimacy, which is denounced. – Art historian, curator, and editor Roberto Tejada

Summary

If I’m honest, I didn’t like many of the photos in this exhibition. There are lots of them, and I suppose there’s lots of variety, but somehow I found the sheer number, and the hopping from one country to another, and from one decade to another, diluted and lessened their impact.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are currently on display down in the basement of the same building. Each one of those took my breath away.

And after reading and rereading the handout which includes almost every photo in the show, I realised that I was bored. There’s certainly an impressive range of technical diversity – many collages and montages and artistic treatments of photographic images, incorporating them into multi-media artworks. And ten or fifteen of the images did really stand out.

But almost all of these photos are images taken on the street. They almost all have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape, to give two types of photo which are completely absent. It’s shabby, urban sprawl everywhere you look.

Rough street people in rundown looking slums and dodgy neighbourhoods. Scary street punks, one or two convicts in prison. And plenty of scenes of cops and soldiers policing the street, and riots, and people getting beaten up. Grim-faced soldiers. Grim-faced dictators. Grim-faced revolutionaries. Grim-faced prostitutes. Grim-faced hoodlums, tearful mothers protesting against the disappearance of their sons, photomontages commemorating people killed in riots, tattooed gang members.

Untitled (Aquileo Valtierra González), Prisoners series, Mexico (1997) by Carlos Somonte © Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of the artist

Again I was reminded that the whole exhibition is taken from the private collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. In other words – far from being a representative survey of all Latin American photography, this is a selection from a selection. A personal selection. A personal view of the politics and history of this continent and this era.

After a while it dawned on me that what was oppressing me was there was no joy or happiness in any of the photos. Surely someone, somewhere, in all these 20 or so countries, in the long period between 1959 and 2016, surely someone, somewhere, smiled. Maybe even laughed. Looked at the blue sky, the river, the trees and the exotic flowers in the botanical garden, and was happy? Is Copacabana beach not in Latin America? And hundreds of sun-kissed Caribbean beaches? Have there been no tourists in Latin America, no beaches and parties?

Not in these photos. Not in this exhibition. Glum and grim and earnest and embattled everywhere you look.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

The exhibition is divided between two rooms on floor 3 of the Photographers’ Gallery, and two rooms on the floor below. I visited about noon on a Wednesday. On one floor there were four teenage girl visitors. On the floor below there was just one middle-aged woman. That was it.

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


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Only Human by Martin Parr @ the National Portrait Gallery

Born in 1952 in Epsom, Martin Parr has become one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful photographers. He has achieved this by:

  1. being extremely prolific, having taken thousands of tip-top photographs which he has packaged into numerous books and projects and exhibitions (he has published more than one hundred books, exhibited internationally, was President of the highly respected Magnum photo agency from 2013–17, and recently established the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting work by British and Irish photographers)
  2. being an extremely good talker – the exhibition features an eight-minute-long video interview in which Parr confidently, affably and articulately explains his work (can’t find this on YouTube but if you search you’ll find plenty of examples of him being interviewed and chatting away like a favourite uncle)
  3. having established a style, a niche, a unique selling point and brand, namely large, colour photos of ordinary British people in crushingly ordinary, unposed situations, captured in a blunt, unvarnished, warts-and-all style
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Massive colour prints

In fact, leafing through the many books on sale in the shop, you realise that his early work, for example shooting chapelgoers in Yorkshire, consisted of relatively small, black-and-white prints. It’s only in the past ten years or so that switching to digital cameras has allowed Parr to make much bigger images, with digital clarity and colour.

And it is hosts of these massive, colour prints of hundreds of images of the great British public, caught in casual moments, going about a wide range of odd, quirky and endearing activities, or just being ugly, fat, old, and scruffy – which make up the show.

Nice, France, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Humorous presentation

The exhibition fills the 14 or so rooms of the National Portrait Gallery’s main downstairs gallery space but the first thing to note is how Parr and the curators have made every effort to jazz it up in a humorous if rather downbeat way typical of the man and his love-hate relationship with the fabulous crapness of ordinary, everyday British culture. Thus:

Parr has always been interested in dancing, all kinds of dancing, and the big room devoted to shots of dancers – from punk to Goth, from gay pride to traditional Scottish dancing, to ballroom dancing to mosh pits at a metal concert – the room in which all these are hung is dominated by a slow-turning mirror ball projecting spangly facets on the walls and across the photos.

In the room devoted to beach life one entire wall is completely covered with a vast panorama of a beach absolutely packed with sunbathers in Argentina.

Installation view of the huge photo of Grandé Beach, Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 2014. Note the jokey deckchairs in front.

The Martin Parr café

Half way through the exhibition, the Portrait Gallery has turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French joint with expresso machine, but a down at heel, fly-blown transport caff, with formica tables and those glass cases by the till which display a range of knackered looking Brandenburg cakes.

You really can buy tea and cakes here (two teas and two pieces of cake for a tenner), or a pint of the ‘Only Human’ craft beer which has been created for the show, read a copy of the exhibition catalogue left on each table, or stare at the cheap TV in the corner which is showing a video of the Pet Shop Boys busking at various locations around London (which Parr himself directed), or just sit and chat.

Buy now while stocks last

The gallery shop has similarly had a complete makeover to look like a cluttered, low-budget emporium festooned with big yellow and red placards proclaiming ‘Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap’, and ‘Special offer’, ‘Special sale price’, and they have deliberately created the tackiest merchandise they can imagine, including Martin Parr sandals, deckchairs, tea towels, as well as the usual fridge magnets, lapel badges and loads of books by this most prolific of photographers.

Parraphernalia

The first room, before you’ve even handed over your ticket, is jokily titled Parraphernalia:

As Parr’s fame has grown, interest in the commercialisation of his images, name and likeness has grown exponentially. Parr approaches these opportunities with the same creativity he applies to his photography. Early in his career, Parr experimented with alternative methods for presenting his photographs, such as transferring pictures onto ceramic plates and other everyday objects.

Thus you’ll find a wall festooned with t-shirts, pyjamas, tote bags, mugs, posters, plates and so on each covered with a characteristic Parr image.

Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Fotoescultura

Then there’s a room of fotoescultura. What is fotoescultura? I hear you ask. Well:

In 2009, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduced Parr to Bruno Eslava, an eighty-four year old Mexican folk artist, who was one of the last remaining practitioners of the art of fotoescultura (photo sculpture). Hand-carved in wood, and incorporating a photograph transferred onto shaped tin, fotoesculturas are traditionally used to showcase prized portrait photographs in the home, frequently, but not always, of deceased loved ones. Parr commissioned Eslava to produce a series of these playful and affectionate objects to draw attention to the disappearing art of fotoescultura in Mexico.

These take up a wall covered with little ledges on which perch odd-shaped wood carvings with various photos of Parr himself on them.

Installation view of fotoesculturas at Only Human by Martin Parr. Photo by the author

Oneness

And right next to these was a big screen showing the recent set of idents for BBC 1. I had no idea that Parr was involved in making these – although if you read the credit roll at the end you realise the whole thing was researched, produced and directed by quite a huge cast of TV professionals. Presumably he came up with the basic idea and researched the organisations.

In 2016, BBC Creative commissioned Parr to create a series of idents for BBC One – short films between programmes that identify the broadcaster – on the subject of British ‘oneness’. He subsequently travelled throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales photographing volunteer organisations and sport and hobby clubs, which he felt exemplified this quality. Parr’s evolving portrait of modern Britain shows people united by shared interests and passions, and reflects the diversity of communities living in the UK today.

For each subject, both a 30-second film and a still photograph were made. The films were all produced in the same format: participants start by being engaged in their activity seemingly unaware of the camera, pause briefly to face the camera, then return to the activity as if nothing ever happened.

You can watch them on Parr’s website.

Full list of rooms and themes

The rooms are divided by theme, namely:

  • Parraphernalia (bric a brac covered with Parr images)
  • Fotoesculturas & Autoportraits (fotoesculturas explained above; autoportraits are self portraits in the styles of other cultures, from Turkey, Thailand, the Soviet Union etc)
  • Oneness (the BBC One idents)
  • Celebrity (photos of famous people e.g. Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry)
  • Grand Slam (he likes photographing the crowds at tennis tournaments)
  • Everybody Dance Now (people dancing, from Goth mosh pits to Scottish Ceilidhs)
  • Beside the Seaside (he’s visited every major seaside resort in the UK photographing the fat and pasty British at play)
  • Ordinary Portraits
  • British Abroad (pasty-faced ex-pats in Africa)
  • A Day at the Races (pasty-faced, tackily-dressed Brits at the races)
  • Interview (eight-minute video interview)
  • Café (complete with Martin Parr beer)
  • Britain in the time of Brexit (for which he went to Leave-voting areas and photographed tattooed chavs and their pit bull terriers)
  • The Establishment (quaint ceremonies of the City of London, Oxbridge students, Her Majesty the Queen)

The Queen visiting the Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Livery Company for their 650th Anniversary, the City of London, London, England, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Identity

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I welcome the weird and wonderful in art (and music and literature) – in fact, on the whole, I am more disposed to 20th and 21st century art than to classical (Renaissance to Victorian) art – nonetheless I am powerfully allergic to a lot of modern art curation, commentary and scholarly artspeak.

This is because I find it so limiting. Whereas the world is big and wide and weird, full of seven and a half billion squabbling, squealing, shagging, dying, fighting, working human beings – artspeak tends to reduce all artworks to the same three or four monotonously similar ‘issues’, namely:

  • gender (meaning all women are oppressed)
  • diversity (meaning all blacks and Muslims are oppressed)
  • same-sex desire (the polite, ladylike way of saying gay and lesbian sex: of course, all lesbians and gays and trans people are oppressed)
  • imperialism and colonialism (all colonial peoples and imperial subjects were oppressed)
  • and – sigh – identity (all the old, traditional categories of identity are being interrogated, questioned and transgressed)

It’s rare than any exhibition of a modern artist manages not to get trapped and wrapped, cribbed, cabined and confined, prepackaged and predigested, into one or other of these tidy, limiting and deadly dull categories.

Many modern artists go along with this handful of ‘ideas’ for the simple reason that they were educated at the same art schools as the art curators, and that this simple bundle of ideas appears to be all they were taught about the world.

About accounting, agriculture, applied mathematics, aquatic sciences, astronomy & planetary science, biochemistry, biology, business & commercial law, business management, chemistry, communication technologies, computing & IT, and a hundred and one other weird and wonderful subjects which the inhabitants of this crowded planet spend their time practicing and studying, they appear to know nothing.

No. Gender, diversity and identity appear to be the only ideas modern art is capable of ‘addressing’ and ‘interrogating’.

Unfortunately, Parr plays right into the hands of curators like this. Because he has spent so many years travelling round Britain photographing people in classic ‘British’ activities (pottering in allotments, dancing, at the beach, at sports tournaments or drinking at street parties), many of them with Union Jacks hanging in the background or round their necks – Parr’s entire oeuvre can, without so much as flexing a brain cell, be described as ‘an investigation into British identity in the age of Brexit’ or ‘an analysis of British identity in the era of multiculturalism’.

And the tired visitor consumes these exhausted truisms and clichés without missing a beat, without breaking a sweat, without the flicker of an idea troubling their minds. For example, see how this photo of bhangra dancers ‘raises questions of British identity.’

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2017, commissioned by BBC One. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

The introduction and wall labels certainly don’t hold back:

This exhibition of new work, made in the UK and around the world, is a collection of individual portraits and Parr’s picture of our times. It is about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raises complex questions around both national and self-identity.

The portraits used were drawn from Parr’s Autoportraits series, also on view in this gallery. By transforming these pictures into shrine-like objects, Parr pokes fun at his own identity. At the
same time, he raises questions about the nature of photography, identity and memory.

Parr’s Autoportraits reflect his long-standing interest in travel and tourism, and highlight a rarely acknowledged niche in professional photography. As Parr moves from one absurd situation to the next, his pictures echo the ideals and aesthetics of the countries through which he moves, while inviting questions. If all photographs are illusions, can any portrait convey a sense of true identity?

Parr shows that our identities are revealed in part by how we spend our leisure time – the sports we watch, the players or teams we support, the way we celebrate victories or commiserate defeat.

These pictures might be called ‘environmental portraits’, images in which the identities of person and place intertwine. Do the clothes we wear, the groups we join, the careers we choose, or the hobbies we enthusiastically pursue, express our personality? Or is the converse true – does our participation in such things shape and define us?

The way we play, celebrate and enjoy our leisure time can reveal a lot about our identities. Questions of social status often sneak into the frame. Whether a glorious opportunity to put on your top hat and tails, or simply an excuse to have a flutter on the horses, this ‘sport of kings’ brings together people from many different walks of life.

The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union is not only one of the biggest socio-political events of our time, it is also a curious manifestation of British identity. Politicians on both sides of the debate used the referendum to debate immigration and its impact on British society and culture. At times, this degenerated into a nationalistic argument for resisting change, rejecting the European way of doing things and returning to a more purely ‘British’ culture, however that might be defined.

But for me, somehow, the more this ‘issue’ of identity is mentioned, the more meaningless it becomes. Repeating a word over and over again doesn’t give it depth. As various philosophers and writers have pointed out, it tends to have the opposite effect and empty it of all meaning.

The commentary claims that Parr’s photographs are ‘about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raise complex questions around both national and self-identity.’

But do they? Do they really? Is a photo of some ordinary people standing at random on a beach ‘raising complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Or a photo of Grayson Perry, or Vivienne Westwood, or five black women sitting on the pavement at the Notting Hill carnival, or two blokes who work in a chain factory, or a couple of fisherman on a Cornish quayside, or toned and gorgeous men dancing at a gay nightclub, or a bunch of students at an Oxford party, or a photo of the Lady Mayoress of London, or of a bloke bending down to roll a bowls ball.

The Perry Family – daughter Florence, Philippa and Grayson, London, England, 2012. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Does this photo ‘raise complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

I just didn’t think see it. So there’s a lot of black people at the Notting Hill carnival, so Indians like dancing to bhangra music, so posh people go to private schools, so Parliament and the City of London still have loads of quaint ceremonies where people dress up in silly costumes.

And so Parr takes wonderfully off-kilter, unflattering and informal photos of all these things. But I don’t think his photos raise any questions at all. They just record things.

Take his photos of the British at the seaside, an extremely threadbare, hoary old cliché of a subject which has been covered by socially -minded photographers since at least the 1930s. Parr’s photos record the fact that British seaside resorts are often seedy, depressing places, the sea is freezing cold, it’s windy and sometimes rainy, and to compensate for the general air of failure, people wear silly hats, buy candy floss, and eat revolting Mr Whippy ice creams.

None of this raises any ‘complex questions’ at all. It seems to me to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Same goes for the last room in the show which ‘addresses’ ‘the Establishment’ and ‘interrogates’ notions of ‘privilege’ by taking photos of Oxford students, public school children and the Queen.

In all seriousness, can you think of a more tired and predictable, boring and clapped-out, old subject? Kids who go to private school are privileged? Oxford is full of braying public school toffs? As any kind of sociological ‘analysis’ or even journalistic statement, isn’t this the acme of obviousness?

Magdelene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

In other words, although curators and critics and Parr himself try to inject ‘questions’ and ‘issues’ into his photos, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Photographic beauty

And by doing so they also divert attention from any appreciation of the formal qualities of his photographs, Parr’s skill at capturing candid moments, his uncanny ability to create a composition out of nothing, the strange balances and symmetries which emerge in ordinary workaday life without anyone trying. The oddity of the everyday, the odd beauty of the everyday, the everyday beauty of oddness.

Preparing lobster pots, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall, England, 2018. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

I don’t think Parr’s work has anything to do with ‘issues of Britishness’ and ‘questions of identity’. This kind of talk may be the kind of thing which gets publishers and art galleries excited, and lead to photo projects, commissions and exhibitions. In other words, which makes money.

But the actual pictures are about something else entirely. What makes (most of) them special is not their ‘incisive sociological analysis’ but their wonderfully skilful visual qualities. Their photographic qualities. The works here demonstrate Parr’s astonishing ability to capture, again and again, a particular kind of everyday surrealism. They are something to do with the banality of life which he pushes so far into Banality that they come back out the other end as the genuinely weird and strange.

He manages a consistent capturing of the routine oddity of loads of stuff which is going on around us, but which we rarely notice.

The British are ugly

Lastly, and most obvious of all – Parr shows how ugly, scruffy, pimply, fat, tattooed, tasteless and badly dressed the British are. This is probably the most striking and consistent aspect of Parr’s photos: the repeated evidence showing what a sorry sight we Brits present to the world.

It’s not just the parade of tattooed, Union Jack-draped chavs in the ‘Brexit’ room. Just as ugly are the posh geeks he photographed at Oxford or the grinning berks and their spotty partners he snapped at the Highland dances. By far the most blindingly obvious feature of Parr’s photographic oeuvre is how staggeringly ugly, badly dressed and graceless the British mostly are.

His subjects’ sheer lumpen plainness is emphasised by Parr’s:

  • deliberate use of raw, unflattering colour
  • the lack of any filters or post-production softening of the images
  • and the everyday activities and settings he seeks out

And the consistently raw bluntness of his photos makes you realise how highly posed, polished and post-produced to plastic perfection almost are all the other images we see around us are – from adverts to film stills, posters and billboards, and the thousands of shiny images of smiling perfection we consume on the internet every day.

Compared to all those digitally-enhanced images, Parr has for some time now made his name by producing glaringly unvarnished, untouched-up, unimproved images, showing the British reflections of themselves in all their ghastly, grisly grottiness.

New Model Army playing the Spa Pavilion at the Whitby Goth Weekend, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

But this is a genuinely transgressive thought – something which the polite and respectable curators – who prefer to expatiate at length on the socially acceptable themes of identity and gender and race – dare not mention.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name and which Martin Parr’s photographs ram home time after time. We Brits look awful.

Video

Video review of the exhibition by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

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

Towards the Flame is a diplomatic history of imperial Russia in the years 1905 to 1920. By diplomatic history, I mean a detailed – a really detailed – account of the men who ran Russia’s Foreign Ministry and its embassies (with sometimes a nod to the heads of the army, navy or other government ministers), their policies, debates and disagreements.

We are given pen portraits of Russia’s premiers, foreign and finance ministers, and key ambassadors to London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and beyond and the guts of the book is a history of their diplomacy – the papers and memos they wrote laying out Russia’s strategies – the information they gathered about rival nations’ aims and goals – the assessments each nations’ military attaches made about their rivals’ readiness for war.

(For example, Lieven examines position papers like the brilliantly prescient memorandum the former head of secret police, Petr Durnovo, gave Tsar Nicholas in February 1914, which said that the biggest risk of a prolonged war was that it would trigger a massive social and political revolution (p.304).)

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

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

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

This is what gives the book its character and distinction. At every crux – for example, over the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 – Lieven briefly tells us what happened on the ground (his book deliberately skips over purely military details, just as it skips over detail of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand – all this can be found in thousands of other sources) in order to analyse the attitude of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Lieven details disagreements in overall strategy between the Foreign Minister, his Deputy, the Finance Minister, the Tsar and the Tsar’s unofficial advisers (like his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas, leader of the so-called ‘Panslavic tendency’).

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

Lieven explains:

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

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

World War One an eastern war

Lieven opens his book with a bold claim: Contrary to all Western writing on the subject, the First World War was not a western but an east European war, triggered by events in eastern Europe, exacerbated by rivalries between east European empires, and with seismic consequences across east and central Europe.

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

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

The balance of power

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

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

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

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

And not only nations were concerned. Every nation contained factions, ruling parties, opposition parties and, increasingly, ‘public opinion’, which had to be taken into account.

(It is one of the many ironies of history that the spread of literacy, education and ‘civil society’ i.e. newspapers and a free press, which is so assiduously promoted by liberals, in actual fact, in the event, tended to encourage rabble-rousing nationalism. The press in Serbia comes in for special criticism for its ferociously nationalistic warmongering, but the panslavic Russian newspaper, Novoe Vremia, was so consistently anti-German that the authorities in Berlin singled it out as a prime cause of the poisoning of German-Russian relations, pp.215, 220, 289.)

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

Age of empires

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

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

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

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

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

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

For their part, diplomats and statesmen in both Germany and Austria continued to speculate about a merger between the two countries to create a Greater Germany, something which had been debated since Bismarck had wondered whether to bring Austria into, or leave it outside, his project for a United Germany in the 1860s. Gross-Deutschland would then, of course, want to reclaim the German-speaking populations of the Czech lands and of Poland.

The other continental powers were well aware that this tendency to expansion was a powerful strand in German political thought (and, of course, it was revived by the Nazis with their claim for Lebensraum which led them to invade first Poland, then the Soviet Union 25 years later).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus even landlocked Germany managed to seize some choice parts of Africa (German South West Africa, Cameroon, German East Africa).

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

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

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

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

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


Russia

The majority of Lieven’s content is about Russia. He takes you swiftly by the hand through the highlights of the previous two hundred years of Russian history – Peter the Great (1682-1725), Catherine the Great (1762-96), Napoleon and 1812, Crimean War (1853-56), the emancipation of the serfs (1861) – Russia’s geographical resources and economic and political development – and shows how parties or factions naturally and logically arose from the specific Russian situation.

Court and country parties

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

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

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

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

Onwards to Constantinople

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

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

Less quixotic than these millennial religious fantasies, hard-headed military men also thought a lot about Constantinople. Russia possessed the largest territory in the world, with immense land, people and resources. And yet it was prevented from projecting that power outwards, unlike all the nations on the ocean e.g. Britain, France, Spain, Holland, and especially America, sitting astride the two great oceans.

(The importance of naval power was crystallised in the widely-read contemporary book by American theorist Alfred Mahan, summarised on page 160).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West or East?

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

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

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

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

The Russo-Japanese War 1904-5

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

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

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

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

Towards the flame

Believe it or not, everything I’ve just summarised is all just the introduction to the book’s core and is covered off in just the first 100 pages or so. If you recall, the text’s main focus is on the period 1905 to 1920, i.e. beginning after the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 revolution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts

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

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

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

The view from the upper classes

Lieven is posh. From Wikipedia we learn that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So they were staggered when they discovered that the overwhelming majority of the Russian people didn’t give a toss about these fantasies, was incapable of defending them, and eventually rebelled against them.

In a nice detail, Lieven tells of a German officer during the Great War, whose job was to debrief Allied prisoners of war. He discovered that the French and British soldiers had a clear sense of what they were fighting for, but the Russian soldiers didn’t have a clue. Pan-Slavism – what was that? Controlling the Turkish Straits – what were they? Preserving the European Balance of Power – what on earth was that?

The over-educated, incestuous, airless narrowness of Russia’s elite condemned itself to extinction.


Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

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