Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Award 2019

This is an exhibition of the 55 or so portrait photos which were shortlisted for this year’s Taylor Wessing photographic portrait exhibition.

The organisers received 3,700 photographic portraits from 1,611 photographers in seventy countries around the world, whittled it down to these 55, and then, a month ago, the first, second and third prize winners were announced.

As usual, there’s a large number of good, and some exceptional, photographic portraits. As usual, I have some familiar gripes, namely:

1. American cultural dominance

Why are so many – 25 of the show’s 55 photos, nearly half the total – from America? And not just from America, but specifically New York?

1. Take the series of young black women snapped on the streets of Brooklyn by Amy Touchette. Apparently Amy moved to the neighbourhood in 2015, and took to walking the same route every day in the same clothes to get to know the area, and slowly uncovering the relationships among the large Afro-American community. Fair enough. But there are other cities in the world beside New York.

Keilah and Snaquana by Amy Touchette, from the series Personal Ties: Portraits of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, 2018 © Amy Touchette

2. Each year the exhibition includes In Focus display of works by a featured photographer, and this year this consists of seven photos by Ethan James Green. To paraphrase the blurb:

Green’s first monograph ‘Young New York’ was published by Aperture in March 2019. These striking black and white portraits were made between 2014-2018, focusing on the artist’s friends and community, many taken in Corlears Red Hook Park on the Lower East Side. His new series of portraits sees him continue to work with his own generation this time photographing couples. Green mixes personal projects with work as a high profile fashion photographer working for magazines including Arena Homme +, i-D, LOVE, Self Service, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Vogue Homme, Vogue Italia, Vogue Paris, Wand WSJ. Magazine.

His work looks like this:

Nico and Dara by Ethan James Green, 2019 © Ethan James Green

And you can see a gallery of all eight of the features photos here:

I’m afraid I got a bit grumpy about this. I feel like I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of photos just like this, photos of fashionably thin, fashionably multiracial and fashionably street yoof. All these photos need is the GAP or FCUK logo at the bottom and they could be appearing on any hoarding anywhere in the Western world. I feel that, yet again, I am being sold an American product.

By contrast there were no photos at all from China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria – to list the half dozen most populous countries in the world. Presumably this is because photographers in those countries just haven’t heard of this competition, but it feels like a big gap for a prize which claims to be global in scope.

Imagine how interesting it would have been to have had an In Focus slot for a Chinese photographer who’d been snapping the protesters old and young in Hong Kong! Or faces from famine-stricken Zimbabwe, or from collapsing Venezuela, or from the riots in Iran, or…

But no. Instead – yet another fashionable New York photographer shooting New York’s fashionably diverse, fashionably thin, fashionable street people, in between doing spreads for oh-so-fashionable Vanity Fair and Vogue

2. Gender and sexuality

Second big beef was about the disproportionate attention paid to every modern gallery curator’s favourite subject – gender and sexuality. The aforementioned New Yorker Ethan James Green turns out, with staggering unoriginality, to be interested in ‘gender and sexuality’, but the exhibition also includes:

– Seamus Ryan’s portrait of Captain Hannah Graf, the highest-serving transgender woman serving in the British Army

– the Australian Tristan Still’s photo of a transgender person named Raynen who refers to themselves as ‘they’

– Reme Campos’s series Portraits of Transgender Teenagers

– Dominick Sheldon’s series dealing with gender and identity. British-born Sheldon (b.1984) took these portraits over several days as part of a series ‘dealing with gender and personal constructs of identity’ in the hijra communities of New Delhi. Hijra has particular cultural overtones and is used to describe gender identities – including transgender. Sheldon (big sigh) now lives in New York.

Nodi by Dominick Sheldon, from the series New Delhi, 2019 © Dominick Sheldon

Not a million miles away from the series made by Olivia Arthur (British, born 1980) documenting ‘the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities of India, specifically in the port city of Mumbai’ which I saw at the Science Museum in February of last year.

I suppose this photo is from India. But why did it have to be taken by a Brit? Once upon a time we sent our imperial administrators to run India. Now we send our photographers to document their sexual outsiders.

3. Ethnic Minorities

Alongside gender, race and ethnicity is the other obvious, predictable and inevitable ‘issue’ much beloved of art curators – race and ethnicity. Thus the exhibition includes several series concerned with blacks – or People of Colour or Afro-Americans, such as the Amy Touchette series, above.

There’s also a rather touching series by American (of course) photographer Rory Doyle (b.1983) of African-American cowboys. Doyle moved to Mississippi in 2009 and came across the cowboys (and, presumably, cowgirls and cowpersons) who’d followed that lifestyle for generations. After all, up to a quarter of the people who worked in the Old West were black (person of colour, African-American), and his series depicting the community also won the Sony World Photography Awards. Good to see it go to an American.

Young Riders by Rory Doyle, from the series Delta Hill Riders, 2018 © Rory Doyle

Back in the sub-continent, there was a series by Jook Oosterhof (Dutch, based in Amsterdam) who was commissioned by a magazine to go and photograph child brides in Bangladesh, where a high proportion of girls are married before they’re 18, and a significant number before they’re 15. The series was made in co-operation with a Dutch charity called Girls Not Brides. There were five photos from the series. The idea is that the girls are veiled a) to hide their identities b) to symbolise the way they are muted and muzzled in a patriarchal society.

Jesmin, 16 years by Jouk Oosterhof, from the series Invisible, In Focus: Child Brides in Bangladesh, 2018 © Jouk Oosterhof

As with Dominick Sheldon going to New Delhi I wondered why rich white Europeans have to go and help people in developing countries.

Other themes

Stepping away from my grumpiness about American cultural domination and modern art’s obsession with gender and race, a number of other themes do emerge and are represented in the exhibition.

Poverty

Having been an old-style socialist, I tend to think that poverty, lack of work or money or food, the way so many people are on zero hours jobs, or work for minimum pay or need to have two or even three jobs to make ends meet, or the way visits to food banks have tripled in the last three years, for me, the spread of poverty is a much more pressing issue than gender fluidity.

Anyway, this explains why I heartily endorsed the fact that First Prize in the competition was awarded to Pat Martin for two works from his portrait series of his late mother, Goldie (Mother). These pictures capture the authentic look of the fat, ugly, uneducated, troubled, working class poor who you rarely see represented in any medium, but which I see all round me every day in the streets of inner-city Streatham or toxic Harlseden.

Gail and Beaux by Pat Martin, from the series Goldie (Mother), 2018 © Pat Martin

Martin is (inevitably) American (big sigh), from Los Angeles which makes a change, I suppose, from New York.

For him, the series represented a way of trying to engage with a mother who had many issues, not least substance abuse. It is, in other words, a deeply personal project. But for those of us who don’t know him or his mum, they are just more images bobbing along the vast tide of imagery we are bombarded with every day. But they stick out because a) the subject matter is so rarely seen b) they are genuinely well composed and shot portraits.

The Eccentric

Martin Parr has revived the appetite for the quirks and peculiarities of English life and this photo – standing by itself, maybe because it didn’t have enough gender or race in it – is very much in the Martin Parr tradition – very brightly coloured, hyper-real and BIG photos of rather nostalgic locations or activities. In this instance the Hubbock family snapped in their Ford Cortina, taken by Garrod Kirkwood at Whitley Bay in England (not America).

The Hubbucks by Garrod Kirkwood, from the series England, 2018 © Garrod Kirkwood

Outsiders

If you go to galleries as regularly as I do, you get used to gallery curators thinking about ‘outsiders’ in the very narrow and over-familiar terms of LGBT+ or transgender people, or ethnic minorities.

It was a refreshing change to see images of genuinely under-represented outsiders – in this case, people with Down’s Syndrome. One in every 1000 babies born in the UK will have Down’s syndrome and there are approximately 40,000 people in the UK with the condition. As far as I could tell there were not one but two series depicting Downs Syndrome people in the show, one titled Meeting Sofie by Snezhana von Büdingen, and another set of three photos from The Rite by Evelyn Natalia Bencicova. She looks happy. The pictures made me happy, reminded me of a very vivacious woman with Down’s Syndrome who I danced the night away with at my best friend’s wedding many years ago.

Ellie by Evelyn Natalia Bencicova, from the series The Rite, 2019 © Evelyn Natalia Bencicova

Striking

Head and shoulders the most striking image in the exhibition, and so no surprise that it’s been used for much of the publicity, is this luminous portrait of her mother, Eha, by Sirli Raitma (b.1975) in Estonia. She began the series, dressing her mother in different outfits, arranging striking poses, as a way of distracting her from her late-life depression.

Eha (04) by Sirli Raitma, from the series Eha: Portraits of my mother, 2019 © Sirli Raitma

Old age

And that brings me to the last theme I’d like to highlight, which was that – balancing the large number of teenagers on the streets of New York (or, in Los Angeles in Shaq by Aline Simpson, or the streets of Dakar by Jermaine Francis from Birmingham) – balancing the teenage cool of a lot of the images, was an equal number of images of old age.

Raitma’s are probably the most striking, composed and beautiful – but there were other studies, more troubled and pensive, by the likes of:

  • Enda Bowe – Ron, a knackered old man lying back in an armchair
  • the grey-haired couple Mordechai and Aryeh by Oded Wagenstein
  • a confused-looking white-haired old man on the street by Alex Llopis Cardona
  • a glimpse of an old, old lady through a half-open door by Piotr Karpinski
  • a very old, very sick old person lying in what looks like a hospital bed by Maria Konstanse Bruun
  • a photo of an old Australian geezer who broke his neck falling down the stairs by Chris Hoare

Or this lady, who looks a little out on the edge, Mara, as photographed by Kovi Konowiecki (b.1992) whose series, Driftwood was shot in and around Riverside County, California. America. Obvz.

Mara by Kovi Konowiecki from the series Driftwood, 2019 © Kovi Konowiecki

Most of the images seemed to me to be of teenagers or the elderly, which is odd as the average age in the UK is 40 and the USA 38. Maybe street kids are just very available and very photogenic – and the elderly often fall into the category of the artist’s own parents, or are accessible in care homes and hospitals.

Whereas the age groups in between, everyone from 30 to 60, young- and middle-aged parents, are just too busy holding down a job and looking after the kids, to find the time to be photographed. Maybe that explains their slightly uncanny absence from this selection of images, and the exhibition’s tendency to over-represent the poles of youth and age.

Making connections

Anyway, 55 excellent photographic portraits + the eight In Focus ones by Ethan James Green. A body of work picked almost at random, but which – as indicated – I, for one, immediately began to see themes and connections in.

I dare say other visitors might find themes and threads which I didn’t pick up on. One of the pleasures of any exhibition is dillying and dallying, making up your itinerary and having your own thoughts. Exhibitions are, after all, meant to be enjoyable as well as educational, fun as well as yet another channel for being bombarded by socially-approved messages about Diversity and Inclusion.

So other visitors might not notice the American domination or the gender and sexuality themes, and focus on something completely different. Or may just be struck by a few individual pieces here and there, since each photo is accompanied by thorough wall labels describing the photographer and their work and the issues or ideas they’re addressing.

So maybe others will respond to the project by Chris Hoare who, inspired by the old cliché describing Australia as ‘The Lucky Country’ set out to find and photograph people who had experienced extremes of either good or bad luck (such as the man who broke his neck falling downstairs).

Or the photos of  laughing or earnestly posing schoolboys taken by Vikram Kushwah in his native India. or the young Sumo wrestler training in the Terelj National Park shot by Catherine Hyland (another Brit journeying to far-off locations).

Go, and make your own mind up.


Related links

Just some recent exhibitions featuring transgender people

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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

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

Cuba

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

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

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

What an epic vision!

The various invasion attempts reinforced Latin American countries’ suspicion of America’s boundless arrogance and her thinly veiled ambitions to control the entire hemisphere, which lasts to this day.

Reviving the slave trade

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

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

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

The territories of Kansas and Nebraska needed to be defined and organised. The process was led by Senator Stephen Douglas. He needed senate support. A key block of southerners made it clear they wouldn’t support the bill unless Douglas allowed slavery in the new states. To be precise, unless he repealed the ban on slavery north of 36° 30’ which had a been a central part of successive compromises with the slave states since 1820.

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

Pierce caved in, the act passed and caused a storm of protest. McPherson details the process by which the Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated the collapse of the Whig party, whose northern and southern wings increasingly struggled to find common ground. From the ashes arose a variety of anti-slavery parties, which eventually crystallised into a new, entirely northern, Republican party.

Nativism

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

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

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

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

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

The Catholic Irish also tended to be strongly against blacks, with whom they competed for the roughest labouring jobs at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It was the Irish vote which played a key part in preventing blacks from being given equal voting rights in New York, in 1846. One journalist summarised the conflict as:

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

Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

A political war

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

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

Neither side was monolithic. There were moderates in the south, there were even unionists in the upper southern states, to whom Lincoln held out the possibility of negotiation and reconciliation. Similarly, not all northerners were in favour of total war, and one plank of southern rhetoric was to reach out to northern ‘constitutionalists’ by emphasising that the southern states’ cause was a logical consequence of the American Constitution’s concern for each state’s individual autonomy. They were merely fighting for their rights under the Constitution to govern by their own laws.

Whose rights came first – the states or the Union as a whole? Who ruled – the central or the states governments? This had proved a thorny problem for the drafters of the Constitution back in the 1780s and was, at least to begin with, the core issue of the war. It’s certainly the one Abraham Lincoln focused on in his early speeches, which assert that you simply can’t have a government if large parts of the country threaten to secede every time laws are passed which they disagree with.

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

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

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

Length and complexity

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

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

And you need a good grasp of the kaleidoscopic and shifting complexity of American political scene in these years to understand why Lincoln took the decisions he did; for example why he appointed to his first cabinet several of his major political rivals – even from other parties – in order to build the widest coalition.

Why he appointed a soldier from the rival Democrat party George B. McClellan as head of the army on the Potomac, and stuck with him even though he failed to press the North’s military and logistical advantage.

Similarly, why Lincoln delayed so long before declaring the Emancipation of the Slaves – namely that he had to keep onside as many as possible of the Democrat (i.e. slave-friendly) politicians in the north who had continued attending the Union Congress and Senate, and avoid offending opinion in the border states of Missouri and Kansas.

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

Killers

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Other posts about American history

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


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