King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998) – part three

‘To gather rubber in the district… one must cut off hands, noses and ears.’
(Charles Lemaire, Belgian commissioner of the Equator District of the Congo Free State)

William Sheppard

Following his coverage of the black American Baptist minister George Washington Williams, who was appalled by what he witnessed in the Congo in 1890 and wrote an open letter of protest to the Belgian king, Leopold II, Hochschild goes on to describes the career of another black pioneer.

This is William Sheppard, a Baptist minister born in Virginia in 1865, who was sent by the Southern Baptists to the Free State, thus becoming the first black American missionary to the Congo. Hochschild emphasises that the church hierarchy ensured he was supervised every step of the way by a white superior, how it was the white man who actually met Leopold in Belgium while Shepherd was excluded, but how it was Shepherd who built up the mission on the river Kasai. Here he won the respect of the local BaKuba tribe whose language he was the only missionary to bother to learn, by his hard work and sympathetic understanding of their lives. They nicknamed him Mundéle Ndom, meaning ‘the black white man’.

Sheppard was the first Westerner to reach the Kuba capital, Ifuca, whose king usually ordered any outsider to be beheaded. But because he was black and spoke some BaKuba Sheppard was allowed to keep his head and stayed for four months, making detailed ethnographical records of their culture, art and religion (‘The Kuba are among Africa’s greatest artists,’ p.156). When he presented his findings to the Royal Geographic Society in London he was made a fellow, and back in the states presented the President with Kuba artefacts.

(Hochschild also mentions the spangling fact that Shepherd’s arrival at the mouth of the Congo coincided exactly with that of Joseph Conrad who was taking up the position of steamboat captain, and that Shepherd’s diary contains numerous references to the gentlemanly bearing of the exiled Pole who he spent some weeks with (p.154).)

Leopold’s grand plans

Leopold had impractically megalomaniac ambitions. He dreamed of linking his Congo possessions with the upper Nile and leasing Uganda from the British, both ideas gently rejected by Prime Minister Gladstone. He suggested raising a Congolese army to protect the Armenians who were being massacred by the Turks. When there was disturbance in Crete he offered Congolese troops as peacekeepers. His cousin, Queen Victoria’ thought Leopold was becoming delusional (p.168). But about one thing he was never deluded: maximising profit from his personal fiefdom in the Congo.

The rubber terror

‘Botofé bo le iwa!’, meaning ‘Rubber is Death!’ — Congo Proverb

Initially Leopold wanted to colonise the Congo because of ivory. As Frank McLynn makes clear in his chapter on the subject in Hearts of Darkness, ivory was the most valuable product of central Africa next to slaves, and the two trades were inextricably intertwined. Arab slavers destroyed native villages not only to enslave their women (killing most of the men) but also to loot the reserves of ivory many villages held, and use the newly acquired slaves to carry the plundered ivory the hundreds of miles to the coast.

It was the invention of the pneumatic tyre by John Dunlop, who set up the company of the same name in 1890, which made bicycling significantly more comfortable than before, which led to the outbreak of the ‘bicycling craze’ and which then led to a sudden spike in demand for rubber, that Leopold realised he was sitting on a goldmine, and that the farming of rubber from the huge rubber vines which twined up trees in the tropical rainforest almost overnight became a very profitable business (p.158). The West’s appetite for rubber grew for use not only in pneumatic tyres for bicycles and then cars, but for a myriad other uses, for example as insulation on electrical cabling which was undergoing an explosion of use around the world.

It is about this point, exactly half way through the book, and after a fair amount of relatively ‘ordinary’ historical and biographical stuff about Leopold and Stanley and so on, that the text takes a very dark turn and the reader is now plunged into the world of disgusting terror, massacre and mutilation created by the authorities who ran Leopold’s Congo Free State.

Force Publique officials were ordered to fulfil rubber quotas. They did this by kidnapping wives or children of villagers and threatening to mutilate or kill their hostages unless villagers handed in the correct and very onerous quotas of rubber. Natives who resisted were beaten, tortured, mutilated and murdered, had their families held hostage, their wives and daughters raped, or their houses and villages burned. If villages failed to fulfil the quota or showed any resistance, they were burned to the ground. The British traveller Ewart S. Grogan, crossing northeastern Congo, wrote: ‘Every village has been burned to the ground, and as I fled from the country I saw skeletons, skeletons everywhere’ (p.230). The Belgians turned Congo into a charnel house.

Most of the food the locals grew was confiscated by European officials leading to poor diet or starvation in many areas. State official Léon Féviez explained to a visiting official that when the local village didn’t supply enough fish and manioc to feed his troops he had a hundred of them beheaded. After that the villagers supplied sufficient food alright, even at the cost of themselves starving (p.166).

The incursions of black troops from one area into another spread diseases many had never previously been exposed to. Smallpox was carried from the coast where it was endemic, inland to populations who had no resistance to it. Worse was sleeping sickness, which is estimated to have killed half a million Congolese in 1901 alone (p.231).

The net effect of all these factors was a collapse in population. Missionaries and travellers through the Congo spoke again and again of entire regions laid waste and depopulated.

Hochschild singles out four factors and then gives copious evidence for each of them, being:

  • Murder
  • Starvation, exhaustion and exposure
  • Disease
  • Plummeting birth rate

The Reverend A.E. Scrivener was just one of many eye witnesses:

Lying about in the grass within a few yards of the house I was occupying were a number of human bones, in some cases complete skeletons. I counted 36 skulls, and saw many sets of bones from which the skull was missing. I called some of the men and asked the meaning of it. ‘When the rubber palaver began,’ said one, ‘the soldiers shot so many we grew tired of burying, and very often we were not allowed to bury and so just dragged the bodies out into the grass and left them.’

There was no census before Leopold’s murderous regime began but the best estimate is that 10 million Congolese lost their lives. This is based on the fact that in areas where population was known, it fell by a half between 1890 and 1910. Since the first detailed population estimate, in 1924, estimated the current population at around ten million, and most experts estimated that it was half the original number, that gives you some 10 million victims of Leopold’s regime, directly murdered or killed by overwork, famine or disease. (In fact at the end of the book, Hochschild devotes a passage to the estimates of modern demographers, who also agree with the 10 million figure.) More, in other words, than the Nazi Holocaust.

Chopping off Africans’ hands

Hands were used as proof that villages had been punished for failing to fulfil their quotas or rebelling. Force Publique soldiers had to prove that every bullet they were issued with was used to kill a villager (and not going off on hunting expeditions) by bringing in a hand for every bullet fired. Hands became a form of proof of discipline. Many soldiers couldn’t be bothered to wait for all the rubber to be counted and just hacked off a few hands at random to impress their superiors with how zealous they were.

But cutting off hands was also a form of punishment and incentive. Hostages – women and children –had their hands cut off unless their menfolk brought in the required quota of rubber. Some villagers, in desperation, instead of slicing a rubber vine and patiently waiting for the drops of sap to ooze out of it, were so panic-stricken that they cut down the entire vine and squeezed every drop of rubber out of it. This killed the vine rendering it unavailable for future use and so in turn was punished by the authorities, in the form which was now becoming universal – the men or their womenfolk or children having their hands cut off. Hochschild quotes scores of officials and soldiers who boasted about how many hands they collected per day.

‘Many fled and some were mutilated. I myself saw a man at Likange who had had both his hands cut off. Sometimes they cut them at the wrist, sometimes farther up . . . with a machete.’

In some military units there was a job, ‘keeper of the hands’ (p.165). Some units smoked severed hands over fires in order to keep them as decorations to hang on poles or over doors as a constant reminder to the locals of what even the slightest infringement would trigger.

Bestand:MutilatedChildrenFromCongo.jpg - Wikipedia

Mutilated Congolese children and adults. Photos taken between 1900 and 1905 by the English missionary Alice Seeley Harris

Hochschild brings out how atrocity acquires a momentum of its own. As in the Nazi genocide or the Soviet labour camps, cruelty and sadism, once permitted, become endemic. Thus René de Permentier, a Force Publique officer in the Equator district, had all the trees and bushes around his house cut down so he could use passing Africans as target practice for his rifle. If he found so much as a stray leaf in the courtyard swept by women prisoners he had one of them beheaded. If he found a forest path poorly maintained, he ordered a child in a local village executed. That kind of megalomaniac momentum.

Two Force Publique officers ordered a man hung by his feet and a fire lit underneath so he was cooked to death. Morel quoted a message from district commissioner Jules Jacques telling his underlings to warn the locals that if they cut down another vine he will exterminate them to the last man (quoted page 229). As the Reverend Scrivener testified:

A man bringing rather under the proper amount [of rubber to a collecting post], the white-man flies into a rage and seizing a rifle from one of the guards shoots him dead on the spot. Very rarely did rubber come but one or more were shot in that way at the door of the store.

There are hundreds of examples of this kind of psychopathic behaviour. Late in the book Hochschild says speakers of the Mongo language refer to the period as lokeli, the overwhelming (p.300).

Edmund Dene Morel

We know so much about the evil practices of Leopold’s state because of the obsessive work of one man, Edmund Dene Morel, who became a one-man international human rights dynamo.

In the late 1890s Morel was a relatively lowly clerk working for the Liverpool-based trading company Elder Dempster (p.177). He began travelling back and forth across the Channel as his company’s liaison with officials of the Congo Free State. Slowly he began to realise something was wrong. Hochschild attributes his revelation to three elements which he saw or, as a clerk handling the official paperwork for the cargoes, was able to calculate for himself while spending time at the State’s docks in Antwerp:

  1. He learned that huge amounts of arms and ammunition were being shipped to the Congo along with surprising amounts of chains and shackles. Why?
  2. The amount of ivory and rubber brought back by the ships greatly exceeded the amount stated on the manifests and paperwork. Someone was creaming off millions in profit. Who?
  3. Over 80% of the goods being shipped to the Congo were remote from trade purposes. In other words, a huge amount of goods were being brought out but very little was going in to pay for them. So how was this wealth of ivory and rubber being generated. Dene realised there could be only one explanation: slave labour.

‘These figures told their own story…Forced labour of a terrible and continuous kind could alone explain such unheard-of profits…forced labour in which the Congo government was the immediate beneficiary; forced labour directed by the closest associates of the king.’ (Morel, quoted page 180)

He called it: ‘the most gigantic fraud and wickedness that our generation has known’ (p.206).

Morel made his fears known to his superiors who told him to keep quiet. The Free State was a major client of Elder Dempster’s. They tried to coerce him into keeping silent. The company offered him a pay rise, then the role of highly paid consultant. Free State officials in Brussels stopped talking to him. He refused all bribes and insisted on speaking out.

Eventually, in 1901, Morel quit Elder Dempster and, after pondering what to do, set up a newspaper, the West Africa Mail in 1903, backed by philanthropic sponsors. It consisted of Morel’s articles, letters from missionaries, maps, cartoons, and pictures. Morel didn’t hold back:

‘Blood is smeared all over the Congo State, its history is blood-stained, its deeds are bloody, the edifice it has reared is cemented in blood—the blood of unfortunate negroes, spilled freely with the most sordid of all motives, monetary gain.’

Morel intended the West Africa Mail to publish everything he knew about the Congo and encouraged all-comers to send him their reports about ‘the shootings, shackles, beheadings, mutilations and kidnappings of a slave labour system’ they witnessed – and they did, in increasing numbers (p.270).

Morel tapped into the resources of existing anti-slavery organisations, namely the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigenes Protection Society, as well as roping in influential figures such as the politician Sir Charles Dilke and the author Mary Kingsley. He became a writing phenomenon, working 16 or even 18 hours a day to produce books, speeches, articles and pamphlets about the Congo (p.209). In the first six months of 1906 alone, he wrote 3,700 letters (p.214).

Morel requested information from all and any sources, and developed a remarkable knack for getting inside information from all kinds of people, not only missionaries and travellers in the region, but dissident military officers such as Raymond de Grez, who secretly fed him reports and statistics for many years, as well as people involved in the various shipping companies and testimony from their agents in-country, such as the American business agent Edgar Canisius (p.192).

The more Morel’s reputation grew as the doughty opponent of the evil being perpetrated in the Congo, the more people knew he was the man to slip confidential information (p.188).

It snowballed into a vast publicity campaign, featuring hundreds of public meetings, thousands of letters, he received thousands of letters full of facts and figures which Morel was then able to use in his articles or feed to sympathetic journalists and politicians.

With the aid of the charities and sympathetic politicians Morel secured a debate in the House of Commons which was held on 20 May 1903. At its conclusion the British Parliament passed a resolution to allow the British government to negotiate with the other Great Powers over the matter, avowing that the native Congolese ‘should be governed with humanity’ and, incidentally, noting that ‘great gratitude was due’ to Morel for creating public awareness (p.194). It was a truly impressive achievement. As Hochschild summarises:

Almost never has one man, possessed of no wealth, title of government post, caused so much trouble for the governments of several major countries. (p.209)

Pamphlets were followed by excoriating books, namely:

  • Affairs of West Africa (1902)
  • The British Case in French Congo (1903)
  • King Leopold’s Rule in Africa (1904)
  • Red Rubber – The story of the rubber slave trade that flourished in Congo in the year of grace 1906 (1906)
  • Great Britain and the Congo: the Pillage of the Congo Basin

When I read the title of Red Rubber I immediately saw the link with the campaign against ‘blood diamonds’ originating in Africa under war-torn or oppressive conditions from much the same region of Africa, in our own time.

Roger Casement

The Parliamentary debate directly affected another major figure. Parliament set up a commission to investigate the accusations and ordered the British consul to the Congo, Roger Casement, to go in-country to find out more.

Casement evaded the beady eye of Leopold’s officials, paid his own way and independently interviewed missionaries, natives, riverboat captains, and railroad workers. He then wrote up and submitted to Parliament a report containing 39 pages of testimony and a 23-page index of facts, what has been called ‘the most damning exposure ever of exploitation in Africa’. Morel published the ‘Casement Report’ in full in the West Africa Mail and it was picked up and syndicated around the world.

Hochschild devotes a chapter to Casement who is a fascinating figure in his own right, not least because of his principled but ill-fated support for Irish independence a decade later. (Unfortunately, no modern biographer can abstain from prying into the sex lives of their subject, and so we learn quite a lot about the fact that Casement was gay and kept a detailed log of his sexual encounters wherever he went, with Europeans or Africans. Great – and utterly beside the point.)

When they met they instantly clicked. Both respected each other’s fierce integrity and utter devotion to exposing the evil of Leopold’s regime. Casement was a government employee and so had to go where his superiors sent him, but they kept in touch and he offered Morel important confirmation and moral support, becoming a vital colleague and sounding board for Morel’s campaigns. Morel nicknamed him the Tiger; Casement called Morel the Bulldog (p.207). Chaps.

Congo Reform Association (CRA)

Casement and Morel met again, in Dublin, and agreed that it needed more than a newspaper to bring about the change needed. Casement convinced Morel they needed to set up an organisation and so in November 1903 Dene announced the establishment of the Congo Reform Association (CRA) with a founding manifesto filled with names of the great and good and calling for ‘just and humane treatment of the inhabitants of the Congo State, and restoration of the rights to the land and of their individual freedom’.

An American branch was quickly set up which garnered support from such notables as Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Twain was motivated to write a pamphlet, King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A defence of his Congo rule, in 1905, a satirical portrayal of Leopold as a self-pitying old man rambling on, making feeble excuses for the blood on his hands:

‘They burst out and call me “the king with ten million murders on his soul”.’

(It’s interesting that, even at this early point, the figure of 10 million dead was widely accepted. It’s a suspiciously round figure, isn’t it, but one Hochschild backs up with expert testimony at the end of his book)

Illustration from King Leopold’s Soliloquy by Mark Twain (1905)

Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired by his indignation to write The Crime of the Congo in 1908, while Joseph Conrad, in addition to the world famous novella about Leopold’s Congo, Heart of Darkness, co-wrote a novel with Ford Madox Ford, The Inheritors, which contains a devastating parody of Leopold’s greed and mendaciousness and personal oddities (p.257).

In 1904 Morel visited America, meeting with the President and members of Congress, before addressing large audiences around the nation. It took a while for the American campaign to gain traction, but in 1906 public pressure forced Congress to take a stand against Leopold and demand an end to the Congo Free State.

Alice Seeley Harris

Wife of the Reverend John Harris and a Baptist missionary in her own right, it was Alice Seeley Harris who took most of the photos of mutilated Africans which Morel distributed so widely and had such a devastating effect.

The couple had witnessed at first hand numerous atrocities, joined the Congo Reform Association and threw themselves into public activity. One or other of them made over 600 speeches in their first two years with the CRA, displaying implements like the shackles used to chain Congolese and the feared chicotte or whip made of hippopotamus hide, which was used to punish Africans who failed to meet their quotas and sometimes whip them to death (pages 120 and 216). Eventually John and Alice’s activism led to them running the newly combined Anti-Slavery and Aborigenes Protection Society (p.273).

Herbert Strang

The impact of the campaign spread far and wide. Hochschild mentions a British boys’ adventure writer, Herbert Strang, who wrote an adventure story set in the beastly Congo where a stout-hearted English teenager saves the day, titled Samba: A Story of the Rubber Slaves of the Congo. The preface he wrote to his novel is long but gives a fascinating insight into how the issue was seen at the time (1908).

Nearly a generation has passed since King Leopold was entrusted by the great Powers with the sovereignty of the Congo Free State. The conscience of Christendom had been shocked by the stories, brought back by Stanley and other travellers, of Arab slave raids on the Upper Congo; King Leopold, coming forward with the strongest assurances of philanthropic motive, was welcomed as the champion of the negro, who should bring peace and the highest blessings of civilization to the vast territory thus placed under his sway. For many succeeding years it was supposed that this work of deliverance, of regeneration, was being prosecuted with all diligence; the power of the slave traders was broken, towns were built, roads made, railways opened—none of the outward signs of material progress were wanting.

But of late the civilized world has been horrified to find that this imposing structure has been cemented with the life blood of the Congo races; that the material improvements to which the administrators of Congoland can point, have been purchased by an appalling amount of suffering inflicted upon the hapless negroes. The collection of rubber, on which the whole fabric of Congo finance rests, involves a disregard of liberty, an indifference to suffering, a destruction of human life, almost inconceivable. Those who best know the country estimate that the population is annually reduced, under King Leopold’s rule, by at least a hundred thousand. No great war, no famine, no pestilence in the world’s history has been so merciless a scourge as civilization in Congoland.

Yet owing to mutual jealousies, the Powers are slow to take action, and while they hesitate to intervene, the population of this great region, nearly as large as Europe, is fast disappearing.

It has been my aim in this book to show, within necessary limitations, what the effect of the white man’s rule has been.

If any reader should be tempted to imagine that the picture here drawn is overcoloured, I would commend him to the publications issued by Mr E. D. Morel and his co-workers of the Congo Reform Association, with every confidence that the cause of the Congo native will thereby gain a new adherent.

I must express my very great thanks to the Rev. J. H. Harris and Mrs. Harris, who have spent several years on the Upper Congo, for their kindness in reading the manuscript and revising the proofs of this book, and for many most helpful suggestions and criticisms.

By this point the atrocities were so widely known that Leopold had become associated with severed hands and blood in large parts of the press. Countless caricatures in European and American magazines satirised him as a mass murderer, his hands or beard dripping with blood while he hugged his sacks full of blood money (p.222).

Leopold II's Heart of Darkness, by David White | Open History Society

When Leopold’s second wife bore his second child, it was born with a withered hand and Punch magazine published a cartoon with the caption Vengeance from on high. Harsh but an indication of how universally he was despised.

What did Leopold spend his blood money on?

And how did Leopold spend the huge personal wealth he accrued from all this forced labour, slavery, murder and extortion? On grandiose building schemes and his teenage mistress.

1. Buildings

Leopold invested a huge amount of his blood money on buying, building or renovating grand properties. Wikipedia gives a handy summary of a subject which is spread across numerous passages in Hochschild’s book:

The public buildings were mainly in Brussels, Ostend and Antwerp, and include the Hippodrome Wellington racetrack, the Royal Galleries and Maria Hendrikapark in Ostend; the Royal Museum for Central Africa and its surrounding park in Tervuren; the Cinquantenaire park, triumphal arch and complex, and the Duden Park in Brussels, and the 1895–1905 Antwerpen-Centraal railway station.

In addition to his public works, Leopold acquired and built numerous private properties for himself inside and outside Belgium. He expanded the grounds of the Royal Castle of Laeken [one of Europe’s most luxurious royal homes] and built the Royal Greenhouses, the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion near the palace. In the Ardennes his domains consisted of 6,700 hectares (17,000 acres) of forests and agricultural lands and the châteaux of Ardenne, Ciergnon, Fenffe, Villers-sur-Lesse and Ferage. He also built important country estates on the French Riviera, including the Villa des Cèdres and its botanical garden and the Villa Leopolda.

(In a picquant footnote, Hochschild tells us that one of Leopold’s many villas on the Cote d’Azur was  subsequently bought by the English writer, Somerset Maugham, p.276.)

Hochschild contrasts these extravagant building projects with the many, many, many African homes and villages and entire regions which his officers laid waste and burned to the ground.

2. Caroline Lacroix

Leopold had married Marie Henriette of Austria, a cousin of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and grand-daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, on 22 August 1853 in Brussels. She was popular with the Belgians, was an artist and accomplished horsewoman, and the marriage produced four children. However, the couple became estranged and ended up living apart, Marie settling in the town of Spa where she lived till her death in 1902.

Meanwhile, Hochschild tells us, Leopold became a regular customer at high class brothels which specialised in young and very young girls, preferably virgins. Still, it comes as a bit of a surprise when Hochschild tells us that in 1899, in his 65th year, Leopold took as a mistress Caroline Lacroix, a 16-year-old French prostitute, and that they were to stay together for the next decade until his death.

It was on Caroline that a lot of the blood money from the Congo was lavished, in the form of cash, bonds raised against the Congo Free State government, castles and villas and dresses and makeup and holidays. Throughout this period they were unmarried, so Caroline was in effect his teenage mistress and became unpopular with the Belgian public and made Leopold even more of a figure of fun and contempt among international critics and cartoonists.

File:Your Majesty! at your age....jpg - Wikipedia

The priest is saying: ‘O sire! At your age!’ to which Leopold replies: ‘You should try it yourself!’

Leopold finally married Caroline in a Catholic ceremony just five days before his death, on 17 December 1909, aged 74. He left her a huge fortune but their failure to perform a civil ceremony rendered the marriage invalid under Belgian law and the Belgian government tried its best to seize all the king’s assets and fortune, giving rise to a jamboree for lawyers. Despite legal wrangles it is likely that she managed to spirit away $7 million, maybe more.

The Vatican recognised their wedding though, and Catholic priests were with him till the end. It is nauseating to read how the Catholic church stayed staunchly loyal to Leopold despite the most disgusting revelations, whereas a large number of the truth-tellers and reports were Protestant missionaries. A classic example of the stark contrast between the generally servile subservience of Catholic officials and the outspoken truth-telling of Protestant clerics, especially of non-conformists such as Baptists and the ever-principled Quakers. (You should read Hochschild’s wonderful account of the campaign to abolish slavery to be moved to tears by the hard work of the non-conformists and especially the Quakers in devoting their entire lives to ending slavery.)

When Leopold first heard about her, Caroline had been the mistress and sometime prostitute of Antoine-Emmanuel Durrieux, a former officer in the French army. It is somehow pleasing to learn that she tried to keep up a surreptitious relationship with Durrieux throughout her time with Leopold and that, seven months after the old monster died, she married Durrieux. Ah. True love.

In 1937 she published her memoirs, A Commoner Married a King: As Told by Baroness De Vaughan to Paul Faure. It is a classic example of the logocentrism of the West, in the sense that the doctored and sentimental memoirs of a royal prostitute are preserved for all time for scholars to pore over, analyse and re-analyse, while the lives and experiences of the ten million or so Congolese murdered, mutilated and starved to death – apart from a handful of testimonies recorded in the Casement Report and a few other public enquiries – are nowhere, nothing, vanished as if they had never been.

Leopold’s death and the end of the Congo Free State

The real question, reading all this horror, is why, despite widespread knowledge of the appalling atrocities, little or no steps were taken against him and nothing changed for so long. Leopold’s personal rule over his Congo Free State lasted 23 years, from 1885 to 1908.

The decisive step was getting the US government to switch its policy from indifference to Congo to active hostility, and this coincided with a massive newspaper revelation about the extent of Leopold’s behind-the-scenes bribery and manipulation of US government ministers, agencies and media.

The American change of heart crystallised with the hostility of the British government and, indeed, of a decisive majority in the Belgian government itself, and in Belgian popular opinion, to make Leopold realise the game was up and he agreed to hand over the running of the Congo Free State to the Belgian government so that it could become a ‘proper’ colony, subject to scrutiny in the press and by third parties.

Still, the canny old miser and manipulator insisted on selling the Congo to the Belgian government and drove a very hard bargain, emerging tens of millions of francs better off. In the end a compromise was reached whereby Leopold was paid $10 million and a further $9 million was assigned to his various grandiose vanity projects across Belgium as ‘compensation’ for losses which in reality he had never incurred.

And so, after months of wrangling, in November 1908 the Congo was handed over from Leopold’s personal control to the Belgian state (p.259). In August 1908 his closest officials spent a week non-stop burning all the official records of the Congo Free State, destroying all the evidence of malfeasance committed during his rule. Nonetheless, because of Morel and his many contributors, a sizeable amount of documentary evidence remained in the public domain.

As you might expect, conditions improved somewhat but most of the Belgian officials running the place stayed in post, the Force Publique didn’t even bother to change its name (p.271) and the basic economic imperatives – to maximise revenue from rubber – meant that, in practice, the living conditions of most Congolese continued to be wretched and brutalised. Thirteen months after handing over the Congo to the Belgian government, Leopold was dead, surely one of the most infamous brutes in recorded history.

Reluctantly, knowing that many abuses would continue to take place, Morel had to concede that, with the arch villain dead, many supporters of the CRA at home and abroad thought the job had been done and the fire had gone out of the campaign. In 1913 he held a last meeting of the Congo Reform Association then dissolved it. It had lasted from 1904 to 1913 and was, in Hochschild’s view, ‘the most important and sustained crusade of its sort between the Abolitionism of the early and middle nineteenth century and the worldwide boycott and embargo against apartheid-era South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s’ (p.277).

Arthur Conan Doyle, a late convert who became a very enthusiastic supporter of the cause, described the management of the Congo in his pamphlet The Crime of the Congo as ‘the greatest crime which has ever been committed in the history of the world’ (quoted on page 271).

The fact that there are statues and plaques in Belgium to this day commemorating Leopold for his humanitarian deeds and philanthropy is beyond grotesque.

The documentary

In 2006 a documentary was released, based on this book and with the same title, King Leopold’s Ghost, directed by Pippa Scott and narrated by Don Cheadle.

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


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King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998) – part two

I first read this book seven years ago and gave a reasonable summary of its content in a blog post.

Now I’m rereading it after reading three other books which cover at least part of the same subject matter, Frank McLynn’s Hearts of Darkness and Tim Jeal’s biography of Henry Morton Stanley and group biography of the five British explorers involved in the quest for the source of the river Nile. This blog post records impressions from reading Hochschild’s book second time round.

Leopold and Stanley

For a start, it’s quite a long time till the account of the atrocities committed in King Leopold’s Congo Free State kicks in. The book has about 320 pages of text and it’s only around page 130 that we begin to hear about the increasingly rapacious organisation of the Congo state and its appalling police service, the Force Publique. In other words, nearly half the book consists of background and buildup. And this mostly consists of a lot of biographical material on the two central figures, King Leopold himself and the explorer Stanley.

Leopold

Leopold II’s childhood was lonely and cold: he had to make appointments to talk to either his father or mother, who didn’t care much for him, so the king grew up aloof, distant, socially maladroit and compensated by obsessing over the minutiae of royal protocol.

During the course of his researches Hochschild has obviously come to loathe Leopold and he clearly relishes dishing the dirt on him, revelling in the fact that the king was a regular visitor to a chain of high-class brothels which traded in young girls, some as young as 12, who were guaranteed virgins to be deflowered by the cream of British and continental society.

But what comes over in spades from Hochschild’s account is what a two-faced, calculating and cunning manipulator Leopold was of all around him, which included ambassadors from all the major nations as well as leading philanthropists. They all fell for his humanitarian rhetoric and pose of selflessness, but there is much more, Hochschild detailing the care with which Leopold and his fixers bribed and cajoled and pulled the wool over the eyes of politicians, journalists and missionaries, inviting them to his palace, flattering and smooth-talking them. When bad news started to leak out about the atrocities being carried out in his colony, Leopold’s techniques for managing the press and damage limitation would put a modern PR company to shame.

Stanley

But it’s the Stanley material which is more striking. Hochschild is accepts the ‘black legend’ of Henry Morton Stanley hook, line and sinker, giving the kind of relentlessly negative account which Tim Jeal set out to single-handedly overthrow in his epic biography. Hochschild takes at face value:

  • Stanley’s own accounts of the size of his expeditions and the number of personnel lost during them (which Jeal shows to both be exaggerations)
  • Stanley’s own accounts of his brutal punishments of deserters and thieves (which Jeal shows to the exceptions rather than the rule, and shows only took place on particular, unusual occasions)
  • the harsh criticism of Stanley by other explorers (which Jeal says were motivated by jealousy, for example Richard Burton’s rancorous envy) and by the British press (which Jeal said was animated by anti-Americanism)

Hochschild goes out of his way to claim that Stanley’s bad luck with a string of failed fiancées (getting engaged to several young women, then breaking it off when he disappeared into Africa for years) was a result of his pathological ‘fear of women’.

He returns to the theme half way through the book when he describes Stanley’s 1890 grand public wedding in Westminster Abbey in considerable detail, noting that Stanley was chronically ill on the day, had to be helped up the aisle, and spent the entire reception lying in a darkened room in agony from gastritis. Hochschild uses his wedding to write confidently about Stanley’s ‘craving for acceptance’ and ‘fear of intimacy’ before going on to repeat Frank McLynn’s speculation that Stanley’s marriage to the society painter Dorothy Tennant was never consummated because of the lifelong revulsion from sex he picked up during his miserable childhood in a public workhouse (p.151).

God, I’d hate to be famous for anything and know that before the earth is cold on my grave rival biographers would be picking over my relationship with my family and every single woman I ever went out with, speculating the character of my mum and dad, using bucket psychology to pin me with their tawdry labels, using every blog post, letter or diary entry I ever wrote to work up their cheap theories about my psychology and sex life. God. The poor victims of the modern biographer.

That it’s all complete speculation leaps out at you when Hochschild concedes that other biographers think that Stanley did consummate his marriage. Some do, some don’t. You might as well flip a coin.

And not only is this all utterly speculative bucket psychology but it’s all out of date, for when Hochschild describes McLynn as Stanley’s ‘most thorough biographer’ the reader realises his book was written before Tim Jeal’s epic biography of Stanley, which benefited from access to thousands of previously unexamined letters, journals and so on in the royal archives in Belgium and so is in a position to paint a much more subtle, nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Stanley the man.

I find it surreal beyond belief that a whole succession of grown men – professional academics and historians – have devoted so much mental energy to the issue of whether Henry Stanley’s erect penis ever entered Dorothy Tennant’s vagina. In the middle of a book about atrocities committed against millions of Africans this dogged speculation about Stanley’s sex life is bizarre beyond belief.

That Hochschild is simultaneously repelled and bored by Stanley is indicated by his dismissal of everything Stanley did with sardonic repetition:

  • Stanley’s usual two-volume thousand-page bestseller turned out to be only one of many books written about the Emin Pasha expedition…
  • Stanley threw his usual temper tantrums…
  • As always Stanley bungled his choice of subordinates…

But despite his strong anti-Stanley animus, Hochschild can’t directly implicate Stanley in any of the atrocities themselves. The opposite: he shows in some detail how Stanley was edged out of Leopold’s plans as the late 1880s turned into the 1890s, for a number of reasons. 1. Leopold knew Stanley was stroppy and opinionated and would be difficult to manage and manipulate, as he manipulated so many other world leaders, Belgian politicians, missionaries and journalists.

2. More importantly, France. As the 1880s progressed, it became increasingly important to Leopold to placate France, the imperial power which claimed most of the territory to the north of the Congo, represented by the charismatic explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. Soon after completing his epic trek along the Congo in 1879, Stanley wrote letters and articles calling for Britain to take control of the Congo, a suggestion he repeated frequently, in public and which risked antagonising the delicate working relationship Leopold was forging with Paris.

The French were obsessed that Leopold’s amateur venture would collapse and that the hated British would then step in to run this huge area of central Africa and that this would amount to yet another slap in the face for the touchy Frogs.

Leopold managed to quell their anxieties for good by signing an agreement in law that if Belgian rule – and the companies he’d set up to manage it – collapsed, the French would legally have first dibs on the vacated territory. Not the hated British. The French were content with that and backed off, allowing Leopold to continue his plans his own way. But Stanley, far from being an accomplice of Leopold’s, represented a risk which is why the king kept him dangling on a retainer but never gave him the governorship he craved or any other significant work to do once the road was built by about 1884. Stanley was sidelined and out of the picture well before any of the atrocities began.

The post 9/11 perspective

As it happens I’m reading this book just after the Americans completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan on 31 August 2021 and just as we all approach the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on 11 September.

King Leopold’s Ghost is littered with Hochschild’s easy sarcasm about Victorian Europe’s claims to be bringing ‘civilisation’ to barbarians, to want to set up schools for the natives, end the slave trade, create a transport infrastructure, bring commerce and raise the living standards of the impoverished locals.

Absolutely all of this reads very differently as I watch the TV footage of the last American planes leaving Kabul airport and of hundreds of locals desperately chasing after them as the West i.e. America abandons its attempt to bring civilisation to the locals, to set up schools, end the Taliban’s oppressive rule, improve the transport infrastructure, bring commerce and raise the living standards of the impoverished locals.

Hochschild writes with lofty American disdain for 1. the hypocrisy of the European colonial nations who claimed to be bringing ‘civilisation’ but instead brought only hard-headed commercial transactions and exploitation. 2. He says the Europeans rode roughshod over the native culture and the complex web of tribes and traditional political authority which covered the region in multiple complex forms. 3. And his central theme is how quickly so-called ‘enlightened intervention’ descended into barbarism and exploitation, as native uprisings prompted terrible crackdowns and massacres. His book reeks of smug condescension.

But every time he made another sarcastic comment about the discrepancy between the European colonialists’ high-toned claims of bringing ‘civilisation’ and the reality of the crude violence and exploitation they inflicted, I thought: Iraq War. 150,000 dead, at a minimum (Wikipedia). Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ including waterboarding. Extraordinary rendition i.e. kidnapping people and spiriting them away to permanent imprisonment without trial in Guantanamo Bay. The Sunni Insurgency. Improvised explosive devices. An entire nation plunged into violent anarchy for a generation, while a large percentage of the trillion or so dollars America allegedly spent on the country went straight into the pockets of American arms manufacturers and private  security contractors.

Americans show European colonialists how to bring civilisation and respect for human rights to a developing country

And I thought Afghanistan. $2 trillion spent. Vast amounts on training the local security forces to cope with insurgencies. 110,000 Afghans killed or injured, over 3,500 coalition deaths. As many as 30,000 American private contractors making a fortune out of government contracts. And in the end, what was it all for? The security forces which the allies spent hundreds of billions training collapsed like a pack of cards within days of the Americans leaving. And many locals had been permanently alienated from the West and its puppet government by random and unpunished American atrocities. How mass killings by US forces after 9/11 boosted support for the Taliban.

Not as easy as you thought, is it, going into a developing country, overthrowing its government and expecting the locals to love you.

When Stanley flogged members of his caravan who tried to desert or stole precious food supplies in the 1870s, he did it in an age when flogging was still a legal punishment in schools and in the army, such as the Confederate Army which Stanley served in during the American Civil War. When the Americans captured, imprisoned, tortured and waterboarded their Iraqi suspects in the 2000s they were doing it sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was meant to have abolished such practices for ever.

The Wikipedia article about extraordinary rendition quotes former CIA case officer Bob Baer saying:

‘If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear—never to see them again—you send them to Egypt.’

This is the mindset of the greatest military force the world has ever seen as it extended its grasp, overt or covert, across the Arab world after 9/11: kidnap, torture, murder and massacre.

All of this was being raked over on the TV and in newspapers and magazines day after day at the exact moment I was reading Hochschild telling me how wicked and hypocritical the nineteenth century European colonisers were, how bigoted against the Arabs, how quick to extreme violence, how hypocritical in cloaking their real commercial motives under high-sounding rhetoric.

While all around me the serious British media were reflecting on 20 years of US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya. Which Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim nations have not benefited from the carefully planned and skillfully executed interventions of peace-loving America?

In this respect, Hochschild’s book is a good example of the hubris shown by so many contemporary historians who feel free to glibly patronise people in the past and point out their manifold failings on the assumption that we, in our super-digital 21st century, are oh-so-morally superior to our ancestors. But are we?

And it’s all the more vexatious when the historian patronising European colonialists for their wretched interventions in developing countries is an American, writing from amid the ruins of American foreign policy and the beacon of enlightened democracy which was the Trump administration.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)

‘Arab’ slave traders?

Hochschild also deploys his trademark sarcasm whenever the subject of ‘Arab’ slave traders comes up. Unlike the McLynn and Jeal books, and all the passages about the wickedness of the Arab slave trade they quote from the writings of Livingstone, Burton, Speke and Stanley – Hochschild goes out of his way to assert that hardly any of the slave traders were, in fact, Arab. He claims most were ‘Afro-Arab’ at best, ‘Swahili-speaking Africans’ who adopted Arab dress and Islam but ‘only some of them were of partly Arab descent’ (p.28).

Arab was a misnomer; Afro-Arab would have been more accurate. Although their captives often ended up in the Arab world, the traders on the African mainland were largely Swahili-speaking Africans from territory that today is Kenya and Tanzania. Many had adopted Arab dress and Islam, but only some of them were of even partly Arab descent. Nonetheless, from Edinburgh to Rome, indignant books and speeches and sermons denounced the vicious ‘Arab’ slavers – and with them, by implication, the idea that any part of Africa might be colonised by someone other than Europeans. (p.28)

Note the tell-tale sarcastic swipe at European amour propre in the final sentence. Anyway, this assertion is completely contrary to everything I’ve read in the other books on the subject.

1. Consider the most famous slaver of the era, Tippu Tip. According to Wikipedia:

Tippu Tip, or Tippu Tib (1832 to 1905), real name Ḥamad ibn Muḥammad ibn Jumʿah ibn Rajab ibn Muḥammad ibn Saʿīd al Murjabī (Arabic: حمد بن محمد بن جمعة بن رجب بن محمد بن سعيد المرجبي‎), was an Afro-Arab ivory and slave trader, explorer, governor and plantation owner…His father and paternal grandfather were coastal Arabs of the Swahili Coast who had taken part in the earliest trading expeditions to the interior. His paternal great-grandmother, wife of Rajab bin Mohammed bin Said el Murgebi, was the daughter of Juma bin Mohammed el Nebhani, a member of a respected Muscat (Oman) family, and a Bantu woman from the village of Mbwa Maji, a small village south of what would later become the German capital of Dar es Salaam.

So Tippu had a soupçon of African blood in an otherwise solidly Arab geneology.

2. Zanzibar became the centre of the East African slave trade when it was annexed by pureblood Arabs:

In 1832 Said bin Sultan, Sultan of Muscat and Oman moved his capital from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town [on Zanzibar]. After Said’s death in June 1856, two of his sons, Thuwaini bin Said and Majid bin Said, struggled over the succession…Until around 1890, the sultans of Zanzibar controlled a substantial portion of the Swahili coast known as Zanj, which included Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. (Wikipedia)

3. Or take the famous massacre of some 400 Congolese women and children at the village of Nyangwe the river Lualaba which Livingstone witnessed on 15 July 1871. This was carried out by armed men at the command of the notorious Arab slaver Dugumbé ben Habib.

Hochschild may have germs of truth in that some or many of the slave traders might have had African blood. But all the accounts I’ve read and the three salient facts I’ve just quoted tend to confirm that the majority of the trade was solidly in the hand of Muslim Arabs, Arabs who, moreover, I’ve read quotes from saying how much they despised Africans, how Africans’ live meant nothing until they could be sold in the slave markets of Zanzibar, and scores of accounts of Arab slave caravan captains shooting, tying to trees or burning alive slaves too sick to make the long trek from the villages where they were captured to the coast.

So why does Hochschild go out of his way to make his claim that the Arab slave traders weren’t really Arabs and for the rest of the book refer to ‘Arab’ slave traders in quote marks? Because it allows him one more way of slagging off the European nations and the ‘white man’. The tendency of his sarcastic comments is that Britain’s anti-slavery rhetoric was a hollow sham dressing up the fact that it allowed the white man to indulge his anti-Islamic bigotry. It justified rampant Islamophobia. Of those wicked wicked nineteenth century Europeans!

a) This is so contrary to the quotes from Livingstone, Stanley, Speke and even Baker that depict in great detail the genuinely evil ways of what all the witnesses unanimously agree was the Arab slave trade that it comes over as a slightly ludicrous twisting of the facts to fit Californian Hochschild’s anti-European bias. Livingstone really was disgusted and appalled by the wickedness of the slave traders, he wrote heartfelt letters back to England saying something must be done to save the Africans, and this prompted thousands of brave missionaries and educators to set off for darkest Africa to set up schools and guilted the British government into doing more to crack down on slavery, including forcing the Sultan of Zanzibar to close down its famous slave market.

b) His claim of anti-Arab bigotry sits oddly with the evidence that most of the British explorers and later colonial administrators were biased in favour of Arabs. Richard Burton spoke Arabic and admired the Arabs for their culture and religion, as did Samuel Baker, as did Sir Harold MacMichael, administrator of Sudan in the 1920s who respected the Arabs in the north and despised the Africans of the south – all part of a strand of pro-Arab British feeling which continued down to Lawrence of Arabia and bedevilled British attempts to manage their inter-war mandate in Palestine.

c) Hochschild’s defence of – by implication – the innocent ‘Arabs’ so horribly wronged in European accounts of the region reads very amusingly in a post-9/11 world, particularly in the early years after 2001 when you could read some very ripe comments from previously liberal and progressive American commentators about Arabs and Islam. Nothing any Victorian author wrote about Islam was as vitriolic as the opinions of scores of Yankee commentators after the twin towers were bombed.

Overall it now reads like rich, fat hypocrisy for Hochschild to accuse the late Victorians of dressing up commercially-motivated imperialism under anti-Islamic rhetoric, given everything which his country has done in Iraq and Afghanistan over the 20 years following 9/11.

George Washington Williams (1849 to 1891)

Williams was a rare example of a free black man in nineteenth century America who made his mark in an impressive variety of professions and ended up hobnobbing with the president. During his 41 year life Williams managed to serve as a soldier in the American Civil War and in Mexico before becoming a Baptist minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and writer.

He appears in this narrative because during the late 1880s he developed a plan for returning Afro-Americans who were suffering under the so-called ‘Reconstruction’ of the American South back to Africa. The publicity surrounding the great philanthropist Leopold’s plans for the Congo spurred Williams to make the pilgrimage to Brussels (funding himself by contracting to write travel articles for an American magazine) for an audience with the great humanitarian himself who was, as usual, all smooth words and assurances.

So Williams then sailed on to the Congo which he travelled up slowly, taking extensive notes. What he saw shocked and horrified him. Scene after scene of violence, brutality and corruption. Many of the Congolese had been reduced to the level of slaves, whipped with the notorious chicotte and brutally intimidated into collecting what was, at that point, the colony’s key export, ivory.

From Stanley Falls Williams wrote ‘An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo’ in July 1890. Hochschild says it gave a good summary of the methods of exploitation and slave labour the Belgians were already using, as well as laying down the framework of criticism which was to be used by all later campaigners: that everything was done in the king’s name and so he was completely responsible for the mass mutilations and murders. Williams called for an international commission to investigate.

His letter was published as a pamphlet and caused a furore (p.112). Hochschild shows how Leopold set his tame pets in the press and positions of power to rubbish all the accusations. Travelling back to Europe up the Nile, Williams became ill in Cairo, and managed to get as far as Blackpool in north-west England where he died on August 2, 1891, aged 41. By that time over 1,000 Europeans had visited and worked in the Congo but Williams was the only one with the guts, and morality, to be horrified and tell the truth.

And he was, contrary to Hochschild’s sarcasms about the hypocrisy of the Western Christian concern for the African, a Western Christian, a devout and earnest Baptist, for it was Protestant missionaries who were to provide most of the testimony and evidence for the global campaign against Leopold’s brutal regime in the Congo which I will describe in my next blog post.

Notes and details

I’d forgotten that after the Mahdi and his army of Islamic fundamentalists took Khartoum (in January 1885), killed General Gordon and massacred the city’s army garrison and civilian population, he went on to rule the city and region uninterrupted for the next 12 years. And that – here’s the thing – soon after the conquest, the Mahdi sent a message to Queen Victoria demanding that she come to the Sudan, convert to Islam and submit to his rule (p.97).

Now that is a counter-factual scenario worth imagining! I’d love to see a painting in the realist late-Victorian style of a fat Queen Victoria kneeling and bending her forehead right down to the ground before the magnificently robed Mahdi who graciously accepts the obeisance of the queen-empress and the conversion of all her peoples to the True Religion.

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon (1974)

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 was written to be the eighth in the ‘Paladin History of England’ series. I read it at university back in the 1980s as background to the literature of the period.

A month ago I took it off my shelf to remind myself about the run-up to the Edwardian period (1901 to 1914) and insofar as it sheds light on the worldview of the noted Edwardian satirist, Saki, who I’ve been reading and whose stories often refer to social and political events of the 1900s.

This is a slightly odd, rather idiosyncratic book which I found strange but beguiling.

Shannon’s view of history – desperate men grappling with blind forces

Most histories describe the major events which took place during the period they cover, explain their origin and build-up, with pen portraits of the key figures involved in each issue, explaining in more or less detail who did what, what happened, what its after-effects were and why it matters. That’s the approach taken in, say, Crossroads of Freedom by James M. McPherson.

Shannon’s approach is strikingly different. If you know the board game Risk you’ll know it consists of a board representing the entire world, divided up into 40 or so territories. The aim of the game is for the 2, 3 or 4 players to seize all the territories and push the other player(s) off the board. Winner takes all.

Shannon applies a Risk approach to history. Key incidents from this crucial half century (for example, the rise of trade unions at home, the annexation of Egypt abroad, Britain’s response to Bismarck’s wars, the issue of educating the poor which became more pressing everywhere in the second half of the century) are mentioned only fleetingly, often only in passing, often barely explained, because they are not at all where Shannon’s interest lies. Shannon’s interest lies overwhelmingly in the Great Game played by the most senior political leaders throughout the period of winning power and staying in power.

Disraeli’s calculations logically centred on…immediate parliamentary advantage. (p.66)

Shannon doesn’t see politics as a set of logical and understandable events which can be clearly explained, which were clearly understood at the time, and to which rational solutions were offered. Instead he sees human history as the product of blind, inchoate forces – economic, industrial, financial, cultural and demographic – which propel societies forward, willy-nilly, whether planned or understood or not.

The aim of politics, in Shannon’s view, is to harness chaotic human events in order to stay in power.

From time to time Shannon does sound for a few pages like a ‘traditional’ historian. He gives a brisk summary of some of these social changes, with an appropriate blizzard of statistics, particularly in the short opening introduction which is a handy anthology of stats about population increase, migration abroad or into British cities, the rise in agricultural wages and productivity, the doubling of GNP per capita and much more, during his chosen period. It is, for example, striking to learn that during the 1860s, in the UK, agricultural workers and the labouring poor ceased to make up the majority of the population for the first time in any country, ever; for the first time in human history (p.30). All very interesting, but then he gets back to his real, underlying worldview:

These were the blind forces at work, unconscious and undirected. Conscious or directed aspects of the social system – broadly, ‘politics’ – did not relate to these blind forces in a neat one-to-one ratio. Very often indeed the relationship was at best tangential…

And:

The picture as a whole is not that of a society moving surely and confidently in self-possession of its destiny. Rather, it is the story of a society at odds with itself, the blind forces working very often at cross-purposes with the conscious wishes and efforts of those who felt it their task to define the ends, the purposes, to which the ‘movement’ would best be directed…

And:

During the fifty years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the forces of conscious purpose and design in Britain struggled to avert the threats of the blind, largely uncontrollable internal forces and of the dangerously uncontrolled external forces. (Pages 15 to 16)

And:

Domestic debate ceased comparatively to be free as the blind forces moving society imposed irresistible pressures. (p.36)

Why I mention Risk is because, for any one of the five decades his book covers, Shannon’s focus is almost entirely on the highest of high politics and on the handful of men who clawed their way to the top of the main political parties (being the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Liberal Party) only to find themselves caught up in the melée, in the maelstrom of these ‘blind’ forces and thrown into the high stakes game of risk management, opportunity and gamble, which is how Shannon conceptualises all high politics. He sees all of political history as a very complicated game of Risk. All tactics are permitted. Winner takes all.

Shannon’s fundamental idea is that people like Gladstone and Disraeli (the famous antagonists from the early part of his period) came to power with little or no idea what to do with it. They came to power by exploiting the forces at large:

  1. internationally
  2. within British society with its changing and emerging economic and political forces
  3. within British political society i.e. within the complex and often contradictory traditions and ideologies of the nation’s two ruling parties
  4. within the intensely power-hungry, jostling Machiavellian milieu of Parliament itself (made up of the very different institutions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords)

Gladstone, Disraeli and their successors were caught up in a game much more complicated than Risk, more byzantine than three-dimensional chess, a terrifyingly complex game in which the rules are continually changing and all the goalposts move overnight. Shannon makes a number of references to chess, talking about the pieces ‘on the political board’ and how those who had scrabbled into positions of power sought to move them to their best advantage.

For example, the book opens with the death of Lord Palmerston in 1865. Palmerston’s death ‘opened up the board’ after 10 years of his political dominance.

Palmerston acted as checkmate. His position on the political board was such that so long as he remained a force no other forces were either strong enough or sufficiently motivated to free the board for manoeuvres. (p.20)

And:

This situation on the political board is the key to all the complicated manoeuvrings of 1866 and 1867. (p.22)

So what makes this book unusual, distinctive and even a little odd are two things: one, Shannon’s casual disinterest in what actually happened (i.e. the events of the period) in preference for extended descriptions of the Great Game of Westminster politics.

And the second thing is Shannon’s extreme scepticism about the effectiveness of these Westminster politics, his belief that society is moved by blind, inchoate social forces which no-one understands, least of all the men who manipulate their way to the top of the greasy pole.

Shannon goes to great lengths to show that even when they get there, Britain’s politicians often had no idea what is really going on, generally act according to old fashioned ideas, out of date notions, either their own or their party’s, in the search for a correct alignment or balance of social forces which repeatedly turns out to be a chimera, a delusion.

Disraeli imagined that there was a ‘normal’ posture of things which could be got back to without too much trouble. The story of Disraeli’s great ministry is how both kinds of normality evaded him… (p.102)

Lowe’s misguided fears of 1866 were the consequences of applying middle-class intellectual calculations to working-class situations. (p.104)

They certainly take advantage of political opportunities to create new coalitions and alliances, to co-opt elements of broader society or of the seething Westminster cauldron to secure power and then try to pass laws or formulate foreign policy. Shannon describes at length the continual manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces, of conjunctions and alignments of different interest groups, he even talks at one point about ‘the Gladstonian matrix’ (p.53).

And then he tries to assess whether their ‘solutions’ are adequate to the challenges and problems thrown up by a society undergoing continual massive social and economic change. And concludes, on the whole, that no, the politicians were heirs to complex political traditions and alliances, moved in a world of sophisticated political theorists and commentators (John Bright, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot) and yet routinely failed to understand what was really going on or to solve the problems they faced. It is a chronicle of bungling and muddling through.

Like dinosaurs at the onset of a new and uncongenial epoch, the generation at its prime in the 1860s, still at the head of affairs in the 1870s and 1880s, groped about in the wreckage of their familiar landscape, already being transformed and imposing new conditions of adaptation and survival. (p.199)

Domestic versus foreign affairs

At several points Shannon distinguishes between the relative limitedness of the chaos in the domestic as opposed to the international sphere. Put simply, there was less scope for choice or disagreement about domestic policy: by 1870 something quite obviously needed to be done about educating the general population, extending the vote, regulating the power of trade unions, about providing sewerage and clean water to the unhygienic cities and so on. In the big picture, the squabbles between parties about these were often trivial.

It was in foreign affairs that there was real scope for differing opinions. As Shannon puts it, Britain was not ‘free’ to begin to lay the foundations of what later became known as the welfare state (all European nations were doing something similar; something similar obviously had to be done here) in the same way that it was ‘free’ to choose whether to go to war in  South Africa in 1899 or with Germany in 1914, in both of which we had the ability to say No right up till the last minute (p.36).

This greater scope in foreign affairs for a variety of choices and actions is one reason why the period from the 1880s to 1914 saw foreign affairs acquire a greater and greater importance and intrude its issues and decisions more and more into domestic political considerations.

A token of this was the rise of the word ‘imperialism’, which only took on its modern meaning during this period, specifically in the 1890s, and whose claims became a major dividing line between the parties, and between different factions within each of the parties (p.77).

Above all, Shannon presents the high politics of the period not as something carried out by powerful men in full command of the facts who had a well-worked-out series of policies to enact; but as the shambling attempts of men under tremendous pressure to keep their parties and supporters onside while responding to events whose significance they often didn’t understand at all.

They were almost always motivated by the quixotic attempt to restore some kind of equilibrium or political stability which they remembered from their youths, but in most instances were laughably out of date and irrelevant. Thus:

An analysis of British foreign policy between 1865 and 1885 reveals essentially the persistence of received traditions and attitudes, attempts to reassert policies based on assumptions inherited from the past… [There was] an inability to understand why policies which had hitherto appeared to answer requirements with complete satisfaction had suddenly ceased to carry conviction and credibility. (p.41)

Documenting the search by politicians of this period for this illusory balance or equilibrium is the key theme of Shannon’s account.

Avoiding teleology

The 1860s, 70s and 80s were not straining to become the 1890s and 1900s. They had no idea what the future held in store. With hindsight many things are obvious to us, now. Nobody knew them, then. Shannon’s attempt is to recreate the mindset of each decade, each year, in order to make clear the context in which the politicians fought for power.

One must above all be careful to avoid teleological assumptions about the nineteenth century… It is obvious, looking back from the twentieth century, that the blind forces at work in the nineteenth century inevitably caused profound changes in political behaviour… But this was not at all the context of consciousness in which the debate of 1866-7 took place… 1867 was not a promise to the future that happened; it was an attempt to settle questions left over from the past, and a promise in another sense to a future that aborted, that never happened. (p.59)

Their concerns are not our concerns. In fact we struggle to make sense of their concerns. The debates around the extension of the franchise in 1867 didn’t see it (as almost all of us today do) as a stepping stone to the nirvana of universal suffrage, but instead were around finding a new equilibrium which would generate the best outcomes for the ‘national interest’ and avoid pandering to narrow class interests. One recurring argument put by people on all sides was that the 1832 settlement had produced a nice balance between the interests of the landed aristocracy, the new business-based bourgeoisie, and the skilled working class. It wasn’t extending the franchise to the lower middle classes and rest of the working class they objected to, it was upsetting this delicate balance by giving too much prominence to one particular part of the population.

Shannon sheds a brilliant bolt of light on our present situation by saying that almost all mid-19th century thinkers would have been appalled at the late 20th and 21st century assumption that democratic politics is about governments bribing particular sections of the electorate with promises of tax cuts or benefit increases and so on. That would have been seen as the ultimate in political immorality.

Their debates were about how best to arrive at the best expression of the ‘national interest’, debates which, of course, clashed over the notion of what the national interest was and who was best qualified to identify it and to implement it. Disraeli knew what it was: the landed aristocracy who he had glamorised in his novels of the 1830s:

Like Palmerson, Disraeli wanted to be able to call on the support of many interests as a means of preserving the one great interest, ‘the national interest’, which he identified centrally with land. (p.68)

I was very interested to learn that the famous social philosopher John Stuart Mill (who himself became an MP) did not want universal suffrage; he wanted a limited suffrage arranged in such a way that the balance of power would shift from (what he regarded as) a limited, unintelligent and reactionary landed aristocracy to a well-educated, modern, business-minded intelligentsia.

Shannon’s warning not to think teleologically makes explicit the notion that we live amongst the countless ruins of the plans and ideas and schemes and manifestos to build a better country and a better political system which have been worked out and proposed with such passion and sincerity by so many of our ancestors, and which came to nothing. So many futures, which never took place.

Disraeli

We can illustrate Shannon’s approach in his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881; leader of the Conservative Party from 1868 till his death in 1881). Shannon paints Disraeli as a man who started his political career facing one central political challenge which was how to repair the catastrophic fragmentation of the Conservative Party caused by the highly divisive campaign to repeal the Corn Laws which reached its climax in 1846 (p.48).

Conditions…since 1847 had made a Conservative majority virtually impossible. (p.73)

The Corn Law campaign had split the Conservative Party down the middle and the chaotic political scene which ensued was exploited by Lord Palmerston who rose to become Prime Minster for the next 9 or so years. Palmerston had combined elements of different political traditions in order to create a very distinctive power base held together by the force of his personality. When he died this particular matrix of forces collapsed leaving a vacuum which presented a complex opportunity for his successors (most notably the two ‘coming men’ of the younger generation, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli) to reorganise and redefine the various political strands and traditions into new combinations.

Disraeli wanted to be a politician, he wanted to be a success, he wanted to be prime Minister, but following Palmerston’s death, he faced the huge challenge of trying to give the Conservative Party a new identity or direction whereby it could once again represent the entire ‘nation’ and represent what Shannon calls the ‘national’ policy.

Disraeli’s task was to manoeuvre the Conservative Party into the posture of natural and legitimate exponent of the ‘national’ policy. (p.52)

In the coming years, Disraeli would scavenge solutions to this challenge from anywhere; he would use any opportunity to try and repair the breaches among the ruling class opened the Corn Law debacle and create a workable majority in the House of Commons and consolidate the in-built Conservative majority in the House of Lords.

For Disraeli, and therefore for Shannon, it doesn’t matter what these issues are, whether it be the administration of India after the great rebellion of 1857, the correct line to take towards the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) or to Bismarck’s series of wars starting with Prussia’s war with Denmark in 1864.

Disraeli’s approach wasn’t about taking a consistent or principled line. It was about analysing each event or crisis and assessing what was the best outcome for the Conservative Party and for himself. What would play best among the (still very limited) electorate? How would a given policy play to the landed aristocrats in the House of Lords? Could it be reconciled with the need to win over support among the factory owners in the House of Commons?

The governing Liberals were traditionally the party of small government and non-intervention abroad. Classical Liberalism, as defined by the Manchester school of Richard Cobden and John Bright, thought that left to itself, universal free trade would connect all nations in fair and equal economic arrangements and thus war would not be required. That is why they had founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838, in order to abolish the restrictive tariffs which kept the price of corn artificially high (in order to benefit the landed aristocracy) thus making the price of food substantially cheaper in order to feed the populations of the new industrial cities.

By contrast with the Liberals’ boring ideas of universal free trade, as the 1860s turned into the 1870s Disraeli realised there was a big opportunity here to position the Conservatives as the party of imperial adventure and derring-do. Thus Disraeli is most remembered for two flashy, publicity-seeking gestures, buying up shares in the Suez Canal when the owner, the Khedive of Egypt went bankrupt in 1875, and awarding Queen Victoria the title Empress of India, much to her satisfaction, in 1876. Both hugely popular, both the swift seizure of opportunities.

But none of this implies that Disraeli had a fully-worked out foreign policy. Far from it. These were mere chance opportunities which he grabbed with the instinct of a true opportunist. Only later would succeeding leaders and theorists of the Conservative Party (Disraeli died in 1881) concoct the convenient idea that Disraeli had formulated some Grand Theory of Imperialism. Disraeli had no such thing. And his heirs only did this because this fiction helped them in their times (the 1880s through the 1900s) try to make sense of the ‘blind forces’ at work in the domestic and international spheres of their era. They were looking backwards for clues and ideas, just as Disraeli had been, in his day.

Similarly, when the Liberals brought forward plans to extend the franchise (the vote) from about 1.4 million men to 2.4 million men in 1866, Disraeli again spotted an opportunity, first of all to defeat the Liberals by assembling coalitions of reactionary forces against them. And then, quite hilariously, once the Liberal government resigned after losing a vote on the  reform bill, and the Queen was forced to appoint Disraeli her Prime Minister, he brought forward more or less the same bill, this time persuading reactionaries in the Commons and Lords that a carefully defined and carefully managed extension of the vote wouldn’t hand it to the illiterate mob but would do the opposite; would win over for the Conservatives the grateful lower-middle-class and skilled working class who would benefit from it. And that is, in fact what happened, once the new Reform Act was passed in 1867.

So Victorian politics wasn’t about ‘principle’, having grand theories and manifestos. It was all about shrewdness and adaptability, and adeptness at climbing to the top of what Disraeli very aptly described as ‘the greasy pole’ – and then using any event, and harnessing whatever social forces, and rethinking whatever traditions and schools of thought necessary, to stay in power.

A propos the 1867 Reform Act I was a little staggered to learn that in the election which followed, in 1868, only about half the seats were contested by both parties. We are talking about in which the interest of the Conservatives in country constituencies and of the Liberals in urban constituencies, was so definitive, that it wasn’t even worth contesting half the seats (p.73). Although it later came to be seen as highly symbolic that the high-minded, if eccentric, Liberal John Stuart Mill, lost his Westminster seat to W.H. Smith, the news agent, a harbinger of the rise of the new suburban middle and lower middle class vote which was to become a mainstay of Conservative elections and flavour much of national culture going into the 1880s and 1890s (p.73).

Power politics

Hopefully this example gives you a flavour of the way Shannon’s book takes you right into the heart of power, assessing how leaders like Gladstone and Disraeli (and later on, Lord Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman and the rest) struggled to:

  1. understand what was going on
  2. fit events into the framework of their own personal ‘beliefs’
  3. fit events into the framework of the ideologies and traditions of the parties they purported to lead (often at odds with their own personal beliefs)
  4. and then try to manage coalitions and constituencies of voters out there in the country, and their representatives in Parliament, in such a way as to a) take meaningful action b) all the time ensuring they remained in power – in a process of endless risk and gamble

That is what this book is about; it is less about the actual events of the period than how the successive leaders used these events to claw their way to power and then how they manipulated the traditions and ideologies, assembled and broke coalitions, recruited this or that member of the party into their cabinet, kept important players onside by offering them this or that reward, and so on.

Gladstone himself, in a note written at the end of his life, in 1896, tried to analyse what it was that distinguished him from the other politicians of his time. He wrote that what it boiled down to was the way Providence had endowed him with a special gift of being able to see, to analyse, right into the heart of situations.

It is an insight into the facts of particular eras, and their relations to one another, which generates in the mind a conviction that the materials exist for forming a public opinion, and for directing it to a particular end. (Quoted p.71)

This book focuses exclusively on the highest of high politics, which explains why there’s little or no social history, very little about people’s lived experiences, little or no gossip about kings and courtiers, very little about new technologies or food or sport or fashion, very little about the regions, or even Scotland or Wales (although Ireland bulks large for obvious reasons).

Instead, the focus is very narrowly on Westminster and the power politics played out between a tiny handful of men at the top, detailing their schemes and strategies to gain and hold on to power. So if you’re looking for any kind of social history or lots of colourful anecdotes this is emphatically not the book for you. To give a fashionable example, in the Edwardian section of the book, there is almost no mention of the suffragettes or any kind of portraits of their leaders or their cause; the emphasis is entirely on the how they were just one of 3 or 4 social and political issues which Edwardian leaders were trying to assess and juggle in order to pursue the endless quest to stay in power.

Preserving the balance

So little or no social or economic history, then. What the book is good on is political theory. At what you might call the academic end of the spectrum, Shannon gives accounts of the political thought of Liberal ideologues such as John Bright and John Stuart Mill, showing how the latter in particular derived from his Utilitarian mentors and then evolved to reflect the times (not least in Mills’s powerful defences of women’s rights).

Shannon refers to the at-the-time well-known collection Essays on Reform, published in 1867 as ‘part of the propaganda of the “advanced party” for a “more national Parliament”‘. In the Essays leading political commentators made suggestions about how to improve the franchise and the voting system. Shannon dwells on the contribution of John Morley (1838 to 1923), nowadays a forgotten figure, but who was not only an influential journalist and editor but went on to be a reforming politician in his own right from the 1890s through to the 1920s, and who in the 1880s consciously positioned himself as the heir to Mill (who had died in 1873) as chief ideologue of classical Liberalism (p.98).

Some of the writings in Essays on Reform turn out to be disconcertingly relevant today, 150 years later. Shannon quotes Lesley Stephen, in his essay on reform, proposing that England is an essentially conservative country with an instinctive liking for the established order of things which led all the upper classes, a lot of the middle classes and a surprising number of the working classes instinctively deferential and reluctant to change. This leapt right off the page and spoke to me now, in 2021 as I read endless articles about why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly and why so many people continue to support the Conservative Party despite it so obviously being led by corrupt fools and incompetents. Reading Stephen’s words suggest the short answer is because it’s always been like that; because that’s what England is like.

But theorising and essay writing wasn’t only done by intellectuals and the higher journalists. Politicians also made speeches or wrote articles, and thus Shannon liberally quotes from speeches or articles by the likes of Disraeli, Gladstone and their heirs, to indicate what they said they believed and what they thought they were trying to do.

The thing is, though, that Shannon rarely takes them at face value. In line with his basic credo about the ‘blind forces’ driving society, Shannon is not shy of pointing out when these figures got it completely wrong.

In practically every respect Gladstone’s assumptions about the shape of the future were belied by events, just as were Disraeli’s assumptions about the possibilities of perpetuating a traditional Palmerstonian past. (p.70)

It would take nearly twenty years for Gladstone to reconcile himself to the inadequacy of his assumptions of 1868. (p.79)

The politicians of the period were engaged in what Shannon calls:

A contest in misapprehension. (p.70)

Or, more likely, were writing articles and making speeches not to convey eternal political truths, but to play the game and position issues or ideas in such a way as to maximise the author’s appeal, not necessarily to the bulk of the population (who couldn’t vote), but to key stakeholders or constituencies or even to specific individuals whose support they need.

As well as 1. intellectual ideas and 2. the strategic ideas promoted by politicians for political gain, there is a third category, 3. underlying commonplaces and beliefs.

These are the ideas which aren’t necessarily articulated in their own day and yet exist as widely accepted commonplaces and traditional values in all political parties (or social organisations such as the Anglican Church). Shannon is very good at  bringing these underlying Victorian beliefs out into the open and so helping you understand not just what the Liberal and Conservative leaders said they stood for, but what the crusty old supporters of both parties actually believed they stood for, which was often very something completely different.

Put more simply, Shannon is a really interesting guide to the ideologies and values which underpinned not only high politics but also the political culture of the times, and which was often not very well expressed at the time.

For example, I found his summary of Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, very useful. Arnold, Shannon explains, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t want to leap forward into a radical future, he wanted to preserve the best elements of the past in troublesome times.

Arnold’s fear was that Britain was moving away from reliance on the disinterested morality of the landowning aristocracy and at the same time losing its religious faith, and that this collapse risked the triumph of the Philistines, the name he gave to the rising middle classes, the factory owners and entrepreneurs who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Arnold’s solution was that literature, art and culture should be promoted as the way to defeat the tide of philistinism and preserve the ‘sweetness and light’ of traditional culture, which he defined as ‘the best that has been thought and known’. In effect, ‘culture’ was to replace religion as the great binding glue and underpinning ideology of society (p.33).

This notion was to have a phenomenal impact and arguably to hold sway across the arts until well into the 1960s. I think it affected the way I was taught my literature degree in the 1980s. But reading it in the context of Shannon’s hard-headed exposition of power politics gives it a whole new meaning.

Arnold is just one of many Victorians who were looking backwards, who were trying to preserve what they idealised as a kind of balance or equilibrium between forces in society, which they hoped would solve all social issues and return life to the idyllic days of their youths.

Shannon shows in detail that Gladstone and Disraeli were, in this way, just the same, both men trying to return Britain to an imagined land of peace and plenty of their youths. Both men only promoted supposedly ‘radical’ policies (such as extending the franchise or extending state support for education in the 1870 Education Act) because they thought it would shut down dissent, end the debate, and restore this mythical equilibrium.

The essence of the question of reform [in 1867]…was a problem of striking a settlement that would satisfy the country and provide the point of rest and stability for a reconstituted Victorian equilibrium. (p.62)

The second stage of the Liberal effort to create a new Victorian equilibrium in the Liberal image fulfilled itself in the great programme of reforms between 1869 and 1873. (p.76)

The essence of the conduct of affairs in the decade 1874-85 was the effort of both Conservative and Liberal governments to operate on the basis of a desired and assumed Victorian equilibrium. Conservatives interpreted this equilibrium to mean a return to ‘normal’ procedures as defined in Palmerstonian pre-1867 terms… Liberals of most strains interpreted the equilibrium in terms of a revised dispensation required by the country to fulfil the potential of 1867… (p.101)

Some later Victorian schools of political thought

Maybe ‘theory’ is too grand and French a word to use for British political thinking, which has always been pragmatic, ad hoc and short term. As I read some of Shannon’s summaries of Victorian schools of thought, it crossed my mind that it might be useful to list and briefly summarise them:

Matthew Arnold

Arnold believed religion had been wounded by science, old aristocratic ideals damaged by democracy. He suggested replacing them with a new national ideology based on Culture which he defined as the best which has been thought and written, meaning, essentially, English literature.

John Stuart Mill

Mill helped define the ‘harm principle’ of freedom, namely that citizens should be free to do just about anything so long as it doesn’t harm, or cause harm to, others. He strongly defended complete freedom of speech on the basis that society could only progress if all ideas were freely expressed and openly discussed, confident that good opinions would defeat bad opinions. (p.32) Under the influence of his wife he became a fervent advocate of women’s rights, and spoke in favour of votes for women in the 1860s.

But Shannon takes us beneath the popular image of Mill as champion of modern human rights, to show how odd and of his time much of his thought was. For Liberals in the 1860s the issue wasn’t about steering the country towards universal suffrage: the pressing concern was to wrest power from the landed aristocracy, the estimated 10,000 or so families who essentially ran Britain, not in order to create a mass democracy, but to relocate power to the Most Intelligent people in the nation who Mill, not surprisingly, identified with himself and his friends.

In other words, Mill didn’t want to abolish the mindset of deference as so many Radicals did. He simply wanted to shift the focus of the population’s deference from the (in his opinion) worthless aristocracy, to the forces of liberal industry and economy and intelligence.

Leslie Stephen

Stephen believed that occult and unacknowledged forces kept England a predominantly aristocratic society, the majority of the population liking to keep things as they are and to defer to their betters. (p.28) (If you wanted to think big, you could say this attitude goes back to the Norman Conquest and the establishment of a two-tier society which, in many occult and unacknowledged ways, endures to this day. Being able to speak French or drop French tags into conversation, for example.)

Whig aristocrats

believed that only possession of land could guarantee independence and freedom. A tenant is forced to vote the way his landlord tells him. The owner of vast acres can, by contrast, stand up against almost any authority (including, back at the origin of the Whig Party, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the king himself). English freedom therefore depends on the existence of a well-educated and independent aristocracy, and their existence depends on respect for property. From this perspective, any attempt to tax, confiscate or redistribute someone’s land represents not an attack on them or even the propertied class, but on the entire basis of English freedom and this explains the attitudes and speeches of most MPs and ministers from the landed aristocracy (p.26).

The Manchester School

The Manchester school of economic and political theorists, led by John Bright and William Cobden, believed that free trade between nations would maximise everyone’s wealth and guarantee peace, because eventually every nation would be so tied  together by international trade that war would wreck their own economies. After the death of Palmerston in 1865, the Manchester School thought that Britain’s foreign policy should be one of complete non-intervention, showing the rest of the world by the example of how free trade led to prosperity. The Manchester School passively supported the attempts by peoples across Europe to liberate themselves from foreign (generally reactionary) oppressors, such as the struggle for Italian Unification, completed by 1871, because this would lead them all, in time, to have a constitution and economy as glorious as Britain’s, but we must on no account intervene in those struggles (p.43)

Castlereagh’s foreign policy

The Conservative view looked back to the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when Britain had a vested interest in never letting a continent-wide dictator arise again, and so was active in creating and supporting a supposed ‘balance of power’ in Europe, creating a ‘concert of powers’ between France, Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia, without ever actually joining sides. (pages 43 and 47).

Unfortunately, the illusion of this concert was seriously damaged by the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) in which a lot of Britons were surprised to find themselves fighting with Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia. And then Bismarck definitively wrecked this model by defeating Denmark, Austria and France in order to create a unified Germany in 1871, from which point the old theories became increasingly irrelevant and British leaders, both Conservative and Liberal, had to cast around for a new model and a new role for Britain in Europe (p.45).

Beneath the surface of a general retraction of diplomatic initiative following the Denmark fiasco, the phase from 1865 to 1874 is characterised by a great deal of manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces… (p.53)

The Crimean System

The Crimean War was fought to contain Russian expansionism, to prevent Russia extending its control right through the Balkans to threaten Constantinople and the Straits i.e. the Bosphorus, where the Black Sea joins the Mediterranean.

If Russia attained control of the Straits it would allow her navy to enter the Mediterranean at will and hugely shift the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Therefore Britain found itself fighting alongside Turkey and propping up the Muslim Sultan against a Christian European power. Many people at the time thought it was a mistake in principle and the actual mismanagement of the war confirmed their worst expectations.

The war ended with the 1856 Treaty of Paris and this goal of propping up Turkey in order to contain Russia became known as the Crimean System, which British politicians then tried to maintain for decades, way after it had become irrelevant to the changing realities on the ground.

Shannon’s theory of drag – the way politicians look backward, trying to maintain or recreate the systems and equilibriums they fancy existed in their youths – explains why, 20 years after the war, Disraeli, when Turkey carried out a brutal suppression of Bulgarians seeking independence in 1876, could only conceive of maintaining the ‘Crimea System’ and so continued to prop up a Turkey which had become notably more feeble and maladministered in the interim. Which in turn gave Gladstone the opportunity to score a massive public hit with his speeches giving gruesome details of the Turkish massacres of Bulgarian villagers, the so-called ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’, and decrying Disraeli’s immorality in defending them.

Politics isn’t about principles. It is about attacking your opponent at their weakest point until they collapse. It is about seizing opportunities for political gain.

Liberalism

One of the fundamental ideas of Liberalism, of the classical kind advocated by Cobden and Bright, was that different social groups and forces can, ultimately, be reconciled, not least by the growing science of society – sociology – by the use of reason and good will. It is optimistic about society’s prospects for eventually finding balance and peace (p.31), and the same belief in extends into a foreign policy which believes that free trade between nations is the best way of ensuring peace.

Nonconformism

It is difficult for many moderns to grasp the importance of religion in British politics until relatively recently. Certainly it was of vast importance in the Victorian period. The religious scene still bore the marks of the civil wars and the 1688 revolution which followed it. Basically the Church of England was the settled theological and organisational basis of the Establishment, of most of the landed aristocracy, of Oxford and Cambridge and the elite professions it produced.

After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 an Act of Uniformity and a series of Test Acts were put in place to ensure that nobody could hold any formal office or take a degree unless they swore to uphold the theology of the Anglican church and enforcing episcopal appointment of all ministers of religion.

Now the civil wars of the 1640s and 50s had brought out into the open, and into public life, a large minority of devout Christians who could not swear to the theology of the Anglican Church. They either disagreed about the entire idea of an ‘established’ church, or disagreed with the fact that its leaders, the bishops, were appointed by the civil power i.e. the monarch, or disagreed on a wide range of theological points. Before and during the wars they were known as ‘Puritans’ but the wars’ freedom to debate and define their positions led to a proliferation of sects then and in the decades after 1660, including Presbyterians and Congregationalists, plus Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and (originating in the 18th century) Methodists.

Because they refused to ‘conform’ to the Act of Uniformity and the various Test Acts they became known as the Nonconformists and came to form a distinct element of British society, large in England, probably a majority in Wales. There’s a lot of ongoing debate about whether the Nonconformists caused the industrial revolution, but there’s no doubt that, because they were excluded by law from holding civil posts (in local or national government) or entering any of the professions, Nonconformists were forced into business and into the worlds of science and industry.

The Test Acts were repealed by 1830 in what amounted, in its day, to a social and political upheaval, alongside Catholic Emancipation i.e. the removal of similar restrictions from Roman Catholics.

The point of all this for our period is that the Nonconformists, despite being split into various sects and subsidiary groupings, by and large formed a large part of British society.

A census of religion in 1851 revealed Nonconformists made up about half the number of people who attended church services on Sundays. In the larger manufacturing areas, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members of the Church of England. (Wikipedia)

And this large body of Nonconformists constituted a bedrock element of the Liberal Party which they hoped would continue to remove obstacles to their full legal rights, many of these hopes focusing on the (utopian) wish for the disestablishment of the Church of England, so that it would become merely one more religious grouping among many.

But their presence in large numbers meant that the Liberal leader who emerged after Palmerston’s death, Gladstone, had to always take the Nonconformist vote into account when devising his policies and strategies.

You might have thought the Nonconformist influence, like religious belief generally, was slowly declining during the nineteenth century, but it was the opposite. The 1868 general election led to an influx of Nonconformist MPs, the largest cohort ever, who from now onwards had to be taken into all political considerations, and added a substantial layer of complexity to a host of policies, especially regarding Ireland, the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland and then all the discussions about Irish Home Rule.

With the result that 40 years later the coming man in the Liberal Party, David Lloyd George, still had to cultivate and maintain Nonconformist support in the 1900s.

I was really surprised to learn about the tremendous complexity of passing the 1870 Education Act which was caused because of the conflict between the Church of England which ran the majority of state schools and the Nonconformists who wanted more state schools to be set up but not run by the Church and certainly not funded from local rates, a very English, very muddled situation which led to an unsatisfactory and patchy solution, the establishment of ‘Board schools’ which ‘became one of the great shaping factors of later nineteenth century society’ (pp.86 to 92).

In summary, it is impossible to understand a lot of political events between 1868 and the Great War unless you have a good feel for the importance of the Nonconformist interest in politics and in Britain’s broader cultural life.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 to 1895)

Although famous as a vigorous defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Huxley was solidly on the side of the angels and made speeches and wrote articles (notably Evolution and Ethics) pointing out that just because nature works through violent competition and extermination, doesn’t mean that humans have to. In fact humans have the capacity to do the exact opposite and use the reason evolution has handed us in order to devise rational and compassionate solutions to social problems which transcend the whole vulgar notion of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’.

Gladstone

Shannon credits Gladstone with realising that politics had to move on from the old notion that it was about balancing categories of ‘interest’ (for example, trying to frame policies which reconciled the landed interest and the industrial interest, and so on) to categories of ‘morality’ (p.55).

In making this shift of the basis of politics the essential task of the Liberal party Gladstone made it into a vehicle of political moralism. (p.55)

Hence the intensely moralising tone Gladstone adopted as he came to political prominence from the 1860s onwards, the increasing emphasis on judging government policies and bills on the grounds of social morality and hence Gladstone’s long, high-minded lectures which many found inspiring, but many (including, famously, Queen Victoria herself) found patronising and infuriating. Maybe Gladstone was the first mansplainer.

Reasons for losing

The Liberal government, convinced of its own virtue and its mission to reform and rebalance society, was flabbergasted when it lost the 1874 general election badly. Lots of commentators and the Liberal leadership itself were deeply puzzled why this had happened. Gladstone took it very personally and resigned the Liberal leadership in 1875. Journalist and soon-to-become politician John Morley wrote a book, On Compromise, giving his explanations for the defeat:

  • the example of French demagogy i.e. populism; appealing to the vulgar mob
  • the intellectual trend of the ‘historical method’ which had undermined the moral authority of the Bible
  • the corruptions of the popular press
  • the influence of the reactionary Church of England

But the deepest cause, Morley thought, was the material prosperity which had mushroomed during these years and had impaired ‘the moral and intellectual nerve of our generation’ (p.98). A generation later, the Liberal commentator Charles Masterman would attribute Tory victory to flag-waving jingoism and imperialism which rallied the uneducated masses to the Conservative cause.

Sound strangely familiar don’t they, these excuses for losing an election, 150 years later. No reflection on your own policies: instead, blame the electorate for being uneducated, venal and easily corrupted.

The Victorian balance unravels

Between 1865 and 1915 a devil of a lot of things happened, but from Shannon’s narrow focus on power politics, he places almost everything within the context of one overriding thesis.

This is that the High Victorian period (1850 to 1870) had been characterised by balance, by a synthesis of opposing forces, by what you could call the Liberal conviction that conflicting beliefs, ideas, ideologies, policies and political movements would, in the end, be reconciled, and the less interference by government, the quicker these solutions would come about.

Thus in the realm of culture, even critics of traditional Christian theology thought that the shocks of the Higher Criticism originating in Germany academia and, in a later generation, the discoveries of Charles Darwin and the geologists, could be absorbed by society, maybe into a new science of society, maybe into the new ideas of positivism articulated by August Comte. Scientific optimism.

In society at large the rise of working class militancy (the Chartists) was largely contained, an extension of the franchise in 1867 drew the sting from anti-establishment protest, a new education act in 1870 looked set to address long-running concerns about the shameful illiteracy of the underclass.

In foreign affairs Britain’s navy had unparalleled control of the seas, underpinning British possession of a huge range of colonies, while affairs on the continent of Europe remained mostly peaceful (apart from the relatively small skirmishes surrounding Bismarck‘s campaign to unify Germany under Prussian control) and the blundering shambles of the Crimean War which didn’t take place in Europe.

The entire worldview was underpinned by the immense pomp and circumstance surrounding Queen Victoria who was made empress of India by a grovelling Disraeli in 1877.

But by the 1880s this optimism was under strain in every direction. Working class militancy increased. Journalism and charitable work exposed the appalling poverty in Britain’s cities.

Abroad, trouble in the Balkans as the power of the Ottoman Empire declined led to flashpoints at the meeting points of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Britain watched and then became involved in various attempts to set up alliances and pacts to ensure security, all of them unstable.

The colonies grew restive. There was a religious uprising against British rule in Egypt led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah in 1881. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885.

The really big colonial issue was on Britain’s doorstep as the pressure for Irish Home rule grew relentlessly, and this brings us to a really big theme of the period, which is, the splitting up of the major parties by huge political issues.

Even more than the first half, the second half of the book views all the political developments through the lens of attempts to retain or restore this mythical social and political ‘balance’.

Shannon’s view is that social and political events presented a challenge and that the two main political parties, and their successive leaders, struggled to address these challenges. It explains the structure he gives to the last three parts of his book as he first of all enumerates the problems facing later Victorian society and then weighs the responses of, first the Unionist Party, then the Liberals, and finds them both, in the end, inadequate to the task.

Part III: The forming elements of a modern society

  • Social dynamics 1886 to 1895
  • The politics of Unionism and Home Rule 1886 to 1895
  • New directions in external problems 1886 to 1895
  • Victorianism and Modernism: cultural themes and variations in the 1880s and 1890s

Part IV: The search for adequate responses: the Unionist version 1895 to 1905

  • The Unionist domestic bid 1895 to 1902
  • Unionist efforts to save the external situation 1895 to 1905
  • The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905

Part V: The search for adequate responses: the Liberal version 1905 to 1915

  • The Liberal domestic bid 1905 to 1911
  • Liberal responses in foreign affairs 1905 to 1911
  • The Liberal impasse 1912 to 1915

As the Victorian equilibrium and Liberal confidence that social problems would, basically, sort themselves out, both unravelled in the 1880s, two really major themes come to dominate the book, namely the ruinous impact of trying to conceptualise and implement Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards, and the equally divisive attempt led by Joseph Chamberlain to create an Imperialist party and policy, which coalesced around the policy of tariff reform in the early 1900s.

The really striking thing about both issues is the extent to which:

  • they dominated political discussions and calculations from the 1880s through the 1900s
  • they ended up fatally dividing existing political parties, with the Liberals splitting over Home Rule and the Conservative party splitting over tariff reform
  • and that both issues ended in abject failure

The failure of Liberalism

The 1885 general election resulted in a parliament where Home Rule MPs from Ireland held the balance of power. This helped crystallised the great leader of Liberalism, William Gladstone’s, conviction that Ireland deserved home rule, in effect a revision of the terms under which Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom since the merger of the kingdoms in 1800. Gladstone made Irish Home Rule a central policy of the Liberal Party.

But a large number of traditionalist Liberals disagreed and, in 1886, broke away to form the Liberal Unionist Party which soon found a leader in the charismatic figure of Joseph Chamberlain. Eventually, the Liberal Unionists formed a political alliance with the Conservative Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed the ten-year-long coalition Unionist Government 1895 to 1905 but were swept to defeat by a Liberal landslide in the 1906 general election.

But not only did the precise nature of Home Rule stymie Gladstone in the final years of his political career (he died in 1898) but it returned as a major political crisis at the end of the Edwardian era and it is always striking to be reminded that, as Europe rushed towards war in August 1914, the British cabinet was far more concerned about the possibility of real civil war breaking out in Ireland between the nationalist majority and the Protestant die-hards of Ulster.

In other words, long and very complicated and tortuous as the issue of Irish Home Rule was, the liberal Party failed to solve it.

The failure of Unionism

The Conservatives successfully positioned themselves as the party of the British Empire during Disraeli’s leadership (mostly, as we have suggested, out of sheer opportunism). Imperial ambition reached its peak with the attempt from the turn of the century by Joseph Chamberlain to promote a policy of Tariff Reform designed to bind together the major Anglo-Saxon colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) into a protectionist trading bloc.

The policy had a rhetorical or branding appeal to the imaginations of many, but it hit at least two very big rocks which were:

  1. It would almost certainly lead to higher prices for basic foodstuffs for most Britons; hence its opponents could set up lobbying groups with names like the Free Food organisation.
  2. Chamberlain organised a series of conferences attended by the Prime Ministers of the Anglo colonies, but they never got anywhere near agreeing trading terms – it was a nice idea, but never fleshed out in practice.

A third aspect was the disastrous showing of the British army in the Boer War, 1899 to 1902. This had the effect of discrediting the Unionist government which was in power at the time and, although Britain ultimately defeated the Boers on the battlefield, in the years that followed, the Boers won back all their political rights and more. It was a colossal moral defeat.

Obviously there’s a lot more detail, but overall it was widely felt, by 1906, that the Imperial project of the Unionists had failed. This is what is explained in detail in Shannon’s chapter, ‘The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905’.

High numbers

The naive and simple minded think that democratic politics is about ideals and principles. This is why they are continually disappointed by actual political events, because what politics is really about is numbers.

From 1885 to 1915, Shannon’s history shows how a huge amount of political energy went into detailed political calculations about how to win and maintain power and that these boiled down again and again to the numbers: will you get enough votes in a general election? (GEs were held in 1885, 1886, 1892, 1895, 1900, 1906 and twice in 1910). Will a high enough percentage of voters turn out?

Is it necessary to do deals with other parties, as the young Labour Representation Committee did in the 1906 election when the LRC won 29 seats because of a secret pact between its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, and Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone, to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote between Labour and Liberal candidates?

If you extend the franchise (as the UK did in 1867 and 1884 and 1918), how will it affect your vote? This was one of the elements in the government’s calculations about whether to bow to suffragette pressure and extend the vote to women. If so, which women and how many and what would be the impact on the balance of power? It wasn’t about principle. It was about calculating the numbers.

Would the growth of trade unions affect the working class vote? Would legalisation of trade unions garner support for the party (Liberal or Conservative) which did it, or would it lead to the creation of a new radical party?

And you may be able to form a government, but do you have a big enough majority to pass all the laws you want to? Will you have to make alliances with other parties (as the Liberals did with Irish Nationalists and the small Labour Party in 1910 to get is social policies and radical budget passed)?

If the House of Lords refuses to pass laws which have been approved by the House of Commons, will having a second general election (as there was in 1910) increase or decrease your majority? Will you be able to persuade then king to create so many new Liberal peers that they will swamp the House of Lords and guarantee the passage of your bill (as the Liberal government threatened to do in 1910 to get its contentious Finance Bill past an obstructive House of Lords)?

And within so-called parties, will you be able to win round some groups or elements in an opposition party to your way of thinking, without alienating too many members of your own party?

High finance

Another way in which politics is obviously all about numbers is the finances and the basic, entry-level question: how are you going to pay for your fancy policies?

This is why almost all policies are, in the final analysis, subject to the control of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and why there often end up being such fierce rivalries between the Prime Minister, who is in charge of policy and strategy and creating alliances and support for policies; and his Chancellor who has great power to wreck all these plans if the figures don’t add up.

If you plan mighty new policies who is going to pay? Take the famous naval rivalry between Britain and Germany which took a leap in intensity after Britain launched its first Dreadnought class warship in 1906. The initial dreadnoughts cost £1,783,000, compared to £1,540,000 for the previous largest ships, but eight years later the new Queen Elizabeth class was costing £2,300,000 each. Who was going to pay for them?

In 1909 David Lloyd George wanted to complete the Liberal agenda of tackling poverty in the shape of caring for the elderly and for the unemployed, so he introduced the so-called People’s Budget. Half the attention given to it by historians concerns the way its provisions began to lay the foundations for what, a generation later, would be called the Welfare State. But Shannon is more interested in the numbers, namely who was going to pay for this new state largesse? A central point of the budget was that it introduced unprecedented taxes on the lands and incomes of Britain’s wealthy (it introduced higher rates of income tax, higher death duties and a 20% tax on increases in value when land changed hands).

No wonder the members of the class very obviously targeted by these changes, who populated the House of Lords, rejected it, which led to a great constitutional crisis, which pitted the House of Commons and ‘the will of the people’ against the representatives of the landed elite.

Déjà vu all over again

One of the pleasures of reading history and, in particular, fairly recent history (i.e. not medieval or ancient history) is to read the past through the prism of the present, or read the past with the issues and pressures of the present in mind. In this respect, it never fails to amaze me how some things never change. Thus we read that:

1. Why did we lose?

The high-minded Liberals just couldn’t understand how they could lose the 1874 election to the elitist, land-owning and greedy and reactionary Conservative Party. The best reasons they could come up with was that the voting public had been corrupted by a new, more aggressively populist press and by a new and unprecedentedly high standard of living. They were wallowing in luxury and had forgotten their high-minded responsibility to build a better, fairer society, instead the sustained prosperity of the 1850s and 60s had caused:

‘a general riot of luxury in which nearly all classes had their share…[in which] money and beer flowed freely.’ (p.97).

Which sounds to me very like the excuses the Labour Party made about losing three successive elections to Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and, again, about their thumping defeat in the 2019 election.

2. The progressive coalition in disarray

As Shannon is at pains to demonstrate, the Liberal Party had only recently been founded – the conventional date for its establishment is 1859 – and was made up of a diverse coalition of forces: the traditional land-owning Whig aristocracy; urban Radicals; Irish nationalists; high-minded Anglicans like Gladstone but also a very large number of Nonconformists who Gladstone conscientiously courted. During its ministry from 1868 to 1874 the Liberal government had achieved much but also alienated many of these key constituents.

3. Cosmopolitans versus patriots

I was fascinated to read that in his landmark speech at Crystal Palace in 1872, Disraeli attempted some political positioning and branding, by accusing the Liberals of being elite and out of touch with the ordinary voter, but in particular of being ‘cosmopolitan‘, meaning too quick to truckle to foreigners, not willing to defend the ‘national’ interest, which, of course, Disraeli strongly identified himself and the Conservatives with (p.53). The Conservatives had lost touch with the people and ‘cosmopolitan’ doctrines had been imported from the continent and foisted on the innocent British public under the guise of ‘Liberalism’. The Liberals had tried to ‘substitute cosmopolitan for national principles’ (p.95).

During this period Disraeli tried to reposition the Conservatives as the party which would defend a) the constitution and the great historic institutions of England, b) our national interests, our place as a Great Power, and combine these with c) a comprehensive programme of social reform.

The combination of flag-waving patriotism with the promise of robust reform and prosperity for all sounds very reminiscent of the 2019 Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, another unprincipled but eerily successful chancer.

4. Working class conservatism

Shannon emphasises that British trade unions didn’t want to overthrow the system, they just wanted a greater say in the fruits of the system and a share in its profits for their members (p.29). The majority of the great unwashed just wanted to be left alone, without a nanny state sticking its nose in their business and insisting they were ‘improved’, whether they wanted to be or not (p.103).

Again, resentment at the tendency of high-minded Liberals to poke their noses into people’s private affairs and educate and inform them and force them to become more progressive sounds eerily similar to the resentment in at least some parts of the 2019 electorate towards the urban, college-educated cadres of the modern Labour Party who want to force everyone to be more aware of racial issues and feminist issues and transgender issues and LGBTQ+ issues and take the knee and defund the police and fight for justice for Palestine. Many people, then as now, just want to be left alone to get on with their lives and not be continually hectored and lectured, thank you very much.

5. The sorry state of English education

In the 1860s education in England lagged far behind standards on the continent, especially by comparison with Germany, especially in the area of technical education. Lots of committees wrote lots of reports. Lots of commentators agonised (including the wordy school inspector, Matthew Arnold) (pages 86 to 95). 160 years later, has much changed or does the UK still languish behind the best in Europe in its maths and literacy and technical education?

6. Ireland

Obviously Irish nationalism evolved throughout the 19th century, taking many forms, and characterised by different leading elements from Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association and Repeal Association of the 1840s to the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Brotherhood led by Michael Davitt.

It is a vast subject with a powerful mythology and huge literature of its own which I don’t have any space to go into. I’m just making the point that I’m reading about Gladstone’s attempts to solve the Irish Question in the 1870s and 1880s in July 2021 at the same time I am hearing on the radio about the issues caused by Brexit, the Northern Irish Protocol and its possible breaches of the Good Friday Agreement. In other words, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘Irish Question’ will be with us (and the Irish) forever.

Credit

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon was published in 1974 by Hart-David, MacGibbon Books. All references are to the 1976 Paladin paperback edition.


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Seen and Heard: Victorian Children in the Frame @ Guildhall Art Gallery

This is an exhibition of artworks on a subject which is so straightforward, so hidden in plain sight, that it is easily overlooked – children.

To be precise, children in Victorian art.

Victorian Children in the Frame

Guildhall Art Gallery has brought together nearly fifty paintings from the long nineteenth century – approximately 1810 to 1910 – which demonstrate some of the ways in which children were depicted by artists during this long period of tumultuous social change.

The exhibition space consists of two large rooms divided into ‘alcoves’ or sections, each devoted to a different aspect of the painted imagery of children 1810-1910. At the start there is a timeline showing the major legal and educational reforms which affected children through the nineteenth century.

Timeline for Seen and Heard at the Guildhall

Timeline for Seen and Heard at the Guildhall

Introduction

Before the 19th century children were depicted in art works as miniature adults. By the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837 children were being depicted more realistically, shown playing with toys or pets. Childhood began to be seen as a distinct and particularly valuable period of life, and children – middle and upper-class children, anyway – as needing coddling and protecting.

It should be mentioned early on that the majority of the 46 or so paintings on display are of a quite mind-boggling soppy sentimentality. The commentary doesn’t mention it but the Cult of Sentiment which had arisen in aristocratic circles in the late 18th century carried on and came to full bloom in some extraordinarily sickly paintings during the 19th century. Chocolate box doesn’t begin to describe them. They may be too sickly sweet for many modern tastes.

That said the exhibition includes a large number of artists, most of whom will be unknown and, since every picture has a useful and informative label, reading them all gives you a good sense of the range and diversity (or lack of it) during the period.

And it’s really interesting to see what inhabitants of distant historical periods liked, commissioned and paid for. Sharpens your sense of the enormous cultural changes which took place during this period, and which separate us from that distant time.

This first section includes:

  • John Strange and Sarah Ann Williams (1830) by John R. Wildman
  • The Artist’s son (1820) by Martin Archer Shee
  • Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn
Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn

Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn © the Royal Academy

Children in poverty

There is a slight disconnect in the exhibition between its wall labels and the actual content. The labels emphasise that throughout the period tens of thousands of children suffered from malnutrition, illness, abuse and overwork. And right at the start of the show there is a big display panel listing the major legislation passed during the 19th century with the twin aims of:

  1. protecting protect children from exploitation and
  2. educating them

This explains that free state education for the under-10s wasn’t available until 1870, while it was only in 1874 that children under the age of ten were forbidden from working in factories. These and other basic historical facts make for startling reading.

However, when you turn from the information texts to the pictures you discover that the exhibition itself has almost no paintings of working children, apart from a handful showing romanticised road sweeps and shoe polishers.

There is no depiction whatsoever of children working in coalmines or in any of the hundreds of thousands of factories which sprang up across the land, in any trades or of the thousands of under-age girls who worked as prostitutes.

There’s no depiction of the kind of workhouse described in Oliver Twist or the bullying junior schools shown in Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield.

Instead this section contains some more chocolate-boxy images:

  • Cottage children (1804) by William Owen
  • The Pet Lamb (1813) by William Collins
  • Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington
Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington © Tate

Compare this painting by Thomas Kennington with the Raeburn above. It is interesting to observe the difference in technique between the early and later part of the century (Raeburn 1814, Kennington 1885), the way a Thomas Lawrence-type softness has given way to a style more roughly painted and with more realistic details (the ragged trousers, the hole in the floor).

But it’s still desperately sentimental, though, isn’t it? Still the same rosy red cheeks and catchlights in the eyes.

Children and animals

The commentary suggests that the British public was sentimental about animals long before it cared about poor children, pointing out that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in England in 1824, whereas the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children wasn’t founded till 1884.

The commentary claims that children and animals became increasingly associated as the sentimental Victorian era progressed, but I personally wasn’t convinced of that. One of my all time favourite paintings is Gainsborough’s depiction of his two daughters with a cat, on show at the National Portrait Gallery’s recent exhibition of Gainsborough portraits – and this dates from 1760.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the association of sweet little children and sweet little animals became more mass produced, a shameless catering to the sentimentalism of the new Victorian mass public. In this show it is exemplified in Millais’s couple of paintings, My First Sermon and My Second Sermon, showing the sweetest of innocent little Victorian girls sitting in her smart Sunday best. This was a madly successful painting which was widely distributed in the form of prints and reproductions.

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Also in this section are:

  • The First Leap (1829) by Sir Edwin Landseer
  • Portrait of a Young Girl (1891) by William Powell Frith
  • The Music Lesson (1877) by Frederick Leighton
  • Sun and Moonflowers (1889) by George Dunlop Leslie
  • Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere
Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere

Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere © Tate

Children at play

What more nostalgic and anodyne image could you conceive than the innocent children of unspoilt crofters fishing by a clear crystal stream or playing harmless games in a rural garden, as depicted here.

But as the century progressed the notion of ‘play’ became commercialised and integrated into a capitalist economy. Playrooms were built in posh houses, playgrounds were built in new housing developments, the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 gave parents special days to spend with their children.

A further development was the invention of seaside resorts, in the first half of the century only for the rich but leading to the development of increasingly popular resorts like Blackpool, Scarborough and Brighton. The paintings in this section capture all phases of this development but with the emphasis mostly on some really cheesy scenes of innocent rural play.

  • The Nutting Party (1831) by William Collins
  • Borrowdale, Cumbria (1821) by William Collins
  • the Kitten Deceived (1816) by William Collins
  • Try This Pair (1864) by Frederick Daniel Hardy
  • Gran’s Treasures (1866) by George Bernard O’Neill
  • The Playground (1852) by Thomas Webster
  • The Swing (1865) by Myles Birket Foster
  • The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

Foster was a skilled watercolourist who painted scenery around his Surrey home of Witley. Looks wonderfully idyllic, doesn’t it, but not much to do with the themes of the commercialisation of holidays and recreation time mentioned in the wall labels.

The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

Children of city, country and coast

The commentary points out the population explosion which characterised the 19th century, and that most of it took place in new towns and cities. This big increase in population gave rise to hair-raising infant mortality statistics as newborns and toddlers fell prey to the diseases of humans crushed together in cramped, insanitary conditions – typhoid, cholera and the like.

However – counter-intuitively – instead of showing paintings of this squalor and disease, the commentary uses these facts to explain a section depicting children at the seaside, including:

  • Children at the Seaside (1910) by Frank Gascoigne Heath
  • John, Everard and Cecil Baring (1872) by James Sant
  • 3rd Lord Evelstoke as a Boy (1871) by E. Tayleur
  • The Bonxie, Shetland (1873) by James Clarke Hook
  • Word fromt he Missing (1877) by James Clarke Hook
  • Shrimp Boys at Cromer (1815) by William Collins
  • Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke
  • Georgie and Richard Fouracre (1889) by Henry Scott Tuke
  • Two Children on Deck (1894) Henry Scott Tuke

This latter trio of works makes Tuke, a leading member of the Newlyn School, with his strongly homoerotic portrayals of teenage boys, possibly the most represented artist here.

Ruby, Gold and Malachite was one of the handful of paintings here which really stood out as serious masterpieces which hold their own today. But then it is debatable whether it is about childhood at all. The naked boys are no longer toddlers but on the verge of manhood and that, surely, is part of its appeal.

Pondering the difference between childhood and adolescence made me realise that the exhibition doesn’t actually give a working definition of ‘childhood’ which is, in fact, a problematic category. There is a vast difference between 6 and 16.

Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke

Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke © City of London Corporation

I was really struck by this work, An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne, an artist who studied in France in the 1870s and 1880s and brought the plein air approach back to Britain. 

An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne

An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Really looking at this painting I realised that what it has in common with the Tuke painting is that both have a matt finish, very unlike the shiny and slickly finished super-gloss finish of a Millais or Riviere.

This alone helps to account for the mournful atmosphere of the painting, although it is obviously also due the artfully sombre palettes of browns and greys. In its own way it may be Victorian chocolate box, but I felt it had more soul than most of the other paintings on display.

One-offs

Off to one side, not part of any particular topic, are a couple of monster large paintings including the beautiful landscape titled The Thames From Richmond Hill, London (1905) by Ernest Albert Waterlow. This appeared to be in the exhibition chiefly here because it has been subjected to recent restoration, which is thoroughly explained by a lengthy wall label.

Nearby was an altogether darker and morbid painting, The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue.

 The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue

The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue © Tate

La Thangue was, apparently, famous for the realism of his late-Victorian rustic scenes, mostly of workaday life. This one has an unusual symbolism about it. It’s not easy to see in this reproduction, and was hard to see in the lowered light of the gallery, but at the end of the path, on the right, is a man with a scythe, and the assumption is that the little girl in the chair has just died.

The emphasis on death and the whiteness of the girl’s dress and pillow link it with a number of European Symbolist painters of the time.

Children at school

In 1851 fewer than 50% of children in Britain attended school. In fact the provision of education was incredibly haphazard until the end of the century. Until then there was no system, instead each region had highly localised and overlapping education facilities which might include factory schools (which provided two hours a day education but only after the end of the eight-hour working day), Dame Schools run by spinster women, Ragged schools for the very poorest which taught survival-level writing and reading, private day schools with low fees and notoriously low standards, and a wide range of schools run by local charities, by the Church of England, the Quakers and so on.

Only the middle and upper classes bothered to educate their children beyond the age of 11 and were able to afford the fees for governesses or private tutors, grammar schools, preparatory and public schools. In Victorian society, the well educated were, then, in a tiny majority.

Only with the Education Act of 1870 were local authorities finally put under the obligation to provide free education for every child under 10. Only in 1880 was attendance at school between the ages of five and 13 made compulsory, and it was not until 1891 that education was provided free for all.

Fascinating stuff but, once again, the paintings which ‘illustrate’ these facts are mawkishly twee and sentimental.

  • A Dame’s School (1845) by Daniel Webster
  • Alone (1902) by Theophile Duverger
  • Two Children at Drawing Lessons (1850s) by Daniel Pasmore
  • The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster
  • The Frown (1841) by Thomas Webster

In the first of this pair of paintings the children are happily smiling and pleasing their teacher. The second shows the same row of little tinkers in various stages of frowning and looking unhappy. Aaaah. Sweet.

The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster

The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster

Children at work

Though the birth rate declined during the 19th century as a result of improvements in medicine and education, nonetheless at one point about a third of the population was under the age of 15.

Victorian England was the first developing country. In the early part of the Industrial Revolution children as young as five were sent to work in city streets, country fields, docks, factories and mines. Legislation slowly raised the age at which children could be put to work and limited their working hours, but it’s still a shock to learn how slowly this came about. In 1842 the Mines Act banned the use of boys under the age of ten down coalmines. So 11-year-olds could go, then. It wasn’t until 1878 that children under the age of 10 were forbidden to work in factories.

But regardless of legislation, city street were full of street Arabs, homeless waifs and strays scraping a living. Henry Mayhew’s astonishing multi-volumed enquiry into the lives and work and economics of street labour, London Labour and the London Poor, revealed to middle-class Victorians an astonishing proliferation of street employment and the precise demarcations and hierarchies among, for example, coster-mongers (who sold fresh fruit), mud larks (who searched for valuable scraps in the Thames mud) match girls (who sold match boxes at pitiful rates), and crossing sweepers, who swept the mud and horse poo out of the way of gentleman and ladies who wished to cross the road, for a penny a go.

The paintings on display here completely fail to capture the real misery of poverty and homelessness. Instead the painters are generally hypnotised by the sentimental notion of solitary or abandoned children, and the paintings are vehicles for tear-jerking sentiment. They may be well-intentioned but all-too-often have all the depth of a Christmas card.

  • The Crossing Sweeper (1858) by William Powell Frith
  • Shaftesbury, Lost and Found (1862) by William MacDuff
  • The General Post Office, one minute to six (1860) by George Elgar Hicks
  • A Crossing Sweeper and a Flower Girl (1884) by Augustus E. Mulready
  • Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready
Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready

Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready © Guildhall Art Gallery

Drawings and prints

Off to one side of the main two exhibition rooms is a space obviously set aside for children and school visits, with tiny tables and chair set with paper and crayons and colouring pens.

But what struck me about this space was that it didn’t have any paintings in, it had prints. And the interesting thing about the prints is that they were vastly more realistic than any of the paintings in the main exhibition. Maybe realistic isn’t exactly the word, since since several of them were the cartoon-style illustrations of George Cruickshank, who illustrated Charles Dickens’s early novels.

Field Lane Ragged School, London, c1850 by George Cruikshank

Field Lane Ragged School, London, c1850 by George Cruikshank

What I mean is that, although quite a few of the wall labels in the main exhibition described at length the awful conditions for children in the cramped, crowded, filthy squalid new cities thrown up by the Industrial Revolution, none of the paintings really show this, none of them show children working in factories, down the mines, up chimneys etc.

Presumably this is because Art, Fine Art, the Fine Art of Painting, was required by Victorian critics and theorists to show morally and spiritually and religiously uplifting scenes. Hence the glut of happy children in idyllic rural scenes and, even when a painting does show street sweepers, it’s under a melancholy moon on the empty Blackfriars bridge with a view of the romantic Thames in the background i.e. sweetened and sentimentalised.

So it was left to the illustrators and lithographers and print-makers, the cartoonists and illustrators, of Dickens and numerous other mid-Victorian novelists, to actually show what conditions were like in the crowded streets, in bare attics and crowded workhouses and schools which permanently bordered on bedlam, as in the Cruikshank illustration above.

Conclusion

In other words, it was only when I’d finished going round the exhibition a couple of times, and examined the prints in the children’s activity room a few times, that it dawned on me that paintings might not be a very good medium in which to explore the social history of children during the Victorian era.

In fact, society and critics’ and artists’ views about a) what childhood ought to be and b) what a good painting ought to be, actively prevented painting from being an accurate record of the times.

It is a good record of the (to us, largely false and sentimental) taste of the Victorians. But as to what conditions were actually like for the working poor, it may well be that the illustrators tell us more than any painter ever could.

Meditations in Monmouth Street (1839) by George Cruikshank

Meditations in Monmouth Street, 1839, by George Cruikshank

For me these prints linked directly to the acute depictions of London’s street children made by the woman artist Edith Farmiloe nearly sixty years later, and as recently featured in a fascinating exhibition at the Heath Robinson Museum. Prints and illustrations – that’s where the social historian should be looking, rather than at sickly sweet paintings.

A Make believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe

A Make-Believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe (1902)


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Other guildhall reviews

Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen @ the National Gallery

The National Gallery uses room 1 to focus on particular works. (To get there go into the main Trafalgar Square entrance of the gallery, then turn immediate left up the steps, and left again at the landing). These exhibitions, small and thoughtful, are always free.

At the moment they’re displaying one of the world’s best-known animal paintings, Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, alongside fourteen other paintings and drawings, to set the picture in the context of Landseer’s own technical and psychological development, showing how he developed his distinctive approach to the representation of the stag as hero.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The double doors take up most on one wall so there are in effect three walls in the room:

  • the left-hand wall indicates some of the intellectual and artistic preparation
  • straight ahead is the monarch himself, magnificent, flanked by two other Landseer oil paintings of stags
  • the right-hand wall is devoted to the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square

1. Preparation

Landseer (1802-73) was one of the most famous and successful artists of his time. Immense painterly talent, charm and good looks helped Landseer achieve early success and he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1850. I didn’t know that, even this young, he was struggling with alcoholism and mental illness.

Landseer had a deep knowledge of earlier painters, such as Rubens, and experimented with large scale complex compositions in the style of the Old Master.

The half dozen drawings and paintings here include a copy of the head of Christ on the Cross, taken from a painting by Rubens. In 1840 Landseer had had a breakdown, and, for his recovery, his doctors suggested a change of scene, so he went on the tour of Europe. He made this very evocative copy on a visit to Antwerp. We know that Rubens compositions lay behind some of Landseer’s earliest representations of horses and dogs, but the head of Christ powerfully introduces the idea of nobility and sacrifice. More, the Rubens Christ suggests a vision of a lone animal struggling against a hostile universe.

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Unexpectedly, there’s a drawing by George Stubbs, with a story behind it. Stubbs (1724-1806) was of course the great painter of horses. In the 1750s he made hundreds of detailed anatomical drawings of horses for his revolutionary book, The Anatomy of Horses, published in 1766. Amazingly, Landseer acquired the entire collection in around 1817 (i.e. still a boy) and they provided crucial inspiration for the young Landseer’s own studies of animal anatomy.

Next to it is a detailed (and rather gruesome) study by Landseer of the flayed leg of a dog. This kind of detailed study of the weaving of muscle and tendon over bone was and is still referred to as an écorché. This is just one of countless écorchés which Landseer made the better to understand the anatomy of the animals he wanted to pain.

Nearby a pencil study of a dead stag combines some of these themes, Landseer’s staggering draughtmanship, based on detailed study of anatomy, underpinned by profound pathos at the fate of a noble animal cruelly, tragically struck down.

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

2. Monarch and other stags

The Monarch of the Glen is hung on the wall facing the visitor, flanked by two other paintings featuring stags. It is by far Landseer’s most famous painting and one of the most famous paintings of an animal in the world.

It was undertaken for the Parliamentary Fine Arts Commission as one of three paintings showing ‘the chase’ i.e. hunting deer. It was originally commissioned to hang above panelling in the dining room of the House of Lords. What a grand location, a constant reminder to the Lords of their nobility and the striking scenery of one of the constituent parts of Great Britain! However, in a typically British fashion, when the time came to pay, the House of Commons refused to grant the £150 promised for the commission, and so the painting went on public sale in the National Gallery and was sold to a private owner. Since then it has passed through about ten sets of hands before the Scottish National Gallery successfully ran a public campaign to buy it for £4 million from the British multinational alcoholic beverages company, Diageo.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

It was intended to be hung above head height. In other words we are looking up, while the stag is painted serenely looking over our heads into an imagined distance.

Knowing what we now do about Landseer’s mental problems and having Rubens’ Christ fresh in our minds we at least understand Landseer’s intention, if it is in practice difficult to put into words, of conveying the idea of nobility, the idea of a kind of superior spirituality which retains its dignity even in a hostile world.

The commentary points out how Landseer gives tints of light to the tips of the stag’s antlers. This subtly conveys the idea of a band of sunlight breaking through clouds to reflect on the antlers, which we cannot see but which the stag can. It sees the view our backs to. It sees – and knows something which we cannot.

There’s a lot more to be said, about the fantastic painting of the deer’s skin and pelt and fur, the way Landseer captures its variations and shimmer – and of course about the violet colouring of the distant crags, a bringing to perfection of the romantic vision of the Scottish Highlands which was to become iconic.

It comes, then, as an amusing surprise to discover that Landseer painted the entire picture in his studio in St John’s Wood where he kept an extensive menagerie, including deer. And he had, of course, been undertaking regular trips to Scotland, sketching and painting, since 1824,

3. Lions

In 1858 Landseer accepted a presitigious commission to create four sculptures of lions to flank Nelson’s column, directly outside the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, completing William Railton’s original design for the monument. Landseer’s appointment proved controversial because he was not a sculptor, however his widespread fame as a painter of animals outweighed reservations.

Landseer prepared by, among other things, spending several years doing detailed drawings of the lions at London Zoo. This all contains four drawings and oil sketches, plus a portrait of Landseer working on the actual sculptures in his studio. This is one of two large oil sketches that Landseer made at the London Zoological Gardens which wonderfully captures the menace and power of a pacing lion.

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

There are several more sketches and the painting of him working on one of the clay sculptures which were then cast in bronze, done by John Ballantyne.

it was not immediately obvious why four pictures of lions were in an exhibition devoted to the Monarch of the Glen, except that they are further proof of Landseer’s stunning skill at painting animals and the even simpler fact that the results are there for all visitors to go and visit, after they’ve exited the gallery into the square outside.

Curators talk

I really praise the National Gallery for not only hosting extended talks or lectures or discussions about their exhibitions, but for going to the trouble of filming them and posting them on YouTube.

If you have the time, this is a really good way to enter the world of the art or exhibition being discussed.

Here are Susan Foister, curator of Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, and Daniel F. Herrmann, National Gallery curator, discussing the Landseer display.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells (1910)

Wells was still in his early phase of creating genre-defining science fantasy stories when he wrote When The Sleeper Wakes, which was serialised in the Graphic magazine from January to May 1899.

It’s Wells’s version of the familiar trope of a man who falls asleep for an unnaturally long period of time and wakes up in a future where everything has changed, where a new civilisation is in place. (If you think about it, falling asleep and waking in the far future is a variation on the theme of time travel – only with no coming back!)

Invariably, the civilisation of the future is shown to have either solved or exacerbated whatever the author sees as the great social issues of his own day, so that the genre offers an author free rein to make prophecies and predictions, as well as working in as much social and political satire on their own times, as he or she wants.

Later, Wells became dissatisfied with the way he’d been forced to write When The Sleeper Wakes at top speed – he had been under pressure to complete another novel and to write a number of journalistic articles at the same time, and he was also ill during the writing of the second half. So, in 1910, for a new edition of his works, Wells rewrote the book and published it with a new title, The Sleeper Awakes. This is the version which is usually republished and which I’m reviewing here.

Wells had joined the left-wing Fabian Society in 1903 and had quickly become one of its most famous publicists and promoters. By 1910 his views on politics and society were well-known and the 1910 version of the book brings these explicitly political views out more clearly, as well as trying to sort out the many infelicities in the text of the novel. But in the prefaces to the 1921 and 1924 reprintings of the book, Wells continued to express dissatisfaction with the book, and this review will show some of the reasons why.

The plot – part one

Run-up

An artist named Isbister is wandering along the cliffs in Cornwall when he comes across Graham, a man contemplating suicide because he hasn’t been able to sleep for a week and feels like he’s going mad. While Isbister tries to talk sense to him, we are given evidence of Graham’s delirious frame of mind – he complains that he feels his mind spinning in an endless eddy, down, down, down.

Isbister takes Graham up to the cottage he’s renting, where he goes to make a drink, turns, and finds Graham sunk into a profound stupor, a cataleptic trance. His Long Sleep has begun.

In chapter two it is twenty years later and Isbister, older and wiser, discusses Graham’s case with a new character, Warming, a solicitor and Graham’s next of kin. We learn that Graham fell asleep in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897). Twenty years later it must be 1917, and Graham has been removed to the special ward of a hospital where he is sleeping on in a trance ‘unprecedented in medical history’.

We learn that Isbister has become a successful designer of adverts and posters, hundreds of which, as Warming points out, are now plastered all across the south coast, and has emigrated to America to pursue his career in advertising.

Meanwhile, Warming has invested in a new kind of road-surfacing. Irrelevant though this small talk appears, it later turns out to be important.

The sleeper wakes

In chapter three (there are 23 chapters) Graham awakes to find himself lying on a strange kind of pressure bed inside a case of green glass. He stumbles out of the bed to discover he is in a large antiseptic room. Attendants come running and then several men of command, notably:

a short, fat, and thickset beardless man, with aquiline nose and heavy neck and chin. Very thick black and slightly sloping eyebrows that almost met over his nose and overhung deep grey eyes, gave his face an oddly formidable expression. (Chapter 4 – The Sound of Tumult)

This is Howard, who appears to be in charge.

The next few chapters are very confusing. Graham hears a roaring from a balcony overlooking a great concourse. When he goes out onto the balcony he sees an immense space dominated by modernist architecture, with some kind of covering over the sky, globes emanating uniform light, and the floor covered with ‘moving ways’, enormous ‘roads’ which are moving at speed carrying people along, and segmented so as to go round corners. There are what appear to be escalators coming up towards the level Graham finds himself on, and a great crowd surging towards him but held back by what look like policemen in red uniforms.

This impression of the immensity and complexity of the city of the future, conveyed in rather gaseous descriptions, will be the keynote of the novel.

Technology and design of the future

Howard tells Graham that he has slept for precisely 203 years. It is the year 2100 AD (Wells thus going a century better than the year 2000, which was the setting for Edward Bellamy’s famous fictional vision of the future, Looking Backward).

The sky is fenced off. Cities appear to exist under vast domes. Light is artificially created. Buildings are immense. The moving ways dominate what used to be called roads. Internally, rooms, halls and corridors are smooth and undecorated (except for occasional examples of an indecipherable script). Doorways open vertically and instantaneously.

Before Graham can do anything his guardians arrange for a ‘capillotomist’ to cut his hair and beard. Then a tailor takes quick measurements and, using a futuristic machine, prints out a perfectly-fitting contemporary outfit for Graham. He is given magic medicines which make him feel stronger, some small vials of liquid to drink and some in spray form.

In other words, it feels to me a lot like a set from the Star Trek series, smooth walls, endless corridors, bright different clothes, mystery medicines.

The Council

After Graham has blundered to the balcony and had a brief powerful glimpse of the scale of the city, the covered sky, the enormous buildings, and a huge crowd milling round the foot of his building, he is quickly hustled away, and down a series of corridors to a ‘safe room’. Along the way he glimpses a big hall with the ‘Council of Eight’ standing far away at a table beneath an immense statue of Atlas holding the world on his shoulder.

Ah yes, the Council. There’s always a Council of spooky older men wearing elaborate futuristic cloaks in this kind of story.

Confusion

The keynote of Graham’s experiences, and of the novel as a whole, is confusion. The people around him are very obviously thrown into confusion and panic by the fact that the Sleeper Has Awoken, but we and Graham don’t understand why for some time.

He is hustled away from the balcony room into the so-called Silent Rooms where he is kept by Howard for three days incommunicado, Howard refusing to answer any of Graham’s questions, resulting in Graham -and the reader – persisting in not having a clue what’s going on. Very confusing.

Then, suddenly and with no warning, there is a heroic ‘rescue’. Some kind of ‘resistance’ warriors drop down the ventilation shaft into Graham’s room and, while some attack the futuristic door to try and block it, others carry Graham back up the shaft.

They emerge onto the surface of the vast dome which covers the city and turns out to be extremely complex and uneven, lined by rows of windmills – presumably generating power – with gullies between the domes, as well as walkways and grilles and abrupt abysses with ledges on them. And it is snowing. Snow flies in his face blinding him, and builds up into drifts, blocking the panic-stricken progress of Graham and his guide who is trying to get him away from the Silent Room to safety before Howard and the Council discover he is missing.

It’s a straightforward chase scene of the kind you find in a thousand Hollywood movies. Still, it’s impressive of Wells to conceive a chase scene across the top of the dome covering a city of the future, in the snow. Vivid and cinematic.

Despite the action nature of the scene, Graham’s liberators find the time to explain that his cousin, Warming, cornered the market in a new way of surfacing roads which eventually put the railways out of business. The artist, Isbister, having moved to America, made a decisive investment in the early forms of cinema and television. Both lacked heirs and left their money in trust to the sleeping Graham, with trustees to administer the fund for charity. Over the past 200 years these trustees have built on the founding investment to buy up everything – everything – and now this London-based Council owns the world!

The entire world is like London, empty countryside surrounding super-cities, all ruled by Councils subservient to the Council. The Council banked on him never waking up and so created a complex cult of the Sleeper, the Master, who watches over society. For over a century they have ruled this highly stratified civilisation in his name!

Now he has woken up, the Council, and Howard their representative, have, unsurprisingly, been thrown into panic and confusion. The awakening came at a time of growing dissatisfaction among ‘the People’. It was an unlucky accident that Graham blundered out onto a public balcony within minutes of waking, and a crowd below saw him. Word is spreading that the sleeper has woken and this could have who knows what cataclysmic consequences.

According to his liberators the Council were discussing whether to drug Graham back into sleep or murder him or to hire an imposter. So that’s why they have ‘liberated’ him, and are hurrying him along to where ‘the People’ await.

The revolution

But barely has all this been explained than a Council airplane (the book was written before airplanes existed, through there was intense speculation and discussion in the press about how to build one) spots the fleeing pair and flies down firing the strange green guns of the future.

The liberator puts Graham on a seat attached to a zip wire running from an opening in the dome down to ground level and pushes him off, just as the plane comes round for another salvo of shots. Graham comes swooping along the high-wire over the heads of a vast crowd. The line is shot down but he is caught by the crowd and then takes part in a heroically confusing scene in which he seems to be taken up by an enormous crowd chanting his name, which is marching through the city of huge buildings and moving ways, marching on the great Council Building to overthrow the Council.

Graham is barely getting any sense of where he is and what’s going on before the crowd is itself ambushed by a large number of red-dressed police, who open fire and there is pandemonium.

Confusing action instead of clear exposition

There’s no denying that the narrative of this book is very confusing. It’s obviously a deliberate, creative decision by Wells, and he makes this perfectly clear in an extended reference to Julian West, the hero of Edward Bellamy’s best-selling science fiction novel, Looking Backward, which had appeared a decade earlier.

In that book, the hero awakes a hundred years hence into the orderly household of a doctor of the future, who calmly and sedately takes him through a long, logical explanation of the economic, political and cultural arrangements of the society of the future. It is more like a political textbook than a novel.

In fact, in most books about people waking up in the far future, the heroes are presented with a nice, clean, logical explanation of how the Future Society works.

Well’s chief aim in When The Sleeper Wakes seems to have been to work on the exact opposite assumption. What happens if you sleep for two hundred years and wake up amid mayhem, with absolutely no idea what’s going on and no-one to explain it to you?

In fact, if you wake up to riots and ambushes and civil war, with all sides claiming your allegiance? How can you possibly know which ‘side’ is right, or why there even are sides, or what you’re supposed to do?

The perversity of his experience came to him vividly. In actual fact he had made such a leap in time as romancers have imagined again and again. And that fact realised, he had been prepared. His mind had, as it were, seated itself for a spectacle. And no spectacle unfolded itself, but a great vague danger, unsympathetic shadows and veils of darkness. Somewhere through the labyrinthine obscurity his death sought him. Would he, after all, be killed before he saw? It might be that even at the next corner his destruction ambushed. A great desire to see, a great longing to know, arose in him.

He became fearful of corners. It seemed to him that there was safety in concealment. Where could he hide to be inconspicuous when the lights returned? At last he sat down upon a seat in a recess on one of the higher ways, conceiving he was alone there.

He squeezed his knuckles into his weary eyes. Suppose when he looked again he found the dark trough of parallel ways and that intolerable altitude of edifice gone. Suppose he were to discover the whole story of these last few days, the awakening, the shouting multitudes, the darkness and the fighting, a phantasmagoria, a new and more vivid sort of dream. It must be a dream; it was so inconsecutive, so reasonless. Why were the people fighting for him? Why should this saner world regard him as Owner and Master? (Chapter 10 – The Battle of the Darkness)

So this sleeper awakes to find there is no polite doctor to talk him logically through the society of the future. Instead he is plunged into a social revolution which he doesn’t understand.

It’s an interesting idea, but it has one drawback. If the protagonist is confused, so too is the reader. Wells gets Howard, on the one hand, and the liberators, on the other, to throw out just enough hints to explain the situation to Graham (sort of, nearly). But the reader is left for three or four long, hectic chapters in a state of profound confusion.

Not only that but, in my opinion, Wells’s prose becomes confused. It sets out to mimic the panic of the unexpected rescue, the flight across the snowbound roof of the city, the panic-stricken glide down the high-wire down into the crowd, the confusion of a vast multitude marching chanting his name, the sudden ambush and red soldiers firing wildly into the crowd — but in doing so results in prose full of phrases describing vague forces, enormous spaces, shocks and detonations, huge crowds.

Now one of the appeals of The Island of Dr Moreau and The Invisible Man was the precision of their descriptions. You got a very accurate feel for what is happening. By contrast, Wells’s description of the vast spaces of this futuristic city, of its rearing architecture and machinery, is portentous but vague. It is hard to get a grasp of. Here is an excerpt describing the confused mob Graham has fallen among, as they march to overthrow the Council.

The hall was a vast and intricate space – galleries, balconies, broad spaces of amphitheatral steps, and great archways. Far away, high up, seemed the mouth of a huge passage full of struggling humanity. The whole multitude was swaying in congested masses. Individual figures sprang out of the tumult, impressed him momentarily, and lost definition again. Close to the platform swayed a beautiful fair woman, carried by three men, her hair across her face and brandishing a green staff. Next this group an old careworn man in blue canvas maintained his place in the crush with difficulty, and behind shouted a hairless face, a great cavity of toothless mouth. A voice called that enigmatical word ‘Ostrog’. All his impressions were vague save the massive emotion of that trampling song. The multitude were beating time with their feet – marking time, tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. The green weapons waved, flashed and slanted. Then he saw those nearest to him on a level space before the stage were marching in front of him, passing towards a great archway, shouting ‘To the Council!’ Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. He raised his arm, and the roaring was redoubled. He remembered he had to shout ‘March!’ His mouth shaped inaudible heroic words. He waved his arm again and pointed to the archway, shouting ‘Onward! They were no longer marking time, they were marching; tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. In that host were bearded men, old men, youths, fluttering robed bare-armed women, girls. Men and women of the new age! Rich robes, grey rags fluttered together in the whirl of their movement amidst the dominant blue. A monstrous black banner jerked its way to the right. He perceived a blue-clad negro, a shrivelled woman in yellow, then a group of tall fair-haired, white-faced, blue-clad men pushed theatrically past him. He noted two Chinamen. A tall, sallow, dark-haired, shining-eyed youth, white clad from top to toe, clambered up towards the platform shouting loyally, and sprang down again and receded, looking backward. Heads, shoulders, hands clutching weapons, all were swinging with those marching cadences. (Chapter 9 – The People March)

It’s a judgement call as to whether you think this is wonderfully vivid writing which accurately conveys the feeling of being caught up in a panic-stricken crowd – or whether it is a relentless stream of confused and shapeless prose.

If you’re not focusing very hard it’s easy to get lost in these enormous, long, wordy paragraphs and have to go back to the last place you remember, to reread entire passages and find, yet again, that no very clear picture of the action is conveyed.

Ostrog shows him the storming of the Council

The marching crowd Graham’s with is ambushed by red-uniformed police who open fire. In the mayhem, Graham escapes, running miles away from the scene of what seems to be a massacre. From early on his liberators and then members of the crowd have told him that the revolt is being led by ‘Ostrog’. From other scared citizens he learns that Ostrog is based at a control centre for the city’s weather vanes (a form of wind power). He asks his way there, goes into the lobby, asks to see Ostrog and is eventually is let up to the main room where Ostrog is monitoring the revolution.

Ostrog shows him a futuristic TV screen on which they watch the mob storming the Council Citadel, from which Graham had been liberated only a few hours earlier. They watch the Council fight a last-ditch battle, having detonated the buildings which surround their citadel in order to clear a space. Ostrog and Graham watch all this on a screen. The revolution is being televised.

Part two – a man of leisure

To cut a confusing story short, quite quickly the revolution is over and Ostrog takes control, settling the city back into law and order over the next few weeks. He is courteous and respectful to Graham and gets his number two, Lincoln, to fulfil the Sleeper’s every wish.

Now the revolution has been achieved and Ostrog is in control, Wells shows us that Graham is in fact a shallow dilettante. Having seen the airplane earlier, he tells Ostrog he wants to learn to fly. So he is taken up in a flying machine which circles London. From here he can see how the Wall of London rises sheer from the surrounding countryside like the wall of a medieval city. Beyond lie the ruins of suburbia and scattered empty houses.

It is important for Well’s vision that the entire population has been brought inside mega-cities where they can be completely controlled. Further south, Graham sees towns like Wareham and Eastbourne have been changed into single, vast skyscrapers. Here, as everywhere, all the scattered dwellings of individuals have been abandoned. Everyone lives in a regimented society.

The monoplane cruises across the south of England, then across the Channel and flies around Paris (where Graham sees the Eiffel Tower among the futuristic domes) before arriving back at one of the three vast landing platforms which dot south London.

The Flying Stages of London were collected together in an irregular crescent on the southern side of the river. They formed three groups of two each and retained the names of ancient suburban hills or villages. They were named in order, Roehampton, Wimbledon Park, Streatham, Norwood, Blackheath, and Shooter’s Hill. They were uniform structures rising high above the general roof surfaces. Each was about four thousand yards long and a thousand broad, and constructed of the compound of aluminum and iron that had replaced iron in architecture. Their higher tiers formed an openwork of girders through which lifts and staircases ascended. The upper surface was a uniform expanse, with portions – the starting carriers – that could be raised and were then able to run on very slightly inclined rails to the end of the fabric. (Chapter 16 – The Monoplane)

On the flight back, Graham insists on taking over the controls, and, upon landing, hassles Lincoln into getting him a flying license so he can spend the next few days having special flying lessons, happy as a kid.

In the evenings Graham attends social events and mixes with the upper class of this future world. Here Wells indulges in satire directed at the values of his own times. The upper classes of the future are spoilt and insouciant. Everyone dresses more freely and casually than Graham’s late-Victorian peers. He meets a bishop and the poet laureate. He asks about the art and literature of the day (oil painting has been abandoned). He meets the Master Aeronaut, the Surveyor-General of the Public Schools, the managing director of the Antibilious Pill Department, the Black Labour Master, the daughter of the Manager of the Piggeries, who makes eyes at him – all characters invented so Wells can make a little social comedy at the expense of the pretensions of his own time, 1910.

However, these social scenes also have the function of dropping hints about the true nature of the society Graham has found himself in.

For example, the surveyor of public education has made it his task to prevent the lower classes thinking too much. The black labour master is in charge of black workers and soldiers in the colonies. Graham listens to them lightly discussing the way black colonial soldiers have been brought to Paris to suppress the ongoing rebellion there, with great violence, and it all makes him… uneasy…

Future sex

In the London of 2100 women have been ‘liberated’ in the sense that they all work and don’t spend much time on childcare. The women Graham meets at these parties consistently make eyes at him. In fact, Wells makes it as clear as he could (writing in 1910) that sex is much more casual in the future. We are told there are entire cities known as Pleasure Cities where, well, you can guess what happens there.

When Graham had been left alone in the Silent Rooms at the start of the story, he had picked up some cylindrical devices which proceeded to play ‘films’. Some appear to have been dramas, but it is as clear as Wells could make it that others were pornographic. He is shocked but the reader is impressed, as so often, by Wells’s prescience. Similarly, in those early scenes, Howard had appeared to offer him the services of prostitutes which, once he realised what was on offer, Graham quickly refused.

This must have been sailing close to the bounds of what was permissible in 1899.

A slender woman, less gaudily dressed than the others, a certain Helen Wotton, a niece of Ostrog’s, gets through to him at one of these parties and briefly manages to convey that ‘the People’ are still not happy, before Lincoln whisks him off to meet another notable.

Part three – reality hits home

Graham runs into Helen Wotton again, ‘in a little gallery that ran from the Wind-Vane Offices toward his state apartments’. She explains, with the passionate idealism of youth, that all her life she, and millions like her, have prayed for the sleeper to waken and liberate them from the repressive lives they live.

She surprises Graham by referring to the Victorian era as a golden age of liberty and freedom. He begins to put her right but she insists that back then the tyranny of the cities and the grip of Mammon was in its infancy. Now it has been perfected in a string of mega-cities covering the planet and entirely run by the rich, with up to a third of the population living underground, dressed in blue fatigues, and worked till they drop. As Helen explains:

‘This city – is a prison. Every city now is a prison. Mammon grips the key in his hand. Myriads, countless myriads, toil from the cradle to the grave. Is that right? Is that to be – for ever? Yes, far worse than in your time. All about us, beneath us, sorrow and pain. All the shallow delight of such life as you find about you, is separated by just a little from a life of wretchedness beyond any telling. Yes, the poor know it – they know they suffer. These countless multitudes who faced death for you two nights since – ! You owe your life to them.’
‘Yes,’ said Graham, slowly. ‘Yes. I owe my life to them.’ (Chapter 18 – Graham Remembers)

Graham’s conscience is pricked. Who are ‘his people’? What do they expect of him? What is Ostrog actually doing? Now he thinks about it, in between flying planes and partying, whenever he meets Ostrog, the latter tells him the revolution has mostly achieved its goals and peace has been restored around the world (the world that the Council ruled in Graham’s name). But has it? Why does fighting rumble on in Paris?

So Graham goes to confront Ostrog. This is a big scene in which Ostrog delivers his Philosophy of the Overman. He tells Graham that his 19th century sentimentality about equality is out of date. This is the era of the Over-Man. The weak go to the wall. The race is purified.

‘The day of democracy is past,’ he said. ‘Past for ever. That day began with the bowmen of Creçy, it ended when marching infantry, when common men in masses ceased to win the battles of the world, when costly cannon, great ironclads, and strategic railways became the means of power. Today is the day of wealth. Wealth now is power as it never was power before – it commands earth and sea and sky. All power is for those who can handle wealth.’ (Chapter 19 – Ostrog’s point of view)

As to the practical situation, in order to overthrow the Council, Ostrog had to make the people all kinds of promises about restructuring society. He reveals that it was he and his minions who created and taught the People the ‘Song of Revolt’ which they took up so enthusiastically. Now he is in power – now his coup d’etat has succeeded – Ostrog needs to put the people back in their place – hence the ongoing fighting in some cities, general strikes, workers on the street. ‘But don’t worry your pretty little head,’ he tells Graham. ‘I will soon have everything under control.’

They disagree. Ostrog is respectful but firm. Graham is frustrated and angry. They both go away harbouring their doubts. No good will come of this…

Part four – down among the proles

Determined to find out whether Helen is right, Graham dresses ‘in the costume of an inferior wind-vane official keeping holiday’, and, accompanied by the Japanese man-servant, Asano, who Ostrog has assigned to him, goes down among the proles.

This is a peculiar sequence. A combination of the visionary and the very familiar. It will come as no surprise that there are vast underground chambers beneath the city where the poor slave away. More surprising is the sequence about babies, where babies are separated at birth from their mothers and fed by machines which have the torsos and lactating breasts of women but screens for faces and metal pylons for legs.

Graham is appalled to witness a whole part of the underground covered in enormous and blatantly commercial hoardings advertising various Christian sects in unashamedly secular terms.

“Salvation on the First Floor and turn to the Right.” “Put your Money on your Maker.” “The Sharpest Conversion in London, Expert Operators! Look Slippy!” “What Christ would say to the Sleeper;—Join the Up-to-date Saints!” “Be a Christian—without hindrance to your present Occupation.” “All the Brightest Bishops on the Bench to-night and Prices as Usual.” “Brisk Blessings for Busy Business Men.”

He learns how individual living in individual houses has been swept away and the people live in huge dormitories and feed in vast canteens.

He also witnesses the oppressive ubiquity of trumpet-shaped loudspeakers of all sizes, some yards across, which broadcast an unremitting mixture of pro-government, morale-boosting propaganda, all prefaced by weird sound effects. They are called Babble Machines.

Another of these mechanisms screamed deafeningly and gave tongue in a shrill voice. ‘Yahaha, Yahah, Yap! Hear a live paper yelp! Live paper. Yaha! Shocking outrage in Paris. Yahahah! The Parisians exasperated by the black police to the pitch of assassination. Dreadful reprisals. Savage times come again. Blood! Blood! Yaha!’ The nearer Babble Machine hooted stupendously, ‘Galloop, Galloop,’ drowned the end of the sentence, and proceeded in a rather flatter note than before with novel comments on the horrors of disorder. ‘Law and order must be maintained,’ said the nearer Babble Machine. (Chapter 20 – In the City Ways)

There is much more in the same style. Asano guides him through the profoundly confusing and disorientating maze of tunnels, corridors, over bridges, onto balconies overlooking vast halls, up lifts, down escalators, all designed – I suppose – to give the exhausted reader a sense of the sheer stupefying scale of the city-state.

At last they come to the financial sector which is plastered, like the Christian sector, with huge billboards promoting all kinds of phoney get-rich-quick schemes and in whose halls overt, unashamed gambling and betting goes on.

Part five – the second revolution

It is while he is in a sector devoted to jewel working that Graham and Asano hear the Babble Machines announcing that the Black Police are coming from South Africa to put down the remaining protesters in London. There is instant consternation and cries of protest from all around him. Graham had explicitly told Ostrog that, as Master, he did not want black troops brought to London.

The announcement that they are coming prompts another uprising, which Graham gets caught up in much as in the confusing early chapters. Amid proles yelling ‘Ostrog has betrayed us’ Graham and Asano struggle through the throng back to the half-ruined Council House. Here complicated repairs are underway with scaffolding and workmen everywhere fixing up the damage done by the first assault. Despite this, Ostrog has made it his base to run his world empire.

Graham gets admittance, takes lifts and escalators and the usual complicated paraphernalia up to the room with the huge statue of Atlas in it, where he confronts Ostrog, and they reprise their political and philosophical disagreement:

‘I believe in the people.’
‘Because you are an anachronism. You are a man out of the Past – an accident. You are Owner perhaps of the world. Nominally – legally. But you are not Master. You do not know enough to be Master.’ He glanced at Lincoln again. ‘I know now what you think – I can guess something of what you mean to do. Even now it is not too late to warn you. You dream of human equality – of some sort of socialistic order – you have all those worn-out dreams of the nineteenth century fresh and vivid in your mind, and you would rule this age that you do not understand.’ (Chapter 22 – The Struggle in the Council House)

The argument becomes physical and Graham finds himself wrestled to the floor by Lincoln and Ostrog’s other strongmen. Already Ostrog has a small bodyguard of yellow and black suited Africans at his side. However, some of the workmen repairing the Council chamber witness the fight and run to the rescue. Cue a general melée, in which Graham and Ostrog are knocked to the ground, roll around with their hands on each others’ throats and so on.

Finally, they are separated, Graham is hauled up and away by members of ‘the People’, who form a protective bodyguard around him and carry him out of the building, up stairs, down lifts and round the houses in the spatially disorientating way which characterises the whole book.

Then, in a scene which brilliantly anticipates the movies, Graham and the crowd watch from down at ground level a monoplane come swooping out of the sky and land on the half-ruined roof of the Council House. They see tiny figures moving in the half-exposed rooms, and then the monoplane pushes off from the roof and plummets vertically down, down, down in an apparently ruinous dive straight towards the ground – in a scene I’ve witnessed in countless adventure movies – before at the last minute catching enough wind to rise up and fly just over Graham’s head. Ostrog has escaped!

Part six – Graham assumes control

Graham is taken by some of the crowd to a room where there are the gaping voicepieces of the phonograms and Babble Machines (an eerily prescient vision of the countless press conferences given by revolutionary leaders in front of banks of cameras and microphones) and Wells gives a good description of his utter confusion. He knows nothing about this world, nothing about politics, and has no idea what to say.

Then the slip of a girl – Helen Wotton – the one who leaked the news about the black troops being brought to London, comes into the room. She holds his hand. Graham is suffused with confidence and makes his big speech. He is on their side, he tells the microphones and ‘his people’ around the world. He will lay down his life for the People.

‘Charity and mercy,’ he floundered; ‘beauty and the love of beautiful things – effort and devotion! Give yourselves as I would give myself – as Christ gave Himself upon the Cross. It does not matter if you understand. It does not matter if you seem to fail. You know – in the core of your hearts you know. There is no promise, there is no security – nothing to go upon but Faith. There is no faith but faith – faith which is courage….

Things that he had long wished to believe, he found that he believed. He spoke gustily, in broken incomplete sentences, but with all his heart and strength, of this new faith within him. He spoke of the greatness of self-abnegation, of his belief in an immortal life of Humanity in which we live and move and have our being. His voice rose and fell, and the recording appliances hummed as he spoke, dim attendants watched him out of the shadow….

His sense of that silent spectator beside him sustained his sincerity. For a few glorious moments he was carried away; he felt no doubt of his heroic quality, no doubt of his heroic words, he had it all straight and plain. His eloquence limped no longer. And at last he made an end to speaking. ‘Here and now,’ he cried, ‘I make my will. All that is mine in the world I give to the people of the world. All that is mine in the world I give to the people of the world. To all of you. I give it to you, and myself I give to you. And as God wills to-night, I will live for you, or I will die.’ (Chapter 23 – Graham Speaks His Word)

He, and we the reader, then have to wait, locked up in that little room confronted by banks of microphones, with only Helen to hold his hand, while reports trickle through of the fighting around the landing platforms, which is where the fleet of airplanes carrying the Africans is planning to land. They hear of – victory!

‘Victory?’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Graham. ‘Tell me! What?’
‘We have driven them out of the under galleries at Norwood, Streatham is afire and burning wildly, and Roehampton is ours. Ours!‘ (Chapter 24 – While the Aeroplanes Were Coming)

It is difficult to know whether to laugh or to cry. The description of the fighting between Ostrog’s forces and the untrained, badly-equipped militias raised from the poor wards is fierce and intense. And yet the way it is reported back to the confused Graham in his room, holding onto Helen’s hand, seems absurd.

But although the people take one of the landing stages, his advisers explain that there are still too many planes in the enemy fleet, up to 100 of them, and that the other three landing bases are uncaptured, so they’ll be able to land.

It is then that Graham sees his destiny. All those days spent fooling around in an airplane will now bear fruit. He tells the small group of advisers he will go up in the monoplane and attack the enemy fleet, not expecting to defeat it, but to delay the planes long enough for the other landing pads to be taken by the people.

The advisers all point out this has never been done before, planes fighting in the air. Graham insists. Helen runs to him. He clutches her to his heaving breast. He must do it. It will save London. It is his destiny. She bows her head to the inevitable. He kisses the top of her head chastely.

And so the last five pages of the novel are an intensely imagined description of a fight in the air between the monoplane Graham is flying and a fleet of troop planes, a description of a technology which did not exist when Wells wrote about it.

Given this fact, he is amazingly prescient about the joy of flying, the sheer exhilaration of speeding through the high blue air, even if the combat technique Graham adopts – of ramming the enemy planes – wouldn’t have worked with the flimsy wood-and-cloth early planes which flew in the Great War.

Graham takes out two of the big troop carriers by ramming them and several others crash in trying to avoid him. He sees a monoplane taking off from the last platform, at Blackheath, and guesses it must be Ostrog. He sets off in fierce pursuit, dives and misses twice. Ostrog’s pilot is good. Then he sees the landing platforms of Shooter’s Hill and Norwood explode up into the air. They have been taken by the People and disabled for the landing flotilla. The People have won!

And then the shockwaves from the blasts hit his light monoplane, tipping it on its side so that it plummets out of the sky straight for the earth, and his last thought is of Helen. Bang. The end.


Thoughts

Quite a pell-mell farrago, isn’t it? A heady, fast-paced, confusing mish-mash of adventure story, sci-fi tropes, technological predictions, social prophecy, and ham-fisted psychology.

On the technology, Wells makes stunningly accurate predictions about hand-held moving picture devices, about phonograms, about propaganda blaring from loudspeakers, about wheeled vehicles, and, most strikingly, about the airplanes whose battle climaxes the novel.

The political idea of a liberal revolution which overthrows an autocracy but doesn’t change the exploitation of the working classes, and so needs to be supplemented by a second, proletarian, revolution, is straight out of revolutionary history.

The adventure trope describing the man who pitches up in an unknown society and ends up helping the poor and exploited overthrow their wicked rulers has all the power of myth and archetype.

The psychology of the sleeper is conveyed well enough, on the same general level as the rest of the book. It’s only with the sentimental relationship with young Helen, and especially the ‘it’s a far, far better thing I do’ climax where they cling passionately together before he turns and walks unflinchingly towards his certain doom – that you are forced to admit the whole thing is tripe.

These are all impressive, sometimes dazzling elements. But the main conclusion I took from the book was Wells’s ignorance of economics.

I’m really glad I recently read Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward and made the effort to complete it, despite it being at some points oppressively boring. Because, despite this, it is a really thorough and penetrating analysis of how you would arrive at a feasible, enduring, classless and equal society.

Central is the idea of banning private enterprise, and having all production and distribution handled by the state. The two hundred pages it takes for Bellamy to work through all the logical consequences of banning capitalism, private enterprise and money, are long enough to make you really think about the basis of our current society – to force you to admit what capitalism means right down to the trivialest social interactions of human behaviour – and to make you really think through what changing it would actually mean, in practice.

Bellamy’s book has almost no plot but hugely impresses by its logic and thoroughness. I can see why it was a great success and even inspired a short-lived political party.

On the face of it Wells’s novel uses the same plot device – man falls asleep, wakes up in society of the distant future – but Wells couldn’t be more dissimilar in approach, content and impact. The comparison makes clear that Wells is diverted by science and technology from really thinking about the economic base of society. All the technological predictions are so much shiny flim-flam which hide the underlying lack of ideas.

It is all too easy to be bamboozled by Wells’s envisioning of kinematographs and phonograms and Babble Boxes, and hand-held film devices, and airplanes, and multi-wheeled vehicles, and ‘moving ways’ – to write long essays about his uncanny ability to predict technologies of the future – and to neglect the basic fact that his economic understanding is primitive to non-existent.

The People are oppressed, so our hero helps them rise up and overthrow their dictator. And what then? Who knows? Certainly not Wells. He is against oppression of the poor, and in favor of … what? ‘Equality’? ‘The People’? It isn’t enough.

Where Bellamy had acute economic analysis, Wells has men rushing across the domes of future cities being strafed by fighter planes. Where Bellamy worked through the logic of abolishing private enterprise, Wells has ambushes, fist fights, Pleasure Cities and babies brought up by robots. Where Bellamy calculated that abolishing competition between companies and the advertising such competition requires would result in net savings to society which could be redistributed to increase overall prosperity, Wells has rowdy satire about house-high billboards advertising Christianity-on-the-go or finance capitalism as literal casinos.

The thrill of the fast-paced adventure and the vivid action scenes, the steady stream of clever technological predictions, the primal archetypes of innocent good man confronting cynical manipulator, and of betrayed populace rising up against spoilt aristocrats – the combined result of all this garish phantasmagoria can easily overwhelm the reader and persuade her that something important and insightful is being said.

But it isn’t. Comparison with the logical economic and social analysis in Bellamy’s novel makes you realise what a showy huckster Wells was, and why, once the hysteria of the Great European Crisis of the 1930s ended in the ruinous grind of the Second World War, and when the world finally emerged into the cold light of day — the imaginative hold he’d exerted over generations of intellectuals and writers vanished like smoke because it turned out that he had nothing – of any permanent intellectual value – to offer.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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Gareth Stedman Jones on Marx and 1848

Having just read Karl Marx’s two great works of political analysis about the ill-fated French Second Republic (The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon), I thought I’d reread the hundred or so pages of Gareth Stedman Jones’s masterly intellectual biography of Marx which cover the same period – to remind myself of the wider European political and intellectual context, and to have Jones explain the development of Marx’s thought to me.

The Communist Manifesto

The Manifesto of the Communist Party was published in January 1848. According to Jones, Marx was:

  • the first to evoke the seemingly limitless powers of the modern economy and its global reach
  • the first to chart the staggering transformation unleashed by the productive powers of modern industry
  • the first to describe the restless, unfinished nature of capitalism which, in order to survive, must continually invent new human needs and new products to satisfy them
  • the first to describe how capitalism disrespects all previous boundaries and hierarchies, dissolving all conventional relationships, turning all humans into objects for sale, reducing all human relationships to the cash nexus

There is no doubting the innovativeness and power of much of Marx’s thought.

The creation of the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’

Karl’s writings of the earlier 1840s had used concepts inherited from the Hegelian tradition: ‘the Christian state’, ‘the philosopher’, ‘the rational state’, ‘civil society’, ‘the peasantry’, ‘the Germans’, ‘the Philistines’. From about 1845 these were replaced by a new ‘cast of characters’, as Jones describes them – ‘the modern state’, ‘the class struggle’, ‘the bourgeoisie’ and ‘the proletariat’.

Karl borrowed bourgeoisie from contemporary French radicals, notably Louis Blanc. Blanc wrote about the banking industry enthralling trade and commerce, enforcing competition in all sectors, pushing small businesses and traders to the wall, undermining those of middle stature and creating ‘an oligarchy of bankers’. That sense of capitalism’s all-conquering dynamism would become familiar in Marx’s writings. But whereas in France the word ‘bourgeois’ referred to individual fat cats, often satirised in contemporary cartoons, Marx greatly expanded the idea to make it identical with the great impersonal historical force of Capital itself.

The words proletarian and proletariat derive from the Latin root meaning ‘child’. They also were widely used in French radical writing of the 1840s to refer to the lowest order of society who have no property and so nothing to offer the state except their children. Again Marx adopted the word and vastly increased its meaning by using it to denote the entire working class population, not just of one, but of all the European nations, indeed of the whole world. (cf Engels, quoted on page 243.)

On the plus side, this drastic simplification enabled the stirring rhetoric of The Communist Manifesto which paints the contemporary world as a titanic clash between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. On the down side, it led Marx to lump together all kinds of disparate groups under his new master terms – for example, lumping the mill owners of Lancashire with the financiers of Paris or the ruling elite of Berlin, groups which, in actuality, had very little in common and were acting in completely different situations and often with very different aims.

Similarly, despite superficial similarities, factory workers from Wigan, the unemployed of Paris and army conscripts in Berlin were all described by Marx as ‘the proletariat’ but, once again, didn’t really have that much in common, and were thinking and acting in completely different societies and political systems.

This Great Conflation and Conceptual Simplification encouraged Marx and his followers to minimise or just plain ignore the very real differences between actually existing social groups, groups which sometimes came into active antagonism to each other, as well as the very real differences in the economic situations and the political systems of Britain, France and Prussia.

The Battle at the barricade in the Rue Soufflot, Paris, on 24 June 1848 by Horace Vernet

The Battle at the barricade in the Rue Soufflot, Paris, on 24 June 1848 by Horace Vernet

The revolutions of 1848

Jones gives detailed accounts of the revolutions which broke out in France in February 1848 and in Germany in March 1848, as well as the parallel uprisings which occurred across the continent in countries like Austria, Italy and Poland.

Karl was expelled from Brussels for his political activities in March 1848, and went to Paris (arriving 4 March) where he witnessed at first hand the early developments in the French Republic which had been created when King Louis-Philippe had been forced to abdicate only a few weeks earlier.

These were heady, euphoric days when radicals thought the final workers’ revolution had arrived. But Karl had barely settled into digs in Paris before news came of anti-government disturbances in Germany, specifically in the Prussian capital Berlin, as well as other cities like Frankfurt and Dresden. Karl decided to return to his homeland, arriving in Cologne on 10 April, and remaining there for the next thirteen months.

Along with fellow communists, Karl set up a radical newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung which quickly established itself as the leading radical journal in Germany, with a circulation of 5,000. However, Jones cautions that it never had any influence because of ‘its dogmatic tone and its reductive conception of politics’ (p.295).

The problem Karl and his journal created for themselves was they had a schizophrenic position created by their split worldview. On the one hand Karl believed the Great Proletarian Revolution was just around the corner and that therefore he needed to support whatever events were pushing the situation to extremes, whatever seemed likely to spark the Final Insurrection. From this grand historical point of view Marx was often in favour of governments taking repressive actions; the more repressive, the more they would hasten The Great Uprising.

But, on the other hand, as editor of a journal claiming to represent the best interests of the working classes, Karl had to give some kind of practical advice about who to support and what to campaign for as events unfolded day by day – forcing him to take part in the messy, compromising business of actual politics.

In Jones’s view Marx’s flip-flopping between these positions not only made the Neue Rheinische Zeitung an unreliable guide for working class readers, it looked to many like indecisiveness, and led some on the left to ridicule it (and Karl) for his often grandiose visions of a world on the brink of utopian transformation.

Karl’s political commentaries

During his eight months in Cologne Karl wrote intense and furious commentary on political developments, but this is where – for Jones – it starts to go wrong, for a number of reasons.

1. Jones says that Karl and his circle thought the 1848 revolution would follow the pattern of the Great French Revolution i.e. there would be an initial bourgeois phase dominated by the usual liberal rhetoric about the rights of man and democracy (1789-1792), but this would then be followed by the True Proletariat Revolution (which is how Karl interpreted the rise of Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety, and the Terror of 1792-3).

This was the part of the French revolution which executed the king, declared a republic, created universal suffrage, abolished church land and took far-reaching radical steps which all of which Karl strongly admired. So Marx expected the events of 1848 to fit into this pre-ordained schema: first bourgeois revolution, then proletariat revolution.

But he was wrong.

Jones says that the very strength of the Communist Manifesto is also its weakness. It appeals because of its simplicity: the wicked bourgeois grow richer but numerically smaller and smaller; the impoverished proletariat grow poorer, but more and more numerous. The result is as inevitable as a simple maths problem: eventually the proletariat will outnumber the bourgeoisie to such an extent that the Great Proletarian Revolution will become inevitable, the oppressed Proletariat will rise up, overthrow their exploiters and bring human history to an end in a peaceful utopia.

But the world wasn’t and isn’t that simple, never has been.

One of the undoubted strengths of Karl’s analysis is that it enabled him to look behind the scenes of daily politics in France and Germany to identify the class-based interests of different political groupings in a way that more conventional commentators couldn’t. But this X-ray vision also led to what Jones sees as Karl’s greatest mistake: which was to underestimate the messy and unpredictable realm of actual politics.

Karl’s conviction that History proceeds along an unavoidable course, moving through inevitable stages (industrial revolution, the economic then political triumph of bourgeoisie, the rise of proletariat, the communist revolution) led him and his colleagues in the Communist League and on the Neue Rheinische Zeitung to underestimate the complexity of the societies they were commentating on (Britain, France and Germany) and to ignore the complexity of the actual political manoeuvring taking place in them, under very fraught circumstances.

It led them to overlook the massive differences between all three countries (for instance, Prussian liberals and radicals had no republican tradition whatever to look back to or draw upon, unlike the French radicals who had the 1789 revolution and the 1830 revolutions to refer back to and invoke).

It led them to make mistakes in the history they claimed to be so fond of (the French state of 1789 was bankrupt and tied to a moribund church, whereas the French state of 1848 was relatively well off and backed by the richest parts of society, the industrial and financial bourgeoisie: no wonder the two revolutions unfolded in completely different ways).

The opening of Karl’s essay on French politics, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is one of the most quoted things he ever wrote:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The clarity, the sweep, the confidence, the shiny brilliance of this insight are typical Marx and typically misleading. It may well be true that politicians drape themselves in the costumes, postures and words of their predecessors, particularly at times of stress. But rereading Marx this time round has made me realise that one clever insight is not enough. While Karl was elaborating the parallels between the actors of 1848 and their predecessors in 1789 (or, as he often does, to figures in classical Rome, or Biblical times) the real politicians of his time were getting on with their plotting and reacting to completely new circumstances in the here and now.

Americans have an irritating phrase – ‘If you’re so clever, how come you ain’t rich?’ You can apply a variation of this to Marx and his followers: ‘If you’re so clever, with all your unique insights into economic and social forces — how come your cause lost?’ Lost again and again.

Because it did lose.

In Britain, the Chartist agitation which looked like producing a real change of the political scene in early 1848, fizzled out.

In Germany, Jones shows how the Prussian emperor cleverly manoeuvred his way through the revolutionary turmoil, until he finally outwitted his National Assembly, carried out a coup and imposed a new constitution, retaining all his powers.

In France, it took three years of very complex political chicanery until the preposterous figure of Louis-Napoléon managed to make himself emperor (December 1851), crystallising the defeat of the revolution.

The Polish uprising of 1848 was crushed by Russia.

The January rising in Sicily was defeated with the return of its Bourbon rulers. An uprising for independence in Hungary was eventually crushed by Russian and Austrian armies. And so on.

By 1853, Queen Victoria (Britain), King Frederick William IV (Prussia), the emperor Louis-Napoléon (France), the emperor Francis Joseph (Austria) and Czar Nicholas I (Russia) were all secure on their thrones as they had been in 1847.

Karl underestimates the importance of politics

In all his political analyses, Karl can’t hide the tone of contempt and sarcasm (the ‘contemptuous tone’, the ‘derision and condemnation’ as Jones describes them p.283) directed at the politicians he regards as mere puppets fronting various conflicting ‘class interests’.

The assumption in all of his writings is that he and his communist group alone in all of Europe understand the true nature of technological, economic and social change.

This, in fact, may have been true: his economic and class-based analyses are fascinating and way ahead of his time — but nonetheless, they ignore the reality of politics, which is that victory goes not go to the virtuous or to ‘the vanguard of History’ – it goes to the cunningest and most Machiavellian.

Karl is more in thrall to ‘the histrionics of revolution than to its actuality’; ‘he underestimated the ability of the leaders of the reaction’ (p.284). His ‘hostility towards the modern representative state’, his ‘consequent belittlement of the significance of manhood suffrage and the democratic republic’, his ‘disregard of political and legal forms’ (p.307) led Karl and Engels to systematically underestimate the importance of these goals for the working classes of their time, and explains the way their predictions for all the 1848 revolutions (and indeed for the rest of the century) turned out to be diametrically wrong.

Jones’s critique of The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850

Jones says it is the difficulty of reconciling the great global Hegelian vision of the two vast world-historical categories which Marx had invented (the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat) lumbering towards the Great Day of Revolution with the day-to-day confusing and messy manouevrings of political factions, which gives Marx’s long essay The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 its ‘strangeness’ of tone and content.

For a start it omits a surprising amount of basic information:

1. There is very little mention of the political causes which the left and radicals were fighting for, almost nothing about the actual political platforms of workers’ leaders like Blanqui and the radicals, next to nothing about the actual mechanics of the ‘right to work’ movement which inspired many of the workers throughout the revolution. It was rhetoric around the ‘right to work’ which mobilised huge numbers of the unemployed in Paris. The opening of National Workshops for the unemployed was the central issue in working class politics: the June riots weren’t the result of some abstract confrontation between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie, they were sparked by the government’s threat to close the National Workshops and were the mass protests of the thousands of men who stood to lose their life-supporting dole money. By always moving to the most abstract level, Karl consistently misses the importance of the quotidien, of practical details.

2. There is surprisingly little detailed economic analysis. Karl followed French socialist theorists who thought that capitalist crises were the result of periodic overproduction which flooded markets and produced slumps. This is what Karl attributes the 1847 economic crisis to. But Jones says it was caused by entirely different factors: the potato blight of 1846 and poor wheat harvests – which both produced hunger – and a poor cotton crop which led to lack of work in the textile industry (mass unemployment). In fact the collapse of linen production across much of northern Europe was part of a turning point in European history, which resulted in the de-industrialisation of much of the countryside of northern Europe, the movement of rural artisans to the cities or to flee starving Europe altogether and migrate to America. None of this is in Karl’s account.

3. Karl is always itching to represent every confrontation as that between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, but this forces him to overlook or distort all kinds of inconvenient facts: for example, the government of the French Republic which did all the repressing, was mostly not made up of employers, industrial or otherwise; the Paris insurgents included just as many small employers as helpless wage earners; and the armed forces which confronted them, the Mobile Guard, was just as working class as the workers they were trying to control.

Karl knew this but to save his theory invents the concept of the lumpenproletariat, consisting of drunks, crooks, thieves, prostitutes and so on to explain the behaviour of the Mobile Guard. In reality they were from the same ‘class’ as the marchers, but had simply decided to take the government’s shilling and wear a uniform. The entire concept of the lumpenproletariat can be defined as ‘the elements of the working class which don’t behave in the way Karl Marx’s theory says they ought to behave and so he has to call by a different name and go out of his way to abuse and discredit’.

4. Karl takes no time to analyse the central problem the young French Republic faced, which was what to do with over 100,000 unemployed working class men and their families. Paying some to join the newly established Mobile Guards solved part of the problem. Setting up the National Workshops for the unemployed solved the rest, but cost the government a fortune. Where was the money to come from? The republic decided to tax the peasants – (which resulted in the peasants hating the new Republic and voting for the first person who promised to reduce taxes – Louis-Napoléon – in the electoin of December 1848.

So much for key elements of the revolution which Karl ignored. But Jones says that at a much deeper level, Karl’s entire analysis was wrong-headed.

It was hardly rocket science to notice that 1848 saw insurgencies against almost every established government in Europe; other people did notice this too, not least the governments in question. But Karl made two cardinal mistakes in his analysis of these events:

1. He couldn’t escape his own blinkered interpretation of the insurgencies in terms of the French Revolution of 1789. Having just read Karl’s text, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850, I can confirm that Karl is much more haunted by 1789 (and especially by the rise of the Jacobin party in 1792) than the workers and middle-class liberals he’s describing. Having interpreted the French Revolution as in fact two revolutions taking place in sequence – the ‘bourgeois’ revolution of 1789 and then the Jacobin or radical revolution of 1792 – Karl time and time again describes the political actors of 1848 as repeating, invoking, walking in the steps of and generally copying their great predecessors.

Only they weren’t. They were reacting to completely different situations, economic pressures and political realities, in completely new and unpredictable ways.

2. Karl’s philosophical position had been developed in the early 1840s, and a central tenet was that modern life in a capitalist system alienated people from traditions, customs and from themselves. Of nobody was this more true than of the industrial proletariat, who were reduced to the status of ‘hands’, to mere appendages which tended the genuinely valuable items in factories, the machines. Alienated from their work, from the products of their labour, from the value of their labour, Karl saw this class as being subjected to such an extreme of dehumanisation, that it would eventually – by a kind of law of physics – rebound, reclaim the means of production and distribution, overthrow its oppressors, and institute a new era of history in which all men and women live alienation-free lives, in touch with themselves, enjoying the fruits of their labours in harmonious associations.

You don’t need a degree in politics and economics to see that this is a pitifully simple-minded fairy tale.

What Jones specifically accuses Karl of is placing his own ideologically-blinkered philosophy over the actual facts. Karl thought the proletariat had to be pushed right to the brink, to be ground into utter misery, before the world-shaking transformation could come about. But in the event the working classes of Europe turned out not to be so keen on being ground into the mud in order to prove the theory of an obscure German philosophy student; what they wanted was work, shorter hours and more pay.

And most of the radical leaders in Britain, France, Germany, Austria and beyond thought this could best be achieved not by overthrowing the existing political system but by being granted entry into it.

The central demand of the Chartists wasn’t to abolish property and overthrow the bourgeoisie: it was to have the vote. Similarly, the issue of male suffrage was central to the 1848 revolution in France. The ‘class consciousness’ of workers in Britain or France was caused less by the notional stage of development of capitalist technology, than by the fact that they wanted the vote so that their representatives could fight their cause in Parliament and the National Assembly.

Jones’s point is that the central issue of the 1848 revolutions was not Karl’s ‘class consciousness’, it was widespread concern about ‘political exclusion’.

When Marx and Engels ridicule the whole notion of parliamentary politics, when they pour scorn on the English Constitution as ‘a tissue of lies’, when they mock moderate socialist leaders in Britain and France – they are denying the voices of the working classes themselves.

Highly ideological and doctrinaire themselves, Karl and Friedrich projected onto working class people their own theories and ideas about how the working classes ought to think and behave, ignoring the actual stated wishes of the majority of the workers – shorter hours, better pay and the vote.

Is there any way of adjudicating between these conflicting interpretations of events? Yes. By seeing what happened subsequently: Did the working classes of Britain, France and Germany turn out to want violent revolutionary overthrow, or did they just want more say in existing political systems?

The fact that exclusion and lack of recognition rather than exploitation were the prime precipitants of the insurrectionary sentiments of the peoples of 1848 was borne out by the subsequent history of Western Europe. With manhood suffrage and a representative system established in France after the fall of the Second Empire, and renewed talk of Reform in England, the working classes were progressively re-incorporated back into the political system. Thus the political and extra-constitutional significance of the ‘class struggle’, as it had been invoked by the Communist Manifesto, faded away. (p.313)

Karl superimposed over the actual stated aims of working class radicals in 1848 an arcane schema derived from the Idealist philosopher Hegel, which bore little relation to economic, social or political realities, and which has bedazzled restless intellectuals ever since.

Workers didn’t want to overthrow the system; they wanted more of a say in the system, and a fairer distribution of the spoils. The proof is the way that, as the century progressed, the ‘proletariat’ didn’t rise up against the ‘bourgeoisie’ of England, France or Germany – it was step by step co-opted into the system and running of those countries, which all avoided revolution and became social democracies – the precise opposite of what Karl and Engels predicted and never gave up hoping for.

Jones’s critique of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

In the summer of 1849 the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV, introduced a new cabinet of his reactionary supporters, who implemented counter-revolutionary measures to expel leftist and other revolutionary elements from the country. The paper Karl had been editing and writing for, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung was soon suppressed and Marx was ordered to leave the country on 16 May.

He returned to Paris, which was then in the grip of both a reactionary counter-revolution and a cholera epidemic. But he wasn’t there long before he was expelled by the city authorities, who considered him a political threat. With his wife Jenny expecting their fourth child and unable to move back to Germany or Belgium, in August 1849 Karl arrived as a refugee in London, where he was to live for the rest of his life.

It was in Dean Street, in London’s Soho district, between December 1851 and March 1852, that Karl wrote his analysis of the rise of Louis-Napoléon, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, which went on to be published in 1852 in Die Revolution, a German monthly magazine published in New York.

On pages 334 to 343 of his biography Jones analyses The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. For a start it was, apparently, Engels’s idea that the grand history of 1789 was repeating itself as farce in the 1848 events, and that the coup by which Louis-Napoléon seized power in December 1848 echoed the coup by which his uncle, Napoléon Bonaparte seized power on 9 November 1799. We know this because we have the letter in which Engels suggests the idea to Karl.

At the time of the first Bonaparte’s coup, France was still living under the fanciful calendar dreamed up by the earlier French revolutionaries, according to which November was known as Brumaire and the 9th of November translated as the 18th day of ‘Brumaire’. Thus Bonaparte’s coup was known as the 18th Brumaire, and so the title of Marx’s long article is a direct reference (once again) to the events of the first French Revolution, jokingly labelling the coup of the nephew by the term previously used for the coup of the uncle.

As with his critique of Marx’s writings about the 1848 revolution, Jones heavily criticises Marx for being trapped and blinkered by his own theory. His obsession with interpreting everything as part of the great struggle between the abstract categories of Capital and Proletariat, and his obsession with the revolutions of the past, completely blinded him to the novelty of the situation in 1848.

This consisted in the fact that the Second Republic had consciously created the role of a president, something which had never existed in France before and which they modelled on the role of the American president.

It seemed like a good idea, but in practice nobody in France knew how to manage the resulting political situation, specifically the confrontation between president and National Assembly, both claiming the authority of having been elected.

It was Louis-Napoléon’s wisdom (or luck) to realise that he could appeal over the heads of both the liberals and the so-called ‘Party of Order’ in the National Assembly, and even of the radical socialist leaders of ‘the street’, to the largest element in the Paris population – the petty bourgeoisie – and to by far the largest section of the population of France – the peasants – to secure power.

Far from being a pygmy reincarnation of his giant forebear, a retread of an old formula (as Marx saw him), Jones claims that Louis-Napoléon was in fact a talented pioneer of an entirely new politics – he was arguably the first European populist politician, happy to ignore the entire political class and appeal directly to ‘the people’.

Once again, Karl’s dismissal of democratic politics as a mere smokescreen concealing the ‘reality’ of class conflict, and his obsessive interpreting of every twist and turn in the complex story solely in terms of his wished-for conflict between Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, completely blinded him to the novelty of this situation and to the actual power politics on the ground, which led to an outcome exactly contrary to what he predicted.

As a result Karl’s reading of the sequence of events which had culminated in the implementation of universal suffrage, Bonaparte’s massive electoral majority and finally his coup d’état was wilful and perverse. He claimed that these events signified the ripening of the ‘party of insurrection’ into ‘a really revolutionary party’, and the establishment of the Second Empire was not a defeat of the bourgeoisie, but a new form of bourgeois rule. But he had little to say about what was to be its more obvious consequence – that, as a result of the political demand for universal male suffrage in France in 1848, and again in Germany in the 186os, both the liberals and the more traditional parties of order found themselves defeated, not by radical democrats on the left, but by the demagogic manoeuvres of maverick post-Legitimist leaders on the right – Bonaparte and Bismarck. (p.341)

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte aka the Emperor Napoleon III by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte aka the Emperor Napoleon III by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Conclusions

Marx developed a way of interpreting society and history which is simultaneously powerful, persuasive and deeply misleading. Societies are driven forward by technological innovation. Capitalism does suck all societies into its vortex of trade and banking. (By now, 2018, the entire world has been subsumed into a global capitalist ‘system’, or system of interlocking systems.) Political leaders are often the puppets of big business and finance. Culture as a whole, and even individual artists or writers, can very usefully be thought of as expressing class interests or of reflecting the stage of development of their society.

All of these ideas have gone on to have brilliant careers in sociology, literary and wider cultural theory.

BUT the fundamental teleology, the view that History is inevitably and unstoppably heading in a particular direction, turns out to be completely unfounded.

And the idea that that direction amounts to the ‘Bourgeoisie’ becoming a tiny class of all-powerful capitalists grinding the faces of an enormous class of propertyless ‘Proletariat’ who will, inevitably, rise up to overthrow them – turned out to be completely wrong.

His position of teaching his followers to belittle and ignore the complexities of the political sphere, dismissing democracy, constitutions, the vote and the law as ‘bourgeois fictions’, and instead to rely on completely fictional ideas of ‘historical inevitability’, goes a long way to explaining why Marxist parties have repeatedly failed in industrialised and developed countries and have always been defeated by parties which understood the realities of power in complex societies much better.

Where Marxist tenets were to triumph was in the backward, economically more simple states of Russia and China and, even then, only under the chaotic conditions created by devastating wars. These essentially military seizures of power led to state dictatorships which were able to export or impose their ideologies on their neighbours by force (Eastern Europe in Stalin’s case, South-East Asia in Mao’s), with terrible consequences.


Related links

Related blog posts

Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which was Orwell was fighting with and he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

Related links

Victoria’s Wars by Saul David (2006)

The 2nd Europeans, 31st and 70th Regiments of Native Infantry drove the enemy from their cover with great slaughter. I only saw one European amongst the dead; at least a part of one. He was a sergeant of the 2nd Europeans; his cap, grog bottle, and his head was all we saw. There was a letter in the cap, but I could not make out any of it, for it was saturated with blood.
(An anonymous British private describing the aftermath of the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, quoted on page 136)

This book is unashamed good fun, intelligent, gripping, informative and horrifying by turns.

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire consists of 400 pages of lucid and compelling prose which retell the rattling stories of the British imperial conflicts during the 24 years between Queen Victoria ascending the throne in 1837 and the death of her much-beloved husband, Albert, in 1861. The period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dual Monarchy’ and saw the size of the British Empire almost quintuple in size from 2 million to 9.5 million square miles. But this didn’t happen peacefully: the British Army fought 30 or so campaigns during this relatively brief period. David explains this book will cover the two major and the nine medium-sized wars of the period. That’s a lot of fighting.

David disarmingly admits in the Author’s note that he first got addicted to the thrill and swashbuckling adventure of Britain’s early Victorian imperial wars from a boyhood reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. When he came to research the period as a mature historian, he discovered that Victoria and Albert had more say in some of these conflicts than had previously been reported.

And so he had the idea of interweaving his accounts of these (pretty well-known) imperial conflicts with the key events in the lives of the royal couple: how Victoria inherited the throne (in 1837), her coronation (in 1838), her wooing and wedding to Albert (February 1840), and then their periodic interventions in politics through till Albert’s death in December 1861.

So a central thread of this narrative is the surprisingly detailed interest the royal pair took in Britain’s imperial conflicts. David quotes the letters which show Victoria being surprisingly critical of her governments for the way they (mis)managed both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and the other conflicts of the period.

The early Victorian wars

The wars are:

  • First Afghan War (1839 to 1842)
  • First Opium War (1839 to 1842)
  • First Anglo-Sikh War (1845 to 1846)
  • Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848 to 1849)
  • Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852 to 1853)
  • The Crimean War (1853 to 1856)
  • Second Opium War (1856 to 1860)
  • The Anglo-Persian War (1856 to 1870)
  • Indian Mutiny (1857 to 1859)

The nature and scope of these ‘wars’

This is essentially a military history, not a political or diplomatic or strategic or cultural history. These accounts take us right into the guts of the fighting and this approach, as always, has numerous benefits.

For a start they make it clear what ‘war’ actually means in each instance, in terms of geographic location and strategic intention. I’ve never really read in detail about the Crimean War before, and so was surprised and enlightened to learn that Britain and France, for a start, need never have fought it at all.

The conflict arose because the Czar insisted on bullying Turkey into granting authority over all Christians in the ailing Ottoman Empire to Russia. The Turks vacillated between agreeing with Russia or giving in to France who, under Napoleon III, also wanted control of the Turkish Christians, and Britain, who saw the whole thing as yet another pretext for Imperial Russia to extend her power south and take control of the entire Black Sea, thus threatening Britain’s supply lines to India.

If the allies had managed to pull Austria into the alliance of France, Britain and Turkey this would probably have sufficed to make Russia back off, but instead, while the diplomats wrangled, Russia sent her armies into the Balkans to besiege strategic towns there with a view to marching on Constantinople. Britain and France decided Russia must not only be threatened out of the Balkans but taught a lesson. This lesson, it was decided, would be the seizure of Russia’s main military port in the Black Sea, Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula.

That was it. That was the aim of the Crimean War: to teach Russia a lesson by seizing Sevastapol. But the allies landed 20 miles away to the north of the port, took ages to get all the equipment ashore, slowly marched to the city and then dithered about attacking – all of which gave the defenders of Sevastapol time to create awesome defences around it, thus setting the stage for a long and bloody siege which dragged on through the cruel Russian winters in which thousands of men slept in mud and water and snow and, not surprisingly, died like flies from cholera when the hot summer came.

What a miserably mismanaged cock-up. The three battles I’d heard of – at the River Alma, Inkerman and Balaklava – were all subsidiary battles fought only to achieve the main goal, seizing Russia’s only warm water port.

We are used, in our time, to the Total Wars of 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945 and so tend to think of ‘war’ as something pursued on an epic scale, fought to obliterate the opponent. It is thought-provoking to read about ‘wars’ of much more limited geopolitical, geographical and military scope, fought with much smaller numbers, using much more primitive weapons and with much more limited, diplomatic aims.

Blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts

The second feature of a military history like this is its detailed, blow-by-blow description of the actual fighting, the battles and encounters, feints and charges and stands. (David’s book is graced with lots of charming hand-drawn maps – perfectly clear but in a whimsical deliberately archaic style – maps of the whole country affected, and then detailed maps of specific battles. These are vital.)

Thus David’s account of the ill-fated Kabul expedition, or the Crimea, or the Sikh Wars or the Mutiny, are studded with eye-witness accounts, scavenged from letters, journals, diaries and official battle reports, which take the reader right into the sweat and fury of battle.

Again and again we read the specific actions of named individuals and their vivid, terrifying descriptions of fighting off Pathan warriors with swords, parrying Russian soldiers with bayonets, of rushing walls and stockades or helping comrades under fire.

The following is from the account of Private Wightman of the 17th Lancers describing how the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, disorientated and riding back through dense smoke, veered by mistake up the sides of the valley only to encounter Russian infantry:

My horse was shot dead, riddled with bullets. One bullet struck me on the forehead, another passed through the top of my shoulder; while struggling out from under my dead horse a Cossack standing over me stabbed me with his lance once in the neck near the jugular, again above the collar bone, several times in the back, and once under the short rib; and when, having regained my feet, I was trying to draw my sword, he sent his lance through the palm of my hand. I believe he would have succeeded in killing me, clumsy as he was, if I had not blinded him for the moment with a handful of sand. (quoted on page 233)

I guess this sort of thing is not for everyone but if you’re a certain sort of boy or man then you’ll find these hyper-detailed accounts of combat thrilling and exciting. ‘Why do men fight?’ girlfriends have asked me over the years. For the simple reason that it is the most exciting thing a man can experience – or a certain sort of man, at any rate.

One example can stand for thousands: here is the young British officer Garnet Wolseley describing the feeling of standing on the battlefield shouting for volunteers to help him charge a well-defended enemy stockade in Burma in 1853.

Wolseley could see the numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’ (p.169)

Or here is Lieutenant E.A. Noel of the 31st Foot describing the exhilaration of charging the Sikh artillery at the Battle of Ferozeshah on 22 December 1845. The battle was:

‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive.’ (quoted p.101)

Most of the common infantry fought because a career in the army offered the security and pay their lives in Britain couldn’t provide, as well as training and camaraderie and a sense of identity. The officers – as David brings forcefully home – were mostly upper-class twits, not least because throughout this era officers could simply buy their ranks no matter how inexperienced or incompetent, seeing the army as a means to social and financial advancement.

Nevertheless, ragamuffin proles or chinless toffs, all or any of them could be swept up in the heat of actual battle and find themselves performing super-human feats.

Heroism

For men under pressure reveal extraordinary capacities. There are accounts of mind-boggling heroism here, of men fighting on single-handed, manning guns after all their comrades are killed, racing across open ground towards walls stuffed with musketeers shooting at them, and so on.

It was during this early Victorian period, in 1857 to be precise, that a new medal, the Victoria Cross was instituted for just such acts of stunning bravery. (David has a fascinating section about the creation, the design and casting of the first Victoria Crosses: they were, and still are, cast from the bronze cascabels – the large knobs at the back of a cannon used for securing ropes – of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastapol, hence the dull gunmetal colour. The remaining metal from these cascabels has still not all been used up; there is said to be enough metal for eighty-five more medals, p.282)

At the battle of the Alma the defeated Russians were limbering up their guns and withdrawing them, when Captain Edward Bell of the 23rd Fusiliers ran forward alone and, armed only with a pistol, surprised the Russian driver, who fled, while Bell seized the horse and led horse and Russian gun back to the British side of the breastworks. For this he later won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the Crimea (p.207).

At the Battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854) Captain John Crosse of the 88th Foot found himself defending the Saddle Top Ridge against advancing Cossacks:

‘I found myself close to a knot of six Russians who were advancing to attack me… I shot four of the Russians, the fifth bayoneted me & fell pulling me down on top of him, the sixth then charged on me & [with my sword] I cut down his firelock on to his hands and he turned back.’ (quoted p.241)

Who needs movies?

Butchery

But, of course, scattered moments of heroism are all very fine, and tend to be remembered by all concerned for the fine light they shed on combat, but fighting boils down to men killing each other in hair-raisingly grisly ways, hacking at each others’ bodies with blunt swords, stabbing and gouging and strangling and bludgeoning, while others are shooting bullets which smash bones, joints, shoot through your eyes or mouth or skull.

Take the relief column under Lieutenant Robert Pollock which was sent to rescue the British hostages held in Kabul (those who had been held back and so not slaughtered in their passage through the mountains). As this force went back over the ground taken by the retreating Kabul garrison, it walked over bodies the whole way.

All along the road from Fatiabad lay the remains of the Kabul garrison, the corpses ‘in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun-wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard.’ (quoted p.71)

Having rescued the British hostages, this column also withdrew back to India, but was harried all the way by the fierce Ghilzai tribesmen. One of the last to die was Ensign Alexander Nicholson of the 30th Native Infantry. The following day, John Nicholson, just released from Afghan captivity and following the same path to safety, came across his brother’s mutilated corpse, with his penis and balls cut off and stuffed into his mouth, as was the local custom (p.72).

After the Battle of Sobraon (Sikh War, 10 February 1846), the British drove the Sikh defenders back onto a narrow bridge over the River Sutlej, which promptly broke. Thousands tried to swim across but were slaughtered by rifle and grape and canister fire shot into the swimming mass at point blank range. Gunner Bancroft described the river water as:

‘a bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’ (p.109)

By the same token as he uses eye-witness accounts to describe the progress of battles, giving the sense of total immersion in the gripping, terrifying experience of combat, so David also details the appalling gory butchery and bloodshed of battle. He gives a harrowing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, on 25 October 1854:

A corporal who rode on the right of the 13th was ‘struck by a shot or shell in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near’. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, ‘yet for about thirty yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm.’ (p.232)

There is an appalling price to pay for all these conflicts and the pages of this book are drenched in blood and brains. Describing the Indian ‘rebels’ at Sikandarbagh, Fred Roberts recalled:

‘Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion, and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. There they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead or dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… ‘ (quoted p.342)

I wonder if David did a tally of how many people died during these imperial conquests, men killed in battle, and women and children murdered in the accompanying atrocities by both sides: to the casual reader it seems like it must have been several million – the Crimean War alone accounted for some three quarters of a million dead on all sides. So much blood. So many human bodies composted back into the soil.

‘We overtook numbers of their infantry who were running for their lives – every man of course was shot. I never saw such butchery and murder! It is almost too horrible to commit to paper.’ (An officer of the 9th Lancers at the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, p.137)

One example from hundreds sticks in my mind. At the siege of Cawnpore, when the ‘rebel’ Indian regiments rose up against their European officers and families, pushing them back into a hastily defended cantonment, a ball from an Indian canon decapitated the son of the British commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, leaving the boy’s hair and brains smeared on the wall of his father’s wall. His son’s brains and hair (p.310). In fact, the rebels promised the garrison safe passage down the river but, as they loaded into the boats, treacherously opened fire, killing 800 or more Europeans. The survivors were thrown into a small building along with Brits from other locations, nearly 200 in all, almost all women and children, and kept prisoner in the blistering heat, without food or water for weeks. When a relief column of British forces arrived, all these Europeans – 194 women and children – were hacked to death with swords. It is recorded that the killers needed replacement swords because the first ones became blunt hacking on human bone. Then all the bodies were thrown down a well, quite a few still alive at the time, only to asphyxiate under the weight of the dead.

Yes, I know – the butchery on both sides, during the Indian Rebellion requires a book of its own. But still, it’s the father having to see the hair and brains of his son smeared across the wall which has stayed to haunt me at nights…

Incompetence

But maybe the main learning from the book is the staggering level of blundering incompetence shown by so many Brits at so many levels. As a survivor of the catastrophic retreat from Kabul put it, the complete destruction of the allied force was due to the ‘incompetency, feebleness and want of skill’ of the military leaders (p.70) and this story is echoed again and again during these 24 fraught years.

The absolute epitome of mismanaged, confused, dunderhead behaviour was the Charge of the Light Brigade, sent into the wrong valley against well-placed Russian guns which wiped them out, an event David goes into in great detail (pp.227 to 237) and which just gets worse the more you understand it.

The entire Crimean campaign became a byword for mismanagement, not least in the inability to feed, clothe and medicate British troops who died in their thousands during the first winter besieging Sevastapol. It was this dire situation which prompted T.J. Delane, the editor of The Times, to write an editorial excoriating the incompetence of the army and the government.

The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastapol, in the harbour at Balaklava, in the hospitals of Scutari, and how much closer to home we dare not venture to say. (p.254)

How the devil did these clodhoppers manage to acquire and run the greatest empire the world has ever known? The book suggests a number of levels at which British incompetence and stupidity operated:

1. The wrongness of basic aims

Was it even worth fighting the Crimean War or the Afghan war in the first place? Diplomatic pressure was already making the Russians withdraw from the Balkans; after three years of war, the peace treaty at the end of the Crimean War didn’t achieve much more than had been on the table at the start.

Similarly, the First Afghan ‘war’ amounted to an armed expedition into Afghanistan to overthrow the existing ruler – Dost Mohamed – for being too friendly to the Russians and to replace him with an exile of our choosing, Shah Suja, who would then owe us undying loyalty. The British force with some 10,000 camp followers fought its way through south Afghanistan, finding it harder than predicted, and eventually took Kabul, forcing Dost to flee and imposing the new ruler. But then a) the people rejected him b) we never controlled the outlying settlements c) we promised subsidies (bribes) to various tribes which we failed to pay or cut back – so nobody should have been very surprised when there was a popular Afghan uprising which quickly took back control of Kabul, and besieged the Europeans in their indefensible cantonment.

The divided British leadership patched up an agreement with Dost Mohamed’s son in which our people were promised free passage over the mountains back to Jelalabad but a) it was winter, the first weeks of January and b) nobody told the various angry tribes who controlled the mountains about the deal,. With the result that the vast retreating force of several thousand soldiers and over 10,000 camp followers, were picked off at leisure by bandits or died of exposure in the sub-freezing temperatures. Notoriously, of the 16,000 or so total Brits who went into Afghanistan, only one – ONE – survivor, a Dr Brydon, made it alive to Jelalabad.

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of William Brydon, sole survivor the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

2. Strategic blundering

The Kabul disaster reads like a textbook example of how not to do it. For a start leadership of the expedition was divided between the military leader Elphinstone and the political emissary, Macnaghten. The cantonment where the British Army based itself was significantly outside the city of Kabul rather than commanding its centre. We didn’t build a citadel of strength to act as a secure base. And we relinquished control of the only secure building in the city, the Bala Hissar fort, to the new playboy ruler we had installed and his harem.

3. Indecision and hesitation

These two elements really come across as a key cause of failure in almost all these conflicts. Even after fighting broke out in Kabul the British leaders refused to take it seriously. Quick and decisive action might have stamped it out, captured the ringleaders and dissipated the local aggression. But the military leaders on the ground hesitated or plain refused to march into the city and so it was lost, and the rest – the siege of the isolated British encampment and its eventual surrender – followed logically.

The same hesitation or plain refusal to attack leaps out of David’s account of the Crimean War. A quick attack on Sevastapol immediately after the allied forces had landed might have taken the city in weeks and prevented two years of costly siege. But the generals in charge – Lord Raglan for the British, Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud for the French – wanted to wait until everything was ready and everyone had landed etc, thus giving the Russkies plenty of time to prepare extensive and impenetrable defences. After the hard-fought Battle of the Alma River, with Prince Menshikov’s army retreating in disarray, both allied generals lost a golden opportunity to devastate the enemy with the as-yet unbloodied British cavalry.

Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of the Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war… [but] neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day – with disastrous long-term consequences for the allies. (p.212)

The same reluctance and refusal shines out of David’s account of the Indian Mutiny, a much bigger and more complex event, in which there’s one silver thread concerning how the British garrison was forced out of the capital Delhi by the ‘rebels’, but was quickly joined by reinforcements and took the cantonment to the north-west of the city. Had they then attacked the centre of the city immediately they might have driven the rebels out and squashed the rebellion at its heart. Instead, just like Raglan and Saint-Arnaud in Crimea, they waited, they prevaricated, under the reluctant leadership of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who drove his officers mad with frustration by continually claiming he needed just a few more guns, ammunition, soldiers, before he launched the attack to retake the city – and the moment was lost (p.307).

A very crude rule emerges from all of these accounts which is: If you see an advantage, SEIZE IT! Even if all your regiments, cavalry, artillery or whatever haven’t totally arrived – if you see the enemy retreating or vulnerable – GO FOR IT. Time and again opportunities were lost for quick, decisive knockout blows because the men in charge hesitated, were afraid, wanted to be sure of total success… and all too often delay turned what could have been quick campaigns into brutal struggles of attrition in which tens of thousands died needlessly.

4. Penny pinching

Prevarication was often caused by the wish to save money, for another thread which emerges from this book is the way the British wanted to have an empire on the cheap. It’s striking to realise how nothing has changed in the national culture in 180 years – we’ve always been a penny-pinching, austerity nation. Garnet Wolseley complained that all the logistical support for the army had been shut down ‘on so-called economical grounds’ and much of the rest contracted out to private suppliers – hence the revolting inedibility of the food provided for the soldiers in the Crimea. Ring any bells?

Thus the disaster at Kabul was partly caused by the Treasury demanding cuts to the costly expedition with the result that its political leader, Macnaghten, halved the subsidy or bribe being paid to a northern tribe of Afghans, who promptly rose against us. Then Macnaghten, in order to save money, sent a column out to meet a relief force supposedly coming from the north which was itself promptly massacred.

The Crimea was a classic example of a major war which we tried to fight on the cheap, resulting in military stalemate (we won the side battles of Inkerman and the Alma but obstinately failed to take Sevastapol for years) and the deaths due to lack of equipment (proper winter uniforms, tents, even food) of thousands and thousands of poor bloody infantry.

‘The Army is a shambles’, David quotes one officer as commenting (p.186). Eventually, the government was shamed by the extensive newspaper reporting of Russell (among others), the reports of Florence Nightingale, and pressure from the Queen herself, to face the facts that it was going to cost money to win the damn thing.

And David highlights the same mindset at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion: the government didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t want to take it seriously because it didn’t want to spend the money which ended up being required to put it down. By this stage, twenty years into her reign, Queen Victoria had the confidence to write to her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, criticising the government for, yet again, being:

anxious to do as little as possible, to wait for further news, to reduce as low as possible even what they do grant…’ (quoted p.327)

I’ve read so many times that the Empire was a device for looting and creaming off vast wealth from colonised countries that I am genuinely puzzled how come an account like this gives the strong impression of a colonial government in a permanent financial crisis, consistently underfunding and under-equipping the army it needed to police the empire, acting slowly, refusing to recognise the severity of the crises it faced, and always trying to get away with the cheapest possible option. If we were rolling in loot, why the penny-pinching?

David gives a handy checklist of responsibility for the Afghan disaster, which serves as a useful checklist for many of the other imperial fiascos. Who was to blame?

  • The political ruler of India, Lord Auckland, for ordering an invasion of Afghanistan which was never really necessary in the first place – the existing ruler was fairly friendly and could have been bribed to be on our side without the loss of a single life.
  • The Tory government which, in order to save money, demanded a reduction in troop numbers and reduction of local bribes – thus helping to spark the rebellion.
  • General Cotton, the senior military man on first arrival in Kabul, who acquiesced in making the large, indefensible, out-of-town cantonment the main British base.
  • Sir William Macnaghten, the senior political agent on the spot, who deliberately played down the rebellion when it started, refusing to give permission for quick, decisive suppressing action, then made a hash out of negotiating with the enemy chieftains (for which he was shot dead on the spot by one of them).
  • Brigadier-General Shelton, the man in charge of the British forces, who made a series of decisions all based on hesitation and caution, which allowed the rebellion to spiral out of control.

5. Unwanted freelancing

Another theme is the regularity with which the men on the spot far exceeded their orders from the home government which then found itself forced to back them up. For example, the governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier in 1842 with a force designed to bring the amirs of Sind, in north-west India, into submission to the British. Instead, Napier fought a series of battles and annexed the territory outright, to the horror of the board of the East India Company (who still, technically, ruled India) and the government of Robert Peel. It was felt to have been unnecessarily aggressive but also –more importantly – incurred unwanted cost. All very well for these soldier chaps to go a-conquerin’ territory, but then someone had to pay for the new lands to be garrisoned, manned, administered and so on, which cost a fortune.

6. Disease

Three quarters of the 20,000 British deaths in the Crimea were caused by disease. 10,000 allied lives were lost to cholera, dysentery and fever before the allied armies even arrived at the Crimea, due to the squalid conditions at the base camp of Varna. In the winter of 1855 it was clear both sides in the Crimean War desired peace, but Napoleon III of France let himself be persuaded by the British to keep his forces at the Sevastapol siege through the winter to keep the pressure on Russia. With the result that the French lost more men – at least 30,000! – to disease in the final three months of the war than they lost in all combat operations of the previous two years.

Disease was the bane of all these wars, fought in extreme heat or freezing cold in the plains of India, the jungles of Burma, the snowbound Afghan mountains or the frozen trenches of the Crimea.

The grim dynamic of imperialism

Again and again the same pattern and sequence of events took place: local rulers of land bordering the existing empire refused to become our allies (Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan) or harassed British traders (the ruler of Burma or the Qing Emperor in China) so a British force was dispatched to bring them to heel/punish them/force them to let free trade continue.

If they resisted in any way, especially if any of our chaps was killed, then the whole thing was converted into a massive Insult and Dishonour to Queen and Country and suddenly the entire nation was whipped up by the government/popular press to avenge/redeem this Insult, carrying out ‘the just retribution of an outraged nation’ (p.71) and a large force was sent to sort them out.

Then all of a sudden it turned out to be tougher going than we expected. There were unexpected defeats, casualties mounted up, it took longer than we expected, soldiers started dying of heat and disease, they had the wrong uniforms (winter for summer or vice versa), ran out of ammunition, reinforcements were delayed, individual acts of amazing heroism helped to conceal systematic failings of strategy, funding and logistics and so the whole thing dragged on, sometimes for years.

Eventually, enough extra forces, ammunition and cannon finally arrived to force a ‘victory’ of sorts or at least a face-saving compromise, news of which was cabled back to a jubilant nation, there was dancing in the streets, pubs and streets were named after the various bloody battles – the Alma, the Balaklava – medals were handed out, victory parades were held, the native rulers were arrested, exiled, replaced, the native peoples were brutally massacred and cowed into submission, for the time being…

All in all, it is a shameful narrative of bullying, exploitation and hypocrisy but almost everyone was caught up in it, the national narrative. It is inspiring that there were radical thinkers and even MPs who were solidly against the notion of Empire, who consistently thought it directly contradicted Britain’s own rhetoric about Freedom and Liberty. But they made little impression on the jingoistic national culture, which only became more and more imperialistic as the century progressed.

Vandalism

A summary of these years wouldn’t be complete without some mention of European vandalism and destructiveness.

  • After the gruesome retreat from Kabul in which over 10,000 died, British forces were despatched to rescue the European hostages being held west of the city. They successfully rescued them and fell back on a pacified Kabul but quickly realised they couldn’t hold it and so ended up retreating back into British India. But not before the force, under Lieutenant Robert Pollock and widely nicknamed the ‘Army of Retribution’, had blown up Kabul’s ‘magnificent Great Bazaar’ amid widespread looting and destruction (p.71), as punishment for the murder of the British envoys whose dismembered bodies had been hung up there a year earlier (p.54).
  • During the Crimean War Sir George Brown was despatched with a force to capture Kertch, a vital supply port on the east coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Once they’d captured the relatively undefended town the allied troops went wild, looting homes, murdering civilians and raping women. They also burnt to the ground Kertch Museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art (p.261).
  • The Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperors at Beijing was (to quote Wikipedia) ‘widely conceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design… an architectural wonder, known for its extensive collection of gardens, its architecture and numerous art and historical treasures.’ Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, as an Anglo-French expeditionary force approached Beijing, two British envoys were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. When news emerged that the delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace. It was comprehensively looted and then burned to the ground. The Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven this crime.

The British crap on about the Blitz. I wonder if there is a single country we ran in our imperial heyday where we didn’t commit gross acts of vandalism, looting and destruction.

Footnotes and insights

This is the kind of fact-packed popular history where even the footnotes are jammed with interesting information. There’s a footnote on almost every page and every one is worth reading – from details of the  several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, the Indian origin of the words sepoy, sirdar, pundit and so on, what a regiment’s ‘colours’ actually are (two flags, one regimental, one for the queen), how the town of Ladysmith in South Africa got its name, and an extended sequence on how the famous Koh-i-noor diamond came to be handed over the British and included in the crown.

The evolution of military hardware

Alongside the thread about Victoria and Albert’s interventions is another thread which dwells on the evolution of military technology during this period. I was fascinated to read about the arrival of steam warships. At first battleships continued to have masts and depend on sail power – if there was wind – but were also equipped with steam engines for when there wasn’t. Only slowly did they make the full transition to steam. I was particularly interested in the advent of a new design of much smaller warship, only 200-foot long, powered by steam and equipped with a small set of rotatable guns. Because of their size these could penetrate up even minor rivers and still deliver punishing artillery fire. They were called gunboats and for the first time really allowed the Royal Navy (and Britain) to extend its might / force / violence into the remotest river frontages all over the globe (p.159).

And so for the first time I really understood the meaning of the hoary old expression ‘gunboat’ diplomacy’, which is always used to describe Lord Palmerston’s belligerent foreign policy during this period. The use of gunboats is exemplified here by their use in the Second Burma War, 1852 to 1853.

Just as interesting was David’s detailed description of how the new ‘rifles’ manufactured at the new workshops on the River Lee at Enfield (hence the ‘Lee Enfield rifle’) were developed to replace the old flintlocks which were still in use at the start of the period. The new rifles were much more accurate at a longer distance, giving our boys a distinct advantage.

A little less interesting, but still giving you the sense of getting a complete overview of the military world of this era, is David’s attention to the evolution of uniforms, which moved away from the heavy double-buttoned tunic and the clumsy tall shako hat towards a more practical (but still to us, improbably unwieldy) mid-Victorian uniform.

Conclusion

This is a compellingly written, exciting and illuminating book on many levels: accessible, thrilling, horrifying and insightful popular history at its best.


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