Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

‘I think it is a very promising little war.’
(Lord Copper in Scoop, page 13)

When I read Evelyn Waugh as a student I didn’t have time to read the travel books, in fact I barely had time to read the key novels. This is a shame because, rereading Waugh second time around, I’m realising just how intimately related the novels and travel books are. Not to mention the newspaper articles he wrote, and his letters and diaries (all subsequently published). In other words, the novels, which it’s easy to see as standalone achievements, in reality sit amid an ocean of discourse which Waugh produced, awash with cross-currents, tides and undertows.

So in 1930 he goes to Ethiopia as a journalist, sending back reports on the coronation of Haile Selassie. At the same time he writes letters to friends and keeps a diary. Then he uses all this material for the travel book Remote People (1931). And then he recycles images, impressions and ideas into the novel Black Mischief (1932).

Then he goes on his 90-day trip to British Guyana (January to April 1933), keeps a diary, fills notebooks, writes letters to friends. Writes all this up into the travel book Ninety-Two Days (1934), which is an achievement in itself – but then reuses sights, sounds and characters to create the bleak final third of A Handful of Dust (1934) in which the protagonist goes off to… British Guyana.

The pattern repeated when Waugh was hurriedly hired by a British newspaper in 1935 and packed off to Ethiopia, purely on the basis of his earlier book, in order to be a war correspondent covering the looming conflict between Italy and Ethiopia (October 1935 to February 1937).

Once again Waugh travelled widely, kept extensive notes, diary entries, sent letters and, of course, filed reports back to his paper in London. The result is the fascinating travelogue Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) but, from the present point of view, the point is that for the third time he recycled experiences abroad and the extensive discursive texts they triggered (articles, diary entries, letters, notes and travel book) into yet another fictional text, Scoop (1936).

Scoop combines the three subjects which inspired Waugh’s best work: the trade of journalism, the colourfulness of foreign travel, with the usual mockery of English society providing a frame. It is a broad and very funny satire on the fatuity of the newspaper industry, showing how the role of writer and journalist and the press itself are silkily sewn into the fabric of English life. It is, almost in passing, a fierce satire on the politics and culture of an African country, and on the posh uselessness of British officials abroad. But a wholesale mockery of the newspaper business is its cores subject.

Plot

In a nutshell, high society mover and shaker Mrs Algernon Stitch agrees to do her friend, the novelist and travel writer John Courtenay Boot, a big favour and persuade her other friend, Lord Copper, CEO of the Megalopolitan Newspaper Corporation which owns the popular newspaper Daily Beast, that Boot is the perfect man to send out to the (fictional) African country of Ishmaelia to cover the looming war. For his part, John Courtenay Boot is looking for a good excuse to leave the country because he wants to dump a tiresome American girl he’s going out with. Win-win.

Mistaken identity

There then follows the book’s central joke and premise which is that Lord Copper goes back to the office and tells his senior editorial team to get hold of this Boot fellow, not mentioning his first name, and they in their panic stumble across the fact that there is a William Boot who already writes for the paper – he is their unassuming, quiet and modest nature correspondent, author of a regular column titled ‘Lush Places’ – and in one of the most famous examples of mistaken identity in 20th century English literature, they hire the wrong Boot!

Boot’s style

The Foreign Editor and News Editor quote a sentence from Boot’s latest article in awe of his over-ripe prose style, a fictional quotation which has become a widely quoted sentence wherever literary types are mocking over-writing.

‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole…’

Panic packing

In an atmosphere of panic and hurry, they call William Boot in, inform the astonished man that he is being packed off Ishmaelia, put him up overnight at an absurdly expensive hotel, send him to buy a vast pantechnicon of equipment at the most imposing emporium in London (Harrods?) and then rush him helter-skelter to the airport.

In fact Boot doesn’t get away that easy because Waugh has a lot more satire to create at the expense while still in London. When Boot arrives at the airport there’s a long comic list of all the things he’s brought with him, and the elaborate bureaucratic hurdles he has to jump through, right up till the comic punchline when an official asks for his passport. Oh. He doesn’t have one. Oh. So all the helter-skelter plans to fly him off to the warzone have to be put on hold and Boot is taxied back to the big hotel for another night of all-expenses-paid luxury.

Lord Copper’s office

The office of Lord Copper is very humorously described. It sounds like the vast offices you see in 1930s American movies, sleekly Art Deco, with chrome finishings. Boot has to penetrate past layers of security and secretaries, the atmosphere becoming steadily more hushed and reverent before he meets the great man.

The Megalopolitan Newspaper Corporation building (‘700 to 853 Fleet Street’) is grandiosely named ‘Copper House’ and sounds just like a satire on those kinds of American office blocks you see in swish 1930s American movies about New York, with no fewer than eight lifts permanently opening and shutting their doors with a loud pinging sound and the announcements of lift girls saying ‘going up’ or ‘going down’.

The great crested grebe

Boot’s trip up to London and all these encounters are coloured by the other Big Joke of the first half. This is that William had written a particularly thorough and well-researched article about the life and habits of the badger for his weekly column. However, he lives in a large ramshackle old house (Boot Magna, quite grand, the drive is a mile long, p.200) shared with numerous members of his large, extended, eccentric, aristocratic family and his sister, Priscilla, got hold of the article before he sent it off and playfully changed ‘badger’ for ‘great crested grebe’ throughout.

When Boot took delivery of the next edition of the Daily Beast and saw what she had done he was furious at her but horrified with fear of punishment. Thus when, a few days later, he received the telegram from Salter demanding his presence in London, William inevitably thought he was heading for the roasting of his life. This explains why he is on tenterhooks of anxiety throughout his initial interview with Mr Salter, who takes him to the pub round the corner from the office and can’t understand why Boot is so anxious and touchy.

This joke lasts a good ten pages and, like the larger conceit of Lord Copper and Mr Salter hiring the wrong Boot, they both display what you might call a deep structural grasp of comedy. I suppose it was always present in Waugh’s writing, for example the way the utterly innocent Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from Oxford when he was the real victim in his first novel, and other extended and clever plot conceits in the others.

But the previous novels have structural or thematic weaknesses: Vile Bodies is deliberately rambling and fragmented and what is probably it most central recurring theme, the on-again, off-again engagement of Adam and Nina, is meant to be shallow and is.

A Handful of Dust has plenty of comic detail but is flavoured by the bitterness of the infidelity and betrayal which is its central plot, is then tainted by the terrible tragedy at its heart, and then utterly overshadowed by the devastating conclusion.

It’s for these reasons that Scoop is many people’s favourite Waugh novel: because it combines plenty of surface comedy, pratfalls and gags, and satirises subjects Waugh knew inside out (journalism and foreign travel) but mostly because it is based on a central premise (Boot’s mistaken identity) which is itself deeply, richly comic, without any of the bitterness or darker tones found in the other novels. It is his most purely comic novel. (And – spoiler alert – it has a happy ending.)

The farce of African wars

Sure there’s a war on, but the satire about it is relatively gentle and genuinely funny. It starts with Lord Copper’s attitude that the war exists solely for his convenience, to help him sell newspapers. It’s in this context he makes his remark that it’s ‘a very promising little war’, by which he means commercially promising, in terms of circulation figures and profits. This satirical attitude extends to the apparently serious way he tells Boot what he expects from it, as if Boot can personally deliver these:

Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stands by them four square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is the Beast Policy for the war.

The humour extends to Mr Salter’s deliberately nonsensical explanation of the war. The satire is at the expense of even the best educated metropolitan Englishmen who generally know little about most other countries in the world and, in general, couldn’t care less. Thus when Boot asks for a pre-trip briefing this is what he gets. Boot asks:

‘Can you tell me who is fighting who in Ishmaelia?’
‘I think it’s the Patriots and the Traitors.’
‘Yes, but which is which?’
‘Oh, I don’t know that. That’s Policy, you see. It’s nothing to do with me. You should have asked Lord Copper.’
‘I gather it’s between the Reds and the Blacks.’
‘Yes, but it’s not quite as easy as that. You see they are all negroes. And the fascists won’t be called black because of their racial pride, so they are called White after the White Russians. And the Bolshevists want to be called black because of their racial pride. So when you say black you mean red, and when you mean red you say white and when the party who call themselves blacks say traitors they mean what we call blacks, but what we mean when we say traitors I really couldn’t tell you. But from your point of view it will be quite simple. Lord Copper only wants Patriot victories and both sides call themselves patriots and of course both sides will claim all the victories. But of course it’s really a war between Russia and Germany and Italy and Japan who are all against one another on the patriotic side. I hope I make myself plain?’

Even scholarly historians and commentators remark on the sometimes farcical aspects of African dictators and African wars. Gerard Prunier, author of the definitive history of the Great War of Africa, frequently comments on the absurdity of all parties, not least the bizarre, corrupt and often farcical rule of the Leopard himself, President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga of Zaire.

The two Ishmaeli consuls in London

This element of African farce is sounded before Boot has even left London. When he was halted by the lack of a passport at Croydon airport, he was forced to return with his huge train of luggage to London, spend the night in the astonishingly expensive hotel, and next morning visit the Ishmaeli legation for a passport and visa. However, since the country is torn by civil war, there are two legations.

Just as Waugh mocks the grandiosity of Copper Towers and the indifferent cynicism of Lord Copper himself, the anxiety of Mr Salter, and countless other aspects of English journalism, so he satirises the pathetic aspirations of the diplomatic representatives of Ishmaelia. The Consulate for the Patriotic part of Ishmaelia resides in the downstairs flat of a house in Maida Vale where the ‘consul’ turns out to be a man Boot saw earlier in the day haranguing a crowd in Hyde Park Corner. His theme is that everything good in the modern world came out of Africa and all the great personages of history were African.

‘Who built the Pyramids?’ cried the Ishmaelite orator. ‘A Negro. Who invented the circulation of the blood? A Negro. Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you as impartial members of the great British public, who discovered America?’

According to him Karl Marx was a Negro and it was blacks who won the Great War. This is funny as an example of the comic type of the Over-Claimer. But is also given contemporary relevance that in our day, over 80 years later, there are more books, articles, speeches and documentaries than ever before making the same claim, that Western civilisation derives from Africa: the story goes it was the Africans who inspired the Egyptians, the Egyptians who inspired the Greeks, Western civilisation is based on Greek discoveries in almost all fields, so…all Western civilisation is based on African achievements.

What interests me is not the minutiae of the arguments, but the simple fact that a subject which a lot of young, fresh-faced students take to be a brave blow against white supremacy, Eurocentrism etc, was already an argument familiar enough to be satirised in a popular novel ninety years ago.

Anyway, the comic punchline is that this highly vocal propounder of the cause of the Ishmaeli Patriots turns out not to come from Ishmaelia at all. He is ‘a graduate of the Baptist College of Antigua.’

The mockery of the Over-claimer is trumped by the description of the rival Ishmaeli legation, which (comically, absurdly) gives its loyalty to Nazi Germany (!). Despite being an obvious black African the ‘consul’ insists he and his confreres are white, in fact they were the first white colonisers of Africa. Admittedly, prolonged exposure to the hot sun has given he and his colleagues a bit of a tan, but it is the Jewish-backed international Bolshevik conspiracy which promotes the lie that they are Negroes.

I suppose it would be extremely easy to describe this all as howlingly racist, maybe, by modern standards, it is. But it’s also obvious that Waugh is looking for the weak spot, the most absurd aspects, of everything he train his malicious gaze upon. Lord Copper is a fool. Boot’s extended family are decrepit and gaga. Mrs Stitch, the high society hostess who knows everyone is absurdly caricatured. The dimness of the Foreign Editor in hiring Boot is fundamental to the plot. The French colonial administrator he meets on the train across France is classically haughty and supercilious. Everyone is stereotyped and ridiculed.

Waugh’s occasional lyricism

Eventually Boot secures his two passports with visas for the wartorn country, arrives for a second time at Croydon airport and this time manages to get into the plane, which then takes off and Waugh deploys a burst of lyricism of the kind he can turn on like a tap in these early novels:

The door was shut; the ground staff fell back. The machine moved forward, gathered speed, hurtled and bumped across the rough turf, ceased to bump, floated clear of the earth, mounted and wheeled above the smoke and traffic and very soon hung, it seemed motionless, above the Channel, where the track of a steamer, far below them, lay in the bright water like a line of smoke on a still morning. William’s heart rose with it and gloried, lark-like, in the high places.

Satire on journalism

The war and Africans and London high society are mocked, but fundamentally this is a book ripping the piss out of journalism as a trade and journalists as individuals.

Boot lands at Le Bourget airport north of Paris, train into the capital, taxi across to the south-facing Gare de Lyon railway station, then onto the Train Bleu, the regular service to the South. At Marseilles he disembarks and a knackered old steamship, the Francmaçon, which is going to take him and a random assortment of other passengers the length of the Med, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea and to the fictional land of Ishmaelia – the same journey Waugh described in his first travel book, Labels, then in Remote People, then in Waugh in Abyssinia. Anyone reading all these texts in sequence becomes pretty familiar with the route, the scenery, and the mixture of boredom and oddity aboard ship, which always piques Waugh’s interest.

On the ship he meets a character who is going to rescue throughout the book, Corker, a rough and cynical freelance journalist or stringer. He also is going out to report the war for his agency, Universal News, which sells his reports on to various papers. Corker explains a few home truths about journalism:

News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. (p.66)

Corker regales him with stories of heroic scoops, fakes and hoaxes. He tells him a story about the legendary American newsman, Wenlock Jakes, hero to the journalistic community. I’ll give it in full because it perfectly conveys the tone of Waugh’s absurdist satire.

‘Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window–you know.

‘Well they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the Press for you.

So you can single out Waugh’s mockery of some aspects of African culture and blacks in Britain if you are ideologically compelled to, but it seems to me the entire purpose of the book is to mock, satirise and caricature everything he can get his hands on.

One

So the easiest way to satirise the press is to point out that they routinely make stories up, to justify their jobs, to fill pages at the endless, clamorous request of desperate editors.

‘The Beast have been worrying the F.O. Apparently they think you’ve been murdered. Why don’t you send them some news.’
‘I don’t know any.’
‘Well for heavens sake invent some.’ (p.138)

Two

There’s a running joke about the extreme brevity of the telegrams Boot’s office sends him, which appear complete gibberish until Corker patiently explains the way they’re abbreviated in order to save money: you only pay per word in a telegram, hence London’s outlandish code. For example, when they put into the Red Sea port of Aden for a few days, Corker suggests he write a story about the scandal of British unpreparedness:

‘Your story had better be British unpreparedness. If it suits them, they’ll be able to work that up into something at the office. You know – -“Aden the focal point of British security in the threatened area still sunk in bureaucratic lethargy” — that kind of thing.’
‘Good heavens, how can I say that?’
‘That’s easy, old boy. Just cable ADEN UNWARWISE.’

This turns into quite a funny running gag because Boot obstinately fails to understand the code is a money-saving strategy and so persists in sending rambling chatty telegrams which are extremely expensive, to his boss’s chagrin, leading up to the one which drives his colleagues back in London spare with anger, as it is not only wordy, but reveals a breezy ignorance of their desperate need for news, hard news, exciting news, vivid reporting from a warzone but also displays complete ignorance of the staggering cost of each word included in these telegrams.

With one finger, he typed a message. PLEASE DONT WORRY QUITE SAFE AND WELL IN FACT RATHER ENJOYING THINGS WEATHER IMPROVING WILL CABLE AGAIN IF THERE IS ANY NEWS YOURS BOOT.

Three

There’s another running gag about the way journalists automatically turn all human situations into sensationalist headlines. Or to put it another way, journalists have a set of ‘stories’ i.e. narrative paradigms, in their heads, and the rich, varied and chaotic behaviour of people in the real world can all be reduced to one of about 20 stock, stereotypical, clichéd ‘stories’.

A humorous example is when M. Giraud, an official with the railway, accompanies his wife on the train to the coast to see her off on the boat back to Europe. In Corker’s hands this becomes ‘the “panic-stricken refugees” story.’ Even the most trivial event is a) inflated b) given a lurid headline. That’s what journalism is – sensationalism and exaggeration.

Each new train brings 20 or 30 more journalists to the capital of Ishmaelia, Jacksonburg, and Waugh soon builds up quite a community of comic stereotypes: the legendary Wendell Jakes, the English equivalent Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock (now working for Lord Copper and Boot’s rival paper, the Daily Brute), a roomful of surly hacks Shumble and Whelper and Pigge, a comic Swedish character, Olafsen, who’s lived in the capital for years. In a running gag, most of the town’s taxi drivers, who speak no English, if they don’t understand where their customers want them to go, end up taking them to the Swede’s house, so he can hear the desired destination and translate it for the drivers.

More and more journalists arrive

There is an obvious echo of real events as reported in Waugh in Abyssinia when the main hotel in town (The Liberty) becomes full and then starts overflowing with a never-ending stream of gentlemen from the world’s press. Boot moves out to an eccentric boarding house, the Pension Dressler, complete with pig, poultry and milk goat, a gander and a three-legged dog. This is what Waugh had done in real life.

In Waugh in Abyssinia the press corps decides it needs to go to the Front and sets out in a convoy of ragged vehicles heading north, only to encounter various mishaps – getting lost, breaking down, getting arrested by the local police for not having this, that or the other pass to travel and so on. Waugh was among these earnest unfortunates.

More or less the same happens here, except Waugh keeps his protagonist in the capital which suddenly becomes empty of journalists as they all set off to the Front.

Comedy love interest – Kätchen

This brings us to what amounts to the biggest narrative difference between Waugh’s account of actual events in Waugh in Abyssinia and this comic fictional version, which is the introduction of a girlfriend for the protagonist. In the real sequence of events, things petered out. The actual Italo-Abyssinian War took a long time to actually kick off (the Italians delaying until a time and place which suited them) during which various journalists packed up and left, and even when it did break out not many made it to any kind of ‘front’ or saw any actual fighting.

It feels like the invention of a girlfriend for Boot is designed to avoid the shapeless fizzling out which occurred in real life, to give the narrative more of the roundedness of fiction and also, of course, complies with the very old template of boy meets girl: the idea that fiction is predominantly about romance.

But this is Waugh and so it’s a comic satire on the notion of romance. For what the reader quickly realises is that Kätchen is a user, who exploits our hero’s naivety. Kätchen had been living at the German Pension, the subject of endless grumbles from the owner, Frau Dressler. She inveigles her way into Boot’s affections by spinning a sad story of how her prospector husband has gone off into the hills leaving her all alone and without any money. They get to know each other when Frau Dressler kicks her out of the best room in the pension, meaning to give it to Boot. Kätchen asks Boot if she can leave a box of her husband’s rock samples in the room. Then she asks Boot to help pay her rent. Then she asks Boot to buy the samples because she’s sure they’re valuable (for $20). Then she tells him she has lots of contacts in the town and can work as his fixer or source. For this she suggests $100 a week.

To all this Boot agrees because he thinks he has fallen in love. In this respect he is very like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, a simple, naive, virgin who is bedazzled by his first encounter with things of the heart. They play ping pong at Popotakis’s Ping Pong Parlour or she gets him to take her for picnics in the country surrounding the capital. He is hopelessly smitten.

‘Kätchen, I love you. Darling darling Kätchen, I love you…’
He meant it. He was in love. It was the first time in twenty-three years; he was suffused and inflated and tipsy with love…For twenty-three years he had remained celibate and heart-whole; landbound. Now for the first time he was far from shore, submerged among deep waters, below wind and tide, where huge trees raised their spongy flowers and monstrous things without fur or feather, wing or foot, passed silently, in submarine twilight. A lush place.

The telegram of a career

Next morning Boot goes to see off the Swede who, in his capacity as part-time medic, has been alerted to an outbreak of plague and is off by train to help. He returns to the pension in time to greet Kätchen, back from shopping and as they chat, she lets fall snippets of gossip from the friends she’s met, casually mentioning that the president has been locked up in his room by Dr Benito and a Russian. With the complete absence of journalistic sense which makes him the comic butt of the book, Boot timidly suggests he should tell his bosses about this, Kätchen agrees but tells him to hurry up because she wants him to take her for a drive, and so he quickly dashes off what will turn out to be a historic telegram.

NOTHING MUCH HAS HAPPENED EXCEPT TO THE PRESIDENT WHO HAS BEEN IMPRISONED IN HIS OWN PALACE BY REVOLUTIONARY JUNTA HEADED BY SUPERIOR BLACK CALLED BENITO AND RUSSIAN JEW WHO BANNISTER SAYS IS UP TO NO GOOD THEY SAY HE IS DRUNK WHEN HIS CHILDREN TRY TO SEE HIM BUT GOVERNESS SAYS MOST UNUSUAL LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING.

When the editors of the Beast receive this they go into overdrive, cancelling the front page, going with a massive splash, digging up a photo of Boot to puff him as their premier foreign correspondent, claiming this is a world scoop. Which it is.

The communist coup

The scenes set in Africa take less than half the book, pages 74 to 178 of a 222-page long text. The end when it comes is quite abrupt and also quite convoluted and all takes place on one action-packed farcical day.

There’s a comic garden party at the British Legation, an opportunity for mocking the British envoy who is frightfully posh and completely out of touch. But it’s an opportunity for Boot’s old chum, Jack Bannister, an official at the legation, to explain what’s going on. This is that large gold reserves have been found in the country and various European countries are manoeuvring to get concessions to mine it and/or run the country’s government. Bannister tells him the Russians are supporting Ishmaelia’s smooth public relations minister Dr Benito and his ‘Young Ishmaelia’ party.

Then Boot is cornered by the very same Dr Benito, the smooth-talking minister of information. He very strongly suggests to Boot that he accept the offer of being taken on an all-expenses tour of the country. Boot strongly resists.

He drives back to the pension where he finds an emissary of Dr Benito’s. He reveals that Kätchen has been taken into custody, for her own safety of course then has another go at persuading Boot to leave town. Boot says no, kicks him out of his room, and the pension goat which has, for months been straining at its leash at every passing human, finally bursts its rope and gives the emissary a colossal but sending him flying.

Fired up with frustration and resentment, Boot sits out at his typewriter and knocks out 2,000 words summarising everything he’s learned from Bannister about the coup and the threat of a Bolshevik takeover of Ishmaelia, threatening ‘vital British interests’, not to mention the imprisonment of a beautiful blonde and the outbreak of the Black Death. It has, literally, comically, everything. Boot takes it to the telegram office, bribes the reluctant official to send it, then goes for dinner alone at Popotakis’s, while the editors of the Daily Beast read his astonishing story and go into a frenzy.

Comedy crushing of love interest

Kätchen’s husband turns up, back from his treks through the outback. He is waiting in Boot’s room which was, of course, previously his and Kätchen’s. He is starving and Boot offers him the Christmas dinner which was included in his absurdly elaborate pack from Harrods. The German eats it all and falls asleep.

It is now night-time and the night watchman comes to tell him a car has arrived for him. Out of the dark stumbles the lovely blonde Kätchen and they embrace and she tells her how relieved she is to see him etc. But as soon as they go into his room and she sees her sleeping husband she completely forgets about Boot. She wakes hubby and they kiss and hug and make up while Boot watches. Then the three of them discuss how they can get out the country, as the German’s papers aren’t in order and the train is not taking foreigners. Kätchen remembers one of the more absurd pieces of Boot’s equipment, an inflatable boat, so they carry it down to the river, construct it, Kätchen and husband get in, along with the case of precious rocks (nearly swamping it), Boot gives it a shove and it is carried off by the swirling river. Well, so much for young love.

Up the revolution

Boot wakes next morning to find the Bolsheviks have taken over Jacksonburg. They are handing out leaflets reading WORKERS OF ISHMAELIA UNITE, they’ve stencilled a hammer and sickle on the front of the post office, hung red flags everywhere, the manifesto is glued to walls. The new government has renamed the capital Marxville, the Café Wilberforce changes its name to the Café Lenin.

Everything has gotten too much. Boot stands on the verandah of the pension and finds himself wishing that a deus ex machina would appear and solve his problems. At which precise point there is a joke for all educated people, in that he hears an airplane flying overhead and then sees a figure jump out, open his parachute and swing gently down to land on the flat room of the Pension Dressler. A god from the machine, literally.

It turns out to be the mysterious figure Boot had let board his plane from Croydon airport all those weeks ago and given a handy little lift across the Channel to Le Bourget. He is a supremely confident suave posh Englishman who is currently going under the name Baldwin and who never goes anywhere without his man Cuthbert.

This fellow knows everything and can do anything. He is entirely candid and friendly. His man has set up a radio in a secret location and lets Boot file his despatches back to the Daily Beast. He sheds more light on the Russian backing from the coup. It was between the Germans who backed a man named Smiles, and the Russians who backed Benito and the Young Ishmaelians. Both are, ultimately, after the gold.

They are drinking in the bar room at Popotakis’s when there is a mighty road and a huge motorbike comes crashing through the door and smashes into the bar. It is being ridden by the Swede who is drunk and angry at being sent off on a wild goose chase, having discovered there is no plague in the country. Mr Baldwin asks Boot if the Swede becomes more pugnacious when drunk. Yes, he does. Good, and Mr Baldwin proceeds to ply the Swede with drink and tell him the damn Russians have arrested nice President Jackson and carried out a commie coup.

They then take him to the palace where Dr Benito is in the middle of making a speech to the assembled crowd. In short, the Swede pushes through the crowd, bursts into the palace, swings a chair round his head demolishing the furniture on the ground floor then climbing the stairs to the balcony where he terrifies Dr Benito and the Young Ishmaelites into jumping off the balcony and felling through the crowd. Then he frees President Jackson from his bedroom. The coup is over.

Back at the pension Boot begins typing out a rather weedy summary of events, when Mr Baldwin politely suggests he can do better, sits down and types:

MYSTERY FINANCIER RECALLED EXPLOITS RHODES LAWRENCE TODAY SECURING VAST EAST AFRICAN CONCESSION BRITISH INTERESTS IN TEETH ARMED OPPOSITION BOLSHEVIST SPIES…

Which brings the Africa section to an end.

Back in Blighty

The Beast’s editors have gone mad with Boot’s story, splashing it across the front pages for days. Lord Copper wants to hold a welcome home Boot grand dinner and insists he gets a knighthood. We then cut to the scene at the Prime Minister’s offices where he receives the message from Lord Copper to make Boot a knight of the realm. When his assistants discuss this later, one has heard of John Courtenay Boot the author, and so the same case of mistaken identity which occurred at the start of the narrative is now repeated at the end, in the other direction. A symmetry which a Restoration playwright would be proud of. So the PM’s assistants think he must have intended the knighthood for Boot the novelist. And so, without having done anything to deserve it, without understanding why, novelist John Courtenay Boot receives a letter informing him he is going to be included in the Order of Knights Commanders of the Bath.

Lord Copper is keen to put on a massive gala dinner. The front page of the Beast announces it and that Boot will make a great speech. Meanwhile William Boot arrives at Dover, checks through customs and loads his vast equipage onto the train. At Victoria he puts it all in one taxi and tells it to go to Copper House, while he jumps in a different taxi and goes straight to Paddington i.e. for trains heading west, home, to Boot Magna.

Once safe and sound and welcomed back into the bosom of his family, Boot sends a telegram to Mr Salter resigning. Meanwhile through social circles, it has leaked out to the editors that the Knighthood is being given to the wrong Boot. Not only that but someone has got to feature at the grand gala dinner Lord Boot has arranged.

Mr Salter at Boot Magna

The senior editors depute Mr Salter to take the long train journey down to the West Country. This whole section is longer than really necessary. it is padded out with a dollop of satire at the expense of an idiot West Country yokel who is sent to collect Mr Salter (he telegrammed ahead that he was coming) in a coal lorry. It’s fairly funny in itself but also proves the general point that Waugh was determined to satirise everything and everyone he could get his hands on

This final section is slow and long, a prolonged satire on the quirks of the extended Boot family, their servants notably the butler Troutbeck, which reminded me of the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronet. There is a mass of comic detail but, to cut a long story short, William completely refuses to return to London to attend the gala dinner and be recipient of the glorious speech Lord Copper has prepared. But his uncle Theodore doesn’t refuse. He regales a weary Mr Salter with tall tales about his wicked days in gay Paree while Salter passes out in the bedroom chair.

But next day, back in London, just as Mr Salter is telling the managing editor he couldn’t persuade Boot to return to London with him and both are facing the fact they’re going to be sacked, when… Uncle Theodore appears. He is an amiable old cove, he has plenty of foreign stories. Hm. Maybe he can be persuaded to impersonate his nephew, for the duration of the gala dinner.

The gala dinner

Which is, therefore, the comic climax of the novel. The joke is that Lord Copper’s fulsome speech takes as its theme the Promise of Youth which clashes rather badly with Uncle Theodore’s bald, raffish, decrepit appearance. Theodore had only 6 hours earlier been taken on contract with the Beast. Lord Copper knows something is wrong but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Didn’t he meet this fellow Boot before he was sent to Africa? Could’ve sworn he was a young chap.

Lord Copper toasts the future and Waugh takes that as a pretext, in the last two pages, to sketch out what all the characters’ futures will be: ever-larger banquets followed by phenomenal death duties for Lord Copper; days spent at his tailors or club evenings prowling the streets, for Uncle Theodore; Mr Salter promoted sideways to become art editor of Home Knitting; the mistakenly knighted John Courtenay Boot on a long expedition to the Antarctic; Mrs Stitch continuing to be a thoroughly modern hostess. He includes a letter from the ever-optimistic Kätchen, written from a ship bound for Madagascar, and asking William to send her the money he raised by selling her husband’s rocks.

And for innocent William? Back to where he started, as the quiet, innocent, unassuming author of his snug little nature column, Lush Places, and the book ends as he puts down his pen for the evening, half way through a column about owls, and climbs the ancient stairs of Boot Magna to his calm and moonlit room.


Credit

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1938. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh (1936)

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

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

Serious opinions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abyssinia and Ethiopia

As to Ethiopia’s origins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to farce

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

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

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

Comedy

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

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

Deadpan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before the war

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

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

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

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

Comic characters

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

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

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

And:

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

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

Dodgy dossier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pondering Waugh’s imperialist rhetoric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Ethiopian words

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

Credit

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

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Africa-related reviews

History and journalism

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

Exhibitions about Africa

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


Related links

Other reviews of late antiquity

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


Related links

%d bloggers like this: