Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck (2010)

In Africa an archaic social organisation collides with the supremacy of a technical civilisation that causes the former to fall apart without replacing it…simply by being ourselves , we destroy traditions that were sometimes hard but venerable, and we offer as a replacement only white trousers and dark glasses, in addition to a little knowledge and a vast longing.
(from the diary of Vladimir Drachoussoff, a Russo-Belgian agriculture engineer in the 1940s)

Kimbanguism

Simon Kimbangu was born the son of a traditional Congolese healer in 1899. Taken in by British Baptist missionaries, he became a catechist i.e. highly instructed in the faith, before, in 1921, having a revelation that he himself had miraculous powers, given directly by Jesus Christ. Simon healed a dying woman (named Kintondo, p.146) and stories about his healing powers spread like wildfire, that he healed the deaf and blind, that he even raised a woman from the dead. From all over the region people abandoned their fields and markets and flocked to behold the saviour.

The authorities in the shape of district commissioner Léon Morel quickly became alarmed, van Reybrouck saying the Protestant missionaries (who had trained Simon) took a moderate and sympathetic view of his teachings, but the Catholics lined up with the colonial authorities to find Kimbangu a threat to order and conformity (p.149).

Kimbagu was arrested and put through a show trial, without the benefit of a defence lawyer. Van Reybrouck gives us extensive quotes from the transcript of the trial and points out its similarities to the trial of Jesus Christ, another religious zealot shopped by the religious establishment who the prosecuting authorities found difficult to convict of any particular crime. The part of Pilate was played by commander Amadeo De Rossi (p.149). The result was a foregone conclusion and Kimbagu was sentenced to death when, to everyone’s surprise, he was given a personal reprieve by the Belgian monarch, King Albert, the sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and he did indeed spend the rest of his life in a Belgian prison, most of it in solitary confinement, 30 years in a small cell, longer than Nelson Mandela.

The authorities tries to suppress Kimbagu’s followers, arresting them, sending them to remote parts of the Congo, outlawing his sect, sending his chief followers to camps fenced with barbed wire where they were subjected to forced labour, as many as one in five dying in the process (p.152). But this policy had the perverse result of spreading the faith throughout the country, with witnesses appearing all over to testify to miracles and healings performed by the imprisoned master. The result is that Kimbaguism has become a solidly established religion, a spinoff from Christianity in the style of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. Today around 10% of the population of the Congo are followers, with devotees and churches established in many other countries.

Van Reybrouck not only devotes an extended passage to Kimbagu’s biography and trial but makes a personal pilgrimage to what has become the Kimbanguists’ holy city, Nkamba, where he describes the peaceful atmosphere, and then interviews a leading figure in the church, Papa Wanzungasa, one hundred years old and still going strong. Indeed Kimbanguism is now a recognised religion. Some 10% of the population of Congo are followers. Papa Wanzungasa tells van Raybrouck about the early days of the movement, and describes how his own family members were forced to convert to Catholicism or sent to labour camps in the 20s and 30s, how the true believers held secret conventicles in the jungle, using coded messages to rendezvous at safe spots like the early Christians meeting underground in ancient Rome (p.153).

Van Reybrouck broadens the story out to place the Kimbanguists in context among a number of other charismatic religions which broke out in the Congo between the wars: Ngunzism, a spinoff from Kimbanguism which was overtly anti-colonial; Mpadism, founded by Simon-Pierre Mpadi, whose followers engaged in ecstatic dances; Matswanism, founded by First World War veteran André Matdwa; the Kitawala, the name a corruption of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine, the Watchtower; and many more.

And then van Reybrouck gives a brilliant sociological explanation for all this, explaining that the new charismatic sects arose in precisely the parts of Congo where traditional life and beliefs had been most disrupted by European intervention, Kimbanguism in the coastal region of Bas (or Lower) Congo, the Kitawala (which grew to become the second largest indigenous religion after Kimbanguism), in the highly developed mining region of Katanga, in the far south-east of the country.

In all instances, then, it was a response to the disruption or destruction of the old tribal beliefs and social systems, their very imperfect replacement by zealous but thin Christianity, and maybe most important of all, to the simple fact that most Congolese, after half a century of promises, remained second rate citizens in their own country, most of them caught up in conditions of semi-forced labour to vast European mining and agricultural businesses, which ruthlessly exploited them and their entire families, uprooting villages, relocating entire populations, with no hope of any end in sight.

All these charismatic native religions offered hope to their adherents that a new and better life, one the colonial authorities had completely failed to deliver, was at hand. The Tupelepele (meaning the Floaters) followed Matemu a Kelenge (known to his followers as Mundele Funji, or ‘White Storm’) who hoped for a return to the time of the ancestors who would restore balance and prosperity for all. Its followers threw their identity papers, tax receipts, bank notes and all the other symbols of the European capitalist system which had ensnared them into the river in anticipation of a Great Liberation (p.162).

David Van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo is a brilliant and stunning achievement, a history like no other, and his extended treatment of Kimbanguism (pages 142 to 154) exemplifies many of its many strong points.

1. Van Reybrouck is not British

Van Reybrouck is not British. Much of the writing about the nineteenth century explorers is by British chaps about British chaps and, despite its best intentions, can’t help falling back into the gravitational pull of admiration for the plucky epic exploits of someone like Livingstone or Burton or Stanley. Van Reybrouck is completely clean of all this cricket and tiffin cultural baggage. He is Belgian. It’s quite a relief to read a book about colonial Africa in which the British are barely mentioned. In this book the European power which takes centre stage are the Belgians, their kings, parliaments and civil service, with walk-on parts for the French, Germans and Portuguese.

(I was pleased to read the first hand account of a Congolese who fought in the Second World War describing his initial transfer to British-run Nigeria where he found that local Africans were treated hugely better than they were in the Congo – properly fed, treated with respect, and he was amazed to discover that black Africans held senior posts in the Nigerian army, something still unthinkable in the segregated Belgian Congo of the 1940s).

2. Van Reybrouck is not a historian

Van Reybrouck is not a historian, at least not by training. He trained as an archaeologist and his first publication was of his doctoral dissertation, From Primitives to Primates. A history of ethnographic and primatological analogies in the study of prehistory, in 2010. Since then he has gone on to write historical fiction, literary non-fiction, novels, poetry and plays, but somehow this archaeological background helps or might explain why his book feels open to a far wider range of influences and sources than a more narrow and conventional history by a professional historian would.

For example, it explains the brilliant and illuminating passage in the Introduction where he imagines five slides, each depicting the life of a 12-year-old boy in the Congo at widely separated moments of time, namely:

  1. 90,000 years ago on the shore of Lake Edward (the time and place where the bones of a group of prehistoric humans have indeed been found)
  2. a Pygmy boy in the rainforest two and a half thousand years before Christ
  3. AD 500 as the slow spread of agriculture (specifically, the fast growing ‘new’ crop, the plaintain) as well as basic iron tools arrive at the village where our 12-year-old lives
  4. 1560, when the 12-year-old lives in a society where small isolated villages have given way to clans of villages, themselves building up, especially on the savannah, into complex societies which can be called kingdoms, like those of the Kongo, the Lunda, the Luba and the Kuba
  5. 1780, when there’s a fair chance our village 12-year-old will have been trafficked by enemy tribes down to the coast and bought by European slavers who ship him off under terrible conditions to Brazil, the Caribbean or the American South

So by just page 23 van Reybrouck has already given us a breath-taking sense of the historical and geographic scope of his account, that it will be a wide-ranging and, above all, beautifully imaginative and creative history.

3. Van Reybrouck is interested in byways

A conventional historian might mention the rise of charismatic sects and religious leaders in the 1920s and 30s as a result of the ongoing deracination of the Congolese population, but it is distinctive of van Reybrouck that he finds the story or angle which brings such a theoretical topic to vivid life. He not only gives us transcripts of the trial of Simon Kimbangu but then travels to the Kimbanguists’ holy city to interview leading adherents for himself.

What I’m driving at is that van Reybrouck’s account not only covers the conventional history and dates and events, but turns over all kinds of odds and ends and details and fragments and insights which bring the country, the Congo, and its people, really vividly to life.

He stumbles across the huge statue of Stanley which used to dominate the main square in Leopoldville, now taken down and dumped inside one of Stanley’s own early steamers in a junk yard in Kinshasa (p.99).

He explains the origins of the pop music and jazz which took Kinshasa by storm between the wars, and its mix of African languages and American jazz with the (rather surprising) importation of Cuban rhythms and sounds to create what is called Congo rumba. He tells us about Camille Feruzi, the great accordion virtuoso of Congolese music, and Wendo Kolosoyi whose guitar playing laid the basis of Congo rumba ‘the most influential musical style in the sub-Saharan Africa of the twentieth century’ (p.168). African Jazz ‘the most popular band in the Congo on the 1950s’ led by Joseph Kabasele.

He mentions the godfather of Congolese literature, Paul Lomami-Tshibamba, who published elegant essays immediately after the Second World War questioning colonialism and was arrested and beaten in prison for his trouble before fleeing into exile in the (French-controlled) Republic of Congo, across the river (p.170). I immediately went looking for his first novel, Ngando, and am very irked to discover it has never been translated into English.

His book is studded with scores of other facts and byways and insights about Congo and its social and cultural and musical and artistic and social life which combine to build up a much more vivid and colourful portrait of the country than any purely ‘historical’ account could do.

4. Van Reybrouck has carried our many interviews

Van Reybrouck makes the commonly made observation that so many histories of Africa omit the voices of actual Africans – the difference is that he has done something about it. From his first trip to Congo in 2003, van Reybrouck sought out and interviewed the oldest people he could find, eye witnesses who saw at first hand the events they describe, or had them from parents or grandparents.

It is typical of van Reybrouck that he travelled to the Kimbanguist holy city to see for himself. Historians working from colonial records in libraries and archives don’t do that. Van Reybrouck combines history with the vivid sense of journey and place of a good travel writer. And then, the qualities of a good journalist who knows how to make an interviewee at ease and extract the good stuff from a wide range of old timers.

So there are two types of Congolese testimony, written and oral.

a) People van Reybrouck spoke to

One had informants who had seen a lot but had little to say, and one had informants who had little to say but talked a lot anyway. (p.220)

‘Étienne’ Nkasi (introduced page 6), over a hundred years old, who remembered the name of Stanley as a living presence, who knew Simon Kimbangu when he was a boy, who remembered the building of the first railway from Matadi to Stanley Pool, and much more. His story weaves in and out of the main narrative so he appears on page 117, witnessing the early development of Kinshasa.

Victor Masundi (introduced page 75), aged 87 and blind, grew up in the Scheutist mission in Boma, and Camille Mananga (page 76) aged 73 recounted his grandfather’s memories of first being taken into a Christian mission.

Colonel Eugène Yoka, a former air force colonel, tells van Reybrouck about his father who had been a soldier who served in World War 1, and that his grandfather, a Bangal tribesman from Équateur province, had been one of the first recruits to the Force Publique (p.77).

Albert Kudjabo and Paul Panda Farnana, two Congolese who volunteered to fight in the Great War to defend the ‘motherland’ Belgium and were promptly captured by the Germans and spent four long years in a prisoner of war camp. Liberated after the war, Farnana lived for a while in Brussels where he eloquently made the case for the Congolese being treated as adults in their own country (pages 138 and 178).

André Kitardi, veteran of the First World War (pp.129 onwards) and again on pages 185 and 199 where he ends up serving in Palestine. Libert Otenga, the Congolese medic who was transported north into Egypt, then the Middle East, to India and ended up serving in Burma (p.188). Louis Ngumbi who fought for the Allies during World War Two (p.185).

Martin Kabuya, 92, whose grandfather took part in the Sudan campaign, who enrolled in the Congo army, describes his rgandfather’s experiences in the Great War (p.135) and his own role as a Morse code operator in the Second War (p.187).

Hélène Nzimbu Diluzeti, mother of Colonel Yoka, 94-year-old widow of Thomas Masamba Lumoso, a Great War veteran who served for only a few weeks short of the entire duration of the war (pp.135 onwards).

Père Henri de  la Kéthulle de Ryhove, a Jesuit missionary in his 80s, nephew of the most famous Belgian missionary to the Congo, Raphaël de la Kéthulle who shares memories of his famous uncle who, alongside schools, built soccer stadiums, swimming pools and the huge Stade Roi Baudouin (pages 172 to 175).

Longin Ngwadi, aged 80 when van Reybrouck speaks to him in Kikwit, largest city of Kwilu Province, in the southwestern part of Congo, born in 1928, baptised by Jesuits, who wanted to become a priest but was rejected by the church hierarchy, so drifted to Kinshasa like so many young men in the 1930s and went on to become one of the first black professional footballers (pages 207 to 211).

Sister Apolline, also 80, a mixed race Congolese nun who started her career as a schoolteacher (p.211). Victoria Ndjoli, the first Congolese woman to get a driving licence (p.212).

Jamais Kolonga subject of a famous Congo rumba song, who’d had a long and varied life, who worked on the docks at Kinshasa as a young man, how his grandfather was converted to Catholicism and sent away two of his three wives, how his father was sent to Catholic school, taught to read and write and got a job with the Belgian company Otraco as manager of the housing district for the native workers, inspected their homes, made speeches to visiting directors and dignitaries and, once, even the king! Appointed to the Otraco works council and then the local council he was one of the first Congolese to have even a slight say in the administration (p.222). Jamais was born in 1935. At home he spoke French with his father, Kikongo with his mother, and Lingala with everyone else (p.223). Jamais went to work for Otraco in 1953 (pages 219 to 224).

b) Written texts recording African testimony and voices

Disasi Makuli (introduced page 29) was born in the early 1870s, son of tribalpeople, grew up in the tribal world and, aged ten, first heard rumours of outsiders raiding into their territory, who they nicknamed the Batambatamba, meaning the slave traders (p.41). Disasi was kidnapped by a gang led by the famous slave trader Tippu Tip. Then he is purchased by Stanley and set free, handed over to the case of the Englishman Anthony Swinburne who managed the small early settlement at Leopoldville. When Swinburne died he aged just 30 in 1889, Disasi found a new home with the British Baptist missionary Anthony Grenfell (p.68). In 1902 he set up one of the first black-run missions in Congo, at Yalemba (p.71). He witnessed at first hand atrocities caused by the Red Rubber Terror (p.89) and had many more adventures before dictating his life story to one of his sons before his death in 1941.

In 1895 a young man named Butungu left for England with a Baptist missionary, John Weeks. A year later he returned home with tall tales of sailing ships and salt water and the miracles he’d seen in London and wrote his stories down in Boloki. ‘It is the only known text by a Congolese from the nineteenth century’ (p.65).

Testimony recorded in official reports about the rubber terror: for example given by Eluo, a man from Esanga, about red rubber atrocities (p.89).

The long and colourful life of Lutunu, born at the end of the nineteenth century, as recorded by Belgian artist Jeanne Maquiet-Tombeau (The Life of the Congolese Chief Lutunu, 1952), given as a slave by chief Makitu to Stanley (p.102).

The memories of Joseph Njoli, a man from Équateur province, as recorded by a missionary and describing the imposition of the heavy tax burden on native workers levied from after the Great War (p.128).

Excerpts from the articles of Paul Lomami-Tshibamba (pages 170 and 216). An editorial from one of the colony’s most popular papers, L’Avenir Colonial (p.177).

The memoirs of André Yav, who worked all his life as a ‘boy’ in Elizabethville and wrote his recollections in the 1960s (p.123). He is quoted remembering the big miners strike during the war, which was violently suppressed by the authorities in December 1941 and the long and bitter legacy it left (p.192).

The wonderfully insightful diaries of wartime Congo kept by Vladi Souchard, pen name of Vladimir Drachoussoff, ‘a young Belgian agricultural engineer of Russian extraction’, pages 194 to 199.

Chapters

The quickest way to convey the structure of the book is to list its chapters. Each one has a ‘colourful’ title, such as a quote, and then a factual sub-title indicating the period covered. Here are the factual sub-titles and dates covered:

  1. Central Africa draws the attention of the East and West 1870 to 1885
  2. Congo under Leopold II 1885 to 1908
  3. The early years of the colonial regime 1908 to 1921
  4. Growing unrest and mutual suspicion in peacetime 1921 to 1940
  5. The war and the deceptive calm that followed 1940 to 1955
  6. A belated colonisation, a sudden independence 1955 to 1960
  7. [Assassination of Patrice Lumumba 1960]
  8. The turbulent years of the first republic 1960 to 1965
  9. Mobutu gets down to business 1965 to 1975
  10. A marshal’s madness 1975 to 1990
  11. Democratic opposition and military confrontation 1990 to 1997
  12. The Great War of Africa 1997 to 2002
  13. New players in a wasted land 2002 to 2006
  14. Hope and despair in a newborn democracy 2006 to 2010

Between the wars

All the books I’ve read recently were about the Victorian explorers of central Africa and ended around 1910 with the death of King Leopold and his handing over the Congo to the Belgian state to become a proper colony. It’s the period after that which interests me, from the Edwardians to independence and van Reybrouck’s does a wonderful job of explaining that period, both in terms of conventional history, but also with his extensive use of individual biographies, memories, interviews and anecdotes.

The period saw the real entrenchment of colonialism but also the development and changing phases of that colonialism. Much happened but the key strands were:

Incorporation into global capitalist economy

In the 1890s the economy was a barter one. Even King Leopold’s rapacious Force Publique in effect bartered for rubber or paid forced labour exclusively with rations. The period through and after the First World War saw the introduction of money, Congo was incorporated into the global capitalist economy, with the introduction of contracts and wages (pages 127 and 157).

The budding industrialisation of Congo led not only to an initial form of urbanisation and proletarianisation, but also to a far-reaching process of monetisation. (p.127)

And once you have money i.e. once you have transitioned a population from barter and traditional forms of exchange, to money, the state can control huge aspects of life, starting with contracts for wages, all kinds of laws about commercial dealings. Previously individuals worked out their own forms of exchange; now the state intervened in everything. Most of all, the state can now introduce and collect taxes. Taxes for what? Why, to pay for the state.

These economic, trade, financial practices had been introduced across Europe over centuries (think of the evolution of money and banking) and so, like the frog in the slowly heating up saucepan, everyone in the West had not only got used to them but regarded them as ‘natural’.

It’s only when you see all these instruments of state and social control being imposed on a completely virgin society that you realise how exploitative and controlling they were.

Industrialisation and proletarianisation

Industralisation and ‘development’ all sound fine until you realise their inevitable concomitant, which is the creation of a proletariat. Again, since many of the workers in the new factories or in the huge mines being created in the east of the country or on the vast new plantations growing coffee, cotton, tobacco and other export crops were only one generation removed from illiterate tribal villagers living on subsistence agriculture, the process was all the more dramatic and defined (p.125).

Between 1908 and 1921…Congo experienced its first wave of industrialisation, thereby prompting the proletarianisation of its inhabitants. (p.125)

You can see why Marxist ideology gained such traction in the developing world or Third World as it came up to independence. In Europe and America capitalism had developed a very large middle and lower middle class which benefited from it, which enjoyed a standard of living to which the more skilled workers aspired. These acted as a kind of social ballast, meaning that the industrial proletariat or working class, whatever you call it, even at their most radicalised, were never in a majority, never had the potential to overthrow the state.

Whereas in most countries coming up to independence, the clear majority of the population was treated as second class citizens and the great majority of them exploited by European employers and screwed for ever higher taxes by a state biased entirely to protecting Europeans and maximising their wealth.

When you add in the race aspect, the notion that whites exploited blacks, so that when the whites were overthrown and blacks were in power, paradise would come – and you have a very heady mix of ideas and ideologies and hopes.

Population explosion

Schools, hospitals, better nutrition, a more varied diet and medical advances such as inoculation against the worst tropical diseases, meant that the 1930s and 40s saw a population explosion (p.164). This took a very particular form, namely the explosive growth of cities. Word spread there were jobs, decent housing, money and all the excitements of modern urban life just a hundred miles from the traditional village where you lived. The village denoted crushing poverty, a corrupt chieftain and wizened elders who married all the young women. Farming was back breaking work and the crops grown were specified by the state according to unknown plans or you might be dragooned into one of the mandatory road building schemes.

So you upped sticks and hitched to the city to take your chances. Between 1920 and 1940 the population of Kinshasa doubled to 50,000. (Remember that Stanley founded it from nothing and named it Léopoldville just 40 years earlier, in 1881.) Elizabethville (named after the wife of King Albert of Belgium), centre of the mining industry in the south-east of the country, double in size between 1923 and 1929, from 16,000 to 23,000. Huge investments in the 1920s in both the mining industry and in transport infrastructure  led to Katanga province becoming one of the world’s major copper ore producers.

In 1919 the big Union Minière de Haut-Katanga corporation based in Katanga employed 8,500 workers; by 1928 it was 17,000. In 1920 there were 123,000 salaried black in the country; in 1929 there were 450,000 (p.127). By 1945, what with the huge demand for metals and foodstuffs generated by the war, the number of payrolled workers had risen to 800,000, possibly as many as 1 million (p.191).

Van Reybrouck uses the decision of Union Minière to allow workers to bring their wives to the workers’ accommodation as a symbolic moment when many black employees stopped being transitory single men on short term contracts and began to become families with careers. Black men acquired the skills required by a modern urban economy, carpenters, masons, woodworkers, as well as white collar roles such as nurses, clerks, warehouse foremen. And bar and music hall owners and the new jazz musicians who played in them. In the late 1930s the first pensions were introduced by some of the corporations. It was during the 30s, 40s and 50s that a Congolese society was created. The Boy Scouts were introduced. Football. Music.

Repression

As the colonial state extended its grasp out across all regions of the country, it faced two kinds of revolt: one the old traditional, rural one from the country and the other a new, urban one, fomented by workers and unions. This explains why ‘almost all the prisons in Congo were built between 1930 and 1935 (p.160).

When a young Belgian named Maximilien Balot, visiting a village in Pende country to collect taxes, mishandled the situation, was murdered and his body hacked to pieces, the colonial government sent in soldiers who killed at least 400 natives, probably more (p.163).

Elsewhere, strikes among mine workers or dockers were put down with force, although actual unions weren’t very active. Most were set up by the white employers and so were another symbol of repression rather than vehicles of protest and negotiation. As late as 1955, of about 1.2 million Congolese on payrolls, only 6,160 belonged to a union (p.214).

What is an évolué?

Against this background of industrialisation and modernisation, the rapid growth of urban centres with all the features of urban life i.e. modern jobs, modern accommodation, electricity, telephones and entertainment in the form of clubs and bars and cinemas, it’s no surprise that an educated black bourgeoisie emerged. The Belgian authorities used the French term ‘évolué’ meaning, literally, people who had evolved from their primitive illiterate tribal culture to become well educated, assimilated urbanites, people who dressed, walked and talked like Europeans.

An évolué had benefited from post-primary school education, had a good income, was serious about his work, monogamous (polygamy was one of the great indicators of the tribal mindset), dressed, walked and talked in the European manner. He was proud of owning Western consumer goods like a bicycle or record player (p.215).

Like any other class rising up into one above, they were very conscious of their new status and formed groups, clubs and circles to protect it. They read and they wrote. The first Congolese writers come from this caste such as Paul Lomami-Tshibamba. But they were in the classic piggy-in-the-middle position. After the Second World War they wrote the first tentative essays about greater equality and autonomy for blacks but deep down they wanted to live like whites and be treated like whites. The irony was that, after the war, more white women came and settled in the Congo, a new white middle class came into being, more consumer orientated, with big villas and chauffeur-driven cars and children at private school.

And at exactly the historic moment when a new black middle class and intelligentsia reached out to them, van Reybrouck portrays white bourgeoisie as withdrawing into its gated communities and enforcing a new, more unbreakable colour bar. If a white journalist took a black colleague into a European bar, conversation stopped. Trains were segregated into black and white. If a black man dived into a swimming pool at a European club, the whites got out (p.216).

They had done everything asked of them, but still the évolués were treated as second class citizens. Van Reybrouck quotes a plaintive petition from the évolués of the small town of Lulabourg, who describe themselves as ‘a new social class…which constitutes a new sort of native middle class’ and concludes plaintively: ‘It is painful to be received as a savage, when one is full of good will’ (p.217).

The authorities made what, in retrospect seem like pitiful attempts to mollify these pleas. In 1948 they declared the évolués could apply for a ‘certificate of civil merit’. Holders of this grand certificate would no longer be administered corporal punishment and, if charged with an offence, be tried before a European judge. They had access to white wards in hospitals and were allowed to walk through white neighbourhoods after 6pm (!).

Unsurprisingly this was met with resentment and so the authorities introduced the carte d’immatriculation in 1952 which gave the évolué exactly the same civil rights as Europeans, most notably the ability to send their children to European schools. However, in order to qualify you had to submit to a humiliating inspection of your home life, which scrutinised every aspect of your home from the sleeping arrangements right down to the state of the cutlery and the kitchen.

Very few évolués volunteered to undergo this humiliation and even fewer passed the stringent criteria with the result that, in 1958, from a population of 14 million, only 1,557 civil merits were handed out and only 217 registration cards (p.219).

All of which explains why so many of the early leaders of the African nationalist parties in the Belgian Congo were members of the frustrated évolué class.

A succession of raw materials

Congo was victim of a kind of ironic curse: the conquering Europeans discovered the country possessed a whole series of raw materials which brought the exploiting whites vast wealth but very little benefit and a lot of forced labour and misery for the native population. Van Reybrouck points out these raw materials formed a kind of relay race: just as one material ran dry or ceased to be needed by Western countries, another took its place (p.119).

Thus ivory was the commodity which attracted traders to Congo in the 1870s and 80s. But just as supplies of ivory were being exhausted in the 1890s, there was a sudden explosion of demand for rubber sparked by the invention of pneumatic tyres for bicycles and cars and Congo turned out to be home to millions of wild rubber vines, which the population was terrorised into milking throughout the 1890s and 1900s.

Then the rubber boom collapsed because so many rubber tree plantations were opening in the Far East. In 1901 rubber had accounted for 87% of Congo’s exports, by 1928 just 1% (p.119). But just as the bottom fell out of the rubber market, Congo was discovered to be one of the world’s great sources of precious metals and minerals, chiefly copper, which underwent an explosion of demand during the First World War.

The British and American shells fired at Passendale, Ypres, Verdun and on the Somme had brass casings made from 75% copper mined in the east Congo region of Katanga. The bullet shells were made of nickel, which is 80% copper (p.137). There was steady demand between the wars, and then another huge spike 1939 to 1945.

And then, just when demand for copper dropped following WW2, its extensive supplies of uranium made Congo’s mines out east of permanent interest to the Americans (p.191). And when demand for this fell with the end of the Cold War in 1990, a new demand was opened up with the spread of personal computers and then mobile phones, which require cobalt and other rare metals which are found in the eastern part of the country.

Conclusion

My reading of Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the industrial revolution and the age of capital is that the industrial revolution was a kind of catastrophe. Contemporaries marvelled at the power and size of the new machines, especially the new railway engines unleashed on the world in the 1840s, but were puzzled and horrified at how such incredible ingenuity and engineering prowess seemed to make a large part of the population poorer than it had been before, the puzzle Karl Marx set out to solve and which his devotee Hobsbawm echoed 100 years later.

Nobody knew then what we know now about the cyclical nature of capitalist boom and bust, about successive waves of technological, consumer and marketing innovation. After the second industrial revolution provided a cornucopia of new inventions into the 1870s and 80s it was possible to believe that the new sciences of economics and sociology would guide society towards a technological utopia.

What is quite obvious is that nobody at the time understood the forces driving Western societies and the entire world forward with such relentless energy to a series of disasters: from the prolonged depression of the 1870s and 1880s which nobody understood, through to the gathering rivalries of the 1900s which led to the unprecedented cataclysm of the Great War and then to the thirty years of chaos which followed – the instability in Europe, America and Asia crystallised by the collapse of the entire financial system in 1929 followed by the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe and Asia which ten stricken years later plunged the world into an even greater cataclysm.

My point is that Stanley and Leopold and the sadists in the Force Publique and then much of the colonial administration and the white Belgian masters certainly made countless mistakes, indulged in lies, extortion, torture and murder, or the relentless humiliation of colonial racism. And I’m not suggesting we ‘forgive’ them or let them off the hook. But at the same time this epic account, for me, brings out how humans in all areas, at all levels of society, don’t really know what’s going on. How could we? We can’t see the future from whose perspective the general trends of things even begin to make some sort of sense.

Who today can really predict the long-term impact of the digital revolution, of COVID-19 or global warming? After all the colour and vibrancy of van Reybrouck’s brilliant account I was left with a profound sense of humanity’s helplessness, a blinkered inability to understand the situation or manage ourselves which the next sections of the book – about the rush to independence, followed by civil war, military coups, corrupt dictatorship, political chaos, catastrophic war and social collapse are not, I suspect, going to do anything to disabuse me of.

Credit

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


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal (2011) part two

‘[Dr Livingstone] left an obligation on the civilised nations of Europe and America, as the shepherds of the world, to extend their care and protection over the oppressed races of Africa.’
(Henry Morton Stanley in his obituary of Livingstone published in the Graphic magazine, 1873)

Expeditions covered in the second half of the book

  • Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone, 1871 to 1872
  • Livingstone’s final expedition, 1872 to 1873
  • Stanley’s great expedition across Africa from East to West, 1874 to 1879
  • Stanley working for King Leopold II of Belgium, 1879 to 1885
  • The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

This is the third version of the meeting between Welsh workhouse boy-turned-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley and famous Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone which I have read, and arguably the most effective.

This is because, in the preceding chapter (chapter 18) Jeal had given a clear and vivid description of how utterly prostrate Livingstone was, his obsession with tracing the river Lualaba crushed by porters paid by Arab slavers to refuse to accompany him, forced to return to the miserable slaver town of Ujiji on the west bank of Lake Tanganyika where he discovered that all the trading goods and supplies which had been carefully selected, bought and sent to him by Dr John Kirk, British consul in Zanzibar, had been treacherously sold off by the Arab in charge of delivering them, so that all his native porters abandoned him, leaving the man penniless, betrayed, abandoned and completely demoralised by the complete failure of his expedition to the Lualaba, the crushing of all his hopes as an explorer. That is the moment when Henry Morton Stanley walked into his compound, accompanied by hundreds of porters laden with supplies. So the reader understands why the meeting came as such a huge psychological relief to both men.

As to Stanley’s epic trek across Africa which revealed for the first time that the Luabala was a tributary of the Congo, I have covered that in my review of Jeal’s biography of Stanley.

The origins of the Nile and what is an ‘origin’?

On reflection, I think Jeal would have done better to have started this book with a factual description of the actual geography of the Nile, carefully explaining what we now understand of its modern course; because, with this information imprinted on our minds, the reader would be much better placed to understand the importance of all the discoveries and theories bandied about by the explorers whose expeditions he describes over the next 350 pages.

It is only on page 316, in the context of Stanley proving once and for all that the river Luabala did not flow north and east to form a tributary of the Nile, but instead flowed north and west to become the main tributary of the Congo, thus, in effect, confirming Speke’s discovery that the northern outlet of Lake Victoria is the origin of the White Nile – it is only here that Jeal, almost casually, comes clean and explains the entire modern understanding of the multiple sources of the Nile, referencing subsequent expeditions, in 1891, 1898, 1935, and as recently 2006, which have traced its origins further and further into obscure watercourses in Rwanda and Burundi.

And it is only tucked away in the heart of his book, that he raises a central question which is: How do you define the source of a river? Eventually all major rivers splinter into tributaries which themselves divide into contributory creeks and streams and springs and so on. How many do you include? How do you define The Source? Apparently Stanley said that, if you go that far, it was only a small step to attributing the origins of a river to the clouds passing overhead and the rain that falls.

Jeal, like the explorers, is happy to stop at the assertion that Lake Victoria is the source of the White Nile.

Some incidents

Stanley on the Congo

Stanley’s work for King Leopold II of Belgium, building a road up the river Congo, establishing way stations, transporting sections of steam ships along it which could be assembled above the Congo’s fearsome rapids, are all placed in the context of establishing the infrastructure for the wicked Congo Free State which Leopold was seeking to establish (described in detail in chapter 28).

De Brazza

Stanley’s work for Leopold is also placed in the context of international rivalry with France embodied by the attempts of French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to claim the north side of the river Congo . This led, among other incidents, to the confrontation at Stanley Pool with Brazza, who had soldiers and tried to claim the south bank of the Congo for France. It was only by the resolute action of the British station chief at Kinshasa, young Anthony Swinburne, that the region, and what would go on to become Congo’s capital, remained in Leopold’s control.

The Congo situation was to be stabilised at the 1885 Conference of Berlin by the formal assignment of the vast region of the Congo to Leopold’s personal fief. Jeal covers all this but, because his focus is the Nile, he is most interested in the fate of central and East Africa.

Muslim versus Christian

Here the deep structural issue was whether the region would fall under Muslim or Christian domination. The Christian British were, in a sense, biased, identifying the cause of civilisation and progress with themselves and their religion. But most of the Brits involved knew the simple fact that Islam represented slavery, because east central Africa was being laid waste by a slave trade carried out entirely by Muslim Arabs, seizing black African slaves to ship them to the Arab Middle East, destroying entire villages, laying waste to areas, shooting slaves who were too weak or ill to trek the thousand miles to the coast.

Samuel Baker founds Equatoria

This is why those concerned for the region didn’t want it to fall under the control of Egypt, because Egyptian control would almost certainly involve the extension of slavery into the region of the Great African Lakes, Buganda, Bunyoro and so on.

Nonetheless, it was the noted explorer Sir Samuel White who penetrated south on the Nile with a host of soldiers and riverboats given by the Khedive of Egypt, and simply declared, without consulting any of the native rulers, the existence of a new southern province of Egypt which he named Equatoria, in May 1871.

This incident, peripheral to the quest for the source of the Nile, would go on to have long-term political ramifications which echo to this day.

Retreat to Fatiko

When Baker attempted to penetrate further south, he was met with fierce resistance from the army of king Kabarega of Banyoro and was forced to stage a fighting retreat to Fatiko, one of those defeats in the face of stronger African foes which were to be presented as a kind of moral victory in the British press (Isandlwana, 1879, Gordon and the Khartoum garrison massacred, 1885).

According to Jeal, it was the publicity surrounding Baker’s military expedition which first really publicised to many politicians and businessmen the geographic and commercial potential of opening up central Africa.

Stanley’s call for missionaries

This is why one of the most important events of the period was Stanley writing a letter, in May 1875, which was published in the Daily Telegraph, saying that the region was crying out for Christian missionaries to set up schools, educate the locals, encourage Western style trade, with a view to stamping out slavery and other barbarous practices like human sacrifices, to develop and raise the living standards of Africans. And the numerous missionary societies of Britain responded (p.302).

Almost inevitably, when the missionaries came, they faced the same kind of antagonism and sometimes horrific violence which the explorers had faced or witnessed but, by and large survived, because the latter had guns and were moving through, not settling in, dangerous territories.

Atrocities against missionaries

In January 1885 Mwanga king of Buganda, arrested the missionary Mackay and had three of his young black converts taken from the mission school, their arms hacked off, and then slowly roasted to death on a spit (p.348). In October 1885 Bishop James Hannington who had been sent by the CMS to become the first bishop of East Africa, was arrested by Mwanga and speared to death along with all 50 of his porters (p.349). On 30 June 1886 Mwanga arrested and executed 45 Catholic and Protestant converts, strangling several with his own hands, having the others castrated and burned alive (p.349).

These sorts of atrocities inevitably caused outrage in the newspapers and forced European governments to step in ‘and so something’ to protect our gallant missionaries. Thus the 1890s saw a wave of annexations and mandates, Malawi in 1892, Uganda declared a protectorate on 27 August 1894.

Rivalry with Germany

It must also be noted that, if the British endured a rivalry with a France determined to push east from their West African possessions, beyond Chad, across the desert and into Egyptian and Sudanese territory, and south as far as the Congo, the British also faced rivalry with Germany in East Africa.

Chancellor Bismarck sent envoys to sign deals with local rulers, amassing influence over such a large area that eventually it justified a full-blown diplomatic agreement between the two governments, in 1886, which secured for Germany the southern portion of the region which was to become Tanganyika, and present-day Tanzania.

In response, the British government approved the granting of a royal charter to Sir William Mackinnon’s Imperial British East Africa Company, sowing the seeds of what was to evolve into Uganda and Kenya (pages 362 to 363).

Wikipedia has two maps which vividly contrast territorial ‘ownership’ of Africa in 1880 and 1913, before and after the great ‘scramble for Africa’. Apart from showing the obvious way in which an entire continent was gobbled up by half a dozen European powers, the two things which stand out for me are 1. The extent of French possession, coloured blue. 2. The fact that German East Africa (dark grey) presented an impassible obstacle to imperialists like Cecil Rhodes who wanted to create one unified band of British colonies stretching the length of Africa. How frustrated he must have been!

Political geography of Africa 1880 and 1913. Source: Wikipedia

The Emin Pasha relief expedition 1886 to 1889

I’ve summarised the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in my summary of Jeal’s Stanley biography. Suffice to say that, as in his descriptions of Livingstone’s two last expeditions or Stanley’s trans-Africa trek, arguably the summaries Jeal gives in this book are better than the ones in the Stanley book because they are much shorter, much punchier, and focus on the key events and decisions: I understood the importance of Stanley’s fateful decisions during the Emin Pasha expedition much better from the 10-page summary given in this book (pages 365 to 375) than from the several chapters devoted to it in the Stanley biography which, for me, buried the important things in a sea of details. In particular, the notorious moral collapse of the Rear Column into Kurz-like barbarism is much more vivid when compressed onto just two pages (pages 371 to 372).

Royal Navy anti-slavery

It gets very little publicity but the British government tasked the Royal Navy with maintaining squadrons whose sole purpose was to intercept slave ships and quell the ocean-borne slave trade.

During the nineteenth century, 17,000 members of the Royal Navy died as a result of their service with the West and East African Anti-Slave Trade Squadrons. (p.362)

Part two

Part two of Jeal’s book is titled ‘The Consequences’ and deals with just that, the long term consequences of all this imperial jostling for African territory at the end of the nineteenth century. I’d read almost all the stories Jeal tells of the earlier expeditions in his biography of Stanley or Frank McLynn’s book about African exploration. Part two of Jeal’s book leaves all that Victoriana behind to deal with the dawning era of state-sponsored exploration. It broadens out to be about the general Scramble for Africa during the 1880s and beyond – to my surprise, to a great deal beyond – in some instances (Sudan and Uganda) bringing the story right up to date, with summaries not only of their twentieth century histories, but their post-colonial political histories right up to the year the book was published, 2011.

Sudan

In both countries Jeal says the British made a series of fateful mistakes. In Sudan it was yoking together the utterly different Muslim Arabs of the north with the African animists and Christians of the south. Since the British got on better with the Arabs, who had more Western-friendly economic and social systems, the northerners inherited most of the political, economic and military levers of power and looked down on the black African southerners. Jeal singles out the British commissioner Sir Harold MacMichael (served 1916 to 1933) for refusing to even visit the south for his first seven years in post and then being so shocked by its primitive condition that he perversely refused to encourage investment in it.

All this made it almost inevitable that, once the country was granted independence, many in the south would want their own government. South Sudan tried to secede in 1955, leading to a civil war which continued on and off for over 60 years until South Sudan gained its independence as a nation state in July 2011. (With depressing inevitability a civil war then broke out within south Sudan in 2013 which lasted till last year, 2020.)

In other words, the long term consequence of Britain drawing the borders of the territory as it did, and administering it as it did, was long term instability, war and suffering.

Uganda

The other major British error Jeal lingers on, was not retaining the region of Equatoria, claimed and invented by Baker in 1872 in the name of the Khedive of Egypt, as a distinct country.

Although it contained numerous tribes, the inhabitants of Equatoria had the advantage of being related by language and tradition. Instead the British made the disastrous mistake of dividing Equatoria along a horizontal line through the middle and assigning the northern half to Sudan and the southern half to Uganda, a decision taken by Sir Harry Johnston in 1899. Jeal goes into some detail as to how the inclusion of the Equatorial kingdoms, of Baganda in particular, helped to unbalance the tribal makeup of Uganda from the start.

Jeal gives a brisk summary of Uganda’s history after it gained independence from Britain in 1962, namely: the rise of a typical African dictator or Big Man, Milton Obote; a crisis caused by how to handle the semi-independent nation of Buganda within Uganda: Obote suspends the constitution in a 1966 coup and rules as a dictator until he was overthrown by his military leader Idi Amin, who himself emerged as a murderous tyrant ruling for 8 years until himself overthrown when the army of neighbouring Tanzania along with Ugandan exiles invaded and restored Obote for the next 6 years (1980 to 1986). Currently Uganda is ruled by former general Yoweri Museveni, who overthrew the previous regime in 1986 and has ruled a one-party state ever since.

Summarising the plight of both countries, Jeal says:

Britain should have stayed longer in Sudan and Uganda, should have spent more money there and better prepared these countries for independence. (p.418)

The case for intervention

In his final pages Jeal recapitulates the case for European intervention in the area of central Africa he’s been describing. One of the central motives was to stamp out the slave trade which the big five explorers he focuses on (Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley) witnessed, described and railed against with passion and persistence.

Jeal argues that if the Christian European nations had not intervened in central Africa, the area would not have remained a pristine paradise, as some anti-colonialists claim. It had already been heavily despoiled by the Arab slave trade which was encroaching deeper and deeper into the interior with every year, bringing devastation, mass murder and enslavement.

The whole of central equatorial Africa would have become part of the Muslim world, with slavery an inescapable part of it, unless the colonial powers had come to stay. (p.430)

On this reading the case against the Europeans isn’t that they colonised Africa, as such. Jeal goes out of his way to assert that the British in particular did bring impartial justice, schools, education, railways, roads and economic development which lifted most Africans out of grinding poverty to levels of affluence and literacy inconceivable only a few generations earlier.

No, the case against the European colonialists is that they made terrible decisions about borders and administrative regions, tried to run their colonies on the cheap, ignored native traditions and chieftains and kingdoms in preference for a British style central administration and parliamentary democracy and that, when they handed all this over to African rulers in the 1960s, it quickly became obvious that the countries couldn’t be ruled by Westminster-style politics, but only from the barrel of a gun in the hands of the country’s strongest institution – the army.

The criticism is not that Britain colonised Africa. It’s that the British did it so badly. Upon independence, the continent’s 3,000 ethnic groups ended up divided up into 47 nation states. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy centuries-old beliefs in animism, spirits and personal responsibility, but not long enough to imprint the universal literacy and faith in education which underpins the success of the West. The complete inappropriateness of imposing a Westminster-style parliamentary system onto nations with radically different traditions and definitions of power and authority, led almost all of them to collapse and be replaced by the rule of Big Men backed by the army. In the mid-1990s there were 31 civil wars raging in Africa, resulting either from the terribly drawn boundaries or the deliberate incitements of Big Men (p.434).

Responsibility

It seems to me attributing ‘responsibility’ or ‘guilt’ for the dire post-independence fates of many African nations is pointless. Identifying errors and mistaken decisions with a view to avoiding them in future or using the analysis to try and address current problems might be a worthwhile activity. But blaming some white guy for what he said or wrote 150 years ago seems futile. It’s only a form of self-promoting rhetoric and psychological bonding for the righteous who like to make those kind of criticisms. Blaming ‘the white man’ or ‘the West’ or ‘Europe’ hardly seems very practical to me.

As Jeal candidly admits, the violent and semi-genocidal actions of the Islamic government in Khartoum dwarf anything the colonial authorities ever did. Similarly, Idi Amin’s regime undertook large-scale repression of sections of Uganda’s population, which may led to as many as 500,000 deaths and the wholescale expulsion of the country’s entire Asian population (30,000 came to the UK, some 10,000 to other western nations).

The idea that what exactly Speke said to Burton in Aden 150 years ago is given more space in the book than the massacres commissioned by the governments of Sudan and Uganda almost amounts to a subtle kind of racism, or at the very least, bias, whereby what one white man said or wrote 150 years ago is considered more important than the death of 100,000 Africans in the recent past.

To put it another way, once your mind is contemplating the murderous post-independence regimes of Sudan or Uganda, being concerned about what exactly Speke said to Burton 150 years ago seems absurd and irrelevant. In a way the brutal realities Jeal describes in the last 30 or 40 pages of his book, make the entire account of the Victorian explorers seem like a fairy tale, like a weightless fiction, like Alice in Wonderland.

Attributing some kind of responsibility to the colonial authorities who took bad decisions from the late 1890s through to the 1950s is probably a more worthwhile activity, but Jeal zips through this final part of the book at top speed. The colonial and post-independence history of two nations like Sudan and Uganda are just too big and complex to be managed in such a short space, and by an author who is much more at home investigating Stanley’s father complex or Baker’s love for his slave wife. In other words, is happier retailing ripping yarns of Victorian derring-do than giving a dryer, cold-blooded analysis of contemporary African politics.

Still, I suppose it’s to Jeal’s credit that he doesn’t just end the book with the fiasco of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in 1889, as he might have done but makes an attempt to bring it up to date, skimpy though it feels.

Up until the last 40 or so pages Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure is full of extraordinary stories of Victorian heroism and endurance, illness and obsession. It is entirely fitting that this book was turned into a series of BBC Radio 4. It has exactly that Radio 4 feel of comforting, white bourgeois, public school nostalgia. And if you’re in that kind of mood, why not? But the harsh realities described in the final passages make you realise that that world – of dashing Victorian chaps – only really survives between the covers of this kind of Radio 4-friendly history.

Logocentrism

Mind you, this aspect of Jeal’s book, namely the foregrounding of European written accounts over African oral or unrecorded accounts, is a subset of the larger bias embedded in Western practice, which is the privileging of the written word.

Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley are the subject of so many books not only because they are such epitomes for those who like tales of Victorian adventure, but because they wrote so much and so much of it is stored in libraries and archives. This presents potentially endless opportunities for each generation of biographers to rework the sources and present new versions of their lives. It guarantees a steady little cottage industry which keeps their names in the public eye, sort of (among fans of this kind of thing at any rate).

Whereas where are the biographies of the Africans they met, of King Kamrasi of the Bunyoro or King Mutesa of the Baganda, to name a couple of the most notable? What of all the other chieftains and leaders, let alone their hundreds of thousands of subjects?

There is a profound structural inequality not just in the fact that the West or, in this case, Britain, with its public schoolboy taste for foreign adventure encouraged by its public schoolboy publishing and public schoolboy bookselling industries, will carry on writing, publishing and consuming books of imperial derring-do for the foreseeable future and getting them comfortably serialised on Radio 4. But in the way that we in the West foreground writing and written sources, written accounts and written description, journals, diaries, letters and every form of text over other types of record or history (predominantly oral).

In this deep sense, the very way the subject of history is conceived and practiced in the West militates against cultures with alternative methods of recording the past. Consigns them to eternal silence and subordinateness.

The sources of the Nile

My major practical criticism of the book isn’t any of these: you get what you pay for and Jeal delivers an intelligent and pacy account of the five great Victorian explorers of Africa.

But I think even on its own terms, the book would have benefited from a better explanation of the actual sources of the Nile, which are only partly explained in a throwaway few pages around page 316. I had to google the subject to find out what current knowledge on the sources of the Nile is (and to be surprised that, right up to the present day, explorers are still claiming to have found the ‘real’ source, tucked away in the rainforests of Rwanda, so that there is still, surprisingly, scholarly debate on the subject). I think this could have been stated and explained, with maps, much more clearly; and that, on balance, the best place to have put it would have been at the start so the reader had the clearest sense possible of the geography, before commencing the accounts of the explorations.

Chief Cammorro’s view

‘Most people are bad; if they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they don’t have the strength to be bad.’

The words of Cammorro, chief of the Latuka, as quoted by the explorer Sir Samuel Baker, who is not necessarily a reliable witness and who, possibly, put into the chief’s mouth his own hard-bitten and cynical views. But in the context of the violent Africa described in this book, very apposite whoever exactly said it.

Credit

Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal was published  by Faber and Faber in 2011. All references are to the 2012 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn (1992)

Frank McLynn

McLynn, 80 this year, has made a very successful career as an author, biographer, historian and journalist, having written some 30 books. He clearly aims to produce enjoyable, accessible and non-scholarly histories and biographies for a wide audience. This is suggested, among other things by his use of casual and rather boys’ own adventure story diction:

  • It was the Moors who had done for Major Houghton. (p.16)
  • His plight was grim. His horse was on its last legs. (p.16)
  • The Landers shook the dust of Badagry off their shoes with gusto and plunged into the wilderness… (p.27)
  • The master of the Thomas proved to be a blackguard. (p.30)
  • Speke would not have to fear the supercilious basilisk eye from a superior beetling brow, as with Burton, every time he wandered off to slaughter a few dozen of Africa’s wildlife.
  • Once again the expedition came within an ace of disaster… (p.104)
  • Meanwhile the Upper Nile was proving a hell on earth… (p.119)

I found McLynn’s book about the Mexican Revolution very useful, accessible and gripping, and was impressed by his talent for shaping the complicated facts into a compelling narrative. But that book had the advantage of telling the story of a huge social upheaval through the lives of just two legendary figures who are central to the entire drama, which itself only covered a period of about 20 years.

Here the challenge is the reverse: there were hundreds of European explorers to Africa, most of them undertook more than one expedition, many stayed for years carrying out complex sequences of explorations, and the total period of Western exploration lasted about a century (from 1788 to around 1890). In other words, there’s a lot more subject matter to cover and so it’s harder for this book not to feel more scattered and diffuse.

Brief history of exploration up to the European era

The ancient Greeks and Romans probed into Africa but never crossed the barrier of the Sahara or managed to penetrate far up the Nile. From the seventh century, Muslim Arab traders explored the east coast of Africa, set up numerous settlements and established a lucrative trade in black slaves. From the 1480s onwards the Portuguese created stopping off points on their circumnavigation of Africa to reach India. But McLynn tells us that the accepted date for the start of the ‘modern’ exploration of Africa is 1788. For it was in this year that the African Association was set up in London by a dozen London businessmen led by Sir Joseph Banks, the noted botanist who accompanied Captain Cook on his journeys to the South Seas.

The African Association (to give it its proper name, The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa) sponsored a series of expeditions throughout the 1790s, then activity went into abeyance for the duration of the wars with France (1793 to 1815) before being revived once peace returned. As soon as you google this subject you discover it is extremely well covered online and there is a recognised and much repeated canon of early explorers, namely:

Pre-Napoleonic war explorers

  • John Ledyard, set off 1788, died in Cairo aged 37.
  • Simon Lucas, departed Tripoli 1788; forced to abandon expedition south by tribal wars.
  • Daniel Houghton, 1790, penetrated deep up the river Gambia in West Africa before being robbed and murdered aged 51.
  • Mungo Park, 1795, penetrated further into West Africa than any European to date, discovering that the Niger flowed east, but died in the attempt to travel the length of the Niger by canoe, murdered or drowned it’s not clear to this day, age 35.
  • Friedrich Hornemann, 1797, set off from Cairo to travel across the Sahara to Timbuktu and was never heard of again; if he died around 1800, he would have been 28.

Post-Napoleonic war explorers

  • Alexander Gordon Laing, Scottish, first European to reach Timbuktu in 1826, being murdered by Tuareg soon afterwards, aged 31.
  • René Caillié, son of a convict (!) first explorer to visit Timbuktu (in 1828) and return to tell the tale, before dying of ill health and tuberculosis aged 38.
  • Heinrich Barth, considered one of the greatest of the European explorers of Africa for his scholarliness and commitment to learning Arabic, spent five years living in Sudan, crossing the Sahara to West Africa, first person to visit remote Timbuktu since Caillié (in 1853).
  • Charles John Andersson, explored south-west Africa from his base in Cape Town, at one stage was a war lord to the Damara tribe, died of fever aged 40.
  • Karl Mauch, son of a Bavarian carpenter, taught himself and scraped the money to travel to South Africa, where he worked to earn the funds to pay for an expedition up into south-east Africa. He discovered the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in 1872, but was ignored when he returned to Germany and died in poverty aged 37.

General conclusions

McLynn draws a handful of conclusions from these early pioneers:

1. Exploring Africa was a young man’s game.

2. All the explorers fell ill, very seriously ill, multiple times, and a high percentage, even of the young and fit, died.

3. This didn’t stop the obsessive ambition of many of the most successful ones to be ‘the first man to see’ whatever feature they had been sent by the Association to discover: the fabled city of Timbuktu, the origins of the river Niger, various waterfalls and so on.

4. African exploration was connected to low birth. It presented an opportunity to people condemned to lifetimes of lowly obeisance in Britain’s class structure, to make a splash, to make a name for themselves, to achieve wealth and status. Simon Lucas was the son of a vintner. David Livingstone was one of seven children who grew up in a tenement in a grim Scottish mill town and was sent aged ten to a cotton mill where he and his brother John worked twelve-hour days as piecers, tying broken cotton threads on the spinning machines. Henry Morton Stanley was abandoned by his mother and spent ten years from the ages of 6 to 16 in a remote Welsh workhouse.

5. Many of the explorers were Celts, outsiders to the English establishment: Mungo Park and David Livingstone came from lowly backgrounds in Scotland, Stanley from a wretched workhouse in rural Wales. Hugh Clapperton from Annan, Dumfriesshire (died of dysentery in Sokoto, aged 38). Richard Lander, son of a Truro innkeeper (died on the Niger river, aged 29) and so on.

6. Expeditions do not bring people together. Many of these trips are notorious for the extreme hatred and bitterness they engendered between the protagonists. Most notorious is the tremendous falling out between the famous Arabist Richard Francis Burton and the big game hunter John Hanning Speke on their 1858 expedition from Zanzibar into East Africa, during which they mapped Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria, which lasted after they returned to England and pursued a feud against each other in the press right up till the day of Speke’s death (or suicide?) in 1860.

A blizzard of names and dates

McLynn plunges straight into accounts of these early expeditions, telling them in pared-down, summary style with the result that I felt bombarded by names – of European explorers and of the countless villages and towns they discovered/arrived at, and the plethora of Africa tribes with their kings and sheikhs who they encountered, traded with, fought against and so on. I soon realised I was never going to remember.

Much more interesting and enduring are the broader points he makes about Africa in general and the perils of European exploration in particular.

The African scene

Pitiful agriculture

Most African cultures lived right on the breadline, on the border of starvation (p.146). This was caused by poor soil, poor climate and erratic rains which, in the tropical regions, fell almost constantly all year round. Many Africans lived on a very basic diet of yams, manioc, corn, supplemented by berries and fruits, only rarely fish or meat protein. There was rarely the kind of guaranteed agricultural surplus which had allowed for the creation of complex civilisations in the Fertile Crescent and then across the Middle East and Europe for millennia.

Therefore, even a slight incursion by outsiders, let alone domineering white men leading a train of 300 porters, could upset delicate ecological balances and plunge villages and entire regions into famine. In fact the explorers regularly came across whole regions which were in famine conditions, where the locals were starving and where, therefore, no food could be bought for their huge trains for any amount of calico or beads (e.g. pp.217 to 219)..

And this explains many tribes’ fierce protectiveness of their territory and the often hostile response of African leaders to the arrival of the explorers and their huge hungry trains.

Tsetse flies

Tsetse flies were a menace to humans and livestock in Africa. They are to this day.

Tsetse flies, through the cyclical transmission of trypanosomiasis to both humans and their animals, greatly influence food production, natural-resource utilization and the pattern of human settlement throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that the annual direct production losses in cattle alone amount to between US$6bn and $12billion, while animal deaths may reach 3 million. (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)

Lack of pack animals

There was a lack of pack animals or domesticable animals such as had underpinned the development of civilisation across Eurasia, which was home to oxen, cattle, donkeys but above all horses, which had performed a key economic function for millennia.

The evidence was overwhelming that all domesticated animals, whether oxen, camels, mules, horses or camels, succumbed very soon to the effects of climate and disease once taken north of 5°N. (p.132)

Later on he links the lack of pack animals to one central factor, the tsetse fly which transmitted the trypanasomes which caused ‘sleeping sickness’.

It was the tsetse that has barred passage to black Africa by killing off the Arabs’ horses and camels. The fly also kept the technology of black Africa primitive, since, deprived of animals, the African could hand plough only small plots of land, had no transport and lacked a source of first class protein. (p.240)

Lacking any kind of pack animals, most sub-Saharan cultures were primitive in the extreme. (The importance of domesticatable animals and of the wide range of edible grasses to the rise of Eurasian civilisations is explained in Jared Diamond’s 1997 classic Guns, Germs and Steel.)

Hundreds of porters

Therefore, an enduring feature of African exploration was simply that humans had to carry everything. (McLynn does describe a handful of explorations which experimented with horses, donkeys and even elephants, but in every case the animals wasted and died, leaving the human porters with even more to carry.) Hence native porters numbering in the hundreds. McLynn reports that of all the different tribes the Nyamwezi were head and shoulders the most reliable, foresightful and organised of porters. On the east Africa coast, at Zanzibar and the vital coastal town of Bagamoyo, huge numbers of porters were available and certain individual porters rose to prominence, were able to organise and manage their peers and so were hired by successive explorers and feature in accounts of successive expeditions.

Expeditions routinely included two to three hundred porters, and Stanley’s exceptionally well funded ones, up to 800! He had to be a master of organisation, man management and discipline, and McLynn gives examples of moments when European masters either a) managed to, or b) miserably failed to, maintain discipline and rank.

Lack of roads

Explorers discovered an almost complete lack of transport infrastructure. Most of the rivers were too large to be navigable or presented obstacles such as rapids and waterfalls. Roads through tropical jungle were impossible to maintain, so most people used narrow tracks.

‘The pathway seldom exceeded two feet in width, with tress and tall grasses growing up to its edges.’ (Alfred Swann, quoted on page 133)

There were few if any roads as understood in the developed world, nothing like canals and nothing remotely like Western railways. McLynn tells us Western-style tarmaced roads, and railways, didn’t really arrive in Africa till the 1930s.

The perils of European exploration

Sub-Saharan Africa remained unexplored for so long for a number of reasons.

No navigable rivers

Most African rivers debouch into sandbanks and have neither natural bays nor deep estuaries which characterise European and American rivers and allow ships to anchor and navigate upstream. If ships did anchor, water-borne explorers found it impossible to proceed far upriver because of rapids, cascades and waterfalls.

Violent humans

Anyway, chances are they would be attacked by any of the complicated patchwork of tribes and regional warlords who fiercely protected their territory. A simple motive for African violence and resentment was related to the dire poverty of most African communities but there were also continual low-level conflicts between neighbouring tribes; there are calculated to have been around 700 distinct tribes. But as MacLynn emphasises, Africans owed far more allegiance to their villages, village elders and traditions. There were hundreds of religions, mostly primitive ancestor or fetish worship.

What this amounts to in the book is a blizzard of names of the kings of umpteen different tribes and regions which the explorers pass through, most at war with all their neighbours, thus making negotiating with them for safe passage very dicey, plus all these rulers tended to want presents and dues. Hence the enormous trains of porters the explorers required to carry not only their food and weapons and tents etc, but also a sizeable treasury of Western goodies to be handed over to the series of rulers they had to mollify. The African word for it was hongo which translates as ‘tribute’ or ‘bribe’, depending on your worldview. As the (admittedly rabidly anti-African explorer) Samuel White Baker complained:

‘It is the rapacity of the chiefs of the various tribes that render African exploration so difficult.’ (quoted on page 75)

And plenty of explorers were just murdered outright by nomads, bandits, lawless tribals. McLynn gives a vivid account of the attack by the Eesa tribe on the expedition of Burton, Speke, Stroyan and Herne along with 42 porters encamped just outside the town of Berbera on the coast of Somaliland on the night of 19 April 1855. Lieutenant Stroyan was killed outright, Burton took a spear thrust through one cheek and out the other but managed to run to the beach and safety while Speke was captured, suffered spear thrusts in eleven places including right through one thigh, was tied up and threatened with castration until he was left in the care of one armed guard who he managed to knock out before also running to the sea where he was discovered by rescuers then following morning (p.255).

Violent animals

No continent has so many fierce animals as Africa. Lions routinely attacked and killed members of exhibitions. If travelling by water, crocodiles and the surprisingly aggressive hippopotamus were a peril. Aggressive birds attacked larger animals, for example camels, leaving wounds which festered and killed.

Heat

Explorers died of simple heatstroke or from the combo of heat and high humidity in forest regions.

Disease

But disease was the most obvious peril. All Europeans attempting travel into sub-Saharan Africa quickly became ill, often seriously ill. Malaria, typhoid, ophthalmia, and any number of causes of diarrhoea, afflicted almost all European explorers with devastating consequences. Half the explorers who set out were killed by disease; most of the survivors emerged severely weakened by prolonged illness with lingering debilitating effects. McLynn mentions smallpox, fever, ague, amoebic and bacillic dysentery, guinea worm, ulcers acquired when scratches (from thorn bushes or tall sharp grass) got infected and festered in the heat and humidity, bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatism, sciatica, athsma, dropsy, emphysema, erysipelas, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis), bilharzia, filariasis, hookworm infestation (ankylostomiasis), river blindness (onchocerciasis), exanthematic typhus, yaws and leprosy.

Regularly you read that the explorers were laid up for months on end with fever and dysentery, or rendered so weak they literally couldn’t walk and had to be carried in hammocks. In fact McLynn devotes an entire chapter, chapter 11, to the subject (pages 227 to 252).

Attrition rates

Thus it was that all the expeditions suffered appalling death rates. For example, Stanley left Bagamoyo in mid-November 1874 with 4 white companions and 342 African porters. By the end of February 1875, 181 had been lost to famine, illness, desertion or attacks by tribesmen. On the Emin Pasha expedition, Stanley left Zanzibar in spring 1887 with 708 men. Two and a half years later only 210 returned (p.152). The situation was summed up by the German explorer Wilhelm Junker:

‘Famine and disease are the chief causes of the depopulation of Central Africa; in comparison with these the export of slaves is but a small item.’ (quoted on page 117)

No profit

And, despite all the rumours of treasure and secret cities and rare gems and valuable resources, it turned out to be impossible to make a profit from any of these expeditions. They were either sponsored by national geographic associations, by missionary organisations, or by wealthy backers (p.146). None of the explorers McLynn describes got involved in any businesses set up to trade with Africa, there were few if any businesses involved there. Stanley came the closest, in the sense that he was central to helping King Leopold of Belgium set up his evil and rapacious regime in the Congo, but that was more slave exploitation than a ‘business’. A number of explorers ended their days as colonial administrators, such as da Brazza, Frederick Lugard and Carl Peters. But most came home, wrote up their experiences and lived off their ublications and lectures.

The great British explorers

Having skated through the early pioneers McLynn slows down and pays more attention to the famous expeditions of David Livingstone, Richard Burton (the first European to see Lake Tanganyika, which he wrongly thought must be the source of the Nile) and John Hanning Speke whose joint expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society and lasted from 1856 to 1859.

Burton and Speke were involved in the great quest to find the source of the mighty river Nile. Speke won, showing that its main source is Lake Victoria, to the anger of the far more scholarly and conscientious Burton, who made the wrong call when he attributed the source to Lake Tanganyika. On their return to England in 1859 they embarked on a long and bitter war of words through the press and pamphlets.

And Samuel White Baker, who I’d never heard of but, apparently, was second only to Livingstone in popular fame, for his extensive 4-year-long explorations around the Great Lakes region of central east Africa (1861 to 1865).

Baker was the first European to see Lake Albert and a substantial waterfall on the Victoria Nile which he named Murchison Falls after the then-president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Murchison. Back in Blighty he wrote a considerable number of books and published articles which bolstered his reputation as the grand old man of Africa exploration and an expert on the Nile, though he was almost as famous for his extravagant big game hunting on four continents, Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.

Suppressing the slave trade

Britain abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1807. The actual state of enslavement i.e. slavery as a whole, wasn’t abolished, and existing slaves freed, until 1833. By the 1850s suppression of the slave trade carried on by other nations had become a major moral crusade for the British. The Royal Navy had an Africa squadron specifically tasked with patrolling the west African coast and intercepting slave ships, forcing them to return their captives to Africa.

In east and central Africa where the great competition to find the source of the Nile played out, there was a long established slave trade run by Arabs, capturing and transporting black Africans up the coast to the Muslim world. High-minded missionaries like David Livingstone raised funds and publicity by their stated aim of combining geographical exploration with steps to suppress the slave trade. Baker was another Brit who boosted his reputation among high-minded Victorians by emphasising his anti-slavery credentials, without much justification, in McLynn’s view.

Yet McLynn brings out how ambiguous the relationship between British explorer and Arab slaver could be on the ground, in reality. This is epitomised in the career of Hamad bin Muhammad bin Juma bin Rajab el Murjebi, better known by his nickname, Tippu Tip, which is Swahili for ‘gatherer of wealth’. Born in 1832 in Zanzibar, Tippu rose to become one of the wealthiest men of his time, based on his twin trades in ivory and slaves. Eventually he became the leading slave trader in East Africa, supplying the Muslim world with hundreds of thousands of black slaves and himself owning plantations worked by an estimated 10,000 enslaved blacks.

The point is that if you were a white man who wanted to explore central Africa from the most reliable starting point of Zanzibar, you had to reach an accommodation with Tippu who had established and ran the key trading posts, watering holes, provision stores and so on on the main routes inland from the coast to the great lakes, from Bagamoyo on the coast via the trading entrepot of Tabora, which was equidistant from Lake Tanganyika in the west and Lake Victoria in the north. And so David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, to name the most famous, were forced to forge working relationships with Tippu.

It was one thing to make grand declarations in Britain about abolishing the east Africa slave trade; it was quite another to find yourself amid rich, powerful men who ran it, who had everything to lose by its abolition, and try to reach practical accommodations with them.

Tippu Tip was famous enough to feature on the front cover of the Illustrated London News, 7 December 1889 issue.

Later, non-British explorers

After the high profile, super-publicised expeditions of Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Speke and Baker, the narrative goes on to describe scores of lesser figures. The Big Names are big because they sketched out the really central issue of African geography, they were the ones who traced the paths of the major rivers (the Niger, Congo, Zambezi and Nile) and discovered the complex of great lakes in east-central Africa. The created the frame and established the broad shapes, like completing the border round a jigsaw.

But there was still a huge amount of work to be done to join the dots, for example to work out the order of flow between the umpteen lakes in the African lake district which eventually led into the sources of the Nile, or to identify each of the scores of tributaries of the river Congo – and this was done by a host of lesser names, most of them not British and therefore not enshrined in our national history.

McLynn notes that two other nationalities became prominent: Belgian explorers, once King Leopold had established his ‘right’ to the vast Congo basin at the 1885 Congress of Berlin; and the same event crystallised the urgency among German politicians and scientists to secure their slice of the African pie, so there was a notable upswing in the number of German explorers, for example George Schweinfurth.

This left the French who, as usual, burned with envy and at the successes of their hated rivals, the British, and spurred them on, post 1880, to map and seize as much territory as possible. The national rivalry was made plain in the individual rivalry between Stanley, who was contracted to explore and establish waystations along the river Congo by Leopold of Belgium well into the 1890s, and the lead French explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who also explored the Congo basin in the 1870s and 80s, going on to become a French colonial administrator in the 1890s. The capital of the Republic of the Congo was named Brazzaville in his honour and retains the name to this day.

A body of work was done by ‘Gordon’s men’, a set of adventurers hired by General Gordon when he was governor of Equitoria province in the service of the Khedive of Egypt in the 1870s, who included Emin Pasha (despite his name, actually a German Jew born Isaak Eduard Schnitzer), Frederick Burnaby, Rudolph Slatkin, Romolo Gessi, Mason Bey, Gaetano Casati, Linant de Bellefonds, Carlo PIaggia and others. McLynn gives us brief pen portraits of these men and their exploratorial adventures.

Kenya, of all African countries the one with the climate most congenial to Europeans, was, surprisingly, one of the last to be explored, an achievement credited to the trio of Joseph Thomson, Harry Johnston and Samuel Yeleki.

The end of exploration

The era of exploration by dashing individuals drew to an end during the 1880s and may be considered over by 1890 (p.128). It was replaced by the era of colonialism i.e. the now-surveyed and mapped areas passed into the administration of the European nations which had drawn lines on maps and defined administrative areas at Berlin. Administrative regions were consolidated into ‘nations’. The map of Africa as we know it today crystallised during the 1890s and turn of the century. In most cases it was a continual process of ongoing accretion and centralisation.

To take Nigeria as an example. Britain annexed the coast region of Lagos as a crown colony in August 1861. At the Berlin Conference in 1885, Britain’s claims to a West African sphere of influence were recognised. The next year, in 1886, Britain set up the Royal Niger Company under the leadership of Sir George Taubman Goldie, which proceeded to subjugate the independent kingdoms along the Niger River, conquering Benin in 1897 and other regional leaders in the Anglo-Aro War (1901 to 1902). In 1900, the company’s territory came under the direct control of the British government which established the Southern Nigeria Protectorate. The British then moved north to subdue the Sokoto Caliphate, which was defeated at the Battle of Kano in 1903 and the British set up the Northern Nigeria Protectorate. By 1906 all resistance to British rule had ended. On 1 January 1914 the British formally united the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. 46 years later, Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom on 1 October 1960.

A thumbnail sketch of how exploration passed on to patchwork colonial administration, government takeover, integration of various territories into a nation, which then fought for and gained its independence.

Bad maps

The maps are terrible. You’d have thought the people producing a book entirely about exploration would realise the importance of maps showing just what was explored, when and by who.

1. The book does contain about 14 maps but, as my vagueness implies, there is no list or index of them at the front.

2. Far worse, though, is that none of the maps have titles or numbers. So a map suddenly appears in the text but you have no idea what it’s meant to be showing. Of course, you can see it depicts a bit of Africa, but there’s no indication why, you have to deduce this from the text.

3. When I read the accounts of the first few explorers described, Daniel Houghton, Mungo Park, Joseph Ritchie, Hugh Clapperton and others, the text mentioned the African villages and towns they travelled to but none of these appeared in the map. I spent ten minutes trying in vain to find any of the placenames mentioned in these expeditions on the bloody map. There were lots of places indicated on the map but none of these appeared in the text! What?

4. Worst of all hardly any of the maps show the single most important thing you want to know, which is the routes of the actual expeditions. The first couple of maps, which show the river Niger and the region around Lake Chad appear to be there to show the first few explorations of the region in the late 1700s but there is no indication of the routes taken by the explorers named in the text. Later maps, relating to Burton and Speke or LIvingstone and Stanley, do bother to have routes marked on the maps but no title indicating whose journeys they were. In every instance a quick google of the expedition in question produced umpteen maps on the internet showing quite clearly the route you need to be able to see in order to make sense of the narrative.

The poorness of the maps is a real limitation of this book.

African words

Obviously, hundreds of languages were and are spoken across this vast continent. McLynn’s text mentions certain key words in Swahili:

  • askaris – soldiers
  • chikote – strip of hide used as a whip
  • hongo – bribes or tribute to chiefs
  • kanda – long, narrow canvas carry bag
  • karaba – a brass measure for rations
  • kitanda – litter (to carry people in)
  • madala – weights hung at each end of a pole carried over the shoulders
  • masika  – season of heavy rain
  • mukongwa – slave fork in which the slave’s head was fastened
  • pagazi – porter
  • posho – daily rice ration
  • ruga-ruga – irregular troops or mercenaries
  • tembe – camp or base
  • wangwana – ‘sons of the free’

English words

McLynn enjoys writing and is a pleasure to read. Along with his occasional boys’-own-adventure register, he sprinkles the text with recherché terms which are a pleasure to look up in a dictionary and savour.

  • febrifuge – a medicine to reduce fever
  • feculent – of or containing dirt, sediment, or waste matter
  • fuliginous – sooty, dusty
  • lacustrine – relating to or associated with lakes
  • ophiolatry – worship of snakes
  • riverine – relating to or situated on a river or riverbank; riparian
  • rugose – wrinkled or corrugated
  • thaumaturge – a worker of wonders and performer of miracles, a magician
  • the veridical – the truth

Credit

Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn was published in 1992 by Hutchinson. All references are to the 1993 Pimlico paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Kara Walker @ Tate Modern

Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in California in 1969. She is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. I have previously come across her work in:

1. The big exhibition of prints held at the British Museum in 2017, where I wrote:

In this room the standout artist for me was Kara Walker, with her stylised black-and-white silhouettes of figures from the ante-bellum Deep South. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But her style is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

2. The other place I’d come across Walker is in the huge book, Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012) where Chadwick writes:

  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

So I was familiar with Walker’s crisp, black silhouettes, and the way that, despite their often emotive titles the actual illustrations are often more teasing, strange and fantastical than the apparent straightforward obsession with slavery would suggest.

Slavery! Slavery! by Kara Walker (1997) Installation at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Kara Walker and the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument

So when Tate announced that this year’s annual commission would be given to Walker, anyone familiar with her work will have expected it to touch on the issue of slavery – and she didn’t disappoint. She has created a huge sculpture which parodies the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument outside Buckingham Palace.

To understand how Walker has parodied the original, let’s take a moment to refresh our memories.

The Queen Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace, London

The Victoria monument is 25 metres high and contains 2,300 tonnes of white Carrara marble. As well as a solid, matronly Queen Victoria seated holding the orb and sceptre, the memorial also carries statues representing courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood. The central monument, created between 1906 and 1924, is by Sir Thomas Brock, but the whole design, including the nearby Memorial Gardens, was conceived by Sir Aston Webb and the Memorial was formally unveiled by King George V in 1911.

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

Walker decided that, in London, home of the slave trade for so many centuries, and a city stuffed to the gills with very white marble statues of and monuments to very white imperial heroes, it would be an interesting gesture to create a memorial, on a similarly imposing scale, to all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

The result is Fons Americanus (Latin for American fountain), an enormous monument made up of various human statues and a water feature spouting water into a set of concentric pools at its base, also filled with miscellaneous statues of people and a surprising number of sharks.

Installation view of Fons Americanus by Kara Walker (2019)

Walker replaces the smooth Victorian allegorical figures of the original with crudely carved cartoon figures representing archetypes from the slave trade, topped off with a staggering female figure spouting water from her breasts (and also from a nasty gash in her neck).

Each of these figures has a symbolic meaning and, although it’s not immediately obvious, most of them actually reference works of art from the British tradition, nineteenth century paintings of rafts and slaves and so on. There’s a full list of the different figures and explanations on the Tate website:

Broadly speaking, Walker replaces the British or imperial icons, depicted in the smooth neo-classical style of the original monument, with figures from various aspects of the slave trade – a weeping boy, a native woman instead of smug Queen Vic, a generic sea captain, a kneeling praying man in chains, and a tree with a noose dangling from it to represent the countless Africans who were hunted down, tortured, lynched and hanged.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood


First thoughts

1. Scale

The most obvious thing about filing the Turbine Hall is that your work must be big, and Fons Americanus is big alright. You can view it from the ground floor walkway but it’s worth going down to the lower level to walk around it and really get a sense of its hugeness. It towers over the mere mortals at its feet.

2. Aesthetics

All the Tate labels and webpages emphasise that the point of Fons Americanus is to subvert and parody the smooth surfaces of traditional monuments, as those monuments in their turn smooth over and gloss over the violence, and horror and exploitation which lay at the basis of the British Empire.

And that this explains why the surfaces of all the figures have been left deliberately pockmarked and rough to the touch. And, in the same spirit, explains why the human figures aren’t perfectly proportioned human figures based on the ancient Greek ideals of standardised beauty; instead they are deliberately rough and crude, because life is crude and real people are rough.

I understand the intention. I understand all that. But it’s still ugly. It’s still hard not to be repelled by the crudeness and ugliness of the figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Maybe she’s intending to give repellent content a repellent appearance, I understand the intention. But it’s notable how drastically Fons Americanus with its lunking crudity is unlike the silhouettes which brought her to fame. The silhouettes were notable for their style and grace and elegance of design.

I can’t help thinking that anyone familiar with the imaginative world of her silhouette works will be surprised and pretty disappointed by the blunt crudity of this enormous object.

3. Irony

There is a sort of politico-aesthetic irony here: I have read here and about other exhibitions, that Walker and many other BAME artists and writers are protesting against the white canons and the white rules of beauty which have dominated European and American art and media for so long. My impression is that for the past fifty years or more a lot of black artists and writers and film-makers have been campaigning to have black beauty, black pride, black appearance, black hair and black faces incorporated into much more diverse and inclusive notions of ‘beauty’.

OK, I understand the aim.

But there’s a kind of irony here that Walker seems to be playing to the crudest of racist stereotypes and clichés by making her black people so insistently and defiantly brutish and ugly, unfinished, rough and repellent. Maybe we are intended to overcome our repulsion from these crudely drawn figures and make the imaginative effort to sympathise for any human in dire need, no matter how crude and ungainly and clumpishly they’re depicted? Maybe the aesthetic clumsiness is part of a kind of moral test?

4. Patronising

But the biggest problem with this installation is the wall labels, the press release and all the relevant pages on the Tate website.

They all seem to assume that we’ve never heard of the Atlantic slave trade – that the existence of slavery 200 years ago will come as a massive surprise to Tate gallery visitors – and that the work will shine a dazzling new light on a previously unknown subject, confronting ‘a history often misremembered in Britain’ as the wall label puts it.

Misremembered by whom exactly? By art gallery visitors? Probably the most bien-pensant, liberal cohort of people you could assemble anywhere.

The notion that the slave trade is an obscure historical event which needs more publicising struck me as an extraordinary claim, especially since I went to see this sculpture during the 32nd Black History Month.

Had none of the previous 31 Black History Months mentioned slavery? Have no books been written on the subject, or TV documentaries made, or articles written or exhibitions about it held anywhere else? That assumption, which is taken as the premise of all the curator commentary, seemed astonishingly patronising, to me.

In fact I gave up reading the Tate web-page about the installation when I came to the sentence carefully explaining that London was ‘the capital of the British Empire’… OK. It was at that point that I realised the entire commentary was either for schoolchildren, or for people who have little or no knowledge about Britain or British history. But are these the kinds of people you are liable to meet at Tate Modern or Tate Britain?

In fact the type of person you meet most at Tate Modern are tourists. Every time I go, I end up helping some hapless foreigners find their way about, or explain the escalators and lifts, or the layout of two buildings to them (yesterday I had to explain to a family of Italians in the lift with me that they were going to the correct floor but in the wrong building).

Almost all the voices I heard as I walked round the installation were foreign: I particularly remember a French family who were posing their little kids for charming tourist pics on the edge of Fons Americanus‘s the pool, and plenty of other family groups were posing and taking family snaps around it, just as they do by the fountains in Trafalgar Square or at any number of other great big imposing public monuments in London.

What does its radical deconstruction of the tradition of neo-classical, British imperial monumentalising mean to them, I wonder?

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Ben Fisher

5. Artists and history

History, as a professional activity, is about the careful sifting of evidence. Historians undergo an extensive training in the use of archives and other sources, and ways of judging and assessing documents, speeches, books and so on.

Historians can obviously still be terribly biased, or commissioned by the state to write propaganda, and completely ‘objective’ history is probably impossible – but nonetheless the notion of objective history is still an ideal worth preserving and striving for, and most historians generally adhere to professional standards of presenting and interpreting evidence, which is or should be made available for others to sift and assess in their turn.

And hence the intellectual discipline of History – which amounts to an endless debate about all aspects of the past backed up by evidence.

Compare and contrast this meticulous approach with the worldview of artists, who are free to make great sweeping generalisations about life and art and society and capitalism and God and anything else they feel like, with little or no comeback, with no requirement for proof or evidence.

This is fine if they want to make provocative works out of industrial junk or surrealist paintings. But if they take it upon themselves to create works designed to be a complete reinterpretation of history over a period of hundreds of years – and if their new interpretation of history is going to be taught to schoolchildren and explained to school groups – then they assume a certain amount of responsibility.

In other words, to put it really bluntly – you shouldn’t rely on artists to teach you anything about history. You should rely on historians. That’s why they’re called historians. It is because they are lifelong specialists in an area of intellectual enquiry which is defined by rules, best practice, and policed by a community of peers, in academic journals and so on.

That’s Argument Number One against artists teaching history.

Argument Two concerns the idea of respecting the complexity of human history.

In my opinion, good history should try above all to capture the complexity of human motives and experiences. It’s a mistake not to take account of the extent to which people of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated and capable of contradictory feelings, beliefs and actions, as we are today. They were people like us, not one-dimensional caricatures.

In order to create the space to let your imagination and empathy work, in order to fully enter into the spirit of another time and try to understand the people who lived in it and the multiple pressures and compulsions they lived under – we should not rush to judgement. As the American historian David Silbey writes in his incisive account of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against Western imperialist forces in China:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

The kind of history I like is continually upsetting my expectations, presenting me with counter-intuitive ideas, making me stop and think and really reconsider my existing beliefs. Thus the book about Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, which I read recently, overturned my ideas about all sorts of aspects of the past, made me view lots of general trends and specific areas of history (such, for example, as the importance of the imperial conquests of Russia) in a completely new light.

My view is that Walker’s version of history doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know – that you weren’t taught at school and haven’t had reinforced by countless books, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles and Hollywood movies about slavery – and by thirty-two Black History Months with their annual outpouring of exhibitions, articles and documentaries.

Instead of making you really stop and think, of prompting unexpected insights and new ways of seeing, for me, at any rate, Fons Americanus seems to set out to confirm all your prejudices and stereotypes –

  • to confirm your impression that all blacks in all of history were helpless victims of the slave trade
  • to confirm the stereotype that all white masters were racist sadists
  • to erase the fact that the slaves were sold to the traders by Africans who made a fortune by enslaving their fellow blacks
  • to erase the hundreds of thousands who worked or bought their way out of slavery, set up businesses or had lives as fulfilling as plenty of the miserably poor whites (and other ethnic groups) they lived among
  • to erase the role of Britain and the Royal Navy in abolishing slavery and then policing the world’s oceans to try and prevent it. As James Walvin points out in his history of slavery, ‘Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.’ Somehow, I don’t think we’re going much about these positive achievements in the deluge of wokeness coming our way.

In other words, I feel nervous about the reduction of an immense and extraordinarily complicated history of the multifarious experiences of tens of millions of people over several hundred years down to half a dozen, crudely-drawn, Simpsonsesque cartoon figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Fons Americanus is big. It’s very big. American big. Like a skyscraper or a Big Mac.

But I recoiled from it a) aesthetically – it is crude and ugly and repellent, and b) intellectually – it is crude and patronising and dangerously simplistic.

Second Thoughts

To be honest, a lot of my negative response was triggered by Tate’s wall labels and by the Tate web-pages about Fons Americanus and the slave trade – commentary and labels which I found worryingly simple-minded, and single-minded: simplifying an enormous, complex, multifarious epoch of history down into a handful of slogans and images, and into a new, and worryingly simple-minded, orthodoxy.

My argument was, to a large extent, with the written interpretation of the work.

But there’s a different and much more obvious approach to the commission and presence of Fons Americanus here in Tate Modern, which is to ask: among all the hundreds of memorials and monuments and statues to countless white men and generals and politicians, most of whom served under the British Empire in one shape or another and which litter London’s public spaces: should there be a memorial to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade?

To which the answer is almost certainly an emphatic YES, Yes, there should be.

In which case the follow-up questions are:

  1. Should it be this one?
  2. and, Where should it go?

Where would you put it?


The Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern and global warming

Every year Tate commissions a contemporary artist to fill the vast space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The funding comes from Hyundai.

Hyundai is a South Korean multinational automotive manufacturer headquartered in Seoul. It manufactures nearly 5 million automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles each year. If green activists have woken up to the fact that many art exhibitions are sponsored by oil companies, and violently object to their contribution to global warming, indeed have gone to the trouble of pouring oil at the front of the National Portrait Gallery which each year hosts the BP Portrait Awards… how long before the penny drops that oil is only actually a pollutant when it is burned to produce CO2 and a host of toxic poisonous chemicals hazardous to human life and all other life forms?

In other words, I wonder for how much longer a company which manufactures toxic, air-polluting ‘automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles’ will be allowed to sponsor works of art and installations like this?


Related links

Other posts about slavery / American history

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (2) by John Julius Norwich (1995)

This is a review of the second half of the third volume in John Julius Norwich’s weighty and famous three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, from the founding of Constantinople in 330 to the fall of the same city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The third volume covers the period from the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert of 1071 in which the Byzantine army was massacred by the new power in the Middle East, the Seljuk Turks, through to the final triumph of the Ottoman Turks and the miserable fall of the city.

It is a long, miserable and frequently appalling book to read. It took a big effort to get over the emotional trauma of reading about the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders in 1204, so traumatic I devoted a detailed blog post to it.

Byzantium: The Decline and Fall contains so much brutality, cruelty, violence, so much destruction, rape and sending into slavery that it is hard to process and hard to cope with, emotionally.

As mentioned in my review of the first half, it depicts a world of unending conflict, in which all nations, rulers, emperors, kings, princes, khans, sultans, emirs and warlords are unceasingly engaged in endless conflict with each other, in which no treaties last, no peace endures, and each spring armies are mustered the length and breadth of Europe and Asia, on that year’s campaign of war and conquest.


Key events

1202 Fourth Crusade assembled at Venice. 1204 The Fourth Crusade captures Constantinople. A Latin Empire of Constantinople is formed, with other territories parcelled out to crusader lords and upstart Greeks asserting new Byzantine ‘successor states’.

1209 – 1229 The Albigensian Crusade against heretics in the south of France.

1243 The Battle of Köse Dağ in which the invading Mongols devastate the Seljuk Turks. The Turks never recover, but disintegrate into a host of emirates and small successor states. One of the smallest of these, in north-west Anatolia, would be ruled by Othman who would become the semi-legendary founder of the Ottoman Empire.

1261 Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus recaptures Constantinople, not in a battle but almost by accident when the main Latin army is away.

1274 Union of Lyon – at the Second Church Council of Lyon the fourteenth ecumenical council of the Catholic Church the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII made various pladges to reunite the Eastern church with the Western i.e. to submit to papal power and to change rituals and wordings to agree with the Latin rite. This was a bid to gain help from the pope and Latin nations but the Greek population and most of the clergy rejected it, and it was later repudiated by Michael’s successor, Andronicus II.

1282 The Sicilian Vespers – the Norman rulers of Sicily were a persistent threat to Constantinople, repeatedly mounting large expeditions to cross the Balkans and attack the city. The Sicilian Vespers was a rebellion of the native population of Sicily against their arrogant French overlords, which massacred them and for a generation neutralised that threat.

1291 The Fall of Acre, the last Crusader kingdom of Outremer.

1299 date traditionally given for the founding of the Ottoman Empire.

1354 The Ottoman Turks capture Gallipoli on the northern, European shore of the Bosphorus and henceforth use it as a bridgehead into the Balkans.

1389 After victory at the Battle of Kosovo (15 June) the Ottoman Turks take over most of the Balkans, depriving Constantinople of agricultural land and manpower.

1402 Tamburlaine devastates the Othman Turkish army at the Battle of the Chubuk Plain. If he had stayed and conquered more of Anatolia he might have wiped out Ottoman Rule but he ceased his Western campaign and turned East where he died the next year, leaving the Ottomans to regroup and renew their threat against Constantinople.

1453 May 29 – Fall of Constantinople Sultan Mehmed II’s forces capture the city, leading to a day of unprecedented massacre, pillaging and rape.


Key issues

The post-sack era

For sixty or so years after the sack of 1204, the history of the Byzantine Empire was one of a succession of Greek emperors based in Nicaea trying to unify the squabbling Greek statelets, negotiate with the new Latin rulers of Constantinople, while also managing relations with the Turks to the East and the Bulgars and Serbs to the North.

Family squabbles

Throw in repeated internecine rivalry within the extended families of the emperors themselves, and problems created by a series of religious divisions and you have an extremely complicated story to tell. The situation around the two sacks, in 1204 and 1453, are particularly complicated, but Norwich tells it all with admirable clarity, and finds the time to give a brief summary of the overall achievements of each of the emperors, men (and some women acting as regents) who were condemned to struggle with the steadily declining situation.

Schisms

The Arsenites took their name from the Patriarch Arsenius who excommunicated the emperor Michael VIII for his treatment of his young co-emperor and rival, John Lascaris (Michael had him blinded and confined to prison for the rest of his life). Michael had Arsenius deposed and replaced in 1267 but the Arsenites only grew in number and zeal, providing a powerful opposition for the rest of Michael’s reign.

The Hesychasts (from the Greek hesychasm meaning ‘holy silence’) teaching a meditation technique which could help the faithful attain a vision of ‘the divine, uncreated light which had surrounded Jesus Christ at his Transfiguration’. The practice spread sparking, as new movements do, reforming zeal among its adherents, and opposition to all the compromises and fudges of the orthodox establishment, until the church became divided into bitterly opposing factions of hesychasts and traditionalists, a schism which spilled over into politics and took up the energy of successive emperors throughout the 14th century.

The Catholic Church

By the 1200s the Roman Catholic Church demanded control over the Eastern Orthodox Church and was firmly of the view that the Easterners were schismatics, little better than heretics, a view dating from the actual schism of 1054, but accompanied by a background of suspicion and dislike.

In the last 250 years of its existence the empire was forced to approach the Papacy numerous times, begging for help against the encroaching Turks, in return for which the emperor pledged to convert his people en masse to Catholicism, at the 1274 Union of Lyon, and again in the 14th century. But this ploy never worked out because:

  1. all the senior Orthodox churchmen refused to co-operate
  2. the Greek people passively resisted all changes
  3. the papacy never came up with the material aid to the struggling empire which the emperor had bargained for

Crusades

We all know about the conventional and numbered sequence of crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land (and Egypt). Reading this book makes you aware of quite a few other ‘crusades’. I was surprised to learn of the many times Western princes and kings tried to get the pope’s approval for almost any armed venture by persuading him to call it a ‘crusade’.

  • 1190 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa tried to secure papal blessing and the name of ‘crusade’ for his planned attack on Constantinople (p.161)
  • In 1265 Charles of Anjou and Provence, younger brother of King Louis of France, persuades pope Clement IV to declare Charles’s war against the pope’s arch-enemy, King Manfred of Sicily, a ‘crusade’ (p.225)
  • In 1280 the same Charles of Anjou (having defeated Manfred and become King of Sicily) persuades the pope also call his next campaign, a vast amphibious attack against Constantinople, a ‘crusade’ against the Eastern schismatics and heretics (p.249)
  • In 1396 Pope Boniface IX gives the name of ‘crusade’ (and historians call the Crusade of Nicopolis) to the vast army assembled by King Sigismund of Hungary. 10,000 French knights and 6,000 Germany knights joining Sigismund’s 60,000 who all set off down the Danube and, outside the city of Nicopolis, are massacred by the Turks. According to Norwich ten thousand captured prisoners were beheaded in the Sultan’s presence. (p.355)

Reading about the many, increasingly petty and secular, ‘crusades’ devalues them. Like the papal mechanism of ‘jubilees’ when all debts were meant to be forgiven, or the pope’s increasingly liberal use of ‘excommunication’, the term ‘crusade’ soon loses all religious meaning and becomes just another diplomatic tool in the endless series of conflicts which are the Middle Ages, just another tool in the armoury of popes struggling to maintain the independence of the Papal States and the authority of the Catholic Church.

The joke papacy

The devaluing of the idea of the ‘crusade’ was just part of the general absurdity of the papacy in the Middle Ages. The shenanigans surrounding the election of the popes, the interference of various kings (the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor in particular) and the repeated setting up of popes and anti-popes by rival factions, who promptly excommunicated each other and all their followers, reduced the concept of God’s one representative on earth to a laughing stock.

As I count it, there were no fewer than 21 anti-popes in the period covered by this book (1080 to 1453), and it was also the period when the papacy left Rome altogether and based itself in Avignon (from 1309 to 1376) where it fell under the domination of the French King. It is utterly typical of the period that the French ‘exile’ was triggered after Pope Boniface VIII was arrested and beaten so badly by soldiers of King Philip IV of France that he died.

Venice

Venice was responsible for the sack of Constantinople and plays the role of bad guy for the remaining 250 years of the empire, repeatedly attacking and burning the city, often as part of its ongoing and intensely bitter feud against Italy’s other maritime state, Genoa. The sequence of events is long and very complicated but Norwich gives the sense that, right up to the very last moment, Venice was guided purely by commercial self-interest, determined to screw as much land and trading advantages out of the Byzantine Empire as possible even when the ’empire’ amounted to little more than a half-ruined city. Only in the last few months of its existence do the Venetians seem to have realised that the loss of Constantinople and the unimpeded ownership of the entire Balkan Peninsula by the Turks would put them on the Adriatic coast right opposite themselves. Too late they offered to send the emperor ships and troops, decades too late, maybe a century too late.

Mercenaries

After the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 the Seljuk Turks were effectively free to move into Anatolia. The process wasn’t immediate but within a decade they had taken control of the whole central portion of Anatolia, submitting the native Greek Christians to Muslim rule and laws. Most importantly Anatolia had been for a thousand years the source of a) food b) fighting manpower to the Eastern Empire. With its loss, the empire had to turn increasingly to paying for mercenary soldiers to fight its cause.

The loss of Anatolia had long since deprived Byzantium of its traditional source of manpower; for many years already it had had to rely on foreign mercenaries. (p.259, referring to the year 1300)

As the book progresses, you become aware that mercenaries fought on all sides. It was, for example, striking to learn that when, in 1211 the Seljuk Sultan of Iconium, Kaikosru, attacked the Byzantine forces of the emperor Theodore, both armies contained a contingent of Latin mercenaries at their core (p.190).

This sets the tone for the ever-increasing use of mercenaries by all sides: for example, the young general Michael Palaeologus – before he himself seized the throne – was sent into exile and ended up leading the Sultans Christian mercenaries in battle against the Mongol invaders in 1256 (p.205).

  • In 1258 Michael, now emperor, despatches an army against his Greek rival in the west, the Despot of Epirus: and this Byzantine army contains contingents from Hungary, Serbia, as well as Cuman and Turkish mercenaries (p.208)

‘Multicultural’ is not at all the right word, but the universal use of mercenaries brings home one of the many differences from our own ties. In our day we associate an army with the country which funds and organises it. We think of armies as being national. In those times an army could be made up of an extremely heterogenous group of man fighting for all kinds of reasons.

  • In 1302 a Byzantine force was caught just outside the city of Nicomedia by a Turkish army twice its size commanded by a local Ghazi named Othman. It wasn’t a decisive battle, the Byzantines turned and fled, the Turks proceeded west to the coast, ravaging all the towns and settlements they passed through. Historically the encounter is notable because it marks the first appearance of the legendary Othman, founder of the Ottoman Empire. But for the point I’m making the important thing is that the Byzantine force was largely composed of Alan tribesmen. (p.263)

As the reliance on mercenaries increased, successive emperors of Byzantium found themselves trapped  into paying the spiralling costs of even basic defence. More and more income was diverted to pay the insatiable demands of foreign fighters. Thus when around 1350 Symeon, Grand Duke of Muscovy, sent a large quantity of gold to pay for the restoration of the St Sophia church, the emperor of the time was forced to use the entire sum in order to pay mercenaries, Turkish mercenaries – Muslim mercenaries. The Grand Duke was not pleased.

Because if their pay wasn’t kept up, mercenaries were a dangerously double-edged weapon.

  • In 1263 Michael sends a fleet and army against the King of Achaia (one of the breakaway Greek kingdoms created after the 1204 sack of Constantinople), an army of some 15,000 men a third of who are Muslim Seljuk mercenaries. (p.220) This did not end well as half way through the campaign the mercenaries, who had not been paid for six months, suddenly demanded their wages and when these were not forthcoming, deserted to the other side (p.222)

This of course was the weakness of mercenaries: if you ran out of money, they stopped fighting for you and, as the years went by, the Empire became increasingly strapped for cash. The most notable example of this was the Grand Catalan Company.

The Grand Catalan Company

This was a powerful group of mercenaries led by Roger de Flor between the Sicilian Vespers in 1282 and Roger’s assassination in 1305. During this period they evolved to become one of the most efficient fighting forces in the Mediterranean and were hired by the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus to fight the increasing power of the Turks.

Norwich gives a fascinating account of the colourful career of Roger himself (sent to sea aged eight, pirate captain by the age of 24) and of the brilliant campaign they undertook against the Turks. He explains that, if only the Catalan Company had followed up its initial victories against the Turks and pushed on into Anatolia it is conceivable that the Empire might have been able to seize much of the territory back, re-establish its agriculture and earlier model of military service and generally been restored. But the Catalans, as mercenaries, were only interested in loot and broke off the campaign to return to the sea and their treasure stores. 

It was fear about their increasing independence and refusal to obey orders which prompted the emperor to permit his other group of mercenaries – the Alans – to carry out a massacre of the Catalan Company during a feast at which Roger himself was murdered (the Alans had a long-festering grievance against the Catalans). The surviving Catalans went on a wild rampage through Adrianople (where the assassination took place) and beyond. It’s fascinating to learn that the memory of these massacres lasted so long that the monks of nearby Mount Athos prohibited the entrance of Catalan citizens until as recently as 2000.

Marriages

As explained in a previous blog post, in the absence of all international bodies or agreed norms of behaviour, one of the few ways rulers had of trying to control the chaos of endless international rivalries and war, was through family and kinship ties. Specifically, the tool of marrying off your brothers or sisters or sons or daughters to the children of other rulers you wished to secure an alliance with, or to structure the inheritance of property, specifically territories and kingdoms.

  • In May 1197 the Emperor Alexius III was obliged to stand impotently by while his niece, Irene, daughter of the blinded ex-emperor Isaac II, was married off by Henry VI King of Sicily to his own younger brother Philip of Swabia. (p.164)
  • When Henry of Hainault, Latin ruler of Byzantium, died in 1216, the Frankish barons elected his brother-in-law Peter of Courtenay to succeed him. In France at the time Peter set sail for the East with an army of 5,500 men, landing in Epirus and laying siege to the town of Durazzo. The town proved impregnable and Peter and most of his men were captured in the mountains of Albania and thrown in prison, never to be heard of again. His wife, Yolanda, had sailed direct to Constantinople where she adopted the title of Empress and regent for their new-born son. She consolidated her position by giving the daughter of her brother, Henry (who was named Mary) to the Emperor of the Byzantine government in exile in Nicaea, Theodore Lascaris.
  • When the Latin Emperor Robert I (the son Yolanda acted as regent for) died in 1228, leaving an eleven-year-old boy, Baldwin II, as his successor, the Latin barons offered the throne of Byzantium to an ageing adventurer and one-time King of Jerusalem, John of Brienne. John reluctantly accepted on the understanding that 11-year-old Baldwin would immediately marry his (John’s) own four-year-old daughter, Maria, and that she be given a sizeable dowry in the form of land. (p.195)
  • In 1235 John Asen emperor of Bulgaria signed a treaty of alliance with Nicaea which was sealed by the marriage of his daughter Helena to the son of the Nicaean Emperor John Vatatzes. (p.197)
  • In 1249 John Vatatzes secured a treaty of friendship with Michael II, Despot of Epirus (and illegitimate son of the despotate’s original founder, Michael I) by marrying his granddaughter Maria to Michael’s son Nicephorus. (p.200)

And so on and on.

In fact I noticed that there is a slowly increasing mention of treaties in the text, and it would be interesting to know how the concept of ‘the treaty’ changed and evolved over this long period and how it related to the early development of ‘the nation state’, whether there was an increasing recognition of the legal standing of treaties, or whether they remained agreements between individual leaders.

Whatever the theory, pieces of paper remained cheap and easy to tear up, whereas bonds of blood and marriage (and so grandparentage of the children of these unions) remained a primeval force understood by all sides.

  • In 1256 Tsar Michael Asen of the Bulgars was assassinated and succeeded by a boyar named Constantine Tich. Tich saw the strategic usefulness of an alliance with Byzantium and so he repudiated his wife in order to marry Irene, the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Theodore II. (p.205)
  • Early in 1258 Manfred of Sicily, the bastard son of Frederick II, invaded Epirus. The Despot of Epirus, Michael, was at that moment besieging the Byzantine city of Thessalonica so he decided to ally with Manfred against the Nicaean Empire, negotiated a deal with him and sealed it by giving Manfred the hand of his eldest daughter, Helena. (p.207)
  • In 1291 Charles II of Anjou proposed an alliance with Nicephorus, Despot of Epirus, against Constantinople, which he cemented by marrying his son, Philip, to Nicephorus’s daughter, Thamar. (p.260)

Child marriages

I was struck by the number of marriage contracts which involved very young children.

  • In 1136 Raymond of Poitiers, son of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, married Constance, daughter of Bohemund II of Antioch, aged six, in order to give Raymond legitimacy as the new ruler of the Crusader Kingdom of Antioch. (p.77)
  • In September 1158 Theodora Comnena, niece of Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus, was married to King Baldwin III of Jerusalem. She was 12, he was 28. (p.122)
  • On 2 March 1180 the Patriarch Theodosius celebrated the marriage of Princess Agnes of France to Alexius Comnenus of Constantinople. She was nine, her husband was ten. (p.137)
  • In 1244 the Nicaean Emperor John Vatatzes strengthened his position vis-a-vis the Latin kingdom by marrying Constance, the illegitimate daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Constance was just 12-years-old and forced to take the Byzantine name Anna, and married to a man forty years older than her who was, as everyone knew, having an affair with one of her own waiting-women. (p.199)
  • In 1282 an ambitious new ruler came to the throne of Serbia, Stephen Miliutin, who within a year declared support for Charles of Anjou (the threatener from Sicily) and allied with the Despotate of Epirus (on the west Balan coast). The Byzantine Emperor Andronicus realised he had to neutralise this threat and when he heard that Miliutin’s legal wife had died (he was said to keep at least two concubines) he offered his own sister in marriage. Interestingly, the sister, Eudocia, flat out refused to be married and so Andronicus turned to the next best thing, his own daughter Simonis. Simonis was five years old and Miliutin 40. Amazingly, the little girl was taken by a Byzantine deputation to Thessalonica where the wedding was carried out by the Archbishop of Ochrid. Miliutin was thrilled that her dowry included most of the territory of Macedonia (which he coveted) and he agreed to allow little Simonis to remain in the Serbian nursery ‘for a few more years until she was old enough to live with him as his wife’. It is interesting to note that many people at the time saw this as immoral, and that the Patriarch of Constantinople, John XII, resigned in protest. (p.261)
  • In 1284, Andronicus II married Yolanda (who was renamed Eirene as Empress) who was eleven at the time. (p.275)

You could see this as the exploitation of the young, or as treating women as pawns – but I see it as treating people as pawns.

Everyone in any kind of position of power might well have had their own identity, character, wishes, plans and all the rest of the fol-de-rol surrounding ‘personality’ and ‘individuality’ which we in our post-Enlightenment, post-religious, consumer society take for granted. But eminent people living then existed primarily as pieces on a vast chess board, to be switched, taken, or sacrificed without a moment’s hesitation, as the game demanded.

  • Manfred of Sicily was defeated by the merciless Charles of Anjou at the Battle of Benevento on 26 February 1266. Only after three days was Manfred’s body found and Charles then denied it a Christian burial but had it placed by the bridge at Benevento so that every passing soldier in his army could throw a stone at it and build up a burial cairn. Manfred’s wife, Helena of Epirus, and is three young children were imprisoned at Nocera. Of the four, three never appeared again: one son was still there in the same prison 43 years later. (p.225)
  • In December 1355 the Emperor John V sent a desperate letter to Pope Innocent VI begging for help. If the pope would send him 500 knights, a thousand infantry, fifteen transport ships and five galleys, John promised to oversee the conversion of the Greek Orthodox church to Roman Catholic rites and personnel. In addition he would send his five-year-old son, Manuel, to be raised a Catholic and disposed of as the pope saw fit. (p.326)

Youth

Very young some of these children may well have been but then, almost everyone was young. Lots of the rulers died in their 30s or 40s. Norwich repeatedly comments that rulers in their 60s were old for their time. And there are some staggering examples of how much was expected, and achieved, by people of incredible youth.

  • In 1268 Manfred of Sicily’s nephew Conradin marched south from Germany in a bid to save his family’s inheritance from the aggressor Charles of Anjou. On 23 August Charles shattered his army at Taglioacozzo. Conradin captured, subjected to a kangaroo court and then beheaded in the market square in Naples. He was just sixteen and the last of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. (p.225)

The most striking example of youth achieving astonishing things is the final capture of Constantinople itself by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror. Norwich shows in detail how Mehmed led Turkish forces to defeat the crusade led by John Hunyadi after the Hungarian incursions into his country broke the conditions of the truce Peace of Szeged, and then goes on to explain the thinking behind his final assault on Constantinople, and describe in great details both the preparations for the siege – by land and by sea – and a day-by-day account of the siege, breach and fall of the city. The attacking Turks gave themselves up to an orgy of violence and destruction, massacring and raping civilians, desecrating, looting and torching the churches. Through the mayhem strode the Sultan, surrounded by his bodyguard, to the vast church of Hagia Sophia, which he had already decided would be converted into the largest mosque in the world. He knelt and kissed the floor and thanked Allah for his victory.

And he had achieved all this – by the age of twenty-one!

The generality of the heartless, calculating treatment meted out to everyone was symbolised for me by the widespread blinding of the powerful when they were brought low or presented a threat – not as a punishment, but to neutralise them as a threat.

Blindings

From the eight or nine hundreds onwards it became customary to blind rival emperors you had overthrown and/or their male children, in order to permanently prevent them becoming a threat. It was considered less cruel than simply murdering them.

  • In 1077 the general Nicephorus Bryennius made a bid for the throne, but was captured and blinded by Nicephorus III Botaneiates. (p.64)
  • 1204 following the fall, sack, and occupation of Constantinople, the Emperor Alexius V ‘Mourtzouphlos’ was blinded
  • In 1218 Boril of the Bulgars was overthrown by his cousin John II Asen and blinded. (p. 193)
  • 1230 John Asil of Bulgaria defeated Theodor of Thessalonica and had him blinded. (p.197)
  • In 1295 the Empire’s foremost general, Alexius Philanthropenus, rose up in revolt. He was quickly defeated, captured and blinded. (p.262)
  • In 1373 the Ottoman Sultan Murad’s son, Sauji, rose against him. The Sultan quickly defeated the rebel forces and had his son blinded. (p.336)

But the most disgusting of the many, many blindings in this book is of a helpless eleven-year-old boy.

  • John IV Lascaris was only seven years old when he inherited the throne on the death of his father, Theodore II Ducas Lascaris. He was put under the regency of the bureaucrat George Muzalon who was hugely unpopular and swiftly murdered by the nobility (in church). The leader who emerged was the successful young general Michael Palaeologus who usurped the regency and then, on January 1, 1259, made himself co-emperor as Michael VIII. (Michael was, in fact, John’s second cousin once removed.) After Michael’s conquest of Constantinople from the Latin Empire on July 25, 1261, Michael needed to secure full control of the Byzantine inheritance and so four months later he had John IV – who he’d left behind in the palace at Nicaea – blinded on Christmas Day. It was the boy’s eleventh birthday. He was then sent to a prison in Bithynia where he lived for another fifty years. Many at the time were disgusted by this act and it led to Michael’s excommunication by the Patriarch Arsenius Autoreianus. (p.212)

Political mutilation in Byzantine culture

All this can be set against what became an embedded habit of the Ottoman Dynasty which was that, upon the death of each Sultan, his sons fought for power and the victor had all his defeated rivals strangled. This wasn’t just a bad habit practised by the occasional wicked sultan – it was enshrined in Ottoman law.

Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror’s Law of Governance imparted the right of executing the male members of the dynasty to his son in order to prevent an interregnum.

To prevent attempts at seizing the throne, reigning sultans practiced fratricide upon accession, starting with Murat I in 1362. Both Murad III and his son Mehmed III had their half-brothers murdered. The killing of all the new sultan’s brothers and half-brothers (which were usually quite numerous) was traditionally done by manual strangling with a silk cord. As the centuries passed, the ritual killing was gradually replaced by lifetime solitary confinement in the ‘Golden Cage’ or kafes, a room in the harem from where the sultan’s brothers could never escape, unless they happened to become heir presumptive. Some had already become mentally unstable by the time they were asked to reign. (Wikipedia)

Slavery

I also cannot get over the way slavery is so casually mentioned. Again and again entire populations of towns, cities and regions are led off into slavery. We are told slavery was ubiquitous throughout the Muslim lands, but also appears to have been common in the Byzantine Empire, and was practiced by all the lesser peoples fringing the narrative, like the Bulgars and Hungarians and Serbs. I am puzzled why the ubiquity of slavery across Europe and the Middle East for most of the Middle Ages isn’t better known, isn’t made more of – especially when you consider the enormous fuss which is made about the African slave trade carried out by the West European nations from the 1500s onwards.

  • After the Turks seized Gallipoli they began conquering Thrace, taking Didymotichum in 1361, Adrianople in 1362. ‘In every city and village that was captured, a large part of the population was transported to slavery in Asia Minor’ (p.328)
  • When the Turks seized the city of Thessalonica in 1430, they looted all the churches and burnt many of them to the ground, massacring most of the male population and selling some seven thousand women and children into slavery. (p.395)
  • In preparation for the final siege the Turks took the nearby island of Prinkipo. the garrison was burnt alive in their fortress, the entire civilian population was sold into slavery. (p.424)
  • The monk and scholar George Scholarius was sold into slavery along with all his fellow monks (p.442)

Why is black African slavery discussed, raised, debated and lamented on an almost daily basis in books, films, art galleries and the media – while the European and Asian slave trade is completely and utterly absent from all forms of culture whatsoever, except tucked away as a minor detail of histories of the classical world and Middle Ages?

Weren’t the huge numbers of people sold into slavery in the 1100s, 1200s, 1300s and 1400s just as much human beings with lives and hopes and fears, as the people sold into slavery in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s?

So why commemorate the one and not the other?


Byzantine emperors (1204 – 1453)

Theodore I Lascaris (1205 – 1222)

Son-in-law of Alexius III, Theodore was elected emperor by the citizens of Constantinople on the day before the city fell to the Crusaders. He fled to Nicaea, where he organized the Greek resistance to the Latins. Crowned emperor in 1208. He managed to stop the Latin advance in Asia and to repel Seljuk attacks, establishing the Empire of Nicaea as the strongest of the Greek successor states.

John III Ducas Vatatzes (15 December 1221 – November 1254)

Born around 1192, John became the son-in-law and successor of Theodore I in 1212. A capable ruler and soldier, he expanded his state in Bithynia, Thrace and Macedonia at the expense of the Latin Empire, Bulgaria and the rival Greek state of Epirus.

John Vatatzes had been a great ruler… one of the greatest, perhaps, in the whole of this history. (p.203)

Theodore II Lascaris (1254 – 1258)

Born in 1222 the only son of John III, he succeeded on his father’s death. His reign was marked by his hostility towards the major houses of the aristocracy, and by his victory against Bulgaria and the subsequent expansion into Albania.

John IV Lascaris (1258 – 1261)

Born on 25 December 1250 as the only son of Theodore II, John succeeded on his father’s death. Due to his minority, the regency was exercised at first by George Mouzalon until his assassination, and then by the young successful general Michael Palaiologos who, within months, was crowned senior emperor.

After the recovery of Constantinople in August 1261, Palaiologos sidelined John IV completely, and had the 11-year-old boy imprisoned and blinded. John IV died c. 1305.

Michael VIII Palaeologus (1259 – 1282)

One of the hero emperors, this confident young general campaigned against the Latins and Greek rivals and it was forces under his command who discovered Constantinople was virtually unguarded, the Latin garrison being away on a campaign against some island, and so sneaked in and took the city by surprise. Michael had to be woken up at his camp two hundred miles away to be told it had happened. He quickly marched on the capital and was greeted with acclaim by the long-suffering Greek population.

Andronicus II Palaeologus (1282 – 1328)

Son of Michael VIII, he was born on 25 March 1259, named co-emperor in 1261, crowned in 1272, and succeeded as sole emperor on Michael’s death.

Favouring monks and intellectuals, Andronicus neglected the army and his reign saw the collapse of the Byzantine position in Asia Minor. He named his son Michael IX co-emperor. In a protracted civil war, he was first forced to recognize his grandson Andronicus III as co-emperor and was then deposed outright.

Andronicus III Palaeologus (1328 – 1341)

Son of Michael IX, Andronnicus deposed his grandfather Andronicus II in 1328 and ruled as sole emperor until his death. He was ably supported by John Cantacuzenos, his reign saw defeats against the Ottoman emirate but successes in Europe, where Epirus and Thessaly were recovered.

John V Palaeologus (1341 – 1376) part one

Only son of Andronicus III who neglected to crown him co-emperor or formally declare him his heir, so that at his father’s death a destructive civil war broke out between his regents and his father’s closest aide, John VI Cantacuzenos, who ended up seizing power and being crowned co-emperor.

The conflict ended in 1347 with Cantacuzenos recognized as senior emperor, but he was deposed by John V in 1354 during another civil war. Matthew Cantacuzenos, raised by John VI to co-emperor, was also deposed in 1357. John V appealed to the West for aid against the Ottomans, but in 1371 he was forced to recognize Ottoman suzerainty. He was deposed in 1376 by his son Andronicus IV.

John VI Cantakcuzenos (1347 – 1354)

A maternal relative of the Palaeologoi, he was declared co-emperor on 26 October 1341, and was recognized as senior emperor for ten years after the end of the civil war on 8 February 1347. Deposed by John V in 1354, he became a monk, dying on 15 June 1383.

Andronicus IV Palaeologus (1376 – 1379)

Son of John V and grandson of John VI, he was born on 2 April 1348 and raised to co-emperor c. 1352. He deposed his father on 12 August 1376 and ruled until overthrown in turn in 1379. He was again recognized as co-emperor in 1381 and given Selymbria as an appanage, dying there on 28 June 1385.

John V Palaeologus (1379 – 1390) part two

Restored as senior emperor, John was reconciled with Andronicus IV in 1381, re-appointing him co-emperor. He was overthrown again in 1390 by his grandson, John VII.

John VII Palaeologus (April 1390 – September 1390)

Son of Andronicus IV, John was born in 1370, and named co-emperor under his father in 1377–79. He usurped the throne from his grandfather John V for five months in 1390, but with Ottoman mediation he was reconciled with John V and his uncle, Manuel II. He held Constantinople against the Ottomans in 1399–1402, and was then given Thessalonica as an appanage, which he governed until his death on 22 September 1408.

John V Palaeologus (September 1390 – February 1391) part three

Restored to senior emperor, he ruled until his death in February 1391. If you count the time from his first ascension to the throne John V reigned longer than any other Byzantine emperor.

At one of the most desperate moments of its history, the Empire was governed by a ruler who was neither intelligent nor far-sighted, and who possessed virtually none of the qualities necessary to a successful statesman. (p.347)

Manuel II Palaeologus (1391 – 1425)

Second son of John V, he was born on 27 June 1350. Raised to co-emperor in 1373, Manuel became senior emperor on John V’s death and ruled until his death. He travelled to the West European courts seeking aid against the Turks, and was able to use the Ottoman defeat in the Battle of Ankara to regain some territories and throw off his vassalage to them.

John VIII Palaeologus (1425 – 1448)

The Empire of which, on 21 July 1425, the thirty-two-year-old John Palaeologus became sole basileus was effectively bounded by the walls of Constantinople; and Constantinople now presented a dismal picture indeed. (Norwich p.388)

Eldest surviving son of Manuel II, John was born on 18 December 1392. Raised to co-emperor about 1416, he succeeded his father on his death. Seeking aid against the resurgent Ottomans, he ratified the Union of the Churches in 1439 i.e. in a desperate bid to secure help from the Pope and the Western powers, he promised to subjugate the Eastern Orthodox Church to Rome.

Constantine XI Dragases Palaeologus (1449 – 1453)

The fourth son of Manuel II and Serbian princess Helena Dragaš, he was born on 8 February 1405.

As Despot of the Morea since 1428, Constantine distinguished himself in campaigns that annexed the Principality of Achaea and brought the Duchy of Athens under temporary Byzantine suzerainty, but was unable to repel Turkish attacks under Turahan Bey.

As the eldest surviving brother, he succeeded John VIII after the latter’s death. Confronted by the aggression of the new Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II, Constantine acknowledged the Union of the Churches and made repeated appeals for help to the West but in vain. Refusing to surrender the city, he was killed during the final Ottoman attack on 29 May 1453.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (2) by Michael Haag (2012)

The Turks were aliens; the crusaders were not.

Haag’s book is opinionated in a very unacademic way. He has certain hobby horses, vehement ideas – about the central role played by the Templars in the crusades, and about justifying the crusades by completely rethinking their context, portraying the crusades not as violent attacks against peace-loving Arabs, but as justified attempts to help oppressed Christians in the Holy Land – which he gives vent to repeatedly and almost obsessively so that, eventually, the detached reader can’t help having misgivings about the objectivity of what they’re reading.

Nonetheless, that big reservation stated right at the start, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking book.

The Tragedy of the Templars signals its unorthodox approach by going back not ten or thirty or fifty years before the founding of its ostensible subject, the Order of the Knights Templars (in 1139), but by going back one thousand four hundred years earlier, to the conquests of Alexander the Great – and then giving a sweeping recap of all the wars and vicissitudes which struck the Middle East from 300 BC through to the eruption of the Muslims from Arabia in the 630s AD.

The book has notes on every page and an excellent bibliography at the back, and yet it sometimes reads like the opinions of a crank, determined at any cost to convince you of his deliberately revisionist point of view. This comes over most obviously in the very unacademic use of repetition. Again and again he drums home a handful of key points. These are:

Haag’s key points

– the Crusades were not an unprovoked outburst of Western, racist, colonialist, greed and violence

– they were a rational response to repeated pleas for help from figures like the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Emperor of Byzantium

Why the pleas? because:

– even as late as the First Crusade (1095-99) the majority population of the Levant, of Jerusalem and all the other holy cities, let alone of Anatolia and even of Egypt – were Christians:

Christians had remained the majority at Damascus until the tenth century and maybe into the eleventh. (p.208)

Five hundred years after the Arab conquest, Egypt was still a substantially Christian country (p.211)

The Nubians were Christians, as were the majority of Egyptians (p.235)

– these Christians had suffered under the lordship of the Muslim Arabs who came rampaging out of Arabia in the 700s and quickly conquered north up the coast of Palestine into Syria, eastwards conquered the old Persian Empire, and westwards conquered Egypt and beyond

– but, despite centuries of inter-marriage, the Arabs remained an aristocracy, thinking of themselves as lords, knights, emirs and rulers over a broad population of subservient serfs – and these serfs remained predominantly Christian

– through the three hundred years from the mid-700s to the mid-1000s these Christian populations suffered from being second-class citizens, forced to wear clothes which identified them as dhimmis and, occasionally, when the oppression got really bad, forced to wear halters round their necks or be branded

– meanwhile they were forbidden to repair existing churches, build any new ones, and had to stand by while existing ones were often desecrated and destroyed in periodic waves of persecution or forcibly converted into mosques

So Haag’s central point, rammed home on scores of occasions, with all the data he can muster, is that it was not the Crusaders who were the foreign invaders – it was the Muslim Arabs. It was the Arabs who had invaded and conquered Christian Egypt, Christian Palestine, Christian Syria and raided into Christian Anatolia.

Bethlehem where Jesus was born, Nazareth Jesus’ home town, the River Jordan where Jesus was baptised, Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and rose again, Tarsus where the apostle Paul came from, Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first named ‘Christians’, Damascus, on the road to which Paul had his great conversion experience – all these lands had, by about 400, become solidly Christian and were ruled by the Christian Roman Empire.

It was the Arabs who invaded and conquered them and subjected the Christian inhabitants to all kinds of discrimination and persecution. Christians were forbidden to build new churches or repair old ones. Thousands of churches were destroyed or converted into mosques. There were periodic massacres which triggered pleas from Christian leaders in the region to the Emperor in Constantinople for help, with the result that the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim invaders in the East were permanently at war.

And it wasn’t just the Arabs who were the alien invaders…

The Seljuk Turks add to the chaos

What specifically triggered the Crusades was the arrival of a third force on the scene, the Seljuk Turks, who swept out of central Asia, converted to Islam, and conquered Muslim Persia including the capital of the Abbasid Dynasty, Baghdad, in 1055.

From the 1060s the Seljuks besieged and took various cities in Palestine, as well as probing the eastern edges of Anatolia – the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Their ultimate goal was to tackle the Fatimid Dynasty based on Egypt. The Turks had converted to the majority or Sunni brand of Islam. A territorial ambition to seize Egypt – centrepiece of the Muslim lands – was compounded by the fact that the Fatimids were adherents to Shia Islam, which Sunnis regard as a heresy.

The Fatimids, for their part, also wanted control of (at least southern) Palestine, in order to create a buffer against the insurgent Turks. This meant that the two Muslim opponents clashed in various battles, at various times throughout the later 11th century, taking and retaking bits of Palestine from each other.

Meanwhile the Byzantine Empire was reeling from its defeat by the Turks at the momentous Battle of Manzikert in 1071, after which:

the empire lay open before bands of Turkish tribesmen, who looted, murdered and destroyed as they marauded westwards until in 1073 they were standing on the Bosphorus opposite Constantinople. (p.76)

As an anonymous chronicler put it:

Almost the whole world, on land and sea, occupied by the impious barbarians, has been destroyed and has become empty of population, for all Christians have been slain by them and all houses and settlements with their churches have been devastated by them in the whole East, completely crushed and reduced to nothing. (quoted on page 76)

It was not the Crusaders who were invading; it was the Seljuk Turks who, in the years after 1071, invaded, conquered, devastated and took control of a vast central region of Anatolia which had been part of the Roman Empire and solidly Christian for at least 600 years.  When the First Crusade arrived 25 years later it was to recover solidly Christian lands which had been invaded and to liberate its Christian inhabitants.

Anyway, the Byzantine Emperor survived the Turkish siege and soon began launching retaliatory raids into Syria and against Muslim strongholds in Palestine. So that’s Turks and Byzantines warring across the region.

And the Turks had brought with them bands of Turkomens, tribesmen of similar ethnic origin who didn’t, however, submit to Seljuk centralised authority and so raided, kidnapped and murdered across the region at will.

And the area had become infested by nomadic Bedouin, who took advantage of the prevailing chaos to also raid and kidnap and murder. Haag quotes liberally from the accounts of Christian pilgrims from Western Europe who made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean and then found every step of their way to the Christian Holy Places fraught with the necessity to pay bribes to countless Muslim officials, and to pay armed guards to protect them from all manner of marauders and kidnappers.

Muslim destruction of Christian shrines, churches and towns

In 1077 Turkish forces led by Atsiz bin Uwaq laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying the surrounding orchards and vineyards. The city finally capitulated on promise of good treatment but Uwaq reneged on the deal and massacred about 3,000 of the Muslim population. He went on to devastate Palestine, burning harvests, razing plantations, desecrating cemeteries, raping women and men alike, cutting off ears and noses. He destroyed Ramla then went on to Gaza where he murdered the entire population, devastating villages and towns, burning down churches and monasteries.

In other words, the advent of the Seljuk Turks into the Middle East inaugurated a new era of chaos and disorder in the Holy Land

The Muslim East was wracked by misgovernment, division, exploitation, fanaticism an aggression. (p.79)

And this was widely reported by Christian pilgrims who returned to Western Europe (if they survived) telling tales of kidnap, rape and extortion, tales which had a cumulative effect at local, regional and national levels.

Back in 1009 al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh, the sixth Fatimid caliph, embarked on an attempted ‘annihilation’ of Christians in the Levant, and called for the systematic destruction of all Christian holy places which culminated in the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

This was the church built over two of the central holy sites in Christian tradition, the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected.

On Al-Hakim’s orders the church of the Holy Sepulchre was razed to its foundations, its graves were dug up, property was taken, furnishings and treasures seized, and the tomb of Jesus was hacked to pieces with pickaxes and hammers and utterly obliterated. Al-Hakim’s orders led to as many as thirty thousand churches being destroyed across the region or converted into mosques. News of the utter destruction of one of the holiest sites in Christendom shocked and appalled Christians from Constantinople through to Rome and into the Kingdom of the Franks. How much longer were the holiest sites in Christendom to remain at the utter mercy of fanatical opponents?

It was against this setting that Haag lists the repeated pleas for help, from the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, among others, which struck a chord, above all, with the Pope in Rome who, more than anyone else, heard eye-witness reports from pilgrims high and low about the mounting chaos in the region, about the wanton violence inflicted on pilgrims, and the wanton destruction inflicted on the Holy Sites themselves.

Seen from this perspective, the Crusades are not the unprovoked eruption of a bellicose West. The question is not why the Crusaders came, the question is why they took so long to respond to the pleas for help from their persecuted fellow Christians.

The Reconquista

The other really big idea I took from the book was that the Crusades happened in parallel to the Christian reconquest of Spain. I sort of knew this but Haag’s book really binds the two processes together, explaining how the Templars (the nominal subjects of his book) played as big or maybe a bigger role in the liberation of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control as they did in the Holy Land in the early years, anyway).

He points out how Popes and senior church figures called for the Christian knights of North and West Europe to put aside their differences and fight the Muslims in both places. When you look at a map of the Mediterranean Haag’s use of the phrase ‘war on two fronts’, fighting ‘on two fronts’, really makes sense.

The map below, from Wikipedia, clearly shows a) how the Muslims conquered the East, the West and the Southern coast of what had once been the Roman Christian Mediterranean and how, as a result, all the Mediterranean islands – Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, Cyprus – became battlefields for the centuries-long ‘assault by Islam against a Christian civilisation that had once embraced the whole of the Mediterranean’ (p.93)

If you were a Christian knight it wasn’t just a case of joining a Crusade to the Holy Land (as Haag points out, the term ‘crusade’ wasn’t coined until centuries after the things themselves had ended – contemporaries wrote about ‘taking the cross’). It was a question of where you chose to sign up to the global effort to stop and repel the invading Muslims – in Spain, in Sicily, in Cyprus or in Egypt or the Holy Land.

Map of the main Byzantine-Muslim naval operations and battles in the Mediterranean

Crusades wicked, Reconquista OK?

The big question all this left me asking is – Why is the ‘Crusade’ to liberate the Christian Holy Land from Muslim rule nowadays always criticised and castigated in the harshest possible terms as a racist, violent and greedy example of Western colonialism, whereas… the parallel ‘Crusade’ to liberate the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rule, which was fought by much the same knights fighting for the same spiritual rewards offered by the same Pope… is totally accepted?

Does anyone suggest we should hand Spain back over to Muslim rule, to its rightful Moorish owners? No. The question is absurd. Does anyone suggest we should apologise to the Muslim inhabitants of Spain who were expelled 500 years ago? No. The notion is absurd.

Is it because the Crusades are perceived as consisting of violent attacks on Muslims living in a land they’d inhabited for hundreds of years? Well, the Reconquista was drenched in blood.

Or does the stark difference in historiographical thinking about the two Crusades mean that morality in history – how we judge the morality of past events – simply boils down to their success? The Christian Crusaders managed to expel the Muslims from Spain by about 1500, it has been a solidly Christian land for the past 500 years and so… it is accepted as the natural state of things…

Whereas the Christian Crusaders who tried to hang onto the Holy Land were always doomed to failure by virtue of the endless waves of new invaders streaming in from Asia (first the Turks, then the Golden Horde of Genghiz Khan’s Mongols) which were always going to outnumber the Christians’ dwindling numbers… and so… their effort is seen as reprehensible and subject to all the insults and abuse modern historians and the politically correct can level at them.

Yet the two Crusades were carried out by the same kind of knights, over the same period, inspired by the same ideology, and offered the same rewards (seizure of land and the remission of sins).

Is one a totally accepted fact which nobody questions, and the other a great Blot on the face of Western Civilisation, simply because one succeeded and the other failed?

The West

Not far behind that thought is the reflection that the West is simply called the West – is the West – because Muslim conquerors conquered the East.

‘The West’ was not some great insurgent triumphant entity – it is all that was left after the rampaging Muslims seized all of North Africa, all of the Middle East and most of Spain, then, in the 1100 began the process of seizing all of what we now call Turkey.

Previously Christendom had encompassed the entire Mediterranean and the lands around it. In this basic, geographical sense, the West is the creation of Islam.

The Knights Templar

So what about the ostensible subject of the book, the Order of the Knights Templar? Well it takes a while to get around to their founding in the 1130s… and then, in the rather unscholarly way which the reader soon gets used to, Haag goes out of his way to praise their involvement – claiming they were decisive or vital in almost every encounter with the Muslims over the next two hundred years – and to exonerate them from all accusations of greed, inaction or treachery brought against them by contemporaries. For example,

– when the contemporary chronicler William of Tyre criticises the Templars for their involvement in the murder of an envoy from the ‘Old Man of the Hills’ (p.251) – Haag dismisses William’s criticism as biased.

– Haag claims that the Crusader states – by the 1100s often administered by the Templars – were far more religiously tolerant than the surrounding Muslim states. When the Templars didn’t support an ill-fated Frankish expedition against the Fatimids in Egypt, Haag makes excuses for them. And so on.

So there’s lots of detail about the Knights Templars (when they were set up, their location in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the vows they took, names of the founders and much, much more).

But, again, I was rather dazzled by one Big Idea about the Templars, which is the notion that they were the first multinational corporation. They were established after the First Crusade had established the Crusader states in Palestine, to guard the Holy Places and protect pilgrims. Quite quickly they began offering banking services i.e. they set up branches in London, Paris, Rome, on the Mediterranean islands – because if you were going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land it was wise not to carry a big sack of gold which all manner of Muslim pirates, kidnappers and bandits might steal from you. Better to deposit the gold in London or Paris or Rome, and receive a chit or docket proving the fact, while the Templars recorded the fact on their increasingly sophisticated ledgers.

Within a hundred years they were on the way to becoming official bankers to the King of France. They made huge loans to the King of England and helped finance the Reconquista. By their constitution they answered only to the Pope in Rome. The point is that – not being allied with this or that European prince or king – they were strikingly independent. No-one had any interest in ‘conquering’ them, there was nothing to conquer except a set of international financial services.

Land and tithes in the West, gold and banking facilities across Europe, and by the time of the Battle of Hattin it is estimated the Templars, along with the Hospitallers (the other great order of knights) held maybe a third of the land of Outremer, the kingdom beyond the sea (i.e. the Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land established after the success of the First Crusade).

I found these ideas about the economic roots of their power and wealth more interesting than the blizzard of detail Haag also gives about the Templars’ involvement in various battles and strategic decisions. He follows the story right through to the events leading up to the suppression of the Knights Templar by King Philip IV of France who persuaded the Pope to suppress the order on trumped up charges of blasphemy, heresy and homosexuality, when his real motivation was simply to write off the enormous debts he’d incurred with the order to fund his prolonged war with England.

Saladin

As part of his program to debunk every myth about the Crusades, Haag really has it in for An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, commonly known as Saladin (1137-1193) who defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, then seized Jerusalem later the same year, events which triggered the third Crusade (1189-92) in which Saladin was confronted by Richard I of England, both becoming heroes of legend for centuries to follow.

Haag places Saladin carefully in the succession of Turkish leaders who wanted to overthrow the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt and establish their own kingdom. Haag goes out of his way to point out that:

– Saladin was not an Arab, he was a Turk; in fact he wasn’t strictly a Turk, but a ‘Turkified’ Kurd (p.233), having been born in Tikrit of Kurdish family, his father rising within the ranks of the Turkish army to become a city governor

– Saladin spent far more time waging jihad against his fellow Muslims than against the crusaders

[between 1171 and 1186] Saladin had spent no more than thirteen months fighting against the Franks; instead he directed his jihad almost entirely against his fellow Muslims, heterodox in many cases but most of them far from being heretics (p.262)

– this is one of the points Haag really dins home with endless repetition seeking to emphasise that Saladin was not a Muslim hero defending Muslim Palestine from marauding Crusaders – he was a Kurd fighting under the banner of the Seljuk Turks, against his fellow Muslims in Egypt and Syria, in order to establish a dynasty of his own

As the Cambridge History of Islam explains, Saladin’s army was ‘as alien as the Turkish, Berber, Sudanese and other forces of his predecessors. Himself a Kurd, he established a regime and an army of the Turkish type, along the lines laid down by the Seljuks and atabegs in the East.’ In capturing Egypt, and in all his wars against the Muslims of Syria and the Franks of Outremer, Saladin was not a liberator; like the Seljuks and like Zengi and Nur al-Din, he was an alien leading an alien army of conquest and occupation. (p.234, emphasis added)

– Saladin wrote letters and issued edicts claiming he was fighting a jihad against heresy and the infidel – in both cases Haag claims, he was hypocritically assuming a religious mantle to conceal what were basically the same lust-for-power motivations as all the other petty emirs and viziers competing in the region, a record of ‘unscrupulous schemes and campaigns aimed at personal, and family aggrandisement’ (Lyons and Jackson’s biography of Saladin, quoted on page 262)

– Haag goes out of his way to contrast Saladin’s fierce campaigns against what he regarded as Muslim heretics (especially Ismaili Islam, which he explains as a form of dualism), with the religious freedom operating in the Crusader states of Outremer, even quoting a contemporary Muslim chronicler, Ibn Jubayr, who admits that many Muslims preferred to live under the rule of the Franks who didn’t care what style of Islam they practiced, where they were treated fairly in the law courts, and taxed lightly (p.243).

– far from being the chivalrous knight of legend, Saladin routinely beheaded captured prisoners of war, as well as massacring the populations of captured towns, or selling all the women and children into slavery, for example:

  • after taking the Templar stronghold of King’s Ford in 1179 Saladin took 700 prisoners, who he then had executed
  • all the Templars and Hospitallers who survived the Battle of Hattin (4 July 1187) were, according to an eye witness account, lined up and hacked to pieces with swords and knives (p.274)
  • when Jaffa refused to yield to Saladin, it was eventually taken by storm and the entire population either massacred or sent off to the slave market at Aleppo
  • after taking Jerusalem, Saladin was reluctantly persuaded to allow the inhabitants to go free if they could pay a ransom; about 15,000 of the population was sold into slavery; all the churches had their spires knocked down and were converted into stables

As with Haag’s treatment of the entire period, his treatment of Saladin is detailed, compelling and, you eventually feel, strongly biased. I dare say the facts are correct, but Haag continually spins them with the very obvious purpose of undermining the legend of Saladin the chivalric defender of Muslims.

But to the casual reader, what really comes over is the immense violence and cruelty of everyone, of all sides, during the period. Muslims massacred Muslims. Muslims massacred Christians. Christians massacred Muslims. When Richard the Lionheart took Acre after a siege, he executed 3,000 Muslim prisoners, including women and children. All sides carried out what we would consider war crimes, because all sides were convinced God was on their side.

And all sides took part in the slave trade. Populations of captured towns were liable to be sent off to the great slave trade centres such as Ayas on the coast. I was genuinely surprised to learn that both the Templars and the Hospitallers took part in the slave trade, shipping captives taken in Palestine to work for the houses, especially in southern Italy and Christian Spain (p.229).

In the last decades of Outremer, as town after town fell to the Turks, the men would usually be slaughtered but their women and children would be taken to the slave markets of Aleppo or Damascus. Many thousands of Frankish women, girls and boys must have suffered this fate, as well as great numbers of native Christians.

Otherwise the great centre of the slave trade in the late thirteenth century was the Mediterranean port of Ayas, in the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. Marco Polo disembarked at Ayas in 1271 to begin his trip to China at about the same time that the Templars opened a wharf there. the slaves, who were Turkish, Greek, Russia and Circassian, had been acquired as a result of intertribal warfare, or because impoverished parents decided to sell their children, or because they were kidnapped, and they were brought to Ayas by Turkish and Mongol slavers. (p.230)

Slavery is mentioned a lot throughout the book. I would really like to read a good account of slavery in the Middle Ages.

Steven Runciman’s negative interpretation of the crusades

Haag in several places criticises Sir Steven Runciman, author of what, for the second half of the twentieth century, was the definitive three-volume history of the crusades, published from 1951 to 1954.

Haag’s criticism is that Runciman was a passionate devotee of Byzantine culture and the Greek Orthodox church – for example, the Protaton Tower at Karyes on Mount Athos was refurbished largely thanks to a donation from Runciman.

And so Runciman considered the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders one of the greatest crimes in human history. His entire account is heavily biased against the crusaders who he portrays as ‘intolerant barbarians’ and, in the famous conclusion to his history, calls the entire enterprise a long act of intolerance and a sin against the Holy Ghost.

This is important because:

It is no exaggeration to say that Runciman single-handedly crafted the current popular concept of the crusades. (Thomas F. Madden, 2005)

And his three-volume history, still published by Penguin, created the impression which

across the Anglophone world continues as a base reference for popular attitudes, evident in print, film, television and on the internet. (Christopher Tyerman, Fellow and Tutor in History at Hertford College, Oxford)

Looking it up, I can see that Haag’s criticism of Runciman – that he was consistently and obviously biased against the crusaders, and that his negative interpretation has been massive and widespread and continues to this day – is now widely shared.

Reflections

The big picture lesson for me is not that this, that or the other side was ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ (and Haag’s interpretation has successfully undermined my simple, liberal, politically correct view that the Crusades were xenophobic, colonial massacres by showing how extremely complicated and fraught the geopolitical and military situations was, with a complex meshing of different forces each fighting each other).

The more obvious conclusion is that all sides in these multi-levelled conflicts shared values and beliefs and codes of conduct and moral codes and ethics which are wildly different from ours today – almost incomprehensibly different – drenched with a religious fanaticism few of us can imagine and prepared to carry out atrocities and cruelties it is often hard to believe.

It is in this light that the shambolic fourth (1204), fifth (1217-21) and sixth crusades (1228-9) must be seen – less as the violent intrusions of a homogenous Superpower into the peace-loving affairs of poor innocent Muslims – more as forms of time-honoured attack, war and conquest (and ignominious defeat) which had been practiced by all mankind, over the face of the whole world, since records began.

The 4th, 5th and 6th crusades may well have been blessed by the Pope (who also didn’t hesitate to excommunicate them and their leaders when they wandered off-target) but in practice followed the entirely worldly, calculating, selfish, power-hungry agendas of the various European princes and kings who led them.

Already, during the third crusade, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa had openly plotted with the Serbs, Bulgarians, Byzantine traitors, and even the Muslim Seljuks against the Eastern Empire and at one point sought Papal support for a crusade against the Orthodox Byzantines. Feeling between Latin West and Greek East was becoming ever more polarised.

It is this which helps explain why the so-called fourth crusade ended in the shameful sack of Constantinople in 1203-4. The Venetians were promised a huge sum if they built ships to carry 35,000 warriors to the Holy Land. They stopped all commercial activity to build the fleet. When the knights arrived they were more like 12,000 and the Venetians were told they would only be paid a third of the promised sum. After fractious negotiations, the Venetians came up with a compromise solution – the existing Crusader force would seize the port of Zara in Dalmatia. Zara had been dominated economically by Venice throughout the 12th century but had rebelled in 1181 and allied itself with King Emeric of Hungary and Croatia. It was a Christian city, but the ‘crusade’ proceeded nonetheless, and Zara fell to the combined Venetian-Crusader forces, after which it was thoroughly pillaged. Then, after further complicated negotiations, the crusaders were prevailed upon to attack Constantinople, capital of the Greek Byzantine Empire, by the Venetians, led by their blind Doge Dandolo. The Venetians had long been commercial rivals of the Greeks, and it was said Dandolo had himself been blinded by Byzantine forces in a much earlier conflict between them. There were many more complications – for example the crusaders were told they were fighting to liberate the deposed Byzantine emperor but, during the resultant siege, this emperor was hastily restored by the population of Constantinople, which robbed the attack of its prime goal. Didn’t stop the ‘crusaders’ from finally storming the walls and sacking the Greek capital.

The point is not that this was appalling. The point is that it quite patently has nothing whatsoever to do with the Holy Land or Muslims or liberating the Holy Places and all the rest of crusader rhetoric. It was quite clearly commercial and political warfare of the kind going on all across the world at the time, in a world awash with armies and fighting princes, kings, khans, emperors, sultans and so on, not to mention Chinese emperors and Mayan and Aztec kings.

Same goes for the long-delayed and wandering expedition of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, which he grandly titled the Fifth Crusade, and which led up to him being crowned king of Jerusalem on 29 March 1229 but which was obviously more to do with his personal ambition than any ’cause’, let alone representing anything called ‘the West’. Frederick was excommunicated by the pope three times for pursuing his utterly selfish aims. He only stayed two days in Jerusalem. By this stage the once famous city was a dump, filled with ruins and churches turned into stables. As soon as decent, Frederick took ship back to Europe and got on with the serious job of building up his empire.

The fall of the Templars

And the point – that beneath a thin veneer of religious rhetoric, all these events were just dynasty-making, invading, conquering, and commercial conflicts of a familiar and entirely secular kind – is reinforced by the last few pages of Haag’s book, which chronicle the downfall of the Templars. King Philip IV was hugely in debt to the Templars. He decided to take advantage of the fact that the last Christian enclave in the Holy Land, Acre, had fallen in 1291, and the last little offshore island, Arwan, had fallen to Muslim forces in 1303, to turn on the Templars with a whole string of trumped-up charges of heresy, sodomy and so on which, despite the efforts of the pope to support an order which was nominally under his control, succeeded. The order was convicted of heresy, its leaders were burned at the stake and – the point of the exercise – King Philip’s huge debts were cancelled.

None of this is very edifying. But it is all very, very human.

Maps

There are only three maps in the book but they are excellent, clear and easy to read and they include all the place names mentioned in the text. I can’t find the name of the map designer but he or she is to be congratulated.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild (2005)

In all of human experience there was no precedent for such a campaign. (p.97)

Executive summary

The abolition of slavery took place in two parts:

  1. abolishing the slave trade (1807)
  2. abolishing slavery itself (1834)

1. Abolishing the slave trade 

After a whole century when anybody suggesting that African slavery be banned would have been considered a mad eccentric, the issue suddenly exploded into public consciousness in the years 1788 to 1793 when there was an extraordinary eruption of pamphlets, articles, petitions from every town and city in Britain, plays and polemics and debates in parliament, calling for the abolition of the slave trade.

It suddenly became the topic of the day and Hochschild is able to quote diarists and letter writers saying how heartily sick they are of every single dinner party or coffee house conversation being about nothing but abolitionism.

And then, just as the cause of abolition had become so unstoppable that it seemed poised to succeed in Parliament, the French Revolution broke out which led to two major events which set back the cause of abolition by a decade:

  1. The outbreak of the largest slave rebellion anywhere, in the French sugar colony of St Domingue, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, in November 1791. This is a long story, in which both the French and the British sent armies which were eventually defeated or, more accurately, abandoned the war in the face of deaths from tropical sickness and the slaves’ successful guerrilla tactics. But reports of the brutality on both sides of the conflict had undermined the image which abolitionists tried to foster, of slaves as helpless, saintly victims.
  2. The French revolutionaries executed Louis XVI in January 1793 and declared war on Britain in February 1793. War always halts reforms. A nationwide outburst of patriotism was accompanied by repressive laws banning seditious writings and political meetings. Abolitionism became ‘tainted’ by association with some of the wilder English Jacobins, who included it in general calls to overthrow the monarchy, the House of Lords, please for universal male suffrage and so on.

The movement which might have led to the end of the slave trade in just four or five years from its inception in 1788, because of the interruption of the French revolutionary wars, ended up taking nearer to 20 years.

The movement’s representative in parliament, the short, correct and conservative MP William Wilberforce, introduced an abolition bill into each new sitting of parliament from 1788 onwards, but they were always swamped by the pressing urgency of measures to deal with the war and the eruption of other crises throughout the British Empire.

It was only after the Peace of Amiens of 1802 led to a pause in the war with France, that the abolitionists were able to rally. Although war with France resumed in 1803, a new burst of campaigningy led to the final abolition of the slave trade in 1807. It became forbidden for British ships to carry slaves. Soon the Royal Navy was instructed to stop all ships carrying slaves of whatever nation, and confiscate them.

2. Abolishing slavery

There was then a long lull as Britain focused its energies on defeating Napoleon, first in 1814, then all over again in 1815 after he escaped from St Helena. The period 1815 to 1820 was characterised by immense social unrest in Britain caused by the mass unemployment of huge numbers of men who’d been serving in the army and navy simply being dumped back on the market, and also the social disruption of the industrial revolution.

The government responded with a whole series of repressive measures. Paul Foot’s biography of the poet Percy Shelley is a surprisingly thorough account of the repressive laws enacted during this period, as well as a doleful record of the many working class activists who were arrested, convicted, hanged or shipped off to the new penal colony in Australia.

It was only in the 1820s with a new government in place, with better harvests damping down rural protest, with working people finding more work, that the sense of crisis eased, and a new wave of young abolitionists took up the struggle, this time to abolish slavery altogether.

In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in London, its members including Joseph Sturge, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton with the women Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Elizabeth Pease, and Anne Knight.

The most interesting aspect of the story, in Hochschild’s telling, is that most of the running of this second phase was made by the women. William Wilberforce was still there in Parliament. Thomas Clarkson was still the great collector of facts and information. The Quaker networks provided the basis of publicity and campaigning. But they all took a cautious, gradualist approach. By contrast, a number of the women and women’s groups pressed for immediate abolition. Most notable was Elizabeth Heyrick.

During the 1790s the first generation of abolitionists had organised a sugar boycott i.e. they stopped buying and using sugar. Heyrick went one further and went to grocers shops asking them not to stock it at all.

Again the cause became entangled with a much bigger issue – in the 1790s it had been the French Revolution, in the late 1820s it was the titanic struggle to pass the Reform Act of 1832 to reform Britain’s ludicrously out-of-date electoral system.

Abolitionists realised this was their cause too, and put their energy into this struggle, and it was only after a reformed parliament had been elected in 1833, that direct campaigning for abolition continued and almost immediately was a success.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire BUT even then, it was in two phases: as of 1834 only slaves below the age of six were freed, all adult slaves had to continue working for their masters as ‘apprentices’.

Full and complete abolition – i.e. full and complete emancipation of all British slaves – had to wait until midnight on 1 August 1838. Hochschild amply describes the celebrations.


Bury the Chains

This is a long, detailed, very readable and profoundly moving account of the movement to abolish slavery in Britain.

Some of Hochschild’s most interesting points are made in the introduction, namely:

  1. In the 1780s, when the abolition movement got going, not just African slaves but maybe as many as three quarters of the world’s population was unfree.
  2. The abolition movement was the first mass civil society movement, not the product of a particular class or particular special interest group or trade – it joined all classes, all genders, all ages and all occupations across all the regions of Britain (‘Something new and subversive was making its first appearance: the systematic mobilisation of public opinion across the class spectrum.’ p.138)
  3. It was the first such campaign in human history that was not motivated by self-interest; none of the campaigners stood to gain anything and they, and the British population as a whole, stood to lose out economically – but nonetheless the righteousness of the cause outweighed self-interest.
  4. The abolition movement invented, or brought to perfection, a whole range of campaigning tactics which are still used around the world.

An unfree world

The first stirrings of the abolitionist movement occurred during the American War of Independence (1775-1783), around 1780. This is where Hochschild begins his narrative (although some strands require stepping back a bit in time to explain the background and development of slavery, and of specific elements in the story, such as a brief history of the Quakers.)

Anyway, I found it riveting that the first few pages are devoted to explaining that most human beings in the world at that age, in 1780, were not free.

When native Americans fought each other they often took captives prisoner as slaves. The Aztec and Inca empires had seized conquered peoples as slaves. Then the Spanish turned the entire population into peons to work for their European masters. But slavery was widespread in African kingdoms, too, and existed long before the Europeans touched the coast in the late 1400s.

For centuries before that there had been a) a slave trade taking African slaves north to serve in Muslim countries of the Mediterranean, and particularly to the heart of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and b) victorious African rulers routinely enslaved their defeated enemies.

The condition of slavery, selling of slaves, slave trails and slave entrepots were established well before the Europeans arrived.

The enormous landmass of Russia was characterised by serfhood where illiterate peasants were tied to land, and bought and sold along with it. In most of the rest of Europe illiterate peasants were similarly virtually the property of their lords and masters. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of people were in outright slavery (‘tens of millions’, p.2), while tens of millions more lived in a form of debt bondage which tied them to specific owners.

Hochschild doesn’t mention China, but millions of Chinese peasants lived in various forms of servitude.

Even in the most ‘civilised’ parts of Western Europe and north America, there was a deeply engrained social hierarchy, by which everyone deferred to those above them, and the aristocracy and landowners could use, whip, beat, punish and abuse their servants and staff, almost at will.

It is chastening, sobering, terrifying to read Hochschild’s convincing account of how most people for most of the past, have not been free. Count your blessings.

18th century violence

Not only were most people either not-free, or lower down the pecking order of deferentiality, but the 18th century world was one of quite staggering brutality. When you don’t know much you sort of think that the disgusting brutality meted out to slaves was uniquely bestial. But violence of every sort existed quite freely far beyond the slave world. Ordinary men and women could be punished for simple misdemeanours with public whipping or even the death penalty. As James Walvin’s book on slavery highlights, and as Hochschild repeats, deaths among the crew members of slave ships were, proportionately higher than deaths among the slaves.

And then there was the British tradition of press-ganging. Any halfway fit man walking the streets of London, Portsmouth, Bristol and any other major port city was liable to be bought drinks till he was legless, or simply seized by the notorious press gangs, carted off to serve on a slave or Royal Navy ship, for years at a time, with no legal redress.

Alan Taylor, in  American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, describes some atrocity happening in the 1700s and ironically remarks, ‘all this took place in the supposed “Age of Enlightenment”‘.

But the whole point of the Age of the Enlightenment is that it was a movement to try and reform a fundamentally brutal, backward, obscurantist and reactionary society. It was light amid darkness, profound darkness. Of course the Age of Enlightenment was often brutal; that’s precisely what the relatively small number of philosophers, thinkers, poets, writers, artists and enlightened citizens were struggling against.

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789)

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789), according to Hochschild, the first painting depicting the slave trade

The Quakers

This makes Britain’s 20,000 Quakers stand out all the more remarkably from all the other social and belief systems of the Western world. For the Quakers believed that all people are equal – and put their belief into practice. They didn’t use any linguistic forms of deference, refused to say Mr or Sir or Your worship, insisted on only saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ since these were the non-deferential versions. They refused to fight in wars. They refused to take vows to any monarch or magistrate. They insisted their only allegiance was to God the Creator of All. (p.107)

And they believed not only that all men, but that all people are equal. Thus, with ramrod logic, Quakers were the only one of the countless religious denominations anywhere in the New World who spoke out against slavery in the 18th century. They refused to own slaves. If they came into possession of slaves through land deals, they promptly liberated their slaves and, in some cases, Hochschild says, paid them compensation.

Compare and contrast with the Church of England which not only failed in its duty to speak out against slavery, but was itself a large owner of slaves through various companies and committees, notably the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

Among other properties the Church owned the Codrington estate, the second largest slave estate on Jamaica. On the governing board of the Society for the Propagation etc, and therefore aware of their slave profits, were the Regius Professors of Divinity at Oxford and Cambridge and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

All slaves working for the Society had the word SOCIETY branded into their chests with a red hot iron. Disgusting, eh?

It was Quakers who, in 1783, set up the first committee to lobby for the end of slavery. They got nowhere because they were ignored as cranks. It was only when Anglican luminaries came on board that the powers that be were inclined to listen. The most important was the Divinity student Thomas Clarkson, who, at the age of 25, underwent what amounted to a religious conversion, deciding to devote his life to the abolitionist cause.

Still, it was symptomatic that when a new committee for abolition was formed in 1787, nine of the twelve members were Quakers.

Thomas Clarkson

For Hochschild the central character of the entire story is Thomas Clarkson, 6 feet tall, red haired, who was converted to the evils of slavery aged 25 and became an indefatigable campaigner and investigator.

It was the investigations that mattered. In London, Bristol and Liverpool Clarkson spent months befriending slave ship captains, crews and merchants (where possible – many became firm enemies; on more than one occasion Clarkson’s life was threatened). He visited all the main posts gathering eye witness accounts of the brutality of the trade.

Using figures freely available from the authorities of the slave ports, Clarkson assembled statistics showing the appalling loss of life among the white crews of slave ships. As a proportion, more white sailors died on a slave journey, than slaves.

His aim was to refute one of the central the pro-slavery arguments, that the crews of slave ships provided a kind of rough apprenticeship for the Royal Navy. On the contrary, Thompson proved that most slave ship crews were press ganged, desperate to flee the ships, and only kept in place by punishments every bit as savage as those meted out to the slaves. He assembled copious testimony testifying to the way white sailors were flogged, sometimes to death, put in chains, tied to the deck or thrown into tiny spaces belowships, and died like flies on these long voyages.

Clarkson aimed to assemble the broadest possible case, showing that the slave trade degraded and brutalised everyone who came in touch with it. When he came across ship’s chandlers in Bristol or Liverpool openly selling chains, shackles and thumbscrews – implements of torture – he bought them as exhibits to show on his lecture tours, he sent accounts of them to the Times and to Parliament.

All this testimony and equipment, all the statistics existed and were publicly available, but nobody had ever set out to assemble all the evidence, to buy and display the implements of torture, to assemble all the statistic, to do the basic investigative groundwork which could then be recycled into articles, pamphlets, books and speeches.

Clarkson and colleagues listed the negative arguments against slavery, but also tried to formulate arguments emphasising the positive results that would stem from ending it.

One of these was the attempt to prove that free trade with African nations and peoples would yield larger profits than slavery; that the slave trade was not only morally reprehensible, degrading, lethal to ships crews, but that it was preventing the development of more profitable free trade with African countries.

To prove his point, on his visits to the slave ports, Clarkson came across products from Africa and began collecting them into what became known as ‘Clarkson’s box’. These included carved ivory and woven cloth, along with produce such as beeswax, palm oil and peppers.

Clarkson could see the craftsmanship and skill that went to produce many of the items and used them to refute the notion that blacks were savages, little more than animals. Quite clearly they were not, they were craftsmen and women of great skill. The idea that such imaginative and talented designers and craftsmen could be kidnapped and enslaved was horrifying.

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Campaign tactics

How did the abolitionists achieve all this?

It’s a long story which first of all requires a good sense of the nature of British society in the 1770s and 1780s, which is why it takes a book to tell how various strands of social, religious and moral thought came together.

But Hochschild also points out how the abolitionists pioneered campaigning techniques which have endured to this day:

  • posters
  • pamphlets
  • lecture tours
  • investigative journalism designed to stir people to action
  • books and book tours
  • mass petitions
  • targeting individual MPs
  • lobbying parliament
  • organising boycotts of sugar

Hochschild devotes a couple of pages to the origin of one of the most powerful icons of the movement and what he calls ‘one of the most widely reproduced political graphics of all time’.

The chairman of an abolitionist branch Clarkson had set up in Plymouth sent Clarkson a diagram of the slave ship Brooks which he had come across at the owners’ offices. It showed the optimal way to cram the ship full of African slaves. Clarkson seized on the diagram’s importance and worked with the committee’s publisher and designer to expand and fine tune it.

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

The slave packing diagram quickly began appearing in newspapers, magazines, books and pamphlets. The abolitionists and thousands of other supporters around the country hung it on their walls as a constant reminder. To this day it has the power to harrow and shock.

Morality trumped self interest

The British decision to abolish slavery was taken against the economic interest of Britain.

Not only this, but many communities and economic sectors which stood to be specifically damaged by the decision, nonetheless supported abolition. Towns whose wealth was based on slave imports nonethless produced lengthy petitions against slavery. It was, therefore, a decision taken on moral and religious principles, and these trumped economic self interest.

Scholars estimate that abolishing the slave trade and then slavery cost the British people 1.8 per cent of their annual national income over more than a century, many times the percentage most wealthy countries today give in foreign aid. (p.5)

Why 1788?

Hochschild lists the precursors, describes the events leading up to the formation of the abolition committee and gives accounts of the personal conversions to anti-slavery of key personnel. But it might still have remained an eccentric fringe group. Why did the cause suddenly catch fire, and become a country-wide phenomenon in 1788-89?

In 1780, if you had suggested banning slavery, everyone would have thought you were mad. Nobody discussed it, it didn’t appear in newspapers, magazines, parliamentary debates or coffee house conversations.

By 1788 Britain was aflood with a tsunami of anti-slavery propaganda. Petitions flooded Parliament as never before, thirteen thousand signed one in Glasgow, 20,000 one in Manchester; books and pamphlets flooded from the press, lectures and sermons were given about it, newspaper and magazine articles poured forth – it was everywhere, the burning topic of conversation, it was like the Brexit of its day.

But why? Why did the campaign to abolish slavery spread like wildfire and unite all classes, regions, towns and cities so suddenly? And why in Britain and Britain only? After all, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Holland and Sweden all owned colonies in north or south America which employed large numbers of slaves. There was no movement to abolish slavery in any of those six other European nations. Why not?

Hochschild gives a list of secondary causes, before he unleashes what he thinks is the prime and main cause (pp. 213-225).

The secondary causes amount to a thorough profile of British late-eighteenth century society and indicators of it economic, technological, social and political advancement beyond all its European neighbours.

  • massive investment in well-kept toll roads which made widespread travel easier in Britain than anywhere else in Europe
  • the world’s best postal service
  • more newspapers than any other country, and more provincial newspapers which passed on developments and debates in the capital to the remotest provinces
  • the coffeehouse, a British institution in every city and town, which had up to date copies of all the magazines and newspapers, and where news and issues of the day could be debated
  • more than half the population of Britain was literate because Protestantism insists that each individual can read the Bible in their own language
  • libraries in every town and city, with over a hundred in London alone
  • well over a thousand bookstores, which often offered hsopitality while you sat and read
  • no censorship; anyone could set up a printing press and publish what they liked compare with, for example, the 178 censors who censored everything written in France before it was published
  • debating societies which became widespread during the 1770s

So although fewer than 5% of the population could vote, an extraordinary number of people knew what was being debated and discussed by parliament, read and understood the issues of the day, and created a ‘public opinion’ which couldn’t be ignored by the country’s rulers.

  • The rule of law. Unlike most continental nations, Britain had age-old common law which had been continually influenced and modified by trial by a jury. Obviously the law was weighted towards the rich, towards aristocrats and landowners. But in theory at least, a labourer could take a lord to court and win. After the Somerset case of 1772, the leading abolitionist Granville Sharp helped a number of slaves take their masters to court – and won.

These are all mighty fine aspects of British society circa 1790, but none of these by themselves amount to a sufficient cause.

The primary cause, Hochschild thinks, is the uniquely British institution of press-ganging.

He gives four or five pages describing in some detail the mind-blowing examples of the powers of the press gang to kidnap any man whatsoever between about 14 and 40 and whisk them off to a life of brutally hard work and vicious discipline aboard the Royal Navy’s vast fleet.

Grooms could be kidnapped at the altar, in front of bride, vicar and congregation, and whisked off. Some gangs were so large they fought pitched battles with customs officials or soldiers. The pages he devotes to press-ganging are quite an eye-opener.

But his point is that many Britons had experienced, or knew of, a form of slavery themselves; knew an institution whereby perfectly free young men could be kidnapped and sold into a life little better than slavery, subject to appallingly brutal punishments, with a fair certainty of death from disease, rotten food or combat.

Alongside all its positive aspects, British society also contained this brutal institution – and it had led over the decades to a widespread sense of grievance and resentment. It was this feeling (among others) which the abolitionists were able to tap into.

Personally, I find this theory a bit far-fetched. I would have thought there were several other social trends which Hochschild mentions elsewhere but not in his list of causes, which were far more important than press-ganging.

Chief among these would be the Great Religious Awakening from the 1750s onwards, which led to the rise of non-conformist sects, chief among them the Methodists. This movement converted people rich and poor to the belief that society at large only paid lip service to Christian values, and that individuals really had to experience the grace of God for themselves to be born again into a purer, more devout, more moral Christian life.

It was to these newly awakened consciences that much abolitionist propaganda appealed, and it is notable that non-conformists – building on the heroic work of the Quakers – were at the forefront of disseminating and spreading the movement.

Fascinating and eminently readable though his book is, I don’t think Hochschild quite drills down into the immense spirituality and religiosity of the era, and how that influenced every thought and feeling of millions and millions of Brits.

Summary

This is an absolutely vast subject, because the campaign, in total, stretched across fifty years, and was hugely affected by two great historical events: the French Revolution and the twenty years war it led to; and then the immense struggle to pass the 1832 Reform Act – not to mention acknowledging the huge social changes caused by the industrial revolution which was trundling along in the background throughout the period.

Vast as it is, this really brilliant book probably comes as close to doing the subject matter justice as one volume can.

Despite the horror of much of the content, Bury the Chains manages somehow to be a humane and uplifting story, because it shows how evil can be conquered, and it shows how even when a wicked system or institution is in place, millions and millions of good-hearted people can rise above their own self interest to organise and work for its overthrow. And succeed.

The British are often damned for perfecting the Atlantic slave trade and making vast fortunes from it. But they should also be praised for rising up in their millions and forcing their government to change its policies and then to spend a lot of money policing the seas to try and eradicate this truly evil trade.


Related links

Related reviews

Other posts about slavery / American history

Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Figures

It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.


Related links

Other posts about American history

American Colonies by Alan Taylor (2001)

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies is the first volume in the multi-volume Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric Foner. It is a big-format book, with 470 densely packed pages covering the colonisation of America from the arrival of the first humans 15,000 years ago up to AD 1800. It is an extraordinarily thorough, wide-ranging, thought-provoking and exhilirating read, but which deals with some extremely grim and depressing subject matter.

Broad canvas

Most of the histories of America I’ve read start with Sir Walter Raleigh and the early English settlements of the 1580s and 90s, and then briskly run through the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Atlantic coast in the 1600s, in a hurry to get to the War of Independence (in the 1770s) when the ‘true’ story of America begins.

Taylor’s approach couldn’t be more different. His canvas is longer and broader and much, much bigger. Longer, in that he starts with the arrival of the first humans in America some 13,000 BC. Echoing the picture painted by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, he describes how a probably small group of hunter-gatherers in Siberia moved across what we now think of as the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and then, as the climate improved, a) the land bridge flooded, separating America and Asia and b) the early settlers were able to move south into the huge empty continent.

Domesticable mammals

As we know from Guns, Germs and Steel, their arrival coincided with the mass extinction of all the large mammals in America – presumably through human overhunting – leaving no mammals on the continent capable of being domesticated. According to Jared Diamond this is perhaps the decisive difference between the inhabitants of Eurasia – which domesticated pigs, goats, cows and sheep and, crucially, the horse – and the inhabitants of all the other continents, which had hardly any or simply no domesticable mammals.

Animal diseases

The domesticated animals of Eurasia were important not only for their use as food, in providing skins and hides, manure to fertilise crops and the pulling power of horses and oxen – large numbers of farm animals allowed the fomenting of terrible epidemic diseases, which jumped the species barrier into humans and then spread through our densely populated towns and cities. We are the descendants of the survivors of repeated epidemics of plague, smallpox, tuberculosis and so on which devastated Asia and Europe.

Thus when the first Europeans arrived in the New World (on Columbus’s First Voyage of 1492), it wasn’t the gunpowder or steel swords or even the warriors on horseback which did for the natives – it was the diseases we brought. Again and again and again, Taylor tells harrowing stories of how our diseases – especially smallpox- devastated the populations of the West Indies, of the Aztec and Inca empires, then of the Mississippian civilisation, and then all up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

It’s only recently that historians have taken the measure of this devastating biological warfare: for a long time it was thought that the Native American population was about 1 million when the English started colonising the Atlantic coast; but now it is thought the original population, before the Spanish arrived in 1492, may have been as high as 20 million. I.e. in about a century (1490-1590) 95% of the Indian population was wiped out by European diseases.

Thus, Taylor emphasises, until recently historians thought that the Indian tribes which the European settlers encountered had inhabited their territories from time immemorial. The new ‘disease-aware’ theories suggest the exact opposite: that Europeans encountered survivors who were still reeling from the devastation of their populations by disease, which in turn had led to internecine warfare and the seizing of territory, to regrouping and realliancing (p.74). Often this occurred before the main body of European explorers arrived – after all it only took a few sailors going ashore from a Spanish ship to fill water barrels on the south coast to infect an Indian, who then took the disease back to his tribe, which passed it up along the Mississippi and to decimate the entire population.

Thus Taylor shows again and again that the social and ecological and political arrangements of the Indians which Europeans encountered, and took to be timeless, had in fact only come about because of the disruptive activities of the Europeans themselves.

The Spanish

So – number one – Taylor’s vastly broader canvas starts thousands of years before the conventional histories, in order to place the Native Americans within the fullest possible context.

It then – number two – very sensibly takes the time to give a thorough account of the Spanish conquests starting with Columbus’s first voyage of 1492. In fact, Taylor goes back before Columbus to give us enough European history to place the entire ‘Navigation Revolution’ in its full global context. The biggest single element of this was the continuing success of imperial Islam. The Turkish or Ottoman Empire finally captured Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, in 1453, and spread up into the Balkans (thus creating the hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions which has caused instability and conflict right up to the present day).

These Ottoman conquests closed off overland trade routes from Europe to India and the Spice Islands far to the East. And it was this closure of the Eastern route which gave a big financial incentive to adventurers and explorers to try and find a route west, across the seas, to the Spice Islands. As countless commentators have pointed out, it is one of the greatest ironies in history that the discovery of America was a terrible disappointment to the explorers and their royal patrons back in the capitals of Spain and Portugal and France and England. (And Taylor’s book is brutal about the terrible consequences for the native peoples everywhere the Europeans went.)

Taylor explains the economic and technological background to the Spanish conquests of Central and South America not just for their own sake, but because the Spanish also expanded up into what was later to become the USA. The Spanish colonised Florida and sent expeditions deep into what would later become California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In doing so they established a particular pattern of landholding – vast haciendas farmed by natives turned into serfs – which would remain influential in the south-west USA for centuries, as well as bringing disease and disruption to the native peoples.

The West Indies

Taylor devotes a lot of space to the settlement of the numerous islands of the West Indies, firstly by Spain in the early 1500s. He describes how French and English pirates took to preying on the regular Spanish shipments of silver and gold from central America back to Europe via the Indies. Then how France and England set about establishing colonies of their own in this scattered archipelago of islands.

Taylor describes tells in great detail the settlement of Barbados and then of Jamaica. Several points emerge.

  1. The original settlers dropped like flies. The climate was inimical to white men, who also didn’t know – for a long time – what to farm in these places. It took some time before the invaders worked out that sugar cane was the perfect crop for the climate. Unfortunately, working cane is – as Taylor explains in detail – extremely labour-intensive.
  2. So the Europeans then proceeded to enslave and work to death as many of the native population as they could capture, waging genocidal wars with the rest, all the while spreading their fatal germs.
  3. It was when they’d worked the natives to annihilation, that the settlers began buying African slaves. The trade had existed for over a hundred years, but the Spanish and Portuguese had mainly made do with enslaving the local Indians. It was the sugar economy of the West Indies which converted the Slave Trade into an industrial concern.

The British colonies

There then follow a sequence of chapters which describe the English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay area. I learned that originally, the entire coast from the Spanish colony of Florida up to the French territories in Canada, was all known as ‘Virginia’, after the supposedly virgin queen, Elizabeth I. A familiar pattern is established. The original settlers drop like flies (mostly from water-borne diseases caused by the low tidal movement of the bay – for decades they were drinking water polluted by their own faeces). So it takes a long time for settler deaths to be outweighed by new arrivals and the colony to really take hold. The ‘indenture system’ is widespread i.e. poor whites from England sell themselves into 4 or 5 years servitude, to pay for the transatlantic crossing. After 4 or 5 years they are released, having paid their debt, and given a basic amount of land and tools to make it themselves. Initially weak in numbers and understanding of the environment, the colonists rely on trade with the Indians to get by. But as soon as they are strong and numerous enough, they start expanding their settlements, inevitably coming into conflict with the Indians who, in any case, are regularly devastated by the diseases the colonists have brought, especially smallpox.

Eventually, in Virginia the settlers discovered that tobacco is the crop of choice, hugely profitable when shipped back to Europe. But Indians refused to work in the kind of prison-camp labour the crop requires, and the flow of indentured servants dried up in the 1650s as economic conditions in England – the bad economy, overcrowding and unsettled social conditions of the British Civil Wars (1637-60) – improved. Solution: African slaves.

Slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, slaves to the tobacco plantations of Virginia. Taylor describes how large planters flourished, picking off smaller planters who tended to go under in bad periods of trade fluctuation. This set the pattern for what would later be seen as the ‘Old South’ of vast plantations worked by slaves and overseen by fine white lords and ladies living in grand style, in big mansions, with countless servants to organise their lavish feasts etc. The lifestyle of Gone With The Wind. Very hard for a modern white liberal not to despise.

Taylor then goes on to describe the settlement of New England, the northern colonies settled by English Puritans – religious exiles from the old country – arriving in the 1620s. A key distinction which sticks in my mind is that, whereas the Virginia settlers were mostly single men, the Puritans came in well-organised groups of families. Those Virginian men were aggressive competitors who broadcast their success once they’d ‘made it’. The Puritans, by contrast, set up tightly organised and disciplined townships, each with local administrators based on their numerous churches and congregations, and closely monitored each others every word and action to make sure they conformed with ‘godly’ practice. In time the New England Puritans were to get a reputation for republicanism and democracy, both dirty words in the 17th century.

I knew some of this already, but it is all given in more detail, more intelligently and with more insight than I’ve ever read before. Also I hadn’t appreciated just how thoroughly New England fed into the Atlantic Economy. Put simply, New England farmers produced the staple food crops which were traded down to the West Indies sugar plantations. Ships from the West Indies and Virginia brought sugar and tobacco to Boston, where it was transferred into ships to carry it across to Bristol and Liverpool. The empty ships carried back food to the sugar and tobacco colonies. The ships which sailed east across the Atlantic emptied their goods in England, then sailed down the coast of Africa to buy slaves, before catching the Trade Winds which carried them west across the Atlantic to the West Indies and up to Virginia where they sold the slaves, and loaded up with sugar and tobacco.

I knew about the Atlantic Economy and the Slave Trade but Taylor’s book is the first I’ve ever read which explains lucidly and thoroughly the background, the climatological, environmental, social and economic forces behind the growth of this immense money-making machine.

New York and Pennsylvania

Different again was the settlement of New York, which was originally carried out by the Dutch. I knew that the Dutch had created a surprisingly far-flung empire, given the smallness of their country and population (1.5 million to England’s 5 million). And I knew that the British fought three wars (1652-4, 1665-7 and 1672-4) with the Dutch, because they loom large in the history and literature of the British Civil Wars (1637-60).

Taylor explains the fundamental reason the British were able to seize the few Dutch territories on the Atlantic coast (famously New Amsterdam, which we renamed New York after the Duke of York, Charles II’s brother and future King James II). Because a) the Dutch lacked the manpower to defend it b) it wasn’t making much money, unlike their colonies in South America, at the Cape in South Africa, and especially in the Far East.

Taylor gives a characteristically thorough account of the creation of Pennsylvania, a huge tract of land simply given to the aristocrat William Penn by Charles II in 1681 to pay off a gambling debt, and which Penn then settled in a systematic and well-organised way with members of his own non-conformist sect, the Quakers, naming its first main town Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love.

New France

Meanwhile, up in what would become Canada, the French had been exploring and settling the St Lawrence Waterway, the long river which penetrates at an angle deep into North America, ultimately linking up with the Great Lakes. They founded settlements at its mouth, Louisbourg, and along its length at Quebec and Montreal. In the cold north, the French could barely grow wheat let alone the hot-climate crops of tobacco or sugar. Therefore they pioneered trading with the Native Americans for furs and pelts: because of the climate and this economic model ‘New France’ was always thinly populated, mainly by hunters who worked closely with their Indian allies and often went native, marrying Indian women and adopting their ways. All the chapters about the French echo with the lamentations of the French governor or military commander, that they barely have the men or resources to hold the territory.

This is all the more puzzling since France was the largest, most powerful nation in Europe, population 20 million, compared to England’s 5 million, and the Dutch 1 million. In chapter 16 Taylor gives some reasons:

  • In France the peasantry was more rooted to the land. In England the 17th century saw a movement of ‘enclosure’ acts in which the gentry seized common land and drove the rural poor off it, creating a pool of unemployed keen to travel to find work.
  • If French peasants did want work all they had to do was walk south into Spain where there were labour shortages.
  • The English encouraged their religious dissidents (the Puritans) to emigrate to the colonies, where they turned out to be hard working and disciplined pioneers. The French banned it. French protestants – known as Huguenots – were forbidden by law from going to new France. Instead some 130,000 artisans, craftsmen and merchants fled to Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England, especially after the fool King Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had previously granted them religious freedom.
  • Word came back that New France was freezing cold, with poor agricultural prospects – all true enough.
  • Finally, the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV was determined to make France the greatest power on the Continent and so built up a massive war machine, inheriting an army of 20,000 in 1661 and growing it to 300,000 by 1710. England’s surplus population created America; France’s created an army.

The furs and pelts never covered the cost of the colony. This is the single most important fact about New France: it always needed to be subsidised by the Crown, and was a constant drain on French finances. This was even more true of ‘Louisiana’, the vast area either side of the Mississippi which the French optimistically claimed for themselves in the 17th century. In reality this boiled down to a poverty-stricken settlement at New Orleans, which suffered from disease, lack of crops, periodic flooding, hurricanes and constant harassment by local Indians (pp. 384-385).

The sole reason the French crown continued to subsidise both wretched settlements was geopolitical – to hem in and contain England’s settlements along the Atlantic coastline. As I know from reading about The Seven Years War (1756-63) the simple geography of the situation made conflict between the two empires inevitable, indeed French and Indian raids were a menace to settlers in New York state and Pennsylvania from as early as the 1690s. The surprising thing is that it took until the 1760s for the British to defeat the French, but this is the benefit of hindsight. During the later 1600s and early 1700s both sides were too weak and geographically separated to engage in proper conflict.

Indian torture and European brutality

At several places Taylor goes into detail about Indian beliefs and religion (granting, of course, that different nations and tribes often had different practices). Broadly speaking:

  • men were warriors, seeking opportunities to display their prowess, which they proved through the number of scalps i.e. the skin and hair from the top of an enemy’s head
  • in wars among themselves, the Indians sought plunder and increased hunting territory
  • the loss of warriors prompted grief but also fear of the dead which was assuaged by loud mourning and ritual feasts
  • deaths in battle prompted further ‘mourning wars’, in which they raided enemy tribes and seized prisoners
  • these prisoners were then incorporated into the tribe, replenishing its numerical and spiritual power
  • most tribes were matrilinear i.e. power descended through the female line and so the older women of the tribe decided the fate of captives: women and children were invariably adopted into the tribe and given new names; young male captives were generally tortured to death
  • death was inflicted as slowly and painfully as possible: the Iroquois tied the captive to a stake and villagers of both sexes took turns to wield knives, torches and red hot pokers to torment and burn the captive to death
  • ‘the ceremony was a contest between the skills of the torturers and the stoic endurance of the victim, who manifested his own power, and that of his people, by insulting his captors and boasting of his accomplishments in war’ (p.103)
  • once dead, the victim was dismembered, his parts put in a cooking kettle and the resulting stew served to the entire tribe to bind them together in absorbing the captive’s power
  • torture and cannibalism bound the tribe together, gave them spiritual power, hardened adolescent boys for the cruelties of war and dramatised the tribe’s contempt for outsiders

It goes without saying that the Europeans had their own grisly punishments. Accounts of the conquistadores’ behaviour to captured Aztecs and Incas are stomach-turning, and the slave-owning British invented all kinds of brutal punishments for rebellious or insubordinate slaves. What surprised me was the brutality of the French in Louisiana to their own men. I’m disgusted but not really surprised to learn that the French turned over rebel or runaway slaves to their Indian allies to be tortured or burned to death as only the Indians knew how – to deliberately inspire terror of rebellion or flight in their slaves. But the French paid their own soldiers so badly that they lived in conditions little better than the slaves – a visitor reported them lacking shirts or boots and on starvation rations – leading to repeated desertion and runaways. And if these runaway soldiers were caught, ‘the lucky died on the gallows; others died as their backs were broken on the wheel or severed by saws’ (p.387). Severed by saws!

This is why I described the book as depressing at the top. Maybe grim and hateful would be better words. The breadth of Taylor’s view, the grasp of detail, the clarity of the narrative and the incisiveness of his insights all make this a brilliant read. But the subject matter is appalling: the catalogue of suffering and violence and epidemic disease and starvation and torture and more violence call for a very strong stomach.

Summary

All of this is covered in just the first half of this long and fascinating account.

You can see how Taylor’s account restores to ‘the colonisation of America’ its full historical scope (stretching back to the very first human arrivals) and fullest geographical scope (making it abundantly clear that any telling of the story must include the economic and social colonisation by the Spanish and explain the colonisation of the West Indies a) because the Caribbean economy established the pattern of slave-worked ‘plantations’ which was to be copied on the mainland, and b) because the West Indies sugar colonies formed the lynchpin of the entire Atlantic Economy which allowed the North American colonies to flourish).

His account explains the surprising variety of types of European settlement made in American – in terms of their economies and cultures, their crops and religions – and how this variety left a legacy of diverse and conflicting social ideals to later Americans.

It explains in great detail the tragic encounter between Europeans and native peoples, with scores of examples of how initial co-operation turned sour as both sides failed to understand each other’s notions of law and rights and property, leading to violence and counter-violence, to wars large and small – and how the Indians always ended up on the losing side, partly because the whites controlled their access to guns and ammunition, but mostly because the Indians everywhere fell victim to the terrible diseases the whites didn’t even realise they’d brought with them from the Old World.

And it explains in thorough and appalling detail the scale and brutality of the transatlantic Slave Trade, explaining why it became ‘necessary’ to the one-crop economies of sugar in the West Indies and tobacco in Virginia, why the nature of these crops demanded exhausting and back-breaking labour which couldn’t be supplied by either local Indians or indentured labourers from England, but why – as a result – the white owners lived in constant fear of rebellion by blacks who came to outnumber them by as much as 9 to one and so were forced, by a bitter logic of fear, into more and more brutal discipline and punishments of slaves who ran away or organised any kind of rebellion.

His book paints an enormous canvas, full of startling and terrible revelations, which for the first time fits together every element in the story into what must become a definitive account for our times of the very troubled origins of the ‘United States’ of America.

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris (1932)


Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Other posts about American history

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin (2012)

Empire – as the assertion of mastery (by influence or rule) by one ethnic group, or its rulers, over a number of others – has been the political rule of the road over much of the world and over most of world history: the default mode of state organisation.
(Unfinished Empire, page 7)

This is a much more sober, earnest and thoughtful account of the British Empire than Niall Ferguson’s popular blockbuster, Empire. Whereas Ferguson references popular myths and preconceptions in order to puncture them in the manner of a swashbuckling columnist, Darwin is the cautious scholar, thoughtfully engaging with the voluminous literature of other historians on the subject – which makes his book a much denser, more challenging, but hugely more rewarding read.

The medieval origins

Ferguson’s account starts with the Elizabethans establishing plantations in Ireland and America at the same time as they set up their own offshoot of the Atlantic slave trade (roughly the 1590s). Darwin takes the more interesting and, characteristically more thorough, approach of going back much further, to the Norman Conquest, to trace the origins of the attempts by the conquering Normans to take an ‘imperial’ approach to the British Islands.

Among the hundreds of rewarding points Darwin makes is that the entire left-wing critique of the British Empire tends to treat it as if it was a historical freak, a one-off, as if only this empire ever existed and was uniquely evil, racist and sexist.

In fact, as Darwin calmly points out, empire has been the normal form of rule for most of the world for most of history.

Thus, just looking at Britain, we were part of the Roman Empire for 400 years; we were invaded and conquered by sea-borne tribes from northern Germany and Denmark who set up their own settler states from the 5th to the 9th century; we were then invaded and part-colonised by the Vikings (800-950), before becoming part of Canute’s Danish Empire from 1014 to 1042. Were then invaded and colonised by the Normans (1066), brutal subjugaters who imposed their economic system, language and laws on their subjects, as well as confiscating vast swathes of their land, and massacred any resisters (the Harrying of the North).

Darwin picks up the story with the Plantagenet kings (1154 to 1485), who ran an essentially French Empire which included a large chunk of western France (wine-producing Gascony). The Plantagenets tried to extend their control of England into Wales (it was the Plantagenet Edward I who built all those Welsh castles in the late 1200s), and tried with varying success to push into Scotland and Ireland.

In the 14th century England hung on to her possessions in south-west France in the face of growing power of the centralised French state, but eventually lost them in 1453. In fact the steady consolidation of the European kingdoms of France and Spain effectively locked Britain out of Continental Europe and forced us to look elsewhere for growth. In other words, Britain’s efforts to find gold and wealth abroad were bound to be maritime, not continental. Locked out of Europe, Britain had to look further across the seas for conquest and colonies.

Before we even get to Ferguson’s start point of Elizabeth’s reign, England had already been part of five or six different empires, depending how you define them.

Protestant paranoia

Darwin adds to Ferguson’s account of the Elizabethan period, the importance of Protestant paranoia. It’s worth remembering that, after Henry VIII’s declaration of independence from the Roman Catholic church in the 1530s, English monarchs lived in fear of being invaded and conquered by the military superpower of the day for the next 250 years, first Spain, then France.

The campaigns to pacify Wales and Scotland were wars of conquest designed to protect the English monarchy’s exposed flanks. Scotland remained an entry point for invasions long after the Scottish Reformation partly calmed English fears. Even after the semi-forced Act of Union of 1707 created a country called ‘Great Britain’, there were still threatening Scottish insurrections – the last one, armed and supported by the Catholic French, as late as 1745, and only defeated after the Catholic army had got as far as Derby, just 130 miles from London.

Unrepentantly Catholic Ireland, though, remained an enduring problem for England’s Protestant monarchs, from the first attempts to assert authority over it in the 1100s right up to the present day (today I read a news story saying the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, warned David Cameron that a Brexit from the EU might jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement).

Rivalry with other empires

My recent visit to the British Museum reminded me of the long list of empires which battled for supremacy throughout  history: just in the Middle East, the so-called ‘cradle of civilisation’, we have the Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians, the Babylonians and so on – while successive emperors ruled the vast area known as China, and waves of imperial invaders conquered and tried to bind together enormous India, leading up the Mughal emperors that the British had to deal with in the 18th century. When Cortes and Pizarro arrived in Mexico they didn’t discover vegan environmentalists but well-organised, centralised empires – Aztec and Inca – which had been vying for supremacy for centuries, supported by their blood-thirsty religions.

What we think of as the Tudor period, when Henry and his successors tried to conquer and bind together the people on these British islands, was also the era when the kings of Spain and France were doing the same in their realms, fighting to create strong centralised states. In this as in so many other ways, England was just one among many European nations doing the same thing at the same time.

And so, whenever we consider the complex, byzantine history of all the enterprises and entities which eventually coalesced into something we call ‘the British Empire’, we shouldn’t forget that:

a) it was always in rivalry and competition with the other, often more powerful and better-established, European empires
b) in many places it came up against existing ‘native’ empires, for example the Mughal empire in India or the Zulu empire in South Africa

Complexity

From the first pages Darwin emphasises the complexity of the imperial story, that there were a myriad stories of negotiation, business deals, trades, coercion, attack, rebuff, invasion and so on. And they jostled against each other. The imperialists and colonisers, the traders and soldiers, the central government and the men on the ground, not to mention the Christian missionaries, often had wildly different aims and strategies.

Throughout his book Darwin defines different ‘types’ of empire – which immediately make you realise that what later history too glibly thinks of as the ‘rulers’ of ‘the Empire’ always had conflicting aims, which often led to confusion, sometimes disaster.

And even a cursory reading of the history soon makes you aware of the arguments, often bitter angry arguments, between the so-called ‘ruling classes’ back home.

The most obvious example is the fierce arguments surrounding the anti-slavery movement which overcame the angry resistance of the plantation owners and slave traders to eventually ban the institution of slavery, then ban the slave trade, so that, from the 1830s onwards, Britain become the world’s leading agent against slavery. The ruling classes were anything but monolithic – they were at daggers drawn.

Similarly, a strong anti-imperial party always existed in British society, arguing from morality, from Christian principle or just for pragmatic reasons, that ruling an empire was immoral, it distorted the economy and made it too reliant on cheap external commodities or foreign trade, and so on.

I studied the later Victorian period for A-Level and had drummed into me the level of personal and political dislike between Disraeli, the slippery impresario of Empire, and Gladstone, its pompous opponent who carried on vigorously arguing against it into the 1890s.

By the late 19th century you have organised socialist parties giving coherent economic and social reasons against Empire, a set of arguments encapsulated in the classic text, Imperialism: A Study (1902) by the British political scientist John Hobson, which argued that imperialism is an immoral and unnecessary extension of capitalism.

There was always opposition to ‘Empire’, and imperial rule itself was bedevilled by the frequent changes of government and sudden changes of attitude and strategy caused by the pesky democratic system. A central strand of Rudyard Kipling‘s work is his real anger and hatred of idiot politicians, especially Liberal politicians, who were constantly meddling with things they didn’t understand and making the lives of the men on the spot, the men trying to run things, impossible and often dangerous.

So these are just some of the ways in which the Empire was always ‘unfinished’ – giving the book its title.

The British Empire never achieved stasis; it was always too big, too complex, too unstable, in a permanent state of crisis dealing with local wars or rebellions, the threats of rival European empires, economic woes like depressions or agricultural blights, the disruptive impact of new technologies like electricity or the wireless.

Darwin quotes the historian John Gallagher who wrote, ‘Once the British Empire became world-wide the sun never set on its crises.’

Each generation of rulers felt it had been handed a vast can of worms to try and make sense of, organise, maintain and keep secure. It was like the game show challenge of keeping all those plates spinning on the top of the poles, and it is amazing how such a small country managed to keep so many plates spinning for so long until, during the Second World War, they all began crashing to the ground.

Types of empire

  • Entrepôt empire – from the 1690s to 1790s British merchants thrived on the Atlantic trade, moving around slaves and sugar to make profits
  • Free trade empire – from the 1790s onwards, diversifying into the spices, calico and other stuffs supplied from Asia
  • Conquest empire – military conquest to make existing territories secure, to overthrow troublesome ‘native’ rulers
  • The English Atlantic empire – based on a series of early, coastal bridgeheads around the Atlantic
  • The Trading empire in India – run by the East India Company and dependent on the goodwill of local rulers

And amid this diversity of empire, Darwin also defines a whole variety of types of colony. There were at least five large categories:

  • Company Rule
  • Colonies
  • Protectorates
  • Dominions
  • Mandates

However many you count, the point is that they were diverse: from tiny Hong Kong to vast Canada, from almost empty land settled by convicts (Australia) to countries teeming with well-established populations, cultures and rulers (India) – each required different handling, legal and trade arrangements.

Strength in diversity

This is a brilliant book which quietly, calmly, confidently dispenses with left-wing rhetoric about the British Empire and shows, again and again, what a weird, peculiar hodge-podge of disparate entities ‘it’ really was.

Darwin refers to Edward Said and his ground-breaking work, Orientalism, as the source of the theory that the European empires and the British Empire above all, were ruled by a monolithic ideology which drummed home the repressive messages of racism, white supremacy, gender stereotyping, masculine violence and so on, via a set of channels – the press, magazines, music hall, literature, art and so on – which were completely controlled by a unified Imperialist ruling class.

According to this view, all our modern ills – racism, sexism, inequality etc – directly stem from a unified imperial ideology which oppressed the British population as much as the foreign peoples it was used to control.

Darwin says the reality was more or less the opposite. It was precisely the extremely diverse nature of British society, with a strong central spine of monarchy and a settled parliamentary and legal framework providing the base for a huge diversity of religious belief, cultural practice and even languages among the populations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, which meant that Britain was uniquely well-placed to ‘engage’ with the lands its settlers, merchants and missionaries discovered, in a kaleidoscopic variety of ways.

It was the diversity of Britain which helped it cope with, engage with, conquer, negotiate with and manage the extraordinary diversity of peoples, races, cultures, civilisations and traditions which it found itself fighting, conquering and ruling.

*********

All these ideas are conveyed in the first 50 pages of this brilliantly insightful, calm, measured and fascinating book, which is too crowded and packed with insights to do proper justice to in a summary. Do your mind a favour and read it.


Other blog posts about Empire

%d bloggers like this: