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

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

William Sheppard

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

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

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

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

Leopold’s grand plans

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

The rubber terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chopping off Africans’ hands

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

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

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

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

Bestand:MutilatedChildrenFromCongo.jpg - Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

Edmund Dene Morel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pamphlets were followed by excoriating books, namely:

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

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

Roger Casement

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

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

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

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

Congo Reform Association (CRA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Seeley Harris

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

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

Herbert Strang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did Leopold spend his blood money on?

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

1. Buildings

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

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

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

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

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

2. Caroline Lacroix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The documentary

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

Credit

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


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Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal (3)

Working for King Leopold, 1879 to 1885

The biggest blot on Stanley’s reputation is that he devoted the longest single part of his working life to working for King Leopold II of Belgium helping to map out and establish the core infrastructure for what would become the notorious Congo Free State. This was the enormous area, corresponding to the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, which Leopold managed to get assigned to his own personal rule at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Leopold posed as a great philanthropist, a promoter of civilisation and Christianity and doughty abolisher of the widespread Arab slave trade which Stanley and all the other explorers had discovered.

It took until the late 1890s for news to leak out of the atrocities Belgian soldiers and overseers were committing on the native population, which slowly brewed up into an international scandal, which led Leopold to hand over the colony to the Belgian government, and the whole humanitarian catastrophe to become the quintessential example of imperialist hypocrisy, exploitation and brutality. The stories which leaked out of unimaginable brutality against the native peoples of the region formed the basis of Joseph Conrad’s harrowing novella, Heart of Darkness (1899). The whole story is told in Adam Hochschild’s harrowing history, King Leopold’s Ghost (published exactly one hundred years after the Conrad, in 1999).

Anyway, the point is that Stanley was approached by representatives of the king, entered discussions and finally agreed to sign a five-year contract to use his knowledge of the Congo to establish a basic transport infrastructure. This consisted of a road from the coast via a succession of small settlements he established or created trading stations at (Boma, Vivi, Isangile, Manyanga, Mfwa) up to the so-called Stanley Pool, designed to bypass the river’s many impassible rapids and cascades. He was a hands-on manager of the other Europeans and the many African labourers co-opted for the work, earning him the humorous nickname Bula Matari or ‘Breaker of Rocks’. Stanley was paid £1,000 a year.

Five years is a long time and much happened, notably: 1. Stanley became incensed by the brutality and racism of the Belgian officers under his nominal command. 2. He very slowly began to suspect Leopold was not the benevolent philanthropist he was posing as and Jeal notes the many letters he wrote Leopold insisting that the white man only had the right to lease property and no right to seize or claim ownership of native land. Stanley insisted that no Belgian officer was entitled to treat the Congolese:

‘as though they were conquered subjects ..This is all wrong. They are subjects – but it is we who are simply tenants.’

Up the roads he built were transported steamships, broken into sections and reassembled above the rapids, which hugely expanded access to the upper Congo.

3. Stanley faced the rivalry of the French explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who entered the Congo from the north and tried repeatedly to claim the entire north bank of the river and its hinterland for France, requiring repeated negotiations, threats and recriminations, carried out not only on the ground in Congo, but in Paris, London and Brussels, as Leopold managed the threat from the French, while Stanley invoked the possibility of the British stepping in – the last thing both the continentals wanted.

Jeal is writing a revisionist biography. His aim is to exonerate Stanley. As such he describes in detail the various meetings between Stanley and Leopold, quotes from letters between them, the contract Stanley signed, correspondence with intermediaries, diary and journal extracts, all tending in the same direction, which is to show that Stanley took Leopold at his word and believed him a genuine philanthropist. To be fair, so did plenty of other politicians, statesmen, journalists, missionaries and concerned parties.

The crimes against humanity Leopold sanctioned (the most notorious was cutting off the hands of natives who had failed to collect a set amount of rubber per week) only began to take place in the 1890s, well after Stanley had completed his five year contract in 1884 – although he was kept on by Leopold on a retainer and a fractious relationship for a few more years. And news about the atrocities only began to leak out to the press via reports of a handful of activists in the later 1890s, over ten years after Stanley had ceased all contact with the king.

King Leopold juxtaposed with just some of the millions of Congolese who were mutilated during his personal rule

Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

When the Khedive of Egypt had gone bankrupt in 1882 the British had stepped in to administer Egypt and Sudan. Partly as a response to Western ‘occupation’ there had arisen the Mahdi, a low-born Egyptian who presented himself as a charismatic Islamic leader and raised impressive numbers of followers. General Gordon had been administering the southernmost province of British Egypt, named Equatoria, since 1873.

Alarmed at the rise of the Mahdist forces, the British government sent General Gordon to Khartoum with instructions to secure the evacuation of loyal soldiers and civilians and to depart with them. In defiance of those instructions, after evacuating about 2,500 civilians he retained a smaller group of soldiers and non-military men and remained, fortifying the town against a siege which lasted almost a year.

During this time there was huge publicity in the press about plucky Gordon holding out against the mad Mahdi and the forces of barbarism. The government hesitated and worried about the cost but eventually sent an expeditionary force to fight its way through to Gordon and rescue him. As is fairly well known they were too late. After a long siege, the Mahdist forces finally breached the defences of Khartoum on 26 January 1885 and killed the entire British garrison including Gordon and most of the population of the town. An estimated 10,000 were killed.

Apart from the penny-pinching reluctance of the government to launch the relief expedition, and the way the British public memorialise British heroic failures (the charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the Somme, Dunkirk) the other notable thing about the incident is the immense power of the press. Gordon’s heroics were very widely reported and the matter became one of general public interest, forcing the government to act.

All the same forces came into play in the Emin Pasha affair. With Gordon dead, there remained a British force even further south into Sudan, led by one Emin Pasha, and the issue now arose of how to rescue him and his ‘heroic’ soldiers. Pasha was depicted as a brave soldier of the Empire and a noble fighter against the evils of slavery. On the back of the outcry over Gordon, a committee was set up to lobby for the rescue of Pasha and his men, whose whereabouts was not known exactly. The money came pouring in from public subscriptions (the campaign raised a total of £32,000) and who was chosen to lead the expedition into a particularly obscure region of central Africa? Stanley.

In Jeal’s account almost every element of the two year long expedition was a fiasco and what wasn’t a fiasco was a catastrophe. It can be divided, maybe, into three components.

1. Pasha’s background

It is quite staggering to discover the discrepancy between the stereotype of the noble Christian administrator and abolisher of slavery which Pasha was painted as by the popular press, and the disappointing reality. The beauty of a biography as long and detailed as Jeal’s is you get to learn so much about minor or secondary figures that it at times has the richness and complexity of a novel.

Pasha was no dauntless Briton but had been born Eduard Schnitzer, to Lutheran parents in the Prussian province of Silesia. In 1864, aged twenty-four, this bearded and bespectacled German had qualified as a doctor in Berlin, but had failed on a bureaucratic technicality to be granted a government licence to practise, he settled in Albania – then a Turkish province – where he set up as a doctor. A brilliant linguist, he soon added Albanian and Turkish to the five other languages he already spoke. He was a first-rate pianist and chess player, and also excelled as a botanist and ornithologist. In 1870 Emin joined the staff of Ismail Hakki Pasha, Governor of northern Albania, and served with him till his death three years later. During this time he had an affair with the Pasha’s wife, and after she became a widow, lived with her as she were his own spouse. In 1875, he ran out of money and took Madame Hakki, her four children and six slave girls to stay with his parents in Germany. While there – realising he could not support ten people indefinitely – he abandoned Madame Hakki, and fled the country. He would not contact his family again for fourteen years. (p.315)

See what I mean by ‘like a novel’? By 1875 Emin had made his way to Khartoum (as far away from h is angry wife as he could get), set up practice as a doctor. He now posed as an Arab of Arab birth and came to the attention of General Gordon, Governor-General of the Sudan. In 1878 Gordon appointed Pasha Governor of Equatoria, then the Mahdi rising occurred, Gordon was massacred after a prolonged siege, and the British press clamoured for the noble Pasha to be found and rescued.

2. The expedition

It was the most gruelling and death-ridden of Stanley’s big three expeditions. The cause was starvation. The expedition was very well funded, it was the largest and best-equipped to go to Africa, had plenty of native porters and more white officers than Stanley had had before. It landed on the west coast with the aim of travelling thousands of miles up the Congo before branching off where the Congo makes its great turn to the south, to head east along the Aruwimi river, in order to strike overland to Lake Albert at the southernmost tip of Equatoria.

Leopold had promised Stanley use of his steamers above the Stanley Pool, which the explorer had been responsible for transporting there several years earlier, but in the event all but one were out of commission, which significantly delayed and complicated logistics.

At Yambuya on the Aruwimi, the expedition was running so low on food, and so many porters had deserted that Stanley took the fatal decision of dividing it in two, leaving the majority of goods with several white officers in the rear, depending on a promise from the notorious Arab slaver, Tippu Tip, that he would provide hundreds of additional carriers. Leaving the rear column behind, Stanley forged on through what turned out to be ruinously difficult terrain through the Ituri forest where his own men died of starvation and disease, before emerging into the territory of inhospitable and violent tribes. Of the 389 who set out from Yambuya, only 169 survived the gruelling trek through Ituri. But they had hired many more porters along the way, not least from the slave trader Tippu Tip, so it’s estimated that over 400 lives were lost in total (p.370).

It took some time to fight off the local tribes, try to negotiate alliances and safe passage, before Stanley located Pasha and his motley garrison of Arabs and Sudanese. The two men finally met on 29 April 1888 and Stanley was disconcerted to discover that Emin was in perfectly good health and none too keen on being ‘discovered’ or ‘rescued’. In fact Pasha and his men were able to feed Stanley’s emaciated and fever-stricken followers, thus ‘rescuing the rescuers.’

And, in a major disillusionment, it turned out Pasha wasn’t very keen to be taken back to ‘civilisation’ where he strongly suspected Madame Hakki would quickly take him to court (he was to be proved right about this) but more importantly he deceived Stanley about the paper-thin authority he had over his own troops, who didn’t want to take Stanley’s route of travelling east along the familiar slave route back to Zanzibar, and preferred to travel back north through their own native lands. Pasha’s men mutinied.

Meanwhile, Stanley trekked back towards the rear column with supplies. It is difficult for a modern reader to get their head around the incredible delays and protracted timeframes. The rear column had, by this stage, not had any word or instructions from Stanley for over a year. Half way back they encountered an officer named William Bonny who told them the disastrous fate of the rear column.

3. Pasha’s downfall

There were a lot of issues persuading Pasha to take the eastwards route to Zanzibar, and managing the potentially dangerous defection of many of his most senior officers, which Jeal describes in great documentary detail. What stood out for me was Pasha’s fate. When the survivors of this huge, devastating and gruelling expedition finally made it back to Zanzibar, the consul’s residence and ‘civilisation’, a big party was held. At the height of the festivities, Emin Pasha, the centre of the entire £32,000, three-year operation which had cost so many lives, was found badly injured in the street outside, having fallen from a second-storey balcony.

Did he get drunk, wander onto the balcony and, being short sighted, not see the low balustrade and simply fallen over it? Or was it a suicide attempt, given that the enormous publicity surrounding the affair, all across Europe, had alerted his long-abandoned wife, Madame Hakki, that Pasha was alive, and she had begun proceedings in German courts, which would not only ruin him financially, but blow the cover he had dedicated years and years to creating in Africa (p.378).

Pasha didn’t recover from his fall for months, till the end of January 1890 but he did not return to Europe. He found employment with the Germans who were Britain’s fiercest rivals in East Africa, but his hopes of claiming Buganda for Germany and being appointed its governor were dashed by the careful arrangements of the 1890 Anglo-German Agreement. Pasha fell out with his German employers and set out for the interior on a mission of his own which has never been clarified.

In 1892, a hundred miles from the Congo, Pasha was beheaded by Arabs in alliance with a warlord called Kibongo. The Pasha’s sixty Sudanese followers were all shot. (p.380)

A. J. Mounteney-Jephson, Stanley’s most loyal lieutenant on the trip, made a different calculation, estimating that they set out on the lower Congo with 708 people of whom only 210 survived (p.381). The numbers are variable because extra porters were hired all along the route, and the number of camp followers (wives and children) fluctuated. But the main point is clear. Hundreds and hundreds of natives and over half the white men who started on the expedition, perished, and for what?

The Emin Pasha relief expedition turned out to be the last of its kind, run by a freelance explorer, funded by a private committee. The era of freelance exploration had come to an end and from this point onwards, expeditions were to be funded and managed by the government departments which were taking over all aspects of colonial administration.

Stanley with the officers of the Advance Column, safely back in Cairo in 1890. From left  to right, Dr Thomas Heazle Parke, Robert H. Nelson, Henry M. Stanley, William G. Stairs, and Arthur J. M. Jephson

Marriage and frustration

Jeal gives detailed accounts of Stanley’s many attempts to find a bride. Obviously his prospects changed overnight when he became super well-known as the hero who had found and supplied Dr Livingstone, a fame boosted by swift publication of his bestselling account, How I Found Livingstone (1871).

It is interesting to read about the rather cold-blooded practicality with which Stanley and his friends set about trying to find an eligible partner for him (p.300). It is pretty clear that the best candidate would have been May French Sheldon, an interesting character in her own right. Born and bred in America, May married a banker and developed as a journalist, essayist and novelist. She and husband Eli moved to London, where she corresponded with and then met Stanley who she found fascinating and inspiring. According to Jeal, May and her husband enjoyed an ‘open marriage’, something she informed Stanley about, and they were much in each other’s company.

However, Stanley wanted a wife and children, not a mistress and so, ultimately, May didn’t work out. This was a shame as she continued to worship him and, after Eli died in 1890, she herself undertook several expeditions to Africa, travelling up the Congo (funded and directed by Leopold’s people who gained good publicity out of her) and, on another trip, travelling from Mombassa to Mount Kilimanjaro unaccompanied by any other white person (p.385). She wrote up her travels and undertook lecture tours, becoming well known and was one of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In other words, she was right up Stanley’s street, and it would have been a match made in heaven

But instead Stanley was hooked by Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Tennant, scion of a rich family, a socialite and reasonably well known artist, exhibiting at the Royal Academy. Tennant came from a rich, well connected family, a family friend was the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone. Dolly appears in the narrative on page 300 and then recurrently till the end of the book.

Dolly’s father, Charles Tennant, a lawyer and politician, was 58 when Dolly was born and died when she was 18. For years after his death she kept a diary in which she started each entry ‘Dear father’. With transparent psychology, she was attracted to father figures, men 10 or 20 years older than her, of high status, wealthy and married. She and Stanley became involved soon after he’d been invited to a dinner party at her family’s swanky London house in Richmond Terrace (June 25 1885), exchanging letters and love tokens.

Dorothy Tennant who married Stanley in 1890, painted by George Frederic Watts

However, Dolly was calculating. Jeal shows us how she spent most of the three years that Stanley was away on the gruesome Emin Pasha expedition (1886 to 1889), carrying on an impassioned (though presumably platonic) affair with Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall, Privy Councillor, member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India, a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and, like most of Dolly’s crushes, twenty years older than her and married. There is no doubt she was in love with him. But, eventually, his detachment, his gloomy personality, and his married status forced her to acknowledge that he was never going to marry her.

Instead, as news arrived back in London that Stanley had reached Zanzibar, and as his fame exploded off the scale, she was happy to revive her correspondence with him and began telling all her friends that she had always had an understanding with the world famous explorer. Stanley, for his part, was naive, inexperienced, all too used to being rejected by the women he wooed, and so was bowled over when this beautiful, clever, rich and well connected young woman agreed to become engaged.

It was a massive, almost a state wedding. They were married in Westminster Abbey to which the blushing bride drove in a closed carriage along Whitehall through cheering crowds (p.400). The bishop of Ripon conducted the service, the signing of the register was witnessed by Gladstone and the two society painters, Millais and Leighton. What more could a girl wish for?

It took a while for them to realise that they were total opposites: she loved living in London, lived for socialising, loved being the centre of attention at high society parties, was perfectly at home with the very cream of London society, Prime Minsters and so on. Stanley was the extreme opposite, self consciously aware of his lower class origin, hating publicity and attention, preferring to be left alone to think and ponder. Stanley records the moment he realised it, after one of their first arguments because he had asked her to leave him alone for just a few hours to write his next book and she couldn’t understand why he wanted to be apart from her and burst into tears.

‘It struck me that is married life was to be a conflict of this nature, between marital duty and that which one owes to the public, there will be little happiness in future. The utter hopelessness of compatibility between her ideas and mine [was] revealed to me so suddenly that I was speechless for a time…’ (Stanley in his diary entry 4 September 1890, quoted page 403)

This caused much conflict until Stanley eventually bought a country house in Pirbright, Surrey, which he devoted himself to doing up and landscaping.

In 1885 Stanley had hoped that Leopold would invite him to become Governor of the new Congo state he was carving out. A large part of the evidence for Stanley’s lack of complicity in Leopold’s crimes of the 1890s is that Leopold never seriously considered this. He realised that Stanley was too fond of Africans and standing up for their rights to be the kind of obedient servant he (Leopold) was looking for. Then came the opportunity of the Emin Pasha expedition and Stanley was totally absorbed in that through till late 1889, then got married in 1890.

When he’d returned from that trip, an exhausted man, Stanley had hoped for several years that he might be asked by the British government to become a governor of the new colonies being legally defined, mapped and established across Africa. His good friend Sir William Mackinnon had been lobbying the government for years to carve out a legally defined British colony in Buganda and Kenya in order to compete against and contain the aggressive colonisation of the area by Germany, to finally stamp out the slave trade and to open the area for British trade.

In December 1892 Mackinnon, by now an old and ailing man, made a final offer of the governorship of the region to Stanley. To his everlasting disappointment, Dolly persuaded Stanley to turn down the offer, saying she couldn’t be parted from him, he was too old and ill, and so on. Instead she strongarmed him into standing for parliament, so he would become more like… her father, the politician. Stanley campaigned for and narrowly lost the election to become Liberal MP for Lambeth North, hating every minute of it, the public scrutiny, the big meetings, the heckling. In July 1895 there was another general election, Dolly again forced Stanley to stand, and he was elected Liberal Unionist MP for Lambeth, serving from 1895 to 1900. He hated it. For a man used to the widest, openest spaces in Africa, being cooped up for 14 hours a day in a badly ventilated, stuffy chamber listening to pontificating windbags, was his idea of hell.

It is heartening to report that the final years of Stanley’s life were made bright and happy after he adopted the six month son of one of his many distant Welsh relatives. The boy was brought to Pirbright and named Denzil and, as Stanley grew older and suffered a series of strokes, the small boy was to become the light of his life. He died in his bed at Pirbright on 10 May 1904, aged 63. Having read this long, thoroughly researched, ultra-detailed, and convincingly argued biography, I’m astonished he managed to last that long. What a life!


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

And:

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic versus foreign affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding teleology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disraeli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preserving the balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A contest in misapprehension. (p.70)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some later Victorian schools of political thought

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

Matthew Arnold

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

John Stuart Mill

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

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

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

Leslie Stephen

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

Whig aristocrats

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

The Manchester School

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

Castlereagh’s foreign policy

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

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

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

The Crimean System

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

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

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

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

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

Liberalism

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

Nonconformism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 to 1895)

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

Gladstone

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

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

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

Reasons for losing

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

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

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

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

The Victorian balance unravels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III: The forming elements of a modern society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The failure of Liberalism

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

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

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

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

The failure of Unionism

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

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

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

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

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

High numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High finance

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

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

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

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

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

Déjà vu all over again

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

1. Why did we lose?

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

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

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

2. The progressive coalition in disarray

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

3. Cosmopolitans versus patriots

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

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

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

4. Working class conservatism

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

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

5. The sorry state of English education

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

6. Ireland

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

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