Thursday, January 24, 2013

Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger - The Year 1000

There are an enormous number of differences between the years M and MM in the British Isles. Many of these are of course technological. Ploughs in the year 1000 were predominately wood. Labour in the fields was done by men and women, occasionally they had animals too. Diets were worse, mostly because of the difficulty of storing food and shortages caused by bad harvests, though there were other differences - many foods such as sugar, spinach, tomatoes and potatoes had yet to reach these shores.

In some ways though, these differences are only superficial. They are the result of the exploration, scientific discovery and history of the next thousand years. Vastly more important and more interesting are the more subtle social differences.

Lacey and Danziger's book of popular history is surprisingly interesting in this regard. It takes as its starting point a little known document from around 1020. The Julius Work Calendar (see image here) was probably produced around 1020 CE in Canterbury Cathedral. It is a monthly documentation of the saints days and festivals, principal activities, zodiac signs and information on hours of daylight. Each month is illustrated with a line drawing showing some of the principle activities of that time of year. Most of which concentrate on agricultural work, though one possibly shows the punishment of a thief.

In October huntsmen might try to catch cranes,
driven extinct in the UK a few centuries later.
The year 1000 (though few at the time would have acknowledged this calendaric milestone) was a time of change. While there was already much that would be familiar to the modern viewer in terms of the British landscape - most of the ancient woods had vanished at "almost every modern English village existed and bore its modern name" there was also much that was different. Religion in particular was changing. Out were going the older beliefs to be replaced by Christianity, though many of the rituals were to last many centuries hence. The majority of people still believed in elves or spirits, but they were also coming under the influence of the newer god. Monasteries were important in much of the country, though they to were changing. Newer, more vigorous and restricted practises were becoming the norm - mixed religious institutions, marriage and the like were increasingly frowned upon.

Other changes were more dramatic. The authors of this history argue the role of woman until around 1000 CE was much more equal to those of men. Surviving wills frequently demonstrate that women were property owners and powerful in their own right, and there were legalistic changes to come:

"One Anglo-Saxon law code makes clear that a woman could walk out of her marriage on her own initiative if she cared to, and that if she took the children and cared for them, then she was also entitled to half the property."

But the Christian Church did not like this:

"... a moralistic tone was entering the legal equation. 'If a woman during her husband's life commits adultery with another man...' read Law 53 of Canute, 'her legal husband is to have all her property, and she is to lose her nose and her ears.'"

These laws proved short lived, but increasingly the authors document the way that value would be applied to law. Crimes, whether they were of passion, violence or property where assigned a price and those who could afford to do so, could buy their way out of trouble as never before. Some, those effectively slaves, tied to the land had no such recourse.

Based on interviews with experts of the time, this is an enjoyable, readable account of life for people on the British Isles, 1000 years ago. The general history is informative, and the dirty "Anglo-Saxon" riddles are funny, though the authors do not attempt to pretend this was some rural idyll. After remarking on the way that the village life can seem romantic, they discuss the skeletal remains of a woman from that era who had died in childbirth. The bones of her unborn child stuck in her birth canal, she would, without medicine, pain killers or modern surgical methods have died an agonising death. There is much that we recognise of the past here, but for those of us living in the developed world, and modern Britain, life is far better.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Mike Gonzalez & Houman Barekat - Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring

The classic Marxist account of the State is that it is the collective institutions within society that help ensure the continued position of the ruling class. Some of these are subtle - the laws, religious institutions, prisons and so on that seek to restrict and control peoples lives. Others of these are more physical, what Engels and Lenin describe as "armed bodies of men".

In Britain where I live, most progressive activists have experienced the behaviour of one "armed body" - the police. Less common for us is the role of the military. Though recent experiences during the Egyption Revolution has shown that this is not true everywhere. This new collection of essays is an attempt to draw out the experiences of the role of the military, in particular, the army during periods of social upheaval. In his introduction, Mike Gonzalez draws out the contradictory role of military forces using quotes from the German revolutionary Karl Leibknecht:

"[Modern Militarism] wants neither more nor less than the squaring of the circle; it arms the people against the people itself; it is insolent enough to force the workers ... to become oppressors, enemies and murderers of their own class comrades and friends, of their parents, brothers, sisters and children, murderers of their own past and future. It wants to be at the same time democratic and despotic, enlightened and machine-like, to serve the nation and at the same time to be its enemy."

In order to do this those who make up the army have to be changed;

"First of all, the proletarian in uniform is sharply and ruthlessly cut off from his class comrades and his family. This is done by taking him away from his home, which is systematically done in Germany, and especially by shutting him up in barracks. One might also speak of a repetition of the Jesuit method of education, a counterpart of monastic organisation."

Leibknecht understood however that under the pressure of social events the "proletarians in uniform" could be pulled away from the role assigned to them by the state and won to the interests of the working class. But this could only occur at moments when the working class was able to reach out to the army and fight for their loyalty. In a chapter on the experience of workers and the armed forces during the Portuguese revolution in 1974/5, a soldier describes what happens when he and his comrades are ordered to prevent a demonstration:

"the commander told us that he'd received a telephone call about a demonstration at Lisnave, led by a minority of Leftist agitators and that our job was to prevent it from taking place. We were armed as we had never been before with G3s and 4 magazines... The demo began and a human torrent advanced with shouts of "the soldiers are the sons of the workers", "tomorrow the soldiers will be workers" and "the arms of soldiers must not be turned against the workers". The commander soon saw that we weren't going to follow his orders, so he shut up. Our arms hung down by our side and some comrades were crying... The following day in the barracks things were livelier. Before morning assembly many comrades were up and shouting the slogans of the demo."

Many of the essays in this book explore this process. Some of the essays, like the two on the Russian and German Revolution demonstrate how mass conscript armies are both won towards the Revolution by the impact of the war, economic crisis and the reality of life in the trenches. But the soldiers (and sailors) are also part, at key points of driving the revolution forward. The masses, in the shape of the workers and their organisations, remain essential to winning the revolution, but the loyalty of the armed forces is crucial to ensuring the revolution isn't drowned in blood.

The book also looks at other aspects of the military and progressive change. One chapter - dealing with the Free Officers movements of Egypt and Iraq, explores the way that the military, or sections of the military have been at the front of struggles against colonial rule. In these situations the army tried to move independently but often found itself unleashing wider social forces, which then needed to be controlled.

Two excellent chapters, one looking at the limitations of Guerrilla movements within South America in the 1950s and 1960s, but more particularly Jonathan Neales' chapter on the experience of the US Army in Vietnam, examine the role of the wider population and its impact on the army. In South America with the exception of the unusual circumstances in Cuba, Guerrilla movements made little impact because they remained isolated from the wider population and their struggles for liberation. Conversely in Vietnam the overwhelming US military might was unable to sauced because their opponents were supported by the bulk of the population.

The role of the military is never an independent one. In fact, one of the mistakes of many of those who have tried to change society, is to think that the army stands outside of politics. In a brilliant chapter on Chile in 1973, Mike Gonzalez draws out the limitations of this reformist analysis as he examines the military coup that destroyed Salvador Allende's attempts at reform. As the right wing and the military prepared to drown the Allende government and the rising working class movement in blood, Gonzalez points out the "astonishing... blindness of the Popular Unity leadership to these realities." Indeed in order to try and appease the right, Allende went so far as to introduce three army generals to his cabinet, including Pinochet.

To the last, Chilean activists and foreign commentators spoke of "loyal" officers who would not fight their elected government. But unlike in Russia, Germany or Spain in 1936 (the subject of an excellent chapter by Andy Durgan) there was no pole to pull the mass of the soldiers away from their officers and the state. This, as Gonzalez points out, would have been "an organised, well prepared working class that could fight back across the country". Unfortunately, Allende and most of the left, including the Communist Party had prevented that force developing.

There are many lessons to be learnt from these valuable essays. I would make a couple of criticisms though these are mainly ones of omission rather than disagreement. The first is that there is no chapter on the Red Army. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky built from scratch an army that was able to defeat the invading counter-revolutionary forces. That army, like Republican forces in Spain in 1936 had many different attributes to a normal capitalist force and it deserves more than a passing mention here. Secondly there is not enough in here about how revolutionary movements have won, or attempted to relate to soldiers. A recent, non-revolutionary, example might have been the Military Families Against the War campaign in the aftermath of the UK's participation in the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Of course there can be no blue-print for how revolutionary movements should relate to the armed forces. The key answer is that at any point of mass struggle institutions must be created that attempt to win those in the military who want to rebel, or break from their officers to "an embryonic alternative state power". In the Russian and German Revolutions those were the workers councils. In Spain it was the mass revolutionary movement that seized power in the cities. Ultimately it is on the question of power that revolutions are won or lost, and the failure to win the rank and file towards an alternative centre of power has doomed many a revolutionary upsurge. This book helps us learn that lesson today.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Christian Wolmar - Fire & Steam: How the Railways Transformed Britain

Christian Wolmar is an unashamed fan of railways. This is not because he has some sort of obsessional trainspotting tendencies, but rather because he sees the railways, and the infrastructure that they have developed over time, as an essential part of the development of modern industrial society. More than this though, Wolmar understands that the railways have also been shaped by the world around them. The modern British railway system has the shape and routes it does, because of decisions taken back in the 1800s. The paths that Virgin trains use today were laid out by a myriad of different companies over a very short space of time. Some of the technology used, in particular the rails themselves, dates from the earliest days when carts were drawn along out of mines by horses. More recent innovations, such as electrified track or double-decker carriages have been tried, rejected or not installed because of economic and political considerations made decades ago.

The railways have helped shape modern Britain. But they are certainly not perfect. Part of the problem lay with the haphazard and chaotic way that railway companies set out to lay track. There was no overall plan, they simply created routes that they thought would make money. Frequently, branch lines were laid for no other reason than to prevent rivals using the land or routes. Victorian laissez-faire capitalism meant that the state played little role in over-seeing the ventures and it was a long time before the chaos of the early rail system was reduced. In the post privatisation era, we seem to have returned to many of the problems that the railways suffered early on. The decision taken to privatise the railways was done, not out of desire to improve public transport (indeed the exact opposite) but out of sheer financial considerations. Public ownership of British railways was only a minor part of their history, and Wolmar blames this for a "fraught" relationship between government and the industry.

Certainly the decisions taken by the Tory government of the early 1990s were disastrous. Separating off the ownership of the track from the trains that ran on it, has caused chaos and confusion for millions of passengers. It has helped encourage the decline of the railway system and undermine public transport in the eyes of passengers and government. That said, the problems aren't simply to do with privatisation. In the post-World War II era, the system suffered enormously from lack of funding and finance. Today we have the crazy system were the private rail system can only work because the government pours enormous amounts of cash into it. Raising the question about why it isn't a public system in the first place.

Wolmar is a partisan writer. He argues that "the future is rail" and sees the railways as part of the way that we will reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. In his final chapter he offers some tantalising glimpses of the potential for new technologies on the railways.

I've concentrated on the more modern aspects of this book, but the early history is certainly engaging. There is some fascinating stuff here - I was struck by the account of how the Duke of Wellington was to terrified to leave his carriage during the inauguration of the Liverpool to Manchester line, for fear of the protest by working people outside. Wolmar certainly doesn't forget the workers in his history. His accounts of the safety problems and the strikes for wages and better conditions sit well with his stories of wealthy men making even larger fortunes out of the railways. While we might company about delays and high prices today, we can be glad that we don't face the sheer number of accidents and crashes that dogged the earlier railways, though as Wolmar points out, British companies often took a very long time to learn lessons and introduce safety features.

This is an immensely enjoyable read and together with Wolmar's history of the London Underground, a recommended read for travellers.

Related Reviews

Wolmar - The Subterranean Railway

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Richard Fortey - The Earth: An Intimate History

Geology as a subject is one that most people know very little about. Few of us understand the processes that formed the world around us. How did the landscapes get shaped? What caused the seas and oceans and why are mountains where they are? Rich Fortey's book is a extremely readable introduction to the history of planet Earth. Rather than tell a long elongated story that starts at the beginning and proceeds ponderously towards contemporary times, Fortey describes places that he knows well. His story is actually the story of the development of geology as a science.

Despite people having studied the Earth for centuries (usually in an effort to find valuable minerals) it is only very recently that the processes that have shaped the planet's surface have become accepted by the majority of scientists. The story of how "plate tectonics" came to be understood is one that involves a large array of different thinkers, each contributing small bits to the whole, and a few whose correct ideas were pretty much dismissed out of hand.

This history is fascinating but it also allows Fortey to dwell on places that demonstrate particular aspects of geological processes. While describing Newfoundland for instance, he doesn't simply explain why the east of the island is so different to the west, he takes us on an long journey through time that eventually ends up on the shore of a forgotten ocean, Iapetus. What begins as a description of the island, introduces the idea of shifting continents back through enormous lengths of time, until the reader can imagine the repetitive clashes of plates and then their fracturing as oceans close and reform over millions of years.

Fortey's writing is also wonderful. For a subject that rarely contains rapid change, he brings the subject alive, peppering his writing with literary quotes and pieces of poetry. He has the knack of making the reader understand the power of the Earth's internal forces and the majesty of their slowness. Take his description of the rock ("brownish, like spiced cake") that makes up many of the buildings, to say nothing of the surrounding landscape, of Sorrento in Italy:
This rock is called the Campanian Ignimbrite. Its origin was a catastrophe that happened 35,000 years ago: a gigantic volcanic explosion threw out at least 100 cubic kilometres of pumice and ash... An explosion of steam and gluey lava blew out a great hole in the earth... not so much a bite out of Italy's profile as a huge punch. A vast cloud of incandesccent material buoyed up with gas flowed like a fiery tidal wave across the limestone terrain. Lumps of volcanic rock were carried along willy-nilly in the mayhem....
Here he describes the mental work of scientists trying to understand the complicated history of particular landscapes, which have had millions of years of changes piled onto each other.
Structural geologists love such things. They read the flexures in the rocks with the certainty of a blind man reading braille. They can easily imagine what it is for a fold system to be caught up in anther subsequent phase of contortion, fold imposed on fold. I admire this capacity to think in three dimensions - four, if you include time - more than I can say.
While Fortey's language is wonderful, at times its near poetry distracts from the subject matter. It is easy to get carried away with the flow of the narrative, and miss the detail of what the author is telling us. In particular since geology is an unknown subject for me, I found it full of strange words and concepts and had to re-read parts to understand it all. I also kept having to remind myself that some of the things being described take place over eons, millions of years. The closing of the Pacific Ocean as the tectonic plates move towards each other is taking place at the speed of the growth of human fingernails. An apt metaphor that helps us understand why it will take around 350 million years. Luckily, given the subject matter, Richard Fortey's book is full of such simple analogies and I'd recommend it to anyone trying to understand what is taking place beneath our feet.

Related Reviews

Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution

Friday, January 11, 2013

Peter Alexander, Luke Sinwell & others - Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer

When footage of the massacre of some 34 platinum mineworkers at Marikana in South Africa reached television screens around the world it provoked anger and shock from millions of people. Watching the You Tube videos today, I am struck by two things: the violence of the police opening fire with automatic weapons on protesters at a distance and the justification for that violence. Within a few hours of the massacre the excuses were already being made - portraying the strikers as armed and violent, arguing that the massacre was the result of inter-union rivalry. Few of the journalists covering the deaths discussed the viewpoint of the strikers themselves and certainly didn't talk about the appalling conditions above and below ground, the low pay and the high profits of the mining companies.

This new book by South African researchers is an attempt to both understand what happened near the Marikana mountain and to give it some context. As a piece of social research it is probably unrivalled. Through history there have been any number of massacres of strikers and demonstrators, yet rarely have those involved been allowed to speak in detail about their experiences.

At the core of the book is a series of interviews with mineworkers who took part in the strike. They explain the conditions that forced them to take action, and their experiences of the unions who organise in the mining industry. For the miners, low pay, long hours and lack of health and safety are the norm, as one of those interviewed explains:
the problem that causes accidents in the mine is pressure, we work under a lot of pressure from our bosses because they want production and then there is also intimidation. They want you to do things that are sub-standard and if you don't want to do that and follow the rules.. they say they will fire you or beat you...
Unfortunately the main union the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has in the eyes of the workers themselves proved incapable of fighting for the members' interests. This is one of the themes of several of the interviews in the book, as one worker explains:
I am not satisfied at all about the way the union is representing us because it does not represent the workers' needs, it does what it is told to do, but in terms of having the workers' best interest at heart it has proven incapable of doing so. They side with the employer more than with the worker.
Another striker explains that this meant the workers' themselves organised a strike over pay, without approaching either the NUM or the other mining union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). A rank and file action from below which meant that "this time we would overtake the unions, we ended up wanting this as workers. It was then that it seemed as though the unions were fighting us as the workers...."

On the first day of the strike the workers were turned back by management, who told them to go through the union. The workers decided that they needed to return to the NUM to try and get them to negotiate for them, feeling abashed that they had not done so. Peter Alexander explains what happened next as the strikers moved towards the NUM office. Before they got to the building
there was a line of armed men wearing red T-shirts. The strikers halted their march close to the main taxi rank to the right. The armed men opened fire.
The workers fled to the Marikana mountain where they camped in the open air, sang songs and discussed what to do. It was this initial violence that led some to argue that the problem was the different unions in the mines being at war with each other. The strikers argue that this is not the case:
people say that unions are at war, saying that NUM and AMCU are fighting. Those are lies. Here, workers are the ones who are at war... There are no parties fighting, here only workers, workers are fighting for their rights and they want their money and they are being killed by NUM and [NUM President] Zokwana and the mine and the government that we vote for every day.
Over the next few days some people attempt to argue with the strikers to return to work. They are unsuccessful because the workers themselves recognise that they need to fight to win. But the employers and the state clearly also believe there is much at stake. There is evidence that the violence was premeditated. The workers report the arrival of heavily equipped armoured vehicles that laid wire to box in the strikers. In his conclusion to this book Peter Alexander quotes a spokesperson for the South African Police Service saying, on the morning of the massacre that "Today is unfortunately D-Day".

The massacre itself left over thirty workers dead. The parts of this book, both the reportage and the interviews dealing with the massacre are horrifying. The workers describe frantic phone calls as they try to find out if friends and colleagues are alive. Those arrested are beaten and prevented from contacting their families. One can only imagine the horror that descended over the working class areas around the mine.

But the events did not defeat the strikers. In fact they helped to generalise the workers' political ideas. One worker comments that:
South Africa is a democratic country but we as mineworkers are excluded from this democracy. For one, a white person here in the mines get a better pay than a black person and they are more eligible for promotion and that oppress[es] us black people more... This is a main reason that is preventing me from realising my dreams...
Another worker describes how he would no longer trust the police, even a family member and wouldn't report a crime to them anymore.

As some of the researchers concluded:
The workers developed their own class analysis of the situation at Lonmin and, instead of being silenced and falling back when the steel armed of the state mowed down 34 of their colleagues, they became further determined, and more workers united until all of Lonmin came to a standstill.
In fact the response from the strikers to the "largest state massacre of South African citizens since the 1976 Soweto Uprising" is nothing short of inspiring. The strike did not collapse, despite the death of 34 strikers. They carried on, and were joined by more and more of their colleagues. By 18 September the employer gave in and awarded the strikers major pay rises. The result of this was a whole number of further strikes across South Africa, particularly amongst miners of platinum and gold. As Pete Alexander concludes, "this was one of the most remarkable acts of courage in labour history, anywhere and at any time".

This book too is remarkable, not simply because it tells a powerful story of oppression and struggle, but because it does so through the voices of those that took part. History rarely remembers those at the bottom of society and the authors of this book have collected their voices in a way that both inspires us today, but will also likely form the basis of many future studies.

According to one of the strikers who witnessed the massacre, the first miner who was shot and killed was wearing a Kaiser Chiefs t-shirt. He could have been a worker anywhere in the world, an ordinary person struggling to improve things for himself and his family. This short, but important book has many lessons for all of us, not just workers in South Africa. The role of the trade union bureaucrats, the links between big business and the state (as well as the details of what is currently taking place in South Africa) are all things that workers around the globe need to learn. The struggle for justice for the Marikana mineworkers will continue, but their fight is one that will leave us all stronger and this book is an important part of learning those lessons.

You can purchase Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer from the publisher, Bookmarks here.  

Thursday, January 03, 2013

N.A.M. Rodger - The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1642 - 1815

The subtitle of this book is "A Naval History of Britain". The of is important because this and its companion volumes deal with the inter-relationship between the Royal Navy and the wider social and economic history of the British Isles. So rather than simply seeing the naval forces as an extension of the British states interests, either as an extension of colonialism or as a vehicle to protect national interests, the author has a much more dialectical understanding of the relationship.

Given Rodger's interest in the Navy it is no surprise that he considers that it has had an enormous influence on the development and history of the British Isles. He clearly is right in many regards. The Victualing Board, the government body responsible for providing food and drink to the Navy had an big influence on British agriculture. As Rodger points out:
The Board was the largest single purchaser on the London markets for agricultural products, and its policy of managing the markets so as to encourage the growth of large firms, while at the same time promoting competition, was at least influential and possibly critical in the grown of a sophisticated and integrated national and eventually international agricultural market.
Rodger's encyclopedic knowledge of naval history means that he can make such arguments from a strong position. Indeed if one thing characterises this book it is the enormous amount of material in it. The main body of the text of my edition is almost 600 pages long and there are a further 300 pages of additional materials, indexes and appendices - and all for a history covering less than two centuries. This is a real strength, but readers shouldn't think that Rodger's spends lots of time on aspects of his subject. He makes it clear at the start that this is not a detailed history of battles, and sometimes the most memorable events get the briefest of mentions. The Mutiny on the Bounty, for instance is covered in a mere six lines.

Rodger is more interested in describing the changing nature of British Sea Power and the institutions that oversaw it. In part this was shaped by the needs of the British State, particularly during wartime. The early chapters on the period of the British Republic and then the Restoration show a navy that had been left in a bad state. In part this was due to lack of finances, but it was also due to the way that the post-revolutionary dictatorship had viewed the navy itself. The army was the force that had won the revolution, the navy was made up of representatives of the old order.

Over time the Navy became gradually more professional and more organised. Technologies developed and it does seem that the British were far better than other countries, particularly France, at developing and then bringing into use new equipment and designs. Some of this is particularly illuminating. I had no idea, for instance, that 18th and 19th century ships relied so much on copper plating to prevent damage to their hulls.

The book culminates in the defeat of Napoleon and a few pages earlier in the epic sea battle of Trafalgar. Despite his subject matter, Rodger avoids falling into the trap of arguing that Nelson's greatest victory was the key to winning that war. In fact, he makes it clear that in some respects it was peripheral to the wider military victory. Nonetheless Trafalgar was an immense morale boast to the British in their war with Napoleon and helped to set in stone the view that Britain ruled the waves. This was something that the British liked to think had been true since the Elizabethan era, but was not true in practise until the early part of the 19th century.

Rodger is not a radical historian and though this book has chapters on social history, it is in no way a history from below. His account of the lives of seamen is very general and he might well admit to revisionism over certain subjects. Certainly over some points (such as the levels of scurvy suffered on voyages, or the number of mutinies) he may well be right, a more specialist reviewer than myself will have to acknowledge this. Rodger is at pains however to paint the navy in a positive light. He thus argues that violence towards sailors, as punishment or as encouragement was far less common than we have previously thought. I was unconvinced by this. Rodger tends to portray life on navy ships far better than it may well have been. Nonetheless it is true that life in the Royal Navy towards the end of the 18th century was likely far better than it was for most other wage labourers in Britain.

Rodger finishes his history with some generalised comments about why the British ended up triumphant on the high seas. He avoids finding a single reason, rather trying to relate the technological developments with other social factors.
Middle-class participation in public life, professional skills, commerce, industry and private finance directly favoured and were favoured by navies. Sea power was most successful in countries with flexible and open social and political systems.
Here I feel the author is trying to have his cake and eat it. While British naval strength was both an out-growth of, and a contribution towards the development of British Capitalism, ultimately it was a part of the states armed force. In this context, the needs of the British State, tended towards benefiting the Navy. To imply otherwise, by suggesting that somehow Britain's political nature made the Navy inherently better is slightly bizarre and smacks of chauvinism.

I think the truth lies elsewhere. British capitalism developed faster and better than elsewhere precisely because the Revolutionary transformation that took place in the mid-1600s was far wider and deep going than elsewhere. That the Victualling Board could influence British agriculture to the extent it did, was precisely because the British peasantry had been destroyed. These wider social changes set the tone for the strength of British capitalism. It was this social system that needed the Royal Navy and shaped it in its own interests. Rodger's comes close to understanding this when he quotes  approvingly another author, "Warfare on the British model was a triumph for an enterprising and acquisitive society, not an authoritarian one."

These criticisms aside, this is a detailed, well written and exhaustive history of British Naval history. It will give the reader a lot of scope to understand particular events in history as well as understanding the reasons for success and victories in particular wars. The author's own interest in naval history doesn't blind him to wider historical events, and I look forward to reading the forthcoming volume dealing with the Royal Navy's 20th century.

Related Reviews

Rodger - Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain - 660-1649

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Carolyn Ives Gilman - Isles of the Forsaken

Carolyn Ives Gilman's book Isles of the Forsaken is a clever and original work of fantasy. At its core are the intertwined stories of four characters, each hailing from distinctive races. The story is set at a time when the population of the Forsaken Islands are beginning to rebel against their imperial masters. The Adaina who live on the Forsaken have been ruled for many years, their islands, to a greater or lesser extent beginning to lose their individuality, but at the same time the more under-developed country is beginning to develop itself. Alongside the technological and economic development is a growth in self-identification that pits itself against the colonial rulers.

In the real world, one of the common themes of the encounters between people from different countries is that those from technologically advanced places tend to misunderstand the beliefs and world-view of those they are meeting. This is done brilliantly in this book as the naive Nathaway Talley arrives in the Forsaken Islands to teach the "natives" about law and order. He believes that the rule of law correctly applied and obeyed can create perfect social relationships. What he doesn't understand is that the Adaina have a society that makes them fairly happy. Nathaway crashes through the lives and social relations on the Islands, misunderstanding ceremonies and beliefs and dismissing ancient traditions of magic as unscientific backwardness. There are some clever moments in this. One section of the Adaina are the magical Lashnura. A small number of individuals, they can heal other Adaina by donating blood. In doing so they can become dhotamar to others, near permanently associated with another individual. Nathaway cannot comprehend this as anything other than an act forced upon the Lashnura. He sees them as slaves, victims of sacrifice and mutilation by the rest of the Adaina population. The reality is the exact opposite, but Nathaway, coming from a strict hierarchical world were everything has a price and violence is used to obtain what is unobtainable cannot easily understand what is taking place.

Such behaviour has many parallels in our own history. The interactions between Europeans and indigenous peoples of North and South America for instance. Gilman is a historian of North American history and clearly has based her fiction on the historical events she studies. But the brilliance of Gilman's novel is that in her universe, the magical beliefs held by the Adaina are real and Colonial rule is disturbing a carefully balanced order between different religious forces. It is almost as if when Europeans had started to take the land from Native Americans, they had been able to fight back with magic and gods, rather than just their weapons.

Apart from the dynamics taking place between oppressed and oppressor. There is a finely told adventure story here as the Adaina begin to revolt against the colonial rulers. Gilman writes well and the action sections of her novel are as exciting as the rest of the book is gripping. I recommend this story of national-liberation with magic, and look forward to the sequels.

Related Reviews

Gilman - Ison of the Isles