Thursday, January 31, 2019

Jacqueline Riding - Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre

2019 marks the bicentenary of the most infamous event in British history. In August 1819 at a mass Reform rally, a charge by the yeomanry led to 15 deaths and perhaps 600 injured. Peterloo, as the massacre in St. Peters Fields came to be known, has been the subject of many books, pamphlets and most recently a film by Mike Leigh. Now, Jacqueline Riding who has been the historical adviser to several of Mike Leigh's films has produced her own account.

Peterloo shocked the nation, and even The Times in its reports of the event had to acknowledge that there was nothing "unlawful" about the event that had been smashed up by the Manchester authorities. For the emergent working class movement, for political radicals and for generations since it has become short-hand for the way that the ruling class will use its power to protect its privileges and its system.

Riding's book is an excellent account of the event and its historical context. She begins with the reality of working class life in the early 19th century. The rapid growth of industrial cities like Manchester which sucked in labour and created enormous wealth. Manchester itself was unique - there is a telling quote from a Swiss traveller who describes the city's factories where "a single steam engine frequently operates 40,000 to 50,000 spindles in a mill which has eight or nine floors and 30 wiondows" A single Manchester street has "more spindles than the whole of Switzerland" he complains.

However those who built these factories and operated the machinery benefited least from the wealth that flowed from their labour. Our Swiss traveller noted that "Not one of the many thousand English factory workers has a square yard of land on which to grow food if he is out of work and draws no wages." Low pay, poverty, over-crowded decrepit housing was the workers' lot and they lacked any ability to influence government, so it is no surprise that a movement for Reform was gathering strength among working people across the country and in Manchester in particular. 

So when well known Reform activist Henry Hunt called a rally in Manchester he knew he was guaranteed a monster turnout. Riding argues that the rally, like others before, was an attempt to change the balance of power by forcing the hand of one side or the other:
A key purpose... of these mass meetings was a powerful display of numerical strength and significant collective will, in order to overawe the authorities. There were those on each side who hoped the other would be the first to move beyond the bounds - transgressing the constitution and thus forfeit public support.
The danger with this line of reasoning is it could imply that the Reform movement, and Henry Hunt in particular, hoped for an over the top response from the government that would shift opinion Reforms way. Given the shocked reaction of Hunt to the violence (and his actions in trying to calm the crowd and urge them not to bring weapons), this seems unlikely. Nonetheless, when the yeomanry attacked the crowd, who as The Times understood, had not heard the Riot Act being read and could not have expected it, the authorities certainly did forfeit public support. 

It is clear from Riding's account that the magistrates clearly believed that the meeting was getting out of hand, but though it is also clear that the event was chaotic and confusing - it was not the "tumultuous" event that some thought it was. Rival accounts differ on whether the soldiers and authorities had stones thrown at them - it seems on balance that if this happened it was the exception not the rule for a crowd that had turned out in its best clothes for a spectacle. William Hay is probably representative of the authorities when he said "the assemblage of such a large number of people to be a breach of the peace, according to the the rules of common sense and the best slaw authorities." I also suspect that the size of the crowd terrified Hay and his compatriots because it demonstrated how large and powerful the Manchester workers were.

One of the great strengths of the book is that it brings together the wider issues of the time. Riding describes the inclusion of a group of Irish weavers carrying a banner coloured with their "national" colour. Most importantly however she puts women at the centre of the story of Peterloo in a way that has seldom been done previously. In the years before Peterloo, women had begun to get organised as a section of the Reform movement, and Riding's account of this is fascinating. In particular I was struck by a reproduction of a caricature of women protesters which used the most vile, sexist language and imagery. Clearly the idea of women organising worried many; but Hunt made their involvement central to the day. The arrival of Hunt's carriage with Mary Fildes "perched prominently" was greeted with a "universal shout from probably eighty thousand persons" according to one eyewitness. So it was the sheer size of the crowd and its constituents that terrified the magistrates; Hay said that was "one of the most tumultuous meetings he ever saw" though the reality seems to have been exactly the opposite, right up to the moment the troops went in.

The victims of Peterloo show no deference to age or gender. Witnesses describe indiscriminate slashing with edged weapons and riding down of the protesters. Senior soldiers afterwards described the events with language reminiscent of descriptions of victory on the battlefield.

Yet, strangely perhaps, the movement was not cowed by the massacre. Riding shows how in the aftermath workers clearly wanted to resist. A shop that supposedly had a captured banner on display was attacked in a mass riot a few days later, and in the towns around Manchester men gathered to sharpen weapons and talk of revenge. But the authorities moved to behead the movement. Leading figures where imprisoned and while imprisoned Hunt himself seems to have believed that the time was ripe to move to constitutional change. There was no outbreak of revolution or further protest in the aftermath of Peterloo - though many of Reform activists would form the basis for the emergent Chartist movement; and as Riding points out the women Reformers were the precursor to the suffragettes.

Peterloo is remembered for its violence. Sometimes I think it's infamy lies in the idea that it was unique. But this was not so. In fact in the period around then there had been a number (some of which Riding mentions) of incidents where state violence was used to quell protest movements - usually deploying overwhelming firepower against unarmed civilians. The British state might have realised that reforms had become necessary in the decades following 1819 (though it didn't stop them massacring workers in Merthyr in 1831); but they remained prepared to use violence against those who challenged them elsewhere - particularly in the colonies. In that sense, Peterloo is not a unique event, but a tragedy in a long line of violent tragedies.

Yet for its fame, and its impact upon subsequent social and political movements Peterloo itself is barely acknowledged in Manchester. Katrina Navickas has written recently on how St Peters' Fields became a site that radical movements wanted to associate themselves with in the years following Peterloo, marching to and rallying in the area the massacre took place. So perhaps this is partly why the Manchester authorities have barely acknowledged the events that took place there.

There's a plaque and proposals for a monument, but today it is easy to walk along the streets that are mentioned in this account and not know that the event had taken place. So it is with great pleasure that I recommend Jacqueline Riding's highly readable account of Peterloo in the hope that radicals old and new can learn the lessons of how far the state will go to protect its interests.

Related Reviews

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

James S.A. Corey - Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn, volume four of the Expanse Series, continues with the soap-opera like structure of the earlier books. Each chapter's focus is on a different character and while central figures from earlier books return (and seem insanely indestructible) new characters are added and some even make it to the end of the book alive.

Unusually though Cibola Burn isn't set in multiple locations across the universe. This time the setting is a much more claustophobic alien planet. In the previous volume our heroes helped explore a set of enormous gates that had opened on the edge of the Solar System. These gave humanity access to a myriad of alien planets, light-years from Earth. At the start of the story a craft full of colonists has burst through the gates and set up a new home on one of these planets; a planet claimed by a mega-corporation which is keen on its easily accessible mineral wealth.

There follows a complex stand-off as each group stakes its own claim and James Holden and his crew are sent in by the UN as mediators, until the planet itself intervenes to get rid of its unwanted inhabitants.

No one would pretend that the Expanse series is great literature. Yet it is compelling reading - well paced and entertaining, and like a soap-opera you know what you are going to get. It's with a only a tinge of guilt that I look forward to the next volume.

Related Reviews

Corey - Abaddon's Gate
Corey - Leviathan Wakes
Corey - Caliban's War

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Brenda Maddox - Reading the Rocks

In 18th and 19th century Britain there was an explosion of interest in scientific ideas. In this accessible book, a combination of biography and scientific history, Brenda Maddox argues that geology played a central role in developing both an scientific cadre who went on to much wider pursuits, and helped encourage the development of wider sciences. Initially geology was a pursuit of the wealthy - gentlemen who had independent means, that could enjoy examining rocks and finding fossils. Unlike other European countries Britain didn't have any institutions dedicated to mining, so there was no real basis for systematic study of rocks and minerals.

However the study of geology raised big, complicated questions that challenged orthodox religious understanding - particularly over the age of the Earth, but also specific questions from the Bible (was there a global flood?) and with the discovery of progressive fossils, opened up the debate about evolution. This, combined with the needs of industry, and the expansion of the British Empire turned Geology into a serious scientific pursuit that linked many of the most important figures of 18th and 19th century science.

Maddox book is well written. But unfortunately I found it failed as a history of geology, or as an account of the science itself. There are many fascinating individuals here, but the author seems to focus on individual anecdote rather than detailed biography. In the history of geology there are plenty of instances of individual rivalry or contested ideas, and Maddox highlights these, but often the reader is left unclear on what the science was. In short I would have preferred more on the nature of the Great Devonian Controversy between Roderick Murchison and Henry De la Beche, and less humorous anecdote. Indeed the history of geology itself seems to be simply an excuse to show how it ended up influencing Darwin's evolutionary theory - a subject that makes up a good percentage of the book and is clearly the author's real interest.

I was particularly disappointed that the final chapter didn't really integrate earlier science into contemporary geology. Instead today's science felt bolted on, almost like the previous 200 years of work didn't really matter.

Readers who want a deep understanding of the Earth's history will need to look else where - Richard Fortey's book Earth is a good start. While Brenda Maddox's book is a quick overview, readers might then want to follow it up with other books on geology and the history of science.

Related Reviews

Fortey - Earth: An Intimate History
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters
Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
Weiner - The Piltdown Forgery
Desmond & Moore - Darwin's Sacred Cause

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Derek Robinson - Goshawk Squadron

I first read Goshawk Squadron in the 1980s when I found books with aircraft on the cover irresistible. I tended to find World War Two much more exciting than the first global war as the planes were faster, sleeker and had bigger guns. But Goshawk Squadron is the sort  of novel that takes hold of you and shakes you hard. Thirty or so years later I found the book as gripping as the first time, though likely for different reasons.

The novel begins with Squadron Commander Stanley Woolley watching his pilots land their S.E.5 aircraft at a new base. Several of them crash, others barely make it down. He curses them, and later when fresh-faced replacements arrive for dead airman he mocks and belittles their innocence and ideals of chivalry. "The firs Hun you met would cut you in half without even taking the sausage sandwich out of his mouth. You know nothing - nothing." Woolley is angry, violent and a drunkard. But he is also a survivor. Despite being only 23 he looks grizzled and he tries desperately to transfer some of his knowledge and experience to the young men under his command.

Few of them make it. Accidents, inexperience and stupidity finish many off before the better equipped and more experienced enemy even find them. There's a powerful section where a couple of new recruits are shocked at Woolley telling them to shot at the enemy pilots, preferring to think they'd chivalrously aim for the enemy propellers. Withing a few days they're partaking in shooting up unarmed artillery observers.

This is a book full of painful violence - the pilots cope through heavy drinking, and the protection of Woolley. But the German push in early 1918 means everything is thrown into the sky and the whole system reaches breaking point. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments - mostly because the banter of groups of young men getting drunk is funny - which Robinson describes brilliantly. But it is Woolley's story that holds the tale together - he is Goshawk Squadron and the pilots live or die around him. The ending is remarkably poignant.

When it was first published, Goshawk Squadron received great praise. Yet according to an afterword by Derek Robinson, it also received some veterans of World War One's Royal Flying Corp were angered and felt it insulted their former comrades. In his defence Robinson argued that "War is not sport. War is not fair. War in the sky... had to be unusually callous and cold-blooded". He explains that it is based not on imagination, but on reading the "real history" of the war, the letters and diaries of the airmen themselves. Twenty odd years later Churchill would praise the "few" of the RAF for their work in stopping a German invasion. His praise suggested that the myth of knights of the sky continued. Despite being fiction, Goshawk Squadron should be read as an insight into the reality of war.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Victor Wallis - Red-Green Revolution: The Politics & Technology of Ecosocialism

The scale of environmental crisis is absolutely terrifying. So I was very pleased to read Victor Wallis' new book Red-Green Revolution which aims to both explain capitalism and environmental destruction and offer a clear strategy for building a movement to challenge both. Wallis takes up this point early on:
To puncture the resulting sense of helplessness, we need an approach that is at once immediate (short-term) and comprehensive (long-term). A comprehensive approach is a radical one. It embraces every aspect of reality. Without such a panoramic sweep, we cannot even begin to counter the multifold scale on which the threats to life present themselves - whether in the form of war, hunger, pollution, illness, repression, insecurity or insanity.

Wallis uses the term ecosocialism to argue for a "synthesis of ecology with socialism". But, and its an important but, he doesn't argue that socialism (or indeed Marxism) has never had an ecological component. He notes the work of writers like John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett who have drawn out an ecological core to Karl Marx's work and shows how other revolutionary thinkers and activists have also understood the destructive dynamic at the heart of capitalism; and the potential for socialism to resolve the contradiction of a society dependent on the natural world that simultaneously destroys it.

Wallis argues then, that there must be a multi fold strategy. The first stage is exposing the limitations of capitalism. Too many proffered solutions to environmental crisis are based on making capitalism better, or greener. But simultaneously Wallis argues we must put forward alternative models:
Token green measures may bring some relief, but they fail to challenge the power that keeps the toxic practices going. How can people be persuaded to target that power and build a political force capable of supplanting it?.. It entails on the one hand exploring the sometimes indirect arguments whereby the green-capitalist... approach is upheld. On the other hand, it requires attention to positive models, both actual and potential, of societies, movements, institutions, or even individuals that embody a cooperative rather than an aggressive/competitive approach to work and life.
Returning to this theme, Wallis notes that Marx understood that a future, sustainable socialist world, would be one based on democratically organising and controlling the means of production. He notes though that we should not ignore the reality that not all socialist approaches (or societies that described themselves as socialist) have behaved like this. Wallis emphases the limitations of what he calls "first-epoch" socialism, the Soviet Union and Chinese society for instance, and argues that "the notion of workers' control offers, from within socialist thought, the basis for a thoroughgoing ecologically-oriented critique of the legacy of first-epoch socialist regimes."

With this in mind I was enormously pleased to see Wallis defend and promote the concept of "planning" as part of his solution. Wallis makes it clear that he doesn't mean the top-down planning of the Soviet variety, but a bottom up approach that involves mass involvement. If we, as socialists, are to offer concrete solutions and strategies one of the most powerful tools we have is a vision of how a sustainable world can work - and the idea of democratically planning production is one that is unique to the revolutionary tradition. Simultaneously it allows us to show how the great wealth we are capable of producing can be used in a sustainable and equitable way. Too few socialists (eco or otherwise) put this forward and I think it an essential argument for our alternative.

Wallis also discusses technology with this same approach. Technology he argues, is not neutral within society, but is determined by the dominant political and class dynamics. Thus technological solutions to environmental destruction serve the interests of those whose wealth and power implements them - which can in turn exacerbate the wider problem. Socialist technology must be marked by a "commitment to social equality and to ecological health" - it should also be democratically controlled, and the result of democratic decision making in contrast to the way that capitalists simply deploy new technologies to make profits.

I do have two slight linked disagreements with the book. The first is about context, and doesn't really undermine Wallis' wider argument. Among his criticisms of first-period socialism lies an argument that the ecological limitations of those societies arose because they favoured taking and maintaining state power, over the "transforming production relations". I am not sure I entirely agree with this. In the case of Russia in the aftermath of 1917 I think the problem was far more that the devastation of the working class core to the revolution in Civil War and famine destroyed the basis for real workers control. The failure of the German Revolution in turn left Russia isolated and encouraged an inward turn; the development of a bureaucratic class and finally the rise of Stalin's counter-revolutionary interests.

Secondly, I thought that while Wallis was excellent on showing how building a revolutionary ecologically aware socialist movement required strategies for the here and now, as well as a longer term goal, I felt that he missed out having a serious discussion on the nature of the capitalist state and the way it would organise to protect and defend its own interests. Here I think we still have much to learn from Lenin and his understanding of how revolutionary movements can simultaneously smash the capitalist state and create the basis for a new, workers' state.

But these are not points of departure they are places to begin a debate. All in all I found Red-Green Revolution a deeply stimulating read, that tackled important issues without simply regurgitating tired old formulae - the chapter on intersectionality and class was particularly good in this respect. I'd recommend Victor Wallis' book both to environmental activists who want to better understand revolutionary socialist ideas and other, longer standing socialists who want to think through how to engage with the growing ecological movements.

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Saito - Karl Marx's Eco-socialism

Choonara & Kimber - Arguments for Revolution
Luxemburg - Reform or Revolution

Sue Burke - Semiosis

Novels of first contact are extremely common - it's been a standard subject for science fiction since almost the beginning. A slightly smaller subset of first contact novels deal with the arrival on and exploration of alien planets. But Sue Burke's new book Semiosis is probably unique in its depiction of the intelligence that the arrivals from Earth encounter.

Fleeing an Earth ruined by war, ecological crisis and inequality, a small group of settlers arrive on Pax to try and create an egalitarian, peaceful society. Early accidents leave their numbers depleted, but enough humans survive to begin to carve out an existence from their surroundings. Imported seeds from Earth take root and the local flora and fauna appears, at least in some cases, to be edible. Until its not. Suddenly the food turns poisonous, and it quickly becomes clear that Pax's new arrivals have to deal with an extremely complex local ecology where the plants themselves are sentient.

What follows is a fascinating story that examines the way that ecology is always a system of interlocked relationships between plants and animals. Intervening from outside can disturb an equilibrium and the system will react to try and fix that. The humans face a choice - repeatedly in fact - as to how to best relate to the rest of the world. Should they react with the strategies that they fled earth to avoid - with destruction and combat? Or should they come to a mutual arrangement with their fellow sentient beings, and risk losing their own identity?

It's a very readable, interesting and extremely unusual novel that I recommend to science fiction fans. Semiosis' tale of an idealistic group of people arriving in an alien world and being thwarted by the local ecology reminded me a little of John Wyndham's novel Web, but Sue Burke brings a very different and excellently written twist to an age old science fiction plot.

Related Reviews

Wyndham - Web

Newman - Before Mars
Pohl & Kornbluth - Wolfbane
Aldiss - Non-Stop
Christopher - The Death of Grass

Monday, January 14, 2019

Joyce D'Silva & Carol McKenna (eds) - Farming, Food and Nature: Respecting Animals, People and the Environment

This is a serious attempt to find an alternative to the industrialised farming that is so destructive to the environment, animals and humans. However any radicalism is blunted by the failure of any of the authors to address how to challenge the way that capitalism shapes agriculture through its quest for profits.

I am preparing a detailed review of this book for another journal, when that is published I shall link it here.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Chanie Rosenberg - 1919: Britain on the Brink of Revolution

The events to mark the end of World War One almost universally ignored the mass revolutionary movements that helped end the conflict. The Russian Revolution's centenary received hardly a mention, despite its role in ending the slaughter on the Eastern Front. The mass rebellions of German soldiers, sailors and workers that made sure the Kaiser could no longer fight in the west received event less acknowledgement.

Also ignored were radical events in Britain. In late 1918 and early 1919 a mass rebellion took place which, as Chanie Rosenberg argues in this 1987 book brought the country to the brink of revolution. The mood was certainly high. In November 1918, 300,000 Clydesiders applauded the German Revolution at a mass protest and there were around 34 million days of strike action. Eric Geddes, First Lord of the Admiralty, said on the 5th of February, "there was no doubt that we were up against a Bolshevist movement in London, Glasgow and elsewhere."

Lloyd George's government had reason to be fearful on several fronts. Firstly they could no longer trust the army or navy. Anger at conditions among soldiers had led to mass mutiny, protest and strikes, including a march on the cabinet offices. The anger was driven by frustration at the time taken to demobilise after the end of the war, appalling food, low pay and terrible living conditions. In the navy similar conditions led to discontent and even mutiny on HMS Kilbride. The army could not be relied on to put down strikes or take on roles needed to keep industry going and units that fraternised with striking workers often became unreliable.

Secondly the police themselves were enormously discontented and were taking strike action and even rioting. This began in 1918 and went through into 1919 before the government was able to undermine their union building through a combination of carrot and stick. This, however, led to the government understanding that the police had to be treated far better than other workers to ensure their future loyalty.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the powerful workers movement was flexing its muscles. Through 1919 millions of workers took strike action that, on occasion, reached insurrectionary levels. Battleships and tanks were deployed to key centres of militancy like Glasgow and Liverpool. The government was petrified and there was division about how to proceed. Lloyd George preferred the strategy of acceding to some of the demands while drawing out the process of satisfying them over Winston Churchill who wanted to use force to smash the strike. The Prime Minister prevailed, and his strategy had one great weapon - the trade union leaders. Rosenberg shows how the trade union leaders made their interests clear - they were certainly not for Bolshevik revolution and in fact, they all - both left and right - did not want mass militancy. This would get out of control and so they worked hard to undermine the strikes, limit further action and dampen militancy. Also effective in this was the fledgling Labour Party whose MPs wanted to prove themselves loyal servents of the Crown, not radicals unfit for parliament. There's a famous scene that Rosenberg reproduces an account of a meeting between the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Triple Alliance:
Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you, that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps. We have just emerged from a great war and the people are eager for the reward of their sacrifices, and we are in no position to satisfy them. In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But if you do so, have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the Government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the State which is stronger than the State itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the State, or withdraw and accept the authority of the State. Gentlemen, have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?
 Robert Smillie, the left leaning leader of the powerful Coal Miners' union of around one million men, said "From that moment on we were beaten, and we knew we were." It was an extraordinary admission - going to the heart of the limitations of the trade union bureaucracy.

Mass strike in Glasgow 1919
Rosenberg argues that Britain was on the brink of Revolution, but there was a factor missing. No revolutionary socialist organisation existed that could push the movement forward, encouraging militancy and rank and file self-organisation - exposing the sell-outs of the trade union leaders and offering alternative strategies. The result was that while many workers won short term gains, almost nothing fundamentally changed, and workers militancy declined dramatically.

One hundred years later the British union movement is very different. Nothing like the Triple Alliance exists, and workers struggle is at an all time low. Nonetheless the potential for radical upsurges always exists - and discontent is certainly high. The left must learn from history. 1919 is a forgotten, but enormously inspiring moment of our history that Chanie Rosenberg's short book rescues for us. I recommend it to trade unionists and socialists today.

Related Reviews

There's an excellent piece in Socialist Worker about 1919 to mark the anniversary.

Rosenberg - Fighting Fit: A Memoir
Branson - Poplarism 1919 - 1925
Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Roger Crowley - Conquerors

This remarkably readable book tells the story of how Portugal, an impoverished nation on the western fringe of the European mainland became an "Asiatic Power" as early as 1512. It is a fascinating tale of bravery and violence, that demonstrates how there was no inherent European supremacy over the rest of the world, but rather that colonial power arose out of the systematic suppression and destruction of the people and economies of the African coast, the Middle East and, most importantly for this history, the people of India.

I read this book immediately after finishing Hans Koning's excellent Columbus: His Enterprise which looked at the impact of Columbus' voyages on the Americas. Roger Crowley's book begins in a similar place, but with the Portuguese king deciding to support the continued voyages down the African coast in search of an eastward route to the riches of India. Foremost in the King's mind was the wealth that might be obtained by getting spices and other goods that could avoid the expensive middle-men and merchants that all took their cut as goods travelled over the Indian ocean, and through the Middle East to the trading centres of Italy.

As Portuguese voyagers made the perilous journeys along the African coast, then eventually around the Cape of Good Hope, they laid down markers measuring their success and claiming the lands for their king. The era of African colonialism had begun, and very quickly the indigenous peoples became victims of the Portuguese. Rape, murder, pillage and mass destruction were weapons used to pacify the locals and seize needed resources, but this was nothing to what was to come when the Portuguese made a foothold in India.

The Portuguese discovered a thriving, and highly developed economy around the Indian ocean. They met sailors and navigators who had an astounding knowledge of the tides, currents and seasonal winds. Once the Europeans had mastered these they were able to seize the advantage, but initially they were actually only a minor power. Local kings in India were distinctly unimpressed by the gifts brought by the Portuguese who seemed to think that everyone they met would be from small undeveloped tribes. The ignorance of the Europeans was quite stunning and they tended to see the place through their own prejudices. When Vasco da Gama arrived in India in 1498 the Portuguese had no knowledge of Hinduism, so they assumed that they had simply found Christians who had strayed from the true path - so they brought a group of priests on their second voyage to correct the mistaken worshippers.

Faced with the highly developed economy of India the Portugeues had to use two strategies to break into the markets. Their primary aim was to smash the Muslim trade network. Their Christian bias against the Muslims meant that quickly they resorted to extreme violence. The one technological advantage the Europeans had, the large cannon on their ships, were deployed with deadly accuracy. Secondly the colonialists quickly learnt to divide and rule, turning local rulers against each other with offers of wealth and military support, combined with deceit. One local ruler, the Samudri, noted about Gama's ships "The Christians took more delight in theft and acts of aggression at sea than in trade... his port had always been open.. and that's why the admiral mustn't hinder or chase away the Mecca Muslims."

But Gama was not prepared to listen. After hanging 34 of Sumudri's messengers and Hindu fishermen they had captured, in full view of the cities population, they subjected the gathered crowds to enormous artillery bombardment. Later Gama ordered the 34 bodies cut down, dismembered and thrown in the sea so they would terrify the population when they washed ashore. He then wrote to the people:
I have come to this port to buy and sell and pay for your produce. And here is the produce of this country. I am sending you this present now. It is also for your king. If you want our friendship you must pay for everything that you have taken in this port under your guarantee. Furthermore you will pay for the powder and the cannon balls that you had made us spend.

Students of Indian history will recognise the methods adopted by other colonial powers later. Commanders who came after Gama repeated his tactics and came up with other ones - for instance encouraging marriage between the Portuguese and local people to create Christian communities. But it was through violence that Portugal's toehold became permanent in India, and the wealth poured into the colonial power, transforming its economy. That's not to say that this invasion was not contested. Peoples across the Indian ocean fought back, and on occasion were remarkably successful - not least because the Portuguese were often so riven with competition that they ignored sound military tactics in favour of personal glory. The few victories against the Portuguese elicited cheers from me, but they were few and far apart.

Portuguese colonialism in India brought nothing for the vast majority of the population. The new rulers were viewed with distrust and anger. Eventually this would lead to resistance. As Albuquerque, one of Portugal's most able, and violent, commanders in the area would conclude:

But if good faith and humanity cease to be observed in these lands, then pride will overthrow the strongest walls we have. Portugal is very poor and when the poor are covetous they become oppressors. The fumes of India are powerful - I fear the time will come when instead of our present fame as warriors we may only be known as grasping tyrants.

Portugal and the countries that followed them into India were indeed seen as tyrants, and were eventually driven out. That's another story, but this brilliantly written history is a great introduction to how India's first colonial oppressors arrived in tiny ships from across the oceans and brutally transformed the region in a few years.

Related Reviews

Koning - Columbus: His Enterprise - Exploding the Myth
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Dalrymple - Return of a King
Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts

Friday, January 04, 2019

Stuart Turton - The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

*** Spoilers ***

Combining a complex time-traveling plot with elements of Gothic horror and a classic whodunnit set in an English stately home, this is an intriguing novel that deserves the praise its been getting from reviewers. While not entirely as novel an idea as some suggest - it reminded me a great deal of Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - it is original enough to suck the reader into the frightening world of Aiden Bishop.

Every evening, during a plush party at her family's country home, the crumbling Blackheath, Evelyn Hardcastle dies at 11pm. For a small number of individuals this has happened thousands of times the day repeating when they wake up. Aiden Bishop experiences it slightly differently - when he wakes up he inhabits a different person, retaining his memories of the previous day, until they are also reset after a week; when the whole cycle restarts. Bishop quickly learns that if he is to escape he needs to find out what is happening and that will require him solving the mystery within the limitations of the bodies he inhabits - he carries with him their health issues, and their characteristics - and avoiding the wild card in the house - the Footman who seems bent on killing the people Bishop inhabits.

In the afterword Stuart Turton tells of the long gestation period for the book. After finishing it I hoped that I would find an online map that showed the various interactions taken by the key characters, but perhaps no one has managed to complete this complex task. It's a task that is made difficult by the way that characters in the story, including Bishop, can change events depending on their actions. It's also worth noting that Blackheath itself, the house and gardens, are a major part of the book - their crumbling decor, faded gradeur and long hidden mysteries, forming a perfect backdrop to the story.

Like all good murder-mysteries almost everyone has secrets that affect the story, and nothing (or nobody) is quite what they seem. Turton's book is tightly written, and I was surprised to find no obvious plot holes - the story is so complex, the characters so interweaving, that I kept thinking it wouldn't hold together. I did find that my enjoyment was reduced slightly by my desire from early on to know what was actually happening, and perhaps this is why I felt that the book (at around 500 pages) was slightly too long. But Turton keeps the tension up all the way until the last pages and the ending was, for me at least, extremely satisfying.

Related Reviews

North - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
North - Touch

North - The End of the Day
Mandel - Station Eleven