Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Richard Carter - On the Moor

This charming little book follows Richard Carter as he walks and ruminates on The Moor above Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. The Moor he tells us is a "large tract of open, uncultivated upland, usually acidic, usually covered in heather." Such descriptions of course are accurate in a scientific sense, but they don't capture what moors are like. Those of us who enjoy walking on them know that they change by the minute - moving from bright sunshine and heat one minute to the dark, frigid, rain swept places seemingly in seconds. They are at first glance devoid of life except for the sheep that graze on the all covering heather, yet walks are frequently disturbed by grouse and a careful observer will see much else of interest.

Carter's book describes walking on The Moore and the things he thinks about when up there. His rambles of the mind often make connections between the place and other, deeper issues. An expert on Charles Darwin he often finds links that take him, and the reader, back to the question of evolution. A break for a cup of tea is an opportunity to discuss James Dewer's invention of the vacuum flask and his failure to patent the technology. A visit to a trig point means a discussion about mapping. These and the inexorable increase of entropy and are part of parcel of Carter's mental meanderings as he walks and gazes.

Carter is an entertaining and well-read author. His work is filled with poetry, literature, history, and wider theoretical discussions and the humour is never forced upon the reader, rather it comes out at opportune moments (there's an delightfully original pun about Wheatears and Chaffinches for instance). On occasion Carter takes up polemical battles - such as the constant relocation of the Moor in Wuthering Heights to the wrong part of Yorkshire by filmmakers and tourist boards. They're the sort of arguments that seem highly important to some, yet immaterial to others. Readers can agree or not, but enjoy Carter's barely repressed rage at the unfairness of it all. Having said that, it would would be churlish of me to make too great a point of my disagreement with him over his championing of nuclear power - though one can appreciate the author's fear that more turbines will destroy his beloved countryside.

Bookshops are filled these days with books about nature. Few of them understand that nature is an interaction between human society and the wider world. Richard Carter's walks and rumination remind us of the connectivity between all things, and they might lead you up a path, onto a moor and a walk to touch a trig point.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Kim Stanley Robinson - Red Moon

One of the best things about Kim Stanley Robinson's science fiction work is that he is able to project political, economic and social conflict into the future. Often this can be on a massive scale, such as with his Mars Trilogy. He did it well in the much tighter confines of a generation ship in Aurora and, in New York 2140 he tried to show how a post-Global Warming capitalism might work. 

Red Moon takes this to, well, the moon. It's a near future where the dominant global economy is China, and America has taken a secondary seat. China's bases on the moon are far bigger than anyone else, but the conflicts among the Chinese leadership back on Earth are starting to make themselves felt far up into space. Fred Fredericks is an engineer who is taking a quantum entaglement communication device to the moon, but when he arrives the person he is handing over it over too - a senior Chinese political figure on the moon - is assassinated. Initially blamed for the killing, FF joins with Chan Qi, an idealistic Chinese revolutionary who needs to escape the moon.

Most of the book follows the two of them as they escape to Earth and go on the run. Qi dynamites a Chinese revolution and at the same time the US economy goes into collapse. A celebrity travel report Ta Shu comes and goes, he is fond of the two runaways, and helps them, but appears to also be at the beck and call of a faction of the Chinese government.

The concept is interesting. But sadly Robinson handles it badly. The plot is an absolute mess. People are constantly on the run, travelling between the Moon and Earth, or different Chinese cities. Stanley uses periods when Chan Qi and Fredericks are in hiding to muse on the different world views, and Ta Shu seems to exist to simply help the characters get from one place to another while using feng shui to explain the world. There is no logic to the revolution - which simply seems to take place when Chan Qi wills it, and its demands are so abstract as to be completely unbelievable. Events in the US simply take place so that Robinson can talk about cryptocurrency as a new way to organise the economy. The random travels of the heroes (they are constantly taking off, running, walking, riding or flying somewhere) become irritating after a time and, the ending.... well the ending doesn't exist.

Fans of KSR will probably have already read it. But unfortunately I felt that this was a dud that was even weaker than New York 2140. You can read my criticisms of that here. This is a far cry from the excellent and tightly plotted Aurora or the innovative and believable Shaman. One to avoid except for die-hard fans of KSR.

Related Reviews

KSR - New York 2140
Robinson - Shaman
Robinson - Years of Rice and Salt
Robinson - Aurora
Robinson - 2312
Robinson - Icehenge

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Greg Grandin - The End of the Myth

In the 1860s the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner advanced the theory that American society was shaped by the existence of a constantly moving Frontier. Turner's thesis argued that this Frontier gave rise to a particular type of individualism and democracy in the US. 

[Turner] said what was good in America was made in America, by settlers transforming frontier wilderness: "Free land," he wrote, and "an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people, made the democratic type of society in America." America's unique democratic individualism, Turner held was a "new product that is American." American democracy "came out of the American forest and it gained strength each time it touched a new frontier.

Turner's thesis has proved attractive to generations of thinkers, politicians and historians since. It's one that is however hard to pin down. What does it actually mean? Greg Grandin points out that Turner came up with at least thirteen different ways of explaining this "elastic" concept. In one sense it could mean anything to anyone, but in a more profound one it was labelling a fluid concept in itself - how America saw itself. As Grandin explains:

The frontier... was a state of mind, a cultural zone, a sociological term of comparison, a type of society, an adjective, a noun, a national myth, a disciplining mechanism, an abstraction and an aspiration. At the same time though, such explanatory simplicity: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development. [Turner's words]"

Grandin's book is first of all an exploration of the Frontier thesis and how it's been used. Much of the work looks at the reality behind Turner's cosy idea. This is one of brutal violence - in particular against the indigeneous people of North America. He documents the wars of extinction the US state led against the Native people but also how the US treated those who didn't fit the narrative. Racist, systematic violence against Mexicans, black people and, of course, slaves was part of the foundation of the American democracy that Turner held dear. Barely twenty years before Turner launched his speech, as revolutionary movements exploded in Europe in 1848:

The US too had crowded cities and hungry workers, fighting efforts to subordinate their lives to mechanical routine. But instead of waging class war upward - on aristocrats and owners - they waged race war outward, on the frontier, 'Prenticeboys didn't head to the barricades to fight the gentry, but rather joined with the gentry to go west and fight Indians and Mexicans. After which, in 1848's November presidential election, they divided their votes between a Democratic Party Indian killer and a Whig Party Indian and Mexican killer.

The Frontier vision allowed a divide and rule whose first victims were those who did not have white skins. The Frontier itself was a "measure of civilisation" that excluded those who did not fit:

People of color - enslaved peoples within the US or dispossessed peoples on its border - helped define the line between proper liberty, which justified self-governance, and ungovernable licentiousness, which justified domination. Native Americans especially, in their 'wild freedom' - a refusal to cultivate the earth and a desire instead to roam, hunt and gather - created what many identified as an almost childlike relationship to nature, held up as the opposite of the self-cultivate and self-possession of white people worthy of political self-rule.

Thus the Frontier was really about the expansion of capitalism into new areas. With it came the Native American killers, the farmers, woodsmen and the capitalists. Those that saw the opening up of the West as a way to make money, and to transform the landscape into a part of capitalist production.

Turner's thesis turns out to be a myth. But it's a myth that has "ended" with the throwing up of walls, borders and barriers. US ideologues still like to talk about the frontier, but it's a Frontier elsewhere. In the 1960s it was in SE Asia, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the 2000s it was in Afghanistan and Iraq. Through the Cold War it was a line down through Europe. The Frontier myth followed US Imperialism around, justifying, explaining and usually leading to Black and Asian people being killed.

In fact military conflict has helped enshrine and unite America. In the decades following the US CIvil War it was a new Frontier - a war with Spain that allowed former enemies to Unite again. In doing so, "the 'Lost Cause' of the Confederacy - the preservation of slavery - [was transformed] into humanity's cause for world freedom". Freedom for US capitalism to run rampant. 

But in spreading globally US Imperialism after the Second World War became keener to manage those on its borders. The Frontier became a Border. But it was one that remained out of sight and mind, unless needed to fulfil some US politician's need to scapegoat:

For the most part, the borderlands, with all their seething racism and militarised and paramilitarised cruelty, remained apart, a world away from the American heartland. News from the border, no matter how bloody, stayed beyond the nations consciousness as Ronald Reagan once again launched the US beyond the frontier and Bill Clinton made his pitch that no line separated US interests from the world's interests.

So it wasn't Trump that closed off the Frontier and build (or tried to build) a wall. He was just saying out loud what almost every other post-war US President wouldn't. That's not to say that Trump's racism is not virulent and horrific. But its roots lie in a vicious, violent, racist, US past. As Martin Luther King Jnr said, the idea of the Frontier fuelled and reinforced pathologies of racism, violent masculinity and moralism which, in Grandin's words "celebrates the rich and punishes the poor". For King, in the last, but most radical years of his life, the Frontier in Vietnam meant bombs there "exploded at home".

"Trump won", Grandin explains,

by running against the entire legacy of the postwar order, including those policies that have generated, in the countries south of the border as well as in the Middle East, untold numbers of refugees... endless war, austerity, 'free trade,' unfettered corporate power, and extreme inequality. Two years into his tenure, the war has expanded, the bombing has escalated, and the Pentagon's budget has increased. Taxes have been cut, deregulation accelerated and the executive branch is staffed by ideologues who want to deregulate and even more.

Greg Grandin's book helps us understand how Trump won. And what he has done since then. But more than this it helps explain America. Why can police kill Black people seemingly with immunity? Why is the US economy so dependent on migrants, but so racist towards them? Why is US society so violent? As the frontier moved westward, violence, racism and the myth of rugged, individual heroism followed behind. This was the founding myth of US capitalism - and everyone has suffered since. Greg Grandin's book helps us understand in order to destroy borders and frontiers for good.

Related Reviews

Grandin - Fordlandia
Horne - The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism
Blackburn - The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights
Estes - Our History is the Future
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Capern, McDonagh & Aston: Women and the Land: 1500-1900

This "explicitly feminist" book brings together a series of essays that look at the complex relationships that women had with property in the Early Modern Period. The book might be described as also being explicitly revisionist because, as the editors explain in their introduction, it was written "to challenge the idea that the existence of patriarchal property relations - including the doctrine of coverture and gendered inheritance practices - meant that property was concentrated almost exclusively in male hands". The editors continue to show that they are telling a "different story" where women owned property, traded it, managed it, and fought to be seen as owners and enjoy the profits from that land. They also transformed the land and shaped it through their own world views.

Emphasising these points, and indeed rescuing from more traditional history the way that female property-relations have been ignored doesn't negate the fact that in the period covered women did not have the same rights as their male counterparts. The laws governing issues like inheritance, property in marriage and so on began to change in the second half of the 19th century. But before then the law was strict, and in today's context appallingly unfair to women. For instance, before the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870, 1882 and 1893, "a married woman was able to write a last will and testament, but as she had no right to own any assets, she could only dispose of her personal belongings and any assets held under settlement". A woman needed her husband's permission to write that will and it could be withdrawn at anytime, even after her death.

This said, the book is a "rebuttal" to the idea that women were not landowners, or only occasionally owned land. Women in the period are often seen as solely being in charge of the family and home, but rather they were "never geographically restricted to a domestic, private sphere". Similarly the idea of a "strict division of work" between men and women did not match reality. As Amanda Flather explains in her chapter on Gender Relations in Early Modern England, "historical scholarship has moved a long way from the assumption that all men were autonomous patriarchs and all women simply victims". In this essay (and others) the various authors explore the different ways that women expressed their own agency.

Most of the chapters focus on "elite" women. These women's relationship with land was very much one of wealth and power. A key chapter by Jessica L. Malay looks at the Lady Anne Clifford who, in the mid 1600s, had a decades long battle to inherit her father's massive northern estates. Clifford was remembered as an intelligent and sympathetic landlord who consciously presented herself as a local ruler. Her wealth and power meant that she was a important figure in English politics, but her "progresses" around the North were orchestrated to demonstrate her position. As Malay explains, "her entourage, made up of local gentlemen, tenants and dignitaries, created a tableau that placed her as the pinnacle of regional authority through which all prosperity flowed." Malay continues:

She utilised patronage to construct a social reality in Westmorland that was dependent upon her and which sustained, deepened and protected her social and political values there, but also radiated throughout England.

But this construction of "social reality" was also physical: "[Clifford] expended tremendous sums of money to reshape the landscape and its socio-political structure to reflect her political idea of a benevolent feudal state."

A second example, if on a smaller scale, is described in Stephen Bending's chapter where he looks at the construction of a garden by Elizabeth Montagu at her country house at Sandleford. Employing the famous designer Capability Brown she constructed an invented landscape, but did so with more than a simple eye on garden layout. Through the expenditure of vast sums, she saw the garden as creating a space for her, her friends and those in her social networks as well as providing a service for the lower classes. Similar to Clifford's benevolent feudal state, in the 1780s Montagu saw the employment of the local poor as a charitable activity while creating (or inventing?) nature. For Montagu the space around her country mansion could not be separated from the role as landowner and local authority.

Perhaps the most shocking chapter is Amanda Capern's account of the abduction Arabella Alleyn. A wealthy heiress who was abducted as a child in the Civil War era and forced into marriage in order that her future husband's family could gain control of her wealth. Alleyn's account is, as Capern explains, unusual in that we an autobiographical account of her life. But cases of abduction like this were relatively commonplace. This is a story of abduction, forced marriage, likely rape and a life of abuse and indignity. It is also an account of resistance as Alleyn fights to retain control of her assets and escape the situation she found herself in. It is a tragic story that illuminates how women were seen as extensions of male property in the period, but also for how it shows that women were not passive victims.

Several of the chapters demonstrate how archival material can show us much more about the world that produced them if they are viewed through a different prism. Even dull accounting books, wills and legal papers can show how women controlled wealth, land and companies and played a key role in a world that was supposed to be solely a male domain. Briony McDonagh's chapter shows how "elite women's book keeping" was a way for some women to demonstrate their own agency. Of course sexism was never far away. Women were seen as less financially literate, so more likely to be at risk of swindling. and McDonagh documents several cases of estate managers losing their jobs for trying to get one over the account books. The use of legal documents was also a way that women could manage and control their wealth, even while married. Jennifer Aston searches through probate documents to show that women were not simply "caretakers" of other's wealth.

The women were not only actively creating their estates through property purchase, business ownership and the creation of family heirlooms such as hairwork mourning jewellery but were also architects of intergenerational wealth strategies designed to protect their wide-ranging assets, providing for their beneficiaries and strengthening familial and friendship networks for another generation.

Most of the essays here deal in detail with property and landowners. As such they tend to be of the upper and upper-middle class sections of society. For them property/land is about power, wealth and often governing the behaviour of others through employment etc. So the book focuses on the wealthy with less discussion of the lower orders. This was a disappointment because despite the emphasis on land as property, there are interesting discussions to be had abut the role of women in movements that sought to exert control over land (and the produce of land) in the context of enclosure and the destruction of the commons. 

That said, this is a book consciously written to show that women were not passive adjuncts of men for the last 500 years. Through their relationship to land and property they were shaping the landscape and creating the physical and political terrain that we know today. Today there are new battles against women's oppression, new struggles for land rights and against inequality. Land too is still owned and controlled by a minority of extremely wealthy, and usually male, people.

While the book is aimed at academics and its chapters can seem very niche, non-academics will find material here that is very useful and illuminating. I very much agree with Amy Louise Erickson who, in her afterword concludes, "the first step towards change is recognising what has not changed for the last five hundred years in women's relationship to land".  She rightly argues that this book is an key tool to help us do that.

Related Reviews

Griffin & McDonagh - Remembering Protest in Britain since 1500: Memory, Materiality & the Landscape
Orr - Marxism and Women's Liberation
Rowbotham - Hidden from History

Naomi Novik - Uprooted

This delightful fairy-tale is both deeper and darker than it seems at first reading. Set in the classic trope of a small medieval but magical kingdom, the heroine Agnieszka ends up being selected by her local lord (known as the Dragon) to spend 10 years in his tower serving him. As Agnieszka explains in the opening paragraphs, their Dragon doesn't consume his sacrifices. They stay with him while he fights the Wood, a dangerous evil wood land that continuously tries to encroach on human lands and kills, transforms and disappears those who get too close to its branches.

Agnieszka is, of course, no normal village girl. Her relationship with the Dragon is less servile than he has come to expect from previous servants. Her own magical powers grow in new and inexplicable ways. Naomi Novik does a good job of weaving several tales together. There's the story of the Dragon himself, whose lordship seems all powerful, but when it comes to the machinations at the King's court he is of little importance. There's the various courtly intrigues and international politics and, at the heart of it all, is the magical problem of the wood.

Being a fairy-tale Agnieszka has the answers, though she doesn't know it. She's just a girl from a small town and Novik uses some clever plot devices to highlight this. I particularly liked the description of the way that Agnieszka is treated by the rich, bored women at court, who trick her and snigger at her. It's a delightful scene when Agnieszka realises and fights back. The story of a young woman becoming aware of herself and her power is as old as the hills, but Novik places it into an interesting feminist tale that turns more than a few stereotypes on its head. Being a fairy tale there is a love-story, which I found unnecessary and distracting, but not intolerably so. 

Ultimately the problem of the wood is about much more than a magical enemy at the heart of the kingdom. Perhaps it represents the evil at the heart of all Empires that must be rooted out. This clever and entertaining novel is an updated fairy-tale and will appeal to many different ages.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Richard Panek - Seeing and Believing

What is our place in the universe and how did we come to understand it as we do? These huge questions are the subject of this short book by Richard Panek, which pitches itself as a history of the telescope but, in words from its subtitle, is really about "how we found our place in the universe". 

Panek begins with the world as it was when Galileo first turned a telescope to the skies. Galileo's generation had inherited an understanding of the universe that was essentially unchanged since the time of the ancient Greeks. In the generation before Galileo, the Polish mathematician and astronomer Copernicus had begun to batter down the walls that defended the universe of Aristotle. Galileo was able, with a magnified view of the universe to end that process. As Panek writes: 

Through the telescope man [sic] had completed the intellectual journey he had begun two centuries earlier with the introduction of perspective into art. The telescope bridged Earth and key in a manner both literal and metaphorical. What had been terrestrial was now celestial; what was celestial, terrestrial. Earth moved through the heavens, one more wanderer, and the once perfect heavens suffered the same fate as Earth. The perspective cylinder united mathematics and philosophy, astronomy and physics, sense evidence and geometry, the ancient world and the modern, Creation and Creator. In two centuries man had gone from being the apple of God's eye to being God's eye.

 A theme of Panek's book is that those who thought about the universe tended to think they'd reached the sum of all knowledge until a new discovery forced their perspective further. Copernicus and Galileo expanded humanity's vision into a solar system that ended at Saturn. Herschel, Kepler and others pushed the boundaries towards Neptune. Then the solar system lost its special importance and became one of many in an island universe. Then the 20th century found millions of other islands. 

But Panek tends to decouple these insights from wider scientific changes. While he links the development of the telescope with the Age of Exploration and the development of states in the 17th century, he doesn't really get to grips with the way that the whole of existing science no longer fit with the needs of the new world order, of growing commerce and industry. Industry is, of course, the backdrop. There is a charming anecdote about William Herschel who turned the manufacturer of telescope mirrors from a hobby into a cottage business. They became so big that an army of workmen with numbers painted on their coats polished them while Herschel shouted instructions to them by name. It's an inadvertent insight into the arrival of a new economic era when workers became mere unnamed cogs in a machine.

There are also some omissions. Caroline Herschel, William's sister who became a leading scientist in her own right is only briefly discussed as a discoverer of comets. She's mostly someone who helps her brother by reading to him while he works. I don't think its necessarily accepted anymore that George Ellery Hale really thought he was visited by an elf during periods of mental illness and the author confuses the 250 foot Lovell Telescope at Jodrell bank for the earlier Transit Telescope that was built in 1940 and discovered radio waves from the Andromeda Galaxy.

Nonetheless this is a excellent short account of the way that the development of the telescope and associated technologies caused a transformation in our view of the universe. First published in the early 2000s it is in need of an update. Technological developments in the years since, with new space telescopes building on the discoveries of Hubble in all areas of the spectrum, and the increasing numbers of planets found around other stars, would further develop Panek's story. But if you want a good, readable account of the progress of Astronomy in the last 400 years, this is a worthwhile introduction.

Related Reviews

Green - 15 Million Degrees: A Journey to the Centre of the Sun
Winterburn - The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy
Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution
Holmes - The Age of Wonder
Sobel - Galileo's Daughter

Monday, September 14, 2020

George MacDonald Fraser - Flashman in the Great Game

Regular readers might notice that I've been reading books relating to the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857. The subject is one that has fascinated me since the time when, as a boy I read George MacDonald Fraser's Indian Rebellion novel. It's set during the events in India and sparked an interest in me. Some of the questions I had reading Flashman remain important decades later. How did Britain almost lose control of India? Why did the rebellion happen? Why were both sides so vicious?

Having returned to the subject recently I was drawn back to Flashman to see how the book stood up. What I found was quite interesting. A couple of years ago I re-read the first Flashman novel and if you read my review of that you'll find I was quite shocked at how, on re-reading, Fraser's hero is utterly repugnant. Flashman in the Great Game is not as bad as Flashman. But having immersed myself in the period and read an account by an actual British soldier of his experiences during 1857, I was struck by two things. Firstly Fraser is remarkably faithful to the historical events - Flashman's feelings visiting the aftermath of the Cawnpore massacre are, relatively similar to those of William Forbes-Mitchell who actually went there around the time Flashman is supposed to have.

Flashman however is less repugnant than in the first novel. He falls in love with the Rani of Jhansi who actually uses him more than he uses her, and possibly for the first time in his life he is bereft at what takes place with a woman. But that aside he is his usual, racist, self. The racism is interesting not least because Fraser clearly intends it to be a reflection of actual feelings of British soldiers. But as I remarked when reading Forbes-Mitchell, in his actual memories of the vicious battles and brutalities, that author never uses a racist word. This might say more about Fraser than it says about Flashman.

Unlike Forbes-Mitchell, Fraser doesn't duck the question of British brutalities and reprisals. In fact the scene were Flashman wakes up tied to a cannon is one where Flashman (and Fraser) depict a unusually sympathetic attitude to the Indians. Knowing the material well its easy to appreciate the research that Fraser put into the Flashman novels. He does embellish - there's an subplot involving Russian machinations in India which is invented as a plot device. He also changes when necessary - the plot device for Flashman's escape from Cawnpore is different to what actually happened to the only boat to escape. But Fraser does manage to show the discontent at the heart of the Indian Army, even if he tends to put the blame for the mutiny on agitators and Russian secret agents. 

Unfortunately Flashman's odious beliefs and language make this a tiresome read, particularly in the light of some of the more recent readings highlighted below.

Related Reviews

Forbes-Mitchell - Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny 1857-59
Hibbert - The Great Mutiny: India 1857
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered
Dalrymple - The Anarchy
David - Victoria's Wars
Farrell - The Siege of Krishnapur
Rathbone - The Mutiny

Thursday, September 10, 2020

William Forbes-Mitchell - Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny 1857-59

William Forbes-Mitchell was a Sergeant in the Ninety-Third Sutherland Highland Regiment. If you know anything about the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857 and its aftermath you will understand that this meant he was present at some of the major military engagements of that conflict. As such his reminiscences, written several decades after events, are a unique insight into what took place. The 93rd were very much part of the British Empire's military. Forbes-Mitchell should never, in fact, have gone to India. His regiment had played a key role in the Crimean War, and returned to England for a rest and were about to embark for China when the Mutiny and rebellion made the British government send them to India. 

Enroute Forbes-Mitchell and comrades digested the news from India, learning from papers picked up at friendly ports on the way of the massacres and defeats that had marked the outbreak of the rebellion. On arrival in India, their rapid transit to Lucknow was to "carry relief to the beleaguered garrison and the helpless women and children". The author continues, "I may mention that the cowardly treachery of the enemy and their barbarous murders of women and children, and converted the war of the Mutiny in to a guerre á la mort - a war of the most cruel and exterminating form, in which no quarter was given on either side". 

While Forbes-Mitchell claims that "with few exceptions, the European soldiers went through the terrible scenes of the Mutiny with great moderation, especially where women and children, or even unarmed men, came into their power." Readers might be slightly unwilling to believe this given that a few sentences previously the author reminded readers that "Up to the final relief of Lucknow... it would have been impossible for the European to have guarded their prisoners, and, for that reason it was obvious that prisoners were not to be taken".

Forbes-Mitchell does not dwell on the well attested violence by the "Europeans" against the Native population - women, children and unarmed men. This violence, torture and summary execution is occasionally hinted at, but its indiscriminate nature is not referenced. Nor is the fact that the British justice meted frequently targeted anyone, irrespective of any guilt.

The book is particularly interesting for its eyewitness accounts, for instance of the aftermath of Cawnpore and the descriptions of the battles. Officers ensured that their men visited the blood-soaked ground of Cawnpore - presumably to make sure that the troops would be even more keen to fight the enemy. The descriptions of the battles themselves is interesting as an insight into 19th century warfare - as well as the bravery on both sides. Forbes-Mitchell offers readers some suggestions on improvements that might be made to British military tactics. But comments that "in the age of breech-loaders and magazine rifles.. I fear the days of cavalry charging square of infantry squares are over". His hope that his book might be useful "for the wars of the future" seem hollow, given that 20 years after its publication the warfare in World War One took on a completely different nature.

Forbes-Mitchell was very much a man of the establishment. After leaving the army he went on to become a very successful businessman and these memories are based in part of tours he did of the country returning to the sites were he'd fought decades before. There are, on occasion, comments that make one think about wider colonial issues. An Irish soldier in his regiment whom he remembers fondly is described as being "of the right sort" and "No Fenian nor Home Ruler" and "Asiatic campaigns" are, the author says, "always been conducted in a more remorseless spirit than those between European nations". And while the British soldiers were celebrated at the time, the author bemoans that he could "name over a dozen men who served throughout every engagement, two of whom gained the Victoria Cross, who have died in the almshouse". This is despite the looting of Indian palaces, temples and villages which brought vast quantities of prize money, though the ordinary privates received little.

Twenty-first century readers will likely find it a bit ponderous in places. I doubt very much that quite so many members of the 93rd Highlanders really quoted the lengthy poetry that Forbes-Mitchell places on their lips at key moments in the midst of battle. But readers will gain an appreciation for the reality of life as a soldier in the years after the rebellion - not least the failure of the supply trains to make sure that the men had clean underwear. 

So while the book skips the brutal reality of the British reaction to the Indian Revolt readers who are interested in the history will get a sense of what took place and how a relatively ordinary soldier reacted to the contemporary experience of (say) the massacre at Cawnpore. 

One final point deserves mention. My interest in 1857 was sparked, like many others I am sure, in reading the fictionalised accounts of Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser. It is noteworthy that in those books, Fraser puts many racist epithets into his hero's language. In contrast William Forbes-Mitchell never once uses these about the people of India and has a very much grudging respect towards his former enemies.

Related Reviews

Hibbert - The Great Mutiny: India 1857
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered
Dalrymple - The Anarchy
David - Victoria's Wars
Wagner - Amritsar 1919
Newsinger – The Blood Never Dried – A People’s History of the British Empire
Rathbone - The Mutiny

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Marx & Engels - On Colonialism

Reading about and around the Indian Rebellion of 1857 recently I picked up an old, unread, volume on my shelf - a collection of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' writings On Colonialism. I was drawn to their writings because I wanted to look at two things. Firstly the work of Marx and Engels has been neglected during the reawakened debates around colonialism and imperialism. The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a renewed interest in understanding how our modern world (and the racism within in it) came about. But the work of these two great revolutionaries has rarely been discussed in this context recently. Secondly I waned to see what Marx and Engels made of contemporary events. They were, after all, writing at a time when the British Empire was at its height.

The book is a collection of varied pieces written by Marx and Engels that touch on colonialism. Many of the articles are those written by Marx (and occasionally Engels) for the New York Tribune. These include analysis of contemporary events (such as the progress of the Indian Rebellion) or discussions of British parliamentary debates around countries like China and India. India dominates these reports. Partly this reflects the importance of that country to the British economy. It also, no doubt, reflects the interest in Marx's readership on these questions - what happened in India and what Britain was doing had ramifications for the global economy after all.

The rest of the articles are snippets from letters, essays and chunks from Capital. Piecing these together one gets a real appreciation of two aspects of Marx and Engels work and ideas. Firstly their absolute horror at what colonialism did to the people of Ireland, India, China and elsewhere. Their anger at violence, poverty, the stripping of natural resources and the destruction of people and communities runs through these works that span their lifetimes. Secondly the reader quickly sees how Marx and Engels saw colonialism as a direct consequence of the nature of capitalism - where capital reshaped the world in its own image. Take some brief comments on India by Marx from 1853:

England had broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindu, and separate Hindustan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions and from the whole of its past history... Now the British in East India accepted from the predecessors the departments of finance and war, but they have neglected entirely that of public works... it was the British intruder who broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning-wheel. England began with driving the Indian cottons from the European market; it then introduced twist into Hindustan and in the end inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons.

As Kevin Anderson has shown, Marx demonstrated through his life an evolving understanding of what colonialism was and what non-Western societies were like. In some of the early writings here, Marx sees the impact of colonialism as horribly destructive as well as helping to push the development of India forward. In the same article just quoted he writes about the village organisation in India:

These small stereotype forms of social organism have been to the greater part dissolved, and are disappearing, not so much through the brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade. Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-spinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindu spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilised communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.

He cautions against any vision of the past as being any sort of idyll.

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organisations disorganised and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilisation, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all.

Attacking what came before Empire might seem like a celebration of its replacement with British rule. But the same year, writing again in the New York Tribune he shows that he certainly doesn't see colonialism or Empire as a civilising force.

All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and people through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?

The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether

Marx's clarity on the way that capitalism transformed colonial nations into its own image shines through these writings. As does his (and Engels) disgust at what colonial rule meant. In the writings on the "Mutiny" and the suppression of the 1857 revolt both authors express their outrage and rail against the contradictions of the media which downplayed the atrocities of the British and exaggerated those of the enemy: "Actual accounts of Delhi evince the imagination of an English parson to be capable of breeding greater horrors than even the wild fancy of a Hindu mutineer."

In August 1857, in the midst of the suppression of the rebellion, Marx did not duck any critique of the responsibility of the British for the outbreak of the rebellion. In an article on the Investigation of Tortures in India, Marx concluded: 

We have here given but a brief and mildly-coloured chapter from the real history of British rule in India. In view of such facts, dispassionate and thoughtful men may perhaps be led to ask whether a people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects. And if the English could do these things in cold blood, is it surprising that the insurgent Hindus should be guilty, in the fury of revolt and conflict, of the crimes and cruelties alleged against them?

The bulk of the writing here is by Marx. Engels articles tend to focus on the military aspects. In these he sometimes displays a very patronising attitude. He dismisses India military preparations for battle as showing "an ignorance of military engineering which no private sapper in any civilised army could be capable of". This contrasts with contemporary accounts which showed British forces often being surprised by the brilliance of the rebel military. While perhaps not being a good sample of writing from Engels, I think Marx displayed much more sympathetic understanding of the nature of India society, though both authors are certainly occasionally guilty of seeing India as backward before the arrival of Europeans - for all their hatred and disgust at what colonialism did.

Because of my own focused reading on India recently I've dwelt on what Engels and Marx wrote about India in this volume. However there is a great deal more - writings by both authors on Ireland, Algeria, Afghanistan and China. Critiquing British imperial policy in China they both rage at the hypocrisy of the British government which claims to be civilising and advanced, yet imposed war and opium on the Chinese people in the interests of profit. As Marx, writing to Engels in 1869 said, John Bull should be put "in the pillory!" Here Marx was commenting on a book that Engels was planning on Ireland. Sadly that never appeared, but Marx himself commented in 1867 how his own views on Ireland had changed, "Previously I thought Ireland's separation from Britain impossible. Now I think it inevitable."

As Priyamvada Gopal has noted Marx and Engels, like other radicals and revolutionaries in Britain, had their ideas shaped through an engagement with the rebels and rebellions that emerged against British rule. The experience of Empire and resistance to it transformed their ideas and their expectations. It also helped make both of them place anti-colonial politics at the heart of their revolutionary politics. 

This collection of essays is thus a very useful insight into the development of Marx and Engels ideas. It also serves as a way of understanding how those ideas developed. Its fascinating to see how both authors engaged with contemporary events, predicting, analysing and engaging. For activists trying to get to grips with the legacy of colonialism this ought to be part of the reading list.

Related Reviews

Anderson - Marx at the Margins
Gopal - Insurgent Empire
William Dalrymple - The Anarchy
Hibbert - The Great Mutiny: India 1857
Marx & Engels - The German Ideology
Marx - Value, Price and Profit
Marx - The Civil War in France
Engels - The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Christopher Hibbert - The Great Mutiny: India 1857

Having recently read William Dalrymple's history of the East India Company, The Anarchy, I was drawn back to the subject of the Great Indian Uprising of 1857. It was this rising which was the final nail in the coffin of the East India Company and indeed transformed British rule in India. The Rising has been more commonly known as the Indian Mutiny which explains the title of Christopher Hibbert's book. But, as Hibbert shows the rising was a much broader event than mutiny indicates. While it began with Native Muslim and Hindu troops, they represented and tapped into much wider discontent with British rule. The rising in Delhi for instance began with troops, but quickly spread to other individuals. Two British officers there, fleeing rebellious mutineers from the nearby garrison of Meerut where "attacked by the populace hurling bricks at them". More substantially, Hibbert describes the consequences of the complete collapse of British rule:

By now there was not a single representative of the British Government at any of the outlying stations in Oudh. The downfall of authority had been followed by a general uprising of the talukdars [landowner during the Mughal Empire] who, helped by their retainers, ejected the families to whom their former estates had been allocated and took the opportunity of attacking their rivals and enemies.

Thus the rebellion saw an uprising of the army, supported by the general populace within which different groups tried to assert, or reassert, their interests and power. Initially I was disappointed that Hibbert seemed to focus almost entirely on the events of 1857 through an account of the British. But there is a significant chapter on the dynamics of the Indian side around Delhi where Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, became a figurehead of the rebellion. Hibbert describes the difficulties faced by the King and the various forces within his court attempting to push their agenda. Its interesting to consider that by focusing on Delhi the rebels probably undermined their strength elsewhere, but also the extent to which they considered a Mughal Emperor (i.e. a restoration of the old order) as the alternative to British rule. Unfortunately Bahadur Shah Zafar was not the person to drive the rebellion through to victory. Sadly, other than this section, there was little else from the Indian point of view.

One thing all histories of the Rebellion do highlight is the violence and atrocities. Parts of Hibbert's book are nearly unreadable when he describes what both sides did to each other. At the time the violent murder and massacre by the rebels of British men, women and children, where used to stir popular sympathy against the rebellion. It lead to the most brutal repression of the rebellion and systematic killing of Indians (rebel or not) by the British. Hibbert's account however goes someway towards explaining the levels of violence against the British.

A key element is the horrific racism and casual violence used against the Indian population (including the soldiers) by the British. Hibbert quotes one example that serves to illustrate the general British attitude to the Indian people: 

the sepoy is [regarded as] an inferior creature. He is sworn at. He is treated roughly. He is spoken of as a 'n*****' He is addressed as 'suar' or pig, an epithet most approbrious to a respectable native, especially the Mussulman [Muslim] and which cuts him to the quick... the younger men seem to regard it as an excellent joke, as an evidence of spirit and a praiseworthy sense of superiority over the sepoy to treat him as an inferior animal.

It is this racism that coloured the British view of the natives. Indeed they were blind to the stirrings of discontent and rebellion within in their army and their approach to the rebels' initial discontent on the parade ground was to dismiss their concerns, patronise them and then punish mutiny with such over the top violence that to an outsider it could only spread further rebellion. But because the British saw the Indian people as "children" few could imagine the threat.

It is notable that this racism towards the Indian people undermined the British militarily. Hibbert quotes an account from an engagement "five miles north-west of Delhi" where the British took a heavy beating from Indian artillery and cannon fire. As one contemporary account reproduced by Hibbert went, "I heard many officers who have been in action before say that they were never under such fire as the rebels poured into us... Nearly every shot they fired told on us."

Hibbert continues:

Here, as later, British officers were amazed by the 'wonderful range and accuracy' the mutineers 'got out of their guns'. It was such a 'most extraordinary thing', in fact, that some officers put it all down to 'astonishing luck rather than skill, for the firing of shells and the cutting of fuses [were] much too scientific for natives to understand'.

One of the strengths then of Hibbert's book is that he sees that the origins of the mutiny lay in the way that the British ruled India. They stripped the country bare of resources, wealth and money at the same time as treating the people as beneath them. A second strength is that he doesn't baulk at highlighting the great injustices done by the British in revenge for the rebellion. Hibbert shows how the grossest of rumours were used to encourage brutal revenge by the British, but often they were completely made up.

But most of the appalling crime rumoured to have happened, and reported as facts in letters to England, bore scant relation to the truth. Magistrates and Special Commissioners who endeavoured to discover reliable evidence of widespread torture and rape failed to do so. 

This is not to downplay the very real violence committed by the rebels. But to show the way the British constructed a myth that enabled them to drive through both the repression of the rebellion and the reconstruction of British rule to prevent it happening again. Hibbert doesn't shy away from detailing this violence which rarely made it into popular accounts of the "Mutiny" written afterwards.

All in all this is an excellent short history of the Indian Rebellion. Christopher Hibbert writes clearly, even when discussing the most hideous of material. His book is an excellent introduction to the first great rebellion against British rule in India.

Related Review

Dalrymple - The Anarchy
Wagner - Amritsar 1919
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried