a casahistoria reading list - imperialism

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 Reviews of Books on aspects of the history of Imperialism


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Susan Pedersen: The Guardians

Pedersen has written a meticulously researched and well argued account of the working and impact of the League of Nations Mandate system. This is not a straightforward narrative however. Analytical and perceptive Pedersen shows how the oversight function given to the League Permanent Mandates Commission ultimately altered the perception of imperial rule and territory, preparing the way for statehood even in areas not held as Mandates.

The mandated territories were largely the Empires of the defeated German Reich and Ottoman Empire. Given out to victorious Allies to look after and develop, the process involved annual reporting and a petition process for reporting grievances back to Geneva. It sought to introduce "internationalism" – economic open doors and freer access – to compete with closed bloc imperialism. During the interwar period and especially during German membership of the League this introduced an element of third party scrutiny into how those countries looking after Mandates operated in their mandated territories. France was heavily criticised for its behaviour in Syria and its bombing of Damascus during the Syrian Revolt in 1925. South Africa was taken to task for labour and resettlement policies in South West Africa. In an intriguing section on Papua Pedersen charts the emergence of the anthropologist in questioning existing attitudes to what constitutes a "primitive people".

The imperial countries reacted in various ways – all of which would change the post 1945 world. In Iraq Britain produced the client state, nominally independent but tied by treaty and military agreements to the imperial power. France was to follow suit in Syria. This would become the model for the neo colonialism in the post independence world.

It was Palestine that offered the coup de grace to the Mandate system. Britain initially believing it could develop the mandate for both growing Jewish settlers and the indigenous Arab population. When this proved impossible Britain sought to push for Partition which the PMC resisted on the grounds of their interpretation that the Palestine Mandate be there to lead to statehood for the Jewish population and Arabs be coerced into acceptance. Finally with European war becoming the main focus, London acted unilaterally, signalling the demise of the mandated territories project.

There are other nuggets tucked away in this work. Britain's failed attempts to buy peace in Europe by offering Hitler overseas colonies is covered in some depth concluding with the remark that the colonial offer may have failed to appease Hitler, but the European powers did eventually find their land to give over to German empire building: the Sudetenland. Another is the depth and influence of Polish anti-Semitism in the late 1930's as it put pressure on the PMC to force Britain to enlarge the land envisaged in partition for the Jewish settlers so that Poland could push out its Jews into this land.

The Guardians is probably not for the general reader, but for those with some knowledge of the League and the interwar period it makes a rewarding read.
December '15 (*****)

Other Reviews:
Mark Mazower in The Guardian

Times Higher Education
Interview with Pedersen
For Susan Pedersens Abstract, "The Meaning of Mandates" read here.


Malcolm Gaskill: Between Two Worlds

Gaskill makes comprehensive use of personal testimony and primary records to show the relationship between north American settler and the English mother country during the period of early colonisation in the 17th century. This is not a story of independently minded Puritans heading off across the Atlantic to leave early Stuart tyranny behind and build a new world amongst the forests of New England. Rather, Gaskill presents a much more complex situation where not only settlement and economic exploitation but also political and cultural development remained very much dependent on England, an England that was also bound to the life-experiences of the early settlers and increasingly to the business model the new colonies produced. 

The book looks at colonies in their broadest sense. There is a focus on Virginia and New England, paying tribute to the earlier English conquest and settlement of Ireland which offered the earliest (flawed) model for colony building, but the sweep takes in the Caribbean and later spread to the Carolinas and up the Appalachians. Here was embedded English society, given an opportunity to farm and trade through a series of Royal Company Patents, not self governing but administering themselves locally under the umbrella of the English crown, much as an English town or County might have done at the time. The settlements of new England with a higher (but not overwhelming) proportion of Puritan households saw these oligarchic assemblies dominated by those who considered themselves the elect. Further south in Virginia and in the Caribbean, it was the rapidly growing large estate owners who held sway. Just as the 17th century upheavals in England of Civil War, Restoration and 1688 revolution affect attitudes to power at home, Gaskill shows this being tightly followed and reflected in the Americas. Only after 1688 does the divergence which is to lead to revolution in the next century begin to become evident. England becomes more imperialist, more focused on the economic gains of overseas possessions, less inclined to consider the interests and protection of the colonists as a priority. 

Apart from the social and political there are other themes running through the work. The siezure of Indian land is a given, the inevitable Indian wars which do so much to foster the "frontier mentality" of the American are reported by contemporaries in the same violent manner in which Irish rebels were described in the 1640's. Some settlers go native, others try and convert "praying" Indians but for the majority they were a population to be feared, exploited and pushed back for their land. The reality of colonial life in mid century is well treated in Chapter 14. 

One of the chapters looks at the cultural isolation felt by many of the settlers (not uncommon even today as expatriates with internet, skype will agree with). England is always "home", many attempted to create their idea of an English idyll in an alien environment, with mutant twists. Where estate owners in the south could not get landless labourers to help achieve this as they might have done on an English estate, they ship in Africans in ever increasing numbers. 

Gaskill is a specialist on 17th century witchcraft, so it may not be a surprise that the climax of the work is the Salem witch trials of 1692-3. For Gaskill the almost immediate reversal of the trials and discrediting of the Puritan testimonies represents the collapse of the Puritan stranglehold on the mood of the northern colonies. Dominant in setting the initial culture of New England, like their counterparts in England the latter part of the century sees this being discredited and replaced by particularist pragmatism. It is this change he argues that does so much to force a parting of ways between London and the northern colonies. 

Apparently the work is based on a course presented by the author. It may be easier for the more general reader if chapter headings were less literary and obscure and perhaps given titles more immediately relevant to their content akin to seminar meetings. This would allow for easier selection of reading for students unable to read all the book. The wealth of contemporary evidence whilst clearly forming the structure of the argument can be overwhelming and the point in hand (as well as attention) can easily be lost to the multitude of characters and places presented to the reader. 

Between Two Worlds is a worthwhile read. Students of the period perhaps will use it best with careful reading of the excellent Epilogue to help search out key themes and then make judicious use of the Index to follow their development.

June ’15 (****)

  Tim Butcher Chasing the Devil: the Search for Africa's Fighting Spirit

Like Tim Butcher's previous Blood River. Chasing the Devil sees the author trekking through Africa's rainforest and remote hinterlands. Last time it was following Stanley's route of 1874-77 down the Congo from central Africa to the Atlantic, this time he walks across Liberia using a route taken by Graham Green in the 1930's. He has a strong personal reason for this region of travel. He was chief war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph during the wars at the turn of the century and the "search" in the title is as much a personal search to find closure with the events of that conflict as much as an exploration of how far the area has recovered since then and/or changed since the time of the Greene's.

Butcher takes the reader across Sierra Leone and the Gambia as well as Liberia, using his travels to create a framework to look at both the background of recent strife and the context of native tribal belief. In this he does a service in making the current and past problems of the region far clearer and immediate to the general reader perhaps not too aware of west Africa. The culture of "dash", tribal religion and traditional beliefs and the horrendous history of recent violence are all part of this journey as is the depth of forlorn poverty in the villages and towns he encounters.

What did surprise me was the fact that such a walk was possible at all given the climate and general deprivation. It nearly killed Graham Greene and he had a colonial style caravan of bearers and equipment (including hammocks and food hampers). Butcher was a party of four effectively: himself, a walking companion, a local guide (whom, in a depressing evaluation in the final chapter, he describes as his African "Everyman": an African who had heeded the advice of experts to limit family size, seek education, be industrious - but who had gained little from this through the greed and incompetence of others) and a motorcyclist who rode ahead each day with the rucksacks. Avoiding the roads travelled by the motorbike they used the remains of rain forest paths walking in the humidity and heat. Their diet becomes so limited that when, near the end of the journey they do have a western style meal in the canteen of a modern European mining company, Butcher is ill.

The account is at its best when relating events along the walk to the history, both recent and not too recent. Apart from the start and finish the Greene connection is at times of less importance. Overall this is a good read, with the added advantage of teaching the reader something about a part of the world usually ignored elsewhere - and telling a story of recent times that needs to be told.
March '12 (****)

Matthew Parker: The Sugar Barons

Parkers history of the West Indies sugar industry is one of the most valuable reads of the year for students of industrial and imperial history. He outlines the origins of the industry which originated on the Caribbean island of Barbados and reached its peak with the cultivation of Jamaica. The final chapters look at eventual decline and collapse.

However, this is much more than a narrative. It's value is in how it draws in key strands of Britains early imperial history showing how they all worked together - but reading between the lines it also makes clear modes of behaviour that still exist amongst the descendants of the sugar barons today - the bankers of the city.

The 17th century saw the cultivation of sugar following ideas first used in Brazil by the Dutch and Portuguese. Other islands soon followed as the price for sugar rocketed in Europe and fortunes were made by the estate owners. Sugar became an essential luxury and demand forced more and more land into cultivation. More was being made in profit than could be spent on the islands- the growing surplus was being spent and invested in England - providing funds for other commercial and early industrial ventures. so far so good, but it is in exploring other aspects of this growth that the book excels:
  • the early years coincided with Spain's domination of the area. London encouraged the settlers to help defend and expand their investments. Privateering - the use of ships to attack and loot Spanish treasure ships was encouraged. This would become little more than blatant piracy, especially as it happened consistently, not just during war due to the odd concept that the West Indies were "beyond the line" of normal diplomatic niceties. By the late 17th century this was real "Pirates of the Caribbean territory.
  • Sugar is not an easy crop to produce. It requires complex processing from cane and as such represents one of the first areas of agriculture heavily dependent on capital and expertise - key elements of the later industrial revolution in Britain.
  • From the start the significance of the wealth generated from sugar for the English economy was recognised in London. Cromwell and the restored Stuarts introduced the Navigation Acts to ensure that the industry and its transportation and sale remained in English hands. so developed close ties with that less important part of England's American empire - the New England colonies. Newport, Rhode Island grew in direct response to the profits to be made by trade with the Indies. Many new England families bought land and ran sugar estates in the West indies making vast profits for themselves and giving them political influence in new England. Several are eventual signatories of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Attitudes of the most powerful and influential families towards law and authority from London were selective at best. As time went on and they amassed wealth greater than most others they formed a powerful lobby on the English parliament ensuring financial and foreign policy was directed their way. Government seemed to fear upsetting their perceived interests in way familiar to their modern relations with the Banks.
  • The mid 18th century Sugar and Stamp Acts which ultimately led to the US War of Independence were introduced to provide funding to protect the Indies at the expense of what was considered at the time the less significant colonial territory.
However the key thread of the book is that of slavery. Generally little focus is placed on the use of slaves in British colonies. Writers (and syllabuses) tend to focus on the slave trade - the inference being the slaves were carried to be used elsewhere - presumably the US southern plantations. Parker makes it very clear that this "modern" slavery was driven by the needs of the Indies. Sugar cultivation is very labour intensive. The islands were amongst the least healthy places on earth with mortality, especially amongst Europeans being very high. Slaves brought in from Africa were the answer for the owners and were employed in ever growing numbers from the mid 17th century, despite their own high death rates. On some islands they eventually outnumbered whites 16 to 1. They were considered of little value other than as an economic commodity and Parker shows clearly how dehumanised the owners and their white management had become to slavery. In places I was reminded of the treatment in Schindlers List of the Jews by the Feinnes character in the Labour camp. Harsh, brutal treatment was considered by many as correct. Even those arriving from England with initial scruples, usually lost them pretty soon. In one of the books most valuable chapters though Parker uses the diaries of an English overseer Thomas Thistlewood, to draw attention to the complexities of the white-black relationship as well as its sexual consequences for women slaves.

Supported throughout by individual histories with a focus on the Landowners, this is well written and accompanied by good maps and illustrations.

Other Reviews of the Sugar Barons: 
The Literary Review, History Extra, The Guardian
Dec'11 (****)


David Olusoga, Casper Erichsen: The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism.

Olusoga and Erichsen's book is really in two parts. The first tells the story of German colonialism in South West Africa, showing how German policy towards the native Herero and Nama peoples developed into one of genocide. In chapters that are crucial reading to all who seek to understand the motives behind 19th century colonialism and imperialism the authors show how a philosophy of white racial supremacy emerged out of the ideas of Charles Darwin and was put into practice. Survival of the fittest becomes justification for white dominance over "inferior" indigenous peoples and genocide an acceptable option. This process is shown though as not just a German process and the German experience is placed in a global context: with British colonists in Tasmania, the US frontier wars, the Argentine wars of the desert all showing the same features.

In the German genocide against Herero and Nama we read of extermination orders, forced labour and concentration camps designed to kill off indigenous peoples who were articulate, politically able and well resourced, but ultimately doomed as the Kaiser's troops introduce a policy of "absolute terror and cruelty... by shedding rivers of blood and money" (General von Trotha) in which the missionary churches were actively complicit.

This alone is a story that needs telling widely, but the second part of the work shows the significance of this colonial experience for future nazism. The colonies first Governor was the father of Hermann Göring, the uniform of the SA was that of the Wilhelm II's brown shirted colonial army. More significantly, the colonial period saw the emergence of the pseudo science of eugenics and the legal framework to protect the purity of German settlers from racial contamination. Terms appear that are to be more infamously used later: Rassenschande (Racial shame), Rassenreinheit (Racial purity). Interracial marriage is made illegal. This was all to make the colony racially safe for emigration for a Volk that needed Lebensraum (living space) to expand into and escape population pressure at home. In the final chapters Olusoga and Erichsen skillfully show how these ideas survive the collapse of 1918 and become a core element of the politics of the right. Hitler uses his Landsberg imprisonment to read much of the work on race that emerged out of the Wilhelmine colonial experience. After 1933 races considered impure, German Jews and Gypsies, are subjected to the treatment first employed in South West Africa: Nuremberg Laws to end racial mixing; control and internment in concentration camps, forced labour, extermination. One chilling story is that of the 400 "Rhineland Bastards", children fathered by French colonial troops occupying the Rhineland after 1918. By 1937 all are sterilised.

There is a final twist in the argument. Hitler's war, it is argued, was ultimately one for colonial Lebensraum in the east. The German treatment of the eastern populations and Red Army was different to the western conflict as Hitler considered the eastern peoples to be similar to uncivilised indigenous colonial peoples. Fighting was more brutal, civilians were treated with even less regard. Necessary he believed to ensure Lebensaum and civilisation. The nazis compared this push East to how Wilhelm's troops had fought the Herero, or the British the Sudanese & Tasmanians, the US the Native Indians, or the Argentines with the tribes of the south.

Thought provoking, this is an important, thorough and well written work. It ranks with Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost" as an indictment of European colonialism but develops its arguments beyond normally considered confines to place the events of a short-lived German colony in a far wider context.

A couple of final points: In the US this is only available as a Kindle download (sign of things to come?), my copy had a few minor issues with proof reading: several wrongly spelt German terms, but most crucially the map was missing...... Jan '11 (*****)

Sean McMeekin: The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power, 1898-1918

Sean McMeekin has produced a thorough and almost magisterial account of an area of World War 1 strategy and politics not normally given a prime focus; the Ottoman front. This is a very contemporary work using terms very familiar today: the creation of a jihad against the Entente and British in particular; rivalry between Shia and Sunni; Caucasian minority struggles; strategies to control modern Iraq & Iran and at the end a push for middle east oil. Nothing about events today would seem original!

McMeekin shows how Wilhelmine Germany had a rich seam of middle east specialist archaeologists prior to 1914 (as a visit to today's Berlin Museuminsel clearly indicates). He records the excellent use made of this by Berlin in working on the Ottomans, Arabs, Persians, Afghans and others to promote an anti British & French jihad policy from Constantinople to Kabul via Baghdad. The ultimate aim was to bring about a collapse of British India. In passing (see earlier post) McMeekin suggests these German specialists were far more genuine arabists than TE Lawrence ever was.

New light is cast on the context of many elements of Great war strategy & campaigns:
  • the German push to India increased a British focus on Iraq and Iran that has persisted.
  • the Armenian massacres as an element of Ottoman great war strategy
    the success of the Tsarist Russian army and the later growth from it of Yudenich's White forces
  • German policy, its problems, costs and successes reads like a primer for post 1945 neo-imperialism. In this the Germans were ahead of the game! The Turks were diplomatically, and often militarily, sharper and shrewder than usually given credit for.
An intriguing Epilogue looks at how the experience of the ottoman War influenced later British & German policies towards Arab and Jewish populations. McMeekin argues that the Balfour declaration was made by a largely pro Arab British government, partly out of pique with German advances to Zionists and a desire to win US zionist support for a speedier US mobilisation. It also traces German - muslim relations to the end of World War 2 showing how these were cultivated as part of the Nazi anti-semitic program - a mainly muslim Waffen SS Division was responsible amongst others for killing 90% of Bosnia's Jews.

Given the unfamiliarity of the characters (especially in the complex central section of the narrative relating to German dealings with the Porte) to most readers a list of Dramatis Personae would have been helpful. Equally the title perhaps suggests more of a focus on the actual Berlin-Baghdad railroad. Although a vital thread in the narrative, it is no more than that. Railway enthusiasts will be disappointed early on by what is perhaps the title of an over-zealous editor. Nov '10 (****)
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  David Finkel: the Good Soldiers

This is an excellent piece of reportage by a Pulitzer prize winner. Finkel spent 8 months in Iraq during the "Surge"with the US 2-16 Ranger division and reports on their deployment there, as he himself writes "without agenda". This is not a strategic analysis of their role within the Iraq theatre. Rather the focus is on an infantry battalion of young soldiers who see themselves as being there to do as good (hence the title) and decent a job as possible. They are not politicians or ideologues. Finkel draws a series of pen portraits of key figures – battalion leader, soldiers going out in their humvees to face yet another patrol route seeded with remote controlled bombs, the Iraqis who work with them. Then there are the casualties. The book presents them in their truly awful detail – especially in one chapter which describes a visit by the commander to severely his severely wounded men in hospital in the States.

Good Soldiers puts the troops in their human context. Finkel writes empathetically of men trying to survive and do a job they were sent out to do but who grow increasingly disillusioned as their deployment comes to an end. This is a non judgemental account but the more you read the more you are aware of a herd of elephants also being in the room that no-one speaks about. One elephant is about the soldiers. This is no Vietnam or Korea in one crucial sense. There is no draft: these men are all volunteers and several reenlist at the end of their tour. Finkel outlines some of the reasons why they should volunteer for what is clearly such a horrific occupation. Patriotism is presented but so also is an inability to find other employment. A sense of brotherhood in adversity is also appealing.

The much larger elephant that is never openly addressed is why they had to be there. They are doing a job – a perhaps necessary job given the chaos instituted by the coalition leaders who did make that decision to invade without considering or preparing for the implications of occupation. The Good Soldiers had to contend every day with the reality of that poor judgement by their leadership – which Finkel does allude to by starting each chapter with a quote by President Bush, which seems diametrically opposed to the contents of the chapter.

The 2-16 Rangers live in fortified areas as separate from the Iraqi population as it is possible to be and still be in Iraq. This is necessary – they appear to be under constant deadly attack. This is not the more secure confines of Baghdad's Green Zone, but in Rustamiya, on the eastern edge of the city, a violent place where 350,000 Iraqis were hanging on as the war ground ahead. Rustamiya, Finkel explains, is a place where few diplomats or politicians chose to venture. The enemy are faceless, nameless, not explored by Finkel and neither are their motives. This makes them perhaps perceived all the more as the Good Soldiers saw them.

This is no gung-ho account. The reader though is left with a great deal of sympathy for those involved, regardless of what might be thought of the reasons for them being there in the first place. For this reason The Good Soldiers is likely to remain a valuable source for understanding the bravery and ferocity but also the futility of the Iraq occupation. Sept '10 (****)

  Dee Brown: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

Dee Browns (at the time of writing he was Western historian and head librarian at the University of Illinois), 1970 "Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee" is about the demise of the north American Indian tribes at the hands of the 19th century US military, government and population. And what a depressing read it has been. Brown shows clearly, and with a regularity that begins to distract, how the Plains Indians were dealt with one by one from the 1850's to the 1890's as they fell foul to a combination of the white man's greed, lack of humanity and an almost universal desire to rid the growing USA of an unwelcome people.

When it was written forty years ago the use of the word "genocide" was not one in general use. However this is what Brown is describing. Villages wiped out, tribes herded onto reservations where the land was worthless, meaning they had nothing to hunt or could not grow anything. Then when something of value was found - gold for example - they were moved on to another reservation. All this despite signing supposedly binding agreements with Washington. The Indians were innocent, naive, unable to grasp at first the self interest of what Brown describes as the military-washington-reservation complex which saw them and their original lands (and later on the provisions provided by Washington) exploited for personal and commercial gain. Even those who adopted the "white" lifestyle advocated by Washington: who settled in one place, grew crops and went to church were eventually dispossessed through trickery and military force.

With only limited exceptions noted by Brown, very few whites understood or attempted to understood the Indian position -that they were trying to live with the whites and a culture alien to them but were forced to resist when their lands were illegally settled on or buffalo being hunted out of existence. The old chiefs tried hard to restrain their younger members realising that the white man's power was much greater and resistance would only bring even greater retribution.

This role of the white civilians west of the Mississippi are not shown in the most honourable way - especially those in what became Colorado. During the US civil war they help create conflict with the tribes to ensure local young men are recruited to serve nearby, not on the battlefields further east. Later their greed drives the Indian off the land west of Denver in a series of underhand manoeuvres.

Then when finally they realised the true determination of the growing white population to push them out of the way it was too late. The tribes were too few in number, too divided in intention and left facing an arrogant US military busily building forts across their original lands, equipped with the latest technology (magazine loading rifles, mobile artillery, and the beginning of long distance communications) and using them to ride out and deal with Indian problems and ultimately to round up the survivors of their raids and campaigns and imprison them on reservations. In 1970 this had definite echoes of US military policy in Vietnam but depressingly still equally for modern Iraq. So the tactics developed against the north American Indian continue to drive US military policy

Given it was written in an era when traditional cowboys and Indian films still dominated white culture with cowboys and cavalry as goodies and Indians as universal baddies (with some notable exceptions - The Lone Rangers companion Tonto!!) Brown uses an odd mechanism to increase the readers sympathy for the Indians - the narrative is written as if by the Indians themselves. This is strange at first but eventually the reader gets used to it. Today however, this can seem patronising and an encumbrance to a reasoned understanding of the aboriginal position, and although the work is widely sourced, it makes sourcing what is written difficult. Nonetheless the work remains a powerful piece of writing, if not strict history. Aug '10 (****)

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Siân Rees: Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade

A history of the 19th century Royal Navy Preventive Squadron – the naval vessels set up to end the African slave trade with the Americas. It is not a story often told: how 160,000 slaves were set free between 1815 and 1869, how new settlements for these liberated and repatriated slaves gave rise to the new countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as helping to bring about the annexation of Nigeria by Great Britain.

Rees makes it clear that the American slave trade was but a modern extension (albeit the most inhuman element) of a "business" long rooted in native African and Arab culture and society with many kings and tribal leaders amassing huge fortunes by supplying fellow Africans to the slave shippers. It is also shown how, at least to begin with, many of the Royal Navy ships were fired not by philanthropic motives to free Africans but on the possibility of taking "prizes". At the time, if a Royal Navy vessel captured an enemy/slave ship it would qualify as a "prize" to be sold off and the proceeds divided amongst the officers and crew. Paradoxically, the slaves were often "freed" as apprentices and sold to landowners. The proceeds went the prize crew also…..

However the heart of the drama is in the machinations used by slavers and governments to defy, undermine and escape the Navy patrols determined to block the transit of Africans as slaves. France, Spain then the new independent states of latin America all sought ways to continue the trade (the legal methods alone used to circumvent the squadron would make present day international bankers proud!) until treaty, bribery or blunt coercion forced them to stop and join a growing coalition of anti-slave states. This took a long time and in the process 17,000 squadron sailors lost their lives, mainly due to diseases such as yellow fever. By the 1850.s only the USA and Cuba were still slave running, however Lincoln's war torn northern government put its weight behind the aims of the Preventive Squadron and the illegal Atlantic trade ended.

I found the book heavy going though (which may say more about me than the author) and found the narrative difficult to hold on to at times as it moved from one vast and often unfamiliar geographical area and set of individuals to another (a process not helped by the provision of a single map which does not show all the places mentioned in the text).
Equally the conclusion is very abrupt. 
April '10 (***)

I bought Ornamentalism by David Cannadine in 2002 when it had several very good reviews, but somehow never got around to reading it. Now though, I have found the time to find out if these reviews were accurate.

Let's start off with the title. Unlike the book, which does not mention the term until page 122, simply put it is an explanation of the method by which Great Britain exercised (indirect?) control over its Empire. Cannadine argues that the Empire was governed using a theatrical form of social elitism which interpreted local societies as a reflection of the multilayered and tightly ranked home society in Britain. What this meant was that local aristos were sought out by the British (eg Maharajahs, Sultans, Nawabs, tribal chiefs, Bedouin leader/kings. In the settled dominions these were drawn from settled grandees – especially and initially in Ireland) and placed alongside the British colonial regimes to lend legitimacy and local control.

Why ornamental? Because an elaborate system of rewards based on the award of (colourful & ornate) honours within a structure of conspicuous display for those of local & British high rank (Indian durbars, investitures, "plumed hats") bred a form of upper class bonding that crossed caste & race differences to create a ruling class that controlled one quarter of the globe in the interests of Britain.

n a way this was no more than Louis XIV's use of Versailles court procedure – making up grand offices/titles/costumes for the upper nobility in return for a superficial court task, but this kept them quiet and allowed Louis to rule absolutely.Everyone, local dignitary or colonial official, knew their place in the hierarchy and energies focused on climbing up the decorative ladder and not falling out with the fount of promotion – London. Hence colonial government was carried out as London wished, and the plumed hats and fancy awards poured out to those in government, especially the local royalty.

Reading this it struck me how this concept had survived even to the Scottish public school I attended in the 1960's where everyone had a defined role, ornamentally visible and so enforceable to everyone else (under 13 years old-short trousers, aged 14: uniform jacket had to be closed at all times using the middle button; aged 15: jacket could be open; aged 16: hands could be put in pockets; aged 17: could wear a non uniform jacket. Prefects: could wear special ties, Team players could embroider teams in gold thread on jacket. Everyone then policed the system to ensure no younger boy could exercise their "privilege". Indeed this was control on the cheap for the school!).

Cannadine's is an interesting idea but there are several issues:
  • There is too little on who actually perceived the Empire in this way at the time and more importantly who cultivated it.
  • What was the role of the new "yellow press"?
  • How conscious a process was it? This is especially significant when the book shows how even the British ruling classes were so ready to get rid of the ornamental Empire and betray its colonial collaborators during decolonisation.

Nonetheless there is much to this work, most perhaps in its final sections where it is clear that ornamentalism was no preparation for independent nationhood – once Britain left and deserted those it had previously been happy to collaborate with, the new regimes put in place by the departing British came from those (lower) social classes previously excluded from government. Lacking experience or traditional supporters, the outcome in most ex colonies was to be instability and long term chaos.

Another salient point to emerge: the crucial role played by Britain's Irish experience: first colony where ornamentalism was practiced and model for elsewhere, then the first post 1776 colony to break free and then serve as a model for independence from London for those colonies seeking independence. (See casahistoria Ireland site)

Finally, my edition has an interesting personal essay ("An Imperial Childhood") as an appendix, and if the author ever reads this then let me say that yes, I have similar recollections and am of a similar age.
But on the other hand, I am a historian too....... 
Aug '09 (***)

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Tim Butcher: Blood River – A Journey Into Africa’s Broken Heart

Tim Butcher was Africa correspondent for the UK's Daily Telegraph when he decided to follow Stanley's route of 1874-77 down the Congo from central Africa to the Atlantic. Butcher's story is both riveting and depressing. Riveting as he writes well of his travels and is able to punctuate his story with relevant historical outlines of a regions past and with well chosen and revealing interviews (he is a journalist after all) with local individuals.

However it is also a depressing tale of a country which, in Butcher's words is not underdeveloped, but is un-developing. It is clear that it's post Stanley colonial period under the Belgians was far from pleasant but even the limited gains of this period have vanished in the post-colonial chaos largely instigated not just by ex colonial powers and African neighbours keen to control the Congo's vast resources, but also by a failure of indigenous leadership which has appeared happier to exploit rather than govern the peoples of the Congo. To me it seemed, to use the parallels of the continent just across the ocean, that the Congo has resources & potential like Brazil, but the self-destructive politics of late 19th century Paraguay.

On a personal level Butcher's trip appears a unique event. The Congo no longer has cross country links – by road or river. Cities, towns and settlements survive on their own in isolation, retreating into the bush when trouble comes, as it often has. The United Nations has a tenuous presence, often providing the only sense of order, but even then this appears to be restricted to isolated key towns.

Butcher was really only able to travel because of outside agencies such as the UN from whom he hitched lifts on UN ships and aircraft. Although there is a telling remark by one UN official who describes him not as journalist, historian or tourist but as an "adventurer". The real heroes are the (very few) local aid agencies, such as Care International and International Rescue Committee, working in great danger and difficulty and who offer both lodging and transportation to Butcher across the Bush. At times I felt the "adventurer" in the author was unnecessarily endangering the lives (and work) of these people as he strove to accomplish his journey. It is noticeable that little real help was offered by those few Congolese companies and agencies in a position to assist.
It is clear that Stanley would still recognise the vast region if he were to return today – that is what ultimately is most depressing to the author, as well as the reader. 
Jan '10  (*****)

Timothy Brook:
Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World


Timothy Brook presents us with an interesting idea. He has taken a small number of paintings (and objects relevant to his work) by the 17thcentury Dutch painter Jan Vermeer and used them to "open up doors" on the world of the time. The hat for example (in The Officer & Laughing Girl) is used to describe the origins of the north American fur trade, a black servant to lead us into an account of how much global travel was now taking place.

This idea works best when it is truly global in context, the above mentioned fur trade or the emergence of Manila in the Spanish Empire – China – Europe triangle which the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was so successfully involving itself (developed further in casahistoria by Dr Massarella in What was Happening in East Asia Around 1600?) the Chinese porcelain trade and the global use for silver – as well as tobacco. In many places Brooks makes the development of this global trade network fascinating. The doors which serve as the basis are made clear by the provision of a good set of colour plates.

Brook is a specialist in China and this no doubt helps give depth to the understanding of Asia's key location in the "doors". However it is also a weakness. In places tighter editing might have prevented the narrative, almost defaulting, to examine the Chinese position in detail that is out of keeping with the rest of the account. As a consequence the reader can begin to fade in the overload of Chinese individuals and context, whilst other possible doors – for example the Turkish rug mentioned in
passing in the
 Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, are ignored. 
Jan '10   (***)

Walter Nugent: Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion

Looks at the expansion of the USA from independence to today & identifies this in 3 stages (Empire I, the period of internal expansion, Empire II, the Pacific and Caribbean imperialism and Empire III, post 1945.) Most focus is on I & II and what a depressing tale he tells. It did not take long for the (thoroughly European Great Power) diplomatic skills of duplicity and selfish ambition to appear. Greatly assisted by an early ability to take advantage of Great Power problems elsewhere to acqiure territory by Treaty & Dollars, the young Republic is also quite happy to undermine states that helped it gain independence (most notably Spain) and attack neighbours (British Canada, Mexico) in search of the expansion of what it considered its manifest destiny. Worst of all though Nugent shows the impact of Manifest Destiny on the native population. Pushed, shoved, but most of all decimated by the diseases of what Nugent calls the Anglo-European settlers they are all but wiped out to become little more than another ethnic minority by the 20th century. At times the depth of detail of the early Spanish wars can be overwhelming, not to say tedious, but Nugent's book needs to be recommended reading for anyone who believes the US was isolationist before Teddy Rooosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. As I said at the start, a depressing read.
Feb '09 (****)

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  Lisa Jardine: Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory

After an effective account of 1688, Jardine then leaves the political to explore the artistic, architectural and scientific links that were already in place between the Netherlands and England by 1688. These were indeed amazingly widespread. much more than I had realised. This is knowledgeable and very well illustrated, if a little too dry, pure "history of art" focused for me. It, like much of the work, is also perhaps a lttle too centred on the experience and evidence of one particular family, the Dutch Huygens household. The final section looks at the economic ties. This is the least satisfying part of the work. Too little is said of the reasons why, despite the connections argued for in the book, Anglo-Dutch trade remains competitive to the point of war and massacres of rival trade posts. Equally, too little emphasis is made on reasons for the series of wars in mid century between the two, or (despite what is said on the final page) on why the Netherlands declined as Englands fortunes grew. Just like those of Scotland in the same period..... In fact Anglo-Dutch relations and connections & links at the time seem to uncannily mirror those of Anglo-Scottish. Only, the Netherlands escaped complete assimilation with England. Now there's a theme for another book..... March '09 (***)

  Ryszard Kapuscinski: Imperium

This is a volume of essays dating from 1939 to the fall of Gorbachev by the Polish journalist. In them, Kapuscinski writes clearly and shows a sharp sense of observation of the workings of the Soviet Empire as he finds it in his travels during the period. Although we are well aware now that the former USSR was not a monolith but made up of many different nationalities and Soviet Republics, his writing from the 1980's from the Soviet "stans" reminds us that this was also the case at a time when the west tended to consider the USSR as one uniform state. In many ways the best is at the start and finish - a masterly description of the 1939 Soviet occupation of eastern Poland from a boys account and an analysis from the time by an easterner of the fall of Gorbachev. Not quite history writing, but a good resource for historical study of the period. Oct' 08. (***)

  Peter Chapman: Jungle Capitalists: A Story of Globalisation, Greed and Revolution

Charts the economic rise and pervasive political influence of the first globalised company - the US United Fruit Company, precursor for the activities of today's multinationals.

By building railways and the acquisition of land rights from central American states it created monopoly banana production and determined the politics of the region. By the 1930's the company had created a "vast feudal state" of plantations, worker settlements and client governments scattered across central America.

The simple Banana may have been the product, but to ensure its continued profitability (ie keeping production costs low and free from native involvement) United Fruit was not averse to heavy involvement in aggressive politics. Support for coups was common, most clearly seen in the 1929 Santa Marta massacre of 1000+ demonstrators in Colombia and the Guatamalan coup of 1954. But Guatamala backfired - it frightened the US government into starting anti trust procedures that would see United Fruit shrink into "Chiquita" in the 1980's; Ernesto Guevara witnessed the coup and it helped convince him of the need to use force to gain national freedom; the US press, heavily manipulated by United Fruit decided to pursue more personally investigative styles in future (Herbert Matthews went off in search of Castro on a personal quest for "truth" which was to give such positive press for Castro in the US).

However the author warns for today: Chiquita has admitted to paying nearly $2 million to right-wing death squads in Colombia and Chapman cites the example of Costa Rica, (the only central American country to escape United Fruit and create a more welfare-orientated state) where modern multinationals working within a free-market economy are causing severe problems of social inequality. This book is timely and testimony to the survival of United Fruit and how well it has continued to cover its tracks outside latin America.
May '08 (****)
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Mike Dash: Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny

This is the story of the 1629 Batavia mutiny of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The (eventually quite horrific) story of shipwreck off modern Australia, mutiny, then "Lord of the Flies" type conflict between the shipwrecked survivors is well told, and equally provides a clear general insight into the workings of the VOC and the early routes to the east. The final section interestingly brings the story up to the present (despite a poor psycho-babble conclusion on the main character). There are a few caveats however: initially the book digresses too much from the story to talk of 17th century ships and trade in general. My edition had a third (over 100 pages) devoted to useful footnotes, but no numbering was given in the text - you had to look at the back in the "off chance" there may be a footnote and a statement was founded in history, not supposition..... Some illustrations would also be useful... Nov '07 (***)

  Ian W. Toll: Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy

A huge tome that tells the story of the origins of the US Navy (It started with just 6 frigates...) in the late 18th/early 19th century. Written by a journalist rather than a historian so is not quite a US N.A.M. Rodgers but is well written and reads easily. Still it is perhaps one for the ship anorak rather than the general reader. Interesting to see the early potential wealth of the newly independent US: able to build a fleet and a state capital at the same time! Equally valuable are the links drawn at the end that connect this early growth directly to the Monroe doctrine and Thedore Roosevelts Great White fleet. Feb '07 (***)

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E. Ricks: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq

Written by a veteran war correspondent this is the most depressing piece of writing to show very clearly and exhaustively just how incompetent and unprepared the US govt and military was/is for the Iraq war. Ricks is very painstaking in his research and the real degree of the fiasco becomes clearer and clearer as each page of tight text unfolds. A couple of caveats: the book could have done with a little more editing as the catalogue of recorded failings grows & grows (If time is short the first 200 of 440 are the most telling). Equally it needs to be remembered it is a piece of journalism, not history (but will become a valuable historical document iteself for its interviews) and this comes through in places in style and presentation. Ultimately the question the reader is left with is how little grasp of affairs & ability the US Presidency had/has and how little (informed) leadership it provided - and how genuinely unpleasant and ill educated key advisers were. August '07 (****)

Christopher Bayly: Forgotten Armies : The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945

The main value of this tome to the general reader is most likely to be the early chapters before the war. This outlines most clearly the nature (arrogance and decadence?) of the British presence in malaya & Burma. The forgotten armies of the conflict are dealt with very methodically, but this makes for drier reading.  Feb'06 (***)

Adam Hochschild: King Leopold's Ghost

Read this to find out the true horror of imperialism. The focus is on the Belgian Congo, but it indicates clearly the role played by the other Europeans in supporting the process. Very well written, it reads (too?) easily and also does a great service in highlighting the role played by the few who tried to publicise the atrocities: Britons Edmund Morel, & Roger Casement and the African American George Washington Williams & William Sheppard. Nov '05 (*****)

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (Penguin Modern Classics)

The early 20th century novella stands up well with its account of Marlows journey in search of Kurtz. Its allusions to Stanley & the European exploitation of the Congo and its serving as the basis for Coppola's Apocolypse Now means there is plenty to think about. It is a long time since I have read an annotated Penguin classic of which this is an excellent example. Robert Hampson's Introduction and copious notes help greatly with understanding Conrad's nuances and probable intentions. Dec '06 (****)

N A M Rodger: Command of the Ocean. A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815

This is the second volume in the naval history and is very valuable, not just for its account of how the Royal Navy grew into the premier seafaring force of its time but also for placing this in a general political & economic context. Different sections on politics and society as well as naval technology and management styles show very clearly the emergence of Britain as the key imperial power. It reads easily and appears thoroughly researched. Hardly surprising it became a (surprising) bestseller in the UK. I look forward to Volume 3. Jan '06 (*****)
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John le Carre: The Mission Song
Latest novel stays in Africa like the Constant Gardener. This time the action centres on the Congo where le Carre weaves a plot involving western government subterfuge and mercenary activity. Not quite up to the standard of the Constant Gardener, but a thoughtful read putting the helplessness of Africans in the face of war & exploitation into sharp focus. This is another book I have read recently with references to Conrad's Heart of Darkness...  Dec '06 (***)


Patrick Wilcken: Empire Adrift

Did you know the Portuguese Royal Court all up-sticked and headed for Rio during the Napoleonic Wars? This explains the why's and how's. A good read, describing the growth of Rio - as well as the duplicitous role of Britain. This may have been where Britain first began to influence latin American internal politics through the back door. Jan'06 (***)

David Sinclair: Sir Gregor Macgregor and the Land That Never Was

Story of a 19th century Scots fraudster, Gregor MacGregor and his scheme to make a fortune selling land in a non existent country in central America. The tale is an interesting one covering the MacGregors exploits in the Americas (where he fought alongside Miranda and Bolivar) and Europe as well as in Britain, but more judicious editing (especially of the independence campaigns MacGregor actually fought in) with a greater use of footnotes might make it both more useful to historians and efficient to read. Nov '06 (**)



Peter Nichols: Evolution's Captain

The story of Robert FitzRoy who took Darwin around the world. FitzRoy's life is shown as tragedy, from his early attempt to "civilise" the natives of Tierra del Fuega to his realisation that having facilitated Darwin produced the massive attack by Science on his own fundamentalist beliefs. Written not by a historian with an understanding of the sea but by a yachtsman with a sound grasp of the history this is a very readable account - although the paperback is much in need of a good map of Patagonia! Sept '06 (***)

N.A.M. Rodger: Safeguard of the Sea : A Naval History of Britain Vol 1 660-1649

Monumental (691 pages!!) first volume in the excellent Naval History of Britain. Likely to be used more as a reference than as a a book to read (unlike the very readable Vol II) this has much of interest and value. Debunks the rounded military leaderships of William I & Edward I. It shows very clearly the emergence of naval structure & power in Elizabethan times - and the origins of the English pirate stealing from the Spanish pirate.... More surprising perhaps is the real contribution Charles I's Ship money made to the Navy Royal. One quibble, despite claims to the contrary it is very anglocentric; Scottish marine developments are crucial but are generally en passant. May '06 (****)



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