Thursday, August 31, 2017

George MacDonald Fraser - Flashman and the Mountain of Light

Like a number of Flashman novels, Mountain of Light illuminates a small, but extremely important conflict that fundamentally shaped the British Empire. The First and Second Sikh Wars are almost forgotten today – in fact, while reading this novel I looked up available books on the period, and found almost none, a notable contrast with similar events such as the Indian Mutiny or the First Afghan War.

This is surprising because the subject matter is perfect for a Flashman novel and would make a fascinating historical book. In the novel, Flashman is sent to the Punjab in 1845-1846. In the aftermath of the British withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Sikh’s were hoping to exploit the perceived weaknesses of the British army and expand their own interests. The Sikh kingdom had been in turmoil since the death of Ranjit Singh, the former Maharajah. The British were engaged in trying to shore up their interests by building up military strength.

Facing them was a massive, modern and well trained Sikh army known as the Khalsa which is developing autonomous power, and is champing at the bit to attack the British. Their overwhelming numbers, equipment and training seriously threatened British power. Into this potential mess, Flashman is thrown as an undercover politico whose role is to gather intelligence and do his bit to curry favour with the ruling elite and undermine the Khalsa.

It’s the perfect setting for Flashman. He’s adept at languages, though his cover is soon blown. He has various dalliances with the drunken, promiscuous queen and manages to be present as an observer at the two major battles of the First Sikh War, Ferozeshah and Sobraon. The first of these was a near disaster for the British, only saved by the betrayals of the Sikh commander.

Unusually Flashman’s behaviour (luck rather than judgement) in helping this happen isn’t lauded by his superiors. Unlike many of the novels where Flashman seems to be able to do little wrong, Fraser uses the character of the Governer General Sir Henry Hardinge to expose Flashman for who he really is – a rather chancy character who happens to be in the right place at the right time. As Hardinge points out, had things gone differently Flashman might well have been tried as a traitor.

This isn’t the best Flashman novel, though it’s one of the most interesting historically. Flashman is very much a bystander at great events, rather than an active participant. From what I can tell, Fraser’s historical grounding is exemplary, and he puts his character in the appropriate places. It also seems that however surprising the eccentric behaviour of the supporting characters in the book, it’s not that far from the truth.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

John E. Archer - 'By a Flash and a Scare': Arson, Animal Maiming & Poaching in East Anglia: 1815-1870

Given the extremely specific title it might be thought that this was a book that would only appeal to the specialist historian, but it is actually a very interesting examination of the intersection of protest and crime among rural labourers in a formative period of English agricultural history. Many readers will be aware of the Captain Swing protests when, in large parts of England's agricultural areas, mass protests led to the burning and destruction of landowner's property - most famously threshing machines. But, John Archer argues, there has been a tendency to see events like Swing as breaks in essentially passive periods of rural life. The reality he shows, is that there was almost continuous protest in rural communities, which at times reached major proportions that threatened social stability, but at others was a continuous backdrop that was at least passively supported by the wider population.

Arson and animal maiming tended to be individual acts - of terrorism, revenge, protest or even crime - but they took place in a wider context of anger and frustration at rural unemployment, underemployment and poverty. Poverty levels were such that in reality there was no "rural tranquillity. What charity and poor relief that did exist often bred discontent and tended to fail the group most prone to protest and crime - young single men. Even those that worked understood the reality of their class position, "we till and sow the land till there is an abundance of food, and our reward is starvation".

When the oppressed and exploited fought back, even on an individual level, they were often cheered on by the compatriots. We know that burning ricks or farm buildings were often left to burn while the locals watched and we also know that poaching was often an activity supported by the majority of the population. Archer quotes Joseph Arch's comment that every second person he met was a poacher. But what this study is careful to show, is that the crime of poaching was also a reaction to a set of economic circumstances. As Christopher Hill and other historians have argued, the criminalisation of poaching has as much to do with the solidification of property relations as it has with protecting animals. Thus the act of killing a deer, or trapping a hare was in part resistance to those relations; as much as the illegal supplementation of diet. Archer also points out that we cannot ignore the sheer enjoyment of hunting that would have affected many participants. These sort of actions were an act of class struggle as much as a necessity in the face of poverty:
The arsonists were the 'loose hands', that is, the casual day labourers who were the lowest paid and the first to be laid off in times of bad weather or falling markets... low wages and unemployment were the most frequently cited grievances by the guilty. The 'flash and a scare' clearly had the dual purpose of raising wages and providing employment for such men. But we should not simply dismiss the incendiaries as the losers in agrarian capitalist society... They may have acted alone under the cover of darkness but their actions were clearly supported by the labour community as a whole before 1851. The villagers shielded them from the law and gloried in the destruction. The fires were lit on their behalf to and advertised their poverty and bitterness to rich and poor a like... The camouflage of deference clearly misled the landed who closed their eyes... to the rural poverty which surrounded them.
John Archer's book deserves as wide a readership as Christopher Hill's Liberty Against the Law or E.P. Thompson's Wigs and Hunters. Full of data and analysis (as well as amusing anecdote - such as the mass cutting down of trees by Snettisham villagers, the culmination of a 44 year feud with the lord of the manor). It helps us understand how rural working people resisted, and the context in which they did so. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Hill - Liberty Against the Law
Fisher - Custom, Work and Market Capitalism
Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority
Hay etc - Albion's Fatal Tree
Linebaugh - Stop Thief

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Richard Holmes - Redcoat

Initially I was disappointed by Richard Holmes' Redcoat. I had expected it to be a history of the British Army and in particular it's wars and battles. But Redcoat is actually much more rewarding - a social history of the British Army in, as the subtitle says, "the age of horse and musket". The period covered by this book includes some of the most famous battles of the British Army - Bunker Hill, the Indian Mutiny, Balaclava and so on. It also is the period when the deeds of the its soldiers ensured that the British Empire was created. This history doesn't look at the consequences of that, but explores who it was who fought in Russia, America, China, India and Europe to give the British ruling class world dominance and why they did it.

The British Army reflected the class nature of the society that created it. Holmes' describes the strange system of commissions, which enabled individuals to buy themselves into ranks in regiments and then the system of promotion (that often involved buying and selling commissions) that enabled officers to move up the ranks. It seems a system almost guaranteed to ensure that quality and experience was less important that money. The class system is a running theme through the book. What happened to soldiers and officers, why they enlisted, what happened if they were wounded, or pensioned off, depended in large part on who they were and where they came from:
When the 32nd Foot embarked for India in May 1846 it was a microcosm of the line infantry of the age. Its officers included three sons of landowners, eight of officers or former officers, and fourteen of varied middle-class occupation, including sons of a bishop, two clergyman, an Indian judge, a East India Company civil servant, a colonial administrator, a Canadian businessman, a city merchant a West India merchant and a bank manger. 
The ordinary soldiers would, of course, have come from less illustrious backgrounds likely a poor or unemployed rural labourer, a working class man looking for money, seduced by the drums and bright uniforms and the promises of the recruiting sergeant. Holmes takes us through the lives of these individuals - how they trained, how they lived and loved, how they spent their money what they looted and how they kept it and so on. Holmes tells us much about these lives, and also the women who were around the troops. I was surprised to find out the extent to which soldiers families followed the regiments on campaign - even onto the battlefield, on patrol and sentry duty. There are sections here about who those women were - families obviously, but also prostitutes and camp followers who sold goods to the troops.

Discipline was harsh, and few officers were loved. Though there is a surprising lack of mutiny here (though on several occasions Holmes' discusses cases where soldiers attacked individual officers, often when drunk). An amusing example of what became known as fragging, is told here though:
The unpopular major commanding the 14th foot at Blenheim [1704] addressed rhe regiment before the battle apologising for his past behaviour and asking that if he had to fall it should be by the enemies bullets. A grenadier shouted "march on sir, the enemy is before you, and we have something else to do..." The battle over, the major turned to his men and raised his hat to call for a cheer: he was instantly shot through the head by an unknown marksman.
This was unusual though, and surprisingly, despite the horrors of war, the poverty and the bad equipment and conditions, the British soldier seemed remarkably loyal to his comrades, his regiment and country.

While Holmes' is an easy read, and he has a wonderful eye for the amusing and unusual anecdote, what this book does well is to answer a difficult question. Why did people join the army? Why did they frequently remain extremely loyal, and commit acts of enormous bravery for things that had very little bearing on their lives. They were fighting to build an Empire which would benefit few of them so what was their motivation to risk life and limb? Holmes' book goes some way to answering these questions, and does so in an fascinating way that allows the voices of the ordinary soldiers and British officers to come through. While there is a lack of wider context to much of the history, to be fair to Holmes that is not what he set out to write. I'd suggest reading this, alongside other histories (such as Richard Gott or John Newsinger's books below) that discuss what Britain did around the world and who it was who fought back.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Gott - Britain's Empire

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Chris Wickham - Medieval Europe

In hindsight Chris Wickham's Medieval Europe was probably not an ideal choice for holiday reading. Despite being relatively short at 250 odd pages (excluding notes) it is dense and cannot really be described as a popular history of the period. Despite this, I recommend it for anyone trying to understand the trajectory of the medieval period and what this meant for the population of Europe as well as the legacy for the modern world.

Wickham is concerned with the way the economic base of society creates a large political superstructure. His approach echoes Marx (who he quotes in the introductory chapter) but probably shouldn't be described as "Marxist", perhaps a more structuralist approach.
Medieval political communities based their coherence and their succeeds on the control of land... The reason is simple: all pre-industrial societies are based on agricultural wealth above all. There was nothing which one could call a factory in the middle ages, or for a long time afterwards... Most people, over four fifths of the population in the early middle ages,.. .were peasants: that is to say, they worked directly on the land as subsistence cultivators... Agricultural products were most of what was produced by human labour in the middle ages, and for that reason the control of these, ad by extension the land that produced them, was central.
While this is Wickham's starting point he understands that human societies are full of variety and complexity, so his book tends to explore each area of Europe at his different time periods and discuss the differences and similarities. The problem for the non-expert reader is that there is an enormous amount of detail. Despite importance Wickham gives to the economic base of society, he explores what this means in detailed studies of the top of society. Thus we get a vast amount of information about particular kingdoms, individuals, religious institutions, alliances and interactions between all these groups. At times its bewildering, and for this reader, I was left more with generalisations than with detailed recollections.

That criticism aside there are some great sections which readers will find useful. The story of the importance of Constantinople, and its eventual eclipse (remarkably late in European history) or the rise of Charlemagne's empire. Though I challenge anyone other than the expert to remember all the German princes, or the machinations of the Italian city states. Give the grand sweep of history and the size of the continent, some readers will know doubt be disappointed that their favourite bits only receive a short mention. Despite ten page references to the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England, the substantive account only has a dozen lines or so.

But what matters to Wickham is the dynamism of the Medieval Period. His wealth of data allows him to explore the changes taking place:
This is the background for understanding Europe's political histories after 1350... Whether kings and other rulers still relied on the wealth coming from their own lands ('the domain', as historians of this period often call it), or could develop taxation on a scale large enough to pay for bigger or more permanent armies and denser infrastructures of government, thus has crucial implications for the comparative history of politics. Put simply, rulers who did not develop strong fiscal systems by now could do less, both inside their polities and outside them, than rulers who did, even though they often tried to behave in the same way.
This is essentially about the importance of the growth of what we might call the beginnings of the nation state, or at least the pretensions towards a strong state in some region. A dozen or so pages after the above  quote, Wickham notes that
What links almost all the rulers we have looked at.. is their preparedness, as soon as they had enough money to get an army together... to attack not only their neighbours but also on occasion realms quite some way away, for military glory and hoped-fro permanent territorial control. Hard gained resources were spent above all on displays of power, the rich courts and ambitious building which mark the post-1350 period, but an army was the biggest.. display of power of all, and using it to fight someone was the logical next step. The military machine underlying early modern political and fiscal development has its beginnings in this period.
After 1350 we see land still being the basis of wealth and power, but the raising of tax is now shaping "communities of taxpayers" which meant that "Rulers were thus stronger, but so were the communities of the ruled". Thus we see after this period a public arena that allows for both the development of new methods of production and for sharper conflicts between classes. Thus the "feudal revolution" that had transformed the earlier feudal world eventually gave rise to a much more confrontational public sphere, within which the class struggle could play out.

But this sphere was conditioned by the changing economic and political world. Developments of trade, technology, manufacturing and so on would eventually lead to a new way of organising society, but are rooted in the evolving medieval period. Wickham's book emphasises the dynamism of medieval society, and this is its primary focus. I should mention that Wickham doesn't ignore other aspects of these societies - the role of gender, developments in reading, writing, education etc. But the task he has here, and its an admirable one, is to understanding a broad historical sweep. For all the challenges his style gives the reader, there is much here of interest.

Related Reviews

Dyer - Making a Living in the Medieval Ages
Gimpel - The Medieval Machine
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy: 1150-1500
Bloch - Feudal Society

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Katrina Navickas - Protest & the Politics of Space & Place 1789-1848

Katrina Navickas' book is an interesting and refreshing look at the protest movements that took place during a crucial period in the development of the modern British capitalist state. Its notable that her period begins with the year of the outbreak of the French Revolution and ends with the year of European revolutions. There was nothing in the British Isles on that scale, but these events influenced and found their echo in protest and reform movements here. As the title suggests Navickas uses the concept of space to analyse these movements, but she notes that this method has its limitations. In her introduction she writes:
Describing politics as being conducted within multiple public spheres or a dichotomy of public versus private risks making the term methodologically useless. This is not to reject it completely... much of the debate over the politics of space covered the meaning of the word 'public'. The working classes used instruments of the public sphere - newspapers, pamphlets and political debates - to declare their opinions and rights...
She continues "contests over the body politic and its spaces were contests between classes". Much of the book looks at particular struggles and how their participants and leaders attempted to develop and build their movements within contested arenas. This might mean the struggle for the right to meet, or protest - and here there are many echoes with contemporary times where the increasing privatisation of public spaces can limit places where activists can demonstrate. Thus the struggle for the right to protest in a park or square might also take the form of legal challenges, or mass protests designed to win the right for the future. But they also meant struggles over how spaces were seen by communities (and the authorities) how they were used and how they were defended from encroachment by hostile interests.

Thus the struggle for space is more than a question of future rights, it can also encompass tradition and custom. Navickas writes that "Custom established what rights were attached to inhabitants of a locality... and thereby defined the particular culture of that locality" and notes EP Thompson's "emphasis on custom as an interface that set patrician against plebeian". Her discussion of struggles against enclosure, or common rights are just two of such examples. But Navickas goes on to note that this struggle in the period she covers, takes place in the context of "global processes of free trade political economy, trading and manufacturing practices" which means that "mass collective action" emerges. To put it slightly cruder, the development of a global capitalist system required the entrenchment of particular capitalist values within in society, but these in turn created mass movements that resisted those changes, or attempted to shape things in their own interest.

In her studies of these processes Navickas has uncovered and highlighted some fascinating aspects of radical history. She discusses, for instance, the use of pubs and taverns as places for radicals to meet, and how the authorities would try and restrict this. She examines the way that particular spaces (such as St. Ann's Square in Manchester) become symbolic of particular struggles, in this case the "royalists" movements as opposed to the radicals. And she also looks at how particular events engender some spaces with highly symbolic meaning. Her classic example of this is the way St. Peters Square becomes a place that every radical movement wants to associate itself with in the years following the Peterloo Massacre.

Readers who are based in Manchester will find much of this particularly interesting because Navickas focuses her study on northern cities and some of the detailed studies are of historic radical movements in this city. I was particularly struck by two maps that give a real sense of the intersection between different movements and time periods. One of these is a map of routes taken by radical and "loyal and patriotic" protest marches and parades around Manchester. This shows how the radicals deliberately copied the patriots in their roots in an attempt to gain legitimacy by association as well as taking their spaces.

The second is a map of Ancoats which juxtaposes the homes of individuals who signed radical petitions with known meeting places. Navickas shows how we can trace different radical traditions through the overlapping of meeting places, neighbours and marches to build up a sense of a working class community developing traditions of struggle that are more than simply protests, strikes or marches taking place in different years.

While Navickas' approach has its uses I found it sometimes a little frustrating. Part of the problem is that I don't think that the oppressed can easily (if at all) "reclaim a space" for their use while capitalist relations remain. An example of this is Navickas' discussion of how the "defeat of the bill of pains and penalties against [Queen] Caroline" was celebrated by the loyalists and authorities. She argues that the "rest of the population took the opportunity to reclaim the use of the streets for political symbolism in support of Caroline". These "highlight ritualised movements created a 'contested topography of political authority'. In the urban areas, support for Caroline was clearly marked out in light against the dark of entrenched loyalism".

The problem is, of course, that the morning after the streets are still owned and controlled by the British state (or its local representatives). Any "reclaiming of the streets" by the masses is out of necessity a temporary thing whose longest standing outcome is the confidence of the movement. The temporary nature of space won can lead to the movement becoming solely about carving out its own spaces, rather than challenging the system. Navikas herself notes that this does take place with attempts to create permanent trade union buildings, mechanics institutes and the like. It is, essentially a type of reformism, and could be counterpoised to revolutionary attempts to permanently change things.

That said, there is much of interest here. From Navikas' discussion of urban spaces and working class communities and movements to her analysis of rural struggles such as Captain Swing. Readable and fascinating, Katrina Navickas book might be particularly of interest to modern day activists and historians in the North (particularly Manchester) but I expect it will also become a much studied book for social historians trying to understand the historic struggles that have shaped, quite literally, the world we live and struggle in today.

Related Reviews

Griffin - The Rural War
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer
Reid - The Land of Lost Content
Harvey - Spaces of Global Capitalism
Harvey - Rebel Cities