Posts Tagged ‘Lyon’

FT Review from 2000 of Three History Books on the British Empire

July 19, 2020

Another clipping I’ve kept is a review by the Financial Time’s David Gilmour, ‘World in the Pink’, of three history books on the British Empire. The books reviewed were The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Nineteenth Century, edited by Andrew Porter, The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Twentieth Century, edited by Judith M. Brown and Wm Roger Louis; and the Oxford History of the British Empire: Historiography, edited by Robin W. Winks. The review was in the FT’s weekend edition for February 19/20 2000. I’m putting it up here as some readers might find it useful, as after the Black Lives Matter protests the history of the British empire is going to come under debate once again. The review runs

Once upon a time the British Empire was an easy subject to teach. Pupils stood in front of the schoolroom map, identified two red dots in the middle, and were encouraged to gaze with wonder at the vast expanse of similarly coloured spaces stretching from Canada at the top left to New Zealand at the bottom right. If suitably awestruck, they could then learn about these places (and how they came to be red) in the novels of Henty and Rider Haggard and in the poems of Tennyson, Kipling and Newbold.

Stout histories were also available for serious pupils to study the process of conquest and dominion, the spread of civilisation and prosperity, and, in some cases, the splendid bestowal of certain freedoms. From them students would learn that “the British Empire existed for the welfare of the world”, a belief held by many but expressed in these particularly terms by Gandhi. Guided by Providence and Queen Victoria, Britain had assumed a grandmaternal role, the mother of Dominion daughters, the “mother of parliaments” and, even more stirringly, “mother of the Free”.

The uniformity of the vision – red is red whether in Canada or Ceylon – may have been useful for the schoolteacher and the recruiting officer. But the men sent out to administer different systems all over the globe understood its limitations. The appearance of theses impressive books, the last in the five volume Oxford History of the British Empire, demonstrates that historians, after a long time-lag in the first half of the 20th century, have caught up with them.

The previous attempt at a comprehensive survey, the Cambridge History of the British Empire (published in nine volumes between 1929 and 1959), retained the anglocentric approach of earlier works, as well as their assumptions of a noble imperial purpose. Without entirely demolishing those assumptions (indeed the editor-in-chief, Roger Louis, specifically endorses some of them), the Oxford History offers more cautious and rataher more sophisticated assessments of the imperial experience. As Louis points out, these volumes do not depict it as “one of purposeful progress” nor concentrate narrowly on “metropolitan authority and rule”; nor do they see its demise as “steady decline and fall”. Their emphasis is on diversity, on a “constantly changing territorial empire and ever-shifting patterns of social and economic relations”.

The chief inspiration behind this approach is the work of the late historian Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, who compared the empire to an iceberg, the visible section being the red-painted colonies and the submerged bulk representing the “imperialism of free trade”, a vast “informal empire” based on naval supremacy and economic power which extended into places such as China, Latin America and the Middle East.

Many of the contributors to the Oxford volumes apply this view to their own areas. In south-east Asia, stresses A.J. Stockwell, the demarcation between Britain’s formal empire and its neighbours was indistinct: “‘British pink’ seeped over the whole region: nearly indelible in some areas, it merely tinged other parts and elsewhere faded fast.”

The scope of these books is so large that there were bound to be gaps: Malta and Gibraltar are barely mentioned, sport and the “games ethic” are ignored, and almost nothing is said about training administrators to do their job. Yet the overall achievement is undeniably impressive. Under the magisterial guidance of Louis (a distinguished American academic whose appointment as editor raised predictable insular howls in the UK), a vast array of of historians has produced a solid monument of contemporary scholarship. Some of the contributions, such as those by E.H.H. Green on political economy and David Fitzpatrick on Ireland’s ambivalence towards the empire are brilliants – subjects that would justify individual volumes distilled into concise and lucid essays.

Naturally there can be neither a common view nor a uniformity of tone among the hundred contributors to these volumes. The assembled historians are certainly not apologists for imperialism but nor, in general, are they too apologetic about it. Several remind us of its humanitarian dimension, and Louis may have confounded his fogeyish detractors with his view that Kipling was “perhaps the greatest poet of the age”. In addition, while appropriate genuflections are made to all those contemporary “studies” (area, gender, cultural and so on), the faddish preoccupation with “discourse” (in its postmodernist and post-colonial contexts) is restricted.

Yet the work has some of the defects as well as most of the merits of current historical writing: too much drab prose, too heavy a reliance on tables and statistics, a sense (especially in Historiography) of colleagues complimenting each other while disparaging their predecessors. Few contributions show real historical imagination: several leave an aroma of seminars and obscure historical quarterlies.

The great historian Richard Cobb used to say that a good deal of French history could be walked, seen and above all heard in cafes or buses or on park benches in Paris and Lyon. But most of the academics in these volumes do not seem to share his view that history is a cultural and creative subject as well as an academic one. However diligent their research may have been, they do not write as if they have ever sat in a Delhi rickshaw or a cafe in Calcutta. Robin J. Moore directs readers to all his own books, but neither he nor any of his colleagues cite a work published in an Indian language.

Yet if these volumes have little feel for the imperial setting and its personal impact, they manage to convey the sheer scope of the enterprise, the scale of the endeavour, the means by which those little dots reddened a quarter of the map. More importantly, they demonstrate the need to study the empire’s history, not in order to glorify or denigrate, but in order to understand the centuries of interaction between the dots and their formal and informal empires.

Perhaps this history, the first to be written since the territorial dismantlement, will mark a new stage not just of reassessment but of acceptance of the empire’s importance, for good and for bad, in the history of our planet. The topic is unfashionable in Britain today – Bristol’s excellent British Empire and Commonwealth Museum has not received a penny of public money – but it might now, thanks to Louis and his collaborators, emerge as something more than a sterile debate between those who regard it as a cause for sniggering and those who see it as a reason to swagger.

Bristol’s Empire and Commonwealth Museum is no more, unfortunately. It packed up and left Bristol for new premises at the Commonwealth Institute in London, where it died the death. I believe its former collection is now housed in the Bristol’s M Shed museum. The Empire is going to be acutely relevant now with the debate over racism, social justice and what history should be taught in schools. There are parts of British imperial history that are indefensible – the conquest of the Caribbean, slavery, the extermination of indigenous Australians, the concentration camps of the Boer War, the Bengal Famine and the massacres in Kenya. Niall Ferguson in a discussion about the British empire on a programme on Radio 4 a few years ago admitted its dark side, but said that it was a benevolent institution, although he qualified this. I think he said something to the effect of ‘just about’. For a short history of the negative side of the British empire – its domination, exploitation and massacre, see John Newsinger’s The Blood Never Dried. But it was also responsible for bring modern, western science, education and medicine to distant parts of the globe.

And it did try to stamp out slavery worldwide, not only where it had established and exploited it, but also indigenous slavery and forms of servitude around the world. That shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Vaucanson and the First Strike against Automation

October 12, 2015

Living Dolls Cover

The week before last the BBC’s Panorama current affairs programme, amongst others, discussed the possible threat posed to jobs in Britain by further automation. There were extensive trailers for it, and the programme was plugged on that Monday’s six O’clock news. The usual opinions pro and contra were offered. One talking head for the automobile industry announced that there wouldn’t be massive job losses due to automation in the coming decades. They had already automated several of their factories, and as a result had to taken on hundreds, if not a thousand more people.

Well good luck to them.

For the rest of us, the news did not seem to be so bright and rosy. Panorama predicted that about a third of all jobs could go in the coming decades, particularly in the customer service industries. This meant, basically, that shop workers could look forward to losing their jobs due to the introduction of further machines like the self-service tills that have already been set up in libraries, shops and supermarkets. I got slightly irritated with this part of the news, due to bright and cheery way the presenter broke this piece of highly ominous forecasting. It was as if the spectre of millions more low paid workers being slung out of their jobs was just another piece of light, airy, and ultimately inconsequential pieces they usually put at the end of programmes, like the stories about surfing dogs and snails that enjoyed a pint.

There’s nothing new in this issue. It’s been around since the days of Ned Ludd in the Industrial Revolution, when craft workers facing unemployment rioted against the introduction of the new machines, which either replaced them, or reduced the need for their skills to mere ‘knacks’. Marx and Engels themselves protested against this in the Communist Manifesto.

Gaby Wood, in her book, Living Dolls, describes how the first modern strike against the replacement of human beings with machines occurred in 18th century France. The silk weavers struck against the invention of a new loom by Vaucanson, which made their skills obsolete by allowing almost anyone to operate it. Vaucanson was one of the leading makers of automata, creating mechanical people and creatures so lifelike that they raised and still raise disturbing questions about the nature of humanity and human uniqueness. Wood’s discussion of the strike is noteworthy for the way she takes the side of the workers, rather than castigate them for holding up the march of progress, as others have done. She writes

In his funerary tribute to Vaucanson, the Enlightenment mathematician and philosopher Condorcet defined a mechanician as one who ‘sometimes applies a new motor to machines, and sometimes makes machines perform operations which were previously forced to be reliant on the intelligence of men; or he is one who knows how to obtain from machines the most perfect and abundant products’. This, according to the silk workers of Lyon, was precisely Vaucanson’s wrongdoing. They rebelled against his automatic loom by pelting him with stones in the street; they insisted that their skills were needed, that no machine could replace them. In retaliation, Vaucanson built a loom manned by a donkey, from which a baroque floral fabric was produced, in order to prove, as he said, that ‘a horse, an ox or an ass can make cloth more beautiful and much more perfect than the most able silk workers’. This spiteful performance, surprising in the son of a craftsman, was the reverse of his golden duck: instead of producing excrement from a precious metal, he made luxurious silk emerge from the end of a live animal. The first was designed for man’s entertainment; the second was meant to show man that he was dispensable.

The biographers Doyon and Liaigre blame the silk workers for stalling the march of progress, for France’s Industrial Revolution lagging behind England’s; and Condorcet comments melodramatically that ‘whoever wishes to bring new enlightenment to men must expect to be persecuted’. The point of view of the workers seems to have been sidelined altogether in favour of the grant Enlightenment project. The Encyclopedie devoted sixteen pages (not including illustrations) to the making of silk and other stockings. ‘In what systems of metaphysics’, it reads, ‘does one find more of intelligence, wisdom, consequence, than in machines for spinning gold or making stockings? … What demonstration of Mathematics is more complicated than the mechanism of certain clocks?’ In the Encyclopedie’s illustrations, the men are secondary to the machinery. Vaucanson and his contemporaries contributed to a widespread sleight of hand: like wine into vinegar or base metal into gold, men were turned into machines. The new automata were not replicas, but real humans transformed. throughout the next century, factory workers came to feel they had been reduced to the mechanical pieces they were in charge of producing, hour after hour and day after day.

Gaby Wood, Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (London: Faber and Faber 2002) 38.

There’s been that tension in process of mechanisation ever since, between deskilling and obsolescence, and industrial and scientific expansion, improvement and the emergence of new technical skills and industries. Kevin Warwick, the professor of cybernetics at Reading University, makes that very clear in his book, March of the Machines. Among the reasons he lists for automation are ‘reduction of labour costs’ – in other words, replacing expensive human labour with cheap machine production. I’ve a friend, who takes a very keen interest in these issues. He told me that we may well be at the end of the process, in which mechanisation creates new jobs as it replaces old. The traditional example is that of the mechanical digger. The number of people made unemployed through mechanical diggers, goes the saying, are made up for by the people taken on at the factory making them. Except with the mechanisation of the production of machines, this may now not be true. And so the kind of future predicted by some Science Fiction writers, of a society where there is mass unemployment and despair caused by mechanisation, may be about to become reality.

Welcome to the Megacity One of Judge Dredd, where nearly all the work is performed by robots, so that there is a 95 per cent unemployment rate.

I did wonder if some of the managers and engineers, confidently working on replacing their human workforce with machines would be quite so complacent about the process if they were faced with the same threat. Instead with retiring with plaudits, patents, and a generous pension, they had to look forward to joining the dole queue tomorrow, to be harangued by their job coach about how they were only being prevented from getting a job through their laziness. Then perhaps a few perspectives might change, and a few presenters on the Beeb might not be so jolly and complacent about millions more facing the dole.