Posts Tagged ‘Merchants’

Two Books Showing Bristol Has Not Kept Secret Its Involvement in the Slave Trade

June 6, 2019

The week before last, Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns was in Bristol, examining its history in the Georgian period. The show’s presented by Dr. Alice Roberts, who I believe is the Professor for the Public Engagement with Science at Birmingham University. She’s had a long career in television presenting programmes on archaeology, history and human evolution, beginning in the 1980s with Time Team. She’s a medical doctor, who I believe also taught anatomy at Bristol University. She regularly appeared on Time Team to give her opinion on any human remains that were recovered during their escavations.

Channel 4’s ‘Britain’s Most Historic Towns’

Time Team was finally cancelled after a very successful run several years ago, but like its presenter Tony Robinson, Roberts has continued fronting history and archaeology programmes. Each week the show visits a different British town and explores a specific period of its history. Roberts tours the town, talking to experts on its history and architecture during the period, and very often tries on the ladies’ costume at the time. Last year among the various towns the series covered was Cheltenham during its heyday as a regency spa. This year’s series started off with Dover, concentrating on it history during World War II. Last week it was looking at Cardiff in the early part of the 20th century, when the city became the major centre of the global coal industry. And the week before that they were in Bristol, telling its history during the Georgian period. Roberts has a personal connection to the city, as it’s her home town and she went to school here. She also had a personal connection to Cardiff, as it was at its university that she studied medicine.

Georgian Bristol

During the Georgian period – the age of the four Georges, from the early 18th century to the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 – Bristol was one of the leading cities in Britain. It’s a port, whose location on the Bristol Channel gave it an excellent position for trading with Africa and America. The programme covered other aspects of Bristol’s history during the period, like the emergence of gin, the 1827 massacre by the army in Queen’s Square in Redcliffe of a mob demanding electoral reform, and the development of the Clifton and Hotwells suburbs as genteel residential areas for the city’s new mercantile elite. But Bristol’s wealth at the time was largely produced from the immense profits from the slave trade. Ships from Bristol took trade goods down to west Africa, where they were bartered for slaves. These were then taken to the West Indies to be sold, and the ships returned to Bristol with West Indian goods like sugar and rum in what has become known as the triangular trade. And it was on this aspect of Bristol’s Georgian history that the programme concentrated.

The show is well done and the research is very thorough. Among those Roberts talked to was Dr. Steve Poole, a lecturer at the University of the West of England; a member of Bristol’s Radical History Group, who talked about the Queen’s Square Massacre; and a couple of distillers, who showed her how 18th century gin was made. She also talked to Dr. Edson Burnett about the slave trade, going through some of the ledgers left by the slavers itemising their ships’ human cargo in the city archives. Some of these are really shocking. They simply give the number of slaves shipped aboard, and the deaths during the voyage. Those taken were simply items of merchandise, with no names. The ledgers give brief descriptions of those who died and how the body was disposed of. They were simply thrown over the side. One of the most horrendous incidents was the scandal surrounding the Zong, a slave ship, which threw its entire cargo of slaves overboard during a storm, and then tried to sue the insurance company for compensation for them as lost cargo. It’s a horrific atrocity and injustice. She also mentioned how a number of plays were written during the 18th century attacking the slave trade, many of which were set in Bristol. She then spoke to the writer and artistic director of a modern play about the trade being staged by Bristol’s historic Old Vic theatre.

Bristol and the Slave Trade

The programme’s coverage of Bristol’s history during the period was fair, although there was much obviously left out because of the constraints of the programme’s length. It’s an hour long, and it could easily take that long to discuss the city’s involvement with the slave trade and some of the architecture that was built for the merchants involved in the trade. As it was, the programme showed only one of them, the house of George Pinney, a 19th century West India planter and merchant. This is now a museum, the Georgian House, open to the public in one of the streets just off Park Street. However, Roberts opened the discussion of the city’s complicity in the slave trade with a statement that was simply wrong. She said that it was a terrible secret.

Exhibitions

Well, if Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade is a secret, then it’s a very badly kept one! Bristol’s M Shed museum, which takes visitors through the city’s history and some of its industries, including aircraft and motor vehicles built here, has a display on the slave trade. This shows not only slave manacles and the manillas, bracelet-like items used for barter, but also maps of homes and other properties owned and occupied by the slave merchants and plantation owners. This follows an earlier exhibit at the City Museum in Queen Street, ‘A Respectable Trade’, which was timed to coincide with the TV series of that name on BBC 1, based on the book by historical novelist Philippa Gregory. The book and TV series were about the slave trade, and much of it was set in the Bristol of the time. The exhibition was staged by local council and showed the historical reality on which the fiction was based. Gregory also appeared in a TV programme at the time, exploring the city’s connection to the slave trade, in which she spoke to several Black anti-racist activists.

Books and Pamphlets

Since then there have been a number of books published on Bristol and the slave trade. The city library has published a catalogue of books and other materials it holds on the subject.  There has also been a book published on the City in 1807, the year in which the slave trade was officially prohibited throughout the British Empire. Dr. Madge Dresser, a historian at the University of the West of England, has also published a book, Slavery Obscured, on the persistence of the slave trade after its formal abolition, in which merchants from Bristol were involved. And back in the 1990s the local branch of the Historical Association published a booklet on Bristol’s Black population in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Society of Merchant Venturers, the mercantile organisation that dominated Bristol’s trade in that period, has also published a catalogue of its holdings, which included it’s members’ plantations in the West Indies.

Origin of Belief Bristol Keeping Slave Trade Connection Secret

I’ve been told by members of the city’s Black cultural and anti-racist organisations that the idea that the city council is somehow covering up the city’s involvement in the slave trade dates from the 1970s. A member of the community rang the council up to inquire about what they knew about Bristol and the slave trade, only to be told that the city wasn’t involved in it. Which is wrong. I wonder if the person, who answered the call genuinely didn’t know about Bristol’s history of slaving. But whatever the reality, this planted the idea that the city council was deliberating hiding the truth. I think it was partly to dispel this idea that the City Museum staged the 1995 exhibition.

Two Books on Bristol from the 1950s and 1970s

But even before then, the city’s involvement in the slave trade was known and discussed. For example, the book Bristol and Its Adjoining Counties, edited by C.M. MacInnes and W.F. Whittard, and published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1955, has several pages on the slave trade in the chapter by MacInnes, ‘Bristol and Overseas Expansion’, pp. 219-230.

The 1975 textbook, Bristol: An Outline History for Schools, by H. Chasey, published by Georges, also covers the slave trade in its chapter on city’s 18th century trade, pp. 31-2. All the chapters are a page or so in length, with another page suggesting projects or containing questions for students on that period of the city’s history. The paragraph on the slave trade runs

Unfortunately, Bristol was better known at this time for its links with the slave trade. The “Blackbirds” sailed to Africa with various goods, exchanged them for slaves which were then shipped to the West Indies or North America. The ships then returned home iwth sugar and tobacco, the whole “Triangular Trade” bringing enormous profits to many Bristol merchants. Before 1760, Bristol carried about one-third of all the slaves, but this number died away by the end of the century as the anti-slavery movement made progress. (p. 31).

Few Obvious Monuments to Slave Trade in City

I also think that part of this misconception may come from the fact that there are few monuments from the time that obviously have direct connections to the slave trade. When I was studying archaeology at Bristol, one of the foreign students on the archaeology course complained to one of the lecturers that her housemate believed Bristol was racist, because there were no monuments for the slaves. The housemate was another foreign student, from Guiana, where I believe the buildings for landing and sale of slaves still exist. I think the student expected similar buildings to exist in Bristol. But they don’t, as the bulk of the city’s slave trade was with the West Indies. There were slaves in Bristol, but these were brought to the city as personal servants, rather than imported en masse as they were in the Caribbean.

Historic Buildings and Later Monuments Connected to Slaves and Slave Trade

However, there are architectural hints at the city’s connection to the slave trade all around. The city’s merchants decorated the exterior of their homes with carvings symbolising their connection to Africa or the Caribbean, such as pineapples. There are also coloured statues, representing the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas in St. Nicholas Market, one of which is a Black African. And several of the city’s pubs also claim a direct connection to the trade. The Ostrich, one of the pubs on the harbourside, had a cellar, in which, it was claimed, slaves were held ready for sale. When I used to drink there in the 1990s there was a poster up about it, along with reproductions of the advertisements of the time for runaway slaves. However, it may be the reality here was more prosaic. The 1995 exhibition said that many the connection of many of parts of Bristol to the slave trade may just be urban folklore. Blackboy Hill, for example, is probably not named after a slave boy, but possibly a racehorse owned by Charles II. The city has also made other gestures to commemorating the victims of the slave trade. There’s a slave walk along Bristol’s docks, and a plaque put up to those enslaved by city on one of the former warehouses by M Shed. A remarkable bridge built across the docks in the 1990s, which features two horn-like constructions, has been called ‘Pero’s Bridge’, after one of the slaves imported into Bristol. And there is a gravestone for Scipio, an African slave brought to the city by his master in one of the city’s churchyards.

Bristol has a very rich and fascinating history, of which the slave trade is one part. It’s a history that definitely needs to be told. And it has only been within the last quarter century or so that the slave trade has been memorialised in local museums, not just in Bristol, but also elsewhere. Bristol has joined Liverpool and Nantes in France in creating exhibitions and galleries on its involvement in the trade. Before then it’s fair to say that City Museum did not display anything on the slave trade. It was a period of the city’s history that most Bristolians probably would have preferred not to commemorate, but it was never forgotten nor kept hidden.

 

‘I’ Celebrates Lad Who Egged Racist Senator Fraser Anning

March 18, 2019

Here’s an inspiring story. Fraser Anning, an utterly repugnant far-right Australian senator, who literally blamed the victims of the Christchurch massacre for their own murder, got his just comeuppance. As he was speaking, a White kid hit him over the head with an egg. And the lad is now an internet hero.

The story’s covered by the I, whose article in today’s edition for 18th March 2019, on page 9, runs

Online accolades for boy who egged far-right senator

Will Connolly, the 17 year old boy who egged the far-right Australian senator Fraser Anning, has become an online hero.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested yesterday that the anti-Muslim senator should be charged after he slapped a teenager who cracked a raw egg over his head.

Mr Anning has been condemned for blaming Muslim immigration for the racist attacks on two New Zealand mosques. Mr Morrison said: “The full force of the law should be applied to Senator Anning.”

Posting on after the mass shootings on Friday, Mr Anning tweeted: “Does anyone still dispute the link between Muslim immigration and violence?”

“The real cause of the bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration programe which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place, ” he said later. A GoFundMe page set up to raise A$2,000 (£1,0000) to pay for Connolly’s ‘legal fees’ and ‘more eggs’ had exceeded A$25,000 yesterday.

The site says most of the money will go to Christchurch victims.

The I’s columnist Eleanor Margolis wrote a further piece about, When words fail, some people need egging, adding a bit of historical context to Eggboy’s act. She mentions the egging of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeremy Corbyn at Finsbury Park mosque last week, and John Prescott, how it was used against people in the stocks in the Middle Ages, and by less than impressed audiences in Elizabethan theatres. She said of Eggboy’s strike against Anning that

For anyone slating Eggboy for food wastage, maybe supermarkets should start keeping the eggs that pass their sell by date specifically to see to people with grievances against our leaders. Becuase the thing about egging is, it’s sort of effective. When Eggboy matter-of-factly broke that egg on Fraser Anning’s racist head, millions of people soon saw a display of solidarity -from a White non-Muslim kid – with those impacted by the Christchurch shooting and the victims of today’s rampant islamophobia in general. When words fail, some people just need an egg to the face. It’s probably the most physical, yet mostly non-violent, way of showing the world you disagree with someone and their entire schtick. (p. 18)

Let’s add a bit more detail to this. Anning didn’t just blame Muslim immigration for the violence, he specifically suggested that the victims of this atrocity were themselves violent and to blame for it. He issued a statement essentially saying that Islam is a violent religion, all Muslims were violent, and the massacre victims were ‘not armed yet’. Very many religions and ideologies, including Christianity, have their violent  as well as peaceful aspects, and Islam is no different. At times it has expanded through military conquest and at others through peaceful preaching and simply commercial interaction. It’s believed that Islam spread into sub-Saharan African, for example, through merchants, and that many of the African peoples, who adopted it did so because the majlis, or assembly of religious scholars, offered a constitutional check to the power of the kings.  It’s also obviously untrue that Muslims are violent, as clearly shown by the peaceful behaviour of the vast majority. And Anning’s statement about the victims of the massacre is both wrong and obscene. They weren’t armed at all, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that they were going to be.

Kevin Logan dealt with this lie in his livestream he did with feminist professor Kristi Winters. It’s on YouTube, entitled ‘We Love You Kiwis’. I haven’t reblogged it, because it’s over an hour long and Logan, as an internet atheist, makes a series of gratuitous attacks on Christianity. But on a more positive note, he did post this video celebrating Anning’s nemesis. Enjoy! 

Warning: Contains language.

 

Margolis’ article is also interesting for how she describes the attack on Corbyn. She repeats the falsehood that he was hit with an egg – he wasn’t. He was punched in the head. But she admits he was attacked by a racist. Which is interesting, as this is a tacit admission that Corbyn isn’t. And if he isn’t a racist, he can’t be an anti-Semite, by definition. But I doubt you’ll find the I going that far to buck the anti-Semitism witch-hunt against Labour.

Argentina Pulls Out of Friendly with Israel Due to Move to Jerusalem

June 8, 2018

Yet another short video, this time from that noted pro-Arab, Islamist propaganda mouthpiece, Al-Jazeera. Or it is in the minds of American Republicans and the Islamophobic ‘counterjihad’ movement, like the EDL and Pegida.

Argentina was due to play a friendly with Israel, but pulled out after the venue for the match was changed from Haifa to Jerusalem under pressure from the Palestinians. Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association, states that this was in response to the Israelis politicising the match. They had said that it was part of the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel, and the 51st anniversary of the ‘liberation’ of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu is supposed to have phoned the Argentinian president, Maurizio Macri to try to get him to change the team’s mind, but he replied that it wasn’t up to him.

Reuven Rivlin, the Israeli president, issued a statement accusing the Argentinians of politicising the match. This read

It is truly a sad day for soccer fans, including some of my grandchildren, but there are values even bigger than Messi. The politicisation in the Argentinian decision is of great concern. Even in the most difficult times we made every effort to leave considerations that are not purely about sport off the playing field, and it is a pity that the Argentina team did not manage do so on this occasion.

Al-Jazeera’s reporter Bernard Smith concludes the piece by explaining that the Israelis want to normalise Jerusalem as the nation’s capital with the international community, and this was part of their strategy. But it’s backfired this time by reminding everyone how the status of Jerusalem is far from settled.

There are a number of reasons why the Argentinians would side with the Palestinians against the Israelis on this issue. Firstly, South America has long-established links with the Levant going back to the 19th century. Many of the merchants and traders, who supplied imported goods to communities across Latin America were ‘Turks’, actually ethnic Arabs from Lebanon and Syria, which were then provinces of the Turkish Empire. Carlos Menem, the right-wing president of one of the Latin American countries a few years ago, who was embroiled in a corruption scandal, was of Lebanese descent.

It also struck me that there was a possible element of anti-Americanism in this. The Latin American intellectuals, who formed the ideology of Arielismo in the 19th century, came from Argentina. Arielismo is the literary and political critique of US imperialism in Hispanic America. It arose after the US invaded and annexed parts of Mexico, and went to war with Spain in the last years of the 19th century to seize Cuba. It’s based on an anti-colonial reading of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Arielismo sees the peoples of Latin America as having been cast as Caliban, Prospero’s brutish assistant in the play. They have been presented as a monstrous, backward ‘other’, by the Americans, in order to justify their own imperialism towards the continent.

American and Israeli foreign policy in the Middle East is so closely enmeshed that it’s identical. Trump caused widespread outrage when he moved the location of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The refusal by the Argentinian team to play there may also be partly an attack on Trump and the Americans for doing so.

Also, I read in a review of a book on Israel’s activities supporting the Fascist dictators in South America in Lobster, that the Israeli secret agencies had acted as an American proxies in the parts of the continent where it would be dangerous for the Americans themselves to operate.

If this is correct, then the Argentinians’ decision isn’t just about Israel, but a wider condemnation of American colonialism and imperialism, of which Israel has been a part.

Jodi Magness on the Archaeology of Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine

December 17, 2017

One of the other books in the winter edition of the Oxbow Bargain Book Catalogue for Winter 2017 is Jodi Magness’ Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine. The blurb for this says

Archaeological evidence is frequently cited by scholars as proof that Palestine declined after the Muslim conquest and especially after the rise of the Abbasids in the mid-eighth century. Instead, Magness argues that the archaeological evidence supports the idea that Palestine and Syria experienced a tremendous growth in population and prosperity between the mid-sixth and mid-seventh centuries.

Eisenbrauns, 2003, 9781575060705, Hardback, was £49.99, now £14.95.

Magness is an Israeli archaeologist, who has written some brilliant, very accessible, popular books on the archaeology of the Holy Land. I recognise that my own religious views mean that I have a bias towards Biblical archaeology and the Ancient Near East, as opposed to the later, Muslim periods. However, western concerns with these periods have meant that precious later evidence of Muslim culture and towns have been destroyed as archaeologists have dug through them to get to ancient Egypt, for example. The British archaeologist John Romer was particular critical about this in one edition of his series on the history of archaeology for Channel 4, broadcast in the 1990s, Great Excavations. In one sequence, he sifted through the sand around one excavated ancient Egyptian monument, picking out pieces of Islamic period pottery, and sadly remarked, ‘There was a whole town here once.’ And explained that it had been either destroyed, or at least its remains had, by archaeologists determined to get at what was underneath from antiquity.

Which of course, may partly explain – but does not justify – the Islamist rage against pre-Islamic Egypt and its monuments. Like the pyramids, which they’d love to destroy.

Magness’ conclusions don’t really surprise me. There’s an argument about the demographic and economic conditions of the late Roman Empire at the time of the Muslim conquests. Part of the reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire was economic stagnation, as I’ve pointed out before to combat the rubbish spouted by right-wing politicos and classicists like Boris Johnson. During the late Byzantine Empire, towns shrank, and many disappeared completely as they were abandoned. Those that survived tended to consist of a castle or fortification and a church around which was a much smaller settlement.

The nascent Islamic Empire put the region in touch with an expanding state that grew to cover the Near East and spread into parts of India. It gave merchants the opportunity to establish trade networks across a vast area. Furthermore, even when the Byzantines and Muslim emperors were still at work, Christians in the early caliphate were not prevented from contact with their spiritual superiors and coreligionists in Byzantium. Also, the official Byzantine ‘Melkite’ church, as it was known in Egypt, had persecuted the various ‘Jacobite’ or ‘Nestorian’ sects, which they considered heretical, often with horrific tortures. The result was that when the Muslims conquered the region, the persecuted masses opened the gates to them and welcomed them as liberators.

At the moment, however, Netanyahu, the Likudniks and the other members of the Israeli religious right in his coalition seem to be determined to erase any history of Palestine, that challenges its exclusive Jewish character. There are any number of books and articles by western historians attacking this and comparing it with militant nationalist movements elsewhere. Such as by Philip Rahtz, a very respected British archaeologist from my part of the West Country in his book, Invitation to Archaeology. This is not anti-Semitic, and Rahtz himself has always been anti- or at least, non-racist. He describes in the above book how shocked he was when an apparently liberal Australian student he was teaching was deeply surprised by his interest in the archaeology of Aboriginal Australians. ‘But they’re just apes!’ she exclaimed.

Netanyahu and his thugs are determined to close mosques and churches, or at least keep them very tightly controlled, just as the illegal settlers they support seize Palestinian land and homes in the Occupied Territories. So I really don’t know how long a genuinely open archaeological investigation of the Islamic period will last.

Dr Gerald Horne on Trump as the Product of the Racist History of the US

September 10, 2017

This is another fascinating video from Telesur English. It’s from an edition of the Empire Files, in which the host, Abby Martin, interviews Dr. Gerald Horne, the chair of History and African American Studies at the University Houston. Dr. Horne is the author of 20 books on slavery and black liberation movements. The blurb for the video on YouTube states that his most recent work is The Counterrevolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States.

The video is just over half an hour long, and it completely overturns the entire myth of the founding of the United States, in which the Founding Fathers were noble idealists, intent on bringing about a truly democratic state in which all men would be free. In fact the opposite was true. The Founding Fathers were either slave-owners, or else otherwise deeply connected to slavery and slave trade through their business interests. Instead of noble liberators for everyone, they were deeply opposed to granting Black Americans their freedom.

Dr. Horne argues that they were the products of British imperialism and its slave trade, which was first introduced into the Caribbean and then shifted north to the English colonies in North America. He traces the history of Black enslavement and anti-Black racist movements from the American Revolution to the American Civil War, and thence to the formation of successive waves of the Klan. His intention is to show that Trump is not an historical aberration, a strange historical throwback on America’s long progress to freedom and liberty, but a product of America’s racist history and the mass support anti-Black movements have enjoyed and exploited throughout it.

The programme begins by explaining the background to the Confederate monuments, which the Unite the Right stormtroopers marched to defend in Charlottesville the week before last. These were not simply memorials to great generals or valiant soldiers, as the myth around them says. Most of the Confederate monuments in the US were erected in two periods – the period of Jim Crow in the 1920s and ’30s, when the segregation laws were being introduced, and the 1950s when the Civil Rights movement was beginning. They were set up to convey a very specific message: that while Black Americans were technically free, the ‘Negro’ had better know his place beneath the White man. Or else.

He then goes on to describe the emergence of slavery in the US. He states that Britain at the end of the 16th century was ‘a failed state’. The British Civil War of the 1640s between Charles I and parliament was a quasi-bourgeois revolution, which gave some rights to the British merchant and middle classes. The real bourgeois revolution was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which allowed the middle classes to exert more political control, and allowed British merchants to wrest control of the slave trade away from the Crown as a royal monopoly.

The most important part of the British empire in the New World at the time was the Caribbean, and particularly Jamaica. These colonies became immensely profitable due to sugar. However, in the 1720s there was an economic crisis in Caribbean slavery, so some of the major Caribbean slaveowners moved north, to Carolina and other parts of the US. It was from these slave-owning families that the Founding Fathers were descended.

Horne also briefly discusses the role north American slavery played in the definition of White identity. Back in Europe, the different European peoples saw themselves as members of separate nations – English, Irish, Scots, French, Germans and so on. it was only when they crossed the Atlantic to America that they created an overarching racial identity to differentiate them from their Black slaves.

Horne then goes on to argue that the major catalyst for the American Revolution was the American colonists’ frustration at the British governments attempts to limit slavery and stop further colonial expansion beyond the Alleghenies. One of the critical moments in this was the Somerset Case, which ruled that slavery was illegal in England. The ruling was expanded to Scotland a year later. The taxes against which the Boston Tea Party was staged included those levied on slaves. They had been imposed by the British government as a deliberate anti-slavery measure. The British government was also tired of expending men and treasure in the various wars against the continent’s indigenous peoples. This angered the colonists, who longed to expand and seize native American land to the west. One of those, who stood to make a profit from this, was George Washington, who was a land speculator. As indeed, in a curious historical parallel, is Donald Trump. The Founding Fathers also feared and hated Black Americans, because the British had given their freedom to all Black Americans, who remained loyal. As a result, the Black Americans were solidly behind the British against the emerging independence movement.

Dr. Horne then goes on to talk about the American Civil War, and Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves held by the Southern states. Horne points out that it was felt at the time that Lincoln had somehow broken the rules of war, and done the unthinkable by arming the slaves. As for Lincoln himself, he didn’t have much sympathy with them, and was considering deporting them after the end of the war. Horne goes on to discuss how the deportation of Americans of African descent continued to be discussed and planned at various periods in American history afterwards. It was yet again discussed in the 1920s, when there was a movement to deport them back to Africa.

After the ending of slavery in American following the defeat of the South, many of the American slave-owners and traders fled abroad, to continue their business overseas. Several went to South America, including Brazil, while others went to Cuba.

After the Civil War came the period of reconstruction, and the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 19th century. Horne also talks about the lynching movement during this period of American history, which continued into the early 20th centuries. Not only were these intended to terrorise Black Americans to keep them in their place, but at the time they also were also almost like picnics. Photographs were taken and sold of them, and White spectators and participants would cut the fingers off the body and keep them as souvenirs. Dr. Horne remarks that, sadly, some White homes still have these digits even today.

He also talks about the massive influence D.W. Griffith’s viciously racist Birth of a Nation had on the Klan, boosting its membership. Klan groups began to proliferate. In Michigan, one branch of the Klan concentrated on fighting and breaking trade unions. Later, in the 1950s, the Klan entered another period of resurgence as a backlash against the Civil Rights campaign.

Horne makes the point that in this period, the Klan was by no means a marginal organization. It had a membership in the millions, including highly influential people in several states. And the Klan and similar racist organisations were not just popular in the South. The various pro-slavery and anti-Black movements also had their supporters in the North since the time of the Civil War. He also argues that the campaign against segregation was extremely long, and there was considerable resistance to Black Americans being given equality with Whites.

He also states that one of the influences behind the emergence of the Alt-Right and the revival of these latest Fascist and White supremacist movements was the election of Barak Obama as the first Black president of the US. Obama was subject to rumours that he was really Kenyan, with the whole ‘birther’ conspiracy theories about his passport, because he was Black, and so couldn’t be a proper American. And it is this bitter hostility to Obama, and the perceived threat to White America which he represents, that has produced Trump.

Watching this video, I was reminded of Frederick Douglas’ great speech, What To the Slave is the Fourth of July? Douglas was a former slave and a major voice for abolition in America. His speech noted how hollow the rhetoric about the Founding Fathers protecting Americans from slavery under the British, when they themselves remained slaves in reality.

He’s right about the rule of the sugar economy in saving the British colonies in the Caribbean, though from my own reading about slavery in the British Empire, what saved these colonies first was tobacco. It was the first cash crop, which could easily be grown there.

The role opposition to the British government’s refusal to allow further colonial expansion in provoking the American Revolution has also been discussed by a number of historians. One book I read stated that British colonial governors were encouraged to intermarry with the indigenous peoples. Thus, one of the governors on the British side actually had cousins amongst one of the Amerindian nations. The same book also described how the British granted their freedom to Black loyalists. After their defeat, the British took them to Canada. Unfortunately, racism and the bleak climate led them to being deported yet again to Sierra Leone. There were also Black loyalists settled in the British Caribbean colonies. One report on the state of colony instituted by its new governor in the early 19th century reported that the former Black squaddies were settled in several towns, governed by their own N.C.O.s under military discipline. These Black Americans were orderly and peaceful, according to the report.

As for the former American slave traders, who emigrated to Latin America, this is confirmed by the presence of one of the witnesses, who appeared before the British parliament in the 1840s, Jose Estebano Cliffe, who was indeed one of the émigré merchants.

Cenk Uygur and The Young Turks have also described the horrors of the lynchings in the Deep South, including the picnic, celebratory aspect to these atrocities. They made the point that if news reports today said that similar lynchings had been carried out by Arabs in the Middle East, Americans would vilify them as savages. But that attitude doesn’t extend to those savages in the US, who carried out these atrocities against Blacks.

It’s worth mentioning here that Blacks weren’t the only victims of lynching. Tariq Ali in an interview in the book Confronting the New Conservatism about the Neocons states that in Louisiana in the 1920, more Italians were lynched than Blacks.

The video’s also worth watching for some of the images illustrating Dr. Horne’s narrative. These include not only paintings, but also contemporary photograph. Several of these are of the slaves themselves, and there is a fascinating picture of a group of Black squaddies in uniform from the Civil War. I found this particularly interesting, as the photographer had captured the character of the soldiers, who had different expressions on their faces. Some appear cheerful, others more suspicious and pessimistic.

There’s also a very chilling photograph of people at a lynching, and it’s exactly as Dr. Horne says. The picture shows people sat on the grass, having a picnic, while a body hangs from a tree in the background. This is so monstrous, it’s almost incredible – that people should calmly use the murder of another human being as the occasion of a nice day out.

This is the history the Republican Party and the Libertarians very definitely do not want people to read about. Indeed, I put up a piece a little while ago at a report on one of the progressive left-wing news programmes on YouTube that Arizona was deliberately suppressing materials about racism, slavery and segregation in its schools, and making students read the speeches of Ronald Reagan instead. As for the removal of Confederate monuments, right-wing blowhard and sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly, formerly of Fox News, has already started making jokes about how ‘they’ want to take down statues of George Washington. Nobody does, and the joke shows how little O’Reilly really understands, let alone cares about the proper historical background behind them. I’ve no doubt that Dr. Horne’s interpretation of history would be considered by some an extreme view, but it is grounded in very accurate historical scholarship. Which makes it an important counterbalance to the lies that the Republicans and Libertarians want people to believe about the country and its history.

History Book on Working Class Gardens

July 2, 2017

Gardening is one of Britain’s favourite pastimes, with programmes like Gardener’s World one of the long-running staples of BBC 2. The Beeb also devotes week-long coverage to the annual Chelsea Flower Show. A few years ago, one of the gardening programmes told a bit of the history behind popular gardening in Britain. It was deliberately started by the Victorians, with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves as the patrons, as a way of encouraging the labouring poor to be respectable. Among the other virtues gardening would foster in them was neatness, from what I remember of the programme.

Looking through a copy of the Oxbow Book Catalogue for autumn 2015, I found a blurb for a book, The Gardens of the Working Class, by Margaret Willes, published by Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300212358. The price of it in paperback was £12.99. The blurb ran

This magnificently illustrated people’s history celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted and loved was not their own. Spanning more than four centuries, from the earliest records of the labouring classes in the country to today, Margaret Willes’ research unearths lush gardens nurtured outside rough workers’ cottages and horticultural miracles performed in blackened yards, and reveals the ingenious sometimes devious, methods employed by determined, obsessive, and eccentric workers to make their drab surroundings bloom. She also explores the stories of the great philanthropic industrialists who provided gardens for their workforces, the fashionable rich stealing the gardening ideas of the poor, alehouse syndicates and fierce rivalries between vegetable growers, flower-fanciers cultivating exotic blooms on their city windowsills, and the rich lore handed down from gardener to gardener through generations.

Garden history is taught in some universities in their archaeology departments, and the archaeology of gardens is also part of the wider field of landscape archaeology. Much of what is known about gardens in history comes from those of the rich, the great parks and gardens of royalty and the aristocracy, and the work of the great landscape gardeners like Inigo Jones and Capability Brown. They were also an important part of the lodges constructed by the medieval and early modern mercantile elite just outside town limits, to which they went at weekends to escape the cares of weekday, working life.

This book looks like it attempts to complete this picture, by showing that the working class were also keen gardeners. And its particularly interesting that the rich were nicking ideas from them.

Review: The Liberal Tradition, ed. by Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock

November 6, 2016

(Oxford: OUP 1967)

liberal-tradition-pic

I picked this up in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham. I am definitely not a Liberal, but so many of the foundations of modern representative democracy, and liberal political institutions, rights and freedoms were laid down by Liberals from the 17th century Whigs onward, that this book is of immense value for the historic light it sheds on the origins of modern political thought. It is also acutely relevant, for many of the issues the great liberal philosophers, thinkers and ideologues argued over, debated and discussed in the pieces collected in it are still being fought over today. These are issues like the freedom, religious liberty and equality, democracy, anti-militarism and opposition to the armaments industry, imperialism versus anti-imperialism, devolution and home rule, laissez-faire and state intervention, and the amelioration of poverty.

Alan Bullock is an historian best known for his biography of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, which remains the classic work on the Nazi dictator. In the 1990s he produced another book which compared Hitler’s life to that of his contemporary Soviet dictator and ultimate nemesis, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. The book has an introduction, tracing the development of Liberalism from its origins to the 1930s, when the authors consider that the Liberal party ceased to be an effective force in British politics. This discusses the major issues and events, with which Whig and Liberal politicians and thinkers were forced to grapple, and which in turn shaped the party and its evolving intellectual tradition.

The main part of the book consists of the major historical speeches and writings, which are treated in sections according to theme and period. These comprise

Part. Fox and the Whig Tradition

1. Civil Liberties.

Two speeches by Charles James Fox in parliament, from 1792 and 1794;
Parliamentary speech by R.B. Sheridan, 1810.
Parliamentary speech by Earl Grey, 1819.
Lord John Russell, An Essay on the History of the English Government and Constitution, 1821.
Lord John Russell, parliamentary speech, 1828.

2. Opposition to the War against Revolutionary France

Speeches by Charles James Fox, from 1793, 1794 and 1800.

3. Foreign Policy and the Struggle for Freedom Abroad

Earl Grey, parliamentary speech, 1821;
Marquis of Lansdowne, parliamentary speech, 1821.
Extracts from Byron’s poems Sonnet on Chillon, 1816, Childe Harold, Canto IV, 1817, and Marino Faliero, 1821.

4. Parliamentary Reform

Lord John Russell, parliamentary speech, 1822.
Lord Melbourne, parliamentary speech, 1831.
T.B. Macaulay, parliamentary speech, 1831.

Part II. The Benthamites and the Political Economists, 1776-1830.

1. Individualism and Laissez-faire

Two extracts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, 1776.
Jeremy Bentham, A Manual of Political Economy, 1798.

2. Natural Laws and the Impossibility of Interference

T.R. Malthus, Essay on Population, 1798.
David Ricardo, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, 1819.

3. Free Trade

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations,
David Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy,
Petition of the London Merchants, 1820.

4. Colonies

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations.

5. Reform

Jeremy Bentham, Plan of Parliamentary Reform, 1817.
David Ricardo, Observations on Parliamentary Reform, 1824.
Jeremy Bentham, Constitutional Code, 1830.
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography.

Part III. The Age of Cobden and Bright.

1. Free Trade and the Repeal of the Corn Laws

Petition of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce to the House of Commons, 20 December 1838.
Richard Cobden, two speeches in London, 1844.
Cobden, speech in Manchester, 1846,
Lord John Russell, Letter to the Electors of the City of London (The ‘Edinburgh Letter’) 1845.

2. Laissez-Faire

Richard Cobden, Russia, 1836.
Richard Cobden, parliamentary speech, 1846.
T.B. Macaulay, parliamentary speech, 1846.
Joseph Hume, parliamentary speech, 1847.
John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848.

Education

T.B. Macaulay, parliamentary speech 1847.
John Bright, parliamentary speech 1847.

4. Religious Liberty

T.B. Macaulay, parliamentary speech, 1833.
John Bright, two parliamentary speeches, 1851 and 1853.

5. Foreign Policy

Richard Cobden, parliamentary speech, 1849;
Viscount Palmerston, speech at Tiverton, 1847;
Richard Cobden, parliamentary speech, 1850; speech at Birmingham, 1858; speech in Glasgow, 1858;
John Bright, letter to Absalom Watkins, 1854;
W.E. Gladstone, parliamentary speech, 1857;

6. India and Ireland

T.B. Macaulay, parliamentary speech, 1833;
John Bright, four speeches in parliament, 1848, 1849,1858, 1859;
Richard Cobden, speech at Rochdale, 1863.

Part IV. The Age of Gladstone

1. The Philosophy of Liberty

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859;
John Stuart Mill, Representative Government, 1861;
Lord Acton, A Review of Goldwin smith’s ‘Irish History’, 1862;
Lord Acton, The History of Freedom in Antiquity, 1877.
Lord Acton, A Review of Sir Erskine May’s ‘Democracy in Europe’, 1878.
Lord Acton, letter to Bishop Creighton, 1887.
Lord Acton, letter to Mary Gladstone, 1881;
John Morley, On Compromise, 1874.

2. Parliamentary Reform

Richard Cobden, two speeches at Rochdale, 1859 and 1863;
John Bright, speech at Rochdale, 1863; speech at Birmingham, 1865; speech at Glasgow, 1866; speech at London, 1866;
W.E. Gladstone, speech at Chester, 1865; speech at Manchester, 1865; parliamentary speech, 1866;

3. Foreign Policy

W.E. Gladstone, two parliamentary speeches, 1877 and 1878; speech at Dalkeith, 1879; speech at Penicuik, 1880, speech at Loanhead, 1880; article in The Nineteenth Century, 1878.

4. Ireland

John Bright, speech at Dublin, 1866 and parliamentary speech, 1868.
W.E. Gladstone, two parliamentary speeches, 1886 and 1888.

Part V. The New Liberalism

1. The Philosophy of State Interference

T.H. Green, Liberal Legislation or Freedom of Contract, 1881;
Herbert Spencer, The Coming Slavery, 1884;
D.G. Ritchie, The Principles of State Interference, 1891;
J.A. Hobson, The Crisis of Liberalism, 1909;
L.T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911;

2. The Extension of Democracy

Herbert Samuel, Liberalism, 1902;
Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, speech at Plymouth, 1907;
D. Lloyd George, speech at Newcastle, 1909;
H.H. Asquith, speech at the Albert Hall, 1909.
L.T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911.

3. Social Reform

Joseph Chamberlain, speech at Hull, 1885, and Warrington, 1885;
W.E. Gladstone, speech at Saltney, 1889;
Lord Rosebery, speech at Chesterfield, 1901;
Winston S. Churchill, speech at Glasgow, 1906;
D. Lloyd George, speech at Swansea, 1908;
L.T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911;
Manchester Guardian, leading article, 8th July 1912;

4. The Government and the National Economy

H.H. Asquith, speech at Cinderford, 1903;
Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, speech at Bolton, 1903;
D. Lloyd George, speech at Bedford, 1913, and speech at Middlesbrough, 1913;
L.T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911.

5. Imperialism and the Boer War

Sir William Harcourt, speech in West Monmouthshire, 1899;
J.L. Hammond, ‘Colonial and Foreign Policy’ in Liberalism and the Empire, 1900;
J.A. Hobson, Imperialism, 1902;
Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, speech at Stirling, 1901.

6. Armaments

Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, speech at London, 1905;
William Byles, parliamentary speech, 1907;
Sir E. Grey, two parliamentary speeches from 1909 and 1911;
Sir J. Brunner, speech at the 35th Annual Meeting of the National Liberal Federation, 1913.

7. Foreign Policy

House of Commons debate 22nd July 1909, featuring J.M. Robertson and Arthur Ponsonby;
Sir E. Grey, two parliamentary speeches, 1911 and 1914;
House of Commons debate, 14th December 1911, featuring Josiah Wedgwood and J.G. Swift MacNeill;
Manchester Guardian, leading article, 1 August 1914;

Part VI. Liberalism after 1918

1. The End of Laissez-faire

J.M. Keynes, The End of Laissez-Faire, 1926;
Britain’s Industrial Future, the Report of the Liberal Industrial Inquiry, 1928;
J.M. Keynes and H.D. Henderson, Can Lloyd George Do It? 1929,
Sir William Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society, 1944.

2. The League and the Peace

Viscount Grey of Fallodon, The League of Nations, 1918;
Gilbert Murray, The League of Nations and the Democratic Idea, 1918;
Manchester Guardian, leading article, 24th June 1919;
J.M. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, 1919;
D. Lloyd George, speech at London, 1927;
Philip Kerr, The Outlawry of War, paper read to the R.I.I.A., 13 November 1928;
The Liberal Way, A survey of Liberal policy, published by the National Liberal Federation, 1934.

Epilogue

J.M. Keynes, Am I a Liberal? Address to the Liberal summer school at Cambridge, 1925.

In their conclusion, Bullock and Shock state that Liberal ideology is incoherent – a jumble – unless seen as an historical development, and that the Liberal party itself lasted only about seventy years from the time Gladstone joined Palmerstone’s government in 1859 to 1931, after which it was represented only by a handful of members in parliament. The Liberal tradition, by contrast, has been taken over by all political parties, is embodied in the Constitution, and has profoundly affected education – especially in the universities, the law, and the philosophy of government in the civil service. It has also inspired the transformation of the Empire into the Commonwealth. It has also profoundly affected the British character at the instinctive level, which has been given expression in the notion of ‘fair play’.

They also write about the immense importance in the Liberal tradition of freedom, and principle. They write

In the pages which follow two ideas recur again and again. The first is a belief in the value of freedom, freedom of the individual, freedom of minorities, freedom of peoples. The scope of freedom has required continual and sometimes drastic re-defining, as in the abandonment of laissez-faire or in the extension of self-government to the peoples of Asia and Africa. But each re-definition has represented a deepening and strengthening, not an attenuation, of the original faith in freedom.

The second is the belief that principle ought to count far more than power or expediency, that moral issues cannot be excluded from politics. Liberal attempts to translate moral principles into political action have rarely been successful and neglect of the factor of power is one of the most obvious criticisms of Liberal thinking about politics, especially international relations. But neglect of the factor of conscience, which is a much more likely error, is equally disastrous in the long run. The historical role of Liberalism in British history has been to prevent this, and again and again to modify policies and the exercise of power by protests in the name of conscience. (p. liv).

They finish with

We end it by pointing to the belief in freedom and the belief in conscience as the twin foundations of Liberal philosophy and the element of continuity in its historical development. Politics can never be conducted by the light of these two principles alone, but without them human society is reduced to servitude and the naked rule of force. This is the truth which the Liberal tradition has maintained from Fox to Keynes – and which still needs to be maintained in our own time. (pp. liv-lv).

It should be said that the participation of the Lib Dems was all too clearly a rejection of any enlightened concern for principle and conscience, as this was jettisoned by Clegg in order to join a highly illiberal parliament, which passed, and is still passing under its Conservative successor, Theresa May, legislation which is deliberately aimed at destroying the lives and livelihood of the very poorest in society – the working class, the disabled and the unemployed, and destroying the very foundations of British constitutional freedom in the creation of a network of universal surveillance and secret courts.

These alone are what makes the book’s contents so relevant, if only to remind us of the intense relevance of the very institutions that are under attack from today’s vile and corrupt Tory party.

Working Class Experience and the Tories’ Hatred of International Human Rights Legislation

May 19, 2014

Democrat Dissection pic

William(?) Dent, ‘A Right Honble Democrat Dissected’, 1793. In Roy Porter, Bodies Politic: Death, Disease and Doctors in Britain, 1650-1900 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 2001) 243. The caption for this reads: The various portions of his anatomy display every form of hypocrisy and immorality, personal and political.

The Tories Attack on Human Rights Legislation

Last week I reblogged Mike’s piece, ‘The Tory Euro Threat Exposed’, which demolished some of the claims the Tories were making about the EU, including their promise to hold a referendum on Europe. One of the criticisms Mike made was against the Tories’ plans to withdraw Britain from the European Court of Human Rights. Mike pointed out that the Court is actually nothing to do with the EU, and if Britain withdrew, it would mean the Tories could pass highly illiberal legislation ignoring and undermining the human rights of British citizens. He specifically mentioned workfare, the right to a fair trial and the current laws protecting the disabled as areas that would be under threat. It is not just European human rights legislation and international justice that the Tories are opposed to. They also plan to repeal Labour’s human rights legislation at home.

The Memoir of Robert Blincoe and 19th Century Working Class Political Oppression

Jess, one of the commenters on mine and Mike’s blog, suggested that the part of the problem was that most people now don’t recall a time when there was no absolutely no respect for human rights in Britain, and people were genuinely oppressed and jailed for their political beliefs. As a corrective, she posted a link to The Memoir of Robert Blincoe, a 19th century working-class activist, who was jailed for setting up a trade union. She wrote

Part of the ‘problem’ convincing people of the validity of human rights legislation is they have no concept, or memory, of what things were like before such things began to be regulated. Or the fight it took to force such legislation through Parliament.

This small book, ‘Memoir of Robert Blincoe’, now online, courtesy of Malcolm Powell’s Northern Grove Publishing Project
http://www.malcsbooks.com/resources/A%20MEMOIR%20OF%20ROBERT%20BLINCOE.pdf

“The Memoir….” was first published by Richard Carlile in his journal ‘The Lion’ in 1828. It was republished as a pamphlet the same year, and then re-serialised in ‘The Poor Man’s Advocate’ later the same year.

The pioneer Trades Unionist, John Doherty republished it in 1832, with the co-operation of Blincoe and additional text. Caliban reprinted Doherty’s text in 1977. For some reason it was not mentioned in Burnett, Mayall and Vincent (Eds) Bibliograpy (of) The Autobiography of The Working Class.

19th Century Oppression, thatcher’s Assault on the Unions, British Forced Labour Camps and the New Surveillance State

She has a point. For most people, this was so long ago that it’s no longer relevant – just another fact of history, along with the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Great Reform Act and the Workhouse. It’s an example how things were grim back in the 19th century, but it doesn’t really have any direct significance today. In fact, it’s extremely relevant as the Tories are doing their best to strangle the Trade Unions with legislation following their decimation with the Miners’ Strike under Thatcher. The Coalition has also passed legislation providing for the establishment of secret courts, and Britain is being transformed into a surveillance society through the massive tapping of phones and other electronic communication by GCHQ. And I reblogged a piece from one of the other bloggers – I think it was Unemployed in Tyne and Weare – about the existence of forced labour camps for the unemployed here in Britain during the recession of the 1920s. I doubt anyone outside a few small circles of labour historians have heard of that, particularly as the authorities destroyed much of the documentation. Nevertheless, it’s a sobering reminder that Britain is not unique, and that the methods associated with Nazism and Stalinism certainly existed over here.

Britain as Uniquely Democratic, Above Foreign Interference

Another part of the problem lies in British exceptionalism. There is the view that somehow Britain is uniquely democratic, with a mission to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. This conception of one’s country and its history is strongest in America, and forms a very powerful element of the ideology of the Republican party and the Neo-Cons. America has repeatedly refused to allow international courts jurisdiction in America and condemned criticism of American society and institutions by the UN, on the grounds that these organisations and the countries they represent are much less democratic than the US. To allow them jurisdiction in America, or over Americans, is seen as an attack on the fundamental institutions of American freedom. Thus, while America has demanded that foreign heads of states responsible for atrocities, such as the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, should be tried at the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, it has strenuously resisted calls for the prosecution of American commanders accused of similar crimes.

Britain Not Democratic for Most of its History

This sense of a unique, democratic destiny and a moral superiority to other nations also permeates the British Right. Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP for Dorset, who wishes to privatise the NHS, has written a book, on how the English-speaking peoples invented democracy. It’s a highly debatable view. Most historians, I suspect, take the view instead that it was the Americans and French, rather than exclusively the English-speaking peoples, who invented democracy. Britain invented representative, elected government, but until quite late in the 19th century the franchise was restricted to a narrow class of propertied men. Women in Britain finally got the right to vote in 1918, but didn’t actually get to vote until 1928. Part of the Fascist revolt in Britain in the 1930s was by Right-wing, die-hard Tories alarmed at all of the proles finally getting the vote, and the growing power of Socialism and the trade unions. Technically, Britain is still not a democracy. The architects of the British constitution in the 17th and 18th centuries viewed it as mixed constitution, containing monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, with each component and social class acting as a check on the others. The House of Commons was the democratic element. And the 17th and 18th century views of its democratic nature often seem at odds with the modern idea that everyone should have the inalienable right to vote. It seems to me that these centuries’ very restricted view of democracy ultimately derived from Aristotle. In his Politics, Aristotle considers a number of constitutions and forms of government and state, including democracy. His idea of democracy, however, is very definitely not ours. He considers it to be a state governed by leisured, landed gentlemen, who are supposed to remain aloof and separate from the lower orders – the artisans, labourers, tradesmen and merchants, who actually run the economy. In his ideal democracy, there were to be two different fora – one for the gentlemen of the political class, the other for the rude mechanicals and tradesmen of the hoi polloi.

How seriously the British ruling class took democracy and constitutional freedom can be seen in the very rapid way they removed and abolished most of it to stop the proles rising up during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Burke is hailed as the founder of modern Conservatism for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he argued for cautious, gradual change firmly grounded and respecting national tradition, as opposed to the violence and bloodshed which occurred over the other side of the Channel, when the French tried rebuilding their nation from scratch. At the time, however, Burke was seen as half-mad and extremely eccentric for his views.

Imperial Government and Lack of Democracy in Colonies

The lack of democracy became acute in the case of the countries the British conquered as they established the British Empire. The peoples of Africa, the Middle East and Asia were largely governed indirectly through their indigenous authorities. However, ultimate authority lay with the British governors and the colonial administration. It was not until the 1920s, for example, that an indigenous chief was given a place on the colonial council in the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Some governors did actively try to involve the peoples, over whom they ruled, in the business of government, like Hennessy in Hong Kong. For the vast majority of colonial peoples, however, the reality was the absence of self-government and democracy.

British Imperial Aggression and Oppression of Subject Peoples

And for many of the peoples of the British Empire, imperial rule meant a long history of horrific oppression. The sugar plantations of the West Indies have been described as ‘concentration camps for Blacks’, which have left a continuing legacy of bitterness and resentment amongst some West Indians. The sense of moral outrage, as well as the horrific nature of imperial rule for Black West Indians and the indigenous Arawak and Carib peoples in books on West Indian history written by West Indians can come as a real shock to Brits, who have grown up with the Whig interpretation of history. Other chapters in British imperial history also come across as actually quite sordid, like the annexation of the Transvaal, despite the fact that the Afrikaaner voortrekkers who colonised it did so to get away from British rule. The Opium War is another notorious example, the colonisation of Australia was accompanied by the truly horrific genocide of the Aboriginal peoples, and the late 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’, which saw much of the continent conquered by the French and British, was largely motivated by the desire to grab Africa and its resources before the Germans did.

Whig Interpretation of History: Britain Advancing Freedom against Foreign Tyranny

All this gives the lie to the Whig interpretation of history. This was the name the historian Butterfield gave to the reassuring, patriotic view of British history being one natural progression upwards to democracy and the Empire. There’s still an element of it around today. The view of the Empire as promoted by patriotic text books like Our Empire Story, was of Britain establishing freedom and justice against foreign tyrants and despots, civilising the backward nations of Africa and Asia. Similar views can be found in Niall Ferguson, who in his books states that Europe and America managed to overtake other global cultures because of their innately democratic character and respect for property. Ferguson presented this idea in a television series, which was critiqued by Private Eye’s ‘Square Eyes’.

Another, very strong element in this patriotic view of British history is the struggle Between Britain and foreign tyrants, starting with the French in the Hundred Years War, through the Spanish Armada, and then the Napoleonic War and Hitler, and finally as part of the Western free world standing against Communism. In fact, many of the regimes supported by Britain and the Americans weren’t very free at all. Salvador Allende of Chile, although a Marxist, was democratically elected. He was over thrown in the coup that elevated General Pinochet to power, sponsored by the CIA. Similar coups were launched against the democratic, non-Marxist Socialist regime of Benz in Guatemala. And it hasn’t stopped with the election of Barak Obama. Seumas Milne in one of his pieces for the Guardian, collected in The Revenge of History, reports a Right-wing coup against the democratically elected government in Honduras, again sponsored by America. at the same time Britain and America supported various Middle Eastern despots and tyrants, including the theocratic, absolute monarchies of the Gulf States, against Communism. If you are a member of these nations, in South and Central America and the Middle East, you could be forgiven for believing that the last thing the West stands for is democracy, or that it’s a hypocritical pose. Democracy and freedom is all right for Britain, America and their allies, but definitely not something to be given to the rest of the world. And certainly not if they don’t vote the way we want them.

Origin of Link between Britain and Democracy in Churchill’s Propaganda against Axis

In fact, it’s only been since the Second World War that the English-speaking world has attempted to make itself synonymous with ‘democracy’. While Britain previously considered itself to be a pillar of freedom, this was certainly not synonymous, and in some cases directly opposed to democracy. Some 18th and 19th century cartoons on the radical ferment about the time of the French Revolution and its supporters in Britain are explicitly anti-democratic. Martini Pugh in his book on British Fascism between the Wars notes that large sections of the colonial bureaucracy, including the India Office, were firmly against the introduction of democracy in England. According to an article on the origins of the English-Speaking Union in the Financial Times I read years ago, this situation only changed with the Second World War, when Churchill was faced with the problem of winning the propaganda battle against Nazi Germany. So he attempted win allies, and hearts and minds, by explicitly linking British culture to the idea of democracy. This may not have been a hugely radical step, as Hitler already equated Britain with democracy. Nevertheless, it completed the process by which the country’s view of its constitution, from being narrowly oligarchical, was transformed into a democracy, though one which retained the monarchy and the House of Lords.

House of Lords as Seat of British Prime Ministers, Not Commons

And it wasn’t that long ago that effective power lay with the upper house, rather than the Commons. During the 19th and early 20th centuries a succession of prime ministers were drawn from the House of Lords. It was only after Lloyd George’s constitutional reforms that the head of government came from the Lower House, rather than the chamber of the aristocracy.

Most of this is either unknown, or is just accepted by most people in Britain today. The British’ idea of themselves as uniquely democratic is largely accepted unquestioningly, to the point where just raising the issue of how recent and artificial it is, especially with regard to Britain’s colonies and the Empire’s subaltern peoples, is still extremely radical. And the Conservatives and their fellows on the Right, like UKIP, play on this assumption of democratic superiority. Europe, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter, isn’t as democratic us, and has absolutely no right telling us what to do.

Need to Challenge Image of Britain as Uniquely Democratic, to Stop Tories Undermining It

And so the British image of themselves as innately, quintessentially democratic and freedom-loving, is turned around by the Right to attack foreign human rights legislation, courts and institutions, that help to protect British freedoms at home. This needs to be tackled, and the anti-democratic nature of much of British history and political culture needs to be raised and properly appreciated in order to stop further erosion of our human rights as British citizens, by a thoroughly reactionary Conservative administration determined to throw us back to the aristocratic rule of the 19th century, when democracy was itself was highly suspect and even subversive because of its origins in the French Revolution.

Tolstoy’s Prediction of the First World War

April 27, 2014

As I’ve mentioned before, this is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and already the BBC has put on a season of programmes commemorating the conflict. I’ve blogged on Michael Gove’s criticism of the negative view of the First World War, which he feels denigrates the courage and patriotism of the soldiers. He attacked the Beeb’s comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth, as an example of this, and compounded his argument with knee-jerk Tory anti-intellectualism by claiming that the view was promoted by ‘Left-wing intellectuals’. A number of bloggers have attacked this diatribe, including Mike over at Vox Political. It has also provoked a response from the creators of graphic novels, who are putting together several albums presenting the horrific reality of the conflict as a response to Gove’s Right-wing patriotic view of the War.

Many people in Europe in the late 19th and first decade of the 20th centuries were very much aware of the looming threat of world conflict. One of those who foresaw it and its mass carnage was the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. As well as a writer, Tolstoy was a pacifist Anarchist. He hated the horrors of modern, industrial society and the state that oppressed the Russian poor. He saw the solution in the abolition of the state and traditional peasant society, to the point where he gave up much of his life style as a Russian aristocrat to live, dress and work like a peasant. As a young man, he had, like many other noblemen, been a soldier and had fought in the wars to conquer Chechnya and the Caucasus. He had been highly impressed by ideas of a Chechen Sufi leader, who, when his nations’ attempts to resist the Russians through armed force were repeatedly suppressed, rejected violence and advocated instead a policy of non-violent civil disobedience. Tolstoy himself rejected violence, and took up the Sufi leader’s ideas. In turn, Tolstoy’s advocacy of the policy influenced Gandhi in his own campaign against British rule in India.

Tolstoy also campaigned on behalf of the Doukhobors, a heretical Russian Christian sect, that also rejected violence. It was due to Tolstoy’s support and that of British Quakers that the sect emigrated from Russia to settle in Canada.

He promoted his Anarchist and pacifist ideals in a series of books, What Then Must We Do?, The Kingdom of God is Within You and The Restoration of Hell. They also influenced his magnum opus, War and Peace. This was written to show that history was not made by a few great men, but by the actions of millions of ordinary people. Lionel Kochan discusses Tolstoy’s ideas, his criticisms of contemporary society, and prediction of the coming War in his Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970). Tolstoy attacked just about every aspect of contemporary society, including science, the press, religion, state education, and the state as a system of organised crime itself. Kochan writes:

Tolstoy, no doubt, showed little, if any, awareness of the deep-rooted complexity of the evils he stigmatized; no doubt, also, his positive doctrine was thin enough – the gospel of universal love, undogmatic Christianity, sexual abstinence, non-resistance to evil, the renunciation of tobacco and alcohol – for all that his later work constitutes an anarchist programme of profound strength. His unbridled criticism of society and its values, his corrosive and derisive scepticism, made him an anarchist more anarchic, a nihilist more nihilistic and a revolutionary more destructive than any whom Russia had yet brought forth – far more consistent and humanistic than Bakunin, far more hard-headed than Kropotkin.

What is science? He asked. Had it done anything of value to human life in determining the weight of Saturn’s satellites? What was universal suffrage? A means whereby the prisoners elected their own gaolers. Had industrialism raised the standard of living? Then look at the slums and doss-houses of Moscow. Tolstoy derided division of labour as a device for turning men into machines, book-printing as a medium for communicating ‘all the nasty and stupid things that are done and written in the world’, and reform for teaching people ‘that though themselves bad they can reform bad people’. What did the church do but maintain idolatry ‘in the most literal sense of the word – worshipping holy relics and icons, offering sacrifices to them and expecting from them the fulfilment of the worshippers’ wishes’? What did compulsory education do but ‘teach the savage superstition of patriotism and the same pseudo-obligation to obey the state’? What was the press but a means for ‘exciting feelings of mutual hostility between the nations’? What were the governments of the time, despotic and liberal alike, but – and her Tolstoy quotes Herzen’s phrase – ‘Genghis Khans with telegraphs’? The modern state was a mechanism so interlocked and interdependent that it became impossible to discriminate between the guilty and the innocent: ‘Some people demand the perpetration of a crime, others decide that it shall be done, a third set confirm that decision, a fourth propose its execution, a fifth report on it, a sixth finally decree it, and a seventh carry out the decree.’ Tolstoy’s apocalyptic vision of a state given over to destruction culminates in an anticipation of the imminent First World War:

‘The bells will peal and long-haired men will dress themselves in gold-embroidered socks and begin to pray on behalf of murder … The editors of newspapers will set to work to arouse hatred and murder under the guise of patriotism and will be delighted to double their sales. Manufacturers, merchants, and contractors for army stores will hurry about joyfully in expectation of doubled profits … Army commanders will bustle here and there, drawing double pay and rations and hoping to receive trinkets and crosses, stripes and stars, for murdering people. Idle ladies and gentlemen will fuss about, entering their names in advance for the Red Cross and getting ready to bandage those whom their husbands and brothers are setting out to kill – imagining they will be doing a most Christian work thereby.’

Kochan criticises Tolstoy for not understanding how enthusiastic and patriotic Russian servicemen initially were for the War. However, he then goes on to quote the great writer’s prediction of the condition of the soldiers in the War’s later stages, men who

‘will trudge where they may be driven, stifling the despair in their souls by songs, debauchery and vodka. They will march, freeze, suffer from hunger, and fall ill. Some will die of disease, and some will at last come to the place where men will kill them by the thousand. And they too, without knowing why, will murder thousands of others whom they had never before seen, and who had neither done nor could do them any wrong.’

For Tolstoy, the coming world war would ‘devour in a year more victims than all the revolutions of a century’. (pp. 157-8).
I strongly disagree with most of Tolstoy’s criticisms of contemporary society. He was, for example, wrong about science not benefitting humanity. it clearly has and had, most obviously in the improvements in medicine, that appeared in the 19th century. And printing and the press have increased knowledge and much good around the globe, despite the fact that they can often be used for evil. Having said that, he does have a point with the Sun, Daily Mail, and Express.

It will, however, be interesting to see if the BBC or anyone else, in their programmes on the Great War, mention Tolstoy’s prediction.

As a pacifist Anarchist, Tolstoy’s political views were strongly disapproved by Paul Johnson in the Spectator. In one of his articles in that journal he described the great novelists as somehow – I’ve forgotten quite what he wrote – being responsible for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s tyranny. He never described how this was so. He simply asserted it, and went on. The only thing Tolstoy had in common with Stalin is that they were both radicals, who revolted against the Tsarist state. And possibly that they both had military careers. Apart from that, Tolstoy hated everything that Stalin stood for – militarism, an oppressive, coercive state, brutality and murder. And Tolstoy himself was far from unique in wishing to see a radical reform or overthrow of contemporary society. By 1905 the Tsar’s reluctance to establish any kind of constitutional reforms had pushed most sections of the Russian society in opposition. Even the Union of Unions, made up members of the liberal profession – doctors, lawyers, vets, scientists, engineers, teachers, university professors – not the usual bomb-throwing nutters – were advocating the use of violence if all else failed. There was another writer called, Tolstoy, Alexey, who survived into the Stalin era to write pieces praising the dictator. It looks like Johnson confused the two due to the same surname. But Leo Tolstoy would have been utterly opposed to the old thug.

The French Revolutionary Sansculottes, Their Attitudes, Ideology and Continuing Relevance

April 22, 2014

French Revolution Book

I have found this description of the Sansculottes, the radical Parisian republicans, in D.G. Wright, Revolution and Terror in France 1789-1795 (London: Longman 1974). They weren’t working class, but a mixture of people from across the working and middle classes, including wage-earners and prosperous businessmen. The majority of them were tradesmen, shopkeepers, craftsmen, small masters, compagnons and journeymen. Their membership reflected the structure of Parisian industry, which largely consisted of small workshops employing four and fourteen workers. Despite containing many members of the middle class, the Sansculottes believed strongly in manual work and direct democracy.

The ideal sans culotte, depicted in popular prints, wore his hair long, smoked a pipe and dressed simply: cotton trousers (rather than the knee-breeches, culottes, of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie), a short jacket and the bonnet rouge (the Phrygian cap of the freed slave in ancient times). Powdered wigs, scent, knee-breeches, buckled shoes, flowered waistcoats, bows and lorgnettes were dismissed as foppish and frivolous trappings of privilege, with overtones of sexual deviancy. Equally dismissed were the manners and deferent behaviour of the ancient regime: the good sans culotte took his hat off to nobody, used the familiar ‘tu’ rather than ‘vous’ and ‘citoyen’ rather than ‘monsieur’, and swore in the colourful Parisian slang of the Pere Duchesne. He tended to judge people by their appearance: those who wore fancy clothes, spoke in ‘posh’ tones, looked haughty, or failed to offer the fraternal kiss of liberty. Those who seemed to despise the honest working man were in trouble. A music dealer was arrested as a suspect for observing, at a sectional meeting, ‘It was disgusting to see a cobbler acting as president, particularly a cobbler who was badly dressed’.

‘Aristocrat’ and ‘moderate’ became interchangeable terms for those who opposed in any way the outlook and aspirations of the sans culottes or appeared to look down on them or ridicule them; they were also applied to those who seemed indifferent and lacking in the open enthusiasm of the good revolutionary. ‘Aristocrat’ could include those who refused to buy biens nationaux or to cultivate land or sell it at a fair price, or failed to find employment for labourers and journeymen, or refused to subscribe generously to patriotic loans, or to those dealt in gold rather than republican assignats or speculated on the Bourse or in joint stock companies. As the revolutionary crisis deepened in 1793, ‘aristocrat’ increasingly came to mean bourgeois property owner; in May an orator in the Section du Mail declared: ‘Aristocrats are the rich wealthy merchants, monopolists, middlemen, bankers, trading clerks, quibbling lawyers and citizens who own anything.’ Wealth always raised sans culotte suspicion, unless offset by outstanding political virtue. Hoarders and monopolists were seen as hand-in-glove with large merchants, bankers and economic liberals in a plot to starve the people and crush the Revolution; for sans culottes were ultra sensitive to the problem of food supply and the price of bread, while they lived in constant fear of plots and betrayal. Hunger, as well as democratic politics and puritanical moral views, was a cement holding the disparate sans culotte groups together. Hence pillage could be justified as ‘egalitarian’ and ‘revolutionary’ in that it fed the people and struck at the machinations of hoarders and speculators, the visible vanguard of counter-revolution. Sans culottes always tended to advocated immediate and violent political solutions to economic problems and, with brutal simplicity, assumed that spilling blood would provide bread.

Despite the fact that many sans culottes were small property owners, there existed a deep-rooted egalitarianism. They believed in the ‘right to live’ (‘droit a l’existence’) and in ‘the equality of the benefits of society (l’egalite des jouissances). A family should have enough to live on in modest comfort, especially sufficient bread of good quality flour. No rich man should have the power of life and death over his fellow men by his ability to monopolise food and other basic necessities. thus food prices and distribution should be controlled by law, while the government should take stern action against hoarders and speculators. Some of the more radical sans culotte committees demanded taxation of the rich, limitation of rents, restriction of the activities of large financiers, government-assisted workshops and allowances for widows, orphans and disabled soldiers. (pp. 52-4).

‘He was a fervent believer in direct democracy, a concept which stemmed ultimately from Rousseau and the Social Contract and filtered down into the sections through the revolutionary press, broadsheets and speeches, revolutionary songs and Jacobin Club pamphlets and propaganda. Authority could not be delegated, for the true basis of government was the people, sitting permanently in their evening sectional meetings, where they discussed laws and decrees. Deputies should be delegates rather than representatives and be constantly and immediately answerable to societies populaires. The latter had the right to scrutinise the laws of the Assembly, administer justice and the police, and help to run the war effort. Thus the sans culottes saw themselves and the ‘nation’ as synonymous. (pp. 54-5).

We don’t need the murderous bloodthirstiness of the sans culottes, some of whom took their children to public executions as part of their political education, and, as time wore on, became increasingly nationalistic and chauvinistic, to the point where they insisted on Parisian French as they only indicator of political reliability, and were hostile and suspicious of other languages spoken in France, such as the Breton Celtic tongue, and even other French dialects. And I don’t share their radical atheism and hatred of Christianity and Roman Catholicism. However, we do need a revival of other parts of their attitude and values: the radical egalitarianism, which despises and revolted against any attempt to sneer at someone because of their occupation as a worker or manual tradesman. Owen Jones in Chavs points to the way Kenneth Clarke once heckled John Prescott with the cry of ‘Here, barman’, because Prescott had once been a ship’s steward. And this government is indeed that of ‘Aristocrats … wealthy merchants, monopolists, middlemen, bankers, trading clerks, quibbling lawyers’ and the owners of vast property and industry. And monopolists, bankers and economic liberals are pursuing policies that penalise and push into grinding poverty the poorest and weakest sections of the society for their own profit.

Instead of a government by them, which benefits the rich alone, we desperately need instead a government of real egalitarians, that is not afraid to pursue policies that include the ‘taxation of the rich, limitation of rents, restriction of the activities of large financiers, government-assisted workshops and allowances for widows, orphans and disabled soldiers’ and more. Regardless of one’s attitude to religion, it’s about time we returned and revived their radical egalitarianism against a radically unequal, illiberal and thoroughly oppressive regime.

cameron-toff

David Cameron: He personifies the Sansculotte statement ‘Aristocrats are the rich wealthy merchants, monopolists, middlemen, bankers, trading clerks, quibbling lawyers and citizens who own anything.’