The Long Song – BBC 1


The brutality with which the Jamaican plantocracy reacted to the Christmas Rebellion/Baptist War/Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-2 was so horrific that it may well have been what got Abolitionism over the line in 1833; but it’s rarely spoken about. Maybe it’s just too easy to think of Abolitionism as being about people in black bombazine singing “Amazing Grace” in assembly rooms.  And stories about slavery and uprisings are usually told from the viewpoint of the slaveowners: this is a rare example of a story in which the protagonist is a slave.  She’s called July.

My one real quibble with it is that Caroline, the main white character, comes dangerously close to caricature, or at least did early on. That’s no criticism of Hayley Atwell: she’s only playing her as she was written, and doing a very good job of it. Tamara Lawrance as July is also excellent, and Lenny Henry as Godfrey, the head of the house slaves, is incredible.  We all know what a great comedian and comic actor he is, but I’ve never really thought of him as a serious actor before.  And the character of Caroline does improve as the first episode goes on, to be fair.

So what’s going on? Christmas 1831.  The slave trade’s been abolished across the British Empire in 1807, but hopes that that would lead to the abolition of slavery itself across the British Empire have as yet failed to materialise, although the Abolitionist movement – notably the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823- is growing in size and influence.  There’ve been attempts to improve living and working conditions for slaves, but the Jamaican Assembly hasn’t wanted to know about them. Led by Baptist deacon Samuel Sharpe, one of a number of slaves who’d become religious ministers/preachers, a general strike’s planned, to demand a wage and more free time.

It turns into an uprising. The uprising only lasts eleven days, being quickly put down by British and free black Maroon troops, but there are violent reprisals by the slaveowners afterwards, with hundreds of slaves being executed for very minor offences such as stealing a cow.   The brutality horrifies public opinion in Britain, and it almost certainly hastens the abolition of slavery.  The Jamaican sugar-based economy has already begun to collapse and there’ll be severe economic decline for the rest of the 19th century; and the white upper-classes will continue to dominate financially and politically until well into the 20th century.  But at least the days of slavery are over.

July is born about 18 years or so before this (it’s not clear exactly how old she is in 1831) as the result of the rape of a female slave, Kitty, by the plantation overseer. We see the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline, take a fancy to her because she thinks she’s sweet and cute, and take her away from Kitty to be trained up as her maid, without a thought for the feelings of either mother or child at being separated.  It should be a heartrending and shocking moment, but, unfortunately, at that point the character of Caroline’s so pantomimish and OTT that it doesn’t quite work as it should do.

At that point, I wasn’t very impressed – but it did get better. Caroline is an interesting character.  She’s actually a very vulnerable character.  She’s the only white woman on the plantation, and, for some reason, there don’t seem to be any other relatives or friends around.  I suppose she has to seem foolish because it’s important to the story, later on, that she can’t manage the slaves herself and is dependent on July, who becomes the housekeeper – but it does all go overboard early on, with a lot of yelling and shrieking and hysterics.  The idea of the cunning slave/servant and the stupid mistress/master’s a stock storyline in sitcoms, but this isn’t a sitcom.  Anyway, as I said, it got better – the character of Caroline was working much better by the end of the first episode.

She insists on calling July “Marguerite”. Dehumanisation’s a key theme here – a child is seen as being cute, as if she’s a puppy or a kitten, and is taken away from her mother without a second thought, and then her name’s changed.  OK, it isn’t quite comparable to the famous Kunta Kinte/Toby scene, but there’s a telling scene during the rebellion in which Godfrey makes Caroline call July by her real name.

In the build-up to the rebellion, or uprising, or revolt, or war, or whichever term’s preferred, we see little acts of defiance by the slaves. July and Godfrey use a soiled bedsheet as a tablecloth at a posh dinner being given by Caroline.  Godfrey tells Caroline outright that the plantation can’t afford all the candles she wants for decoration – and she hits him for it.  The slaves throw their own Christmas party.  And then the actual rebellion.

July isn’t involved in it. Instead, she and her lover, a free black man called Nimrod, are enjoying themselves in the bedroom of the master, Caroline’s brother John.  John comes in, and shoots himself.  Caroline, not wanting to admit that her brother’s killed himself, claims that she saw Nimrod shoot him.  Nimrod is executed.  July’s sent to work in the fields – but is eventually brought back to the house as housekeeper, because Caroline can’t manage without her.

At the end of the first episode, a new plantation manager, Robert Goodwin, brings news that emancipation is coming. He seems sympathetic to the slaves, but, with two more episodes to come, it’s obviously going to get very complicated.

This is the story of a woman’s life. It’s not a story of a rebellion and emancipation … but that’s like saying that Gone With The Wind isn’t about the American Civil War/War Between The States and Reconstruction, or that War and Peace isn’t about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  It could be argued that it’s not the responsibility of Andrea Levy, the author of the book on which this is based, or of the BBC, to teach us about it.  Or is it?  If you write a book, or adapt for TV a book, about such an important and sensitive issue, then surely you are accepting some responsibility for that.  Novels, TV programmes and films reach a far wider audience than academic books do.  And this does a good job of it.  It’s not angry or aggressive.  It’s not sick-makingly preachy like Uncle Tom’s Cabin is.  Sorry, but I cannot stand that book!  It just tells the story.   Good choice by the BBC.



The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple


According to William Dalrymple, all the problems of the world are due to Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists. And no, he wasn’t talking about today – he was talking about the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58.  Let’s say that this isn’t the most balanced and unbiased view of events that I’ve ever read!  He makes some good points, though, and a lot of the writing is quite gripping – not always easy to achieve when writing about military events.  And he’s used some previously unpublished information which he came across whilst doing his research.

Dalrymple is also the author of White Mughals, about a relationship (a true story) between a British man and an Indian noblewoman, and he clearly feels very strongly about the changes in British attitudes towards Indian people as the 19th century went on, and links that closely to changes in religious culture.  This was something I also mentioned when I was waffling about the Who Do You Think You Are? Episode about Olivia Colman’s mixed race ancestor – welcomed into the family and British society, in the early 19th century, in a way which she sadly wouldn’t have been a few decades later.   There was definitely a change in attitudes, and it certainly wasn’t for the better.

The book’s actually supposed to be about Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor – as the title suggests. Also an Urdu poet and a Sufi mystic.  You associate the Mughal Empire with the 16th and 17th centuries, and tend almost to forget that there was still a Mughal Emperor, even if his rule was confined just to parts of Delhi, until the Mutiny.  Popular amongst both Hindus and Muslims, he was, at the age of 81, proclaimed Emperor of Hindustan by the mutineers … and he dithered whilst 52 Westerners were murdered at his palace, and then pretty much took the blame.  A British major then executed two of his sons and one of his grandsons.  Many other male members of his family were also executed by the British – it reads a bit like the Bolsheviks wiping out the Romanovs – and, according to Dalrymple, many of the women ended up working as prostitutes.  Zafar was exiled to Burma.  And Delhi was wrecked.

It was not the British Empire’s finest hour – although an amnesty was proclaimed for all mutineers not actually involved in murder.  It should also be noted that the press didn’t help, by exaggerating what had gone on, particularly with false claims about mutineers sexually assaulting British women.  The press in the second half of the 19th century seem to have been very good at whipping up hysteria: they did the same in the 1870s, during the Russo-Turkish War.

And, as we all know, the rule of the East India Company was then replaced by the British Raj – although it should be pointed out that large areas of India remained under the control of local rulers, and also that a royal proclamation was issued, promising Indians under British rule the rights of British subjects.

The Mutiny’s covered in two of my all-time favourite books, God is an Englishman (retrospectively) by R F Delderfield and A Dark and Distant Shore by Reay Tannahill.   Both make it clear that there was horrific violence on both sides – and that’s where I think Dalrymple could do with seeing both sides a little more clearly.  He does follow the experiences of a number of British people, men and women, in Delhi during the Mutiny, and he does make it clear that some of them were murdered, but he doesn’t seem to express the same horror about that as he does about the atrocities committed by the British forces.  Two wrongs, especially two such horrific wrongs, do not in any way make a right; but it is important to recognise that there was wrong on both sides.  His view doesn’t seem particularly balanced, and a lot of that seems due to his conviction that relations between the British and the Indians went wrong because of Evangelical Christianity.

He does also deal with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, so maybe he has it in for religious extremism in general. It’s hard to argue with anyone on that score!   But his argument seems to be everything that was going wrong revolved around cultural changes in British attitudes towards India, associated with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, whereas there were all sorts of different reasons for the Mutiny.  And, yes, I know that not everyone uses the term “Mutiny”, but it’s the one I’m used to.

Going back to God is an Englishman and A Dark and Distant Shore, neither of them – and obviously they’re novels, not academic books – focus on Delhi.  Books by British authors do usually focus on Cawnpore (Kanpur) and Lucknow and the sufferings of British civilians there, but this one does very much focus on Delhi, and the Indian viewpoint.  I’m saying “Indian”, but obviously we’re talking about a subcontinent of three major religions and many different ethnic groups, and that needs to be borne in mind.

The cause I first remember reading about was the use of beef and pork fat on cartridges used to grease guns. Soldiers had to bite the cartridges open.  What a stupid, insensitive thing to do – upsetting both Hindus and Muslims, and it could so easily have been avoided by using goat or mutton fat.  But that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  There was so much else going on.  Interference in religion and culture, yes.  Fears that attempts would be made to make mass conversions to Christianity, yes.  Economic policy – free trade is a wonderful thing, but not when it interferes with local traditional ways of doing things.  The Doctrine of Lapse, by which the British authorities helped themselves to princely states with no direct heir, refusing to recognise the traditional practice of adopting an heir in such circumstances.  And it wasn’t called the Mutiny for nothing – there was widespread discontent in the Army, over pay, lack of opportunities for promotion, and, as British holdings in India expanded, men being sent further and further afield.

So it was hardly all about religious/cultural ideas.  And it’s pushing it to suggest, as Dalrymple does, that Evangelical Christians were making all the decisions about British policy in India, and I also think it’s pushing it to say that Evangelical Christians were to blame for all the negative aspects of imperialism … even if it does make a change from the often-made suggestion that British attitudes towards Indians changed for the worse when more British women began going to India, which is very objectionable!  A lot of the trouble in China was caused by Catholic missionaries, rather than Evangelicals, incidentally.  And the people who did look at expansion and imperialism as some sort of religious thing were part of a wider culture of Western-centrism, which was about race and industrialisation as much as it was about religion.  It’s the whole “White Man’s Burden” thing.  And the American term “Manifest Destiny” goes right back to just before the Mexican War.  It’s horrible, and it’s frightening, but it went way beyond religious activism.

These people did actually mean well, I suppose. And, as much as it’s easy to criticise their ideas of cultural superiority, you can see why they thought that, for example, trying to end the practice of widows committing suicide was a good thing.   This still goes on today.  Should people be criticised for trying to end Female Genital Mutilation, which is a traditional practice in some areas? And David Cameron was accused of cultural imperialism when he quite rightly criticised the very poor record of some Commonwealth countries on LGBT rights – ironically, a subject on which Evangelical Christians would probably oppose change in the countries concerned.   All cultures can learn from other cultures. Look how many English words have come from Urdu and Hindi. We use some of them every day. Shampoo. Pyjamas. But that has to come in the right way, and that wasn’t what was happening in 19th century India.

I can’t abide preachy people who think they have the right to tell other people what to do, and who think that they’re morally and culturally superior to others. Thinking about missionaries in India always makes me think about St John Rivers, Jane Eyre’s cousin, one of the most annoying characters in classic literature – and that says a lot!  And some of the stuff coming out of the US at the moment is genuinely frightening.  But I do think Dalrymple’s a bit hard on them.  It’s worth remembering that Evangelicals played an important role in Abolitionism … although don’t get me started on the subject of William Wilberforce opposing holding of an inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre.  And the negative side of colonialism and imperialism was scarcely all their fault.  There were a lot of other factors at play.  Power politics.  The Mutiny broke out the year after the end of the Crimean War: the two things weren’t linked, but there was always “the Great Game” to be thought about.  Money – let’s never forget money!    Well, trade.  If only everyone had stuck to thinking about trade!

We do all need to try harder to see different sides of everything.  That’s becoming more and more of a rarity: increasingly, people will shout down anyone whose views differ from theirs, and hurl insults at them.  I recently read an obituary of Senator John McCain which referred to the respect that he and Barack Obama showed for each other.  Fewer and fewer politicians show that respect towards opponents now, and it’s the same with the press, and, in many cases, with people in general.

Back to the Mutiny. Was it Niall Ferguson who said that Britain somehow ended up with “the wrong empire”?  We were supposed to be after trade, not colonies and certainly not all this “white man’s burden” stuff.  There’d been criticism in Britain for years of Spanish behaviour in Latin America, all the “Black Legend” stuff.  Was the Mutiny the point at which it changed?

There’s a lot to think about, in this book, beyond the actual events of 1857-58. Poor old Zafar himself.  The final end of the Mughal period – that great Empire, the Empire of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort and, for so many years, religious harmony.  What happens to emperors after their empires have gone?  Zafar only lived a few years afterwards, and the senior Romanovs were wiped out, but spare a thought for the various Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns and others still dotted around the world.  And, finally, back to the question of Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists – and add the religious right-wing elements of Judaism, Hinduism and other religions into that as well.   One of the few good things that Oliver Cromwell did for this country was to show people that religious extremism is best kept out of politics.  It usually is, here.  It’s a great shame that that isn’t the case everywhere.

Nobody can agree on the Indian Mutiny.  Mutiny?  War of independence?  Either way, you can’t argue that it wasn’t a big deal.  However, that’s usually seen in terms of the change from the rule of the East India Company to the rule of the British Crown – and, yes, that was the main effect, but the fact that it did finally end the Mughal Empire, even if the “Mughal Empire” was by then only one part of one city, deserves recognition too, and that’s what this book was about.  Even if it did go on rather too much about religious attitudes.























Who Do You Think You Are? (Olivia Colman) – BBC 1


Some episodes of this are better than others; and this, kicking off the new series, was a particularly good one. OK, technically the series started with the Michelle Keegan episode, which was also interesting, but that was shown weeks ago!   The Olivia Colman episode not only included some fascinating “human interest” stories, about the eventful lives of the ancestors of someone who’d said that she hadn’t expected to find too much drama in her family tree, but took us back to the lives of the British in pre-Mutiny India, something we don’t hear nearly enough about.

The Victorians cast a very long shadow, and, given their achievements, rightly so. But that does mean that the attitudes of Georgian times aren’t given enough attention: there can be the idea that the views of “the past” mean the views of the mid to late Victorians.  And Georgian times were very different.  Take Jane Austen’s novels.  Lydia Bennet runs off with Mr Wickham, and lives with him before they’re married.  Maria Rushworth, nee Bertram, leaves her husband and runs off with Henry Crawford.  We hear all about Willoughby’s history of seducing young women – and Wickham wasn’t behind the door in that department either.  Emma’s friend Harriet is “the natural daughter of Someone”.  It’s a long way from the Victorians covering piano legs because even pianos weren’t allowed to show their legs in public!

Then there were attitudes on race and colonialism. It’s a controversial area, and one which it would take hours to go into properly.  But, in the second half of the 19th century, it probably wasn’t very likely that a well-to-do British family would have taken in the mixed race daughter of one of its scions.  The illegitimate mixed race daughter.  Whereas that’s exactly what happened with Olivia Colman’s great-great-great-grandmother, Harriot Slessor – born in a remote part of India in 1807, half a century before the Mutiny, to a British officer and his Indian mistress.

Sadly, her father died when she was only three, and we don’t know what happened to her mother, but Olivia learnt that Harriot’s grandmother had sent for her, paid for her passage to Britain, and given her everything she could. She was nicknamed “India Harriot”: there seems to have been no attempt to cover up her mixed heritage, as there perhaps would have been later on.  Think Anna Leonowens of “The King and I” fame.  OK, what happened to Harriot was only one person’s experience, but it was … well, I was going to say a lovely one, but it was actually rather sad in parts.  Although she was going to a loving family, it was to a strange country and people she didn’t know.  And then her first husband, whom she met on board a ship going back to India, died shortly after their marriage.

It was suggested that her mixed heritage made it difficult for her to find a husband in England, so not everyone was as open-minded as the Slessor family were, but she did marry twice, both to white British men. She and her second husband remained in India for many years, and then retired to the Home Counties, where they lived a comfortable life.  He presumably made money in India and was from a comfortable background anyway, and she inherited a considerable sum of money from a great-aunt.  It doesn’t seem to have bothered her family in the slightest that she was illegitimate or that she was of mixed race.  OK, this was only one person’s experience, and doesn’t necessarily typify the attitudes of the time, but I think it’s a very Georgian/early Victorian story, and I think Harriot’s upbringing may well have been very different had she been born sixty years later.   Thankfully for her, she wasn’t.

I’m not knocking the Victorians, but the image we have of the British in India tends to be that of the later Victorians, and of the first half of the 20th century, and it’s not always very positive, especially in today’s socio-political climate. Books like E M Forster’s A Passage to India perhaps have a lot to do with that.  And the pre-Mutiny British in India tend to be seen as idiots, like Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair.  Stories like that of Harriot Slessor can tell us a lot, and show us that maybe we need to rethink some of the common ideas and images about the British in India.  As the lady who showed Olivia round the area where Harriot was born pointed out, there were many relationships between British men and Indian women back then. Obviously there are books like White Mughals, about mixed race romances, about the 18th century, but it’s still the image of the clubs and the hill stations in late Victorian and early 20th century times that dominate.

There was a lot more in this programme, too. Harriot’s second husband’s father, Olivia’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, had accused his first wife of adultery, and then been granted not only a legal separation but the right to remarry – to a woman with whom he already had two children.  The two children born before their marriage were treated exactly the same as those born after their marriage – and this was in a very middle-class family.  Again, very Georgian!

We also heard about Harriot’s grandmother, also Harriot, and how she’d spent a lot of time in Porto, where her soldier husband was based.   From a human interest viewpoint, we heard – how wonderful to be able to read your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s letters! – about her sadness at leaving her elderly mother behind in Britain, and her sons at British boarding schools … something else we associate with Victorian and early twentieth century times, and which we need to remember went back well before that.  It was also a reminder of the longstanding bond between England/Britain and the very lovely city of Porto, and the very lovely country of Portugal generally.  Harriot’s husband was in the army, whereas a lot of the Brits based in Porto were there because of the port wine, but that’s another story!

Finally, we learnt that the elder Harriot’s mother had been born in Paris and come to Britain as a Huguenot refugee. That was well into the 18th century, so long after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the main wave of Huguenot emigration from France to the British Isles and elsewhere, but that just went to show that the issue of religion in France continued to be an issue even into the 1720s/1730s.  The distant relative who told Olivia about their common ancestor made the point that the Huguenots were the first group of people to be termed “refugees”.  This was right at the end of the programme, and we didn’t hear very much about this lady, but the whole subject of people moving around between England, Scotland, Ireland, France  and Low Countries, over a long period from the middle of the 16th century to the start of the 18th century – in fact, the middle of the 18th  century, if you include the people who left Scotland after Culloden – for religious and political reasons, often linked, is fascinating, and something we don’t hear enough about.

Mostly it was fairly small groups of people, but around 50,000 Huguenots came to the British Isles. Their influence on the textile and cutlery-making industries here, and the watch-making industry in Switzerland, was just immense.  Britain and Switzerland’s gain, and France’s loss.  There was quite a lot of immigration at that time – people moved from the Netherlands to Britain with William of Orange, and they included Jews as well as Protestants.  And, in 1709, 13,000 migrants from Germany – dubbed “the Palatines” as some of them came from the Palatinate – arrived in Britain, claiming that they were refugees, but it turned out that a lot of them were economic migrants, and there were social issues because most of them were poor and unskilled, many of them were Catholics when they’d claimed to be Protestants fleeing persecution.  There was a big row over immigration policy, and the difference between refugees and economic migrants …  some things don’t change!

But the Huguenot immigration does generally seem to have gone really well, and it would’ve been interesting to hear more about Olivia’s Huguenot ancestor.  However, you can only fit so much into an hour’s episode, and the story of her Eurasian (Anglo-Indian originally meant “British living in India”, with “Eurasian” being the term for someone of mixed heritage) great-great-great-grandmother and how well her life turned out was absolutely fascinating.  And Olivia had had no idea that her family had any connection with India at all.  Who knows what there might be in anyone’s family history that they have no idea about?  It’s just great when this programme can uncover something completely unexpected like that.  Wonderful episode.

The Last Post – BBC 1


I’m not quite sure why the first episode of this series set during the Aden Emergency mentioned George Best but failed to mention General Nasser. Oh well.   The Suez Crisis is fairly well-known, but the Aden Emergency isn’t, so it was an interesting choice of setting for this new BBC drama.   Incidentally, it’s a shame that none of the papers have picked up on this as a chance to encourage support for the Yemen Crisis Appeal.  Sky News are doing a sterling job of publicising the appeal to help Rohingya refugees, which is great, but the situation in Yemen’s being completely overlooked. I appreciate that international governments won’t say anything because they’re terrified of narking Saudi Arabia, but there’s no reason why the media can’t call for humanitarian aid to be sent.  Anyway, I’ve got completely off the point now.

So, we’ve got a regiment of the Royal Military Police, the Red Caps, stationed in Aden. Some of them are accompanied by wives and children.  The programme’s trying to cover the political and military aspects of events and be a soap opera at the same time.  That’s fair enough.  Some of the best books and films of all time work like that.  However, it hasn’t really explained the political background properly.  All we’re getting is that there are local organisations trying to force the British to withdraw by launching terrorist attacks against the soldiers.  It hasn’t been made clear that there are different pro-independence factions within Yemen, and it certainly hasn’t been made clear just how much Egypt is involved in it all.

Having said which, at least they’re trying to present a relatively balanced view of things. The BBC can be so anti-British these days that I was half-expecting them to show the Red Caps as the baddies, but it’s been made clear that these men are doing their job and, for the most part, trying to act with honour.  However, there’ve also been scenes showing the use of torture.  We’ve also seen that the “insurgents” want the occupiers out and their country back, but also that they’re prepared to kidnap and torture British troops and to launch terrorist attacks which murder people in cold blood.  No-one’s in the right.

This is all blokes’ stuff. Well, it is the 1960s.  When it comes to the human interest stuff, the women are much more involved.  There’s the nice young wife played by Jessie Buckley, who’s been befriended by the tarty one played by her out of Call The Midwife.  Jessie’s character’s husband’s got a big promotion, but the tarty one’s husband hasn’t, possibly because he’s seen as being too pro-Arab and possibly because she hangs her underwear out to dry in public.  And has been having an affair with another soldier.  Who got blown up.  And there’s the one played by her who used to be the mad doctor in EastEnders, who’s got a little lad who swears a lot (why is he allowed to get away with this?!) and likes football (hence the George Best reference), and who nearly dies whilst giving birth to her second child.  Her husband decided he had to stay with his men rather than rushing to her hospital bedside.  There’s also a young lad (who was in Dunkirk), who sounds like he comes from somewhere round here.  He fancies one of the local girls, and she helped him when he nearly got blown up, but presumably it’s all going to end in tears.

And there’s a club which looks like it belongs in Marbella. My idea of an army “club” is your British Raj type thing, with everyone sitting in a posh bar, but this one seems to involve a lot of swimming and sunbathing.  It didn’t sit very well with the military manoeuvres, but presumably that’s what it was like: people wouldn’t have been sat around inside all the time.

This is really, really not Gone With The Wind or War and Peace.  Those probably aren’t very good comparisons, but I’m trying to think of something which combines war and soapiness.  It’s not Downton Abbey, Poldark or Victoria either: it’s not going to be one of those series which everyone’s watching, everyone’s talking about at work on Monday morning, and newspapers are putting on their front pages.  But it isn’t bad.  And it’s always good to see a neglected part of the past (sorry, I cannot bring myself to talk about the 1960s as “history”) brought to people’s attention.  Let’s see where it goes.

With Wolfe in Canada by G A Henty


Word PressMore tales of derring-do from the wonderful G A Henty!  In this one, our hero lives on the south coast of England, where he rescues a little girl, who turns out to be the long-lost granddaughter of the local squire, from drowning.  He later accidentally gets mixed up with some smugglers, but his name is cleared and the squire pays for him to go into the Army.  He goes to the colonies in North America, fights alongside George Washington, then of course a British officer, in the French and Indian War, and then becomes one of the heroes of the British victory over the French in Québec.

G A Henty likes to have his British lads behaving very honourably and never doing anything which is Not Cricket but, in this book, the baddie who attempts to thwart James, Our Hero, at various stages is a fellow Brit, the squire’s nephew.  The said baddie is eventually caught out, and is about to do the honourable thing by shooting himself when Our Hero sets him free.   The French, on the other hand, generally behave quite honourably – even though this book was written in 1894, four years before the Fashoda Crisis but still in the middle of the Scramble for Africa, when thoughts of Entente Cordiale were a long way away.  Gold star for not being overly jingoistic, LOL.  And the Native Americans were presented very favourably indeed: Henty clearly had great admiration for their skills.

Of course, James duly married Agnes, the squire’s granddaughter and heiress, whom he’d rescued all those years before.  I would have been very surprised and disappointed had he not, LOL, but I was a bit disappointed that he then just settled down to living in his home town and being a pillar of the local community/general good egg.  Nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t very exciting.  Oh well, he had plenty of excitement in his soldiering days, eh?

I do like G A Henty!  You have to bear in mind that these books were written for young lads at the height of the British Empire, not for kids in the 21st century, but they are very good reads as what they are.  And there are so many of them, some of them covering periods which it’s virtually impossible to find English language historical novels on!  I look forward to reading many more of them :-).




Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners – BBC 2


Word Press

This was a very interesting programme, but I’m not sure that it really did what it said on the tin. It started off by talking about the records concerning compensation paid out to British slave owners after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. £20m – the equivalent of about £16bn today. A bit like the scale of the bank bailout of 2009 crossed with something like the PPI compensation claim with all sorts of people being involved on all sorts of different scales.

Is the fact that compensation was paid shocking? It’s horrendously shocking to us today, but, at the time, I think it was accepted by the powers that were that was the way it had to be – that people were being compensated for the loss of property, as if their houses had been bought by a compulsory purchase order. Compensation was paid to slave owners when slavery was abolished in South American countries, in the French Empire, in the Dutch colonies … pretty much everywhere apart from the former slave states of the reunited USA, and, even there, compensation was paid in the District of Columbia. It seems shocking now, but it wasn’t at the time.

It was more shocking, however, when maps popped up, showing that there were slave owners all over the country. Not just wealthy people, but some lower-middle-class people who owned a few slaves in the way that other people would have held a few stocks and shares – an investment bringing in an income. Many of the slaves had been inherited, again in the same way that other people might have inherited a few stocks and shares.

This was intriguing stuff, and I would like to have heard more about these people; but most of the rest of the programme was focused on the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and the families who made a fortunes out of slavery – their wealth and their political power. It was interesting, and it was shocking and distressing as any sort of programme about the evils of slavery always is; but I wouldn’t say that it’s something that’s been forgotten. I think many people are well aware of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and with slavery on the sugar plantations of the West Indies. I certainly hope they are, anyway. It’s not something that’s talked about much, and it has to be said that that’s probably some sort of historical collective sweeping of a very shameful part of the past under a large carpet; but I wouldn’t say that it was something people weren’t aware of.

But we do associate it with the wealthy. I think the same can be said of America: there is much more awareness of slavery there, but most people probably still hear the word “slavery” and think of places like Tara and Twelve Oaks, not lower middle class families who “owned” a cook and a housemaid. Incidentally, this programme wasn’t about America, it was very much about Britain and a shameful part of Britain’s past but, if it cost that much to “compensate” British slaveholders, would it ever have been feasible to agree a compensated abolition of slavery in America, had abolition not come about as a result of war? To get back to the point, involvement in slavery is something that we associate with the wealthy, and I’d like to have heard a lot more about the “ordinary” people in Britain who were part of it too, because I think that they’re the forgotten slave owners.

I think we’re quite proud of the fact that Britain was the first country to abolish slavery, across its Empire. There’s a horrible irony in that, being proud of abolishing something so shameful, so evil, so horrific. All that talk during the 17th century, arguably even back to 1215, arguably right back to the Witan if you take in the Victorian Whig historian version of history, about rights and liberties, and then to become involved in something that was pure evil. It shouldn’t ever be forgotten, and everything which this programme said was valuable … but I was expecting it to talk a bit more about the small-scale slave owners, because they were the ones who showed the extent to which slave ownership pervaded British society. Still, that’s just my view, and this was a very interesting and well-presented programme. Second and final part next week.

Red River Rising by B J Bayle


Word Press This is a “young adult” book (why are books for older children now called “young adult books”?) about a group of emigrants who leave the Scottish Highlands during the infamous Clearances of the lands owned by the Duchess of Sutherland and settle in the Red River Colony, now Winnipeg. The title’s a bit confusing because it sounds as if the book ought to be set during the Red River Uprising of 1869-70, when it actually opens in 1813 and instead covers the “Pemmican War” between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. However, confusing title aside, it’s an interesting book which covers a lot – the situation in the Highlands at the time, the dangers of the journey across the Atlantic, the development of the settlement, the challenges posed by the climate and the terrain, the enmity between the two companies and its effect on the settlers, and the interaction of all three groups with the First Nations and the Metis in the area.

All the way through this, I had “Letter from America”, the song by wonderful Scottish group The Proclaimers, going through my head, but that’s a sad song and this is the positive side of it. In the end, the settlers prospered. And the companies merged. Then again, more issues arose – hence the Red River Uprising. There are a lot of complex issues here, and they’re still affecting both Canada and Scotland – and this book does a very good job of telling a fascinating story in a way that’s accessible to older children, and not a bad read for adults either.

The Birth of Empire – BBC 2


“Manchester, the centre of all my wishes, all that I could hope and desire for …” – how cool is that quote :-)? Things we learnt from this programme, number one – Clive of India, victor of the Battle of Plassey, the man who established the East India Company’s control of Bengal, would really rather have been in Manchester. He spent some time here as a child, with his aunt, and, according to local legend, briefly attended what later became our local boys’ grammar school in the eleven plus era and was also attended by my dad. Sorry, that’s not really very relevant to Dan Snow’s programme, but I just couldn’t resist mentioning it.

This was the first of two programmes about the East India Company, following it from its establishment up until the Bengal famine of 1770 and its aftermath. The second episode will presumably go up to the Indian Mutiny (I’ve a feeling that it’s not politically correct to use the expression “Indian Mutiny” any more, but it’s the term I’m familiar with) and the dissolution of the company and founding of the Raj.

I’ve always found the early years of British involvement in India, brilliantly described in William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, rather appealing – the years of mutual respect between different cultures and religions, intermarriage without anyone frowning on it, and trade rather than conquest. Sadly, that didn’t last – and this programme traced the company’s move into politics and war, the clashes between Britain and France over India, the horrible Black Hole of Calcutta incident, the British takeover of Bengal, the increasing corruption within the company and then the catastrophic Bengal famine and the imposition of parliamentary control over the company. As Dan Snow pointed out, the nationalisation of a large financial concern considered to be too big to allowed to fail is nothing new.

In additional to all the serious stuff, we got some rather entertaining stories about Naughty British Men and indeed Naughty British Women getting up to all sorts of Naughty Things in India. One bloke had a wife and three mistresses all on the go at once. Not to mention all the opium that went down.

I think Dan Snow quite enjoyed telling that bit. And I quite enjoyed watching – the naughty stuff and the serious stuff. Well done Dan, well done BBC 2 – a good job there.

Word Press