Blood and Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Summary: A gripping historical detective story, probing the dark heart of the system of slavery that made Britain rich.

The origins of Britain as a leading commercial and industrial nation lie in two comparably genocidal events: the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the conquest of India.

These are atrocities that the majority of British people know little about. Insofar as they may be aware of the slave trade they probably only know of William Wilberforce’s parliamentary campaign to end it. The painstaking and arguably more important work by Clarkson, Sharpe, Equiano and the Quakers, that made parliamentary action possible by shifting the tide of public opinion against this industrialised trafficking of human beings, is much less well known.

Well, if British people remain ignorant of this for much longer, it will not be for Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s want of trying.

Blood and Sugar starts with the gruesome murder of an abolitionist lawyer in the slave port of Deptford. But, horrific as this event is, as veteran of the American war, Harry Corsham, discovers when he begins to probe into the death of his erstwhile friend, this is not the worst thing that those responsible for the slave trade have done.

Blood and Sugar is a gripping and richly detailed historical detective thriller that probes unflinchingly into the savagery of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Its power is magnified by its verisimilitude: while the foreground figures may be fictitious there is nothing made up about Shepherd-Robinson’s descriptions of the horrors of the Middle Passage and the tortures routinely inflicted upon enslaved Africans.

Shepherd-Robinson has already gained deserved praise from other exemplars of the historical detective story. But even if comparably entertaining to the best of this genre Blood and Sugar is something altogether more important. It is an act of remembering, bringing to, potentially, a whole new audience one of the foundational events of modern Britain. If readers are also stirred to remember that slavery still afflicts some 40 million people across the globe, many of them still in conditions akin to those described in this book, then all the better.

Blood and Sugar is a mighty accomplishment.

The Pursuit of Power, by Richard J Evans

Summary: the origins of our common European identity

In The Pursuit of Power, Richard Evans, a distinguished historian of the Twentieth Century, traces the history of Europe from 1814 to 1914. It is an astonishingly erudite work, alternating chapters on the political history of Europe with ones its social and economic development during these years.

Liberal Europe tried to be born in the 19th Century but was bloodily suppressed across the continent by the forces of reaction in 1848 – militarily in most places but by famine stoked by racist English misgovernment in Ireland.

Nevertheless, the 19th Century did transform Europe in crucial ways: serfdom was abolished; the industrial revolution took place and the continent became more urban; literacy expanded; and from Ireland to Poland subject peoples demanded their rights, respect and freedom.

But just as the seeds of a progressive social democracy were taking root in Europe, the imperial elites had their last piratical fling with their colonialist project, including their Scramble for Africa. This brought 57% of the world’s population under often brutal European and American rule on the eve of the First World War.

Aside from a few points of irritation – the wife of the great Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell was called Katey NOT Kitty, a moniker both Parnell and his wife loathed – The Pursuit of Power is an extraordinary work. In spite of its vastness of scale it is an elegant and remarkably disciplined piece of writing. The grand sweep of the narrative is frequently illuminated with the voices of ordinary people from across the continent. So, Evans ensures this history retains its human faces. And it demonstrates that, as well as its national sub-plots, an interplay of social, economic and political factors shaped the whole continent and its emergent European identity. Even if that identity’s common values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law did not gain its full expression until after the bloodbath of the Second World War, and even though these values are again under threat, particularly in the UK and Hungary, Evans’ work shows how deep the roots run.

As Sam Bourne (Jonathan Freedland) noted in his recent thriller, To Kill the Truth, some things have a future because they have a past. Europe is one of those things.

 

The Vanquished: why the First World War failed to end, by Robert Gerwarth

Summary: a fine, at times horrific, survey of the aftermath of the First World War in Central and Eastern Europe, vital for all Europeans with an interest in the future of our continent

The First World War did not end in 1918. It merely transmuted into a bloody set of interlocking independence struggles and civil wars that racked Europe from Ireland to Russia until 1923.

In this violence lay the seeds of the war that engulfed Europe in 1939. Indeed, as Robert Gerwarth notes in this fine, if necessarily at times horrific, survey of this period in central and Eastern Europe, many of the individuals who brought Europe to its nadir in the 1940s began their murderous careers in the bloody struggles of these years.

In this context Ireland’s bloody independence struggle appears almost civilised in comparison with some of the savagery that the rest of the continent experienced. The atrocities in single weeks in, for example, Turkey, Russia or Ukraine regularly dwarfed the worst that Ireland saw in any given year of its revolutionary period.

The seeds of wider cataclysm in the 1940s were fertilised by the harsh peace terms imposed on the defeated Central Powers in the Versailles Settlement. These treated the democratic revolutionaries of Germany and Austria who helped to bring an end to the fighting on the Western front as if they were the Prussian and Hapsburg militarists who had initiated the bloodshed in 1914.

Given their inauspicious beginnings, it is small wonder then that so many of the liberal democracies established in the ruins of empire at the beginnings of the 1920s collapsed into authoritarianism even before the rise of Nazism that plunged Europe into renewed fratricide. Indeed, as Joe Lee pointed out a few decades ago in his extraordinary book, Ireland 1912-85, Politics and Society, it is not an inconsiderable achievement that, for all its flaws, Ireland did not follow a similar path.

As so many in England now aim to rip up the systems of cooperation that are the foundations of peace in Europe, it is worth remembering the savagery that ordinary people can descend to in times of civil war – and all these European wars were civil wars. Of course if so many in England had a knowledge of war and history greater than that gleaned from watching The Dambusters, perhaps we would not be at this dark juncture.

Not even past: establishing the foundations of a New Ireland

Summary: A prerequisite for Sinn Fein being permitted to join a coalition government in Dublin should simply be that they agree to the establishment of, and full cooperation with, a truth commission on the Troubles.Image result for kingsmill massacre

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

Writing 2,500 years ago about a civil war in Greece, Thucydides, the first great historian of that war between Athens and Sparta, made a vital observation: ‘The people make their recollections fit with their sufferings”.

Given the unchanging realities of war and human nature, what was true then is true now. Hence recollections of the Troubles reflect the sufferings of those recalling them. For example, Britons remember with justifiable grief and anger the civilians slaughtered in the Birmingham and Guildford bombings. But many still cherish the paratroopers who similarly slaughtered and injured so many unarmed civilians in Ballymurphy and Derry.

As with so many other things to do with their history, most Britons are blissfully unaware of their security forces subsequent collusion with Protestant, “Loyalist” paramilitaries who acted as proxies in the commission of later atrocities, such as the Miami Showband massacre.

Loyalist paramilitaries when they called their ceasefire did express “abject and true remorse” for the sufferings of the innocents that they had caused. But elements of their community still clearly cherish the memory of some of the worst perpetrators of that hurt, and still celebrate the pain caused.

Irish “Republicans” keep bright the memory of British and Loyalist atrocities but grow irritable at the mention of their own murderous attacks, particularly those on Irish civilians such as Kingsmill, Enniskillen, and La Mon. Their peevishness is perhaps at its greatest when reminded of the savagery of their post-ceasefire butchery of Robert McCartney and Paul Quinn.

Of course, war crimes such as these and brutality by those inured to war are as old as war itself. But when selective memory is practiced in relation to a civil war, then it impedes the possibility of reconciliation and reunification in its aftermath.

It is the very nature of a civil war that after the guns fall silent the belligerents have to continue living together with those they have so grievously injured. The Good Friday Agreement was an effort to establish a basis on which this could happen. With Brexit striking at the very foundations of this peace settlement new constitutional possibilities must be contemplated, including that of Irish reunification. But true Irish reunification depends on uniting people, not just political territories. Without honesty about not just what each side endured but also what they inflicted then such true reunification becomes impossible.

The ideal of Irish reunification has suffered some quite serious blows in recent weeks with the crass celebrations by some victorious Sinn Fein candidates in the recent Irish general election. Singing “Up the ‘RA” on such occasions demonstrates a spectacular insensitivity to a section of the Irish population who suffered at the hands of the IRA during the Troubles but who must now consent to reunification if a New Ireland is to become a reality.

Martin McGuinness, notably in a speech he gave at the peace centre in Warrington, did show considerable moral courage in confronting the pain caused by IRA operations. Implicitly in that speech he recognised that even a just war is an evil thing.

But, like those Brexiters whose only knowledge of the Second World War comes from watching The Dambusters, many of today’s Sinn Féin activists’ attitude to the Troubles is, appositely enough, troubling. They seem to regard their armed struggle not as a regrettable necessity,  but rather as a moral good and those involved in it as beyond reproach. This is a similarity they have with the British Conservative party who resent the idea that British armed forces should be held to basic human rights standards.

The post-election negotiations to form a new Irish government may yet see Sinn Féin entering government, possibly even holding the office of Taoiseach. Former armed rebels entering the government of an Irish state which they hitherto opposed is hardly an unprecedented departure in history. Fianna Fáil did it. Clann na Poblachta did it. The Workers’ Party did it. Sinn Fein has already done it in Belfast.

But with a senior role in government comes responsibility. And one of the principle responsibilities of Irish government over the next decade is going to be exploring the possibility of Irish reunification and, hopefully, establishing a process by which such unification can happen.

This will be an impossible task for Sinn Féin to lead so long as they continue to refuse to face up to the full truth of their history including its most unpalatable aspects and the unremitting pain that they have inflicted on so many hundreds of their compatriots.

Many of the other parties elected to the Dail have refused to contemplate entering government alongside Sinn Fein such is the distaste that they feel at their history. But the logic of the peace process demands that Sinn Fein should have the opportunity to participate in government should the electorate so deem it.

This is a circle that can only be squared if Sinn Fein faces the truth of its history and ceases revelling in silly songs and slogans. In other words, a prerequisite for Sinn Fein entering government in Dublin should be its agreement that the government establish, and Sinn Fein cooperate fully with, a truth commission, modelled on the South African precedent.

Facing the truth about oneself is always a difficult thing. But, if nothing else, over the past decades Sinn Fein leaders and supporters have demonstrated considerable courage. However, it still remains to be seen whether they have the fortitude to move beyond their current posturing self-righteousness to help establish a process to properly remember our collective past and establish an agreed account of it that acknowledges all our sufferings and not just those of any particular  partisan faction.

After all, a new and reunited Ireland needs a foundation of shared truths.

The Volunteer: the true story of the resistance hero who infiltrated Auschwitz, by Jack Fairweather

Witold Pilecki

In the vastness of the Second World War, one fact contends for the title of most startling of all, and it is this: Polish officer Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz.

It is true that, when he first agreed to the assignment in 1940, he probably could not have conceived of the scale of the risk and abject horror that he would encounter there. After all he took this intelligence mission specifically to find out what was going on in this secretive German facility. But having seen what was happening he still stayed for three years, risking his life every day in a effort to build a resistance movement there and to alert the outside world to what was happening.

A veteran of both the 1920 Poland-Russia war and the 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany Witold was a brave man with no illusions about war. But he had never seen anything like Auschwitz. No one had.

The reports that Witold sent to the resistance in Warsaw and to the Allies in London detailed something unprecedented in human history: the construction of an industrialised programme of mass murder. In the shadow of this Witold’s organisation gathered intelligence and, where they could, assassinated Nazis. But Witold also realised that kindness was resistance in that every time someone shared meagre food or helped a fellow prisoner it was a refusal to accept the dehumanisation that the Nazis intended for them.

Even seeing the Nazi atrocities against Jews, political prisoners and Russian prisoners of war with his own eyes Witold could barely comprehend it so vast and irrational was that killing. But the Allied High Commands who refused to respond to Witold’s pleas for direct action against this genocide have no such excuse. The cumulative evidence provided to them at enormous cost by the Polish Home Army and the Jewish Agency can have left little doubt as to what was happening. But thousands of miles away from the death cries of Jewish women and children and the stink of incinerated human flesh Churchill and Roosevelt found plenty of excuses for inaction.

Witold eventually escaped to make a direct appeal to the Home Army for military support to an uprising in Auschwitz. But by this stage they too were preoccupied with other things, most particularly their plans for an uprising in Warsaw to reassert Polish independence at war’s end. So the courageous resistance network that Witold had built up in Auschwitz was left hanging, eventually to be liquidated by the SS.

Witold died knowing that his mission to Auschwitz had been a failure. Furthermore as someone who was regarded as a traitor by the Stalinist authorities who replaced the Nazis the full details of what he did were also covered up until the fall of the Soviet Union. But, as Witold said before his death,”I tried to live my life in such a fashion so that in my last hour, I would be happy rather than fearful. I find happiness in knowing that the fight was worth it.”

Jack Fairweather’s book is a superb, and superbly gripping, tribute to this man of conscience and action who the butchers of history tried to erase. In spite of his failures Witold’s life stands as an enormous indictment of all those who fail to use the power that they have to diminish human suffering.

The Anarchy: the relentless rise of the East India Company, by William Dalrymple

Summary: a gripping account of the most hostile corporate takeover in history – the East India Company’s bloody seizure of the Mughal Empire

The East India Company was established in 1600 to facilitate trade between England and South Asia. New markets were desperately needed, then as now, following England’s hubristic decision to politically separate itself from its natural economic hinterland in mainland Europe.

The East India Company eventually established trading posts in the Mughal empire, at the time probably the wealthiest state in the world. By the mid-18th Century however cracks began to show in that empire as it lost territory to the south and came under attack from other powerful states in the north: Persia even sacked Delhi in the late 1730s.

By this stage the East India Company was already in possession of an army from earlier conflicts with the French in the region so it soon became drawn into these wars, first as a king-maker allying itself to different south Asian factions, then seizing the opportunity to take the whole state for itself. In other words the British subjugation of India began, literally, as the most hostile of corporate takeovers.

The cataclysm that British rule represented for ordinary south Asians, something still substantially under appreciated in Britain itself, was the subject of Shashi Tharoor’s excoriating Inglorious Empire. Dalrymple traces the origins of this to the general lack of concern by the English for their newly acquired subjects. Rather they viewed their new conquests as “a pirate views a galleon”, and plundered with murderous abandon.

Even the onset of famine in Bengal as a consequence of East India Company depredations did nothing to blunt their extraordinary rapaciousness. The state continued to be looted to provide riches for the Company officers and dividends to English shareholders with no thought of humanitarian relief for their victims. In the end it is estimated that up to 10 million people were starved to death.

In The Anarchy Dalrymple provides a fine narrative account of the establishment of the East India Company and its conquest of India. He draws not only on European sources for this but also Asian ones. Hence he provides a fine and nuanced portrait of an Indian society before, during and after its destruction by the mercenaries of the East India Company, notably Clive.

Dalrymple seems to have something of a soft spot for Warren Hastings, a successor to Clive, who in spite of his complicity with this larcenous enterprise, was something of an Indiaphile. He also brings to new audiences the careers of major India figures such as Tipu Sultan, and casts new light on the careers of figures whose infamy is now largely forgotten, such as Richard Wellesley, brother of the more famous Arthur, Duke of Wellington.

It is said that the curse of the Irish is we remember everything, while the curse of the English is they remember nothing. As England prepares to cut itself loose again from Europe, this is a portion of their history which they should learn urgently. It will help them understand better why India will likely seek to eat them raw in future trade negations.

Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert Caro

Summary: the extraordinary first volume of Caro’s planned five volume biography of LBJ

The Path to Power is volume one of Robert Caro’s celebrated, multi-volume biography of

Lyndon Johnson – four volumes have already been published with a fifth planned. This one covers Johnson’s career from birth to the outbreak of the Second World War, including his election to Congress and his first, failed, Senate run.

Nevertheless in spite of its mammoth size this is not a book that I would ever describe as “sprawling”. For all its numerous, fascinating, digressions – into Texas social history or politics, for example, or concise biographies of Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, or Sam Rayburn, the powerful Speaker of the US House of Representatives and sometime patron of Lyndon – Caro never once loses sight of the central purpose of his work, which is to try to explain Lyndon Johnson. Hence any digressions that he makes are provided to establish a context from which better understanding can be derived.

Johnson was not a very nice man. But he was a fascinating one with an extraordinary impulse for power, an awesome appetite for hard work, and a fundamental grasp of political campaigning, both for himself and, as described in this book, as a leader of Democratic national election campaigning. (It’s a pity that some of the clowns leading Labour’s disastrous December 2019 election campaign did not spend some time studying this book to learn some of the basics of winning elections.)

In the course of his career he did much good and some extraordinary evil. But he never for a moment seems to have been motivated by anything other than a desire for self promotion. Despite coming from a Texas Liberal tradition – both his father and Rayburn were unequivocal men of the Left, Johnson was not by any means wedded to these ideals. Over the course of his career he shifted from Left to Right and back again depending on the prevailing political winds and which alliances he felt would most probably advance his self interest.

Such calculation was not restricted to his professional life. His marriage to Lady Bird seemed to have been wholly functional, its purpose to obtain for him a rich wife whose family might help bankroll his political campaigns. All of his relationships, with one exception, seem to have been developed with the sole consideration of how they would advance his political career.

The sole exception was his affair with Alice Glass, the wife of one of his most important political backers. Johnson simply could not resist Alice in spite of the damage that it would have caused him had Alice’s husband discovered the true nature of their relationship. Lady Bird had, of course, to live with the humiliating knowledge of the affair, conducted with no concern whatsoever for her feelings.

Alice, in fact, seems to have been the only woman Johnson ever loved. So there is a sort of Karmic justice that towards the end of her life Alice had wanted to destroy all her correspondence with Johnson. She was afraid that her children would discover not that she had an affair, but that she had one with the man most responsible for the US’s murderous involvement in Vietnam.

The Path to Power is a gripping book, elegantly written and displaying an extraordinary depth of research. It is a matter of unspeakable pleasure to know that I have at least three more volumes of this work to read.