Tag Archives: Empire

Dr Barnardo of Stepney

IMG_2956Dr Barnardo has been both lionized and accused of a great deal over the decades, subject to innuendo, accusation and lawsuits while he was still alive, and a continuing source of interest to academics and historians. Because, quite frankly, he is fascinating, possibly terrible, and had a lasting impact on philanthropy in general, but more importantly a life-changing impact upon tens of thousands of poor children.

I never knew quite how many: 28,000 children alone he sent off to Canada (how many more did he send to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the territories of white Commonwealth?), at one point in time he was legal guardian to 87 middle and upperclass children, and in charge of 8,000 more. Many thousands more passed through his homes and shelters and villages. It is mind boggling.

Mostly that such a small island country should have had so many children in desperate need —  and this book seems to follow Dr Barnardo in never once asking why that should be.

Mostly that one man should have been allowed this kind of power over tens of thousands of children.

dr-barnardoSo much has been written about Barnardo around subjects of Victorian philanthropy and slumming, sex, his use of photography, the role of missionaries in the East End.  I used to teach a really interesting chapter from Seth Koven’s Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, which I really need to reread in its entirety.

This is a very different kind of book, written by his secretary for the last seven years of his life — he knew him well, looked up to him, and shared his world view for the most part. It developed from several papers written by him in reply to requests as to what sort of man Barnardo was. I could imagine he did field a lot of those requests.

Above all reading it, it is hard to believe it was finished in 1942. It belongs entirely to an earlier age almost as far removed from WWI as it is from WWII — but in that gives more of a window to Dr Barnardo through the lens of the period he lived in.

The introduction from Christopher Fry is the same, he writes:

Almost as soon as he set foot in London he began to draw out from their dark holes-and-corners a race of wild, unloved, and outcast children, a race which had skulked and suffered there for generations while the life of the city went on around them. (7)

I almost threw the book against the wall. Another race? What, are they dead that they do not form part of London’s life? They must have been a ubiquitous presence, these children, shaping the city and people’s experience of it as hard as they might have tried not to see them.

Dr Barnardo – a secretary’s impressions

But back to Dr Barnardo —  born in Dublin 1845, he came to London in 1866 to study medicine with a goal of becoming a medical missionary to China. For some reason (I don’t even think Williams is indulging in irony here) he didn’t get on so well with his fellow students. They all thought him a bit odd, a “queer fellow” and always preaching.

His first year in London saw a great cholera outbreak, which he celebrated for turning people’s eyes toward the Lord. Williams writes:

He had personally undertaken the circulation of Bibles in East London, and in three months he had sold in the open streets, in public-houses and in market-places thirty thousand copies of the Scriptures. (65)

Whatever else he was, he was a man to be reckoned with. One who put selling bibles over more useful interventions. On one occasion he had two ribs broken when he was beaten after trying to sell bibles in the wrong place to the wrong people. It didn’t stop him. Williams writes:

As soon as I entered the Doctor’s room, I realized that I was in the presence of a man of commanding personality. He was short of stature, only five feet five inches in height, sturdily built, with a very fine head and shoulders. One could not fail to notice the firm chin, and the keen grey eyes that seemed to have the power of reading one’s thoughts. His massive forehead also arrested attention, and gave some indication of the marvelous brain behind it. He was quick and alert in his movements, and bore an unmistakable air of authority. (15)

The working conditions under him will be familiar to anyone who knows similarly driven people in the charity field, but with much less regulation.

That was my first impression of Dr Barnardo–a man who wanted half-an-hour’s work done in twenty minutes. (16)

It is a portrait of a man who pushes himself harder than he pushes his staff, beginning early in the morning in Surbiton trying to deal with a level of correspondence that I cannot honestly imagine —  ‘where an amanuensis attended him daily, so that he could get a certain amount of work done before leaving for Stepney.’ Once at work he sat at two large tables in L-configuration covered with baskets of letters, and worked late into the night, often midnight or beyond, dictating letters. But this is after his work back in Stepney, where:

A special staff of clerks used to come on duty each evening, and to enable the Doctor to continue his dictation without interruption, and to avoid delay in transcription, pages of shorthand notes would be rushed up to the typing room by a waiting messenger as fast as they were taken down from the Doctor’s lips… (26)

Williams writes of His ‘magnetic personality’ (32), that ‘he seemed to cast a spell over those who worked with him’ (33) and this (again, this sounds so familiar):

There were times when I got very tired of these long hours, but I was always conscious of the fact that however much the Doctor required of his staff, he was giving far more himself, and I was loath to complain. (33)

Beyond all question, Dr Barnardo was an autocrat. He knew it, and acknowledged it, but hoped he was “a benevolent autocrat.” (35)

He was also often quite deaf. Not that those things are necessarily connected, but he doesn’t strike me as a great listener.

There’s a nice awkward section about the women who worked for him as well, a little kindly misogyny thrown in:

Dr Barnardo employed a large number of women; some in administrative work; a number as clerks; others as superintendents, nurses, cottage mothers, etc. No one could have won the wholehearted devotion of these women helpers more than he did, or have made fuller use of their abilities. Some had a record of many years service, and he valued their help; yet he frequently declared in his humorous way that being “a poor ignorant male, a stupid common-sense kind of creature,” women completely mystified him, and he found them utterly inexplicable. (37-38)

Ah, women and the ways that they operate without common sense. He was inexplicably married — for convenience and to further the work really, his wife rarely appears in these pages. There are, of course, rumours of pedophilia, but at least at the last stage of his life, it honestly seems hard to see how he could have managed it surrounded by such a beehive of workers waiting upon his direction at all hours.

A missionary to East London instead of China

Reading this you get a sense of East London as foreign and in need of Christian redemption as the furthest reaches of what Europeans held (wrongly) as the civilised world. He became involved in the Ragged Schools in 1866, and Williams describes what he states is the well-known story of how Dr Barnardo came into his work through his encounter with his first ‘street arab’. (There is so much to be unpacked in that term alone). The little boy asked him if he could stay over night as he had nowhere else to go. Barnardo, so the story goes, didn’t believe there were homeless children — so he bribed Jim Jarvis with coffee and place to sleep to show him where other children hid away to sleep. Bob’s your uncle, the Dr Barnardo we know today began to emerge.

He just happened to be at a dinner with Lord Shaftesbury soon afterwards — he convinced him to come along and see for himself the state of these children, and they agreed something must be done.

Dr Barnardo’s rescue operation started in a donkey stable, moved to Bale Street and expanded to Hope Place in Stepney. In 1870 he expanded to Stepney Causeway — and although the building was demolished, Williams states that the door now sits in entrance hall of Barnardo Headquarters. I wonder if it’s still there?

No.10 Stepney Causeway
No.10 Stepney Causeway

Describing the early days, Barnardo wrote:

“Many a happy hour was spent in whitewashing walls and ceilings, scrubbing floors, and otherwise putting the place into a suitable condition for the reception of my first family. Then I spent two whole nights upon the streets of London, cast my net upon the ‘right side of the ship,’ and brought to shore twenty-five homeless lads all willing and eager to accept such help as I could give them.” (74)

His language is, of course highly biblical. Williams describes his forays, and again you think to yourself, he might as well have been on a mission in China given how they describe these neighbourhoods in their own city — resulting from desperate poverty and inequality and exploitation.

It was customary for him to sally forth at midnight, clad in great coat and top hat, and carrying a dark lantern, to take his way through filthy, loathsome slums; down alleys where a policeman stood at the entrance and warned wayfarers not to proceed; into the communal kitchens of the common lodging-houses with which London abounded at that time, and where thieves, rogues and vagabonds of every kind gathered. (76)

It seems a waste of a policeman honestly. Still, the one nice thing about this book is that it allows some sense of resistance, and the irrepressible humour and bravery of the children themselves to occasionally peek through:

As a rule the help the Doctor offered was thankfully accepted, but it was not always so. Sometimes he found it difficult to persuade a homeless youngster, in spite of the sufferings and hardships of a street life, to yield up the freedom to which he had become accustomed, and which he had come to prize. (78)

East London – Dr Barnardo’s hunting grounds

His descriptions of East London and its people are quite infuriating:

We learn that people were ignorant and untaught. The streets were only dimly lit at night-time by feeble, flickering gas lamps, and were indescribably filthy. The gutters were filled with fetid water, and decaying cabbage leaves, potato parings and other refuse damned the gratings. The gin shops kept open until all hours of the night. (80)

And here is how he saw its inhabitants — wild animals seeking their own. As if people had multiple options, as though poverty were their choice.

A more unsavoury, ignorant and generally repellent rookery it would be hard to find. Street traders had made the street, with its many courts and alleys, their chosen home. The successful thief, resting in ill-gotten plenty, was neighbour to the luckless adventurer whom disease and famine had driven into his last earthly retreat, to die unheeded and unpitied by the great world without. Birds of a feather flocked together in this degraded colony. When a choked water pipe leading from the roof of a building was examined, it was found to be blocked up with empty purses which had been tossed on to the roof…People herded there whose chance of getting their daily bread each morning was more precarious than that of wild animals who picked up their sustenance in the open country. The lowest depths of all we seen in the precocious depravity of the juvenile population. (80)

It’s almost amusing then, when Dr Barnardo — recognising that lodging houses held many children — did not last one night when he himself attempted to stay in one as ‘research’. He dressed as a tramp, and one of ‘his boys’ took him to one, where he was apparently bitten so badly by insects it was three weeks before he was fit to be seen. It is reminiscent of Mary Higgs’ research, but she was hardier and much more thorough.

A little more on the subject though — Williams tells of the time (this is highly anecdotal as you might imagine) Barnardo was trying to rescue messenger boys (their souls really I believe) from a lodging house in Drury lane (and no, that’s not the East End, he really got around). He found out that they were relapsing because girls from the neighbouring lodging house were paying a bribe to the deputy to allow them in three nights a week for carousing. Dr Barnardo put a stop to that by convincing the boys it was immoral, and even to move into other lodgings. He of course blamed the dissoluteness of women — I can come up with a few rather more likely explanations, most of which involve pimps.

Anyway, on his return to original house to check after the souls of the boys, the girls found him there alone in the kitchen and beat him up. You almost rejoice that he was house-bound for a month. He writes:

“To anyone who may smile at this recital of my timidity I would say, ‘Have you ever been thrashed by a woman?’ For, if not, let me remark that few things can be more humbling and fear-begetting than a vigorous chastisement administered by female hands before an approving female audience. (85)

I agree with that statement, but he definitely needed some chastising.

From Stepney he expanded on an ever growing scale. Again the funny Victorian notions of sex and propriety emerge

When the Doctor began his work of rescue on behalf of destitute children, being a young unmarried man he confined his operations to boys (93)

But he soon opened a Village Home for Girls at Barkingside, a number of youth’s labour homes beginning in 1881 (training ‘camps’, probably most problematic). He started a boarding out system, first instituted 1886, where children were sent into the country to live with families until they were 12 or 13, then brought back to London to begin apprenticeships/training. Again, looking at the scale of these operations, the heart quails. For every child given to a good home, I feel fear even at this late date for those children put into the complete power of strangers.

The Uses and Abuses of Empire

Even before this he had begun to send children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — it was 1882 when the first party of 51 boys sailed to Canada.

Everything is here: the power of the wealthy to control the bodies and the futures of the poor, the role of the colonies to soak up those the ruling classes did not want to help or even look at, the land stolen from indigenous peoples in order to provide these children a new start and a new hope based on their citizenship and the colour of their skin. Those children sent into uncertain futures, entirely at the mercy of their new families.

Just to recap: 28,000 boys in total sent by Dr Barnardo to Canada. The book mentions in passing the many other societies then started up to do the same thing, but not as rigorously or as well.

A different kind of migrant crisis. It hurts my heart.

They had to do some work to set the ground to justify all of this, and it is hardly surprising that they did not look too closely at the causes of poverty. The book mentions that children were bought and sold and traded, beaten, made to work, to beg after being made as pitiful and hopeless looking as possible, to thieve… They needed saving. Having read multiple other accounts of poverty, I don’t doubt many did, but it is curious to me why it was able to take this form.

Also curious, though I suppose Victorian morality makes it less curious, is that nowhere is there any mention of sex work even when talking about the buying and borrowing of children, where others like Flora Tristan note that sexual exploitation was often the primary motive.

Speaking of Flora Tristan, who described gin palaces in great fury, it is also curious that Dr Barnardo managed to buy what he describes as one of the most notorious Gin Palaces and Music Halls in Limehouse — the Edinburgh Castle. Dr Barnardo wrote of it:

Here was a powerful force for evil, with seductive charms that some of us can scarcely estimate the force of. I remember well coming to the old place when around the wall, in the intervals between each window, were niches, and in every niche was an indecent statue. On the platform or stage in front a number of girls engaged in dances. In the middle of the room was a bar for the sale of drink. There was a door that led out to the tea-gardens, where all kinds of evil practices went on. Almost every one of the houses overlooking this place were houses of evil character. There were one or two exceptions, bit nearly all were full of persons of infamous life. (90)

They turned it into a hall, churchly entertainment centre, and held ‘waif suppers’ there, you can read a lot more on The Children’s Homes website.

Edinburgh Castle site, Limehouse, c.1896.
Edinburgh Castle site, Limehouse, c.1896.

Stepney Causeway, and his provision for children

I liked the descriptions of what his complex on Stepney Causeway was once like, it is all long gone now of course and I think probably better so.

A large building had been erected in Bower Street, which runs parallel to Stepney Causeway, and this building was linked up by a bridge with the Causeway premises. The Doctor’s Board Room was situated on the first floor of the Bower Street building, and had a fine bay-window overlooking a large paved yard. This yard, with a small extension under a couple of railway arches, was the only playground for four hundred boys…They played cricket and football within its narrow confines, with special rules to fit the circumstances.

It was in the yard at Stepney that they went through their daily physical exercises and drill under the supervision of a retired army instructor. It was there that the Medical Officer would sometimes conduct an open-air inspection of eyes, ears and teeth; and if a boy in the Hospital passed away, the little funeral cortege would cross the yard on its way to the chapel where the funeral service would be held. (28)

At the top of the building was a photographic studio where every child was photographed on admission and again on leaving. Some striking contrasts were obtained in this way. (30)

Those photographs — definitely one of the things that most got him into trouble. That and his habit of taking children from their parents and families with impunity. There was one lawsuit as he sent many of these children to Canada. It is tan ugly side to this work, and his world view that seemed to hold axiomatic that poverty was the fault of the parents, and he had to save children from both. This book recounts only stories of criminal, abusive and gin-sodden relations who would pawn the good clothes given to their children (though boots or bread, a hard choice) for whom there might have been a case the child needed to be removed for their own wellbeing. Yet clearly many more must have simply been poor and desperate. There is little to no thought to conditions or opportunities for these families as a whole. Much of me revolts in an enormous ‘how dare he’.

The enormous and ugly class prejudice is most obvious when Williams discusses Barnardo’s guardianship over boys who were not poor. He writes:

There was one special feature of the Doctor’s work which impressed me very much. He was frequently approached by parents or guardians of young people of the middle and upper classes for advice and assistance in difficult cases; boys and girls addicted to dishonest habits or tainted by the bad example of servants, or who, through lack of proper management, had become uncontrollable and defiant.

Never the bad example of upper class parents, or abuse or alienation, oh no. He blames servants. It’s quite extraordinary.

There is, finally, a quaint sentimentality that pervades all, this will give you a sense of it:

Children turned to him instinctively as though they understood his love…”Boys and girls have always been fond of me,” he wrote on one occasion, “and I need not say I have always been very fond of them. I don’t quite know what it is that makes children so attractive to me; but although I have had many who have been crippled and sadly deformed, and some who have been afflicted with dreadful disorders, I think I may say of a truth I have never seen a really ugly child!” (47)

There are several stories of helping crippled children that have a polished and well practiced air to them, which is quite distasteful. There are many stories of his relationships, but then you read this:

In his later years Dr Barnardo had nearly eight thousand children in his charge, and one could not help being deeply impressed by the personal interest he took in each member of his great family. (50)

and you have to question them. I confess after reading this I am less interested in the character of Dr Barnardo himself, or the charges often raised against him. Instead I question the position he was allowed to fill, the sentimentality and prejudice that made it possible, the sources of the conditions that justified a means that would never be acceptable today. This is vastly different than the work of say Father Potter, who also took in boys and helped raise them. As always for us now suspicions are raised, but in his case it is also clear why it was that he could not see a boy asleep in the street and not give him a home. That makes sense to me without being in a position to much judge any ulterior motives (and I like to hope there were not) — unlike the wholesale removal of tens of thousands of children from either the streets or their own homes and families. Their repatriation across the world to further build empire.

There is so much to think about here, and the impact this one man alone and the organisations he set into motion were able to inflict on so many kids. Never even imagined here are the gaps left in the community, the holes in the hearts and the homes left by those children as they were shipped off abroad. The trauma of those events. The ways they facilitated the maintenance of an illusion of a prosperous society and eradicated the elements that might call this illusion to account, while also consolidating the empire.

How dare they, I think again.

[Williams, A. E. (1953) Barnardo of Stepney: The Father of Nobody’s Children. Liverpool: Guild Books.]


Balzac — Escaping the Prison

I loved the insights into daily life and the city to be found in Le Pere Goriot, but perhaps this was more important: everyone is trapped. It’s clear that only extraordinary luck or ruthless ambition can save you. Goriot is trapped by his love for his faithless daughters (a little much like King Lear perhaps). The wealthy and powerful daughters are just as trapped in the cages their ambition has made for them within the larger cage surrounding women in general. The hero of the tale — who will escape through luck and a bit of ruthlessness that he is quite torn about:

He belonged to the number of young men who know as children that their parents’ hopes are centered on them, and deliberately prepare themselves for a great career, subordinating their studies from the first to this end, carefully watching the indications of the course of events, calculating the probable turn that affairs will take, that they may be the first to profit by them.

It’s clear that most of these young men never come to very much, leading lives of quiet and precarious disappointment.The other lodgers have mostly resigned themselves to their fate:

M. Poiret was a sort of automaton. He might be seen any day sailing like a gray shadow along the walks of the Jardin des Plantes, on his head a shabby cap, a cane with an old yellow ivory handle in the tips of his thin fingers…

Balzac is at his best, I think, in his evocative descriptions — though they are invariably unkind when not describing the young and beautiful:

Mlle. Michonneau’s musings did not permit her to listen very closely to the remarks that fell one by one from Poiret’s lips like water dripping from a leaky tap. When once this elderly babbler began to talk, he would go on like clockwork unless Mlle. Michonneau stopped him. He started on some subject or other, and wandered on through parenthesis after parenthesis, till he came to regions as remote as possible from his premises without coming to any conclusions by the way.

Or the wealthy…here is the young woman cast off by her wealthy father, quiet and meek and tearful (and another little comment on gender, a good line if an annoying one):

She was pretty by force of contrast; if she had been happy, she would have been charming. Happiness is the poetry of woman, as the toilette is her tinsel.

Woman are trapped here as much by their own improbable natures as anything, which is a bit annoying to have hammered into you if you are a woman. There are lots of sentences like this:

women are in a manner true to themselves even through their grossest deceit, because their actions are prompted by a natural impulse.

Still, at the end of the day, everyone is stuck.

Unknown – Honoré de Balzac, Old Goriot. Philadelphia: George Barrie & Son, 1897

It is the criminals who are able to fight back against it, to attempt escape. You cannot help cheering them on in the person of Vautrin, criminal mastermind, man of wealth and power hiding in this pension, his achilles heel his platonic (but really?) love for ambitious young men who deserve to go further than he knows they will.

Or you would cheer them on if only they weren’t quite so terrible. What is Vautrin’s dream of escape from this prison shared in different aspects by everyone in this novel? To help Rastignac escape upwards, and for himself:

My idea is to live a patriarchal life on a vast estate, say a hundred thousand acres, somewhere in the Southern States of America. I mean to be a planter, to have slaves, to make a few snug millions by selling my cattle, timber, and tobacco; I want to live an absolute monarch, and to do just as I please; to lead such a life as no one here in these squalid dens of lath and plaster ever imagines. I am a great poet; I do not write my poems, I feel them, and act them. At this moment I have fifty thousand francs, which might possibly buy forty negroes. I want two hundred thousand francs, because I want to have two hundred negroes to carry out my notions of the patriarachal life properly. Negroes, you see, are like a sort of family ready grown, and there are no inquisitive public prosecutors out there to interfere with you. That investment in ebony ought to mean three or four million francs in ten years’ time. If I am successful, no one will ask me who I am. I shall be Mr. Four Millions, an American citizen.

There is so much in that paragraph, I don’t even know where to start. But this is the true escape, to America, open land for the taking (by force), the ownership of men, and wealth that makes the past irrelevant. If you can do this anywhere in Europe, it is Paris:

If the proud aristocracies of the rest of Europe refuse admittance among their ranks to a disreputable millionaire, Paris stretches out a hand to him, goes to his banquets, eats his dinners, and hobnobs with his infamy.

But it is not enough for him. Still, he lays out the path of ambition for young Rastignac, the only route of escape:

Paris, you see, is like a forest in the New World, where you have to deal with a score of varieties of savages–Illinois and Hurons, who live on the proceed of their social hunting. You are a hunter of millions; you set your snares; you use lures and nets; there are many ways of hunting. Some hunt heiresses, others a legacy; some fish for souls, yet others sell their clients, bound hand and foot. Every one who comes back from the chase with his game-bag well filled meets with a warm welcome in good society.

Could it be more clear that savagery is a thing entirely European, yet disowned and tagged to another people to rationalise their destruction?

Could it not be more clear that the true soul of Paris, and the true savage, lies here in the criminal class?

The convicts’ prison, its language and customs, its sudden sharp transitions from the humorous to the horrible, its appalling grandeur, its triviality and its dark depths, were all revealed in turn by the speaker’s discourse; he seemed to be no longer a man, but the type and mouthpiece of a degenerate race, a brutal, supple, clear-headed race of savages. In one moment Collin became the poet of an inferno, wherein all thoughts and passions that move human nature (save repentance) find a place. He looked about him like a fallen archangel who is for war to the end.

“What dolts you are, all of you! Have you never seen a convict before? A convict of Collin’s stamp, whom you see before you, is a man less weak-kneed than others; he lifts up his voice against the colossal fraud of the Social Contract, as Jean Jacques did, whose pupil he is proud to declare himself. In short, I stand here single-handed against a Government and a whole subsidized machinery of tribunals and police, and I am a match for them all.”

Because it is money, the achievement of wealth and with it power that justifies any means in the eyes of the world. To get it, you can’t be proud:

Of all pieces of advice, my cherub, I would give you this–don’t stick to your opinions any more than to your words. If any one asks you for them, let him have them–at a price. A man who prides himself on going in a straight line through life is an idiot who believes in infallibility. There are no such things as principles; there are only events, and there are no laws but those of expediency: a man of talent accepts events and the circumstances in which he finds himself, and turns everything to his own ends.

No wonder Marx loved this author.


The Mysteries of Paris (a la Eugène Sue )

Poster announcing the publication of Les Mystères de Paris (1843), a French language novel by Eugène Sue (1804-1857)
Poster announcing the publication of Les Mystères de Paris (1843), a French language novel by Eugène Sue (1804-1857)

Eugene Sue has raised himself above the horizon of his own narrow world view. He has delivered a slap in the face of bourgeois prejudice.
–Karl Marx

How could anyone resist a back-cover blurb like that? Along with a slap, Sue also delivered a fairly rip-roaring story of good and evil and murder and love and hate and an immensity of sentimentality as it involves both princes and thieves, but really, you can’t care too much about that because it is what it is and it’s entirely enjoyable.

Well, until the last few chapters, maybe even the last third. Sue was just dragging shit out by then. You can tell it was published in 90 installments as one of the first serial novels, but there is something quite wonderful about this sprawling art form published in the Journal des débats from 19 June 1842 until 15 October 1843.

I am so glad Karl Marx found it irresistible.

It opens on the streets in the cité:

a labyrinth of obscure, crooked, and narrow streets, which extend from the Palais de Justice to Nôtre Dame.

Wretched houses, with scarcely a window, and those of worm-eaten frames, without any glass; dark, infectious-looking alleys led to still darker looking staircases, so steep that they could only be ascended by the aid of ropes fastened to the damp walls by iron hooks; the lower stories of some of these houses were occupied by sellers of charcoal, tripemen, or vendors of impure meat; and notwithstanding the little value of these commodities, the windows of the miserable shops were barred with iron, so much did the owners fear the bold robbers of this quarter. (9)


And so we come to the Rue aux Fèves, where our hero Rodolphe saves our heroine La Goualouse (but wait, it’s probably not quite what you think):

Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer - Le cabaret du Lapin Blanc, rue aux Fèves, 1875-1882
Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer – Le cabaret du Lapin Blanc, rue aux Fèves, 1875-1882 (after it had been demolished through Haussmanisation around 1860)

and they go to the Lapin Blanc:

It was a long, low room into which they entered, with smoky ceiling and black rafters, badly lighted by the murky rays of a miserable lamp. The whitewashed walls were covered with vulgar sketches, or with sentences in slang; the floor of beaten earth and salt was covered with mud; an armful of straw was placed at the foot of the counter or bar of the Ogresse instead of a carpet, and this was situated near the door, and under the lamp on each side of this room there were placed six tables, one end of each, as well as the benches, nailed to the walls. (15)


They just don’t build shit like this anymore. Nor would it remain standing much longer. Of course, Sue was probably paid by the word and thus paid to describe in detail, but I am so glad he did. The ogresse watches the bar, rents rooms, and rents clothes to young women — the book never calls her a procures but it is clear she also plays this kind of role. But I won’t give the plot away, wikipedia does that quite well.

This all takes place only a few years before the uprisings and barricades and attempts at revolution in 1848, those heady years fomented in just such small cafes in the cité. It is why Haussman was so determined to demolish them, along with the narrow labyrinths of streets so easily defended. But that all comes later.

There is no hint of revolution here, just greed and some terribly involved crimes and some very simple ones. This is, in fact, rather a reactionary tale — like in the way that blood defines character for example, so when La Goualouse ends up back in prison

I asked some of them who slept in the same room with her what was the cause of the difference [deference? Sic] shown her. ‘That’s more than we can tell,’ they answered: ‘it is plain she is not one of us.‘ ‘But who told you so?’ ‘No one told us: we see it in a thousand things. For instance, lat night, before she went to bed, she went on her knees and said her prayers; as she prays, as La Louve said, she must have a right to pray. (218)

God, the good old days when only the better classes with their blameless lives had the right to pray.

There is a black physician, rescued from American slavery, who is kind and good and wise. That’s a nice change, and almost undoubtedly a jab at America (this nationalist pride probably also explains the English nobleman in humble service of the European Prince). This book is reactionary on the subject of race in every other respect — there’s noticably no mention of Haiti here and I’ll get to Algiers in a bit. But first there is David’s wife who is a creole light enough to pass, and of course she is beautiful and unbalanced and Sue makes a fine art of insulting people here:

Her detestable predilections, for some time restrained by her real attachment for David, were developed in Europe; civilisation and the climactical influence of the North had tempered the violence, modified the expression. Instead of casting herself violently on her prey, and thinking only, like her compeers. to destroy as soon as possible their life and fortune, Cecily, fixing on her victims her magnetic glances, commenced by attracting them, little by little, into the blazing whirlwind which seemed to emanate from her… (283)

There is a great deal more in this vein and she causes an evil man to lose his reason entirely as part of a plot of vengeance on the side of good. That gets a bit confusing, but she’s clearly just in here to ratchet up the sex quotient (hard to do with everyone so good and pure). This involves some quite extraordinary detailed descriptions of her Alsatian costume (she’s in disguise involving a shortish skirt showing some leg and a laced up bodice) that would please the most OCD of fetishists. I know a lot more about race, class and corsets in 1840s France than I did before this book.

There is a whole lot here about female purity and the ways that shame can never be forgotten nor forgiven, the infuriating view that rape is always somehow the woman’s fault and she is never pure as a woman should be after. In fact, she’s better dead or in a nunnery. There’s a whole lot of stupid aristocratic nonsense. The Saxe-Gotha almanach makes an appearance. Another unbalanced woman. Once this story starts heading for these exalted shores it becomes much less interesting I confess. But given my interest in the intertwined histories of Europe and its colonies, it is fascinating that Rodolphe sends the thieves who have repented of their past off to Algiers to forge their new future.

I think in some ways this is the dream that Europeans and white Americans (and white Africans and Australians and etc etc) held to most — that opportunity to go somewhere, find some land, leave behind what you were and reinvent yourself anew. A new chance, a new and better future you define for yourself rather than entrapment into the one you were born into.

…they mutually congratulated each other on the agreeable prospects before them in Algiers.

And so everything was sacrificed, above all those occupying the land that financed and made reinvention possible. Those original occupants had to be made less. Even the infamous empathy of our heroine does not even give a quiver at this:

To end your family of protégés, my lord, I will add that Germain has read in the papers that Martial, a planter in Algiers, has been spoken of with great praise for the courage he has shown in repulsing, at the head of his farmers, an attack of thievish Arabs, and that his wife, as intrepid as himself, had been slightly wounded in the side while she was discharging her gun like a real grenadier. From that time…she has been called Madame Carabine. (365)

That’s one for the women, but only in defense of white privilege to take over farms by conquest. Here the roots of the pied noirs and the bloody conflict stretching across years and decades and as formative of France as it would be of Algeria. As a footnote, but I am always fascinated by just how much the colonies infuse the consciousness and the stories of the colonisers when you look.

For more on Paris…



Street Haunting: Woolf’s London Adventure

Street Haunting - Virginia Woolf‘Street Haunting’ is such a lovely yet also immensely frustrating essay on wandering the streets — I have separated it from the other essays that it found itself in. I love the title. Somehow I am made so happy that her favourite time is winter, that we share this love of champagne air, bare branches against the sky, the beauty of lighted windows.

It begins in a room well loved and the need for a pencil. We are invited first into the room, a glimpse into Woolf’s life and the home she has created, and then we escape with her.

The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful. We are not then taunted as in the summer by the longing for shade and solitude and sweet airs from the hayfields. The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience. That bowl on the mantelpiece, for instance, was bought at Mantua on a windy day. We were leaving the shop when the sinister old woman plucked at our skirts and said she would find herself starving one of these days, but, “Take it!” she cried, and thrust the blue and white china bowl into our hands as if she never wanted to be reminded of her quixotic generosity. So, guiltily, but suspecting nevertheless how badly we had been fleeced, we carried it back to the little hotel where, in the middle of the night, the innkeeper quarrelled so violently with his wife that we all leant out into the courtyard to look, and saw the vines laced about among the pillars and the stars white in the sky. The moment was stabilized, stamped like a coin indelibly among a million that slipped by imperceptibly. There, too, was the melancholy Englishman, who rose among the coffee cups and the little iron tables and revealed the secrets of his soul–as travellers do. All this–Italy, the windy morning, the vines laced about the pillars, the Englishman and the secrets of his soul–rise up in a cloud from the china bowl on the mantelpiece. And there, as our eyes fall to the floor, is that brown stain on the carpet. Mr. Lloyd George made that. “The man’s a devil!” said Mr. Cummings, putting the kettle down with which he was about to fill the teapot so that it burnt a brown ring on the carpet.

But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like
covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye. How beautiful a street is in winter! (177)

I like thinking of home as a shell, an expression of myself and the places I have been and the kinds of things I love excreted in a glowing spiral. Perhaps because I grew up in the nautilus house. But you have to leave home.

And she does, and carries me with her in her wanderings and her musings, into a flow of reflections so similar to my own yet also into her prejudices and views of people I do not share. In fact, that I hate:

Here, perhaps, in the top rooms of these narrow old houses between Holborn and Soho, where people have such queer names, and pursue so many curious trades, are gold beaters, accordion pleaters, cover buttons, or support life, with even greater fantasticality, upon a traffic in cups without saucers, china umbrella handles, and highly-coloured pictures of martyred saints. There they lodge, and it seems as if the lady in the sealskin jacket must find life tolerable, passing the time of day with the accordion pleater, or the man who covers buttons; life which is so fantastic cannot be altogether tragic. They do not grudge us, we are musing, our prosperity; when, suddenly, turning the corner, we come upon a bearded Jew, wild, hunger-bitten, glaring out of his misery; or pass the humped body of an
old woman flung abandoned on the step of a public building with a cloak over her like the hasty covering thrown over a dead horse or donkey. At such sights the nerves of the spine seem to stand erect; a sudden flare is brandished in our eyes; a question is asked which is never answered. Often enough these derelicts choose to lie not a stone’s thrown from theatres, within hearing of barrel organs, almost, as night draws on, within touch of the sequined cloaks and bright legs of diners and dancers (181).

I know and love this piece of London, have wandered it many times. I hate the phrases ‘a bearded Jew’, ‘these derelicts’, ‘a question is asked which is never answered’. Woolf never answers these big questions. The silence continues, maintained through walking, superficially thinking in her streams of words and the passing of images. But I am grateful for these images, these city landscapes preserved.

She finds the old bookstores, they must be the ones on Charing Cross Road that now have lost so much of their magic, imagines the contents of rows of dusty books:

A tour in Cornwall with a visit to the tin mines was thought worthy of voluminous record. People went slowly up the Rhine and did portraits of each other in Indian ink, sitting reading on deck beside a coil of rope; they measured the pyramids; were lost to civilization for years; converted negroes in pestilential swamps. This packing up and going off, exploring deserts and catching fevers, settling in India for a lifetime, penetrating even to China and then returning to lead a parochial life at Edmonton, tumbles and tosses upon the dusty floor like an uneasy sea, so restless the English are, with the waves at their very door. The waters of travel and adventure seem to break upon little islands of serious effort and lifelong industry stood in jagged column upon the floor (184).

How are all of these things equal? I wonder. Travelling up the Rhine and converting ‘negroes’ and somehow returning to Edmonton with nothing changed but really you know the conquest of China and the view of the children dying in the tin mines surely must have changed everything, didn’t it? Are the picturesque poor not right to grudge you your prosperity?

She asks the questions but does not answer, does not think them through. I love walking for the way that your mind travels like this, lightly touching on a multitude of thoughts and impressions. I like to come home and write then, think deeper, explore further. Woolf uses the streets to open up her mind but then closes it all back down again, comes home and shuts the door behind her and so these questions just go on and on and nothing is ever done.

I love this sense of homecoming, but not of closing doors ensuring that the only treasure found was the pencil.

That is true: to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet. And here–let us examine it tenderly, let us touch it with reverence–is the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city, a lead pencil. (187)


On Writing and Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk’s THE BLACK BOOK

The Black Book“Each life is unique!” cried the magazine writer. “A story is a story only when it has no equal. Every writer is poor and all alone.”
–Galip (104)

I read Pamuk’s The Black Book to then give away, and I am not sure I can. I feel that I should come back to it knowing more of the city’s history, knowing the city itself. Istanbul is so central to it, made so concrete through its pages that it becomes the standard — the cities wandered and written through my own life become the exotic others. It is a heady feeling.

It is a story of intrigue and mystery. It evokes and plays with some of the old psychogeographical cannon like Poe and Baudelaire, but its foundations are anchored in a Turkish literature that has, for the most part, not been translated. It edges around city–and the human face–as sign and signifier, drawing these into plots and conspiracies of occult dimensions playing on words and anagrams and numerology and games —  yet the lines are blended between the hysterically imagined and the real and violent, this is the time of the actual coup.

Always the city is there to wander, to describe, to inspire, to shape, to speak. Celâl Bey the columnist attempts over and over again to capture it, Galip Bey his nephew turns to it (and Celâl’s descriptions of it over decades) to help him solve the mystery he faces in the disappearance of Celâl and Galip’s wife.

This is a wondrous imagining of the draining of the Bosphorus, and the records of past glories to be found there and what will come after:

I am speaking now of the new neighborhoods that will take root on this muddy wasteland that we once knew as the Bosphorus…of brothels, mosques and dervish lodges, of nests where Marxist splinter groups go to hatch their young…
— Celâl (17)

As in all cities there are many mysteries and wonders. My favourite perhaps is the underground caves full of mannequins ‘possessed of a life force stronger than anything you might see in the crowds swarming across the Galata Bridge.’

My father always said we should pay close attention to the gestures that make us who we are…In those years his father held that a nation could change its way of life , its history, its technology, its art, literature and culture, but it would never have a real chance to change its gestures.
–Celâl (62)

Galip in his search ends up in these same caves, finds a mannequin of Celâl himself, listens to a new generation creating these mannequins and in effect talking through the way that culture survives modernisation, westernisation:

“My father quickly realized that our history could only survive underground, that these passageways leading to our house, these underground roads strewn with skeletons, provided us with a historical opportunity, a chance to create citizens who carried their histories, their meanings, on their faces.”
–Galip 191

The psychogeography of the city:

He surveyed the ramshackle shops lining the crooked pavements: These garden shears he saw before him, these star-spangled screwdrivers, NO PARKING signs, cans of tomato paste, these calendars you saw on the walls of cheap restaurants, this Byzantine aqueduct festooned with Plexiglas letters, the heavy padlocks hanging from the metal shop shutters — they were all signs crying out to be read. He could, if he wished, read them like faces.
–Galip (215)

Always the city like a face.

So then he spread out the maps of Damascus, Cairo, and Istanbul side by side, just as Celâl had foreseen in a column inspired by Edgar Allen Poe. He cut the maps out of the Istanbul directory with a razor blade he found in the bathroom…When he first put the maps together, he saw that their arrows and line fragments were different sizes, so he was at first unsure how to proceed. Then he pressed them together against the glass pane of the sitting-room door…
–Galip (263)

This takes him nowhere. I liked that. A few more quotes I liked:

…every time it occurred to him that someone might be following him, his legs speeded up, the city ceased to be a quiet place where all signs and objects looked familiar and turned into a realm of horror, shimmering with mystery and danger.
–Galip (340)

The shopkeeper certainly remembered. His sense of place was as good as his sense of smell. Through his close reading of your columns. he had conjured up an Istanbul that was more than a cornucopia of smells: He knew every corner of the city that you had visited, grown to love it–love it secretly, without telling a soul–for its mystery, but just as he was unable to imagine certain odors, he had no idea where these places were in relation to one another. I myself had, thanks to you, visited these places from time to time–when I’ve needed to find you…
–phone call to Galip (350)

‘You bastard writer, you!’

This book is as much about identity, about discovering who you are, the intersections between the individual and the nation (or Empire), how writing facilitates, hides, occludes, makes possible.

This mystery, this truth you’ve been making us run after for all these years…: No one in this country can ever be himself. To live in an oppressed, defeated country is to be someone else. I am someone else, therefore I am! (390)

…when he told the story for the third time, it became clear to him that he could be a different person each time he told it. Like the Prince, I tell stories to become myself. Furiously angry at all those who had prevented him from being himself, and certain that it was only by telling stories that he would come to know the mystery of the city and the mystery of life itself, he brought the story to a close for a third and final time, to be met with a white silence that spoke to him of death. (417)

…he had been waging this war not just on his own behalf but for the many millions who had bound their fates to the crumbling empire…all people who are unable to be themselves, all civilizations that imitate other civilizations, all those nations who find happiness in other people’s stories were doomed to be crushed, destroyed and forgotten.
Galip as Celâl (429)

Because it was only when a man had run out of stories to tell that he came close to being himself. (431)

This was particularly interesting after reading Pamuk’s autobiography Istanbul: Memories of a City, which shows how he has been circling these ideas even as he circles this same family, apartment block, street, city, nation, empire…yes. I think I may come back to it. But in ten years or so, so someone else can read it in the meantime.

It ends with a lovely couple of pages from the translator Maureen Freely that has me contemplating learning to read Turkish — every translation should contain these few pages. Clearly there is so much that simply cannot be translated and I yearn to understand the cascading sentence structure that echoes the cascading of subject, the ways that a Turkish sentence can circle, obscure, make clear that English simply cannot.


Trouillot’s Silencing the Past

357199I also want to reject both the naive proposition that we are prisoners of our pasts and the pernicious suggestion that history is whatever we make of it. History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots (xix).

I love this book. It is short, poetic, and has been transformative of how I think about history and my own work investigating the past and bringing it to bear on the present. As if that weren’t enough, it helps recapture the brilliance of the Haitian revolution while exposing how and why it has been silenced. That’s not all it does, but I think what it does best.

There is is some really interesting things about language in here, how history and historiography are shaped not just in how we tell the past, but in the very words that we use.

Human beings participate in history both as actors and as narrators. The inherent ambivalence of the word “history” in many modern languages, including English, suggests this dual participation. (2)

There’s a reminder of how language structures the ways in which we think:

The pernicious belief that epistemic validity matters only to
Western-educated populations, either because others lack the
proper sense of time or the proper sense of evidence, is belied by
the use of evidentials in a number of non-European Ianguages.
An English approximation would be a rule forcing historians to distinguish grammatically between “I heard that it happened,” “I saw it happen,” or “I have obtained evidence that it happened” every time they use the verb “to happen.” (7-8)

I also love the expansion of what history means, who makes it and tells it and who impacts on the ways it is understood, the critique of academic historians who tend to limit it.

Such debates suggest that historical relevance does not proceed directly from the original impact of an event, or its mode of inscription, or even the continuity of that inscription.
Debates about the Alamo, the Holocaust, or the significance
of U.S. slavery involve not only professional historians but ethnic and religious leaders, political appointees, journalists, and various associations within civil society as well as independent citizens, not all of whom are activists. This variety of narrators is one of many indications that theories of history have a rather limited view of the field of historical production. (19)

It also tries to shift how we view the ways in which history is made and by whom:

History, as social process, involves peoples in three distinct capacities: 1) as agents, or occupants of structural positions; 2) as actors in constant interface with a context; and 3) as subjects, that is, as voices aware of their vocality.

peoples are also the subjects of history the way workers are
subjects of a strike: they define the very terms under which some situations can be described. (23)

This in turn shifts how we write about it, what we focus on:

Thus between the mechanically “realist” and naively “constructivist” extremes, there is the more serious task of determining not what history is–a hopeless goal if phrased in essentialist terms–but how history works. (25)

Building on this reconceptualising of who makes history and how, is the ways in which so much history is lost, erased, silenced — and how we reclaim them.

Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance). (26)

To put it differently, any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly. (27)

Thus the presences and absences embodied in sources (artifacts and bodies that turn an event into fact) or archives (facts collected, thematized, and processed as documents and monuments) are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such they are not mere presences and absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis. (48)

One of my favourite sentences? ‘…one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun.’

Deconstruct these silences we must, because above all this is about fighting the power that oppresses and silences, and building out own.

Power does not enter the story once and for all, but at different times and from different angles. It precedes the narrative proper, contributes to its creation and to its interpretation. Thus, it remains pertinent even if we can imagine a totally scientific history, even if we relegate the historians’ preferences and stakes to a separate, post-descriptive phase. In history, power begins at the source.

We can be hopeful, we can find traces of what has been silenced. Not everything is lost, and we can (and must) look to material remains.

What happened leaves traces, some of which are quite concrete–buildings, dead bodies, censuses, monuments, diaries, political boundaries–that limit the range and significance of any historical narrative. This is one of many reasons why not any fiction can pass for history: the materiality of the sociohistorical process (historicity 1) sets the stage for future historical narratives (historicity 2). (29)

But we must do this well, uncovering the working of power and the larger significance of our work:

The turn toward hitherto neglected sources (e.g., diaries. images, bodies) and the emphasis on unused facts (e.g ., facts of
gender, race, and class, facts of the life cycle, facts of resistance)
are pathbreaking developments. My point is that when these tactical gains are made to dictate strategy they lead, at worst, to a neo-empiricist enterprise and, at best, to an unnecessary restriction of the battleground for historical power. (49)

Silences Within Silences
The unearthing of silences, and the historian’s subsequent emphasis on the retrospective significance of hitherto neglected events, requires not only extra labor at the archives–whether or not one uses primary sources–but also a project linked to an interpretation. This is so because the combined silences accrued through the first three steps of the process of historical production intermesh and solidify at the fourth and final moment when retrospective significance itself is produced. (58-59)

And then there is ‘The Haitian Revolution as a non-event’, an immense and inspiring uprising that shifted global balances of power, yet is treated as peripheral where mentioned at all. There is a powerful discussion of why and how that should be, which explores how limits are created on people’s perceptions and their ability to understand events, and how these limits worked in European thinking.

The Haitian Revolution thus entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. (73)

Thus the Enlightenment exacerbated the fundamental ambiguity that dominated the encounter between ontological discourse and colonial practice. If the philosophers did reformulate some of the answers inherited from the Renaissance, the question “What is Man?” kept stumbling against the practices of domination and or merchant accumulation. The gap between abstraction and practice grew or, better said, the handling or the contradictions between the two became much more sophisticated, in part because philosophy provided as many answers as colonial practice itself. (78)

Slavery and its foundations are, of course, one of the principal limits, all too obvious in Enlightenment discourse (yet never raised as such):

The Enlightenment, nevertheless, brought a change of perspective. The idea of progress, now confirmed, suggested that men were perfectible. Therefore, subhumans could be, theoretically at least, perfectible. More important, the slave trade was running its course, and the economics of slavery would be questioned increasingly as the century neared its end. Perfectibility became an argument in the practical debate: the westernized other looked increasingly more profitable to the West, especially if he could become a free laborer. A French memoir of 1790 summarized the issue: “It is perhaps not impossible to civilize the Negro, to bring him to principles and make a man out of him: there would be more to gain than to buy and sell him.” (80)

Above all, it is a discourse tied to the practicalities of maintaining domination and Empire:

Behind the radicalism of Diderot and Raynal stood, ultimately,
a project of colonial management. It did indeed include the abolition of slavery, but only in the long term, and as part of a process that aimed at the better control of the colonies. Access to human status did not lead ipso facto to self-determination. In short, here again, as in Condorcet, as in Mirabeau, as in Jefferson, when all is said and done, there are degrees of humanity. The vocabulary of the times reveals that gradation. When one talked of the biological product of black and of white intercourse, one spoke of “man of color” as if the two terms do not necessarily go together: unmarked humanity is white. (81)

This is not to make the demand that people of the past should understand the moralities of the present, but rather what it was about the past that made these moralities almost impossible to imagine:

I am not suggesting that eighteenth-century men and women should have thought about the fundamental equality of humankind in the same way some of us do today. On the contrary, I am arguing that they could not have done so. But I am also drawing a lesson from the understanding of this historical impossibility. The Haitian Revolution did challenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the Enlightenment. The events that shook up Saint Domingue from 1791 to 1804 constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme political left in France or in in England had a conceptual frame of reference. They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought. (82)

Below are some fragments of how ideology sat uneasily, often contradictory within white understandings, how innocence of Black humanity was preserved ideologically in the pursuit of domination and profit:

Thus, next to a discourse that claimed the contentment of slaves, a plethora of laws, advice, and measures, both legal and illegal, were set up to curb the very resistance denied in theory.

Rather, each case of unmistakable defiance, each possible instance of resistance was treated separately and drained of its political content (83).

Built into any system of domination is the tendency to proclaim its own normalcy. (84)

When the news of the massive uprising of August 1791 first hit
France, the most common reaction among interested parties was disbelief: the facts were too unlikely; the news had to be false. (90)

Worldview wins over the facts: white hegemony is natural and taken for granted; any alternative is still in the domain of the unthinkable.  (93)

The international recognition of Haitian independence was even more difficult to gain than military victory over the forces of Napoleon. It took more time and more resources. more than a half century of diplomatic struggles. France imposed a heavy indemnity on the Haitian state in order to formally acknowledge its own defeat. The United States and the Vatican, notably, recognized Haitian independence only in the second half of the nineteenth century.  (95)

This is important not just to understand how domination worked, but also revolt:

Not only was the Revolution unthinkable and, therefore, unannounced in the West. it was also–to a large extent–unspoken among the slaves themselves. By this I mean that the Revolution was not preceded or even accompanied by an explicit intellectual discourse.

In that sense, the revolution was indeed at the limits of the thinkable, even in Saint-Domingue, even among the slaves, even
among its own leaders. We need to recall that the key tenets of the political philosophy that became explicit in Saint-Domingue/Haiti between 1791 and 1804 were not accepted by world public opinion until after World War II.(88)

By necessity, the Haitian Revolution thought itself out politically and philosophically as it was taking place. Its project, increasingly radicalized throughout thirteen years of combat, was revealed in successive spurts. Between and within its unforeseen stages, discourse always lagged behind practice. (89)

Thus in looking specifically at how the facts and the meaning of the Haitian Revolution have been (mis)understood, Trouillot uncovers two specific processes that he terms ‘Erasure and Trivialization: Silences in World History’:

I have fleshed out two major points so far. First, the chain of events that constitute the Haitian Revolution was unthinkable before these events happened. Second, as they happened, the successive events within that chain were systematically recast by many participants and observers to fit a world of possibilities. That is, they were made to enter into narratives that made sense to a majority of Western observers and readers. I will now show how the revolution that was thought impossible by its contemporaries has also been silenced by historians. (96)

The treatment of the Haitian Revolution in written history outside of Haiti reveals two families of tropes that are identical. in formal (rhetorical) terms, to figures of discourse of the late eighteenth century. The first kind of tropes are formulas that tend to erase directly the fact of a revolution. I call them, for short, formulas of erasure. The second kind tends to empty a number of singular events of their revolutionary content so that the entire string of facts, gnawed from all sides, becomes trivialized. I call the formulas of banalization…Both are formulas of silence. (96)

Thus domination continues on into the present, these interpretations having everything to do not just with the ways in which silences continue, but in the limits this imposes on how we understand the problems facing the present and how we imagine working towards a new future.

Finally, the silencing of the Haitian Revolution also fit the relegation to an historical backburner of the three themes to which it was linked: racism, slavery, and colonialism. In spite of their importance in the formation of what we now call the West, in spite of sudden outbursts of interest as in the United States in the early 1970s, none of these themes has ever become a central concern of the historiographic tradition in a Western country. (98)

That Hobsbawm and the editors of the Dictionary would probably locate themselves quite differently within England’s political spectrum is one indication that historical silences do not simply reproduce the overt political positions of the historians involved. What we are observing here is archival power at its strongest, the power to define what is and what is not a serious object of research and, therefore, of mention. (99)

Effective silencing does not require a conspiracy, not even a political consensus. Its roots are structural. (106)

The silencing of the Haitian Revolution is only a chapter within
a narrative of global domination. It is part of the history of the
West and it is likely to persist, even in attenuated form, as long as the history of the West is not retold in ways that bring forward the perspective of the world. (107)

This happens in theory and the terms that we use:

Terminologies demarcate a field, politically and epistemologically. Names set up a field of power.” “Discovery” and analogous terms ensure that by just mentioning the event one enters a predetermined lexical field of cliches and predictable categories that foreclose a redefinition  of the political and intellectual stakes. Europe becomes the center of “what happened.” (115)

It highlights what we must remember in our own work if we are not to reproduce this:

historical authenticity resides not in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis-a-vis the present as it re-presents that past. (148)

Authenticity implies a relation with what is known that duplicates the two sides of historicity: it engages us both as actors and narrators. (150)

This is so long and pieces together a sense of his writing about process, while hardly touching the substance of the various histories he reclaims from the silence — as important a project as what I have focused on here. So read it.

For more on race, empire and history…




The Corporation that Changed the World

15792820The answer to the implied question is, if you hadn’t guessed it, the East India Company. This is a great critical introduction to what the Company was, what it did, and how it relates to the corporate malfeasance we are so familiar with today.

Established on a cold New Year’s Eve, 1600, England’s East India Company is the mother of the modern corporation. In its more than two and a half centuries of existence, it bridged the mercantilist world of chartered monopolies and the industrial age of corporations accountable solely to shareholders. The Company’s establishment by royal charter, its monopoly of all trade between Britain and Asia and its semi-sovereign privileges to rule territories and raise armies certainly mark it out as a corporate institution from another time. Yet in its financing, structures of governance and business dynamics, the Company was undeniably modern (5).

Modern too, its insatiable greed and the split between this shareholder demand for profits and responsibility for any of the consequences.

From Roman times, Europe had always been Asia’s commercial supplicant, shipping out gold ad silver in return for spices, textiles and other luxury goods. European traders were attracted to the East for its wealth and sophistication at a time when the western economy was a fraction of the size of Asia’s. And for the first 150 years, the Company had to repeat this practice, as there was almost nothing that England could export that the East wanted to buy (7).

Essentially this is the story of how the East India Company forced this to change in search of profit. It is a harrowing story intertwined with English history in ways that this book doesn’t always tease out but bookmarks for us. For example, the literary figures who worked there, were surely influenced by their work even when not being explicit about it. Like Charles Lamb, Thomas Love Peacock, James and John Stuart Mill, James Bentham. On James Mill in particular there is this awesome anecdote:

One account describes how “when particularly inspired he used, before sitting down to his desk, to not only strip himself of his coat and waistcoat, but of his trousers, and so set to work, alternately striding up and down the room and writing at great speed.” (189)

This also connects to other histories of Empire, like one of those that fascinates me most — the evangelical project to settle Sierra Leone (read an early account here in relation to the Clapham Sect, another in relation to other trading companies here, and a later more fuller one here). I had as yet only ever heard of it as a way to resettle free Blacks from London to Africa, but here it is presented very briefly through the lens of the Lascars in London, noted because John Lemon, 29-year-old lascar and hairdresser and cook from Bengal married an Englishwoman named Elizabeth before they set off as part of the Sierra Leone expedition, surviving the passage but from there their future is unknown (21).

That is an aside however, a trail to follow. It’s almost a relief from the overwhelming anger and sadness this tale of greed inspires. Structural greed, as it’s three main flaws accoridng to Robins (and these remain unchanged today) are these, which lead to what can only be called villainy in the search for ‘immediate and excessive returns’:

  1. Executives and shareholders can pursue own profit to the detriment of all others — there is no higher purpose of the corporation.
  2. Limitation of liability frees shareholders and to a great extent executives of responsibility for their actions in the pursuit of these profits.
  3. The separation of ownership and control allows executives to pursue profit and exploit the company for their own ends.

Within this greater framework of greed and exploitation, individuals were also on the look out to make their own fortunes:

For its executives, the purpose of a career with the Company was to achieve a ‘competence’, making enough money to be able to retire and adopt the conspicuous consumption patterns of the British landed gentry. This could bot be achieved by saving from the salaries received from the Company, which barely covered living expenses. As a result, the ambitious Company man had to use his position a a platform for patronage and private trade (29).

What separated this form of corporation from the present one is primarily the risk and the power. Because the risks were, of course, much higher  — the round trip from India to London could take up to two years and there was limited communication or control possible. The East India Company also had to continually renew its royal charter, which required regularly justifying its existence outside of its investors at regular intervals.

On this other hand this royal charter allowed it to mint coin in oversees holdings, exercise justice, and the right to wage war — thus their army changed from private security to a tool for land acquisition. Robins quotes Niels Steengard as saying — ‘the principal export of the pre-industrial Europe to the rest of the world was violence.’ (44)

The history of the EIC is this its efforts to maximise its power, and to minimise risks and controls. Its impact on the monarchy was one example — after the Glorious Revolution brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne, commercial rights were high on the list of priorities in the minds of the British elite in drawing up the ‘unprecedented Bill of Rights that would bind the new monarchs’ (52).

This was matched by a long-standing and complex web of corruption and bribery in the interests of the company. Post 1688 it centered around the figure of Governor Sir Thomas Cooke, subject of a special inquiry. The sums are staggering for the time: £107, 013 paid out in ‘special services’, £80,468 to win a new charter. Another £90,000 used by Cooke to buy stock to shore up the chartering process.

A number of fortunes were made in autocratic bids to gain more power and profit — that of director Sir Josiah Child (‘Perhaps more than any other of the Company’s executives before or since, Josiah Child had demonstrated where an appetite for corporate power could lead’ (57)). The Pitt fortunes emerged, of course, from the ‘Pitt Diamond’, 410 carat rock obtained by Thomas Pitt, governor of Madras.

That would be another interesting distraction to follow. More inspiring perhaps, in terms of distractions, is the brief mention of a weavers’ insurrection in 1696, and their march on the East India House after 5,000 marched on Parliament against imports of Indian cloth. Later they ransacked and threatened homes of Company officials and very nearly sacked the Company storerooms. In view of what happens to weavers, you wish they had.

because we are about to come to the most horrifying period of the EIC’s fairly horrifying history. The period in which it caused Bengal to go from one of the richest areas in the world — hard to imagine today because it continues to be what the EIC made of it — one of the poorest.

The Battle of Plassey, 23 June 1757, is the turning point. Robert Clive attacked and defeated the nawab of Bengal, capturing Calcutta and thus ‘enabling the Company to achieve its long desired monopoly over the export trade, expanding into the internal market and appropriating the public revenues of Bengal for its own benefit’ (77).

One estimate states that in the decade after Plassey, Bengal lost 2/3 of revenues.

Bengal’s weavers were devastated — they were not rich but good evidence shows they lived and worked under much better standards of living than the weavers in England, with more control over their production terms and conditions. Any power they held over their labour was smashed. Their history says they cut off their own hands so they couldn’t be forced to work under the conditions demanded by the company. Rather than exporting cloth, Bengal began to export cotton and import cloth, devastating industry and all the lives that depended on it.

A new era of exploitation with impunity became the rule: ‘A new catchphrase entered the language — “a lass and a lakh [a lakh being Rs100,000] a day–to describe the lifestyle of the Company’s executives in Bengal’ (86).

They did not just devastate weaving, but all other systems of support and livelihood. When famine hit they continued exporting grain, and raised their taxes. I had not, until recently, even heard of this famine, this terrible murder of millions of people in 1770 (ish). Governor Warren Hastings  gave the number of 10 million, a third of the population of Bengal. A hundred years later, another famine:

Working in the midst of the terrible 1877 famine that he estimated had cost another 10 million lives, Cornelius Walford calculated that in the 120 years of British rule there had been 34 famines in India, compared with only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millenia (93).

Robins writes:

The Bengal Famine stands out as perhaps one of the worst examples of corporate mismanagement in history (97).

which seems to me to be a bit of an understatement, a bit missing the point perhaps. Besides, it depends how you define mismanagement, the point of  a corporation is to make a profit, and the EIC continued to make a profit through these years, difficult as they found it. This is the damning indictment of our times.

Robins then points out the ideological inconsistencies of corporations and their neoliberal supporters — but they are a bundle of inconsistencies. Still, it is good to remember:

Reading Smith afresh…it is shocking how his penetrating critique of the corporation has been so comprehensively suppressed. Nothing of his scepticism of corporations, their pursuit of monopoly and their faulty system of governance, enters into the speeches of today’s neo-liberal advocates. Promoting his vision of free trade, they conveniently ignore that this can only be achieved with steadfast curbs on corporate power (119).

And through all of it, there is a particular ridiculousness and in-fighting:

General John Clavering, Philip Francis and George Monson–arrived in Calcutta in October 1774, tensions arose. Instead of the 21-gun salute they were expecting, Hastings had organised only 17 cannon to fire as they landed (126).

There is the spectre of Edmund Burke arguing for the Indian people in the trial of Governor Warren Hastings — and I do love that he was brought to trial. I also appreciate this in Burke:

‘Rather than viewing history as a civilisational contest between primitive and progressive nations, Burke believed that each society had its own intrinsic value, which should not be sacrificed to the interests of profit or power (141)

But I haven’t even started on the account of China yet, the stealing of their secrets of tea production, the enforced opium trade through war and smuggling. And slowly the EIC was losing its corporate character, though none of its greed.

Military victory alone was insufficient to restore British fortunes in India. A new regime had to be introduced to confront the extreme oddities created by a sharehold-owned corporation ruling over tens of millions of people. The reforms of the 1770s and 1780s had punctured the Company’s autonomy as a business, and the 1784 India Act had introduced a two-tier system — a ‘double government’ — with the Company maintaining a facade of authority, behind which the state pulled the strings through the Board of Control (173).

If anything good can be said of them it was that they were entirely secular, but with the increased blending of public and private interests this was to change. Driven through by Wilberforce:

After years of campaigning, Wilberforce and others managed to include in the 1813 charter Act provisions for the establihsmnet of a Church of England bishopric in India, as well as the removal of the Company’s longstanding ban on missionary activity (182).

These changes solidified by the need for military force after the uprising of 1857:

When the company retook Kanpur…where rebel troops had slaughtered European women and children, captured sepoys were made to lick the blood from the floors before being hanged. Summary executions became the norm. According to one officer, “we hold court-martials on horseback, and every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.” The Company’s recapture of Delhi was followed by systematic sacking, and the surviving inhabitants were tured out of its gates to starve (195).

Robins later mentions the Company’s practice of blasting captured rebels from cannons as lampooned in a cartoon in Punch. Such caricatures only work utilising common knowledge, and it is not mocking the practice itself, rather the Company’s bungling and mismanagement and corruption. This is the brutal experience of conquest and Empire that goes unspoken by Colonel Pargiter in Virginia Woolf’s The Years. I wonder where else it lurks, all the places I never imagined from the ways in which history and literature are taught so as to hide it.

But thus we come to the end of the EIC as company, and onto India as part of the British Empire. Robins states:

The Company is often regarded as an inevitable stepping-stone to the British Raj. Instead, the British Empire in India is better thought of as the product of the Company’s failure (196).

A key inversion I think, but I am not sure what else I think about it, what it might mean for how Empire is both narrated and understood. I don’t know enough yet. I will ponder. By 1858 the Company is done, the Crown has negotiated a long process to buy out stock in a structured deal that makes sure no one loses money.

Given their record, that is quite disgusting. Given the way this deal was financed even more so. Surely the EIC was not quite the bungler it appears.

Writing in 1908, Romesh Chander Dutt was outraged at the way in which the people of India had not only supplied the troops for their own conquest, financed the Company’s acquisition of the subcontinent through heavy taxation, but had also paid for the Company’s nationalisation. “And the Indian people are virtually paying dividends to this day,” he wrote, “on the stock on an extinct Company in the shape of interest on Debt.” (198)

And the key lessons Robins would have us take away?

From this continual metamorphosis, four facets emerge most clearly for our times: the Company as entrepreneur, its role as a revolutionary force in world affairs, its tendency to imperial dominion and the struggle to make it accountable for its actions (201)

For me it is all this, but also the efforts to control the Company and call it to account, how Burke exposed the weakness of Marxism in its wholesale buying in of social evolution and the march of progress, the attempts at uprising both in England and India, and finding out about this marvelous creation that I shall have to go and see as soon as possible at the V&A:


Their website describes it as:

‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a carved and lacquered wooden semi-automaton in the shape of a tiger mauling a man, Mysore, India, about 1793. Museum no 2545 (IS).

But the tiger is not just mauling any man. It is a European man, expressing the hatred of the EIC by the Sultan of Mysore, who fell in battle against them. This was part of the spoils, which is why I can go to the V&A and see it, as the EIC museum in Leadenhall Street is no more. I hate that it has been looted, yet it is a most visceral reminder of the simple fact that Empire was not appreciated, did not bring civilisation, did not help the Indian people.

I wonder if people see it that way? Just as I wonder what effect removing the statue to Robert Clive from Whitehall would be as Robins argues for — something I would definitely like to try and see. They certainly had an impact on the fabric of London itself — there is a nice section on that at the end of the book — or better said, how much of that impact has been erased. But the natural world was changed forever by the EIC both in India and its other colonies, the immense wealth of India funded the changing monumentality of country houses and gardens, the profit driven import/export business shaped the lives of the most desperate of London’s poor, particularly the weavers and the dockers. There is so much more to explore here…


On Slavery and Abolitionists: The History of Mary Prince

mp-book-204x300Autobiographical yet co-produced, this is as much an autobiography of the indomitable Mary Prince in all that is said, as the evangelical abolitionists who supported her bid for freedom in all that is left unsaid.

Mary Prince–born into slavery in Brackish Pond, Bermuda in 1788, she lived with her mother and siblings with the Williams family, helping take care of a little girl named Betsy who ‘used to lead me about by the hand, and call me her little nigger’ (57).

No images survive of Mary Prince herself, but this is the photo that has often been used to illustrate her story.

But with the death of Mrs Williams the family split, as a young girl she was auctioned away from her family (though she maintained contact with them, even as her mother retreats into madness), and into a string of homes where she would be worked and starved and suspended naked from the ceiling and whipped. Every day there is a stream of abuse, of name-calling, pinching, slapping, beating that is said, and a subtext of sexual abuse that goes unsaid. She is almost killed by one master, falls ill and is essentially left to die by another. All of it is heartbreaking, horrific, rings with truth, yet few of her time wished to believe it.

My favourite sentence:

Mrs. Wood was very angry — she grew quite outrageous — she called me a black devil, and asked me who had put freedom into my head. ‘To be free is very sweet,’ I said… (86)

This is a graphic tale of oppression and a proud spirit pushing back against it as hard as she could, making her stands where possible, working always towards buying her freedom. It is also clearly stripped of all sexual content. Some of this is perforce put back in again, through the lawsuit of her last owners the Woods against Thomas Pringle, the abolitionist who had taken Mary Prince in as a servant and published her life history.

Her bad moral character becomes part of their case against her in defending their own good name after Mary Prince leaves them in London and petitions Parliament to force them to sell her her freedom. She testifies before the judge, and thus emerges in the frigid light of Victorian morality some of what was left unsaid by those who helped her share her life–but surely not all. It initiated a small level of discussion of slavery and morality (but of rape nothing is said of course), and the defense submitted a letter from Joseph Phillips of Antigua stating the following:

Of the immoral conduct ascribed to Molly by Mr. Wood, I can say nothing further than this — that I have heard she had at a former period (previous to her marriage) a connexion [sic] with a white person, a Capt.– which I have no doubt was broken off when she became seriously impressed with religion. But, at any rate, such connexions are so common, I might almost say universal, in our slave colonies, that except by the missionaries and a few serious persons, they are considered, if faults at all, so very venial as  scarcely to deserve the name of immorality. Mr. Wood knows this colonial estimate of such connexions as well as I do; and however false such an estimate must be allowed to be, especially when applied to their own conduct by persons of education, pretending to adhere to the pure Christian rule of morals… (letter from Mr Joseph Phillips of Antigua,1831,  p 111)

I found this somewhat jaw-dropping, I don’t know why. Perhaps its openness in comparison to the brutal public adherence to Victorian morals by everyone else, even though guilty of so much. There is a great deal in here — beyond what is censored from Mary’s account — showing the abolitionists in all their moral high-handedness and racism as well. Moira Ferguson (the editor) shares an anecdote from Peter Fryer in Staying Power:

When members and friends of the African and Asian society dined at a tavern in 1816, with Wilberforce in the chair, the token Africans and Asians invited to the gathering were separated from the other guests by a screen set across one end of the room.

And this is from the letter of Thomas Pringle in Mary’s defense:

Her chief faults, so far as we have discovered them, are, a somewhat violent and hasty temper, and a considerable share of natural pride and self-importance; but these defects have been but rarely and transiently manifested and have scarcely occasioned an hour’s uneasiness at any time in our household  (p. 115-116)

She had every right to be proud, had survived more and won more than Mr Pringle could have ever dreamed of. Yet he still relegated her to her ‘place’ as servant obedient to his will. It says more about his character than anything else I think, and his wife and her sister also, who themselves examined and testified to the terrible scarring of her body and still expected her to serve them.

His letter ends with a comparison with Brazil — to underline the moral contamination of slavery, the dehumanization of the owner wherever it is found in words more trustworthy because not those of a former slave:

I never walked through the streets of Rio, that some house did not present to me the semblance of a bridewell, where the moans and the cries of the sufferers, and the sounds of whips and scourges within, announced to me that corporal punishment was being inflicted. Whenever I remarked this to a friend, I was always answered that the the refractory nature of the slave rendered it necessary, and no house could properly be conducted unless it was practiced (Dr Walsh, ‘Notices of Brazil’ quoted on p 122)

This is a queer mix of Mary Prince’s own voice, her own recounting of horrors suffered and resistance waged, and a considered petition to the consciences of the British. It is unclear how much of that is shaped by the Pringles themselves and how much by Mary’s understanding of what they wanted. I imagine that was quite acute, who could better gauge the realities of her life and desires and their distance from what the Pringles and others would accept? I just hope she was able to find her own peace beyond their condescension and their judgments of all she had been through and all she had done not just to survive, but to break free.


Black Poor and White Philanthropists: Sierra Leone

2800738What a title, eh?

It is a worthy and detailed look at the first attempt to set up a colony of free Blacks in Sierra Leone in 1786. It asks the simple question, did Black folks have agency in this process? The answer is of course they did, so there are a lot of deeper complexities that this book doesn’t address theoretically. But there is a basic history (which will make you rage), and some fun facts along the way, because a few of the principles involved were, to put it simply, batshit crazy.

There’s this nugget about Granville Sharp:

It may also seem incongruous to present-day readers that Sharp should take time off from his campaign against the evils of slavery and the slave trade to call in at Covent Garden theatre, in order to protest in person against the stage practice of dressing women in men’s clothes (15).

He must have been a very busy man with so much iniquity in the world. Described here as one of the driving forces behind the Sierra Leone settlement, he accomplished much through pithy interventions by pamphlet like this one:

Memorandum on a late Proposal for a New Settlement to be made on the Coast of AFRICA; recommending to the Author of that Proposal, several Alterations in his Plan, and more especially the Adoption of the ancient Mode of Government by Tithings (or Decenaries) and Hundreds, as being the most useful and effectual Mode of Government for all Nations and Countries.

Establish an Anglo-Saxon government in Sierra Leone? Why not. Even Swedenborg (founder of the Swedenborgian mystical… tendency? religion? cult?) got into the act with his pamphlet titled ‘An Essay on Colonization, particularly applied to the Western Coast of Africa’. I’m looking that shit up, but later.

Putting the craziness to one side for a moment (and just a moment) there are some great details on this early and mostly lost period of Black lives in London pulled from a review of parish registers from 1783-1787. Braidwood found 168 people noted as black, spread across 9 parishes, 144 of them in 6 East End parishes —  partiularly St-George’s-in-the-East (71), and St Dunstan’s, Stepney (Mile End Old Town and Ratcliffe). 83 names given place of origin, 6 born in Britain, 3 definitely born in Africa, 26 (31%) from West Indies (9 from Jamaica, 5 from Barbados). 13 from from Charleston, South Carolina. A global community. The 960 people who would ultimately receive relief, however, reflect a much larger community than that described through this source.

Braidwood also found clusters of names reflecting the histories of slavery and freedom. ‘Classical’ names like John Jupiter, James Neptune, William Cato, John Scipio. Others biblical: Aaron and Darius Brooks, Moses Handley, James Titus, Sampson Morgan and Hezekiah Nukins. Other names from where they had been born: Robert Carolina, James Stepney, Black London (!). Others on characteristics held or desired: Michael Handy, George Comfortable.

But mostly this book details the effort to establish a colony in Sierra Leone, and the principal mechanism for it through the formation of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in 1786. The motivations are tangled in charity and racism, a desire to export the poor and to some limited extent a desire to help them. Formed in Mr Faulder’s book shop in Bond St, but subsequent meetings took place in Batson’s Coffee House, opposite the Royal Exchange. Its best known chairman was Jonas Hanway (his batshit reminiscent of Granville Sharp’s):

Hanway is today chiefly remembered for two campaigns which received strikingly different measures of success: his introduction to London of the umbrella, and his opposition to the ‘pernicious custom’ of drinking tea (65).

There is some really interesting primary evidence of English views on the presence of Blacks (particularly around their role in the American war of independence). Letter to The Public Advertiser (I think 19 January, 1786):

the Lascars…demand our pity only; but…the African negroes have an actual claim on our justice:- They, or the greater part of them, have served Britain, have fought under her colours, and after having quitted the service of their American masters, depending on the promise of protection held out to them by British Governors and Commanders, are now left to perish by famine and cold, in the sight of that people for whom they have hazarded their lives, and even (many of them) spilt their blood. (68)

We learn more about the geographies of Black residence in London: Relief was originally handed out at ‘the shop of Mr Brown, a baker, in Wigmore Street’, with an increase in donations rooms in two public houses were hired, the White Raven in Mile End, and the Yorkshire Stingo (!) on Lisson Green in Marylebone. On the 24th of January they were giving broth, a piece of meat and a twopenny loaf to 140 people a day, by February it was 210.

My own experiences and researches lead me to agree with those who put racism at the top of the tangle of ‘philanthropic’ motivations. John Pugh, Hanway’s biographer, wrote in 1787 in The Remarkable Occurences in the Life of Jonas Hanway that success for the committee:

must tend to relieve the misery of these poor people, and prevent the unnatural connections between black persons and white; the disagreeable consequences of which make their appearance but too frequently in our streets.

In an attempt to enlist the help of the Committee of West India Planters and Merchants, Benjamin Johnson wrote:

Commiserating the calamitous Situation of these People the object of the Committee has thus far been confined to a temporary relief, but being assured, that nothing short of their removal will effectually assist them, they are using their best endeavors to fix on some means of affording them a permanent subsistence. They have it in view also to procure a Act of Parliament, to prevent any Foreign Blacks being brought to this Country to remain, as it must ever be attended with many Inconveniences; To obtain these ends, the Committee would be very happy to have the honor of your Advice and Assistance (74-75, quoting ICS West India Committee minute books, 3/1, 32).

Novia Scotia was the original idea for the site of the settlement, but a certain Henry Smeathem had his heart set on Sierra Leone, writing Plan of a Settlement to be made near Sierra Leona in 1786 (a reworking of an older plan). He claimed it was a beautiful and healthy place, when in fact the death toll among Europeans was extremely high. He won over the committee and then the government, now involved in the plan. Black folks themselves, however, were not quite so happy about the idea. Relief became conditional on their agreement to colonise Sierra Leone by June of 1786, about 30 refused to take it, others wished to go to the US or the West Indies. There were rumours flying around that this was deportation to a penal colony — either Botany Bay or in Africa, and why not?

There was some resistence to the plan, and newspapers make clear that some Blacks did appeal to Lord George Gordon (of riot fame), but unclear if he intervened in any way or penned any of the anonymous attacks on it that were printed. Apparently, however, many were won round to the idea of returning to Africa, and there are some interesting details on how those on relief were organised around key leaders who would be responsible for bringing their people to the ships.

By late 1786 the number of those who had accepted allowances was 700 (a later figure is 960), the number Granville Sharp assumed was sailing. Payments were stopped to those who did not agree to embark, a plan to arrest all Blacks for vagrancy who did not embark was mooted. Only about 350 people had boarded the ships waiting for them by February 1787 — of which there were originally three planned, and there were huge delays in trying to get more to embark. The total in the lists drawn up by Gustavas Vassa (also known as Olaudah Equiano, famed for his autobiography and leading role in advocacy for abolition as a former slave, so I’m fascinated by his role in this affair, though it was short lived and not well explained) were 459 – 117 women (70 of these white wives) and 25 children.

By March all three had left London and reached Plymouth. There had been outbreaks of fever. A public letter was printed detailing complaints of Olaudah Equiano, who left the expedition here after his dismissal for disrespect and accusations of fomenting mutiny. Meanwhile the whites were fighting over the land to be granted them.

The fleet finally set sail on 9 April, 1787 — five months later than planned, practically ensuring the failure of the settlement as it had been timed to arrive before the rainy season when mortality was already known to be at its highest, but instead arrived on the 10th of May.

In total the Treasury had paid out £14,747 13s 9d.

They called the settlement ‘Province of Freedom’. By mid-September, 122 had died. By March of the following year only 130 people were left alive. The settlement itself only lasted 2 and half years. The blame, states Braidwood, has usually been placed on the settlers, especially their failure to set up a stable government.

White people decided to start again. In 1788 an abolitionist named Falconbridge was sent to Sierra Leone to try and refound a settlement. He found 56 survivors who had moved to a nearby town, 36 men and 20 women. Thornton and Wilberforce worked to get the Sierra Leone Settlement Bill through parliament, to support the settlement of the area by the Sierra Leone Company. A whole new effort was to commence, supposedly on a for profit basis as any other chartered company of trade and colonization.

I read this book to try and find out more after finding a reference to this extraordinary and terrible history in a biography of Henry Thornton. It’s worth requoting that in length:

The one attempt in pure colonial philanthropy, which Granville Sharp had made five years before, had proved a dismal failure.

Sharp had himself explored the land along the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in 1787. The Royal African Company had lost its monopoly there in 1698, and the territory was full of slavers from France and from England. Sharp returned to London determined to see at least one colony of freemen on the western coast of Africa, He formed a Committee for Black Poor which raised money to send a group of 340 indigent Negroes to Sierra Leone. They sailed under the protection of nine white officials and in the company of 62 white prostitutes. Sharp had elaborate plans for his settlement, but by September 1788, four months after landing, just 66 Negroes remained alive. Disease felled half the tough white women. Those neither dead nor sick were burdened with the care of 30 black and mulatto babies. The five harassed officials still at work could only try in vain to interest them in re-establishing the Anglo-Saxon frank-pledge system Sharp had felt best suited to their needs (102-103).

Everything infuriates me, from the callousness with which Black lives are treated, to calling the white wives prostitutes. Everything about this venture breaks my heart, doomed to failure as it was, and ugly as the behavior of abolitionists and philanthropists and fortune-seekers proved to be.

And still so much to find out.


A License to Trade (and thus conquer the world)

I am going to try to evoke the excitement and fascination of the rise of chartered companies. Awesome you say. But really, this is how England became an Empire.

I am slogging through it. Writing because that helps me understand.

To do it, I am going to depart slightly in interpretation from the dull and very partisan book I am basing all of this on and quoting from, A License to Trade: The History of English Chartered Companies by Sir Percival Griffiths (1974, London: Ernest Benn Ltd).

These companies were experiments beginning mostly in the 16th century but stretching back long before. They were slightly revolutionary, emerging in a time when the crown had enormous power and its subjects had none. Griffiths writes of the reasons that this form of organisation was necessary:

A charter was necessary in the first place because associations of individuals had no inherent right of meeting or electing officers or framing regulations. Without royal sanction the members of such an association would have been at continual risk of being punished as an unlawful assembly [I see why it was included in the U.S. Constitution]. Even the administration of oaths, or the export of goods, or the departure of an individual from England might require royal permission… (x)

So they had to invent something that would allow the pooling of resources necessary to carry out trading expeditions and explorations and that could meet regularly as a group with the crown’s permission, that gave them jurisdiction over their employees while they were abroad (again, normally a right belonging entirely to the crown), and at the same time had proof that the crown was backing them up. With force.

That’s exciting.

The charter was the outward sign to the foreign government that the company operated under the aegis of the English Crown and that injuries to its members would be resent by the Crown and might provoke retaliation (xi).

And finally, the wet dream of all capitalists everywhere, monopoly.

No body of individuals would have been prepared to accept all the risks then attendant on opening up overseas ventures without some assurance that others would not enjoy the fruits of its labours and all the early charters, therefore, conferred exclusive trading rights against all other Englishmen (xi).

I spy a hint of the classical economist’s assumption of freeloading here, which I hate, and that stupid idea that people are only motivated by profit, but I will let it slide. Particularly as on this occasion, most of these men were in fact motivated solely by profit, and did not let a single moral qualm stand in their way. It’s like free-market economics were invented entirely to describe them.

But what I find most interesting is that from their earliest beginnings, these chartered companies that sent out trading, exploratory and colonising expeditions around the world, were a strange mix of public and private, an uneasy combination of   individual and collective and national interests, and a part of the crucible that created the very ideas of free trade and rights that are so familiar today. Though they were all decrepit and bailed out in the end, or just used as the vehicle for crown rule.


In thinking about that crucible, we must remember that while determining their rights and ‘exploring’ and ‘adventuring’ they were also extorting vast wealth and embarking on policies of conquest, slavery and genocide. This book doesn’t get into any of that however. At least, not where it can avoid it.

It mostly started with the merchant adventurers — who I shall hate forever for stealing the joy of the word adventure. There are mentions of merchant groups back in the 1200s, but in 1485 the English cloth merchants petitioned the crown as ‘Merchant Adventurers, Citizens of the City of London, into the parts of Holland, Zeeland, Brabant and Flanders’.

It’s not surprising, but interesting that they style themselves ‘Citizens of the City of London’, and set up branches in other cities. Citizens of London, not England.

There are few light notes in this tome, I admit. But here is one. These merchant adventurers had apprentices who misbehaved as apprentices will do, ‘liable to fines for immorality or drunkeness, or for playing cards for excessive stakes…”knocking and ringing at men’s doors, beating at windows and consuming the master’s goods”‘ (11).

Another ‘fun’ fact: members often traded individually but divided up the total trade. The portion belonging to each was known as his stint.

I won’t go too much into each of the companies, but I hadn’t realised quite how many there were, quite how early they were, nor how different they were. It’s interesting to see them all together and realise the scale of this early stage of building the Empire. Also interesting is that before the beginning of accounting (or perhaps in spite of it), it is hard to gauge actual profits and losses. The wealth of England shows that there were profits, company members seemed to continuously pay themselves large dividends completely unrelated to actual profits and losses, but they all in the end seemed to have received subsidies from the crown (though that went both ways) and most were eventually fully taken over by the crown. As we know. That Empire over which the sun never set.

I’ve pulled out exciting quotes — there were a few. Honest. Well, enraging really. But there’s some good gossip about Ivan the Terrible and a visionary named Wakefield.

Seal of the Muscovy Company, showing the date 1555 above an escutcheon of arms.
Seal of the Muscovy Company, showing the date 1555 above an escutcheon of arms.

The Russia Company:

Beyond theories of the Elizabethan spirit of adventure and daring ‘…it is clear that the driving force behind the pioneers of the Russia venture was the need to find markets for the newly created surplus production of England’ (19). So early, it seems too early, does it not?

Circumstances were thus propitious when, in 1553, two hundred and forty ‘grave Citizens of London and men of great wisedome, and carefull for the good of their Countrey’ banded themselves together under the governorship of Sebastian Cabot to promote a voyage for the discovery of a North East passage to Cathay and for the establishment of trade wherever possible (20)

I love this description of the Tsar Ivan the Terrible, pioneer of multiple costume changes, from pilot Richard Chancellor:

Before dinner hee changed his crowne, and in dinner time two crowns; so that I saw three severall crownes upon his head in one day (21).

In return for their trading rights to Russia, the crown extorted from the company a few things. Not that they pay a portion of their earnings to the crown’s overseas creditors (as many other companies were required to do), but instead that they provide all of the wax required by the Royal Household and all the cordage required by the navy. They could not sell either of these two commodities until the crown and the navy had had enough.

A gold beaker bearing the Levant Company's arms, presented to Katherine, Lady Trumbull, in April 1687
A gold beaker bearing the Levant Company’s arms, presented to Katherine, Lady Trumbull, in April 1687

The Levant Company:

Ah, Turkey and Venice…and the companies formed to ‘wrest from the Venetians the existing trade between England and the Levant’ (42).

In 1581, Elizabeth I granted ‘letters patent’ to the Turkey company that ‘authorized them to make laws and ordinances for the government of the Company, and prohibited English subjects from even visiting Turkey without permission of the Company’ (46) and renewable after 7 years.

The Levant Company received its letters patent in 1592, and was entitled to also appoint an Ambassador to Turkey to represent both crown and company.  After some prosperity it received a few infusions of cash from the crown, and failed.

God, this is a little boring. Except you wake up and realise the company was appointing ambassadors to represent England abroad, and you’re like what? There was a bit of struggle over this, but still…

The African Companies:

Of the great charter companies established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the African companies alone can be regarded as, on the whole, unsuccessful. From 1588 to 1672 a succession of companies chartered to trade to the Guinea Coast went out of business, and even the Royal African Company, chartered in 1672 to exploit what was thought to be the very lucrative slave trade, enjoyed only a brief spell of prosperity and eventually found itself unable to compete with private traders.

This is real banality of evil stuff, in presentation, not in subject.  He discusses lightly the three phases: trade by private individuals with or without permission, trade by the companies focused mainly on gold, and from 1660 (what ho restoration and the joys it brought the rest of the world), companies were chartered mainly for the slave trade.

A quote from J.A. WIlliamson that gives the lie to all of the later quotes about civilization and for people’s own good and etc:

The Guinea traffic of this period is one of the fundamental transactions of British expansion…it produced an oceanic war with Portugal…and it occassioned the formulation of a British doctrine which was never afterwards abandoned, the doctrine that prescriptive rights to colonial territory are of no avail unless backed by effective occupation.

The first English slave raid on the Guinea Coast? John Hawkins, 1562.

eastindiaThe East India Company:

Chartered in 1600. I am reading tons about them (see another post here), so I am going to be brief here.

Young men went to India in the eighteenth century to make a fortune and since they were grossly underpaid they relied for this purpose on private trade–a practice at times allowed and at other times connived at by the Directors (97).

Like a swarm of jackals really…I’m mixing my metaphor there, but I like it. Griffiths skips lightly over this, as he does the horror-filled famine in Bengal in 1769 onwards, though he has to note Pitt’s Act of 1784 which arose to control the company’s abuses that gave rise to it.

It is only in thinking of profits that this makes any sense:

The China trade presented the brightest aspect of the Company’s affairs in the late eighteenth century. It consisted of the export of opium from India to China and the export from China of tea, silk and spices (104).

No mention of Opium Wars of course.

Heraldic achievement of Hudson's Bay Company
Heraldic achievement of Hudson’s Bay Company

The Hudson’s Bay Company:

The 1670 charter granted it:

The sole trade and commerce of all those seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks and sounds, in whatsoever latitude they shall be, that lie within the entrance of the straits, commonly caled Hudson’s Straits, together with all the land and territories upon the countries, coasts and confines of the seas, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks and sounds aforesaid, that are not actually already possessed by or granted to any of our subjects, or possessed by the subjects of any other Christian Prince or State (112).

Thus they bring god into it robbery and theft. Their first sales in London were by

‘inch of candle’ at Garroway’s Coffee House on 24 January 1672. It was not a financial success–of between 2,700 and 3,000 lb of beaver put up for sale, only 789 lb. were sold, realizing £282 4s 0d.

Breaks my heart that does.

There’s more, like this:

Wedderburn had also shown much interest in land settlement as a means of providing for the Company’s retired servants and their half-breed offspring, and also of making servants and labourers available for the Company’s needs (126).

I almost ripped that page out of the book, but I didn’t.

It was unthinkable that the great prairies, large areas of which were believed to be fertile, should remain almost uninhabited. The only question was as to who should colonize them (131).

The Virginia Company:

They settled Virginia, most of them died, blah blah blah.

The Plymouth Company:

We’ve heard lots about them before.

The Massachusetts Bay Company:

This differed from the rest in that the government of the company was not required to remain in England. Good for founding theocratic states.

The Newfoundland and Guiana Companies:

The Darien Company:

A Scottish chartered company, but it didn’t quite get off the ground.

By the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, these companies were still being formed, but intellectual fashion had ‘swung strongly against monopolies’, so they didn’t have that going for them. The reason I am reading this book at all was the little I have found out about the

g161Sierra Leone Company:

When Griffiths writes this it is without sarcasm, but not when I copy it:

Even before the news of this disaster had reached London, it had become apparent to Sharp that philanthropic motives were not always by themselves sufficient for the maintenance of a colony and that commercial interests must be attracted to it (219).

The Governor was fortunate in the choice of his two Councillors — Zachary Macaulay, a leading member of the Clapham Sect, and William Dawes, a former marine officer at Botany Bay (221)

An evangelical abolitionist and the warden of a prison colony. Jesus.

I don’t even know where this comes from:

Like most visionaries, Wakefield was unbalanced and in his early days found himself in trouble with the law as a result of abducting an heiress (226).

Niger_Coast_Scott_44The Royal Niger Company:

Prepare yourself for some truly righteous anger…

The determination of the British Government to suppress the slave trade led, in 1851, to friction with Kosoko, the King of Lagos. When he attacked the British settlement at Badagri, he was driven out and his successor, Akitoya, entered into a treaty for the abolition of the slave trade. He was succeeded by Docemo, who genuinely sought to observe the treaty, but opposition from his subjects was too strong and it became clear that nothing except direct British control would achieve the desired result. In August 1861, Docemo was therefore pursuaded to cede his kingdom to the Britain and was given a very adequate pension (238).

The pension is a nice touch.

…in the Delta, where many of the tribes keenly resented the presence of the Company. Its activities not only undermined their position as middlemen but also threatened their way of life, since the Company was determined to put an end to slavery and to suppress the barbarous customs of cannibalism and human sacrifice…bit by bit, either by peaceful treaty or force, the Company established its ascendency and within a few years the Delta was fully under its control (241).

In the words of a writer in 1898, unconsciously giving a better angle on what it really was all about:

The West Coast of Africa at the present day resembles a huge estate that has been split up into building lots, with desirable frontages on to the Atlantic, and boundary fences running back on either side of each lot, but in many cases having no fence at the end of the back garden… (A. F. Mockler-Ferryman, British West Africa, London: 1898. p 411)

The British North Borneo Company:

Never concerned with trade, this company just governed Borneo. You know.

The Imperial British East Africa Company:

As a Chartered Company, however, they were considered to have responsibilities almost as agents for Her Majesty’s Government and so had to undertake an unprofitable advance into territories from which that Government wished to exclude the Germans. As a result, the shareholder received no dividends and lost much of their capital (263).

The British South Africa Company:

Ah, South Africa, a monument to the benefits of Empire.

There were a host more of smaller, less important, more prone to failure companies. In spicing this post up with pictures I found stamps and coins…which demands a whole other post really. Of course they had stamps and coins, but I still ask myself, did they really have stamps and coins? Seriously?

I mock these things, but I know this is a history of conquest and slavery and a destruction of lives and cultures and languages and traditions and knowledges. Unimaginable horror. Driven by greed. Hidden behind discussions of chartered companies and their legalistic language and reasonings.

Which is why I am learning more.