Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘history’ Category

9780520258129

The goal of Daniel Lord Smail’s book is close to my heart, in that one of the various projects he outlines is to broaden the use historians make of other disciplinary fields (beyond say sociology and archeology usually connected to history) to include genetics and neural psychology as tools of historical analysis. This appeals to me personally, both because I started out as a science kid, studying dinosaurs and dead things, and then moved on to studying dead humans, and because in a general sense, I’ve always felt acquiring even a rudimentary understanding of the sciences, of ecology, biology, chemistry, psychics, paleontology (or architecture, or art, or economics) is crucial to understanding our world both in a pressing, active, engaged way and for the sheer joy of knowing the world, and being baffled by it (plus, all my friends are scientists or technicians, and I don’t feel foolish around them and their languages of genomes and code). This is hardly a new project, or one that is not generally of interest or support amongst historians; the irony, of course, is that people in the sciences have always been willing to interact with history as a discipline, and almost any description of DNA or chemisty begins historically, even in the most rudimentary, remedial textbook, and because many fields (geology, paleontology) are themselves a kind of history, studying what Smail calls, quoting others, ‘deep time.’


It is the historians who have let us down, writes Smail, and so this book is really directed at them. Of course, anyone with any interest in either neuro-chemistry, human evolution, or history and its writing will understand and enjoy this book. Smail’s prose is clear and engaging, his arguments lucid and his examples generally well chosen. The main thrust of On Deep History and the Brain is not just to argue for more inter-disciplinary work to be done, but that the focus of history has still been far too presentist (should I point out that Smail is a French medievalist, and like many of their brilliant and cantankerous ilk resents the marginalization of his area of study?) and far too documentary in its attention; documents in the sense of written documents, whereas Smail argues for the older meaning of document, ‘that which tells,’ which basically means anything: DNA and archeology, studies of the brain, can tell us as much about our more distant past, and indeed are the only source for it; “all rely on evidence extracted from things” that “encode information from the past” (48). Why privilege the written word? Because it is privileged by historians, deeply imbedded since Vico and Ranke in the writing of history and excluding all non-written sources. Yet scientists have long considered their objects of research, in a metaphorical sense, to be texts, archives, information contained in remains and traces that can be used to tell a story. Take for instance genetics and brain chemistry. Progress in these fields, rooted in the evolutionary history of the human race, has made it possible to trace our past much further back than ever possible; no longer, says Smail, should the distant past be treated as totally alien and beyond us, there should be, in essence, no prehistory, no division between the glowing world of the written world and what was once claimed was a static, frightful, ignorant world. And why not? We have given voice to the voiceless, and no one, as Smail says, “would deny history of the Incans, Great Zimbabwe or to the illiterate slaves and peasants of societies past and present” (6). Why then our ancestors?

450031a-i10

The problem is that historians have been trapped, even in the age of Hayden White, in the meta-narrative of Western Civilization. History begins with the written word, with cities and urban man, right in Mesopotamia where the Garden of Eden was placed in medieval and early modern history. We have secularized the story but not fundamentally changed its structure or its conclusions that human history, and therefore humanity worth studying, started at 4000 BC and led to Europe (despite the absurdity of some its claims, such as the idea of continuity between Babylon and Bolingbroke, its ignorance of archeological examples demonstrating much earlier urban civilization in Iran and Turkey, and its continuing marginalization of China, India, the Americas until the 70’s). Of course, there was resistance: H. G. Wells, for one, started his Outline of History in human prehistory. But by and large historians have insisted on a clear delineation between prehistory and history: only civilizations that write history, are aware of the past, can be modern, and only collective societies, united by writing and language in part, can be modern, beyond the mindless horror of prehistory. History is when evolution ceased to affect us, ceased to influence our behavior, when we broke the chain through writing and cities. Smail doesn’t seek to question the importance of writing or cities or agriculture in changing mankind, but he does question how epochal it was: housing has been around for tens of thousands of years, constructed at the size of later housing of hide and bone and centred around the hearth, oral histories for just as long, even agriculture and trade may be older than we imagine.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

“I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself… I think we’re gonna take good care of this planet shortly…there’s never been a weapon created yet on the face of the Earth that hadn’t been used. We’re run by the Pentagon, we’re run by Madison Avenue, we’re run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don’t revolt we’ll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche. As long as we go out and buy stuff, we’re at their mercy. We’re at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed…

We all live in a little Village. Your village may be different from other people’s villages but we are all prisoners.”

-Patrick McGoohan, 1977

the-prisoner-intro

How fitting that Patrick McGoohan should leave our little global village within weeks of princiapl shooting finishing on the remake of his brainchild, the brilliant and still subversive The Prisoner.  If it be triumph or tragedy, he need not see it; his feelings about it are largely unknown, though in some ways it shows promise; it will be tightly focussed, only six episodes long, which despite its punny elements is only one longer than the original projected run of McGoohan’s Prisoner.   On the other hand, quotes from the director reveal that they are consciously trying to seperate the remake from the original, make it a new beast, update it and make it relevant, the standard defenses of those who always think they can improve on someone else’s artistic project.  A remake is a tenuous project, because no matter how often the remaker claims to respect and admire the original, there is always a tension between contempt and a desire to improve, and a deep-seated reverence for this cultural product; and below all that, money.  The Prisoner was a unique television programme,  a success critically, artistically and commercially, a  popular hit of subversive, difficult science fiction.  Will the remake be able in any way to match that particular moment in time when McGoohan could make a genuinely popular attack on those who run us?

prisoner_still_tongue1224464659

Number 6: I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!

Somehow, I doubt it, no matter how hard it tries.  It is too tempting to call McGoohan a visionary, especially now that he is dead, and thankfully he was not right about our nuclear self-destruction,  but that The Prisoner remains relevant today is a sad commentary on the stagnancy of our political and economic system: we were ran by television, Madison Avenue and the Pentagon then, and we are now, so to speak.  It isn’t prophecy then, really, any more than Jules Verne predicted the future: he knew of television protype experiments when he wrote about television ‘prophetically’.  McGoohan was no prohet, but he distilled something, crystalised and popularised a critical analysis of the world; few who have seen The Prisoner would mistake it or forget its accomplishment.  Which raises the question: is a remake even necessary?  Obviously it’s too late now one way or the other: it has been made and will be broadcast.  But The Prisoner, like McGoohan himself, aged very well, and little dates it save some of the clothes and the later episodes.  What a remake would offer is beyond me. At least those remaking seem to care more than the original people slated to do it.

f546

Number 2: What in fact has been created? An international community. A perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they’re looking into a mirror, they’ll see that this is the pattern for the future.

Number 6: The whole earth as… ‘The Village’?

Number 2: That is my hope. What’s yours?

Number 6: I’d like to be the first man on the moon!

The BBC reported on 4 May 2006 that Granada TV in Britain would revive the series for the Sky One network in 2007. Christopher Eccleston, who you may, or may not, know as the second newest incarnation of Doctor Who, has been linked with the role, but these were rumours; the Radio Timesfor 3 June – 9 June claimed the new series would be titled Number Six and not The Prisoner. American cable network AMC was to co‑produce; I’ll let you judge what the quality of this show would be from this newspeak laden nonsense:  “The Prisoner is like Pandora’s box ‑ it’s the ultimate conspiracy thriller,” said Damien Timmer, executive producer of the show.”Like 24, the new series will entrap you from the opening scene. We hope it will tap into this iconic show’s existing cult following, whilst creating a whole new generation of fans.” Which means, bear with, the man tapped to fill McGoohan’s shoes as producer had no clue what the show was about, because The Prisoner is the opposite of 24, with no violent shoot outs, evil lesbians and pro-American patriotic chestbeating and righteous torture.

In October 2007, British broadcaster ITV stepped in to replace Sky One as co‑producer with AMC. They are  the ones still going ahead with it.  Sir Ian McKellan will play Number 2, which really is not news anymore Apparently, the talking heads of the network also claim their new version will be “a racy, radical reinvention of the original show.” The richest part of this story is that Sky One, a British television channel owned by Rupert Murdoch was producing this show up until ITV, the orginal producers, stepped in. A remake of one of the most anti-authoritarian television programmes being funded by a news channel notorious for its spin related to the Iraq War, for one, and for its genuine low level, a la CanWest here, of editorial and journalistic freedom.  That’s so ironic you can eat it with a spoon.

theprisoner-1

Perhaps the remake will be all too dreary and topical, full of war on terror references, torture, suicide bombings, and Blairisms and the national security states post nine-eleven, which will turn this into a gritty British Battlestar Galatica; unfortunately, The Prisoner was not the original Battlestar, all feathered hair and hippy new age mormon nonsense.  McGoohan dealt with all these issues before, and did so elusively enough that they couldn’t be pinned down; who and what ran The Village was and is beyond us, and the side they were on really didn’t matter in the end.  The remake will have to tread that same line without being a joke or a travesty; of course, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it makes money; there is nothing constitional about respecting the ‘rights’ of a piece of art once it has been bought, sold and traded as commodity.  ITV doesn’t have any need or desire to respect McGoohan’s memory, or the production he was so involved with.  My only hope is that the show ends as the original does, with Number 6 still a prisoner in London, thinking he is free.  London, and Britain, is the Village; the most surveilled society on Earth, where 200 CCTV cameras sit within a mile of Orwell Boulevard.

Read Full Post »

51ng35342pl

A deeply divisive novel, laying bare the troubled divide between the political and the philosophical aspects of existentialism.   It cannot resolve that divide, between the communal dream of a better world and the isolation of an individual being; it does not offer salvation from the latter in the former, save in the words of Kyo and Katov who at least stand for the dignity and freedom of the ‘masses’ though their doctrine is notably free of any actual content.

Key words: isolation, aloneness, painful freedom of relationships, the void of opium haze, “an ectasy toward downward”, “murder left no trace upon his face”.  Fate, condemnation, “the fate of China being decided,” and “the illusion of being ble to whatever they pleased”  fatalism as Marxism, a fascination with suicide as radiant exhuberance, pain as caused to others, as others caused to oneself.  Murder as aloneness, “all fighting was absurd, nothing existed in the face of life”.   It is a grim existentialism, in which our fate is suffering, our situation alone, the human condition.  And the revolution, doomed to fail.  A human being, thought Ferral, “an individual life, unique isolate, like mine…” spoken like a true capitalist?

And yet, the human condition: if we are fated, if “no doubt they were all condemned, the essential was that should not be in vain” we are free to “serve the gods of one’s choosing,” Kyo as hero: “no dignity for man who does not know why he works” and “freedom is not an exchange, it is freedom” and it must be fought for struggled for, died for.  Heroic, successful, sympathetic revolution, and in Kyo’s work to the Comintern agents in Hankow, the peasants must unite with the workers, “behind the army, in the rural districts, the Communists are beginning to organize the peasant Unions,” the people will never be satisfied with the betrayal of the revolution, the revolution fated to succeed, because it offers dignity, purpose, hope, because it is right.  Katov’s sacrifice, to save others.  It is hard to squre the realism, the intimacy, the sympathy of the description of the April 12 incident, the Shanghai uprising of 1927 and its bloody suppression at the hands of the Nationalists, with the atomization of existentialism.  Why make it so specific, so sympathetic, if only to use it for an existentialist fable.  Perhaps that is the fable: an existentialist revolution.

sh_1927_labour-march-communists_small

The city in revolt: Hankow, 1927.

“Over there were chimneys, cranes, reservoirs – the allies of the Revolution.  But Shanghai had taught Kyoo what an active port was like.  The one he saw before him was full of nothing but junks and torpedo-boats.  He took his field-glasses: a freight-steamer, two, three….

He walked about at random.  The kerosene lamps were being lut inside the shops; here and there silhouettes of trees and the curved-up roof-ridges rose against the Western sky, where a light without source lingered, seeming to emanate from the softness of the sky itself and to blend far, far up with the serenity of the night.  In the black holes of shop – nonwithstanding the soldiers and the Worker’s Unions – doctors with toad-signs, dealers in herbs and monsters, public writers, casters of spells, astrologers, and fortune-tellers continued their timeless trades by the dim light which blotted out the blood-stains.  The  shadows melted rather than stretched on the ground, bathed in a bluish phoporescence; the last flash of the superb eveneing  that was being staged far away, somewhere in the infinity of worlds, of which only a reflection suffused the earth, was glowing faintly through an enormous archway surmounted by a pagoda eaten away with blackened ivy.  Beyond the din of bells and phonographs and the myriad dots and patches of light, a battalion was disappearing into the darkness which had gathered in the mist over the river.  Kyo went down to a yard filled with enormous stone blocks: those of the walls, levelled to the ground in sign of the liberation of China…

Cantonese soldiers with their newly-supplied Russian equipment after arriving at Hankow as reinforcements for the Red Garrison.

Original caption: 1927: Cantonese soldiers with their newly-supplied Russian equipment after arriving at Hankow as reinforcements for the Red Garrison.

Rickshaws were waiting on the quay, but Kyo’s anxiety was too great to allow him to remain idle.  He preferred to walk.  The British concession which England had abandoned in January, the great world banks shut down, but not occupied….”Anguish – a strange sensation, you feel by your heart-beats that you”re not breathing easily, as if you were breathing with your heart…”  It was becoming stronger than lucidity.  At the corner of a street, in the clearing of a large garden full of trees in bloom, gray in the evening mist, the chimneys of the Western manufactures appeared.  No smoke.  Of all the chimneys he saw, only the ones of the Arsenal were operating.  Was it possible that Hankow, the city to which the Communists of the entire world were looking to save China, was on strike?  The Arsenal was working; could they at least count on the Red Army?  He no longer dared to run.  If Hankow was not what everyone believed it was, all his people were already condemned to death.  May too. And himself.

At last, the building of the International Delegation.

The entire villa was lighted up.  Kyo knew that Borodin was working on the top story; on the ground-floor the printing-press was running full speed, with the clatter of an enormous ventilator in bad condition”

Read Full Post »

The McCarthy era saw redoudled efforts to search out and punish “gender inverts.” Targets abounded: “egg sucking phony liberals,” East Coast intellectuals, and emasculated “pinks, punks, and perverts” were all part of government that was, in the words of one of McCarthy’s aides, “a veritable nest of Communists, fellow travelers, homosexuals, effete Ivy League intellectuals and traitors.” Even Adlai Stevenson did not escape such bashings: the New York Daily Mail called him “Adelaide” and ridiculed his supporters as “Harvard lace cuff liberals” to whom Stevenson spoke in a “fruity” voice.

Military expert and Pulitzer-Prize winning Hanson W. Baldwin put the matter starkly: “Can American man – after years of protective conditioning – vie with the barbarian who has lived by his wits, his initiative, his brawn? Will he retain the will to fight for his country?” He was not optimistic. American virility had been replaced by a boyhood and manhood enfeebled by “sedenterianism, push buttonis and indoorism…from this emerges a picture – not of an American who can lick any two or three enemies, but of a slow-witted, vacuous adolescent with an intellectual interest keyed to comic books and a motivation conspicuous by its absence.” Soft bellied American boys could not stand up to hard-muscled Communist youth…

Disparities in military hardware might be dangerous, but defieciencies in bicep circumference might be fatal. Bodies unsuited by for military combat were unsuited for the Cold War world. “For the indubitable muscle gap between us and those who would bury us,” opined the radical turned conservative Max Eastman, “may well in the long run prove more disastrous than any missile gap ever will be.”

– from Robert L. Griswold, “The ‘Flabby American,’ the Body and the Cold War,” in A Shared Experience: Men, Women and the History of Gender. Edited by Laura McCalled (NY: New York University Press, 1998 )

Read Full Post »

Terry Eagleton wrote last year : Christopher Hitchens, who looked set to become the George Orwell de nos jours, is likely to be remembered as our Evelyn Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington’s neocons.” Hitchens responded in a ‘Comment is Free’ piece on the Guardian website: “Eagleton also slammed me for disappointing him and not, after all, becoming the George Orwell of my generation. I have instead, he snorts, become the Evelyn Waugh! How is one to come to grips with a man so crude in his sneers that his idea of an insult is to compare me to one of the greatest novelists of the past century?” For a man who has read and admired both Eagleton and Hitchens (Hitchens before Eagleton, and Hitchens no longer, though I respect his rhetorical wit and skill even if overblown and portentous) and has not touched Waugh at all, this comparison mystified me. Then I read Piers Brendon’s lengthy The Dark Valley, and in his chapter on the invasion of Ethiopia and its destruction at Italian hands, we find a choice quote from Evelyn Waugh, referring to the chemical gas attacks against the cities and soldiers of Haile Selassie: “i hope the organmen gas them to buggery” (325) Of course, in Ethiopia, Waugh refused to see “anything more than a travesty of white civilization mummed by outlandish natives, many of whom ‘were still primarily homicidal in their interests.’” (311) This all reminds me of some of the more damning statements that Hitchens has made in the last five years or so: “Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.”


wwwrandomhousecom

That was probably the most memorable result of reading The Dark Valley, and the Waugh quotes were chosen carefully in a chapter as much about European colonial racism as about the invasion and conquest of Ethiopia. To his credit, Piers Brendon does not hold back his scorn or contempt for colonialism, nor does he hesitate to point out the brutality of the British and French (Black races to an Englishman are always niggers and we don’t see why we should be plunged into a war on their account – General Pownall, War Office) (424) and the “racial arrogance” (639) of their empires that so incensed the Japanese popular imagination; indeed, his book, which is written for and targeted at a popular audience, is refreshing in some ways for its refusal to sugarcoat the past, or fall into the clichés so common of the 1930’s more popular literary and electronic visions of that decade; that is, he can be equally scathing of the democracies as of their contemporaries in communism and fascism. He is not polite to the House of Lords and its membership, nor of the police and their bias towards Mosley in the early 30’s nor to Lord Beaverbrook or the lickspittle press of Great Britain, ready and willing to censor itself without being asked in deference to royal command, or in support of the Conservatives: Baldwin was portrayed as a British bulldog, the epitome of patriotism, appearing in newsreels before Greek columns and leatherbound books, delivering his speech with fluidity, while his Labour opponent, Clement Attlee, was filmed from a high angle to reveal his balding head and left to stumble through his speech perched on a chair. “The film companies pretended to be neutral,” says Brendon, but they inserted cheering audiences and campaign slogans for Baldwin in their reels. Brendon has no trouble pointing out how little many of the elites of democratic countries actually wanted to do about the Depression, and the cowardice ofabout aid to Spain is likewise harshly criticized, and we are left with the impression that if nowhere near as ‘villainous,’ brutal and extremely dangerous like the totalitarian states, Britain and France were corrupt and craven.

There is about the 1930’s and the 20th century in general, a long tradition of moralistic historical writing for Brendon to fit himself within snuggly, and aside from what seems to be a greater degree of emphasis on the failings of the ‘heroes’ there isn’t actually all that much to distinguish The Dark Valley from dozens of other similar histories. It’s certainly long, which in itself is no distinction but the prose is clear and readable without flourishing, workmanlike I suppose being the favoured term in this case (save that the workers never actually appear much in this history as actors in their own right, or even as a subject to be written about); there are, as there tend to be in narrative history like this, plenty of interesting quotes and anecdotes to liven up the proceedings, and I had little trouble working through chapter after chapter, each one covering a region or country for few years and covering all the major events, personages and politics in a thorough enough way. His description of France’s ‘hollow years’ and of the Depression in Japan are particularly good, and treats them with a sympathy and depth that is unusual in so broad a work and impressive given that Brendon doesn’t read or write French or Japanese. Yes, it’s one of those books: the author writes about half a dozen countries without knowing the languages of any of them, and therefore relies almost exclusively on translated documents and other people’s histories, and contemporary coverage by English speakers; it’s enough to give a specialist historian who actually knows the language and the literature to a point of tizzy (France is my specialty, but luckily I could get on easily enough without gritting my teeth too much). To his credit, he is well versed and idscusses historical debates about this and that with knowledge and familiarity; Brendon isn’t a bad historian, and this book, by and far, wasn’t that bad either. There are no enormous revelations but as noted, it is refreshing to find an author, a historian of Churchill even, who refuses to idolize his home country.


homenaje_poster

As I mentioned, Brendon’s focus is almost exclusively on states and statesmen, wars and militaries and political actors; the masses suffer, starve, strike and occasionally rebel, but they are never the focus, Hobsbawm this is not, and organized labour, international Communism and the working man in general receives scant attention, and there is little feeling save in his sections on the America and Japan that there was any widespread discontent with the status quo. Likewise, India, Gaza, the British Empire as a whole, or the French Empire, Latin America or Africa outside of Ethiopia, in any way, and much of Europe, receive scant or no attention; this is a Eurocentric narrative, by and large. Instead, the Popular Front in Spain and France are disasters that change nothing and do nothing to benefit the working class, the anarchists are bloodthirsty and foolish, the Communists in Germany disorganized and outmaneuvered and lacking support (true in the first two cases, certainly) and the only time that Communists really get sympathy from our historian is when they are tortured by Japanese military officers or sent to concentration camps (though strangely the Mao of the 1930’s, the Communist Party of China and the Long March are treated with a glimmer of respect and heroism). His approach to the Soviet Union is the standard line, and so really should elicit no surprise or shock; he repeats the standard claim that Soviet and German totalitarianism are basically the same, without any sort of measured distinction, indeed going so far as to quote Hitler (!) and his belief that “there is more than binds us to Bolshevism than separates us from it” (286), a bit like relying on a slave owner for an objective analysis of his slave taking; only a few sentences later, Brendon states “fanaticism, so alien to bourgeois liberals, was what the two creeds had in common.” WTF, as they say on the internets.

renaultstrike1936

Thankfully Brendon doesn’t tread in orientalist stereotypes when dealing with Japan (aside from the odd ‘inscrutable’) but he does call Haile Selassie’s support for the League of Nations “something like a fetish” (315) as if he was a tribal witch doctor praying to the god of collective security (even historians trade in afrobollocks, it seems). Likewise, Franco and the republicans are often equated because both told propaganda lies, it seems. The worst is his respect for Churchill (Piers
Brendon is a historian of Churchill so this expected): while admitting that he was a political opportunist, a “pirate” at one point, a man of the wilderness who was odd with modern society, who supported or admired Franco and Mussolini, angered everyone almost all of the time, and was essentially absolved only by World War Two, Brendon nonetheless treats the more problematic of Churchill’s political ideas, his “blimpish reactionary” ideas about India, his adherence to Edward VIII, his attitude towards the working class and his harsh attacks on strikers, simply as “aberrations fed by ambition” (608), as if they were not fundamental to his character. WFT, indeed; imagine, Hitler’s bloodthirty eradication of the SA, for instance, was just ‘an aberration fed by ambition.’ There are plenty of other howlers like this scattered throughout the book, and many more could be mentioned, but then this review would balloon up far too much: by of them, let me just say quite strongly that this book was a bargain bin find and probably will return there now that I have read it.  I don’t want to give the final impression this book was bad; far from it, it was competent, entertaining and served to give a detailed overview, with enough moral editorialising and eye for paradox and hypocrisy to be additionally engaging; this is a book one’s mill working dad could read, and indeed mine did. So instead, I’ll end this review with a brief quote from a section that I thought was really quite good: Japan in 1938, a country essentially hostage to the demands of its military. It’s a subject much less known about than Germany at the same time, so it really does represent a nice addition to a Eurocentric narrative:

japsattackmanchuria1

“The pressure to pinch and scrape left its mark on the entire population. They were pressed to renounce costly
ornaments, seasonal gifts and new clothes. Women wearing bright kimonos, cosmetics and permanent waves were publicly rebuked. Later kimonos were compulsorily abbreviated to save material; and some were died khaki, while others bore patriotic motifs – arrows, fans, bells. Frills and pleats were removed from Western dresses, though women who really wanted to identify with the military adopted mompei, drab peasant pantaloons. Men wore single-breasted jackets, shirts with attached collars and shortened tails, and trousers without turn-ups. Brass buttons and hair-pins were banished. Iron was as scarce as gold and children were no longer given metal toys. To save timber, matches were shaved by 0.029 of an inch. To save leather, handbags were made of bamboo, willow or cellophane. Shoes were fashioned from shark or whale skin, and there was a campaign in favour of cloth slippers (zori) and wooden clogs (geta). Chemists from the ministry of Agriculture experimented with tanning rat skins. Designs were even advance for a national uniform costing 30 yen (less than 2), to be worn by officials, and if times got harder, by everyone.”

Read Full Post »

As the title suggests, Dirk A. H. Kolff`s minor classic of a book is quite heavy at times, and not for the faint of heart or for those who don`t want to read about military recruitment and Rajput poetry. It`s a rather unique book as well, as its focus is really on the cultural and labour history of certain military service groups in northern India, ones with close connections to the peasantry and made up at first of nebulous `castes` whose identity only became solid by the middle of the seventeenth century.

It isn`t an easy book to summarise, because Kolff really has collected here a series of related articles to draw a picture of the history of the Indian sepoy and the labour market that supplied them to ruler after ruler. The thread that runs between these articles is tenuous, and some of the chapters are better than others (or rather, some are more interesting to me), as is usual for a scholarly book of this sort. Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy does surprise the reader with a sense of the flexibility and mobility of pre-modern British society.

gold-officers-private-of-the-gun-lascar-corps-madras-establishment


The peasantry of India were heavily armed. Kolff cites Peter Mundy`s reminiscences of travelling through India in 1632, in the present-day Kanpur district, where Mundy saw: “labourers with their guns, swords and bucklers leying by them while they ploughed the ground”. Another example from 1650 describes the Rajputs of the Agra area:


“They are a numerous, industrious and brave race. Every village has a small fort. They never pay revenue to the hakim (tax-collector) without a fight. The peasants (riàya) who drive the plough keep a musket (bandug) slung over their neck and a powder-pouch at the waist. The relief-loan (taqavi) they get from the hakim is in the form of lead and gunpowder.”


As Kolff notes, the monopoly of arms we assume to be a feature of the modern state was impossible in pre-Mughal and Mughal India. The peasantry was so well armed and numerous that it could be considered less the subjects then the rivals of the state. Tax collectors and recruiters could be assaulted and killed, and were likely to enter an area well protected, as were caravans that hired hundreds of guards (many of them mobile peasants as well); troops were driven out or robbed on the march. The problem of rules, Kolff writes, “was how to deal with the peasantry at large, how to subject to some manner of control and collect revenue from these almost ungovernable tens of millions of people protected by mud forts, ravines, jungles… and the weapons they were so familiar with” (9). This difficulty of rule meant that the Mughals were never as absolute or despotic as we imagine, and that on the local, provincial or regional level rule meant negotiation, loan relief, tax exemption, the waving of debts and the toleration of continued armament.

This `freedom’ of the peasantry was dearly bought: villages too recalcitrant, or too well organized, or supporting the forces of bandits and rulers hostile to the Mughals, would be razed. Whole towns would be sold into slavery as the ultimate punitive measure, if the inhabitants simply weren`t massacred. Mundy, again in 1632, travelling between Agra and Patna in Bihar, “saw, during four days of passage…200 minars or pillars on which a total of 70,000 heads were fixed with mortar.” According to Mundy, this was the work of Abdullah Khan, a powerful Mughal general, whose force of 30,000 “destroyed all their [the peasants] townes, tooke all their goods, their wives and children for slaves, and the chieftest of their men, causing their heads to be cut off and to be immotered” The result was constant low level warfare, that might not be unfamiliar from early seventeenth century France or nineteenth century Russia. Only by about 1818 was the British East India Company able to disarm and pacify much of the countryside in its grasp, but only then as part of a general trend to fix peasants to their home, deprive them of many forms of redress and confiscating their means of resistance, the ubiquitous matchlock musket.

sikh-akali

The ‘unsettled’ centuries of pre-British India were ones of opportunity for soldiers, some of whom came to be known as `rajputs`. The term is generally ethnic now, but was much less specific in early modern India. As the title of the book suggests, rajput was just another appellation like naukar or sepoy, generic and vague enough to encompass a wide variety of peoples and groups, and even organizations, even if the `proper` Rajput clans did exist at that time. Kolff describes this process:

“Rajput soldiers of the seventeenth century must have been of the most diverse origins. True, with a large number of them, memories of their precise social backgrounds were gradually obscured by vague territorial identities or claims of ksatriya status. But in ancient times, recruitment…had not taken social origins into account. Instead, it overlaid old identities with a new…’rajput’ veneer. (155).

Certain castes considered themselves `pure` Rajput, and monopolized certain ‘regal’ names and territories, but the evidence that Kolff musters suggests that many otherwise unremarkable peasant groups were able to assume the mantle of glorious (and lucrative) rajput even if they were not considered of the ‘right’ caste.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Atheist Blackshirts

The wonders of Wikipedia, at a glance.  List of various ‘rainbow’ toughs and shirts from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, exhaustive and comprehensive, Ireland’s, Canada’s and Mexico’s various paramilitary shirt organisations are listed alongside the more famous Nazi and Fascist groups, and those of Romania, for instance. And then this little oddity that I cannot quite explain (sorry about the original link marks):

Blackshirts are members of the atheist quasi-political organization Dravidar Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, founded by “Periyar” E V Ramasamy. The members wear black shirts to mock and protest the saffron vestments of Hindu religious leaders, and sadhus as black is generally associated with death and bad-luck as opposed to saffron’s auspicious association. This has its origins when black flags as a protest tool were banned in Tamil Nadu and the members wore black outfits to circumvent this ban. Black shirts and black flags were also seen as a symbol of anarchy in southern India especially in Tamil Nadu during the early 20 century.

The articles linked on the page are cryptic and almost useless, except to reveal the popularity of the black shirt as a Tamil political symbol and to perhaps use the sensational connections of black shirts to Nazis to smear groups associated with the Tamil Tigers. Other than that: nothing. An atheist Tamil militant movement using the blackshirt? Wow. The article on Periyar Ramasami, the founder of various Tamil nationalist movements throughout much of the twentieth centuries, is much more detailed, and much more interesting. Periyar Ramasami’s life is long and varied, and the organization he founded seems to have much in common with many anti-colonialist nationalist regeneration movements such as the KMT’s blueshirts in China and: aping and admiration for the discipline of European fascist movements, vaguely socialist leanings in matters of the economy and toward the working class, dislike of the British and whites in general, naturally, and a commitment to reforming the national body politics; in Ramasani’s case, this led to anti-Hindu actions. Fascinating. Fascinating.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »