I can’t get my head around the Habsburg Empire at all. This is a great short introduction that gives its broad outlines and who’s who and some brilliant little details…I’m afraid they are more what I latched on to. It is six hundred years, a sprawling story across Europe, it is too big. Yet this is the empire that has shaped so many of the places we have visited, and in particular Vienna. (Vienna! I once started writing out sections of the Fodor travel guide to Europe starting with Austria…I don’t know why, so desperate to see and to know other places when I was little…)
The Habsburgs were always an enterprising family deeply discontented with their lot. They started carving out ‘a medly of discontinuous lordships and manors in the region of the Upper Rhine, ranging across Alsace, the Black Forest, and what is now Northern Switzerland‘. The 1st definite record of them comes with Radbot (935-1045) — Radbot! — who founded the Benedictine abbey of Muri in Swiss Aargau. About the same time he built a stone fort called Habsburg, Castle of the Ford or Castle of the Hawk depending on your preference. This is where the name came from, but they didn’t like the area so much and were busy acquiring territories towards Austria and Styria so they just gave this castle away to vassals in 1230, who then lost it.
You can still see it though.
This might be my favourite Habsburg story, perhaps because it unsettles all my ideas of aristocracy, the mythologies of their connection with a specific place, with specific lands.
The renewed Holy Roman Empire started Christmas Day AD 800 — the emperors were not initially Habsburgs (we all knew that already) but came to be elected by Habsburgs, and the Habsburgs stopped electing and themselves became Holy Roman Emperors between 1438 and 1740
A chart of the Habsburgs proper before the death of Charles VI, the passing of the throne to Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina (the beginning of the Habsburg-Lorraines), together representing 600 or so years of empire…
Thus all of the Habsburg possessions were ‘composite’ states and kingdoms, comprising several or more territories which had over time become bound together under single rulers. (9)
They also collected titles, like these two marking how much they had looted through 1648:
Don Philip the Fourth, by the grace of God king of Castile, Leon, Aragon, the Two Sicilies, Jerusalem, Navarre, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Minorca, Seville, Cerdagne, Cordoba, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, Algeciras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, the Eastern and Western Indies, the islands and terra firma of the Ocean, archduke of Austria, duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Milan, count of Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, Barcelona, lord of Biscay and Molina, etc.
Ferdinand III, Elected Roman Emperor, at all times Enlarger of the Empire, King of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia etc, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Margrave of Moravia, Duke of Luxembourg, Upper and Lower Silesia, Wurttemberg and Teck, Prince in Swabia, Count of Habsburg, Tyrol, Kyburg, Gorizia, Landgrave of Alsace, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, Burgau, Upper and Lower Lusatia, Lord of the Windisch Mark, Pordenone and Salins etc.
Some of these places they genuinely owned, some of them they had owned once, some they thought they had some claim to as Rady writes:
By having these places listed, they were kept ‘active’, as possible future acquisitions should the right circumstances arise. (12)
The Habsburgs were not just a ruling family. They were also a dynasty. A dynasty is more than a group of blood relatives, for it has a sense of its own history that guides its development through time. It is proprietary, in the sense of seeking to retain and even augment its landed inheritance, but it is also a legal community whose members have interconnected rights and obligations. (12)
They were good at forgeries. Duke Rudolf IV of Habsburg forged a charter from Julius Ceasar himself. Although it was always known as a fake, it buttressed their claims to ‘pre-eminence in the Holy Roman Empire’ from the 14th Century onwards.
His successor was Frederick who had the most splendid mother ever:
Cymburga, a woman of prodigious beauty and physical strength, who could reputedly drive nails into oak tables with her bare fist (21).
That seems a good quality in a ruler, but I don’t think the tradition was continued. Instead the Habsburgs just continued on acquiring things — women of prodigious beauty, art, statues, lands, titles, money. I suppose in these early years they must have been rather fierce, shrewd in marriages and diplomacy. But that couldn’t have been quite enough to hold such an array of cultures and languages and lands together. Rady writes:
The preferred method of 16th-century Habsburg rule was ‘conciliar’. This meant that Habsburg monarchs practised, where they could, government by committee, and functions were devolved to meetings made up largely of experts. The heads of these committees, the secretaries or ‘super-clerks’, often reported directly to the ruler, thus preparing the way for what would later become cabinet government. (34-35)
I’m still not entirely sure how all of this hung together — a dynasty supreme in the art of delegation. Coupled with a lot of brute force. Take Phillip II, of whom his leading general said
‘every individual has the feeling that one fine night or morning the house will fall in on him’ (39).
This level of force continued, even as the emperors got a bit madder over time. Of Rudolf II, his brothers reported
His Majesty is interested only in wizards, alchemists, Kabbalists and the like, sparing no expense to find all kinds of treasures, learn secrets and use scandalous ways of harming his enemies… He also has a whole library of magic books. He strives all the time to eliminate God completely so that he may in future serve a different master. (41)
Second favourite story.
They presided over the 30-years war from 1618-1648, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, France, all the little German principalities. Rady describes the ‘refeudalisation’ of Spain through the globalization of the Empire, but by 1700 they had lost that. (This is written with their global conquests as primarily a sidenote.)
In that year, the last Habsburg ruler of Spain, Charles II, died — deranged, without heir, and habitually unkempt. (59)
Third favourite story.
The Enlightenment arrives, everyone thinks Central Europe is just a bit backward. It really is. But there was a thing called the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713 that established the indivisibility of Habsburg lands and a single succession and allowed daughters to inherit — so Maria Theresa was allowed to ascend to power (they have to become the house of Habsburg-Lorraine at that point), but not without Frederick the Great of Prussia taking Silesia (they didn’t manage to get it back during the 7-years war). Rady talks about how in Britain and North America Enlightenment meant ‘an extension of popular sovereignty, curbs on government, and a new ‘science of freedom’ but in Central Europe
the Enlightenment tended towards the reverse–towards regulation, the ‘science of the state’, and the subjection of the individual to the common good, as the sovereign understood it to be. (63)
They stood against Napoleon — poorly. Vienna was occupied twice, the Habsburgs stripped of their territories. Metternich took control of foreign policy in 1809. Metternich had slept with Napoleon’s sister, had had a chat with Napoleon and realised that he had totally underestimated Russia, planned accordingly. The 1814-15 talks that concluded the Napoleonic wars took place in Vienna. The Habsburgs lost their claim to the Holy Roman Empire. Francis became emperor of Austria, finally a legitimate empire with Metternich firmly ensconced presiding over the Biedermeier period until the revolutions of 1848.
Empire continues on, limps on through the glories of the vin-de-siecle. We come to Franz Ferdinand…this is a rather extraordinary photo of the man who got himself assassinated to start WWI.
And they come to an end with Charles I. The empire no one tried to reinstate.
This is long past due. Part 2 of Eric Williams writing about the direct links between these cities I know and love and the horrors of slavery.
Where much of the story begins really.
The story of this increase in the slave trade is mainly the story of the rise of Liverpool. Liverpool’s first slave trader, a modest vessel of thirty tons, sailed for Africa in 1709…by the end of the century, gained Liverpool the distinction of being the greatest slave trading port in the Old World. (34)
Now for a list of leading slave traders, I like naming names because these are the kind of names you find everywhere — not least statues, plaques: Bryan Blundell, trustee, treasurer, chief patron and most active supporter of the Blue Coat Hospital. Foster Cunliffe, who with his sons owned 4 ships capable of holding 1120 slaves — another supporter of the charity. Thomas Leyland, mayor of Liverpool, one of the most active traders with immense profits, became senior partner in the banking firm of Clarkes and Roscoe.
John Gladstone — partner in Corrie and Company, engaged in the grain trade, also a slave owner. Through foreclosures acquired large plantations in British Guiana and Jamaica, also involved in trade in sugar and other produce. Opened up trade connections with Russia, India and China on the back of it. Prominent public figure as was his son, William Ewart.
Heywood bank founded on slave profits, later the family married and mingled with the Gladstone family, future generations would be bankers.
On the physical form of the city:
It was a common saying that several of the principal streets of Liverpool had been marked out by the chains, and the walls of the houses cemented by the blood, of the African slaves., and one house was nicknamed “Negro Row.” The red brick Customs House was blazoned with Negro heads.
Where Bristol moved to focus on sugar, Liverpool remained with slaves (though one family there also manufactured sugar — the house of Branckers, but of course they were also involved in the slave trade). It was intimately connected with rest of Lancashire, and with Manchester. Abolitionists might have blamed the rise of Liverpool on the rise of manufacturing drawing larger populations to Lancashire and Manchester, but in fact it was exactly the opposite. Manufacturing arose from the profits of slavery.
There was a whole, horrible industry surrounding slavery. I had never thought of it, but of course someone had to make the chains.
The ironmaster’s interest in the slave trade continued throughout the century. When the question of abolition came before Parliament, the manufacturers of and dealers in iron, copper, brass and lead in Liverpool petitioned against the project, which would affect employment in the town… (84)
As stated above:
When Bristol was outstripped in the slave trade by Liverpool, it turned its attention from the triangular trade to the direct sugar trade (61).
Clever losers, Bristol.
There is a brilliant story about Judge Jeffreys ‘the butcher’, an awful man who sentenced many to die. I don’t want there to be a ‘but’ and there isn’t really I suppose. Judge Jeffreys did come to Bristol once to ‘sweep it clean’ by going after those who kidnapped people to send them to the colonies. While he was presiding over the court, he forced the mayor himself into the dock, called him a kidnapper and sentenced him to a fine of a thousand pounds.
But back to sugar, and Bristol’s intimate connections with the West Indies:
…so important did the islands become to Bristol that for the first half of the nineteenth century Bristol was always represented in Parliament by a West Indian–a Baillie, a Protheroe, or a Miles. (62)
Naming names again. There were also the Pinneys in Bristol, owning sugar plantations on Nevis. This connection meant that by 1799 there were 20 sugar refineries in Bristol, and in total more sugar processed than London (although 80 refineries were to be found there). It was also considered of finer quality, and sugar long remained one of the staples of Bristol. (74)
Bristol expanded into other areas, and the city was the main manufacturer of Pacotille — the principal cargo sent to Africa to use to buy slaves. It is a catch-all term I didn’t know before, included glass beads and bottles. Williams writes:
Individually these items were of negligible value; in the aggregate they constituted a trade of great importance, so essential a part of the slave transactions that the word “pacotille” is still commonly used in the West Indies today to denote a cheap and tawdry bauble given as compensation for objects of great value. (81)
A new word, such a good word, capitalism in a word.
Speaking of capitalism, like the ironmongers of Liverpool, manufacturing in Bristol throve. Iron of course, was also used, along with copper items from Bristol’s Holywell works. They made chains, manacles and rings.
This I didn’t know:
Not until the Act of Union of 1707 was Scotland allowed to participate in colonial trade. That permission put Glasgow on the map. Sugar and tobacco underlay the prosperity of the town in the eighteenth century. Colonial commerce stimulated the growth of new industries. (64)
While primarily associated with tobacco, Glasgow was also involved in sugar refining. All for love, too. If you can fall in love wtith slave owners. But Glasgow became one of the leading ports of entry for West Indian sugar after two officers, Colonel William Macdowall and Major James Milliken wooed and married two great sugar heiresses while staying in St Kitts. Mrs Tovie and her daughter forged a bond with Scotland that shaped the city. I confess I am a little intrigued.
Not much to say about Birmingham, I’ve not spend much time there, but there is this:
Guns formed a regular part of every African cargo. Birmingham became the center of the gun trade as Manchester was of the cotton trade. (82)
It had to compete with London for this though.
Finally my current city of residence. Our own leading slave traders: Arthur Heywood, both slave trader & the first to import slave-grown cotton from the US, also treasurer of the Manchester Academy, one son a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society and the Billiard Club (apparently the very height of gentlemanliness in Manchester). Again, to return to links between slavery and the rise of capitalism:
It was only the capital accumulation of Liverpool which called the population of Lancashire into existence and stimulated the manufactures of Manchester. That capital accumulation came from the slave trade, whose importance was appreciated more by contemporaries than by later historians. (63)
It did all come down to cotton. What the building of ships for the transport of slaves did for eighteenth century Liverpool, the manufacture of cotton goods for the purchase of slaves did for eighteenth century Manchester.
Manchester goods for Africa were taken to the coast in the Liverpool slave vessels. Lancashire’s foreign market meant chiefly the West Indian plantations and Africa…It was this tremendous dependence on the triangular trade that made Manchester. (68)
This despite the initial strength of superior Indian cottons and their superior dying processes. Even so:
[A]ccording to estimates given to the Privy Council in 1788, Manchester reported annually to Africa goods worth £200,000, £180,000 of this for Negroes only; the manufacture of these goods represented an investment of £300,000 and gave employment to 180,000 men, women, and children. (70)
The same close connections weren’t as evident as those between ship-builders and slave trading in Liverpool, but at least two cotton manufacturers were also members of the Company of Merchants trading to Africa — Sir William Fazackerly and Samuel Touchet. Another firm, the Hibberts, owned sugar plantations in Jamaica, while also supplying goods to African Company for the slave trade.
Above all Manchester was part of this shift from Mercantilism to Industrial Capitalism:
Between 1785 and 1800, eighty-two steam engines were constructed for cotton mills, fifty-five of these in Lancashire alone.” The first steam loom factory was built in Manchester in 1806. In 1835 there were 116,8oo power looms in all Great Britain, all but six per cent in the cotton industry
In 1785 the exports of British cotton manufactures exceeded one million pounds in value; they were thirty-one million in 1830. The cloth printed in Great Britain increased from 20 million yards in 1796 to 347 million in 1830. The population employed by the industry rose from 350,000 in 1788 to 800,000 in 1806. There were 66 cotton mills in Manchester and Salford in 1820, 96 in 1832. Cotton was “raising men like mushrooms.” Oldham in 1760 was a village of 400 inhabitants; in 1801 it had 20,000. In 1753 Bolton had a single, rough, ill-paved street; in 1801 the population was 17,000. Manchester’s population increased sixfold between 1773 and 1824.. Cotton weavers and manufacturer, unrepresented in the Manchester procession of trades in 1763 on the occasion of the coronation of George II, were the most prominent feature of the coronation of George IV in 1820. In a larger sense it was the coronation of King Cotton. (128)
Manchester in fact was a leader in the fight for free trade once strict controls ceased to make it profits:
If Manchester still thrived on “shirts for black men,” the British West Indies had no monopoly on blacks, and the larger slave populations of the United States and Brazil offered attractive markets….of what use, then, asked Manchester in wrath, was the system of monopoly to the British manufacturer? (133)
I am still fascinated by this shift but write more in part 1. Still, to recap it all, and what that mean for these growing urban centres:
Williams gives the example of the career of Mark Phillips. In 1832 elected to represent Manchester in Reformed Parliament. Connected to West Indian interests, but still decided to stand behind abolition. Industrialists lined up also, gives example of Samuel Garbett, ironmaster of Birmingham. John Bright of Cotton. Richard Cobden in wool. Liverpool too, turned against slave trade and sugar. Not, to be sure, against slavery itself and cotton. Glasgow too turned, ‘The days of Macdowall and the sugar heiresses were over.’ (163)
[Williams, Eric (1989 ) Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch.]
From Derek Walcott’s Midsummer, 1984…Brixton, uprising, the ideal and the violent, brutal, racist reality.
And Brixton. And the feeling staring back in time and at the violent austerity of the present and into the future if we don’t act, that things don’t change.
With the stampeding hiss and scurry of green lemmings,
midsummer’s leaves race to extinction like the roar
of a Brixton riot tunnelled by water hoses;
they seethe toward autumn’s fire–it is in their nature,
being men as well as leaves, to die for the sun.
The leaf stems tug at their chains, the branches bending
like Boer cattle under Tory whips that drag every wagon
nearer to apartheid. And, for me, that closes
the child’s fairy tale of an antic England–fairy rings,
thatched cottages fenced with dog roses,
a green gale lifting the hair of Warwickshire.
I was there to add some color to the British theater.
“But the blacks can’t do Shakespeare, they have no experience.”
This was true. Their thick skulls bled with rancor
when the riot police and the skinheads exchanged quips
you could trace to the Sonnets, or the Moor’s eclipse.
Praise had bled my lines white of any more anger,
and snow had inducted me into white fellowships,
while Calibans howled down the barred streets of an empire
that began with Caedmon’s raceless dew, and is ending
in the alleys of Brixton, burning like Turner’s ships.
Time’s Anvil was brilliant in thinking about archaeology and landscape — human lives, activities and ideas and their inter-relations with their surroundings. Much of Richard Morris’ argument revolves around this:
Or as Einstein said to Werner Heisenberg in 1926: ‘Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which describes what can be observed.’
What you see is often defined by what you expect, what questions you start with, what you choose to notice and what you think irrelevant. Thus we can track archaeology by its questions and assumptions, which as years pass have shifted time and time again as widely held ‘truths’ proved completely wrong. This is a lovely little history of some of these dismantlings, a bit rambling from personal experience to excavations to poetry to agriculture to planning and battles and more. Quite enjoyable, and much for thought here — as you can unpack this kind of history for any field of inquiry.
There is quite a bit on the rise of archaeology itself, and how that shaped what early archeologists were looking for, the questions they asked, and what they were able to see.
There is, of course, that crazy period where (almost all) men worked so hard categorising things to understand them — Luke Howard’s An Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1803), William Smith’s attempt to map for the first time the stratification of minerals in a geological map (1815), the first attempt to grapple with architecture — An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England by Thomas Rickman (1817). Morris roots archeology here, and in the activities that emerged through it:
With these four step taken — classification, the ability to ascertain sequence, time-depth, and evolution by natural selection — modern archeology’s heart was set beating. (62)
He argues that Darwin returned man to nature, made humans –and their history and development — subject to scientific examination rather than sat above it.
Interesting that archaeology grew as a discipline alongside history and conservation — which means British/American archaeology shared much of the same understanding of land and nature. People like William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson running around delineating land worked by humans and ‘pure’ and ‘pristine’ nature.
As the industrial revolution quickened so did the idea of delimiting areas if land to keep nature in a pristine state. (64)
Thoreau rode on this bandwagon, arguing for establishment of parks ‘not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own recreation’ (65). Thoreau apparently often wrote re-creation — not just enjoyment but self renewal. That’s rather nice. But still, a very different way of seeing the world around us than was common for earlier generations:
Deeper than this, though, was a perception of the pre-industrial past as a place in time that paralleled wilderness in geographical space — a slower-paced realm of pure life-giving existence, as it was, before everything became sullied or began to fail. What was old was more ennobling than what was new, because it had its own organic, creatively true and coherent network — the result of deep-rooted tradition which set it beyond fashion or unthinking utilitarianism. (65)
But we couldn’t get beyond these binaries of civilized and wild (too much riding on that one, like all of Britain and America’s arguments for colonisation and genocide), and linear progression. This is so different from other conceptions of time, so much has been written on Mayan and other indigenous understandings of teh cyclical nature of time, but for medieval Europe it was the same. This is a quote from the medieval historian Bede, from his The Reckoning of Time:
a lunar year and a solar year, a separate year for [each of] the wandering stars, and one for all the planets, which is particularly called “the great year”. (10)
And more about the differences:
Advances in technology and art during the Middle Ages were apparently unaccompanied by a general theory of progress. Until the sixteenth century an ‘inventor’ was, as its Latin root invenio reminds us, a person ‘who found something which had been lost, not one who devised a new solution unknown to previous generations.’ (quoting Keith Thomas from Religion and the Decline of Magic) (18)
Stepping outside of accepted theory we see a little more. For example, I liked the use of ‘the Old Ones’ to describe the mix of our ancient ancestors, the ones from the muddy bits of our family tree, the ones who may or may not have been homo sapiens or part of that line.
I love this amazing graph, this feels rather new since I studied such things in my heady undergraduate days in the 1990s:
I also like imagining them as different, rather than as inferior versions of ourselves.
Despite abundant evidence that earlier humans were adapted to their environments, the legend which paints them as inferior versions of us lives on…the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley demanded evidence of progress, as if its absence was a defect…E.H. Carr argues that ‘only those people which have succeeded in organising their society in some degree cease to be primitive savages and enter into history’. On this view, it is history that defines our genes rather than the other way round. (141)
An example —
Hitherto it had been generally assumed that early people had lived in holes in the ground. Bersu showed that in fact they lived in generously proportioned timber-built round houses. (71)
How people relate to their environment is also up for rethinking. I read some of Childe doing my masters — those beloved archeology classes I took as part of the Latin American Studies degree I never finished, this makes me want to go back to him.
Child argued that human beings do not adapt to their surroundings as they really are but rather as they imagine them. ‘Each individual carries about in her or his mind a “cultural map” incorporating knowledge acquired through learning and experience, from which the individual selects the data required to adapt to the social and natural environment. (76) [Childe – Prehistoric communities of the British Isles, Trigger — Childe’s relevance]
This is a good metaphor for archaeology itself, Morris argues it arose in years of colonial expansion and nation states, ‘It is not surprising, then, that archaeology should have been harnessed to the imperialist cause’ (77) — nor that pre-history should be understood as succession of conquests bringing new ideas and better ways of doing things. Thus rather than look at landscape or the continuity of developments over time, they cut deep shafts into sites:
‘in Britain down to the 1950s placed reliance on vertical control whereby events in the life of a place, each chapter with its own layers, each layer a stage in a story, were read off serially from sections as if from a railway timetable. (77)
Very different from countries such as Denmark, always more focused on settlement and environment. A focus on shafts in a very tightly delimited space also limited what could be seen:
At best, ‘site’ was an artificial construct, an area delineated for present convenience rather than denoting any past reality. ‘Site’ was also deceiving, for it invited you to look inwards rather than out to the surrounding area and horizons that gave it meaning. [O. G. S.] Crawford said that alongside frameworks of period and typology archaeology also needed a grammar of space and time. (122)
There is a wonderful chapter on the rise of aerial photography — a whole new view of landscape and identification of sites and how they fit into their surroundings. Trasnformational, For example, until then archeologists and historians believed settlement concentrated in a belt across England, and that places like the fenlands lay all but deserted. Aerial photography showed marks of old fields, proved this completely wrong. I love too that they found that different crops show archeological features very well or not all through changes in lushness of growth, that frost dissipates differently, that mushrooms can grow differently — Gilbert White had noted this in his journals. A nice tie-in.
As these challenges arose, new ways of excavating worked to answer them. Christopher Taylor doing an area study, challenged
four time-honoured suppositions: that places had generally come into existence in ‘waves of colonisation’ or grown outwards from stable centres; that the earliest recorded reference to a place was likely to approximate to the time when the place was first settled; that a place ommitted from Domesday Book did not exist in 1086; and that continuity of habitation presupposed continuity of site, or indeed the reverse. The new reading visualized extensive earlier settlement, and fluidity as well as fixity of habitation within an older framework of fields, estates and lanes. (162)
The fluidity is particularly important:
There is a contemporary tendency to see the past in terms of static functions, what a place was ‘for’, as distinct from processes, the perpetuity of what went on. (170)
Aerial photos and excavations revealed so much that we didn’t know — like causewayed enclosures or cursus that we still don’t understand the meaning of, like Knap Hill in Wiltshire.
It also allowed us to better trace changes in agriculture, from small fields to open-field agriculture:
Blocks of strips with the same trend had been gathered into furlongs, and a group of furlongs formed a larger land which was cropped in rotation with one or two others. Lacking permanent subdivision, tenurially subdivided, communally organized, there were the remains of open-field agriculture. (184)
And similar changes in villages — going back to Christopher Taylor:
…the settlements we see today will not usually be the result of outward growth from ancient nuclei, but the result of a succession of reconfigurations. Such transformation can occur in many ways — by relocation, slow drift, coalescence, fission, fusion — and at differing tempos in which beats of different measure may run in counterpoint. (194)
Taylor showed how widespread planning had been. By examination in the field he showed that places which looked amorphous were in fact often made up of planned elements which had, so to speak, gone out of shape as time passed — for instance through piecemeal addition or the loss, subdivision or amalgamation of buildings. (194)
Land and people differ from those once pictured: the land more intricate, locally, varied, longer settled and more efficiently managed; the people better housed, more socially and economically diverse, bearing more responsibility for events and change. (202)
Part of this is the long occupation of sites over time, and things like the widespread Anglo-Saxon cemeteries associated with earlier mounds and monuments like Wigber Low or New House Farm.
On to Dominic Powlesland, who found this incredible ‘filament of farms, a linear agricultural commune one building wide and tens of miles long’ (212) in the Vale of Pickering.
Amazing. This was a moment where I felt everything change — nucleated village settlements aren’t some kind of innate, natural form we create.
He uncovered this working systematically over nine seasons across a broad area in a way no one had before — it is now thirty years work has been happening now, and the wonderful site of the Landscape Research Centre has much more on this. Look at these images generated through geophysics:
These long strips could run for up to ten miles, a line of buildings facing each other across a road. They remind me immensely of Paolo Soleri’s Arterial Arcology, which is sitting in a box now for the most part unread.
This study also challenged ‘the foundation myth of a people finding its destiny in an unclaimed land’ — the Anglo Saxons moving into a mostly unpopulated wilderness parallel to rhetoric around colonisation. I wasn’t even aware of such a myth, but it parallels closely the myths utilised n the US and elsewhere to justify expansion so I am not surprised. I (and others) find the period after the end of the Roman Empire particularly interesting, and particularly cloudy, with little evidence and much speculation of collapse and darkness. But excavations in the Vale of Pickering showing little contraction in the economy or depopulation, but stable communities
A key aspect of these settlements is the way they embraced a cross-section of rural resources between the Vale floor and the Wold top: river frontage, marshland, arable, water, upland grazing’ (223)
His surveys and excavations also showed residence, craft and industry in different zones — ah, zoning. My urban planner heart goes pitter pat.
The village of Heslerton remained occupied until the ninth century in this long filament pattern. It was then dismantled (how? why?) and a new community a short distance to the west emerged. The old area converted to ridge and furrow and communally worked fields — and this happened up and down the valley. Thus
the ‘early Saxon’ settlement did not originate in contrast to the thousand-year-old ladder, but rather was condensed out of it. (227)
The Vale of Pickering shows:
the birth of early medieval England occurs not in the aftermath of a post-Roman collapse, but as an evolution from late prehistoric society that Rome had ruled and exploited but not significantly altered. (227)
York is another example of continuity followed by change — as medieval York evolved above the still-visible ruins of Roman York:
the evolving topography of the Anglo-Saxon city had been influenced by axis of the Roman fortress. The Norman cathedral builders, on the other hand, had pointedly ignored it. (257)
Interesting. But archaeologists found Anglo Saxon graves in the old Roman basilica, and they also used Roman building blocks and Roman slabs for gravestones within remains of Roman buildings. They painted them as well! I don’t know what that last detail is so interesting, but so it is.
A final challenge to some linear developments by conquest of small insular villages — the mining industry and how it connected all of Europe over the centuries. The 1140s chronicler (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum) writes:
although little silver was mined in England, much was brought from Germany by the Rhine on account of England’s wonderful fertility in fish and meat, in most precious wool, and in cattle without number. As a result, a larger supply of silver is found in England than in Germany. (198)
The more I read or watch documentaries on the past, the more I realise just how much trade and travel did occur across our history – a look at mining and minerals seems to be a good way to understand the long-existing connectedness of Europe:
Trade seems to have intensified from the late tenth century, and its stimulant lay some six hundred miles to the east of England’s midlands, in the Harz mountains of Germany, where late in the 960s a large new source of silver was discovered, augmenting an earlier silver supply from central Europe which had been fuelling the expansion of coinage since the early eighth century. (197)
Morris described a confluence of mining and farming in Cornwall, exploited in places like Alderley Edge, where some of the tunnels and mine working mining out minerals — copper, silver, tin, malachite, galena, vanadium, cobalt, nickel, zinc, molybedenum — date from the early bronze age. These same minerals contributed to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Cornish tin in pewter, solder and tin plate used for canning industry, Tin alloyed with copper — bronze for machine bearings and marine propellers. Copper in boilers, vats, piping for dying and processing of sugar. in brass, parts for steam engines, and gun cartridges. Arsenic for dyes and pigments, early insecticide. But going back, a look at mining challenges some very fundamental understanding’s of the stages of human development:
The Iron Age, for long viewed as a step along the road of linear technological progress, has recently been argued to have begun because from around 1100 BC the supply of accessible continental copper began to dwindle, thus stepping up the search for other kinds of ores closer to hand. If copper was a metal of journeys and mysteries, then, iron eventually became a metal of localities. Its stories differ from those of copper and gold. (382)
For all this is true, there is a definite change with the rise of imperialism and colonisation.
From the sixteenth century, it becomes less and less possible to study the past ‘as if it happened only in one place’. (350)
This is almost a throw away line, but reiterated again and again by writers like Walter Rodney, Stuart Hall, Cedric Robinson and others — hardly a coincidence that they all write critically from the spaces conquered through Empire.
I am not an archaeologist, so unable to comment how this book fits in with work happening in the field under discussion, but there is so much here for geographers. The points above were what I found most useful in understanding more of what the study of archaeology and landscape can teach us about how humans grow and change with their environment — both in challenging paradigms of thought and methodology, as well as many of my own assumptions gleaned from reading about the past. There is a lot more that could be said about how race, class, gender and etc impact our vision and structure our theory, I missed more of that here, but it does do quite a lot.
Vandana Shiva is amazing — I only recently read her for the first time and had my giant activist-writer crush, but Biopiracy might have been even better. Another three of her books were sitting on the shelves here, happy days, so I picked this one up.
Colonialism and capitalism vs life with insights into all three. I loved it, and am finding it very useful in thinking about how we arrived where we are now and just what we are up against as well as where hope lies.
I’m going to be a little sneaky and start with the summation and quotes from the conclusion as an overview. Shiva is arguing that there have been three waves of globalization – the 1st through the initial colonization by European powers, the 2nd through the imposition of the ‘Western idea of ‘development’ during the postcolonial era over the past five decades, and the 3rd unleashed approximately 5 years ago through ‘free trade’ and the commodification of life itself. Biopiracy. She argues that
… each time a global order has tried to wipe out diversity and impose homogeneity, disorder and disintegration have been induced, not removed. (105)
This process of continuing destruction and disorder is, in many ways, all rooted in that first wave of colonisation, that initial period of destruction and violence that continues on through our present. This is one of the key transformations I think, and this environmentalist and feminist lens such an interesting angle to look at the issue from:
‘Resource’ originally implied life…regeneration…With the rise of industrialism and colonialism a shift in meaning took place. ‘Natural resources’ became inputs for industrial commodity production and colonial trade. Nature was transformed into dead and manipulable matter. Its capacity to renew and grow had been denied. The violence against nature, and the disruption of its delicate interconnections, was a necessary part of denying its self-organizing capacity. And this violence against nature, in turn, translated into violence in society.
Anything not fully managed or controlled by European men was seen as a threat. This included nature, non-Western societies, and women. What was self-organized was considered wild, out of control, and uncivilized. When self-organization is perceived as chaos, it creates a context to impose a coercive and violent order for the betterment and improvement of the ‘other’, whose intrinsic order is then disrupted and destroyed.
This is such a key insight on the intrinsic connection between violence and capitalism, the ways that violence against nature is mirrored by and indivisible from violence against society. The nature of this violence has changed, but has the same roots and is manifested through all three waves.
I don’t quite know why I am so fascinated by its beginnings, but so I am. So are many others, luckily, and the intro really gets into it– ‘Piracy Through patents: The Second Coming of Columbus’:
Columbus set a precedent when he treated the license to conquer non-European peoples as a natural right of European men. The land titles issued by the pope through European kings and queens were the first patents. The colonizer’s freedom was built on the slavery and subjugation of the people with original rights to the land. this violent takeover was rendered ‘natural’ by defining the colonized people as nature, thus denying them their humanity and freedom.
John Locke’s treatise on property effectually legitimized this same process of theft and robbery during the enclosure movement in Europe. Locke clearly articulated capitalism’s freedom to build as the freedom to steel: property is created by removing resources from nature and mixing them with labour. This ‘labour’ is not physical, but labour in its ‘spiritual’ form, as manifested in the control of capital. According to Locke, only those who own capital have the natural right to own natural resources, a right that supersedes the common rights of others with prior claims. Capital is thus defined as a source of freedom that, at the same time, denies freedom to the land, forests, rivers, and biodiversity that capital claims as its own, and to others whose rights are based on their labour. (8-9)
This is well on point too:
It seems that the Western powers are still driven by the colonizing impulse: to discover, conquer, own, and possess everything, every society, every culture. The colonies have now been extended to the interior spaces, the ‘genetic codes’ of life forms from microbes and plants to animals, including humans. (9)
On to biopiracy:
At the heart of Columbus’s discovery was the treatment of piracy as a natural right of the colonizer, necessary for the deliverance of the colonized… Biopiracy is the Columbian ‘discovery’ 500 years after Columbus. Through patents and genetic engineering, new colonies are being carved out. The land, the forests, the rivers, the oceans, and the atmosphere have all been colonized, eroded, and polluted. capital now has to look for new colonies to invade and exploit for its further accumulation. These new colonies are, in my view, interior spaces of the bodies of women, plants and animals. Resistance to biopiracy is a resistance to the ultimate colonization of life itself–of the future of evolution as well as the future of non-Western traditions of relating to and knowing nature. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse species to evolve. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse cultures to evolve. It is a struggle to conserve both cultural and biological diversity. (11)
There is so much in here specific to law and policy — lots about the General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade (GATT), the Uruguay round in 1994 that set up the requirement of signing on to TRIPS, or Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights that brought patenting into international trade agreements. I have focused more on the broader ideas and philosophies, though I love that this a book to incite and facilitate meaningful struggle to change these terrifying and unjust world systems.
She starts with a very interesting look at the nature of creativity.
1: Knowledge, Creativity and Intellectual Property Rights
What is creativity? This is at the heart of the current debates about patents on life. Patents on life enclose the creativity inherent in living systems that reproduce and multiply in self-organized freedom. They enclose the interior spaces of the bodies of women, plants, and animals. They also enclose the free spaces of intellectual creativity by transforming publicly generated knowledge into private property. Intellectual property rights on life forms are supposed to reward and stimulate creativity. their impact is actually the opposite–to stifle the creativity intrinsic to life forms and the social production of knowledge. (13)
She examines three different kinds of creativity:
1. The creativity inherent in living organisms that allows them to evolve, recreate and regenerate themselves.
2. The creativity of indigenous communities that have developed knowledge systems to conserve and utilize the rich biological diversity of our planet
3. The creativity of modern scientists in university of corporate laboratories who find ways to use living organisms to generate profits. (14)
Only the third kind of creativity is acknowledged under Intellectual Property Rights systems as defined under GATT, the biodiversity convention, or the lovely U.S. Trade Act which includes the Special 301 clause – this is, she argues ‘a prescription for a monoculture of language’ (15)
All of this marks the ongoing shift from common rights to private rights, as well as a world where knowledge is recognized only when it generates profits, rather than when it meets social needs. Central to this is the idea that people will only innovate if they can profit from their innovation through a system of patent protection. This is so ludicrous yet so ubiquitous.
It is clear why such a lethal combination of ideas leads to the destruction cultural commons and skews research away from areas that are key in terms of importance and or social need, to focus on profit-generating studies.
This is an enclosure of the intellectual commons, and I am loving the idea of commons broadened in this way.
2: Can Life Be Made? Can Life be Owned? Redefining Biodiversity
This describes how the patenting of genes and new strains created in laboratories have been redefined as ‘biotechnological invention’ so that they can be made proprietary. The corporate argument for the right to patent such things is that they are new, ‘invented’ by human beings. For tehse same genes present in food that people are attempting to refrain from eating or demanidning that they be identified, corporate arguments are that they are perfectly natural and therefore harmless.
Again to the subject of violence:
Patenting living organisms encourages two forms of violence. First, life forms are treated as if they are mere machines, thus denying their self-organizing capacity. Second, by allowing the patenting of future generations of plants and animals, the self-reproducing capacity of living organisms is denied. (29)
I also found this look at reductionist biology quite interesting, and a critique that is interesting to think through around other issues of diversity in relation to other kinds of positivism in the social sciences.
Reductionism biology is multifaceted. At the species level, this reductionism puts value on only one species—humans—and generates an instrumental value for all others. It therefore displaces and pushes to extinction all species whose instrumental value to humans is small or non-existent. Monocultures of species and biodiversity erosion are the inevitable consequences of reductionist thought in biology, especially when applied to forestry, agriculture, and fisheries. We call this first-order reductionism.
Reductionist biology is increasingly characterized by a second-order reductionism—genetic reductionism—the reduction of all behaviour of biological organisms, including humans, to genes. Second-order reductionism amplifies the ecological risks of first-order reductionism, while introducing new issues, like the patenting of life forms. (30)
Epistemologically, it leads to a machine view of the world and its rich diversity of life forms. It makes us forget that living organisms organize themselves. It robs us of our capacity for the reverence of life—and without that capacity, protection of the diverse species on the planet is impossible. (35)
The freedom for diverse species and ecosystems to self-organize is the basis of ecology. Ecological stability derives from the ability of species and ecosystems to adapt, evolve and respond. (36)
Seems like it makes sense that we do our best to think this way all the time. I like how this is as true of a smallholding such as the one I am working on now, as it is for the East End community I was in before I came here. Instead we have the likes of Monsanto with their weed killers, and scary chemical escalations. There is plenty in this chapter about such things, if you needed more ammunition for your Monsanto-driven fury.
3. The Seed and the Earth
Regeneration lies at the heart of life: it has been the central principle guiding sustainable societies. Without regeneration, there can be no sustainability. Modern industrial society, however, has no time for thinking about regeneration, and therefore no space for living regeneratively. Its devaluation of the processes of regeneration are the causes of both the ecological crisis and the crisis of sustainability. (47)
Only capitalism and the placing of profit above all things, including life itself, would strive to erase the capacity to regenerate, because that is just insane. Yet Monsanto and others have been working at it for years. This is, of course, connected to power, and Shive argues it is rooted long ago when the facilitating ideas of production and value emerged.
The continuity between regeneration in human and nonhuman nature that was the basis of all ancient worldviews was broken by patriarchy. People were separated from nature, and the creativity involved in processes of regeneration was denied. Creativity became the monopoly of men, who were considered to be engaged in production; women were engaged in mere reproduction or recreation…looked upon as non-productive. (47)
Thus we enter the third phase of globalization and biopiracy, as organisms become the new colonies. While the colonisation of land became possible through new technologies of guns etc,
‘Biotechnology as the handmaiden of capital in the post-industrial era, makes it possible to colonize and control that which is autonomous, free, and self-regenerative. ‘
‘While ancient patriarchy used the symbol of the active seed and the passive earth, capitalist patriarchy, through the new biotechnologies, reconstitutes the seed as passive, and locates activity and creativity in the engineering mind. (49)
‘From Terra Mater to Terra Nullius‘ — a subheading that ties all of this back to the land, back to the redefinitions of words to justify conquest and murder over centuries:
All sustainable cultures, in their diversity, have viewed the earth as terra mater. The patriarchal construct of the passivity of earth and the consequent creation of the colonial category of land as terra nullius served two purposes: it denied the existence and prior rights of original inhabitants, and it negated the regenerative capacity and life processes of the earth. (50)
Colonialism redefined indigenous peoples as part of natural flora and fauna, while the Green Revolution served as a second colonisation of earth defined as terra nullius through an erasing of the existence and importance of the ecological diversity of soil. It needed massive and expensive inputs for profit to take place.
The commodified seed is ecologically incomplete and ruptured at two levels: First, it does not reproduce itself, whereas by definition seed is a regenerative resource…Second, it does not produce by itself: it needs the help of other purchased inputs… (54)
A perfect pairing to maximise profit. Thus the patenting of seeds.
Another definition I quite love, and hope to think through more are these conceptions of ideological boundaries defined and contested:
The transformation of value into disvalue, labour into nonlabour, knowledge into non-knowledge, is achieved by two very powerful constructs: the production boundary and the creation boundary.
The production boundary is a political construct that excludes regenerative, renewable production cycles from the domain of production…When economies are confined to the marketplace, self-sufficiency in the economic domain is seen as economic deficiency. The devaluation of women’s work, and of work done in subsistence economies in the Third World, is the natural outcome of a production boundary constructed by capitalist patriarchy.
The creation boundary does to knowledge what the production boundary does to work: it excludes the creative contributions of women as well as Third World peasants and tribespeople, and vies them as being engaged in unthinking, repetitive, biological processes. (65)
Here the importance of rebuilding connections, where salvation lies:
The source of patriarchal power over women and nature lies in separation and fragmentation…Understanding and sensing connections and relationships is the ecological imperative.
The main contribution of the ecology movement has been the awareness that there is no separation between mind and body, human and nature. Nature consists of the relationships and connections that provide the very conditions for our life and health. This politics of connection and regeneration…(66)
4. Biodiversity and People’s Knowledge
The cradle of Biodiversity is the tropics, yet it is even now being destroyed through destruction of habitat and homogenization of crops and culture. Once a commons, all of it is now being enclosed as local knowledge is displaced and devalued in favour of specialized scientific knowledge, and gift economies around seeds replaced with patents. There is lots here about ‘Bioprospecting’, and how it is given ‘legitimacy’ by the WTO or world bank through corporations paying off indigenous peoples for the knowledge they share only to find they are then refused access to it. Really it is all biopiracy.
We need to recover our biodiversity commons.
5. Tripping Over Life
This focuses on the TRIPs agreement in GATT (get the chapter title now?), and how it: allows for the monopolization of life; promotes monocultures so destructive to biodiversity; requires more and more chemical inputs and thus causes more pollution as well as new forms of pollution through GMOs and resistant weeds and pests; undermines any ethic of conservation trough instrumentalisation of people and other species. It also alienates rights of people to the land they live on as produce sold elsewhere, cuts their connections and sense of stewardship.
You want ammunition to win the argument that all these acronyms are evil? You will find it all here.
6. Making Peace with Life
A final paragraph on violence and monoculture — this fascinated me perhaps more than anything else, as I have worked so much researching segregation and white obsessions with purity and homogeneity that they have defended with such everyday grassroots violence. These are so clearly associated one with the other, and there is so much more here I think to be investigated.
Homogenization and monocultures introduce violence at many levels. Monocultures are always associated with political violence—the use of coercion, control, and centralization. Without centralized control and coercive force, this world filled with the richness of diversity cannot be transformed into homogenous structures, and the monocultures cannot be maintained….
Monocultures are also associated with ecological violence—a declaration of war against nature’s diverse species. This violence not only pushes species toward extinction, but controls and maintains monocultures the,selves. Monocultures are non-sustainable and vulnerable to ecological breakdown. Uniformity implies that a disturbance to one part of a system is translated into a disturbance to other parts Instead of being contained, ecological destabilization tends to be amplified. (103-104)
This book is wonderful, and I am looking forward to reading more. Like Making Peace With the Earth, this was quite short, packed full of information, equally rich in theoretical insights as well as devastating factual information.
Always, she tries to point a pathway to a better future, and this is never tacked on at the end.
[Shiva, Vandana (1998) Biopiracy: the Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Totnes, Devon: Green Books.]
Les Blancs/ The Whites, by Lorraine Hansberry
Final text adapted by Robert Nemiroff
Directed by Yaël Farber
National Theatre, opened 30 March, 2016
This was amazingly raw and powerful as a production. At some point in life I made a shift from someone who never cried ever to someone who cries all the damn time, still, the ending of this wrung more tears from me than any other play I have seen I think. The audience applauded and stood and applauded some more and I sat there and cried.
I don’t know if it’s possible to hate colonialism more than I already did, but this rounded it out a little, gave it a little more depth.
There was much to love in here, Hansberry herself thought it the most powerful of her plays. It demolishes liberal white hopes and expectations that if the past might just be erased and started all over again, people can just be friends. The violence can just stop. Things can just carry on as they are and people content themselves with gradual improvements achieved through democratic forms. Through responses to the character of the American journalist it exposes how all of these ideas break down in the face of a violent and murderous reality — and I love that people get to tell him what they think of him. Refuse his questions, his attempts to create an immediate intimacy, his mixture of motives that he thinks of as well-meaning.
One of my favourite moments was his explanation of his quest, the time he and his friends from Twin Forks Junction Nebraska had gone to see Black people for the first time, a troop of soldiers. His anger and despair that though he had gone to see them, none of them had returned his gaze, acknowledged him, seen him. The whole of his life an effort to be seen by the other.
Tshembe makes the journalist call him Mr Makoseh. His own bitterness in the futility of struggle, attempted escape to London and a European wife and a child only to be dragged back through the death of his father into the middle of the rebellion. His confrontation with his friends, his half-brother, his full brother now become a priest and betrayer.
The white doctor who knows that everything he has done has been in service to colonialism and genocide. So he drinks.
The Major George Rice, who tortures and kills to protect white women and children, and the land he considers his home. The land he loves, and sees as beautiful. The land he and most other white settlers own and do not see as stolen. Their utter inability to see any validity in the contestation of their rights, any humanity in those they oppress.
The old woman who knew her missionary husband had many good qualities, but his deep racism caused the death of her best friend, raped by a white man and bearing what the man of god considered an abomination.
The troubled self-medicating son who is tortured by his identity.
They are all so powerful. As was the staging, the simple wood construction of the mission and the dust upon the floor.
I need to read it, because while absolutely caught up in the thing while watching it, thinking about it after I remembered the few twinges I had, the questions.
So many of the insights are spoken by whites, I imagine this was purposeful, to better allow white audiences to actually hear them, process them. I think this is carefully crafted to provoke an ongoing internal critique of people’s own racism with all of its assumptions as well as an external discussion of colonialism, and I appreciated that craft.
Yet it is a slightly disturbing fact that Black women have no real voice in the production. They are symbolized by the servant constantly carrying and endlessly sweeping — she never really comes alive to us though her husband finally does. So there is the servants and a gaunt figure who presides over scene after scene. From our position far far away in the back I imagined her as skeletal, a product of hunger and never-ending labour. I see pictures of her as she would have been seen from the expensive seats and she is more a model. She is supposed to represent Africa, to haunt Tshembe. But she does not speak.
Also interesting, as we talked about it later, was the centering of the mission within the ring of stones and the darkness surrounding it — this is where the Africans live, where they emerge from and go back to. They are mostly impassive, unreadable — all the characteristics of the orientalized figure. They too rarely speak. It was hard to tell if this was more pronounced because of how it had been staged and directed, or the way it was written.
So there seemed much also problematic and with clear limitations, but it remains a powerful view into the lived experience of struggle over colonial Africa.
I quite loved The Meursault Investigation, an evocative and angry wrenching away of anonymity from those murdered under colonial rule. A stinging refusal to allow the focus to remain on the problems and tragedies of the murderer to search them out instead in the man murdered, the hole he left behind, the impact of those who we were close to him. The very power of Camus’s words rendered the violence he inflicted on the stranger all the greater.
It’s simple: The story we’re talking about should be rewritten, in the same language, but from right to left. That is, starting when the Arab’s body was still alive, going down the narrow streets that led to his demise, giving him a name…So one reason for learning this language was to tell this story for my brother, the friend of the sun. Seems unlikely to you? You’re wrong. I had to find the response nobody wanted to give me when I needed it. You drink a language, you speak a language, and one day it owns you…(7)
The Meursault Investigation is about how we understand things, how we construct naratives around events. How European narratives erase non-whites, push them into the background, into the scenery, into simple provocations or plot twists that facilitate the drama experienced by white males.
The way counter-narratives must be constructed.
Without realizing it, and years before I learned to read, I rejected the absurdity of his death, and I needed a story to give him a shroud. (21)
There is so much here about language, the differences between Arabic and French, the limitations and liberations of each. In this it shares space with Assia Djebar, though from such different perspectives I love how they each grapple with the same questions.
Language and the construction of narrative.
For a long time, not a year passed without my mother swearing she’d found Musa’s body, heard his breathing or his footstep…And for a long time, that would make me feel impossibly ashamed of her–and later, it pushed me to learn a language that could serve as a barrier between her frenzies and me. Yes, the language. The one I read, the one I speak today, the one that’s not hers. Hers is rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts, and improvisations, but not too big on precision. Mama’s grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it in… I had to learn a language other than that one. To survive…Books and your hero’s language gradually enabled me to name things differently and to organize the world with my own words. (37)
She tells and retells, invents and reinvents narratives around his brother — they are so strong they smother him, contain him so that he cannot be himself, must always live in his brother’s shadow. One aspect of the violence of language, brought to life through loss and longing and obsession.
This explores another violence that can be found in words, in silences, in storytelling:
But Musa’s body will remain a mystery. There’s not a word in the book about it. That’s denial of a shockingly violent kind, don’t you think? As soon as the shot is fired, the murderer turns around, heading for a mystery he considers worthier of interest than the Arab’s life. (46)
A violence possible only through the construction of other, through conquest. What the colonised share in common around the world conquered by whites:
Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,”… (60)
These strangers for the narrator are the Meursaults, the numberless faceless figures of occupation and oppression.
And reminiscent of Fanon, there is yet another kind of violence, what could be a redemptive violence:
On that hot night, nothing had suggested that a murder was about to happen. You’re asking me what I felt afterward? Huge relief. A kind of worthiness, but without honor. Something deep inside me sat down, curled up into a ball, took its head in its hands, and sighed so profoundly that I was touched and tears sprang to my eyes. Then I raised them and looked around me. Again I was surprised by the extent of the courtyard where I had just executed an unknown person. It was as if perspectives were opening up and I could finally breathe. Whereas I’d always lived like a prisoner until then, confined within the perimeter established by Musa’s death and my mother’s vigilance, I now saw myself standing upright, at the heart of a vast territory: the whole nocturnal earth, the gift of that night. When my heart regained its place, all other objects did the same. (78)
But it is not that simple of course, just as the competing narratives, the claims on identity, the nature of family, the complexes existing between a man and his mother, nothing is simple.
Well, after I’d killed a man, it wasn’t my innocence I missed the most, it was the border that had existed until then between my life and crime. That’s a line that’s hard to redraw later. The Other is a unit of measurement you lose when you kill. (90)
After the murder he is imprisoned, will possibly be executed through the new state’s state-sanctioned violence for killing outside of the liberation struggle he is despised for not having joined.
Algeria lives in a different way in this story, Algiers both concrete and abstracted:
…but I loved the virile, almost comforting roar of the engine that was snatching us, my mother and me, out of an immense labyrinth made up of buildings, downtrodden people, shantytowns, dirty urchins, aggressive cops, and beaches fatal to Arabs. For the two of us, the city would always be the scene of the crime, or the place where something pure and ancient was lost. (21)
Funny the way that this is specific and yet non-specific, belonging to a national and urban geography, yet individuals have been erased from them.
…there’s no point inn your going to the cemetery, or to Bab-el-Oued, or to the beach. You won’t find anything… This story takes place somewhere in someone’s head, in mine and in yours and in the heads of people like you. In a sort of beyond.
Don’t do any geographical searching — that’s the point I’m trying to make. (57)
There is much more to The Meursault Investigation, more on language and identity, sexuality and relationships, nation and colonialism and struggle. Much of it is not at all subtle. A book that repays rereading I imagine, a good book for teaching. At the same time it has an intellectual feel, an abstracted feel not entirely due to the form of tales told a researcher in a bar. I am not quite sure why, in some ways the violence is as abstract as it is for Camus, as removed. It does not have the emotional power of Djebar’s Algerian White, cannot touch Mouloud Feraoun’s recollections before his assassination, or even the more rigorous incandescence of Fanon.
[Daoud, Kamel. 2015. The Meursault Investigation. London: Oneworld Publications.]
Artists and Empire, the Tate’s description of the point of it:
At its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and the most influential global power. originating with a few overseas possessions and trading posts, it grew to encompass dominions, colonies and protectorates rules or administered by the United Kingdom. In 1922 the Empire covered almost a quarter of the world’s total land area; by the end of the century it had diminished to just a few overseas territories. During this contraction, ‘Empire; became a highly provocative term.Its history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful, to address but its legacy is everywhere: not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics.
This is what the booklet says. No slavery. Empire become provocative only as it contracts? It seems unlikely that a project of Empire was not provocative at all times, especially amongst those being Empired. The blurb on the website is slightly different:
In 21st century Britain, ‘empire’ is highly provocative. Its histories of war, conquest and slavery are difficult and painful to address but its legacy is everywhere and affects us all. Artist and Empire brings together extraordinary and unexpected works to explore how artists from Britain and around the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the Empire.
A bit better, that. Hard for Britain to do, but something that must be done. It was a thought provoking collection. It mostly filled me with rage, sat with nausea in my stomach. I confess, though, that is knowledge and rage I myself brought in through the door. I am not sure that there was too much open critique offered of Empire here in the Tate Britain, founded by Sir Henry Tate with all of his money from sugar grown in the colonies by slaves. From comments by the elderly middle class people seeing the exhibit with me, I got little sense there was too much critique going on in their minds either. Even though they sat staring at art deriving from a history of murder, occupation, exploitation, enslavement, genocide, extinction. Fairly neutrally curated given the subject.
So there were curiously neutral descriptions of paintings like this one:
‘Portrait of Poedua 1777-85’ by John Webber. The caption on the wall went on to say that she was painted by Webber while being held captive by Captain Cook, a hostage to force her father to round up some runaway sailors.
So this guy took a women being held against her will, stripped her, wrapped her in a rather British sheet and painted her.
But I am ahead of myself. I found the first two rooms most interesting, though the last room was my favourite. But we shall start with 1. Mapping and Marking. Because I love maps. And it behooves me not to forget just how they were used to control not just territories but also how we think about them. This was a stunning example of London at the centre of the world, and its lines of communication (England’s empire in Red):
They also had Crane’s map of Empire — from before the real ‘scramble’ for Africa, so it’s not quite as pink as the later map above.
I also learned that when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (Portugal) in 1661, he got with her Bombay and Tangiers. They were painted and etched meticulously for him, fortifications and all.
A picture of bucanneers, explorers, men I once knew as heroes Cavendish, Drake and Hawkins (that guy who chose to have a slave as part of his new coat of arms given his promotion by Elizabeth I). These were not display.
2. Trophies of Empire — the art, artefacts, and natural history. I love natural history. Again, force myself to remember what so much of these beautiful paintings of flora and fauna mean — the control and exploitation of nature, the constant ‘discovery’ of what native peoples knew already even as their knowledge was being erased. This history was present here to some extent.
In light of this, this portrait of Banks becomes chilling — such a key figure in botany, part of Cook’s voyage, President of the Royal Society, here wrapped in a cloak from his travels to the South Pacific, more exotic weapons collected beside him…these too were to be found here on display.
The collection of wild animals, the founding of zoos. The beginnings of collections such as that at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
3. Imperial Heroics. This is a rather disgusting room, but what is fascinating is just how many last stands there are. Not of those peoples fighting for their homes and sovereignty, but of British soldiers being brave. Being portrayed as the victims. Being shown as the face of determined masculine civilization standing against the savage. I think this needed a bit more reframing, as these pictures tend to reinforce the dominant narrative of Empire. I liked the mocking installation of such narratives in the centre of the room, but it wasn’t really calculated to awaken the consciences of the people sharing the room with me I thought.
There was some interesting looks here at ‘historical’ paintings though, a lot of them focusing on Mysore, the war of conquest there repainted in a very different way, particularly this scene of a ‘kindly’ taking of hostages.
Robert Home has even painted himself into the canvas as an eyewitness. This was most interesting, this claim of authenticity and this stamp of one version of events over something that was clearly of a very different nature.
4. Power Dressing? The appropriations and subversions of European dress were interesting, but Europeans decking themselves out in the finery of colonised peoples? We still see that every day.
5. Face to Face — portraits, and some chilling ones. Both European looks at the ‘other’ but some very welcome looks back at Europeans. I particularly loved this view of Queen Victoria.
I particularly hated the portraits made for Queen Victoria’s collection so she could better know her Indian subjects, though they were beautifully done. One of them forms the exhibition’s marketing materials. Men brought over for an exhibition of traditional crafts, though they were in fact trained in those crafts while in a Colonial prison.
6. Out of Empire and Legacies of Empire
Art of the diaspora, critical art, quite wonderful art. ‘Trophies of Empire’ by Guyanese Donald Locke, his compatriot Aubrey Williams’ powerful work. Sonia Boyce, Avinash Chandra, Ronald Moody, Ben Enwonwu and others. A very good way to end the thing I think, it left me liking it more than I expected, expelled some of the anger building up as I wandered through the rooms.
One of my favourite things — the title of Sonia Boyce’s ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great’ (1986).
I found the exhibition overall immensely thought provoking and moving — yet the presence of many of these objects in a British museum at all is a problematic thing, particularly for the objects of art and worship that were stolen, like the beautiful heads from Benin. A lot of this shit needs to be given back. Their very presence shows there is a lot more needing doing than just facing the past, so while this call for restitution had some voice here it was oddly discordant with the rest. Walking through, I did find these objects a powerful way to understand better the nature and impact of empire, even knowing their presence here in London is a troubling legacy of empire itself.
Particularly emotive given my own recent interests were the donations of several statues of beautiful African art by Sierra Leonan Krios — descendants of former slaves and Black men who fought for the British in the American Revolution, all sent by English abolitionists to colonise a piece of Africa. Their history was missing from this, I brought it with me. On one of the pieces donated, it noted the intent of the donation was probably as an attempt to show the richness of African culture to a European audience. An effort to find empathy, respect, understanding.
I found that donation encapsulates many of the complexities of empire, of museums, of just such collections as this. It did indeed face Britain’s Imperial Past, was even perhaps more critical than I might have expected given the probable pressures to refrain from critique. But it remained something of a mixed message, and in too many ways Britain still isn’t truly facing its Imperial Past.
Vertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?
We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.
Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.
Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.
There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.
The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.
But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.
We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.
Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.
Always there is the sounding of oceans.
Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.
Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.
Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.
I did not know Eavan Boland before this, did not know Paula Meehan. I did know the exquisiteness of words, the occasional poet that tells my heart, spells my heart, rips rebuilds reweaves renews and changes the world for me. Gift-givers. Both of these women are such poets.
Instead I bought this book because they were writing cities.
I bought this book because I love Dublin, too. This post focuses on words and writers and cities, but I loved every word, every poem, the so-much-more, the different-for-all-of-us that lies in every line. Paula Meehan at the ends says ‘The way a poem lets you hold so much in mind’. Which is why each poem will forever be so much more than what I write here. This is an apology for narrowing them down really, for making too obvious how much this blog is to mark and capture things I hope to weave together sometime in the futures. Not tell how things are. I’d have to write poetry for that.
The intro is from editor Jody Allen Randolph, and situates everything nicely — there is so much to think about here:
What gives cities their unique identities? As this book will suggest, a city gets its identity not just from its buildings, its industries, its history, its public events, and its notable citizens. It also finds its identity from being imagined. The years, decades, centuries in which a city shapes its inhabitants add up to a rich life and afterlife of meaning and memory. Those meanings and memories requires language and expression (9).
She writes ‘We also understood that poets both find and give identity to the city…As editors, we imagined this book as a topography of the city with the poet…’ Thus poems arranged topographically not chronologically, in sections of river, city, suburb.
And this, a paradigm…I am never sure I like those, but this works better than most:
But we wanted to do more that just suggest the ways in which a poet has imagined a city over a span of four or five decades. We wanted to sketch out a paradigm for how a city is imagined. To this end, we envisioned a series of suggestive dialogues between text and image, and between poet and poet. (11)
And so a skimming of poetry, pulling bits and pieces that speak to the city and hopefully not damaging the whole and damn but you should go read them all anyway.
From City of Shadows, a reclaiming of the ordinary for poetry, so much of her work is about that.
I absorbed the sense that poetry was safe here in this city at twilight, with its violet sky and constant drizzle, within this circle of libraries and pubs and talks about stanzas and cadences. Beyond it was the ordinariness which could only dissipate it; beyond it was a life for which no visionary claim could be made. (13)
Except Boland makes this claim, scatters it in beauty and pain across the page.
Once in Dublin (my city of white pepper):
make the past.
Make the present seem out of place.
How do I know my country? Let me tell you
it has been difficult to do. And when I do
go back to difficult knowledge, it is not
to that street or those men raised
high above the certainties they stood on — Ireland hero history — but how
I went behind the linen room and up
the stone stairs and climbed to the top.
And stood for a moment there, concealed
by shadows. In a hiding place.
Waiting to see. Wanting to look again.
Into the patient face of the unhealed. (19)
The Huguenot Graveyard at the Heart of the City
This city with its colours of sky and day —
and which is dear to us and particular —
was not a place to them: merely
the one witty step ahead of hate which
is all they could keep. Or stay. (21)
Migrations, our city through the eyes of others, an empathy with the plight of strangers. Everything our world lacks now.
Tree of Life
for dawn to make us clear to one another
Let the sun
inch above the roof-tops,
be the light that shows again
the blossom to the root. (27)
An Elegy For My Mother in Which She Scarcely Appears
as is my mother, on this Dublin evening of
fog crystals and frost as she reached out to test
one corner of a cloth for dryness as the prewar
Irish twilight closes in and down on the room
and the curtains are drawn and here am I,
not even born and already a conservationist,
with nothing to assist me but the last
and most fabulous of beasts — language, language —
which knows, as I do, that it’s too late
to record the loss of these things but does so anyway,
and anxiously, in case it shares their fate. (33)
Language, over and over it is language in many of the same ways other colonised people experience its loss, its erasure, the way it shapes experience and meaning. Much here reminded of Assia Djebar among others.
And Eavan Boland loves rivers too, and their complex relationship with the city, here a generative one.
Gifts of the River
I begin with the Liffey because a river is not a place: it is a maker of places. Without the river there would be no city. Every day, turning its narrow circle, endlessly absorbing and re-absorbing the shapes and reflections of the city, it mirrors what it created. With the river, the city every day has to throw itself again into those surfaces, those depths, those reflections which have served as the source of all its fictions. (43)
Dawn on the River.
Dublin arises out of what reflects it.
looks to the east, to the sea, (45)
And here, I don’t know why I was surprised, happily, but so I was. Empire. Its complexities.
City of shadows and of the gradual
capitulations to the last invader
this is the final one: signed in water
and witnessed in granite and ugly bronze and gun-metal.
And by me. I am your citizen: composed of
your fictions, your compromise, I am
a part of your story and its outcome.
And ready to record its its contradictions. (55)
The Mother Tongue
The old pale ditch can still be seen
less than half a mile from my house–
its ancient barrier of mud and brambles
which mireth next unto Irishmen
is now a mere rise of coarse grass,
a rowan tree and some thinned-out spruce,
where a child is playing at twilight.
I stand in the shadows. I find it
hard to believe now that once
this was a source of our division:
Dug. Drained. Shored up and left
to keep out and keep in. That here
the essence of a colony’s defence
was the substance of the quarrel with its purpose:
Land. Ground. A line drawn in rain
and clay and the roots of wild broom–
behind it the makings of a city,
beyond it rumours of a nation–
by Dalkey and Kilternan and Balally
through two ways of saying their names.
I was born on this side of the Pale.
I speak with the forked tongue of colony.
But I stand in the first dark and frost
of a winter night in Dublin and imagine
my pure sound, my undivided speech
travelling to the edge of this silence.
As if to find me. And I listen: I hear
what I am safe from. What I have lost. (77)
The segregated spaces created by power, created for domination, the damage they do to hearts and lives:
Here is the city—
its worn-down mountains,
its grass and iron,
its smoky coast
seen from the high roads
on the Wicklow side.
From Dalkey Island
to the North Wall,
to the blue distance seizing its perimeter,
its old divisions are deep within it.
And in me also.
And always will be.
Out of my mouth they come:
The spurred and booted garrisons.
The men and women
What is a colony
if not the brutal truth
that when we speak
the graves open.
And the dead walk?
I am awe-struck by these poems. I sat, and then dragged myself back to the register of prose.
Glad I did. It is a wonderful conversation between the wonderful Paula Meehan, who crosses class boundaries and tells Eavan Boland:
I realised that an accent is not a politics…then it was, suddenly, both a political and a literary argument. About who writes the city. I began to see that the city you were writing into your poems was not a scenic backdrop for the working out of the drama of the self, that, in fact, your relationship was with the polis, with the power structures of the state as manifest in architecture, in statuary, in the suffered histories of the excluded as much as in the commemorated and sanctioned official histories. (98)
…I was interested in looking at a city as a place where the ghosts of power are remembered and tested. For me these ghosts are often colonial. But sometimes they’re just the spirits of place. (98)
I always puzzled at being told Irish poets have a great ‘sense of place‘. I suspected that underneath was an unstated ‘and you should stay in your place’. It felt like a simplification…It has become such a cliche that it masks, possibly drains of power, one of the most vital and crucial acts of the poet, the compact between the non-human and the human. Between the locale and its creatures, what waters and nourishes, as well as what threatens, what grows there. You mention ‘spirit of place’ and this rings truer to me than ‘sense of place’. We can trace this aspect of our work back to the Dinnseanchas, the responsibility we once had to enshrine, possibly encode, in language the lore and etymology of place. (98)
and again Paula on language:
And now consider the other games that are being played, when you sit down to work with a poem: with the language itself, English and its imperial nature, our resistant version of it, the beautiful words with their own histories, their ghosts; the play with the shape of the poem…The way a poem lets you hold so much in mind. That excites me. It’s the hit I get from making a poem. Why I go back again and again, craving the making.
Aren’t we always making the city up? The cities? (101)
To walk the streets of the city was, is, to stroll at will through the layers of its making and its peopling, to learn to place a particular building withing its era…all that, and always the lives lived there.
But, I have a sense also of something else at work — a kind of dream city or dreaming city. It doesn’t exactly map on to any known verifiable place. It’s the private sonic Dublin each poet makes — the individual song of the self in place, the free self in the given place. Maybe that’s our true city? (104)
They talk of Joyce, Akhmatova, Flann O’Brien and The Charwoman’s daughter by James Stephens which I too loved with a great love. Paula is more like me, writes of poverty and housing, being put in place, always fighting. Which makes this conversation between two such different voices so rich.
Final words from Boland responding to Meehan’s raising of the power of words and voice, of poems as communal:
The adjective ‘communal’ has a related verb — an old-fashioned one — which is ‘communing’. A word I’ve always loved. And one, when you look at it, that’s quite a bit removed from the adjective that seems close to it. For me, even when a poem is not apparently communal, even when it seems to be private, it can still commune. In fact it may make a particularly strong community with a reader, and still not be communal, just by speaking to and of solitude…truly one of the great possibilities for the poem. (107)
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.