Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Scramble for Africa: 1876-1912 by Thomas Pakenham

(Book Review)

This book is much more interesting than it looks.

The cover is a boring brown color without any pictures or illustrations (at least on the version I have, which I bought at a used book sale). AT 738 pages, it is also a fairly large book. It looks suitable for stopping doors, but doesn’t look like anything you would actually want to read through. And the title of the book sounds like an academic treatise.

But if you give it a chance, you’ll find this book is a terrific armchair history. For people who like to read history as a hobby, and want to be entertained by history, this book is definitely worth checking out. (I would take this book with me to my local coffee shop and just lose myself for hours at a time being thoroughly absorbed in the stories Pakenham tells.)

As the title of the book indicates, it deals with the period from 1876 to 1912, when Europe was gobbling up pieces of Africa as fast as it could. But given that Europe had known about Africa for thousands of years, why was Africa ignored for all this time, and then why in 35 short years was all of Africa swallowed up by Europe? And why were the European governments suddenly at each other’s throats over the Scramble for African colonies?

This is the central question of The Scramble, and it’s a question Pakenham never answers directly. After posing the question briefly in his introduction (and listing off some competing theories) Pakenham then goes on to write a narrative history of the Scramble. From reading this narrative history, I think it is possible for the intelligent reader to tease out on their own what the some of the various causes of The Scramble were. But Pakenham doesn’t bog down his story with any heavy analytical sections.

If you want a book that tries to analyze the causes of the Scramble, I’m sure you could find it elsewhere. But what makes Pakenham’s book so engaging is that he writes the history as a series of interconnected stories. And if you like reading history as a story, I think you’ll really enjoy this book.

You might not think narrative story telling would be the best choice for a subject that encompasses two whole continents, 35 years, and a cast of thousands of players. But Pakenham does a surprisingly good job at this. Each mini-incident in the Scramble is broken down into its own separate chapter. (There are 37 chapters, each roughly about 20 pages.) The end of one chapter usually ends by setting up the conflicts that will need to be resolved in the next chapter, so that Pakenham is able to keep a narrative flow despite everything that is going on. Inevitably some of the events in the Scramble overlap a bit, so occasionally he needs to jump slightly backwards in time when switching topics. But on the whole the narrative has a strong forward momentum that propels you from one event into the next. And although each chapter is its own separate story, there are many story threads that are woven throughout the entire book, such as the growing British quagmire in Egypt, or King Leopold’s plotting in the Congo.

But what really makes this book a pleasure to read is just how well it is written.
The best way to illustrate this I think is just to quote a section of it. So I’ve decided to give a rather lengthy quotation below. It is a rather long quotation, so I apologize for the length of it, but I think a sampling of the author’s actual writing is worth more than my describing it.

The following passage is from the chapter “Three Flags Across Africa”, which describes the explorations of the British-American Henry Stanley. (Stanley is probably most famous in pop culture for the phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”)
As is typical of Pakenham’s style, he starts the chapter out in the middle of the action describing Stanley’s explorations in Africa. Then he jumps back in time for a couple of pages to give some background on Stanley’s character. After describing Stanley’s painful childhood, Pakenham continues with the following passage.

*************Begin Quote*************************

The months exploring Lake Tanganyika with Livingstone overwhelmed Stanley. He wept like a boy of eight, he said, when they parted. He had expected a crusty misanthrope. He found a man whose serenity transcended every frustration, a man so gentle and tender-hearted that he shrank from punishing his African servants when they cheated him. Livingstone told Stanley that his own mission was not so much to preach the gospel to Africa. What could one or two men do in that respect? The first step was to preach to Europe what they must do about the horrors of the slave trade, to stop it once and for all. Later the regular missionaries would come, systematically organized, teaching the gospel, tribe by tribe, district by district. Stanley had pledged himself to Livingstone’s service. He would be Livingstone’s disciple and mouthpiece. That was the way he saw himself in his own serialized articles in his book, “How I Found Livingstone.” His writings touched the hearts of millions, on both sides of the Atlantic, who had never read a word of Livingstone’s own writings.
Stanley had written solemnly in his private diary:

May I be selected to succeed him in opening up Africa to the shining light of Christianity! My methods, however, will not be Livingstone’s. Each man has his own way. His, I think, had its defects, though the old man, personally, has been almost Christ-like for goodness, patience,…and self-sacrifice. The selfish and wooden-headed world requires mastering, as well as loving charity.

The “mastering” on which Stanley himself relied in Africa came more from the Old Testament than the New: “chastisement” of his enemies, he called it, and it soon made Stanley notorious.
The trouble was that in 1872 there had been many people who found the idea of Stanley as Livingstone’s disciple too incongruous to stomach. They had greeted “How I Found Livingstone” with derision and disbelief. They did not merely doubt Stanley’s motives: it was plain he had never met Livingstone ; those letters were forgeries; the trip to Africa a stunt; the whole story a pack of lies.
To be called a forger and imposter dealt Stanley a would that never fully healed. As he wrote years later: “All the actions of my life, and I may say of my thoughts, have been since 1872 coloured by [that] storm of abuse” He had good reason to be touchy. He carried deep scars from his own childhood in the workhouse—the double stigma of pauperism and illegitimacy. He had tried to conceal them by assuming the identity of a full-blown American, sometimes bending, in trivial respects, the facts to fit his own story. (For example he claimed to have served as an officer in the U.S. navy, whereas he had really been a clerk.) His own sensitivity made him acutely insensitive to others.
The storm of misrepresentation that burst on his head after discovering Livingstone came from the three sources: from rival much-racking newspapers, jealous of the New York Herald’s amazing scoop; from eminent men of the Royal Geographical Society, humiliated by their own amateurish efforts to resupply Livingstone; and from personal friends of Dr. Kirk (later Sir John), the British Agent at Zanzibar, whom Stanley had denounced for not giving prompter aid. Stanley had no talent for disarming this kind of enemy. He beat them to the ground or, as happened increasingly, he ignored them. As he said himself: “So numerous were my enemies that my friends become dumb, and I had to resort to silence as a protection against outrage.” Silence can be golden. It can sometimes be reckless too. It made him seem less vulnerable by concealing his acute sensitivity. It hardly served to defend his reputation the next time abuse came down on his head. And soon, like tropical rain, the abuse came down once more.
In April 1875, on his return from Mtesa’s court, sailing in the Lady Alice down the western shore of Lake Victoria, Stanley had fallen foul of some tribesmen at a small island called Bumbireh Island. They had refused him food, threatened him with their spears and arrows, pulled his hair, as though it had been a wig, dragged the Lady Alice forcibly up the shore, and stolen her oars. Stanley extricated himself with difficulty from this encounter, killing fourteen of the enemy but suffering no casualties himself, not even a man wounded. In fact, he lost nothing but his dignity—and his oars. The oars were soon recovered, and four months later Stanley captured and chained up the petty chief of the island and offered him to his overlord in exchange for a suitable ransom. When the offer was refused, Stanley decided to make an example of the people of Bumbireh.
His own published account of the incident was vivid, too vivid for his own good. He wanted “to punish Bumbireh with the power of a father punishing a stubborn yet disobedient son.” The method he chose was to return to Bumbireh and empty box after box of Snider bullets into the ranks of the tribesman while staying just out of range of their spears and arrows. He claimed to have shot down thirty-three men and wounded a hundred, many fatally. “We had great cause to feel gratitude.” The “victory” had put everyone in excellent heart. “We made a brave show as we proceeded along the coast, the canoes thirty-seven in number containing 500 men [including native allies] paddling to the sounds of sonorous drums and the cheering tones of the bugle, the English, American and Zanzibar flags flying gaily in union with a mot animating scene.”
A more subtle man than Stanley would have pretended that he had hatred for business. Stanley seemed to have rather enjoyed it and—worse—enjoyed writing about it. If he had been, as he once was, a reporter describing a fight with Red Indians, his tone would have been more acceptable. In Africa, the conventions were different.
Protests were made to the Royal Geographical Society and to the Foreign Office: such incidents disgraced the British flag Stanley boasted of carrying alongside the American one. Stanley’s fellow explorers, like Baker, shook their heads. It was “quite new” for simple explorers to go around “plundering villages” and “shooting natives”. “Neither Speke, nor yourself,” Baker wrote to Grant, nor “Livingstone nor myself ever presumed upon such acts, but suffered intrigue and delays with patience.” Worst of all was Stanley’s inability to keep his mouth shut. “There is an amount of bad taste about him that is simply incurable.” If Stanley ever returned to England, he would need friends. Why go out of his way to alienate people?
But would Stanley return? Stanley was himself far from certain of that in September 1876, despite his voyage in the Lady Alice around Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika, as he set off for the Lualaba to try to solve the last great mystery of African geography.

*******************End Quote********************* [From pages 26-29 with one paragraph ellipted]

Obviously I took that completely out of context. Hopefully it still makes sense. And again I apologize for the length of the quotation. But if you found that interesting, I think you’ll like this book. It’s a fair representation of how the entire book is written.

First, you’ll notice Pakenham’s habit of creating suspense in the narrative. As a matter of historical record, of course, he knows full well whether Stanley will return to England or not. But he’s not about to tell the reader just yet. He leaves the question hanging, and hooks you into reading the next passage.
And the whole book is written in this style. You’re constantly left in suspense about how events will resolve. Will the reinforcements reach Gordon in time? Is the Emin Pasha dead, or is he still out there somewhere in the Sudan? Who will reach Fashoda first, the French or the English? And will the French and English actually go to war over Fashoda?

Like a skilled story writer, there is a lot of foreshadowing going on, but no important plot points are given away before their time. Even basic facts, like which countries will get what colonies in Africa, are all kept hidden in suspense . (Of course if you get impatient you can always just flick to the map in the back to see how Africa ended up. And I frequently did this when I got impatient.)

Secondly, the above excerpt is a good representation of the rich character portraits Pakenham creates. One of the things I liked about this book is that Pakenham writes about real 3-dimensional human beings with complex motivations. He doesn’t write about “good” or “bad” people, but instead works to see what makes them tick, and what makes them do the things they do.

And Stanley is only one of many fascinating characters that you meet in this book. There’s also Brazza, the young idealistic French/Italian explorer (and Stanley’s bitter rival) who is convinced that peaceful free trade will help Africa only to become appalled 20 years later at the horrible human rights abuses carried out in the name of Free Trade in the French Congo colony that he had founded.
And there is Charles Gordon, who is sent by the British government to evacuate the troops out of Khartoum, and ends up instead deciding to stay in Khartoum and try and hold out against the enemy (creating a huge political crisis back in London).
And there is Cecil Rhodes, and his dream of a British Empire stretching from Cape Town to Cairo, and the founder of Rhodesia.
And the Scottish missionary Alexander Mackay who tries to evangelize the subjects of the brutal King Mwanga.
And Luggard, the British general who is sent to Buganda to protect the missionaries there, and instead ends up getting into a power struggle with the French Catholic missionaries which has deadly results
And Emin Pasha, a German convert to Islam, who is rumored to be holding out in the mysterious corners of the Sudan with the remnants of Gordon’s army while European expeditions try to figure out whether he was alive or dead.
And many many other fascinating figures who populate this book.

Pakenham also uses his skill at story telling to describe the political side of the story that was happening back in Europe.
I would never recommend this book to anyone who didn’t like history. But if you like history, and if you enjoy some of political and diplomatic intrigue, you’ll find that in this book also. And you’ll also find plenty of rich characters populating the chambers of European politics.
Like Gladstone, prime minister of England and the “Grand Old Man” of the English liberal party. He is firmly convinced imperialism is evil (and has campaigned on this platform for years). But because of political pressures he gives in to the empire builders at several key points.
And Lord Salisbury, whose policy is to use diplomacy rather than war to obtain British colonies in Africa.
And Bismarck, who skillfully uses The Scramble in Africa to try and keep all of Germany’s enemies off balance.
And King Leopold, who through years of secret diplomatic negotiation is able to turn the tiny European power of Belgium into a great colonial power in Africa.
And “Bulldog” Morel and Roger “Tiger” Casement, two British humanitarians who work tirelessly to expose the horrible atrocities going on in the Belgium Congo.
And Winston Churchill, young rising star in the British Colonial Office, who struggles to keep the colonial governors under control.
And many many others.

And finally, like all good history books, this is not only entertaining, but you learn a lot from it. In particular, it gives you a very good idea of why the map of Africa is drawn like it is. And perhaps, as a result, goes a fair way to helping you understand African politics today. In fact, given how little we Americans know about Africa, this book goes a long way to filling in a very important gap in our historical knowledge. In fact since I learned almost nothing about Africa in my school years, I almost wish someone had made me read this book back then. I think it would have been a lot more informative than any number of other books I read at school. If I were teaching a college history course, I think I’d make sure this book was on the curriculum.

And in addition to learning about Africa, the book also teaches you about a lot of the prominent statesman in Europe during the period. And it also shows how The Scramble for Africa helped build into the lead-up for World War I. (The period of The Scramble ends only two years before the outbreak of World War I, and by the end of the book the alliances that will pit England, France and Russia against Germany have already been formed.)


Any negative comments I have about this book are just quibbles, compared to what on the whole I thought was a really excellent book. But here are my quibbles nonetheless:

* There are an incredible amount of dramatis personae to keep track of. Because the author gives most of them memorable descriptions (see the above example for Stanley) they usually stick in your mind, and for the most part you can easily remember who is who. Around page 400 or so, however, I will confess to being a bit overwhelmed with names. Particularly some characters who I hadn’t seen for a few hundred pages would sometimes make reappearances, and the author would assume I still remembered who they were. This may be unavoidable with such a vast subject matter. But at any rate, the index (very thorough, and very accurate) was a great help for flipping back a few pages and reminding yourself who was who.

* As part of his literary style, Pakenham will often start his chapters out in medias res . He will often start out with the central conflict of the chapter, then moves backwards in time to show how that conflict developed, and then move forward to show how the conflict was resolved. This is a deliberate choice as part of his story-telling technique, and for the most part it works pretty well. Once or twice I got a bit confused about the chronology though. Nothing I couldn’t figure out after going back and re-reading parts of the chapter, but it did cause me brief confusion once or twice.

* I’ve seen some on-line reviews criticize this book for being Eurocentric. To my mind, though, that’s just the nature of the subject matter. “The Scramble for Africa” is about the European nations scrambling against each other. It’s inherently about the colonizers, not the colonized. (Of course their story deserves to be told as well, but that would be a different book.)
It is noticeable, however, that the Africans almost always appear simply as the antagonists or victims of the Europeans, and seldom get the same in depth character examinations that Pakenham gives his European characters.

* Not all events all covered with the same thoroughness. I suppose it’s inevitable that given the nature of the subject matter, Pakenham has to pick and chose somewhat. He sometimes seems to have a bias towards his native Britain, and we get much more insight into the political situation in Britain during the scramble than we get into any other country.
Some parts of the Scramble are barely covered at all. For example, since Libya has been in the news a lot lately, I was hoping to learn a little bit about their colonial history, but the Italian acquisition of Tripoli is only given a couple sentences.
Likewise, very little is said of Portugal and its colonies: Angola and Mozambique. There’s a good reason for this, since Portugal actually acquired it’s colonies before the period of The Scramble began. But it still would have been interesting to learn how Portugal was reacting to The Scramble, or what was happening inside its colonies during this period, especially since the colonial legacy caused so much trouble in Angola and Mozambique during the 1970s and 80s.
But I suppose it is impossible to include everything in one volume. At 738 pages, the book is probably long enough already.

* I would have liked to hear more about what happened to many of the main characters in this book. Pakenham is very good at introducing new characters (and often going into their history). But once a character’s part in the action has finished, they are never heard from again. Stanley, for example, we follow on several adventures through this book, learn about his childhood, his insecurities, his love life, and his character defects. But then once his part in the action has been played out, we never learn what finally became of him. And that was true of many of the characters in this book. After having gotten invested in all these characters, I would have liked to at least learned how they ended up.

Again, all of these are just quibbles. None of them spoiled the book for me, but if I had to come up with some negatives, these would be them.


And lastly, a series of stray observations. These are things that are probably only of interest to me, so I’ve put them down here at the bottom. Feel free to read through them or ignore them as the fancy strikes you. They are numbered, but in no particular order:

1). Personally I’m sympathetic to the socialist theory that imperialism is a result of the capitalist crisis of overproduction, and the need to seek out new markets in order to deal with this crisis. I think it helps explain why the age of imperialism corresponds with the birth of modern capitalism—Why Africa and Asia were ignored by Europe for so long, and then why suddenly Europe was bent on colonizing them as fast as possible, or fighting wars to forcibly open them up to trade. Since Pakenham doesn’t deal with any of this in his book, this review isn’t the place to get into that can of worms. But if you have the time, it might be worth reading up on further. (Unfortunately I can’t find any good links that explain this theory as clearly as I would like, but here’s a couple links on overproduction (here and here, and actually the Wikipedia here article isn’t bad either) and on how it relates to imperialism (here).

2). In reading this book, I think one can’t help but think of some modern parallels.
For example, the financial constraints that Europe placed upon Egypt, to ensure that repaying European investors was a higher priority than feeding the peasants in Egypt, struck me as similar to the Structural Adjustment Policies used by the IMF today.
The suppression of a popular nationalist uprising in Egypt, under the justification of maintaining stability, also struck me as having modern overtones.
It’s also noticeable how often invading armies are sent in “for the good of the native people.”
(I’m sure someone else might notice different things, but this is what jumped out at me.)

3). Sometimes when reading history (or for that matter when reading current events) it never ceases to shock you what one human being is willing to do to another human being for the sake of financial gain. And there are plenty of examples of that in this book.
And yet this is not the barbaric dark ages. The Victorian and Edwardian period is not so far removed from the morals of our own society. Modern humanitarianism was beginning to emerge, and in many of the European parliaments there was now an established socialist opposition.
On one hand there are the atrocities committed by the Belgians in the Congo. On the other hand there are the humanitarians in Britain and the United States who campaign tirelessly to stop these atrocities. There are imperialist like Cecil Rhodes, but there are also anti-imperialists like William Gladstone.
The incongruity of this period is perhaps best illustrated by the Joseph Conrad quote Pakenham includes on page 656. “It is an extraordinary thing that the conscience of Europe which seventy years ago has put down the slave trade on humanitarian grounds tolerates the Congo State today. It is as if the moral clock had been put back.
It is this conflict between naked aggression on one hand and humanitarian concern on the other that makes this period in European politics so fascinating (and perhaps so like our own period).

4). There’s a short 10 page epilogue on the decolonization process in Africa. The book shows its age (it was published in 1991) when Robert Mugambe is described as a “pragmatist” and a “statesmen in the making” (p. 671).

5). Somewhat amazingly, Pakenham claims in his introduction that before he wrote this book, no single volume history of The Scramble for Africa existed.

6). I know this is only of interest to me, but this book ties in nicely with a number of other books I’ve read the past few years.

*Much of this book overlaps with “Three Empires on the Nile” by Dominic Green. “Three Empires on the Nile” deals with the British quagmire in Egypt and the Sudan, which are also covered in this book. Although both books cover the same events it is of course always interesting to see the different focuses different authors will put things. There are a number of in interesting antidotes in “Three Empires on the Nile” that Pakenham overlooks, and vise-versa. Both authors are excellent writers and master story tellers, and both books are recommended.

*Because this book starts out in the 1870s, many of the prominent French and German politicians of the period are the same ones who were featured in the Franco-Prussian War and were described in “The Fall of Paris” by Alistair Horne: men like Jules Ferry and Leon Gambetta on the French side and Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and Crown Prince Fredrick III on the German side.

*There are also some scenes in this book which reminded me a bit of “King Solomon’s Mines” and I think I’m able to understand the inspiration for that book a little better now. Also the author Rider Haggard makes a brief appearance in this book as a clerk in South Africa.

* This book takes place after the time of Richard Burton, but at least at the beginning of the book some of the geographical issues he had been concerned with (such as the source of the Nile) are still under investigation. Burton’s name is mentioned once or twice.

* And finally, as I mentioned before Charles Gordon, Henry Loch, and Sir Garnet Wolseley were all featured both in this book, and in “Flashman and the Dragon”.

7). I’ve been reading this book on and off since about December. I started reading it as a way to procrastinate on writing my thesis. Predictably then, I had to stop reading it once thesis crunch time came.

When I picked the book up again, I had trouble remembering who some of the character were, so I ended up re-reading the first 200 pages because I was worried I had lost the thread of the story. (That was probably just me being anal retentive about it. I probably could have just struggled on if I really wanted to. But the book was so interesting that I found I didn’t really mind reading it a second time.)

Anyway, I was still living in Melbourne back when I started this book. And I discovered one night while walking around the city that Melbourne had a statue of General Charles Gordon (W) erected next to their parliament building. On the sides of the statue platform were engraved pictures detailing Gordon’s exploits in China and in the Sudan.
To the best of my knowledge, Gordon never set foot in Melbourne. But as a city in the British Empire, I imagine Melbourne erected the statue in the shock after Gordon’s death at Khartoum.
After reading about General Gordon in Pakenham’s book, I got a real kick out of seeing his statue in Melbourne, and in fact the last couple months I was in Melbourne I always used to try and make excuses to walk by the statue when I was out with friends so I could launch into a description of the history behind it.

Link of the Day
South Africa, Israel-Palestine, and the Contours of the Contemporary Global Order

Friday, June 17, 2011

More Disturbing Articles

(Click on the links for for the full articles. The first two are from this week. The last one is a bit more dated--from last year--but probably bears repeating in light of all of this.)

Ex-Spy Alleges Bush White House Sought to Discredit Critic

WASHINGTON — A former senior C.I.A. official says that officials in the Bush White House sought damaging personal information on a prominent American critic of the Iraq war in order to discredit him.

Glenn L. Carle, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who was a top counterterrorism official during the administration of President George W. Bush, said the White House at least twice asked intelligence officials to gather sensitive information on Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who writes an influential blog that criticized the war....

Peace Activists, Labor Organizers at Center of FBI Probe

...The search was part of a mysterious, ongoing nationwide terrorism investigation with an unusual target: prominent peace activists and politically active labor organizers.


FBI Placed Quakers on " Terrorist" List

That was one of the critical findings of a report released Monday by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine.

The report said that between 2001 and 2006, the FBI also kept tabs on a Seattle antiwar activist as well as individuals affiliated with Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Catholic Workers and Quakers. The agency improperly placed these activists on terrorist watch lists, according to the report.

The report found that the FBI gave inaccurate and misleading information to Congress and the public in 2006 when it claimed that an agent who spied on an anti-war rally organized by Thomas Merton Center activists was investigating individuals with possible links to terrorism.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Flashman and the Dragon by George MacDonald Fraser

(Book Review)

The eighth volume in the Flashman series. (See also: Flashman, Royal Flash, Flash for Freedom, Flashman at the Charge, Flashman and the Great Game, Flashman's Lady , Flashman and the Redskins and the original source material Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes.)

This book follows England’s greatest scoundrel on yet another adventure, and shows him yet again engaging in acts of tremendous cowardice, whining, groveling, backstabbing, and womanizing and somehow managing to come out of it all with a hero’s reputation.

But in addition to Flashman’s usual antics, as always Fraser serves up lots of historical details for the history buff to chew on.

This story takes place entirely inside China (aside from a brief epilogue in Singapore) but there is more than enough happening in China to keep Flashman busy. During the course of the story Flashman gets mixed up in both the Taiping Rebellion and the Arrow War (Second Opium War.)

I had studied both the Taiping Rebellion and the Opium Wars before, but I had never realized that they had been going on simultaneously. (Interestingly enough, George MacDonald Fraser shows that the British army was involved in both conflicts at once.)

One of the strengths of the Flashman series is the eye for interesting historical details that George MacDonald Fraser has. This is not a bland retelling of impersonal armies meeting each other on some obscure field of battle. Fraser has obviously thoroughly done his research, and he has a talent for picking out the more bizarre episodes of history (the kind of stuff that you think is made up until you check the endnotes in the back and see that it is all documented), and integrating these parts into the book.
For example, there’s a true historical incident where a drunken Scottish private is killed of refusing to kow-tow to his Chinese captors. Flashman is there. A party of British diplomats is ambushed and captured by the Chinese government to use as hostages. Flashman is of their number. A French priest is executed by the Chinese in retaliation for a military defeat. Flashman is the last European to see him alive.
It is this eye for fascinating but forgotten history that always makes the Flashman series so interesting to read.
Granted, as always the plot has to be a bit contrived to get Flashman to all these various events. Especially since Flashman, the incurable coward, never goes into any place remotely dangerous of his own accord, the plot always has to force him into all these situations. (In just about every Flashman book there’s a section where he gets captured and forcibly taken somewhere. In this book, it happens multiple times.) But once you forgive these plot contrivances and just go along with it, it can be a lot of fun.

In addition to the interesting events, Flashman always manages to meet the most interesting historical figures. And the tradition continues in this book. He is on intimate terms with the leading British diplomats and army generals (Grant, Elgin, Parks, Loch) and he meets several of the rising stars of the British army in China (Wolseley and Gordon both of whom would later achieve infamy in the Sudan).
Flashman has several run-ins with American solider Ward, the original founder of the Ever Victorious Army which General Gordon would later lead to victory against the Taipings. Fraser claims that because Ward was later overshadowed by Charles “Chinese” Gordon, today most people have never even heard of him, but Ward plays a major part in this book.
Flashman also meets, and gives detailed descriptions of many of the leaders of the Taiping Rebellion (Loyal Prince Lee, Hung Jen-kan, and the half brother of Jesus Christ himself Hung Hsiu-chuan).
In the Manchu government, Flashman has an audience with the Son of Heaven, Emperor Hsien Feng, ends up on intimate terms with the woman who would later become the Dowager Empress of China, and becomes involved in her power struggles against the other Chinese nobles (Prince I and Sang-kol-in-sen).
Add in an interlude in which Flashman travels with female bandit leader Szu-Zhan, and this small little book is more than packed full with enough interesting historical details to keep any reader interested. I may not agree with all of Fraser’s viewpoints (more on that below), but I can’t deny he writes interesting books.

During the first half of the book Flashman is caught up in the politics of the Taiping Rebellion. The second half of the book concerns the Second Opium War, and Flashman is on the march to Peking.

The Taiping Rebellion was a massive uprising against the Manchu government led by a former Cantonese clerk Hung Hsui-chuan who claimed to be the half brother of Jesus Christ.
This is something that I covered during my college history courses, but at the time the scope of the war didn’t really sink in. When doing a survey course of Chinese history, the Taiping Rebellion had seemed like just one more event in a long list of upheavals. But Fraser draws attention to how massive this rebellion really was.
From the endnotes:

“The Taiping Rebellion was the worst civil war in history, and the second bloodiest war of any kind, being exceeded in casualties only by the Second World War, with its estimated 60 million dead. How many died during the fourteen years of the Taiping Rebellion can only be guessed; the lowest estimate is 20 million, but 30 million is considered more probable (three times the total for the First World War). When it is remembered that the Taiping struggle was fought largely with small arms and only primitive artillery, some idea may be gained of the scale of the land fighting, with its attendant horrors of massacre and starvation….The bloodiest battle ever fought on earth was the Third Battle of Nanking in 1864, when in three days the dead exceeded a hundred thousand.” (p.293)

It’s odd to think that in China, the land of Confucianism and Eastern philosophy, the most massive civil war in their history was inspired by a sort of pseudo-Christianity. And from the European perspective, Fraser brings out this awkwardness fully.

Since the Flashman books are from the perspective of the British, Fraser shows the split in the European community. Some of the Europeans favor the Taipings as fellow Christians and democrats. However some of Europeans are anti-Taiping because they regard the movement as a heresy and there are reports of great cruelty from the Taiping army.  The British government tries to maintain an awkward neutrality, but it is forced into the war when the Taiping Rebels advance on Nanking. (The Taipings, for their part, expect help from the European nations because they are fellow Christians, and are confused when it is refused.)

Although he quotes sources from both sides in the endnotes, Fraser is of the opinion that the Taipings started out as an egalitarian movement, but quickly developed into a movement that was much more cruel and bloodthirsty than the Manchu government they sought to replace.
Flashman, after being taken on a tour through a Taiping controlled city, sees the contrast between the luxury the Taiping leaders live in, and the poverty in which the ordinary people live.
I made a mental salute to the Taiping Rebellion—like all revolutionary movements (and for that matter all governments) it was plainly designed to ensure the rulers an abundance of fleshpot, while convincing the ruled that austerity was good for the soul. But baring the Papists, I couldn’t think of a regime that had the business so nicely in hand as this one” Flashman says on page 105.

If this wasn’t obvious enough, Fraser draws the comparison between the Taiping revolution and Chinese Communist Party even more clearly in the endnotes.

“One revolution is probably very much like another, and readers of Flashman’s narrative will no doubt detect resemblances between Taipingdom and Communist China a few decades ago. The Taipings were, of course, a socialist movement….The pronouncements of the Heavenly King seem to have been received with the same kind of reverence later accorded to the thoughts of Chairman Mao.” (p.310)

This is a reminder that popular revolutions have a history of turning into brutal dictatorships even before the communist revolutions of the 20th century. For those of us sympathetic to revolutionary politics, this should be a cautionary note.

[There is another perhaps another point that deserves to be made about the Taiping Rebellion. It shows historically how quickly messianic movements can spring up, and how easily people will believe it. Fraser doesn’t make this point explicitly, but it struck me while reading the book. If we credit that Hung Hsui-chaun was not the son of God, and that the millions of Chinese peasants who flocked to his cause were sharing a mass delusion, it seems to me we should apply the same skepticism to the claims of his alleged half-brother Jesus Christ.]

The second half of the book deals with Arrow War (otherwise known as the Second Opium War) and the British and French advance on Peking, culminating in the burning of the Emperor’s Summer Palace.

Today this is considered one of the worst vandalisms in history, and even at it’s time it was controversial. (Karl Marx in “The Civil War in France” said that the French and British bourgeois had no right to be appalled when the Paris Communards burned down the houses of the rich, because the bourgeois armies had done the same thing in China.)

George MacDonald Fraser shows all the events leading up to the burning, and even recreates the debate surrounding the decision. By the end of it all, you can understand why the British army makes the decision, even if you don’t entirely agree with it. It almost seems like a rational decision in light of everything that happened.

…almost, that is, if you overlook the fact that the British and French armies didn’t have any right to be in Peking in the first place. And this is some context which is lacking from Fraser’s book. Somehow with all his many historical notes, he never gets around to talking about the origins of the Arrow War, and the flimsy justification by which British and French armies claimed the right to march on Peking.

And that brings me to the last point. At times this book seems to have an anti-Chinese bias. There are very few sympathetic Chinese characters in the book, and both the Manchus and the Taipings characters are portrayed as being either insane or sadistic, or Machiavellian.
Granted the era Fraser is writing about is not one of the high points in Chinese history. The Taipings were really religious fanatics, and the Manchu government was really incredibly corrupt. But I couldn’t help feeling that a more sympathetic novelist would have tried to humanize what was going on, instead of simply type casting the Chinese in the role of the exotic “other”. Once again Fraser seems to be engaged in Orientalism in which instead of seeking to understand the Chinese, he seeks to exaggerate the differences in order to create a strange and mysterious land for his European characters to have adventures in.

By contrast, all the British leaders are portrayed as honorable gentleman. Grant, Elgin, Parks, Loch, Wolseley et cetera are all portrayed as respecting an honorable code of war that and diplomacy that is completely absent from the Chinese side. Flashman himself is portrayed as a totally reprehensible human being (masquerading as a British war hero), but unfortunately this satire on Victorian imperial culture extends no further than the title character—in this book, at least. (In some of the other books Fraser has been more critical of the British military ruling class.)

I’m no expert, but just reaching for what is already on my bookshelf, there is at least one book which gives a very different view of the war. “The Chinese put up a strong resistance, which was rewarded by corresponding carnage. Women were raped and men were ritually humiliated: their queues (long pigtails) were cut off and they were made to kowtow,” (From “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire” by Piers Brendon (A), p.108)

This is a view of the war completely absent from the Flashman book. In Fraser’s retelling, all the inhumanity is entirely on the Chinese side. The looting of the Summer Palace by British and French soldiers is described, but that’s about it. And even in this case Fraser goes out of his way to quote Wolseley, who suspected that Chinese villagers plundered more than the British and French forces.

[I’m not sure if Fraser’s politics changed as he aged. I felt like I was largely on board with him in the first few Flashman books, but the past few books I’ve been wanting to distance myself from his views more and more.]


Karl Marx, in his columns for the New York Daily Tribune, wrote extensively on the Arrow War. His writings on China have been collected at this website here [LINK HERE]. Although Marx is today remembered mostly for his economic philosophy, these political writings are fascinating to read. The way he sharply cuts through the official government and newspaper reports to get to the truth reminds one of Noam Chomsky's writings today. (Although Engels actually wrote many of these articles credited to Marx. But still.)

To his credit, Fraser does mention Marx's writings on the Arrow War in his footnotes to this book.


One final addendum: because this is a period when the British army spanned the globe, some of the characters in this book, General Charles Gordon, Sir Garnet Wolseley, and Sir Henry Loch, also figure prominently in the Scramble for Africa, which is the other book I’m currently reading. But more about that in my next book review (coming soon.)

Link of the Day
There is Much More to Say by Noam Chomsky