Saturday, 26 October 2013

An American sage

By Thomas Jefferson. 1743-1826
With the Declaration of Independence, 1821.

This review was written on February 22nd 2012

This was one of the first books I bought on the Kindle.  Jefferson played a crucial part in formulating the Declaration of Independence which was issued by Congress in 1776. ‘’A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in general Congress assembled’’ It was an early autobiography which he finished in 1790. Jefferson became the third President of America and was re-elected for a second term. He died at the age of 83.

I was aware of Jefferson’s important role during the formation of the United States after the break with England in 1776. In 1985 Louise and I stayed with Richard Crampton, a colleague of mine married to Julia, an Irishwomen. Richard was professor of medicine in Charlottesville in South Carolina and was later to spend a month with me as visiting professor at St. Vincent’s. I was living alone at Leeson Park at the time. He stayed in my house and I remember most distinctly the massive telephone bill he left behind. He seemed to spend all his time in my home on the ‘phone! He graciously left me a cheque for £100 when he was leaving. We visited Jefferson’s home, Monticello, at the time of our visit to his home. I wrote the following note about Jefferson in a letter to my children after our visit there.

This is the home of Thomas Jefferson who was a remarkable man and who made enormous contributions to American science, culture, politics, education and industry during and after the American Revolution. I visited his home in Charlottesville and I was amazed by the number of innovative ideas he formulated and his inventions, and by his extraordinary wide interests and energy. I find biography very interesting because it teaches us so much about the talents of other people and undoubtedly can be an important stimulus and inspiration to ourselves.

The name of Jefferson’s home was Monticello. It is now a widely visited and greatly evocative museum. It is clear from his earlier years that he was hugely influential  not only in advising about the prospect and the inevitability of the break with England but that he played a major role in the difficult task of bringing all the eleven states then in existence together as a united nation with common political and national interests and with a constitution which would ensure their unity through a common President and an effective Congress to organise and direct the  economic, legislative, judicial and international policies of the nation.

It appears that as well as encouraging the unity of the states and in furthering the independence movement, he was a man whose thoughts and ideas had a fructifying effect on the minds of his colleagues. His interests were wide and his influence was compelling just as he appeared to have the patience and the realism to face opposition and often to wait for another day.

An important part of his early biography included his few years as ambassador to France during the French revolution. He took a deep interest in the early years of the revolution and he was not slow to air his views about the genesis of the final collapse of French political society. His advice, if accepted, would certainly have prevented the execution of the King and Queen, the disloyalty to the Crown and the widespread adoption of the guillotine. He is convincing in his view that the Queen was the major influence which led to the failure of the King and many of the clergy and nobles to reach a rational and peaceful accord with the common people. Having read a biography of Edmund Burke a few years ago and knowing how rational was his approach to the American revolution and how his views conflicted with the bellicose King George 111, the Tories and other politicians, and knowing how concerned he was about the effects of the French Revolution on European affairs and international society, it would be interesting to know how closely Burke and Jefferson’s views were shared about these two periods of history.  Jefferson believed that all men are equal. His life was contemporaneous with the writings of Paine in his Rights of Man and Jefferson’s whole political life was based on this self-evident truth.  Paine himself in his famous book and in his prolonged stay in America greatly influenced the progress of the revolution.

When Jefferson at last was released from his duties as ambassador to France and allowed to return to America to meet again with his family and to resume his life there, he was immediately asked to become secretary of State by General Washington. He was reluctant to take on the task being anxious to retire to the comfort and repose of a country gentleman. However he was unable to resist the strong influence of Washington and thus found himself thrown into the active political cauldron of the nascent American States. 

Jefferson left Le Havre for the United States about the 22nd of September. He crossed the channel to Cowes to catch a clipper for Norfolk in the United States. Between contrary winds and other problems it took him two months to reach Norfolk! This is a reminder of the immense amount of time he spent in travelling during his adult life, both in the United States and in Europe. Apart form his many journeys, travel for him seems to have been a leisurely affair as he not infrequently used to spend many days staying with colleagues and friends during his journeys. The invention of the railways in the mid 1800s surely must have had a profound effect on society, at least in terms of reduced travel time and in making travel between people and between nations so much easier.

Jefferson was born in 1743 in Albemarle County, Virginia, and died on July 4 1826. He was President of the United States from 1801-1809.

Friday, 18 October 2013

The spread of Islam

The Great Arab Conquests - How the Spread of Islam changed the World we live in. Hugh Kennedy. 

Wiedenfeld & Nicolsen, London, 2007. PP 421 Illustrated and maps.

This review was written on February 2nd 2011.

I first saw this book on the shelves of the RDS Library. It was in January 2011 and just after the disturbances in Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt had commenced. I read the book during our holiday in Tenerife that month. The 428 pages were a task too far and it was not an easy read. It is evident from the author’s introduction that there is a dearth of documentary evidence available about the entire period of the Islamic invasion of the East and North Africa. Much of the history as recounted by the author is speculative and the few documentary sources available are often contradictory. This makes the appreciation of this important event in world history less satisfactory for the reader. I read parts of the book carefully, particularly about the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula and other sallies into France and the Mediterranean Islands where there is perhaps a little more information available to the historian. 

The paucity of documentary material led me inevitably to skipping the earlier chapters dealing with the Arabian conquest of the Near and Middle East as far as Iran and Afghanistan and parts of latter day Pakistan. The early 7th century conquest included Iraq, Syria, Egypt and the other parts of the Near East close to the current borders of Turkey which was then part of the Byzantine Empire. The conquest included the North African littoral as far as present day Morocco, inhabited then by the Berbers. The entire conquest of these extensive regions started about the time of Mohamed’s death in 632 and was completed before the end of the same century, a period of less than 70 years. A handful of Arabian Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula became an army which managed to conquer the entire region. The treatment the conquered people received varied widely in terms of military and political strategy. Some cities, towns and regions were dealt with in brutal fashion while others were dealt with leniently, particularly when the beleaguered population surrendered without resistance. The various other religious in the area were as often as not tolerated but by the end of the century most of the inhabitants had adopted the Islamic faith.

The first attempts to conquer Spain and Portugal were delayed until the early 8th century but within the short period of six years from the year 711 the entire Iberian Peninsula, with the exception of the North West, was taken over from the Visigoths who had earlier inhabited the peninsula as emigrants from Germany. The Islamic occupation, led by Tariq and largely supported by Berber soldiers who were inhabitants of North Africa, took over the administration of the Spanish and Portuguese territories but, apart from the military and administrative functions of the invaders, the local population were not greatly molested as long as  taxes were paid.  The Arabs were to continue their occupation of most of the peninsula for the  next eight hundred years during which the Muslims and the Christians appeared to have lived in reasonable harmony until the invaders were eventually dislodged by Philip the First in the 16th century and his successor Charles the Fifth.

The Islamic invasion of Gaul
As in the East and North Africa, there is little documentary material about the Islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. I am told by my late sister-in-law, Rosemarie Mulcahy, that by the 16th century, at the time of their banishment from Spain, the Arabs mostly occupied the rural areas of the country where they had established the fruit and olive industries which to-day are such a traditional part of the economic fabric of Spain and Portugal. During their banishment the Islamic population suffered many cruelties in the hands of Philip 1 and his Spanish subjects. The Arabs had also invaded Sicily, the lower regions of Italy and the South of France but their stay in these parts was short-lived. 

The great Mosque of Córdoba
During subsequent centuries attempts were made by the Arabs to conquer Constantinople where the Byzantine kings reigned but the Byzantine control of the sea was a major factor in preventing the fall of their capital.  Unfortunately, there is no reference to the later spread of the Islamic faith to Turkey and to the Greek peninsula in Europe nor is there any account of the relationship between the Greek Orthodox and the other Christian sects in Asia and the spreading Islamic faith. There is no reference to the Crusades which were organised in Europe to stop the spread  of Islam in the near East and one wonders about the factors which led to the Turkish domination of the Near East and North Africa during the later centuries of the second millennium. For those of us who live on the Atlantic coast, it is not surprising that we are told about the Dark Ages which preceded Medieval times. It appears that the poor documentary sources left by the early Muslims was in contrast to the richer sources coming to us from Rome and Greece in classical times. Is it possible that the gradual spread of the Islamic tongue among people whose language had been earlier based on Latin ond Greek was a deterrent to the production of the written word? A factor which may be relevant was the absence in the Islamic world of the monasteries and other academic institutions in mediaeval Europe which were such storehouses of ancient literature.

Córdoba Mosque interior
At a later date I was to read Michael Barry’s Homage to Al-Anbalus about the rise and fall of Islamic Spain. It stirred my interest and my curiosity about the unique story of a new and vibrant civilisation appearing so abruptly on the Iberian Peninsula, surviving for more than seven centuries and, while dominating the inhabitants, largely living together with the natives in harmony. After these long years they were to leave or to be banished as abruptly as the day of their arrival. They may not have left a vibrant literature behind them but Barry’s book, with its fine collection of photos, reminds us of the Islams’ rich architectural heritage. We are also reminded by the history of Spain that politics and religion need not conflict but this virtue, greatly to be desired for the good of humanity, was rudely and cruelly forgotten by Phillip the first and his Catholic subjects.

Friday, 11 October 2013

A nice guy or what?

Stalin, a Biography. Robert Service. Published by Harvard University Press.

This review was written on October 20th 2011

I began to read the book during a cycling holiday on the Ile de Ré in September 2011. The Kindle was a convenient means of travel without having to carry a heavy book but lack of familiarity with this new means of reading made it difficult for me to write a meaningful review. However, I can make some generalisations which might be of help to others who may wish to know more about Stalin.

This was the first book I read on my Amazon Kindle. It is a long biography measuring more than 700 pages in text, of which about one third includes the evolution of the Russian empire during the first half of the 20th century.

The book was tedious reading for a number of reasons but it was nevertheless compelling enough and I followed it to its end, with a little skipping of the many pages which provide the author’s views of Stalin’s personality and his behaviour as dictator of Russia for 30 years. The author conveys a rather grim impression of Russia as it was dominated by him and the Bolsheviks.  If the author had any prejudices about Stalin and his career, it was critical rather than approving.  Stalin emerges as an ambitious and paranoid figure and merciless in his treatment of his subjects. Even his closest associates and extended family suffered at his hands. Wholesale executions and political murder were a constant feature of his time, with exacerbations of his lust during the first Five Year Plan in the 1920s and during 1938, just before the 1939-1945 War, when he disposed of many of his earlier Bolshevik colleagues. His final public crime and splurge of paranoia was the rounding up and execution of the Jewish doctors in Moscow who, he believed, were planning to kill him.   His closest colleagues were in constant fear of him and could not be sure of how he might react to a remark, decision or action which would lead them to the Gulag or the firing squad. The author thinks that Stalin delighted in keeping his colleagues in fear of his lust.

Stalin was born in 1877. He started his life as a student in the spiritual academy of his home country of Georgia. He was entered for the priesthood but he was clearly an unwilling candidate for the religious life and was soon to be deemed unsuitable for ordination. Georgia was then part of Nicholas II’s Russian Empire. His parents were separated and his only intimate parent was his mother who lived her entire life in Georgia but with whom he maintained some contact during her lifetime. His political involvement was with the early Bolsheviks and he was greatly influenced by Lenin who was in exile in the early part of the century but who had an immense influence on the Bolshevik movement in Russia and elsewhere.

He is still admired in Georgia and is commemorated by sculptures and other public artefacts. This cannot be said about other countries and particularly about the countries which were part of the Russian hegemony after the 1939-1945 war. There is still a small residue of Russians who think warmly of him and who still yearn for the Communist regime which he dominated.

For the average reader who is not too familiar with Russia and the Russian people there are some difficulties in dealing with this large biography. The many personal and family Russian names need constant reference to the glossary, not easy when reading the Kindle for the first time. The author devotes large and repeated sections of the text in analysing Stalin’s character, personality, motives and reaction to the different circumstances during his thirty years as dictator of Russia and the Russian Empire. For me the lasting effect in reading about Stalin was being reminded of the cruelty of the man and his times, and his apparent indifference to the fear he created among his close colleagues and personal and family acquaintances, and the apparent indifference he had to their fate. While he clearly  held all the strings of power, he appears to have remained aloof of the various organisations, secret police, political councils and parts of government who carried out his  instructions in conducting the trails which led to so many executions and to the Gulag.  During his despotic power he was noted for his approval of the systematic killing of people on a massive scale and many of his prominent colleagues were eventually disposed of to the Gulag or the firing squad, for personal or political reasons and strongly related to his increasing paranoia.

The author states in his introduction that Stalin had many sides and this is the view of his niece Kira Allilueva, who was imprisoned by him and who spoke freely to the author. That he was ambitious, energetic and dynamic is evident from his response to Hitler’s invasion and his commitment to defeat the Nazis at all costs irrespective of the sacrifice of men, whether of his own men or his enemies. In battle soldiers were to move forward however strong or impregnable the opposition. Those who turned back were shot. During his 30 year reign he was responsible for the industrialisation of Russia and for the highly traumatic and controversial collectivisation of agricultural land leading to the impoverishing and deaths of millions of agricultural workers and farmers.

The author concludes that he left the Soviet Union as a world power and an industrial colossus and with a literate society. He died with continued institutions of terror and indoctrination with few rivals to contend with. The history of the USSR after his death was largely a series of attempts to conserve, modify, disparage or discredit his regime. He was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev who according to the author shoved Stalin off the pedestal of Communism and its concept of equality for all.  It was Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 who initiated the campaign against Stalin and all his works.

Since the opening up of the Archives in Moscow through the influence of Boris Yeltsin there is now a massive academic interest in and curiosity about Stalin and his times. Already we have a huge amount of literature aimed at interpreting Stalin and his regime. These archives can only add further to the attention of biographers and historians. They will contribute further to our knowledge of Stalin and the cult of Communism but I suspect that different attitudes and different prejudices will add rather than resolve the confusion of opinions about Stalin which is already evident among historians.

After the World War he sustained a tyranny which denied any vestige of freedom for the Russian people. Brutality continued to be institutionalised for his country. He had a monstrous record as a tyrant and his tyranny spread to some extent through Russian influence in the other Eastern Communist countries until the falling of the ‘’Wall’’