The world

Show them this

A friend on Facebook linked to Next Time Someone Says Women Aren’t Victims of Harassment, Show Them This, and I’m a big fan.

My first big takeaway is that my very presence as a man means that the women I know are less likely to get harassed while I’m around. Therefore, by definition, I only see them during their most harassment-free times, so it’s inevitable that the picture I have of a woman’s life involves her being subject to far less harassment than she in reality is.

It is therefore important that when a woman tells me she’s being harassed, I believe her. This falls under the basic principle that when a woman tells me something is sexist, I believe her; there are few things more prima-facie sexist than a man explaining to a woman how something isn’t actually an instance of sexism.

(See also: few things more prima-facie racist than a white person explaining to blacks or Hispanics or any other racial minority how something isn’t actually an instance of racism.)

My second big takeaway is that “Not all men” is a perfectly valid way to start off a sentence, as long as you’re not saying it to women, but instead to the men who are the problem. One of the special privileges I get as a male in Western society is that my voice is naturally treated with more authority than a woman’s. There are plenty of men who, when told that what they’re saying is sexist or creepy by a woman, would have no problem dismissing anything she says and concluding that their own behaviour is perfectly fine; but they’d have a much harder time doing that if it were a man who told them.  Sure, they’d most likely get defensive and angry, but being called out for their sexism by a man would stick with them far more than being called out by a woman.

It’s wrong that my voice gets that privilege, but unfortunately it’s true. I can’t change that, but what I can do is use my voice to try and build a world for my kids to live in where my daughter will be heard with just the same weight as my son.


A hundred years ago today

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia; Friday will mark the hundredth anniversary of Serbia’s response, after which the outbreak of the First World War, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, became almost inevitable.  In terms of the ongoing four-year centenary of the war, then, we’re right now embarking on the very climax of the July Crisis.

The ultimatum and its response are the second-most well-known thing about the July Crisis, after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand itself (which didn’t in fact happen in July, but on 28 June).  So now, a hundred years and a few hours after Austro-Hungarian Ambassador Baron Giesl von Gieslingen placed the ultimatum on a table in the Serbian prime minister’s office because the Serbian finance minister, Lazar Paču, refused to accept it physically from his hands, I’d like to take a moment to examine them.

The received history of the July Crisis is that Serbia’s response to the ultimatum was one of almost total acceptance—that the Serbians capitulated on every point but one, and that Austria-Hungary’s decision to nevertheless break off diplomatic relations and mobilise their army is therefore proof that responsibility for the start of the First World War therefore lies with the warmongering, Teutonic leadership of the Central Powers and not at all with the Allies.

This is entirely false.

Serbia’s response was far more nuanced and far more equivocal than that:

The claim often made in general narratives that this reply represented an almost complete capitulation to the Austrian demands is profoundly misleading.  This was a document fashioned for Serbia’s friends, not for its enemy.  It offered the Austrians amazingly little.  Above all, it placed the onus on Vienna to drive ahead the process of opening up the investigation in the Serbian background of the conspiracy, without, on the other hand, conceding the kind of collaboration that would have enabled an effective pursuit of the relevant leads.

In this sense it represented a continuation of the policy the Serbian authorities had followed since 28 June: flatly to deny any form of involvement and to abstain from any initiative that might be taken to indicate the acknowledgement of such involvement.  Many of the replies on specific points opened up the prospect of long, querulous and in all likelihood ultimately pointless negotiations with the Austrians over what exactly constituted ‘facts and proofs’ of irredentist propaganda or conspiratorial activity by officers and officials.  The appeal to ‘international law’, though effective as propaganda, was pure obfuscation, since there existed no international jurisprudence for cases of this kind and no international organs with the authority to resolve them in a legal and binding way.

Yet the text was perfectly pitched to convey the tone of voice of reasonable statesmen in a condition of sincere puzzlement, struggling to make sense of outrageous and unacceptable demands.  … It naturally sufficed to persuade Serbia’s friends that in the face of such a full capitulation, Vienna had no possible ground for taking action.

In reality, then, this was a highly perfumed rejection on most points.

[All paragraph breaks in the above, except for the last one, have been added by me to make the passage readable on a computer screen.]

The myth that Serbia all-but-surrendered to Austria-Hungary’s demands is a comfortable one for us, because it allows us to construct a narrative whereby the Central Powers were set on war and we, the Allies, are aggrieved, attacked party (—a narrative we accept intuitively despite the fact that it was a terrorist attack upon Austria-Hungary that sparked the crisis in the first place).  But that’s exactly why it’s important for us to reject it, so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking of the outbreak of the First World War as an act of morality (with, of course, our side being the moral side) rather than seeing it as what it was, an act of (amazingly ill-judged, as it turned out) statecraft.

There are wars with a legitimate good side and bad side, but there are far fewer of them than we like to pretend (because we like to pretend that all of our wars were just wars), and the Great War isn’t really one of them.

Note that I am not attempting to relieve Austria-Hungary or Germany of responsibility for the outbreak of war.  It’s true that Serbia didn’t capitulate to Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum in the way histories often tell us they did; but that’s because the ultimatum was deliberately designed to be impossible to accept.  The Austro-Hungarian government wanted war, and they gave Serbia an ultimatum that they felt had to be refused.  The pro-war faction among the Austro-Hungarian government had ultimately won out because of the strong backing it had received from Germany, where the dominant voices were also pro-war.

But just as Austria-Hungary had German voices in their ears urging them to take a hard line with Serbia, so were Serbia and Russia buttressed in their resolve to oppose Vienna’s demands by France, whose foreign policy had for some time been controlled by the staunchly pro-war, anti-German President Raymond Poincaré.  Indeed, French foreign policy had long ago identified a Balkan crisis as their most likely opportunity to bring Russia into a war with Germany—it was felt that if France instead provoked war over a specifically Franco-German conflict, like possession of Alsace-Lorraine or a colonial dispute in Africa, then the Russians would be unwilling to come along with them.  The Central Powers were certainly guilty of warmongering in 1914, but just as much were the Allies.

The passage I’ve quoted above, discussing the Serbian response, is from The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, which I recommend for anyone who’s interested enough in the outbreak of the First World War to already have a picture in their head of how it came about.  There are things in the book I’d need to read more about in order to accept them, like Clark’s statement that the Franco-Russian alliance was originally an anti-British, rather than anti-German, agreement, or that it was important to France and Russia to bring on a war in 1914 because the British Foreign Office was readying itself to shift Britain’s alignment away from the Entente and back to one of friendship with Germany.  And there are things that are usually taken as important factors in the buildup to the war (like the Anglo-German naval rivalry) that Clark, evidently feeling they aren’t important after all, simply doesn’t mention.  But the book is a thoroughly detailed, exceptionally well researched work of scholarship that went into a lot of details in areas I hadn’t known about before, and it left me thinking hard about a topic I thought I already had well hashed-out in my head.



There’s a word that I’ve seen in alternate history discussions, and I like it a lot—overdetermined.

Essentially, a historical event or phenomenon is overdetermined if its likelihood of happening remains robust across different alternate timelines—that is to say, if the event remains likely to happen even in timelines where prior events that led up to it have been changed.

The French Revolution would seem to be overdetermined, in that after 1750 (and very possibly before), there’s very little that can be done to change it.  No matter what change you make, France still has a brittle, inadequate fiscal system held in place by very strong forces of social inertia.  The Seven Years’ War is still going to push that system to its limit, no matter how you change the war’s outcome; and French participation in the next general European war (in real history, that was the American Revolutionary War, but even if you somehow remove it, there’ll be a different war to fight in) is still going to push French finances beyond that limit.  Therefore the French monarchy will have to initiate some sort of drastic fiscal reform, which will necessarily entail also attempting social reform, which will almost certainly unleash the same revolutionary forces that it did in real history; all this will happen somewhere between five and ten years after the end of the American Revolutionary War or whatever war replaces it.

Similarly, the historical consensus would probably be that the outbreak of the First World War was overdetermined after, oh, probably 1870.  After a German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, it becomes almost inevitable that, once Bismarck eventually falls from power (1891, in real history), the European Great Powers will eventually crystallise into two armed systems of alliances; and once that happens (say, by 1905), it becomes overwhelmingly likely that one of the series of crises that gripped Europe during the period will eventually spark a general conflict.  It could have happened in the Moroccan Crises of 1905 or 1911; or in the Balkan crises of 1908 or 1912–13.  In the event it happened with the Sarajevo Crisis of 1914, but even if it hadn’t, well, Sarajevo was the fifth in nine years, so there’s no reason to think there wouldn’t have been several more such incidents in the next several years to light the touchpaper.

I don’t know if there’s a word to describe the opposite end of the spectrum from “overdetermined”; if not, I recommend overcontingent.  An overcontingent event would be an event, not necessarily that was unlikely in real history (though many of them are), but rather that becomes unlikely to the point of impossibility when you change previous events.

It’s slightly harder to identify overcontingent events because we are human and therefore inevitably subject to confirmation bias—that is, we inevitably feel like most events, even the genuinely overdetermined ones, were more determined, to one degree or another, than they actually were.  But I’ll throw out one possibility: the Mexican–American War of 1846–48, by which the United States conquered from Mexico about one third of the area of the contiguous forty-eight states (the presentday states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado).

The Mexican war only broke out because of series of events in Texan, Mexican and American history of the preceding decade, plenty of them producing fairly unlikely outcomes.  This starts with Texas even managing to win its independence in the first place in 1836, which only happened because of a combination of a wise commander (Sam Houston) and an exceptional stroke of luck at the Battle of San Jacinto.  Then you’ve got the defeat of Mexico’s one serious attempt to reconquer Texas during the next nine years (in 1842), despite outnumbering the Texan army by eight to one.  There’s the death of President William Henry Harrison from pneumonia one month into his term, after insisting on delivering his two-hour inaugural address in the freezing rain; without succeeding Harrison as President, Vice President John Tyler would never have had the standing to make Texas annexation the major issue of the 1844 election, and the election would have been contested by two anti-annexationist candidates (Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren).  And even with annexation as the election’s major issue, 1844 was still one of the closest elections in American history; give Clay only 2600 of his opponent James K. Polk’s votes in New York (out of half a million cast), and he wins the state and the presidency.  Even once Polk won the presidency and annexed Texas, war didn’t become inevitable until he decided on pursuing his territorial ambitions against Mexico in the most brusque, aggressive manner he could.

Most people assume the American Revolution was an overdetermined event, and from time to time to time I’ve talked about why I think they’re wrong and that the Revolution was, quite the contrary, fairly overcontingent.  I’d also give the Allied victory in the First World War as an outcome that, while not necessarily overcontingent, was at least contingent, in that it was a conflict where (unlike alternate history favourites like the Second World War and American Civil War) it was a fairly evenly balanced affair and the losing side had about the same chance to win it (by taking Paris in September 1914, by winning the Battle of Verdun in 1916, by not adopting a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, by taking Paris during Operation Michael in Spring 1918) as they did of losing it.

So I guess I’m curious what other people think, what other events people think are particularly overdetermined or overcontingent.  What do you think was bound to happen, and will show up in timeline after timeline?  What do you think was a fluke of history, and will take only a small tweak to abort?



Last week was Eurovision, always one of my favourite afternoons of the year.  Lisa and I were honestly really impressed with the music this year, at least in the final (I didn’t watch the semi-finals)—usually Eurovision manages to turn up ten or twelve solid songs that I like, but this year I’d say it was somewhere around twenty, out of twenty-six entries.  Even the UK had a strong song, and that’s not normally something I get to say.

That did mean there was a lack of gimmicky weirdness this year.  The closest we came to that was the buxom, revealingly-clad peasant girls Poland sent onstage to churn butter and wash clothes during their song.  But apart from that, every entry let its song do its singing.  (Yes, that means Conchita Wurst won on the strength of her song.)

So in the absence of oddity, I guess I’ll just be highlighting my favourite songs this year.  Well, I’ll start with Lisa’s favourite, which was Belarus.  Here’s “Cheesecake” by Teo:

I really liked Iceland, though I did understand immediately that it had no chance of winning.  Iceland has vastly different songs every year, but I’ve noticed that they pretty much always manage to come up with something that I like a lot.  I was torn here whether to use the song’s music video or else use the live performance.  I decided on the live performance, because I think it serves the song better, but if you like Aquabats-style low-budget enthusiasm, I encourage you to check out the video.  “No Prejudice” by Pollapönk:

But my favourite song—hands down, in a year full of great songs—was Spain.  I thought this was hauntingly beautiful, and honestly it had me from the opening chords.  Again I had a tough time choosing which performance to put here.  Ultimately I went with the live performance because I really liked the rainfall effect they created onstage (Boy asked if it was really raining inside the auditorium), but I did think that the dancing segments in the music video were pretty sexy.  “Dancing in the Rain” by Ruth Lorenzo:

And one last word, on the interval entertainment, while voting was in progress and while the votes were being tallied.  This is normally, you know, just something to watch for twenty minutes.  And I have to say, I think Eurovision hosts have a pretty tough job: they have to banter in English, not their native language, and they have to do it slowly enough for an audience, many of whom do not speak the language terribly well, to follow along.

This year the interval entertainment was genius, and it was made so largely through the comedic abilities of the hosts, especially Pilou Asbæk (who, Wikipedia tells me, appeared in The Borgias in 2013, though it doesn’t say in what role).  The Museum of Eurovision History skit and the ode to the number twelve were hilarious.

Until we meet again, in Vienna.


Family history

My mother visited last week, and since it’s the first time we’ve seen each other since she went to my grandfather’s funeral, she brought with her some of his effects.

Amongst other things, there’s a number of mementos from his service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.  I was really excited by all this; I dedicated A Traitor’s Loyalty to my grandad specifically because it was his stories of his wartime experience that first got me interested in the topic.

I’ll start with the photographs.  There’s one of my grandfather and the men with whom he did the flight engineer’s training course in the summer of 1943.  There’s another of him with three comrades, only his head has been torn off; the note on the back says that his head can be found in my grandmother’s gold locket.  (I love it so much.)

There’s two pictures of him with his flight crew: one taken right after the conclusion of an “operational flight”, with them still in their flight gear, and this more formal one, in which my grandfather is second from the right in the front row:

photo 2

And a photo of his whole squadron from May 1945, commemorating the German surrender.  He’s second from right in the fourth row back:

photo 1

There’s also a number of newspaper clippings, wherein my grandfather has carefully cropped news photos of Halifax bombers, the specific type of bomber he crewed.  (That’s a Halifax his squadron are adorning in the picture just above.)  For me these are particularly fascinating because of the little snippets of news report on their reverse side.  One from October 1945 has half the headline and lede from a story that appears to be about a debate over how much of a voice “the dominions” (at that time, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) should receive in the Allied Powers’ peacemaking process.  Another has the first two, contextless sentences of a news story: Before the war, the precise location of Casablanca was probably known to few Britons except the bright lad who was top in geography.  Now it is almost as familiar a name as Brighton or Birmingham, though it would perhaps be difficult to say whether Winston Churchill or Humphrey Bogart is chiefly responsible for this improvement in our education.

And there’s his log book, wherein he had to record all his flying hours.  Every mission he flew is in here, from his first on 20 August 1943 (the only description of the mission is “circuits and bumps (dual)”) through to December 1945, with a break between May and September 1945, during which he was “posted to Dallarchy, Morayshire, Scotland” for “lectures on flying against the Japanese”, in preparation after the German surrender for his redeployment to the Pacific theatre.  Each flight lists the pilot, the specific aircraft, and the nature of the mission:

photo 3

photo 4

By December 1945 he’d been posted to a meteorological squadron—essentially busywork while he awaited his turn to get demobilised and discharged, and as such his records become sketchier.  But he does record a couple of flights he took as a civilian after the war, such as when he took my uncle with him aboard an aircraft listed as “Comet Dove” and flew as “Passenger” in September 1957.  (I love it so much.)

And my mother brought a small packet of medals, which she had assumed were my grandfather’s campaign medals.  One of them indeed was his, a service pin for No. 58 Squadron, but I realised pretty quickly that the others couldn’t be—because they weren’t from the Second World War, but rather from the First.

They were at first puzzling, because they were inscribed as belonging to “Gnr. A. Massey RFA“.  The obvious assumption would be that these belonged to my great-grandfather, my grandfather’s father.  (My mother’s maiden name is Massey.)  But my great-grandfather wasn’t “A.”, he was “John”.  My uncle recollected that John Massey’s middle initial was A., so there was a hypothesis that perhaps he had enlisted in the Army using his middle name.  I’ll admit I was unconvinced by that and thought it was more likely these medals belonged to a different male relative, perhaps one who had been killed during the war and whose medals had passed to John Massey, then to my grandfather Alf.

But! Whoever this mysterious Gunner A. Massey was, his service number was inscribed on the medals, which I figured out only when I researched the medals online.  (I had seen the number on one of the medals but hadn’t realised it was his service number because it’s only five digits long.  I figured it was an individual number for the medal or something.  I mean, all the numbers by which we’re identified today, does it seem at all reasonable to you that an army serial number would only need to be five digits long?  I’m guessing that in A. Massey’s case it’s a reflection of the fact that when he enlisted in August 1914, the British Army was an organisation with fewer than a hundred thousand members.)

Anyhow, I figured the service number would make A. Massey a fairly easily searchable individual, so I set out to find what I could about him.  And I should pause right here and say a big thank you to Kris, because most of what I’m about to say isn’t stuff I found at all, but rather stuff that she did.  I would still be entirely in the dark if it weren’t for her, and I’m really grateful.

One thing I learnt yesterday: the service records of only forty per cent of the British Army’s First World War soldiers are still extant.  The other sixty per cent were destroyed by a German bomb in September 1940.  But I also learnt that his service number belonged to a soldier who served in the British Army during the war under the name Alfred Massey (my grandfather’s name, though my grandfather wasn’t born until the 1920s).  His medal card gives a “qualifying date” of 16 August 1914, which I think is the date he enlisted in the British Army but might possibly be the date he arrived with his unit in France or Belgium.  Either way, his involvement in the war began very very shortly after Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 4 August.

Kris then discovered that Alfred Massey married my great-grandmother in Sunderland in 1915, at which point we knew that either Alfred Massey was my great-grandfather John or else my great-grandmother had a weird habit of marrying Massey men from Sunderland.  It was when I saw Alfred Massey’s entry in the 1911 census that it all made sense.

In 1911, Alfred Massey was sixteen and living at home with his parents—including his father, John.  So it would seem that my great-grandfather John Alfred Massey went by the name Alfred as a young man, when his dad was John, but then later on, after he had a son of his own named Alfred and after his father had presumably passed on, he became John.

There was also some additional family detail Kris found that I had no knowledge of and am so pleased to have, but I won’t go into it here, because I want to finally take a moment to talk about the actual medals themselves.


What you’re seeing there, from left to right, are the 1914 Star (or Mons Star), the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal, also known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.  The British War Medal and the (British version of the) Allied Victory Medal were, broadly speaking, awarded to anyone who served in British uniform overseas during the First World War; about six million of each were issued.  The 1914 Star, however, was rather more restrictive:

This bronze medal award was authorized by King George V in April 1917 for those who had served in France or Belgium between 5th August 1914 to midnight on 22nd November 1914 inclusive. The award was open to officers and men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces, doctors and nurses as well as Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Navy Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who served ashore with the Royal Naval Division in France or Belgium.

. . .

It should be remembered that recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres. There were approximately 378,000 1914 Stars issued.

So this essentially means that Gnr. Alfred Massey was part of the initial British Expeditionary Force, the Old Contemptibles, so named because of the Kaiser’s (possibly apocryphal) order of 19 August 1914 to “exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French‘s contemptible little army”.  (Spoiler: the German army found itself unable to carry out such an order.)

I had no idea of any of this.

(I should note that my great-grandfather’s Mons Star does not bear the additional clasp indicating that he actually came under enemy fire during the 5 August-22 November period; apparently slightly fewer than half the Mons Stars do.)

So! I know a lot more about my family history now than I did two days ago.  And I’ve got a new bunch of family heirlooms to tuck away and hopefully someday to be able to teach my own kids just how precious they are.

I opened this post by mentioning that I dedicated my first novel to my grandad.  Somehow when the novel got reissued last year, the dedication didn’t get included in the new edition, something I didn’t realise until my grandad’s death at the end of the year.  So I’ll close by repeating it here:

For my grandfather, Alf Massey (RAF 1940-1946), who first introduced me to British spies, the Second World War, and so many other elements that make up this story.


American independence and Quebecois dependence

So, the question I’m pondering today: why does it never seem to have occurred to anyone—not the French, nor the British, nor apparently even the Quebecois—that France might have demanded the return of Quebec at the end of the American Revolutionary War?

Historiography of the Revolutionary War tends to concentrate solely on the fighting in mainland North America.  This is understandable, inevitable, and completely appropriate—and, incidentally, just as true of British histories as it is of American. But it obscures how much of a global conflict France’s entry into the war in 1778 (and Spain’s in 1779 and the Netherlands’s in 1780) made it into.

The American Revolutionary War was fought in the Thirteen Colonies and Canada, but it was also fought in Florida, in the West Indies, in India, in Spain and in the English Channel.  The Great Siege of Gibraltar was part of the war.  The Second Anglo-Mysore War, in which the native state of Mysore came close to sweeping Great Britain from southern India, was part of the war.  During the war, France picked off a series of British islands in the Caribbean Sea (the Revolutionary War is the only war of the last three hundred years during which the Royal Navy has lost its customary naval superiority) and Spain occupied the Bahamas, though Lord Rodney’s victory at the Battle of the Saintes prevented a Franco-Spanish invasion of Jamaica.  The Franco-Spanish alliance’s attempts to launch an invasion of Great Britain in 1759 and in 1805 make it into all the history books, but their invasion of 1779, despite coming closer to success than either of the others (in that it actually put to sea and roamed around the English Channel), gets much less mention.  (Though I’d like a citation for Wikipedia’s assertion that France intended to retain Portsmouth as a naval base after the war.)

Indeed, so much did the Revolutionary War take on the character of a European war to outside observers once France entered that when Spain entered a year later, she did so with an alliance with France but without signing an alliance with the United States or even recognising the United States as a legitimate, independent nation.

And the peace settlement at the end of war—while its most important provision was British recognition of American independence and cession to the United States of the Old Northwest—also involved the colonial and European territorial transfers customary between European states at the end of these things.  Britain ceded Florida and the strategically vital Mediterranean island of Minorca to Spain, and Tobago to France; the Netherlands lost their Indian port of Negapatam to Britain.

And yet nowhere is there any mention of Quebec.  I can understand why France would ultimately decide not to pursue the return of Quebec—it wasn’t particularly lucrative (in fact it was a money sink, even with its dominance in the fur trade), it was difficult to defend, it had what was guaranteed to be a hostile power on its southern border.  But I don’t feel like I should have to assume that that was the thinking.  I don’t like that there doesn’t seem to have been any actual thinking going on.  I don’t like that I can’t find any evidence of French Canadian agitation for it after France entered the war—after all, in 1778, Quebec had only been British for fifteen years; anyone older than twenty-five could remember being a French subject, could remember the campaigns of invasion and conquest by armies of Britons and Americans.

Any attempt to Google about this gets swamped by results wondering why Quebec didn’t join the Patriots and become the Fourteenth State.  That’s a perfectly reasonable question for those with only a casual understanding of the American Revolution to ask, but it’s also one with some fairly obvious answers once you start studying the subject and realise the mutual antipathy the French Canadians and les Bostonnais—their word for Yankees—felt toward each other.  The Americans, particularly those of New England and New York, were so anti-Catholic that on Bonfire Night every year, the people of Boston burnt not Guy Fawkes in effigy, but the Pope; and they were so anti-French that when a French army arrived in New England in 1779 to help them win their independence from Britain, the people of Newport rioted and the Boston mob murdered a French officer.  The British were plenty anti-Catholic and anti-French, too, but they had also given the French Canadians the Quebec Act 1774, guaranteeing the freedom of Roman Catholic worship and preservation of French civil law in Canada—an action the Patriots found so odious that it’s included in the Declaration of Independence as a justification for the Revolutionary War.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Quebecois never mustered up much sentiment in favour of throwing their lot in with the Continental Congress.

(“Why didn’t Quebec become the Fourteenth State?” also swamps most results for another question I’ve wondered about from time to time: why didn’t Nova Scotia become the Fourteenth State?  Nova Scotia, after all, was English and Protestant in population—the French colonists having been violently and forcibly deported during the French and Indian War, in an action by the British government that would qualify as a war crime under modern definition—and, indeed, most of the settlers in the province had emigrated there from New England, where Revolutionary sentiment was strongest.  I did eventually find an answer to that question, albeit an unsatisfactory one.)

But just because the French Canadians found the British preferable to the Americans on their doorstep is still no reason why they’d have found them preferable to the actual French under whose governance most of them had been perfectly content.  I can understand why France ultimately decided that retrieving Canada wasn’t much of a priority, but I have harder time believing there wasn’t anything to decide in the first place.


A real historian makes my argument for me

I’m reading Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766, a history of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson.  The first thing I noticed about the book was the date range—specifically, that the book covers up to 1766.  That’s well after the British conquest of Canada (1760) and the end of the French and Indian War; it’s after the Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France of which the French and Indian War was a theatre; it’s after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1764), the bloody American Indian uprising against British rule in the Old Northwest that usually forms the epilogue of American histories of the war.

In fact, it’s a broad enough period that it firmly includes the Stamp Act 1765 and the crisis that followed it, the first instance of Parliament attempting to tax the British colonies and the colonists responding by uniting against such taxation, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly, as we all know, until the Second Continental Congress declared the colonies’ independence on 4 July 1776.  As such, the Stamp Act is pretty much never considered as a part of the Seven Years’ War but, rather, is always the first chapter of any history of the American Revolution.

Anderson’s introduction to the book explains why he chose to place the endpoint of his narrative so long after the war’s end: so that it would allow him to include the war as an early cause of the Revolution and, by extension, bring forward the starting date for “causes of the American Revolution” from 1763 to 1754.

This immediately put me on my guard.  I already think 1763 is too early a starting point for the teaching of the American Revolution, not because I don’t think the Stamp Act and the Stamp Act Congress weren’t important first steps in Parliamentary overbearance and colonial cooperative resistance—they were—but because treatments of “the causes of the American Revolution” always assume that the Revolution and American independence were the obvious and most logical outcomes—indeed, even the only logical outcomes.

But you can only assume that if you’re starting with another assumption, that the British, in Britain, and the Americans, in the colonies, were already two distinct peoples in 1763 with two distinct national identities, and that independence was therefore an inevitable recognition of that.  That’s an easy assumption for us to make; after all, we live in a world where Britons and Americans are quite obviously two separate peoples, and have been for over two hundred years.  But those two separate national identities were a product of the Revolutionary War; they didn’t exist in the 1760s.  For the most part, the men attended the Stamp Act Congress and the First Continental Congress and who authored Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania and organised committees of correspondence would have vigorously (and truthfully) denied that independence was either a desirable or a likely outcome of their efforts.

When we miss that, we misunderstand the American Revolution and we misunderstand the men who undertook it.  We divide them into Americans and British, a distinction they wouldn’t have liked and that they certainly wouldn’t even have understood the way we apply it—Tom Paine was no more an American than William Franklin was British.

To broaden that misconception to also include the Seven Years’ War, then, makes me pretty leery, since the war is pretty much the height of the colonists’ identification with the British Empire.  When George Washington led a war party into the Ohio Country in 1754, and when he returned a year later as the aide-de-camp to a British general at the head of two regiments of Irish soldiers, he didn’t think of himself as securing Ohio as American territory; he thought of it as securing it as British territory.  (He did think of it as securing it for Virginia, but that’s something different.)  When Benjamin Franklin proposed a common federal government for the British colonies to the Albany Congress, with a grand council elected by the colonial legislatures and a president for all of British America, he proposed it as a measure that would strengthen Britain for her coming war with France, and he did it with the hope that such a union would be enacted by Parliament in London, because he thought that the colonies could only ever be united if it happened under Parliament’s guidance.  When General Wolfe—an Englishman from Kent who had spent his entire career fighting in Germany and Scotland—was killed on the Plains of Abraham, commanding the British assault that conquered Quebec from France, he became the American colonies’ greatest national hero just as he became a national hero in Britain, because the colonists knew that they were just as much a part of the Britain he conquered Quebec for as were the people of the Isles.

Then I read the introduction and I discovered Anderson agrees with me on that, and that’s exactly why he’s written a history of the war that runs all the way up to 1766:

Virtually all modern accounts of the Revolution begin in 1763 with the Peace of Paris, the great treaty that concluded the Seven Years’ War.  Opening the story there, however, makes the imperial events and conflicts that followed the war—the controversy over the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act crisis—into precursors of the Revolution.  No matter how strenuous their other disagreements, most modern historians have looked at the years after 1763 not as contemporary Americans and Britons saw them—as a postwar era vexed by unanticipated problems in relations between colonies and metropolis—but as what we in retrospect know those years to have been, a pre-Revolutionary period.  By sneaking glances, in effect, at what was coming next, historians robbed their accounts of contingency and suggested, less by design than inadvertence, that the independence and nationhood of the United States were somehow inevitable.

(I love that phrase “By sneaking glances … at what was coming next”.)

Anderson writes a history of the Seven Years’ War and the Stamp Act, then, not to include the war in the “pre-Revolutionary” narrative, but rather to reframe those “pre-Revolutionary” events into their proper context, not as the prelude to a revolution, but as the aftermath to a war that had redefined the entire North American continent.  “Examining the period from a perspective fixed not in 1763 but in 1754 would necessarily give its events a different look and perhaps permit us to understand them without constant reference to the Revolution that no one knew lay ahead, and that no one wanted.”

This hits on something really important in history: perspective.  It’s difficult and counterintuitive to divorce our understanding of historical events from our knowledge of what comes next, but if we fail to do so, we cannot have a real understanding of the people we’re learning about or of how they might have seen the events as they participated in them.

This is one of the reasons I love alternate history, but it’s also one of the challenging things about alternate history.  Alternate history can get you to look at things differently than the conventional view has them, can get you to reevaluate your preconceptions and try to place yourself in the heads of the people you’re considering.  But that can also be really hard to do, and it can be almost impossible to notice that we’re failing to do it because we’re too anchored in our own preconceptions to realise that they are simply our own preconceptions rather than How Things Were.

The American Revolution is my favourite example of this because it’s such a glaring instance of us imposing our own image on the “pre-Revolutionary” timeline instead of seeing on its own, postwar terms.  By insisting on seeing Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and George Washington in 1765 as nascent Americans, foreigners to Great Britain, rather than as men united by “their common connection with what they thought of as the freest, most enlightened empire in history”, we, as Anderson puts it, “rob [them] of their contingency”—we impose 4 July 1776 on them beforehand, rather than respecting the transformative journey it took for them to get there on their own.


New Orleans and the world that made it

Yesterday I finished The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette, a history of the first hundred years of the Crescent City, from its founding in 1718 through 1818.  It was a topic I went seeking out, I freely admit, because I’d been playing Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, which is set in New Orleans in the 1760s and has as its hero a femme de couleur libre.

worldthatmadeneworleansSublette opens his book by telling us that it’s “not about music per se, but music will be a constant presence in it, the way it is in New Orleans.”  This if anything understates the presence of music in the book, which shouldn’t be surprising for a city that has for two hundred years been known for the vibrancy, uniqueness and Africanness of its musical traditions (just like its religious and cultural traditions), through which it birthed the art form that is modern American music.  The book definitely comes across as a work written by someone who was brought to the history through a love of the music, rather than someone who was brought to the music through a love of the history; but as such, it gives you a perspective on the history of New Orleans that’s absolutely necessary and couldn’t have been achieved the other way around.  Sublette occasionally assumes that his readers will find a certain specific commonality between the musical/dancing traditions of New Orleans and Trinidad, or Cuba and Guadeloupe, as prima facie fascinating as he does, but that’s a small price to pay for that.

(The other small price to pay is Sublette’s insistence on referring to foreign monarchs by their names translated into their own national languages, even for those monarchs who are known in English only by their English-language names.  So he refers to Felipe II of Spain, not Philip of Spain, and to Carlos III, not Charles III, making it tough to follow the fact that he’s talking about individuals who already have established names and identities in English-language historiography.  Maybe he worked for NBC during the 2006 Winter Games.)

(No, I’m never going to let that go, NBC.  We speak English, so we call the city Turin.)

The book’s title is an accurate one—this is a book about the world that made New Orleans, and as much time is spent on history elsewhere as is spent on the city itself.  This could well be because, for most of its first century, New Orleans was a small, distant outpost, and there wouldn’t be much more with which to fill four hundred pages than there would be for a history of the first century of Charleston, South Carolina, or Bridgetown, Barbados.  So what we get instead are introductions to all the distant places and events that poured themselves into New Orleans and forged the city’s unique character.

There’s a chapter on French court life during the regency of the duc d’Orleans (during the childhood of Louis XV, the only French king ever to rule over New Orleans), since it was the duke who first sent French settlers to the mouth of the Mississippi and for whom their settlement was named.  There’s a chapter on life in prerevolutionary Haiti and a chapter on the revolution itself, which led so many refugees, eventually, to resettle in New Orleans—white men and the black slaves and mixed-race concubines they brought with them.  (Those chapters made me look forward to playing Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, whose hero is an escaped slave washed up on the shores of prerevolutionary St-Domingue.)  And when we get to 1803, there’s a chapter on Thomas Jefferson, architect of the Louisiana Purchase, and another on the booming American slave trade of which the Big Easy suddenly found itself the fulcrum.

These last two were the chapters that blew my mind.

First, Jefferson.  Sublette spends a chapter voicing, eloquently and incisively, exactly the same reaction I have whenever the morality or virtue or greatness of Thomas Jefferson is discussed.  Yes, Jefferson was the primary author of the most famous affirmation of political self-determination ever written.  Yes, he forcefully and repeatedly articulated that the only way for Americans to practise the freedom of religion that we hold so dear is for us to maintain a government that is wholly free from religion and entirely secular.  Yes, throughout his life he wrote against slavery and wrote of it as an evil that does harm to everyone it touches.

He also owned other human beings, his entire adult life.  He lived a life of leisure and comfort, made possible only by the labour (and lives and good health and children) he stole from them every day, a life in which he generated huge debts that he knew quite well would be paid by the breakup and sale of the families he owned after his death.  He raped at least one of his slaves.  (And yes, it is rape to have sex with a human being you own, full stop, and it deserves to be called out as such.  And the fact that the woman he raped was his dear deceased wife’s half-sister only makes it creepier.)  And through the Louisiana Purchase, as Sublette points out, not only did he significantly increase the extent of American slavery’s territorial grasp, but he gave the slave industry a crucial shot in the arm that was a major factor in allowing it to boom right up until the Civil War.

Whenever the moral hypocrisy of the man is pointed out, the first half of all that always gets brought up as if it somehow alleviates him of the moral responsibility of the second half.  I’ve never understood why that would be, and apparently neither has Sublette.  Rather, the second half negates whatever praise he might have earnt from the first.  Sublette explains at length why that is, and my original idea for this post was simply to transcribe the entire Jefferson chapter verbatim, until I considered, you know, the law.  (Also all that typing.)  So I’ll content myself with just two paragraphs:

No, we don’t know absolutely for certain if Master Tom did impregnate Sally or not.  If the matter were tried in a court of law, with a presumption of innocence and an expensive law firm to defend Jefferson (which is how a number of mainstream American historians seem to have seen their role in this case), we might have to let him off the hook for lack of definitive proof.  On the other hand, if he were a poor man with substantial circumstantial evidence against him and a public defender, he’d accept a plea bargain, the way some 95 percent of criminal cases in the United States are resolved now, and get off with a guilty plea and a reduced sentence.

But then, no one has accused Jefferson of a crime.  After all, you can do with your property as you like.

And so we come to the chapter on the American system of chattel slavery.  I’ve done a bit of research on slavery in the past few years, though (like most Americans) I still don’t know nearly as much about it as I should.  I do have it on my reading list to read a book devoted to the institution, but I haven’t got there yet; so it’s entirely possible (hell, even likely) that the points Sublette makes, which have significantly shifted how I looked at American slavery, are points that are very commonly made in the literature about it.

I did already know a few things.  I knew that both abolitionists and slavery advocates believed strongly that slavery had to continually expand in order to survive.  This means, for instance, that when Abraham Lincoln reassured the South that he did not want to abolish slavery, merely contain it within its present extent, both Lincoln and the slaveowners were well aware that that “containing” slavery was code for “condemn it to a slow, gasping death without the need for legislation”.  And I knew that, generally speaking, the American slave population expanded from the northern and eastern states of the South into the southern and western states.  And I knew that Congress forbade the slave trade—the importation of slaves from locations outside the United States—in 1808, the very earliest date allowed by the Constitution.

But I hadn’t put those three things together and carried them out to their logical extreme.  We all know—or we all should know—that Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 revitalised the American slave trade.  It industrialised the processing of cotton for its use in manufacturing, and so it vastly increased the demand for unprocessed cotton; and unprocessed cotton, because of the intensity of labour, miserable conditions and lack of education required to harvest it, is something that lends itself readily to slave labour.  Then, following close on the heels of the cotton gin was the Louisiana Purchase, opening up vast new lands to plantation cultivation, and therefore to the slave trade.

It’s easy, therefore, to see slavery and its hold on the South as an unfortunate accident of history—tragic, monstrous, criminal, but still also accidental.  Slavery, such an argument would go, only took such economic hold because it was needed to prop up the cotton industry, and it was to cotton that the Southern economy was dedicated.

But that ignores the facts.  Slavery very quickly became an industry in and of itself, an industry that was perpetuated just for its own sake.  Those plantations in Virginia and North Carolina and parts of Kentucky had been under cultivation for a hundred years—in the case of Virginia, two hundred.  Their soil was spent.  They could be more profitable planted with cotton than with tobacco, sure, thanks to the cotton gin; but they still wouldn’t be nearly as profitable as the cotton plantations in the virgin soil of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Arkansas.

But those new plantations presented an opportunity to the planters—to turn their existing slave populations into a source of profit, by using them as seed stock from which to breed the slaves who would fill up the new lands.  (Does that sound horrible and dehumanising?  Good.)  It’s not just that slavery thrived because it supported the thriving cotton industry; the cotton industry thrived because it supported the thriving slave industry.  We can talk of cotton plantations in Virginia and Carolina and Kentucky that operated on slave labour; but we might also talk of slave plantations that happened to grow cotton.  The cotton there was grown not as an end in itself, but as something for the slaves to do during the ten or fifteen years it took to raise a baby up into a saleable field hand.

That’s why slavery “needed always to expand in order to survive”; because as plantation lands filled up with slaves, their owners needed new, virgin lands opened up in which to sell their children.  That’s why Congress outlawed the importation of foreign blacks on literally the very first day allowed by the Constitution: because, like a tariff on foreign manufactures (the existence of which the Confederacy would denounce as being the other reason they were seceding), it kept the cost of the domestic good artificially high.  And that is why slave migration followed a basic north and east to west and south pattern: because slaveowners in the more settled regions were actively breeding slave populations who were always intended to be sold on down to newer plantations.  (In countless cases, the slaveowners were of course actively fathering parts of the population that they always intended to sell.)  We know that slave trading frequently caused the separation of families and we think their owners were monstrous for allowing this (the scene between Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti in Twelve Years a Slave touches on this), but we are perhaps less cognizant of the idea that many families were created so that they could then be broken up—so that their children, when they reached an age where they’d be capable of a full day’s work, could be loaded onto flatbottom boats in Wheeling or Louisville and floated thousands of miles downriver, to be displayed in a showroom and sold on an auction block.

The World That Made New Orleans has twenty-two chapters, and those are only two of them.  The book had its weaknesses, but on the whole I’m glad I read it—and I’m really glad I read those two chapters, because they’re going to inform how I look at their topics for a long time.



When my imagination first gets captured, when I get that first spark of an idea that there’s a story here I want to tell, it almost always has to do with setting.  Characters and plot follow on later.

There’s a lot of things that can fascinate me about a setting.  Social class, nationalities, history (particularly its influence on the present), politics and diplomacy, custom and tradition, criminal underworlds.  Usually what I find myself wanting to explore is the dichotomy all these factors create between how the rules of how things should be and the realities of how they are, between people’s public virtues and private corruptions.  Almost always, my settings are urban.

And one type of setting that I’m particularly fascinated by is the port city.  Ports are gateways (porta is the Latin word for gate), the portals that allow for the interaction between a specific country or land and the outside world.  They’re crossroads (crossroadses?), the endpoints for routes of communication, commerce, invasion, diplomacy, intrigue, espionage.

But it’s a specific type of port I love.  It’s one that is just as alien to the country it serves as it is to its foreign arrivals.  Liverpool and London, for instance, have their own unique identities within England, but they are English identities.  Ditto the relationship between many of the world’s other historically great ports and their hinterlands—New York, Charleston, San Francisco, Hamburg, Veracruz, Buenos Aires.

But there are other ports that are not—or historically were not—of their lands.  Singapore.  Istanbul.  Alexandria.  Shanghai.  Often this is because of the mixing of locals and foreigners, whose national identities fuse and overlap and create something divorced from its origins.  Shanghai and Hong Kong, by being both Chinese and European, became something neither Chinese nor European.  Alexandria, by being both Greek and Egyptian (and later, Roman), became something neither Greek nor Egyptian nor Roman—indeed, the ancient Egyptians never considered Alexandria a part of Egypt, and the Ptolemaic pharaohs bore the title “Pharaoh of Egypt and King of Alexandria”.  New Orleans, from its purchase by the United States in 1803 until after the American Civil War, was something that was neither properly French nor properly Spanish nor properly American.

(Related to this would no doubt be my fascination with city-states, especially imperial ones.)

So I like ports where all of those inhabitants who come from elsewhere—as most of the populations of great entrepôts do—can never be truly native; only those who happened to have been born and spent their lives there can, and they, in turn, can never be truly native anywhere else.


Napoleon the Little

I’m reading Napoleon III: A Life by Fenton Bresler. It was a bit of a pain finding one, for those extremely liberal values of “pain” that include being unable to find a good biography with an e-dition, thus necessitating reading a dead-tree biography instead, and then discovering that the main library, across the street from our house, didn’t have any, so I had to trek all the way out to the little branch library in Potomac to get my hands on a copy. (And then my son tearfully yelled at me that I am “a killer of the rain forest” for reading a book printed on paper, so I’ll have to bear the guilt all the rest of my days.)

Napoleon III: A LifeI tell you all that not because I think it’s interesting in and of itself–I’m well aware that, as I am me, I probably find details about my life far more interesting than any of you do–but because I think it well sums up Napoleon III’s position in our historical consciousness.  His uncle Napoleon I is so famous that he is simply Napoleon–even in this biography, when reference is made to Napoleon, it means Napoleon I; Napoleon III is always referred to as Louis.  Everyone has heard of the most famous Napoleon; but most people (or at least, most English speakers, at least), on the other hand, might even be unaware there was another Napoleon who also sat on the French throne.

But he made big contributions to European and world history during the nineteenth century–in some senses, contributions that were more wide ranging and longer lasting than his more famous uncle, albeit without the dramatic military conquests or social upheaval that marked the Napoleonic Wars.  Indeed, it was when I realised just how important he was that I decided to seek out a biography of him.

It is because of Napoleon III that we have the idea of Latin America as a collective entity.  It is because of Napoleon III that we have the modern city of Paris, redesigned and rebuilt by Baron Haussmann in the 1850s and 1860s at his instigation.  It was his decision to ally with Sardinia and go to war against Austria that led directly to the unification of Italy into a single nation-state.  He was the moving force behind the placement of the Emperor Maximilian on the Mexican throne.  He was the man who could have provided French recognition and French intervention in the American Civil War on behalf of the Confederacy–though most histories of the Civil War, while making a token mention of the fact that the Confederacy pursued recognition from “Britain and France”, then only concentrate on Confederate-British relations and ignore France.  And his choice to go to war against Prussia, and defeat at the Battle of Sedan, was a turning point in the history of Europe, realigning the balance of power in Europe along fault lines that would bring endless strife until the late 1940s.

It’s true that many–though by no means all–of his initiatives ended with failure; but then, so, ultimately, did his uncle’s.  It’s true that having your single greatest claim to fame being utterly outmanouevred by Bismarck and the Prussians, both diplomatically and militarily, doesn’t speak well to your being held up as one of the great names of history; but then, the name most closely associated with Napoleon I is that of his most famous defeat, Waterloo.  Napoleon III was both the first president and final monarch of his country.  He doesn’t necessarily deserve a great name, but he does deserve more of a name than he has.


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