Wednesday, 17 January 2018
Sunday, 7 January 2018
The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist Hardcover – September 5, 2017, by Marcus Rediker Verso.
“The barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christian race, throughout every region of the world, and upon every people they have been able to subdue, are not to be paralleled by those of any other race, however fierce, however untaught, and however reckless of mercy and of shame, in any age of the earth”.
William Howitt: “Colonisation and Christianity: A Popular History of the Treatment of the Natives by the Europeans in all their Colonies.” London, 1838,
The just man who is resolute
will not be turned from his purpose
either by the rage of the crowd or
by an imperious tyrant.
Horace-Quoted by Lay’s biographer Roberts Vaux
It is a pretty safe bet that people reading this excellent biography of the Quaker radical Benjamin Lay will not have heard of him or his exploits. Hopefully because of Marcus Rediker’s hard work and perseverance more people will now know of this extraordinary figure.
Lay was Quaker Dwarf who took an active anti-slavery stance; he was attacked and ostracised by the early Quaker movement of which large sections not only supported slavery but made them very rich.
Rediker has campaigned for Lay’s rehabilitation. Finally, in 2017, the Abington Quakers of Pennsylvania recognised him as “a Friend of the Truth”. London Quakers followed suit by declaring “unity” with Lay’s spirit.
Rediker response to this development was “ I was, quite frankly, moved to tears. The recognition represented a profound, heartfelt act of retrospective justice because Lay had been unjustly disowned in the first place. It was a symbolic rejection of what a previous slave-owning generation of Quakers had done, and it was simultaneously an affirmation that Benjamin Lay’s values matter to the Abington and North London communities. I learned during my research that Lay dearly loved his fellow Quakers—at least those who did not own slaves—and that his exclusion was terribly painful to him. It was therefore deeply touching, 279 years later, to know that he has been brought back into the fold. This act would have meant everything to him”.
Rediker continues “the significance is two-fold. First, this is a significant step by Quakers to reckon with their own slave-owning past. As such, it is exemplary for the US and the UK as nations. Second, the decision advances the process of restoring Benjamin Lay to his rightful, prominent place in the history of Quakerism. This, in turn, feeds a broader effort to restore him to his proper position in American, British, and world history.
Rediker’s book is a well written and methodically researched book. Rediker is very good at exposing the essential contradiction at the heart of the Quaker movement in that its origins came about during the English revolution. Many Quaker constituted a radical wing of the revolution and had an anti-slavery stance yet large sections of its membership did not oppose slavery, kept slaves and profited by them.
The modern-day recognition of Lay has tended to gloss over the poor treatment dished out to Lay by his peers. For instance, when Lay published his book All Slave Keepers that keep the innocent in bondage: Apostates, He was attacked in Philadelphia by Quakers who declared ‘That the author is not of their religious community; that they disapprove of his Conduct, the Composition and Printing of the Book’.
It must be said that Lay’s book is not an easy read and you have to give Rediker his due for not only reading it but chronicling Lay’s life and struggle in this highly readable book.
Despite only measuring four foot two inches Lay was a formidable campaigner who sought the emancipation of all enslaved people around the world. One of Lay’s tactics was to perform guerilla theatre.
As Rediker states in his book “Benjamin began to stage public protests against the "men of renown," to shock the Friends of Philadelphia into awareness of their own moral failings about slavery. Conscious of the hard, exploited labour that went into making seemingly benign commodities such as tobacco and sugar, Benjamin showed up at a yearly Quaker meeting with "with three large tobacco pipes stuck in his bosom." He sat between the galleries of men and women elders and ministers. As the meeting ended, he rose in indignant silence and "dashed one pipe among the men ministers, one among the women ministers, and the third among the congregation assembled." With each smashing blow, Benjamin protested slave labour, luxury, and the poor health caused by smoking the stinking tweed. He sought to awaken his brothers and sisters to the politics of the smallest, seemingly most insignificant choices”.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Lay led a diverse life. He worked as a shepherd, glove maker, sailor, and bookseller. His worldview was a complex mixture of Quakerism, vegetarianism, animal rights, opposition to the death penalty, and abolitionism. Lay while being anti-slavery was not anti-capitalist. He did shunn the trappings of wealth that his business acumen brought him. While in America he lived in a cave with a library of two hundred books.
Lay’s significance was that he was one of the first radicals to call an end to all slavery in whatever form it took. He refused to consume anything produced by slave labour.As Rediker outlines in the book Lay was opposed by a significant section of Quakers, who had grown fat on slavery. As Rediker points out, these Quakers played a massive part in the bloody rise of American capitalism. The New England Puritans and Quakers became some of America's most significant industrial leaders.
As Karl Marx wrote “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.
Rediker has made his name writing popular histories of mutinies, pirates, slaves and revolts at sea. The majority of his work has examined the rise of early capitalism and the part played by the merchants and workers. He correctly states that the rise of early capitalism owed a massive debt to the movement of trade around the world.
As Rediker brings out in his book the treatment of slaves by the early capitalists Quakers reminds one of Marx’s famous phrase “If money, according to Augier, “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. 
We owe a debt to Rediker in that he life has sought to establish the correct place the sea has played in the rise of early capitalism. As the Russian Marxist writer Isaac Rubin elaborates “Mercantilist policy, which accelerated the breakup of the feudal economy and the guild crafts, corresponded to the interests of the commercial bourgeoisie and merchant capital. Its main objective was to foster rapid growth of foreign trade (together with shipping and such exporting industries as woollen textiles), striving, in particular, to reinforce the influx of precious metals into the country, which in their turn accelerated the transition from a natural to a money economy. It is therefore understandable that mercantilist literature focused its attention primarily on two, closely inter-related problems: 1) the question of foreign trade and the balance of trade, and 2) the question of regulating the circulation of money. We can distinguish three periods in the way the solution to these problems was approached: a) the early mercantilist period, b) the period of developed mercantilist doctrine, and c) the beginnings of the anti-mercantilist opposition”.
This opposition took many forms, but the most striking came from the early stirrings of the working class for better working conditions and social equality.Most of these stirrings took the form of strike action.
These strikes as Rediker points out were not in factories but on ships, “the first strike was not in a factory or an office. It was not even on land. In 1768 sailors “ went from ship to ship and took down the sails. That is called striking the sails. Out of that collective action, the term strike was born ”.The ship and the sea are dynamic places of struggle,”. “These people were on the cutting edge of developments between capital and labour in the 17th and 18th centuries. These ships were a precursor of the factory. The ship itself was the most important machine of its day. One of the primary experiences of people who worked on ships was collective cooperation. This was a place where waged workers were assembled in a complex division of labour. “Once they were assembled they began to define their cooperation in different collective ways. So we get a very rich and still not fully understood the history of mutiny, piracy and desertion. “Sailors were in many ways the first international labour force”.
That Lay was an enlightened figure for his time goes without saying. What connection Lay had with other figures of the Enlightenment is a complicated subject, and it is one hopefully Rediker explores at a later date.
According to Anthony Comegna, “Benjamin Lay and other radicals were vectors of connection and causation in the world’s great unknown Enlightenment. Beneath the gilded lush layers of philosophes and statesmen that litter our history books were the slave rebels, the servile insurrectionists, the outcasts and arsonists, the common rabble out of doors and on the docks, and even the lone Quaker dwarf abolitionist. These people and much more built their own kind of Enlightenment from below”.
This theme of history from below runs through all of Rediker’s books. In his book Outlaws, he describes a figure like Henry Pitman whose journal was the basis for Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s book despite being a ripping yarn also glorified Britain's slave trade.
As Rediker explains “One of the things about my research that continually delights people is to find out about how democratically pirates lived. There is history from below of democracy that has many sources other than the philosophers of the enlightenment.
The English Revolution
Another theme that runs through Rediker’s books is that of the English Revolution. This theme also runs through his biography of Lay.Rediker explains Lay’s deep connection to the radicals of the English revolution.
“I’ve identified five major influences, and the first and the most important of these was a specifically radical variant of Quakerism. Now Quakerism goes back, actually, to the English Revolution. It began as one of many radical Protestant groups. The others were the Levellers, the Diggers, the Seekers, the Ranters. The Quakers are all part of this. Those groups [00:06:30] arose during the English Revolution when royal censorship broke down as the king, King Charles I, and Royalists did battle with Oliver Cromwell and Parliamentary side. These radical groups really burst into print in that situation, offering from below their own solutions to the problems of the day”.
He continues “Quakers were part of this, and there was a man named James Naylor, who was an especially radical Quaker. I basically argued in my book that Benjamin Lay channelled this early generation of Quakers. They were very activist. They performed street theatre. They were very confrontational. He managed a couple of generations later to reach back to them in order to revive that spirit of Quakerism.
“In any revolutionary situation there are always people who want to go further,” he said. “Often there are retrenchments where those who had originally made the revolution are excluded. In the American revolution slaves and urban protests involving mixed racial crowds created the momentum and some of the ideas of the revolution.
“But around 1773-74 the elites like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson got control and started to define notions of citizenship that would exclude the motley crew. Citizenship then was based to a large extent on property rights, with all the links that have to race, class and gender. The people who had actually destabilised society in the new world were left out. That is what I call the American Thermidor. It is a process that many revolutions go through.”
History From Below
Sometimes it is difficult when reading a well-established historian to hear the buzzing of the bees. This is not the case with Rediker, who manages to write of complex historical processes with a style of historical writing that is easy on the eye without dumbing down the history.
Having looked at and read some of Rediker’s books he has adopted the “history from below” genre and has rescued some exciting and important figures from what the British historian E.P. Thompson called the "enormous condescension of posterity," and restored to their proper place in the historical record. EP Thompson is an apparent influence but then so is the historian Christopher Hill. Hill wrote of the 17th-century English revolution. From a historiography point of view, Rediker is closer to Hill than Thompson.
Hill was extremely complimentary of Rediker’s work.In this review of another historian Hill wrote, “Rediker describes the transition in the early eighteenth century to more capitalist relations in merchant shipping—wage labor replacing profit sharing, stricter discipline brutally enforced, cost-cutting by merchants at the expense of the living standards of seamen—and the growth of organized resistance by seamen, from collective protests, strikes, and mutinies, with piracy as the ultimate resort. The relative egalitarianism and democratic organization of pirate ships was a logical outcome of this situation: so were the utopian pirate communities established on Madagascar and elsewhere, where traditional hierarchical deference was forgotten. Defoe in his History of the Pyrates (1724) made much of such points in order to criticize aspects of English capitalist civilization that he disliked. Defoe “wrote a great deal about buccaneers and sided with them,” says Ritchie, making the same point rather differently. He “had a dyspeptic view of the new financiers and the world of stocks, bonds, and jobbers.” But Defoe had spent a good deal of time talking to retired pirates”.
Rediker like Hill not only wrote about radicals who had largely been forgotten by historians if not history itself but also Rediker wrote a period that was defined by Hill as-as a critical stage in the transition from feudalism to capitalism—a stage that Rediker would also research and evaluate throughout his career.
"I intended to apply the bottom-up approach to doing history that had been pioneered by Thompson and Hill to other contexts," and along with Peter Linebaugh, my colleague and writing partner since [graduate] school, I wanted to update our understanding of radical activity past where Christopher Hill had left the subject in The World Turned Upside Down—both in chronological terms, past the English Restoration, and, in geographical terms, encompassing the entire Atlantic."
Like Hill Rediker’s writing still has a contemporary feel to it. The Many-Headed Hydra (2000), which he co-authored with Linebaugh found its way into the discussion of the 2000s Occupy movement.
Despite Lay being of small stature, being only 4 feet 7 inches and suffering from a congenital growth disorder he was a giant of a man in many other ways. Thanks to Rediker’s book Lay can be an inspiration to today’s generation struggling against oppression and social inequality.
As Rediker states “We have now a very big historical debate going on. It's going on in the streets, it's going on in publications, it's going on around dinner tables: Who deserves to be called a hero of American history? We’ve had a lot of direct action with Confederate generals, we've had armed battles over this matter in Charlottesville. I think Benjamin Lay shows that there are people, frequently unknown, who embody higher ideals and reflect some of the better possibilities for example, within American life, so that someone like Benjamin Lay, someone like Frederick Douglass, someone like Harriet Tubman. This is a real value of history from below”.
 Excerpt from Chapter Three, “Philadelphia’s ‘Men of Renown’”
 Capital-Karl Marx
Capital -Karl Marx Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist
 A History of Economic Thought. Conclusion-Isaak Illich Rubin 1929- https://www.marxists.org/archive/rubin/1929/conclusion.htm
 Success Story-Christopher Hill- http://www.nybooks.com.ezproxy2.londonlibrary.co.uk/articles/1987/01/29/success-story/
Sunday, 24 December 2017
Monday, 20 November 2017
During the current celebrations of the Centenary of the 1917 October Revolution, the attack on Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Revolution, in general, has been particularly severe even by common media standards. According to them, Lenin was a brutal dictator, and the revolution was a disaster.
In his article, The denunciation of the Russian Revolution in Germany the Marxist writer Peter Schwarz makes this point “In Germany’s criminal code there is a paragraph declaring the slandering of the memory of the dead to be a criminal offence. Punishment for such a crime ranges from a fine to two years imprisonment. This appears not to apply to historical figures. If one reviews the articles, contributions on radio and television, and films to mark the centenary of the October Revolution in Russia, the principal rule that applies is: “anything goes.”
This brief review of Christopher Hill’s book on Lenin and the Russian Revolution is my contribution to the celebration of such a seminal event in world history. The October revolution despite what the highly paid lackeys in the media say is an essential lesson for working people to study and learn from, as Schwarz says “that one of the most significant transformations in world history, which influenced the 20th century more than any other event, could not be dismissed with a tirade of insults against Lenin and the Bolsheviks but required a serious study of its social and political driving forces”.
So when writing on such a controversial subject, a serious historian must make an objective assessment of both the revolution and one of its leaders. Hill despite being hampered by his membership of a Stalinist party attempted to make just that. He did not always make it. After all writing about the Russian Revolution in the middle part of the 20th century was a dangerous exercise for any of the historians in the Communist Party Historians Group(CPHG) To insulate himself from attack Hill states that he took advantage of the collaboration between Britain and the USSR during wartime to write the book.
“I wrote Lenin and the Russian Revolution in 1945-46, during the brief period when it appears the wartime friendship between England and the Soviet Union would continue to prosper, painful though it is to think so today”.
Despite not being his best work the book nonetheless laid down some markers that would be examined in later works of a much higher standard. Hill makes this point “In writing the book I made a point of drawing parallels between the 17th-century English Revolution, the French Revolution of 1789, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. In England after 1660, and in France after 1815, there was a severe reaction against the preceding revolutions; but 1688 in England and 1830 in France showed that there was to be no restoration of the old regimes”.
The book was part of a series called “Teach Yourself History” with the historian AL Rowse the general editor. Apparently, Hill became a bête noir of A L Rowse who states "When it arrived, I was taken aback - a work of stone-walling Stalinist orthodoxy, not a whit human."While being friends with Hill, Rowse’s vituperation towards Hill’s research on the radical groups of the English Revolution shows a man hostile to the genre of “History from below”.This quote is taken from Historians I have Known “ As if the thinking of people who don’t know how to think has any value Hobbes,Milton, Selden, Clarenden, Halifax, Locke !Yes; but not of the people at Large”.shows a level of class hatred that would not look out of place in the most right-wing academic circles.
While it was bought in large quantities by the general public, the book was attacked both inside and outside of academia. John Gollan in his short review manages to attack Hill from the right by heavily criticising him for his relatively light-minded treatment of Leon Trotsky.
He accused Hil of “utterly insufficient attention was paid to the history of the Communist Party and the struggle around policy in the period immediately before and during Lenin’s illness and death. Hence the role of Stalin as Lenin’s successor, his struggle against Trotskyism is not brought out. In his references to Trotsky, Comrade Hill correctly presents Lenin’s criticism of Trotsky’s role at specific periods of the revolution. However, Lenin did not and could not know that Trotsky and his confederates, already in those days were wreckers and plotters criminally associated with foreign powers.
He continues “Stalin succeeded to Lenin’s leadership, not only because of his mastery of Lenin’s teachings, but because of his record in the pre-revolutionary days, his editorship of Pravda, his work on the national question, his leadership in the insurrection, the decisive role entrusted to him by Lenin in the Civil War, and above all, his leadership of the Party in the critical tense period of Lenin’s illness and death. If this had been done Trotsky’s “History” could never have been included in the bibliography”.
Gollan was not the only person to attack Hill’s contribution to our understanding of Lenin and the Russian Revolution. A Particularly nasty one came from the pen of Adam B. Ulam, in the pages of the New York Review of Books. Ullam wrote “ I have hitherto never sought to reply to or to polemicize with reviewers of my books. However, the review article on Stalin which appeared in your magazine on January 24 raises an issue of such importance that I am forced for the first, and I hope the last, time to break this rule. The issue is: how legitimate is it for a magazine of your standing to commission a review from a person, and for him to write it, on a subject in which he has demonstrated his utter disregard or ignorance of facts? I could adduce several examples to support this judgment, but one, I trust, will be enough. Mr Hill is ironic about my assessment of the Mensheviks. Yet, let me put it to you, your readers, and the Master of Balliol whether one should take seriously any judgment about the Mensheviks or any other facet of Soviet and Russian history coming from a man who can write: “[after January 1918] …the leaders of the Menshevik party disappeared from history as the coadjutors of the White Guards trying with the aid of foreign bayonets to demonstrate the impossibility of the socialist experiments of the Bolsheviks.”1 Anybody with a superficial acquaintance with modern Russian history will recognize the outrageous untruthfulness of this statement, but let me rehearse the facts. “In mid-1918 when the Soviet government was locked in military combat against the counterrevolutionaries and the interventionist armies… [the Mensheviks] moved closer to the Bolsheviks by pledging ‘unqualified support’ to the government and calling on their followers to join the Red Army…. Apparently, in return for this loyalty, the Bolsheviks legalized the Menshevik party in November 1918.” The Mensheviks’ most prestigious leaders, Martov and Dan, called for “unconditional support of Bolshevism in its resistance to international imperialism and its internal and counterrevolutionary allies.”2 Were I to write and then maintain in print for over twenty years that the Levellers were agents of the French government, would Mr Hill grant that I was a suitable reviewer for his books on English history?
In the interest of fairness it is worth noting Christopher Hill’s reply “I agree with some of Professor Cameron’s points. In my review I noted as an interesting fact that the authors of two serious books on Stalin, written from very different viewpoints, agreed in rejecting the Trotskyist myth without accepting the Stalinist myth; and I observed that freedom to reject one of these myths without having to rely on the other gave the historian writing now about the Russian Revolution an advantage over even so great a historian as Isaac Deutscher. Professor Cameron, I gather, prefers the Trotskyite myth. This is fair enough, but one does not have to choose, and if one did have to choose literary merit would not necessarily be the best criterion. Any myth with the survival power of Stalinism must surely bear some relation to reality, which the historian should investigate: this has nothing to do with whether one likes it or not. I agree about the literary power and distinction of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, as of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion; but the literary power of the latter is no reason for preferring his myth to—say—Oldmixon’s.
With reference to Mr Ulam’s letter, it is not for me to defend your choice of a reviewer. I willingly admit to being no expert on the Russian Revolution. Mr Ulam has to go back twenty-seven years to find anything written by me on the subject. For this reason, I tried to concentrate on methodological questions raised by the two interesting books I was asked to review. The reductio ad absurdum argument of Mr Ulam’s last sentence, however, suggests an ironical addition to what I called the “recurrent situations” of revolutions: after their defeat, some of the Leveller leaders did in fact attempt to overthrow the Cromwellian régime in agreement with the Spanish government.
From an orthodox Marxist perspective, there are many more important and better criticisms of this book and Hill’s outlook. Like I said earlier the Russian revolution was dangerous territory not only for Hill but the other distinguished historians in the Communist Party.
Before 1956 these historians were lightly policed by the Communist Party Cultural Committee this not to say they could write anything they wanted. As Edward Thompson explained the CPHG largely policed their own work. As John McIlroy explains they “ by and large, knew and respected the rules of the game. The CP leadership’s unspoken interdict on researching into recent history, particularly the history of their own party, was on the whole accepted by the group. Allegiance to Stalinism moulded their Marxism, and, if it did not entirely stifle good scholarship, it undeniably constrained their history. As Hobsbawm remarked, ‘in the years 1946-56 the relations between the Group and the Party had been almost entirely unclouded. [The Historians]… were as loyal, active and committed a group of Communists as any…’
Hill continues the Stalinist tradition of attacking Trotsky’s role and political outlook during the Revolution.As Ann Talbot relates “Hill’s sole attempt at modern history, his study of Lenin is undoubtedly his weakest book. It is marred by repeated attacks on Trotsky, who is dismissed as one of the “Westernising theoreticians” of the revolutionary movement. Discussing whether Trotsky could ever have become the leader of the Bolshevik Party after Lenin’s death, Hill concludes, “Such a view exaggerates, I think, the importance of Trotsky in the party.”
As Hill should have known, the British government were well aware of Trotsky’s importance since they would not allow him into the country when he requested asylum. However, still Hill’s historical faculties would not let him deny that Trotsky was a great orator, that he organised the insurrection which brought the Bolsheviks to power, and nor does he avoid giving Trotsky more references in the index than Stalin. At no point does Hill repeat the false charges that the Stalinists made against Trotsky and his followers at the Moscow trials. Even in this book, which certainly hacks work, Hill did not make himself fully a Stalinist hack. His criticisms of Trotsky are ill-judged and betray an ignorance of his subject, rather than being malicious and dishonest. He retained a core of intellectual honesty in a work that was written in 1947 as the lines were being drawn for the Cold War, which was designed to defend the Russian Revolution and not to win him friends in high places at home or in the Kremlin.
Like any Christopher Hill book, I would recommend the book. Unlike Hill’s other work I would say the reader sometimes needs to hold their nose. As Talbot says, it is a hack work but is a decent read and worth reading to see how far Hill as a historian moved away from the book.
 An Historian on the Russian Revolution- https://www.marxists.org/archive/gollan/1948/02/historian.htm
 Stalin, Trotsky, & Cromwell-Adam B. Ulam, reply by Christopher Hill March 21 1974- http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1974/03/21/stalin-trotsky-cromwell-2/
I know it is hard to imagine, but I was born in a time and a place where there were no computers and very little television. Every Sunday afternoon, my father, would read to me from his favourite books (some of which I have to say were probably not really suitable for young children). Dad loved English history so many of the stories he read us were historical novels and the one that stayed with me and fired my imagination for all time was THE KING’S GENERAL by Daphne Du Maurier. If you don’t know this story it is set in the English Civil War and involves the very real life Sir Richard Grenville.
I was in love… not just with history but in particular with the English Civil War. The romance and tragedy of that terrible war between the King and his Parliament, cavaliers and roundheads, captured my imagination. I kept a scrapbook of articles cut from magazines, I devoured any book or movie I could find set in that period and when I ran out of stories to read, I started writing my own. My best friend at school also loved writing and we would spend our lunch hours perched in the willow tree in our school yard, writing away in shorthand notebooks.
Of course I grew up and life and career and family got in the way of writing but I never lost that urge to write. Over the years I continued to accumulate a library of books about the English Civil War and in my spare time I kept writing the story of my heart (which is now a published novel called BY THE SWORD). Then along came computers and the internet and instant access to resources I could only have dreamed about. I have now published eight novels, six of which are set in the English Civil War.
I studied history (and law) at university so I am, technically, a historian by training, but unfortunately living in Australia, my choice of subjects was limited and thus my qualification is in ancient history! That doesn’t matter… I think if I had pursued my love of the English Civil War in an academic sense, I would have lost my passion to write stories! That doesn’t prevent me writing the occasional ‘academic’ type article and for many years I posted regularly to a blog called Hoydens and Firebrands (it is now archived but you can still find my posts, eg this article on War Crimes during the English Civil War, are still being read regularly).
The books I write are often classified as ‘romance’ because I like my characters to have a happy ever after’ but for me historical accuracy is paramount and it is gratifying when readers comment on the colour and accuracy I bring to the story. I have had a lifetime of absorbing every detail of the period of the English Civil War and I find I don’t need to do much research, but I do go to my favourite books which often have little details I can’t find on line that bring a story to life. For example my book THE KING’S MAN came from a single line in Antonia Fraser’s biography of Cromwell which notes that a ‘Miss Granville’ threw a brick bat at the coach bearing Oliver Cromwell to dine with the Lord Mayor of London. Who was Miss Granville and why was she hurling brick bats at the Lord Protector? I still don’t know the true story (don’t tell me!) but I had fun with a fictional explanation!
I am, however, currently writing a series of historical novels set in Australia in the 1870s and that involves a huge amount of research from techniques of gold mining to what sort of lighting they used. The trick I find is not to get bogged in the research while you are writing. My priority is the story and if I get stuck on a piece of research I don’t know, I write a note to myself to go back and fix it when I come to revise the book.
Now for the practicalities… how do I write? I write all my books using a project management system for writers called Scrivener which enables me to store the research (documents, images and websites) so it is easily accessible to the story I am writing. I don’t really plot my stories – they grow organically from an idea, a character or a situation. There is no right or wrong way and trust me I have tried plotting but it killed the story for me before I even began. Every writer is different and whatever works for the individual is the right way for them.
Award-winning Australian author, Alison Stuart learned her passion from history from her father. She has been writing stories since her teenage years but it was not until 2007 that her first full length novel was published. A past president of the Romance Writers of Australia, Alison has now published seven full length historical romances and a collection of her short stories. Many of her stories have been shortlisted for international awards and BY THE SWORD won the 2008 EPIC Award for Best Historical Romance. If you would like to more about her books her website is http://www.alisonstuart.com
Wednesday, 15 November 2017
While my enthusiasm for writing was waning, my interest in the past was burgeoning. Harking back to my comedy enthusiasm, I cannot deny it was the sitcom Blackadder that fuelled this. To satisfy my curiosity, I started looking into the reality behind the setting of the third series, which focuses on the Regency. Still, if you’d been playing word association with me and tried me with “history”, I would almost certainly have said “Great Fire of London”. There was something about this historical event that stood out above all others in my mind. For it to hit the year following the capital’s famous plague epidemic seemed almost to add insult to injury and just when the country thought it had left behind the restriction of the Interregnum not to mention the destruction of the Civil Wars. 1666’s Great Fire appeared to be a climax of the turmoil the mid 17th century had to unleash. Many claim historians shouldn’t feel emotional about occurrences from bygone days. All I can say in my defence is that I’ve never considered myself a historian. Like it or not, I was mentally putting myself in the place of those poor Londoners. They were mostly ordinary people. Chandlers, schoolchildren, apothecaries, maids – nobody in particular, but still somebody. It was only for my imagination to decide.
So ideas were germinating, but what was I to do with them? By this time, my proofreading and editing had seen me work on a real mixture of texts, and spelling, grammar and punctuation had become a joyous part of what writing was about. While I don’t believe they are essential to the creative process, they open up all sorts of new avenues for expression on the page, many of which are lost in spoken form. Prose now had a more significant pull on me than scripts, and there was no doubt I harboured a desire to tell a tale solely by use of the written word. But I didn’t think I had it in me. Then I got to meet an author I’d been lucky enough to work with remotely. I admired him and felt I’d be a fool to ignore his advice. It was a good job then that his opinion was “just go for it”. On the train home, I set to and wrote an opening scene. From there, I was hooked. While the rocking carriage whisked me through England, my mind was firmly transported into 1666 and, quite frankly, I didn’t want to leave.
That isn’t to say it wasn’t challenging. It took me about a year before I realised I was approaching it from the wrong angle or at least in the wrong order. Getting straight into the action was all very well but my characters, like anyone in the world, had pasts and, as their earlier lives developed in my head, another yarn was born. Then there were their futures. I couldn’t be so cruel as to leave them hanging, could I? Henceforth, the amateur trying her hand at a little story decided to commit to a trilogy of novels. Now that’s a lot of words. Without the history though, her pages would be blank.
The research has been one of the most fascinating tasks I’ve ever undertaken. With the Great Fire being the central focus, it was my starting point, but I soon branched out in different directions. The involvement of the King and Duke of York led me to read up on them both and delve into their personal stories a bit. This, in turn, introduced me to all sorts of 17th-century figures, who were fun to meet but seemed very distracting. I didn’t want to lose focus on the characters of my own creation. It was surprising just how much I learned about my protagonists by studying real people though. As John Donne pointed out, “No man is an island”. When the nation was still reeling from bitter, bloody conflict, figures of authority were despised and revered, while the emerging health crisis endangered society collectively. Emotions ran high, with events and opinions of those around shaping each and every individual. Even my fictional characters couldn’t escape reality, so, to recognise what went on in these 1660s’ heads, I had to correctly understand something of Stuart Britain.
I don’t think I’d have attempted this in pre-Internet days, although printed articles and books can shed light on subjects in greater detail than online resources alone. It’s amazing how gripping a read non-fiction could be, by the way. Special mention here goes to Adrian Tinniswood’s “By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London” and Rebecca Rideal’s “1666: Plague, War and Hellfire”. What I’d regard as my best research experiences came last year, through some of the many events commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. They weren’t always ideal for the obscure details, but talks by historians walk led by city guides, charred exhibits on display in museums and a fascinating new study into the cause of the fire drove my enthusiasm all the more. The atmosphere itself was excellent. Strangers exchanged comments and I no longer felt weird to be sympathising with the victims of the time. Looking to get more of a sense of the period, I remembered the UK didn't lack in preserved history. Banqueting House is a particularly good one, not only for its visual resplendence but also for its audio commentary talking through some of the happenings to have gone on in the building.
I’m armed with a notebook if on a visit anywhere of 17th-century relevance, but most of my jotting down is done electronically. Paper is too readily lost and overlooked. I mainly confine notes to historical facts and the majority of my plot devising is done in my mind only. If I catch myself tied up in knots over it, I sometimes resort to listing statements about what my characters have done and why. This can help clarify interlinking storylines and show me how to proceed if I’m lucky. Thinking up complex plots could well be my downfall, but it adds a sense of mystery that keeps me guessing myself.
I hope the scenarios will grab some interest and of course, I’d like to see my readers feel for the characters. Yet, if someone takes nothing more from my work than a little appreciation for Stuart Britain, I’ll have done a service to an era that has served me well. I may not have lived through it, but revolution, debauchery, conflagration, combat, mass perishing and scientific pioneering teach people an awful lot, even 350 years later.
Claire Canary is still working on her books and is so far unpublished but plans to seek literary representation soon. Meantime she freelances, as a proofreader/editor trying to write historical fiction #GreatPlague #GreatFire.
Tuesday, 14 November 2017
What made the English Civil War one of the most decisive and dramatic conflicts in English History?
On 30 November at 3.30pm Routledge History is holding a Facebook LIVE Q&A with Clare Jackson, where she will unpack many of the ideas explored in Lawrence Stone's celebrated book, The Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642, published in the Routledge Classics series in 2017.
The interview will cover the book's controversial reception amongst historians when it was first published in 1972; Stone's views concerning the causes of the English Revolution; and what legacy the English Revolution leaves today.
Monday, 13 November 2017
The Poetics of History from Below-Marcus Rediker, September 2010
In memory of Dennis Brutus (1924–2009)
(Marcus Rediker has kindly allowed me to include this article in my series of Why I write ,How I write. It was first published in the American Historical Association website September 10th 2010) The original article can be found @https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/September-2010/the-poetics-of-history-from-below
My grandfather, the late Fred Robertson, influenced how I think about and write history. He died years before I decided to become a historian and he was not an academic, but he was a historian and an intellectual in his own way. He was a master storyteller.
This Kentucky coal miner was a larger-than-life figure in my youth. I fondly remember sitting with him at the kitchen table. In one hard hand he held a Lucky Strike. In the other hand he held a saucer of his beloved Maxwell House coffee, which he sipped that way even when it was no longer hot. In this posture he told endless stories to a boy who sat enthralled amid the pathos, humor, and quiet heroism of working-class life. His mood changed with the story. He laughed with his whole body, like the then-popular comedian Red Skelton, at his own funny parts.
His visage grew dark and scary at moments of danger or injustice. His eyes danced with the drama of his words. I knew something big was coming when he paused, put the cigarette in the ashtray, and set aside the saucer, freeing his hands for emphasis. His stories were vivid, complex, passionate, and somehow always practical. They featured apocalyptic Biblical language (a lot of hell-fire), long silences (with fateful stares), and curse words that were normally forbidden in our house (son-of-a-bitchin’ this and that). He always managed to tell a big story within a little story.
One of the stories I remember best concerned a vigilante hanging of a man in a coal village where he had once worked, Beech Creek, Kentucky.I don’t remember why the man was hanged. Nor do I remember whether he was white or black; I don’t think he told me. I do remember my mother walking into the kitchen, expressing her doubt without saying a word about whether I should be hearing this particular story.
What I remember most of all was how his telling of the story made clear how wrong the hanging was, and how a real-life lynching looked nothing like what we had all seen on television. He described a frantic, terrifying struggle, with legs flailing, ugly cheers from the crowd, and in the end a limp body with dangling eyeballs and wet pants. The storyteller’s sympathy was firmly with the victim, whose deadly ordeal he had made terribly, hauntingly real.
My grandfather, the poetic storyteller, was perhaps the oldest and deepest influence on my life’s choice to write “history from below,” the variety of social history that emerged in the New Left to explore the experiences and history-making power of working people who had long been left out of elite, “top-down” historical narratives. He educated me about the ways of the world and at the same time about the fundamentals of storytelling. He helped me to see and appreciate the poetics of struggle. And he also helped to shape my sense of the art and craft of history.
Like all good storytellers from Shakespeare to Brecht, my grandfather was a good listener. He had a canny ear for how people talked; he was attuned to voices, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, adult and child. Even animals sometimes talked in his stories; a touch of Uncle Remus! He spoke metaphorically: a crowd of people might be “as big as Coxey’s army”; something moving fast “took off like Moody’s goose.” I listened and learned about Coxey, but I never could figure out who Moody was or why his goose was in such a hurry.
I remember hearing while I was in graduate school an admonition about archival and primary sources: “Go on reading until you hear voices.” It seemed an exhortation to schizophrenia at the time, but memories of my grandfather helped me to grasp the point: humanize the sources, humanize the story. Learn to listen. And, of course, the recovery of voices has been a central purpose of history from below from the very beginning, but storytellers were way ahead of us.
The people I study did not often speak through documents of their own making, so it is not easy to hear them. This is the classic challenge of history from below, and many good books have addressed it. I listen by paying close attention to the meaning of words. I spend a lot of time looking up chronologically specific meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary. As an 18th-century specialist, I am especially fond of the words and meanings to be found in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, compiled by Francis Grose and first published in 1785. In writing Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a study of deep-sea sailors in the first half of the 18th century, I always had those wondrous things called maritime dictionaries close at hand to help me grasp the material conditions, cooperative work, communications, and consciousness of seagoing proletarians. I also paid close attention to sailors’ speech wherever I could find it, and to their own tradition of storytelling, or yarn-spinning. In his brilliant essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin explained that historically there have been two main types: the peasant storyteller who had a deep knowledge of locality and its lore, and the sailor storyteller who brought exotic tales from afar. My grandfather was, I suppose, a variant of the former; he helped me to understand the people I studied, the very embodiment of the latter.1
My grandfather chose his words carefully, showing me how a word, a phrase, or a quotation can bring a historical moment to life, even sear it into memory. And what could be more poetic than a note sent by a would-be arsonist to a gentleman in 1830: “My writing is bad but my firing is good my Lord.” One can almost hear the defiant laughter behind the writing. Such words were often speech committed to paper and preserved in the archive of “crime”—always an important place for those who would reconstruct the lives of the expropriated.2
Having heard the power of poetry in stories, I make it a point to use verse as historical evidence wherever possible. For example, poetry is central to The Many-Headed Hydra, a book Peter Linebaugh and I wrote about the motley proletariat of the Atlantic from 1600 to the 1830s. It appears in almost every chapter, some 50 times throughout a book that begins with William Shakespeare (The Tempest) and ends with William Blake (“Tyger, Tyger”). Famous, canonical poets (Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Shelley) rub elbows with largely unknown proletarian poets (Thomas Spence, Joseph Mather, and the ever-scribbling “anonymous,” a preferred female writer’s name for centuries). Contemporary poets such as the Martinican Aimé Césaire appear to summarize themes and ideas, for example, about the serpentine continuities of resistance.
Poetry can get the historian close to the experience and consciousness of working people and can evoke people, places, and events in multidimensional, dynamic ways. Sailor-poet James Field Stanfield crafted memorable, graphic images in his epic poem “The Guinea Voyage” and in his grimly poetic letters about life aboard a slave ship. He described, for example, the second mate of his vessel, lying sick, near death, on the medicine chest, his long hair clotted with filth as it brushed the deck of the ship. He depicted the nightmarish enslavement, flogging, and eventual death of an African woman named Abyeda. Such images can arrest the reader as surely as a surrealist object, disclosing in poetic fashion important connections, relations, parallels, and unities. Christopher Hill once wrote, “Good—imaginative—history is akin to retrospective poetry. It is about life as lived—as much of it as we can recapture.3
Poetry written by workers may be rare, but poetry to be found in action, in resistance by workers, is plentiful; it can be found most everywhere. My grandfather taught me to look for it. To give an example: I discovered a profound one-word poem in a memoir written by Silas Told, a sailor turned Methodist minister who described a drama aboard the slave ship Loyal George in 1727. An enslaved man had decided to die by hunger strike. Captain Timothy Tucker tried to force him to eat. He horse-whipped him to a raw and bloody pulp. He threatened to kill him. The nameless man uttered one word: adomma, so be it. Captain Tucker placed a loaded pistol to his forehead and repeated the demand to eat. Again: adomma. The captain fired and the blood gushed but the man stared him directly in the face and refused to fall. The captain cursed, called for another pistol, and shot the man in the head a second time. Again he would not drop, to the astonishment of all who looked on. A third shot killed the man but by this time an insurrection had exploded among the enslaved, who were inspired by the man’s resistance and outraged by his treatment.
It is impossible to know how many of the hundreds of people who witnessed this incident decided, like Silas Told, to tell the story, punctuated by the word adomma. I suspect many told it, and retold it, in several languages, on plantations, in urban workshops, on docks, and in ships, over many years. The nameless African man gives precise expression to a definition of poetry offered by Ann Lauterbach: “Poetry is the aversion to the assertion of power. Poetry is that which resists dominance.” This is crucial to history from below.4
All good storytellers tell a big story within a little story, and so do all good historians. It can be done in many ways. In my work, the big story has always been the violent, terror-filled rise of capitalism and the many-sided resistance to it from below, whether from the point-of-view of an enslaved African woman trapped in the bowels of a fetid slave ship; a common sailor who mutinied and raised the black flag of piracy aboard a brig on the wide Atlantic; or a runaway former slave who escaped the plantation for a Maroon community in a swamp. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once remarked that the small fact of sheep-stealing speaks to the big issue of revolution because the storyteller (in his case, the ethnographer) finds connections between the two.5
Finally, I remember my grandfather and remind myself that the historian, like the storyteller, is not above the fray. One of the big questions in the Kentucky coal fields in the 1930s was, which side are you on? In that spirit, I try to develop an ethical relationship with the oppressed and exploited people I study. The relationship is imaginary but no less important for that. In writing The Slave Ship, I asked myself repeatedly, from the beginning of the project to the end, how can I do justice to the people aboard the floating dungeons and what they experienced? The answer is to show retrospective solidarity and “accompany” them through their history, to use a term proposed by Staughton Lynd to describe an egalitarian relationship between historians/intellectuals and movements of working people from below.6
Walt Whitman made the same point in Leaves of Grass. He wrote of:
The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat;
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck—the murderous buckshot and the bullets;
All these I feel, or am.
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen;
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin;
I fall on the weeds and stones;
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close, Taunt my dizzy ears, and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.
Agonies are one of my changes of garments;
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels—I myself become the wounded person;
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
Whitman exaggerates to make a point: he cannot “become” the fugitive, but he can demonstrate sympathetic understanding of the historical subject. As a poet he can join the struggle and convey it to readers. In the end I strive to write history that is vivid, complex, passionate, and practical. I try to make it real and pose questions of justice as I lean on a cane of social and temporal distance and observe. My grandfather would have expected nothing less, dadgummit.
Marcus Rediker is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. His books have won numerous awards and been translated into fifteen languages. They include (with Peter Linebaugh) The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000); The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007); and most recently The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who became First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Beacon Press/Verso, 2017). He is also the producer of the prize-winning documentary film Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the 1839 Amistad rebellion in contemporary Sierra Leone. He is currently working as Guest Curator in the JMW Turner gallery at Tate Britain.
1. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in his Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 83–109.
2. Quoted in E. P. Thompson, “The Crime of Anonymity,” in Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, and E. P. Thompson, eds., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975), 297.
3. Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (London: Allen Lane, 1993), 438, 437.
4. Ann Lauterbach, “Links Without Links: The Voice of the Turtle,” American Poetry Review 21 (1992), 37–38.
5. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 23.
6. Staughton Lynd, “Oral History from Below,” Oral History Review 21 (1993), 1–8.