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Palace Square and Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Winter Palace stitch. Note Victory Day banners:-

Winter Palace stitch

Video of Winter Palace facade:-

Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Admiralty Building:-

Palace , St Petersburg, Russia

The Alexander Column, a monument to Victory over Napoleon, Palace Square, St Petersburg.:-

victory monument

Victory Monument, St Petersburg

General Staff Building:-

Palace , St Petersburg, Russia


palace , horse statue pediment

Horse-drawn carriages:-

Winter Palace, St Petersburghorse-drawn

Video of horse-drawn carriages, General Staff Building and part of Alexander Column. Again, note Victory Day banners:-

Horse-drawn Carriages, Palace Square, St Petersburg

The Black Jacobins by C L R James

Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

Allison & Busby, 1984, 426 p including 11 p Bibliography and 28 p Appendix plus i p Map of San Domingo, i p Contents, iii p Foreword and iii p Preface to the First Edition. First published in 1938.

 The Black Jacobins cover

C L R James was a Trinidadian historian and journalist whose book on cricket has been described by none other than John Arlott as the finest book written on the game. He was also a Marxist which if you didn’t already know could be divined here from the frequent use of the word bourgeoisie and many mentions of class. Note also, “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.”

The San Domingo Revolution was the only successful slave revolt in history. It eventually led to the establishment of the state of Haiti. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who changed his name from Toussaint Bréda when he joined the revolt, was its undoubted hero. James says however that “Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint.”

San Domingo was a prodigious source of wealth for its white sugar planters and the merchants back in France who traded its product; wealth built on the backs of the slave workers imported from Africa, a slave trade which James says had turned Central Africa from peace and happy civilisation to violence and ferocity, the product of an intolerable pressure on the African peoples. Of those who dispute that statement we have, “Men will say (and accept) anything in order to foster national pride or soothe a troubled conscience.”

Before the revolt San Domingo was riven by differences; between the planters and the bureacracy, big whites, small whites, Mulattoes, blacks. (For some reason I couldn’t fathom James always capitalises the word Mulattoes.) For the small white with not much in the way of property, “race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental.” An illustration of the central importance of colour to San Domingan life was that, “They divided the offspring of white and black and intermediate shades into 128 divisions. The true Mulatto was the child of pure white and pure black, a quarteron was the child of a Mulatto woman and a white man. This went all the way down to the sang-mêlé of 127 parts white and one part black but who was still a person of colour. These distinctions exemplify “the justification of plunder by any obvious differentiation to those holding power.” I note here that James describes pure blacks as negroes. I suppose the usage was common in the 1930s when he was writing but it strikes an odd note now.

Free Mulattoes were able to save, to own property and eventually to lend money. Their threat was such that, “white San Domingo passed a series of laws which for maniacal savagery are unique in the modern world.” But the Mulattoes were too numerous and the colonists had to be satisfied with humiliations such as restrictions on dress, meetings, travel, and so on. Black slaves and Mulattoes hated each other, and those who were more white despised people with blacker ancestry. This internalisation of racial prejudice was still prevalent in the Jamaica of James’s present.

In 1789 San Domingo accounted for 11 of the 17 million pounds of France’s export trade. The beginning of British efforts to abolish slavery was an attempt to undermine this economic powerhouse. “The slave trade and slavery were the economic basis of the French Revolution.” The fortunes made, “gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to emancipation.” But then came the French Revolution and the ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité, which took root in the fertile ground of the plantations.

When the uprising finally came James says that the slaves in their vengefulness were surprisingly moderate, far more humane than their masters had been, not maintaining it for long – unlike the systematic and enduring abuse the slaves had suffered. Toussaint himself established early a “great reputation for humanity, a very singular thing in the San Domingo of those days.” The crucial event for the sustenance of the revolt was the abolition of slavery by the Constituent Assembly in Paris, a reason for the slaves to cleave to revolutionary ideals thereafter.

Britain then promptly rowed back on the abolition of slavery and attempted to take over San Domingo. Under Toussaint the former slaves inflicted on Britain “the severest defeat that has befallen a British expeditionary force between the days of Elizabeth and the Great War.” The British lost more men in actual deaths than Wellington did to all causes in the entire Peninsular War, “‘her arm for six fateful years fettered and paralysed.'” Held by Toussaint and his raw levies Britain could not attack the revolution in France.

James has an undiluted admiration for Toussaint (along with Nelson and Napoleon one of the three outstanding personalities of the times) though admits his one fatal flaw. His allegiance to the French Revolution made him what he was; but in the end this ruined him. “His desire to avoid destruction was the very thing that caused it. It is the recurring error of moderates when face to face with a revolutionary struggle.”

The rise of Napoleon is seen by James as the bourgeoisie reasserting itself. Under Bonaparte it was the French intention to restore slavery on the island and their actually doing so in Guadeloupe that led to Haiti’s final independence. Toussaint’s blind spot had seen him acquiesce to the new French Governor, eventual imprisonment, transportation to, and eventual death in, France. It was Toussaint’s more ruthless deputy Dessalines who came to see independence was the revolt’s only hope.

James keeps describing the slaves and their culture as primitive (as he also characterises those of Africa.) Is this as a result of his Marxist view of history and its laws? He notes that slaves brought from Africa were compelled to master European languages, “highly complex products of centuries of civilisation.” There was therefore “a gap between the rudimentary conditions of the life of the slave and the language he used.” (Note also that inclusive – exclusive? – “he”.) It seems to me these sentiments are profoundly condescending – to African and slave alike.

Everything in the book is seen through the prism of Marxism, an approach which seems almost quaint these days as does James’s conclusion that salvation for the West Indies lies in Africa.

Aside:- For a fictional treatment of the slave revolution I would recommend the excellent All Souls’ Rising by Madison Smartt Bell. Having looked that up I discover Bell has published two subsequent books on the subject.

Pedant’s corner:- “All the slaves, however, did not undergo this régime.” (Not all the slaves underwent this régime,) “All of them did not submit to it.” (Not all of them submitted to it,) illtreatment (more usually it’s ill-treatment,) knit (knitted,) “adventurers seeking adventure,” (well, yes,) “72 million pounds’ weight of raw sugar and 51 million pounds of white,” (either use the apostrophe or not, don’t mix them,) the the, “both Hyacinth and another men” (man,) Francois’ (Francois’s,) Laveaux’ (Laveaux’s,) understod (understood,) acutal (actual,) Dessalines’ (Dessalines’s.) “It is a typical example of the cloud of lies which obscure the true history” (the cloud of lies which obscures,) “to neglect the race factor as merely incidental as an error only less grave than to make it fundamental” (as merely incidental is an error,) Maurepas’ (Maurepas’s,) Capois’ (Capois’s,) strewed (strewn,) Clairveaux’ (Clairveaux’s,) wirter (writer,) indpendent (independent,) a missing parenthetical end-comma, tonelle (tonnelle?)

The Member and The Radical by John Galt

Canongate Classics, 1996, 263 p, including 2 p glossary, 6 p notes (The Member) and 4 p notes (The Radical) plus 8 p Introduction.

The Member and The Radical cover

Galt was a Scot born in Ayrshire whose novels mainly dealt with the impact of the industrial revolution and has been called the first political novelist in the English language. The Member was the first example of the Parliamentary political novel, The Radical deals with Parliamentary matters only towards its end. These two works of fiction were first published in 1832 (in January and May respectively) and subsequently in one volume as The Reform that November but apparently not republished till 1975 (The Member) and this edition (The Radical.) The two hundred year old idioms do take some getting used to but it is worth persevering.

The Member: An Autobiography.
This is prefaced by a “Dedication” to one William Holmes, wherein Scot Archibald Jobbry laments the imminent passing of the Great Reform Act and the inevitable depredations which it will bring in its train. Many years before Jobbry had returned from India where he had made his fortune and decided to purchase a seat in the House of Commons despite it being technically illegal to do so. He shows himself a sly and acute bargainer. During this process he opines, “a Tory is but a Whig in office, and a Whig but a Tory in opposition.” Some things don’t change. In this regard Jobbry later says MPs have been, “inveterate to retain the distribution of places and pensions – the natural perquisites of Members of Parliament” and, “The democratical think state salaries always exorbitant, and the aristocratical never think wages low enough.”

The shenanigans accompanying elections in those days are amusingly described. On this point Jobbry tells us, “It is by no means plain why paying for an individual vote should be so much more heinous than paying for a whole borough.” These vices are still with us, if in altered form. To my mind selling off state assets is an even higher category of bribe than either of those Jobbry mentions, promising lower taxes only slightly less so.

Galt often uses the utterly obsolete form “quo’ I” for “I said” when Jobbry is relating his own direct speech.

In talking to fellow Parliamentarian Sir John Bulky, Jobbry – despite being a Tory (even if of a restrained sort) – says, “It is not a time to reduce public appointments when there is a national distress; the proper season is when all is green and flourishing.” (Tell that to the present UK coalition!) Sir John replies, “lessening expenditure during a period of general hardship – is paving the way to revolution.” Fat chance.

We also have, “a wild and growing notion prevails that governments … are of less use than had always been supposed; a doctrine (in) which the most civilised and refined communities will be driven to the wall.”

The Radical: An Autobiography
The life story of one Nathan Butt (try saying it in a Scottish accent,) an individual poles apart from Alexander Jobbry in outlook and here presented in a much less favourable light than Jobbry was in The Member – though he is much disturbed by his Radical friends indulging in bribery to get him elected. Again there is a dedication, this time to Baron Brougham and Vaux, late Lord High Chancellor. Butt’s enthusiasm for Napoleon turns to a feeling of betrayal by “that very bad man.” The narrator refers to his “friend” John Galt and quotes one of his poems. Metafiction in the 1830s. There is a harsh schoolmaster called Mr Skelper* – no doubt inspired by Mr Thwackum.

Several phrases resonate with the present day. “The age required that men who had large private properties should have resigned what they withdrew from the public purse.” (For this nowadays read Amazon, Google, Starbucks evading tax?) “The newspapers now and then tell us of this gentleman, who on his audit-day remitted so many per cents to his tenantry; but I doubt if the fashion has yet become common.” Quite! “There is something in their” – priests and clerics – “office which leads them to imagine themselves superior to the commonalty of mankind.” One of the characters has “a prophetic vista of the time when the English language, by the American States, and the Oriental colonies, would be universal all over the Earth.”

There is a glossary in the final pages which strangely only goes up to the letter “l” – at least in my copy.

*See skelp in the Dictionary of the Scots Language. Type in “skelp” in the search box and then click “skelp,v”.

Norway 0-1 Scotland

International Friendly, Vasker Stadion, Molde, 19/11/13.

Grand larceny. Norway dominated this.

We were indebted both to David Marshall in goal and to poor Norwegian finishing for the win. It looked as if the team had never met. We survived a few bomb scares in the first half and at least two golden opportunities in the second.

Curiously the goal came after the only series of passes we managed to string together. (Passing! The secret of success at last!)

Napoleon famously asked of potential generals if they were lucky. This criterion may be applicable to managers too.

Black Opera by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2012, 680 p.

The book starts atmospherically with a prologue scene set around the eruption of the Indonesian volcano of Tambora in 1815, which provided the loudest sound in recorded history – an explosion so great that 1200 miles away it was thought to be artillery and threw so much ash into the atmosphere it resulted in “the Year without a Summer” in 1816. Perhaps the first sign that this is not a straight historical novel is that a party of “The Prince’s Men” is on hand – on an ocean-going steamboat.

The novel proper focuses on Conrad Scalese, a rationalist atheist who writes libretti for a living. His latest work has had a triumphant premier but lightning has struck the theatre where it was performed. The local (Neapolitan) Inquisition interprets this as a sign of God’s anger at the opera’s blasphemy and arrives to take him in for questioning. He is saved by the local police chief who conveys him to a meeting with the King of the Two Sicilies who assesses Conrad’s suitability to write the libretto for an opera which the King desires in order to counter a Black Opera which The Prince’s Men plan to perform in a few months’ time. The Black Opera is the secular equivalent of a black mass. Not only will it cause the eruption of Vesuvius, Stromboli, Ætna and other volcanic regions in between, thus devastating the Two Sicilies, it will summon up Il Principe, the God whom the creator God left in charge of Earth. Other intrusions of the supernatural into the narrative have Conrad’s father appearing as a ghost and people known as the Returned Dead – not zombies but fully functioning humans except for lacking the need to breathe.

The premise – that volcanic eruptions can be triggered by singing – is of course unremittingly silly but must be accepted for purposes of story. Invocation of gods or devils by incantation is time-honoured in fiction so their summoning by singing is not too much further of a stretch (but still too much for me.)

Gentle’s characterisation and plotting are excellent, though. The web of relationships around Conrad and the betrayals inherent in the set-up – the Prince’s Men are even more dangerous than the Cammora of Naples or the società onorata of Sicily – are finely detailed. Gentle’s knowledge of, or research on, opera seems solidly based to a non-buff. The collaborative nature of a first production, not only composer and librettist but also the singers, was well depicted.

As befits an altered history of the nineteenth century, the victor of Austerlitz and Borodino, the Emperor of the North, also makes two passing appearances.

Conrad’s sweet-bitterness towards his former love is pithily expressed, “It’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man,” and the perennial complaint, “why a sister and a sweetheart will invariably combine their forces to persecute the relevant male,” is aired.

Despite any negativity above Black Opera is never less than readable; even the supernatural stuff.

Pedants’ complaints:- “Sung” count: 1. Livestock is a singular noun. Plus we had a who’s for whose, lay for lie, a beaus for beaux and one, “I can’t explained.” Despite her Italian setting and liberal use of Italian phrases, Gentle employed librettos and palazzos as plurals rather than the Italian libretti/palazzi. (Both forms are, though, acceptable in English.)

The Western Front by John Terraine

Hutchinson, 1964. 231p.

This is a book I got at a library sale years ago and have only just got round to reading. Rather than an overview of the Western Front as a whole it turns out to be a series of essays Terraine wrote between 1957 and 1962 which were finally collected in book form in 1964.

In the introduction Terraine is at pains to emphasise that the casualty rate in World War 1 was by no means unprecedented. Starting with Waterloo and taking in the Crimea, The American Civil War and the Boer War he illustrates that, for those with eyes to see, in a time of increasingly industrialised warfare high casualties were inevitable once the fighting started. This was a theme he developed fully in his later book The Smoke And The Fire.

World War 1 was unique, though, in the prolonged timescale of the battles and the static nature of the Western Front. (Other fronts had movement but sustained equally high, or even higher, percentage casualties.) The carnage of the Second World War eclipsed even that of the First, but Britain escaped most of it.

The focus of the book is, however, more on the personalities on the British side than the battles themselves; in particular in the antipathy between Lloyd George and his top commanders. Now, Terraine is a military historian and it is not surprising that his sympathies should lie with the generals but the evidence he presents for Lloyd George’s unhelpfulness is convincing.

His assessment of Douglas Haig as being far from the stolid and hidebound figure of the popular imagination is well argued. His highest praise, though, is reserved for the all but forgotten British general Herbert Plumer.

There is also a discursion into the baneful effect the cult of Napoleon had on the French military mind – and on others. In Terraine’s view Napoleon was anything but the tactical and strategic genius he is usually taken for and, moreover, was exceedingly careless with the lives of his men. The yearning for “something else,” the strategic or tactical genius who might have been able to circumvent the Western Front’s defences was always a chimera. None of the generals, on either side, had a quick and easy solution. In the end, by applying the lessons learned throughout and the integration of new tactics and weapons like the tank, it should not be forgotten that the war was won, and it was won on the Western Front. And that within the three months of late summer and early autumn of 1918.

While Terraine mentions it briefly, the most important assessment of the implications of the war is outwith the scope of this book. Britain was unable to wield sea power effectively (with the launch of the first modern battleship, Dreadnought, and the subsequent naval arms race its dominance had in essence been lost.) The development of the mine and torpedo and the advent of the submarine made a surface fleet almost useless in any case. As a result Britain was sucked in by force of events to becoming a land power; from 1917 onwards – arguably from the Battle of the Somme a year earlier – the major contributor to the Allies; fighting strength and the instrument of final victory.

Had the navy been able to ensure safe passage across the North Sea (rather than keep secure the shorter distance to France) an amphibious landing might have been attempted in Northern Belgium and the Western Front’s flank turned. Whether that would actually have led to an earlier German defeat is another matter.

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