Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the English Hero
The Campaign of Trafalgar
Julian S. Corbett
Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2005
Admiral Collingwood, Nelson’s own hero
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005
Wellington’s Navy: Sea Power and the Peninsular War, 1807-1814
Christopher D. Hall
Chatham Publishing, 2004
Start with a howler
It must be rare for a reader on opening a book to encounter a howler in line one, page one (to be pedantic, of the first Preface page, p. xiii), of a historical work, but Adam Nicolson has managed it: “More Catholics were burned at the stake in 16th century England than in any other country in Europe.” After wondering where on earth such data could have come from, I realised, as every schoolboy used to know, that it was Protestants that got burned at the stake in England, whereas this never happened to Catholics anywhere in Europe at any time. Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, gives 300 Protestants as suffering this fate mostly under Mary Tudor, while J.A. Froude in his classic work The Reign of Mary Tudor , estimates the numbers as between 270 and 290.
Continue with some errors…
But worse is to come. To continue this criticism: Nicolson gives this as an instance of the unusual “scale of aggression” manifested by the English from that time to the Napoleonic Wars, aggression which Nelson could call upon to win at Trafalgar. But here the facts contradict this claim. Mary Tudor was entirely responsible for this persecution, though she found enough fanatics to carry it out. Her advisers – even her husband, who became Philip II of Spain, and the ambassador of his father, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – were against it. In many cases, sympathetic crowds came to witness the steadfastness of the victims. To complete the picture, Mary steadily ran down England’s defences, spending her income on refurbishing churches and restoring monasteries, a policy culminating in the loss of Calais, England’s last foothold on the European continent.
This particular error is all the more deplorable in a historian who has written a very competent account of the genesis of the Authorised Version of the Bible, Power and Glory, Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible which was completed in 1611, hardly far from the period of Mary’s reign, 1553-1558.
The same misinterpretation of events occurs in the author’s throwaway and sourceless line, “A higher percentage of the population died in the English Civil War than in the French Revolution.” Though the English Civil War can be dated as 1642-1649, no termination date is given for the French Revolution, which after 1792 continued seamlessly for nearly the next quarter century in a series of European wars which cost France itself, according to La Fayette, in his impassioned address to the French Assembly, convened after Waterloo, three million lives and many more in the rest of Europe. Nor does Nicolson take into account the reluctance with which the English Civil War was inaugurated, with the parliamentarians, all from the same class, formerly united in their resistance to the King, now forced to pick sides when he decided to enforce his will to become an absolute monarch, like others across the Channel. Nor was the general population in any way inflamed – far from it.
Even after the war was well under way, a parliamentary general could write to his opposite number:
Certainly my affections are so unchangeable, that hostility itself cannot violate my friendship to your person… The God of peace in his own good time send us peace, and in the mean time fit us to receive it. We are both upon the stage, and must act those parts that are assigned to us in this tragedy. Let us do it in a way of honour and without personal animosities.
The start and finish of a letter from Sir William Waller (Parliamentarian) to Sir Ralph Hopton (Royalist), quoted by Richard Ollard in This War Without an Enemy, a phrase he takes from the same letter.
Nicolson’s citing of the subjugation of the Highlands after the Fortyfive is also inappropriate. By this time England had not experienced any military activity on its soil for nearly a century, its citizenry were effectively disarmed and its reaction to the incursion of Charles Edward Stuart was essentially passive and very few English Jacobites joined him.
Thus the case for some sort of latent English aggressiveness falls apart on examination. Even the tactic of “breaking the enemy’s line” and provoking a melee with close ship to ship encounters became a Royal Navy tactic only in the second half of the eighteenth century. It was not invented by Nelson, but, as Nicolson states, initiated by Rodney and developed by Howe.
This policy can hardly be attributed to aggressiveness but rather to the fact that Royal Navy ships had become superior to the French in manoeuvrability and gunnery. Once engaged, a higher rate of broadside firing inevitably told and by Trafalgar they could deliver between two to three broadsides for every one of the French or Spanish. Aware of this, the British seamen sailed confidently to the attack. → Continue reading: Trafalgar – and after
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1967
(reissued 2001, with new preface)
Who they were and who they were not: their long lineage
Perhaps it would be best to start by saying what the Assassins were not. In his preface to the 2001 edition, Lewis states clearly:
According to a view widespread in the western world since mediaval times, the anger and the weapons of the Assassins were directed primarily against the Crusaders. This simply is not true. In the long list of their victims, there were very few Crusaders… The vast majority of their victims were Muslims and their attacks were directed not against the outsider, seen as basically irrelevant, but against the dominant elites and prevailing ideas of the Muslim world of their time.
Their Muslim opponents and potential victims responded in kind:
To kill them [preached one menaced cleric] is more lawful than rainwater. It is the duty of Sultans and kings to conquer and kill them, and cleanse the surface of the earth from their pollution. It is not right to associate or form friendships with them, nor to eat meat butchered by them, nor to enter into marriage with them. To shed the blood of a heretic is more meritorious that to kill seventy Greek infidels, [i.e., the Byzantines, their centuries-old enemies].
Lewis also rejects the tales (though current in the early 13th Century, and included in Marco Polo’s Travels) of “earthly paradises” in which drugged disciples woke to experience the promised pleasures of the world to come, after they had accomplished their suicidal mission. Furthermore, Lewis even rejects the hypothesis of a direct connexion with hashish, the effects of which were known long before the sect began its activities in Syria, where the name became attached to them, he suggests, as a term of abuse.
The religious provenance of the Assassins is a long one, and impatient readers might care to skip to the section below titled 1090: The Story Really starts.
Islam’s leadership (Caliph) problem
Then who were the Assassins? Although their first assassination took place in 1092, the Muslim sect that took this up as a matter of policy had a long lineage going back almost the origins of Islam. Muhammad, Islam’s charismatic founder, had left no intructions as to the succession, which, if he had attended to the matter, might have solved the problem that plagued almost every Muslim dynasty ever after.
Legitimists versus Opportunists: Shi’a versus Sunni
The first three Successors (caliphs), Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman, were associates and early supporters of Muhammad himself. The first had deputised for the prophet during his last illness, so his position seemed a natural continuation of that status; he in turn designated Omar as his successor, while Omar, who was mortally stabbed by a Christian (he was greatly relieved it was not a Muslim) appointed six electors to decide on his. Othman’s caliphate (644-656) ended with his murder by mutineers and this was the opportunity for Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad to assert his claim by heredity. He defeated and killed two claimants but was tricked into negotiating with a third opponent and betrayed by his own advocate. Ali was murdered in 661 for a reason that seems more personal than political, and became the first Muslim martyr, to be followed by his two sons, al-Hasan, who died at the age of 45, possibly of poison (669), and al-Husayn, who was killed, together with all but one of his sons, in what was more a massacre than a battle, at Karbala (680). But the party of Ali, the Shi’atu Ali, survived as the Shi’a, and Ali left plenty of descendants. → Continue reading: A radical sect in Islam: 1090-1273
The Architect and His Wife: A Life of Edwin Lutyens
Chatto & Windus, 2002
The great grand-daughter of the architect (“Ned” to all) and his wife (Lady Emily Lutyens, nee Lytton) has set herself the quadrangular task of describing the lives of both of them, together with his architecture and her theosophy. Their interests, to which both were strongly bound, conflicted and in others, and probably at other times, would have ensured their separation. But as his letters (The Letters of Edwin Lutyens to his Wife Lady Emily, edited by Clayre Percy and Jane Ridley) can attest, much more strongly than this book does, they retained a deep affection for each other, certainly amounting to love initially and at the end of their lives together. “In the last years of his life,” wrote Lady Emily, in her autobiography Candles in the Sun, “I like to think that we were closer to each other than we had ever been before.” And, penitently, after re-reading their letters two months after his death, she found hers and herself “a revelation of such an odious person, and Father so endlessly sweet and patient.” His letters (a superb collection, and a joy to read) certainly bear this out: as far as I know, hers have not been published – perhaps as she would have wished.
Unfortunately their incompatibilities were enormous. Just for a start, neither seemed to have any idea how to make love. Perhaps if Emily had been seduced by Wilfred Scawen Blunt, “a corridor-creeper” as someone characterised him (and got away with it; and, in the circumstances it did seem an amazingly close-run thing – see A Blessed Girl by Lady Emily herself) he might have taught her how to initiate the obviously clumsy virgin Ned. As it was, after the birth of Mary, the youngest child, she refused (by letter) to have any further sexual relations with him. Fortunately, perhaps, they did not live together very much; at first his work took him to sites and clients, South Africa and India, later her theosophy to camps, congresses, India (he had to warn her that if she came when he was there, he’d have to throw up his work) and Australia. The children suffered terribly – or do I exaggerate? → Continue reading: An odd (but loving) couple
The Buddha and the Sahibs
John Murray Publishing, 2003
It came as something of a surprise to me that so much that is now known about the Buddha (the “Wise One”, not an exclusive title in his time) seems to have been discovered by Europeans, who, later joined by the Americans, played a large part in the revival of Buddhism in the East, as well as its spreading into the West. It may be a fault in this book that the reader is really left in the dark as to the actual tenets of Buddhism. There have been plenty of investigators eager to claim significance for their discoveries, but their painstaking translations are rarely quoted and Asoka’s famous much-carved edict, triumphantly deciphered after 2000 years of incomprehensibility, and generally deploring violence, is more noted for the rarity of such an expression of its sentiments than for anything profound or even unusual about them.
Undoubtedly a historical person, the Buddha was born Siddhartha, prince in a small Sakya kingdom on what is now the Indian-Nepali border, into the Gautama tribe or clan: Sakyamuni and Gautama are thus other designations, as well as Burkhan (holy). The trouble with written records in the subcontinent at this time and for many centuries to come is that they were extremely perishable, ranging from bark in the north to palm leaves in the south. There were inscriptions on rocks and pillars, but ability to read them had long been lost. Oral traditions, however venerated, could not be regarded as reliable.
Most histories and reference books I have looked up give 568-463BC for the Buddha, or a few years earlier, linked to the known reign of the Mauryan king Asoka, 273-232BC. Allen favours the Sri Lankan source for 624-542BC, as Buddha’s lifespan, while Keay in his India, a History puts his death between 400 and 350BC, two or three generations before Alexander the Great’s incursion.
Enter the sahibs, from the late 1700s on, mainly younger sons or others from impoverished families or both, joining the East India Company, where it was possible to make a fortune, if one survived, for in that climate mortality was heavy. Enough of them manifested curiosity about the country to which they’d come to learn its languages and look at its monuments. Sanskrit (spelt Sanscrit by those who wrote about it at the time), the ancient language, from which the various languages and dialects of North India were derived, was kept by the Brahmins as far as possible a secret from others trying to find out anything about it. → Continue reading: The Light of Asia into western eyes
The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language
A History of the English Language
Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable
Routledge & Kegan Paul 1951, revised 1978.
It is probable that those who have watched Melvyn Bragg on television and have heard him on radio on the subject reviewed here, will find the printed word, in short, his book, by far the superior medium to communicate it. It would be tedious to enumerate the advantages of the printed word, but the lack of sound is its great drawback, for of course language is oral, not visual – yet the only evidence of its past and development is visual, not oral. In his fluent, informative and thoughtful account of our language, Bragg tends get excitable: English faces “challenges” and, at a critical stage even “kept its nerve”, though whether its speakers were aware of these anthropomorphic postures is doubtful. Readers might do well to keep by them the more sober narrative of Baugh and Cable.
Although he gives a mention to the Indo-European stock from which almost all European languages differentiated, Bragg very sensibly begins in the fifth century when a variety of invaders from the mainland of Europe started to land in what is now England, speaking a distinctly different language from those who were already there. This language was a Germanic one, existing in a number of dialects. Some dialects were brought across, others left behind. The resulting mixture evolved into Anglo-Saxon, though it seems its closest living relative is present-day precarious Frisian.
The Anglo-Saxon speakers moved west, gradually conquering the resistance of the Celtic-speaking inhabitants and replacing their language with their own. One must be careful to distinguish this process from one of replacement of the inhabitants themselves, for studies of the DNA of today’s population indicate that this was far from being the case. However, the Celtic language itself survived only in Wales and Cornwall, though refugees transferred it to Brittany in France, while a related Celtic language continued unaffected in Ireland, and what was probably another one, spoken by the Picts in Scotland. → Continue reading: Bragging about English
Dr Johnson’s Dictionary
John Murray 2005
The fifteenth of April marked the 250th anniversary of the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary, the making of which Hitchings has subtitled The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World. Johnson lives on as a personality, immortalised by Boswell, but more for his idiosyncrasies and oracular bon mots than for his literary eminence. Should interest flag, the appearance of another biography or an interesting book, such as this one, revives him as an icon.
This is not to minimize his status as a writer (after all, how many eighteenth-century writers are nowadays – a word barely admitted by Johnson – read for pleasure?) However, the considerable bibliography listed by Boswell does consist mostly of what Johnson would certainly have regarded as ephemera, though the 208 bi-weekly numbers of The Rambler (March 20th, 1750 – March 14th, 1752), essays of 1200 – 1500 words, were collected, revised and published, going through ten editions during the lifetime of the author. His novel Rasselas can be compared to its advantage with Voltaire’s Candide, as treating the same subject matter in greater moral depth than Voltaire’s cynicism could plumb. Both were published in 1759 and so closely together that Johnson remarked that “there was not time for imitation”. Written hurriedly in a week to pay for his mother’s funeral and sent to the printer in instalments, it was never, Johnson claimed, actually read by himself – until 22 years later, when he came across a copy in Boswell’s coach, which he devoured with great interest.
Between the ephemeral and the immortal lies a dictionary, or, I should say lay. Until forty or fifty years ago the same dictionary could stay on the shelf for reference for the same period of time. Now the paperback dictionary attests its impermanence, as technological and social neologisms crowd in for recognition and definition. Whereas we accept the fluidity of our vocabulary and by extension of our language, from the late seventeenth century on there was a general suspicion, voiced by Dryden, Defoe and Swift, that both would lead to incomprehensibility. An authoritative” dictionary would prevent such a trend getting out of hand by “fixing” the meaning of words and even, by excluding some as unsuitable, “refining” the language “for ever”. Johnson moved away from this purist to the pragmatic approach of recording words which were used rather than prescribing those which should be. But he confined himself to the written word, preferably from the works of authors who were dead. → Continue reading: How Johnson did it in 42,773 words
Cassell, London, 1929
First Athenian Memories
Cassell, London, 1931
Chatto & Windus, 1932
Chatto & Windus, 1940
(All out of print)
Compton Mackenzie, A Life
Chatto & Windus, London, 1987
Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) has left little in the way of reputation behind him. Both his early “serious” and his later “lighter” novels are now unread. Like all “personalities” dependent on attention from and appearances in the media, memory of them and him soon faded and disappeared when these ceased. In Scotland, to which he retired, physically and metaphorically from a wider scene, he is little more remembered, even as a founder member of the Scottish National Party, with which he became disillusioned. Yet when young, before the First World War, he was widely regarded as a near-genius of great literary promise and when it was learned that he was bound for Gallipoli there were plaints in cultured circles that the country, after the death of Rupert Brooke in the same theatre of war, could not afford to lose another of the same calibre. Yet it was as a result of his decision to participate (for this was still a voluntary act) that he produced his masterpiece, in four volumes of “Memories”, which I hope will at some time be republished to ensure him a deserved immortality. His ninety-three other books do not include a credible competitor and it would be a pity if the film Whisky Galore, from the book of the same name, was his only and inadequate memorial.
Gallipoli Memories, published in 1929, was the first in what Mackenzie seems to have projected as a four-volume account of his First World War experiences. He was as eager as anyone of his age to do his bit (we must put aside any sort of back-projection of a pacifist atmosphere generated amongst intellectuals by four years of trench-warfare) and could pull strings to do so. A military doctor told him he would only be fit for service in a warm climate such as Egypt. It was Orlo Williams, to whom the book is appropriately dedicated, who, having noticed that Sir Ian Hamilton, the Commander-in-Chief of the Gallipoli Campaign, was reading Mackenzie’s novel Sinister Street, found him the job on Hamilton’s staff, ensuring Mackenzie his share in the campaign. Though he wholeheartedly approved of it, after a while he had the gut feeling that it would not succeed, justified later by his realisation that it was insufficiently supported by the military back home.
He was not trying to make an historical contribution in this book. He did not keep a diary and such letters as survived were mainly useful for fixing dates. Perhaps the most prominent feature of all the books are his studies of his associates, largely favourable and observed without malice, those otherwise regarded being left anonymous. It is a loss that he never met Churchill (anyway not at this time), but Maurice (later Lord) Hankey who came out instead, “did make a most definite impression” on Mackenzie. He was only 38, not that much older than Mackenzie, but was “always . . . alluded to as if he were trembling on the verge of eighty” and was “the only man throughout the war for whom I never heard anybody suggest a better substitute”. → Continue reading: Spying in Greece during World War One
Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2003
Bonnie Prince Charlie: Charles Edward Stuart
Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s campaign to regain the British throne for his father is the most romantic episode in British history, retold many times. Landing in Moidart on the Scottish mainland with seven companions, and then persuading a number of clan chiefs to support him, he conducted a brilliant campaign that took him to 120 miles of London. Because of the passivity of the English Jacobites and the failure of any French help to arrive, the clan chiefs refused to proceed further and the army retreated back to Scotland and ultimate defeat. The five-month hunt for Charles through the Scottish Highlands and Islands until he escaped at last to France provides a coda just as romantic and more material to make him into a legend, which even turned the head of Frederick the Great.
Duffy’s massive 639 page account is primarily a military history, giving much information on the forces of the two sides, Stuart and Hanoverian, their movements, tactics and morale, but strangely lacking serious discussion of strategy. The political background, national and international is likewise missing; in 1743 Britain had got involved in the war of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), and was at war with France. It may be that the author is overconscious of going over well-trodden ground, but it seems perverse to opt out of giving an account, or even a summary of an account, of the council of war at Derby that decided that the Jacobite army should retreat, and though he dissents from that decision himself: “It is not the purpose of the present work to recapitulate the details of the sessions, which are recounted at length in every serious biography of the Prince and study of the ’45 (p. 301)”.
McLynn’s biography makes it clear that the Highland chiefs, whose clans had been the spearhead of the invasion simply refused to continue. They had been disappointed by the lack of French intervention, promised by Charles, together with the passivity of the English Jacobites. Duffy makes much of the fact that the scale may have been turned by the false information that the Duke of Cumberland’s army was about to block any possible retreat provided by the Hanoverian agent, Dudley Bradstreet, masquerading as Oliver Williams, an English, or more likely, a Welsh Jacobite volunteer. Bradstreet must have had nerves of steel, for he stayed with the Prince on the retreat, and was not slow to take the credit for it. Duffy does not say when he deserted – for that one would presumably have to read Bradstreet’s own account (1750; edited and republished, 1929). Needless to say, it is far from being accepted by everybody as gospel.
There is no doubt that until Derby, the rebels had won every move, mainly because of their greater mobility and their seizing of the initiative. Even the weather, usually bad, favoured them, despite or even because by the time the crisis came they were conducting a winter campaign, for which they were better suited than their opponents, not only because of the greater hardiness of the Highlanders, who made up their shock troops, but because of their logistics. They advanced from town to town in an orderly manner, usually collecting money already accumulated there for tax payments and sometimes clothing and equipment. What they did not get, especially after they had crossed the border, were many recruits. The impression given is that most of the population, both in England and Scotland, had decided to sit things out and see what happened. → Continue reading: The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 – a romantic non-event?
Ticknor & Fields, New York 1994
Five Days in London: May 1940
Yale Univ. Press 1999
We buried Winston Churchill forty years ago. Sixty five years ago, come May, he faced, for us, the greatest crisis of our history. BBC’s Radio 4 commemorated his death with a fine, hour-long recall of his funeral and the crisis of 1940 with a gripping drama, Playing for Time – Three Days in May 1940. I do not know whether the author of the play, Robin Glendinning, owed anything to the books noticed here, but to me they seem to autheticate it. Another Radio 4 programme, Churchill’s Roar, very perceptively analysed the voice that spoke the words that still move us.
The World’s Debt to Britain
To put it no higher, the world is fortunate that, for a whole year, from June 1940 to June 1941, Britain had a government that did not capitulate to or compromise with Hitler. The situation during that year looked barely a stalemate. The Axis Powers now completely dominated Europe. Italy was an ally, Spain was friendly and the USSR no threat (the only person Stalin ever trusted was Hitler). Germany had absorbed Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938, then in less than a year’s war had overrun and partitioned Poland, occupied Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg, and completed her conquest of Western Europe by knocking out France. The Balkans represented no problem.
Although it may have been the result of miscalculation and misfortune that for a year Britain “stood alone”, it turned out to be the right thing to do. And more than calculation stood behind the decision: it felt the right thing to do. But what could Britain hope for? The Dominions (except for Southern Ireland, still officially one of them, whose government played its ignoble role, excused by its history, until the very end) were loyal and contributed men and arms. The United States was sympathetic but strongly isolationist: to win the Presidential Election in 1940, Roosevelt felt he had to promise to keep out of the war. There was little Britain could do but protect herself and trounce Hitler’s jackal-ally Italy in Ethiopia, Somaliland and North Africa – and hope that Hitler would make some mistake.
The Inevitable Parallel: Napoleon and Hitler
The parallel between Britain’s struggle against Napoleon and that against Hitler hardly needs to be drawn, but if there is any lesson in history, surely it is here. Napoleon retains his high reputation, gained from victory in a dozen battles; Hitler never commanded in the field, yet subjugated Europe more thoroughly. Both underestimated Britain in both her power and persistence, Hitler the more excusably. Napoleon abandoned the attempt to invade, and did not in person try to eject Britain from Spain and Portugal; in combination, a fatal error. Hitler postponed his invasion attempt, half-hoping the fruit would drop into his hand, also a fatal error. → Continue reading: Finest Hour, Last Gasp – or both?
From Babel to Dragomans
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2004
Two passages from this collection of essays catch the eye for quotation. The first is from the author himself, written in 1999, in an essay entitled The Taxonomy of Group Hatred:
Let me begin with a proposition that may seem outrageous: to hate the other, the outsider, the one who is different, who looks different, sounds different, smells different; to hate, fear and mistrust the other is natural and normal – natural and normal, that is to say, among baboons and other gregarious animals, or in the more primitive forms of human existence, such as forest tribes, cave-dwellers and the like. Unfortunately it survives into later forms of human development. It survives in even the most advanced and sophisticated civilised societies. It is, and we should not disguise this from ourselves, a very basic human instinct, not just human, but going back beyond our most primitive ancestors to their animal predecessors. The instinct is there, and it comes out in all sorts of unexpected situations. To pretend it does not exist and that it is some sort of ideological aberration cannot lead anywhere useful.
The second is itself a quotation, from the Baghdad-born conservative British historian Elie Kedourie (1926-92), and is the epigraph of Lewis’s essay Islam and the West:
There was nothing unreasonable in believing that the Muslim world would attain the power and prosperity of Europe by the same methods Europe had used, and that this could be done without endangering any of the essential values of Islam.
Sad to say, I have encountered the work of Bernard Lewis late in the lives of both of us, but this collection of essays written during the last fifty years, between 1953 and 2003, provides some samples to encourage investigation of his more extended productions and here I can only discuss a sample of his samples. His territory is what used to be called the Near and Middle East, that area of Asia (like Europe, a strictly non-Islamic term) extending from Turkey to Pakistan. It is probably best to say at once, for those who do not know it, or others who might think that I was trying to conceal a relevant fact, that Bernard Lewis is Jewish, though how “observant” I do not know and cannot infer from these essays. The xenophobia, elucidated in his first quotation and amply displayed in his subject matter, past and present, does not lead him to lose hope in the fulfilment of the belief stated in the second. Yet his explanation of how Islam and the “West” (another non-Islamic term) fundamentally differ in their political philosophies makes it clear how difficult such a fulfilment will be. → Continue reading: East is East and West is West
The Cost of “Choice”
Edited by Erika Bachiochi
Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2004
This is a frankly partisan book, and though subtitled Women Evaluate the Impact of Abortion, it would be fair to say that positive claims for any impact are given short shrift, and the editor is someone who has changed her mind. Changed her mind in what sense? Perhaps the greatest difference between British and American attitudes – and I must make clear that this is not the same as British and American practices – is that while here we regard abortion as a range of moral options, Americans have been polarised by their legal system into only two: for or against. This is an American book (the experience of other countries is hardly mentioned), the editor is American; she was once for abortion and is now against it. Under all circumstances? It is fair to say that this not much discussed.
The landmark decision on abortion in the US was the Supreme Court ruling (which has been strengthened by several subsequent ones) in Roe v. Wade in 1973, five years after the Abortion Act was passed in this country. Both effectively legalised abortion on demand, at any stage in the pregnancy, so that it was it was perfectly permissible to kill someone who, if born, could survive if supported by present-day technology, or even without it (p. 6). Personally I would like to think that such cases are uncommon. However, the on-going US debate on “partial birth” abortion, where parturition is induced so that the emerging baby can more conveniently be killed (p. 19), suggests otherwise. Congress passed a law against it, which was vetoed by President Clinton, but signed by President Bush in 2003; it may yet fail at the Supreme Court, which in 2000 declared partial-birth abortion legal.
Although in this country the matter was debated in Parliament (though without its later ramifications being even suspected) and laid to rest when the Act that legalized abortion passed into law, in the US “the decision of Roe v. Wade launched a civic debacle… [when] the Court abruptly brought this process to a halt (p. xii)”. There is no doubt that this decision, tortuously argued from a “right to privacy” not mentioned, let alone enshrined, anywhere in the US Constitution, was correctly called by one of the dissenting judges “a power grab” and by another “an exercise in raw judicial power”. And if legislatures could be circumvented in this way, where would it all end? → Continue reading: Who pays the cost?
The Court of the Caliphs
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2004
There were 37 Abbasid Caliphs, in a succession that lasted from 749 to 1258, when the last of them was rolled up in a carpet and suffocated by the Mongols after the surrender of Baghdad. Why Hugh Kennedy should sub-title his fine, interesting and rather horrifying book The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty is a bit of a mystery. The last effective Caliph was assassinated by his Turkish guards in 861 and although the Family Tree dribbles down to the bottom of its page until 1031, perhaps just to fill it up, Kennedy continues his history only as far as 935, by which time the Caliphate had fragmented into independent entities in Spain, Africa, Egypt, Persia and Khurasan. According to Hitti’s History of the Arabs, from 945 the Caliphs were puppets of the Persian Shia Buwahids (“who made and unmade Caliphs at will”), ruling Iraq (and Baghdad) from distant Shiraz until in 1055 they were replaced by the Seljuk Turks (“a new and more benevolent tutelage”). As the Seljuk supremacy petered out around 1200, the Caliphate regained some power and prestige, only to be extinguished by the Mongol Hulagu in 1258.
Thus the effective rule of the Abbasid Caliphs was quite short and any ‘golden age’ during it even shorter. It began when discontented elements in the north-eastern borderland province of Khurasan rebelled against the Umayyad Caliph in Damascus. Despite their considerable resources, the Umayyads were unable to resist the forces organised against them by the able, ruthless, fanatical (and pseudonymous) Abu Muslim. Too obscure in origin to be a claimant himself, he perforce backed a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle al-Abbas (who had never actually become a Muslim himself and was assumed to have gone to hell). This first Caliph was sickly and died after a five year reign, being succeeded by his brother, called, after his accession, Mansur (Victorious), “the most remarkable individual in the whole story of the Abbasids” whose twenty year reign set the dynasty on its feet, and probably ensured it survived at all.
Although Mansur had been appointed heir by his brother, whose sons were too young to be contenders, he had to dispose of a threat by an uncle, who claimed to have done as much as anyone to defeat the Umayyads. With the aid of Abu Muslim, Mansur brought about the break-up of the uncle’s army, and then lured Abu Muslim to his tent and had him murdered, behaviour often repeated in the history of the dynasty. As far as the legitimacy behind the claim for the Succession (the Caliphate) to the Prophet was concerned, suffice it to say that, in terms of relationship, that of the Abbasids was not indisputable. Descendants of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and her husband Ali were plentiful but poorly organized. Ali himself had been assassinated in 661 and both his sons had died, one in battle, the other possibly poisoned, which made all three martyrs to give rise to the Shia branch of Islam. Mansur had to destroy one outright claimant who made the mistake of starting his rebellion in Medina, which, howerever sacred, was “a place where there is no money, no men, no weapons and no fodder” and, in the end, no support. Other “Alids” were watched and confined to Baghdad, the new capital, founded in 762. There is a sinister tale that on Mansur’s death, his heir found a whole room with their neatly laid out and ticketed corpses, of all ages. The Alids were invariable losers, and misfortune seems to have dogged their followers, the Shia, who have done either the right or the wrong thing at the wrong or the right time, down to the present day. → Continue reading: The First Islamic Empire – Its Decline and Fall