Tag: History

Book review: Pale Rider – The Spanish Flu of 1918 by Laura Spinney

pale_riderPale Rider: The Spanish Flu and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney is obviously very topical at the moment, it was published in June 2017 which makes it more striking how relevant it is than if it had been published in the last two years.

The book starts with an overall chronology of the 1918 flu pandemic before return to specific themes, generally through the medium of personal accounts or individual incidents. It is worth highlighting that the "Spanish" label is highly misleading, essentially the 1918 flu pandemic arose somewhere between the American mid-West, Northern France on the battle fields of the First World War or, a remote possibility, in China. Spinney discusses the link with viruses found in wildlife and livestock.

Initial estimates as to the death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic were around 25 million but these have been revised upwards recently to up to 100 million. Furthermore, the 1918 flu pandemic largely took place over September to December in 1918 with smaller waves in the spring of 1918 and in the following spring and with there were some variations by geography as to exactly when the worst effects were felt. So 1918 flu pandemic was a shorter, more devastating pandemic than the 2020 covid pandemic (which has killed around 3 million of a much large population). This was against the back drop of the First World War which killed more people in Europe than the pandemic, although around the world Europe was the exception with more killed by pandemic in all other continents.

The context for the 1918 flu pandemic was different too, the 19th century had been one of epidemics driven by industrialisation and the associated urbanisation. Amongst those were flu pandemics and 1830 and 1890. The 1890 "Russian" flu pandemic, was the first to be measured as a pandemic. The 1918 pandemic was at a time when the germ theory of disease was being developed, and the value of hygiene was understood. However, viral diseases were not well understood and it was not until the 1930s that the mechanism of transmission for flu was discovered with the first flu vaccines coming in 1936. It was not until the 1950s that it was confirmed as a viral disease. The symptoms of this flu pandemic were quite different from those of the covid pandemic with a mahogany colouration forming on the cheekbones that spread progressively until death, teeth and hair falling out and delirium (leading to suicide).

The health measures taken to address the 1918 pandemic were not that different from those used recently with sanitary cordons and quarantine used extensively. Religious ceremonies were exempt from restrictions in Spain leading to more cases. Closing schools was argued over with those in favour seeing schools as better for the monitoring of outbreaks, communication of health information, and offering better sanitary conditions, and food, to children. Starvation was a problem with supply chains effected from start to finish.

It is interesting to see the varying responses of Australia and New Zealand between the 1918 pandemic and the covid pandemic, Australia isolated in 1918, as it did in the covid pandemic but in 1918 they did not. The disproportionate impacts of the 1918 pandemic were also in evidence, with the recent Italian immigrants to the US, India and remote native American communities in Alaska very badly effected with mortality rates of up to 40%.

The pandemic had arguable impacts in world affairs, Woodrow Wilson had a serious stroke probably as a result of a bout of flu, and was not present to limit the war reparations against Germany.The independence movement in India grew. The flu impacted people in their twenties and thirties quite heavily, leaving behind a generation of orphans – their treatment was handled with new legislation by France and England. There was a post-pandemic (and war) fertility boom.

Despite the enormous death toll, even compared to the First World War, the 1918 pandemic appeared to have little impact on art and literature although scholars will look for signs of post-viral fatigue in paintings. Spinney argues this is because insufficient time has passed, noting that there are approaching 80,000 books on the First World War and but only 400 on the 1918 pandemic – but this number is growing rapidly. It has made me wonder about the lost siblings, in my grandparents generation which were never spoken of – similarly the absence of stories from fighting age men of the Second World War. Essentially these stories were too painful to handle at a human, personal level and the culture in the UK at least would not have been to speak about them. So it is left to historians and the passage of time for the stories to come to light.

A second factor, proposed by psychologists, is that pandemics lack a good story line with a clear beginning and end and a selection of heroes – unlike the First World War.

The Pale Rider is very readable, it is difficult to use the word "enjoy" regarding a book which tells of the deaths of 100 million people. I was struck by how relevant the 1918 flu pandemic was to our current situation with the disparate impacts depending on country and social conditions, the debates over school closures, the dedication of medical staff, the measures to address the pandemic and the debates over the compliance with public health measures. The covid pandemic is different – it has played out over a longer period, it has a far lower death toll, our medical knowledge is much improved, our world is much more connected but nevertheless The Pale Rider feels very prescient.

Book review: Railways and The Raj by Christian Wolmar

railways_and_the_rajTwo interests combine with this book, Railways and The Raj by Christian Wolmar. I picked it up after a recommendation in Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera, which is about the British Empire from an Indian perspective but I’m also interested in railways. I have reviewed Wolmar’s Fire & Steam and The Subterranean Railway in the past. The Indian railway system has been sold as a benefit of colonialism, so I was interested to find out more.

Although the first railways in India were built as early as 1836, not long after those elsewhere, and for similar purposes: for shifting heavy loads short-distances at mines or similar, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that railway building in earnest started. This followed two reports written by the Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie, in 1850 and 1853. In contrast to the chaotic growth of railways in Britain and elsewhere, Dalhousie’s plans, formulated a little after the first rush of railway building, presented a rational and coherent plan for the development of Indian railways.

The start to railway building was slow, with opposition from the East India Company in the first instance, furthermore physical conditions in India were challenging particularly the monsoon season which played havoc with railway bridges over rivers, and whose embankments disturbed the irrigation and drainage in surrounding areas. There were also serious mountain ranges to address.

The Indian railways were built very much for the benefit of the British, most of the rail companies were run from Britain, the levels of return on investment (made from Britain) were guaranteed by the Indian tax payer, most of the equipment (including rails and often sleepers) was sourced from Britain and the economic benefits of the freight transported by the railways were largely in Britain. Not only this, under the Raj, the senior positions in managing and running the railways were held by British people or Eurasians, and this extended to the train staff with drivers predominately British or Eurasian. The British travelling on the railways did so in luxurious first and second class carriages whereas the great majority of Indians travelled in a fairly grim third class.

Class, religious and gender differences were built into the fabric of the railway with various facilities provided separately for Muslim and Hindu passengers, and various castes. I struggle to decide how much this was a deliberate "divide and rule" policy of the British (which was later to have terrible consequences during Partition) or whether it was the right thing to do to respect local sensibilities (although it is fair to say "respecting local sensibilities" was not greatly in evidence during Britain’s colonial period).

There was some development of railways for famine relief – a recurring issue in Indian where millions died through famine in parts of the country. Beyond about 50 miles oxen, the main alternative for transporting food, consume more food than they can carry. The Victorian view was that the railway would carry food to be sold at the market rate from areas of surplus to those suffering famine, which did not greatly help the many poor unable to afford food.

There were lines built for military purposes, particularly in the north west in the direction of Afghanistan from where it was feared a Russian threat would come. More generally, as the railways developed the Indian Rebellion of 1857 was still fresh in the mind of the British and it was felt the railway could help move troops around to quell future rebellions – many early stations were built like fortresses. The railways were important during the two world wars but suffered in these periods from overuse and under-investment.

In a book with a number of shocks for white British sensibilities, I think I found the part on Partition most shocking most probably because it is not something I had thought about before: I knew India had gained independence after the Second World War and that Pakistan, and Bangladesh were part. I had not absorbed that it meant the displacement of between 10 and 20 million people, and the deaths of up to 2 million. 20 million people is a third the population of the United Kingdom and 2 million people is the population of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham combined.

After Independence and Partition, the successful running of the railways was seen as an important symbol of the success of Independence. Despite the rather hasty British exit, and the lack of home-grown talent and supply chains the post-Independence Indian Railway was quickly much improved.

One recurring theme of the book is the enormous scale of Indian Railways, it employs currently 1.3 million people – globally ranking alongside various Chinese state bodies, McDonald’s, Walmart and the NHS. In the early days the Indian Railways set up company towns in part to service white British employees but also for Indian employees because the railway works were often in otherwise isolated areas. Even now Indian Railways owns huge amounts of property in which its employees live, and also hospitals and schools. It remains central to transport in Indian where the capacity of the airline routes is limited, and the road network is relatively under-developed.

I enjoyed this book as a story of the development of the railway in India, but also as a sketch of Indian history from the middle of the 19th century. To answer my original question, the railway did benefit India ultimately, after Independence, but under colonial rule it was largely a benefit to Britain.

Book review: Ask a historian by Greg Jenner

ask_a_historianAsk a historian by Greg Jenner is a bit of a change of tack for me. It is a list of 50 questions to a historian, Greg Jenner. Each answer is conversational in style, a couple of thousand words at most, pitched at a level that my fairly bright 10 year old would understand although the content is such that I would be judicious in just sharing it with him. Jenner works on the TV series Horrible Histories which, amongst other things, puts historical incidents to modern pop tunes. It is highly educational and a firm favourite for all ages in our household!

Fifty questions is more than I can review individual, so I will simply outline the style of the questioning and highlight some of my favourites. They are divided into 12 thematic chapters with 4 or 5 questions in each chapter.

Chapter 1 – Fact or Fiction

2 – Is it true they put a dead pope on trial? Yes, it is true, a subsequent pope dug him up in order to do this! The papacy was a fairly wild institution particularly in the 9th century AD with a total of 24 popes in the period 896-904. Contrasting with a total of 5 in my 50 year life. The 9th century popes did not die of natural causes, their successors helped them along the way.

3 – Atlantis proves aliens are real? – There questions that make Jenner angry (not at the questioner), this is one of them. Jenner’s concern is two-fold on this, the first is the implication that non-Europeans couldn’t possibly have done all of these magnificent things – it must have been aliens – which is rather insulting. Secondly, the alien conspiracy theories often have their roots in Nazism.

Chapter 2 – Origins and Firsts

6 – When was the first Monday? No historian likes to be pinned down on a "first" but the origins of the days of the week go back a long way. There is some evidence that the Babylonians used a seven day cycle, it fits neatly into the Lunar month, but the seven day week was definitely in place by 2,500 years ago with the Jewish religion celebrating a Sabbath every seven days. There were other options, the ancient Egyptians celebrating a ten day week Etruscans and early Romans following an 8 days week (labelled with letters A to H).  

8 – When did birthdays start being celebrated? It is comforting to realise that we’ve been celebrating our birthdays for at least 2500 years. A birthday party invitation was found at Vindolanda, a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

Chapter 4 – Food

15 – How old is curry? I found it interesting that the heat we most associate with curry, produced by chillies, is the result of an import from South America. Also it is a bit chastening that "curry" is largely an invention of the British, a bastardisation of  a very diverse Indian cuisine.

Chapter 5 – Historiography

19 – Who names historical periods? This turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question, historians don’t necessarily agree on the extents of a period (like the Long Eighteenth Century), periods do not neatly delineate time – they overlap, and vary across the world. Periods like "Victorian" are ridiculously large and encompass massive changes in social and economic conditions. Finally, the inhabitants of a period may be unhappy with where they have been placed – the Tudors would not have liked being called Tudors.

Chapter 6 – Animals & Nature

23 – When did we start keeping hamsters as pets? All I can say on this question is that hamsters are creatures full of rage.

Chapter 11 – Language & Communications

45 – Where names for places in other languages come from? I liked this question, in large part because I remember travelling out of Pisa on a bus wondering why I’d never heard of the obviously large city of Firenze which I kept seeing on signs (it is the city I know as Florence). The names locals give places are endonyms and those that foreigners provide are exonyms. In the days of rapid and communication, essentially since the beginning of the 19th century there has been a tendency for exonyms and endonyms to be one and the same, give or take a bit of pronunciation. Bécs is the Hungarian name for Viennna, known as Wien by the Austrians. Vienna was at the border of the Magyar empire, and basically they called it "gateway". 

Chapter 12 – History in Pop Culture

49 – Why do we care so much about the Tudors? I liked this question because it hints at something I have seen elsewhere about Newton, and it occurs regarding Anne Boleyn’s purported 3rd nipple in an earlier question in this book. These stories were promoted by supporters or opponents in the years after a dynasty or person had died because they supported a preferred narrative and their influence persists for centuries.

The book finishes with a rather nicely crafted Recommended Reading section, and perhaps this is the point of the book – not as an end in itself but an introduction to a range of books for a more in depth view. Ask a historian would be an excellent holiday read, I must admit I prefer something more substantial on a single subject.

Book review: Index, A history of the by Dennis Duncan

I came to indexIndex, A History of the by Dennis Duncan via a review in New Scientist. It is broadly a history of the book centred on indexes.

Duncan starts by talking about alphabetical order, and how it first came about – people have been writing their ABCs for approaching four millennia. The first catalogues or subject indexes date to the 3rd century BCE by Callimachus in the Great Library of Alexandria. The Greeks were more keen on alphabetisation than the ancient Romans. At this time writing was in scrolls, so there were no page numbers – making indexing somewhat difficult. An interesting language aside, the Greek "sittybos" was a parchment tag used to indicate the contents of a scroll from which we get the word syllabus, index is the Latin word for the same thing.

The next phase of evolution of the index was driven by the Church during the Middle Ages. Monasteries and nunneries valued reading, and the pope decreed that cathedrals should teach in 1079 which led to the creation of universities. The codex (essentially a book) had displaced the scroll as the primary format for writing by 600AD. Reading and teaching, and preaching, led to a need to find specific parts of large volumes of text hence the index.

The Bible was divided into chapters around 1200, verses were added in 1550. This is important because in the age of the handwritten manuscript pagination is variable – chapters and verses are a substitute for page numbering. Distinctios were created which drew together Bible references to make a theme for a sermon as well as more complete subject indexes, and word indexes.

A word index, or concordance, lists every occurrence of each word in a document. Here we are seeing the struggle to find the right size for an index, a concordance is too big, a table of contents, a sort of index, is not big enough. Hugh at the Dominican friary of St  Jacques in Paris produced the first concordance of the Latin bible in around 1230. The subject index is in between the concordance and table of contents in size but finding the right size is a job for skilled humans to this day.

At the same time as the Bible was being indexed and concordance-d Robert Grosseteste was creating a great index which spanned multiple books. It is always a bit difficult to determine whether historical figures have been enormously before their time, or whether an author is casting that historical figure with the present very much in mind. This struck most firmly with Grosseteste’s great index which looks to us very much like Google’s index of the internet.

Although there were a couple of experiments with page numbers on manuscript pages prior to the invention of the printing press in around 1440, it was a while before they were commonplace. Page numbers are a bit awkward to print because they fall outside the main body of the text, so there was some experimentation with using the folio marks used by the printer to compile a book properly. Sometimes in the 15th century readers were instructed to write the page numbers into the index themselves!

A recurring theme is whether reading an index is "cheating", whether it takes away from the activity of reading fully a book. Duncan also cites Socrates’ Phaedrus where it is argued that speaking is superior to writing/reading. We see a similar argument today as to whether Google has replaced our ability to read. Thinking of my own reading of non-fiction, I don’t make much use of indexes but I do have an Evernote of books like this with page number references – as you can see here – I use them when writing these reviews, so in a sense they are my own index.

In the 17th century the index as satire was invented, it was a time when political pamphlets were all the rage, and a format was found for the satirical index. I was entertained by the story of William Bromley, and the election to Speaker of the House in 1705. Just prior to the election his enemies published an index of his travelogue Remarks in the Grand Tour which cast him in a poor light, highlight errors of fact, statements of the obvious and hints of popery. He subsequently lost the election.

A genre I’d never seen before is the fictional index, that is a work of fiction which features a fictional index or even a work that is entirely a fictional index such as Nabakov’s Pale Fire or The Index by JG Ballard. Erasmus started this in 1532. Although there were experiments with indexing fiction, ultimately these never really took off.

Universal indexes in the manner of Grossetestes’ made something of a return in the 19th century, with Jacques-Paul Migne’s collected works of the Church Fathers. Later in the century there was an abortive attempt to index everything stemming from J. Ashton Cross’s presentation to the Conference of Librarians in 1877. A longer lasting effort was William Poole’s An Alphabetical Index to Subjects Treated in the Reviews and Other Periodicals perhaps this worked because its scope was smaller.

The final chapter covers the impact of computers on indexes, so far computers have been more dumb companions rather than creators in making indexes. They are able to generate concordances very quickly but even the best software struggles to identify appropriate subjects: what to index and what not to index. The problem is that computerised search provides and adequate index, so publishers are less inclined to spend money on an index – which is a separate, specialised activity to the authoring of a book.

I was worried that a history of the index would be a bit dull but I really enjoyed this book.

Book review: Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

empireA return to reading about race with Empireland by Sathnam, subtitled How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain. I think the best way of thinking about this book is as a perspective on the British Empire and its impact on present day Britain by a British Sikh. Although the coverage is global there is a focus on India, which reflects Sanghera’s background. I’m used to reading history by white British or American authors, so this is a refreshing change.

The signs of Empire are all around us, not least in the multicultural, multi-ethnic society we find in Britain which impacts our food, our religious observances and our art. A range of quintessentially British companies had their origins in the trade with India such as Shell who originally sold shells from India! Or Liberty original founded for the India trade. There are also a range of processed foods which were developed for the empire, to remind the colonists of home or taken up following colonial origins (rum, pale ale, madeira, gin and tonic). There is some argument that our welfare state had its origins in Empire, in providing "men fit to fight" which was a concern after the Boer War. We also borrowed a significant number of words into English from the empire: bungalow, shampoo, zombie, toboggan… 

The Empire, and Imperial history is not clear cut, there are two very broad phases – the American and contemporary phase and the 19th century India and Africa phase. The Empire was not the result of a strategic plan, or governed in a unified manner, in contrast to the Roman Empire. As John Robert Seeley said: "We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind". It seems also that the Empire was not front of mind for the British public for almost its entire span, in the days before a global media with relatively few British people involved with the Empire in Britain or even in the Empire this is perhaps unsurprising.

A recurring theme is how British actions in the empire were criticised at the time, on issues like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and the looting of Tibet. Key figures in the Empire, like Robert Clive and Cecil Rhodes were similarly criticised. The rehabilitation of Edward Colston is a case in point – he was not greatly celebrated during his life and the subscription to raise his statue some 200 years after his death was not filled. It is only with the recent en-harbouring of his statue that he has gained support. History that seeks an unalloyed positive view of the Empire just isn’t history. 

Looting gets a whole chapter of its own, it focuses on the case of Tibet which was invaded by the British in 1903/4 – interestingly the invasion was commonly referred to as the "British Expedition to Tibet" or the "Younghusband expedition to Tibet" – note the rather passive language. It is clear that looting was seen as part of military operations and was formalised. There is a degree of greyness in the process since troops were on occasion censured for looting, and there were budgets for the purchase of artefacts. However, there were clear processes for the handling of artefacts looted during invasions and the sums set aside for purchasing artefacts were completely incompatible with the amount of loot returned to Britain. In Africa human body parts were taken by British soldiers as trophies, something which caused disgust in Britain at the time.

The sad thing is that most of the looted artefacts in British museums are not actually on display, and in the more distant past they were scarcely valued at all. Sanghera points out that the British establishment finds it impossible to return looted artefacts from British museums to their rightful homes but has quite the opposite attitude to people with established lives and families, as long as their skin is dark.

Immigration was often at invitation, citizens of the British Empire were just that but whilst white members of the Commonwealth have always had a welcome in Britain, those of colour have not. Conversely Britain has a large emigrant – outbound – population. It is part of the deal. Sanghera writes a bit about Britons abroad, the Brit transplanting their lifestyle to Spain is seen as a continuation of the colonial times.

Sanghera talks about racism and white supremacy in the British Empire. This is pretty explicit, the leading figures in the Empire were very clear that they saw the white British as superior and indigenous populations as naturally inferior, in need of the firm hand of white rule. White rule, sometimes meant massacre or even genocide, as was the case for the indigenous Tasmanian population.

Sanghera ends on a somewhat positive note, although Britain is not at the forefront, countries like Germany, France and the US have started talking about the return of looted artefacts, reparations for slavery, and some degree of contrition for their actions during their colonial period. The British government is trailing in this, although the public Black Lives Matters protests, and private initiatives to return looted artefacts, and discuss more frankly our troublesome past are taking place.

I think this was a useful step on my journey in understanding my country, and all the people that live here.