Sunday, June 7, 2015

Jenny Uglow, In These Times

In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815 (2014) is an extraordinary book. I did not love it as much as Jenny Uglow's last book, The Lunar Men, because it is too vague and unfocused to tell much of a story. But by piling detail on detail, quotation on quotation, anecdote on anecdote, it creates one of the fullest and richest evocations of any past society I have ever encountered.

The wars launched by the French Revolution lasted 22 years, with only one year-long interval of peace in 1802-1803. The soldiers who fought in the last battles had been infants at the beginning, if they had been born at all. These were enormous wars, too, fought across the globe by huge armies; 600,000 men took part in the Battle of Leipzig, and 120,000 were killed or wounded. More than a million British men served in the army and navy during this period, and at least 310,000 died, in a population of around 12 million.The British government spent more than £1,600,000,000 on the war and ran up a debt of £850,000,000, this in time when most people had no words for such numbers. The war dominated Europe for a generation.

Uglow's goal is to show what life was like in Britain through this ordeal. She looks in on dozens of people, from weavers and farmers to princes and prime ministers. Her main source is letters and diaries. This was the great age of English letter writing, when everyone from Byron and Wordsworth to the butcher and the baker wrote letters by the hundred, tens of thousands of which have survived. One of the naval officers Uglow follows is Jane Austen's brother, which allows her to draw on the vast and well-indexed archive of Austen family papers. She also brings in newspaper stories and editorials, bits of speeches and pamphlets, and poems that comment on contemporary events. It is a wonderful array of sources, skillfully deployed.

Uglow presents the main events of the war, but with little focus on how they happened. Her interest is in how the news was received at home, and how it came to be remembered. She has two main themes: the home front of the war, and the conflict spawned by radical political and labor agitation. British politics was unnerved by the democratic thinking that launched revolutions in America and France, and also by the labor strife that accompanied the beginning of the industrial revolution. Especially in the early years of the war the British government was at least as much worried about insurrection a home as it was about French invasion, and it responded with violent crackdowns on any sort of opposition. The war interrupted trade, which led to hard times in the textile towns, which fed the radicalism of the weavers and led to widespread strikes and riots. This was also a time of repeated bad harvests caused by cold, wet weather, one of the worst periods of the Little Ice Age. Old-fashioned bread riots fed into the broad stream of violent dissent. Uglow folds the Irish uprising of 1798 into this broader picture; in her telling the event is inspired as much by the new politics as Irish nationalism or Catholic resentment, and of course the rebels cherished the hope of French intervention.

Phlip de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale by Night

The real wonder of In These Times is the many detailed portrayals of various parts of British society. We meet modernizing farmers experimenting with different breeds of cattle and mixes of feed, the sort of men whose diaries mention the Battle of Trafalgar in a single sentence in between page-long notes on the weather or doings in the hog market. We follow private bankers, smugglers, businessmen who get rich as war contractors, miners, manufacturers, society ladies, evangelicals agitating against the slave trade, and more. Here, one example of many, is part of Uglow's description of the gun making district of Birmingham in 1803:
There were no guilds here to dominate the industry and specialised workshops took on different parts of the process. At the barrel rolling mill, men shaped the finished steel plates round a cylindrical mandrel, welded them along their length to make the barrel and then smoothed and planed the rough barrels, inside and out. At another workshop,using water power or a hand-turned crank, they bored the barrels, finishing them to a precise internal gauge. Larger makers like the Galtons had their own boring mills, but sent the barrels out to be ground to a smooth finish at a grinding mill.

Different workers made the gun locks, shaping and fitting more than a dozen parts, while other workshops made the wooden stocks. . .  Behind every trade lay the tool-makers and their tools, even special cutters for making bullet molds. There was a poetry to the making, a host of names: 'stock-makers, barrel welders, borers, grinders, filers, and breechers; rib makers, breech forgers, and stampers; lock forgers, machiners and filers; furniture forgers, casters, and filers; rod forgers, grinders, polishers, and finishers; bayonet forgers, socket and ring stampers, grinders, polishers, machiners, hardeners, and filers; band forgers, stampers, machiners, filers, and pin makers; sight stampers, machiners, jointers, and filers; trigger boxes and oddwork makers.' Then came the 'setters up,' the jiggers -- who tested the fit of lock to stock -- and stockers, percussioners and screwers, smoothers, polishers and engravers. Everywhere small boys ran between the workshops and warehouses carrying the parts ready for the next stage. Finally the three parts -- lock, stock, and barrel -- were assembled and sent to the Ordnance and from there, often haphazardly, to the regiments that needed them. (52-53)
Or this:
Crawshay's life was like a chapbook romance: he ran away from Yorkshire after a quarrel with his father, apprenticed himself to a London iron merchant, married his master's daughter and won his starting capital in the lottery. At Cyfarthfa, he was one of the first to use Henry Cort's new puddling process, which involved stirring molten iron in a reverbatory furnace to make malleable bar iron. (201)
After reading 600 pages of such descriptions, along with thousands of words from the many contemporary voices, one is immersed in the age. I often felt as if one of the characters were in the room beside me and I could strike up a conversation with him or her, ready to exchange opinions about the war, politics, court gossip or even the weather.

One of the most striking things to me about this period is the very high level of violence that had little or nothing to do with the war. Like the grain riots:
Watching the local corn sold to agents, leaving none for the people, the tinners of Cornwall and the weavers of Devon took to the streets and lanes. The first move made by angry people, here and elsewhere, was to keep the price of food in the markets down to pre-war levels and to persuade -- or force -- the farmers, millers and market traders to accept this. There were furious gatherings in Truro, Penzance and Plymouth: magistrates called in militia from other counties and rioters in Truro were dispersed by a bayonet charge. Some gentry and mine owners bought grain for their own workers, but gangs of miners still set upon grain dealers. Near Chudleigh in Devon, labourers wearing skirts to look like housewives marched through  villages crying, 'We cannot starve,' and wrecked a mill that supplied the fleet. The ringleader, a blacksmith, Thomas Campion, was tried at the August assizes and hanged at the same mill 'with great ceremony'. (140)
British soldiers and sailors were theoretically volunteers. But in wartime there were never enough volunteers to meet the need, so the army and especially the navy relied on "press gangs" to fill out their ranks. You can think of this as a sort of draft, except that in this still pre-modern world the draft was accomplished by violent, random kidnapping rather than bureaucracy. Uglow has a wonderful account of the press gangs, including this:
The gangs met increasing resistance. Men were rescued from the tenders carrying them to the ships and mobs ran press-men out of town. The keelmen of the Tyne had been protected during the previous war, but now the protection was removed and the gangs, armed with short swords called hangers, seized shipwrights, tradesmen and gentry as well as seamen. The Newcastle Advertiser spoke out vehemently against these 'scandalous outrages' where men in useful trades were 'dragged like felons through the streets, beat and cut with hangers, and put on board a tender, merely because it pleased a set of ruffians called a Press Gang to do so.' When the North Shields Regulating Officer impressed fifty Tyne men, their fellow keelmen went on strike, halting the coal trade, and their wives marched on the North Shields rendezvous house wielding pots and pans, broom handles and rolling pins. . . . Ports like South Shields and Whitby became refuges where the gangs dared not tread; over a thousand sailors were said to be living in the North Yorkshire moors. At Whitby, in May 1803, townsfolk attacked the Eagle cutter which had come to impress men, killing two of the crew, and two months later a gang of women cursed and stoned the new regulating officer. A few months later, when the officer tried to press returning Greenland whalers, a great cry went up from the crowds on both sides of the river and the whaling boat's crew grabbed their harpoons, took to the boats and rescued their fellows, 'approved by loud huzzas from the shore.'
Most of all there was the violence in the mill towns, as underemployed textile workers agitated against low pay, new machines that took their jobs, the war, and the political system that systematically favored capital and ignored the grievances of labor. In the 1790s many radical groups sprang up, working secretly or openly for a French-style revolution. The government responded savagely, sending the militia after strikers and prosecuting dissenters for treason. One gentleman who took the side of the workers and gave a not-particularly inflammatory speech in favor of the minimum wage was arrested, prosecuted for "inciting riot," convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison. In 1811-1812 the American war cut off supplies of cotton and the textile industry was in dire straits. It was then that the "Luddite" attacks on new machines began in earnest:
On 11 March 1811 knitters began destroying these frames and by the end of the month there were attacks every night. Although these faded over the summer, in the autumn they began again, and manufacturers opened threatening letters from 'General Ned Lud and the Army of Redressors.' . . . Special constables began patrolling, a curfew was imposed, innkeepers were ordered to close at ten o'clock, and troops were kept on constant alert. Several men stood trial at the Nottingham Assizes in March 1812; two were acquitted and the rest transported. By now the saboteurs were calling themselves 'Luddites.' . . . (546)
Machine wrecking was made a capital crime, on par with murder. This bill inspired a famous speech from Byron in the House of Lords, denouncing the elevation of mere machines over the lives of men, but it passed anyway. Even the threat of execution did not end the violence. In 1812:
Violence erupted simultaneously on both sides of the Pennines, with Luddite attacks in Yorkshire and peace protests in Lancashire. In Yorkshire, on the night of Saturday 11 April, about fifty masked and armed men, led by George Mellor, a young cropper from Huddersfield, marched on Rawfolds Mill again, stoning the building and breaking all the windows. This time Cartwright was ready, having barricaded his mill and placed booby traps around, including barrels pierced with spikes. When the crowd drew near, his small group of defenders fired: two men were killed and many wounded. Cartwright's stand, the first by a mill owner, checked the raids and his fellow manufacturers presented him with a sword and £3000, but local people turned so firmly against him that he dared not even go to church. (550)
And so it went for decades. There is, I think, a profound lesson in all of this. Britain, convulsed by riots, troubled by poverty, bitterly divided in politics, menaced by the apparently invincible Napoleon, was by many measures thriving. Over these 22 years the population grew from 10 to 14 million and the economy grew even faster, since new manufacturing techniques were introduced at a pace never before seen in human history. Thanks largely to the achievements of their navy they were enlarging their vast worldwide empire. British art reached its highest pinnacle since the days of the Tudors (which were also a time of widespread violence, crop failures, hunger, and the threat of foreign invasion).

Human societies are robust. They can absorb enormous punishment and endure through terrible ordeals. We long for peace, plenty and agreement, but sometimes it seems to me that we thrive best when divided against each other and violently threatened from both within and without.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"Human societies are robust. They can absorb enormous punishment and endure through terrible ordeals. We long for peace, plenty and agreement, but sometimes it seems to me that we thrive best when divided against each other and violently threatened from both within and without."

"We" is a curious term to employ here, in regards to thriving. Surely the starving masses, driven to desperate acts of resistance against the imposition of unending suffering at the hands of the privileged elite, would not include themselves within that grouping.

There is a grim truth to the notion that nations have been made powerful or wealthy through the vast sufferings of the powerless - yet that does not in any way excuse nor justify the imposition of such blood taxes. We may "thrive best when divided against each other", but it is an utterly qualified thriving, and one that comes at an exorbitant moral cost. Brutalizing the weak and the vulnerable in the name of helping one's state or nation to "thrive" is abominable - the sort of mentality that gave us every human atrocity from the Belgian Congo, to the Armenian Genocide, to the Rape of Nanking, to the Jewish Holocaust.

Even the best "justified" of such acts are still monstrous - deeds to be recoiled from in horror, to be lamented at best as necessary evils, at worst as the failings of human ingenuity and will to find and to follow a different way. Stalin may have halted the German advance, but he did so by making them "choke on his dead". The United States may have compelled Japan to surrender sooner rather than later, but the cost was paid in the burning alive of countless innocent civilians in our own lteral "holocaust" of fire both conventional and nuclear.

These are not good things. They can never be anything other than evil things. And while one might argue that such acts are sometimes necessary, that does not mean they are not to be reviled and avoided where even remotely possible. We must always remember that.

I'll take a relatively modest human society that has no need of robustness over one that "thrives" on punishment and ordeals any day.