Adrian Cruden reviews Adam Hothschild's searing indictment of Belgian colonialism in the Congo
"Pygmy hunter-gatherers in Cameroon have been beaten, tortured and forced off their ancestral lands to clear vast tracts of forest for a trophy-hunting company owned by the banker Benjamin de Rothschild, activsts claimed yesterday. At least three forest camps have been burnt to the ground by guards, according to survivors, while Baka pygmies caught hunting bush animals to eat said they were tortured by police guarding the forest on behalf of game hunters." (The Times, 3/11/16)
It must be noted that the Rothschild’s strenuously deny any involvement in the incidents and insist they have good relations with the Baka; but according to Survival International there seems evidence that they happened, whoever was responsible.
For much of Africa, such occurrences are nothing new and indeed the happenings in Cameroon pale in comparison with the imperialist destruction of the Continent that has been airbrushed from western histories, which increasingly recast the Age of Empires as a time of progress and glory as opposed to the squalid exploitation that, in the end, is common to all empires of whatever origin.
Joseph Conrad's best known novel is the comparatively short "Heart of Darkness", published in 1902 and originally serialised in Blackwood's Magazine. Telling the tale of a steamboat captain, Charles Marlow, sailing upriver in an unnamed European colony, whose purpose is to reach a trading station run by a well-regarded Company Agent by the name of Kurtz, it documents in chilling and graphic narrative the appalling conditions of the indigenous people: chained together as they carry great loads, reduced to bipedal beasts of burden, left to die under trees and by track sides. And, when the clearly psychopathic Kurtz is finally encountered, his hut is decorated by the decapitated skulls of Africans mounted on stakes. Filmed most powerfully as "Apocalypse Now" and transposed to the Vietnamese conflict, what many don't realise is that it is, in fact, founded on the truth.
Conrad, born in Poland as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski spent several months as a steamboat captain in the Congo in 1889 and Marlow is in fact the author himself. What he encountered was enough for him to quit his job and return to his adopted England to write and campaign against the growing horrors of imperialism throughout the colonial world, but especially in the Congo. In this, he worked closely with the great Irish campaigner Roger Casement and the largely forgotten but perhaps most effective human rights campaigner in history, Edmund Morel. Like Conrad, Morel had originally worked on Congo trade, but left his job when he realised that serious abuses were taking place and it was to campaigning against them that he was to devote much of his life.
Their real-life stories and those of many others, not least the previously silent African voices of the Congo basin, are powerfully assembled and recounted in Adam Hochschild's powerful history,"King Leopold's Ghost", originally published in 1998 after years of painstaking and often blocked research. It is essential reading for anyone concerned with the dynamics of imperialism, especially that of a commercial type - for, unlike every other European colony, the Congo was not held in the name of a country, but the personal property of Leopold, King of Belgium, who acquired his private fiefdom nearly eighty times the size of his native country via subterfuge, deceit, propaganda and immense, bloody violence.
Hochschild traces the rise of the ironically titled "Congo Free State" from its pre-colonial days when the verdant rainforest basin was home to millions of Africans organised into several states, some of them highly sophisticated with advanced systems of justice, semi-democratic consultative assemblies and an advanced level of material culture. Their way of life was much attuned to respecting and living within the environmental capacity of what, along with the Amazon basin, has been described as one of the lungs of the world. The only things the indigenous societies lacked were the guile and powerful weaponry of the Europeans.
As France, Britain, Portugal and latterly newly-unified Germany began the imperialist "Scramble for Africa" in the 1870s and 1880s, Hochschild examines how the vain and arrogant Leopold felt Belgium was far too small for a man of his ambition. Under cover of Christian philanthropy, he hired the narcissistic explorer Henry Morton Stanley to open up the one area of Africa at that point unclaimed by any colonial powers: the great basin of the Congo river, which cuts across central Africa from its mouth on the Atlantic coast through to just south of the headwaters of the Nile.
Supposedly carrying the "white man's burden" of improving the lot of the primitive native races and freeing them from the tyranny of Arab slave traders from the eastern coast, Stanley tore a path through the rainforest, his expedition consisting of African porters and several hundred well-armed mercenary troops. He slaughtered thousands who got in their way or did not hand over their food stocks on demand, torched scores of villages and forced African kings and chiefs to acknowledge Leopold's pseudo-charity, the International Association of the Congo, as their overlord. Stanley travelled through the area several times and is remembered in the region today as a white-hatted harbinger of death. But back in London, where he published several tomes on his liberation of the lesser races, even today he is celebrated as the man who found fellow colonialist entrepreneur Dr David Livingstone. He was knighted in 1899 as a member of the Order of the Bath (if he ever took one, the water must have run deep red) and served as a Liberal Unionist MP for Lambeth North before dying in 1904.
Victims of Leopold's "civilising mission".
After Stanley established Leopold's presence in the area, the King, who never travelled to the territory himself, used mercenaries and free booting "entrepreneurs" to open up the area, first to slaughter hundreds of thousands of elephants for ivory and later tap forest trees for rubber. Local men were impressed into brutal service, sometimes by violence, sometimes by the kidnapping of their wives and children, often by both means. Failure to meet quotas often led to the rape and mutilation, or worse, of the hostages. The colonial police, the Force Publique, was renowned for its brutality and its liberal use of a whip called the chicotte claimed the lives of many of their victims, men, women and children. Leopold even established state orphanages run by Catholic clergy for the children of his victims - the boys were raised to be soldiers in the FP; the girls to be servants and in a handful of cases to join the nuns.
The casual nature of the brutality was endemic: Conrad's Kurtz character was based potentially on several officials of the Free State, the most likely being Leon Rom, who edged his lawn with the severed heads of Africans. Paradoxically, Rom also busied himself sending home his landscape paintings of the rainforest, collecting butterflies and publishing a book on African customs. Another inspiration for Kurtz may have been Guillaume Van Kerckoven, who paid the equivalent of half a shilling for each African head brought to him during a military operation.
As well as body-breaking forced labour on ivory and rubber collection and on constructing dams and railways, Africans were indentured simply to serve the bloated white colonials who arrived in the area. Hothschild recovered one Free State official's diary of a journey where African porters hauled his luggage over inhospitable territory: "A file of poor devils, chained by the neck, carried my trunks and boxes... There were about a hundred of them, trembling and fearful of the overseer, who strolled by whirling a whip. For each stocky and broad-backed fellow, how many were skeletons dried up like mummies, their skin worn out... seamed with deep scars, covered with suppurating wounds... No matter! They were all up for the job."
Nsala of Wala with the remains of his butchered 5 year old daughter, her hand and foot.
To portay this as a great civilising mission, Leopold permitted various Christian missions to be established. Most were content to go along with the "necessary" violence and validate the propaganda of the chicotte being necessary to rouse "lazy" natives to work. Initially at any rate, his efforts paid off with humanitarian awards showered on Leopold. Even Mark Twain was moved to write in defence of the King's great works.
But some opened their eyes and began to challenge. Notably, the first two incomers to do so were African Americans. First, George Washington Williams, a remarkable man who fought in the civil war, studied law, served in the Ohio state legislature and became an author, all before the age of thirty. In his historical work, he became one of the first to use the oral history and memories of ordinary people to find the truth of the past, and it was with this mindset that he travelled to the Congo. There, Willaims soon realised that the Free State was far from the philanthropic paradise portrayed by Leopold and his associates and began to write on the abuses to a disbelieving public back in the USA and Europe.
He was followed by a fellow African American, the Rev William Sheppard, who was sponsored by the Presbyterian church to work in the Congo. He similarly, began to expose the brutality of the regime, leading to Leopold having him arrested and put on trial - though he was ultimately acquitted. Other dissidents, like Hezekiah Andrew Shamu, were less fortunate - executed, murdered or hounded to death by the Free State.
But of course, however powerful their testimony, black voices were little heard in 19th century Europe or America and it was not until the British activist Edmund Morel came along that the campaign against the Congo became the truecause celebreof the liberals and socialists of Europe. After realising that the ships he was auditing carried troops and weapons to the Congo but returned empty, Morel quit his job for a shipping firm, founded the Congo Reform Association and began an international campaign to highlight and end the abuse. At great loss and some risk to himself and his family, he almost single-handedly built a coalition that in 1908 forced Leopold to surrender his private state to the Belgian Government, which was at least slightly more accountable for its actions. The King was of course handsomely compensated for his losses. By this time, however, as many as ten million Congolese Africans had died from the brutality of the free state or the starvation and diseases that followed in its wake - around half of the entire population; a genocide unsurpassed even in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Hochschild however highlights the inconsistency of many of those liberals who campaigned vigorously again the horrors of Leopold's Congo but turned a blind eye to similar, if less blatant, abuses by other colonial powers (Stanley's violence was neither the worst nor an isolated example of contemporary practice). He challenges the narrative of "improvement" that imperial powers allegedly brought to the so-called Dark Continent - the narrative not of truth, but of the victors. This, as he explores, is at least in part because few African voices from the time have been recorded. He was himself able to recover a few second hand, but the thousands of records he unearthed for this erudite and well-written piece of work are nearly exclusively those of white imperialists ornpaternalistic if sometimes sympathetic missionaries and visitors.
This is a striking contrast to what could be almost be a companion volume - Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee", an account of the final destruction of the Native Americans which does draw on scores of first hand accounts set down by survivors at the turn of the 20th century. It too portrays richly diverse cultures deceived and violently destroyed by descendants of European settlers whose concept of the white man's burden was couched in the equally arrogant and racist notion of their god-given "Manifest Destiny" to overcome indigenous peoples. A combination of imperialist historians and Hollywood populism subsequently crafted a very similar narrative to the Victorian tale of philanthropic imperialism kindly bringing civilisation to ingrates. (Notably, in his lengthy genocidal career, Stanley, as well as serving on both sides in the American Civil War, briefly worked as a journalist in frontier country to assist the US Cavalry with its anti-Native American propaganda.
And it is in this spirit, as much of the rich world reinvents its history to look back ever more nostalgically at empire, that "King Leopold's Ghost" should be read as a warning of the here and now as much as an account of the past. The overt imperialism of European powers ruling African and other states is of course long gone. But, in our globalised, neoliberal world, the truth is that private corporations are buying up huge swathes of poorer Latin American, African and Asian countries. Perhaps even more thoroughly than the Victorians' great Scramble, the Rothschild hunting estates in Cameroon are far from an isolated example: in a new African land grab, European, American and Chinese "investors" now own massive estates with the blessing and naked power of the political elites of the host states. Local people are excluded, alienated from their lands and rights removed and force used to ensure it stays that way. As resource scarcity gathers pace, including food and water supplies, this neocolonial pattern is set to spread ever further and its pathology is ultimately unlikely to deviate fundamentally from the template of exploitation set by Leopold and his contemporaries.
The phrase "those who do not learn from history are destined to relive it" may be well overused, but is often true nevertheless. First of all, however, history has to be written and set straight. In this remarkable dissection of privatised imperialism, Adam Hochschild does a great service not only to the past and the millions slaughtered in the forgotten holocaust in Leopold's sadistic state; he reminds us too that no imperialism, of whatever type or origin, is ever benign.
Adrian Cruden us a member of the Green party in England and publishes the blog 'Viridis Lumen'.
One of the most significant and important industrial actions in UK history took place in 1888 in East London. Not only did it represent one of the first successful strike actions by organised Labour, it was significant because it was mainly carried and out and organised by teenage girls.
The practice of using White Phosphorous in the Bryant and May factory in Bow, led to suffering for the workers from a degenerative disease known as 'phossy jaw'. Despite their public reputation as philanthropists and Quakers, the factory owners Francis May and William Bryant subjected their workers to awful conditions.
Sparked by a newspaper article by women's rights activist Annie Besant, Bryant and May tried to get their workers to sign a statement denying Besant's claims. The workers refused, leading to the dismissal of one of them and that sparked the strike, with 1400 workers walking out by the end of the first day.
It's a famous story that has inspired activists and socialists since and became the natural setting for this collaboration between playwright Fatima Uygun and poet Colin Poole. A conversation between the two about their shared love of music hall songs developed into the play, to be premiered at Govanhill Bath's Steamie next month as part of the Southside Fringe.
Poole is a well known poet originally from London who has, through his work that can be found in his book "Verse Versus the Bourgeoisie", often tries to highlight the radical past of London's East End rather than the popular imagery of Pearly Kings and subservience:
"We wanted to create a show that combined the rich history of Music Hall with a political message. Fatima and I were big fans of Harry Champion and other working class song-writers of the time, a chat in a pub about a potential show found it's focus when she brought up the Bryant and May strike, and the idea for the show was born."
Poole and Uygun brought in musician and composer Gavin Livingstone, who had collaborated on several music projects with Uygun's late husband Alistair Hullet, and work began to build what has turned into a traditional music hall musical.
Uygun, who's award-winning play "Three Women" toured working class venues across Scotland last year, explains:
"People love the songs they have come to know through the years associated with music hall and London's East End. We adapted characters and songs from well known shows. We have Burlington Bertie from Bow, songs from My Fair Lady, alongside new music and songs. The story of the matchgirls strike is still one of the most important events in trade union history, but it's important to place that it an entertaining frame. We wanted to create a show that people would enjoy first and foremost, something that wasn't didactic or preachy."
The result is a music hall extravaganza full of surprises. The basic story is of Kathleen and Mary, two matchgirls who get involved in the strike but all of the classic music hall characters turn up. The aforementioned Burlington Bertie, a strongman, sand-dancers and puppets join a cast of 12 on stage.
It's a political story of women's empowerment, of trade union organisation but essentially it's a musical designed, like all musicals, to tug at the heart strings. Colin Poole sums it up:
"We want people to know the story of the matchgirls strike, to celebrate that history but, mostly, we want people to enjoy the show, sing the songs, to laugh and to cry."
Strike a Light is a Pitheid Production written by Fatima Uygun, Colin Poole & Jim Monaghan, original music by Gavin Livingstone and Colin Poole.
May 19th – May 23rd at The Steamie, Govanhill Baths tickets from www.brownpapertickets.com
Further details of Southside Fringe can be found at www.southsidefringe.org.uk and the venue at www.govanhillbaths.com
Weimar Berlin, 1919 until 1933, was an extraordinary era; a time when sexual, political and artistic freedom came together like never before or, arguably, since. Art forms that had been growing and developing in Germany, and Europe, from the end of the 19th century exploded as revolutionary ideas from Russia and 'Americanism' from the United States penetrated German culture. Dancers, artists, playwrights and poets struggled to understand and express through their art the horrors of the Great War and the chaos of the Weimar Republic. The Wilhelmian morality of the day, instituted by the kaiser, came up against the modern world and a Verwilderung der Sitten (degeneration of morals) swept across Weimar Germany, most notably in Berlin.
Anita Berber, who died on the 10th November 1928 aged only twenty nine, was the epitome of Weimar Berlin. Painted by Charlotte Berend and Otto Dix, she was an actress, a dancer and a poet who ended her life in a pauper's grave in Berlin. She scandalised and challenged middle class German morality in equal measure. An Expressionist artist who frequently danced naked Anita interpreted music with every atom of her being. She inhabited her body in a way that was sensual and erotic. She moved in a way that disturbed the audience. Even those who flocked to see her and who spoke approvingly of her dancing still found themselves somewhat disconcerted by the emotions and sensations she awoke in them. This was the effect that Anita intended but that intention was completely natural and without artifice. However much Anita used her body as a work of art and carefully cultivated her image it was completely truthful. This was not an artist who put away the costume at the end of the performance; Anita's whole life was a performance.
This was a woman who seduced married women away from their husbands; punched a German boxing champion in the face and almost got punched back; insulted the king of Yugoslavia and got called a 'Serbian Pompadour' and got banned by the International Artists Union but kept on dancing anyway. She was the great Berlin wild child who was called 'totally perverted' and who managed to be arrested or deported from practically every country in central Europe. Anita danced naked, gambled wildly and partied like no-one before, or arguably, since with a concoction of drugs that defies belief.
But Anita was also a vulnerable woman. She personified the German obsession with death. Abandoned by first her father and then, temporarily, by her mother in early childhood Anita grew up psychologically damaged. She searched all her life for her father's approval and never received it. Like a child desperate for attention she threw tantrums and made bad choices. She was a flawed genius with a self-destructive nature who expressed that vulnerability and pain publicly. Her vulnerability and pain was there for all to see in her slim waif-like naked body. This was a woman who was unafraid to express her sexuality, unafraid to say she took drugs, unafraid to say she drank to excess. But this open expression of her life was a mask that hid the deep wounds. She lived life to excess as many did in Weimar Berlin. But with Anita it was more than that, it was always more. Her sexuality was frequently of a masochistic nature; her drug taking was equally to escape reality as to enjoy life. Her behaviour was destructive and nihilistic. But underneath that there was a vulnerability that touched the audiences – even if they were unable to say so consciously unable to consciously articulate why she had that vulnerability. And that gave her that spark of sympathy that gave even her wildest behaviour and performances the mark of human tragedy that followed her all her life as it spiralled into chaos mirrored by the society in which she lived.
The Weimar Republic came into being in confusion and fear. It was born of a war that had killed and maimed millions and wrought destruction across a large part of Germany and the rest of Europe and elsewhere. The Republic brought with it the remnants of the Wilhelmian era, the shame and anger of the dictated peace and the shattered hopes and dreams of the German people on the right and left of the political spectrum. The trauma of the war and its abrupt and unexpected end threw all of Germany into confusion. The German people had to contend with an unexpected military defeat and the abdication of the Kaiser which raised questions over the reason for the war. Although fighting had stopped on the Western Front on the 11th November it continued and indeed intensified on the streets of many German cities most notably Berlin. In October 1918 the sailors at the Kiel Naval base mutinied and anger and frustration gathered like storm clouds across the country. Homecoming soldiers returned to a confused public led by brawling politicians. On November 8th Kurt Eisner, an independent socialist, proclaimed a republic in Bavaria. On November 9th Philipp Scheidemann of the Social Democrats proclaimed a republic in Weimar. The Weimar Republic survived; the Bavarian did not. Within days of the proclamation of the new Republic left and right wing factions were on the streets fighting. On the 26th November Eisner called on the workers' and soldiers' council of Berlin to overthrow the interim government. It was not an auspicious start.
The interim government had to run a country that was recovering from war, both psychologically and economically, negotiate peace terms with the Allies, while faced with attacks from left and right. The government was viewed with wary suspicion by the Allies and with angry resentment by the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It would receive no international help in rebuilding the shattered country. Too revolutionary for the conservatives and not radical enough for the communists the government was under immense pressure. Dealing with practical issues such as that of returning soldiers and the economy were hampered by both left and right seeking their own interests over other considerations. By December 1918 parades for returning soldiers were interspersed with demonstrations by Spartacists. Government troops fought the communists using heavy machine guns.
This difficult birth presaged the subsequent development of the Republic. The politicians on both sides and the centre rarely had time, or indeed gave themselves or their opponents time, to resolve any of the underlying issues in the country before another crisis hit. The reparations demanded by the Allies put an immense strain on the country's economy as did the French occupation of the Ruhr and the blockade of German ports. Returning soldiers faced unemployment and financial hardship. Right and left argued over blame and disagreed about solutions while ordinary Germans starved. This level of extraordinary pressure led to extremes on both sides as successive governments attempted to steer a middle course but with a definite and growing rightwing bias. By the early twenties things had somewhat settled. The government was led by the conservatives but with a greater level of control. Political violence lessened although it did not disappear. The French evacuated from the Ruhr allowing German industry to get moving and the economy strengthened. The Treaty of Locarno was signed with Great Britain, France, Italy and Belgium and Germany was no longer a pariah state. However, these economic and social improvements, although very welcome, did not mean prosperity for all. Germany had, after all, to recover from extreme conditions. More importantly, nothing had been down to deal with the underlying problems in Germany which, when the world economy crashed in 1929, caused the extreme political elements to come to the fore.
These underlying problems had been developing since the beginning of the century. The 20th century heralded the modern era of the machine. But German society still hankered after the time of heroes. Romanticism and the love of Germanic legend still held true. Germans felt themselves to be under threat from the machine that separated them from the land and from their inner soul. And this was underpinned by the German obsession with death. The fixation on mortality was understandable given the losses in the Great War; Germany had lost around 2 million soldiers with a further ¾ million civilians dying from disease and malnutrition. But the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche and his assertion that modern man had killed God also contributed and created an ethos where death, its meaning and its purpose became all pervasive. Discussions were held in cafes and bars as the population watched injured soldiers return to a heroes' welcome. Life was becoming unreal. Parades in Berlin treated the returning soldiers as if they had won the war. The Dolchstoβlegende (stab-in-the-back) legend was born blaming Jews, communists and women for the disgraceful end to the war. The politicians argued over how to organise the economy while war wounded were on the streets begging for food. The German had lost his way; the machine had fragmented his life and left him with a shattered soul and the only reality that was true was death.
This ethos did not exist in a vacuum and built on the cultural changes that had been happening in Germany since the turn of the century. Feelings of restlessness had led many to welcome Germany's military build-up and the start of the war when it came. The world was changing and new ideas in science, philosophy and the arts flourished. Germany embraced and was the instigator of many of these new ideas but was still ruled by an elite that saw no need for societal change. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the universities, the military were held in high esteem and German Kultur was praised for its purity and lack of contamination by western values. This tension between the values of the conservative bourgeoisie and the rest of society could not last forever and it was the Weimar Republic that inherited the cultural riches that resulted from the release of that pressure.
Artists, such as Anita, watched the political machinations of left and right and treated much of it as irrelevant to what was really happening to the German soul. The longing for unity and desire for an understanding of death in its most primitive form moved artists and political activists alike but moved them differently and ultimately antagonistically to each other. The politicians squabbled over how to make Germany whole again but did so using the nineteenth century model of the political form. Even the Spartacists, who thought of themselves as the new revolutionaries of the age, based their ideology firmly in the class divisions determined by Marx in 1848. As a result there was a deep and almost instinctive distrust of the politics of the Republic from many artists. For the artistic community wholeness could only come about through modernity. Expressionism was the first major artistic movement after the war which gave artists the means by which to explore and interpret that modernity. Expressionism, by its very nature, did not create or follow a single message other than a desire to seek the wholeness of the German soul. Expressionism explored the emotional experience of life and death; politics merely attempted to control them without caring to understand them. It was this world that Anita inhabited.
In many ways Anita Berber and Weimar Berlin mirrored one another. Both had traumatic childhoods which included rejection and abandonment. The young woman and her adopted city were full of contradictions and frequently stumbled from one mistake to another without ever getting a chance to stop and think before the next crisis hit. They both had an exciting, glorious, flowering of possibility which was all too brief. And both were cut short; dying from poor choices, outside pressure and lack of support. But for all the faults and mistakes, Anita Berber and Weimar Berlin left a legacy that has never been rivalled.
Anita Berber: dancing on the edge of a volcano (Edinburgh: Pecco Ltd, 2015)
Available on Amazon – http://tinyurl.com/q8ox8nt
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About the author: Mary W Craig is a Scottish historian and writer. She is a former Carnegie scholar and a graduate of the University of Glasgow. She is known for her work on community access to history and research and writing on central European history. Mary is passionate about local communities being able to access their own history outwith academia but with an equal observance of intellectual rigour. She currently works as a community archivist. Mary's other area of interest is central Europe from the middle ages to the modern era. She has written extensively about various aspects of the history of central Europe; most notably how political changes affects people lives and how individuals and communities react to those changes.
As the anniversary of the Rent Strike passed last month, Chris Bambery writes for The Point on the strike that has became known as an iconic moment in the history of the Scottish working class. Chris is the author of "A Peoples History of Scotland"
Whenever Red Clydeside, that extraordinary period of working class insurgency which lasted from 1915 to 1919, is discussed attention generally centres on male shop stewards in Glasgow's giant engineering plants and on leaders like John Maclean and Willie Gallacher. Yet the greatest victory chalked up by the working folk of Glasgow came early, and central to its success were some remarkable working class women, that was the 1915 rent strike. Long before the outbreak of the First World war the city's housing conditions were a time bomb waiting to explode. War lit that fuse.
At the turn of the last century Glasgow's housing conditions were the worst of any British city. The rapid expansion of the city and the availability of cheap labour from rural Scotland, particularly the Highlands, and from Ireland meant employers were under little pressure to provide decent housing, property developers threw up poorly built tenements with one or two room apartments and landlords could charge high rents and ignore any repairs that were needed.
The first real census to record details, in 1861, found 34 percent of the population lived in a single room, 37 percent in just two rooms. Two thirds of the population lived in a single end or a "but-and-ben." A two roomed cottagei In 1881 a quarter of Glasgow's citizens still lived in such cramped conditions, and 50 percent in a room and kitchen.
By 1911 half of all Scots still lived in one or two bedroom homes. In England and Wales the figure was seven percent.
In 1908 the Glasgow socialist, John Wheatley, published an index of infant mortality across the city and argued: "You may see at a glance that the infant death-rate in working-class wards is three, four and almost five times higher than in Kelvinside [in the affluent west End]."
Yet Glasgow boasted it was the "Second City of the Empire." The contrast between rich and poor was shocking:
"Between the middle class residential area of Pollockshields and Blackfriars, the most congested slum in Europe, the distance was two miles. But the health figures were life-miles apart. The respective figures per thousand were: death rate, 10.3 and 29.2; TB [Tuberculosis] 1.4 and 3.9; infant mortality, 27 and 28."
Those figures come from 1881. In the first year of World War One not much had changed:
"The general death rate that year was 16.6 per thousand. In the elegant West End district of Kelvinside it was only 8.7, while in Broomielaw, part of Glasgow's dockland, it was 24.3! For the infant population, Broomielaw and Blackfriars, were an express journey to Paradise."
The outbreak of war in August 1914 brought a further influx of workers into the city to meet the demand of its engineering works and shipyards, all with full orders from the military and the navy.. Rents were higher than elsewhere in the UK and with accommodation in demand landlords raised rents. Existing tenants, who could not afford the extra, faced eviction, even the families of those away fighting in the trenches.
The government found in October 1915 that at least 33.9% of rents had increased by 5%, while in "Govan and Fairfield, the centre of the storm, all the houses...suffered rent increases ranging from 11.67% to 23.08%."
Across Glasgow and the west of Scotland a network of Independent Labour Party branches, tenants groups, Co-operative Society branches, the Govan and Glasgow Trades Councils, trade union activists and socialists were able organize a rising groundswell of discontent.
The "Partick and Maryhill Press" reported the 1915 May Day rally in Glasgow thus:
"Over 165 labour and socialist organisations took part... and Glasgow Green was crowded with thousands of spectators. There were 12 platforms. Among those represented were those of the Socialist and Labour Party, Internationalism, Glasgow Housing Committee, the Anarchist Group, Socialist Children's School and Women Trade Unionists."
Women would take the lead in winning the single greatest victory notched up on Red Clydeside. One of the organizers of the Rent Strike, Helen Crawfurd, had been a radical suffragette who had been jailed three times before the war for actions which included smashing the windows of the Ministry of Education in London and the army recruitment office in Glasgow. Seán Damer notes: "The Glasgow suffragettes had a tradition of militancy which includes blowing up all the telegraph and telephone cables, cutting the wires around the city."
Mary Barbour arrived in Govan in 1896, a newly married engineer's wife, and became active in the Independent Labour Party. She began organizing over rents by holding meetings, large and small, in kitchens, in closes, and in backcourts attracting her audience with a football rattle.."
In April 1915 the family of a soldier serving in France was evicted in Govan which was met with angry protests as Willie Gallacher, a leader of the shops stewards movement on the Clyde describes: "In Govan, Mrs. Barbour, a typical working class housewife, became the leader of a movement such has never been seen before, or since for that matter, street meetings, back-court meetings, drums, bells, trumpets – every method was used to bring the women out and organize them for struggle. Notices were printed by the thousand and put up in the windows: wherever you went you could see them. In street after street, scarcely a window without one: WE ARE NOT PAYING INCREASED RENT."
One landlord had applied for an eviction order against a mother and family for non-payment of rent at a time when the man of the house was fighting in France and a son was recovering from war wounds. The Court supplied the necessary authorisation despite an offer from the local miners' union to repay the rent debt within a week. However, the attempt at eviction was successfully resisted by a large crowd which had to be restrained from physically attacking the landlord."
Similar scenes were repeated across the city, for instance in Partick:
"... a 70 year old pensioner living alone was due to be evicted on a warrant issued by Sheriff Thomson for refusing to pay a rent increase. The old man barricaded himself in his tiny tenement flat and a large crowd gathered outside in his support, making his 'castle' impregnable. Again no official showed face."
Gallacher records that "the factors [agents for the property owners] could not collect the rents."xv When a factor turned up in Partick in late October, the "Glasgow Herald" reported "he was pelted with bags of peasemeal and chased from one of the streets by a number of women, who upbraided him vociferously."
The Landlords then applied for an eviction warrant from a judge and the task of carrying that out fell to the city's Sheriff who asked the police to carry out the task:"But Mrs. Barbour had a team of women who were wonderful. They could smell a sheriff's officer a mile away. At their summons women left their cooking, washing or whatever they were doing. Before they were anywhere near their destination, the officer and his men would be met by an army of furious women who drove them back in a hurried scramble for safety."
In every window of every house there were 1/d notices which read: 'We are not removing.' Within weeks thousands of notices were displayed in street after street. Soon all of Glasgow was involved: from Parkhead to Govan, Pollokshaws to Calton.
The turn out on the May Day march and rally that year reflected the mood and confidence of the Clydeside working class. The "Partick and Maryhill Press" reported:
"[It] was organized on a larger scale than on any previous occasion. Over 165 Labour and Socialist organizations took part. There were 12 platforms. Among those represented were the Socialist and Labour Party, Internationalism, Glasgow Housing Committee, the Anarchist Group, Socialist Children's School, and Women Trade Unionists."
Throughout 1915 John MacLean, the leading revolutionary on Clydeside, spoke at meeting after meeting outside the shipyards and other workplaces demanding action on rents. On Sunday nights he addressed huge open air meetings in Bath Street while his Marxist night class had an average attendance of 493, mainly shop stewards. In October he was brought to court under the Defence of the Realm Act for opposing the war and was bound over on agreement he would not speak publicly on the war, though he made it clear he would still speak out over rents. Because of this conviction MacLean faced the sack from his teaching position.
By October 1915 15,000 were refusing to pay rent increases, and a month later it was 20,000. That month a factor took 18 tenants to court, providing a focus for the movement, as Mrs. Barbour's women marched on the City chambers. Tom Bell would write that on route:
"The women marched in a body to the shipyard and got the men to leave work and join them in a demonstration to the Court." "Forward" estimated the crowd outside the city chambers as being 4,000 strong. John MacLean was among those who spoke, denouncing the evils of capitalism. His arrival was unusual:
"On their way from Govan one contingent marched to the school where John Maclean, already under notice of dismissal from Govan School Board, was teaching. He was taken out and carried shoulder high through the streets to the court."
Helen Crawfurd would remember: "I will never forget the sight and sound of those marching men [from the shipyards]. Thousands of them marched through the principal streets to the Sheriff Court and the surrounding streets were packed. John MacLean MA... was one of the speakers, who from barrels and up-turned boxes, addressed the crowds."
The government in London was worried by the scale of the protests and that the eviction of rent strikers might be the spark for a walk out in the Clyde yards. It responded quickly, hurrying through the Rent Restriction Act of 1915, which returned rents to pre-war levels. This was a major victory for working class people of Britain, won by the working women and men of Glasgow.
The rent strike coincided with the creation of the Clyde Workers Committee, an unofficial group of shop stewards from across the city's engineering plant committed to defending conditions, under constant attack from employers with full order books, and wages, being eroded by war time price rises. Their union leaders had signed up to Britain's war effort and had agreed to a ban on strikes.
It is another magnificent chapter in working class history, but one which has often overshadowed the achievements of the rent strikes organisers.
In this centenary year there has been a demand for a statue to be raised to Mary Barbour. I agree, but I'd like her to be beside Helen Crawfurd too. But in many ways the person who needs to be honoured are those unknown women in Partick who chased the factor out of their street, covering them with peasemeal. Across the city women like that stood up to rack renting landlords and made a wee but significant piece of working class history.
Adapted from "A Peoples History of Scotland (Verso)" Chapter on Red Clydeside
As plans get under way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of often overlooked republican and democratic revolutionary Thomas Muir - who some have labeled 'the father of Scottish Democracy, The Point republishes an updated version of Graeme McIver's look at the incredible life of Thomas Muir of Huntershill.
This is a story that reads like a cross between a political thriller, a courtroom drama and a boys own adventure. Were it to be presented to a group of Hollywood script writers it would likely be rejected as being unbelievable. Yet the incredible tale of this giant of the Scottish reform movement, a revolutionary hero in America, appointed Minister of The Scottish Republic by the French Revolutionary Government, inspirer of Robert Burns, friend of Thomas Paine and the leading figure of the Scottish Political Martyrs is known to fewer than a relative handful of people in his native land.
My name is Thomas Muir as a lawyer I was trained
But you’ve branded me an outlaw, for sedition I’m arraigned
But I never preached sedition in any shape or form
And against the constitution I have never raised a storm
It’s the scoundrels who’ve corrupted it that I want to reform
Remember Thomas Muir of Huntershill
(Words Dick Gaughan)
Kirkcaldy Bay, where 31 whales beached themselves as the Act of Union was signed
The Whales of Kirkcaldy
The tragic deception of Darien, a rumination on the Acts of Union
“After the Darien disaster, Scotland was bankrupt. We had to go into union with England because we couldn’t survive on our own.”
These gloomy words were blurted out by a “No” supporter in the audience of Question Time a few weeks ago. It is a familiar refrain, buried deep in the Scottish psyche, even among many who are only vaguely acquainted with Darien and its apparent consequences. In my own school days, I well recall our history teacher repeating the mantra that Scotland’s ludicrously vain attempt to establish a colony in a swampy jungle left our misguidedly over-ambitious country bankrupt and with no choice but to unite with the far more competent and powerful England.
I don’t blame my teacher – she was repeating the received wisdom of hundreds of historians.
Gary Fraser reviews historian Tom Devine’s The Scottish Nation: A Modern History
T.M. Devine’s The Scottish Nation: a Modern History is a book that is already gaining a reputation as the definitive modern study of Scottish history. In regards to the referendum, this is a book that both sides of the debate should read. It is not a polemic but a careful exploration of the historical facts.
Of course, in a post-modern age, where 'only dogmatists believe in certainty', Robert Burn’s “facts are chiels that winna ding” is a problematic assertion to say the least, none more so than when analysing history in order to make sense of Scotland’s current historical moment. Devine notes, with a slight nod to post-modernism, that history is always an ‘interpretative process’.
There have been many discussions and opinions on what caused the Spanish Republican loss in 1939. Some put it down to the lack of professional soldiers, others have argued they had no great tactical mind. The most interesting argument, though is the one in which the Republicans were defeated from the inside, by those thought to be their own.
Conor Cheyne looks back at a dark period of the Twentieth Century and finds a lesson of internationalism, solidarity, and hope.
1936 was a year that will always be notorious in memory. The year the Fascist states flexed their muscle and showed the rest of the world the strength that they had. It was also the year that one of the most influential wars in modern history took place and what has become one of the most important, world changing civil wars in recent history.
At the start of 1936, Germany and Italy had fascist leaders who had cemented their power within Europe not only by fear, but by winning over the hearts of many of their people. This fascism spread throughout the world, with rallies being held in support of fascism in the UK, the USA (Madison Square Gardens – See picture below) amongst others. This period was on the backdrop of one of the worst financial crises the world had ever seen and one that tore apart countries following the turmoil that ensued after World War One. It was these two factors which lead to the growth of support for fascism in Germany, Italy…and Spain. Curiously, despite the increasing power of fascist dictators, it was in this year, on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, that comradeship, solidarity and principles reached their peak. In these dark times, a small but bright light shone that still today is remembered and will not be forgotten – The 30,000 Comrades from 53 countries who made the long trip to Spain to fight for democracy and for their fellow man against Franco.
Comrades from all around the world saw the threat of Fascism and the dangers it caused. When General Franco and his fellow Army Generals rebelled against the Socialist Spanish Government, these men and women could not sit back and let yet another nation fall under the rule of Fascists, particularly a nation with a democratically elected government.
The idea of International Brigades was proposed by the Soviet Union. Due to the Non-Intervention Pact which was currently in place, the Soviets did not wish to put their own soldiers into the war but they understood that the Republicans would need reinforcements from somewhere. The Italian and French Communist Parties were the first to set up Brigades although they were not the first too have foreign fighters participate in the war. POUM had members join their ranks at the very outbreak. It should also be noted that while it was an idea of the Soviet Union to start International Brigades, it has been much debate on whether or not that it was the Stalinists themselves who were responsible for the downfall of the republican side. This is due to the civil war inside a civil war in which the Stalinists were taking out rival groups within the republic such as POUM and Anarchist CNT. Much of this took place in Barcelona where Stalinist oppression was terrible and can be viewed from a first hand stance in George Orwells “Homage to Catalonia” although that is another article all together.
Communists who decided to join Brigades had their transport to Spain arranged by their Party, although many who were not Communists, or at least not a member of a party, had to complete the gruelling task themselves, via the Pyrenees Mountains or by boat. The sheer willingness of these comrades - who left jobs, families and livelihoods - knowing they may never return, cannot be underestimated. The affiliation they felt for their brothers and sisters in Spain and the comradeship which this invoked, is something that will always be reflected on with optimism, especially by those on the Left who will regard this as a benchmark of self sacrifice for your fellow man, a stand that hasn't been repeated in a similar way since, and may never again. This was summed up brilliantly by one Scot who fought, on the TV programme “The Scots Who Fought Franco”
“If I leave this earth tomorrow, will leave with the sense of knowing that I’ve done something on behalf of my class, on behalf of my kin”
There was an estimated 2,400 British volunteers that took up arms and marched to Spain in order to support The Republic, though despite counting for only 9% of the British Population, 20% of these volunteers were Scots. While many Scottish volunteers came from the poor, poverty stricken areas of the country, there were men from all walks of life who despised fascism who joined. Most of whom were communists, trade unionists and anarchists who not only seen the rise of fascism as a world problem, they seen that by fighting in Spain, they may inspire change back home. In Daniel Gray's “Homage to Caledonia”, one Glasgow Volunteer had written to his son back home and said:
“Whenever I see thousands of Spanish children streaming along the road away from the Fascists, my thoughts revert back home, and I can see you, and your brothers in the same circumstances if we don't smash the Fascist monsters here”.
Though to fully appreciate Scottish involvement, you need to look back and understand what was happening in Scotland, Glasgow in particular, during this period. From the 1910's until the mid 1930's, there were massive strides forward within the Labour movement across Britain, but Glasgow became the forefront of this in what became known as “Red Clydeside”. This began with the working class opposition to the First World War but soon became a radical movement for social change at a time when Communism and Socialism were both becoming popular around Europe. The culmination of which – in Scotland - was The Battle of George Square in 1919 and the election of 6 Red Clydesiders as MPs.
With the fight for social justice losing momentum and no signs of their demands being met, some became disheartened. But, there were others who wouldn't let that stop them and when the call came from Spain, it was seen as a chance to re-ignite the fires in Scotland. The great depression and the growth of Mosleys British Fascists had men ready to join the fight for freedom before it had even begun.
The first Scots to join an International Brigade were those who were members of the Tom Mann Centuria which was created in August 1936 though who were later incorporated into the German Thalmann Battalion. This small group of British volunteers was made up of men who had already been in Spain prior to the War breaking out or left to join just after. Another group in a similar position were those who joined the Commune de Paris Battalion. In this group, Jock Cunningham, a miner from Coatbridge who went to Spain in November 1936 and would play a key role in the Battle of Jarama just a couple months later. December 1936 also saw the First Scots to die in the War, Henry Bonnar who died of his injuries in Colmenar de Oreja and Martin Messer who died in Boadilla.
December 1936 saw the first introduction of the British Battalion. The brigade started when little over 100 British volunteers set out for Spain and joined Company No.1 Marseillaise Battalion.. They fought in skirmishes in Cordoba during the early weeks of their deployment and around Madrid during the early weeks of 1937. The British Battalion then received reinforcements to boost their ranks after heavy loses at the Madrid Front. Vast majority of these new recruits were either British or Irish and so the name of the battalion stuck. With these new men, a further 3 companies were formed. The group were soon to be incorporated into the 15th International Brigade along with Abraham Lincoln Brigade which, together with the British Battalion, held the majority of Scots fighting in the war.
February seen Scottish fighters get their first taste of battle in what was one the bloodiest of the war. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade hadn't yet seen any fighting but was thrown straight into the deep end along with the British Battalion. After one day of fighting in Jarama, there were over 250 British asualties. With his battalion commander injured, Scottish Jock Cunningham took control of the British Brigade who had lost over half their strength after only the second day of the battle. On the third day, Frank Ryan, leader of the Connolly Column (Famous group of Irish volunteers who fought with the Abe Lincoln Brigade) then joined with Cunningham and 140 men, marched back to recapture positions left later in the day after a massive nationalist attack. Knowing that they were all that stood against the nationalist army possibly winning the battle, the two leaders took an astonishing risk with a very small force and managed to accomplish their target. Cunningham was injured shortly after making the rank of captain in August 1937 though is remembered as being one of the most influential Non-Spanish combatants to fight in the War.
“We set out from Glasgow, to the war torn Spain”
Scottish/Irish folk band, The Wakes sung “These Hands” which tells of a young Glasgow man going off to Spain and fighting in the Battle of Jarama.
After 5 months on the Jarama Front, The Fifteenth International Brigade was moved to the west of Madrid in order to protect what was seen as the weakest part of the line. After securing the two first objectives, the British Battalion moved onto their third and final which was capturing a small but well defended village. After a hard fought battle, the village was finally captured nearing midnight. The following day the troops were moved onto their primary objective. It was here that the battalion faced horrendous loses, as when the battle of Brunete was over, they had lost 299 men. It was on the first day, while trying to take the final village that Glasgow Born Alex McDade died. He was injured during the Battle of Jarama but continued to fight on, determined that the cause he was fighting for could not fail. McDade is not only remembered for his courage, but for the famous poem, “Valley of Jarama” which was later edited slightly and sung by Woodie Guthrie.
The rest of the war saw Scottish volunteers fight in Aragon, Teruel and during the Ebro offensive. During this time, men such as Ash Francis and Robert Cruikshank from Glasgow, Airlie Frank from Bellshill and Archibald Dewar from Aberdeen. Peter Kerrigan, a communist from Glasgow and Communist Party of Great Britain’s representative to the Comintern. During the Spanish Civil War he served as a commissar for English-speaking volunteers, he was present when the British Battalion were targets of a massive artillery strike during the Ebro Offensive in September 1938:
“I could give dozens of individual acts of heroism but what is the use. The list of citations which I enclose, tells in brief official terms of the acts of deathless glory which were played out against a background of the cutting to pieces of our very bravest. I saw what No. 1 Company. came through at Córdoba and I will never forget when I was told what our casualties were in those first 3 days at Jarama. But nothing can compare with the end of our battalion”
After the announcement on 21st September by the Spanish Prime Minister that all foreign fighters would be sent home, the International Brigades prepared to head back to their homes which they had left in order to fight for this country that they had no attachment to what so ever. 17th of October saw the International Brigades farewelled through the streets of Barcelona. Here, cheered by thousands including Spain President and Prime Minister, the volunteers waved goodbye, though not before a speech from Dolores Ibarruri or La Pasionaria in which she shouted:
“Comrades of the International Brigades! Political reasons, reasons of state, the good of that same cause for which you offered your blood with limitless generosity, send some of you back to your countries and some to forced exile. You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy… We will not forget you”
Here, if no where else, we can see for ourselves how cherished these volunteers were to the Spanish people. They understood that these men came to fight in order to keep Spain safe from fascism and help the Spanish people, a people most had no affiliation to at all. For many who fought Franco’s forces in Spain, it would not be the last time they would face such an enemy. Soon enough, the world would be plunged into chaos by the by the same powers and ideology that these courageous men volunteered to face in the towns, cities and fields of Spain.
Now, in 2013, the legacy of the International Brigades is kept alive and well. At memorials all around the world - such as the one in Glasgow, shown below – services are held to remember those who selflessly went to fight dark reaction. There are songs-aplenty telling the tales of men who made the trip to take Franco head-on and books charting the stories. Scots who fought during the International Brigades should still have as much meaning today for us as they did all those years ago. These men have inspired many other generations – and I include myself in that. The very idea is something that stirs the blood, particularly in those searching to be inspired in a time when morals and principle seem to have little say in the world.
During a period when society is crumbling, when thinking of your neighbour has become an unimaginable concept to so many, and the ugly face of extreme right politics is seen again on the streets of Europe, it is always good to look back to this period. It makes me smile to think of the courage it took, and the determination. There is no act braver than putting yourself in harms way for your fellow human beings and a better world, and that is exactly what happened.
Conor is a 20 year old Engineering Apprentice, a member of Highland Socialist Alliance, and active in Highlands No2 Bedroom Tax Campaign.