Insurgent empire, by Priyamvada Gopal

When the Scottish explorer John Rae was posted by the Hudson’s Bay Company to arctic Canada, he very quickly recognised just how much he had to learn from the Cree and Inuit peoples about traveling and surviving in the hostile climate he would face. When Rae was tasked with finding what had happened to Lord Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage, his trust in and respect for the local people led him to accept their account of the expedition’s fate, which he repeated in his own report. In so doing, Rae drew condemnation from the British establishment – including Charles Dickens, who found it unimaginable that Rae had ‘failed’ to make the 10-12 day trek across the Arctic wastes to verify the story of ‘mere natives’.

So it did not come as a total surprise to me to read – in the second chapter of Priyamvada Gopal’s excellent book Insurgent Empire – that in the Jamaican uprising of 1865 Dickens had sided with the English governor, Eyre, who had ordered a brutal repression of demonstrators and the murder of a local politician. It did, though, come as some shock that a number of other supposedly progressive Victorians – including John Ruskin – had also supported Eyre. And by contrast, the Positivist thinkers Congreve and Harrison, bêtes noires of my university days, had taken the side of the anti-colonialists. The first part of Priya’s book shows how – when it comes to the Empire and colonisation – our Victorian ancestors were not always what we might expect.

I first met Priya through political activism. We were both involved in Campeace, an anti-war movement, at the time (if my memory serves me well) of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and later in supporting the student protests in 2010-11. I have always been impressed by the balanced, thoughtful way in which she speaks, and seize any opportunity I can to hear her talk in and around the university. I am proud to call her a friend and mentor, and had been awaiting the publication of Insurgent Empire with some anticipation.

Insurgent Empire focuses on specific moments of rebellion against British colonialism, and so John Rae does not feature in its pages. However, it is interesting that Wilfrid Blunt, the focus of Chapter 3, also saw himself as a student of a colonised people, in this case the Egyptians involved in the upraising of 1882. And this is the first key lesson of the book – that there was very much a two-way interchange between insurgents in the colonies and radicals in Britain – that terms like ‘liberty’ were not ‘gifted’ to the colonised, but forged in dialogue and eventually taken in struggle: indeed ‘the resistance of the periphery helped radicalise sections of the metropole’ and ‘ideas of freedom’ distinct from those of the free market economy were able to ‘make their claims heard’ (p448).

The second key lesson of Insurgent Empire is to challenge the extent to which people are obliged to accept the conventional wisdom of their time. Wilfrid Blunt is just one of a series of fascinating characters who came to see that behind the prevailing image of a benevolent empire lay an altogether different picture of aggressive self-interest and oppression. These people were able to unlearn the accepted view of empire – Blunt would eventually comment on how Britons were expected to ‘fall down as a nation and worship our own golden image in a splendid record of heroic deeds and noble impulses’. Others would go further and argue – perhaps a third key lesson – that British working people had more in common with those oppressed in the colonies than with their own ruling classes.

As Insurgent Empire moves into the twentieth century there is a change of focus. While many of the nineteenth century activists were British people who travelled to the colonies, recognised what was really happening, and fed this in to the debates at home, as the twentieth century unfolded activists from the colonies such as the Trinidadians C L R James and George Padmore increasingly came to London and became involved in – and often leading lights in – the struggle against colonialism. Priya’s characters, as she comments in the interview below, recognised their ‘moral responsibility’ to ally themselves with ‘those who are at the receiving end of inequality, exploitation and violence’.

Priya creates a highly original style of history writing – she interweaves brief but nonetheless gripping outlines of the rebellions and the oppression that inevitably followed with the human stories of those who were moved, challenged and radicalised by them. In the process we learn more both about the events themselves, and the lessons they may hold for us today.

Insurgent Empire makes an important contribution to understanding the British colonial past. At a time when myths of empire once more weigh upon current events – from curriculum design to the UK’s relationship with Europe – it becomes ever more pressing to imagine new ways in which we can learn from the past, separate myth from reality and move beyond feelings of pride or shame. We need to recognise both the realities of imperialism – and how fundamentally it helped to create the current world order – and the ways in which resistance in the colonies and in Britain interacted and helped to challenge the imperial project. Insurgent Empire offers some crucial pointers about how we – as activists, educators or citizens – can do this.

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal. Published 2019 by Verso. ISBN 9781784784126 https://www.versobooks.com/books/2965-insurgent-empire

Nine Wells

Note: there is now a page devoted to Nine Wells which you will find here. I will keep this updated more regularly.

I continue my ecological survey of the fields south of Addenbrookes Hospital around the Nine Wells nature reserve.The field on the hospital side of the cycle path is wonderfully wild at the moment – this morning I heard 3 there (right) and saw 2 (possibly 3) pairs of A yellowhammer was also singing and several skylarks.


The field on the other side of the cycle path had been earmarked by South Cambridgeshire District Council for further development. However, the conservatives suffered a shock defeat in the recent local elections. The liberal democrats, who now have overall control of the council, had campaigned vigorously against the proposed development. Let’s hope they now throw it out – I am trying to clarify the position. In case they need reminding, you can write to local councillors.

My 2017 survey of the area – which you can download below – showed that the area remains extremely valuable for farmland birds of high conservation concern, with exceptional numbers of grey partridge in the autumn, as well as good numbers of skylark, linnet, yellowhammer and corn bunting.3P

‘The square km south of Addenbrookes has this year supported a grey partridge population of at least 11 spring pairs/km2 and 85 birds/km2 in autumn. The arable farms typical of Cambridgeshire support between 0 and 5 pairs/km2 and 0–20 birds/km2 in the autumn.’

Corn buntings also did particularly well last year, with 8 pairs. This is an important population – there are just 11,000 birds in the UK and its recent extinction in Ireland risks being repeated in large parts of Britain if its breeding sites are not protected. The RSPB’s nearby Hope Farm had 2 pairs in 2016 in 1.8km2.

In addition, the site supports a thriving population of water voles, both in the start of Hobsons Brook, and in the ditch that runs alongside the cycle path.

You can download a copy of my report for 2017 here.

Nine_wells_Survey_report_2017

My reports for 2016 are here:

Nine_wells_Survey_report_2016

Grey_partridge_2016

My reports for 2015 are here:

Survey_report_for_TL4654_2015

Grey_partridge_of_Nine_Wells

The story of Heroes of the floes

It was a friend who worked for the British Antarctic Survey who first told me the story of John Rae, the Orcadian doctor and explorer.

Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir in 1813. He qualified as a surgeon in Edinburgh and in 1833 left Scotland to work in Canada, first as a ship’s surgeon on board the Prince of Wales, and then in Moose Factory for the Hudson Bay Company, where he was to stay for 10 years.

Rae, in contrast to most of his white contemporaries, respected the First Nation people, learned vital skills from them and dressed like them to face the winter cold. From the Cree he learned how to make snowshoes and hunt caribou, and from the Inuit how to build snow shelters.

Rae was asked by the Hudson Bay Company to complete the mapping of the Arctic coast. He was a remarkable athlete – in one two-month period he covered 1200 miles on foot – and he spent whole winters in the far north. His expeditions filled many gaps and confirmed the existence of the North West Passage.

In 1848 Rae was asked to help search for the men of Lord Franklin’s expedition. He learnt from the Inuit that 40 white men had starved to death and had resorted to cannibalism in their final days. However when his report reached London, it led to an outcry. As my friend says, ‘Royal Navy chaps don’t eat each other’. Or as Charles Dickens put it, no white man should believe the Inuit who were ‘savages and liars’.

Later expeditions proved Rae and the Inuit right. However by then Rae was thoroughly discredited and his own discovery of the North West Passage was attributed to Franklin. His achievements were written out of history. My friend suggested that, as Franklin already had songs to his name, I might like to write a tribute to a true hero of the floes. I hope the song does him justice.

Why I’ll be voting to stay in the EU

As the author of Thesalonika, Rue Mouffetard, Poussière d’étoiles, Les enfants de la mer and Andalucia it may not surprise you to know I’ll be voting to remain in the EU.

I don’t want to get into the economic arguments – while I can’t see how leaving would create more decent jobs, trade etc, I’m no economist, and anyway I don’t believe anyone can accurately predict such things – too many other factors in the wider EU and world economy will affect the future. Instead I want to focus on the things we could lose if we walk away – the 4 Ps of peace, people, protection and place.

Peace – It’s not just that, following centuries of conflict between European nations, we have enjoyed 70 years of peace between EU members. Above all, the EU’s regular meetings have provided a forum to resolve differences between member states. The EU has also helped us surmount some major challenges such as the reunification of Germany and the end of the iron curtain. Many on both right and left of the leave campaign want to return to a Europe of nation states, as does Marine Le Pen in France. Such a backwards step is potentially highly dangerous – we are far better off working together.

People – My friends come from across Europe (and of course from far beyond) – from France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Ireland and Greece as well as Turkey and Russia. Much of my favourite music, art, cinema and literature comes from Spain, France and – in the case of the great Jacques Brel – Belgium. Most of the recipes I cook are from Italy, Greece, France or Spain. I value all these people and their cultures and have no wish to close borders and take a step inwards.

Protection for workers – EU regulations underpin the UK’s health and safety law and oblige employers to take steps to reduce the risks we face at work. The Working Time Directive limits working hours, while EU rules strengthen maternity and paternity benefits and ensure that part time workers get the same rights as full time workers. There’s also protection for consumers as well. And one of the most important aspects of the European community is that all member states are constrained by these regulations – there is reduced opportunity for individual states to undermine these rights in order to gain competitive advantage.

Protection for the environment – OK – the EU’s record on this hasn’t always been good. The early CAP was disastrous for biodiversity – but even that has now greatly improved. Away from this the Habitats Directive 1992, the Birds Directive 2009 and the Natura 2000 ecological network provide enhanced protection to habitats and species, the Environment Action Programme regulates businesses to reduce waste and pollution, and the EU has been a key player in attempts to reduce climate change. Of course, Nigel Farage doubts global warming and hates wind turbines.

Place – We all have the right to travel freely throughout the EU and to live, work or retire where we choose – and we have the right to decent healthcare throughout the EU. And yes, this means that people from other EU countries can travel, live and work here. Good. As John Lennon said, instead of building walls we should be building bridges.

Above all for me the EU represents a way of living that sets a certain benchmark. Things like not resorting to the death penalty, agreeing a Charter of Fundamental Rights and embedding values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights into the EU treaties. I know it’s far from perfect – the treatment of Greece was inhuman (though Yanis Varoufakis nonetheless strongly believes we should stay in). I’m appalled by its policy towards Syrian refugees, and concerned about the rush towards TTIP. However, for many years now the UK has had governments that were even further from perfect – invading Iraq, cutting benefits for the disabled, etc.

It’s up to us to fight for the EU we want. To quote Varoufakis:

‘Britain needs to join the rest of us on the other side of the Channel in the only fight that is worth having: the struggle to democratise the European Union.’

Walking the streets of Paris in the footsteps of Louise Michel

It was just after we joined the Rue des Fossés St Jacques on a cool August evening that we found, painted on the footpath, the words: ‘Au Panthéon; Simone de Beauvoir et Louise Michel’.

We had celebrated my birthday in a Greek restaurant just off the Place St Médard, at the southern edge of the 5ème arrondissement. After eating we had climbed the rue Mouffetard towards the Place de la Contrescarpe and the Panthéon, the final resting place of the great men of France. Of the 71 worthy people buried there only one, Marie Curie, was a woman. I could understand the case for de Beauvoir joining her; but Louise Michel was new to me.

I visit Paris regularly but over the years I spend less and less time on the Champs Elysées and the grands boulevards for which Haussemann had in the 19th century demolished large swathes of an older Paris, leading Baudelaire to write in Le Cygne: ‘Le vieux Paris nest plus; la forme d’une ville change plus vite, hélas! que le coeur d’un mortel.’ (Old Paris is no more; the form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.)

I prefer the less ordered older quarters of Paris that escaped Haussemann’s attentions, mainly those clustered around the hills or ‘buttes’ of the city, including Montmartre. My favourite is that which tumbles down the contrescarpe along the rue Mouffetard. As we walked back down the slope I determined to find out more about Louise Michel.

By the time we set out again the following morning a combination of an iPad and hotel wifi had given me a short introduction to the remarkable life of this anarchist, teacher and poet. Born in 1830 in the Haute-Marne as the illegitimate daughter of the son of the local chateau and one of his servants, Michel trained as a teacher and moved to Paris where she opened a school, wrote poetry, corresponded with Victor Hugo and became active in left-wing republican politics.

We walked along the rue Pascal, following the course of the river Bièvre which used to flow past the Gobelins and the tanneries at the foot of the Rue Mouffetard but is now confined to an underground canal. We were heading in the direction of the Butte aux Cailles in the 13ème arrondissement – in 1871 one of the last strongholds of the Paris Commune.

The Commune was established in Paris (and in many other major French cities) following France’s defeat at the end of the war against Prussia. The spark that lit the uprising was the French army’s attempt to take back the cannons that had been used to defend the city during the siege of the final months of the war. And it was Louise Michel who had alerted the people of Montmartre to the presence in the city of the French army.

We crossed the Boulevard Auguste Blanqui – named after the revolutionary who had been imprisoned by the French government to prevent him joining the Commune – and ventured up the rue Daviel towards the Butte aux Cailles – in English the ‘hill of quails’. This area is another where much of the old housing has survived since before Haussmann, and numerous narrow streets and passages scramble up the hillside, lending the area a village-like feel until a more modern tower block looms up ahead and brings you back to modern Paris.

The Commune survived for two months – time to introduce new ideas and practices far ahead of their time – but eventually the French army began to move into the city, massacring thousands of communards as they went. Louise Michel fought the soldiers in the suburbs and later the city barricades. At her trial Michel denounced her persecutors:

‘Puisqu’il semble que tout coeur qui bat pour la liberté n’a droit qu’à un peu de plomb, j’en réclame une part, moi ! Si vous me laissez vivre, je ne cesserai de crier vengeance… Si vous n’êtes pas des lâches, tuez-moi!’ (Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has the right only to a little lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance… If you are not cowards, kill me!)

At the top of the butte we found the place de la Commune de Paris and drank tea in the cooperative café Le temps des cerises, named after a song by Jean-Baptiste Clement which the author later dedicated to a nurse who had been with him on one of the final barricades:

Mais il est bien court, le temps des cerises,
Où l’on s’en va deux cueillir en rêvant
Des pendants d’oreilles.
Cerises d’amour aux robes pareilles
Tombant sous la feuille en gouttes de sang.

(But it is too short, the time of the cherries
When together we gather them while dreaming of earrings
Cherries of love dressed in red robes
Dripping from the leaf in drops of blood)

Louise Michel was not granted her wish by the court, but was instead exiled to New Caledonia, where she supported the indigenous people in their fight against French colonialism, and ran a school with methods that were a century ahead of their time. It was there that she concluded: ‘C’est que le pouvoir est maudit, et c’est pour cela que je suis anarchiste.’ (Power is cursed, and that is why I am an anarchist.)

She was eventually freed and returned to Paris in November 1880, to be welcomed by an immense crowd. She continued her fight for social justice and remained a thorn in the side of the government, spending several stretches in prison. She wrote extensively – poems, pamphlets, an autobiography and a personal history of the Commune. When she died in 1905 some 100,000 people followed her cortège through the streets of Paris.

We continued to wander around the Butte aux Cailles, lingering in particular in the passage Boitton with a Parisiénne who spends her spare time exploring and photographing the backstreets of her beloved city. She told us where we could find the graffiti below.

There is talk that François Hollande may decide to include another woman in the Panthéon, and Michel would seem an ideal candidate – along with Simone de Beauvoir and Olympe de Gouges, who published a Declaration of the rights of women during the revolution of 1789. In the meantime, she retains an alternative commemoration beyond the gift of any of today’s politicians – Victor Hugo dedicated his poem Viro major to her:

Et ceux qui, comme moi, te savent incapable
De tout ce qui n’est pas héroïsme et vertu,
Qui savent que, si l’on te disait: « D’où viens-tu ? »
Tu répondrais: « Je viens de la nuit d’où l’on souffre. »

(And those who, like me, know you to be incapable
Of all that is not heroism and virtue,
Who know that, if you were asked, ‘Where do you come from?”
You would answer: “I come from the night where there is suffering.’)

We walked back along the Avenue des Gobelins and that evening ate in Les Bugnes, a Basque restaurant just off the rue Mouffetard. And here is the video of my song, Rue Mouffetard, with some echoes of the Commune.

Thesalonika

Retired policeman: ‘How do you find our country now?’
Zoe: ‘It’s not “our” country, but my country – you were with the Nazis.’

In the days and weeks leading up to the Athens Olympics in 2004 Greece was filled with bands of wandering journalists waiting for the games to start and searching out other stories to fill their time. Daniel Vernet of Le Monde was one of them and he met Zoe Kaltaki, who had fought in the resistance against the nazis in the Kilkis mountains to the north of Thessaloniki. Her story somehow summed up the turbulent twentieth century, and inspired me to write ‘Thesalonika’ – I played the song again recently at Cambridge Folk Club with Tara Westover, and there is a video of it here:

At age 12, Zoe followed her father into the resistance. She refused to lay down her gun after the liberation, and joined the communists who were fighting the right (who were supported by the English and Americans, worried that Greece might follow other Balkan countries into soviet Russia’s influence). She was injured several times and ended up in a hospital in Sofia, Bulgaria. A million people were displaced by the civil war, and 100,000 found exile in Eastern Europe. Zoe herself found a new home in Czechoslovakia, where she made paper flowers for funeral wreaths, married another Greek exile and had four children.

Zoe returned to Greece in 1982 after an official amnesty, to live in Volos with her daughter Olga. Asked whether she regretted her return to her country, she summed up her mixed feelings by saying ‘Wherever I feel at home, that is my country’. Olga added that in Czechoslovakia ‘I didn’t know what stress was. There you just had to work – here you have to fight.’ Zoe had returned several times to the Kilkis mountains, and on one of these visits met an old acquaintance, the retired policeman quoted earlier.

Thessaloniki is a remarkable city. It was home to many of the sephardic jews expelled from Spain in 1492. For several centuries under the Ottoman empire it was one of the great European multicultural cities, home not just to the Jews and Greeks, but also to many Muslims, including the family of one of our friends. As late as 1912 Thessaloniki was 40% Jewish, 30% Greek orthodox and 25% Muslim.

However, following the end of the empire and the population exchange of 1923 when some 1.5 million people in the region were forcibly uprooted, all the Thesalonican Muslims were expelled, and 100,000 refugees arrived in the city from Turkey. Twenty years later the Nazi occupiers deported 95% of the the city’s jews to Auschwitz in 1943 – the majority died in gas chambers within hours of their arrival. By 1945 the population was almost entirely Greek.

We visited Thessaloniki in 2007 and I even managed to borrow a bazouki to play the song in a restaurant in the market. The city never seemed to sleep – the bars along the waterfront were throbbing with music into the small hours. Although a very modern city, it still drips with history – across the bay is Mount Olympus, home of the gods of ancient Greece, and inland is the cave where Aristotle taught the young Alexander the Great.

Thessaloniki is some way from the mass tourist attractions of Greece, and in consequence people seemed delighted, even surprised, that we had made the effort to visit. In the countryside outside the city people stopped and insisted on giving us lifts. The curator of the Aristotle school called us a taxi and ensured that we were given a private tour of a Macedonian tomb on our way to the station. On the bus to the airport on our day of departure we were even given presents by our fellow passengers, who included a retired teacher of French from the university.

‘Thesalonika’ is about home and exile, about how what binds us together as Europeans and as people is more important than what separates us, and two years ago I had the privilege of singing the song with a French choir in a Welsh chapel.

While in Greece we also visited Volos without realising that it was Zoe’s new home. I would have liked to to meet her and play her her song. Above all, I would have liked her to know that her story had touched a chord with people across the continent.

Where can I go?
Where can I call home?
Oh, my Thesalonika
Where are you now?

If anyone reading this blog can share it with her or her family, please do – and thankyou, Zoe, for the inspiration.

The exchange and the civil war is captured memorably in Theo Angelopoulis’s film The weeping meadow.

A 2010 Europa project Thessaloniki and the European memory explored the memory of the population exchange and the holocaust in Thessaloniki, and you can download their short and highly readable report. The authors are historians Sheer Ganor, Constanze Kolbe, Ozgur Yildrim and Sára Zorándy.

Finally, Victoria Hislop’s novel The thread is set in the city from 1923.