Author Archives: John Robson

It happened today – February 6, 2016

On this day in history Charles II was declared King of Scotland in 1649. I’m not really sure why.

I mean, I do realize the Stuarts were a Scottish dynasty and that the Scots had supported his father Charles I. No. Wait. They had opposed him fiercely, going to war against him over his attempt to force Archbishop Laud’s crypto-Catholicism on the Church of Scotland, creating the fiscal crisis that forced Charles I to summon a Parliament that soon was also at war with him.

I also realize that eventually the English too wanted Charles II as king, after suffering through the unstable repression of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. But the English wanted him as a reasonable monarch and after exhausting the alternatives. And while Charles did live up to his commitments, albeit deviously, his brother James II reverted to inept tyrannical Stuart type and the English gave him the royal boot in the Glorious Revolution.

So why were the Scots in such a hurry on Charles II? And why did they cling to the idea that James II had been a gude and legitimate king (and that he’d been James VII) and support first his son James, the “Old Pretender” and alleged James III/VIII for whom they rose up in “the ’15” and then his son “Bonnie Prince Charlie” on whose behalf they rose up again in “the ‘45” that ended so bloodily at Culloden Moor?

I generalize here because clearly many Scots did not support the exiled Stuarts, certainly not to the point of taking up arms for them. But those who did not were generally obliged either to break with family and friends or pretend it was merely a matter of prudence. Somehow this political foolishness became a matter of national pride and national identity.

Yes, I see the romance of lost causes. And yes, I realize Scotland did not have the heritage of liberty under law that England did. Yes, they prized their liberty. But their parliament was a pale shadow of England’s, unable to defy the monarch, and they had no Magna Carta. Still, it all seems so silly and also sad.

They are not the first or last of whom this can be said. But when I look at the Scots’ support for the exiled Stuarts, I am convinced that such men and women deserved a better cause than that which they inexplicably embraced.

It happened today – February 5, 2016

A 1906 Punch cartoon depicting Leopold II as a rubber vine entangling a Congolese man.

On this day in history, Feb. 5 of 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State. It is an episode as bizarre as it is horrible.

It is horrible because the Congo became a nightmare of repression rarely equaled in the annals of colonialism. The native population declined by as much as half in three decades, worked to death to produce rubber and slaughtered if they did not produce enough. There was nothing remotely resembling the rule of law, or decency. A private army that enforced rubber quotas, the Force Publique, was required to collect the severed hands of those they had killed for not producing enough rubber, and among other ghastly sidenotes to the main horror a trade arose in severed hands.

It is bizarre because Belgium was at the time a constitutional monarchy. It had parliamentary institutions and “progressive” social legislation. Yet the king somehow established the Congo Free State as a personal possession and got away with it. Screened by elaborate pretensions to humanitarian goals and institutions, validated by his fellow European rulers and recognized by the United States, the Congo Free State was neither free nor a state. It was a personal tyranny, a private hell on earth in which universal slavery was essentially introduced, as the inhabitants were obliged to provide rubber (and ivory) only to Leopold’s officials and were killed for not providing enough. Eventually the Belgian government took over the Congo Free State, in 1908, and things got somewhat better.

Leopold, meanwhile, destroyed the archives recording his deeds. And you can see why he’d be afraid to have them examined. The Congo Free State was quite literally the heart of darkness. It was the setting for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness whose theme is moral relativism arising from modernity and whose setting is this ghastly example of unmatched horror arising from a superficially enlightened polity.

Imperialism gets a lot of bad press these days. But it is one of those abstractions that obscures more than it reveals. The British Empire had its bad moments and its bad attitudes. But on the whole it was, like the Roman Empire, a force for good in the world, often dramatically improving governance and even social customs where its flag was raised, and leaving its former colonies better off than areas conquered by other powers and, indeed, some of the few not conquered by anyone in the era of European expansion.

Belgium, on the other hand, produced this unspeakable horror. It is not immediately obvious why, given that Belgium itself was hardly a byword for repression or aggression. One might have expected, say, Imperial Germany or Russia, or the Mongols, to capture an area and mistreat it in this way. But Belgium?

It’s also weird that the power imbalance between Europe and areas of European settlement and everyone else was so great that the Belgian king could have seized a vast swath of Africa and done as he would with it. But that’s mostly a topic for another day. For now the strange, and dreadful, thing is what he chose to do with it.

It happened today – February 4, 2016

Good old Septimius

On this day in history, Septimius Severus died. Och aye, ye may well say.

Or not. Perhaps you do not see why a Roman Emperor keeling over on Feb. 4 back in 211 is very interesting to anyone, let alone of particular interest to Scots of the authentic or “biscuit-tin” variety to which I occasionally belong.

Well, it’s like this. The Scots, you may recall, actually did resist the Romans, with such typically unrelenting bloody-mindedness that the great builders constructed Hadrian’s Wall in order, as George Macdonald Fraser says any Englishman can tell you in five words, “To keep the Scots out.”

Normally if you annoyed the Romans they stomped you flat. Unless you were, say, Arminius and wiped out three legions in the Teutoburger Wald. But when you were the Scots, they just sort of walled you out and mounted guard.

Apparently this rather annoyed Septimius Severus, a very militarily successful emperor after he sort of killed his way to the purple in 193 AD. He walloped Germans, Gauls, and especially the Parthians, capturing various capital cities and expanding the Empire almost to its maximum size under Trajan nearly a century earlier, before coming to Britain, strengthening Hadrian’s Wall, reoccupying the Antonine Wall further north (between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, it was built 20 years after Hadrian’s, begun in 142 AD and finished about 12 years later, but of wood and turf not stone, and abandoned in 162 AD because fighting the Scots was a wearying business they never seemed to get tired of.

Anyway, Severus showed up in 208 with a big army, determined to put a stop to all that nonsense… and died. Not of angry armed Scotsman but of illness, at what was then Eboracum but now York. And with his death the empire fell into political turmoil as his son Caracalla had his own brother assassinated, before governing so horribly that he was assassinated six years later, probably at the instigation of his successor Macrinus who lasted a year before being deposed and killed. By that point conquering Scotland kind of got lost in the bottom of the inbox.

Suppose it hadn’t. Suppose Severus hadn’t died when he did. He was not an old man by any means when he died. He was just 66. (You may have swallowed the progressive modern tale that life expectancy was terribly low in the bad old days, also known as virtually all of human existence, but it wasn’t. Infant mortality was high, but if you made it to 20, you had a decent chance of seeing 70.) What if he’d led the legions north, or at least sent them there, with the same energy he’d exhibited in walloping all sorts of other tough adversaries?

Well, maybe he would have failed. Maybe there’d have been a Bannocoburnus battle equivalent to the Teutoburger Forest. Maybe he’d personally have been killed. Or maybe he’d have succeeded, and brought the Scots into Roman Britain for a few centuries. If so it would, I think, have changed the place dramatically and with it the course of world history in which, at least over the last 1,000 years, the UK and its English-speaking offshoots loom so large.

Remember, the Romans were in Britain for nearly 400 years. The distance between Claudius’ conquest of Britain in 43 A.D. (after Julius Caesar’s various raids a century earlier) and the final departure of the legions around 410 was as great as between today and the beheading of Charles I. And it profoundly shaped Britain, mostly for the better.

Mind you, Britain wouldn’t be Britain without its wild Scots strain. The union of the two, though in oddly bad odour today, seems to me to have brought both the English and the Scots to heights neither could have achieved alone, and the Welsh. (I grant that Catholic Ireland’s history as part of the UK, and the antecedents to its incorporation, were much less happy.) And I think it worked partly because of complimentary strengths, including what may overbroadly be called a fusion of northern energy with southern self-control. But possibly the alchemy would have worked 1500 years earlier.

I don’t really have a strong feeling either way. But it does remind us that while history really is composed of “forces” and logical causes, of lasting cultural patterns and influences that assert themselves over centuries, the actions of individuals do matter too. Even when they consist of going “I don’t feel so good” and then perishing.

It happened today – February 3, 2016

On this day in history the tulip was just a nice flower. Which might not strike you as being quite on a par with “On this day in history Rome fell” or “Germany invaded the Soviet Union” or “I was born”. But considering what had gone before, February 3 of 1637 was quite a day.

Specifically what had gone before was a speculative mania in tulips in the Netherlands. Tulips were of course very pretty, with an intense colour. And thanks to what we know now was a tulip-specific species of the mosaic virus, they also had spectacular patterns.

OK, OK, nice flower. But there was more to it.

The Netherlands, due to an unusual degree of freedom, had become a great trading nation and significant power. And its newly rich merchants, despite a certain dour Protestant strain, liked to show off including by surrounding their estates with brilliant flower beds.

What then happened is that as people were prepared to pay more and more for bulbs, prices rose. And rose. And rose. And nobody noticed, or not enough people, that enthusiasm had overwhelmed judgement.

To be fair, the main and best-known account of the whole business comes from journalist Charles Mackay’s 1841 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds which is on that list of books everyone should read but no one should believe uncritically. So perhaps it wasn’t as bad as all that. But it was bad, and instructively so.

The big problem was that the value of tulips came to be determined not by what use someone could put them to, reasonable or otherwise, but by the price they thought they could sell it for. Normally the two are related, but if they somehow tear loose from one another, prices skyrocket then collapse and leave everybody going um duh are humans fools generally or was it just us?

So by all means plant tulips. Not as the main item in your retirement portfolio, but rather to warn you against get-rich-quick schemes and the herd instinct.

Also they’re nice to look at. As long as you didn’t mortgage your house to get them.