June reviews: part one

It’s the middle of the month and yet I haven’t posted a single book review. To make up for it I’m going to review four today.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776
Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America

Gerald Horne

New York University Press

8th April 2014

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The successful 1776 revolt against British rule in North America has been hailed almost universally as a great step forward for humanity. But the Africans then residing in the colonies overwhelmingly sided with London. In this trailblazing book, Gerald Horne complements his earlier celebrated Negro Comrades of the Crown, by showing that in the prelude to 1776, the abolition of slavery seemed all but inevitable in London, delighting Africans as much as it outraged slaveholders, and sparking the colonial revolt.

In the prelude to 1776, more and more Africans were joining the British military, and anti-slavery sentiments were deepening throughout Britain. And in the Caribbean, rebellious Africans were chasing Europeans to the mainland. Unlike their counterparts in London, the European colonists overwhelmingly associated enslaved Africans with subversion and hostility to the status quo. For European colonists, the major threat to security in North America was a foreign invasion combined with an insurrection of the enslaved. And as 1776 approached, London-imposed abolition throughout the colonies was a very real and threatening possibility—a possibility the founding fathers feared could bring the slave rebellions of Jamaica and Antigua to the thirteen colonies. To forestall it, they went to war.

The so-called Revolutionary War, Horne writes, was in large part a counter-revolution, a conservative movement that the founding fathers fought in order to preserve their liberty to enslave others—and which today takes the form of a racialized conservatism and a persistent racism targeting the descendants of the enslaved. The Counter-Revolution of 1776 drives us to a radical new understanding of the traditional heroic creation myth of the United States.

Gerald Horne is the Moores Professor of History & African American Studies at the University of Houston. He has published over 30 books, including Negro Comrades of the Crown (NYU Press 2012).

The premise of this book is to discuss the role which slavery and the slave trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries played in the events which resulted in the American War of Independence in 1776.

By presenting a history of the slave trade in the Americas from the late seventeenth century to 1776, and discussing the tensions, political and religious, that arose with the importation of so many African slaves in the Caribbean and then the mainland, European colonial rivalry, and the resistance of Africans to their servitude, Gerald Horne argues that the growing abolition movement in Britain, seen as oppression, ‘despotism’ by the leadership of the slave dependant colonies, was as much a contributing factor to the rebellion as taxation. The author details occasions of slave resistance in the Caribbean and thirteen colonies of the mainland, asserting that the constant fear of slave insurrection contributed to the development of ‘white’ racial identity among the American colonists and led to the belief that the entire black population whether free or enslaved would automatically side against the colonial society, both prior to 1776 (with the French, Spanish, Native Americans etc) and after (many did join the British and loyalist ranks) because they believed it was a route to freedom.

The author presented a strong case to support his position, with documentary evidence in the form of letters, newspaper articles of the time, quotes from the USA’s ‘Founding Fathers’, and supported by an extensive bibliography, as well as providing references to other historians with similar views.

Review

I found this book heavy going; there was unnecessary repetition, awkward sentence structures and a general feeling of disorder. Structurally, moving through time chapter by chapter imposed some order, but within each chapter the general point was swamped by specifics. Usually I like specific examples but this felt uncoordinated, as though the author wished to fling in all the examples but made little attempt at any chronological or geographic ordering.

This messiness made reading an intelligent book about this interesting and important subject very difficult. I found myself reading pages then having to reread because I’d lost interest part way through a paragraph and hadn’t taken in what had been written.

I would also have liked more details about ‘Somerset’s case’, the case and subsequent judgement that set the precedent in English law for outlawing slavery. If, as the author argues, this case was instrumental in tipping the fractious colonies towards war, then surely the specifics should have been provided. Unlike in earlier chapters, this was a case of the author being too general, not detailed enough.

All that being considered, I think this book has a valid argument to make, it just needs a little work to tidy it up and insert a bit of order. For those interested in 17th/18th century history, the American war of independence, or the Atlantic slave trade, this book provides a different perspective on events.

3/5

Going Ape
Brandon Haught

2014
Florida Universities Press

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“William Jennings Bryan launched the creationist crusade … For nearly a century, Florida has been a key battleground for the teaching of evolution in public schools. Before he successfully prosecuted Tennessee teacher John Scopes in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, William Jennings Bryan was a prominent anti-evolution agitator in Florida. More than ninety years later, tensions still run high on both sides of the issue, erupting regularly and sometimes spectacularly.

Florida is a bellwether in the creationism versus evolution debate because it reflects the makeup of the country as a whole… Brandon Haught tells the riveting story of the intense conflicts over teaching evolution in Florida, revealing how not just this state, but the entire country has been Going Ape over this hot-button issue.

These seemingly ceaseless battles feature some of the most colorful culture warriors imaginable: a real estate tycoon throwing his fortune into campaigns in Miami; lawmakers attempting to insert the mandatory teaching of creationism into bills; and pastors and school board members squabbling in front of the national media that invariably descends on their small towns. Yet the majority of participants have been average people, and Haught expertly portrays the sense of moral duty that drives their passions, regardless of their position on the issue.

Personally involved in the Florida evolution dispute since 2006 as a founding board member of Florida Citizens for Science, Haught is uniquely poised to present this dramatic conflict from an insider’s point-of-view. His eye for rich detail enlivens this engrossing saga as it stretches across the decades of the twentieth century and into the present. Given a social climate where the teaching of evolution continues to sharply divide neighbors and communities, Going Ape is a must-read for anyone concerned with the future of public education.

Review

In this detailed study of Floridian education politics the author concentrates on the usually forgotten or ignored battles on the local level – district school boards, local churches, county textbook choices – to identify the course of opposition to the teaching of Evolution Theory in Florida’s schools between 1923 and 2013. Brandon Haught displays before the reader the intricacies of local politics, ignorance, the big names in Creationism and the lesser known ‘concerned citizens’ who feared the consequences of their children’s scientific education.

The detailed exploration of the ‘micro’ (single state/school boards) allows us insight into the ‘macro’ (controversy of Evolution in US). By understands why one group of people in one area, minutely studied and interpreted, acts as thet do, we may have another way to understand the larger phenomena. Nations are groups of communities, understand the reasoning at community level, and we might begin to understand the reasons at national level.

The book follows a strict chronological order; we can see how the same mistaken ideas and fears pass through decades, continuing a ‘controversy’ that doesn’t exist. This chronological approach, with extensive details of principal participants, flesh out the story, and gives us a better understanding of the motivations of those opposed to teaching evolution.

The book is well sourced, the author cites meeting minutes, school resources kept by hoarding teachers, personal testimony from teachers, academics and creationists, local and regional newspaper reports from the decades covered.
Finally, Brandon Haught brings the story up to date, mentioning events and personalities current as he finished the book. This gives us an idea of just how alive the ‘battle’ in Florida is.

In general, I’d say my impression of the book was positive, but there are a couple or points that would have helped. I think a map and political structure of Florida for readers unfamiliar with state would be useful. As a case study, this book would be useful, but if the reader is trying to figure out which county is where, how they relate to each other, how the school system is run, political structures in unfamiliar states, it cab only cause confusion and detract fron the work.

The most frustrating aspect of the book, for me personally, was that it possessed neither a clear, stated purpose in the introduction nor was a conclusion made. I can’t say whether whether the author supported his argument, because I’m not certain what his argument is.

3/5

On a side note, I’ve discussed creationism and evolution before. I was drawn to Haught’s book by my need to understand the reasons people have for their beliefs. To me, it’s obvious that creationism, rooting in the Genesis myth, is not science; the theory of evolution, a concept based in observation, experiment and tested repeatedly, is. How people can demand a religious belief be taught in science lessons is beyond me. A chance to understand their perspective is important to me. I know I can be blunt, occasionally I seem dismissive of beliefs I don’t agree with, but I really do want to understand. In reading this book, a few thoughts recurred regularly. These were: the scientific meaning of ‘theory’ is poorly understood in Florida; teaching inaccuracies for several generations produces ignorance; the students are going to suffer, because as soon as they go to University or leave their home state, the culture shock and education gap will become obvious. Teachers, school boards, politicians, religious leaders, parents have a duty to provide the best education possible; while a major biological theory is being ignored, while pseudo-science demands equal time, while religion tries to force its way into the science class, children are being denied that, and those responsible are failing in their duty. It makes one wander, what other essentials are missing from the curriculum?

I shall move on from history to historical fiction now; let’s start with a seventeenth century soldiers’ tale.

The Ravens Banquet
Clifford Beal

2014

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Germany 1626: A War, a Witch, a Reckoning….

Richard Treadwell is a young man who dreams of glory and honour on the battlefield—and the plunder and riches that would follow. With the help of his father, he journeys to Hamburg to seek his fortune as a mercenary in the Danish army when it intervenes in the vast war that rages in northern Germany between the Catholic Hapsburg empire and the Protestant princes of the north.

But he brings with him an old secret—and the potential seed of his own destruction—as he descends into a horrific maelstrom of conflict and slaughter that quickly destroys his illusions of adventure, of right and wrong, and of good and evil.

When his fate is foreshadowed by a young gypsy woman, he discovers that he cannot outrun what he left behind in England and he soon finds himself thrown headlong into a series of bloody skirmishes alongside the Danes that strip him of conscience and harden his heart. The opposing armies close for a battle that will be the turning point in the struggle for the kingdom—and in the war for his soul. But even as Treadwell steels himself for the final contest against the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, an unseen enemy stalks him within his own camp.

Fleeing the battlefield, his life takes an even darker turn when he stumbles upon a coven of peasant women dwelling deep in the forest of the Harz Mountains, women that have their own terrible secrets to protect—and a burning hatred to avenge.

The hero of Gideon’s Angel returns to tell how his journey into the supernatural began.

“They are attracted to you as salt attracts the beast in the field….”

Review

Richard Treadwell is the younger son of a minor gentlemen. It’s the 1620’s and another religious war is raging in Europe, this time between King Christian IV of Denmark and the Holy Roman Empire. Determined to make his name and fortune, Richard leaves England to join the Danish forces as horseman.

Fast forward twenty years. Colonel Richard Treadwell is on the losing side of the English Civil War. Captured at Northampton he’s arrested for treason and taken to the Tower. While waiting for his trial he writes about his first year as a soldier.

Review

Part adventure, part supernatural romance, this novel reminded me of one of those really dodgy fifties historical movies, but with more ghosts and a touch more historical accuracy. Or possibly a Walter Scott novel. Fortunately, for the author and reader, the obvious accuracy of the description, speech patterns, language used and subtly included supernatural element lifts this novel above Victorian adventure and romance novels or melodrama.

It took me a while to get in to, but once a third of the way through, I read the book easily. It was thoroughly engrossing.

4/5

Finally, a medieval novel based on an incident that occurred in1377.

Sinful Folk
Ned Hayes

22nd January 2014
Campanile Books

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A tragic loss. A desperate journey. A mother seeks the truth.

In December of 1377, four children were burned to death in a house fire. Villagers traveled hundreds of miles across England to demand justice for their children’s deaths.

Sinful Folk is the story of this terrible mid-winter journey as seen by Mear, a former nun who has lived for a decade disguised as a mute man, raising her son quietly in this isolated village. For years, she has concealed herself and all her history. But on this journey, she will find the strength to redeem the promise of her past. Mear begins her journey in terror and heartache, and ends in triumph and transcendence.

The remarkable new novel by Ned Hayes, illustrated by New York Times bestselling author / illustrator Nikki McClure, Sinful Folk illuminates the medieval era with profound insight and compassion.

Miriam Houmont has resided in the village if Duns for ten years, disguised as Mear, the mute, possible former monk and blacksmiths assistant. She has a son, Christian, and two secrets (beyond the fact that she’s a she not a he). When a fire kills Christian and four other boys, Miriam joins several men of the village in their pilgrimage to London, with the bodies of their dead children, seeking justice from the king.

It’s a hard winter, and the men are away without permission to travel. Meeting and surviving several dangers, and discovering the person who killed her son, keeps Miriam on her toes. Secrets are revealed that were long kept hidden, but the consequences of discovery are uncertain.

Review

Meh.

While I enjoyed the references to Chaucer’s tales, Piers Plowmen, medieval theology, and the attempt at filling in gaps, the historical inaccuracy (potatoes in England in 1377, for instance; also nobody called Edward of Woodstock ‘The Black Prince’ during his lifetime, or for years after), the weak characterisation and poor description put me off.

The only strong feeling I had was irritation with the French Cluniac abbot, which has more to do with my antipathy towards ignorant and sanctimonious medieval clergymen, and the French, than the skill of the writer. As for the main character? I just couldn’t empathise with Mear/Miriam. She was too good, too self-sacrificing, to be realistic. The story is an old worn narrative, the hidden king, tragedy, pilgrimage, trials and final redemption and reward for the virtuous. This narrative trope isn’t made original by slotting it in to real events and adding implausible mysteries.

2/5

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