Category Archives: France

Siam Enters World War I

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 285-286:

Siam declared war on Germany on 22 July 1917. The 1855 Bowring Treaty had limited its tariffs to 3 per cent and secured extraterritorial jurisdiction for British citizens, soon to be followed by those of other Powers. By 1914 Siam had ceded more than one-third of its territory to French Indochina and to the British Malay states. That its core remained independent owed something to it suiting Britain and France to keep Siam as a buffer, and something to King Rama V (reigned 1868–1910) and his advisors. Rama appointed Prince Dewrawangse as foreign minister, who served for thirty-eight years, and by 1914 was vastly experienced and temperamentally cautious. When Rama VI acceded to the throne in 1910, he kept Dewrawangse on.

Siam was less developed than Greece or Brazil. Its population in 1910 was about 8 million, and Bangkok the one substantial city. Its principal export was rice and most of its foreign trade was managed by the British from Singapore and Hong Kong. Its government was an absolute monarchy, untrammelled by representative institutions, in which members of the royal family held key ministerial portfolios and several hundred foreign advisers worked in royal service. Insofar as public opinion existed, it might have been expected to be hostile to France and Britain; but Europe was distant and Germany and Austria-Hungary could not have aided the country. In fact such considerations were outweighed by the personal outlook of King Rama, who had attended Sandhurst and Oxford and undergone officer training with the Durham Light Infantry. In 1915–16 he made donations to widows and orphans of his former regiment, and he and George V exchanged the titles of ‘General’ in each other’s armies, despite German protests that such behaviour was un-neutral.

Unrestricted submarine warfare and America’s appeal to other neutrals to break off relations with Germany started a similar debate in Siam to those in Brazil and China. The initial response to Wilson was that Siam was very remote from the war, and preferred to see how the situation developed. This holding position was primarily due to Dewrawangse, who worked closely with the British minister in Bangkok, Herbert Dering, who in turn advised London that it was best to apply no pressure but let the situation mature, and this recommendation the Foreign Office heeded. Although it might be advantageous to control the nine German steamers in Bangkok harbour and expel the 300 Germans working for the Siamese government, the country had already cooperated in, for example, deporting Indian seditionists, and the advantages from its belligerency were marginal. Dering also feared the Siamese might seek concessions over the unequal treaties. The situation remained unchanged until Rama returned from a visit to the provinces, during which time Dewrawangse (with reluctant acquiescence from an impatient ruler) sounded out Siam’s overseas emissaries. In a Cabinet meeting on 28 May Rama intervened decisively. Dewrawangse reported that the diplomats were divided: the representatives in France and Russia recommended breaking off relations (as did the French and Russian governments), but the London envoy considered it unnecessary. The king, however, said Siam should join the Allies. Previously the Central Powers had seemed to be winning, but American entry altered the equation and delaying meant Britain would end the war with greater leverage than it had now. Rama hoped the unequal treaties could be revised or even abrogated, although he forbade his ministers from saying so. Instead Dewrawangse, who was uneasy but went along, drafted a note that blamed Germany’s persistence in an illegal method of warfare despite Siam’s protests. The government took over the German vessels before their crews could damage them, rounded up the German nationals, and asked the Allies how Siam could help them. When the communications minister voiced concern about running the railways without German experts, Rama replaced him. The kingdom had an army of 12,000–15,000 men, and initially it was not intended to send troops, but in 1918 a contingent of 1,254 volunteers went to France, where nineteen were killed. Siam attended the peace conference and urged amendments to the unequal treaties and recovery of full sovereignty, which America conceded in 1920 and Britain and France in 1925. In relation to the objectives set for it, Siam’s was the most successful of the 1917 interventions, despite the war being followed by a financial crisis. The story underlines how the new conditions forged opportunities for dissatisfied nations to press claims.

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Breakdown of Peace Feelers, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 268-270:

The breakdown of the 1917 peace feelers can be explained at different levels. Certainly it demonstrated the perils of amateur diplomacy. An older Catholic, aristocratic, and dynastic Europe, alongside the socialists and portions of the business elite, attempted to transcend divisions, as later it would support continental unification. Yet mediators such as Sixte and the Coppées helped sustain the contacts by over-representing to each party the other’s goodwill, and it is hard to see that professionals would have done better. Although the feelers made both sides review their war aims, they remained far apart. Admittedly, there were signs of movement: some French and British leaders were prepared at least to talk to the Germans; and the Germans to renounce the annexation of Longwy-Briey and give up the Belgian coast, while the Austrians considered ceding the Italian-majority areas of the Trentino (though both Central Powers hoped for compensations). But the Allies were less willing to jettison their claims. The British wanted full restoration for Belgium and to retain Germany’s colonies, while the German leaders, except for Kühlmann and briefly Bethmann, insisted on continuing control of Belgium. Nor would they cede more than a fraction of the Alsace-Lorraine of 1870, whereas the French wanted all of it, and preferably more. Italy’s Treaty of London claims on Austro-Hungarian territory were an equally formidable stumbling block. The territorial controversies really mattered, for economic and strategic reasons as well as on grounds of national self-determination, ethnicity, and international law and morality. But behind the territorial disputes lay a deeper issue: that the peace feelers served as weapons in the struggle, and especially to divide the enemy. The British and French saw the Sixte and Armand–Revertera affairs as such opportunities, as did Kühlmann the Villalobar contact. Both alliances’ efforts to shatter the other had been central to pre-1914 diplomacy, and this quest continued during the war.

The belligerent governments were cognizant of the rising threat of revolution and Czernin tried to use it as a lever. But none, except for Russia, stood quite yet on the verge of insurrection. Socialist and labour movements had gained support, but a renewed and strident nationalism rallied against them, and governmental concessions to the Left—such as pledges to support a League of Nations—were cosmetic. The domestic balance in the major belligerents shifted in favour of anti-war forces, but not, until the Bolsheviks seized power, by enough to end the conflict. The Reichstag peace resolution meant less than it seemed. Moreover, if the diplomatic and domestic political elements in Europe’s stalemate softened rather than dissolved, the same was true of the military deadlock. By summer 1917 both unrestricted submarine warfare and the Allies’ Chantilly offensives had failed to deliver. But by the autumn Russia’s collapse opened new prospects for the Central Powers, especially in conjunction with tactical innovations that brought renewed successes for their armies. And conversely America’s deepening engagement gave the Allies reason to hope that time still favoured them. Ribot and Lloyd George gambled on victory coming with American aid, and that in spite of Wilson’s palpable aloofness the Allies could still attain their objectives. It is surprising how little America featured in the 1917 debates, but without it Britain, France, and Italy would most likely have been forced, at best, into the unfavourable compromise that they dreaded. Wilson not only gave them economic, maritime, and psychological support, but also diplomatic backing, by rejecting the Stockholm conference and the papal peace note. For Wilson, too, had decided not to settle for a peace based on the pre-1914 status quo ante, and American power would be applied to forestall one. In the coming winter Washington would assert its leadership of the anti-German coalition. Before considering that development, we must explore the wider world, and the spreading shock waves from the European strife.

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Aftermath of Caporetto, 1918

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 229-230, 232-233:

Caporetto transformed rather than terminated Italy’s war. The tensest period was late October, when sbandati [“disbanded” soldiers] and civilian refugees swarmed over the Tagliamento bridges. By the 31st the main Italian forces were over the river, but four days later the Central Powers crossed it and Cadorna ordered a retreat to the Piave. By 10 November the Italians held the new position and assaults immediately began against it, at the same time as Conrad, belatedly and with much weaker forces, attacked in the Trentino. A further month of fighting followed until the Central Powers, having failed to make significant gains in either sector, wound the campaign down.

The campaign failed, therefore, to knock Italy out, but it was even more successful than the attackers had anticipated. The Italians no longer menaced Trieste, and would launch no further major offensive until October 1918. They withdrew by up to 150 kilometres, and an area normally inhabited by 1.15 million people fell under occupation. The Italians lost 294,000 prisoners (thousands of whom perished), 12,000 battle dead, and 30,000 wounded, as well as half their artillery. Given that over 350,000 became ‘disbanded’, only half the field army remained operational. In comparison, German and Austrian killed, wounded, and missing totalled some 70,000, of whom about 15,000 were German. Even so, Hindenburg felt ‘a sense of dissatisfaction’: the triumph was incomplete.

The new team at the top in Rome would make a difference only gradually, and even the French and British divisions, though doubtless a morale booster, came too late to decide the battle of the Piave. The major part in halting the invasion came from Italian soldiers, whom opponents such as Rommel now found were fighting harder. Orlando told Diaz it was ‘absolutely vital for the national interest’ to hold the new front, which was 170 kilometres shorter than the old one, from which change the Italians benefited. In addition, the collapse had largely been confined to the Second Army, whereas the Third and Fourth held the Piave line, and the sbandati were reintegrated into new units. The government also called up the 1899 conscript cohort, so that before the year ended the army was almost back to pre-Caporetto numbers, while by the spring it would largely recoup its equipment losses. To be sure, British and French deliveries assisted, especially British gas masks, but Italian industry accomplished most of the task. Psychological recovery was harder,  as over the winter food supplies remained critical and in several regions the civilian mood was fragile. The army sat out the cold in improvised positions and the military authorities, who continued monitoring troop morale, were nervous. The first two wartime prime ministers, Salandra and Boselli, were among many politicians who now doubted whether it had been right to enter the conflict. None the less, with the Germans gone the Austrians were again on their own, and from now on conditions on their home front and among their troops deteriorated while those of the Italians improved. 1918 would see less fighting than in 1917, much of the action being confined to the unsuccessful Austrian attack on the Piave line in June and the final Italian advance at the battle of Vittorio Veneto. This was a transformed front, and one that became the Austro-Hungarian army’s major commitment. Yet although Caporetto in the short term had spectacularly fulfilled the Central Powers’ objectives, in a curious way it weakened them in the longer, as Tenth and Eleventh Isonzo had weakened the Italians. Italy’s political unity and military morale improved in the aftermath and it received more Allied aid. But in the longer term still, among the consequences were the strengthening of ultra-nationalism and the PSI’s move towards extremism, paving the way for the rise of Fascism.

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Italy vs. Austria-Hungary, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 205-207:

On Wednesday 24 October 1917 German and Austrian forces launched one of the most daring attacks of the war. Breaking through Italian positions in the upper Isonzo river valley, within two weeks they had advanced over 100 miles. Almost half the Italian army were killed, wounded, or captured, or discarded their weapons and streamed to the rear. Territory that had taken more than two years and 900,000 casualties to capture was abandoned within hours. Amid the dreary litany of failed offensives and attrition battles, the name of Caporetto stands out, and in Italy has remained a shorthand for rout and fiasco. Even so, for most of the war it had been the Italians, not the Central Powers, who had been on the attack, in conditions often even worse than on the Western Front. In part, the collapse grew out of overstretch. To understand how the Italian army became so exposed, we must consider not only the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo (as the Italians officially entitled Caporetto), but also the Tenth and Eleventh. It is further necessary to survey the operations themselves, from Austro-German breakthrough to Italian recovery. Devastating though Caporetto was, in many ways it strengthened Italy’s war effort.

Between 1882 and 1914 Italy had regularly renewed its Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. In 1914 it stayed neutral, and in May 1915 it joined the Allies, following the secret Treaty of London concluded with Britain, France, and Russia in April. Italy’s nineteenth-century national unification had left some 800,000 Italian-speakers under Austrian rule. But the Allies promised Italy not only the ethnically Italian areas in the Trentino and the environs of Trieste, but also the German-speaking South Tyrol and the Slovenian and Croatian territories of Istria and Dalmatia. And to incorporate any of these areas the Italians would have to conquer them. As France and Britain would enter any peace negotiations handicapped unless they dislodged the German army from France and Belgium, so too would Italy unless it dislodged the Austro-Hungarian army from the areas promised. In both theatres, if the Central Powers defended successfully they would win.

In both, however, they defended with one hand tied behind their backs. The Germans kept on average a third of their field army on the Eastern Front. The Austrian army was smaller, and because of its commitments in the Eastern and Balkan theatres, in 1917 only one-fifth of it faced Italy. Even so, this fifth included some of its best units, and the Italian war, imposed by an aggressor, was less unpopular than were other fronts. The Austrians also benefited from geography. The Front ran for 375 miles from the Swiss border to the Adriatic Sea, but much was so mountainous as to be completely unsuitable for operations (though fighting none the less occurred—trenches being dug in ice fields and thousands perishing in avalanches or freezing to death). The exceptions were the Trentino and the lower stretches of the Isonzo. The Trentino was one of the Italians’ target areas, but it was remote from the Austro-Hungarians’ urban and industrial centres, and easily defended. Projecting southwards, it formed an obvious jumping-off point for driving into the Po valley and cutting off the main Italian forces. For these reasons the Austrians had attacked there in May 1916, and although the Italians had rallied with assistance from Russia’s Brusilov offensive, the Austrians had pushed them closer to the plateau edge. They would be still more vulnerable if Austria-Hungary attacked again. None the less, the fighting concentrated on the Isonzo. Between May 1915 and September 1917 no fewer than eleven battles were fought there. In rocky terrain, bitterly cold in winter, it was hard to excavate dugouts and trenches, and stone splinters magnified the impact of bombardment, both sides sheltering in cliff-side caves. The quantities of heavy artillery, gas, and aircraft were smaller than in France, and to begin with the Italians were poorly equipped. Only in August 1916 did they achieve their first big success by switching reinforcements rapidly from the Trentino battle, gaining surprise, and taking Gorizia. Three more Isonzo battles that autumn, however, led to no further progress, and left the army exhausted before a prolonged winter pause. By this stage the Italians held most of the Isonzo except for an Austrian bridgehead round Tolmino. But east of Gorizia a natural ‘amphitheatre’ of encircling peaks overlooked their positions, and to the north and south lay the limestone plateaux of the Bainsizza, the Ternova, and the Carso. Rising to over 2,000 feet, the plateaux were waterless, treeless, and largely devoid of roads and settlement. But beyond them lay no comparably short and defensible line between the Italians and the goals set by their commander, General Luigi Cadorna, of  Trieste (Austria-Hungary’s one significant port) and Ljubljana, whence a further advance might threaten Vienna.

At first the Italians fought against Austria-Hungary alone, declaring war on Germany only in August 1916. They sent contingents to the Balkans but not the Western Front, and the Germans stayed out of the Italian theatre. The other allies resented the high price paid for Italian intervention, and the lack of Italian progress.

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Russia’s Military Manpower in 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 98-99:

The war’s economic effects had caused the food supply crisis. Its impact on the army lay behind the mutiny. Although Russia had boosted military spending between 1909 and 1914, during the previous decade spending had stagnated. The 1914 army in some ways resembled the British rather than the French or German as, although composed of conscripts (in contrast to the British), it was relatively small and well equipped. The reverse of the coin was that barely a third of each age cohort had done service, so when casualties proved far higher than expected Russia ran out of trained men. Despite its bigger population than France or Germany, it called up similar numbers of conscripts: during the war it mobilized only 5 per cent of its population for active duty, against France’s 16 per cent and Germany’s 12 per cent. By 1917 14.6 million men had enlisted and over 5.5 million become casualties, 2.4 million of them as prisoners. At least 1 million returned to service after being wounded, and fatalities may have totalled 1.6–1.85 million. In 1914 the government sent to war the standing army and those who had served between 1904 and 1910. Subsequently it called up all the trained men of the 1896–1910 cohorts and many untrained members of the 1914–18 cohorts, but by 1916 it was recruiting men who were not only untrained but also in their forties, with jobs and families, and resistance mounted, leading in Central Asia to open revolt against being enlisted in labour corps. Even so, during the Brusilov offensive and its follow-on attacks Russian casualties may have reached another 2 million, of whom 1 million lost their lives. From the autumn the army was calling up its last reserve, including previously exempted sole breadwinners. Recruiting them led to riots in the villages and to wives mobbing induction points, and to mass protests in Petrograd.

Military censors read the soldiers’ letters, whose mood was ugly. By 1916 they betrayed deep hatred of the war and despair about winning it, condoned fraternization and mass surrender, and were desperate for a speedy peace, the Brusilov offensive exacerbating the discontent. Repeated defeats and superior enemy weaponry had dashed any early confidence, and the authorities were held to have betrayed their men. By the autumn, moreover, the army ate less and poorer-quality food. Daily bread rations were cut by a third or even two-thirds, or replaced by unpalatable lentils. Brusilov complained that on his South-Western Front the miserably inadequate provisions demoralized his troops, and between October and December over twenty mutinies broke out, including refusals to attack or to move up. Troops called out to quell a disturbance at Kremenchug refused to shoot, and the French ambassador learned to his dismay that during a strike in Petrograd soldiers had fired on the police. The authorities no longer placed their most reliable units in the cities, whose garrisons included the middle-aged and convalescents. Since 1916, moreover, strikers had been conscripted. Yet although the Petrograd commanders knew some men held revolutionary views, they had no plans to replace them.

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U.S. Economic Boom, 1910s

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 38-39:

In 1910 out of a US population of 92 million, 2.5 million were German-born and 5.8 million of the native-born had one or both German-born parents. Although Wilson believed 90 per cent of America’s people were strongly pro-Allied, he had grounds to fear that rival allegiances would breed civil strife.

The traditional corollary to political abstention was unimpeded commerce. Exporting to belligerents was unobjectionable, the more so as America was in recession and the fighting expected to be brief. But demands for artillery, munitions, steel, machine tools, chemicals, and food and raw materials rose far higher than anticipated, fuelling one of the strongest upsurges in US history. In the winter of 1914–15 German-Americans backed a proposal in Congress to embargo arms exports, but Wilson prevented the move as ‘a foolish one, as it would restrict our plants’. Commerce secretary, William Cox Redfield, and the Treasury secretary, William Gibbs McAdoo, urged the boom must be sustained, Redfield advising that exports were at record levels, and McAdoo using the extra revenue to pay off debt. Between 1915 and 1917 exports to Britain, Canada, France, Italy, and Russia grew from $3,445 million to $9,796 million (184 per cent); those of wheat by 683 per cent; and of copper by 277 per cent; but whereas pre-war trade with the Central Powers had been one-fifth of that with the Allies, now it shrank to 1 per cent. The Allies could find the shipping to transport their purchases and the cash or credit to pay for them; the Central Powers could find neither, so whatever stance America took would benefit one side. Britain had the world’s biggest merchant navy in 1914 (43 per cent of world tonnage—and the Allies in total 59 per cent, against the Central Powers’ 15 per cent). As the Allies converted to military production, however, they had less to export, and were less able to pay. The Wall Street banking giant, J. P. Morgan & Co., became the British government’s purchasing and financial agent and permitted it a growing overdraft, and in the summer of 1915 it advised the Allies to attempt a bond flotation. Following convention, Wilson had prohibited loans to belligerent governments. But McAdoo warned that ‘to maintain our prosperity we must finance it. Otherwise it may stop, and that would be disastrous.’ Finally Wilson approved the bond issue, and even if the primary motive was to sustain the boom and the yield proved disappointing, American policy had clearly altered to the Allies’ advantage. In 1915, 75 per cent of US exports went to the Allies or to countries that had broken relations with Germany and between 1913 and 1916 America’s percentage of French imports rose from 10 to 30. By 1916 bottlenecks on the railroads into New York stretched back for miles.

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Mexico Before Its Revolution

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 21-23:

By the end of Díaz’s reign, Mexico had a population of fifteen million. The majority were mestizo—individuals of mixed blood—but one-third were of pure Indian stock. Chihuahua and Sonora, two of the northern states that lay along the U.S. border, were home to the Tarahumara and the Yaquis. The Cora, Huichol, and Tarascans lived along the Pacific coast and in the hills and valleys west of Mexico City. The Mazahua, Nahuatl, and Otomí had settled in the central highlands. The Gulf state of Veracruz was home to the Huastec and Totonac. The Zapotecs, Mixes, Zoque, Huave, and Mixtec, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Chontal, and Tzotzil lived in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And in the Yucatán peninsula, remnants of the ancient Maya had survived.

In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlán, the great center of the Aztec civilization and the site of what was to become Mexico City. For the next three centuries, Mexico lived under Spain’s rule, which could be harsh, benign, or indifferent, depending upon the financial needs of the mother country and the temperament of the monarch who happened to be in power at the time. When Mexico finally gained its independence, in 1821, political chaos, internal revolts, and repeated clashes with foreign powers ensued. Texas was lost in 1836 to English-speaking colonizers who had been encouraged by Spain to settle the far reaches of its empire. A decade later, following a war with the United States, Mexico lost another huge chunk of territory to its hungry neighbor—millions of acres that one day would become New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Exhausted and humiliated, struggling under a huge debt load, Mexico found itself in 1863 once again under the yoke of a European power. This time it was France and Napoleon III, who installed Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg and his wife, Carlota, as emperor and empress of Mexico. The monarchy survived less than five years, defeated by an army led by Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian. Afterward, Maximilian was executed, Carlota went insane, the republic was restored, and Juárez was elected president. Juárez died of a heart attack in 1872, after winning a new term in office, and was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Four years later, Porfirio Díaz toppled Lerdo from power and began a thirty-year authoritarian regime known as the Porfiriato.

In order to bring Mexico into the twentieth century, Díaz had opened the doors of his country to foreign investors and through them came the Guggenheims, Hearsts, and Rockefellers, Standard Oil and Phelps Dodge, and hundreds of other, smaller land speculators, wildcatters, miners, ranchers, and farmers. The Americans built railroads and sank mine shafts, the Spaniards opened small retail shops, and the French established factories and banks. Vast cattle ranches emerged along the northern tier of states, and huge farms devoted to single crops such as sugar, cacao, coffee, and rubber were carved from the tropical lowlands. For his efforts, Díaz garnered admiration from industrialists, politicians, and even great literary figures, such as Leo Tolstoy.

His popularity was greatest in Mexico City, where wealthy foreigners and daughters and wives of native hacendados lived in walled compounds fragrant with roses, bougainvillea, and hibiscus. The melancholy cries of tamale women and scissors grinders dropped like birdsong into the somnolent quiet of late afternoons, and in the distant recesses of the lovely old homes, legions of cooks and nannies and cleaning girls worked soundlessly, faceless and nameless to the lady of the house. With its colonial languor and lingering Victorian mannerisms, Mexico City seemed like a metropolis enclosed in a shining glass bubble, drifting in its own time. Wearing Paris gowns, London-made tuxedos, or hand-sewn lace, the wealthy shuttled to luncheons and teas and dinner parties in horse-drawn carriages and chauffeur-driven cars. They went horseback riding in Chapultepec Park, organized group outings to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, and in the evenings flocked to the opera.

Pouring through their salon windows was a golden sunlight that made everything seem like a dream. So dreaming, the wealthy foreigners and their Mexican friends failed to see the horrors in their midst: the women crouching behind the waiting carriages picking undigested corn kernels from horse manure; the press gangs who snatched husbands and sons and young girls off the street, the men destined for the army and the women for gunpowder factories; the tubercular Indians who clogged the charity wards and were fodder for medical experiments; the political victims of the firing squads, who spun on their heels in the liquid light, the bullets turning them round and round until they collapsed in front of adobe walls stained dark with old blood.

The modernization and prosperity that Díaz had presided over caused grave dislocation among the country’s peasants, factory workers, and even Mexico’s elite ruling class. By the time the Mexican Revolution erupted, foreigners controlled most of the country’s vast natural resources, its railroads and businesses.

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Nor’Westers vs. Hudson’s Bay Company

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 205-207:

EACH OF THE TWO COMPANIES HAD competitive advantages and disadvantages. Working against the North West Company was the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Company could get its goods by ship right into the heart of the continent, while the Nor’Westers had to transport their goods from Montreal, far to the south and east. But the Company suffered from a lack of manpower. The near-continuous wars that occupied Britain (the American War of Independence between 1775 and 1783 and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1792 and 1815) deprived the Company of easy access to young male workers when they were desperately needed to staff the new inland posts. The Napoleonic Wars in particular made it difficult for the Company to recruit young men into the overseas fur trade, and it increasingly hired the mixed-blood descendants of earlier employees to take on roles within the Company hierarchy. The Company still adhered to its policy of rarely employing Indigenous people for full-time careers because it wanted them out in the bush capturing beaver, fulfilling the supply side of the business equation, for which they were uniquely suited. Over time the connotation of “mixed-blood” or “Indian” denoted economic roles and placement in the hierarchy rather than purely genetic or racial background. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Company still had barely five hundred employees in North America, although it relied heavily upon the contract services of countless Indigenous hunters, guides and labourers.

The Nor’Westers, on the other hand, drew on Quebec’s seventy-thousand-strong local population, whether French or Mohawk-Iroquois. They fielded approximately twelve hundred people along their vast supply line. It was a more expensive and labour-intensive business model, but, as would be seen, the larger numbers would be useful in a fight. The Iroquois were particularly suitable for aggressive conflict, and even the Company began hiring them decades later when the two companies were at war. “I have frequently heard the Canadian and Iroquois voyagers disputed as regards their merits,” wrote Company agent Colin Robertson in 1819, “perhaps the former may be more hardy or undergo more fatigue, but in either rapid or traverse, give me the latter, for their calmness and presence of mind which never forsakes them in the greatest danger.” If you were in a scrape, you’d want a Mohawk-Iroquois companion, and these men were in great demand in the early nineteenth century.

The life of a voyageur could be harsh and often short, full of danger and extreme living, but many would never trade it for any other, signing on for the next season’s work each year for decades and only retiring when they were no longer capable of the rigours of the life. One old man, astonishingly over seventy, reminisced on his life travelling the land as a fur trader. “I have been 24 years a canoeman and 41 years in service; no portage was ever too long for me. Fifty songs I could sing. I have saved the lives of 10 voyageurs. Have had 12 wives and six running dogs. I spent all my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I should spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur life.”

The two companies’ different corporate structures also manifested in their interactions with local peoples. While the Company men were ordered to adhere to basic discipline and to respect various Indigenous customs and ceremony, the more chaotic arrangements of the Nor’Westers allowed for more individual discretion, which meant in some cases developing a greater facility with Indigenous languages and a deeper understanding of local customs. But the “pedlars,” as the Company men derisively called them in the early days before they became a dangerous and organized threat, also earned a reputation for bad living and poor relations with Indigenous peoples, the result of the behaviour of a minority tarnishing the reputation of many. As a consequence, they seldom stayed in the same place from year to year for fear of repercussions and kept building new outposts. It wasn’t a stable business plan.

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Hudson’s Bay Company Policies vs. Realities

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 118-121:

Spirits were in great demand as payment for hunting, in ceremonial exchanges and in payment for furs. Throughout the eighteenth century the Company made frequent attempts to restrict or regulate the dispensation of liquor, but these efforts were never uniform. The main obstacle to instituting a more consistent prohibition was that it was impossible to regulate alcohol completely within the factories for their own employees, and they feared that if denied alcohol completely the Indigenous traders would take their business to the French, in spite of the greater travelling distance and inferior trade goods. Potent alcohol was a recurring problem for all who congregated at the Company’s posts; this was a society struggling to develop the social infrastructure and accepted behaviours needed to regulate and control the actions of people under the influence of the new intoxicants. Isham later observed that a custom had evolved whereby men who planned on drinking would send away the women and children along with all the guns and knives. Most of the problems between the employees and officers at the factories also had to do with the abuse of or smuggling of liquor.

The most striking thing is that none of the decision makers on the London Committee ever visited the bay, apart from James Knight, and the yawning gap between reality and theory was also part of life at the outpost. Whether it be admonitions to grow more vegetables, to get more work done during each season, to trade for more furs by exhorting the Cree to work harder, or to get their employees to urge Indigenous peoples from farther inland to breach the Cree hegemony and trade directly at the fort, many directives had to be politely ignored. Life at the factories along the bay revolved around its own unique set of customs and activities, borrowing from Indigenous practices whenever convenient, accommodating Indigenous customs whenever possible and generally creating its own society that was derived from cultural and geographical necessity rather than rigid London imperatives.

One directive from the London Committee to John Nixon must have made his eyes roll when he read it at Fort Albany in 1680. A helpful suggestion on how to save money on food rations, it revealed just how little was appreciated in London of life along the bay: “Upon Hayes Island where our grand Factory is, you may propagate Swine without much difficulty, wch. is an excellent flesh, and the Creature is hardy and will live where some other Creatures cannot.” These types of directives were written by well-meaning dandies, upper-class financiers and aristocrats who had never been to Hudson Bay and experienced its primitive outposts, harsh climate and poor soil, but also had never worked outside the rarefied palatial offices and manors of upper-class English society—people, in short, who ought not be telling servants how to procure their food on a remote distant continent, where they were visitors in a bewildering and deadly land, perched precariously along the rim of a geographical and cultural terra incognita.

On the one hand, there was the London Committee, with its directors planning grand strategy and issuing orders that occasionally indulged in the penchant for micromanagement, and then there were the people who worked for the Company in the outposts with the geographical and climatic constraints of the Subarctic and who worked with, or were friends with or even married to, the Indigenous people of that land. The Company had official policies, but the people bayside interpreted those policies and adjusted them to reality.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE HOSTS OF THAT foreign land were at the heart of life and business at the posts. Not only were the local, or Home Guard, Cree often hired for jobs as labourers, hunters, guides, seamstresses, cooks and interpreters, but sexual and romantic relations between Indigenous women and Company men were common. In the earliest days of its operations in the late seventeenth century, the Company’s directors issued proclamations to its officers to prevent or obstruct these relationships. “We are very sensible that the Indian Weoman resorting to our Factories are very prejudiciall to the Companies affaires,” the committee wrote to John Nixon in 1682, “not only by being a meanes of our Servants often debauching themselves, but likewise by embeazling our goods and very much exhausting our Provisions, It is therefore our positive order that you lay your strict Commands on every Cheife of each Factory upon forfiture of Wages not to Suffer any wooman to come within any of our factories.” For obvious reasons, this directive from aristocratic directors, comfortable in their estates in London and surrounded by their families, was not only foolish but unenforceable, human nature and social needs being what they are.

There was always a difference between what London directors wrote in their letters as official policy and what chief factors enforced for themselves and their men. Money was usually at the crux of it. Workers who spent many years of their lives in what amounted to remote work camps wanted to improve their lot as much as possible, while the managers didn’t want responsibility for families. But, as Graham noted, “the Company permit no European women to be brought within their territories; and forbid any natives to be harboured in the settlements. This latter has never been obeyed.”

But the Company soon appreciated the benefit of having close ties with their Indigenous trading partners and quietly began supporting intimate liaisons. The shift in opinion was based on the realization that these relationships were not a financial drain but rather an asset. Unofficial diplomatic marriages between Indigenous women and Company employees became common, with Indigenous women seeking kinship ties for more favourable trading privileges, while single Company men sought female companionship and an introduction to the life and customs of the land. In a practical sense these were alliances for mutual aid, companionship and support, both social and economic, much like marriages today.

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The Era of Beaver Pelts and Mad Hatters

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 46-48:

IT WAS A SEEMINGLY RANDOM flight of fashion that began the dramatic expansion in commerce between the English, French and many of the Indigenous peoples of North America. Furs have always had value in winter for warmth, and to a lesser extent had value for their water-resistant properties, but it was their use in the manufacture of felt that drove the demand in Europe. Felt was developed originally in central Asia as an excellent insulating and waterproofing material for tents and tarps; it was also used in ancient times by Roman legionaries as padding under their armour. In seventeenth-century Europe, felt was primarily used in the manufacture of hats, an ever-changing fashion accoutrement that became an indispensable signifier of prestige and social identity first for gentlemen and ladies and then, as the century progressed, for nearly every status of person. The style of hat signalled the level of prestige and the profession of the wearer. Picture the distinctive tricorne or Continental hat; or the cocked hat of the navy; the dignified stovepipe Regent, or top hat, of the financiers; and the somewhat amusing Paris Beau beloved of the young urban rake. Ladies’ hats had their own hierarchy of frivolity, complexity and expense—and attendant etiquette and social flourishes that governed how a hat was worn and with which accessories, how it was donned and with which distinctive and noble gesture it was removed.

In general, the waterproof and durable beaver felt hat, which could be dyed and moulded into a bewildering variety of shapes, was perfectly suited to symbolize and reflect the desires of an increasingly stratified and mercenary society. People were marked by their hats, the prices of which were well known and appreciated. Since it took about three to four worn beaver pelts to make enough felt for a single hat, some hats were so pricey that they were carefully tended and repaired for years and then passed down as inheritances. Even wealthy people kept inferior spares to be worn in inclement weather, saving their best beaver for notable occasions—or at least occasions when others might note the quality and make of their hat.

Felt was made using heat, moisture, pressure and mercury nitrate to shrink the fur fibres so that they matted together. Hatters spent long hours toiling away in their poorly ventilated tenements, inhaling clouds of mercury fumes as they bent over their felt-making apparatus, combing, pressing and steaming the pelts into the desired consistency and shape. Mercury was eventually discovered to have debilitating effects on the hatter, causing a type of poisoning called erethism, or mad hatter disease, which was characterized by tremors, depression, delirium, memory loss and hallucinations. Hatter wasn’t a profession or trade conducive to a long and healthy life, but nor were many other occupations of the era, and the dangers were poorly understood while the pay could be high.

By the early eighteenth century, London was not only the principal depot for the wholesale warehouses of prime beaver pelts from the best beaver preserve in the world, but by a coincidence of history it was also becoming the global centre for hat manufacture, which for centuries had been based in northern France. Seventeenth-century Europe was riven with religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Many of the felt and hat manufacturing trades were dominated by French Protestant Huguenots. In the mid-1680s, they began to flee their homes and cross the English Channel to escape religious persecution. They settled in the vicinity of London and brought with them the secrets of their trade, so that soon the best hats in Europe made from the best beaver pelts from North America originated in London. The most distinguished French nobility, and even Catholic cardinals, ordered their distinctive hats from Protestant hat makers in London.

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