Category Archives: France

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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The World of the Coureurs de Bois, 1600s

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 18-20:

FRENCH MARINERS HAD BEEN TRADING FOR furs intermittently since the second half of the sixteenth century, but it was the founding of Quebec by Champlain in 1608 that marked the transition from a seasonal coastal trade to a permanent enterprise with routes that extended deep into the continent’s interior. With a population numbering only in the hundreds, the tiny French colony nevertheless became embroiled in the regional conflicts of the Montagnais, Algonquin, Huron and Iroquois-speaking peoples, with furs and firearms being the drivers of economic and political activity. Algonquian speakers lived primarily in the Ottawa Valley, the Huron farther west around Georgian Bay and in southern Ontario, and the Montagnais in the north of present-day Quebec and around the mouth of the Saguenay River on the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. The Huron were an Iroquoian-speaking people with similarly settled culture but were not part of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, to the south and east.

The land was covered in great deciduous forests of oak and maple and elm, interspersed with lakes and rivers. It was humid and hot in the summer and cold and deeply snow-covered in the winter. The more northern Montagnais and Algonquin lived semi-nomadic lives, moving between different regions of their territory according to the season and the availability of animals for food. The Huron and Iroquois, on the other hand, lived in villages of large communal longhouses around fields of corn, squash and beans. Corn was an important trade commodity to northern peoples like the Algonquin. The trade routes were well maintained and regularly patrolled. The lakes and rivers held an abundance of fish, and wild turkeys were plentiful, as were wild game such as deer and migratory geese and other birds. These were affluent societies made even more so in the early days of the fur trade when they had access to European trade goods at cheap prices and, thanks to their role as middlemen, trade with more distant groups.

The 1650s were a time of conflict and upheaval along the St. Lawrence region, the Hudson River and what is today southern Ontario. The Montagnais positioned themselves as the fur brokers, as successive Indigenous peoples would do in time, pushing the trade farther north and west, transporting French manufactured goods inland, trading and then carrying the furs back to auction off to the French. In exchange they demanded firearms to help them in their conflict with the Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy to the south—a pre-existing struggle that intensified as the beaver population diminished, causing increasing competition between the Iroquois, the Montagnais and the Huron over who would control trade with the peoples farther west and north. The Hudson River region was never the best beaver territory, and by the 1640s it was mostly trapped out, which led to the “Beaver Wars” of the 1650s and 1660s, as the Iroquois sought to become the only middlemen in the trade, controlling all access to the European fur markets. By 1650, the Huron were vanquished as a political force, the survivors abandoning their lands and fleeing to distant regions.

It was common for young Frenchmen to live, work, travel and learn Indigenous languages and customs to secure alliances and smooth commerce. They were called the coureurs de bois, or runners of the woods. The French settlements at Quebec, Trois-Rivières and Tadoussac were traditionally allied with the Huron and the Algonquian-speaking peoples and suffered the animosity and hostilities of the Iroquois. The tiny French colony was entirely dependent upon local peoples for survival—the settlers owed their existence to the conduit they presented to exchange furs for metal implements. These people showed the French how to survive—how to hunt food, avoid scurvy and use furs for winter clothes that were far superior to cloth. Many young men married women from the Indigenous societies to form alliances for protection and to gain access to hunting and trapping grounds. By 1660, the entire French presence in New France was barely 3,200 people, two-thirds of them men, but within a decade it had already doubled. Montreal was founded only in 1642 and for many years consisted of little more than a few dozen families, although it too grew along with the fur trade.

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Hudson Bay Company’s Charter

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 2-3:

King Charles II had granted his cronies a grandiose charter and monopoly absurd in its scope and geographical misunderstanding—absolute mercantile authority in English law over a territory that encompassed the entire watershed of Hudson Bay, some four million square kilometres of land, over 40 per cent of the later territory of Canada, including all of northern Ontario and Quebec, all of Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta and a good portion of the states of North Dakota and Minnesota. The region held nearly half the world’s supply of fresh water in a vast lowland of swamps, ponds and lakes, and was home to at least ten million beavers, then extremely valuable for their pelts. The Company was not a colonizing enterprise—nothing in its charter had do with missionaries or conquest—but nor was it a purely business enterprise. While commercial transactions for profit were its primary objective for the first century and a half of its existence, it also had other responsibilities, such as searching for the fabled route to Cathay, “by meanes whereof there may probably arise very great advantage to us and our Kingdome.”

The interior of North America in the 1670s was bewildering and unknown, and it was decades before the Company began to appreciate the political and cultural complexity of its trading monopoly. Word of the Company’s arrival spread quickly, and people began canoeing the rivers to its forts or factories along the Hudson Bay coastline each year. The [Algonquian] Cree who dwelt closest to the Company outposts along the bay, and eventually the [Siouan] Assiniboine and [Athabaskan] Chipewyan, became the brokers of the trade, operating their own jealously guarded monopolies and using the Company as a wholesale distributor, while passing on goods to Indigenous peoples farther inland.

After generations of mutually beneficial trade, knowledge and technology had been shared both ways, and many Company employees, including people of mixed genetic and cultural heritage, had learned the secrets of inland travel and survival. When faced with competition from traders of the North West Company coming west from Montreal in the 1780s, the Company moved inland and competition intensified. For most of its life the Company competed most vigorously for the right to thrive without competition.

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Foreign Volunteers in the Boer War

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 433-435:

Stung by accusations that the war had been mismanaged, the British government ordered a change of command and appointed as commander-in-chief Field Marshal Frederick Roberts – ‘Lord Bobs’ – a diminutive, 67-year-old war hero, blind in one eye; but it was decided to leave Buller in charge of the Natal army. Two more divisions – the last readily available – were despatched from England. The government also realised that it had been trying to fight the wrong kind of war, relying too much on slow-moving infantry battalions to deal with mounted Boer riflemen using highly mobile tactics; British mobility needed to match Boer mobility. Britain called for civilian volunteers to join a new ‘Imperial Yeomanry’. Some 20,000 men from the ‘hunting and shooting’ fraternity signed up, including thirty-four members of parliament and peers. The City of London paid for one thousand volunteers. Further reinforcements came from other parts of the empire – from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. By January 1900, the total number of troops Britain had shipped to South Africa had reached 110,000. Additional support was provided by uitlander refugees and colonial volunteers formed into two mounted corps of their own – the Imperial Light Horse and the South African Light Horse – financed in part by Wernher, Beit & Co.

Even members of the Indian community in Natal – originally immigrants employed as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations – volunteered to serve as stretcher-bearers. Their organiser was a 28-year-old lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, who had arrived from India in 1893, spending a year in Pretoria before settling in Durban. Gandhi expressed sympathy for the Boer cause but considered he was bound by loyalty to Britain. ‘I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire.’ The Natal authorities at first turned down Gandhi’s offer. But after Black Week, their attitude changed. Gandhi’s ambulance corps of ‘free’ Indians and indentured labourers recruited 1,100 volunteers.

Just as the British won support from the empire, so Boer ranks were bolstered by foreign volunteers. Some 2,000 uitlanders – Germans, French, Dutch, Irish, Irish-Americans, Russians, Scandinavians, even some English – joined the Boer cause. Another 2,000 foreign volunteers arrived from abroad. A retired French army colonel, Count de Villebois-Mareuil, enlisted, hoping to capture Cecil Rhodes. ‘History will add a fresh flower to the glory of France,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘To take Kimberley and see the face of the Napoleon of the Cape.’ He rose to the rank of Vecht-generaal – combat general – but was killed in action in April 1900. In all, the Boer allies were able to raise armed forces totalling more than 70,000 men. In addition, about 10,000 Africans served as auxiliaries to Boer commandos – retainers, porters, gun-bearers and labourers – many of them conscripted under duress.

Yet early Boer advantages were soon frittered away by poor strategy. By committing such a large proportion of their forces to the siege of three towns, Boer generals lost the opportunity to drive deeper into Natal and the Cape Colony when both areas were highly vulnerable to mobile attack. As their forward thrusts began to ebb, they turned to a more defensive stance, preparing for a much tougher British assault. By December, the Boer offensive had reached its limits. Unlike 1881, there had been no crushing blow to induce the British to negotiate.

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Transvaal’s Gold Boom Years, 1890s

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 291-293:

The Transvaal’s new wealth from gold transformed Pretoria from a village into a town. Grand public buildings sprang up around Church Square; electric light and telephone systems were installed. Ralph Williams contrasted the character of Pretoria when he first arrived there as British consul in 1887 with the changes that occurred within the space of a few years. Government buildings then, he said, were ‘homely to a degree’.

Flush with gold revenues, Kruger ordered the construction of an opulent new building for government offices and for parliament on the west side of Church Square. Laying the foundation stone in May 1889, he remarked: ‘Who would have believed five years ago that such a building was possible?’ Designed in the Italian Renaissance style by the government architect, Sytze Wierda, the Raadzaal cost £155,000. Kruger took a lively interest in all its details. On the ground floor, he was provided with two offices to the left of the main entrance. On top of the central tower stood a female statue. Some said it was an allegorical figure representing Freedom or Liberty; others that it represented Minerva, the Roman goddess of war. When Kruger was shown the statue before it was put in place, he was said to have objected to it being bare-headed. ‘A lady can’t stand up there in public with nothing on her head. She must have a hat.’ Accordingly, a helmet was fashioned and fixed on with rivets around the brim. The building was completed in 1891. An 1893 guidebook, Brown’s South Africa, A Practical and Complete Guide for the Use of Tourists, Sportsmen, Invalids and Settlers, described it as ‘one of the handsomest and probably the costliest pile in South Africa’. Kruger enjoyed the routine of the daily ride to his office in a state carriage accompanied by mounted troopers; he also awarded himself a huge salary increase, raising it from £3,000 a year to £8,000. Yet despite the new buildings and the occasional pomp, Pretoria retained the ambience of a sleepy village, where Afrikaner traditions of church and family life were closely observed.

Thirty miles to the south, amid a landscape of mining headgear, ore dumps and battery stamps, stood Johannesburg, an overgrown mining camp, brash and bustling, renowned for drunkenness, debauchery and gambling. On windy days, clouds of yellow dust from the ore dumps swirled through the streets. On the northern outskirts, over the crest of the ridge, wealthy whites lived in luxury houses, with views stretching away to the Magaliesberg hills, protected from the noise and dust of the mine workings by northerly winds which blew it all southwards. But most white miners and other employees lived in boarding houses in working-class districts close to the mines, frequenting the bars and brothels set up there. Two-thirds of the uitlander population consisted of single men. Black mine workers were confined to compounds, as in Kimberley.

During the boom years of 1888 and 1889, scores of prostitutes arrived from the Cape Colony and Natal. More came when the rail link to the Cape was completed in 1892. With the opening of the railway from the port of Lourenço Marques on Delagoa Bay in 1894, there was an influx of prostitutes from Europe and New York City. A survey in 1895 counted ninety-seven brothels of various nationalities, including thirty-six French, twenty German and five Russian; the brothels in one part of Johannesburg were so numerous that it became known as ‘Frenchfontein’.

A correspondent for the London Times, Flora Shaw, visiting Johannesburg in 1892, said she was repelled by its brash character. ‘It is hideous and detestable, luxury without order, sensual enjoyment without art, riches without refinement, display without dignity. Everything in fact which is most foreign to the principles alike of morality and taste by which decent life has been guided in every state of civilisation.’ Olive Schreiner, who went to live in Johannesburg with her husband, described it in 1898 as a ‘great, fiendish, hell of a city which for glitter and gold, and wickedness, carriages and palaces and brothels and gambling halls, beat creation’.

Kruger found it difficult to come to terms with this industrial monster in his backyard and the godless uitlander community that lived there; Duivelstad – Devil’s Town – he called it.

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Carnarvon’s Vision for South Africa: Another Canada

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 63-65:

While Kimberley’s magnates were manoeuvring for advantage, Britain’s imperial ambitions were also on the march. In 1874, a new Tory government led by Benjamin Disraeli had come to power with aims of extending the realms of the British empire and reversing the years of fiscal rectitude and frugality overseas pursued by the previous Gladstone administration. Disraeli proudly called himself ‘an Imperialist’ and appointed as colonial secretary a like-minded expansionist, the Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon’s main preoccupation was imperial defence. He regarded the Cape and its naval facilities at Simon’s Bay as being the most important link in the imperial network outside Britain itself, upon which the safety of the whole empire might one day depend. In the words of a Royal Commission on Colonial Defence chaired by Carnarvon, the Cape route was ‘essential to the retention by Great Britain of her possessions in India, Mauritius, Ceylon, Singapore, China and even Australasia’. It needed to be ‘maintained at all hazards and irrespective of cost’. Strategic considerations overrode financial concerns. Furthermore, the Cape provided a vital commercial link. Despite the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, one seventh of all British trade annually passed the Cape. In the event of a war affecting the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, the Cape route would become even more important.

What concerned Carnarvon was the chaotic character of the interior of southern Africa, which offered opportunities for other European powers to meddle and undermine British supremacy in the region. In sum, southern Africa consisted of three separate British colonies, two Boer republics and a troublesome assortment of African chiefdoms, notably the Xhosa, the Zulu, the Swazi, the Pedi, the Venda, the Tswana and the Sotho. It was an area of ill-defined borders where armed conflict appeared to be endemic. Carnarvon was alarmed in particular by the Transvaal’s determined efforts to expand eastwards and gain access to the sea at Delagoa Bay, which would enable it to escape from commercial dependence on colonial ports and break away from British domination. He was adamant that the security of the Cape could not be assured unless Britain controlled the interior.

To forestall the Transvaal’s moves, Britain claimed possession of Delagoa Bay for itself. But when the matter was put to arbitration, Britain lost to Portugal. The Transvaal meanwhile sought to involve other European powers. In 1875, President Thomas Burgers toured Europe in search of German and Dutch aid to build a railway joining Pretoria to Delagoa Bay. Carnarvon concluded that the sooner the Transvaal was incorporated into the British orbit the better.

As colonial secretary in a previous British administration, Carnarvon had gained the credit for launching Canada as a self-governing dominion by amalgamating seven independent provinces inhabited by French-speaking and English-speaking colonists with different traditions and mutual distrust; and he assumed that a similar feat could be accomplished in southern Africa. Carnarvon’s plan was to construct a confederation of its disparate peoples that would serve as a bastion of the British empire and protect both its strategic and commercial interests.

The advantages of confederation, Carnavon told the cabinet, were ‘very obvious’. It would encourage the flow of European immigration and capital; provide a more effective administration at less expense; and reduce the likelihood of demands for aid in the form of money or troops. Furthermore, it would assist the development of ‘a uniform, wise and strong policy’ towards ‘the native question’. In sum, confederation would ensure a great leap forward.

Carnarvon found few willing accomplices in the region, however. There were too many old grievances, too much distrust. For the Boer republics, cooperation with Britain meant only ‘die juk van Engeland’ – ‘the yoke of England’. Carnarvon managed to cobble together a conference in London in August 1876 attended by a variety of delegates from southern Africa, but made no headway.

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Glaswegian Goodwill Tour in Tangier

From The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth (Penguin, 2015), Kindle pp. 62-64:

Tangier in 1956 was an extraordinary place, my first taste of Africa and the world of Islam. Morocco had been, until very recently, a French colony, but Tangier was under tripartite administration between the British (the post office), the French (police and law courts), and the Spanish (general administration).

There was a vigorous independence movement called Istiqlal, which rioted elsewhere, but the Tangerines are known for their civility and tolerance, so Tangier was spared the rioting, at least while we were there.

My parents played the tourist out of the El Minzah Hotel, but I could not, like them, retire to bed at ten p.m., so I would steal back out and explore the bars and dives of the port quarter. It was here I met the Marine Commandos.

There was a British warship moored in the outer harbor on what is called a “flying the flag” mission. The idea was to spread pro-British goodwill along the African coast. It was in a dockside bar that I came across a group of Marines who were having terrible trouble making themselves plain to the bar staff, who spoke only Moorish Arabic and Spanish.

I tried to help and was promptly press-ganged as unit interpreter by the senior sergeant. They were all from Glasgow, from, I believe, Gallowgate, or the Gorbals: about five feet tall and just as wide. The problem was not between English and Spanish. That was easy. It was between English and Glaswegian. I could not understand a word they said. Eventually a corporal was discovered whom I could decipher and the three-language enigma was solved. We moved from bar to bar as they spent their shore leave and accrued pay on pints of beer and triple-scotch chasers.

Another problem, and quite a big one on a goodwill mission, was that they tended to leave each bar looking as if a bomb had gone off. I solved this by suggesting a gratuity for the staff. Contrary to rumor, Glaswegians are not stingy. When I explained the Tangerines were dirt poor, the Marines chipped in generously. But I explained to the bar staff that the extra money was the house-repair budget. Smiles all around.

Each morning, I was decanted from a taxi outside the El Minzah at about five, just in time for a short nap before joining my parents for breakfast at eight. On the third day, the Royal Navy warship weighed anchor and cruised off, taking the commandos to continue their friendship-building mission somewhere else.

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Gorbachev’s Visit and Krenz’s Coup

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle (pp. 235-237:

When First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev arrived on October 7 [1989] to participate in the East German regime’s fortieth anniversary celebrations, Susie Corbett was in East Berlin on a regular shopping trip. “As far as I could see from touring the center of town in my car,” she recalled, “it seemed the whole place was enjoying a fête, with red Soviet flags dressing up the main thoroughfares and government buildings and the population seemingly keen to celebrate, too. Nothing seemed any different to my previous visits.” After a massive military parade, the Soviet leader’s pronouncements to the media in a public walkabout (unheard of by any Eastern Bloc leader until then) shocked Honecker and those closest to him in the SED hierarchy—Gorbachev announcing to the cameras, “A party that lags behind the times will harvest bitter fruit.” This was a clear and honest appraisal of the pressure the country was under from internal protests and his knowledge of the perilous financial state of the GDR. The planned torch-lit parade that evening, which would praise the creation of the GDR, the rule of the SED, and of course the leadership of Erich Honecker, turned into a farcical spectacle. Gorbachev looked on incredulously, standing alongside the grimacing East German leader, as they watched supposed loyal party activists shout to the Soviet general secretary, “Gorbi, Gorbi—help us!”

For the ailing Honecker, this was a disaster, which had quickly followed a fiery meeting, with the German and Russian men clashing verbally in private and in a meeting of the East German politburo, Honecker deriding Gorbachev’s reformist policies compared to what he believed were the GDR’s economic success. The Soviet leader had audibly hissed his derision at the old East German, with Honecker’s excuses met by deafening silence around the politburo table.

Robert Corbett received a request from Britain’s ambassador to West Germany, Sir Christopher Mallaby, to discuss the situation. Televised coverage of an October 16 march in Leipzig had been aired on West German TV following secret video recordings that were smuggled out of the GDR. Now the world could see hundreds of thousands of East Germans demonstrating, instead of just the hundreds who were trickling into the West German embassy compound in Prague seeking asylum. It was a far bigger story.

A general atmosphere of unease gripped Berlin, reinforced when the sudden news came through that Erich Honecker had been forced to step down. The younger generation within the East German politburo, led by his deputy Egon Krenz, had taken Gorbachev’s visit and his official rebuke on the need for the regime to change as a signal to make a grab for power. Krenz had long been seen as the heir apparent and had risen through the SED ranks to become secretary of the central committee. Crucially, he oversaw security for the country and was able to persuade the head of the Ministry of State Security, Erich Mielke, to support his bid to oust the ailing leader. The week after this bloodless coup, more than 350,000 people took to the streets of Leipzig for a second mass rally. Secret dossiers had been prepared for the new leader that outlined what kind of state he was now inheriting from the man he had unceremoniously ousted. The GDR was in effect bankrupt and surviving on enormous loans from the Federal Republic just to keep going in the short term. Debt was piling on top of debt to the international markets. Was the game up? Ambassador Mallaby and his fellow ambassadors of the USA and France were deeply concerned and this was reflected in the by now constant updating of plans by the three Western Allied Commandants and their staffs.

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Checkpoint Charlie’s Other Names

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle pp. 64-65:

Checkpoint Charlie would be formally distinguished by the Four Powers as the single crossing point (either by foot or by motor vehicle) for foreigners and members of the Allied forces. Members of the Allied forces were subsequently not allowed to use the other sector crossing point designated for use by foreigners at the Friedrichstraße railway station. The name “Charlie,” though it would become quite catchy to fans of spy novels and films over the years, had a more prosaic backstory. The Allied checkpoints covering entry into East Germany, and then into Berlin, derived their names, simply, from the letters in the NATO phonetic alphabet. The Allied checkpoints on the Autobahn linking the city to the West were Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt/Marienborn and Checkpoint Bravo, its counterpart at Dreilinden/Drewitz in the southwest corner of Berlin. Soldiers of the US Army’s 287th Military Police Company would man this new crossing in shifts around the clock beginning on August 23. This small unit was then formally expanded, and a desk was placed in a nearby building on Freidrichstraße to serve as the official checkpoint, complete with a radio system. Now that it had a radio, it needed a call sign, and thus “Charlie” was attached to it. Within a few weeks, the US Army moved a trailer to the center of the road to act as the new control point on the Allied side. Checkpoint Charlie was now designated the major crossing point for Allied personnel, foreigners, and diplomats in the heart of Berlin. The Russians simply called it the “Friedrichstraße Crossing Point,” and their East German cousins the Grenzübergangsstelle (“Border Crossing Point”) Friedrich/Zimmerstraße—which was geographically where the checkpoint was located.

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