Category Archives: nationalism

Slaves for Arms in Madagascar

From “Modes of Production and Slavery in Madagascar: Two Case Studies” by Maurice Bloch, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 103-105:

The connection of Madagascar on the one hand, and Mauritius and Reunion on the other, lay in in the fact that the East Coast of the great island was sometimes inhabited by small pirate colonies and sometimes by traders and adventurers who supplied the Mascarenes with rice and cattle but also, increasingly, with slaves to be used on the plantations of these islands (Filliot 1974:113-127). Up to 1770 the trading links between Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion had been relatively small-scale and fluctuating over time. They had, however, been extremely significant in Madagascar in that they had supplied petty rulers with European weapons for their aggrandizement and slave raiding (Filliot 1974:205-208). Towards the end of the eighteenth century, however, the small but growing central state that was to become Imerina, profiting from the disarray of the Betsimisaraka League, captured most of this trade both canalising its network and reducing rivals. The trader Dumaine wrote in 1790 that Imerina ‘is the part of Madagascar which supplies most of the slaves for our islands’ (Mauritius and Reunion). This process was truly momentous in the history of Madagascar because in return for slaves the Merina obtained armaments of high quality in much greater quantities than had been available to anybody else before, since they were lucky in reaching the coast precisely at the time when the demand for slaves in the Mascarenes had boomed and the prices soared (Curtin 1969:266-269; Filliot 1974:62-65, 216).

The war materials that they obtained were probably the major cause of the continuing expansion of the Merina and their ultimate domination of the islands. This expansion, however, was itself in part necessitated by the need to supply slaves in ever greater numbers in order to obtain the armaments necessary for conquest (Bloch 1977:314). By engaging in this sort of trade in order to acquire political power the Merina were following a long tradition which had dominated the political process of Madagascar perhaps since as far back as the sixteenth century. We know this pattern well in the eighteenth century when the Sakalava and the Betsimisaraka managed to dominate large areas of the island by exporting slaves to various European or Arab traders in return for armaments which enabled them to conquer their neighbours and obtain more slaves. The process in the case of the Merina, however, was even more dramatic. The reason was that they captured the trade at a time when the Mascarene economies were booming and so was the demand for slaves.

Once the Merina kingdom had really become established through this process, the pattern began to change in a way which was particularly significant for the history of slavery. In 1814 Mauritius, as it was renamed, became British and, in taking over Mauritius, the British had also gained vague but promising rights over Madagascar. Farquhar, the Governor of Mauritius, therefore encouraged the trade between his island and Madagascar since he saw the expansion of a kingdom dependent on supplies from Britain as a first step towards conquest, a policy we are familiar with in other parts of Africa. This policy was not without difficulty as it was taking place at a time when public opinion in Britain was moving strongly against the slave trade and slavery. Farquhar at first resisted pressure for the abolition of the slave trade, arguing that, in the first place, it would ruin the economy of Mauritius and make his unruly subjects even more difficult to control and, in the second place, it would end the promising connection with the Merina which he intended to use for ultimate conquest.

By 1817, however, the pressure from Britain had so increased that he had to give way, although by then the two stumbling blocks to ending the slave trade with Madagascar had vanished. The economy of Mauritius had been moving away from its dependence on the importation of slaves. Secondly Farquhar had discovered a way whereby he could keep his Merina contact. He signed with Radama a treaty which in return for the abolition of the slave trade would guarantee Radama a yearly supply of armaments, as well as military assistance. By this treaty the British hoped to continue their influence in Madagascar and to ensure the ever-important supply of rice and cattle to Mauritius. This treaty had its ups and downs and for a significant period was abrogated altogether, but it remained the major template for British Merina relations during the nineteenth century. It also ensured that whenever it was in operation the Merina would be dependent on the British. For the Merina the advantage of this treaty is also obvious. Radama, the Merina King, still retained a steady supply of British armaments but gained as well, and this is probably the most significant point, a monopoly of European weapons in Madagascar, a monopoly which many tried to break but never with complete success. When the treaty was in operation British frigates patrolled Madagascar to stop any signs of the slave trade. In doing so they were stopping any potential rivals of Radama from obtaining arms with which to resist him. They were, so to speak, putting Madagascar in a vacuum in which only one group had access to modem weapons. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that nobody could offer any significant resistance to the Merina during their greatest period of expansion.

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Churchill and His Americans

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle pp. 161-162:

Churchill’s growing affection for the Americans was not entirely shared in Britain by other members of his class, either on the left or right. The pro-Soviet spy ring of Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess was motivated in part by distaste for the United States and its culture. Philby, in his own memoir, relates that Burgess delighted in publicly taking “hefty sideswipes at the American way of life in general.”

Anti-Americanism was, if anything, even more intense on the English right. “It is always best and safest to count on nothing from the Americans but words,” Neville Chamberlain had stated in December 1937. When Lord Halifax was sent by Churchill to become the British ambassador to Washington, Lord Linlithgow, the viceroy of India, wrote him a note of sympathy about “the heavy labour of toadying to your pack of pole-squatting parvenus.”

One good definition of a snob is someone who, encountering an awkward social situation, quickly assumes the other person is at fault. Nicolson personified this. On a visit to America before the war, he found the natives well meaning but pitiful: “Most of them feel kindly but are so ignorant and stupid that they do not understand my point of view.” Nor did he trust their tendency toward openness. “There is something about the smarminess of Americans which makes me see red . . . the eternal superficiality of the American race.” These doubts persisted into the war. In November 1943, he wrote to his wife, “We are far more advanced. I despair sometimes about the Americans.”

There also was a suspicion that the Americans, for all their easy grins, did not share a major British wartime goal, the preservation of the British Empire. “The President was no friend of the British Empire,” noted Harold Macmillan, who would become prime minister in 1957. “This anti-colonialism was a strong part of Roosevelt’s make-up, but he seemed to have very crude ideas as to how independence could be gradually introduced in the great colonial empires without disorder.” One of Roosevelt’s notions that the British deemed crude was his view that Vietnam should become independent. History might be different had FDR’s advocacy of Vietnamese independence not been rebuffed by the British and French.

Condescension would lead many British officials to underestimate the growing power of the United States, and then to be shocked and angry when, in 1944, the Americans began acting as the dominant partner in the relationship.

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The Times of Appeasement, 1930s

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 842-62:

The Times of London, then co-owned by another member of the Astor clan, John J. Astor, was at the time the daily journal of the British establishment. As Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s foreign minister, put it, in prewar Britain, “Special weight was held to attach to opinions expressed in its leading articles [that is, editorials], on the assumption that these carried some quality of government stamp, if not approbation.” The newspaper fervently supported appeasement throughout the 1930s, to the point that it was willing to tolerate and even embrace Hitlerian tactics. Following the “Night of the Long Knives,” a series of shocking political murders carried out on Hitler’s orders in mid-1934, the newspaper soothed, “Herr Hitler, whatever one may think of his methods, is genuinely trying to transform revolutionary fervour into moderate and constructive effort and to impose a high standard of public service on National-Socialist officials.”

In 1937, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, confided to his Geneva correspondent, “I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their susceptibilities.” According to the Times’s own official history of itself, published in 1952, those who opposed appeasement were all too often “intellectuals, utopians, sentimentalists and pacifists satisfied with a programme of resistance without the means of resistance.” The Times’s history, with extraordinary nerve, blames those hotheads for making the disastrous policy of appeasement necessary, arguing that the newspaper, “like the Government, was helpless in the face of an apparently isolationist Commonwealth and a pacifist Britain.” What this explanation fails to note is that the role of a leading newspaper is not just to follow opinion but to try to shape it, especially when a major government policy rests on faulty assumptions. And it certainly is not the role of a newspaper editor to suppress news on the grounds that it might bother people or force government officials to reconsider their policies.

King Edward VIII himself, during his eleven-month reign in 1936, supported appeasement. According to one account, when Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland in March 1936, breaking the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the king called the German ambassador in London to tell him that he had given Prime Minister Baldwin “a piece of my mind.” To wit, “I told the old-so-and-so that I would abdicate if he made war. There was a frightful scene. But you needn’t worry. There won’t be war.” The king actually would abdicate for other reasons later that same year. During the war, his rightist views and contacts would become a persistent worry for Churchill and British intelligence.

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Battle of Britain Advantages, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1849-76:

The whole theory of fighter defence was created to avoid what they called “standing patrols.” If you were guarding the country by having aeroplanes up all the time, you ran out of engine hours and you were on the ground when the attack occurred. So the RAF developed a system of reporting incoming raids. First, he used radar to plot the aircraft as they were approaching Britain and then he used the Observer Corps to spot them when they’d crossed the coast. All the information was fed to a filter room and then to an operations room where you got a picture of the developing raids plotted on a table. That picture would be three or four minutes old but it was sufficiently up to date to get the fighters off when they were really needed.

Thus the characteristic image of the Battle of Britain that we have today is of young tousle-haired pilots lounging near their aircraft, not flying but ready to go aloft at a moment’s notice. In historical retrospect, the British air defense system was the equivalent of a human-powered computer, a remarkable real-time information-processing system that worked so well in conserving British aerial resources—aircraft, pilots, and staff attention—that it was one reason the Royal Air Force actually grew more powerful with the passage of time in 1940. A second reason was that British aircraft factories finally swung into high gear.

The third reason that the British prevailed in the Battle of Britain was German incompetence in waging an aerial offensive. Contrary to the Teutonic reputation for martial skill, the Luftwaffe’s approach was “astonishingly amateur,” concluded Bungay, amounting to “little more than flying over England, dropping some bombs on various things to annoy people, and shooting down any fighters which came up as a result.” It is no accident, Bungay adds, that the military service operating so incoherently was the only one of the German armed forces led by a Nazi politician, Goering, who before going into politics had been a pilot during World War I. Hitler supposedly liked to say that he had a conservative army, a reactionary navy, and a Nazi air force. That politicized air arm flew into English airspace unprepared for what it would encounter. Hans-Ekkehard Bob, who flew a Messerschmitt 109 fighter, recalled being surprised on a fogbound day: “I experienced a Spitfire formation all of a sudden coming up from behind, having a clear line of fire and I wondered how this was even possible. Having no visibility whatsoever, from above nor from below, how was it possible that an enemy formation was able to get into a firing position from behind?” The answer, of course, was the well-tuned British radar and early warning system.

The Germans in their days of pride also consistently overestimated the damage they were doing, believing in mid-August 1940 that the British had only 300 working fighters available. In fact, they had 1,438—which was twice as many as they had on hand just six weeks earlier. The kill ratio always favored the British, who lost a total of 1,547 aircraft while destroying 1,887 German ones. On top of that, because most of the aerial combat took place over England, British pilots could fly many missions in one day, with their aircraft reloaded with ammunition in under four minutes. And when they were shot down, they often could parachute to friendly soil and fly again, while parachuting Germans who survived became prisoners of war, and those who ditched in the frigid waters of the channel often were lost either to drowning or hypothermia. (For the same reasons, the RAF lost more bomber crew members during this period than it did fighter pilots—801 from Bomber Command versus 544 for Fighter Command.)

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1930s ruling class “wicked or merely stupid”?

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 792-801:

In his wartime memoirs, Churchill would refer to the 1930s as his time “in the political wilderness.” Some modern academics have disputed the extent of his political exile, but the facts, and contemporary observations, are on Churchill’s side.

Churchill’s road back to power was long and hard. He remained a wanderer for much of the decade, out of step with his times, which were epitomized by the resolution of the Oxford Union, a university debating society, in February 1933 that it would “in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” The nation’s leaders, often in sympathy with the tone of the Oxford discussion, embarked upon a policy of appeasing Germany, making concessions from a position of weakness.

The nature of appeasement—what it was, how to implement it, when to stop it—became the key issue of British politics for most of the 1930s.

It is important here to remember that a narrow but strong strain of sympathy for fascism, and even for Hitler, ran through part of the English aristocracy. Most prominent of those seen as friendly to Germany was Lord Londonderry, a relative of Churchill’s who served in the Cabinet in the early 1930s and then briefly was leader of the House of Lords. Orwell once commented that “whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question.”

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FDR and the “Jewish Problem”

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2276-2301:

President Roosevelt was on the same page. He envisioned an ambitious transfer of populations that would solve both the immediate refugee crisis and the East European “Jewish problem” over the long term. “It must be frankly recognized that the larger Eastern European problem is basically a Jewish problem,” he maintained in January 1939.

The organized emigration from Eastern Europe over a period of years of young persons at the age which they enter actively into economic competition, and at which they may be expected to marry, is not beyond the bounds of possibility. The resultant decrease in economic pressure; the actual removal over a period years of a very substantial number of persons; the decrease in the birthrate and the natural operation of the death rate among the remaining older portion of the population should reduce the problem to negligible proportions.

Roosevelt appointed the geographer Isaiah Bowman, then president of Johns Hopkins University, to lead the search for an appropriate refuge. Bowman had previously served on the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and was head of the American Geographical Society from 1915 to 1935. In the years 1938–42, Bowman directed a project at Hopkins to research possibilities for refugee resettlement around the globe. The goal of the project, in Roosevelt’s words, was to locate “uninhabited or sparsely inhabited good agricultural lands to which Jewish colonies might be sent.”

Bowman and his team surveyed settlement sites on five continents, and his reports circulated widely in government and humanitarian circles. Not coincidentally, however, he did not seriously consider the United States as a potential destination (aside from a cursory examination of Alaska). Bowman firmly believed in eugenics and in natural racial hierarchies. He actually introduced a new Jewish quota at Johns Hopkins in 1942 and also banned African American undergraduates from the university. He was personally convinced that the United States had reached its “absorptive capacity” with respect to Jewish immigrants—even as he lamented declining birthrates among white, middle-class Americans.

At the international level, then, the most critical years of the Jewish refugee crisis before World War II were spent searching the globe for a new refuge, dumping ground, or homeland for European Jews. The Madagascar plan remains the most infamous resettlement scheme, since the Nazis themselves favored it. But the IGCR [Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees], in cooperation with British, American, and Jewish agencies such as the JDC and the World Jewish Congress, considered a range of territories for potential Jewish resettlement. British Guiana, Angola, the Dominican Republic, Northern Rhodesia, Alaska, and the Philippines were among the most widely discussed possibilities. At huge expense, and in a nakedly colonial tradition, intergovernmental and humanitarian organizations dispatched teams of experts in agricultural science and tropical medicine on fact-finding missions to these far-flung destinations. They wined and dined dictators; surveyed the climate, soil, and “natives” in supposedly “underpopulated” lands; and speculated about whether urban Jews could be transformed into farmers who would “civilize” colonial outposts.

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Arbeit Macht Frei in Postwar Europe

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2719-32:

Economic logic generally set the limits of humanitarian solidarity in postwar Europe. The employment contracts offered to refugees were often highly restrictive, designed to keep them in low-paid or undesirable jobs for as long as possible. Belgium’s “Operation Black Diamond” imported 32,000 DPs as miners, but required them to work a full two years in the mines before they were allowed to seek employment elsewhere. As of 1949, 8,000 had returned to refugee camps in Germany, unable to tolerate the harsh conditions. Other employment programs were similarly restrictive. Britain’s “Westward Ho!” program enabled 82,000 migrants from Eastern Europe to emigrate to the UK, but confined refugees to employment in mining, textiles, agriculture, or domestic service, rather than allowing them to move freely between jobs or professions.

The French government, with its ongoing anxieties regarding population growth, was initially among the most eager to recruit DP labor. The French military commander Pierre Koenig immediately recognized that East European DPs “represent a human and labor resource that we will have a high interest in using to the advantage of our country,” and he urged French authorities to recruit the best workers. In 1948, the French government even set up its own vocational training courses for refugees in the French zone of occupied Germany. Conditions for foreign workers in postwar France were notoriously poor, however, and that hampered recruitment efforts. Ultimately, the IRO resettled only 38,107 East European refugees in France between July 1, 1947, and December 1950. The bulk of refugees were headed to the New World. In the same period, the United States received 238,006 refugees, Israel 120,766, Australia 170,543, and Canada 94,115.

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