Tag Archive: History

Oct 14 2018

Book review: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

the_silk_roadThe Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. A panic buy for holiday which I have only just gotten around to reading, it was recommended by a colleague after we’d talked a little about the East India Companies and the development of trade.

Frankopan’s twist is to consider the history of the world focussing on the Silk Road routes which run from Europe though to China. The centre of this route is the Middle East rather than Western Europe where histories more traditionally focus. In the early years trade didn’t run continuously from Western Europe to China, it met somewhere near the centre with merchants trading between their home countries and the centre, somewhere close to Baghdad.

The book is arranged chronologically in chapters with the geographic focus allowed to drift as the events dictate. Each chapter describes a set of related events, and feels free-standing. The emphasis is very much on the flow of trade, people and invasion. It feels like we rarely sit in one place and allow events to unfold there.

Somewhat to my surprise the book covers pretty much all of human history from the time of Alexander the Great to the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The coverage is very big picture, it isn’t too interested in individuals, battles or places but the broad sweep.

The story starts with the rise of the Roman Empire, followed by the influx of Christian thinking in the later Roman period, then comes Islam, rising up from the south. Next come the Vikings, and the fur trade from northern Europe into Baghdad driven by the wealth in the region. The Vikings were to become the Russians (from Rus for red). The Vikings were keen slave owners which led to a trade in slaves (Slavs is derived from slave). The Italian greeting Ciao is a contraction of “I am your slave”. At its peak the Roman empire was taking 250,000-400,000 slaves per year and the Middle East took more than that.

Trade with the Middle East meant that Arabic coinage was found throughout Europe in the latter part of the first millenium. King Offa (fairly local to me in Chester with Offas’s Dyke just down the road) made coinage with (bad) Arabic on its reverse.

The Christian empire began a revival in the 10th century, leading to the Crusades. Italian city states (Venice, Genoa) were vying for supremacy in the region at the time. Their trade deals are reminiscent of those struck by the East India Company much later.

They were stopped by the rise of the Mongol Empire, which only narrowly failed to invade Western Europe. The Mongols, despite their reputation, were highly organised and implemented low taxation on goods passing through their Black Sea ports. The long distance sea routes were important because they enabled goods to travel untaxed but for their origin and destination, rather than at each country on the way. There then followed the black death, which killed upwards of 75% of the population in some cities. It led to rises in the wages of the surviving workforce.

At this point, in the late 15th century Western Europe finally came to the fore, with the Portuguese and Spanish conquest of the New World and Vasco de Gamas sea route to India bringing in huge wealth in the form of gold and silver (and decimating the American people with violence and disease in the process). By the 17th century the focus in Europe had shifted to the northern countries like the Netherlands and Britain and their trading activities in the Middle East and India.

Moving into the 19th century, Britain started to see Russia as a threat to its Indian Empire. The First World War comes as the Ottoman Empire falls and Britain finds itself siding with Russia against the Germans, somewhat surprisingly given the historic good relationship with Germany. Oil starts to become important, Britain gains oil concessions in Persia in the run up to the First World War. The increased usability and efficiency it brings to the navy is seen as critical to holding the Empire together. After the First World War the French and British divide up the Middle East in the (secret) Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Part of the expansion of the Roman Empire was access to the grain reserves of Egypt, echoed in the 20th century by the (failed) German invasion of Russia. The German aim was to take the grain belt of southern Russia to provide desperately needed food for the fatherland. Chillingly they realised this meant the death of millions, and they were determined it would be Russian millions. As it turned out they ended up killing the Jews in the Holocaust, prefigured by their long persecution of them.

The remainder of the book covers the post-World War Two period and revolves around oil, the decline of British power, the rise of Russia, the US, and the Arab states – finally benefiting from their oil wealth in the 1970s. This comes into my living memory so I tend not to consider it history. It is salutary to be reminded how the events we see unfolding today have very deep roots in history.

I found The Silk Roads fairly readable although a bit of a slog until I realised that the main text finished about two thirds of the way through the book to make room for the extensive notes. I would have welcomed a big pull-out map to locate the many cities mentioned, and a timeline.

Feb 10 2018

Book review: William Armstrong–Magician of the North by Henrietta Heald

A return to industrial history with armstrongWilliam Armstrong: Magician of the North by Henrietta Armstrong. Armstrong was a 19th century industrialist who spent his life in the north-east of England around Newcastle. His great industrial innovation was the introduction of hydraulic power to cranes and the like. His great wealth, and honours (a knighthood and then a baronetcy) derived from his work in the invention and sale of armaments principally artillery and ships. His home, Cragside near Rothbury some 30 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne, was the first to feature electric lighting amongst many other technical innovations.

Armstrong was a contemporary of Robert Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Joseph Whitworth – they were all born near the beginning of the 19th century, Armstrong dying in 1900 outlasted them all with Brunel and Robert Stephenson dying in 1859.

Armstrong was born in 1910 his parents started him on a career in the law. However, he had always been fascinated by water. This led to his realisation that the power that could be extracted from a head of water in a sealed system. A water wheel extracts energy from water falling the height of the wheel, a matter of a few metres. A sealed iron pipe, such as could now be manufactured allowed you to capture the energy from a fall of tens of metres or more. In Newcastle upon Tyne the local landscape could provide this head of pressure but with a little ingenuity the head of pressure could be created with a steam engine or other mechanical means. This energy could be used to drive all manner of machinery, Armstrong initially used it to power cranes, and lock gates, to be used in docks and the many factories springing up around the country. Ultimately his hydraulic mechanisms drove London’s Tower Bridge.

In the aftermath of the Crimean War, Armstrong switched his attention to building artillery. During the Crimean War the British artillery was found wanting in terms of accuracy, destructive power and firing rate. His innovations were to move from cannonballs to shells (shaped like bullets), and from muzzle loading to breech loading. He gave up the patents for his artillery pieces to the government but made a fair business on them. His activities with ordnance led to his knighthood and baronetcy although ultimately he withdraw from the close relationship with the British government in armaments as a result of political manoeuvrings by competitors.

The manufacture of artillery led to the manufacture of warships, which incidentally also carried the artillery. The Japanese Navy were particularly important.

He was a leading light of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne (Lit & Phil), and contributed to founding what is now Newcastle University. Late in his life, in 1897, he published Electric movement in air and water based on his experiments and featuring cutting-edge photographs of the phenomena he described. From a scientific point of view, Armstrong is not a name you will hear in physics classrooms (at any level) today – I don’t know if the same holds for his engineering innovations. Also late in his life he bought Bamburgh Castle, and spent a fair amount of money refurbishing it.

Magician of the North is a somewhat sympathetic view of Armstrong, along the lines of Man of Iron by Julian Glover about Thomas Telford. This contrasts with Samuel Smiles biography of George Stephenson and Rolt’s of Brunel which are much more effusive about their subjects. The Armstrong’s arms trading is discussed in some detail, it seems the company sailed somewhat close to the wind legally in supplying both sides in the American Civil War. A second blemish on Armstrong’s reputation came from industrial disputes with his, and other workers on the Tyne, asking for shorting working hours. That said, he was clearly a pillar of the Newcastle and north eastern community and highly regarded by most of the people most of the time. Many buildings in Newcastle bore his name as a result of his donations both whilst he was a live and after he died.

As usual the author of this biography bemoans the limited attention their subject has received. In the case of Armstrong they put this down to his extensive involvement in the arms trade which, never the most popular, was to fall further out of favour following the Great War. I’ve never seen a quantitative analysis of what makes the right amount of attention for figures in the history of science and technology.

William Armstrong died in 1900, after his death his company went into a slow decline. The Great War led to a distaste for the arms trade, and then came the Great Depression. With Armstrong gone there was no strong, capable leader for the company. The Armstrong name lived on in various spin off companies such as Armstrong Siddeley and various amalgamations with Whitworths and Vickers.

Sep 03 2017

Book review: Chester AD400-1066 by David Mason

chester400-1066adI couldn’t resist more Chester history, so now I am reading Chester AD400-1066: From Roman Fortress to English Town by David Mason. I’ve just read Jane Laughton’s book on late medieval Chester covering the period 1275-1520 (review here), and read David Mason’s book on Roman Chester (review here) towards the end of last year. This book fills most of the gap between those two books, but not quite.

Evidence for the early part of the period is sparse, particularly in the earlier years between about 400AD and 600AD – it isn’t known as the “Dark Ages” for nothing. During this time, after the Roman withdrawal, no durable mass-produced items such as coins or pottery were being produced. Elsewhere, in nearby Wroxeter, archaeological evidence suggests that the early Britons built wattle-and-daub huts within substantial Roman buildings. In Chester there is little such evidence. The various Roman buildings in Chester would have decayed at different rates. The baths under the now Grosvenor Shopping Centre had metre thick walls and would have only fallen down slowly, whilst the barracks in the north east quarter of the city were less substantial. At the barracks there are black deposits, possibly pigeon droppings, deposited between Roman and later date-able layers. It would seem that for most of the period from 400AD to 900AD Chester was a Roman ruin with some desultory farming and living taking place within its walls.

A little after this earliest period to 600AD there are are some written records, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and Bede’s History which were written some time – dozens, even hundreds of years – after the event. There are songs and poems from Wales, transmitted orally, which refer to the period.

Chester enters the historical record of the period with the Battle of Chester in AD616, for which there is archaeological evidence in the form of a mass burial at Heronbridge, just south of the city. Here 120 skeletons were found dating to the same period as documentary evidence for the battle and with wounds consistent with dying in battle.

St John’s church, founded in 689AD sits next to the old Roman amphitheatre from whose remains it was built, although there is some suggestion that Christians were martyred at the amphitheatre, so it wasn’t simply a case of being unwilling to carry heavy stones further than necessary!

In common with the Roman period, and the later period covered by Laughton’s book Chester holds a key strategic position between Wales and Ireland on the one hand and the rest of England, variously inhabited by Dane’s and Anglo-Saxons on the other. I found some of the discussion here confusing with what I would refer to as “Celts” from Wales, the West Country, Scotland and Ireland described as “British” and those from Mercia and Wessex as “English”.

The final third or so of the book is devoted to Chester as a burh one of the network of fortified towns set up by King Alfred – Chester was established in 907AD. It’s at this point that Chester appears to turn into a proper town, and a moderately important one at that. In the years after its establishment as a burh Chester had “moneyers” – effectively a mint, twice the size of London. This is reflected in the discovery of coins minted in Chester being found in Ireland and around the Irish Sea. The establishment of the burh mandated taxation and physical labour to build its defences and bridges – it’s likely in this period that the modern circuit of the walls was constructed. There is more archaeological evidence from this period and the start of some form of systematic written records, rather than the non-contemporaneous writing alluding to previous periods.

It is during the period after the establishment of the burh that King Edgar holds his coronation in the city, in 973AD. By the time of the Norman conquest and subsequent Domesday census Chester had 431 houses and a further 56 belonging to the Bishop (presumably of St. Werburgh’s church which was founded by in Edgar in 758AD). It also had a system of laws and taxation detailed in the Domesday book.

The book ends with Chester suffering a setback in the years after the Norman conquest as a result of its part in rebellion against the incoming King William.

Chester AD400-1066 is a fairly slender volume but more readable than Roman Chester. As a result of the sparsity of the archaeological and written records for the period it is wider in its scope than books set before and after this period.

Aug 28 2017

Book review: Life in a late medieval city by Jane Laughton

medieval_chesterI’m back to local history with my next review. A while back I read Roman Chester by David J.P. Mason. I have his book Chester 400AD –1066AD on my “to read” pile but instead I am jumping forward to Life in a late medieval city: Chester 1275-1520 by Jane Laughton.

The book starts with some definitions and background. How do we define a city? What was the hierarchy of settlements in Cheshire and indeed the rest of England and Wales? This information can be inferred from various charters, and the like.

The book is laid out thematically, so having covered definitions of towns it then goes on to provide an overview of the historical background to the period. This is generally revolves around what kings were doing (invading Wales, crushing rebellions) but also mentions the rise and fall of Chester with famine and the Black Death.

Chester was an important location in Roman times, acting as a forward base for the Roman invasion of northern England and a potential jumping off point for Ireland. So it was in the late medieval period. The start of the time span of the book coincides with the time Edward I’s invasion of Wales when Chester was used as a garrison for the invasion force.

The next chapters cover the topography of the city and the built environment. The central streets of Chester, Eastgate, Bridge Street, Northgate and Watergate play a key part here – as they do to this day. In the period covered by the book these streets provided the key administrative divisions of the city, when citizens interacted with the bureaucracy they were labelled with their name and home street.

I am intrigued by the Pentice, which was a lean-to structure built against St Peter’s church at the Cross in the centre of the city which served as the base for administration for many years (you can see a picture of the Pentice on this page) – it was finally demolished in the early years of the 19th cenutry. The “Rows” are a key feature of the built environment even now, as they were in the late medieval period. For those that haven’t visited Chester the Rows are an arrangement whereby walkways runs through the first storey of the shops on Eastgate, Bridge Street, Watergate and Northgate (to a limited extent). Towards the street from the Row there is a flat, slightly sloped “stall” which was used to lay out goods in the past, beyond which is open to the street at first storey. Opposite the stalls are shops, and beneath the “Rows” are undercrofts. You can see pictures of the rows here, they haven’t changed a great deal over the years.

Laughton makes it clear that the book is based on the records of courts and taxation within the city. So we know, for example, that the tanners in the city worked outside the Eastgate because there are court records of them being charged with blocking the city ditch with their cess pits. We know of the types of trade taking place in the city through taxation, rental and customs records.

Sometimes the relationship with the underlying records feels a bit direct. We are introduced to messuage with no explanation, a messuage is a dwelling and its land. And also pavage, murage and even pontage – these are taxes raised for the purpose of building and maintaining roads, walls and bridges respectively. The portmote, crownmote and piepowder courts are similarly introduced with little ceremony. Portmote are essentially courts in port town, crownmote are courts which cover the most serious offences and piepowder courts cover justice surrounding traders coming in from outside the city. Similarly a range of now obscure occupations such as corviser, souter, barker are introduced with little explanation. On the plus side I have learnt a host of new words for which to find application!

The book goes on with chapters on the hierarchical society and urban government. There is some overlap here with men moving through positions in the government of Chester, more rapidly if they are nobility.

This history of Chester is quite distinct from my readings in the history of science, the period it covers lies before the main developments in Western science. Copernicus (1473-1543), Mercator (1512-1594) and Galileo (1564-1642) are the earliest I’ve read about, most of the history of science I’ve read is post English Civil War. Science does have an equivalent to the administrative records in this book but they are impersonal records of the locations of stars and planets, and the like. Reading Life it strikes me that Chester (and undoubtedly the rest of England) had quite complex systems of law, ownership, trade and so forth from a very early time – science is something of a latecomer.

It feels like a book a bit more for the specialist than the general reader but I found it pretty readable and enjoyed the link it gave me to the medieval inhabitants of the city I live in.

Apr 23 2017

Book review: Man of Iron by Julian Glover

This review is on man-of-ironMan of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover. Telford fits in with my interest in the Industrial Revolution, which are longstanding – in my very early teens my first stay at a hotel was in Ironbridge for a weekend of visiting the museums in that area. More recently I moved to Chester which is not that far from the famous Pontscysyllte Aqueduct and the Menai bridge and London to Holyhead roads, all works Telford was involved in.

Telford was born in Eskdale in the Scottish Borders in 1757, a tightknit rural community from which a number of great names have emerged  – William Pulteney (formerly William Johnstone) key amongst them, as an early patron of Telford. His father, a shepherd, died shortly after he was born.

He originally apprenticed as a stonemason in Eskdale before travelling to Edinburgh and London, where he worked on the refurbishment of Somerset House. He next worked in Portsmouth where he started to be involved in architectural design. He moved to Shropshire to become (eventually) county surveyor in 1786, where he was engaged in a wide range of projects.

As we head into the 1790’s the projects he is involved in expand enormously. Starting with the Ellesmere Canal, which includes the Pontscysyllte Aqueduct. Originally it was intended as a lower level, stone structure with locks taking the canal into the valley, at one point it was proposed that it should carry a rail-way. However, when the moment came the economy and lightness of iron led to the high level structure we see today.

Telford then went on to an enormous construction project in Scotland including harbours, the Calendonian Canal, numerous bridges and roads which necessitated extensive biannual visits over a period of 20 years or so. This project was put in place by the government, keen to see development in the Highlands, and later in the period having more cash to fund such work having finished fighting the French.

In common with William Smith, who made the first geological map of Britain, and Erasmus Darwin he was tremendously mobile forever travelling at a time when travel was hard. (Both of these men were his contemporaries). Telford knew the Darwin family and admired Erasmus Darwin’s “The Loves of Plants”, an epic scientific poem (a genre that has long fallen into disuse). In his earlier years Telford turned his hand to (not particularly good) poetry in the manner of Robert Burns who again was also a contemporary and was born not far from Eskdale.

In addition to this he directed the construction of the London to Holyhead road including the Menai Bridge, and with spurs along the North Wales coast to Conwy. He also planned the Göta Canal which crosses Sweden from the North to the Baltic Seas. The book includes a lengthy appendix listing his works (and the resident engineers on those projects, where relevant), I did consider mapping all these works but decided the list was too long!

Much of his inner motivation we learn from his correspondence with Andrew Little, a boyhood friend which sadly ends in 1803 with the death at age 48 of Little. Telford never married and there is scarcely a hint of any relationships with any women, Glover suggests in passing that his relationship with Little may have been very deep.

In his correspondence with Little we see Telford’s voracious appetite for continuous learning, but also a degree of cunning in his ambitions. He is not just a skilled technician in his fields but also a skilled worker of contacts, and project manager. He had a keen eye for his progress.

There’s some discussion in the book as to how much we should consider the projects he was involved in as his individual successes or as part of a team. This seems to me to be something of a trap, we tend to seek out the hero, the individual in any venture rather than truly appreciate the team effort. Think for example the way in which individual footballers are adulated. This carries over into histories of science and engineering, much of popular history of science is about the “great man” rather than the broader sweep or the group effort. Telford was no doubt technically able across a wide range of topics, he knew how to work his patrons, and he seems an excellent project manager. It’s clear there were often others like William Jessop who were notionally his superior for projects such as the Ellesmere Port canal and some of the Scottish work and likewise he had strong independent subordinates, particularly in Scotland, who delivered the work. Often biographers seems to fall into the trap of considering their subject “not sufficiently recognised”.

Telford died in 1834, a somewhat diminished figure. By that time the railways were starting to spread across the country and they would soon displace the canals and roads that had been his life’s work. I can’t help thinking that the projects that he worked on such as the Menai Bridge, the London – Holyhead road and the Ellesmere Canal demonstrated that the railway lines which were to come were feasible, if not always economically viable. Many times whilst reading this book I googled for the bridges he had built and found them still standing, sometimes still in use, sometimes by-passed by newer versions built to carry traffic unimaginable 200 years ago. Nevertheless they represent an impressive legacy. 

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