Sunday, August 26, 2007

History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.

[David C. McCullogh]

Malcolm's historian daughter, far better qualified than he, reckons that something does not become an "historical event" until it has been mentioned by a quota of historians.

This may explain why so much flies under Malcolm's radar, until ... whooomp ... the detonation is seen smoking in the backyard.

A couple of niggling examples of this have come from Malcolm's current bit of reading: Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery.

First up, and as early as page 21, there is this:
... while the early oceanic ventures in Tudor times were very desultory, because they lacked the backing of London's merchants, who remained tied to the cloth trade (and were therefore pro-Spanish), matters changed with the 1551 cloth slump, which was followed a year later by the founding by aristocrats and traders of a company to open up the north-east passage.
Now Malcolm recalls encountering this connection before, suggesting a direct link between events on the Antwerp Bourse, causing a crisis in the English wool-trade, and a new expansionist mind-set among the merchant-venturers. Or, as Kennedy puts it:
... the uncertainties of the traditionally dominant commerce to the Low Countries were connected to a remarkable degree with the rising awareness in England of the profits that were to be made from getting into the trade in Oriental spices, American bullion and African slaves.
None of this was required knowledge for Malcolm's schooling, when history, and Tudor history in particular, loomed large on the curriculum. So, was it one of those curiosities that became an historical fact because the requisite number of published historians mentioned it? What actually happened in 1551 that provoked the step-change in English economic and mercantile history? Was it somehow linked to Northumberland's reform of the currency in England, and Charles V rescinding the ban on export of specie, both in 1551?

Malcolm needs to study further on this one.

Then, having reached page 88, Malcolm stumbled (in two senses of that word) on this:
The revival of Spanish power under Cardinal Alberoni which led to the forcible seizure of Sardinia and Sicily, his intrigues with Sweden and Russia to secure a Jacobite succession in Britain, and a farcical Spanish invasion of the Western Highlands in 1719, were checked at two levels. In July 1717 Byng's Mediterranean Fleet smashed a Spanish squadron off Cape Passaro. At the same time, an alliance was made with France and Austria ...
And Malcolm, at best the loosest of "general historians", has to admit that much of that seems new to him. The 1719 business, he recalls, involved Rob Roy MacGregor, who turned up to find the Spanish expeditionary force amounted to some 300 men, and wisely and promptly roamed back into the gloaming. The Spanish met up with General Wightman at the Pass of Glenshiel, where there was a scuffle barely to be dignified as "The Battle of Glenshiel".

Malcolm looked this one up, to find Wightman's direct but wry report, as published in the Edinburgh Evening-Courant:
Towards the end of the action I observed some Spaniards left in the pass to defend it, which obstructed our finishing the affair, and obliged me to dismount 30 dragoons, which with about 40 foot, was all we had as a reserve; with which numbers I attackt them, and carried it in 10 minutes. They were better at climbing the rocks than we at their retreat, so that we have few or any prisoners except a Spanish captain and their physician.
In all of this lies the true delight of reading history.

It is the ultimate novel-sequence, where it is impossible in one lifetime to cover all the episodes. Equally, in fiction the author necessarily constricts the characters, setting, motives and episodes to the needs of the work. With history there is always another dimension to explore. For example, naval history for Tudor times is well-covered by a multitude of scholars. At one level there is the quite extraordinary collection of talent and character represented by Frobisher, Hawkins and (above all) Drake: brash, boastful, circling the globe with basic navigation and Foxe's Book of Martyrs to guide him, admirable and damnable in equal measure. Then there is the technology, the developments in world-view, in knowledge and skills, in naval architecture and gunnery that made it possible. Beyond that again are economic conditions which provide the stimulus, mercantile conditions to finance it all, and social conditions to supply the manpower. No one writer is going to balance that to the reader's total satisfaction, so it's on to the next text.

Not surprisingly, History is making a small but important recovery as a school subject. The Major Government removed the requirement for it to remain a set subject up to Key Stage 4, the 16+ GCSE, which prompted a decline. Some 200,000 candidates take History at GCSE. If only History could be released from the straight-jacket of "the Henrys and Hitler and nothing in between"...

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