The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Sunday, 23 March 2008

10. (ii) The tide of circumstances

Though India may be truly described as an agricultural and not a manufacturing country, yet it would be erroneous to infer that it is destitute of the arts of civilized life. It has no swarming hives of industry to compare with the factory centres of Lancashire, nor a large mining population, living under the soil rather than on it. [...] But in all manufactures requiring manual dexterity and artistic taste India may challenge comparison with England in the last century. The organization of Hindu society demands that the necessary arts, such as those of the weaver, the potter, and the smith, should be practised in every village. [...] When the first European traders reached the coast of India in the 16th century, they found a civilization among both "Moors" and "Gentoos" at least as highly advanced as their own. In architecture, in fabrics of cotton and silk, in goldsmith's work and jewellery, the people of India were then unsurpassed. But while the East has stood still or rather retrograded (for, in the face of keen competition, to stand still is to retrograde), the West has advanced with a gigantic stride which has no parallel in the history of human progress. On the one hand, the downfall of the native courts has deprived the skilled workman of his chief market, while, on the other, the English capitalist has enlisted in his service forces of nature against which the village artisans in vsin try to compete. The fortunes of India are bound up with those of a country whose manufacturing supremacy depends upon a great export trade. The tide of circumstances, more inexorable than artificial enactments, has compelled the weaver to exchange his loom for the plough, and has crushed out a multitude of minor handicrafts. Political economy, judging only by the single test of cheapness, may approve the result ; but the philosopher will regret the increasing uniformity of social conditions, and the loss to the world of artistic tendencies, which can never be restored.

(Sir W. W. Hunter, Director-General of Statistics to the Government of India, regrets the impact of what today is usually denigrated as 'globalization', in his essay on INDIA in vol. 12 of the Ninth Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, published 1880)

Friday, 21 March 2008

10. (i) Empire: India, tigers, cotton and opium

In last week's investigation into what clarity the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica can give to the perhaps surprisingly vague concept of Britishness, we noted in passing that there is no entry in the Index reading EMPIRE, British, the. Is there an underlying significance to this omission? Does it perhaps indicate a characteristic reluctance to brag on such a theme?
Seeking answers to these questions, we must look beyond the Index, and where better to start than Volume 12 and the jewel in Empire's crown, INDIA. As befits the subject, Britannica gives India a splendid and fascinating treatment, of which the cursory and haphazard survey here below is a very poor reflection, for which, as always, my apologies.

Firstly we find a double page spread - a rare indulgence in Britannica - showing a map of the sub-continent . With British Territory coloured pink and Dependent and Subordinate Native States coloured yellow, India looks very much like a strawberry and vanilla mashed dollop of ice cream. Turning the page, the opening paragraph of Sir W. W. Hunter (LL. D., C.I.E, Director-General of Statistics to the Government of India)'s essay confirms that we have come to the right place to illuminate our subject:

India is a great empire of Asia, composed of twelve provinces under direct British administration, and about one-hundred and fifty feudatory states and principalities, which equally with the British provinces acknowledge the paramount sovereignty of the British crown. The whole empire contains close on 1 1/2 million square miles and 240 millions of inhabitants. The area, therefore, is almost equal to, and the population is just equal to, the area and population of all Europe, less Russia. The people exactly double Gibbon's estimate of 120 millions for all the races and nations which obeyed Imperial Rome.

Ha! Take that, Gibbon, and yer damned Romans! Double, I say! And lest anyone was dismayed by the yellow areas of the map of India competing with the sublime pink, note well that those states and principalities equally acknowledge the sovereignty of Her Maj Queen Vic.

Sir W. describes the physical beauty (and wealth) of this empire in a splendid and sweeping portrait "from the highest mountains in the world to vast river deltas raised only a few inches above the level of the sea." He catalogues the sub-continent's wildlife with what seems a seasoned eye that would thrill the blood of any country gent relaxing in his study with a glass of port after a long morning in pursuit of Vulpes vulpes across the Sussex Downs. Of the tiger (who it is "scarcely probable that he will ever be exterminated from India") :

But when once he develops a taste for human blood, the slaughter he works becomes truly formidable. The confirmed man-eater, which is generally an old beast, disabled from over-taking his usual prey, seems to accumulate his tale of victims in sheer cruelty rather than for food. A single tiger is known to have killed 108 people in the course of about 3 years. Another killed an average of about 80 persons per annum. A third caused thirteen villages to be abandoned, and 250 square miles of land to be thrown out of cultivation. A fourth, so late as 1869, killed 127 people, and stopped a public road for many weeks, until the opportune arrival of an English sportsman, who at last killed him.

I would like to draw your attention, distracted perhaps by the laconic image of Johnny Tiger-killer, to what I find to be a particular poetry in the author's varied accounting of the death toll caused by the beasts - a statistician's poetry, perhaps. 108 in 3 years, 80 per annum (for how many annum? Teasingly, we are not told), an unspecified death toll for the third and for the last 127 in an unspecified length of time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, considering the occupation of the author, the real meat of this essay comes in the statistical accounting of peoples and produce. Our esteemed author begins with a justifiable reiteration:

The population of India, with British Burma, amounts to 240 millions, exactly double the number which Gibbon estimated for the Roman empire at the height of its power. But the English government, like the Roman, has respected the rights of native chiefs who are willing to govern peaceably and well, and one-third of the country still remains in the hands of hereditary rulers. Their subjects (including Mysore) make up 54 millions, or over one-fifth of the whole Indian people. The British territories (including Mysore, temporarily under British administration), therefore comprise only two-thirds of the area of India, and less than four-fifths, or 191 millions, of its inhabitants.

Note the use of 'English' rather than 'British' to speak of the government of India.

A land of geographical wonders, with vast millions of population and with colourfully dangerous wildlife, there is also the produce and trade of India for us to consider.

The cultivation of the soil is the occupation of the Indian people, in a sense which is difficult to realize in England, and which cannot be adequately expressed by figures.

Nonetheless, of the cultivation of such diverse crops as rice, wheat, and millet, of spices, palms, sugar, jute, indigo, and of cotton, tea and opium, our esteemed Director-General does a very admirable job of conveying to us a degree of understanding. Under the heading of 'Commerce' tables showing the imports and exports of of 1877 - 1888 tell us something, at least, of the British Empire in India.

Included in a total of £67,377,464 worth of exports are:

Grain (rice, wheat, etc)...£10,134,100
Hides & skins................£3,756,887

Imports to India totalled £58,829,645, and included:

Cotton goods....................£20,172,716
Ales, beers and spirits....£1,401,559
Railway plant...............£902,002

It should be clear from these figures that India's greatest value to Britain was as a market for the cotton goods manufactured in the mills of Lancashire: the import of which far outweighs the export of raw cotton, and at a time when Indian cotton was still in increased demand following the shortages caused by the American Civil War. As Sir W. W. Hunter notes, there was a rather grim historical irony in this situation.

Considering that England's export trade with India thus mainly depends upon piece-goods, it is curious to recollect the history of cotton manufacture. In the beginning of the 17th century the industry had not been introduced into England, and whatever demand there was for cotton in that country was satisfied by circuitous importations from India itself, where cotton-weaving was an immemorial industry. In 1641 "Manchester cottons," in imitation of Indian calicoes and chintzes, were still made of wool. Cotton is said to have first been manufactured in England in 1676. To foster the nascent industry, a succession of statutes were passed prohibiting the wear of imported cottons ; and it was not until after the inventions of Arkwright and others and the application of steam as a motive power had secured to Manchester the advantage of cheap production that these protective measures were entirely removed.

Silk manufacture, or sericulture, is noted to be a "stationary, if not a declining industry". Grains and seeds (such as linseed) provide a healthy volume of trade, but only taken together do they overshadow the opium trade. There is a great deal of interest to be learnt about this trade (which has its own entry elsewhere) from Britannica, well deserving a full-posting in the not too distant future. In the meantime, the Director-General makes some interesting points for us to consider.

The opium of commerce is grown and manufactured in [...] the valley of the Ganges round Patna and Benares and a fertile table-land in central India [...] for the most part still under the rule of native chiefs [...]. In the latter of these two regions the cultivation of poppy is free, and the duty is levied as the opium passes through the British presidency of Bombay ; in the former, the cultivation is a strict Government monopoly.

[...]Under the Bengal system annual engagements are entered into by the cultivators to sow a certain quantity of land with poppy ; and it is a fundamental principal that they may agree or refuse as they please. As with most other Indian industries, a pecuniary advance is made to the cultivator before he commences operations, which is balanced when he delivers over the opium at the subordinate agencies. He is compelled to deliver his whole produce, being paid at a fixed rate according to quality.

Tata the Indian family company which bought British Steel last year and is in the process of giving us the world's cheapest car, began in this highly profitable trade : it's difficult to say which line of business sparks more disapproval today, but you can't knock their enterprise. I imagine that their 2008 balance-sheets and projections would meet with Sir W.'s approval, while the irony of the reversal in the economic position, while unlikely to be savoured, would hardly be lost on him.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

9. A transcendent boon

Lord Goldsmith has sustained much mockery in the past week for his mealy-mouthed proposals to reinvigorate our glorious nation's disaffected youth with a sense of national pride, by means of an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, or not the Queen if that would be contentious, but, er, something else. Of course, Lord G is only working on the theme announced by Mr Brown, promising "British jobs for British people", or was it "Britishness, Britishness, Britishness", "Peace, Land and Britishness" or "British jam tomorrow"? I forget.

Amongst the red, white and blue ideas being run up the flagpole to see whether anyone pledges allegiance to them, is the proposal for a national British Holiday. As it is vital for this date not to cause offence to anyone, the obvious choice to celebrate the various Acts of Union are happily ruled out by falling on already existing holidays, and thus avoiding the abiding resentment and rancour which the commemoration of these events would inevitably arouse. In seeking a date which would not displease the Scots, Irish and Welsh, a further consideration has been extended to our continental neighbours the French: Trafalgar Day, 21st October, has already been ruled out, which I suppose discounts my own personal preference for 25th October, ie the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and also my birthday, immortalised by the Bard in Henry V with the following lines

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhood cheap whiles any speaks
That celebrated national identity in a positive and inclusive manner on this Saint Crispin's Day

In fact, I can reveal from confidential sources in Downing Street that the cabinet have already agreed that on April 1st 2008 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland will proudly be celebrating Positive Social Cohesion Day.

What has been causing Mr Brown and his chums to pace up and down wearing thin the carpet of the Cabinet Room, is the worrying apparent lack of a sense of national identity, a sense of confusion over what exactly the 'shared values' that are often bandied about really are, about what being British means. I have no doubt that if they were referred to the Ninth Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica they would protest that they wish to define Britishness for the 21st century, not in the days of Empire, but I would contend that there is a great deal in the Ninth's dusty pages which may be found surprisingly enlightening. Of course I would say that, wouldn't I? but bear with me if you have the patience.

The first point of call for us should naturally be the Index, and here indeed we find the first clue, because as to subjects containing the word 'British', there is very little to be found (other than the geographical entries for British Columbia, British Guyana, etc). Ancient Britain has it's historical entries, for Caesar's invasion of, coins of and Celtic dialects of. The British Almanac, the British Museum, the British Army and the British and Foreign Bible Society are all here. Finally, and more promisingly, we have British Subjects, their privileges - which directs us to volume 1 and the entry ALIEN.

The introduction of this short and uncredited essay offers a few thoughts on a matter which I believe has a degree of relevance today.

The jealousy which has generally existed against communicating the privileges of citizenship to foreigners has its foundations in mistaken views of political economy. It arose from the impression that the produce of the energy and enterprise of any community is a limited quality, of which each man's share will be the less the more competitors there are ; superseding the just view that the wealth of the state depends on the number and energy of the producers. Thus the skilled workmen who would increase its riches have often been jealously kept out of a country.

[...] Britain has occasionally received industrious and valuable citizens, driven forth by the folly or tyranny of other powers, as in the memorable instance of the revocation of the edict of Nantes, which sent the Spitalfields colony and many other Frenchmen to this country. Looking on the full benefit of British citizenship as a transcendent boon, the principle of our older legislation on the subject has been to allow friendly aliens to possess at least a portion of it.

To refer back to the Index, we note in passing that there is no entry for British Empire, so we must look instead to GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND, United Kingdom of, in volume 11. The entry runs to less than 500 words, and is basically an account of the formal adoption of the title on Jan 1 1801 and its origin in a proclamation of James I in 1604. For the entry GREBE we are treated to just over 1000 words, and even an illustration of the Great Crested variety.

So Great Britain is treated by Britannia in its constituent parts, with separate entries for ENGLAND, SCOTLAND and IRELAND. As is reflected by the composition of the Union Flag, there is no separate entry for Wales, which is treated along with England. Somewhere in one of his essays (which I do not have to hand) George Orwell made the argument that it is perfectly correct to use England in place of Britain, to refer to the whole of these islands. I also recall that the index of one of the volumes of his collected works contains the entry "Scotsman, how to annoy a" (refer to him as scotch rather than scots is the suggestion). All of this may highlight a fundamental and rather obvious issue, that the notion of Britishness is inherently English, that by and large it is an Englishman rather than a Scot or Welshman who is going to call himself British, so good luck to you Mr Brown if you would have it any other way.

The ENGLAND essay, authored by Frederick Martin (Geography and Statistics), and Professors E. A. Freeman D.C.L. and S. Rawson Gardiner, M.A., runs to an impressive 144 pages. Combined with the essays on the Church of England (Rev. Canon Perry), the English Bible (Rev J. H. Blunt, D.D.), English Language (James A. H. Murray, LL.D.) and English literature (Thomas Arnold, M.A.), we have 220 pages: probably over 250,000 words, which would make a substantial book in themselves. The combined subjects for SCOTLAND are found in a single entry at 70 pages, and IRELAND receives 58.

Mr Martin provides a wealth of data on England in 1879, from population estimates, growth rates, births and deaths, illegitamcy (greatest increase in Essex, Hertfordshire and Rutlandshire) and emigration, through number of land owners (just under 1 million, about 5% of the population - in Ireland 1 in 79 of the population owned land), livestock, mineral resources of various kinds, to cotton manufacture, wool, worsted and silk, hemp (61 factories in 1874), imports and exports of fish, custom receipts, shipping tonnage, distribution of railways, passenger traffic, the postal system, money orders, telegraphy, banking, taxation, army recruitment (16,602 recruits from the whole of the United Kingdom in 1873, leading to a force estimated in 1877 - 1878 of 7153 commisioned officers, 16,968 N.C.O.'s and 109,599 rank and file), yeomanry and militia (total 632,911 men), Naval expenditure, increase of armour thickness in ironclads (previous to 1870 no thicker than 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 inches, 1870 to 1873 6 to 8 inches, the "Alexandra" of 1877 having 8 to 12 inches and the appropriately named "Inflexible" under construction in the same year being 16 to 24 inches in the central part), number of religious denominations ("no less than 122" including Apostolics, all shades of Baptists, Calvinists, Christian Teetotallers, Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, Eclectics, Episcopalean Dissenters, Halifax Psychological Society, Hallelujah Band, Inghamites, Jews, Peculiar People, Plymouth Bretheren, Protestant Members of the Church of England, Protestants "adhering to articles of Church of England, 1 to 18 inclusive, but rejecting order and ritual", Quakers, Ranters, Recreative Religionists, Roman Catholics, Sandemanians, Swedenborgians, Trinitarians, Unitarians, Welsh Free Presbytarians, among others), progress of education in the upper and middle classes, progress of education among the lower classes ("While these efforts were made to improve the education of the upper and middle classes, the lower classes of the population were not altogether forgotten."), Proportion of persons unable to sign their names to marriage registers (lowest in Westmoreland at 8%, 11% being able to sign in Rutlandshire, although there we must not forget the high rate of illegitimacy, 17% failing in Yorkshire, 18% in Lancashire, Staffordshire topping the table at 30% of men and 37% of women), number of prisoners (165,142), number of police (28,550), number of paupers (728,350 in 1877), revenues of hospitals, classification of charities as to objects, progress of savings banks, incomes from lands, trades and professions, growth of capital and more besides.

Before closing with some information about the government and law of England and Wales, Mr Martin has this to say concerning England's position in the world:

[T]he late Mr Dudley Baxter [...] expressed [the] belief that, while "the income of England is the largest of any nation, and shows wonderful good fortune and prosperity, we must not forget that it rests on an unstable foundation. The turn of trade, or obstinacy and short-sightedness in our working-classes, or a great naval war, may drive us from the markets of the world, and bring down our auxiliary as well as our productive industries.

[...] England's position is not that of a great landed proprieter, with an assured revenue, and only subject to occasional loss of crops, or hostile depredations. It is that of a great merchant who, by immense skill and capital, has gained the front rank, and developed an enormous commerce, but has to support an ever increasing host of dependants. He has to encounter the risks of trade, and to face jealous rivals, and can only depend on continued good judgment and fortune, with the help of God, to maintain himself and his successors in the foremost place among the nations of the world."

As for Government and Laws Mr Martin, getting all meta-textual on us, quotes the article CONSTITUTION AND CONSTITUTIONAL LAW:

England differs conspicuously from most other countries. Her constitution is to a large extent unwritten, using the word in much the same sense as when we speak of unwritten law. Its rules can be found in no written document, but depend, as so much of English law does, on precedent modified by a constant process of interpretation.

This last, the notion of an unwritten constitution, is surely one of the most fundamentally British concepts, and one I'd personally be very happy to see continue. Of course there is a very sizeable proportion of our Labour government who would prefer to remedy this situation, so this may be a 'core value' that is on its way out.

Instead, therefore, we might look for an idea of Britishness amongst resonances in the data sketched above with the Britain we know today. I would suggest illegitimacy, illiteracy, growing hemp production, religious diversity (hurrah! Although whatever happened to the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion?) and also a general pessimism and insecurity about the future prospects of the nation. Although it is now merely a historical issue, I also think that it would be rather nice to celebrate the increasing thickness of armour of the nation's ironclads: yes, we all know the role that ironclad-mania played in the escalations that launched the Great War, and that Argentinian deployment of French Exocet missiles in the Falklands War may well have marked battleships as effectively useless except as resupply depots for wars against mostly land-locked nations, but 24 inches, Ladies and Gentlemen! Does that not fill your heart, be it English, Irish, Welsh or Scots, with a certain thrill of British pride?

Saturday, 15 March 2008

8. (iii) An exquisite tessellation

In 1772 Edward Gibbon finally began writing the work conceived in October 1764 in the ruins of the forum. The death of his father had left him with the "leisure and opportunity" to begin his great work. He "long brooded over the chaos of materials he had amassed", but by February 1776 the first volume was published. The final volume saw press shortly before its author's 51st birthday, in 1788. Before his death in 1794 Gibbon was able to write a very thorough autobiography, giving Rogers and Black the material for their essay in Britannica. In the closing thousand words or so they give their 19th century judgement on the man and his work. Although "not more than 56 inches in height" and possessing a "shrill and piercing voice", he was (in adulthood and until the end, at least) blessed with good health,
an exceptionally vigorous brain, and a stomach "almost too good," united to bestow upon him a vast capacity alike for work and enjoyment. This capacity he never abused so as to burden his conscience or depress his spirits...

[H]e was not a stranger to the delights of quiet contemplation of the beauties and grandeurs of nature. His manners, if formal, were refined ; his conversation, when he felt himself at home, interesting and unaffected ; and that he was capable alike of feeling and inspiring a very constant friendship there are many witnesses to show... That his temperament at the same time was frigid and comparatively passionless cannot be denied... His most ardent admirers, however, are constrained to admit that he was deficient in large-hearted benevolence ; that he was destitute of any "enthusiasm of humanity" ; and that so far as every sort of religious yearning or aspiration is concerned, his poverty was almost unique.

Decline and Fall shows the clear evidence of the many qualities possessed by Gibbon's great genius.

Of the kind and amount of ability displayed in that truly immortal work it would be almost impossible to speak in language of exaggerated praise, - the grandeur and vastness of conception, the artistic grouping, the masterly fulness and accuracy of detail, the richness and vividness of description, the coruscating liveliness, the polished sarcasm, the pungent wit.

[...] It is the amplest historical canvas ever spread, the largest historic paining ever executed by a single hand; and only a comprehensive and orderly intellect of the highest rank could have grappled as Gibbon has done with the task of blending that vast array of nations, in all their varieties of costume, habit, language, and religion, into one picturesque and harmonious whole.

[...] Never has historian evinced greater logical sagacity in making comparitively obscure details yield important inferences, or held with firmer hand the balance in the case of conflicting probabilities ; by no one has sounder judgement or greater self-control been, on the whole, more uniformly exhibited in cases where it is so easy for learned enthusiasm to run into fanciful hypotheses.

Such praise, however, would be hollow without admitting the failings to which Mr Rogers and Reverend Black have already alluded.

Even when the occasional Gallicisms and grammatical absurdities pointed out by the industry of critics have been willingly overlooked, there yet remains something to be said on the defects of its style. [...] [W]ith all its great merits it is too often formal and inflexible, and is apt to pall on the ear by the too frequent recurrence of the same cadence at frequent intervals, and the too unsparing use of antithesis. It is not veined marble, but an exquisite tessellation ; not the fluent naturally-winding stream, but a stately aqueduct, faced with stone, adorned with wooded embankments, or flowing over noble arches, but an aqueduct still.

There are more than defects of style in the Decline and Fall. Mr Gibbon believed that the rise of Christianity played a fundamental part in the fall of Rome, and Gibbon regretted this, with the full expression of his polished sarcasm and pungent wit.

[I]t is not necessary to adduce any minor instances, when it can be shown that he is out of harmony with the truth, or at least with the truth as apprehended by the 19th century, in a matter so fundamental as his conception of that empire which declined and fell, and that Christianity which, as he rightly supposes, contributed to it's overthrow.

[...] Gibbon's enthusiasm for the empire of Trajan and the Antonines - that "solid fabric of human greatness" - is undisguised and perfectly sincere ; to his thinking, if the earth ever enjoyed a golden age, it was then. The world was happy because it was under a government which it could never think of questioning or resisting.

[...] It is manifest, however, that to him, thinking of the Roman empire as he did, it was well-nigh impossible to be just to Christianity. He could never forgive a religion which, in his opinion, had overthrown "the solid fabric of human greatness," and given to the world the sorry sight of bare-footed friars chanting psalms on the spot where once had been the august worship in which everybody took part but nobody believed. [...]

Comparing "superstition" with "superstition," virtue with virtue, vice with vice, Gibbon had formed a deliberate preference for the religion and ethics of ancient Rome.

And need Rogers and Black spell out the particular fault of this preference?

Philosophical students of history [...] may now be said to be almost unanimous [...] in finding that the phenomenon called Christianity did mean for mankind a higher conception of truth and a nobler conception of duty.

And eight out of ten owners say their cats prefer it.
[The original article is one of many available in full at]

Thursday, 13 March 2008

8. (ii) Musing amidst the ruins

Let us return, then, with Mr Rogers and Reverend Black to 18th century England, to find the young Edward Gibbon, himself freshly returned to these shores and living on an allowance in his father's home, beginning a "work of accumulation" building up his father's library.
"I am not conscious," says he, "of having ever bought a book from a motive of ostentation ; every volume , before it was deposited on the shelf, was either read or sufficiently examined" ; he also mentions that he soon adopted the tolerating maxim of the elder Pliny, that no book is ever so bad as to be absolutely good for nothing.

Londoners will no doubt particularly appreciate this maxim, having noted that all those supposed commuters apparently reading a weighty volume called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on the Tube last year were actually undercover police officers poised ready to brain any would be backpack bombers with the aforesaid quote novel unquote.

Somewhat alienated by his French education, Gibbon lived in the London of 1760 in books rather than society. He "withdrew without reluctance from the noisy and extensive scene of crowds without company, and dissipation without pleasure." Which is sorrier, I wonder, fashionable dissipation at a husband's request, or dissipation without pleasure? Certainly, if you are going to dissipate, you should at least enjoy it.

Having read nothing of Gibbon's writing except what is quoted in the Ninth's essay from his autobiography, I have learnt that it was regrettably Frenchified in expression, owing to his formative experience on the continent. Rogers and Black now tell me that over the next 25 years that Gibbon lived in London, he was encouraged to "addict himself to an assiduous study of the more idiomatic English writers".

Of his admiration of Hume's style, of its nameless grace and simple elegance, he has left us a strong expression, when he tells us that it often compelled him to close the historian's volumes with a mixed sensation of delight and despair.

So, in 1761, Gibbon made his first publication, in French. This was done in compliance with his father's wishes, a man who seems to be quite Machiavellian if not Mansonian in his usage of his family, in as much as he "thought that the proof of some literary talent might introduce him favourably to public notice [seems reasonable enough], and secure the recommendation of his friends for some appointment in connexion with the mission of the English plenipotentiaries to the congress at Augsburg which was at that time in contemplation." Interesting fellow, this Pa Gibbon. Unfortunately, being in French, the book was received with "cold indifference" in England, although after Gibbon's later success, the rare first printing first sold for half-a-crown had "risen to the fanciful price of a guinea or thirty shillings" on ye Bay.

Gibbon then spent three years as a Captain in the Hampshire militia, before his father packed him off on that most fashionable - but edifying rather than dissipating - of 18th century pursuits, a Grand Tour of Europe, which at length brought young Edward to Rome. (Whether Gibbon Snr had some colourful ulterior motive concerning supernumeraries at the General Synod or perhaps the predisposition of eunuchs in some sultan's harem, Rogers and Black do not reveal). And now I must quote quotation, for
...the words in which [Gibbon] has alluded to the feelings with which he approached [Rome] are such as cannot be omitted from any sketch of Gibbon, however brief. "My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned to affect. But at the distance of twenty five years I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the forum ; each memorable spot, where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye ; and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation... It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind."

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

8. (i) Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition

I believe that it is safe to assume that the vast majority of readers of the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had experienced the blessings of a classical education, and however much their Latin might have been learned by rote and from the vulgus books and cribs of Tom Brown's School Days, that this widespread and at its least passing familiarity with the thoughts, words and actions of the Greeks and Romans so looked to and emulated by our 19th century forebears, is a cultural achievement largely lost today.

The Ninth has extensive entries on the subject of Rome and all the great Romans, but of course no self-improving Victorian's shelves could be expected to be without all six volumes of the first great academic attempt to completely answer a given question: Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A history of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire can indeed be found in Volume 10's essay on GIBBON by Henry Rogers and the Reverend J. S. Black (largely cribbed, in the true spirit of classicism, from Gibbon's autobiography). [The article is one of many available in full at]

Edward Gibbon (1737 - 1794) "one of the most celebrated historians of any age or country" easily merits the 9 pages - somewhere over 10,000 words by my calculation - devoted to his life and works. Throughout the Ninth we will find portrait after portrait of the great men of history (and the portraits are mostly of the men, I'm afraid), again and again we will be shown the circumstances, opportunities and adversities that forged their characters, and invited to consider their noble qualities and their tragic failings.

Gibbon's path to greatness was not diverted by a childhood plagued by illness and a mother prone to "the occasional plunge into fashionable dissipation in compliance with her husband's wishes". I'm not entirely certain what fashionable dissipation might be but it returns 1,850 hits from Google, and will join the ranks of opprobrious euphemisms for pleasure that I am slowly acquiring. Ma Gibbon is at least excused her shame for having acted under marital obligation. Of the foundation of his own classical education Gibbon is quotably succinct:

By the common methods of discipline, at the expense of many tears and some blood, I purchased the knowledge of the Latin syntax.

It is in reading the Arabian Nights, Pope's Homer and Dryden's Virgil for pleasure that Gibbon credits the germination of his intellectual development. The best of England's public (ie, private) schools gave him little in the way of education, and it was only when his repeated illnesses led to his being tutored at home, and to an indulgence of his "indiscriminate appetite for reading", that his passion for learning grew.

I am much taken with Gibbon's self-appraisal in his first attempt at authorship, whilst a young student at Magdalen College:

Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.

That first book was never written, and whatever greatness Gibbon might then have wrought was lost owing to Blogger being almost two hundred and fifty years from inception.

Gibbon's studies at Oxford (the "fourteen most idle and unproductive" months of his life) were curtailed by a Jesuit inveigling him with the "doctrines of Popery" - his father, outraged by this base betrayal ratted-out the young turncoat to Magdalen, who in full accordance with the law of the land, expelled the apostate. Gibbon Snr then packed his son off to Lausanne to the care of a Calvinist minister for five years to straighten him out. Owing to his master not speaking English, young Gibbon was forced to immerse himself in French language and thought, with profitable results as far as intellectual discipline, although regrettably a degree of gallification "tinged his style to the last". Rogers and Black seem relieved to report that during his years in Switzerland, Gibbon rejected the "articles of the Romish creed" and returned to Protestantism.

Although Gibbon studied and improved his moral character with rigour in Lausanne, he still found time to shower his blessings upon "such society as the place had to offer". He wrote in a 1755 letter to his maiden aunt:
I find a great many agreeable people here, see them sometimes, and can say upon the whole, without vanity, that, though I am the Englishman here who spends the least money, I am he who is most generally liked.

Had I a maiden aunt I would be most happy to pen her a similar missive from some benighted corner of the globe, and I think that this should not be counted the least of Gibbons' accomplishments.

Gibbon had himself introduced to Voltaire, learned to appreciate theatre beyond "idolatry for the gigantic genius of Shakespeare which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman", and fell in love with one Mlle Susan Churchod.
That the passion which she inspired in him was tender, pure, and fitted to raise to a higher level a nature which in some respects was in some need of such elevation will be doubted by none but the hopelessly cynical[.]

Alas, on return to Blighty Pa Gibbon made it clear that his son would not be entering a "strange alliance" with the daughter of the pasteur of Crassier and so
After a painful struggle I yielded to my fate ; I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son ; my wound was insensibly healed by time, absence, and the habits of a new life.

1758 sees Gibbon's formative years at a close, with a young man who in spite of being "sometimes a little extravagant, and sometimes a little dissipated" is nonetheless
a sober, discreet, calculating Epicurean philosopher, who sought the summum bonum of man in temperate, regulated, and elevated pleasure.

His great works yet to come, we can see here a man in whom the capacity for genius is clearly marked, a unique product of his era, whose autodidacticism was doubtless the cause of admiration from the editors and readers of Britannica a century later, and should be an inspiration and shining example to ye, the enWikified youth of today.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

7. The quaint and crafty sayings of manifest idiots

Today we hear from the Joint Committee on Human Rights that people with learning disabilities often face abuse and neglect from the very people who are paid to provide them with care and assistance, owing to a culture based on outdated negative stereotypes.

Part of this culture is deeply embedded in language in everyday use. I remember the particular thrill of learning a new pejorative as a child - how from a sophisticated Mancunian friend I learned to replace 'wally' with 'spaz' or 'mong' and used it at every available opportunity, which is to say probably every other sentence. It wasn't too long before I was caught using the word by a parent or teacher and lectured on its meaning and the smallness of speaking and thinking in that way, but it certainly wasn't a habit entirely lost after leaving my teenage years.

Working in liberal Massachusetts in the beginning of the 21st century I learned about the American fondness for 'retard', examples of which are only too easily found out and about in Interwebshire. My job was supporting people with learning disabilities who lived and worked independently in their communities. The majority had been residents of Fernald, a notorious institution of which the stories and indeed very well-documented practices over the course of the 20th century make the pop-culture stereotype of the treatment of mental health familiar from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" seem like the epitome of enlightened care. Many of these practices carried on well into the 1980s and 90s, until residents, families and other concerned people sued the state to provide the assistance needed to fulfill their right to normal lives in the community.

A clue to the nature of the place comes from the name it carried until 1925: Fernald was known as the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children. Although such a term was by 1925 was considered inappropriate, it is interesting to note that the state body which provides liberal Massachusetts with treatment, care and support for people with developmental disabilities is to this day the DMR - the Department of Mental Retardation.

I remember being inducted into my work in a leafy satellite town outside Boston, and being somberly instructed that the labels 'client' or 'service-user' were deemed unacceptable for use describing the people who we provided support for, the preferred term being 'individual'. This led to the use of such natural-sounding and empowering sentences as "We held a dance at the centre last week, which all the individuals really enjoyed." I later asked why the DMR hadn't changed it's name to something a little more modern and less negative-sounding - I was told that such a proposal had long since been sadly rejected on grounds of the undue expense that a change of name would entail - such as printing up new stationery, erecting new signage, etc.

The unnecessary expense argument was doubtless a thoroughly realistic one for what I learned of the mechanics of state expenditure in one of the richest and most progressive places on the planet. Every year, for example, the state would vote in a $1 an hour increase for the lowest paid workers in the care sector - and every year, after the Commonwealth's budget had been overspent or vanished into the Big Dig, the voted-for increase would, with great regret, be cut.

The School for Idiocy is also a reminder that although terms like spaz and retard might chafe as particularly obnoxious, 'idiot', 'moron', 'imbecile' and 'cretin' are all words which don't seem to require comment or apology when used in polite society or the Houses of Parliament either. They originate as specific terms for forms of developmental disability. The Ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica catalogues the terms carefully in Vol. 13's essay INSANITY (by J. Batty Tuke M.D., F.R.C.P.E), and Vol. 6's CRETINISM (by William Charles Smith LL.B, Advocate). The 11th Edition versions of these essays can be found at the Love To Know 1911 website here and here.

Where we pussyfoot about today with terms like developmental disability and mental illness, Dr Tuke can fairly confidently cover a great range of conditions with the term 'Insanity', consisting of "two great classes" : Congenital Insanity and Acquired Insanity. Those afflicted by the first class are idiots and cretins, the second are lunatics. Dr Tuke's consideration of the subject is rational and conscientiously avoids bias :

"In most treatises on the subject will be found discussed the bearing which civilization, nationality, occupation, education, &c., have, or are supposed to have, on the production of insanity. Such discussions are generally eminently unsatisfactory, founded as they are on common observation, broad generalization, and very imperfect statistics... Of much greater importance is the question of hereditary predisposition to nervous disease"

In both Batty Tuke's and Charles Smith's essays the employment of the terms idiot and cretin can hardly be expected to fail to raise either a smirk from the schoolboy or a tut from the enlightened humanist in me, such as when reading that Dr Ireland (esteemed author of On Idiocy and Imbecility) "subdivides idiots, for the purposes of education, into five grades" or learning that "There are cretins at Chiselborough in Somerset." The fact is, the authors make a clear and admirable effort to educate by describing a wide range of impairments as accurately as possible, speculating on their causes with a clear hope of medical practice being able to provide a remedy for or future avoidance of the conditions. In general the language used does, however, appear to be somewhat lacking in compassion, even where exhibiting broad-mindedness.

"Comparatively speaking, there are few idiots or imbeciles who are uniformly deprived of mental power ; some may be utterly sottish, living a mere vegetable existence, but everyone must at least have heard of the quaint and crafty sayings of manifest idiots indicating the presence of no mean power of applied observation. In institutions for the treatment of idiots and imbeciles, children are found not only able to read and write, but even capable of applying the simpler rules of arithmetic."

The same can even be claimed for many schools, universities and workplaces in Britain today.

As for the treatment of both idiocy and lunacy, Dr Tuke is pleased to report that the barbaric practices including cupping and leeching (see The Madness of King George) had towards the end of the 19th Century been almost entirely abandoned. "In asylums of the present day a shaved head is never seen. It was likewise the custom to administer large doses of sedatives. The system of treatment which now generally obtains is almost purely hygienic." Rest and nursing is what the finest minds of the 1880s believed held good, in an age that hadn't yet learnt to appreciate electro-shock therapy, benzodiazepines and Prozac.

"[T]he main question concerning treatment is, Where [is it] best to be obtained ? In the case of the poor there is no alternative, even in comparatively mild cases, but to send the patient to an asylum. In the case of the rich it resolves itself very much into a question of convenience, for, with plenty of money at command, the physician can convert any house into an asylum. But under ordinary circumstances, when the patient is violent, noisy, suicidal, homicidal, or offensive to society, it becomes necessary to seclude him, both for the purposes of cure and for the safety and comfort of the family. Except among the very affluent, treatment at home is for the most part unsatisfactory ; it is very generally tried, but breaks down under the constant strain to which the friends are subjected. In a well-ordered hospital for the insane there is every possible appliance for treatment, with trained nurses who are under constant supervision ; and it therefore affords the best chance for recovery."