Monday, 14 September 2015

Battles of Britain?

Yesterday, the BBC launched an online poll to see which was the most decisive battle in the history of the British Isles. The link is here:

I won't dwell on the fact that it suggests that 1066 was 'The Last Invasion' (it wasn't even the last successful invasion, that was William of Orange).

What strikes me is that it is asking which was the 'the most decisive battle in the history of the British Isles', yet is limiting the choice to 'battle[s] ... fought here' (on British soil, although the Armada is included, as is the Boyne, in Ireland).

The list, therefore comprises of:
  • Boudica

  • Brunanburh

  • Hastings

  • Bannockburn

  • Bosworth

  • Armada

  • Naseby

  • Boyne
  • Battle of Britain 
Lots of early modern then, but nothing between Boyne (1690)  and the Battle of Britain (1940). This is easily explained by the fact that most of the truly game changing battles (Plassy, Nile, Trafalgar, Plassy....) occur outside the British Isles. But they are hugely important events (arguably more so than some of those chosen). Britain was (from the eighteenth century), and arguably still is, defined by its imperial identity.

To suggest that because these events happened overseas they do not count is very short sighted. I know it is just a quiz, but it links itself with many of the anniversaries of battles upcoming or recently passed (Waterloo, Battle of Britain etc.) Moreover, the BBC is a global brand with a huge reach. Although perhaps implicit, it is suggesting that we can explain Britain by only looking at Britain. If recent historiographical advances have told us anything, it is that exactly the opposite is true. Britain is influenced by its empire and its overseas actions as much as it impacts on the world. Plassy was the beginning of a huge Indian empire, and completely changed the nature of Britain's empire, trade, and domestic identity. The battles of the Napoleonic Wars not only guaranteed Britain's continuance as a sovereign state, but also defined what it meant to be British by juxtaposing it with France.

We cannot ignore the fact that Britain was as much shaped by those actions and people beyond our shores. To do so encourages an incomplete, nationalistic, parochial, and most importantly, incorrect, version of Britain's history.

Or as Salman Rushdie said: "The British don’t know their own history because it was made somewhere else". (Thanks, Dave)

Thursday, 30 July 2015

On Pigeonholing

Next week I will be taking up the post of Lecturer in the history of the Royal Navy (not the snappiest title, I will admit). This has got me thinking, because, as many of you will know, I am not always comfortable with being called a naval historian. This is mostly because I started out as an imperial historian, but also because the types of history I do (social, cultural, peacetime) don't always fit what most people would initially think of as naval history (rightly or wrongly). Yet it is undeniable that I am a naval historian in part at least.

Yet, if we take this year as an example, I have presented at a naval conference, and a geography conference, and will (hopefully) be presenting at a sports history and a history of science conference before the years end. This is nothing special, I realise, we are all interdisciplinary now. Yet, I work in a field which does have sub-disciplines. Whilst many academics will not like being pigeon holed into discrete categories, we undeniably work in a field which does have sub-disciplines. And the health of these sub-disciplines (and I realise that is hard to diagnose) does matter. I also sit on a editorial board for a maritime journal, and recently had a discussion about this. Go to a maritime conference these days, and you will find a myriad of different subjects, approaches, and disciplines. Yet many of these scholars would never identify as maritime historians. This is, of course, fine, but if these scholars are not writing for maritime journals, and lay outside the field in a professional capacity, does the field look to be in poor health? What are the effects of this? Will projects not attract funding? Will positions not be created? Will the subjects not be taught? Moreover, will the field be seen as archaic, and innovative and important work dismissed?

I wonder if I am over thinking this, but it does seem as if there is perhaps a paradox here. In becoming more interdisciplinary (and I have no doubt that is a good thing) are we inadvertently causing some sub disciplines to wither?

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

On Inheritance Tax and the history of tax

Much has been written about Inheritance Tax, since the Tories suggested they would raise the limit and UKIP announced they would abolish it all together. Many people see it as the state taxing someone twice (despite that person being, by definition, dead, and therefore it is the inheritors who are taxed once). Others see it as a punishment for those who have done well (although, again, those who inherit have not earned it), or the politics of envy.

These ideas go against how tax has been visualised by governments from around 1714, however.
After 1714, successive government increasingly preferred to rely on indirect taxation (VAT would be a modern example of this). This included excise duties, and taxes on home produced commodities. So long as a commodity had a steady demand, it was a relatively easy way to collect revenue. 

More recently it has been argued that these taxes were deliberately progressive – at least to an extent- in that, by design, the burden tended to fall on the rich. This was because items such as wealth and luxuries were taxed. As a result, most of the tax burden was felt by the middling orders and landed classes. Historians such as O’Brien have pointed out that this was a deliberate policy, that the authorities sought repeatedly and deliberately to avoid taxing necessities too heavily, as to avoid unnecessary hardship for the poor. Thus beer, candles, coal and soap, were taxed lightly, if at all, as an exception to the general rule. In the French Wars, at the end of the eighteenth century, this had become the norm, wealth and luxuries – such as coffee tea, silk, and wine, bore the heaviest levies. In theory at least, this ensured that each section of society contributed to the war effort to a reasonably fair and proportionate degree. As such, it has been calculated that over 60 per cent of the extra taxation gathered during the French Wars came from the ‘incomes, and spending patterns of the rich.’

This is not to suggest this was popular, attempts to extend tax to a wide range of goods caused a political crisis in 1733, and when cider was taxed in the 1760s it caused riots, yet despite this, it became a ‘major prop of government finance.’ 

So why does this relate to Inheritance Tax? Because tax has long been recognised as something which should be disproportionately levied upon those who can afford it, to help those who cannot. Inheritance does exactly that. It is levied on amounts which are far above necessities, and is used by the government to invest in those services which benefit society as a whole.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Arguments for fracking are nothing new

Fracking has been big news on both sides of the pond recently, and this is understandable. Many see it as an unnecessary and potentially dangerous assault on the landscape, and the people who live in it. Fracking companies are understandably keen, but so are some politicians. Some see this as a sign of MPs in the back pocket of big business, but often the argument from the pro-fracking camp is that not only are the dangers overstated, but fracking is also good for the state. As an Independent article last month argued:

‘A decade ago, the UK was self-sufficient in gas, but North Sea production has fallen sharply in the years since.  We now import around half our gas supply, and Britain’s import dependency is projected to rise to three quarters of consumption by 2030.  This is the key reason for developing shale gas – replacing imported gas with domestic gas’.

So is this about controlling our own gas supplies? It is certainly more complex than that, but the argument makes some sense. With crises in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Middle East perennially in turmoil, being able to control our own energy is surely a good thing. This is of course compounded by the dwindling supply of oil in the North Sea.  

This idea is, of course, nothing new. I argue in my work that it is Britain’s control of the best fuel for its navy; South Welsh steam coal, which enabled the navy full performance anywhere in the world. Not only this, but it also allowed Britain to deny its rivals the same advantage. Indeed, we see the effects of this multiple times during the nineteenth century. 

A salient example is during the voyage of the US Navy’s famous ‘Great White Fleet’. Denied the use of British naval coal and coaling stations, the ships limped from port to port, buying low grade coal where it could. Seeking to demonstrate growing American military power and naval capability, the world tour instead exposed the fact that ship numbers and technology mattered little without infrastructure with which to coal the fleet. To this end, Senator Hale was particularly embarrassed that ‘the greatest fleet of formidable ships that the world has ever seen’ had to depend on ‘the indulgence of foreign powers’.[1]
Of course, Britain soon found itself in the same situation as its warships shifted from coal to oil – something which it had no domestic supply of. Its solutions to this issue – many of them involving the Middle East – have had lasting implications, many of which are ongoing. 

A recent trip to the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University revealed that naval men in the 1930s were arguing a similar line about Welsh coal as we see today about fracking. A campaign, which was presented to the Cabinet, called for a return to the use of Welsh coal for the navy. Known as the ‘Back to Coal’ movement, it contained a variety of high ranking officers, and men of some political clout (in fact, the list of those men is worthy of a blog in itself, some have very interesting stories.) This group suggested, both through petitions and a published book, that Britain was in real danger in a future war, because it could not guarantee its own fuel supply for the navy. Of course, the campaign came to nothing, but in a way, they were correct, if only about the wrong state. The Allied Oil Campaign towards the end of the Second World War – which stopped supplies reaching Germany from Romania, has been argued by some to have been a key factor in the defeat of Hitler. 

In no way is this an argument for fracking, clearly environmental factors are of utmost concern, and we only need to look at the effect of mining in Wales so see that it had devastating effects on both miners and the landscape. But what I have tried to show is that this argument is nothing new, and for a state, being able to control its own energy in a world that is politically unstable is a very attractive one.

[1] Robert A. Hart, The Great White Fleet; Its Voyage around the World, 1907-1909 (Boston: Little, 1965), 33, 55.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Welsh History Month

This month is Welsh history month. Coincidentally it is also the month that I have returned to Wales, to my old stomping ground at Swansea University, to teach British and Imperial history. As part of this, I teach seminars on the primary source led ‘Practice of History Module’ on the theme of Welsh Coal. As you will have probably gathered, my research looks as Welsh coal as the crucial fuel of the Royal Navy – the primary defence of British interests and global trade. Welsh coal is important in other ways too, however. In our seminar discussion, we thought about the question ‘why should we care about the history of Welsh coal?’ A few of my students are Welsh, and are therefore rightly interested in coal as part of their local history. There are obvious reasons why Welsh coal matters to Welsh history. Mining in Wales provided a significant source of income to the economy of Wales throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Moreover, it was a huge employer both in mining and in the industries that serviced it, and large amounts of coal were used in other industries in Wales, notably in ironworks. It was also huge part of the social history of Wales too - during the first half of the nineteenth century mining was often at the centre of working-class discontent. Finally, it has huge effects on Wales today, including the role of trade unions, employment and unemployment, and the effects on the landscape and environment.

But, as my own research shows, Welsh coal was important beyond Wales. Perhaps most crucially it was key to the industrial revolution, and subsequently Britain’s ability to become a huge commercial power. Furthermore, it was important globally. The value of Welsh coal beyond Wales can be seen by the fact that by 1913 Cardiff had become the largest coal exporting port in the world. This was because of the quality of coal found in South Wales, and its steam coal in particular. Indeed, it was ideal as fuel to power the steam engines that drove steamships, Dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy and steam locomotive railways across the world. Thus it had a crucial role in the development of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Although I have only concentrated on coal, it is clear that when we start to think about other bulk and industrial commodities, Wales again has a strikingly important global role. For example, my colleague Professor Huw Bowen is doing an excellent project which looks at the copper works of Swansea, so important it was known as Copperopolis. You can find more about that here:

As an imperial historian, it is notable how much has been written about Scotland and Ireland’s role in empire, but Wales’ role is only just being unearthed. Hopefully, the parochial view of Wales as a provincial hinterland, a periphery of no importance, will soon be banished. Thus, we should look at Welsh History Month, not as a niche celebration of the local, but as an important reminder of why Welsh history matters for all of us.

For more on Welsh History Month, look here, and follow @HVBowen

Monday, 7 April 2014

On Vikings and large special exhibitions


There isn’t much chance that you were unaware about the Vikings exhibition currently on at the British Museum. The advertising has been everywhere, and several BBC documentaries have covered the issue of seeing beyond Vikings as marauders, but also as peoples with a thriving culture and complex and extensive exchange networks. It is pretty pricey to get in (£16.50 for adults), but that seems to be increasingly the norm in London these days. Perhaps the price is justified by the enormous cost of a new wing, and the huge boat that had to be brought in from Denmark. Even so, such a price brings expectations, which is understandable.
Clearly it has been very popular. The queue for tickets was enormous when I arrived – and even when I got one I had to wait nearly 2 hours until my time slot, which was actually a blessing because I got to have a look around the rest of the museum (more of that later.)

Although I had originally planned to review the exhibition itself, my experience brought up similar feelings as several other expensive large museum shows that I have visited, and thus it perhaps more pertinent to discuss these.

Firstly, a caveat. I realise that these are extremely successful, have millions of visitors, and are crucial to museum’s prosperity. Furthermore, as the rest of the museum is free, they are perhaps more crucial.  However, I have some reservations.

On entering the wing, your tickets are checked, and you are informed that your experience would only be complete with a commentary by Sandi Toksvig. For an extra £4. I declined the kind offer and entered the gallery. Even though tickets are split into time slots, it is instantly clear that because of the way the exhibition starts, this isn’t sufficient to create any sort of flow of people. In fact, the first section, which snakes around some small artefacts, was so tight, and the details so small and low down, that everyone is forced into moving in tiny sidesteps. The Viking poetry over the speakers was a nice touch, and probably only this made it bearable, although not for several children who looked bored and restless 5 minutes in. This situation did not improve, yet, when you have paid that much for a tickets, you are loathed just to skip sections. 

When you reach the main hall, where the ship is held, it becomes clear why this was necessary. This is the grand reveal, and I have seen this technique used elsewhere. You show the punter little bits, some context, then bang – the most famous piece.  But the trouble is, you can’t help but think that if they had started with a big space, you wouldn’t have spent half an hour shuffling along in the hope of seeing something interesting through the crowd.

And therein lies the problem really. In a empty gallery under construction, and when the reviewers go around in small groups, it works brilliantly, but when you get thousands in, most people are irritated by the time they get to it. Perhaps I am a curmudgeon, but I think the visitor experience is crucial to a show. I realise they already have your money, but, even though I thought the show was pretty damned good in content, I would be hesitant to recommend it, and be responsible for anyone having to go through the herding of the first section.

This was brought into focus by what I had experienced during my time waiting for my slot to go in. I visited the revamped gallery that holds the Sutton Hoo treasure. Probably equally as impressive as the Viking exhibits (bar the boat, or what remains of it), I was free to walk around, read all the information and breath easily.  And it was free. As a result I couldn’t help feeling as I left the Viking exhibition that I was unsure which was more worthy of my money.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Navy and Army Illustrated 'How a ship is coaled.'

In 1897, Navy and Army Illustrated, a fantastic publication, ran a story about  'How a ship is coaled.' Accompanied by photos, it explains the process which was done every 7-10 days on naval ships throughout the steam era. Enjoy!

Big thanks to J D Davies for the photos. You can find his wonderful blog here: