A catechism of Terror…

robespierre_cropMaximilien Robespierre, the architect of the Terror during the French Revolution in which the state killed tens of thousands of its own people, penned his own catechism of Terror on the eve of coming to power in 1793. Like the Catholic catechism it mocked, it was structured in the form of questions and answers.

The central section concerned overcoming the “ignorance” of the common people.

Question: What are the obstacles to their enlightenment?
Answer: The paid journalists who mislead the people everyday by shameless distortions.
Question: What conclusion follows?
Answer: That we ought to proscribe these writers as the most dangerous enemies of the country…

trump_angryDuring his presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump pursued a systematic policy of disparaging the mainstream media. Since becoming President his attacks have become more specific and vitriolic.

On 17 Feb 2017 he Tweeted the following:

“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

I may be mistaken but I doubt if Trump or his advisers have read Robespierre’s catechism of Terror. Maybe they have read the work of Friedrich and Brzezinski who, in the 20th century, formalised the defining characteristics of totalitarianism, I don’t know. But one of the six defining characteristics they list is the control of the means of communication.

People argue about whether or not we can learn anything from history.

Well it’s about time America woke up and smelled the coffee.

A naïve and sentimental super-hero…

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Cochrane became one of the most celebrated naval heroes of his day. Napoleon dubbed him Le Loup des Mers (literally ‘The Wolf of the Seas’) and his career inspired C.S. Forrester’s fictional hero Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey. He was an inspiring leader and innovator, yet his political naivety and radical outspokenness almost cost him everything.

Thomas Cochrane was born at Annsfield, near Hamilton, in Scotland in 1775, the son of Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald. He joined the navy at the age of 17 on the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793 as a midshipman serving in HMS Hind, a frigate commanded by his uncle, Captain Alexander Cochrane.

In less than three years Cochrane was promoted lieutenant and then in 1800 promoted to commander, taking command of the brig-sloop HMS Speedy later that year. In his 13-month cruise aboard the Speedy, Cochrane captured, destroyed or drove onshore over 50 enemy vessels. His most notable exploit was the capture of the Spanish xebec frigate El Gamo, on 6 May 1801. El Gamo carried 32 guns and 319 men, compared with Speedy’s 14 guns and 54 men. Cochrane flew an American flag and approached so closely to El Gamo that its guns could not depress to fire on the Speedy’s hull. The Spanish tried to board and take over the ship but each time they massed to attack, Cochrane pulled away briefly and fired on the concentrated boarding parties with his ship’s guns. Eventually, Cochrane boarded El Gamo, despite being outnumbered about five to one, and captured her.


HMS Speedy captures the frigate El Gamo

Given command of the new frigate HMS Pallas (32) in 1804, he cruised the Azores and French coast capturing and destroying several Spanish and French vessels. Transferred to HMS Imperieuse (38) in August 1806, he returned to terrorizing the French coast. Now a master of coastal warfare, Cochrane frequently led cutting out missions to seize enemy ships and captured French coastal installations.

But in 1809, his star came crashing down.

At the Battle of the Basque Roads in April of that year, Cochrane’s initial attack using fire ships greatly disrupted the French fleet. But his commander, Lord Gambier, failed to effectively follow up to completely destroy the enemy. Elected to Parliament in 1806, Cochrane had sided with the Radicals and frequently criticized the prosecution of the war and campaigned against corruption in the Royal Navy. These efforts had lengthened his list of enemies in higher office. Publically criticizing Gambier in the wake of Basque Roads, he alienated many more senior members of the Admiralty. Their retribution was swift and Cochrane was removed from his command and denied any other. Though loved by the public, he became isolated in Parliament as he angered his peers with his outspoken views.

In 1814, his fall was made humiliatingly complete. Cochrane was implicated in a stock market fraud based on the rise of government stock following false rumours of Napoleon’s death. In June with five others he was brought to trial for fraud in a trial presided over by the harsh, overbearing and Radical-hating Lord Ellenborough. The outcome was never going to be in question and, even though the prosecuting counsel admitted the evidence was circumstantial, Cochrane was found guilty.


An 1815 caricature “Things as they have been. Things as they are now.” depicting Cochrane as the naval hero on the left while the right side shows him as the disgraced and imprisoned civilian

Cochrane was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, fined £1,000 and was ordered to stand in the pillory opposite the Royal Exchange for one hour. In subsequent weeks, he was dismissed from the Royal Navy by the Admiralty and expelled from Parliament following a motion in the House of Commons. Cochrane was further humiliated by the loss of his knighthood in a degradation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. His banner was taken down from the Chapel of Henry VII in the Abbey and physically kicked out of the chapel and down the steps outside.

Persona non grata in his own country, Cochrane elected to sell his military services overseas. He went on to command the Chilean, Brazilian and Greek navies, helping them fight for independence. In 1831 he succeeded to his father’s title, becoming 10th Earl of Dundonald.

Returning to Britain, Cochrane was finally pardoned in May 1832 at a meeting of the Privy Council. Though restored to the Navy List with a promotion to rear admiral, he refused to accept a command until his knighthood was returned. This did not occur until Queen Victoria reinstated him as a knight in the Order of Bath in 1847. Now a vice admiral, Cochrane served as commander in chief of the North American and West Indies station from 1848-1851. Promoted to admiral in 1851, he was given the honorary title of Rear Admiral of the United Kingdom three years later. Troubled by kidney stones, he died during an operation on October 31, 1860.

Cochrane was buried in the central part of the nave of Westminster Abbey. The inscription, written on his tomb by Sir Lyon Playfair, reads:


Agustina get your gun…

Agustina_de_aragon4redAgustina Raimunda María Saragossa Domènech was just 18 years old when she found herself besieged in the northern Spanish city of Zaragoza in the summer of 1808. Though the city had not seen war for 450 years, the population rose up with much of the rest of the country as part of the Dos de Mayo (2 May) uprising against the French who had seized power in Spain and replaced the rightful monarch with Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte. The rising was mostly quickly and brutally suppressed but Zaragoza held out and Marshal Bessieres, in command of French forces in north east Spain, detached General Lefebvre-Desnouettes with 6000 troops to take the city.
Their first assault was bloodily repulsed but the French were reinforced by 3000 more troops under General Verdier who, being senior to Lefebvre, took command. The second assault on 2 July was more determined and breached the Portillo, an ancient gateway into the city defended by a hodgepodge battery of old cannons and a heavily outnumbered volunteer unit. Agustina’s lover was an artillery sergeant in this unit and she was delivering food to him when she was caught up in the attack.
The story then merges into myth. The Spanish defenders were wavering under the onslaught. Agustina’s lover and his gun crew had been killed before they could fire off their last round. It is said that the young woman ran forward, snatched the lighted match from her dead lover’s hand and fired the cannon. The leading French attackers, hit by grapeshot at point blank range were mown down, the Spanish defenders rallied and the attack was thrown back.
Fierce fighting continued for a few days then dragged on inconclusively for three more weeks before the French abandoned the siege. Though they would be back.
In December of the same year the French returned. Initially under the command of General Junot, the French progressed slowly but in January 1809 command was taken over by Marshal Lannes, one Napoleon’s most competent marshals. He accelerated the attack. The walls were breached at the end of January but rather than surrender, the defenders set about defending the city street by street.
agustina aragonPestilence broke out in the city and by the 19 February the Spanish commander, José de Palafox, sued for surrender. The defence had cost the lives of approximately 20000 soldiers and 35000 civilians. The French lost close on 10000 men, more than half to sickness. The city was a devastated wreck.
Agustina was captured, her baby child killed. But subsequently she mounted a daring escape from captivity and became the leader of a guerrilla band organising harassing raids and attacks on the French occupying army. As the strategic situation deteriorated for the French Army, her role became increasingly orthodox as supplies and training were covertly provided by the Duke of Wellington.
agustina goyaBy now the legend of Agustina of Aragón was folklore.
After the war, she married a doctor and, late in life, she became a familiar sight in Zaragoza as a respectable old lady, wearing medals, who used to go for walks around the Portillo. Agustina died at the age of 71 in Ceuta.
Agustina-de-Aragon-tt0042185-1950-Peris-Arago-es-0Agustina’s heroism became a popular subject for artists both contemporary and later. The only truly identifiable person in Goya’s “The Disasters of War” is Agustina firing her cannon. Modern culture too wouldn’t let go of the legend. Her story was one of the first subject of silent film in Spain when the epic “Agustina of Aragon” was released in 1929. It was followed by a remake in 1950.

Twenty thousand leagues (ok, 20 feet) under the sea…

portrait-engraving-of-robert-fulton-steamboat-innovatorRobert Fulton was an American engineer and inventor who is widely credited with developing the world’s first commercially successful steamboat in 1807 that plied a route between New York City and Albany. However, it is his earlier adventures with prototype submarine warfare that I am making the subject of this post.

In the mid 1790s he went to Paris where his reputation as an inventor was already known and petitioned the French government to support his design for “a machine which flatters me with much hope of being able to annihilate their [England’s] Navy.” That machine was a submarine.

fultonjmnautIn Fulton’s design the submarine would tow an underwater bomb (which he called a torpedo) to be planted under enemy vessels. The initial response was positive and after some negotiations, the American inventor delivered a detailed plan for a vessel he baptized the “Nautilus”. However, before construction began, the Minister of Marine cancelled the project. A year later, after a change of minister, Fulton pressed again and a specially appointed commission examined his designs and recommended proceeding with the construction of the submarine. However, the government still prevaricated.

After the coup of 18 Brumaire, which elevated Napoleon to power, Fulton decided to insist one more time. In 1800, he sent a letter to the Minister of Marine with a proposal to build the Nautilus. The American inventor was convinced that his submarine would bring to an end the supremacy of the Royal Navy. Napoleon learned about the project and appointed a commission to study its feasibility. Fulton subsequently built and launched the Nautilus and conducted several successful trials first in Paris and then at Le Havre.

“Navigation under water is an operation whose possibility is proved,” he confidently wrote to the members of the commission in November 1800. In February 1801, the Minister of Marine wrote to Fulton saying that Napoleon had approved his proposals and that he would be paid 10,000 francs to improve and test the Nautilus at Brest. Fulton moved there for a few months and conducted several successful experiments.

“I conceived every experiment of importance to be proved in the most satisfactory manner,” he wrote to the commissioners in September 1801. He also wrote again to Napoleon but received no response and with the signing of the Treaty of Luneville and the subsequent Peace of Amiens, Napoleon’s interest in Fulton’s proposals waned completely.

But the British authorities had taken note of Fulton’s experiments and disappointed as he was at the lack of enthusiasm for his projects in France he was quick to switch sides and move to the potential financial rewards on offer on the other side of the Channel. By the spring of 1804 Fulton had moved to London where he submitted both innovations (submarine and torpedo) to the Admiralty. At that time the British government feared Napoleon’s invasion and it was thought Fulton’s innovations could help derail it. After some negotiations Fulton signed a contract with William Pitt, the Prime Minister, and Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, for the use of his plan “of attacking fleets by submarine bombs.”

The initial trials for the torpedo were not successful. There was lack of enthusiasm from the Admiralty but Pitt continued to give his support. Finally, on October 1805 the American inventor succeeded in blowing up a brig with his torpedo. However, this success, which showed the power of submarine explosions, alarmed the British naval establishment. In an interview with Fulton the Earl St. Vincent, now First Lord of the Admiralty, said that in his view “Pitt was the greatest fool that ever existed, to encourage a mode of war which they who commanded the seas did not want, and which, if successful, would deprive them of it.”

Unfortunately for Fulton, Nelson had just destroyed French and Spanish naval power at the battle of Trafalgar rendering torpedoes unnecessary in the eyes of the Admiraly. And to make matters worse for Fulton, Pitt, who had been one of his most important supporters, died in early 1806. During the rest of that year, the American inventor became embroiled in a bitter negotiation with the British government to get paid what he believed were his fees. With no success, at the end of 1806 Fulton left for New York. There, though Fulton continued to experiment with torpedoes and submarines, his focus shifted to the development of a steamboat.


Captain Nemo’s Nautilus

Submarines would have to wait and they were still notions of fancy when Jules Verne commandeered the name of Fulton’s submarine for his own creation in 1870; Captain Nemo’s vessel in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Painter of battles and fantasy myths…


Gros as a young man

On the 26th of June 1835 a body washed up on the banks of the Seine at Meudon, near Sèvres. The artist Antoine-Jean Gros’ longstanding sense of personal failure compounded by his abiding melancholic nature had finally become too much for him to bear and he had committed suicide.

But his career had always been one of emotional conflict, his naturally romantic flair often at odds with the coolly cerebral neo-classical style in favour with his closest contemporaries. In the end he could not arrive at a balance between the styles that satisfied himself and his critics and ultimately that exacerbated his own sense of failure. In hindsight though, it can be seen that Gros’ style was a major influence on the likes of Gericault and Delacroix who followed him. It is a tragedy that he could not see that for himself.

Perhaps though it is as Napoleon’s official “painter of battles” that Gros is best remembered and in a few short years after Napoleon’s coronation he became famous for his grand representations of Napoleon at his most dashing and heroic all of which were aimed at enhancing the myth of the Emperor; in the end, closer to fantasy than fact.


Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole

It was on a visit to Genoa that Gros met Josephine de Beauharnais who, in turn, introduced him to Napoleon.  In 1796 Gros was with the French army at the Battle of Arcole and saw Napoleon famously lead the attack on the bridge. This incident he immortalized in his first major work, Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole.

A succession of grand tableaux followed:– Napoleon Visiting the Pesthouse at Jaffa, the Battle of Aboukir, Napoleon on the Battlefield at Eylau.


the_battle of abukir


But after the fall of Napoleon, the principal subject of his grand, mythologizing propaganda paintings, Gros’ star rapidly waned. None of his later works were received with the same enthusiasm as his earlier pictures and his melancholy, stoked by constant sniping from the exiled Jacques Louis David, gradually became all consuming.

A pact with the devil…?

On 12 January 2010 an earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation of Haiti resulting in the death of over a quarter of a million people. The following day, on his TV show, sitting comfortably in his armchair, the conservative US evangelist, Pat Robertson, pronounced that the tragedy could be blamed on something that “happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.” This abject apology for a human being then went on to describe how the Haitians “were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever [sic]. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ ”

Apart from knowing nothing about history, assuming anyone called Napoleon must be the same guy, this half-wit chose glibly to ignore the fact that the Haitian revolution led to the creation of Haiti as an independent country as a result of the only successful slave revolt in history. For the purpose of my post I will choose to ignore the Old Testament story of the Israelites being delivered from slavery in Egypt by Yahweh under the leadership of Moses – no doubt Pat Robertson wouldn’t be happy.

At the end of the 18th century Saint Domingue, as Haiti was then known, was France’s most profitable colony and half a million enslaved Africans were forced to toil on spectacularly bountiful plantations, which produced 60 per cent of all coffee and 40 per cent of all sugar consumed in Europe, more than all of Britain’s Caribbean colonies combined.


Historically, conditions for the slaves in Saint Domingue had been the harshest in the Caribbean. They were worked so hard by French plantation owners that half died within a few years; it was cheaper to import new slaves than to improve working conditions enough to increase survival and to sustain the slave workforce 30,000 slaves a year were being transported from Africa. The rate of death of slaves in Saint Domingue was higher than anywhere else in the western hemisphere. It was legal for a slaveholder to kill a slave. Torture of slaves was routine; they were whipped, mutilated and raped. The favoured form of execution was burning at the stake.

The Catholic Church condoned slavery and the practices used in the French colony, viewing the institution as a way to convert Africans to Christianity! (Pat wouldn’t be appreciative of that either.)

With the coming of the French Revolution, and the promotion of universal ideals of liberty and equality, the status quo became increasingly difficult to maintain in Saint Domingue. Plantation owners in Haiti tried to block the “dangerous” ideas coming from Paris, but the ideas spread among the slaves through smuggled pamphlets and by word of mouth.

The tinderbox ignited on the night of 21 August 1791, when the slaves of Saint Domingue rose in revolt. Within weeks, the number of slaves who joined the revolt reached some 100,000. Within the next two months, as the violence escalated, the slaves killed 4,000 whites and destroyed hundreds plantations.

By 1792, slave rebels controlled a third of the island and the following year events took a dramatic turn when the new French Republic found itself at war with Britain and Spain. Britain sent an expeditionary force to Hispaniola and, with Spain, who controlled the rest of the island, invaded Saint Domingue and were joined by the slave forces. To prevent military disaster, and secure the colony for republican France, the French political commissioners freed the slaves in Saint Domingue.


Toussaint L’Ouverture

The promise of emancipation persuaded the leader of the slave forces, Toussaint L’Ouverture, to switch sides and stop collaborating with the Spanish who refused to take steps to end slavery.

Toussaint L’Ouverture, a self-educated former domestic slave, was very intelligent, organized and articulate. A charismatic military leader, he essentially restored control of Saint-Domingue to France. Having made himself master of the island, however, Toussaint did not wish to surrender too much power to France. He began to rule the country as an effectively autonomous entity. Toussaint defeated a British expeditionary force in 1798. In addition, he led an invasion of neighbouring Santo Domingo (December 1800), and freed the slaves there in January, 1801.

In 1801, L’Ouverture issued a constitution for Saint Domingue which provided for autonomy and decreed that he would be governor-for-life, calling for black autonomy and a sovereign black state.


Charles LeClerc

This was a step too far for Napoleon Bonaparte. Lobbied by plantation owning interests and craving the tax wealth brought in from the colony Napoleon dispatched a force of 80,000 French troops to the island, led by his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, to restore French rule. They were under secret instructions to restore slavery, at least in the formerly Spanish-held part of the island. L’Ouverture, deceived, was seized by the French and shipped to France. He died months later in prison at Fort-de-Joux.

For a few months, the island was quiet under Napoleonic rule. But when it became apparent that the French intended to re-establish slavery, black forces revolted in the summer of 1802.


Jean Jacques Dessalines

Jean Jacques Dessalines, a former lieutenant of  L’Ouverture,  led the fresh rebellion. In November, Leclerc died of yellow fever, like much of his army. His successor, the Vicomte de Rochambeau, fought an even more brutal campaign. His atrocities helped rally many former French loyalists to the rebel cause. The French were further weakened by a British naval blockade, and by Napoleon’s inability to send the requested massive reinforcements after war with England resumed in the spring of 1803. Having sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in April 1803, Napoleon began to lose interest in his failing ventures in the Western Hemisphere. He was more concerned about France’s European mainland enemies. Consequently, he withdrew a majority of the French forces in Haiti to counter the possibility of an attack from Prussia, Britain, and Spain. Dessalines led the rebellion until its completion, when the French forces were finally defeated in November 1803.

On 1 January 1804, Dessalines officially declared the former colony’s independence, renaming it “Haiti” after the indigenous Arawak name. Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.

It has been estimated that the brutal Haitian Revolution from 1791 to 1804 resulted in the deaths of 350,000 black and mulatto Haitians and over 50,000 European troops. To cement his control Dessalines ordered one final massacre; the virtual eradication of the remaining white population of Haiti. Between February and April of 1804 almost 5000 remaining white French Creole inhabitants were murdered. The 1804 massacre had a long-lasting effect on the view of the Haitian Revolution and helped to create a legacy of racial hostility in Haitian society.

Hanging the Monkey Man….

Hartlepool-Monkey-3Fact, fiction, folklore legend or urban myth – who knows the truth of the story now?

What is undoubted is that the Napoleonic Wars were as driven by propaganda as any war of the modern age. The likes of Gilray and Cruikshank represented the pinnacle of satirical caricature of the enemy but they were just the best known of a myriad of propagandists publishing in broadsheets and pamphlets and a common representation of their French targets was as apes or monkeys.

monkey caricatureThe example here is called “The GENIUS of FRANCE EXPOUNDING HER LAWS”.

It is a common ploy even now to denigrate your adversary, to represent them as subhuman and in the Napoleonic era things were no different.

So, with this cultural backdrop, when a French ship was wrecked on a stormy December night at the beginning of the 19th century on the remote Northumberland coast, the scene was set for a bizarre sequence of events.

The fishermen of Hartlepool watched as the ship was blown ashore and dashed on the rocks but later they found the sole survivor, a monkey, dressed in a sailor’s uniform. It would have been the ship’s mascot but in the thinking of the locals this was something different. This must be one of those subhuman Frenchmen they had seen in the papers.

It didn’t help the monkey’s case that it refused to answer any of the questions put to it. So its fate was sealed – it must be a French spy.

After an impromptu trial staged on the beach the ‘court’ found the monkey guilty of espionage and sentenced it to death. The sentence was carried out immediately and the poor creature was hanged on a makeshift gallows made from the mast of a small fishing vessel.

So the tale is told to this day.

hangusHartlepudlians are still known as “monkey hangers” and their football team mascot is H’Angus the Monkey.  In 2002, Stuart Drummond campaigned for the office of Mayor of Hartlepool in the costume of H’Angus the Monkey and won; he used the election slogan “free bananas for schoolchildren”, a promise he was unable to keep.

powder monkeysPerhaps more interesting though, and definitely more sinister, is the suggestion that the story has a much darker origin. On warships of the time, young boys served below decks, charged with delivering gunpowder from the ship’s magazine to the gun crews. These boys were known as Powder Monkeys or just Monkeys. Might the hanging on the beach at Hartlepool have been an altogether different affair?

Whatever the truth, the story of the Hartlepool monkey has endured over two centuries, and is still as strong as ever.

What I can guarantee however, is that it has nothing to do with the song Monkey Man. Here is Amy Winehouse’s version J