Monday, August 27, 2018

Gibraltar, The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy Adkins and Lesly Adkins

Gibraltar, The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy Adkins and Lesly Adkins was first published this year. The subject is the Spanish and French siege of British controlled Gibraltar that occurred between 1779 and 1783. This book is a military, social and political history. Though I think that the title is a little sensationalist, this is well written and researched. It tells a fascinating story. The writers are a husband and wife team. They are both historians and archeologists. 

Such a large event involving all sorts of history that occurred in Europe during this time period is in and of itself of interest to me. However, I also wanted to know more about this siege because it was part of the world - wide conflict between Great Britain, France and Spain that The American Revolution was also part of. In fact, many sources classify this siege as being part of The American Revolution. The authors of this book even write, 

"Although the Great Siege has no other name, it was in reality part of the American War of Independence. The actions and ambitions of France and Spain had caused that war to spill across the Atlantic into Europe, and the war zone would extend from Britain to Gibraltar, Spain and Minorca."

The conflict actually spanned the entire world. Personally, I think that this war needs another name. It encompassed both The American Revolution and what was known as The Second Anglo-Mysore War in India. It does not have one however. 

It turns out that, to a great extent, Spain, joined France and the rebellious American Colonies in a war against Great Britain because it wanted to take Gibraltar from The British.  One theme that I came across in  this work as well as in Brothers at Armsby Larrie D. Ferreiro was that in a way, Great Britain sacrificed America for Gibraltar. In diplomatic wranglings before Spain went to war with Great Britain, it demanded that Great Britain cede the fortress as it had been Spanish territory in the past.  Had Great Britain acquiesced, Spain would have stayed out of the war. This world have increased the chance of a British victory that would have led it to retain America. 

Later, as this work illustrates, enormous resources were diverted to hold Gibraltar. These resources would have made a great difference in America. In fact, a fleet that Great Britain sent to relieve Gibraltar was diverted from intercepting a French Fleet that played a decisive part in Great Britain’s loss at Yorktown. That defeat cemented the American victory against Great Britain.

The authors cite multiple sources to illustrate this point. They write, 

“In 1783 the Scottish politician and prolific writer Sir John Sinclair anonymously published a booklet in which he expressed the opinion that Spain had only supported America’s bid for independence in the expectation of gaining Gibraltar: ‘the possession of America has been sacrificed to the retention of Gibraltar. That darling object could alone have induced Spain to countenance the independence of our Colonies, and without her assistance that event could never have taken place.’ “

Once Spain declared war, both the British garrison as well as civilian population were besieged on Gibraltar. The Spanish cut off land access and tried to enforce a sea blockade. Initially the Spanish just tried to cut off supplies. Though some ships with food and provisions got through, there was hunger and depravation amongst the besieged. While there were no actual famine deaths some did die of scurvy and other diseases.  Thrice, large convoys made it through the blockade providing months of food and supplies. 
Later, an artillery bombardment, that lasted for years began.  This caused great hardship for soldiers and civilians alike. Several large sea battles took place as well as fighting on land as the Spanish tried to dig trenches and build fortifications closer and closer to the Gibraltar garrison. 

Toward the end of the siege, The Spanish, along with newly arrived French forces, went all out. Ten huge ‘Floating Batteries” were constructed. These were old merchant ships that were highly modified. One side was of each vessel was heavily reinforced with layers of protection. These ships were also filled with cannons. The goal of these unwieldy and lopsided  vessels was to serve as indestructible gun platforms that would destroy Gibraltar’s considerable defenses and artillery emplacements. An army of 50,000 was also assembled for a final assault on the fortress. Over the course of a single day and night, Gibraltar’s formidable artillery, using red hot cannonballs, designed to set these ships on fire, engaged in a massive firefight with these vessels. I have read a fair amount of military history, but I never before read about a battle like this one.

The book celebrates heroism and courage but does not glorify war. The authors’ pull no punches at the horrors that occurred. The deprivation and disease that both the garrison and the besiegers is detailed. Deaths caused by battle are also described realistically. When the Spanish and French launched their large - scale assault on the garrison, people on both sides died. But the Spanish sailors suffered terribly. Thousands perished in the infernos that the floating batteries became as the searing - hot English cannon balls took their toll. 

This book consists of extremely long quotations from the diaries and journals of those who participated. In fact, I do not think that I have read a history book before with so much first - hand material. I would estimate that these quotations make up approximately twenty five percent of the book. Though I found this a bit excessive, I also found that this gave a sense of authenticacy to the work. 

One negative about this book is that it is almost entirely told from the British point of view. Spanish and French strategy as well as what that side experienced is presented almost as an afterthought. It seems that the authors’ intentionally set out to tell this history in this fashion. However, I think that this would have been a much stronger account had it been balanced. 

This is an extremely well researched history book. It tells, what for me, is an intriguing story. It describes an important and unique event in history. However, it contains a lot of it is military history and descriptions of battles. Thus, those not interested in such might not care for this work.  If that is not an issue for the reader, this is a book that will appeal strongly to those interested in this period of European and American history. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Talking About Book Series

Book series have been around for a long time. It is safe to say that they have never been more popular than they are today.  Lately, I have been thinking about how some books that are parts of larger series do not work as stand-alone novels. This leads me to ask additional questions. Are there are some books that should not even be considered individual novels?  When a book series comprises such novels, is it more accurate to consider the entire series as one work? Are some books so incapable of standing alone that they are really only half books, or one-third books, or one-quarter books? 

Books that are in series or connected books go back to ancient times. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad are connected stories. There are many more Greek and Roman myths that can be considered as part of larger mega-tales that contain shared characters and situations. Similarly, the Bible as well as the Hindu Holy Books tell connected stories. 

Many consider Fran├žois Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, originally written in five books, to be the first series written in the modern style. A little later, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixotewas comprised of two separate books written years apart.

Later came Author Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, which pioneered a lot of concepts and was enormously influential in terms of what followed. Many other mystery series followed. Fictional detectives created by writers such as Agatha Christie were featured in multiple books. Some mystery series have expanded into dozens of books written over the course of decades.

Since the 1980s, the number of series in science fiction and fantasy genres have exploded. Recently, while looking through recent Hugo and Nebula award winners, I had trouble finding books that were not part of larger series.

JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of The Ring Seriesis a good example of a series composed of books that cannot really stand alone. To make any sense, they really need to be read together. It can be argued that they were originally separated because the length of the series was so long. Many people really look at The Lord of The Rings as a single work anyway. 

There are many other series where the answer to the question that I raised is not clear cut, however. Frank Herbert’s Original Dune can clearly stand as an individual work. However, its sequels really cannot abide an independent existence. With examples such as this, it gets tricky. Many people consider the Dunesequels inferior works. For the record, I like the Dune sequels written by Herbert himself a lot, though they do not match the original. I would not suggest that they be included in the science-fiction masterpiece that is the first book. Yet, I believe them to be very good science fiction that just cannot stand on their own. 

Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire gets really interesting. Most of the books in the series can exist as stand-alone novels. However, the last two books, The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset, are really not independent books. The Last Chronicle of Barset is a mixture of threads connected to the earlier works. In my opinion, it is a very high-quality work.  I think that it was the second-best book of Barsetshires. Trollope himself thought that it was the best of the series. Yet, a reader just jumping into this book might be befuddled and miss much of its emotional impact. How can this novel be evaluated? I would also add that while Barchester Towers, the second book in the series, can work fine as a stand-alone, reading its predecessor, The Warden,first, strengthens its artistic merits. I use Trollope’s series as an example, but similar issues arise withy many series. 

One can say that all of this does not matter and that one should just read and enjoy books. This is true, but I think that all this is relevant when discussing and reviewing books. I also find the topic very interesting. 

Thinking about all this, I conclude the following: Series comprising of books that really cannot stand independently, such as The Lord of The Rings, should just be considered as one single book.  In addition, a stand-alone work is a stand-alone work, thus books like Dune should always be considered stand alones.  The same is true for the first four books of the Chronicles of Barsetshire; they are stand alones. However, when a book is connected to others in a series, the entire series should also be considered one work, even if the series contains individual stand-alone novels. No matter their artistic merit, books looks likeThe Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset do not work as independent novels. 

No system of classifying books and book series is perfect. There are also countless variations on the examples that I have mentioned that raise their own questions. Nor is it critical that books are looked at in such a systematic way. I think that this is an interesting thought exercise though. Despite the thoughts that I outlined above, some of the questions that I raised here really do not have answers. 

Sequels to human stories are almost as old as stories themselves. Only one thing is for sure, and that is that people will continue to create sequels and series, regardless of how they are classified.  We cannot get enough of great stories and great characters. We keep wanting more.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, though set in the seventeenth century, was first published in 1719. It is the story of the title character. This book is a very famous work, yet this is a first time read for me. I found it to be a fun adventure story that was filled with concepts about religion and society. 

The novel starts out telling us about the young protagonist’s life. Early on, Crusoe defies his father by running off to live a life of adventure at sea. He begins to establish a trading business involving commerce with Africa. While out on a commercial voyage, his ship is captured by pirates, and he is enslaved by Moors. Several years later, he steals a boat to escape. After a few adventures along the coast of Africa, he is picked up by a Portuguese ship and brought to Brazil. There, he becomes a successful plantation owner. A few years later, the ever-restless Crusoe embarks on a slave-trading expedition. However, the ship he is on never makes it out of the western hemisphere and is wrecked on a deserted Caribbean island. Crusoe is the only survivor. 

Most of the narrative concerns itself with Crusoe’s decades-long stay on the island. Luckily, he has firearms and many other resources that he is able to salvage from the wrecked ship. He is able to hunt goats, turtles and birds as well as harvest wild grapes and limes. He eventually plants and harvests corn and barley from seeds that he finds on the wrecked ship. A lot of the narrative consists of descriptions of how Crusoe fashions and builds various things both for both survival and for some comfort. Detailed descriptions of his making of shelters and storage places, boats, clothing, agriculture implements, etc., are included. I must admit that I found some of these descriptions a bit dull. The story is not always realistic, like when wild cats swim out to boats to attack their passengers or when Crusoe manages engineering, agricultural, nautical, and other feats with no prior experience. Prospective readers should also be aware that there is a lot of killing of animals, for those who are faint at heart when it comes to this. Some of this involves Crusoe needing to eat to survive, some does not. 

There are a few interesting things going on in this book. Crusoe starts off as a mostly unpleasant person. He is contemptuous of good advice, and he seems cold. He fails to form any emotional human relationships. Later on, as a castaway, he experiences a religious epiphany where he comes to realize that he has lived impiously. At one point, he has a dream in which he imagines an angel coming down to chastise him. The description seems to me reminiscent of similar passages in the Old Testament. 

“and that I saw a man descend from a great black cloud, in a bright flame of fire, and light upon the ground. He was all over as bright as a flame, so that I could but just bear to look towards him; his countenance was most inexpressibly dreadful, impossible for words to describe. When he stepped upon the ground with his feet, I thought the earth trembled, just as it had done before in the earthquake, and all the air looked, to my apprehension, as if it had been filled with flashes of fire. He was no sooner landed upon the earth, but he moved forward towards me, with a long spear or weapon in his hand, to kill me; and when he came to a rising ground, at some distance, he spoke to me— or I heard a voice so terrible that it is impossible to express the terror of it. All that I can say I understood was this: “Seeing all these things have not brought thee to repentance, now thou shalt die;” at which words, I thought he lifted up the spear that was in his hand to kill me.” 

The balance of his stay on the island, which lasts decades, he faces with acceptance and in peace. He prays and talks to God. Some sources that I read see this book as exposition of the Protestant concept of an individual’s personal relationship with God. That interpretation rings true to me. In fact, I found this theme to be the overriding idea underlying this book. With only a Bible, Crusoe becomes a deeply religious person and even fashions something of a personal theology. I am a nonbeliever, but I can appreciate how eloquently this picture is painted. Many works since have told similar stories. I also find it interesting how such ideas are presented, even when I disagree with those ideas. These works are often preachy, unimaginative and seemingly derivative of this book. 

The novel was written in the age of Colonialism. Yet, there seem to be contradictions for the modern reader on this subject. Early on, Crusoe participates in slave trading. Also, the native people of Africa and South America are described over and over again as ignorant, violent and savage. The people who live near Crusoe’s island are revealed as bloodthirsty cannibals. However, Defoe has some surprises in store. After years of living alone on the island, Crusoe begins to see some aspects of colonialism as evil. At one point, he compares the violent and inhuman behavior of the locals to that of the Spanish conquest in the western hemisphere. He even engages in a bit of cultural relativism, He comes to think that some behaviors engaged in by the local people are the result of a culture that he has no right to judge, having come from a completely different culture. 

“How do I know what God Himself judges in this particular case? It is certain these people do not commit this as a crime; it is not against their own consciences reproving, or their light reproaching them; they do not know it to be an offence, and then commit it in defiance of divine justice, as we do in almost all the sins we commit. in war than we do to kill an ox; or to eat human flesh than we do to eat mutton.” 

And later,

“these people were not murderers, in the sense that I had before condemned them in my thoughts, any more than those Christians were murderers who often put to death the prisoners taken in battle; or more frequently, upon many occasions, put whole troops of men to the sword, without giving quarter, though they threw down their arms and submitted.” 

I found the above passages to be very surprising in light of when this book was written. It sounds very much like arguments that folks have made over the last several decades. I actually do not agree with this level of cultural relativism. 

What to make of this seemingly odd mix of pro-colonialist and seemingly pro-slavery ideas and the questioning of some of these concepts? This book was written at a time when colonialism was in full swing. To expect Defoe to exhibit completely modern sensibilities is not realistic. The fact that he challenges many of these conventions and history to the extent that he does is pretty remarkable. It adds a lot of complexity to this book. 

I should add that despite the very interesting plays on ideas within this book, Crusoe's character is not well fleshed out. Aside from his feelings about religion and colonialism, we rarely get a glimpse into his complex emotions or thoughts about things beyond the practical. This is despite the fact that the reader gets to spend decades of Crusoe's life with him. 

In addition to all this philosophizing and ruminations on the divine, this is such a very engaging story of survival. The book is very readable. It is often fun. This novel works very well as an adventure story as well as a work of ideas. A few laws aside, this is an engaging and entertaining classic.