Viking Zombies – A Research Seminar by Dr Clare Downham

Written by Grace Young

Vikings and zombies generally are not things one would naturally think of in the same sentence. They are certainly not things most people would associate with Scotland, either. However, this is exactly what Dr. Clare Downham of the University of Liverpool gave a seminar on.

For clarification, while Downham really was talking about actual Vikings, she was not actually discussing brain-eating, mindless zombies as audiences today might think of them.  No, her paper focused on the fear of revenants and the walking undead in Viking culture, with medieval Icelandic sagas as her main primary sources, along with examples from Viking Scotland.

Downham began her talk by first examining the concept of death in the Viking world, looking at burial mounds across Scandinavia and Scotland, as well as local stories and legends from the Islands and the Highlands. From there, she talked about the various theories as to why someone might become a revenant — this was perhaps one of the most detailed parts of the seminar, and almost begged to have an entire paper written on the topic. According to Downham, bodies were believed to become reanimated for really four main reasons: the spirit of the deceased had never left the resting place and was instead remaining around to act as a guardian for the grave, or for those the soul had cherished in life; the spirit’s journey to the afterlife had been delayed or interrupted for whatever reason, like unfinished business or violent, mysterious circumstances surrounding its death; the soul was restless and unwilling to let go of its hold on life; and that the body had been reanimated by a soul not originally its own — perhaps demonic possession, though this did not really catch on until Christianisation occurred.

The main part of her seminar consisted of a discussion of the different types of revenants in Viking folklore and legend, dividing them really into two main groups: Mound-Dwellers, and Malevolent spirits. Mound-Dwellers, she explained, were generally only ‘evil’ or violent when disturbed, and tended to act as guardians of their burial places.  They were thought to be people who had lived normal, if not good lives, and who had been laid to rest in places important to them and their families. These revenants, as already stated, only became malevolent when their resting places were tampered with, but once they did become malevolent, things tended to take a turn for the gruesome and terrifying. One particularly vivid example Downham provided came from the Grettis Saga, where an estate was being haunted by a particularly nasty revenant simply because his resting place had been disturbed. Interestingly, Downham pointed out, this particular revenant was killed by being decapitated rather than by being burned as revenants tend to be. The other type of undead, the Malevolent spirit, is the classic figure of a person who was a societal outcast and a generally unpleasant person in life who continues to cause trouble for the living in death. Downham here talked about the Laxdaela Saga whose revenant was a greedy, unpopular man while he was alive, and who continued to wreak havoc on the living, especially once his former mead hall was taken over by a new family.

Downham did mention that there are many instances of overlap between the two types, but this is mainly because many scholars theorise that fear of revenants and the general undead represent a fear of the unexplainable in a time when death and disease and disaster were not understood, except through the supernatural. One particularly effective point she made was that we do much the same today but in different ways.  Society does not like talking about things it does not understand, so we dress it up as monsters and demons to escape having to really face the truth — the Vikings did the same thing, except on a slightly more gruesome scale.

Downham wrapped the seminar up by connecting everything back to Scotland — not the most fascinating ending, but appropriate given the venue. Overall, the talk was engaging and enlightening, but there were certainly places where Downham could have gone into further detail. On the whole, it was a wonderful seminar and a lot less terrifying than watching a show about Viking zombies.

Cease to Exist: Charles Manson, Dennis Wilson and the Death of Flower Power

Written by Fay Marsden 

California. Surfing. Summer. Flower power hippies on the beach. These are images one would perhaps conjure when thinking about The Beach Boys. The band is most known for their 1966 release Pet Sounds, including songs such as ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. With their matching outfits, harmonies and music videos with girls in bikinis pretending to surf, they maintained a saccharine and upbeat style throughout their musical career. One would therefore understandably be confused when told they were linked to the serial killer Charles Manson, who was the leader of the cult known as the ‘Manson Family.’ It gets more intriguing than this. One of their songs was written by him, and this song was a contributory factor that provoked the Manson Family’s serial killings.

The frighteningly coercive song ‘Never Learn Not to Love’ (1969) was written by Manson, who initially had entitled it ‘Cease to Exist’. Mark Dillon has described the song as a ‘Family recruitment jingle,’ which rings true when noting these particular lyrics:

‘Cease to resist, come and say you love me

Give up your world, come on and be with me’

‘My life is yours

And you can have my world’

‘Submission is a gift, give it to your lover’

Glancing at these lyrics without knowing of Manson’s involvement with them, it would be tempting to consider it an outdated love song; troubling (the connotations of ‘cease to resist’ and ‘submission is a gift’ are particularly worrying), but, ultimately, a song of its time. However, given Manson’s penmanship of these lyrics, the song becomes even more sinister.

In order to understand why The Beach Boys released such a troublesome song it is vital to examine the friendship between Manson and the band’s drummer, Dennis Wilson. Wilson was known for his heavy drug use and, his subscription to the typical ‘free love’ lifestyle of 1960s youth culture. In the spring of 1968, Wilson brought two female hitchhikers back to his mansion in Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to him, they were members of the Family – a group of men and women who worshipped Manson as a kind of spiritual leader or guru, as well as a father. Manson himself believed that his Family was the perfect grouping of white, disenfranchised and rejected children of America. Many of them had been abandoned by their parents and were ultimately vulnerable and easily led. Manson gave them an outlet to live a free love, ‘hippy’ lifestyle, without having to conform to other societal rules. One could go so far as to label them a consequence of the new movements of the 1960s: an increasing emphasis on free love, an obsession with pop culture, and the flourishing of spiritualism outside of religion. Scientology for example, whilst not founded in the 1960s, gained huge traction in this period.

Wilson befriended Manson and his Family, and moved them into his home for a few months, where they lived their ideal spiritual communal lifestyle. In exchange for access to Manson’s female members, Wilson shared all that he owned with the Family. It was through this burgeoning friendship that Manson revealed to Wilson that he wished to be a successful musician. He was obsessed with the flourishing pop culture of the 1960s, most famously with The Beatles, whose song ‘Helter Skelter’ (1968) was interpreted by Manson as a call for an inevitable race war in the United States, when it was actually about a children’s fairground ride. With Wilson being a member of one of the most popular bands in the US at the time, he attempted to use Wilson’s musical connections to get a record deal. His goal was to spread his message universally. Wilson got in contact with Terry Melcher – the producer of The Byrds – to try and forge this record deal; yet, nothing came of it. Melcher claimed that Manson had no idea of how the music industry worked, and was not impressed with his style. Manson took this incredibly personally.

         Meanwhile, Dennis was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Manson. The Family had taken almost $100,000 from him, and he was becoming suspicious of their lifestyle. He managed to get the Family to move out of his home in late 1968, and they moved on to new things. This was not the end of his connection with Manson, however. In February 1969, The Beach Boys released their album 20/20, which featured a song that Manson had written. Dennis had appropriated the song, changed the lyrics slightly, and retitled it ‘Never Learn Not to Love’ instead of ‘Cease to Exist.’ The song was credited solely to Dennis Wilson. Given that Manson had intended all of his own songs to be used to put forward his message, he was furious. Mike Love, fellow Beach Boys member, has claimed that he was completely unaware of Manson’s involvement in the song. Manson, however, would never forget about this betrayal. He demanded money from Dennis, and left a chilling warning for him, threatening him and claiming that he knew where he and his children lived. In an unsettling interview with Manson in 1994, he claims ‘I gave Dennis Wilson a bullet didn’t I? I gave him a bullet because he… he changed the words to my song.’ Needless to say, Wilson was terrified, and along with Melcher, he fled from LA.

         In the meantime, the Family were preparing for their Helter Skelter race war. They accumulated guns, money and weaponry to take this battle to the streets. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and freedoms that black people had gained in this period inevitably had a backlash – especially from people like those of the Manson Family, the self-proclaimed rejects of America. It is no surprise that they took Manson’s word of an impending racial war. This war never came. Instead, they embarked on a series of incredibly violent, ritualistic and racially motivated murders. On 9 August 1969, they broke into Terry Mulcher’s old house, (at the time being rented to Roman Polanski and his wife, actress and model Sharon Tate), and murdered five people, including Tate. The next day, they killed again. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered in their home, with ‘death to pigs’ and ‘helter skelter’ written on the walls of their house. This was no doubt a reference to the racial war they intended to provoke. Charles Manson has repeatedly put the blame for these murders on Terry Melcher’s door – he rejected him for a record deal and refused to spread the message of Manson, and so he had to spread it himself.

         According to Dennis Wilson’s friends and bandmates, the situation with Charles Manson scarred him. He felt personally responsible – through appropriating Manson’s song – for the murders; as did Melcher for turning him down. It has been argued that the Manson Family murders of late 1969 ultimately ended the era of flower power and ‘hippy’ youth culture. Manson’s cult was essentially founded from the movements of this period – free love, spiritualism, and an obsession with the music industry and pop culture. The huge publicity of these violent and ritualistic murders led to public awareness of how these cultural elements could be twisted to become something sinister, violent and mind-altering. Essentially, people began to turn away from these movements of youth culture. Perhaps the era was so radically new, innovative and exciting, the only way for it to end was for the new ideals to merge into something horrific that would bring it crashing down.

         For a more detailed analysis on Dennis Wilson’s relationship with Charles Manson, there is an excellent documentary called ‘Cease to Exist’ which goes into detail about all aspects of the Manson Family and how it was intrinsically linked with pop culture.

Notes from the Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society on Experiencing Medieval Spaces

Written by Daniel Sharp

On Monday 23 October, I attended a meeting presented by the Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society. The society is conducting a series of research seminars this year, in which papers and research is presented and discussed. The meeting I attended was not, unfortunately, a seminar – it was a general roundtable discussion and a meeting for administrative decisions to be taken. Nonetheless, it proved to be an interesting and fruitful evening.

The first half hour or so was driven by an open discussion about peoples’ experiences of medieval spaces, such as castles and ruins. There were interesting points made concerning the merits of recreational activities, for example models of historical people in castles – do they realistically portray things as they would have been in the past, or do they take too many liberties and romanticise, commercialise, or even ‘Disneyficate’ these spaces?

There seemed to be a consensus among the participants that ruins – in comparison to full extant castles – have a uniquely beautiful aura. Someone suggested that this is because we can actually see the effects of time and events on these remains – the old feels palpable. The beauty of missing, unseen structures really allows us to feel the history in a way that, perhaps, sophisticated, technologically advanced recreations and models cannot. I can attest to this from my own experiences – St Andrews Cathedral is a ruin, yet it feels all the more historically authentic for that reason.

An interesting point raised was that it seems likely that historical spaces with sophisticated recreations have more money behind them and profits to make. Therefore, they are perhaps geared more towards the general tourist industry, possibly at the expense of historical authenticity. This may take away from a genuine, authentic historical experience. Ruins, on the other hand, do not tend to be money-making machines (although that could rapidly change with the building of new areas within them dedicated to profit-making), and thus they preserve a more authentic historical feeling.

This is not to dismiss all such medieval spaces – when done correctly, even the most commercialised remains can be interesting and fun. But there is perhaps a danger inherent in the industry which must be taken into account, in that a balancing act must be carefully conducted. Sites like Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle may have a salient tourist-focused aspect, but one can still appreciate the merits of those historical spaces despite that – perhaps even because of it, due to the time, effort and money put into presenting these spaces in a genuinely historical way. To return to St Andrews Cathedral, the commercialised aspects of the Cathedral and surrounding areas are respectful, genuine and informative despite the presence of the profit motive. (I very much recommend St Andrews as a place to visit – I believe it is one of the most beautiful places in the world).

Relatedly, the use of audio tours was discussed, specifically the musical aspect of them. Does music on these tours take away from the experience and the appreciation of the space? It was pointed out at the meeting that, as above, this involves a balancing act – between cheesy, hokum music which distracts and undermines the experience, and genuine music which can enhance one’s experience. For example, it was suggested at the meeting that music can imprint a memory more than simply hearing spoken words on an audio tape. Listening to, say, the religious chanting of medieval monks whilst also listening to an informative guide and walking around a cathedral can arguably make the experience all the more memorable and valuable for tourists, students and scholars alike.

Another topic of discussion was the increasingly common usage of medieval spaces and ruins as a place of marriage ceremonies. A range of reasons for this phenomenon were suggested – from the more superficial, such as the photogenic nature of the spaces, to deeper reasons, such as the fact that committing to a spouse for life in a place which has survived for centuries is a testament to the strength of commitment that is present in a marriage. A participant referenced Robert Browning’s poem ‘Love among the Ruins’, which was recited at a wedding they attended in the ruins of a church in South Carolina. The irony of such a commitment of lifelong love in the ruins of a destroyed space was also commented upon.

Thus, the roundtable concluded, and the administrative procedures began. I was, alas, disenfranchised from voting for the new committee members, due to not being a paid-up member. Nonetheless I was impressed by the contest and the candidates’ desire for outreach to the wider community. Some upcoming talks were also flagged up, and Christmas dinner was arranged. All in all, it was a nice hour or so, and it proved to be very interesting. The seminars will be commencing later in the semester and hopefully I can attend to see what research the postgraduates of our School are working on – I am sure it will be very interesting indeed.

It’s All About Borders

Written by Luis Monroy

“Look at the moon. Tell me. What do you think?” I was too incomprehensible to grasp the meaning of those words. My answer was a slight gesture.

‘For me, it is everything. For me, seeing the moon is a sign from God that somewhere in El Salvador my husband is watching the same thing. The moon is what keeps us together, since its light is the only thing we share now.’

These words crept deep into my conscience. I was on a bus going from San Antonio to Austin. And these words were said by a woman who had been traveling for more than two months from El Salvador to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Then, all the way to the US border, the deadliest migrants crossing in the world. Kidnaps. Extortions. Assaults. That is how law is enacted in the migrant’s world. It would have been reassuring that Texas was the last stop in her ordeal. But no. She and her baby, the only ‘possession’ she retained from El Salvador, still had a long way ahead. Her last stop was Baltimore. Without stopping at all, it takes about 23 hours to get there. But of course there will be stops. Of course, migrant officers will be sharpening their claws. Ready to perform their master trick: deport. Why would any person risk their life in such a dramatic way? Because the risk of staying is even higher.

1969. World Cup Qualifiers. El Salvador and Honduras were about to face each other. Football, a fascination for sociologists, a cathartic myth for the disenfranchised. Whoever wins will travel a few hundred kilometres to the north. To Mexico.  

First match. The setting was Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. A hostile environment for the visiting spectators. Nothing unexpected for whomever is familiar with Latin American football. First strike. Honduras won the match. The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, writing from Mexico, vividly narrated the unfolding drama. A Salvadoran girl shot herself in the head after the match. National tragedy. An innocent girl lost her life because of the defeat. The services were televised. The president. The army. Even the Salvadoran national team was there. As Kapuscinski wrote these words, another drama was unfolding. The armies of both countries were preparing for war.

But first, the second match. San Salvador is our new setting. Honduran players had to be escorted; protected by blacked-out automobiles. Regard for their life made Honduras lose the match. Good for them. They made it out of El Salvador alive. 3-0 was the score. That wouldn’t be the end. No. Another match would be played. This time without a ball. This time with guns and bombs. Kapuscinski, advised by a fellow journalist, travelled to Honduras. Both knew what was coming next. Reports came in. Hundreds of Salvadorans were kicked out of Honduras. Beaten to death. Assaulted. They had to escape. Back to El Salvador. The day Kapuscinski arrived, he writes, and a Salvadoran plane dropped the first bomb. People flee the streets. Even light flees the streets. After that, the city was drowned in darkness. More bombs ensued.

It was 14 July 1969. The war lasted five days. 100 hours. This conflict has many names, but none of them more accurate than ‘the Absurd War’. Kapuscinski was a journalist. He was there to report what was happening. His chronicles made it to Warsaw. And to Washington. The Honduran president and Kapuscinski used the same telex – now a relic of twentieth century communication. News spread. El Salvador and Honduras were at war. Since the outburst of the war followed the infamous football match, it was branded as ‘the Football War’. It is an alluring name, but not an accurate one. It is easier to be sensational than to be accurate. It is by no means Kapuscinski’s fault. He was a journalist. A storyteller. He did detail the real causes of the war. But politicians found it more useful to delegate the blame to others. They could not be framed as guilty. Football was to be blamed. Fans were to be blamed. The rest of the American countries had to mediate. Especially Colombia. And the war stopped. Six thousand dead. Five thousand misplaced. Five days. One hundred hours. Just one hundred hours and another stain on Latin American history.

Central America has always been a place of migration, by either letting people in or letting people out. It was the 1930s. There was not enough land for everybody in El Salvador. A few families possessed almost every inch of arable land. Honduras, meanwhile, had a spot for everyone. Its population at the beginning of the twentieth century was almost half of El Salvador. And its size doubled that of its neighbour. Salvadoran families migrated to the neighbouring country. Established themselves there. But they were still Salvadorans. Foreigners speaking the same language and doing the same job. But still foreigners.

During the 1960s, Honduran farmers demanded land. Massive demonstrations ensued. To deal with a social problem is nice and easy; you turn it into a political one. A bill was enacted. The Salvadorans had to leave the country. How could the Honduran government let its own people starve? They needed land. And this land was owned by foreigners. By ‘the other’. El Salvador’s government refused to accept a massive return of people. A crisis would follow. They could not accept that. There was no space for them. They kept refusing. Honduras kept pushing. Riots. Witch hunts. A football match between both countries in that context was the Shakespearean note. National pride at stake, some would say. National pride at stake, many assured. Perception beats reality. National pride was at stake. After Honduras lost, the only method of reassuring endangered pride was hurting the other. The foreigner. The victimiser. Hurt and be hurt. Feel so you can hurt back. That is how national pride is avenged in Latin America. Football was not the cause. Football was the tipping point.

War came to an end. Politicians agreed on terms. But people kept suffering. Just like that woman. She didn’t tell me her name. She didn’t have to. That war, that absurd war, paved the way for a militaristic race in Central America. And that, in turn, paved the way for even more violence. For more poverty. For the creation of gangs. Violence across the borders. Unparalleled violence. The very violence that the woman and her baby are escaping. These porous borders. In Latin America, it seems it is all about the borders. But it is not. It is more than that. It is about history. It is about remembering the most absurd decisions that have led to more violence than citizens can endure. The so-called Football War is just an episode. Just as this woman’s story is just another in the immense book of migrant’s stories. Some successful. Some dreadful. And, whatever the outcome, stories without a happy ending.  


Here Comes the Sun: Pop Culture in the 1960s

Written by Fay Marsden

We have all heard of parents gazing in horror while their children stared in awe at Elvis gyrating his pelvis on television in the Fifties; most of us have probably found this strange, considering how hyper-sexual music videos are normalised today. Likewise, during a time when black people were still fighting for their civil rights and women were still subordinate to men, there were black women in massively popular bands such as The Supremes and The Ronettes. Black musicians, female musicians, and gay musicians were part of the 1960s pop scene as they had never been before. This was a seismic cultural shift which becomes ever clearer when examining the disputes between those who despised the new pop culture, and those who were fully immersed in it. This was generally a dispute between the old and the young: as Roger Daltrey famously sang in The Who’s 1965 hit ‘My Generation’: ‘I hope I die before I get old’.

But what was the larger significance of pop music at the time, other than a generational change? The music of the 1960s was ultimately about freedom. Pre-marital sex became generally socially acceptable. It also became socially acceptable to be a pacifist rather than an unbending and patriotic supporter of war. It was socially acceptable to take drugs, have multiple sexual partners, and more importantly, to have fun without the constrictions of the consequences: enter, the contraceptive pill. This freedom from conservative social codes was an entirely new phenomenon, which could be pinned down to the arrival of the ‘Baby Boom’ generation who escaped the debilitating effects of two world wars. The inhumanity, loss of life and economic uncertainty following the wars had been overturned by the time this generation had become teenagers, and hence came a period of ‘mass-youth’. In the West, unemployment was low, global growth was high, cars and domestic appliances were becoming the norm, and oil prices were generally low. People had more leisure time, and more disposable income to see shows and purchase records. The freedom from austerity and conservatism was arguably conducive to the liberal atmosphere of the 1960s, summed up well in the Rolling Stone’s lyrics ‘I’m free to do what I want, any old time. So love me, hold me.’

Of course, Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger went on to collaborate with David Bowie in 1985 in a cover of the 1960s hit ‘Dancing in the Street’. Bowie was known to be fluid with his sexuality, yet he remained beloved, accepted and incredibly popular. In other words, his sexuality was not a barrier to his creativity and musicianship. In contrast to this rebellious attitude was the British government’s Sexual Offences Act  of 1967, which decriminalised gay sex. To further highlight the growing gap between the old and new, the song Jagger and Bowie covered – Dancing in the Streetwas originally by Martha and the Vandellas, in 1964 – a classic from another popular group of black women. Suzanne Smith has argued in her book Dancing in the Street that this song became an anthem for the 1960s civil rights movements, and was chanted at rallies and protests. Likewise, Martha and the Vandellas were signed by one of the largest record labels in the Sixties – Motown – created by Berry Gordy, a black American. His label signed predominantly black soul musicians – The Jackson 5, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder, just to name a few. Again, this music was widely accepted as an essential part of 1960s pop culture. The acceptance of sexuality, race and gender in music shows the new and liberal atmosphere of the 1960s, which highlighted that ‘popular culture’ was not just ‘white culture’.

This new era of culture and pop music was, of course, massively aided by the media and technology. The headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror on 8 February 1964 read ‘YEAH! YEAH! USA!’, in response to the massively euphoric reaction that The Beatles garnered when first visiting North America. Furthermore, developing technologies aided the growth of this revolution; it made it more revolutionary. Music was, for the first time, digitally altered and enhanced, with advanced effects being utilised to create new, psychedelic music. Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’, for example, was an innovative production technique in which Spector arranged an ensemble of musicians in the recording studio to create a full and strong sound, as opposed to using one musician per instrument. This technique was most famously used in songs such as ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes (1963) and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ by The Beach Boys (1966). The use of new production techniques to create new sound was attractive for those already part of youth culture who wished to remove themselves further from the predictability of classical music.

The significance of 60s pop music is not to be underestimated. These musicians blunted the sword of social conduct hanging over people’s heads. The contributions of black, gay and female musicians helped to create a more liberal backdrop and culture, which in turn contributed to civil rights movements; a new acceptance of homosexuality; and, finally, the coming of second-wave feminism. The media and technological advances helped musicians to promote and alter their work in a way that had never been done before, which pulled in a younger audience perhaps bored of the unchallenging music that their parents listened to. These elements combined to create an atmosphere conducive to social change. The impact that ‘60s music has on our culture today is extraordinary – most musicians today, for example, will credit an artist from the 1960s as an influence, and many of our fights for equal rights today stemmed from achievements made during this period. Conclusively, therefore, ‘60s pop helped the youth crash into a new era of liberalism and freedom just as their parents had crashed through an era of globalised warfare.


  • Evans, E., ‘Lonely hearts and holiday flings: a history of dating’, BBC History Magazine, Feb 2017.
  • Smith, S. E., Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit’, 2001, Harvard University Press.

Austrian Responses to German Nationalism

Written by Travis Aaroe

The Austrian Empire was a multi-ethnic domain ruled over by the Habsburg dynasty. After the Congress of Vienna, which ended the Napoleonic Wars, the Empire stretched from Lombardy, Venetia and modern-day Austria in the west to Hungary in the east and, from Croatia in the south to Bohemia and Galicia in the north.

There was little natural unity amongst the subject peoples of the Empire. The Habsburgs either inherited these possessions in the late-Medieval and Renaissance periods, received them in treaties, or took them by force from the decaying Ottoman Empire. Austria’s Habsburg rulers had also acted as ‘Kaiser’ of the Holy Roman Empire, a loose confederation of predominantly German states, for centuries. However, this ancient role ended with the Holy Roman Empire’s dissolution after a crushing military defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1805. Thereafter, Austria’s rulers would title themselves simply as Emperors of Austria.

As the nineteenth century wore on this somewhat awkward polity, united only by its ruling dynasty, began to look more and more anachronistic as the forces of ethnic nationalism boiled to the surface. One strand of nineteenth century nationalism was the popular movement for German unification – which had been stoked by the traumatic occupation of the country by Napoleon, and was advocated for by much of the German middle classes as well as intellectuals, such as Karl Marx and the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte.

After the Napoleonic Wars, Austria and the Kingdom of Prussia, under the Hohenzollern dynasty, stood as the two dominant powers in the new ‘German Confederation’ – an association created during the Congress of Vienna to replace the defunct Holy Roman Empire. Initially, Austria and Prussia were overtly hostile towards German nationalism, associating it with the liberal radicalism that had toppled the ancien regime in France. Furthermore, in the case of Austria, the rise of German nationalism would mean the end of the Austrian Empire, as a pan-German Empire would subsume the German-speaking portions of the Empire into the new state. For these reasons, Prussia and Austria acted to quash any outbursts of revolutionary Pan-German sentiment. For example, Prince Klemens von Metternich (Chancellor and Foreign Minister of Austria) pushed the ‘Carlsbad Decrees’ through the German Confederation’s Federal Diet in 1819, which banned Pan-German fraternities and censored nationalist publications. In the great moment of crisis for the Habsburg and Hohenzollern dynasties during the ‘Spring of Nations’ in 1848, the monarchs of Austria and Prussia each refused offers from the liberal ‘Frankfurt Parliament’ to lead a new federal German Empire, and the two monarchies cooperated to crush the pro-unification revolutionaries throughout Germany.

Despite Habsburg hostility to German nationalism, Austria was seen by most Germans as the natural leader of Germany. This was largely due to nostalgia for the old Austrian-led Holy Roman Empire. Even Prussia, Austria’s only credible rival for mastery of Germany, acted deferentially towards the Habsburg monarchy for the first half of the nineteenth century. In other words, Austria had innumerate chances to unify Germany under its rule. However, as mentioned before, a Pan-German state would split and destroy the Austrian Empire, and the radical liberalism thought to be inherent in nineteenth century nationalism terrified the conservative, aristocratic Austrian government. Hence, Austrian policy throughout the century focused on not having to choose between a German or a multi-ethnic destiny, but instead on attempting to preserve a loose, confederal Germany under its leadership while maintaining its vast non-German territories. In practise, as the century progressed these aims proved contradictory and, as a result, were not achieved.

For example, in 1834 Metternich refused to sign Austria up to the Prussian-backed Zollverein (German Customs Union) as he saw it as a force for German unification which would destroy the Austrian Empire. Austria’s non-participation in the Zollverein served to unify most of Germany’s economy under Prussian leadership, and as a result further excluded Austria from German affairs. Furthermore, exclusion from the customs union impoverished Austria by cutting off its trade with an industrialising Germany, forcing it to economically integrate with the poorer Balkan states. Hence, Austria’s attempt to stave off the forces of German unity that threatened its multi-ethnic empire cost it dearly in economic strength and influence in Germany.

Conversely, Austria was also unwilling to give up its leadership of a confederal Germany – even to save its multi-ethnic empire. Prussia, hitherto favouring anti-revolutionary partnership with Austria, began to abandon its instinctive hostility to German unity after 1848. It slowly developed an aspiration to co-opt German nationalism by creating a Prussian-led German state that would not only exclude Austria’s German lands, but also eschew constitutional liberalism in favour of the continued political dominance of the Juncker rural aristocrats. In this way, Prussia hoped to undercut and defeat liberal Pan-Germanism before it destroyed the old Hohenzollern regime. Prussia’s new advocacy of a ‘Kleindeutschland’ (‘Little Germany’) answer to the question of German unity inevitably brought it into conflict with Austria, which was still the premier power in the German Confederation. Attempts at a compromise were made by Prussia, by then under the leadership of Bismarck: in 1864 Austria was offered Prussian assistance in reconquering Lombardy from Italy in return for Prussian control over German Schleswig and Holstein, and in May 1866 Bismarck offered to partition Germany – with Prussia dominating the north and Austria the south. Austria, not willing to abdicate its role in Germany, fatefully refused these offers, and as a result an 1866 military alliance between Italy and Prussia annexed its Italian provinces and permanently excluded it from German affairs.

By the time non-Austrian Germany was unified under Prussian leadership in 1871, it was clear that the rise of German nationalism had short-circuited the old Austrian Empire. In previous centuries, the House of Habsburg had been able to straddle its German role as well as its multi-ethnic character. However, Austria’s aforementioned response to the rise of German nationalism destroyed this balance – as it excluded Austria economically from Germany and allowed Prussia to co-opt German unity for its own ends within a weak and divided German Confederation. Prussia, through its foreign policy, then severely weakened the Austrian Empire in order to eject it from German politics. The only way for Austria to preserve its German pre-eminence by defanging Prussia and joining the economically vital Zollverein would have been German unity under Austrian leadership, but such German unity would have lost it its non-German holdings and may have opened the door to political liberalism. Alternatively, it could have embraced a role as a multi-ethnic empire by ceding German pre-eminence to Prussia – and in doing so would have earned its support against enemies such as Italy, Russia and Hungarian separatists. This second option was the sincere aim of Prussian policy from about 1850 onwards. Prussia had repeatedly offered to help defend Austria’s empire in exchange for a partition of Germany, and after Austria was excluded from German affairs in 1866 it became a steadfast ally of Austria as a non-German power. In the end, the Habsburg monarchy chose neither – and thus ended the nineteenth century ejected from German politics, shorn of its Italian provinces, economically enfeebled and a junior partner to the new Prussian-dominated German Empire. Austria, a creation of the bygone age of dynasty and aristocracy, had proven no match against the forces of demotist nationalism.


Henderson, W.O, ‘The Zollverein,’ History, Vol 19, (1934)

Taylor, A.J.P, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955)

Taylor, A.J.P, The Course of German Histor’, (London: University Paperbacks, 1970)

Simms, Brendan, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present, (London: Allen Lane, 2013)

Wheatcroft, Andrew, The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire, (London: Penguin, 1995)


Meg Foster’s ‘Black Douglas’: The Bushranger and the Man (Diaspora Research Seminar Review)

Written by Lewis Twiby

On Tuesday 31 October, Meg Foster, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New South Wales, gave a research seminar on the infamous bushranger Black Douglas. This was in an effort to highlight her research in this overlooked aspect of Australian national history. During Australia’s gold rush of the 1850s, a new brand of criminal named the ‘bushranger’ emerged and set upon miners in search of fortune. Many of these – such as Ned Kelly – became folkloric heroes along the lines of Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, but Meg Foster’s research focuses on one specific bushranger – Black Douglas. While figures like Kelly became heroes, Douglas became a villain. Foster sought to understand why and to know exactly what was true in the stories and records about Black Douglas.

The research seminar commenced at what generally would be the end of a normal seminar, with Foster detailing how Douglas and his gang were captured. This was not by the police, but by almost 200 gold miners 140 kilometres north of Melbourne, at Alma – named after the battle during the Crimean War – in May 1855. Despite calls to lynch him, the miners handed the gang over to the police. Here, Foster gave a concise but detailed insight into the world of Australia’s gold rush. The historiography often compares Australia to California, stressing the lack of lawlessness in New South Wales compared to its American counterpart, and Foster showed that this view is not entirely accurate. ‘Judge Lynch’ provided justice, with miners viewing the police as either untrustworthy or weak. ‘Protection Societies’ were communally formed instead, in order to protect the miners. Many newspapers actually condemned the violence of the miners when they captured Douglas, citing it as an example of the anarchy of the unregulated mines. Furthermore, as with the American minefields, the Australian mines attracted people from around the world. Australians, Americans, British (first arriving in 1852), Poles, Chinese, Maori and Germans were just some of the groups of people who were eager to strike rich with gold. This brought up the question of identity: anyone could dispose of their old life and create an entirely new one, and this reinvention of identity even happened in camps themselves. If someone was caught stealing in one camp, they could easily move to the next and start their lives anew. Foster’s intricate explanation of the Australian gold mines perfectly set the stage for the story of Black Douglas.

Foster went on to explain a curiosity following Douglas’ arrest. Despite leading a gang of bushrangers, and (according to local newspapers) killing a white woman, he was never convicted of murder, assault, or robbery. He was instead convicted of vagrancy and served two years in prison – he was released in February 1857. Foster here links the first half of her investigation to the second half. Douglas embodied the goldfields themselves. The violence during his arrest was seen as symptomatic of the anarchic, unregulated and unruly life of the goldfields: worries which pervaded the Australian press. Despite allegations and stories of his robberies and assaults, there were no witnesses for the court to use. Everyone was a potential criminal, and Douglas, along with his gang, embodied that idea. Foster, however, also emphasised a far less romanticised view of Douglas; he was the embodiment of the fears revolving colonial society.

This is the second reason why Black Douglas is an interesting figure to research, and this is what Foster focused on for the next third of the seminar. The press, prior to his assert, reported that he had murdered a white woman. In their description of him, he was always described as being ‘black,’ and that the white men he worked with were ‘his’ men. Foster linked this to the prevailing racism in colonial societies, which had become formalised through Victorian science. In a thought-provoking section, Foster commented on how Douglas’ white accomplices – likely to be ex-convicts – were side-lined, with the focus being on Douglas himself. Douglas became a double bogeyman to the colonial society; he represented the unruliness of the gold fields and the fears of race relations within Victorian society.

The final part of the seminar revolved around a discussion about an often-overlooked idea when examining national and folk heroes: who exactly was Black Douglas? Here the most interesting part of Foster’s research was shown. Black Douglas was an ex-convict with his convict record saying that he arrived in Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) via the infamous convict ship, the Marquis of Huntley. Foster has stated that he may have lied about being a servant and cook in order to have greater prospects upon arriving in Australia, a common occurrence which remarkably resembles the reinvention of identity prevalent in the goldmines. Colonial records stated that he often rebuked authority, earning him 1,000 lashes during his time in Tasmania. However, the most interesting aspect of Foster’s research is what happened before his arrival in Australia, and what happened after his release from prison in 1857.

    In her research, Foster has found several possible features of Douglas’ pre-Australia life. His convict record stated that he was originally from Philadelphia, and travelled to Britain where he committed a crime – stealing two coats –, which caused him to be sent to Tasmania. Aged just 17, Douglas was literate and apparently well spoken – he managed to defend himself in court at a later trial, for example, when he and his companion, John Smith, were held in a one-metre cell in a repurposed castle for two weeks. Foster also mentioned his three tattoos: an anchor on his left arm, the outline of a woman on the same arm, and a star or sun on his right hand. All these features offer an interesting insight into the life of Black Douglas; the actual personality of Black Douglas was stripped from him, and he was remodelled as a legend. After his release in 1857, Douglas’ life was a tragedy. He drifted from benevolent society to imprisonment for vagrancy, and back to benevolent societies until his death in 1892 – whilst he was imprisoned. Only two newspapers, apparently plagiarising one another, wrote an obituary for him.

    At this early stage of her research, Meg Foster has offered an insightful glimpse into an overlooked figure. She concluded by stating her plans to find out various things about Douglas, in a style reminiscent to that of a detective. These include such things as who exactly was Douglas’ white and illiterate companion John Smith (a very difficult and unenviable task); and what were the exact meanings of Douglas’ tattoos? Did anyone else share his tattoos on the convict ship? – were the tattoos a gesture of brotherhood for the condemned? Foster’s seminar was insightful, in that she efficiently painted a picture of colonial fears of decentralised rule,  as well as racist tensions, whilst also highlighting the limitations of the current field of history. Whilst researching Black Douglas, she has had to leave colonial records behind due to gaps in the sources. Her research has also highlighted an important idea. Regardless of whether they are a forgotten figure like Black Douglas, or a well-known one like Ned Kelly, folk and national heroes were not simply names on pages with their exploits: they were real people.

‘Frankenstein’: A Celebration of 200 Years of Thrilling Horror

Written by Daniel Sharp

On 1 January 1818, the first edition of Mary Shelley’s horror novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was published. The two hundredth anniversary of its publication is coming up very soon, and in celebration of this, the Keats-Shelley Association of America has launched the ‘Frankenreads’ project. This project encourages people to commemorate the anniversary by hosting events related to the book this Halloween, and it will culminate next Halloween with an international set of readings of the novel. As such, it seems an appropriate moment to commemorate this historic work in the pages of Retrospect.

Frankenstein has inspired countless adaptations, from the very first theatrical performance in 1823 to modern films and even Liam Scarlett’s 2016 ballet production. It has been a fruitful source for creatives for two centuries and its appeal shows no sign of abating. It poses deep, serious questions on a broad range of themes – the relationship between humanity and God, parental responsibility, the dangers of unrestrained scientific innovation in the face of nature, masculinity, power, and selfhood, to list but a few.

When you hear the word ‘Frankenstein, what do you immediately think of? Chances are you picture a big, green, lumbering, dim-witted monster. This picture is one that has been impressed upon us by classic Hollywood films. It is, however, a slightly misleading view of the true nature of Shelley’s most famous character.

I shall not be one of those insufferable people who insists on the correct nomenclature of Victor and his creation (‘the scientist is Frankenstein, the monster is unnamed, you uncultured dolt!’), as the common misconception is irrelevant to this article. The real problem with many adaptations (although by no means all – Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film adaptation is one of the best and unfortunately, one of the most underrated of these) is the simplified version of the tale they portray. Frankenstein’s Creature is not the eloquent, philosophical, existentially tormented and tragic being he is in the novel. Instead of his agility, we see his lumbering. Instead of his philosophical nature and eloquence, we see him more as an ugly rampaging monster – precisely the opposite message to that which Shelley was trying to portray.

The upcoming anniversary marks a good time to re-read and re-appreciate Mary Shelley’s astonishingly brilliant and original novel. It is a barnstorming tale, epic in scope and beautifully written; fast-paced and exciting. It is also so very emotional – I defy anyone not to feel for the plight of the Creature. I for one find Victor to be the true villain, and my sympathies upon re-reading the novel recently were still completely with the Creature.

Moving onto the origins of the story, it is worth remembering the intriguing events that inspired Shelley’s classic tale. In the summer of 1816, dominated by awful weather, Shelley and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Lord Byron’s villa next to Lake Geneva in Switzerland. One night, with the weather preventing them from going outdoors, they sat down and agreed to engage in a contest to create a terrifying ghost story. Shelley struggled for the first few days. However, one night she dreamt of a horrifying scene, one that would develop into a novel. It was an image of a student bringing to life a creature, who would later awaken him from sleep by gazing at him with bright, unnatural eyes. The rest is history – the novel was first published in 1818 with a preface by Percy Shelley, and in 1831 Mary made some changes to the novel and added her own introduction to a second edition.

There were many influences on Shelley’s perception, of course. The most interesting suggestion I have come across is from Joyce E. Chaplin, who has suggested that Victor Frankenstein was modelled on Benjamin Franklin. Many called him the ‘Modern Prometheus’ due to his immense scientific achievements (importantly revolving around electricity). Chaplin amusingly suggests that ‘Frankenstein’ could well read as ‘Franklin-stein’. Another inspiration for Victor, according to Maurice Hindle, comes from the Romantic poets themselves, such as Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. In their poetry, seeking to refashion the world, Mary perhaps saw potential dangers inherent in an overreaching mankind. Indeed, Hindle points out that some of the physical descriptions of Victor in the novel mirror Percy Shelley’s own appearance.

In the novel, the Creature is presented to us as a blank slate, or tabula rasa in Lockean terms. He experiences things and learns through sensation – he has no a priori knowledge, and painstakingly teaches himself language through observing a small family in a cottage. The Creature tells the tale of his first experiences to Victor after cornering his creator and demanding he produces a female companion for him. This, he believes, will alleviate his loneliness, for he has suffered from isolation, and has been rejected and attacked when all he wanted was to receive and give love to people. Ultimately, rejection turned him into a monster, and led him to murder some of Victor’s most beloved family members. In this horror story, humanity is the true horror.

Alas, Victor eventually reneges on his agreement to provide the Creature with a companion, which culminates in a beautifully sad climax and a haunting final sentence. Above all else, – above the horror, the drama, the epic scale of the tale – this is a story of emotion, isolation, rejection, pain and loss. Two hundred years on, Mary Shelley’s greatest work remains powerfully relevant and challenging. It deserves to be read, remembered and appreciated for many centuries to come.



Trump, Brexit and the return of the ‘Country Party’

Written by Travis Aaroe


What forces drove Britain to vote to leave the European Union, and for American voters to elect the political outsider Donald Trump? The rhetoric used by both campaigns strongly echoes that of an earlier political tradition, known as the ‘Country Party’ or the ‘Country Persuasion’.

The Country Party began in England as an on and off, informal group of parliamentarians who were active in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the core of this group’s ideology was a suspicion towards the elites of the day, whom they viewed as corrupt, self-serving, power-hungry and out to subvert the English constitution of personal liberty and limited government.

One of the foremost figures of the Country Party was Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751). Bolingbroke, a Tory peer, denounced the new system of ‘patronage’ – whereby the government of the day doled out royal offices to MPs and peers in exchange for parliamentary support – as corrupt and oligarchical. Finding support amongst Tories and disaffected Whigs, Bolingbroke advocated for the Country Party to act as a permanent opposition: a check on the alleged power-grabbing, corruption and constitutional subversion of Britain’s various governments.

Aside from acting as a parliamentary faction, those of the Country Party persuasion began to develop a distinct political philosophy. For example, in Cato’s Letters, which were first published in 1720, the authors argue that the people were a source of liberty and virtue, and that government necessarily tended towards corruption and tyranny. Furthermore, in Bolingbroke’s 1738 work ‘The Patriot King’, it is argued that unless the growth of Britain’s bureaucratic fiscal-military state is reversed, then the country would slide towards autocracy.

The ideology of the Country Party would have profound effects on American politics as well, as the writings of Bolingbroke and his fellow travellers were extremely popular in the United States. In the pre-revolutionary years of deteriorating relations between the Thirteen Colonies and London, a Country Party rhetoric of a corrupt establishment clamping down on the liberties of the people was often invoked – for example the notorious Stamp Act of 1765 was interpreted by many Americans as part of an attempt by unscrupulous ministers to chip away at the old British constitution. The justifications for the 1776 secession from Britain were of a similar tone: the government in London had become irrevocably corrupt and oligarchical, and therefore only independence would safeguard ancient liberties. Thomas Jefferson later revived the ideology of the Country Party in the Anti-Federalist movement, which opposed the bureaucratic and centralising reforms of Alexander Hamilton.

The proponents of a Trump presidency and ‘Brexit’ have used arguments remarkably similar to that of the old Country Party. The narrative is an old one: a corrupt and self-serving elite are conspiring to subvert the old constitution and trample on the people’s rights. In the case of the EU referendum, prominent Leave supporters often spoke of peers and politicians in the pay of the EU and of a vast network of EU-sponsored NGOs, all working to erode Britain’s constitution in favour of remote bureaucratic government from Brussels. Meanwhile, during his campaign Mr Trump spoke of a ‘swamp’ in Washington DC of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists who were allegedly subverting the Constitution and American way of life.

Viewed in this light, the Brexit and Trump movements do not resemble a return to the politics of the 1930s – but a revival of an old Anglo-American political tradition.



Three Hours in Hell

Written by Lewis Twiby

Guernica, April 25, 1937

“Franco is about to deliver a mighty blow against which all resis…” Testily, Luisa shut off the radio. The rebels had been blasting out their asinine propaganda for the last few hours. It had been affecting some. Over half of her battalion had been destroyed during their flight from Bilbao. Poor rations, political infighting, cramped conditions, and a sense of impending doom had pushed everyone’s tensions to the limit. Franco’s boasts over the radio didn’t help matters either. She gave a heavy sigh. It was getting to her now. Please Maria, be safe. Maria had gone missing during the flight from Bilbao. The big bad generalissimo was scared of women with guns and was very eager to acquaint them with a wall…

“Are you not at all fearful?” the Brit asked. The journalist from London had been nicknamed El Señor for his formality. His hair was still ruffled from their exodus.

“No, Señor. We ousted Napoleon and we ousted de Rivera. Franco is a coward, scared of women and the future while licking the boots of Mussolini and Hitler. No, Señor. We are not fearful.” They would never surrender and that was a fact. Luisa had left her rural home in Catalonia to achieve one thing: freedom. No one could take that away from her and thousands more ranging from Catalans to Basques, from anarchists to Marxists to women.

“Anyway, we have the Soviets on our side!” Anton cried, slapping the journalist so hard on the back that his glasses slipped off of his nose. “They helped us at Guadalajara and they will help us again!”

She stared mournfully at Anton. He was so optimistic.

April 26, 1937

It was another quiet day. Every day was a quiet day in Guernica. Unlike most days a tense feeling hung in the air. The tension was so thick it could be cut with a knife. Refugees from across Basque had flooded into the tiny city putting everyone on edge. The fighters were waiting for the stomping feet of the Rebels and the locals were waiting for the ominous sound of gunfire which had strafed the country. Luisa watched as two snow white doves flew peacefully together in the square. No worries, no war, no fighting. An ideal life. How much simpler life would be if you could grow wings and fly away. Only that would mean running. If you ran you left your troubles behind, but they would still be there unless you confronted them. Suddenly her concentration was shattered. Church bells rang out all around her. As soon as one started ominously chiming another joined in. It created a foreboding melody. The doves scattered.

“Good Lord what is that? Mass?” Señor asked.

“No,” she replied. “Air raid.”

Anton looked through his binoculars and immediately dropped them in shock. “Dios mío. That’s a German plane.” A mottled grey plane clung to the sky like a hawk. Luisa felt like a vole seeing the apex predator flying ahead. A loud whistling noise echoed across the sky. Quickly she grabbed her two compatriots and dragged them into the cellar. The whistling gave way to a roar louder than any lion. Screams of anguish wailed through the sounds of crackling. Luisa’s heart dropped thinking of how many lives had been destroyed. She pulled the other two up; Señor’s glasses had shattered.

“Are you two okay? Good. We need to go and help with recovery!” she ordered. The three staggered out of the cellar to be met with Hell itself. In the distance a great fire summoned by Lucifer greedily lapped at the roofs of buildings. The smoke billowed high into the sky threatening to entirely consume the sun.

“That’s an incendiary!” Señor cried indignantly. “They’ve not hit the munitions factory! Those dogs have hit a civilian centre! Have they no sense of decency?”

Welcome to the Spanish Civil War. They never managed to get to the fire. The next wave hit. It was not one hawk this time. It was a swarm. Engines roared above them like thunder as they dropped their loads. Rubble smashed around them as bombs shattered the formerly tranquil city. Lucifer’s Realm spilled out into Guernica. Luisa saw fires consume all in their path, regardless if it was church, house or human. The flames of Guernica started filling her lungs, trying to strangle the life out of her. Smoke as black as coal vanquished the sun’s brightness to bring about Judgement Day itself. Screeching civilians fled into the streets to escape the great burning.

“Why is that plane so low?”  Señor shouted over the destruction. She could make out the black cross on the green-grey paint of the plane. The road exploded. Innocents were torn apart in red gore. Anton vanished in an explosion of crimson. Señor crumpled to his knees with an anguished cry. This was the end. Through flames and bullets Creation has come to an end.

Luisa and Señor walked through what was left. Hollowed out buildings were painted with white. Her once black hair had been stained grey with ash from the burning of buildings and bodies. She felt numb. Fighter and civilian had burned as one. Fighter and civilian had been strafed as one. Fighter and civilian had died as one. Command had given the orders to move town; the rebels were coming like vultures after a kill.

“Luisa, I do not know how I am ever going to write about this. The atrocities…People in Britain do not like to hear about that. What will I say?” Señor forlornly sobbed. It looked like he had aged fifty years.

“Simple. Say that we went through three hours in Hell.”


Raymond Carr, Spain, 1808-1975, (Second Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).

Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, (Fourth Edition, London: Penguin, 2001).

Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, (London: Harper Press, 2012).

Public Lecture Review: Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Looking Back at the British Raj in India’

Written by Carissa Chew

On Monday 2 October 2017, as part of the University of Edinburgh’s World India Day celebrations, acclaimed author, Member of the Indian Parliament and former UN Under-Secretary-General, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, delivered a forceful and poignant speech at McEwan Hall in which he made plain the exploitative, oppressive and violent nature of British colonial rule in India. By drawing upon a wealth of evocative examples and shocking statistical evidence, within thirty minutes, Tharoor had successfully destroyed the myth of Britain’s gifts to India. This lecture was an accompaniment to Tharoor’s new book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017), which is based on his speech at an Oxford Union debate titled ‘Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’ that went viral in 2015.

The point of departure for this lecture was the beginnings of British colonialism in the South Asian subcontinent. Tharoor identified the timing of Britain’s arrival in India as crucial to the successful establishment of the Raj and then went on to elucidate the early phase of economic exploitation. The British not only raised tariffs on Indian cloth but literally chopped off the thumbs of weavers as a means of destroying the Indian textile industry. Before British rule, Tharoor argued, the subcontinent had a thriving economy based on the production of high-quality textiles that were sought after by the Roman Empire, durable wooden ships that lasted over three times longer than British ships, and an innovative method of steelmaking. Tharoor’s clinching argument was that prior to 200 years of colonial exploitation, India had 23 per cent of global GDP, but in 1947 it was one of the poorest countries in the world. To put it plainly, the British impoverished India.  

The next point of focus was the callous oppression of Indian people under the British Raj. In response to the large-scale famines in the colony, Tharoor explained, the British rigidly adhered to their frugal opposition to giving charity, believing not only that it would encourage idleness, but that starvation was a natural and necessary check for overpopulation. As an alternative to giving aid to the poor, the British instead set up labour camps where Indian workers were given insufficient food rations; the portions were less than half of what the inmates of Nazi concentration camps were fed. At this point in the lecture, it was Winston Churchill who became the subject of Tharoor’s damning judgement. Tharoor identified Churchill’s decision to send grain from Bengal to Yugoslavia to increase the reserve stocks for the British army there, as the cause of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 in which 4.3 million people died. Tharoor exposed Churchill as a cold-blooded tyrant responsible for millions of deaths. Churchill had ignored warnings of the catastrophe. He had made the chilling statement, ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’ And in response to a report that raised concern over on the rising death toll in Bengal, Churchill wrote in its margin the dark-humoured question, ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’

To consolidate his argument, Tharoor then set out to tackle some of the ‘alleged benefits’ of colonial rule, relentlessly demolishing each of these myths in turn. Firstly, Tharoor exposed the erroneous nature of the claim that Britain ‘unified’ India, frankly dismissing this concept as ‘laughable’. After all, Tharoor explained, the South Asian subcontinent had a long history of being ruled as a single entity, a sense of civilizational unity long preceded the British presence, and the rest of the world already viewed India in this way. It was, in fact, the British, through their policy of ‘divide and rule,’ who fragmented the region upon religious lines. Secondly, Tharoor addressed the argument that the British brought railways to India, asking the crucial question: how can these railways be viewed as a gift when they were paid for by Indian taxpayers? Moreover, railways were only introduced as a means of efficiently extracting and exporting the country’s resources, and to transport British troops quickly to suppress Indian unrest, and thus the introduction of railways indirectly contributed to India’s plight. All the while the Indians were forced to pay higher train fares than the British. Pressed for time, Tharoor cut this part of his speech short but he suggested that anyone wanting to know more should read his book since each chapter tackles a different ‘alleged benefit’ of British rule.

In the final part of his speech, Tharoor asked ‘what now?’ Looking at the present day he expressed his concern over the lack of colonial memory in Britain. It is shocking that a student can study history up to A-Level without encountering colonial history, that there is no museum of colonialism, and that there are no commemorative statues to the Indian soldiers who fought in the world wars despite Indians having won more Victoria crosses than the British for their war effort. Tharoor’s attention then switched to the issue of reparations. Whilst it is estimated that economic reparations would amount to an impossible figure of $3 trillion in today’s money, the British Raj was also accountable for the deaths of approximately 35 million Indians, and therefore the damage caused by colonial rule is ultimately unquantifiable. Tharoor’s conclusion was that Britain still owes India moral reparations. In Tharoor’s opinion, this should take the form of an apology from the Prime Minister or a member of the British Royal family, perhaps on 13 April 2019 to mark the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre which saw General Dyer – who was afterwards celebrated as a British hero – ruthlessly open fire on unarmed civilians, killing 379 and wounding over 1,000.

Tharoor’s World India Day lecture was undoubtedly compelling – and I would like to point out two reasons why. The first particularly poignant aspect of the speech was the personal dimension – Tharoor’s Indian identity – which noticeably fuelled his passionate disparagement of the British Raj. Tharoor’s evocative narrative of British rule in India marked a change from the detached and impartial accounts of European colonialism that we find in textbooks, reminding us that these atrocities really did occur; they affected real people and remain in living memory today. Although Tharoor, in the Preface to Inglorious Empire, recognises the limits of his scope and the complexities of colonial history that his argument does not cover, such as the role of Indian support for the Raj, there is something valuable and attention-grabbing about his blunt rebuke of colonialism. Tharoor presents and writes an impassioned and straight-forward history that is appealing to a wider audience in a way that most academic literature is not. The second notable feature of this lecture was Tharoor’s convincing demonstration of the pertinence of the colonial legacy today. By establishing the relevance of his argument, Tharoor was able to stir up emotions of anger, sadness and guilt in his audience, actively inspiring us to change the way that we remember our colonial history.

Looking beyond the unequal Anglo-Indian relationship of the past, Tharoor’s keynote speech was introduced by Principle Timothy O’Shea as part of the longstanding relationship between India and the University of Edinburgh. Professor William Robertson, who was principal from 1762 to 1793, was the author of one of the earliest European texts about India; the University of Edinburgh is home to the oldest Indian student association in the UK, which was founded in 1876, the same year that Edinburgh’s first Indian student graduated; and by the 1920s, the University’s Indian student population was the highest in the UK. Tharoor, weary of the decline in the number of the Indian students in Britain over the last ten years, expressed his hope that the University of Edinburgh will continue its efforts to expand its connections, collaborations, and exchanges with India. The World India Day celebration concluded with Tharoor’s optimistic vision of a positive future for British-Indian relations based on forgiveness but not historical forgetfulness.




‘Acclaimed writers says India and UK can create new chapter’, 2017, ; accessed 19 October 2017.

Tharoor, Shashi, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (London, 2017).


Napoleonic Prisoners and Edinburgh Castle: A Brief Examination

Written by Daniel Sharp

Edinburgh Castle stands on high, overlooking Scotland’s capital. It is an impressive sight – it may be small, yet it is also beautiful, especially when lit up at night, and provides a scene that many photographers love to snap. It is a famous tourist spot, its deep history drawing in visitors from all over the world. Some of the historical facts are widely known. It was where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future James VI and I of Scotland and England, and it houses the famous Stone of Destiny, which was an important feature in Scottish royal coronations for centuries.

However, if one considers it for a second, the Castle is also intimidating. On top of that indomitable rock it sits, glaring down on the city below. One can imagine being led there by soldiers, and being imprisoned in its dank vaults. This was an experience faced by many over the course of history – the Castle was used as a military base and prison for enemies captured in war for many years. Here, I want to look at a particular period in the Castle’s rich history as a place of imprisonment: that of the Napoleonic era, explored wonderfully by Ian MacDougall in All Men Are Brethren: Prisoners of War in Scotland, 1803-1814 (2008). This is, unfortunately, one of the very few books on the subject for those, like myself, whose interest is piqued by this aspect of the Castle’s history.

In the eighteenth century, the Castle was used as a prison for the many wars fought by Britain, and indeed was used in the French Revolutionary Wars, immediately preceding the Napoleonic conflagration. When a brief peace was agreed between Britain and France in 1802, ending the conflict which began in 1793 between the two nations, the prisoners in the Castle were repatriated. In 1803 however, the Napoleonic Wars broke out, and space for prisoners of war had to be found again.

Until 1810, there was only one depot for such prisoners in Scotland, when ‘new arrangements’ (as an Admiralty letter in 1810 put it) had to be made, owing to increased quantities of prisoners requiring detention. Between 1810 and 1814 there were to be several new sites of imprisonment, including Edinburgh Castle. The Castle was initially used only as an overnight temporary holding area for prisoners being transferred to the main depots, or as a place of punishment, where prisoners who had misbehaved badly were sent for confinement. It initially was not used as a prison. This was to change however in March 1811, when an escape crisis at the Esk Mills depot led to its closure, and 450 of its prisoners were transferred for permanent internment in the Castle.

Alas, this was not to last for very long. On 12 April 1811, approximately 50 prisoners escaped, using rope to climb down the Castle Rock through a hole they had cut in the parapet wall. It was the largest mass escape of Napoleonic War prisoners in Britain, and some made it as far as Polmont, Falkirk. In the end, all were recaptured. However, at the end of April, there was another escape.

The Castle’s aura of indomitability was somewhat undermined. Malcolm Wright – the Transport Board’s liaison – was replaced, (although he would later be reinstated). More escapes on 14 July – Bastille Day – spelled the end of the Castle’s use as a permanent prison. In August, most of the prisoners were transferred to the Greenlaw depot in Glencorse, and the Castle once more became a place of punishment for unruly prisoners.

By December, the Castle’s status as a prison had very much ceased to exist. After yet another escape on the night of the 18-19 December (in which one prisoner, Jean Baptiste Zoutin, was not recaptured) it was barely used. By the time of Napoleon’s first defeat in 1814, there were no prisoners held there, although cannonade was fired in celebration of the victory. After the Battle of Waterloo (1815), no prisoners of war were interned in Scotland at all.

So much for the brief, (if chequered), history of the Castle as a prison; what of the lives of the prisoners, whether temporarily or permanently detained there? For a start, the prisoners were a multinational group. The majority of the people detained in Scotland were French, but, in testament to the vast geographical range of the Wars, prisoners from areas such as Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia and places even further afield, such as the Americas, were kept in the Castle.

Although there were female prisoners in Scotland, none were kept in the Castle. However, there was some diversity in the Castle’s prison population. At least two black privateer seamen, Jacob Smatt and Abraham Daniel Levie, were confined there. In 1813, Levie volunteered to join the British Navy and was released from the Castle.

There are a number of interesting episodes of prison life from Edinburgh Castle. A 20-year old lieutenant was killed in what was possibly a duel with another prisoner in 1811, and there is a slight possibility that one prisoner (bigamously) married a Scotswoman whilst imprisoned! The prisoners passed time in various ways, one of which was crafting products to be sold at markets, which were erected in the Castle for the public to peruse. Boredom remained a danger, however.

The Castle was rumoured to be a potential place of exile for Napoleon, following his final defeat in 1815. However, the Castle was actually not used again as a prison for captured enemies, although it was considered to be used as such during the Second World War. It remained a military base, and was the headquarter of Scottish Command until 1955. Now, of course, it is solely a tourist spot.

This has been a brief survey of the history of Napoleonic prisoners in Edinburgh Castle, and I heartily recommend turning to MacDougall’s book for more. It is important to remember all aspects of the past, including the less glorious ones. In this spirit, I shall quote the words of Lieutenant Marote, who passed Edinburgh Castle on the way to imprisonment elsewhere:

“The sight of Edinburgh Castle, which rose above us and crowned the central hill frightened us. We knew that many Frenchmen had already been shut up there, and we were fearful that we would also be imprisoned within those thick black walls…”


Bibliographic note: All information and quotations about these prisoners of war mentioned in the essay are sourced from Ian MacDougall’s All Men Are Brethren.