Conflict, Chaos and the Florentine Inferno

Written by: Joshua Al-Najar.

On a preliminary reading, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno seems entirely unconcerned with political realities. Its setting is a fantastical reimagining of hell, imbued with mythological creatures and terrifying landscapes: an illusory space for Dante to contend with sin’s dramatic consequences. However, behind this veneer is a deeply incisive reflection on reality, as Dante seamlessly blends his own political convictions with the Inferno’s plot. What emerges, is Dante’s intense distaste for factionalism and disdain for corruptive authorities. These views did not arise in a vacuum but were strongly shaped by Dante’s own political career and eventual banishment from his native Florence. 

Much of the political subtext is centred around the Florentine Republic, which forms a model of the consequences which unbridled political infighting can bring. Dante relied on his own experience in the political institutions of Florence, having held numerous offices there prior to writing the Divine Comedy. The first explicit reference is provided by Ciacco, a Florentine, in Canto IV. Ciacco’s name is derived from the Tuscan for ‘pig’ and fits accordingly with his punishment in the circle reserved for gluttons – a thinly veiled critique at the city’s corruptive, gluttonous nature. In alluding to Florence’s gluttony, Dante sought to criticise the highly mercantile, money-driven mentality which he had characterised Florentine politics. 

Though Dante had been involved in these political institutions, his disapproval of the city’s character is an ongoing thread throughout the Inferno. Dante’s journey through the Divine Commedia elevates his intellectual and spiritual standing, though this is notably whilst he is absent from Florence. For him, the civil strife and decayed moral standards of the city prevented the development of his character – as such, separation from such a place allowed him to make this process “his own”. Achieving intellectual truth was a key in attaining spiritual salvation, and Dante had achieved this truth away from Florence and its chaos.

Ciacco later compounds this vision of Florence by claiming ‘pride, envy and avarice are the three sparks that inflamed the hearts of Florentines’ (Inf. IV, 12-14). From the offset, he conjures an image of a city that is inherently bound to jealousy and infighting, referring to it as ‘your city, which is so full of envy’ (Inf. IV, 45-46). By constructing this version of Florence, Dante uses his encounter with Ciacco as a means to criticise the series of civil conflicts which ravaged the city in the preceding century. He unambiguously concentrates on two periods in particular: the drawn-out struggle between the Ghibelline and Guelf sects of the 13th century, and the inter-partisan conflict. Dante pushes Ciacco, by asking whether some of the famous Ghibelline and Guelf leaders from the city’s history were damned, or not:

Tegghaio, Farinata – men of rank – Mosca, Arrigo, Rusticucci, too,

 and others with their minds on noble deeds,

tell me, so I may know them, where are they?

For I am gripped by the great desire, to tell, 

if heaven holds them sweet – or poisonous hell. (Inf. VI, 79-84).

In asking such a question, Dante radically challenges Florence’s collective memory of these individuals. He prompts a revaluation of Florence’s past heroes; for much of the city’s populace, the dramatic departure of the Ghibellines in 1471 was highly formative for Florence’s identity. To many, it represented the triumph over tyranny, and its leaders were reimagined as liberators. Ciacco defies this conclusion with his response:

These dwell among the blackest souls, loaded down deep by sins of differing types. If you sink far enough, you’ll see them all. (Inf. VI, 85-87).

Here, the Inferno depicts the Ghibelline and Guelf figures as eternally damned. For Dante, their damnation had been earned by the violence and political instability that these forces had unleashed upon Florence throughout the 13th century. Their heroic status had gone unchallenged by the body politic, as the turmoil had been legitimised by a mask of patriotic fervour. Yet Dante confronts this position, and in doing so, undoes generations of societal education.

Dante’s recurrent critique of factionalism is deeply informed by his exile from Florence. Ciacco prophesises the resurgence of civil disorder of 1300-2, in which the violence between the warring black and white Guelfs reached a bloody pinnacle: the return of the banished black Guelfs with papal assistance, and mass expatriation of white Guelfs. Florence’s political institutions had been deeply fractured, and Dante became a direct victim of the sheer instability this system incurred. He was exiled in 1302, alongside numerous other politically active Florentines. The Inferno – having been begun shortly after this – is wrought with contempt for the instability that Dante saw as inherent to such a politically divided city. Dante’s decision to place the Guelf and Ghibelline leaders in hell is a clear statement that, despite any quasi-heroic status, the civil discord that these individuals had spread had negatively impacted Florence’s citizenry, such as him.

Further into the Inferno’s narrative, Dante relates disapproval of the elite classes to his native Florence. In Canto X, Dante encounters Farinata Degli Ulberti, an aristocratic Florentine who had championed the Ghibelline cause in the mid-thirteenth century. Initially Farinata’s portrayal could be considered relatively positive. Upon recognising Dante as a fellow Tuscan, Farinata engages in sombre reflection of Florence’s violence:

You must be a native of that noble fatherland,
to which I perhaps did too much harm. (Inf. X, 12-13).

Farinata’s ruminations are profound. His reference to a ‘noble fatherland’ demonstrates his patriotism and enduring loyalty to the nobil patria. He remorsefully re-examines his own role in the Ghibelline conflicts by pondering whether the violence unleashed at Montaperti had been detrimental. For a moment, Dante allows the damned Farinata a measure of solemn nobility; his careful, considered reproach of his own actions is a momentary pause in Dante’s criticism. However, it is short-lived. 

Moments later, the situation is reversed, as Farinata becomes a mouthpiece for aristocratic factionalism. He begins by asking Dante about his heritage, and upon discovering the poet’s Guelf ancestry his entire demeanour shifts: 

As soon as I was at the foot of his tomb
somewhat he eyed me, and, as if disdainful,
then asked of me, “Who were thine ancestors?”

I, who desirous of obeying was,
concealed it not, but all revealed to him;
whereat he raised his brows a little upward.

Then he said: “fiercely adverse have they been
to me, and to my fathers, and to my party;
so that two several times I scattered them. (Inf. X, 40-49).

At Dante’s revelation, the cordial relations between the two are at an end. Suddenly, Farinata appears factional and divisive: gone are his saddened affections for the city of Florence. He represents the crux of the aristocratic folly for Dante; he is used to expose the fatal blindness of the Florentine elite in its excessive devotion to party and family at the expense of broader loyalties to the city and patria. 

Upon discovering Dante’s allegiances, Farinata is cutting and self-congratulatory – he boasts of his own military success during the Ghibelline and Guelf conflict, alluding to battles in 1248 and 1260. Suddenly, those events, that had caused Farinata remorse, now bloat his pride. Dante chastises this violence, lamenting its ‘staining of the flowing Arbia red’ (Inf. X, 85-6).

Dante informs Farinata that his family were exiled from Florence following his death, in an effort to wound the general – as part of his punishment, Farinata is unable to see the present, in what is perhaps a jibe at the aristocracy’s blindness to their actions. Farinata begins to ponder whether eternal damnation is a lesser punishment compared to witnessing his family’s exile from their homeland. Yet again, we see the questionable judgement of the Florentine aristocracy emerge as Farinata places his family’s status within Florence above all other considerations. That he considers ‘this bed of pain’ (Inf. X, 77-8) to be of lesser torment than mere political exclusion is emblematic of the irrationality of the upper classes. He questions the legitimacy of the city’s popular government, and the validity of its decision to banish his family – a clear display of the elite’ disdain for popular movements. 

However, Farinata also enacts a measure of revenge against Dante, by informing him of his eventual exile:

And yet no more than fifty times that face,
(the moon’s, who is our sovereign here) will shine
till you shall learn how heavy that art weighs (Inf. X, 79-81).

In a reciprocal act of animosity, Farinata reveals that soon Dante will experience the ‘art’ of exile. By displaying this series of insults and verbal injuries, Dante replicates the series of conflicts between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines in the 13th century. The pettiness and the futility of the discourse mirrors what Dante saw as the pointlessness of such conflict. 

To him, the civil disorder that had been so inherent to Florentine politics had stifled social progress and hastened moral decay. This conclusion had been greatly informed by his own victimhood at the hands of a deeply factionalised city – something which earned the city’s immortalisation in the depths of Dante’s imagined hellscape. 


Bernstein, A.E. ‘Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: 1100-1500’, in M. Rubin, Barański, Zygmunt G., and Simon Gilson. The Cambridge Companion to Dante’s Commedia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Honess, Claire E. From Florence to the Heavenly City: The Poetry of Citizenship in Dante. Italian Perspectives; 13. (London 2006).

Lansing, R.  The Dante encyclopedia, (London, 2010).

Murphy, Robert. “DANTE AND POLITICS.” History Today 20, no. 7 (1970): 481.

Najemy, John. ‘Dante and Florence’ in Jacoff Rachael (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge (2007) p236-256.

Woodhouse, John. ‘Dante and Governance’ London (2011).


Dionysos the Weird: Reading Bacchae through the lens of Lovecraftian horror

Written by: Justin Biggi.

Euripides’ Bacchae features some of the stranger imagery the playwright employed throughout his works. Focusing on Dionysos’ return to his homeland of Thebes, the play sees Dionysos’ cousin, Pentheus, meet a grisly end at the hands of, amongst others, his own mother, driven mad with other women by Dionysos himself. Pentheus’ grisly death becomes a reminder for the audience of what happens when one attempts to go against a god’s will – especially given the fact that this is blatant punishment for Pentheus’ actions of outlawing the cult of Dionysos. 

Much can be said about how this play approaches subjects such as ritual madness, hubris and gender roles (Pentheus is disguised as a woman by Dionysos, as he tries to secretly spy on his mother and her companions). Dionysos has long been interpreted as a god who blurs boundaries. He is first and foremost a god of wine, and therefore of drunkenness: this implies a lack of control ancient society (as well as our modern one) may not have been all that comfortable with facing on a day-to-day basis.  He is a god of excess, characterized by an entourage of priestesses, the Bakkhai or Maenads, and, in iconography, also accompanied by male, sexually-charged satyrs. He is also a god of magic and of rituals that were not open to the public or at least, not open to the predominant male citizen class: similarly to Orpheus, it has been argued that his cults attracted mostly women and slaves. 

The text of the Bacchae is not spared such perceived strangeness or liminality. While there are a number of single, isolated instances where something strange or unnatural happens (such as Dionysos tearing down the walls of the Theban palace, or Pentheus thinking the god has the head of a bull), there are two cases where we have a longer, in-depth description of strange, even terrifying, acts. In two instances of so-called “messenger speeches,” where characters come on-stage to relate events that have happened elsewhere but are nonetheless central to the plot, the audience is privy to two acts of intense violence which are meant to not only cause discomfort in the audience, but also, through the nature of the acts themselves, push the boundaries of what is or isn’t natural. In the first messenger speech, we find a graphic description of the Theban women, driven to Bacchic frenzy by Dionysos, tear apart a herd of cows with their bare hands. In the second messenger speech, the messenger describes Pentheus’ journey to spy on the Bacchae and his discovery which leads, on Dionysos’ urging, to his death by dismemberment, in particular at the hands of his mother.  

Much of what happens in these two episodes can be described as “uncanny.” The term is generally applied to Lovecraftian fiction or “weird” horror, and implies the intentional subversion of the “laws of nature” in favor of unsettling, often scary imagery. Bennett and Royle define the uncanny as follows: “the thoughts and feelings that may arise on those occasions when the homely becomes the unhomely, when the familiar becomes uncomfortably strange” (40.) This definition echoes the one put forward by H. P. Lovecraft: “[t]he weird tale has … [a] certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces …. a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature” (28.)

As explained above, Dionysos is a god often happy with pushing boundaries. It is no different in the Bacchae. In the first messenger speech, a cattle hearder, after narrowly escaping the Bacchae’s frenzy, rushes to Thebes to tell Pentheus what he has seen: the women, through the power of the god, were able to have milk, honey and wine spring from the ground (lines 869 – 877.) While this is certainly strange, it does not appear uncomfortable to the narrator, the herdsman and, in fact, he urges the disbelieving Pentheus to accept Dionysos as a god, which he is adamantly refusing to do throughout the play. Things become unsettling, uncomfortable, when the men try to grab Agave, Pentheus’ mother, to bring her back to court. Following this, the women turn to violence. 

The herdsman proceeds to give a vivid description of the women tearing cattle apart with their hands. Euripides does not spare the audience the gory details: “You should have seen one ripping a fat, young, lowing calf apart— others tearing cows in pieces with their hands” (909 – 910) while, once the carnage has been completed, “[y]ou could have seen ribs and cloven hooves tossed everywhere—some hung up in branches dripping blood and gore” (911 – 913.)

Through the graphic depiction of violence, the strangeness of the episode becomes uncomfortable. As I’ve discussed in my piece on Seneca’s use of violence, the violent act is uncomfortable precisely because it is dehumanising. A living, animated creature, human or animal, becomes simple meat: this is made even worse when the body is literally torn apart. In Ancient Greek, ritual dismemberment had a name: sparagmos. The sparagmos in the first messenger speech foreshadows a second, more terrifying one in the second messenger speech.

Towards the end of the play, Dionysos manages to successfully lure Pentheus up the mountain, under the pretense that there he will be able to witness the Bacchae’s ritual directly. It is, of course, a trap, and Pentheus is soon attacked by the women he was hoping to spy on. Urged by the god, the women tear Pentheus apart, and his mother, Agave, rips his head form his shoulders believing him to be a mountain lion. Similarly to the episode described above, the violence is preceded by a strange, but not necessarily unsettling, episode: Dionysos “[makes a] tree bend down,              forcing the mountain pine to earth by hand, something no mortal man could ever do” (1330 – 1332.) It is to help Pentheus gain better access to the women. After this, Dionysos disappears, and only his voice can be heard, urging the women to violence. Once more, Euripides does not shy away from the gorier details: “[s]he seized his left arm, below the elbow, pushed her foot against the poor man’s ribs, then tore his shoulder out … ripping off chunks of Pentheus’s flesh” (1391 – 1406.)

In both instances, the direct actions of a god, by definition inhuman, are the catalyst for the dreadful events to take place. In the first messenger speech, the women are “in Bacchic ecstasy” (897) and, the second time, it is Dionysus himself who urges them to violence (1345 – 1349.) As Lovecraft defined it, the weird is dreadful due to “outer, unknown forces” manifesting in a way which is percieved by the protagonist as menacing (28.) Throughout the play, one of the underlying threads is whether or not Dionysos is recognised by the other characters as being a god. Those who recognise his divine nature, like Tiresias, the herdsman or the second messenger, one of Pentheus’ attendants, are spared his wrath. Characters like Pentheus, however, or his mother, Agave (who is turned to Bacchic frenzy as a way to punish her for rejecting Dionysos’ mother, her sister) are forced to participate in dreadful, terrifying events as a way for them to fully recognise Dionysos’ divine nature. 

Certainly it is anachronistic to argue that the Bacchae is a piece of Lovecraftian horror literature, but by reading the play through the lens of the genre, we are able to add a further layer of complexity to the text: by reading the play as cosmic horror, we are able to see patterns, specifically in the two messenger speeches, which would have been lost otherwise. Thanks to this, the interpretation of Dionysus, both the character and the god, is made more complete. As Lovecraftian horror dabbles in the unspeakable and the terrible, so does Dionysus’ character in the play: by reading them as such, we can see the ways in which similar tropes have been used throughout the centuries, echoing each other and playing off of each other. 


Euripides, Bacchae, translated by Ian Johnson, (Vancouver: Vancouver Island University Press, 2003). 

Jameson, M., “The Asexuality of Dionysus” in The Masks of Dionysus, eds. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A. Pharaone, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993).

Lovecraft, H. P., Supernatural Horror in Literature and Other Essays, (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1973).

Otto, W. F., Dionysus:, myth and cult, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965).

Royle, N. and Bennett, A., An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, (New York: Routledge, 2016).


The Pianist from Syria by Aeham Ahmad

Written by: Kvitka Perehinets.

Written by a second-generation Palestinian refugee, The Pianist from Syria offers a detailed account of the life of a musician growing up in an unofficial refugee camp in Yarmouk before and after the outbreak of the Syrian war. 

The first half of the book takes the reader on a journey through Ahmad’s childhood growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp of 160,000. With his father a blind violinist, carpenter, and craftsman of musical instruments, much of the author’s youth was strongly influenced by music. Aeham’s recollection of his rebelliousness, often demonstrated in his tendency to skip school only to lock himself away in the back of his father’s shop to practice piano, is intricately intertwined with narrative on Yarmouk life. Ahmad successfully paints a colourful picture of the neighborhood, its residents, and the culture and traditions that make Yarmouk feel like a bustling, tight-knit community. Throughout the book, it is often referred to as a “camp,” despite it having long been part of Damascus. Many settled there purely because they had nowhere else to go, although many had not been granted Syrian citizenship. The description Ahmad provides of his life before the war makes the second part of the book all the more tragic: picturing the siege of Yarmouk, families living off water with cinnamon and children being shot in the streets against the backdrop of the happy, relatively untroubled childhood described several pages before leaves the reader with a sense of hopelessness. 

Ahmad does not spare details: when Yarmouk becomes a pivotal location for fighting between the Syrian government and rebel forces, the reader is fully immersed in the despair and anguish of the situation. Descriptive accounts of people lining up to receive aid packages, life under the constant danger of sniper fire and the anxiety surrounding the process of going through checkpoints where young men were picked out at random and arrested at any time also show this. Yet, despite the complicated nature of the politics at hand, Ahmad does a brilliant job at making it understandable for the reader while effectively communicating the sheer brutality of the Assad regime and the historical background of the developing conflict. 

The Pianist from Syria is a story of heartbreak, survivors’ guilt and anger, but it is also a story of hope, strength and faith. It is a reminder that daily life can quickly change dramatically: buildings to rubble, feasts to cinnamon water, families to individuals – reduced and changed all within a couple of months, regardless of whether you are rich or poor. One might say that the ease with which things have changed, stands in stark contrast to how complicated the situation had truly become at the end. 

Aeham Ahmad’s voice provides a most sobering read for those who seek a more personal, intimate account of one of the world’s most devastating conflicts, while receiving a share of historical background to it at the same time.

Railways, Race, and Lions – The Tale of the Tsavo Man-Eaters

Written by: Lewis Twiby.

The Uganda Railway appeared to be one of the best examples of imperial negligence by the British Empire. Quickly called the ‘Lunatic Express’ by contemporaries for its high cost to build (over £5.5million), and its apparent leading to ‘nowhere’. British imperialists claimed that the railway was required to secure the East African Protectorate, now modern Kenya, as it would prevent other European empires from moving into the area and constructing dam projects which would impact Britain’s access to Egypt and consequently India. So, from Mombasa on the coast to the Kingdom of Buganda along the shores of Lake Victoria, a railway stretching 700 miles began construction in 1896. Despite successive disasters it was finally completed in 1901, but the cost of running it meant it was mostly abandoned by 1929. However, one of the big disasters to strike the railway was at the Tsavo River where two lions killed around thirty workers. From March to December 1898 the infamous ‘Tsavo man-eaters’ preyed on the workers, and the story of them has inspired countless narratives and movies – most famously the movie The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas. The story of the man-eaters offers an insight into labour and colonialism in East Africa.

     The construction of the railway offers three different accounts, largely depending on race. The first, is the African viewpoint. The railway cut through the land of various ethnic groups including the Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba, and Luo. Kenya would later be known as the ‘White Man’s Country’ thanks to its white settler population, and their settlement in the Rift Valley was first opened up by the railway. Key imperialist Frederick Lugard recorded the fertility of the soil, ‘with excellent and luxurious pasture throughout the year’ in 1893, which offered prime farming land for a settler population. During the construction of the railway the local communities were forcibly evicted from their land, which later allowed farmers to claim these ‘empty’ lands. The forcible arrival of British industrialism created a new economic system for Africans to become part of. Some communities became labourers to help build the railway for the British, however, as they were few in number, the Ugandan Railway Company had to rely on alternate sources of labour. This brings us the second account, that of South Asians.

     Even though Britain abolished slavery in its empire in 1833 this did not end slavery. Instead, it was recast as a new system called ‘indentured servitude’. Indians were hired on contracts, in the case of East Africa these lasted five years, where they worked for the time allotted on the contract, and at the end they would get paid. However, this was an excuse to utilise slave labour – employees could not leave the contract, corporal punishment was allowed, and many people were worked to death. Indians, primarily from poorer regions, were put onto these contracts, and were sent to work in Britain’s far-flung empire. An Indian diaspora was formed across the world ranging from the Caribbean, to Fiji, to South Africa, and to Mauritius. Colonial administrators became frustrated at Africans resisting work, and, although Indians would also resist the backbreaking work, they were used, as they lacked the ties to local communities. Over 19,000 people from the Punjab, Sind, and North Western Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh) were sent to work on the railway – Hugh Tinker estimates that 7 per cent of them died and a fifth were declared ‘invalid’ upon returning. Ironically, British abolitionists had championed the railway as being a way, in the words of The Anti-Slavery Reporter, to engage in the ‘suppression…of the slave trade,’ despite actively engaging in slavery.

     Finally, we have the view of the colonisers. Alongside the desire to secure Britain’s imperial holdings the paternalistic view towards the colonised was very much in evidence. As already mentioned, abolitionists viewed British expansion into the region as a way to stop ‘petty tribes’ from exploiting their ‘weaker neighbours’. The ‘White Man’s Burden’ was regularly used to justify colonial expansion – colonised peoples had to be ‘civilised’ by the guiding hands of Europeans. However, there is a stark hypocrisy in this narrative – colonisation regularly entrenched ‘regressive’ traditions which colonisers argued they were combatting. The Anti-Slavery Reporter is a prime example of this. While stating that the Uganda Railway could be used to end slavery in East Africa and admitting that indentured servitude could lead to ‘very grave evils’, they argued that it ‘affords an inducement to the men to do their best’. Kenya soon became a colony where white Europeans could lead a life of aristocratic pleasure at the expense of the non-white population. In particular, big game hunting became a popular pastime and famous hunters, including Theodore Roosevelt, visited to hunt animals. John Henry Patterson, hired to oversee the construction of the railway at Tsavo, was an avid hunter, and his account of the man-eaters shows this. He gives paternalistic descriptions of Africans on one page, and on the next boasts how he ‘was especially anxious to bag a hippopotamus.’ This brings us to the man-eaters.

     Two male lions would hunt workers along the Tsavo River, and Patterson’s account would greatly mythologise them. Originally, he claimed that ‘they had devoured between them no less than twenty-eight Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives’, but later he would claim that they killed over a hundred people. The man-eaters became part of Kenya’s legend – it was the land where lions ate men so skilled hunters could prove their worth. Research by zoologists have shown that the lions started eating humans due to one of them having a damaged tooth preventing them from hunting their traditional prey – Patterson later said that one of his bullets caused this damage. Patterson’s credibility as the fearless, white hunter would become dented if the infamous ‘man-eaters’ only ate humans as they were injured. Exploitation is also a key reason why they started eating humans. Slave trading in the region regularly left corpses due to brutal conditions, and their regular prey started to dwindle. Railway construction bisected habitats cutting the lions off of their traditional prey, and a ‘rinderpest’ outbreak wiped out local populations of buffalo, warthogs, and antelope. This outbreak happened as cattle from India was imported to Africa believing it could help ‘acclimatise’ the South Asian labourers, but it had a consequence of spreading disease to the local wildlife. Humans became an optional food source due to this.

     Race and labour practices were a key reason why the lions managed to kill as many people as they did. The Uganda Railway Company wanted to maximise profits regardless of the human cost, and, buoyed by the idea that it was protecting the empire and preventing slavery, labour protection was ignored. The Indian government had been trying since 1890 to protect labourers abroad, but underhand negotiation allowed over 1,300 people to leave Karachi before anyone in India could check if they were even healthy enough to work. Africans and Indians were forced to work long hours with the promise of pay in the future, and in the heat of East Africa this raised mortality rates. Samuel Ruchmen has emphasised that papers reported tales of clashes with ‘African tribes’ and the lions, but ignored the thousands to die from hard labour and disease. Doctor John Brock in 1899 tried to convince the company to introduce vegetables to food rations due to the outbreak of scurvy, but his report was rebuffed as it would cost too much. Most workers also had to sleep in tents, something which is very flimsy when in contact with the claws of a lion. Meanwhile, overseers and managers had the luxury of medical aid, food, shade, and the protection of actual buildings or guards – it is no coincidence that these figures were white Europeans. Lion attacks soon fell along racial lines.

     Patterson arrived along with the workers in March 1898 at the Tsavo River, and already the impoverished and overworked Africans and Indians would have poor working conditions. As to what decimated workers in Panama and Suez constructing their canals, yellow fever and malaria struck down many people. The tsetse fly also spread sleeping sickness, something made worse as rinderpest had killed off most of the fly’s regular hosts. During the night the lions would sneak into camps and drag people from their tents – as the months went on the lions grew braver and both would venture into camp to claim a victim each. Desperate, workers lit campfires to scare off the lions and constructed fences made of thorn bushes to hope it could deter the lions – both failed. These attempts to scare off the lions made disease worse – fires attracted malaria-carrying mosquitoes and tsetse flies made their home in thorn bushes. The racial hierarchy of work meant that only non-white individuals were killed – safe in fortified areas Europeans escaped the lions. The district officer was nearly killed, but that was more due to the fact that he almost ran into one of the lions at the train station, rather than the lion stalking him. The attitudes to this also differed based on race.

     As argued by Harriet Ritvo, hunting lions became a metaphor for the domination of Africa – hunting the ‘King of the Jungle’ showed mastery over the land, and therefore the people. Patterson chastised the ‘coolies’ for being fearful of the wildlife as ‘they were sure it was a lion’ – in this context actually a valid fear. However, as Patterson did not face being eaten, valid fears were seen as evidence of Indians being ‘never remarkable for bravery’. In a callous remark he even mocked the attempts they made to avoid lions at night, including trying to erect tents on water-tanks, trees, and roofs. In the end, it was the workers who forced Patterson to properly act. Small-scale strikes regularly occurred on the railway – one in 1900 was reported by The Times of India over poor work conditions and a lack of access to medicine. Conspicuously absent from Patterson’s account labourers brought work to a standstill until the lions were dealt with by the end of 1898 – keen to keep his image intact he claimed that they gave him a bowl engraved with ‘Hindustani’ words to show their thanks. 

     Two lions driven to hunting humans became legends in Kenya’s history. The promotion of the colony in later years as one for the ‘white man’ turned them into a daring tale of man conquering nature. However, this narrative obscures the multifaceted nature of colonialism. A railway built for imperial prestige changed the landscape, brought a weakened and enslaved population to East Africa, and created animal attacks which fell along racial lines. It also shows another aspect overlooked. African and Indian labourers suffered thanks to the lion attacks, but they also were the ones who put pressure on Patterson to make a concerted effort to hunt down the lions. These workers managed to halt imperial expansion – a rare thing overlooked in the history of the British Empire.


‘The Uganda Railway’, The Anti-Slavery Reporter, 19:3, (1899), 137-139

‘The Uganda Railway’, The Times of India, (23/01/1899), 4

‘Uganda Railway Coolies: Some Alleged Grievances, “The Uganda Railway Strike”’, The Times of India, (20/09/1900), 6

Hill, M.F., Permanent Way: The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway, (Nairobi: 1949)

Meredith, M., The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavour, (London: 2014)

Patterson, J.H., The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, and other East African Adventures, (London: 1907)

Ruchman, S., ‘Colonial Construction: Labor Practices and Precedents Along the Uganda Railway, 1893-1903’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 50:2, (2017), 251-273

Tamasula, G.A., ‘The Lions of Tsavo: Man-Made Man-Eaters’, Western Humanities Review, 68:1, (2014), 195-200

Tinker, T., A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920, (Oxford: 1974)

‘Out of the Barbershop and into the Future’: Modern Medicine of New York City in 1900

Written by: Jack Bennett.

Having recently watched the period medical drama The Knick, from Academy Award winning director Steven Soderbergh, set during the Gilded Age of American history, the series encompasses the medical advancements, contemporary racial tensions found in both medical treatment and wider society, and the tumultuous political climate of America. Providing a window through which the harsh reality of illness and incurability on the wards of The Knick is revealed, mirroring the trichotomous nature of corruption, consumption and capitalism in the tension ridden socio-political environment of New York City and the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. This article will explore the historical depiction of medicine and the socio-political landscape of the USA in 1900 through a synthesis of historical criticism. 

Set within a fictionalised Knickerbocker Hospital in Lower Manhattan in 1900, Dr John Thackery (Clive Owen), the main protagonist of the show, becomes a tragic hero, plagued by his own cocaine addiction and amidst the noble pursuit of developing medical practices to save lives across society is loosely inspired by the drug-addict, medical pioneer Dr William Stewart Halstead. While, Dr Algernon Edwards (André Holland) is another fictional character who is possibly an amalgam of two notable doctors – Daniel Hale Williams and Louis T. Wright. Williams set up Chicago’s first non-segregated hospital and was the first African American to be admitted to the American College of Surgeons. Wright, a Harvard graduate, was the first African American doctor to work as a surgeon in a non-segregated hospital, at Harlem Hospital in New York City. Critically, the show conveys the sense of immediacy and rapidity of medical development at this time. For example, between 1880 and 1890, approximately 100 new types of operations were conceived, made possible by progress in anaesthetics and antisepsis, discovered in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, through the shows creation of 1900 Manhattan, combining the narratives of corrupt political officials, criminals, academics, and exploited immigrants, women and African Americans, The Knick assumes greater intentions through the creation of a rich tapestry of cultural characters, placing agency in the individuals and communities ordinarily subjugated during this period. 

The dimly lit interiors provide the backdrop to the domestic tensions and relations which reflect the wider developments within New York at the dawn of a new century. Foremost amongst these central themes is the shows depiction of racial injustices and relations at the nadir of racial policies in America at this time. Like its television counterpart, the Knickerbocker hospital had a policy of refusing to treat African Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century. revealing both implicit and explicit forms of discrimination, along with the dichotomy between the boundaries and limitations to African American social mobility as well as increasing degrees of interracial communication, collaboration and acceptance throughout society. Moreover, the position of multivariate immigrant populations in the United States during this period is expertly handled by Soderbergh throughout the two seasons of the show. Major shifts in the sources of immigration during the 1890s occurred, with 3.5 million newcomers entered the USA during this decade despite the onset of economic depression from 1892. Over 50% of which were from new immigration sources in Southern and Eastern Europe, such as Catholics from Italy and Jewish populations from Poland, residing alongside nativist communities with Irish, German and British decent. This produced an inherently global nation and melting pot of culture, along with resulting conflicts. With this influx, The Knick illuminates the reality of fin de siècle New York, as one in which immigrants come believing the promises but far too many do not survive the realities long. Constructing this reality was a political machine system beset by corruption and challenges for authority between established sources of wealth and power and the emergence of a Progressive era, with greater Democratic Political support and an increase in the pace of social development. For example, The Knick constructs a range of female characters, such as the hospital’s reform-minded patron, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), illustrating the increasing socio-political mobility of women at the turn of the century, assuming roles as medical practitioners, nurses and socio-political reformers within New York City. 

Medical historians, however, such as Howard Markel and Peter Kernahan have raised the issue of historical inaccuracies in The Knick. Markel, for instance, argues that the series conflated the medical historical developments which took place from the 1870s and into the early decades of the twentieth century, akin to ‘conflating the Middle Ages to colonial America to the Civil War’. While Kernahan determined a multitude of historical inaccuracies, in particular, the trade of cadavers for medical experimentation within the hospital, which would have unlikely taken place in New York in 1900. Anatomy Acts were passed in the mid-eighteenth century, preventing the practice of grave robbing for dissection. Despite these historical flaws, The Knick achieves an intricately written narrative of historical change through Soderberg’s uniquely active and engaging cinematographic form.

Nevertheless, The Knick reveals the perils of progress, straddling both medical modernity and static tradition. Whilst also depicting the vices and iniquities of early twentieth century society, it demonstrates a sense of unforgiving anti-romanticism. It creates a graphic, vividly detailed depiction of a shocking house of horror in the pursuit of modern ascendancy, despite the obvious side effects and creation of inequalities along this journey. Particularly, the elevation within the period drama of the surgeons as almost deified figures, balancing innocent with the suspenseful and graphically portrayed progressive and experimental medical procedures. But these individuals must experience their peripeteia, whether through hubris or dualism, pursuing the unsustainable double lives and moral compromises. This relates to Charles Rosenberg’s 1971 call for a “new emphasis” in the history of medicine, moving beyond the focus on the intellectual life of physicians to their activities as healers and as members of a profession. Medical historians, Rosenberg attested, were required to place medicine in its socio-cultural context and to explore the ways in which socio-economic factors might have influenced medical developments. This brought into the historical framework the increased authoritative roles of both African Americans and women at the time of widespread disenfranchisement, segregation and the propagation of second-class citizenship across the United States. By delving into an often-overlooked period of history, the medical drama experiences a fresh revitalisation. Arguably, however, the show is instilled with a historically revisionist approach and agenda, by exploring a field shaped and dominated by white men, adding contributions by African-Americans and women.

The Knick, by blending both seemingly gothic elements and unflinching medical realism, attempts to achieve dramatic historical accuracy, but is best appreciated and viewed as a pastiche of fact and fiction. Therefore, it allows for the reality of progressiveness and the sense of a new age dawning to be explored through the character developments of intriguing and complicated individuals and communities. Revealing the direct and intimate interplay between medical science and its social environment, becoming co-dependent of one another consequently during this transformative period. What The Knick fundamentally captures in its exquisite visual form, aesthetic and historical context is the fraught, unequal and transformative birth of modern medicine in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. 


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Stanley B. Burns, MD/Burns Archive, found in ‘The Cocaine, the Blood, the Body Count’, The New York Times, August 1, 2014, Accessed on 11 January 2020. 

The Knick (Series 1 and 2). Directed by Steven Soderbergh. 2014–15. HBO Cinemax

Adams, Peter. ‘Modern Medicine Had to Start Somewhere’. Health and History 18, no. 1 (2016): 174-79.

Deng, Boer. ‘How Accurate Is The Knick’s Take on Medical History?’, Slate, August 08, 2014, Accessed on 11 January 2020. 

James, Nick. ‘Further notes on The Knick’, Sight and Sound Magazine, 29 January 2015, Accessed on 14 January 2020

Kernahan, Peter J. ‘“A Condition of Development”: Muckrakers, Surgeons, and Hospitals, 1890−1920’, Journal of the American College of Surgeons, 206, 2, (2008): 376 – 384

Labuza, Peter. ‘Shock treatment: The Knick’, Sight and Sound Magazine, 29 January 2015, Accessed on 14 January 2020

Schuessler, Jennifer. ‘The Cocaine, the Blood, the Body Count’, The New York Times, August 1, 2014 Accessed on 11 January 2020.
Stanley, Alessandra. ‘No Leeches, No Rusty Saw, But Hell Nonetheless’, The New York Times, August 7, 2014, Accessed on 11 January 2020.

The Writing on the Wall: The Perilous Future of Historical Sites and Monuments

Written by: Tristan Craig.

In March 2014, officials in the Huairou District of Beijing announced their intention to certify part of the Great Wall of China a ‘graffiti zone’, formally allowing individuals to freely etch their names into the millennia old fortification. Located within the Mutianyu section – one of the best preserved areas of the wall and particularly popular with tourists – the controversial decision was made in an effort to abate increasing destruction by overzealous visitors. Authorities claimed this drastic step was a necessary one, arguing that patrolling officers and warning signs across the 5500 mile long structure had already proven ineffective, and that granting people permission to inscribe their messages on a small portion of the wall would lure them away from defacing it elsewhere. 

The Great Wall of China, however, is not unique in its suffering. Just three months after the dedication of the graffiti zone in Beijing, a part of the parapet on the historic Pont des Arts bridge in Paris (originally constructed during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte in the nineteenth century before being rebuilt in the 1980s) collapsed under the weight of padlocks attached to its railings. In a tradition where amorous couples seek to immortalise their devotion by marking their initials on a ‘love lock’ before attaching it to a bridge or other railing, the literal weight of this act proved costly. Subsequently, some forty-five tonnes of padlocks were removed from the Pont des Arts and destroyed. Locals in Verona, Italy are similarly bearing the burden of sentimental tradition. The courtyard of the Casa di Giulietta, believed to belong to William Shakespeare’s eponymous – and fictitious – heroine in Romeo and Juliet has become awash with scribblings, engravings and paper notes tacked to the walls with chewing gum (despite the infamous balcony from which she delivers her soliloquy being a twentieth century addition). The response from local authorities in this instance was to provide removable boards to satiate the desire of visitors to commemorate their love and to prevent further damage to neighbouring properties.

Human defilement is not the only factor at work in the destruction of outdoor landmarks, however. Erosion caused by weather conditions and natural degradation over time is a constant threat to their conservation. How best to preserve them whilst maintaining the integrity of the original structure has often proven a contentious issue. The Pictish standing stones of medieval Scotland exemplify this struggle, as their pictorial and ogham inscriptions are gradually worn by the harsh climate. In Forres, on the Moray coast, the monolithic ninth-century Sueno’s Stone now stands interred behind glass panels to prevent further damage, although remains on the site where it was first erected. The Anglo-Saxon Ruthwell Cross, which once stood in the yard of the church after which it is named, is now housed inside the building in an apse specially constructed for it in 1887. Whilst sheltering the cross – which dates to the eighth century – from the elements has ensured its survival, in doing so it no longer serves the same purpose for which it was originally created. What once was an object to be observed by passing laity – an ecclesiastical monument to the omnipotence of God and a beacon for travelling pilgrims – is now an artefact of historical religious significance. Whilst the artistry of the cross can still be admired by those who enter Ruthwell Church today, its context in the annals of medieval Christianity ought not to be disregarded.

Preserving and restoring structures subject to elemental deterioration presents a plethora of issues to conservationists, something which is only exacerbated by sites which benefit greatly from the tourist trade. Drawing new swathes of visitors to areas on occasion serves as the driving force in restoring ancient monuments but becomes problematic when done so to an inadequate standard. Addressing cosmetic deterioration on a merely superficial level often fails to fully address the source of the decay or does so in a manner unsympathetic to the original architecture. In 2016, the Great Wall of China once again hit headlines due to what individuals, including the chairman of the China Great Wall Society, viewed as an incredibly unsympathetic repair on a mile long stretch of it however official plans were announced in 2019 to reinstate the wall and prevent further irreversible damage.

Needless to say, preserving a monument as grand in scale as the Great Wall of China is not quite as simple as installing plywood panels along its ramparts or placing it behind armoured glass sheets. The dedication of the graffiti zone may be seen as the best possible course of action in what has become an increasingly dire situation. The most drastic course of action – preventing tourist access to the well-travelled sections of wall – would prove a gravely arduous and immensely costly task given the economic boost provided by tourist commerce, although graffiti is but one problem threatening the future of the structure. An estimated 30% of the Great Wall built by the ruling Ming dynasty has been lost due to natural erosion and the theft of bricks by tourists and locals alike. Although patrols continue along the route, maintaining 5500 miles of fortification visited annually by an estimated eleven million visitors in the most popular sections alone is a complex issue.

On occasion, however, the inscriptions left behind by figures eminent in their own right may actually serve in drawing visitors to an area. A signature purported to belong to Romantic poet Lord Byron on a column of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion in Attica draws as many literary admirers as it does classicists. It would malapropos to suggest, however, that making an allowance for this particular piece of history serves to encourage the public debasement of ancient monuments. The desire for people to leave their mark on sites of great provenance is all too common an issue facing conservationists and whilst individuals may do so ignorant to the consequences of their vandalism, it is a problem needing addressed on a global scale before historical sites are irreversibly damaged – or lost entirely.


Aitken-Burt, Laura. “Rewriting History.” History Today, January, 2020.

Chance, Stephen. “The Politics of Restoration.” The Architectural Review 196, no. 1172 (October 1994): 80-4.

Coldwell, Will. “Great Wall of China to Establish Graffiti Area for Tourists.” The Guardian, 4 March, 2020.


Kinloch Castle, Isle of Rum.

Written by: Mhairi Ferrier.

Majestic, intriguing, remarkable, captivating…

These are just some of the words that come to mind when describing the Isle of Rum, located in the Scottish Highlands. The largest of Scotland’s Small Isles, accessed by ferry from Mallaig, Rum is these days maintained by a combination of the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Isle of Rum Community Trust. In 2009 and 2010 there was a transfer of land and assets in Kinloch Village and the surrounding area from the SNH to the Community Trust. This was a landmark change for the island and marked a new phase in its history. Kinloch Castle, located in Kinloch – the island’s main village, is still under the control of the SNH. 

             The Isle of Rum has a deeply rich history, spanning from the Ice Age to interactions with Vikings before falling victim to the Highland Clearances. A piece of this length could not begin to do justice to the comprehensive history of the island, although there are some points in this history which hold the key to the island’s economic future. At its height the Island community was nearly 450 inhabitants; this is, however, before the Highlands Clearances removed these people from their homes. Never again has the Island hosted such a population – today’s island community is made up of less than 30 people. Post-clearances, the Island passed through different owners before becoming the possession of the Bullough family.

            Between 1897 and 1900, Kinloch Castle was constructed on the Island as commissioned by George Bullough. Bullough had inherited a large sum of wealth and the island from his father, John who made his fortune in Lancashire’s textile industry. Extravagantly built, the castle cost £250,000 (today equivalent to millions of pounds) and was decorated in the Victorian fashions of the age. The Bulloughs hosted guests on the island, offering a wealth of activities within the castle and across the rest of the island. Everything from a spot of dancing in the ballroom, to a game of golf or tennis, or perhaps guests of this station would be more interesting in pursuing stalking on the island. Yet life on the island was a tale of two halves during the Bullough years, on one side the extravagant lifestyle of the Bulloughs and their guests, and on the other those working for the Bulloughs for whom island life was most likely a struggle. 

            The First World War put an end to this extravagance, with George Bullough gaining a military position and workers enlisting in the army. After the war drew to a close, less than a handful of the workers returned from the conflict and the Bullough family frequented their island paradise less.  There was little appetite for the lavish pastimes and dinner parties that had been the norm for the privileged during the Victorian period and the beginning of the Edwardian epoch. George Bullough’s death in 1939 led to the Castle being frequented even less; with his widow Lady Monica selling the Island (including the Castle) in 1957 for a sum of £23,000. Sir John Betjeman was largely correct when he predicted that:

In time to come the Castle will be a place of pilgrimage for all those who want to see how people lived in good King Edward’s days.

Kinloch Castle quickly became a staple for any tourist visiting the island and for many years hosted hostel accommodation and a pub. There were, and remain, regular tours for visitors to gain an understanding of the lifestyle led in stark contrast to the pursuits of an ordinary island man or woman. As most know, the upkeep of any historic building is costly, and this struggle led to the closure of the castle’s hostel and pub in 2015. The campaign to keep the castle in its prime continues and is supported by the Kinloch Castle Friends Association (KCFA).  

            KCFA have great plans going forward which include re-opening the hostel with brand new accommodation as well as restoring the museum rooms of the castle to their former glory. This would not only boost the amount of accommodation available for visitors on the island but also help boost the economy for locals. With new housing being built on the island, things would appear to be going from strength to strength. However, there is one snag in this plan: KCFA’s asset transfer bid was rejected by SNH who did not believe the association’s plans to be financially viable. With each delay such as this, the castle is deteriorating, further increasing the sum required to complete the restoration. 

Well what now? 

            KCFA are appealing for further financial support in order to make their plans a reality. Should further funding not materialise, demolition is a stark possibility that SNH are considering. While the demolition of historic buildings is not unusual, it would be a disaster in this case. Kinloch Castle is a unique part of Rum’s fascinating history; a building which tells the story of the decadence and wealth of the most privileged in the early 1900s, truly contrasting the life of the working-class islanders. The Castle is a true symbol of Highland history, it demonstrates what happened on many of the region’s estates after the Clearances. As such, the Castle must remain as reminder for all. Furthermore, the Castle will provide a vital element to the local economy should it remain. With repopulating of the vast Scottish Highlands now taking shape thanks to various initiatives, any available boosts to local economies are vital in order to make it a success. 

            This new decade has the possibility to be remembered as the one in which Kinloch Castle is demolished or it could be the one in which a revitalised and restored castle is able to make a real impact to the community. The combination of new housing, new opportunities under community ownership and a restored castle no longer controlled by SNH would be a monumental development for Rum. 

For now, we’ll have to wait and see.  

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