14 April 2017

A Tenebris Ad Lucem ...

The Miserere, (or Miserere mei, Deus), a setting of Psalm 51, written by Gregorio Allegri (c.1582-1652) sometime around the 1630s for the choir of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where it was performed each Easter as part of the Tenebrae Service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday. Tenebrae means ‘shadows’ or ‘darkness’, hence the Tenebrae Service takes place at dusk, when, during the ritual, the candles in the chapel are slowly extinguished one by one – until only one remains alight, which is then veiled.

The Miserere was a sacred piece of church music, hence it was forbidden by the Papal Authorities to copy or circulate the piece outside the Vatican. But, as a sublimely beautiful piece of Renaissance polyphony, written to be performed a capella by two choirs of five and four voices, it gained a certain notoriety, characterised by a transcendental air of mystery for those who had heard it, thereby gaining an even greater sense of mystery for those who had only ever heard tell of it.

It is impossible not to be moved by this piece of music. The first time you hear that high C is a musical moment you are likely to recall long after it has gently faded away to nothing. Ever since I first heard the Miserere it’s been one of my favourite choral works. And my liking for the piece of music grew further when I first heard the story of how the Miserere came to be known and delighted in beyond the walls of the Sistine Chapel. According to this story, on April 11th 1770 – when he was fourteen years old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was visiting Rome with his family and attended the Holy Wednesday Tenebrae Service at the Sistine Chapel. According to surviving family letters he was so struck by the piece of music that later that same day he wrote it down from memory. He returned to the Chapel on Good Friday to hear it performed once again and to correct his copy. For this act of early 'bootlegging', instead of getting into trouble, the young Mozart was later invited to an audience with Pope Clement XIV and rewarded with a Papal Knighthood (the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur; see here) on July 4th 1770. From this transcription the Miserere was first published the following year in England.

Here are the Tallis Scholars performing Allegri’s Miserere in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome in 1994. And I’m dedicating this to the memory of my dear friend, Kate.

Image at the top shows an Angel conquering Death, by Richard Westmacott (1775-1856), who also sculpted the pediment frieze of the British Museum (click on the image to link to its source)

1 April 2017

1904 - Tibet's Marriage with Modernity

I recently finished reading Edmund Candler’s The Unveiling of Lhasa (Thomas Nelson, 1905). What follows are my first impressions and reflections linking a selection of passages from that text (these centre on themes which I aim to expand upon in my PhD thesis).

On the whole I found the book a curious mix. For the most part it is an unpalatable, almost surgical recounting of the military conquest of Tibet. A lot of people die in these pages, and it is hard not to baulk at the fact that the objectivised recounting of these ‘facts’ are not a fiction. These events occurred. The (at times) Boy’s Own adventure-style is deeply apparent. This unfortunate event is perhaps the last 19th century-style military Imperialist incursion of the British Empire. It is couched as a heroic “last hurrah”, as Tibet represents a final blank space on the world map. Somewhere to be claimed and conquered. Civilisation pitted against savages. The book overflows with orientalising tropes, and yet there are moments of poignant detachment – when moral reflections are countenanced, but often subsequently dismissed or explained away in the end. What happened, happened. And it happened for a reason; because it had to happen. And what’s done is done, and henceforth the world (and the British Empire) will be a better place because of it. A triumph for the “geniuses” of Empire (in this instance, those geniuses are Sir Francis Younghusband, leader of the military expedition, and Lord Curzon, Viceroy of British-India).

Sir Francis Younghusband
The “Unveiling” of the book’s title is telling. Candler’s tone hints at all the inevitable metaphors. The Younghusband Mission of 1904 ends in a marriage of sorts, but it is a shotgun wedding (without any metaphor). A military force enters Tibet, penetrating the sanctity of its holy and forbidden capital city, with murder and plunder marking every painful step of its march. This book reeks of Freudian psycho-babble. But its main thrust is the moral reasoning of a marriage of medievalism with modernity. Tibet is a backward, feudal anachronism which has violently awoken to the realities of modern Western civilisation. All the way from the Chumbi Valley to Lhasa the British have tried to reason and negotiate with the benighted and duplicitous Tibetans, but their stubborn obstinacy time-and-again has forced the British hand. It is a cultural clash of misunderstandings which can only be overcome by the power of the Maxim gun. Despite the devastating mechanised firepower employed it was touch and go at times, when the “enemy” missed glaringly obvious opportunities to cut off the British line of supplies. There’s little thought evident in Candler’s narrative that the Tibetans might have been fighting (i.e. – defending themselves) under different terms, and with a contrasting conception of the rules of engagement.

Reading these decidedly one-sided pages one can’t help but be aware of the deafening silence of the other side. Many of the British soldiers (officers, certainly) are named, whereas the mass of ‘natives’ – both Sikh and Ghurkha friend and Tibetan foe – are not. I kept thinking of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas. And this is a point which Mary Louise Pratt has used to good effect in her analysis of such colonial encounters. The process of transculturation which takes place in these Western colonial era writings is what interests me too. These types of books were predominantly written by men of Classical education – the struggles (agon) and trials of Homer’s Odysseus and Virgil’s Aeneas soak through their words and redolently permeate their world outlooks; triumph and victory are won through the defeat of adversity. Respect is due to those who evince martial honour; and nobility is conveyed by lofty ideals, upholding reason and the pursuit of higher knowledge – “science” marches in the bloody hobnailed wake of such incursions. Thus civilisation simultaneously justifies and obfuscates its own barbarism; turning the tables on itself, expiating and exculpating all its blinkered ills.

Vide: – Candler’s dedication of the book:

“These pages, written mostly in the dry cold wind of Tibet, often when ink was frozen and one’s hand too numbed to feel a pen, are dedicated to COLONEL HOGGE, C.B., and THE OFFICERS OF THE 23RD SIKH PIONEERS, whose genial society is one of the most pleasant memories of a rigorous campaign.”

It’s all there. Adversity and congenial company. War, weather, and pleasant conversation with one’s chums. 

Younghusband (front row, centre, in fur coat) and Col. Hogge (back row, second from right) at Phari Jong, 1904

The rest of the book is at pains to account for and justify the perceived punitive aims of the Younghusband campaign, which the Tibetans have in effect only brought upon themselves. Edmund Candler (1874 – 1926) was a war correspondent for the Daily Mail – an “embedded journalist” in modern parlance – and his book was born of his original despatches to that newspaper. In essence we could read this work as tacitly sanctioned propaganda. I’m not sure to what extent his reports were actually vetted by the expeditionary Force or the British-Indian authorities, but they could hardly have raised a frown when they read the likes of the following:

“In estimating the practical results of the Tibet Expedition, we should not attach too much importance to the exact observance of the terms of the treaty. Trade marts and roads, telegraph-wires and open communications are important issues, but they were never our main objective. What was really necessary was to make the Tibetans understand that they could not afford to trifle with us. The existence of a truculent race on our borders who imagined that they were beyond the reach of our displeasure was a source of great political danger. We went to Tibet to revolutionize the whole policy of the Lhasa oligarchy towards the [British-]Indian Government.
The practical results of the mission are these: The removal of a ruler who threatened our security and prestige on the North-East frontier by overtures to a foreign Power; the demonstration to the Tibetans that this Power is unable to support them in their policy of defiance to Great Britain, and that their capital is not inaccessible to British troops.
We have been to Lhasa once, and if necessary we can go there again. The knowledge of this is the most effectual leverage we could have in removing future obstruction. In dealing with people like the Tibetans, the only sure basis of respect is fear. They have flouted us for nearly twenty years because they have not believed in our power to punish their defiance. Out of this contempt grew the Russian menace, to remove which was the real object of the Tibet Expedition. Have we removed it? Our verdict on the success or failure of Lord Curzon’s Tibetan policy should, I think, depend on the answer to this question.
There can be no doubt that the despatch of British troops to Lhasa has shown the Tibetans that Russia is a broken reed, her agents utterly unreliable, and her friendship nothing but a hollow pretence. The British expedition has not only frustrated her designs in Tibet: it has made clear to the whole of Central Asia the insincerity of her pose as the Protector of the Buddhist Church.” (pp. 369-371)

Younghusband and the Chinese Amban at Lhasa

If Orientals are characterised by their inscrutability, obstinacy and obsession with maintaining “face” – it is intriguing to notice the parallel Imperialist fixation with “prestige.” The Great Game represents the higher Imperialist goal, the collective endeavour from which they derive both means and ends for the projection of power. But it can belie a different kind of motive which perhaps underlies the individual’s attraction to and sense of agency within the greater scheme of things. At times this perspicacity succeeds in peeping through:

“If only one were without the incubus of an army, a month in the Noijin Kang Sang country and the Yamdok Plain would be a delightful experience. But when one is accompanying a column one loses more than half the pleasure of travel. One has to get up at a fixed hour – generally uncomfortably early – breakfast, and pack and load one’s mules and see them started in their allotted place in the line, ride in a crowd all day, often at a snail’s pace, and halt at a fixed place. Shooting is forbidden in the line of march. When alone one can wander about with a gun, pitch camp where one likes, make short or long marches as one likes, shoot or fish or loiter for days in the same place. The spirit which impels one to travel in wild places is an impulse, conscious or unconscious, to be free of laws and restraints, to escape conventions and social obligations, to temporarily throw one’s self back into an obsolete phase of existence, amidst surroundings which bear little mark of the arbitrary meddling of man. It is not a high ideal, but men often deceive themselves when they think they make expeditions in order to add to science, and forsake the comforts of life, and endure hunger, cold, fatigue, and loneliness, to discover in exactly what parallel of unknown country a river rises or bends to some particular point of  compass. How many travellers are there who would spend the same time in an office poring over maps or statistics for the sake of geography or any other science? We like to have a convenient excuse, and make a virtue out of a hobby or an instinct. But why not own up that one travels for the glamour of the thing? In previous wanderings my experience had always been to leave a base with several different objectives in view, and to take the route that proved most alluring when met by a choice of roads – some old deserted city or ruined shrine, some lake or marshland haunted by wild-fowl that have never heard the crack of a gun, or a strip of desert where one must calculate how to get across with just sufficient supplies and no margin. I like to drift to the magnet of great watersheds, lofty mountain passes, frontiers where one emerges among people entirely different in habit and belief from folk the other side, but equally convinced that they are the only enlightened people on earth. Often in India I had dreamed of the great inland waters of Tibet and Mongolia, the haunts of myriads of duck and geese – Yamdok Tso, Tengri Nor, Issik Kul, names of romance to the wild-fowler, to be breathed with reverence and awe. I envied the great flights of mallard and pochard winging northward in March and April to the unknown; and here at last I was camping by the Yamdok Tso itself – with an army.
Yet I have digressed to grumble at the only means by which a sight of these hidden waters was possible.” (pp. 279-282)

Both Candler and his friend, Rudyard Kipling, wrote with great enthusiasm on the noble endeavour which they felt embodied the romance of real travel (I’ve written more on Kipling’s views on travel here), and certainly both men were born and shaped from the imperialist mould. But Candler was also friends with Joseph Conrad, and Conrad was a man of a different mind. A novelist, like Kipling, who wrote about empire – as it was the world in which he lived and operated – but Conrad was Polish by birth, a seaman who travelled the globe by trade, and eventually a naturalised Englishman – but one with a distinct distaste for the affects of empire. One only has to read his eponymous Heart of Darkness with its pathetic fallacy aptly illustrated by the metaphor of a naval frigate launching its mighty ordnance into the thick trees of the jungle-lined coast, the sightless shelling of an unseen foe, which is perhaps only the impassive and irrepressible verdure of Nature itself. In essence, a futile act. Conrad best summed up his view of modern Imperialism through the mouthpiece of his character, Marlow, in Heart of Darkness:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” (Heart of Darkness, pp. 31-32)

I can’t help wondering – if Conrad ever read Candler’s newspaper reports from Tibet, or even all of this particular book, The Unveiling of Lhasa – what he and Candler would have said to one another in conversation over this topic. No doubt they saw eye-to-eye on some things, whilst differing over others, as would many other people existing in the context of those times – but how did they each think such a world would play out in the long run, and ultimately might they have been in some sort of accord?

Lhasa, Tibet - 1904


Edmund Candler, The Unveiling of Lhasa (Thomas Nelson, 1905)

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (first published in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1899; Penguin, 1989)

Joseph Conrad, Tales of Hearsay and Last Essays (J. M. Dent, 1955)

Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (Routledge, 2008)

Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978)

Gordon T. Stewart, Journeys to Empire: Enlightenment, Imperialism, and the British Encounter with Tibet, 1774-1904 (Cambridge University Press, 2009)


Also on Waymarks:

5 March 2017

Questioning the Future - As A Historical Paradox


The Fall of Globalism, the Rise of Populist Nationalism, & the Question of 'Global History'

It seems as though the world is changing fast these days. It’s hard to keep up at times. There’s a lot of talk about a new age of uncertainty. And it seems as though many people are trying to gain some perspective on what is actually happening around us, but often it’s hard to see the wood for the trees when you are in the midst of the forest.

The internationalised future which appeared to have dawned in the last decade of the twentieth century seemed to presage an auspicious start to the new millennium. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, borders were beginning to blur, barriers began to be replaced by bridges – Europe was becoming more united with the establishment of the Schengen zone and a common currency, the founding of the World Trade Organisation, the economic rise of big countries such as China and India – globalism seemed to have been given the green light. The dichotomy of the Cold War era was now redundant, a new era of international harmony seemed a realistic possibility. But then everything began to change, and the changes seemed inconceivably contrary to all those optimistic expectations. Instead, the new century began with the unprecedented horrific spectacle of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York in 2001, which in turn precipitated the ‘global’ war on terror. A cultural dynamic had shifted dramatically, and today the repercussions are still reverberating from this seismic shift.

Then there was the financial meltdown of 2008. The pillars of the present world system suddenly seemed to be standing on political and economic foundations which were (and still are) dissolving with spectacular rapidity. Capitalism was in crisis. That optimistic new dawn, we were now being told, had been replaced by a new ‘age of austerity.’ The global financial downturn augured and helped to incubate a growing sense of disenfranchisement and disillusion. The green grass of the future had yellowed and dried to tinder. Hence the unexpected rise of popular nationalism seems to have suddenly spread out of nowhere, like wildfire. One can’t help wondering if this – our present time – is but the calm before the conflagration? Are we about to watch our world burn as that former optimistic future seemingly goes up in flames?

2016 may well come to be seen as a momentous year for global history. With the precarious onset of Brexit (perhaps for the EU as much as for the UK) in an uneasy near centre split of 52% versus 48%; the similarly narrow margin in the election of Donald Trump on a xenophobic nationalist platform (the likes of which, some outlets have been quick to tell us, ‘the West’ has not seen since the fall of the Weimar Republic) has prompted a great deal of worried navel gazing in public discourse, with pundits looking to history for similar precedents, and there by logical extension to historians in an attempt to unfathom the all-too-often hasty conclusions which some folks seem to be drawing from such history lessons. It is no wonder historians are being asked to step up to the task. These days the zeitgeist is ghastly. How often now do we read of the “lessons from history” being bandied about as a favourite phrase of the moment in the press and media?

These are bewildering times to be sure. And as someone currently enrolled on a programme of education with the goal of becoming a professional historian, I’ve often found myself contemplating the wider implications of such a career choice and the kind of calling it represents for me personally. It poses questions to which I have no concrete answers. All academics know that a perceptive question simply begets further questioning, but as a discipline our collective historiography is based on the process of asking and reflecting upon such questions. A recent article by Jeremy Adelman in Aeon Essays ruminating on the question: “What is global history now?” has really sparked a diode in my mind and focussed my thoughts a little further on this theme. It’s prompted me to ask myself again the question which every historian should constantly be asking themselves: what kind of a historian am I?

Of one thing I am definitely certain – I’m a global historian. And in reading Adelman’s article I find myself concluding that a 'global history' perspective is still just as relevant now, if not moreso, than it ever was before. My own field, the study of empire, is not a simple analysis of historical determinism; its scope is far, far broader than that. If global history is anything, it is pluralistic. It is as much about the local as it is about the international. You can’t raise questions of imperialism without invoking further questions about nationalism, there is no international without the local – and neither can be mutually exclusive. Hence today’s socio-political shift towards populist nationalism isn’t necessarily a retreat from the global, instead it presents a different set of contradictions to the surface simplicity that this same populist nationalism appears to champion. I, for one, think it is politically short-sighted on the one hand, and on the other, it is disingenuously calculating as a short-term tactic for taking and consolidating control. And clearly it is working. This is happening. 

Recently there’s been much talk in the UK about the nostalgia for empire. There is this harking back to a halcyon view of an untarnished past in which life was better at home in a country which was outwardly confidant and strong, exporting its vision of a just and rational modernity to a benighted and backwards wider world which naturally could only benefit from such an advanced and enlightened benevolence. But many have been pointing out that this is at best a false premise. The past was nowhere near so clear cut, nor so black and white. The study of empire is in effect a study in shades and nuances; it is an analysis of a greyscale of good to bad, benefit to harm, boon friend to bogeyman (cf. Ferguson versus Mishra). Theresa May talks about making a post-Brexit Britain a ‘global’ nation again – but what does that mean?

Surely being an active member of an international union such as the EU was a highly effective way of pursuing such a globalised vision for greater international harmony? Then again, I’m well aware that the same basis for such an arguement can be turned on its head and argued for precisely the opposite. Hence the question: - is a globalised world of individual nation states a more equitable base for a world system than one predicated on a preference for international unions of similar socio-economic ‘friends’ operating in concert? – Some might say it depends on the size of both the economy and the population of the nation state we are looking at. Think of the Philippines and China currently at diplomatic loggerheads over mutually disputed territories in the South China Sea. How can a small country vie with, let alone have its voice heard and respected by a relative superpower? Not all countries can “punch above their weight” as the oft-used trope of nationalist nostalgia in Britain would have us believe we do here in the UK; it’s a phrase which has so frequently characterised the rhetoric of British politicians since the demise of this country’s empire; indeed, whatever their party colour, UK politicians all seem to relish either cooing or crowing about this seemingly paradoxical incongruity of a plucky little island nation retaining its seat at the top table of global powers – history has denied many similarly small or even a fair few bigger nation states such a chance to join this particular club.

But nationalism versus globalism is the real question which Jeremy Adelman’s article set me thinking about. If the recent trend towards globalism has resulted in an unexpectedly inward turn towards parochial or populist nationalism, what follows on from that? – If such a nationalist turn seeks to differentiate a new (or renewed) notion of “us and them”, we have to wonder how such a polarisation is meant to take effect? Not least because the previous trend towards globalism has prompted a greater transnational social integration in so many countries. Many of our most economically burgeoning and flourishing cities are booming precisely because they have become expressly international cities. If the nationalists wish to categorically differentiate their “us” from ‘the other’ they can’t hope to do so on a macro, global level without precipitating doing so on a local, micro level at home too; and so, such a policy would simply end up being endemically fissiparous, or to put it another way, they’d in effect be throwing the baby out with the bathwater – hence some people’s legitimate fear that the implementation of such a policy would in effect equate to pushing a self-destruct button.

But then again, this might well be the intention ... Indeed, it follows that in the logical progression of such nationalism – anyone perceived to be a foreigner, say because of their colour or their creed, regardless of the fact that they were born in that same country, were fully acculturated therein, and held official papers attesting to their legitimate citizenship, perhaps even being several generations removed from their original immigrant forebears, would count for nothing. They may well end up being stigmatised as the enemy within, as indeed was the case with the Japanese in the USA after the attacks on Pearl Harbour, or worse with the Jews within Nazi Germany and occupied Europe in the 1940s , or similarly with the 'ethnic cleansing' in Balkan nations following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Undoubtedly, though we might well shudder to consider it, there is every possibility of similar things occurring in exactly this way as the norms of civil society become increasing corroded and eroded by a toxic and exclusionary insularity. I would argue that the key question is not so much how this wave of populist nationalism has arisen or whether history is in any sort of sense repeating itself, though these are certainly important points to consider and debate; but rather, I would venture to suggest that the key question of our time is whether the dichotomy of this dilemma – globalism versus nationalism – is recalibrating and accelerating a new kind of global schism?

In his article Adelman quotes a deeply worrying statement about an imminent cultural collision of East and West apparently made in 2014 by the current chief strategist in the White House, Steve Bannon: “There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.” … Little hope then, perhaps, to echo a famous phrase attributed to Winston Churchill, that “jaw, jaw” might be allowed a chance to take precedence over “war, war.” But more essentially such an overtly militarist stance in terms of the foreign policy of such an intrinsically pluralistic nation does not look sufficiently deeply into the reality beneath its nose on its very own doorstep. You cannot have a dualistic confrontation in the form of a "clash of civilisations" when your own society is already one built upon an integrated internationalist base, as this is in essence blindly self-destructive. The fact that we are clearly so split right down the middle (vide the voting splits for the two opposing Brexit camps, or the Presidential campaigns of Trump and Clinton), I think utterly precludes it. Trying to purge a society of ‘the other’ from within its own midst today would in the end be tantamount to instigating a civil war (think again of the 1990s Balkans War). Ours is no longer a world of near and far. The ‘global village’ is real, we are all living it now, and we are all more closely interconnected than ever before. Take Brexit and the issue of the current right of EU nationals to permanent residence in the UK which has simply highlighted how deeply married Britons are to the Continent, literally in the case of so many transnational married couples who are currently facing the threat of dislocation.

And yet – in looking through this present glass darkly and attempting to envisage the potentially deeply dystopian future that may well now lie ahead of us: what if this populist nationalism ultimately succeeds in its goal of disuniting the globe?What will follow to police and maintain the new world order which will result from this epic "clash of civilisations"? Will such resurgent nationalism eventually beget a shift to a reinvented imperialism? Will it end in a new Cold War-like stand-off between Crusader and Jihadi? Or will it require a new kind of colonialism? And if so, who will end up being subjugated, colonized, exploited, and controlled as ‘the other’ in this nightmare vision of our collective future –  both at home and abroad? … The globe might well be up for grabs, but in my opinion, taking my lesson from history – the outcome of the impeding tussle will be anyone’s guess to call. But right now – it’s the moment when we stop asking questions which worries me the most.

References & Further Reading

Jeremy Adelman, What is Global History Now? Aeon Essays (March 2, 2017)

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983)

David Cannadine, The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences (Penguin, 2013)

Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History? (Princeton, 2016)

John Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (Penguin, 2013)

Pankaj Mishra, From The Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against The West and The Remaking of Asia (Penguin, 2013)

Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the 19th Century (Princeton, 2014)

Edward Said, Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978)

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (Knopf, 1993)

Pierre-Yves Saunier, Transnational History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Ooi Kee Beng, The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015)