Wednesday, 14 September 2011

India. By John Keay

A history: From the earliest civilisations to the boom of the twenty-first century.

John Keay

First published 2000. This edition 2010, Harper Press.

Well written, readable, apparently unbiased history. In broad outline, the narrative does not change very much from previous histories I've read - Romila Thapar, Nehru, Percival Spear, A.L. Basham, Ramachandra Guha, etc. There are of course differences. Differences of narrative, differences of emphasis, and differences of interpretation. But not too much. Keay does try to balance the tales of kings and emperors with some descriptions and tales of anonymous lives, and these efforts, though sporadic, are well integrated into the main narrative. In matters of emphasis Keay takes off on a slightly different path from the other histories. The British Raj is treated rather less harshly, and the Muslim 'period' somewhat more so, than in the other books. South India, as usual, is not given too much attention, except for a couple of the Chola kings. Nothing about the Pandyas, who apparently, co-existed with the Mauryas. But the book does not really seem to be tendentious of any particular view. 

First, a timeline - Indus Valley; vedic period; the epic age; some of kingdoms of the Gangetic plains; Buddha; the Mauryas; Ashoka (about whom Keay positively gushes - calls him the first King and administrator to actually codify decent and ethical principles - what about Hammurabi?); the Shatvahanas and the Kushans, Kanishka; Guptas; Rudradaman, Harshavaradana; Chalukyas and Pallavas; the Arabs (Sind), the Rashtrakutas (Deccan), the Palas (Bengal), and  the Gurjara-Prathiharas (Rajasthan, Gujarat); Ghanzi; Cholas; Prithiviraj Chauhan, Rajputs, Allaudin Khilji, Malik Kafur; Tughlaq; the Mughals, Bhamani Sultans, Shivaji and Marathas; British Raj; Independence. All these are standard Indian History regulars. As with all such histories, and due the nature and quantity of the knowledge available, the narrative becomes more and more detailed as we approach recent times. Thus time moves in millennia in the  first few chapters, then a few centuries at a time, then in centuries, and finally in decades. This again is standard. There are however some matters of emphasis on which Keay differs from others, and which were new for me. 

Keay makes a point of trying to establish and analyse the fact that between about 3500 BC and about 500 BC two civilisations apparently overlapped in time and space - the Indus valley civilisation about which there is a lot of archaeological evidence, but no narrative, written or otherwise; and the Vedic civilisation, about which the reverse is true, plenty of narrative, but no archaeology. And no cross reference of one civilisation to the other, i.e. nothing in the Harrappan archaeology about the Vedic and nothing in the Vedic   narrative about Harrappa. The maximum parsimony inference would be that these two civilisations are about the same, that one gave rise to the other. But that is probably shot down by the fact that horses, so important in Vedic times, are completely absent in the Harrappan artefacts, and also that the Indus valley seals are clearly not Sanskrit or anything similar, at least not according to research so far. Keay considers an origin for the Vedic people ('Aryans') in the Indo-Gangetic plains, but there is simply not enough evidence to support that. Most of the available evidence, including some recent stuff not explicitly considered by Keay, such as language, and genetic, points to a Western, roughly Central Asian origin for the Vedic people. Keay does not subscribe to an 'Aryan invasion' but neither, of course, do any of the serious historians I have read. The mystery remains. Perhaps careful genetic and linguistic analysis will actually tell us more, and maybe more archaeology in remote places or those currently urban and built up. Maybe, but I don't think so. I think the mystery will continue.

There are other interesting things in Keay I learnt with a sense of learning something for the first time - the existence and significance of Rudradaman;  the importance and antiquity of the excursions of Malik Kafur as far south as Madurai; the highly likely lack of religious motivations in many Kings, Emperors and conquerors (such as Shivaji, and many Rajputs); the interesting character  of the British in early times, as just another set of 'Kings'; the mandala theory of politics, where enemies and allies spread out in alternate concentric 'circles' from every kingdom, which was current up to about the 18th century; the fact that when the Sultans came in or again when the British came in, India was not a 'highly  developed country in an advanced state of decay' (as described by Shashi Tharoor in 'The Great Indian Novel'); and some recent history of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which I know, some of it, from the newspapers, but not as a 'history'. 

Keay, writes well, some times almost flippantly. An example is his repeated quotation of a copper plate charter from the sixth century which describes  the charter-giver as a king who 'cleft the temples of the rutting elephants of his foes' and whose 'toenails emitted rays as dazzling as the jewels'. Another is his characterisation of British Raj as never really 'pax Britannica' (there was always some war or the other going on) but more 'tax Britannica' and later 'axe Britannica' (for cutting down so much of the forests). He occasionally does slip in some specious interpretation unobstrusively through the book, but is more blatant about it when he describes recent (1980s to 2010) political events in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Also the fact of his being 'balanced and unbiased' is suspect now and then. But I guess no history can ever be uninformed by the prejudices and predilections of the historian. See for example Kurosowa's 'Roshomon'. 

However, all in all, a good book, well worth another couple of reads.           

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Hornblower in the West Indies - and an Overview of the Series. By C.S. Forester

Hornblower in the West Indies

C. S. Forester (1958)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Rear admiral Lord Hornblower is Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty's Ships and Vessels in the West Indies.  The novel consists of five stories. In the first, Hornblower tells what he thinks is a great big lie (thus losing honour) in order to save England and Europe from another series of Napoleonic wars, only to find that what he said was true after all. In the second story, he conceives a plan to chase a much faster slave ship by fitting a ‘drogue’ – a large conical sail below the bows – to it while it is a neutral harbour – New Orleans, USA – so that he could free the slaves on the high seas when the ship is no longer protected by USA. He succeeds, but keeps various big egos happy by pretending he did not originate the plan. In the third story, largely inland on the island of Jamaica, Hornblower is captured by pirates, and is then set free to negotiate, but instead takes a ship around to near the pirates’ hideout and blows them out with mortars. The fourth story is about Hornblower unwittingly helping the cause of Simon Bolivar’s revolution in what later is Bolivia. His sympathies lie with the revolutionaries, but since England is not at war with Spain, he cannot help overtly. The final story brings Barbara out to the West Indies, where, as is afterwards discovered she helps a convict escape.  Hornblower hands over charge to his successor, and sets sail for England. Their ship is caught is terrible hurricane and the entire crew is nearly lost, but Hornblower ties himself and Barbara and a few others to the mast and they survive, but just about. 

Overview of the Series

It is obviously a series I like very much. Not Nobel-prize winning literature, but excellently written. The first time I read most, but not all the series, was when I borrowed the books from the British Council library, sometime in the late 80s. The first book in the series I read was 'The Happy Return' which also happens to be the first book in the series to be published. This was suggested to me by Jayavardhan Pandit, my junior in IISc, who was surprised I had not heard about the series before. I liked the book immediately, and later when I came to Chennai, I started issuing the books from the library, and I found I liked the books more and more. The characters are mostly well fashioned, especially Hornblower, Bush, Barbara and a few others. However many others are stereotypical, e.g. Maria. What I liked best of course was the historical context, which is fairly authentic, I think, and hugely detailed descriptions of the life in the British Navy in that period. The sailing scenes and the sea battles are thrillingly described. Even such episodes as chasing an enemy ship or escaping from one over a period of several hours or even days of sailing is excitingly told. Of course, I do not know if the descriptions are technically sound, but I think they must be, or else the websites would have been full of criticism. A great set of books, perhaps to be read again after a few years. However I should try and get the printed versions - reading e-books is not the same. 

Afterword: There are couple of short stories, at least, that I remember reading long years ago, but which I don't find in the current set of downloads.There was one in which Hornblower, in retirement in his country estate, encounters a young refugee Napoleon III, who, history tells us, was later to be President of France and then its Emperor, around about 1845-1850. Hornblower must have been about 70 years old when the encounter takes place.     

Lord Hornblower. By C.S. Forester

Lord Hornblower

C. S. Forester (1946)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Hornblower (still Sir Hornblower when the book opens) is sent to put down a mutiny by a ship  which is anchored of the coast of France, threating to defect unless their demands are met. Hornblower successfully puts down the mutiny, at the same time destroying some French shipping and capturing a few others, thus making him and his crew richer by the ‘prize money’.  He is offered a deal for the surrender (or ‘declaration for King Louis’) by the port town of Le Havre in exchange for special trading rights for a powerful company there. He accepts this. Captain Bush and the Nonsuch, and a couple of other ships join his fleet, bringing along a complement of soldiers. Hornblower goes ashore with these soldiers, takes over the town, accepts the declarations of the Mayor and the big shots of the town, and starts governing. One of the princes of the French court is sent to Le Havre to take it over in the name of the King. Hornblower recieves him while all the while thinking about the news he recieves about a massive siege train sent by Napoleon from Paris to Le Havre, under the generalship of Quiot, another historical figure. He sends a trop of soldiers and seamen in the command of Bush, up the river Seine, to take the seige train by surprise and destroy it. This operation is successfully carried out, but Bush loses his life, the greatest personal loss suffered by Hornblower in the entire series, except for Maria and the two children. Barbara comes out to Le Havre to join him, and Hornblower finds himself growing a bit distant from her, her presence while he performs his duties being irksome to him. They receive news that Napoleon has been captured and is interned on the island of St. Helena. They go to Paris, where he learns that he has been made a Peer, Lord Hornblower of Smallbridge. At a reception, they meet Marie and her father-in-law, with whom Hornblower spent a few months on escaping from French custody some years previously. Barbara elects to go to the conference in Vienna, where she will serve as hostess for her brother. Hornblower returns to Smallbridge. But bored there, he makes a trip to France, now under the Bourbon King, to stay sometime with Marie and her father-in-law. While there they learn that Napoleon has escaped, gathered together a large contingent of troops and has marched once again on Paris. Hornblower, Marie and the nobleman lead a small guerrilla resistance, but eventually the nobleman and Marie are killed, and Hornblower is captured and about to be shot the next day, when news comes of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Hornblower is reprieved at the last moment.

The Commodore. By C.S. Forester

The Commodore

C. S. Forester (1945)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Sir Hornblower is now the Squire of the village of Smallbridge, a property that he has purchased with his prize money and made a home for himself, his wife Barbara and his son Richard. He is appointed Commodore aboard the Nonsuch with Captain Bush (with a wooden leg) in command of the ship, and sent to the Baltic sea to keep an eye on the goings on between Sweden, Russia and France.  He has a political adviser on board by name of Braun, who fled Finland on its conquest by Russia. They pass through the narrow straits between Denmark (in French hands) and Sweden (neutral), are fired upon by batteries at Amager on the southern tip of the strait on the Danish side, but get through with some damage. The British fleet tries to blockade all shipping helpful to France. It hunts down a French privateer that seeks refuge in a harbour beyond the reach of the Nonsuch’s guns. However the fleet has a couple of ‘bomb’ vessels, i.e. ships carrying mortars and land guns, and these are used to destroy the French ship. He then escorts a British emissary from Sweden to the Russian court at St. Petersburg in an attempt to force Tsar Alexander to declare war on France. There he prevents an attempt by Braun to assassinate the Tsar, and has a brief affair with one of the ladies of the Russian court.  Later a landing party destroys much of the coastal shipping off the coast of Konigsberg. Russia declares war on France, and Hornblower and his fleet go to Riga to help the besieged town. There are descriptions of land battles here, directed by Clausewitz, then a Prussian general in Russian service. Hornblower meets him, discusses battle tactics with him, and takes part in some of the battles, and helps in the eventual rout of the French army from Riga, at the same time as Napolean’s main force is in retreat from the Russian winter. At the end of the book he collapses, and the reader may believe he dies, but in the next book we are told this was the effect of typhus, from which he duly recovers on his return to England. Many of the events in this book, especially the events in war between Russia and France, are familiar from ‘War and Peace’ and the biography of Napoleon.

Flying Colours. By C.S. Forester

Flying Colours

C. S. Forester (1938)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

The book begins with Hornblower in captivity in Rosas. Soon, in midwinter, he and and an injured Bush and a ‘coxwain’ Brown are sent to Paris for show trial. The charge is that he sailed under false colours (he once used the French flag on the Sutherland to pull off a trick) and therefore is a spy, likely to be shot. On the way all three escape from the carriage in which they are travelling, and find shelter in the chateau of a local nobelman on the banks of the Loire. The nobelman is a royalist with sympathies for the ‘ancien regime’. In the next six or eight months Hornblower falls in love with the nobelman’s widowed daughter-in-law Marie, Bush recovers and learns to use a wooden leg, and they all build a shallow boat. On this boat the three of them sail down the Loire, dressed as fisherman, and reach the sea port of Nantes. Here, dressed as customs officials, they steal a French ship and sail it to England with ‘flying colours’. He is formally arrested for his role in letting the Sutherland sink, but in the ensuing court martial is honourably cleared. He learns that Sir Percy Leighton died in the action in Rosas, and also that his wife Maria died in childbirth, though the child was safe, and now in the care of Lady Barbara. He is knighted, goes to meet his son at Lady Barbara’s and find that she still loves him and wants him.

A Ship of the Line. By C.S. Forester

A Ship of the Line

C. S. Forester (1938)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Hornblower takes command of the Sutherland, a much larger ‘ship of the line’. War has been long declared with the French. Barbara has married Sir Percy Leighton who is his commodore when he joins escort duty for a convoy of East Indiamen to the Mediterranean. In the course of this trip the Sutherland singlehandedly keeps away a couple of pirate ships who see easy prey in the merchant ships. For this he is rewarded by the convoy, but not satisfied with the money from them, he also ‘kidnaps’ a few hundred seamen from the merchant ships, much to their helpless consternation.  He rejoins his fleet, only to find that Sir Percy and his ship have not rejoined. Under orders from the senior captain he has a few adventures off the Spanish coast destroying shipping and some chore batteries. After an unsuccessful attempt by the fleet to go into the harbour and bomb it out, (not advised or planned by Hornblower) he is asked to lead a landing party of mixed Spanish and English soldiers to capture the fort. he is promised help from the Spanish land army which does not materialize, and Hornblower has to retreat in short order. Again he is ordered into action, alone against four French ships, and the Sutherland is badly shot before he surrenders and is arrested along with his crew and imprisoned in the fortress of Rosas.

The Happy Return. By C.S. Forester

The Happy Return

C. S. Forester (1937)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

The first Hornblower book that I read, given to me in 1982 by Jayavaradan Pandit. Also maybe the earliest book in the series written by Forester. Hornblower is captain of the Lydia and is sent to the Pacific, round Cape Horn. After eleven weeks of sailing on the high seas he makes a perfect landfall in the Gulf of Fonseca on the west coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. There he meets a local chieftian, El Supremo, who is a detestable despot (seemingly modelled on Conrad’s Kurtz), but who is in rebellion against the Spanish. Therefore Hornblower helps him by capturing and then handing over to his nascent navy, the Natividad, a much larger Spanish war ship. Soon thereafter he learns that the Spanish are now friends with the English and against El Supremo, and this was so even as he captured the Natividad. He is afraid of being discredited for helping the newly created enemy, even though this happened because he followed his orders perfectly, i.e. he did not communciate at any time with anyone until he made landfall. In Nicaragua he takes on board Lady Barbara Wellesley, thus beginning of their love affair. He again meets the Natividad and fights her and sinks her despite her superior firepowere, sustaining the while fearsome injuries to his own ship. He refits, and returns to his command cntre, the Caribbean island of St. Helena. On the long (and largely uneventful) trip there, again around Cape Horn, the love affair between Hornblower and Barbara develops a full head of steam, but Hornblower is conscious not only of Maria, but the fact that his background does not match Barbara’s blue blood, she being the sister of both Richard, the Marquis of Wellesley, sometime Governor General of the East India Company in India, and of Arthur Wellesley later Lord Wellington, who fought in India.  ["Humph," said Lady Wheeler. The name of Wellesley was still anathema to a certain section of Anglo-Indians. "This Lady Barbara is a good deal younger than he is, I fancy? I remember her as quite a child in Madras."]. The book ends with Hornblower abruptly breaking off their contact on reaching St. Helena. He is then sent back to England to assume a new command.

Hornblower and the Atropos. By C.S. Forester

Hornblower and the Atropos

C. S. Forester (1953)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Hornblower and family travel by a canal barge from Gloucester  to London along the Thames and the Severn. In London Hornblower takes charge of the Atropos. His first duty is not connected with the ship, but is to conduct the water-borne part of the funeral procession for Lord Nelson who has only recently been killed during his signal victory at Trafalgar. After this, Maria gives birth to a baby girl, and Hornblower has to leave his family of three behind to take the Atropos to the Mediterranean. He has with him in his ship a young german ‘king’ recently deposed by Napoleon, as a midshipman in training. Hornblower goes to Turkish waters, on way picking up a team of three Ceylonese pearl fishermen and their English overseer, to recover treasure from a sunken English ship. This they manage to do almost completely before they relealize they are trapped by the Turkish guns positioned at the mouth of the bay. But some brilliant night seamanship in shallow waters gets the Atropos out safely and on to Gibraltar, where the treasure is deposited. He is ordered to Sicily, where he arrives after an adventure on the way. In Sicily he is asked to hand over his command to the Sicilian King, as Britain is gifting the ship to the latter to enable him to start a Navy. He does so and returns to England only to find both his children very sick of smallpox. (They die of it, as we learn in the next book).

Hornblower and the Crisis: An Unfinished Novel. By C.S. Forester

Hornblower and the Crisis: An Unfinished Novel

C. S. Forester (1967)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

The book was left unfinished by Forester when he died.  On his promotion to ‘post rank’ Hornblower returns on a Waterhoy (a ship supplying water to the blockading fleet) to Plymouth to await his new command. On the way they are first pursued by a French ship, but succeed in getting aboard and destroying it. In Plymouth he is summoned to London and asked to become a spy in Spain. Here the novel ends, but the gist of the rest of it is reported by the editor. ‘Forged letters are delivered to Villeneuve which prompts the Frenchman to come out and fight. This is what Nelson wants. It leads to the victory at Trafalgar. The course of history is changed.’

Hornblower and the Hotspur. By C.S. Forester

Hornblower and the Hotspur

C. S. Forester (1962)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Hornblower marries Maria and almost immediately sets out to sea on the Hotspur, with Bush as his lieutenant to start observing the French port of Brest. The Napoleonic wars have begun, and the British Navy is charged with keeping the ‘First Consul’ out of Britain. Hornblower goes up and down outside the French port, observing, gathering information by bribing fishermen, and being chased by a larger French frigate, after war with the French is declared, but yet, by Hornblower’s brilliant seamanship, being able to so badly damage it that the French ship gives up chase. There are other such adventures, battles with various ships, the capture of a few of them, Hornblower’s stoic calm in the face of not being able to participate in any prize money captures, and glimpses of his domestic life when he puts in to port for refitting. In the end, he is promoted to Captain.

Lieutenant Hornblower. By C.S. Forester

Lieutenant Hornblower

C. S. Forester (1952)

E-book downloaded from the Internet

Hornblower is now a lieutenant in the British navy, aboard the HMS Renown.  He meets Lt. Bush who’s his senior, and who’s to be his closest friend and colleague through their long later professional association. Captain Sawyer of the HMS Renown is crazy, and turns crazier as the voyage progresses. Hornblower takes part in a nominal mutiny, during which the captain sustains a mysterious injury, thus disabling him and enabling the First Lt. Buckland to first put the captain in a strait jacket, and then take command of the ship. Hornblower is faintly suspected of causing the injury, but the truth is never known. Hornblower later suggests a plan to capture a fort and a few ships in the port of Santa Domingo, and thus early displays his brilliance. At the later court martial into the entire affair, Hornblower comes out smelling of roses, and is made commander of a ship called the Retribution. But before he is confirmed in his position, peace is declared in the war between England and Spain. Thus Hornblower is relegated to the status of Lt. with no money, not even the half-pay because of some bureaucratic hurdle. He makes a living playing cards, ‘whist’ a game like bridge, with noblemen and admirals, and then when war with France is declared, he is made commander of the ‘Hotspur’. In this period he also gets to know Maria, his landlady’s daughter. Maria falls in love with Hornblower, and though he is conscious that she is not exactly his match, nevertheless he feels a real affection for her and asks her to be his wife.

The novel is written from Bush’s viewpoint, i.e. nothing happens except in his presence. This is the only such novel in the series. All others detail Hornblower’s thoughts, fears, hopes and so on. This change of viewpoint appears to be used by the author almost solely in order to be sufficiently vague and mysterious about how Captain Sawyer of the Renown was incapacitated.