Film Review: 'Amistad', an unromantic vision of the slave trade

A few weeks ago I was cuddled up on the couch with my other half, who made the fundamental mistake of allowing a history student to be in charge of the movie selection. A fellow historian had recently recommended Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad, and I jumped at the chance to watch it when it came on.

This historical drama is based on the 1839 mutiny on the Spanish transatlantic slave ship La Amistad. Starring Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey and Morgan Freeman, the film follows the African captives upon the slave ship and their legal battle within the American court system. During the on-board mutiny the captives murdered many of the crew, but spared their Spanish navigators in the hope that they could return home; but instead of reaching Africa, they were tricked by their navigators who had in fact taken them north, where they were shortly captured not far from Long Island by the USS Washington. Having arrived in the United States, they were arrested, unable to speak English, and facing a lifetime of slavery. However, with the aid of an abolitionist lawyer, the captives begin their legal battle to establish themselves as freemen (and freewomen) and return to Africa.

Through the clever use of flashbacks, Spielberg illustrates the horrors of the ‘Middle Passage’ and the harrowing conditions that were all too common within the transatlantic slave trade. The film pulls no punches in displaying the cruelty suffered by the millions of African men, women, and children who were sold into slavery. It makes no attempt to be glamorous but instead portrays the grim realities of human trafficking and bondage, including starvation, whippings, and death. The film builds up to the captives’ appearance in front of the Supreme Court in the case of United States v. The Amistad (1841), and includes a particularly stirring speech by former President, and pro-abolitionist, John Quincy Adams.

Throughout the film the Africans’ case is contextualised by the growing tensions within the United States: not only the debate surrounding slavery, but also party politics, presidential election campaigns, and the looming threat of civil war. The film also represents the existing tensions of the time between the United States and the European powers of Great Britain and Spain. With the British abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, Spanish slave smugglers had become a lot more common, and both of these nations had great interest in the outcome of this case. The film explores their relationships with the United States during this period, particularly with its portrayal of Spanish-United States diplomatic relations under Queen Isabella II.

This film is excellent for anyone interested in African history, American history, or the history of the transatlantic slave trade. As I am currently writing my dissertation on slavery within the West Indies I found it particularly fascinating. However, perhaps it is not the best contender for date night… although we both enjoyed the film it did take some of the romance out of the evening!

My Year Abroad: Studying history in France

In Britain, we have an absurd fixation with university league tables. In the absence of a similar system in France, I knew little of what to expect when I arrived in Dijon for my year abroad studying history at the Université de Bourgogne. The titles of the courses were not even released until the first week of classes, and the course choice was so limited that I, with a preference for modern social history, found myself writing an essay about the history of bears in the middle ages.

This is because students at Dijon are required to take courses from Antiquity, medieval, modern and contemporary periods. It was interesting to note the differences in terminology. L’histoire moderne is what we refer to as the early modern period, ending at the French Revolution, followed by histoire contemporaine, which is the period we call modern history. I also took a course entitled Temps présent, which was essentially post-war French history stretching all the way up until the 2005 French riots, and which brought in sociological concepts and demographic trends.

In their final year, history students at Dijon choose between continuing this broad historical degree, or studying ‘approaches to the contemporary world’, which focused on contemporary history, but which brought in courses on international relations, sociology, and the media. There is a significant stress on the interdisciplinary nature of history.

Dijon, http://kingofwallpapers.com/dijon.html

Dijon, http://kingofwallpapers.com/dijon.html

Similarly, a common complaint of non-British history professors at the University of Edinburgh is the monolingualism of students, which is a product of our culture. In Dijon, every history student is made to take a language throughout all three years of their degree. Interestingly, language courses are delivered in classes uniquely composed of history students, the courses being tailor-made to fit with the discipline. Other disciplines such as geography and sociology are also seen as essential to the historian, and are made requisites of the course.

Partly as a result of this rigid course structure, a French university often feels like a factory, where everybody arrives knowing their future career path and chooses a degree in service of this. One professor, while giving feedback on a student’s presentation, said, ‘If you want to become a teacher, you cannot write on the board in abbreviations’, without first asking whether said student wished to become a teacher. Skills such as critical thinking did not seem to be such a priority, and there were no tutorial-style discussions as I was used to in the UK. That being said, professors were nonetheless passionate about their subjects, and had the freedom to tailor courses to their interests.

My favourite course was entitled ‘La table des Européens’, and gave a history of food in Europe, including the development of restaurants, the arrival of colonial ingredients, and the link between food and cultural identity. It is a course only a French professor could come up with. And he duly began the first lecture with a game of finish-the-sentence, which went like this: “Italians eat… Pasta. The British eat… badly. The French eat… well.’

The events in Paris on 13 November 2015 were a sombre reminder of the importance of what we have chosen to study, prompting some difficult speeches from professors. One professor of Temps présent had a particularly important reminder for us. Terrorism, she said, is “not the radicalisation of Islam, but the Islamisation of radicalism”.

While I was not necessarily impressed by the educational system during my year at a French university, the academic experience was more valuable than I had anticipated. It is always interesting to see how another country approaches history. This is not even to mention the extraordinary opportunities outside of the classroom that a year abroad offers. It would be a great tragedy were future students to miss out on similar opportunities to study abroad.

I promised myself I would not mention Brexit. That’s it, I need to go and hide under my desk.

 

THE GREAT WAR COLUMN: Edinburgh's Fallen Alumni

James Crozier was a former medical student at the University of Edinburgh and was tragically killed within the first few weeks of World War I.

The University’s Roll of Honour from 1915 lists the first of those to be killed during the opening months of the conflict. The document, which can be found at the National Library of Scotland, records 16 Edinburgh alumni killed between August 1914 and January 1915. The Roll of Honour further lists those that were wounded, as well as details of the various roles of alumni in the conflict.

Roll of Honour, 1915

Roll of Honour, 1915

James Crozier is the second name on the Roll of Honour, which is organised alphabetically rather than chronologically. Crozier is reported as having been killed in action on 27 August 1914. Further records tragically reveal that he had only arrived in France a mere 13 days earlier and that his death occurred on his first day of active combat. James served in the B Company of the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, after having joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1912 before enlisting in 1914.

Crozier was originally from Cheshire but had moved to Scotland where he attended Loretto School in Musselburgh between 1906-1909. From 1910, he read Medicine at Edinburgh for two years while living with relatives in Longyester. We can only assume that his medical ambitions were put on hold in 1912 when he joined the RSF. Tragically, they would never be resumed.

The chronology of events surrounding Crozier’s premature death remains fragmented. However, from the limited information available, it is possible to put together a timeline of his experiences. Having enlisted in 1914, he was taken to Flanders, landing at Le Havre on 14 August 1914. Within two weeks, he would be dead.

On 27 August 1914, his unit prepared for their first day of active service. They were based near Etreux, in northern France, and had been given the task of halting a German advance. However, they were outnumbered six to one by the German troops. Crozier is alleged to have shouted, ‘There they are, come on men!’ as he exposed himself to the onslaught of the enemy’s rifles. From Crozier’s unit, a mere four officers survived their first day of battle.

The first British casualty of the war is reported to have been on 21 August 1914, less than a week before the death of James Crozier. John Parr is widely believed to have been the first British Commonwealth soldier to be killed in action during the conflict.  Both deaths marked the start of a long and bloody war.

News of Crozier’s death did not reach home until October 1914. An obituary was printed in the Haddington Courier, which provides biographical information and highlights the importance of newspapers as an archival resource in historical research. Memorials across Midlothian pay further tribute to Crozier, including those at Loretto School and the Holy Trinity Church in Haddington. He was repatriated, unlike so many of those killed during the First World War. His gravestone is located at St Mary’s Church in Haddington, along with other members of his family.  

James Crozier may have been the first Edinburgh University alumnus to be killed, but he would not be the last.  In the first year of the war, 18 alumni were counted among the war dead, however this would increase to over 160 in 1916 alone. The University suffered the deaths of hundreds of alumni, as well as many wounded, as a result of the conflict.

Film Review: 'Anthropoid', The Czech assassination plot

Anthropoid seems a strange name for a film, but makes sense once you realise that this was a code-name for a secret Czech plan to assassinate one of the highest ranking Nazi officers, Reinhard Heydrich, in 1942. The acting ‘Reichsprotektor’ of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich was notorious for his vicious methods. This film relates the story of how two men were tasked by the Czech Government in exile with the assassination of one of Hitler’s top men.

Jamie Dornan of The Fall and Cillian Murphy of The Peaky Blinders star in the hard-hitting 'Anthropoid'

Jamie Dornan of The Fall and Cillian Murphy of The Peaky Blinders star in the hard-hitting 'Anthropoid'

The film begins with the parachute drop of Jozef Gabcik and Josef Valcik into a snow covered forest. Not even this goes smoothly for them, and there is the feeling that their mission might be cursed from the outset. Cillian Murphy plays Jozef Gabcik, the senior of the two would-be assassins, with a reticent, underlying violence. While compelling, Murphy’s characterisation of Gabcik is very like that of his Peaky Blinders character, Thomas Shelby, and the sense that he is becoming increasingly typecast does somewhat damage his credibility. Josef Valcik is portrayed by Jamie Dornan, as a younger but possibly more emotionally damaged man. It is hinted that he suffers from some type of stress disorder, which can make him hesitant in dangerous situations. Dornan is the weaker of the two actors and does not manage to convey as much of an emotional range.

Once Gabcik and Valcik meet the leaders of the resistance in Prague, there is debate over whether assassinating Heydrich is the best plan. Members of the Czech resistance highlight the very real concerns that such action may lead to reprisals against innocent Czech people and the replacement of Heydrich with some other, equally brutal, figure. Feeling disenfranchised and isolated, they argue that the Czech government in exile are out of touch with the situation on the ground in Prague. Toby Jones gives a solid performance as Uncle Hajsky, one of the resistance leaders.

The predominantly male cast is enhanced by the addition of two supporting female roles, the love interests of Gabcik and Valcik, who offer differing illustrations of the lives of women at this time. Lenka, played by Czech actress Anna Geislerová, is the older and wiser of the two women; as the daughter of a soldier, she has no illusions about the horror of war. Charlotte Le Bon portrays Marie with naivety, as a girl whose romantic ideas of war are quickly contradicted.

There is a drabness to the film that perhaps serves as a reminder that the resistance groups in the Second World War did not find their work exciting, but a necessity. The drama’s oppressive atmosphere gives a realistic impression of resistance work, but does slow the pace of the film in comparison with more conventional, and less historical, thrillers. Without giving too much away, the most emotional and action packed scenes take place as the film draws towards its conclusion.

Anthropoid does a good job of bringing to life a piece of Czech history that might not be familiar to general audiences without compromising on factual accuracy. It raises interesting questions about whether such assassinations can cause more trouble for ordinary people than they prevent. It is difficult to call it enjoyable, but it is certainly hard-hitting.

 

5 Minutes with....Dr Robert Crowcroft

Dr Robert Crowcroft has been teaching at the University of Edinburgh for five years, and currently teaches an honours class entitled ‘From New Jerusalem to New Labour: The Labour Party in Contemporary Britain’.

Can you briefly summarise your area of interest in history?

I work on modern British political history. Most of my work is underpinned by an interest in the character, and imperatives, of democratic politics. That is what I am most concerned with. I have written on the Conservative and Labour parties, the history of Britain during the Second World War, and political leadership. I have also edited mass-market reference books on British history for Oxford University Press.

Why did you become interested in political history specifically?

An excellent question! The answer, quite simply, is that in my view political history is the most important form of history there is. Other approaches are immensely valuable, but everything flows from political history. As the historian John Vincent wrote, ‘there are too many dead bodies on the stage to begin anywhere else’. Everyone appears to enjoy discussing it. Political history no longer holds the same position of pre-eminence within the discipline that it once did, and, arguably, that is a real shame. Political historians should never have capitulated so meekly. We have a strong group of political history scholars here at Edinburgh, thank goodness.

To what extent do you feel that all voters should have an understanding of the history of political parties, and why?

One of the ways in which political history serves a valuable social purpose is in encouraging the public to be more aware, thoughtful citizens. To take two, rather obvious examples. The Thatcher era within the Conservative party marked a significant break with traditional Conservative statecraft, and yet, in our era, Thatcherism is now widely considered to represent ‘real’ conservatism. That’s historically dubious. The current state of the Labour party is quite novel, and history does not provide much of a guide to what will happen next. That said, many of Labour’s current problems have deep historical roots. The party has always been fixated with the spectre of ‘betrayal’, and this has long impacted its politics. Every Labour leader has had to worry about being compared to James Ramsay MacDonald, who (allegedly) betrayed the party in 1931.

Why do you think Jeremy Corbyn has become leader of the Labour party?

The current ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell is fascinating. I think there are a number of factors. The New Labour period was one in which the leadership showed little respect for the party, and this stored up considerable resentment.  The Blair and Brown governments also made what are now seen by some as unacceptable compromises with capitalism and free markets; there has been a backlash against it. The Iraq War is now an emotive part of Labour folklore. Overall, there is a sense that the New Labour leadership were guilty of betraying (that word again) various things, and this eventually led to a radical shift in the culture of the Labour party. One also has to recall that Corbyn encouraged lots of new members to join the party and vote for him, something which has certainly compounded the discomfort of so-called Labour ‘moderates’. Something else one has to bear in mind is the general existential crisis of Labour statecraft provoked by the fall of New Labour. Labour enjoyed thirteen years in power, including a prolonged period of global economic prosperity, electoral popularity and a weak opposition. And yet Labour was still unable to create the kind of society that it desires. That is an acute intellectual problem, one that the party does not appear able to resolve. It is intriguing!

One approach to the history of the Labour Party emphasises the frequent divides in the party between the ‘left’ and ‘right’ factions. Why do you think this problem is specific to the Labour Party, and can you offer any explanation as to why the Conservative Party tends to appear more united?

Every party is factionalised, the Conservative party being no exception. Historically, the Conservatives have usually been cunning enough to keep this away from the glare of public view, though that has changed in the last thirty years. Yet thinking about the divisions within Labour in terms of ‘left versus right’ often tells us little. For one thing, there have always been multiple factions on ‘the left’ and ‘the right’. Moreover, many of the most important conflicts within Labour have not actually been related to doctrinal inclination. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown spent more than a decade manoeuvring against one another. At stake was power, not ideology. The same happened between Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison. Their rivalry shaped politics atop the Labour party between 1935 and 1955. Framing one’s objections to somebody else as ideological is a useful way of presenting your ambitions in a more acceptable fashion. A lot of the time, at least, we should not take these claims too seriously.

Interview conducted in October 2016

I lost my heart at Wounded Knee

Snow drifted gently from the grey sky, matching the sadness in his heart: the heart that had been ripped from him. All the warmth that had been in his mother’s body had started to drift away. A warmth that had kept him safe through his ten years. A warmth that ended when the blue-coated soldier had fired upon his mother. Her body was the only thing that stopped him from sharing her fate. He was so scared. His entire body shivered through fear and the biting cold. What was going to happen to him now?

He had been scared when they had fled with the other Hunkpapa to join Chief Spotted Elk when the Indian agents had killed noble Sitting Bull. Almost a man, he had vowed not to cry but his mother let him weep into her shoulder as they fled to the new reservation. Life had been hard on the old reservation: the ground was dry, crops refused to grow, wasting diseases took people like his father away, the rations were meagre, and the warriors could not hunt the buffalo even if the Indian agents said they could, because there was none left. Sitting Bull had given them hope though. Sitting Bull who had managed to get so many to safety when they went to war against Long Hair Custer. Who had parlayed with the Americans on behalf of the Sioux people. Who had visited the big cities in the east with the funny-man Buffalo Bill. Now he was gone. Gone like his father, his grandfather…and now his mother.

Tears had frozen on his cheeks. Gently he kissed her on her forehead and took off the Ghost Shirt which he wore over his normal one. He placed it around his mother’s body so she would not get cold. She hated the cold. For that reason he used to throw snowballs at her when the snows came.

“I hope the Ghost Shirt works better for you, mother,” he sniffed. A smiling warrior had given him the shirt during their flight after Sitting Bull’s death. He had never taken it off since. He had even urged his mother to wear it. Were the southern Navajo right? He had heard from the warriors that they had rejected the Ghost Dance. The young warriors had partaken in the ritual to make them immune from the bullets of the bluecoats, drive the invaders from their land, bring back their ancestors, and bring back the buffalo. He had been so excited. A chance to see his father again. It did not matter in the end. The dead remained dead, the buffalo were nowhere to be seen, bullets still killed them, and their land continued to be taken.

The snow crunched with his every step. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Before he lost his heart he had loved that sound. In a distant memory, he remembered his father showing him how to make a man out of snow. They had stuck stones into it to make a head and found some crow feathers, as dark as the night sky, to make hair. He and his friends had then pelted his father with snow. It was only two years ago but it felt like a lifetime. The bluecoats had taken everyone he loved from him: his father from the wasting disease, his mother from the bullet, his friends lost during their exodus from the reservation. For all he knew they could be lying in the snow like his mother.

All around him were tepees flattened by the long departed roar of the soldiers’ bullets, snow greedily drinking up the red blood, and gouges in the white from people fleeing, along with their pursuers. He was not scared of encountering any of the soldiers. It would be a relief. He could join his mother and father. Or maybe the stories of the young scouts were true about soldiers taking children to be raised by white families. Maybe he could tell a white family about what was happening to his people and they could tell the leader of the Americans what was happening. The leader of the Americans would see what the army and agents were doing, and would give them back their lands, and give them medicine and guns and buffalo. Except that the only people around, Lakota or American, were lying dead in the snow.

A loud snort and the crunch of snow brought his mind back to the frozen reservation. Was it an American soldier, or a Lakota warrior? The rider wore a rifle across his back, brown trousers, and a white Ghost Shirt. His dark hair had smatterings of white, but not thanks to the snow. Upon his face were tell-tale lines of age. The aged warrior nimbly jumped off his horse like a man of half his years to land in the snow with a crunch. He waded through the snow to kneel before him.

“Are you lost my boy?” he asked in Lakota. “Where are your parents and kin?”

He felt tears welling up behind his eyes. To avoid his shame, he looked at the snow seeing it melt as his salty tears dropped to the earth. He felt the warrior grasp him in an embrace. “Do not fear child. We may be separated from them for now but we shall be reunited. Come, I shall take you somewhere safe.” He took the warrior’s hand and together they waded through the snow. The aged warrior gently lifted him onto the horse.

“I am Mahpiya Icahtagya,” the warrior said smiling.

“Chaska,” he replied.

Not wasting any time they soon left the scene of broken dreams and hearts. The snow continued to fall as if they had never been there.

Bibliography

Brogan, Hugh, The Penguin History of the United States, Second Edition, (1999, London)

Brown, Dee, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, (1971, New York)

Foner, Eric, Give me Liberty!: An American History, (2004, New York)

Pharoah Akhenaten's Ordained Benevolence

As Pharaoh of Lower and Upper Egypt, King Akhenaten undoubtedly had immense power over his land and subjects throughout his seventeen year rule of the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt. Though it was common for Pharaohs to justify their rule through religion, Akhenaten took it one step further. He changed the primary god of worship from Amun to Aten, and used poems and steles* - among other things - to assert his dominance, validate his rule, and defend his religious reforms.

(*a stele is a stone or wooden slab, erected as a tall monument and was used in Ancient Egypt for funerary purposes, to mark sacred territories and as territorial boundaries, as used by Akhenaten.)

Akhenaten uses both the poem, ‘Hymn to the Aton’, and the stele 'House-shrine' to promote his authority and power over Egypt and his subjects. Throughout 'Hym to the Aton', Akhenaten unduly praises the God Aten to the point where he indirectly asserts his own kingly power to be greater than even that of Aten’s. While in stark contrast, the image carved into the stele depicts Akhenaten as affectionate and familial, with Aten approving and blessing the Pharaoh in this respect. However, though the stele presents the king’s supposedly tender and benevolent personality, rather than his military might - as earlier Pharaohs had done - Akhenaten uses the altruistic message of the stele as a way to deceptively promote his own kingly supremacy and justification of his reign.

King Akhenaten asserted his dominance as a righteous ruler of Egypt by focusing on religious power exclusive only to the king. Upon becoming king, Akhenaton changed the traditionally central god of worship from Amun (known as the king of all gods) to Aten, the sun god, while also evidently merging Aten’s name into his own. In fact, Akhenaten dedicated so much of his time on religion and religious reforms, that he ended up ‘...ignor[ing] the military and administrative problems of the Egyptian empire.’ It is interesting to note however that Akhenaten experienced no dire consequences to his extreme actions, whether it be heavily controlling one aspect of everyday life or having a complete lack of control in another. In fact it wasn't until Akhenaton's son, Tutankhamen, came into power that these religious reforms - to many of the people’s relief - ended. This clearly shows that those under the Pharaoh, either out of respect or fear of his power, were constrained from speaking out - no matter how much the Egyptian people may have disliked his actions. This speaks immensely of a Pharaoh’s power during the height of Egyptian civilization.

In ‘Hymn to the Aton’, Akhenaten excessively praises the god Aten; his position as the only ruler to actually worship this god portrays him as the supreme leader. This further indicates that he has power matching, even surpassing that of Aten’s. Akhenaten’s praises to the god are seen right from the beginning of the poem in which he declares: ‘Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven, / Thou living Aton, the beginning of life!’ Though Akhenaten continues to compliment Aten, he does so by referring to himself in the third person: ‘Thou art in my heart, / And there is no other that knows thee / Save thy son [Akhenaten], /For thou hast made him well-versed in thy plane and in thy strength.’ Akhenaten indirectly honors himself by claiming that God Aten’s actions have in fact been to elevate himself as the king. This is emphasised in the final lines of the poem: ‘But when thou risest again, / Everything is made to flourish for the king, / Since thou didst found the earth / An raise them up for thy son, / Who came forth from thy body: /The king of Upper and Lower Egypt, ... Ahk-en-Aton’ Thus, regardless of the manner or expanse that Akhenaten credits the God Aten with, it is only another technique employed in order to benefit the establishment of his own authority. The subjects reading this poem are presented with the image that their king, ordained by god, has a direct link to an immeasurable amount of holy power.

In contrast, Akhenaten use the stele - titled ‘House-shrine’ - to similarly boast of his power, but in a more modest and shrewder way than in ‘Hymn to the Aton’. The stele features his family gathered under the blessing of Aten, and illustrates to the people that Akhenaten’s family - his wife, Nefertiti, and his three daughters - is privy to the authority and access that comes with being descendants of Aten. The stele shows that Akhenaten along with his wife are the only representatives of God on Earth.

Anything Aten claimed to express to Akhenaten relating to religion, rule and power had to be taken as the utmost truth. This gave him power beyond that of any earlier Pharaoh. He could single-handedly make decisions for Egypt based on his personal preferences and opinions, while using religion and his sole connection with Aten as the justification for his judgments and actions. This stele was small enough to be mass produced and for people to keep in their homes, serving as a physical reminder of  Akhenaten’s authoritative governance in his subjects’ private homes. Akhenaten managed to deceive his people and bring them to believe that his power was really just a byproduct of his humbleness and kindness.

 

The stele also has a second component that is subtler in the way Akhenaten defends his power. One major feature of the stele is the way Akhenaten is portrayed in relation to his wife, Nefertiti. In a day and age when women were undoubtedly secondary to men, and when Pharaohs themselves had multiple wives, the stele would have had a huge impact on the population of that time to see Akhenaten not only carved to be directly facing his wife, but also sitting on the same plane, as opposed to above her. He is tenderly and carefully holding his child, probably his eldest due to the larger size of this child compared to the others, for a kiss, while his wife holds their other two children. This image of a complete family is significant as it depicts to the people that Akenaten is both loving and caring.

To add to this message, Aten, portrayed as a sun disc, is centered directly above the family, extending his rays in the form of hands out towards them and his hands almost touching both Akhenaten’s and Nefertiti’s faces, approving and blessing them as the rightful rulers of Egypt. By changing the primary god of worship and therefore the religion of Egypt during this reign, Akhenaten became the only link between the god Aten and his subjects. This would have given him immeasurable power in the way he could rule by using Aten’s name as a validation for any of his actions. However in so doing, he also needed to prove to his people that he was as powerful, or even more so, as previous kings.

Through ‘Hymn to the Aton’ Akhenaten desired to show his direct authority by praising the god Aten and ended up honoring himself more than the god. He is able to gain justified supremacy through the worship and reverence of his people towards him. ‘Hymn to the Aton’ and the ‘House-shrine’ are valuable sources in understanding how the Pharaoh wished to portray himself - as more commanding than the gods themselves - and, therefore, cannot be used as the consensus for the beliefs of the common population.

 

Bibliography

Edited by Pritchard, James B. “Hymn to the Aton: Religious Reform and Monotheism”. Ancient

Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969. Translated by John A. Wilson.

“House-shrine” stele. New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, ca. 1340 BCE.

 

Scotland and Europe: The past shaping the future

A review of Professor Sir Tom Devine's lecture 'Scotland and Europe: The past shaping the future', September 2016

Sir Tom Devine enters the stage, introduced as the foremost historian of modern Scottish history. Professor Devine is that unusual thing: an establishment figure who in 2014 supported Scottish independence, at the cost of - he would later remind his audience - the friendship of our last Labour Prime Minister. While this lecture more directly pointed itself towards the realities of Brexit Britain rather than the Neverendum, the two naturally conflated as the hour drew on. Whatever the politics at hand, Professor Devine has a rare grasp of Scottish political and social affairs of the past few centuries. Among his first remarks, 'the future is not my period'. 

 It is a peculiarity of British Imperial history that Scots were so overrepresented in colonial pursuits of all kinds. During the nineteenth century, between a quarter and a third of all posts in the Empire were filled by Scots, even though their number made up only a tenth of the United Kingdom's population. Today, when Scots think of their role in the past internationally, it is this phenomenon that is most striking. But Professor Devine's thesis requires us to delve back deeper, to an 'old Scotia' obscured by amnesic clouds. A picture is painted of Scots as a nomadic people; restless, transient, mercantile. During the seventeenth century it is estimated up to 60,000 Scots descended onto the European continent in search of prosperity. Professor Devine inserts his eponymous 'Devine Paradox' theory, that by 1851 Scotland was the most industrialised country per capita in Europe, yet had almost the highest levels of emigration.

A series of politically potent historical curiosities are brought up. Scots colonising Poland, with 400 merchant communities lining the Vistula. The phrase 'as mean as a Scot' emerged from this, describing a certain Thomas Chalmers, known for his ability to undercut Polish rival businesses due to his unscrupulousness. These Scots were also nicknamed 'the Jews of Poland' for this tendency. After the Reformation, the Act of Union of 1707 and the Jacobite rebellions, political refugees fled south to the low countries, and in turn brought back the intellectual European idealism that would flower into the Scottish Enlightenment. Non-industrialised nations, such as the Russia of Peter and Catherine the Great, sought highly trained Scottish engineers and doctors to boost society - Professor Devine offering the truism 'Beam me up, Scotty!'. By 1760 Scottish banks were owed a non-inflation adjusted £2.6 million across the globe, due to their ambitious global credit schemes. 

In the pre-Empire era, it was Europe that dominated Scottish internationalism, but it was these internationalist forays that positioned Scots so naturally to assume the imperial banner and lead Britain's exploits in the following century. Professor Devine notes that £10,000 worth of that total of Scottish loans was to a certain George Washington of Virginia. Scotland was already looking beyond the European continent. Concluding, Professor Devine refers to former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson's phrase, 'Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role'. His parting question: whether Scotland will find its role either in Europe or as part of the UK? Brexit is mentioned, but doubt is cast on its materialisation.

In the question and answer session, I go back to a point made in the lecture about the lack of pro-Brexit voices in mainstream Scottish politics - particularly the Scottish National Party - and whether this is due to a genuine pro-European sentiment or politicised anti-Englishness. The response points to polls showing more violent opposition in Scotland to the perceived unreformed, opaque European bureaucracy than even in England, as well as to a general lack of knowledge about European institutions or European representatives among Scots; tellingly, anti-Englishness is not addressed. The last question of the evening asks whether the hypothesised European connection is overshadowed by the Anglo-Scottish relationship, and union. Professor Devine fumbles momentarily, and then offers wryly 'when you are in bed together you get the warmth, but it can be too warm.'

- By Felix Carpenter 

Review: American Historian Professor Frank Cogliano's September lectures

A Review of Professor Frank Cogliano's lectures, 'The 2016 American Presidential Election: Precedents and Reflections' and '"You think the 2016 US Election is bad? You should try 1800!"', September 2016

With the U.S. presidential election looming ever closer, there has been no shortage of exhibits, film screenings and lectures to entertain American history enthusiasts in Edinburgh this September. 

Over the last month, I had the good fortune to attend not one, but two lectures delivered by Edinburgh University's inimitable and well-loved Professor of American History, Frank Cogliano. The first, titled 'The 2016 American Presidential Election: Precedents and Reflections', was hosted at the National Library of Scotland and was so popular that I arrived to discover tickets had sold out two months in advance - luckily, I was able to sneak my way in. In his usual humorous yet informative style Professor Cogliano deftly guided the audience through the history of the Electoral College system, pausing to explain that yes, it is technically possible for the election to end in a tie (hint: keep your attention fixed on Nebraska and Maine). Drawing upon a range of historic presidential elections, Professor Cogliano offered potential outcomes for the forthcoming election, but neglected to go 'on record' with any prediction for November 8! 

 

With the upcoming presidential election it made perfect sense for an American historian to kick off the Edinburgh University History Society's annual lecture series. Professor Cogliano reprised his role as the 'unofficial guide to presidential elections' in addressing a busy lecture theatre full of young history enthusiasts. His title, "You think the 2016 US election is bad? You should try 1800" undoubtedly drew some curious audience members (and fans of the trendy Broadway musical Hamilton) and he provided some much-needed reassurance that perhaps the 2016 election is not as unprecedented as the media would like to have us believe. Both lectures were thoroughly enjoyable and I would encourage any presidential enthusiasts or otherwise to keep a look out for the many events happening around Edinburgh as Election Day draws closer. 

Finally, for any keen election enthusiasts, Professor Cogliano highly recommends visiting http://www.270towin.com/ where visitors can manipulate the political map of America to predict various election outcomes. (Professor Cogliano is sorry to say that his Fantasy Football team has suffered dreadfully as a result of this newfound source of entertainment!).