Book Review: The story of China by Michael Wood.

The Story of China was a book I was not looking for but in a way I had been waiting for it since at least 2014. In late 2020 I found myself remembering that Michael Wood had not only made an appearance on twitter but that he had written a book on China. The subject of Chinese history is not a small one. From my own brief divergences into the subject of Qing military affairs, for which I read Lovell’s book on the Opium War in 2014, and my reading of Jung Chang’s biography of Empress Dowager Cixi in 2016, I was aware of the daunting scale of the ground I would have to cover in order to better my understanding of one of the world’s great civilisations.

Everything that is united will fall apart and everything that is fallen apart will come back together again. So it has always been.

When during the brief breath between UK lockdowns in the autumn of 2020 I saw the golden eyes of the sinuous, wild haired jade dragon, coiling up through the gilt clouds that frame the title, in a bookshop window I realised that if I was ever to step towards a better understanding of how to interact with Chinese history, Michael Wood would be the author I would trust to guide me.

My confidence in Wood stems from when, again, many years ago, I had reached out and pulled from a bookshelf in Waterstones Inverness a reprint of Wood’s Conquistadors. I then consumed as many of his documentaries as I could, including the documentary on China, which I watched for inspiration after I had been persuaded to review Frank Dikotter’s book on the Cultural Revolution. For all this I felt reassured in purchasing it, not only for the rare beauty and quality of the production of the hardback, but because Wood knows how to write grand history of great complexity with great accessibility. 

Having finally found the time between pressing projects to finish it, I can happily say, my faith has been rewarded. The Story of China is the history of a civilisation from a grassroots perspective. In this book we look at Chinese history from a different perspective, not that of a philosophical or intellectual one, but a demographic, sociological one.

Wood focuses not so much on the story of China as a nation but as a civilisation. Thus you will often find yourself not in the courts of emperors but in Han peasant farms, Qin magistrate courts and Tang watchtowers. Indeed only once we reach the age of the Great Qing, (and dare we say it the 20th century ‘dynasties’), can it be said that the Story of China lends more weight to the Emperors themselves as much as his subjects, and even then the occupants of the dragon throne, for all their glamour, are only ever the framework to Wood’s main argument. That the story of the Chinese civilisation can be interacted with through the people who experienced it. And I think he is right.

The wars, laws, social, economic and political movements are revealed through the experiences of the people who were effected by them. With considerable skill, Wood ensures that the vast array of ever changing characters who appear in this book, who have shaped and coloured Chinese history, even those who play only the most fleeting part in it, appear so that they can echo the great themes of the civilisation right down to the end. 

A slave who could turn his hand to five trades, soldiers on lonely outposts asking friends to give them news and procure them clothes and shoes, female poets, travel writers, revolutionaries and a true life police procedural murder mystery with the Qin Empire’s version of Hercule Poirot. All have something to say about the historical edifice of China, and in doing so allow the reader to place a more human face upon it. These of course drift along in a narrative, with the famous and legendary, that shifts between geography, culture, biography and story with seamless ease.

In terms of dynasties, Wood primarily examines their political and cultural aspects, one or two emperors of the crop from each is covered, which is simple enough with the Qin, but more difficult with longer lived ones and the Qin, Han and Tang empires feature prominently in the first third of the book.

Events here are both critical and incidental to the people who lived through them, as they left glimpses of what it was like to be a part of the rise and fall of dynasties but it is their experiences that are presented in the most detail. As such more time is given over to mini biographies of people most westerners will have never heard of, but who could be said to be as influential in their own sphere as Samuel Pepys or Jane Austen.

As a result, Wood is just as likely to shun the gilded halls and soft furnishings of palaces, the battlefields, siege works and councils of war, to examine the rude thatch and homespun of the villages nearby, because what is decreed at the top will eventually reach the roots, and it is indeed at a grassroots level, as much as a higher one, that Wood wants us to experience the story China.

As he narrates each dynasty, Wood brings us to the world of the village and the family. Central to the heart of Chinese History is the family histories, lovingly curated and preserved through many calamities and still treasured by many today. With each upheaval and political change comes the ‘View from the Village,’ which is a peak into what was going on outside the imperial court, and the provincial governments. I found myself eagerly anticipating each coming view as the chapters wore on.

Wood has given the reader a thorough introduction to the great themes and debates of Chinese civilisation.

Within this framework, individual lives are used to carry the story forwards, and Wood places special emphasis on the arts as a focal point of culture. Rather than court intrigue or decisive battles, Wood seeks different propulsion for his story. Celebrating economic, scientific, military and architectural achievements are commonplace in most histories of empires and nations, but the Story of China is very much a work that is built around literature and poetry and the people who created it. As a result equal time is given to high and low characters; the famous and the obscure travel together and men share the limelight with women in a equitable light that does not pander.

By the end, though I am admittedly unread in the great expanse of Chinese historiography, it seems that Wood has given the reader a thorough introduction to the great themes and debates of Chinese civilisation. Most of all the continuing balancing act of Confucian moral government and centralised despotism set against the tableau of one of the richest literary and material cultures in the world. More than anything I believe this book wonderfully shows how successive dynasties have tried to espouse the Mandate of Heaven, in whatever form would keep them in power, and how that influenced the people over whom the mandate gave power.

I admit that I might need to ask forgiveness for my delight in finding the portion of the book devoted to the ‘modern dynasties’ from 1911 to 2019, somewhat more concise than the sections of the great imperial dynasties. Or perhaps my bias for those more distant things allowed me to drift more quickly over the upheavals that followed to fall of the Qing: The Civil War, the struggle against the Japan and the progress of Communism.

But therein as I closed the book, I found myself considering the collective eras of Mao, Deng and Ji, (the former two, still within the reach of living memory for people living under the latter) against those of the Tang, Song, and Ming and thinking how new this China, or perhaps I should say, this image of China, we have all come to accept, respect and fear, really is. As I write this the words of the Ming writer Luo Guanzhong, written in the first chapter of his Romance of the Three Kingdoms drifted softly through my mind: ‘Everything that is united will fall apart and everything that is fallen apart will come back together again. So it has always been.’

Thanks for reading. Josh.

Book Review: British Light Infantryman by Robbie MacNiven.

Author: Robbie MacNiven. Illustrator: Stephen Walsh Short code: ELI 237 Publication Date: 18 Feb 2021 https://ospreypublishing.com/british-light-infantry-in-the-american-revolution

They were known as bloodhounds. Because the relentless way the British Light Infantry would attack and pursue their patriot foes bred a chilling similarity to a pack of hunting dogs in full chase. 

With their sleek and cut down uniforms, garish feathers and distinctive bugle-horns blaring behind them as they went into battle, these were probably the most feared infantry in the British Army Serving in North America during the Revolution.

As author Robbie MacNiven shows us in this book, this was a reputation that the light infantry battalions consciously adopted and cultivated. They bred an elite culture within their ranks and at every opportunity encouraged an aura of capability, toughness and mercilessness that is reminiscent of special forces today. 

Even in defeat they were dangerous and Patriot commanders learned to be weary of them on the battlefield. Their fighting spirit was such that they became mutinous at the mention of making peace with the rebels. Their officers, no less spoiling for a fight than the men, would write home of how fighting the Americans was much like fox hunting. 

A steely eyed breed of short, stocky, active and dangerous men was born within these light companies. Men adept in the art of movement and concealment, of ambush and encirclement. They asked for no quarter and gave none, and they pursued their enemy relentlessly until they stopped kicking. 

The author reveals this elite force with great descriptive skill and academic verve. Not only in battle but on campaign and in camp, giving good descriptions, visual and textual of the dress and training of the units. Also including information on loyalist forces and some little known areas of light infantry history as well. One of the most interesting is the rarely explored subject of the 1776 ‘contract rifle’ which was issued to five men in every light company.

The reader will be able to begin to get an image in their mind as to the esprit de Corps of the light infantry battalions, some of their terminology and traditions, and a sense of warfare in North America in general too.

Here warfare was dominated by who could deploy the most flexible infantry, and as a result this book builds on what other Osprey authors such as Stuart Reid have written about the so called ‘American scramble.’

An open order firing line able to act by company as well as by battalion, a theory which came to dominate practical linear warfare in the 19th century .

The book expands every now and then to observe that the British Army did not just stumble upon the light infantry doctrine at Shorncliffe camp in the early 1800s. A circular pattern emerged from 1755 to 1803 where as needs required light troops would be authorised and disbanded, but always enough residue would remain to ensure that the next time war loomed the light corps would return stronger than the last time. So by the start of Britain’s Napoleonic epic, fully authorised permanent light infantry battalions would be ready as a result.

With excellent accompanying images by Stephen Walsh this title is highly recommended.

Josh.

Book Review: US Soldier vs British Soldier by Gregg Adams.

  • Author: Gregg Adams
  • Illustrator: Johnny Shumate
  • Short code: CBT 54
  • Publication Date: 18 Feb 2021


https://ospreypublishing.com/us-soldier-vs-british-soldier

A simplistic appreciation and survey of three fairly well known actions during the North American War of 1812 is delivered by Gregg Adams in this latest combat title.

While offering little that is terribly novel about the challenges and minutiae of how opposing Battalions tackled each other in the field during the conflict, it is good to see this overlooked conflict get attention.

The point of this book is to demonstrate how the US Army learned to hold it’s own against the British. It does this in straightforward style. The Americans are beaten in two battles, Queenston Heights and Chrysler’s Farm, then win a victory themselves at Chippewa which apparently demonstrated their ability to fight. Yet in the end I felt no closer to understanding what went into this change than I did to begin with.

It is a trend in histories of the wars between Britain and the US to create an underdog scenario in order for the Americans to rise above their supposedly invincible enemies. While there is no doubt that the US Army was in poor shape in 1812 and only found its feet in 1813, this recipe has been done many times and in the confined space of a this type of book, there might have been an opportunity here to investigate a different angle. 

The battles are described at a fairly high angle level, without delving too deep into tactical or practical doctrine. Methods of fire control, logistics, and systems of arms handling and manoeuvre are only very briefly explained. The Americans lose the first two battles because of poor leadership and what the author calls their amateurish methods, but with little to demonstrate what exactly this looked like. To be honest I was left to imply from the quotes by General Scott that extensive training in roughly established methods paid dividends and that success could have been theoretically achieved at any time previously. Even the section dealing with Scott’s camp of instruction focuses only on the General’s opinion.

As one might expect, in the last year of the war some talented officers came along and got around to doing a proper job. This book is about regular infantry, and so discussing the militia and irregular forces, isn’t something it has time for, and that is good. But every now and then it throws in a little nugget of unsubstantiated information that raises more questions than answers. For instance in the section dealing with Chippewa, the author happily throws in a description of American Regulars taking aimed shots as if this was; A a hugely unusual thing, and; B even practical at all, given each side had roughly the same capabilties in terms of accuracy.

Combat books should realistically be about the dynamics and first hand experiences of combat from a very low level point of view, trying to conjure up a picture of combat from the ranks so the reader can get beyond the staple military history jargon, revealing what terms like ‘forced back’ actually looked like and what it meant.

This book gives some snappy and exciting battle summaries, especially if you like the David and Goliath scenario of British pros eventually being bested by Yankee amateurs, but little of the boots on the ground realities of linear combat in North America. 

thanks for reading!

Josh.

Book Review: Warrior Saints by Amandeep Singh Madra & Parmjit Singh.

https://www.kashihouse.com/books/warrior-saintsfour-centuries-of-sikh-military-history-vol-1

On the first day of June 1606 the mutilated body of a Punjabi wise man was swept downstream from Lahore. He had been drowned in the River Ravi after being cruelly tortured for his faith on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir. The current buffeted the lifeless corpse, carrying it southwest towards the lower branch of the Sutlej and maybe from there onwards to where the waters of the Five Rivers meet at the all defining Indus. 

His name was Arjan, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, the builder of the Harimandir Singh (Golden Temple) and their first martyr in their struggle against the Mughals. ‘Sit fully armed,’ Arjan advised his son and heir regarding his throne, shortly before he died. He enjoining him to lead his people in the ways of the previous  Gurus in all respects, except for that now the Sikhs must in addition to seeking spiritual truth, keep their weapons close. 

His son, Hargobind listened well and from his reign was seeded the strong Sikh virtues of spirituality and the warrior arts, forming the first community defence force known as the Akalis, or the Immortals. For as Guru Hargobind demonstrated with the miri and piri swords at his ascension ceremony, he would fight worldly enemies with one hand and spiritual ones with the other. ‘The destroyer of the enemies’ ranks, the brave, heroic Guru, is also a lover of mankind,’ the savant, Bhai Gurdas wrote, for ‘To protect an orchard hedge it with thorny trees.’

And like the prickly plants of Gurdas’ metaphor, the Sikhs became a thorn in the side of the Mughal empire. Stamp as they might even the mighty Aurangzeb could not wipe them out without being impaled by their points. Indeed much as Jehangir had stoked the fires of Sikh resistance by murdering Guru Arjan, the pressure exerted by Aurangzeb when he treacherously murdered the 9th Sikh Guru, and sent his head to his young son, won him a perilous enemy.

The young and dynamic Guru Gobind Das codified the warrior-protector tradition, forming the Khalsa army, where as the authors of Warrior Saints explain ‘even someone born into the lowliest caste could, through the force of their arms and the justice of their cause, become reborn as kashatriya or defender of the people.’

So powerful was this motivation, that the Sikhs soon began to eclipse the Rajputs as the most feared warriors in northern India, the tales of their epic victories becoming legendary throughout Hindustan.

The dual role of pitiless warrior and benign saint was exemplified during the actions of one warrior called Kanhaiya, who offended the elite Akalis by offering water to both Sikh and Mughal wounded, explaining later to the Guru ‘I saw neither Mughals nor Sikhs there. I saw only the Guru’s face in everyone.’

From these beginnings in the 17th century, the Sikh Khalsa Empire was born. Becoming, as time wore on, the last independent state in India to challenge the British East India Company’s supremacy, due to the unifying genius of the great Maharajah, Ranjit Singh, whose death in 1839 would leave the kingdom in such confusion that it would eventually fall prey to the European conquerors.

This book is a joy to read; every page brings something interesting to the eye and enlightening to the mind. The care and passion of the authors in crafting this volume is clear to see and has been infused into every page, bringing four centuries of Sikh Military history to life in a deeply impactful way.

Warrior Saints is the visual history of the core values of the Sikh Warrior Saint Tradition. Presenting a legacy of art and culture for the descendants and adherents of the Gurus today as well as a record for students of history and art alike. Through rare paintings and photographs from a rich variety of sources the authors have collected, in this first volume of the new edition, a stunningly accessible chronicle of the rich legacy of the Sikh Kingdom.

Josh.

How to Train your Cavalry (If you are Alexander Suvorov.)

Field Marshal Count Suvorov directing Cavalry Manoeuvres in 1793, as described by Denis Davydov in his memoirs, wearing a white shirt, linen trousers, hessian boots and a grenadier’s helmet. Digital painting by the author.

Field Marshal Count Alexander Suvorov was not a man who felt that war needed to be any more complicated than necessary. The quickest way to get an enemy running was to find his weakness and attack it. The quickest way to chase an enemy from the field was to run at him with bayonet and sabre.

Under this diminutive but dynamic deity of battle, Russian troops were expected to be battle ready, not parade ready, and anything that impeded the proper performance of regiments in the field was considered surplus to requirements.

Any officer who had too much baggage or too grand a household had better not let Count Suvorov know about it. From this pragmatism flowed a practical battle-sense that the Count tried to imbue deep into the heart of the Russian army. 

The following extract from the memoirs of General Denis Davydov, who was told many things about Suvorov by his father, and as a child even met the old warhorse once. It demonstrates both Suvorov’s no nonsense attitude to warfare, and his practical nature for conditioning troops for the type of battle he wanted to fight:

‘Because the primary obligation of the cavalry was to cut a path through enemy ranks, it should not be concerned with speed alone and maintaining line while on the gallop. It must surge into the midst enemy line or could and strike at anything close to hand, not turn about and break off the engagement alleging that the firing had frightened the horses, or retreat in good order without making actual physical contact with enemy fire.

In order to stop this practice, Suvorov trained the horses of the cavalry to gallop at full speed and accustom them to break through the the central ranks of the opponent’s firing line. To achieve this, he saved the manoeuvre for the end of the training period, relying on the memory of the animals, and reinforced with a verbal command that they knew would signal the conclusion of the exercise. 

For this purpose  he had half his troops dismount and stand with carbines loaded with blanks. The soldiers were separated from one another by the distance necessary for one horse to gallop between them. The other half remained on horseback, aligned opposite the gaps of the facing infantry, and then were ordered to attack.

The soldiers were told to discharge their weapons at the very moment when the horses galloped through their lines. The riders would then dismount and the training manoeuvres were over. The theory was that instead of being frightened by the shots fired directly at them, the horses would look forward to the moment of facing the infantry fire, remembering that the sound of shots would be followed by their being reined in, haltered, or returned to their stables. Indeed, they would neigh and be eager to charge!’

This imaginative drill, which took advantage of the animals’ natural inclination to return to their stables to rest and feed, had it’s issues. Mostly derived from dismounted troops being, struck, trampled and sometimes killed by charging horses.

For this reason dismounted duty was loathed by the soldiers. Whenever he would be told a man had been killed in this horse training exercise, Suvorov would exclaim ‘May the Lord have mercy on them! I may kill four, five or even ten men; but I’ll train five or ten thousand!’

Not all Suvorov’s officers felt this was the way to use cavalry of course. But only experienced officers dared use their own judgment in the presence of their chief. Colonel Davydov of the Poltava Light Horse Regiment who commanded the second line of cavalry during an exercise in a calm and orderly manner in a classic supporting role, was brought up at dinner the same evening, and asked why he had ignored an order from Suvorov to hurry up. Apparently Suvorov had already led the first line in three charges and thought Davydov was dragging his heels.

Davydov, who knew the old general well enough to know how to get around him, thought for a moment and replied that there had been no cause for the second line to charge, as the first line kept pursuing. 

‘And what if the enemy had taken heart and repulsed the first line?’ Quizzed Suvorov.

‘That could never happen.’ Replied Davydov ‘Your excellency was leading it.’

See In the Service of the Tsar by Denis Davydov.

Mary Tudor: A Story of Triumph, Sorrow and Fire. Available Now!

A new book, written by Anthony Ruggiero has been published and is now available, please have a look, as I’m sure it will be a great read.

‘The Tudor Dynasty of England, spanning from the late fifteenth century into the early seventeenth century, was filled with colorful monarchs that impacted the country politically, economically, and socially. One of those monarchs was Mary Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mary ruled over England from July 1553 to her death in November 1558. Despite its initial promise and success, Mary Tudor’s reign was unsuccessful due to the increased influence of foreign power. Mary’s early life and struggle to the throne reflected her determination to rule, her strong religious conviction to Catholicism, and her reliance on Spain.’

Find it on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Mary-Tudor-Story-Triumph-Sorrow-ebook/dp/B08FGLG75M/ref=mp_s_a_1_5?dchild=1&keywords=mary+tudor-+anthony&qid=1596987247&sr=8-5

On the Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis by Anthony Ruggiero.

The point of contention; missile bases in Europe and Cuba.

​The year 1962 is a year that most Americans will never forget, because that was the year the world was on the brink of nuclear warfare, stemming from the conflict between the United States, Cuba and the Soviet Union. This conflict came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time the United States and the Soviet Union were in the midst of the Cold War. Which although there was no official declaration of war, was a period of immense tension between the two world powers due to their conflicting ideologies: The United States was democratic and the Soviet Union was communist. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred when the Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The reason for this action was that Cuba, an ally to the Soviet Union, was nearly invaded by United States forces in 1961 in the failed Bay of Pigs excursion in an attempt to get rid of Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro was responsible for dismantling the economic relationship between The United States and Cuba, which was created nearly a half a century earlier. The Soviet Union also felt that since the United States had naval bases in Europe close to the Soviet Union it was only fair that they had a missile base close to the United States. Although the situation would later be averted, the crisis ultimately shaped the relationship between the United States and Cuba through the rest of the twentieth century.

Fidel Castro.

​In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American war, when the United States had defeated Spain, the Spanish signed the rights to its territories, including Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam, over to the U.S, which subsequently granted Cuba its independence with the stipulation that the U.S. could intervene in the country’s affairs if necessary and that it be granted a naval base at Guantánamo Bay. For the next half of the twentieth the two countries more or less cooperated, with the U.S. helping to squash rebellions and heavily investing in the economy of Cuba.

​Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, tensions between the United States and Cuba were already on the rise. After taking control of Cuba in 1959, following the Cuban Revolution, communist leader, Fidel Castro, formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. Thus the relationship between the United States and Cuba was no longer intact. As a result The United States placed an embargo on Cuba on October 19th, 1960, and placed a further embargo on exports to Cuba except for food and medicine after Cuba nationalized American-owned Cuban oil refineries without asking for permission. On February 7th, 1962 the embargo was extended to include almost all imports. During Castro’s regime, Cuba became dependent on the Soviet Union for economic and military support.

This enraged the United States whom at the time was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Both countries were already in a race to build up their armed forces. The Arms Race was a competition between both countries to scare each other by creating bigger, more powerful missiles and bombs. The United States was more advanced than the Soviet Union in technology. The Soviet Union tried to catch up as quickly as possible and neither stopped creating weapons. The alliance between the Soviet Union and the Cubans frightened many Americans because Cuba is extremely close to the United States, just ninety miles off the coast of southern Florida. By having an ally to the Soviet Union so close to the United States, many Americans feared a Soviet invasion and ultimate communist take over. President at the time, John F. Kennedy, concluded that something had to be done to prevent this from happening.

President Kennedy.

​President Kennedy’s solution led to the failed attempt of an invasion in 1961, known as the Bay of Pigs.  The Bay of Pigs occurred in April of 1961, Cuban refugees, armed and trained by the United States, as well as American soldiers attempted to invade Cuba and tried to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. The invasion was unsuccessful and many were killed or imprisoned. The event was deemed to be one of the most humiliating events in American military history. Reports claim, that President Kennedy was visibly shaken by the failure. This event would set in motion the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro was convinced that the United States would try again to invade, and sought to attain military helpfrom the Soviet Union. The leader of the Soviet Union, also known as the Soviet Premier, Nikita S. Khrushchev, agreed with Castro’s concerns and had decided to send Soviet Missiles in order for the Cubans to be able to protect themselves.

Nikita Khrushchev.

​Following reports of the Soviet Union placing missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy issued a public warning to the Soviet Union, in September of 1962, that no harmful weapons were to be placed within Cuba. However, the United Sates still sent a U2 aircraft, to overlook the situation in Cuba. The aircraft confirmed that there were Soviet missiles on Cuban territory. However, the U2 aircraft was shot down before it could return to the United States. Although it was not confirmed whether or not it was Soviet forces or Cuban forces that had shot down the aircraft, it had already served its purpose. President Kenney and his officials agreed that by the U2 aircraft being shot down and that by the Cubans now have attained Soviet missiles that they were teetering on the brink of war.

​Following these events, President Kennedy was uncertain of what course of action he should take. However, Kennedy also felt that it was not right that Cuba had the missiles. Nor did he want to appear weak. Throughout many meetings with his advisors, which, went on for nearly a week, they came up with a variety of options, including a bombing attack on the missile sites and a full-scale invasion of Cuba. According to an account by one of Kennedy’s advisors, Theodore C. Sorenson, Kennedy did not want to “force Khrushchev’s hand…” Essentially, he did not want to drag the United States into war. Kennedy wanted to protect the United States.

​In order to avoid war, first, Kennedy would place the U.S. Navy on a blockade, or quarantine, of Cuba to prevent the Soviets from delivering additional missiles and military equipment. Second, he would deliver an ultimatum that the existing missiles be removed. In a television broadcast on October 22, 1962, the president notified Americans about the presence of the missiles, explained his decision to create the blockade and made it clear that the U.S. was prepared to use military force if necessary to prevent any military advances by the enemy and his main concern was national security. However, many Americans still feared that the nation was on the brink of nuclear war.

​Khrushchev viewed President Kennedy’s invoking of the blockade as an “act of aggression.” Thus a critical moment during the crisis occurred on October 24, when Soviet ships headed towards Cuba came close to the line of U.S. vessels whom were enforcing the blockade. Any attempt by the Soviets to break the blockade would likely have started a military confrontation that could have quickly turned into a nuclear battle. However, the Soviet ships stopped short of the blockade. Despite the fact, there was no formal battle there was still the issue of the missiles still in Cuba. Thus the issue was still on going. Although this event at offered some positive insight that a war could be avoided the tense standoff between the superpowers continued throughout the week. And on October 27, an America aircraft was shot down over Cuba, and a U.S. invasion force was readied in Florida.

​Tension was still very much apparent. The Soviet Union and American leaders found a way out of this crisis. During the crisis, the Americans and Soviets had exchanged letters and other communications. On October 26, Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy in which he offered to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the U.S. leaders not to invade Cuba or allow any other country to invade Cuba. The following day, the Soviet leader sent a letter proposing that the Soviet Union would remove its missiles in Cuba if the Americans removed their missile bases in Turkey.

​A major issue that resulted in the Crisis was that the United States had missile bases in countries that were close to the Soviet Union. For example, Turkey and Italy. These missile bases were called the Jupiter Missile base.  Officially, the Kennedy administration decided to accept the terms of the first message and ignore the second Khrushchev letter all together. Secretly however, American officials also agreed to withdraw their nation’s missiles from Turkey. When U.S. Attorney General and brother to President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy personally delivered the message to the Soviet ambassador in Washington and on October 28, the crisis came to an end. After the Soviet Union completed their removal of missiles in Cuba, the United States officially ended their blockade and finished removing missiles in Turkey by April 1963.

Kennedy’s announcement that the missiles in Cuba were being removed but that the blockade would continue for the time being.

​There was a lot of backlash following the crisis. The relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union became strained for a long period, after Khrushchev’s removal of the missiles. Fidel Castro accused the Soviet Union of backing down from the Americans and not supporting the Cuban revolution. European allies of the United States were also upset, not because of the United States’ actions during the crisis, but because Kennedy and his administration kept quiet and did not include them in negotiations that might have led to a nuclear war. However, within the United States President Kennedy’s popularity increased as his handling of the situation was deemed as redemption for the Bay of Pigs. Leaders within the Soviet Union were disgusted at Khrushchev’s withdrawal of the weapons. There was perhaps one positive aspect of the crisis. Having gone to the edge of what President Kennedy referred to as the “abyss of destruction,” both nations initiated steps to begin some control over nuclear weapons. Less than a year after the crisis ended, the United States and Soviet Union signed an agreement to end aboveground testing. This came to be known as the Limited Test Ban TreatyWhich prohibits the testing of Nuclear Weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, or in space.

​Following the Cuban Missile Crisis the United States still continued their embargo of Cuba. This continued through the remainder of the twentieth century, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. The United States government strengthened the embargo with the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which states that the embargo may not be lifted until Cuba holds free and fair elections and switches to a democratic government that does not involve any member of the Castro Family.

​The Cuban Missile Crisis was an event that definitely highlighted the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the twentieth century. The reason for the Crisis varies due to the many other situations that had transpired or were transpiring. The Cubans who were essentially under the control of the United Sates for the first half of the century were now under a new, communist regime under Fidel Castro, which the United States was not happy about. After the United States had imposed an embargo and failed to invade Cuba in the Bay of Pigs, the Soviet Union placed missiles within the country. However, the leaders of the Soviet Union had their own motives. The Soviet Union just wanted to be able to place a missile base close to the United States because the United States had missile bases close to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union essentially used the crisis to also force the United States to terminate those bases. In general Cuba was in middle of the larger feud between the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite the fact, the crisis was resolved, the Cold War continued for over the next twenty years. Cuba still remained under communist control and the relationship between the United and Cuba still remained the same. 

​Anthony Ruggiero is a High School History Teacher in New York City, New York.  In addition to teaching, he has been published in several magazines and blogs.  Such as: History Is Now magazine, Historic-U.K. magazine, Tudor Life magazine, Discover Britain magazine, The Odd Historian magazine, the Culture-Exchange blog, Inside History magazine, Versus History blog, The New York History Review and The Freelance History Writer blog.  Through continuing to research and write, he is able to share his findings with his students in order to engage them in their learning and help them succeed. His work can also be viewed on his Twitter handle: @Anthony10290122

All Things Wellington.

The other series I started in the lost spring of 2020 was with Marcus Cribb, Manager at Apsley House, where we discuss the Duke of Wellington. To kick off we went into the Waterloo campaign and have only just emerged out the other side.

Hope you enjoy!

1812 With Josh and Jimmy.

When we went into lockdown I started making videos by reaching out to longtime internet friends and recording chats about history.

Here a long running series about the Russian Army in 1812 kicks off with the ever engaging Jimmy S Chen of Napoleonic Impressions.

Plenty more where that came from! Like and Subscribe folks!

Book Review: Allahu Akbar by Manimugdha Sharma

Published:18-10-2019
Format:Hardback
Edition:1st
Extent:330
ISBN:9789386950536
Imprint:Bloomsbury India
Dimensions:234 x 153 mm 
RRP:₹ 599.00
 RRP: £34.99

The rulers of India are no less beguiling today than they were when, as Manimugdha Sharma says, the emperor Akbar was in vogue amongst Dutch republicans trying to create a new state. 

Quite apart from the famed luxury of their courts and the exoticism that so easily transfers to the minds of distant foreigners from dimly imagined mental pictures; the leaders of South Asia often represent something special in the history of the world. The image of enlightened rule.

If we knew them better and compared them with our own past rulers, who would in their right minds not say that Ashoka ranked greater than any handful of English monarchs, not only for his conquests and his rejection of war itself but for his laws? Which are far more in tune with the classical ideal that Western Europeans have tried to harbour and rebuild since the fall of the western Roman Empire, than much of what replaced it.

Who, likewise, could arguably say with any credibility that Akbar the Great could not stand alongside any of the greatest contemporary kings and queens of Europe and not seem a little taller for his enlightened ideals of inclusion and, what Sharma calls the ‘physical and moral courage’ that makes great men beloved.

Though undoubtedly an inspiration to many in the past, since its independence India has rightly been a talisman to those who hold the promise of democracy near and dear to their hearts.

Rightly might citizens of the world’s largest republic revere the history of their march to liberty as a proud emblem to cherish. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the author feels a deep concern as he observes the course his nation is taking, and it should be no less concerning to the world either. 

‘we are a medieval people,’ he writes at the end, ‘creating conditions in the country akin to those that prevailed in Akbar’s lifetime, always using past hurt to justify present hate, and therefore needing a medieval monarch to show us the way.’

As he told me over a long and interesting Skype call, it is never good when the rule of a 16th century emperor seems necessary or preferable than a democratically elected official, but if one were to wish for such an autocrat you would want Akbar. When I finished reading this book, I could not help but agree with this assessment. 

On further contemplation I realised it is as important for the British to understand the Great Mughal as it is for the Indians.

In the British drive to establish themselves as rulers of India the legacy of the Mughals was a principle tool. Sharma points us to the importance of this element of baton passing by highlighting the importance of tiger hunts in Mughal court society.

In establishing himself as the perfect incarnation of universal kingship, the young emperor entertained his court with lavish hunts. The British would copy these and thus lend themselves to an image of shadow puppetry that is today a cypher for British rule in India.

It might be said that the British used Akbar and his dynasty as something as a template on which they could more easily assimilate themselves into the role as India’s overlords, they even took up some of his crusades, such as trying to abolish sati.

Nevertheless as the author told me, the idea of intolerance between Hindus and Muslims in India was encouraged to some degree by the British, who fostered the idea of the Mughals being foreign tyrants replaced by the enlighten rule of the Europeans.

Akbar by contrast strove to separate religion from society’s primary consciousness, and remove it as a source of division. Today it is this legacy of the British that is still causing the trouble and the lessons of Akbar are hard to learn from as a result.

There aren’t many writers that can make the past more present than Manimugdha Sharma can. The author has a hawk eyed knack of seeing across history, finding the similarities to the present and threading them together in a comprehensible narrative.

In saying that, one could say that this isn’t so much a biography of Akbar, but an investigation of the echo chamber of history. Sharma looks at the world and hears the echoes of distant resonance.

Allahu Akbar is a graceful read, with each paragraph revealing some detail of interest. Softly humorous and finely detailed, with sometimes wry, always sharp observations on the interplay of historical and modern issues.

One discovers in reading about the life of an extraordinary monarch that India’s politics have not changed very much. Sharma observes that candidates still attempt to vilify and deify through visual media, in the Mughal courts this was done through art and literature, whereas today it is done with much less subtlety and often exaggerated incompetence by keyboard warriors.

The results are nevertheless the same and the motives little removed from when Akbar was alive; to make governments and leaders seem untainted and untarnished as opposed to their opponents.

As a controversial figure in modern India, Akbar suffers from the stigma of being a Muslim emperor in a country with a Hindu majority and his indelible place in his country’s history, especially the interpretation of it, seems at times tenuous. 

Akbar’s early reign was a dark time, filled with brutal battles, political murders and betrayals. Akbar, sought to establish himself as a king in both name and practice, and he projected this aura very effectively, not only once he regained his throne but as he was doing so, and the author does not shy away from his subject’s more unvarnished or inglorious exploits.

Fascinating elements are to be found at practically every turn, from the typical accounts of intrigue and conflict to personal things as well. Quite apart from the flowing prose of his chroniclers and his fine accomplishments, Akbar, can be seen as a coarse man, a soldier and a sportsman as much as diplomat or a courier. His language was the language of military camps and peasants and he wore coarse clothing and enjoyed it. 

He mixed this with the piety of his father, which was devout, but not extremist, and he showed regret at the death of his enemies and when he could not show mercy as a beneficent, almost paternal, overlord.

Above all the great strength of the emperor was his attempt to create a unified and inclusive state that sought to draw the best out of the religions and philosophies of the world.

He was as some have said, a man of reason before the age of reason, and the people who have the will to effect change and not only that but apply such ideals are worthy of notice.

This is why Akbar is important, not only to India, but to the world, which is increasingly becoming a more insular place and in desperate need of uniting figures to admire. 

Despite her poor understanding of who Akbar really was it is telling that when Elizabeth I, herself a persecutor of catholics like many of her dynasty, wrote to Akbar that it was his humanity that had spread even to her distant shore. Note she did not speak of the conquests and might of this descendent of Timur and Genghis Khan, but his humanity. 

If that proves anything it proves that even in times of uncertainty, we don’t have to fear the foreign and the other.

Josh.