When London Was Capital of America by Julie Flavell. Yale University Press, 2011 paper.

When London Was Capital of America by Julie Flavell. Yale University Press, 2011 paper.

            In the decades of the 1750s and 1760s London was a city of nearly 750,000 souls. Julie Flavell speaks of the city as the capital of America because the original thirteen colonies along the eastern seaboard had in varying ways made London their metropolis and, despite the long sea passage, flocked to its urban environment.

Most New Englanders that came to London did so on business. London was the banking center for the American colonies; it financed the triangular trade between Britain, West Africa, and the North American and Caribbean colonies. The major commodities traded were sugar, tobacco, and leather (later cotton) in exchange for what Flavell calls consumer goods. The American colonies remained Britain’s major trading partner until after the American War Of Independence.

Colonials looked to Britain for their “higher” education. The Inns of Court for the legal profession and the several teaching hospitals in London for medicine, eventually Edinburgh University. The more politically ambitious came to seek positions in the elaborate Imperial governing structure, the Franklin’s for example.

And they also came for the entertainments that London had to offer, London theater, then as now. Some of the available entertainments were considered to be unsavory. There were prostitutes and street brawls to make study breaks more interesting. Many of these North Americans sought the persona of the ‘macaroni’ a mid-eighteenth-century Englishman who dressed and spoke in the fashion of the day. The more politically inclined young man might take up the cause of John Wilkes and the radicals. Easy to understand why American parents were reluctant to set their sons loose in London.  

The colonials sought out their own kind in the coffee houses they chose to patronize. New Englanders were particularly clickish. They tended to live apart from visitors from the middle colonies who were a mixed Dutch, German, French, Irish, and African. Those from the American South wished not to be mistaken for provincial Englishmen.

Thrifty American planters often brought a slave or two with them to avoid having to hire out of the urban servant class who in Georgian London could shop around for the best position; they had options. They were determined to preserve the modest privileges of the serving class in the presence of New World slavery. They were not controlled by the whip. Unthinkable! The colonials thought them “spoiled” by American standards. The city’s serving class was disinclined to associate with the “Blackamoors” from the New World


The British slave trade, financed through London credit, was not prohibited until 1807. It was a profitable business for the British merchant marine. However a court decision in 1772 had held that no slave, once domiciled in England for a period of time, could be sent back to the colonies. Except as a free man. The decision effectively ended slavery in England, Scotland and Wales.  T

The American slave also benefited for a domicile in London. It gave him what he considered to be an urban polish. And his own ideas about his status as a piece of property.   

Flavell makes use of the correspondence between Benjamin Franklin and William Franklin, Ben’s acknowledged illegitimate son, to describe the patronage system that brought colonials to London to seek positions. William, at the elder Franklin’s instance, was appointed the Governor of New Jersey. Ben Franklin took advantage of the patronage system. He was the Deputy Postmaster General, appointed by the Crown. He served as the London agent for Pennsylvania and three other colonies. His knowing the right people in London also allowed Ben to speculate in western land.

Father and son eventually split over the conflict between the British Empire and the American colonies. William, remaining loyal to the Crown, continued to hold the New Jersey Governor’s office until American independence.

The American Revolution resulted in the exit of most Americans then living in London. On the other hand an estimated 7,000 of the 60,000 to 80,000 colonial royalists fled to London during the Revolution.

Would that we could journey back to a London when it was the Capital of America to understand better the character of the First British Empire. Julie Flavell’s book might be the next best thing.  




Toussaint Louverture; A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard.

Toussaint Louverture; A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard. Basic Books, 2016.

Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian revolutionary, is credited with having led the only successful slave revolt in the New World. It began in 1791 in French speaking Hispaniola, and Louverture succeeded in keeping the leadership amidst challenges from the Spanish colonial regime in Saint-Domingue, from British Jamaica, Spanish Cuba, Colonial America, and Metropolitan France in the midst of its own revolution.

Haiti was at the time of its slave revolt, perhaps the wealthiest European colony in the Caribbean. That was due largely to its production of two crops: sugar and coffee. It fortunately had good soil, sufficient rainfall, and mostly sunny days.

But it was also a deadly environment for its slave cultivators. The mortality rates from malaria, yellow fever, and other contagious diseases, were so high, (7 to 14% a year) that it had to continuously import new slaves from Africa. Hence Haiti was an active participant in the African slave trade. Louverture grew up a slave, a muleteer. Both of Toussaint Louverture’s parents were African. So recent was their African heritage that Louverture claimed that he was descended from African royalty.

Most of the owners of the Haitian sugar plantations were absentee whites. They employed three different layers of land management: the managers who ran the plantations on a daily basis, attorneys who dealt with legal matters and represented the owners in their court battles, and accountants. Many of the estates were poorly managed. It was possible that black slaves might ultimately be contracted out as a manager of several sugar estates owned by the same person.

Girard explains that the slave economy of Saint-Dominague was initially not a racist society. Louverture, ambitious and black, could rise within the island’s Creole society. But that changed with the rise of racism in Haiti. Girard argues that the racist ideas were useful because that hierarchy, which generally ignored skin color, gave opportunity for a black man of talents to rise. But it also provided opportunity for a fall. Like racism elsewhere in the New World, one drop of black blood made you a Negro. Hence there were two categories of whites – “little whites” and “big whites” and the opportunity to descend in social standing. On the other hand, the Haitian army provided opportunity for movement of blacks and whites in both directions on the social ladder.

There is no answer to the questions who, how, and why Louverture was a “free black.” He began acquiring land, small plots when they came up for sale and then larger estates. Making good money, he could buy his family’s manumission. Unfortunately there is no civic or church record of his changing social status.

The author reminds us also that there was always some level of slave resistance in the Caribbean. There were numerous groups of fugitive slaves (in Haiti they were called Maroons). They congregated alongside working plantations, disrupting discipline and providing opportunities for flight. Good reason for flight; Caribbean plantation owners were known for their cruelty. Maroonage was harshly punished. Men had their bones broken and were often castrated; women severely burned and frequently whipped. The general practice was branding for a first offense, hamstringing for a second, and death for a third. So there was a substantial risk involved in protesting against your slave status by running away.

Toussaint Louverture should be hailed as an abolitionist, if it weren’t for his acknowledgment of the importance of the plantation culture to the economic welfare of its slave population. And vice versa. Louverture, cooperated with Spanish officials in Saint-Domingue in their efforts to restore the colonial economy. In 1801 he agreed to a restoration of the slave trade.

In July 1789, the Bréda family decided to sell off some of their properties and slaves at auction. This always resulted in the breaking up of slave families and Louverture decided that this was a sufficient reason for him to act. He was also being challenged by rivals for the leadership amongst the restless slave population.  In 1791 Haiti’s slaves rose in rebellion.

Girard’s account of Toussaint Louverture’s life was enormously complicated by the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Empire. Louverture, surprisingly, turns out to have been a loyalist, faithful to the Bourbons because of their efforts to establish a set of rules to govern the slave/owner relationship in their colonies and control some of the cruelty, but also introduce what the author suggests is a “pronatalist” policy of supporting slave families and promoting infant care.

Through his alliances with men of power in France, Louverture had by 1801 become both governor of the colony and general of the army. He was also a statesmen who was of sufficient status to be trusted to represent France in negotiations with the British in 1798. As governor, he worked to restore the colonial economy of Saint-Domingue, a restoration from which he would benefit as a major landowner.


Iron Curtain; The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 to 1956

Iron Curtain; The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 to 1956 by Anne Applebaum. Anchor, 2013 paper.

Anne Applebaum’s “crushing” in her book’s title is misleading. While she describes Eastern Europe’s brutal experience in the aftermath of World War II with the Russian occupation, she argues that the creation of the ”Iron Curtain”, brutal though it was, followed a brutal German occupation.  Also Eastern European borders were shaped by decisions made by the Allies at Yalta in February 1945 and Potsdam in August 1945. All of this was before Churchill named the Russian occupation zone in March 1946.

One of those Allied decisions was to forcibly move Germans (Volksdeutsche) living in Eastern Poland and Ukraine into a truncated Germany. That single act created 7.6 million German refugees. Add to that the 2.5 Czech refugees returning to the vacated Sudetenland. Applebaum suggests that these numbers dwarf the refugee problem in the twenty-first century.

By 1945 German armies in Eastern Europe were collapsing, with little hope of preventing Russians from capturing the great prize, Berlin. President Franklin Roosevelt, concerned about ending the war and bringing the soldiers home, had agreed with General Dwight Eisenhower to allow the Russians to occupy Berlin. Russian armies had also occupied Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Hence allowing the Russians to determine the future of Eastern Europe’s boundaries was simply recognizing the ‘facts on the ground.’

The “liberation” of Warsaw and Poland was a particularly complicated story. There were several Polish organizations involved, and they were bitter rivals: the Poles who had escaped to Britain in 1939 (the London Poles), those who formed a resistance in the forests of eastern Poland, and those Poles who had been in training in the Soviet Union to take over the administration of Poland after the war (Moscow communists).

Initially Joseph Stalin was willing to allow communist parties in Eastern Europe to cooperate with other left-wing parties to form post-war governments.  That effort, Applebaum reports, quickly proved to be impossible. Pre-war Polish and Hungarian governments and certainly the National Socialists in Germany had not allowed these left-wing parties, including the communists, to have any part of the political process and hence they had no governing experience.

Earning “hearts and minds” proved difficult for the Soviets. They realized that they must build a more sympathetic public, and an effort was made to reach out to young people. They opened summer camps and introduced indoctrination classes into the public schools. The Russians also worked to discredit alternative allegiances as well – the Catholic Church for example. Its clergy were branded as reactionaries.

Applebaum describes Russian destruction of civil society in Eastern Europe. Churches, educational institutions, newspapers, art, sports clubs, and universities were elements of civil society in Eastern Europe that the Soviets considered enemies of a workers’ and peasants’ democracy.

The loyalty of factory workers was assured by the intervention of the Russians on behalf of unions. On the other hand, the seizure of private companies that had survived physical destruction, their dismantling and shipment to Russia as war reparations must have reduced factory employment. Land was redistributed where it was not already in the hands of the peasantry, mostly the Junker estates, the German landed nobility of eastern Prussia.

The author notes that Jewish owners of companies and private dwellings were big losers. Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe after the War was alive and well.

She also follows the careers of three “little Stalins.” Trained in Moscow for leadership positions, they brought with them to their respective countries in occupied Eastern Europe a well-trained security police force. With their assistance the Russians held the equivalent of the Russian “show trials” of the 1930s. They already had their lists of enemies of the Soviet Union; more names were added.

The Russians had acquired the Reichsrundfunk, the fully equipped Berlin radio station. It proved to be an important component of efforts to sell communism. The American occupation forces established a rival Radio in the American Sector or RIAS. Radio Free Europe was its successor. The Nazi regime had used radio effectively as a propaganda tool. And like other components of the Allied occupation, radio built on precedents in the Nazi authoritarian state.

Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 was a blow to the ardor of the Russian occupation. Applebaum lists several other blows to Soviet prestige in Eastern Europe. The Marshall Plan provided badly needed liquidity in Western Europe. The aid package was offered to Eastern European but declined at the Russian insistence. The blundering attempt to seal off Berlin from the three other occupying powers, the Berlin blockade and the dramatic Berlin airlift all blunders costing Russia considerable ill will.  And also Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito got away with a departure from the Eastern European Russian bloc.

Applebaum doesn’t mention a fourth blow to Soviet prestige, the long battle with two Catholic cardinals Stefon Wyszynaski (Polish) and Jozsef Mindszenty (Hungarian). Both were progressive priests much admired in Eastern Europe as well as the West.

Despite these blows, why wasn’t there more open resistance? For one thing, the Soviet occupation followed a horrible war, now over. Many of those who tolerated Eastern European communist regimes had already taken earlier steps toward collaboration. There were rewards, small though appreciated, like a coal delivery or an additional ration card. By not discussing matters with colleagues, neighbors, and friends; you could avoid trouble. Simply keeping quiet was read as compliance.

Anne Applebaum guides the reader through much disputed territory.






Forgotten Wars; Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia

Forgotten Wars; Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia by Christopher Bayly & Tim Harper.  Harvard University Press, 2010, paper.

This is a sequel to their Forgotten Armies; Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan. After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 the British reoccupied the Southeast Asian crescent stretching from the eastern provinces of British India to Singapore. By 1945 it was clear that the ‘jewel of the British crown’ – India – would soon be independent and a replacement anchor was needed. The Malayan Peninsula, with its rubber, tin, timber and other resources could take on that role. But there were problems.

The British and their Empire had made an inglorious exit after Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1941. Posing as a liberator, Tokyo had talked about extending its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which it claimed would end the European grip on the crescent’s economies. Part propaganda, part planning mechanism, it was soon set aside and the occupation became a matter of brutality and plunder. The Japanese did, however, create ‘puppet’ national regimes composed of Malaya and Burmese ‘collaborators.’

The Japanese occupation had unleashed forces that could not easily be tucked back into the box of pre-war colonial society. Moreover, as Bayly and Harper note, Britain, in 1945, was in no position to recapture its Southeast Asian empire. With no British army available, the reoccupation depended upon the Indian Army. Officered mostly by Europeans with the ranks drawn from the subcontinent’s ‘martial’ provinces, the Indian army would, however, also not be available after Indian and Pakistani independence.

Initially the Allied Land Forces, South East Asia, commanded by Louis Mountbatten, faced little armed military opposition as they rolled through the Malayan peninsula, but encountered no end of difficulties. The most immediate was the 630,000 Japanese occupation troop, housed in temporary detention camps, awaiting their repatriation to Japan.

Mountbatten had also to deal with the Indian National Army which had fought alongside the Japanese. Indians living in Malaya argued, however, that the Indian National Army had safeguarded them when Britain had skedaddled. Malayan collaborators had to be rounded up, and European colonials, just liberated from internment camps, were demanding revenge. Various resistance groups based on ethnicity had arisen during the Japanese occupation that now claimed the right to self-determination. Finally there was extensive damage done by the war that had to be repaired to get the county up and running.

The Chinese were the largest non-Malayan ethnic group. They dominated the labor force laboring on the rubber plantations and in the mines. To cope with the food shortages during and after the war, many Chinese laborers had hacked out small farms on the British-owned plantations and the forest reserves to provide food for their families. Now they were organizing themselves into bands to protect those holdings.

They were said to be communists. At least that was the judgment of the various British and American intelligence agencies. The continued insurgency in Malaya was one of the ‘dominos’ which President Eisenhower described in a news conference in April 1954. His argument was that if one country in the region came under the influence of the communists, the adjoining countries would subsequently fall in a domino effect. Thus China and India at either end and the smaller states, Korea, Indochina, Thailand, Malaya,  Indonesia, and Burma in between. And there was Winston Churchill saluting Eisenhower’s clarity.

The British have been given credit for defeating the ‘communist insurgency’ in Malaya. Bayly & Harper have a more nuanced version of that ‘triumph.’ It involved moving rebels and their families into detention camps, not unlike the notorious concentration camps of the Boer War in South Africa. That was accompanied by what would now be called a “winning hearts and minds” policy.

Think more recently experiments with this policy in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Midnight at the Pera Palace; The Birth of Modern Istanbul

Midnight at the Pera Palace; The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King. W.W. Norton, paper 2015.

Istanbul’s Pera Palace Hotel opened in 1892. It was first-class, serving those travelers who had taken the Orient Express, a luxury train that ran between Paris and Istanbul.  Charles King has made the hotel a focus of his cultural history of the city, roughly from the outbreak of the Great War to the first decade after the Second World War.

Capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul (Constantinople) in 1892 ruled over much of the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Arab Middle East. The Empire, however, had not prospered during the European imperial age, as had the Russian, British, French, Austro-Hungarian, and, belatedly, the German Empires. It was known by historians of the time and since as the “sick man of Europe.”

Initially neutral in the Great War, it joined the Central Powers – Germany, and Austria – in 1915. King suggests that there were good reasons for doing so. At that point, it looked as though the Central Powers were winning. Germany had been the Ottoman Empire’s major trading partner before WWI. It had been supported by the Germans during its prolonged struggle against Russia and Britain in the Balkans. The Turkish armies had been trained by Germans. However, many of its minorities – Armenians, Greeks, and Orthodox Christians – remained loyal to Russia, for long the protector of Orthodox Christianity in the region.

The Ottoman Empire surrendered days before the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Istanbul (Constantinople) was occupied by British, French, and Italian troops until 1923. Its former Middle-Eastern provinces were taken over as League of Nation “mandates” by the French and British.  In that same year – 1923, the Republic of Turkey was declared and the emperor departed under the protection of a British warship.

In May of 1919 Mustafa Kemal, a successful military officer in the Ottoman Army, checked into the Pera Palace Hotel. A staunch Turk nationalist, he was in the city to advocate his country’s remaining in the War until Smyrna, Turkey’s second city, and much of the province of Thrace had been “liberated” from Greek occupation. Eventually some 213,000 Greeks were forcibly evacuated from Smyrna, and it became a Turkish city, which it never had been during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire.

King’s account of the early post-war years is familiar. But there is much that is new in his chapter entitled “Moscow on the Bosporus.” Istanbul received 185,000 Russian refugees who fled the Bolsheviks when they occupied Crimea in 1917.         Turkey, generally welcomed these Russians as victims of the Red Army, but also as educated, valuable émigrés. Some eventually ended up begging on the streets of Istanbul and Turkish goodwill came to their assistance. Most important, however, was an organized relief effort financed by the victorious Allies.

Leon Trotsky, his wife, and daughter were perhaps the most famous of these Russian refugees to land in Istanbul. Trotsky was given a residence just outside the city where he lived for four years. His permanent exile and assassination occurred in Mexico in 1940. One of the men who carried out the assassination was Leonid Eitigon, a Soviet Intelligence Officer who had been stationed in Istanbul after the Revolution to track those many Russian refugees.

The First World War, it was hoped, would be the war to end all wars. Post-war peace treaties attempted to divide the defeated empires, into separate nations dominated by a majority ethnic community with as few minorities as possible. The Ottoman Empire was a victim of that idle, even though it had been known for its tolerance of ethnic minorities. Thus 1,000,000 Ottoman Greeks left for Europe and 500,000 Moslems, mostly from western Thrace, exited to Ottoman lands.

This disruption of well-established minority communities was a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ as was ‘Turkification’. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, President of the Republic of Turkey from 1923 to his death in 1938, imposed a ban on all non-Turkish clubs, businesses, and even philanthropic organizations. Everyone had to have a Turkish name. The owner of the Pera Palace Hotel, a Greek, was forced to sell the hotel to the government.

Atatürk, “father of the Turks,” King claims, came to resemble the fascist dictators elsewhere in Europe. He was much enthralled with Russia’s forced pace of industrialization and economic planning. Turks heard little about the virtues of the liberal economic model and its entrepreneurs.

So Istanbul became more Turkish, and more Moslem in the inner-war period. But Islamic Istanbul also received a dose of the “modern.” New bars, restaurants, theaters, popular European entertainers, women dressed in Western skirts, and carry-out food.

Turkey remained neutral as the European skies began to darken in the 1930s. It became a pathway for Eastern European Jewish refugees, fleeing the Balkans for Israel. This story has often been told, but Charles King chronicles some of the horrors of that exile during the Second World War. The Pera Palace Hotel shared in that terror. In March of 1941 a bomb went off in the hotel’s lobby causing much damage and killing staff and patrons. Most likely it had been planted amongst the luggage of British diplomats exiting Sofia when Bulgaria entered the war on the German side.

The Pera Palace Hotel has been restored to its earlier grandeur by a firm from Dubai that specializes in luxury hotel accommodations.