Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,–each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
“Could anything be worse than this?”–he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees. . .
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs . . . “O hell!”
He thought–“there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.”
What I like about this poem is the opening line, with its strange rhythm, and the final couplet, which I take to be a kind of sardonic pity on the part of the poem’s speaker. Sassoon’s are some of the best anti-war poems I’ve read. A decorated infantry officer, he was remanded to a mental hospital after drafting a declaration against what he saw as the pointless slaughter of trench warfare. You can find more of his poems at
Debates with a Catholic priest on the matter of religion. Asked by Dr. Irving to undertake the building of a plantation on the Musquito Coast (Nicaragua). On the voyage there makes the acquaintance of George, an “Indian Prince” whom Equiano attempts to proselytize. In Jamaica, with Equiano’s assistance, Irving buys slaves. E. chooses only those from his own country. Note Equiano’s description of the Ulua Indians and their environs, which is reminiscent of the chapter on Africa. More ethnographic detail follows, including an account of a party which gets out of hand. E. uses an old trick from Columbus, and threatens unwelcome guests with the wrath of god.
We managed to plough through most of the Fernandez-Armesto, notably to the point of the Great Divergence, when the relationship between North and South seems to have capsized. We’ll return to that text from time to time as we progress through the semester and (have you noticed?) through historical time. Equiano will bring us to the very verge of the national independence period (1770s-1820s), shift geographical focus to the Caribbean, and introduce the concept of the Black Atlantic. From there we head to Carpentier’s Cuba, Bolanos’s Chile, and Asian America.
Make sure you have a sense of the palimpsest. The image it is intended to evoke, past events bleeding up through the present, can also be thought of in geological terms: striations of history, layer upon layer, erupting upward to the surface. The Presidio offers a fine example of this critical term, though surely there are other locales that could perform the same function: the beach at San Salvador where Columbus first set foot, for instance, now a haven for tourists. The initial encounter between sea-weary explorers and indigenes persists, after a fashion, though these days the foreigners travel by jet and the “natives” share a common European, African, and American heritage with them.
My apologies that it got a little incoherent there toward the end, though I think it is instructive that no draft has been declared. The primary political actors of the day– strategists and elected officials– seem to have grasped Hobsbawm’s fundamental insight that the nation-state has lost some of its legitimacy, which is to say some of its power to elicit support for its policies from many citizens. That phenomena seems to encompass not only the reluctance of citizens to fight wars (of choice rather than necessity) but, among a plurality, to submit to taxation in the interests of the larger society. The US takes this antipathy to “big government” (a masterful use of political rhetoric courtesy of the Reagan Revolution) to unheard of lengths, though the virus is spreading, notably to the UK, where the political scene now features factions whose raison d’etre is the elimination of “redistributive” economic policies.
We did well in attempting a summation of Hobsbawm’s arguments. One thing, however, we didn’t discuss: his belief that a truly global empire functioning at the behest of a single nation-state is an impossibility– the world being simply too variegated and complex.
Having passed rapidly through some substantive arguments for the contemporary relevance of Empire as a geopolitical category we can now reach back to the era of Decolonization, in many ways the root-structure of the present. Empire continues to manifest a presence in this earlier period as the origin of a colonial structure in Africa which began to unravel with national independence movements (inaugurated by Ghana and extending through the following decades to Guinea-Bissau). Even better: we’ll immerse ourselves in that epoch via the readerly pleasures of a thoughtful and humane novel, Nervous Conditions.