Tag Archives: British Empire

This Day in History 1/25: Idi Amin takes power in Uganda

At first, many thought that the jolly general from the King’s African Rifles was a droll African joke.

Today, few are laughing about him.

On January 25, 1971, Idi Amin deposed president Milton Obote to become Uganda’s most notorious leader.  A veteran of the British colonial forces, Amin’s delusions, his lust for riches and power, and especially his brutality would create a figure both fascinating and horrifying in the public imagination.

In a nutshell, Amin was a stone cold bad guy.  Estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000 deaths during his eight-year regime from 1971-1979.  His wrath spread to ethnic minorities, Asians (whom Amin expelled in 1972 amid an ill-conceived program of reappopriation), religious leaders, journalists, artists, senior bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, students and intellectuals, criminal suspects, foreign nationals, and pretty much anyone who stood in his way.

How did he dispatch so many people at will?  Don’t ask.

Amin was also fond of pissing off pretty much everybody.  An early supporter of the United States and Israel, he did an abrupt about-face in 1972, siding with Muammar Quaddafi’s Libya, the Soviet Union, and East Germany, which supplied arms and helped in interrogation and torture.  The expulsion of the Ugandan Asians didn’t sit well with India, which severed relations with Uganda, as did Great Britain.  By 1973, even the US had to jump ship.

This, of course, didn’t prevent Amin from taking top billing in a notorious international incident.  In 1976, Amin allowed an Air France airliner hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two members of the German Revolutionäre Zellen to land at Entebbe Airport.  Once landed, the non-Jewish hostages were released, and another 103 hostages were held at the airport.  Amin took to the cameras to play the diplomat, but Israel wasn’t fooled.  A group of Israeli commandos seized the airport and freed all the hostages, killing seven hijackers and 45 Ugandan troops.

As time went on, Amin would further dip into madness.  His official title became, “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” The VC, by the way, was the Victorious Cross, which he made up after the British Victoria Cross (The real VC).  His doctorate was one he conferred on himself.  He never got a real DSO (Distinguished Service Order) or an MC (Military Cross), but Amin was never one to worry about the facts.

He also didn’t have to worry about atoning for his sins, neither.

After he was deposed in 1979, Amin would first live in Libya, then Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis, in a twisted sense of generosity, bankrolled his sorry butt in order that he stay out of politics.  He lived out the rest of his days not feeling one ounce of remorse for what he did, right up to his death in 2003.

The attached film is a 1974 French documentary  named Idi Amin Dada.  It shows Amin at the height of his power, and you can almost taste the crazy coming off the screen.

WARNING: It’s probably too violent for classroom use.

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A Dear John Letter to my Textbooks

Dear NYC Social Studies Core Curriculum Textbooks published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

This is a difficult letter for me to write…and an even more difficult letter for you to read, so I hope that you are sitting down.

Remember when we first met? I trembled in excitement upon hearing of a textbook option for New York City’s social studies curriculum. Once I had you (or the fourth grade version of you at the time), it was as if a great weight was lifted from me—finally, a concrete guide to instruction.

I was smitten just by looking at your spine…the glow off your glossy cover…the sharp color photos that littered almost every page.

Those first few months were incredible, weren’t they? Every day was something new, something exciting. We were so wild, so adventurous…we could take on the world. To be honest, we were into some really kinky shit, but that was all in the fun.

Each year, another book would await me, and my love affair renewed. The roller-coaster ride we shared made the mundane phone order to the central office in Tweed so—dare I say—exhilarating. The maps, the optional activities, the worksheets and games: at last, I thought, I found the one.

Yet, something changed.

At first, I thought it was just me. After a while, we settled into our routine. Occasionally, you provide a surprise to spice things up—a game on the Internet, or a music selection. That, however, was the exception to the rule. To be fair, that routine suited me fine…for a while.

Then, maybe it was my weakness…but I started to feel restless. The chapters and units weren’t doing it for me anymore. I felt trapped.

It was then that I met someone else…more like some other people, plural.

There were some websites on the Internet. I was leery, at first. But then, they lured me with their siren song of primary source documents, streaming video and interactive games. Once I saw the ever-changing and ever-expanding volumes of media, lesson plans, worksheets and graphic organizers, that old excitement, that feeling of adventure exploded over me again.

I had mentioned that I was attached, that I couldn’t turn my back on my beloved. They, in turn, mentioned some shocking things about you: that you don’t fact-check your information that well, that there are numerous mistakes in historical maps, that terminology and vocabulary are often misstated.

Worst of all, they said that by watering down the content for the sake of “readability”, you were holding me back—and even worse, holding my students hostage to shoddy literature.

I wouldn’t believe it. They were just jealous, after all, I thought. How could they appreciate the passion, the connection we have…besides, if there were flaws, you would have told me, right?

Right?

Well, I did some digging myself. On page 161 of the grade 3 book, this is what you say about the Roman Empire:

“The Roman Empire lasted about 500 years, but then broke apart. It had grown too large for its rulers to control. However, ancient Rome still affects the world with its ideas about government, architecture, and more.”

Fair enough, it is only for 3rd graders, but sometimes you water down way too much. Look at page 163:

“In the mid-1900s, World War II broke out. Many countries fought in this war, including Italy. Italy was on the side that lost.”

Umm, that’s it? No mention of the nightmare of a 21-year fascist dictatorship that preceded it? No mention of the other countries that bear more responsibility for losing—the ones that had more blood on their hands. Those kids can get that…why do you treat them like morons?

If that’s not bad enough, I found outright lies—lies that you should’ve told me about. Why did you keep it a secret that the leaders of the New Netherland colony were incorrectly called “governors” instead of the correct “directors-general”?

Why does a map of North America in the 18th century use flags from another century? I see an 1801 British flag, a 1793 French flag, and a 1981 Spanish flag.

I’m not even going into the problems in the 5th grade book.

Why? Why did you hold me back so many years? Why the lies? The deceit? The lack of clarity and depth of content?

I’m sorry, but our relationship has really run its course. It’s over.

Please, no tears…it’s not entirely your fault. I was too stupid to realize how badly written you were. I didn’t see your limited vision and lack of depth.

Basically, we’ve really grown apart these past few years. I expanded my base of knowledge and resources through the internet, seminars, grants and lectures.

You just can’t grow past your binding.

You were suffocating me, and screwing my students in the process. There’s nowhere else for this to go.

Believe me, it’s better for both of us.

Goodbye, and good luck. Perhaps we’ll see each other again… that odd day that I need to waste a period with busywork in June.

Just don’t wait up for my call. Sorry, babe.

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This Day in History 5/31: Treaty of Vereeniging ends the Boer War

The end of the Britsh Empire began on May 31, 1902.

On that day, the Treaty of Vereeniging ended the three-year long disaster known as the Boer War.  It began as a dispute over mining rights and sovereignty of the Boer Republics of South Africa, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.  It ended as one of the darkest chapters in British history.

The war was technically “over” in 1900, when the British occupied the Transvaal capital of Pretoria.  However, the remaining Boer commandos of the Orange Free State and the Northern Transvaal continued a war of attrition for another two years.   It would see unspeakable atrocities on both sides.  It would see “scorched-Earth” tactics and concentration camps that would result in the deaths of thousands.  It would also see continued and violent repression, mutilation and torture of the majority African native population–a situation not really rectified until almost a century later.

Finally, the Boer War would see British people start to question the need for a colonial empire.  Though a victory, the war cost thousands of lives and millions of British pounds.  Britons would then start questioning the use of British troops, the entanglement in colonial affairs–even questioning the need for an empire in the first place.

Attached is a nice 5-part synopsis of the Boer War and other African conflicts of the time.  It is very even handed, and its short length is perfect for the classroom.

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The Strange Bedfellows in US Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June 2009. Today, Egyptians are protesting to remove Mubarak from power. Photo via the San Francisco Sentinel

At one point, the United States, a beacon of democracy and freedom, turned to a despotic, autocratic tyrant for friendship and alliance during a volatile period.

As soon as the situation was resolved, however, that very same despotic regime caused mixed feelings among Americans, often leading to violent confrontation.

By the way, I’m not talking about Egypt.

It was 1778, and a young United States turned to France, an absolute monarchy almost completely anathema to the ideals of the young nation, as an ally in its war for independence against the British Empire.

When that very same regime became engulfed in revolution a decade later, the new regime divided Americans as never before—and confused US foreign policy into a “quasi-war” with France from 1798-1800.

The recent turmoil in Egypt has us looking at the often strange decisions made in the name of national interest.  In looking at the protests aimed to oust Hosni Mubarak, many classrooms will be full of questions about the situation.  They range from the mundane (“Where is Egypt?”) to the profound (“How can we resolve the situation?”) and even the profoundly dumb (“Who cares about Egypt?”).

Yet one question cannot be avoided: “Why are we friends with a guy like Mubarak in the first place?”

It’s time to teach your kids the painful truth about American diplomacy—it makes for strange bedfellows who tend to stay too long in the sack.

It doesn’t stop at Mubarak and the corpulent king of France.  Josef Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong (once he was dying), the folks in China after Mao kicked the bucket, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, the entire Thai government, Ngo Dinh Diem, Syngman Rhee, the assholes after Syngman Rhee, Islam Karimov, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein (before he got greedy),The Saudi Monarchy, The monarchies of the rest of the Gulf states, Mobutu Sese Seko, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the white regimes in both Rhodesia and South Africa, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza (plus the other Somozas), Manuel Noriega (before he got greedy), Marcos Perez Jimenez, Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Banzer, Alfredo Stroessner and the host of lovable scamps involved in military governments in Brazil and Argentina.

All of these people rotting in hell (we hope).  All of these people received, at one point or another, the blessing, cooperation, and (the important part) funding from the most powerful democracy on Earth.

We were often taught that the United States was “special” amongst its brethren nations in that its high moral purpose and philosophical vision would mean its actions would also be of such moral stature.  The US wouldn’t stoop to make treaties with dictatorships, nor “torture” prisoners for information: Americans “just don’t do that sort of thing.”

Well, not only do we do “that sort of thing,” but we’re real good at it—since we’ve been doing it since our founding.

Foreign relations, one learns quickly, has very little to do with lofty philosophical ideals or moral imperatives.  To be sure, the base of diplomacy lies more in the market bazaar than the debating hall: economics and mutual security drive national ties far more than shared ideology.

Today’s diplomatic landscape certainly owes much to our wallets.  In the United States, most people worry about gas and consumer prices. Thus, we make nice with two nasty regimes that take care of our needs. The Saudis and their autocratic buddies in the Gulf take care to juice up our SUVs and assorted land monsters.  The Chinese and their sundry client states around the South China Sea make sure your little brats get everything they want for Christmas—as well as stock your shelves at Wal-Mart and Target.

During the Cold War, the United States’ biggest diplomatic priorities were thwarting Communism and spreading American ideals—in that order.  To wit, many of the people we cozied up to from the 1940s to the 1990s shared only an intense anti-Communist streak.  Being that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the US looked the other way as dissidents were slaughtered in soccer stadiums, tortured with electrodes, and subjected to inhuman conditions while everything, at least on the surface, looked rosy.

As far as Egypt goes, the mutual enemy isn’t Communism but rather Islamic fundamentalism.  The Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal Islamist group that allegedly masterminded the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 (leading to Mubarak’s accession), is the great bogeyman of the Egyptian government.  Mubarak fears that his departure would cede Egypt to the Brotherhood, thus plunging the ancient country into the darkness of an Islamic state.  I’m not completely convinced this is the case, considering the impact of the military on the country, but it’s been reason enough for the United States to stand by Mubarak for three decades.

The United States is not alone in allying itself with distasteful regimes.  Other countries, notably in Europe, have done the same thing. To an extent, these connections provide the United States with many of the products, materials and resources we need at the prices we want.  The average American has, on the whole, benefitted at least economically from these questionable partnerships.

Yet as you think about the people risking their lives in Cairo, Alexandria and all over Egypt, one can’t help wondering: is it worth it?

There’s no easy answer to that.  We cannot judge all foreign policy as a whole: relations with each country have their own characteristics.  Yet the better students can see how all aspects of national identity—economic, military, financial and ethical—affect international relations, all the better for the American diplomats of the future.

The following are some resources about US foreign policy with dictators as well as about the Egypt crisis:

An article from Salon.com featuring three authoritarian regimes that are friendly with the US.

A Report about US policy towards dictatorships from the Cato Institute made during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.

A 2002 Global Issues article about support for dicatorships and terrorism.

YouTube compilations of news coverage of the Egyptian protests.

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In Defense of “The King’s Speech”

During my winter break, I saw one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

A week later, I saw a review of that movie—from a respectable magazine—that missed the point entirely.

I’m a bit of an Anglophile at heart, and watching The King’s Speech reinforced my love of all things British. Tom Hooper’s magisterial film about the accidental accession—and heartbreaking speech struggles—of George VI (played by Colin Firth) is one of the best films I have seen in a long time. It reminded me of how movies used to be made: with purpose, elegance, painstaking detail and thoughtful gravitas.

As a director, Hooper is already developing a fan base among my students. As the force behind the HBO miniseries John Adams, Hooper gets serious kudos in the classrooms where I integrate his work in my lessons. The direction and lighting of the Boston Massacre scene in the first episode is particularly noteworthy, and gets plenty of airtime with my students.

That said, it was something of a shock when I read Isaac Chotiner’s review of The King’s Speech in The New Republic last week. In a scathing blast, Chotiner dismisses the work as “historically inaccurate, entirely misleading, and, in its own small way, morally dubious.” Specifically, he cites the downplaying of Edward VIII’s pro-Nazi tendencies, the “distortion” of Churchill’s character, and the supposed ingenuous conclusion that “Bertie”, George VI’s nickname, was anti-fascist from the beginning, overlooking political missteps.

Chotiner’s review, apart from dripping with Anglo-hatred and smug intellectual doubletalk, suffers on two points. He is very selective himself of certain historical inaccuracies. Furthermore, in his nitpicking, Chotiner neglects to see the film for what it is.

Anyone can pick and choose the facts that best suit them, and Chotiner gives us a smorgasboard.

Yet the best facts are those that are overlooked.

While Chotiner harps on Edward’s flings with Nazis in 1937, subsequently to be put out of the way as governor of the Bahamas, he neglected to look at things from the German point of view. Hitler, even before Edward and Wallis’ visit, had a fond view of Britain, especially her colonial empire. This was cultivated not by any crowned head, but a former prime minister, David Lloyd George, who visited Hitler in 1935 and had got along smashingly with the Fuhrer.

Looking at Operation Sea Lion, Germany’s presumptive occupation of Britain, supports this view. The occupation had no role for Edward, partly due to his place in the Caribbean, but mostly due to Nazi understanding that more important leaders, such as Lord Halifax, could manage the occupied British Empire, especially her other dominions. Edward’s threat to British liberal government is thus grossly inflated.

Churchill, an early supporter of Edward, also warrants scrutiny, according to Chotiner. Here he bears some credit—some. Winston Churchill was a steadfast supporter of Edward during the 1936-1937 accession crisis, a fact glossed over by the film (although in the film, it isn’t clear at what point in the crisis Churchill discusses the succession with Bertie). Yet although his decision was shocking to his allies, as Chotiner claims, it was not so deplorable to the majority of British voters that supported Edward as well.

Churchill was (gasp!) practicing good politics in supporting the wayward Windsor, even as the political elites in both parties expressed disapproval. Edward, as a dashing force for modernizing and de-formalizing the royal family, was seen as a humanizing force by the British public, who overwhelmingly supported Edward over his stammering younger brother Albert.

In bad taste? Most certainly. Yet Churchill the politician was simply pandering to the electorate, which keeps in line with his political comeback of the 1930s.

Lastly, Chotimer claims that the future George VI was a reluctant anti-fascist, although the film supposedly depicts him as anti-fascist throughout. His evidence is the viewing of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 at Buckingham Palace after the Munich agreement, an agreement that postponed World War II for less than a year.

Really?

Show off your own prime minister off a balcony and he’s an appeaser who “violated protocol” in endorsing the actions of a prime minister—which were disastrous in HINDSIGHT?

It’s flimsy, to say the least. And he neglects to paint the same bleak picture when George VI does the exact same thing with Winston Churchill on V-E day in 1945. He certainly endorsed a prime minister then for his foreign policy: shouldn’t he merit the same scrutiny then?

There is plenty of evidence that proves George VI’s loyalty and duty to his people. He worked a remarkable personal relationship with Franklin Roosevelt and his wife during the desperate period of the Battle of Britain. When advisors warned him to escape, George stayed in London with his beleaguered people, enduring blackouts, rations and boarded-up windows at Buckingham Palace (just ask Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited). A German bomb landed on their lawn, to demonstrate the danger. George and his family made a point to visit military bases, towns, bombed-out factories and villages all over the British Isles, even at great personal risk.

That was just during the war. The New Republic being a more liberal tome, it would hearten Chotimer to see George’s early advocacy of racial equality. He was the first royal to play tennis with a black man in 1927 in Jamaica, which shocked local elites as a perceived sign of racial equality. In 1947, in a tour of South Africa, George was appalled when the white racist government insisted that the king shake hands only with whites. He would have none of that, referring to the South African security forces derisively as “The Gestapo.”

In sum, although Chotimer brings up interesting points about the film’s subject matter—even alluding that it would make a superb film—he misses the point entirely, largely due to a bias against royals and for deeper accuracy at the expense of quality filmmaking.

Chotimer remarks, in words dripping with disdain, that

“This heartwarming tale plays out predictably and unsubtly—The King’s Speech is one of those films that is not content to show us a friendship developing over two hours; no, the characters must also tell us how much the friendship means to them.”

Liberals don’t like to be told anything. Heck, I can’t stand being told things myself.

Yet in a vapid cinematic landscape, where amateur directors bend over backwards to be subtle, ironic, and overly symbolic to the point of tedium, we often need to be reminded—not TOLD, but reminded—of the way films used to be made, of heroes and foils, of dark times and heroic deeds that gets lost in the minute inconvenience of fact.

I saw The King’s Speech with my sister, herself a left-leaning liberal with a low opinion of the royal family. We both wept numerous times during the film. She turned to me and asked in the most sincere way, “Where are the people like that today?”

Where, indeed.

George VI, to be sure, was a reluctant monarch who had his faults and would misstep during his reign. Yet the film was not about his politics. It was not about Edward’s appeasements or his Nazi sympathies. It wasn’t about Winston Churchill. It certainly wasn’t about Hitler.

At its heart, The King’s Speech is not about king nor about any one address he gives. It is about a man with a tough childhood that produced a debilitating speech impediment. He gives up on his improvement until fate, and world events, hand him an enormous responsibility. In building a relationship with his teacher, as well as confronting his own demons, George VI learned to overcome his disability to deliver a message of hope and encouragement to his people when they really needed it.

It’s about how a man from who little was expected could deliver so much to his people.

This is what made George VI among Britain’s greatest monarchs.

It is why I loved The King’s Speech. I only wish that others, especially other writers, felt the same way.

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This Day in History 11/29: The 1781 Zong Massacre

Print of the crew of the Zong throwing sick Africans overboard (1781)

Movements can often be sparked by the most inane and ordinary of circumstances.

In the case of abolition, one could argue that it all began with an insurance fraud case.

On November 29, 1781, the Zong, a slave ship carrying Africans to Jamaica, had a problem.  Two months before, in their zeal for profits, the crew of the Zong stuffed the hold of the ship with more Africans than it could carry.  By November, malnutrition and disease had taken the lives of seven crew members and almost 60 enslaved Africans.

Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong, now made what he considered the best decision to stem the losses for his bosses in Liverpool.  If he continued sailing, and delivered a pile of corpses to the Kingston docks, the owners had no redress.  If, however, the sick Africans were lost at sea, then the shipowners’ insurance would cover the loss.  Under the “jettison” clause, enslaved persons were considered cargo, and their loss would be covered at £30 per head.

So on November 29, Collingwood did the “logical” thing: he ordered 54 sick Africans dumped overboard.  Another 42 perished the next day, and 26 the day after that.  10 Africans voluntarily flung themselves overboard, in an act of defiance against the captain’s decision.  In all, 122 Africans were thrown overboard.

Yet when the ship owners filed their claim with the insurance company, things went downhill.  The insurers disputed the claims of the captain and the owners–largely on the testimony of James Kelsall, First Mate on the Zong.  According to the insurance claim, the Africans were thrown overboard “for the safety of the ship,” as there wasn’t enough water for the cargo and crew to survive the rest of the voyage.  But Kelsall–who expressed doubts early on to Collingwood about the scheme–testified that there was plenty of water for the remaining leg of the journey.  Indeed, when the Zong reached Jamaica on the 22nd of December, there was 422 gallons of drinking water in the hold.

The case went to court, and the court ruled in favor of Collingwood and the owners.  During the appeals process, an ex-slave and author, Olaudah Equiano, brought the case–soon to be known as the “Zong Massacre”–to the attention of Granville Sharp, one of Britain’s leading early abolitionists.  Sharp immediately became involved in the prosecution of the appeal, even though eminent jurists such as John Lee, Soliciter General for England and Wales, dismissed the affair stating “the case was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” This time, the court ruled that the ship owners were not eligible for insurance since the water in the hold proved that the cargo was mismanaged.

Sharp and his colleagues tried to press murder charges against Collingwood and the owners, but to no avail.  The Solicitor General, John Lee, stated that:

“What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgement of an experienced well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”

Lee hoped the matter would rest with his decision.  Instead it unleashed a firestorm.

Within a few years of the Zong Massacre, abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and James Ramsay issued pamphlets and essays condemning the conditions of the slave trade.  Together with Sharp and Equiano, they would approach a young member of Parliament from Yorkshire, William Wilberforce, to take up the cause of abolition.

Beginning in 1784, Wilberforce would lead a 50-year struggle in Parliament to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  The efforts of abolitionists such as these led to the 1807 law abolishing the slave trade.  26 years later, the British Parliament outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire.  The British abolition movement inspired similar movements worldwide–including a burgeoning anti-slavery movement across the Atlantic that would lead to civil war and eventual emancipation.

And to think…it was all sparked by insurance fraud.

For more information about the Zong Massacre, here are some helpful sites:

Information about the slave ship Zong (1781)

Lesson Plan about the Zong case

Gloucestershire, UK County Council website about Granville Sharp and the Zong Massacre

British National Archives catalog of documents relating to the Zong affair

A Jamaican perspective on the Zong incident

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 6: Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?

A persistent problem in history instruction is the demonization of the “losers” of history.

The British were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction.

The Germans were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction.

The 1974-1976 Philadelphia Flyers were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction. (That last one may be true.)

It’s a common trap for educators.  Because of our emphasis on literacy, especially elements of fiction, we tend to view historical events through the prism of the fiction story: plot, setting, protagonists and especially antagonists.  Kids might not grasp the nuance of British soldiers assisting native tribes from encroachment by American colonists.  They do get, however, a pack of British redcoats unloading their muskets on a group of 70 minutemen “peaceably” gathering on Lexington common. 

Good guys and bad guys make a natural narrative that’s clear, convenient and memorable.  It also makes for bad history.

This has been especially true of the American Revolution, one of my favorite subjects.  I’ll be studying the revolution at UCLA at a Gilder Lehrman Summer Seminar in July, and the old “bad British” mentality does not fly in academia.  Scholars of late have attempted to rectify the prevailing narrative with research on the Iroquois campaigns of 1778-1779, the gruesome guerrilla wars between Patriot and Tory gangs in the Carolinas, and the fate of Loyalists after the war was over.

In classrooms, we are slowly coming into contact with such material.  For example, George Vs. George attempts to give a balanced account of the revolution from the two most famous “Georges”, George Washington and King George III. 

Yet my favorite of these works is an old warhorse by Jean Fritz, a master of historical narrative for children.  Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? is an entertaining, balanced account of the trials of the British monarch from boyhood through the end of the revolution.

As in other books about Franklin, Columbus, Sam Adams, etc., Fritz uses historical facts and the events of the period to provide a very human, and surprising linear, portrait of complicated people.  George III is shown as an awkward, troublesome boy who accidentally ends up heir to the British throne.  Once in power, George endeavors to be a good king: in manners, in style, in government, and especially with his rambunctious subjects in America.

The conflict in the colonies is shown as a distant affair, a master stroke by Fritz to add realism.  Remember that the revolution was occurring 3,000 miles across the ocean.  Unless your family had someone in the army serving in America, most British subjects had the revolution in the distant background.  Fritz shows how George fit the American war in the context of his numerous duties: very important, yet not always at the forefront of his mind.  

Although a disservice to true aficionados of the period, George’s “madness” is rarely mentioned.  The audience of Fritz’ work would probably not understand George’s porphyria, his well-documented mental illness.  Thus, George is shown becoming more eccentric as the revolution progresses, when in reality those nervous tics were always part of his persona.

Older students should definitely couple this book with Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, as well as its excellent screen adaptation, The Madness of King George.

Finally, the book debunks the myth created by our Founding Fathers that George III was a hardhearted monster.  On the contrary, George was in fact an incredibly involved monarch who was careful to look after the needs of his people.  Yet for any government, let alone a king, ruling a vast overseas empire is incredibly hard work, and involves leaving decisions to subordinates that may not be in the best interests of everyone.  And boy, did George have some doozies of subalterns: Lord North, Charles Townshend, Lord Grenville, William Pitt the Elder (and Younger), Lord Rockingham, Lord Bute, Charles Edward Fox, and so on.

Fritz goes a long way in showing just how difficult it is to lead the British Empire. Challenge your students to see what they would do if they were in King George’s shoes.  You may be surprised at the answers.

As for me, I’ll cut George III some slack. 

Bobby Clarke, on the other hand, has a special place in hell reserved for him.

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