Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Prize Watch: the Cundill Prize finalists.

Yesterday the Cundill Prize for History announced the final three for its 2020 prize, to be announced December 3. 

  • William Dalrymple for The Anarchy, on the collapse of India's Mughal dynasty and the takeover of the subcontinent by the East India Company.

  • Vincent Brown for Tacky's Revolt: a mid-eighteenth century Jamaican slave revolt recast as a struggle with pan-Atlantic roots and outcomes.

  • Camilla Townsend for Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.

I don't usually keep track of longlists, and the Cundill's ten this year was pretty long  -- though they called it the "shortlist." But quite a few intriguing titles were left behind when the finalists were chosen:  histories of India, Greece, and Palestine, the Iran-Saudi confrontation, "Indian Removal" in the United States, the collapse of Cromwell's Protectorate, and a biography of a little-known Black activist.  (There was an official longlist that was even longer, and still pretty interesting.)

How are the Cundill choices as a measure of what's doing in world historical writing? An anti-colonial slant to the choices, and five of ten shortlisters would count as "of colour," though American Ivy-League scholars feature prominently in both shortlist and finalists.

Monday, October 19, 2020

A word of praise for official history

Do the official military historians do the best Canadian histories?  

I've been doing a Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry of a British Columbia judge, Archer Martin (d.1941), who among his other duties was a judge of Admiralty. I needed to sort out a little point of admiralty law and jurisdiction (not, shall we say, my specialty), and that led me by winding paths to Johnston, Rawlings, Gimblett, and MacFarlane, The Seabound Coast: the Official History of the Royal Canadian Navy Volume I, 1867-1939, published in 2010 by Dundurn Press.  

It's 1014 pages long, and for my purposes I really only needed about five paragraphs. But I ended up reading quite a lot of it. It's not exactly an easy read, and it's a thousand pages on a period when there barely was a Canadian navy.  But it is just very satisfying sometimes to be reading in a history that seems absolutely authoritative and knows a very great deal in fields where hardly anyone knew anything previously. Who else works on this scale, with such authority? I recall having a similar reaction to The Crucible of War, 1939-1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force (1994), when I looked into it for a completely different reason years ago.

It occurs to me that the official historians have a great advantage in working in scholarly teams with long term, defined purposes and goals. There are four listed authors here (one of whom was also an author of the air force history), and research reports by several other stalwarts of the Defence Department Directorate of History turn up frequently in the notes. A history of this scale -- presumably several volumes are contemplated -- would be beyond the ability of almost any single historian. Individual scholars, by and large, simply cannot live long enough to produce works on this scale with this depth of research and this degree of slowly acquired authority.  Most academic historians, even working in large departments, tend to work alone on what interests them. Non-academic historians, even more so. 

I wonder why academic historical research remains so individual and piecemeal. One can think of some notable collaborative efforts: the Maritime History Group and the unofficial collective of New Labour historians some decades ago, the demographers of Universite de Montreal even earlier.  (Update, 21 October: and some women's history projects more recently, including one on suffrage.)  But they tend to be scarce, small, and a bit haphazard. The academic freedom of scholars to pursue whatever they please is a precious thing, I don't doubt, but I wonder what we lose by seeming to avoid resolutely all, ah, collective organization in most professional historical work. 

Working collectively, the official historians don't seem to fall prey to groupthink or officialese. The Seabound Coast advances a lot of confident opinions about some substantial matters in Canadian history, not least on the old saw that in Canada "imperialism was a form of nationalism." Well, in naval history of the early 20th century, this book, without making a big thing about it, persuades me again that imperialism was very much a form of imperialism.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

More historical ethics

The Guardian reports on the disturbing case of a British historian being sued for having violated "the postmortem personality rights" of a now-deceased Holocaust survivor. A German court has ruled that the historian infringed against the dead survivor's dignity, and a descendant is now seeking damages.  Apparently postmortem personality rights are a thing in German law; that is, in Germany you can libel the dead.

It's a complicated story. The historian, Ana Hajkova, studies the experience of queer victims of the Holocaust. She became interested in the case of a woman prisoner of whom a female concentration camp guard is said by witnesses to have become enamoured. Hajkova had promised the daughter of the woman prisoner not to name the mother, but did. And Hajkova wrote that the guard and the prisoner had a sexual relationship, while the daughter denies there is real evidence of this.

So the historian seems to have been ... negligent? ... in dealing with interviewees, and perhaps also in carrying a story beyond what the sources confirm.  But the suggestion that historians are not free to do scholarship on people now dead without fearing legal challenge from descendants of their subjects is chilling.  It's not clear from the story whether "truth"  -- that is, establishing that evidence justified Hajkova's account -- would be a defence in a personality-right dispute. It's also not clear whether identifying a dead person as queer can be a posthumous offence against her dignity.  


Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Historical Ethics

In 2017 the Law Society of British Columbia removed all the honours and distinctions it had previously given to Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, appointed in 1858 as the first and for a long time only judge in the new colony of British Columbia. Statues were taken down, etc. The Society was acting on a report that condemned Begbie for disregarding indigenous law, putting to death warriors of the Chilcotin war of 1864, and having "negative" and racist views.  

A group of B.C. lawyers, many of them long active in indigenous legal matters and legal history, put it to the Society that, while it was appropriate that Begbie no longer be considered the symbol of justice in British Columbia, the report was inaccurate and misleading and unworthy of the Society. They presented evidence that Begbie, among other things, threw out the anti-potlatch law as unenforceable, denounced British Columbia's racially-based anti-Chinese legislation, encouraged First Nations in the exercise of "customary jurisdiction" over their own societies, and was singled out by the great B.C. First Nations leader George Manuel as one colonist who had actually advanced the cause of First Nations.  He did not even put anyone to death. (As lawyers should know, Begbie conducted the trial and gave the sentence, but the Chilcoten warriors were indicted by the Crown, convicted of a capital crime by a jury, and denied clemency and executed by the government.)  

The group got no response from the Law Society. I hear, however, that last week they took their case to the (virtual) annual general meeting of the Law Society, put forward their case as a motion -- and got it passed.  It may have been an odd coalition of highly woke indigenous-law specialists and hidebound old traditionalists, but still....  Again, the point was not to re-sanctify Justice Begbie but to argue in favour of nuanced history, even in difficult cases.  Actual consequences? Doubtful.

But, on the vexed questions of memory, commemoration and statuary, where few seem ready to stand up for any challenged historical reputation, I think these west coast scholars and lawyers have done exemplary service.

In Ontario, I think, Egerton Ryerson is one entitled to a similar defence. Not the perfect symbol of what we want Canada, or education, to be in the twenty-first century, perhaps, but hardly the monster he has lately been made out to be.

T'other hand, a Toronto Star story today on how Library and Archive Canada's website and Parks Canada plaque handle John A., Wilfrid Laurier, and others.

Update, October 18:  Jared Milne comments:

This is an example of a bigger problem in historical debate today, where it seems like a figure like Begbie can only be seen as entirely good or entirely bad. It doesn't matter what else the figure's legacy might include-one thing is enough to permanently mark them as irredeemable. That's why discussions like those in Canada's History about John A. Macdonald are so valuable-they show the need for nuanced history, as you point out.

Thanks. Just to be clear, nuanced history is precisely what the lawyers and legal historians in B.C. were advocating,  Sometimes these debates can be an opportunity instead of a problem. 


Friday, October 09, 2020

October at the LRC

I've been meaning to note the recently very impressive Literary Review of Canada and particularly its current (October 2020) issue.

There is a long essay in it by Conservative Party stalwart Joe Martin, "Thank You, Next" in which he reviews the long sad history of leadership changes in his party and concludes: 

it is time for the Conservatives to truly shake things up — not to develop more policy positions, although that too is needed, but to try a different method of choosing a leader.

He's come around to the idea that the caucus should hire and fire the leader.

Let’s reduce the alarming concentration of power in the hands of party leaders. Let’s transform members of Parliament from a group of “nobodies,” to quote Trudeau père, to legislators who are responsible to their electors — and who can truly hold their leaders to account in victory and defeat.

Regulars of this blog will recognize this as an argument I have put forth, ah, a few times, and Joe is kind enough to give me a shout-out. Indeed, he's told me an essay of mine in Canada's History influenced the writing of his essay. We'll see if he has any influence within his party. 

It's also striking how his essay dialogues with other pieces in the magazine.  Scott Griffin (of the Griffin Prize) laments the end of the "honourable resignation" in which a politician would resign from cabinet on a principle and return to the backbenchers.  But Martin's essay makes clear why that no longer happens.  Given the imbalance of power within party caucuses, going willingly to the backbenchers cannot be a way to stand up for principles. It's simply political suicide..

Martin's ideas also dialogues with a review by Ron Hikel of Nelson Wiseman's Political Odysseys, a history of Canadian political parties.  I have not read the book, but I browsed in it and, like most Canadian political science writing, its analyses seem uninterested in the issue Martin raises.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

New history from UT Press

Starting a fall roundup from some of the publishers, here are some of the new CanHist titles coming or recently arrived from University of Toronto Press. Old masters and new faces, recent and ancient times, subjects from politics, law, economy, immigration, indigenous....  Full details on all these and more here.

  • Heidi Bohaker, Doodem and Council Fire   Anishinaabe governance history
  • J.L. Granatstein, Canada at War   War and diplomacy from the unstoppable Jack
  • Donald B. Smith, Seen but Not Seen    Indigenous people "as seen" by 19th C colonists
  • Allyson Stevenson, Intimate Integration.    The sixties scoop.
  • Daniel S. Kaufmann, ed., No Better Home    Jewish and Canadian Identity
  • Margaret Conrad, At the Ocean's Edge    New Nova Scotia history to 1867.
  • Nelson Wiseman, Political Odysseys    History of political parties in Canada
  • Edward J. Hedican, After the Famine   Irish farm settlers in Ontario post 1845
  • Barry Wright and Susan Binnie, ed., Canadian State Trials III 1841-1914. Fenians, Riel, more
  • Lachlan MacKinnon, Closing Sysco    The decline of Cape Breton steelmaking
  • Carolyn Strange, The Death Penalty and Sex Murder in Canadian History

Saturday, October 03, 2020

What the other Christopher Moores are up to -- an occasional series


I love this one: 

Christopher Moore, for example, convicting of counterfeiting dollars at the Halifax Quarter Sessions in 1770, was sentenced "to stand in the pillory one hour with one of his ears nailed thereto." Moore escaped a worse fate because of uncertainty about whether the ear should be removed first; a statute of 1758 was ambiguous on the point, but one of 1774 made it clear that removal was indeed the prescribed punishment.

(From Philip Girard, Jim Phillips, R. Blake Brown, A History of Canadian Law: Volume One Beginnings to 1866, p 283.)

All three authors are friends, and I actually read a fair amount of this book in draft or when it appeared, but this paragraph had eluded me until now. A puzzle: which is worse, having the ear removed entirely or being attached to it while it spends an hour nailed to the pillory?

Here, from the back files: another Chris Moore doing cool things.   

History of mysterious ways


Have any American evangelical preachers declared that all that has happened in 2020 is God punishing the United States of America for having elected Donald Trump?

If so, I missed it.

Speaking of God, apparently someone on Twitter suggests that very recent events are evidence of Ruth Bader Ginzburg winning her first cases in the Heavenly Court of Divine Retribution.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

History of the Constitution of the United States of America

Last night, watching Joe Biden wrestle a pig for ninety minutes -- and come away with his tie straight and not too much mud on his jacket, I'd say -- I was reminded of some of my current reading. It's about the 1780s but boy, it's enlightening about 2020.

I've been reading The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution by Michael J. Klarman. It's not a quick or easy read, but it is topical, particularly for someone who has never had much more American history than every Canadian is infused with, and has recently felt particularly unschooled on American constitution-making.

Despite the provocation in his title, Klarman does not come across as radical. He teaches constitutional history at Harvard Law School, writes fat academic books citing masses of mainstream scholarship, and makes almost no contemporary lessons out of his work here -- except at times to tease Americans' faith in their constitution as providential and God-given.

I learned here:

  • Those who participated in the constitution-drafting at Philadelphia in 1787 formally represented no one. They were generally private citizens invited by state legislatures and chosen mostly as prominent, educated, well-to-do respectable citizens, hardly a cross-section of American opinion.
  • Their only authority was to review the existing Articles of Confederation adopted during the Revolution, not to write a constitution.
  • They constituted not "We the People" but "a conservative counterrevolution against... economic measures enacted by a majority of state legislatures ... which they diagnosed as a symptom of excessive democracy." Boy, did they fear outbreaks of democracy.
  • Most of the things most frustrating about the American system today -- from the Electoral College to the unrepresentative Senate -- were features, not flaws, of their plan. Even the abolitionists among them agreed that slavery had to be accepted and safeguarded, but not actually mentioned, in their constitution.
  • They refused to have their proposals assessed or ratified by Congress, state legislatures, a second convention, or popular referendums. They insisted instead on state ratifying conventions where the delegates were about as unrepresentative as they were.
  • At the state ratifying conventions, they refused to have clause-by-clause voting or to allow amendments, only a Yes or nothing vote.
  • They did not believe a list of rights was needed, which is why the Bill of Rights came in as Congressional amendments after ratification of the constitution, largely as a PR gesture to appease opponents. They gave little thought to judicial review of the constitution.
There's been a lot of cringing apology published about the Canadian constitution-making, unfavourably compared to American democratic processes. I'm thinking not much in Klarman sustains that view..  

Friday, September 25, 2020

Wilson Book Prize: Max Hamon on Louis Riel

I'm not sure I knew there was an L.R. Wilson Book Prize in Canadian History  -- though L.R. Wilson himself I know well, as a benefactor of things historical Canadian, as in the Wilson Institute  and Wilson Lectures at McMaster University in Hamilton, and much else. Indeed the prize comes from the Institute and is voted on by its associates (historical scholars across the country whose assignment, it says, is "to create a community of scholars inside and outside Canada exploring transnational history.")

Anyway the winner for 2019 books is Max Hamon for The Audacity of His Enterprise: Louis Riel and the Metis Nation That Canada Never Was 1840-1875It was announced some time ago, but I know of it now because Hamon's the newest guest on the Champlain Society's podcast, "Witness to Yesterday," in conversation with Patrice Dutil:

Patrice Dutil talks about the formative influences on Louis Riel with Max Hamon, the author of The Audacity of his Enterprise: Louis Riel and the Métis Nation that Canada Never Was (McGill-Queen’s University Press). Hamon discusses the impact of Riel’s parents, the politics of the Red River Settlement, and the pressures of the Collège de Montréal on Riel as a student. He also explores how Riel deployed a remarkable network to reinforce the legitimacy of the Metis people in Eastern Canada and the United States in the 1870s.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Prize Watch: Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to Beverley McLachlin

 Last night at one of those Zoom events that nowadays have to fill in for rip-roaring, boozy gala dinners  (well, I wasn't invited anyway), the Writers' Trust announced that Chief Justice of Canada (retired) Beverley McLachlin wins this year Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for political writing for her memoir Truth Be Told

I've sorta come around to the Cohen Prize's very broad idea of what constitutes political writing. (A judge's memoir? Sure, why not.) And this is one prizewinner I have actually read, and it is a very accomplished book. Maybe Bev cannot do everything well, but she can do a lot of things well, and writing is one of them. Time management must be another! 

The other nominees make a pretty distinguished list. There is no overlap between these books and the shortlist for the Donner Prize in Public Policy, which I noted the other day.  

Canada on the United Nations Security Council: A Small Power on a Large Stage, Adam Chapnick
Peace and Good Order: The Case for Indigenous Justice in Canada, Harold R. Johnson
Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada, Jonathan Manthorpe
Canadian Justice, Indigenous Injustice: The Gerald Stanley and Colten Boushie Case, Kent Roach
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