19th-century history

A meditation on exile and the meaning of home

What does home mean? Where your dead are buried, as Zulus believe? Or where you left your heart, as a migrant’s saying goes? In these pages William Atkins melds history, biography and travel into a meditation on exile and the meaning of home. It is a volume for our times, as the author seeks to reveal ‘something about the nature of displacement itself’. Part One introduces the three 19th-century political exiles who form the spine of the book. Louise Michel (1830-1905), the illegitimate daughter of a maid in Haute-Marne, became an anarchist and Communard, who murdered policemen with her Remington carbine. Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo (1868-1913), the young king of the Zulu

The Greeks’ bitter fight for freedom

Last year was the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the war of Greek independence in March 1821. It has been celebrated by a flood of books and events, a particularly instructive exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens and this gruesome page-turner. Mark Mazower, professor of history at Columbia University and the author of many books on modern Greece, stresses the passion for freedom, exceptional stamina and heroism which helped Greeks establish an independent state between 1821 and 1830. Greeks had long felt oppressed as subjects of the Ottoman empire. One of them called it ‘a tyranny so frightful… neither equal nor comparable to any other and so unjust’.

Emperor for three years: the doomed reign of Maximilian I of Mexico

On 8 April 1864 an Austrian archduke with a penchant for daydreaming agreed to be emperor of Mexico. As Edward Shawcross describes in his majestic history The Last Emperor of Mexico, the process to install Maximilian of Habsburg began two and half years earlier. The plan was proposed by a determined clique of Mexican Conservatives and developed by Napoleon III, the scheming emperor of France. The Conservatives, who had just lost a four-year civil war, wanted to repeal the Liberal constitution that confiscated the assets and privileges of the Catholic church. They saw Maximilian as a symbol of the imperial family that had brought the faith to Mexico. Napoleon III,

How 19th-century gold rushes led to a distrust of China

For a brief moment three summers ago it seemed that the clear Idaho air wafting through the Sun Valley Literary Festival had become tainted with the smoke and soot of Nuremberg. Here was Thomas Friedman, bloviator-in-chief to America’s chattering classes, standing before a rally of thousands, delivering a powerful philippic about the ascent of the Asiatic East. As he warmed to his theme, he decided for some messianic reason to demand that his audience chant the phrase that he suggested now dominated the American economic landscape. Come on, he urged like a latter-day Elmer Gantry, yell out with me the words: ‘Everything. Is. Made. In. CHINA!’ And, as one, the

Capital entertainment: how the West End became the playground of London

The West End was always something a little apart. Some years ago, I used to go drinking with a man who had jointly run one of the best Soho live music clubs of the late 1950s and 1960s. He told me that they received a visit in their early days from the Kray brothers demanding protection money, who were summarily told, in his words, ‘to fuck off’. When I expressed surprise at this apparently dangerous response, he explained that while the twins meant a lot in Bethnal Green at that time, ‘up West’ it was a different story. Rohan McWilliam’s history of the West End explores the reasons for the