The Rights, and Wrongs, of History

‘Each generation writes history anew’. Circumstances change, ideas change, the world changes. Events of the past still have resonance and life, they have power; they may illustrate class struggle or express class interest. Therefore there are at least two views, that of the ruling class, and of the working class, of the rich and of the poor.

Those at the top have much greater access to the means of communication. They own printing presses, newspapers, television channels. They influence schools and universities. Their supporters can be lucratively paid to say what their rulers and masters wish to hear.

The alternative views of history, the experience of those at ground level are less well shared and expressed. Throughout history workers have been less likely to be literate, or to write diaries, journals, biographies. Until relatively recently, what is known about the public lives of workers is what other people have written about them. Even less is known of the inner lives of workers and the oppressed.

All history comes through lenses of differing thicknesses and shades of colour. It means that when we read history we must move carefully, reading between the lines, always trying to apply a methodology of ‘ways of seeing’, trying to use what Lenin described as realistic imagination.

The year 1830 when the Captain Swing agitation took place illustrates not just the problems of popular struggle, the question of rights, the issue of resistance, but also what is understood by history. At least a rough chronology can be traced, although even that is partial. And all chronologies are representation of what the maker of the chronology thinks should be included and omitted.

Many of these chronologies start in August and September 1830 when rick burning and the breaking of machines began in east Kent. Threatening letters appeared, the first two near Dover, signed by the mysterious Captain Swing. There is a military connotation. And Swing suggests the gallows.

The chronologies map out the times and places of ‘events’ and are generally based on newspaper articles, court records and letters from the time. These chronologies are incomplete. Any understanding of these events needs to include some educated guess work and will include some of the thinking and ideas, emotions, psychological framework and positions of the the writer themselves.

And there is no objectivity in the writing of history. As soon as someone claims to be impartial they start to smuggle in – openly or covertly – terms and concepts into their history which all carry biases and positions of their own. Can history be studied in a scientific way?

The methodologies which scientists use are different from the historian. For one, a great deal of scientific research is carried out on materials and substances which lack consciousness. Scientific evidence is generated by highly skilled workers with sophisticated and powerful tools and machines. It is peer reviewed and subject to rigorous experiment and testing. Methodologies can be used to put forward a thesis and then to test using heat, measurements, the addition of chemical variables, the use of controls.

But the past cannot be studied in this way. No experiments can be run, no testing of ideas of the real people who took part, no interviews and questionnaires. All the people are now dead. And interviews and questionnaires have limitations of their own. There is a fragmentary record of buildings, objects, letters, court reports, newspaper articles and an ideological legacy which muddles up our working minds. It is a jigsaw with many missing pieces and it is not clear what some of the existing pieces represent.

I discovered in researching 1830 that no sooner did I feel as if I was getting close to understanding, than the understanding seemed to dissipate, to dissolve. People, events, objects, buildings surrounded by the thick grey mists of time. Vague shapes can be seen within that mist, shapes of people and buildings and landscapes and the objects of everyday life. But even trying to move to this time of 1830 we put ourselves within the picture we seek to paint. We too become an agency, we are part of the attempt to understand the history and we come to the scene with a great amount of preconceived head-fixing.

We must try to hear the sounds of the sea, birdsong, a cart in a country lane, noise from the open door of a village inn. We may imagine that words and snatches of conversation might be briefly heard, but as we approach, as we step into the mist and try to grasp something, it is all gone.

We need to be able to see colour in the past, the shape of the downs of Elham valley, the thick verdant grass, the woods and copses with the leaves turning to gold, yellow, brown and red. After all the rebellion started in late August, which is when the leaves begin to turn. We need to recognise the eighteenth century cottages of Barham, the grey, black and white flint and ragstone churches, the red brick farm houses, the orchids, the flowers in the woods, the blue of the sky with white clouds in those September mornings. We need to try and find the people in this landscape and use what realistic imagination we can conjure to try and understand their ideas, their public lives, their family lives, their inner lives, their working lives, their social lives. And so we are trying to construct something which can only ever be partially understood. This is the particular. To make some sense of it we must look at the general, the overview of the early decades of the nineteenth century.

The general is made up of broad brush strokes, the industrial revolution, technical change, the Parliamentary enclosures, corruption of democracy, repression of the poor by the rich. The village life which people knew and grew up in through each generation of their families was rapidly disappearing. Rights, commons, traditions, ways of life, ways of thinking, ways of being destroyed or turning into something else. Individuals can forget who they are, lose their sense of self when turmoil seems to happen all around. Traditions and customs help to centre people, give them a sense of place, a sense of community, act as anchors and timetables for life which was dominated by cycles; cycles of life, cycles of agricultural production, pathways through life itself. The understanding of time itself became to change, as EP Thompson shows, from cyclical time to the linear time of the factory clock.

There is much already written about Captain Swing and the resistance of 1830. Some books are illustrated here for the curious eye and mind. They are all worth reading, at least in part if not the whole. But some things struck me, perhaps minor things, perhaps of no significance. But their absence puzzles me. There is little mention in the history books displayed below (that I am aware of) of the changes and developments in the construction industries. We know that a new church was built at Lower Hardres for example in 1828. And Dover still retains a number of buildings from around the 1830 time (it is difficult to date them exactly). Perhaps they were post 1830? But the history of construction is too often neglected from histories of the industrial revolution and yet it was of major significance.

The history of the railways is better known. But there is no mention that I can find in the history of Captain Swing that one of the first passenger railways was built in 1830 between Canterbury and Whitstable. There is a separate book on the subject but its contents are in general not ingested by the political histories. A significant amount of labour would have been needed. Where did that come from? How did the options to become building labourers or navvies play on the minds of those who were mainly employed as farm labourers? Not so much in Kent, but certainly in other counties, Paper Making Mills were attacked. But few mention that paper-making machinery was developed in the mid –1820s. The written record itself is a tapestry but the threads can be woven in different ways to display a range of pictures. And some of the pictures have greater detail and deeper richness than others.

We will never know what the farm labourers thought as they watched the trains in 1830. Anxiety? Uncertainty? Fear? Hope? And how those thoughts fed into their lived direct experiences of bad harvests and hunger and rent increases and a class above them who rarely listened. And responded to their pleas for help with the noose, the prison hulk, long journeys of deportation and fines and depredations. But overall their struggles are known and there remains some excellent writing about that and the period as a whole.

I enjoyed collating the books in this way. I spent the evening looking through shelves of books and considering what might in some way relate to 1830. Even then, I was making decisions. Sometimes immediately and without much thought; Hobsbawm, Rude and EP Thompson were easy to select. Other books I considered more. Should Godwin be there? I have the book but not yet had the time to read it. Can Godwin have even a weak claim to have influenced the thinking of 1830 at any level, let alone the thinking of the farm labourers? But Godwin is of the period in my view and adds an interesting weight. I added David Harvey’s book The Enigma of Capital because the most powerful dynamic of the period 1830 – and it continues – is the development of capital, capital accumulation and the expansion of capital. It is that process of capital accumulation and all it entails which defined the lives of the labourers in 1830; and that process continues to define our lives today.

By engaging in trying to change the world on a large and small scale now, we will understand better their lives and their struggles. I’m not sure that’s scientific; but trying to change things helps us understand both the past and the present.

And wishing to change the world is surely a moderate ambition to pursue.

Martin Empson’s book, ‘Kill All the Gentleman’ has yet to arrive, but I want to include it in this biography, so here is a link to a review.

%d bloggers like this: