Saturday 27 April 2019

The Pursuit of Power

I have usually found it a useful rule to trace concepts back to where they came from. Thus, for example, my continuing quest for the caracole in history: where and when was it actually used in action, and by whom. As some of you might know I have not found an answer to that one.

Often concepts are a bit easier to trace back in historiography. That is, a historian has a bright idea, writes it down and publishes it. Then someone else can come along and use that idea, and it grows and is developed as criticism mounts and evidence is searched out. One such concept is the military revolution, which has occasionally graced the pages of this blog. Whether the concept is still a useful one or not is, perhaps, a bit moot, but it is still a model for how history happened, albeit in an increasingly restricted part of time and geography.

Another concept which has emerged is that of a ‘gunpowder empire’. The term is usually taken to apply to the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empire of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with sometimes a side order of the Manchu state thrown in. The basic idea of the gunpowder revolution is that the coming of gunpowder to Muslim Asia blew away the ‘feudal’ systems that had been there before and enabled the founding of these longer-lasting major empires which monopolised gunpowder violence and hence the means to conquer territory.

Gommons comments that the ideas of gunpowder empires and military revolution are rather at variance. The military revolution argues that only the west properly adopted to gunpowder weapons and hence came to conquer the world by blowing the opposition, including the Muslim empires, away. On the other hand, the gunpowder empire idea suggests that these states only came into existence through adopting gunpowder and using it, integrated into their armed forces, to blow other people away. Clearly one or both ideas at least need nuancing (Gommans, J., Mughal Warfare (London: Routledge, 2002) p 133-4).

Tracing the idea back leads us to two historians who came up or popularised (so far as anything gets popular in historiography) the idea: Marshall Hodgson and William McNeill. I have not seen Hodgson’s work, but I have just finished McNeill’s book where the idea of gunpowder empires is at least noted:

McNeill, W. H., The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society since 1000 AD (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983).

A few comments more generally about McNeill’s work are probably in order. The book is a work of world history, a twin to another book I have not read titled Plagues and People. It starts with the ancient world, in spite of the title and is, as I mentioned, about world history. Thus is does not go into huge amounts of detail about campaigns, wars, strategies and tactics. McNeill’s view seems to be more along the lines that technology was important, perhaps more important in warfare than is usually thought.

The real point of contact for me, however, is the concept of the gunpowder empire. McNeill (p. 95) actually defines the Portuguese and Spanish overseas empires, along with the Mughal, Muscovite and Ottoman Empires as gunpowder empires, with perhaps the Safavid and Japanese states as contenders. The Ming Empire, McNeill contends, did not rely that heavily on gunpowder weapons.

McNeill argues that the Ottoman, Muscovite and Mughal Empires were defined by the extent to which they could haul (or construct in situ) their heavy guns. The Muscovites, he says, prevailed wherever they could use river transport to bring their siege guns against fortifications. In India, the Mughals did the same, although transport was a lot more problematic. He also notes that once the rulers had exclusive use of these heavy weapons, development ceased and the gunpowder empires were overtaken by their European rivals, at least eventually.

The next step in McNeill’s argument is that the possession of heavy gunpowder weapons enabled foreign elites (the Mughals and Manchu) to dominate ethnically diverse subject peoples. This led to distrust between rulers and ruled and meant that they could not respond to European threats easily. The exception was Japan, which managed to exclude the outside world until the nineteenth century.

As I mentioned, McNeill writes in broad brush strokes and I would imagine that since the book was published few of the points above have been unchallenged. It is also noteworthy that the actual definition of a ‘gunpowder empire’ is rather vague. It seems to be one of those models that rather dissolve under scrutiny. I am unsure if anyone today would define the Portuguese and Spanish Empires as gunpowder; naval, perhaps, especially the Portuguese, but it is not terribly clear to me at least that gunpowder defined them, or was the key factor in creating them. Metal weapons, certainly in Central and South America, seem to have been more important and, as I noted the other week, in some parts of Africa muskets had little effect on the local warriors.

A second point might be that the reality of the Mughal Empire had collapsed well before the Europeans had much influence on the subcontinent. The things I have read recently suggests that any political authority in India had become at best regional by 1710, and the vacuum awaited the arrival of another outside force, in this case, historically, it was the British, but it did not have to be. A further point is that Indian fortresses, according to Gommons, simply became bigger and more difficult to approach as a result of the arrival of gunpowder weapons. The absence of the trace italienne outside European enclaves should probably make us suspicious that the issue, in India at least, was not siege guns but political will.  

Overall, however, I think McNeill’s book stands up fairly well to the test of time. No work of synthesis is ever going to cope with over thirty years of work in the areas it covers. It has to be said as well that the last chapters, covering the Twentieth Century have rather been overtaken by events. It would be unfair to judge the book by that: how many people, really, predicted the fall of Communism from the vantage point of 1983?

Saturday 20 April 2019

Breakout or Bulldozer?

‘Cheers!’ Glasses and tankards merrily clicked around the room. Captain Amnesia wandered over. Cranium sniffed his glass.

‘Excellent Burgundy, Captain.’

‘Thank you Colonel. Yes, it is I believe a good vintage. To be sipped, not swigged.’ Amnesia frowned at some of his fellow officers.

‘I think they are only swigging the beer, and possibly the vodka.’

‘Swigging vodka sounds like a disgusting idea, Colonel, particularly from the vantage point of tomorrow.’

Cranium shrugged. ‘They are off duty, Amnesia, and will make their choices.’ He sniffed the glass again; part of the enjoyment, after all, was in anticipation.

‘Amnesia, why did you join up?’

‘To forget.’

‘Forget what?’

‘Can’t remember.’ Amnesia grinned.

‘Trouble with a woman?’


‘Your wife?’

‘Her too.’ Amnesia smiled again, slightly less warmly. Cranium decided to change the subject.

‘The operation went surprisingly well this morning.’

‘Caught them napping Colonel. Migraine’s scepticism was ill-founded. My lads did not fire a shot, or even get their pikes down from port; remarkable. We went through them like a hot knife through butter. Or,’ Amnesia glanced again at his fellow officers, ‘a mixture of beer and vodka through a mercenary officer.’

‘Be fair, Amnesia. In the officer, it will come out the way it went in. We, at least, went straight through.’

Amnesia grinned again and swirled the wine in his glass. ‘Do you think they will try to take revenge, Colonel?’

‘I imagine so after they get themselves sorted out again. That might take a while, however, as they seemed to be running in all directions. I suppose we had better double the guards on the gates, though, just in case.’


I finally got around to ‘fighting’ the breakout scenario proposed I cannot remember how long ago. Anyway, as I am sure you recall, the convoy to Tsarputinsberg had been captured by the besieging Polish army, and Cranium and his colleagues had decided to launch a night attack on the Polish camp to regain their supplies, in particular, their Christmas booze.

There were a number of delays in playing the scenario. Firstly I needed to paint and base a number of barrels and crates to be the targets. Secondly, some other battles were fought out before this one, and thirdly life intervened a bit. Still, eventually, the tables were set and the initial set up looked like this:

The early morning sun (actually, it was late afternoon winter sun, but I am allowing myself some poetic licence) reveals the walls of Tsarputinsberg nearest the camera, with the mercenary companies drawn up ready to assault the Polish camp. The cavalry to left and right are two squadrons of Russian horse and two of mercenary, who are not really on the table but arrive after a time to be decided by dice roll. At the far end of the table, out of shot, the 12 base Polish army was set up in tent order (three rows of four tents), quietly slumbering.

This is a closer view of the Polish camp, which is based around (if you were wondering) the Irregular Miniatures Roman Marching Camp, which is, I find, a very useful item for Renaissance wargames. I think the tents are Irregular, too, the figures with the tents on the left are Baccus, as are the fireplaces. The target barrels and crates are by Perfect Six and the Polish command stand is, again, Irregular. I could have filled the gaps up with tabor waggons, but for reasons best known to myself, I did not, probably because I forgot.

In the interests of balance, the mercenaries are below.

The figures, here again, are Irregular with a very, very old Baccus city wall (now out of production – shame, I could do with some corners). The two fore companies of shot are not part of the surprise attack; you will recall that Cranium deployed them to shoot the raiding party home. They are under orders not to sally forth.

The end game situation is as below.

The remnants of the Polish army are fleeing to the left of the picture. Cranium himself is nearest the camera and the mercenaries have ploughed through the camp, capturing the tents and routing the Poles without any resistance. They even captured the booze and declined to start drinking it immediately. In short, it was a walkover.

The Polish catastrophe was, of course, engineered by dice throwing. The mercenaries contrived to arrive under the walls of the camp undetected. Cranium thereafter got the tempo and never relinquished it. The Polish dice throwing was appalling and they never stood a chance. Indeed, as Amnesia mentioned above, there were no actual combat rolls involved; once the mercenaries made contact with a tent with un-woken and unrallied troops in it, those troops had no choice but to rout.

Of course, given that the game only took about fifteen minutes, I could have reset it and had another go. Indeed, in a face to face game, or a one-off game, I probably would have done so. But this is part of a campaign, albeit a narrative campaign, and one of the resolutions I have made about such is that what happens on the table happened. I think this is particularly important when, as I am, you are trying to develop some rules as well. If I kept re-running the battles every time I tweaked the rules, the campaigns would have got very bogged down and I would probably have given up in frustration.

As it is, I now have to exert my brain cell with respect to the Pole’s next move. Are they going to be sufficiently annoyed to assault the walls or so disgusted that they pack up and go home, aiming to recruit Cranium and his band for next year’s campaign? There is also the question of what the local Ottomans might be up to, plus the possibility of Cossacks or Tartars intervening too. I have rebased this lot as well and it would be a shame not to get them onto the table at some point soon.

Saturday 13 April 2019

She’s Coming In, Twelve Thirty Flight

You have thirty seconds to name the song and the band from which the title of the post is taken.

…. Tick, tick.

Did you manage it? Of course you did; I’m sure my readers are as good at obscure cultural references as the next reader. If, on the off chance you have no idea, try this:

It should give you a reasonable idea as to the subject matter of this post: The Dark Continent.

Of course, Africa is only the Dark Continent if you do not live there and you are a certain sort of Victorian Imperialist. Laband, in the book I am going to partially talk about here, notes that really, the Scramble for Africa only got going in the 1880s when the Berlin Conference demanded that European countries made good their claims to large chunks of the continent by actually having a presence on the ground. The locals were not consulted. Some of them objected to a change in what had been, for some, a reasonable trading arrangement with maybe a few unpleasantries along the way.

The objections, of course, perished in the face of machine guns, quick-firing artillery and modern rifles. Western Civilization had arrived along with Empire and the importation of European disputes. After all, Bismarck once famously remarked (something along the lines of) ‘my map of Africa lies in Europe’. The division of Africa was, more or less, an extension of European politics to a globalising world.

I remarked a while ago that we tend to read history along the lines of what happened fairly recently. Toby Green, in a recent History Today article, notes that Africa and its influence before the slave trade, and more specifically before the rise of the abolitionist movement in the 1780s has largely been erased from history. This is because, in his view at least, both sides of the European debate found the idea of the Dark Continent useful. For abolitionists, Africa’s instability and warfare was a direct result of the slave trade, and therefore an argument for its cessation. For the pro-slavery side, slavery could ‘save’ the African from the ‘savagery’ of their home. The result is, of course, a view of Africa as needing salvation in the form of Europeans:

Green, T., 'At the Centre of It All', History Today 69, no. 2 (2018), 28-39, quoting from page 39.

Green’s point is that some African political entities were players on the international scene at least from the seventeenth century. West African diplomacy included embassies to Portugal and to Dutch colonists in Brazil, which was held (1630 – 1654) by the Dutch as part of the war with Spain. Of course, the Thirty Years War finished in 1648, but that did not mean that the Dutch were going to relinquish Brazil easily. An Embassy from the Kingdom of Kongo arrived in Brazil in 1643, the Kongolese and Dutch allies having seized Luanda in 1641 (we note that the Portuguese had just rebelled from Spain at this point). I suspect that some of these issues are explored in:

Thornton, J. K., 'The Kingdom of Kongo and the Thirty Years’ War', Journal of World History 27, no. 2 (2016), 189 - 213.

However, I have not read this piece yet.

Pulling back the focus a bit enables me to ponder Africa more broadly. I have been reading John Laband’s book on the Portuguese in Africa:

Laband, J., Bringers of War (London: Frontline, 2013).

This is subtitled ‘The Portuguese in Africa during the Age of Gunpowder and Sail from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century’. And a very interesting book it is too. Laband remarks early on that Africa is too big really to deal with as a narrative, and so he has tackled Portuguese activity thematically by geographical area. This is a little confusing, perhaps, as some of them overlapped or influenced each other, but then a narrative construct would probably have been even more puzzling. He tackles Morocco, West Africa, the Swahili Coast and Ethiopia, and then returns to Kongo and the Portuguese slave trade to Brazil.

The Portuguese were, of course, after slaves, spices (from the East Indies) and gold, and they found them in some quantities. They also brought firearms which, in many circumstances (although not in Kongo where dispersed fighting meant the matchlock’s inaccuracies limited its effectiveness) gave them a major initial advantage. This tended to be counteracted by Africans responding to the musket by acquiring their own, either from trade with the Portuguese or, on the east coast, direct or indirect contact with the Ottomans.

Numbers were small. Taking service in Africa or further east was regarded, so far as I can tell, as a one-way ticket for most people. The rates of death were terrible as Europeans had no immunity to African diseases. This is in marked contrast to South America where it was the natives who succumbed to European disease. The Portuguese naval empire was never as profitable as the Spanish one.

The Portuguese were also much more heavily challenged by both local and European forces than the Spanish beyond the line. Initially, superior naval technology and gunpowder weapons enabled them to dominate the Indian sea trade. However, the Dutch, followed by the English started the challenge this in the seventeenth century, followed by the Omanis, who had gained Western technology. The Portuguese were squeezed out of a large portion of the trade.

Laband’s book has an awful lot about the fighting, of course. The Portuguese (and English and Dutch) saw themselves as crusaders, outflanking Islam for the sake of the Gospel. The most interesting and unexpected, perhaps, is the Portuguese expedition to Ethiopia, which, on some readings, saved that country as a Christian one, as it was being swamped by Muslim sultanates supported by Ottoman troops. As a tale of a small group of Europeans with large numbers of African supporters and wily opponents H Rider Haggard could do little better. The only difference is that the Ethiopians were in control and the remaining Portuguese settled merged with the population.

The only problem I have now is that I do not think anyone makes suitable figures, at least no in 6 mm. Anyone know better for Kongolese or Ethiopians, or Zimba for that matter, although Zulu figures might work for them.

Saturday 6 April 2019

A Philosophy of Historical Wargaming

Someone once, in response to the question ‘what is philosophy?’ replied ‘Thinking about thinking’. That is, the activities of philosophy are, at least in part, thinking about how we think. More than that, philosophy is perhaps reflective and recursive; we think about how we think about how we think. Somewhere in this, we need to hit some bedrock, or human thought will be deemed to be impossible. As it happens I think that can be done and that human thought is possible, but here is not the place to go into that.

You might note, however, that there can be philosophies of things, such as ‘philosophy of mind’ or ‘philosophy of religion’. This would then suggest that these subjects are framed as ‘thinking about thinking about mind’ or ‘thinking about thinking about religion.’ What, then, might a philosophy of historical wargaming consist of?

Well, initially, of course, we have to split the topic into two. Firstly there is something to do with a philosophy of history, that is, thinking about history. Many people, of course, will gaily sail past this, and quite right too. On the other hand, Mary Midgley, in her latest (and, alas, last) book, notes that history is important because it tells us how we come to be where we are. She roundly condemns some modern university philosophy courses for ignoring, self-consciously, history of philosophy, and focussing only on the last twenty years. How, she asks, quite correctly in my view, can this be even slightly reasonable or logical (quite some condemnation for those philosophers who think it a good idea) when those twenty-year-old works will be in response to those twenty years before, and so on back to Socrates.

There is, of course, a fair bit of philosophy of history around, starting roughly with Hegel. I am currently reading a book which takes the ethical demands of history very seriously indeed, with a vaguely Hegelian basis. However, things have developed a lot since then and ethics in historiography is, perhaps, coming to be critical. The issues revolve around selection, silencing and advocacy. By these, I mean that historical writing is, by its very nature, selective of its sources. How, then, can this be done honestly and reasonably, when we all know that humans are often neither? A particularly stark and unpleasant example of this is Holocaust denial, which relies on a number of sleights of hand with the evidence (that is attempting to put it politely; if you want to argue the toss over this one, please do, just not here).

The second item is silencing: history tends to be written by the victorious and the powerful. There is not much around on how, say, the Moors felt about their expulsion from Spain, or the Incas about their conquest, or how medieval women felt about being besieged with rape threats (at least) if the city was stormed. The victims of war, economic mismanagement, persecution, patriarchy and so on are under-represented in the historical, and in the historiographical records. Even such people who can be viewed as less victimised such as servants are under-represented. Thus history, even when conducted honestly and with due respect to the existing evidence, can be (and is) biased.

 History, of course, is not, and cannot be neutral. What would an honest and unbiased account of the Conquest of Mexico look like? Most of the accounts we have are by the Conquistadors themselves, who had a vested interest, after all, in protecting what they had gained from both native and government interference. Further, of course, everyone wants to be a hero and, just to complicate things, there is little evidence that the conquistadors understood the political and social arena they had entered. No matter how careful the historian, bias, or advocacy is bound to enter their accounts.

A philosophy of wargaming is not, I think, high on anyone’s agenda. Firstly, most wargaming is, after all, performative, in the same way that most religion is, in fact, only meaningful when performed. A wargame only has meaning as a wargame, the activity. A long time ago I noted that some of the ethical objections I had heard to wargaming related to performative locutions, such as ‘I shoot at you’. These are to be understood at the level of the game in which they are performative.

That said, there is a suggestion that thinking about wargaming (or thinking about thinking about wargaming) might be an idea. The question ‘what are you doing when having a wargame?’ can intrude. Of course, most sensible people will ignore it and carry on gaming. I have never said that the blog is written by anyone quite so sensible. More to the point, the question ‘what are we doing when we are historical wargaming?’ might be, as the recent post on my Rajput game suggested, pertinent.

The question there, you might recall, relates to the question of the historical in historical wargaming. When neither the scenario nor the armies represent historical prototypes, what is being done? At worst, I suppose we might land up with a sort wargaming Holocaust denial, although the overwhelming number of wargamers are far too sensible for the latter. But ahistorical armies in fictitious situations are, perhaps, buying into one or more of the problems identified above with historiography. Anchoring our armies, rules and scenarios in some sort of history (even if that history is via an imagi-nation; most imagi-nations are based in some sort of historical period, at least) at least might permit the argument of reasonableness – the game is a reasonable representation of some event or period in history, real or imagined.

Of course, wargaming could then become mired in the same sort of relativist, postmodern, radical critique that besets some areas of history. There are, whether we ignore them or not, ethical issues associated with history and, hence, historical wargaming. How, for example, does a wargame relating to the Zulu Wars make a native Zulu feel? How, indeed, should it make them feel? The historical events are undeniable, but is it a game for them, or a painful reminder of a colonial past?