Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Margaret McMillan

History comforts us even though, paradoxically, we know less and less about it.
Margaret MacMillan: The Uses and Abuses of History

The five books of Margaret MacMillan which I have - on our dining room table.
Last Friday, MacMillan was one of the five nominees at British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Over the years, I have read most of her books, and reread several of them. It is with good reason that Paris 1919 captured so many awards. It also stands up well to a reread. In 2007, I heard her speak to an attentive audience at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts about The Uses and Abuses of History - another book that stands up to a reread. Her writing, then as now, continues to model how to present complex narratives without getting bogged down.

Her most recent book, The War that Ended Peace, was introduced by Wade Davis. In his intro, brief as it was, he plunged our hearts and guts and minds right into the muck and muddle of World War I. Listening to him, we became one with the fear and grief that had gripped the hearts and lives of so many.

Margaret MacMillan speaking at the luncheon

In light of this, The War that Ended Peace - which I am still in the midst of reading, has shifted how I now consider the latest events in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, or so many other countries. The thesis of the book sets a larger frame to consider the consequences of actions such as the Canadian government’s recent closure of scientific research libraries, the cancellation of the traditional census, and the silencing of so many inconvenient truths. When these kinds of actions go hand-in-glove with a great deal of military chest-thumping, it is a treacherous mix. If we think that we are so much wiser than citizens who lived a hundred years ago, think again.

When I consider my own research in light of the issues raised in The War that Ended Peace, I wonder what might have happened if Prince Henry had become the King of Germany instead of his older brother, the erratic Wilhelm II.  Henry was more of a diplomat and less of a warrior, in spite of his role in the navy. He was also a great friend of Thomas Jackson of head of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Co. In the mid-1890s, Prince Henry joined the Jackson family on at least one of their habitual hikes into the hills of Hong Kong.

Dorothy Jackson & Prince Henry in Hong Kong. After the war, Dorothy socialized and was friends with several members of the Bloomsbury group. In her later years, she lived what seems to have been a contented life, with her partner Dorothy Fitch at their shared home in Glengarriff, Co. Cork.
 Close to a couple of decades after the photo above, Prince Henry was placed in charge of the German navy in the Baltic, while Thomas Dare Jackson, the eldest son of Thomas Jackson, served in the British army. Thomas jr. served no less than three years at the front, but survived, while his youngest brother, Claude "Pat" Stewart Jackson died at Ypres, and Raymond Marker – the husband of his sister Beatrice - died of his wounds at Boulogne. The losses in the Jackson family were not atypical losses. Life would never be the same for families such as theirs, and in that way, most families of that time and place were families such as theirs.

The war also changed the lives of many in Hong Kong. As a result of the war, German sounding names vanished from the listings in The Peak Directories, from the board of HSBC, and from the memberships of clubs and charities. There were no more pictures of the Jacksons with Prince Henry to be carefully saved in the various family albums. Certain old friendships had ceased to be spoken of. The family of Governor Henry May, one of the many Irish governors of Hong Kong, may have suffered the most losses. His extended family lost 80 young men in the war, virtually eliminating the family name amongst the Irish May family descendants.

These impacts and others may be the subjects of future posts. Stay tuned. It will take me a while. Before I write them, I have an awfully big book that I need to finish reading. Thankfully, it is riveting.

PS Robin Kinloch, the researcher who I thanked in my recent post about The Overland Route, suggested that I should also read MacMillan’s Women of the Raj. As it turns out, I already had, close to a decade ago, but I had totally forgotten about the opening chapter: The Voyage Out. I am grateful for the reminder. The reread was totally worth the candle.

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