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MUSEUM OF THE MONTH: Anne Frank House, Amsterdam


As a historian I always feel a rush of gratitude for those diarists who maintained such painstakingly detailed and regular entries. Some diaries are preserved self-consciously for posterity; others avoid destruction or oblivion through good luck or meticulous care, only for the value of their contents to become apparent through chance investigation, donation or publication. Diaries are not, as few if any historical sources can be, objective, unbiased or comprehensive. Yet just as historical commentary is shaped by the perspective of the historian, diaries provide a fascinating insight into the perspective of one individual on wider historical events: perspectives that can be representative or completely unique. This intersection of the personal with the political lends greater colour to the narrative and reminds us that history is not just something that happened, but something that people actually lived.


In terms of diaries of historical significance, the diary of Anne Frank is arguably the most famous and certainly most widely read. As such I could not pass up on the opportunity to visit a monument to her experience and to the first primary source I had ever read as a child. Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht, Amsterdam) seeks to document Anne’s experience as a microcosm of the persecution of Dutch Jews and (as in the case of Anne’s family) of German Jews whose exodus to other European cities such as Amsterdam did not count on Hitler’s Blitzkrieg of 1940 and the extension of Fortress Europe to the Netherlands. As you enter the exhibition, context is provided on the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam and the anti-Jewish laws introduced after 1940. Documents are put on display in a space renovated in the 1990s to recreate the original front of the building, including the warehouse and offices of Opekta, Otto Frank’s business, licensed to sell pectin, the gelling agent necessary for jam making. The museum documents the gift of Anne’s diary and her cherished ambitions to be a writer. Text from its pages are used to narrate Otto’s decision to hide his family in unused rooms (the ‘secret annex’) in 1942 with the help of office staff while keeping it a secret from warehouse staff. Visitors travel up to the ‘secret annexe’ behind a bookshelf (the original bookshelf is on display) to enter the hiding place. Again excerpts from Anne’s diary are used to evoke the strained atmosphere of the annex with the Franks sharing the small space with another family, the van Pels, and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer. Anne’s own sleeping space has been preserved and on display are copies of her posters of movie stars and the young Princess Elizabeth.

The visitor makes their way into a museum space that provides a sober reflection on the fate of the Franks, whose hiding place was stormed by the Security Police on 4 August 1944. Of the eight people in hiding only Otto Frank survived-he was in Auschwitz for its liberation. Short video clips provide first-hand accounts of the concentration camps, including an interview with a friend of Anne’s who met Anne in Bergen-Belsen only a few short weeks before her death. Another of the museum’s rooms reflects on the impact of Anne’s diary, preserved by Opekta office worker Miep Gies who returned it to Otto for it to be subsequently published in seventy languages. A manuscript version can be viewed in the museum. I was really interested to learn that in the months before the arrests, Anne had been editing and revising her diary and working on a novel The Secret Annex. This certainly prompts me to reflect on how much diarists consider if and how their personal entries will be preserved and received by posterity. The exhibition is a triumph of simplicity, in allowing the force and poignancy of the diary to be presented with the minimal intervention of audio-visual material that so often proliferates and which can, in some cases, distract from the contents and missions of museums. The curators thankfully resisted the urge to include too much material in the secret annex space which allowed them to successfully evoke the stark reality of two years of claustrophic confinement.

In terms of practicalities Anne Frank House is located quite close to the centre of Amsterdam and is easy to find via many of the tram lines. Booking a ticket in advance is strongly recommended as queues can reach epic lengths; however the museum staff do an excellent job of ensuring the small space does not become too crowded.

See: http://www.annefrank.org/en/Museum/Practical-information/


Documentary review: Churchill – when Britain said no


In the wake of the recent general election in Britain, criticisms of what the Conservative Party perceived as a pronounced Labour bias within the corridors of the British national broadcaster are not likely to abate with the airing of the documentary Churchill: when Britain said no. Reviewing one of the most significant electoral defeats of the twentieth century, the documentary is a conscious, though thoroughly empirical effort to de-mythologise the wartime leader. With contributions from historians such as Professors Richard Overy Richard Toye and  John Charmley the documentary painstakingly accounts for the crushing defeat for Churchill and his Conservative party in 1945. It also attempts to disabuse viewers of the notion that Churchill’s wartime leadership enjoyed universal support and goodwill. Excerpts from contemporary sources such as the diaries of Lord Moran (Churchill’s personal physician), newspaper reports, interviews with members of the public and the personal correspondence of both Labour and Conservative politicians paint a more complex and less halcyon picture of the man who saw Britain through its ‘finest hour’.

Conservative Election Poster 1945

Conservative Election Poster 1945

Though most historians would be well aware of Churchill’s inglorious pre-war political record (as Chancellor of the Exchequer presiding over economic collapse in the 1920s) not many would question the popularity of his wartime leadership. The documentary reminds us that reactions to Churchill’s now mythic wartime orations were often mixed, with many critical and some even downright suspicious of his often slurred delivery. Indeed fewer people heard Churchill speak than is generally supposed. His famous ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech of June 1940 was delivered to the House of Commons rather than broadcast via wireless. In fact Churchill did not make a recording of his oratory on this speech until nine years later, sitting in his bed in Chartwell. Professor Overy argues in the documentary that history is not only kind to Churchill because he wrote so much of it himself but also because he is ‘immensely quotable’. The documentary reminds us that throughout his life Churchill had failed to set the polls alight and became prime minister, not on the groundswell of electoral support, but through default with the resignation of Chamberlain. Churchill was clearly completely unprepared to fight an election in 1945 and was dramatically out of step with popular opinion. War had led to a new impetus of political radicalism in the working class and Churchill had failed to recognise that the war effort had already introduced a form of collectivism and socialism into everyday life. The patrician Churchill who had only been on the underground once in his lifetime was not prepared to shed his Victorian conceptions of British society to create the kind of domestic reforms sought by an increasingly vocal working class. Conservative election posters were stuck in wartime rhetoric with a portrait of an austere Churchill emblazoned with the words ‘Let him finish the job’. The Labour party meanwhile had tapped into the public mood with their posters of an amiable Clement Atlee sporting the more optimistic slogan of ‘Let’s face the future’ and recognising that a war weary public wanted an end to both wartime sacrifice and the entire economic privations of the previous decades. Churchill blundered through the election campaign, disgusting huge sections of the public by predicting that a Labour government would inaugurate a socialist ‘Gestapo’, embarrassing younger Conservatives with his diehard imperialism in the face of Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement in India and failing to impress voters with his lacklustre efforts at post-war planning.

All this and the documentary’s observation Churchill was a man of the nineteenth century trying to win a twentieth-century election contains few new or groundbreaking observations. What is interesting is its argument that there was a significant section of the working class who had never admired Churchill’s wartime leadership, never forgiving the enemy of the 1926 General Strike. While the historians featured do concede that Churchill rose to the challenge of wartime leadership, the documentary insists that the electorate’s rejection of Churchill represented a complete and utter disillusionment with the nineteenth century values for which he stood. As such the documentary itself is an incomplete effort at both political and social commentary for the reality was not such a straight line with such a neat endpoint. The documentary ends with a brief sentence acknowledging Churchill’s re-election in 1951, thus failing to explain why when Britain said such a firm ‘no’ in 1945, it was prepared to say ‘yes’ six years later.

T.V. review: Enigma De Blaghd: Ernest Blythe

By David Gahan.

The TG4 documentary Enigma De Blaghd screened on Thursday 16 April provided a revealing insight into Ernest Blythe, a man who played an important role in the foundation of the state and was very influential in its early years, but one who is not widely known, except for being the minister responsible for cutting the old age pension.

In giving an outline of Blythe’s life the programme tried to explore some of the reasons for his lack of prominence today. He was a founding member of Cumann na nGaedheal and Fine Gael and the only Protestant from the six counties to serve as a minister in independent Ireland.

Ernest Blythe

Ernest Blythe

He came from a Unionist background, was born in 1889 at Magheragall, Lisburn. In his early years he became aware of the United Irishmen through his mother’s Presbyterian background. He moved to Dublin in 1905 for work with the Department of Agriculture. He joined the Gaelic League and met Seán O Casey. At his prompting he subsequently joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and later became an organiser for them in the North while ironically working at a Unionist newspaper, the North Down Herald. He did not take part in the 1916 Easter Rising as he had been arrested in March. Blythe’s rank within the Volunteers was examined and it was pointed out that he would have taken part, and probably been in what was termed the second tier leadership, which would have meant imprisonment after the Rising and possibly even a sentence of execution commuted to a prison term as happened others of similar standing. An article ‘Ruthless Warfare’ in 1918 in opposition to conscription showed Blythe’s preparedness to use violence and also brought him more to the attention of the volunteer leadership. He was appointed minister for Trade and Commerce by de Valera in the first Dáil. He had been elected MP for Monaghan North in the 1918 General Election. Blythe supported the Treaty and was part of a committee which recommended that they recognise and not seek to undermine the Northern State, this proposal, which was critical and at variance with Collins view on the North, was implemented in August 1922. He voted for the execution of prisoners during the Civil War which caused some to dislike him, but he defended his decision in later life believing it was necessary.

As Minister for Finance from 1923-32, Blythe believed in reducing government spending and did so by £10 million from 1923-25; contained in this was the cut of one shilling from the old age pension, for which he was most remembered. Spending cuts continued at a time of widespread poverty in Ireland; four members of one family died of hunger related disease in Cork in March 1927. After the assassination of Kevin O’ Higgins he was appointed vice-president of the executive council of the Free State. When Cumann na nGaedheal were defeated in the 1932 election, Blythe became involved in the Army Comrades Association (ACA) and was the first member of Cosgrave’s government to support the Blueshirts, and when these two merged with the Centre Party to form Fine Gael in 1933, with Eoin O’Duffy as leader, he was appointed to its executive. He later helped to oust O’Duffy from his position. He lost his Dáil seat in 1933.He would not serve as a minister or TD again, but he continued to comment on political issues, one of the more notable being his response to an anti-partition publicity campaign, in a book Briseadh na teorann, (Smashing the border) in which he differed from broad nationalist opinion. He was managing director of the Abbey theatre from 1941-67. He died in February 1975.

The programme carefully examined many aspects of Blythe’s political life, stressing the importance he placed on the Irish language in the make-up of nationalism, his cuts in public spending which he believed necessary, though some questioned his foresight as to the consequences and a lack of feeling for those bearing the brunt of these cuts. While best remembered for the old age pension cut, arguably his most significant action was his role in reshaping the government policy on the North, not only adopted by the government of which he was a member, but by successive Irish governments since, demonstrating his lasting influence.

TG4: Enigma De Blaghd

Further reading: Patrick Buckley ‘Ernest Blythe’ in James McGuire, James Quinn (eds), The Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge, 2009), available at (dib.cambridge.org) (23, April 2015)

Review event: RTÉ Road to the Rising


How we choose to commemorate historical events can provoke both impassioned debate and cynical dismissal. If a sense of occasion is lacking or if balance, accuracy and nuance is completely shed in favour of emotive myth making then the event has failed to serve as a commemoration: an act of remembrance implies that the memory is rooted in a factual reality that has been faithfully recorded. The 1916 Rising represents both the real military battleground and the later polemical battleground of interpretation between nationalists and historians of different motivations and hues. As we head towards the centenary it is reasonable to expect that debate will deepen but we can hope that differing forums can accommodate and acknowledge the competing interpretations and by doing so create a broader understanding and appreciation of the implications of 1916 for Irish history.


One of the first events to wet the public’s appetite for the centenary was RTÉ’s Road to the Rising, a public event, inviting people to ‘step into history’ on a pedestrianised O’Connell Street (or Sackville Street as it was fondly referred to for the occasion). This was a very impressive affair, encompassing academic talks, broadcasts and exhibits. It was an entertaining and commendable effort to contextualise the Rising for the public, giving attendees the opportunity to immerse themselves in recreated scenes of Dublin life in Easter 1915. There were music hall acts showcasing material popular in the period, stalls displaying period wares (including tailors, milliners and a barbershop), a period wedding and funeral with Liberty Hall hosting a broadcast of Insurrection, the documentary made by RTÉ for the 50th anniversary of the Rising. RTÉ also provided access to sound booths for the recording of family history and genealogists, Dublin Public Libraries and an army of actors and volunteers worked hard to ensure public engagement with events. Talks from historians and authors on such diverse topics as wives, mothers and revolutionaries, the twilight of empire, law and order in Ireland, the Irish language and the cultural revolution, family members of the volunteers, living and dying in 1915 and ordinary life in 1915, acknowledged the broad vagaries of Irish politics and society in the lead up to Easter 1916.

The efforts of all those involved in Monday’s public history event has set an inclusive and stimulating tone for the coming centenary commemorations which will hopefully continue to provide an opportunity for wider historical engagement and debate.

Kilcoole Gunrunning 1914

By David Gahan.

The village of Kilcoole in north Wicklow involved itself in the decade of commemorations by remembering a significant though not widely known event, the Kilcoole Gunrunning of August 1914. In 2013 the Kilcoole Heritage Group was formed to commemorate the gunrunning, and their efforts culminated in a programme of events, leading up to and centring on the weekend of 26/27 July 2014 to relive the happenings in Kilcoole one hundred years ago.

The historical context surrounding the gunrunning lies in the Home Rule crises of 1914. The bill granting Home Rule for Ireland had been passed in the Commons in 1912, and could now only be delayed for a further two years by the House of Lords, meaning that it was due to come into being in 1914. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had been formed in January 1913 to resist Home Rule in Ulster; the Irish Volunteers had been formed in November 1913 to defend its implementation. When the UVF landed arms at Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor in April 1914, it heightened the need for the Irish Volunteers to arm.

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Monument to 1914 Kilcoole Gun running


Kilcoole was chosen because of a blind spot on the beach which coastguards could not see from Greystones (north) and Newcastle (south); the choice was most probably influenced by Kilcoole native and leading IRB member Robert Monteith. The operation was funded by wealthy donors and the American based Clan na Gael. Darrel Figgis purchased 1,500 Prussian rifles and 45,000 rounds of ammunition from the Moritz Magnus firm in Hamburg. The weaponry was moved from a Liege warehouse to Hamburg and then transhipped to two yachts, the Asgard and Kelpie, owned by Erskine Childers and Conor O’ Brien respectively, near the Ruytingen lightship off the Scheldt, Belgium on 12 July. The Asgard landed its cargo at Howth on 26 July in broad daylight, supervised by Bulmer Hobson aided by a large party of volunteers and Na Fianna Éireann. The Kilcoole landing was originally planned for the night of 25 July; the Chotah owned by Sir Thomas Myles was engaged to bring the guns to Kilcoole owing to the fact that it had an engine which could time its arrival more accurately and because of security issues surrounding the Kelpie.  But adverse weather conditions caused a delay in the transhipment to the Chotah off Bardsey Island in the Irish Sea and the Kilcoole landing was put back till 1/2 August.

On 1 August volunteers from Dublin posing as tourists went to Kilmacanoge and after dark to Kilcoole. Fianna Éireann under the command of Liam Mellows acted as look-outs. Two RIC men, Dalton and Webb who were patrolling the beach were locked up along with the station master. Seán Fitzgibbon supervised the landing of the guns in the early hours of 2 August. Local volunteer William Foley used his horse and dray to move the cargo from the beach to where they were loaded on to cars. Seán T. O’Kelly and Mellows organised the transport of the arms to secure Dublin locations. One of the last cars to leave, a charabanc, heavily loaded broke down in Bray, but after some time other cars arrived from Dublin to take the cargo. Many leading volunteers were in Kilcoole that night including Hobson, Thomas McDonagh and Eamon Ceannt.

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Close-up of text


The Kilcoole Heritage group organised a programme of events, which included historical talks in the weeks preceding the commemoration festival. The weekend highlight was a parade, with people in period dress, led by an army band to the beach, where a re-enactment of the landing took place. There was a Kilcoole historical maps display, an old photo exhibition by local photographer Chris Dobson and a gunrunning pictorial by Michael Kunz in the local St. Patricks Hall over the weekend. On Sunday the Main Street was closed off and various traditional heritage demonstrations took place including blacksmith, pottery throwing, hurley making, wool spinning and wood turning. There was a food market, traditional children’s games and Irish dancing. All shop fronts displayed old photos and images of the past.

The weekend certainly brought history to life, and remembered an event long overshadowed by the more dramatic events at Howth, but which rightly takes its place in the decade of centenary commemorations.

Further Reading:

Martin, F. X. (ed), The Howth Gunrunning and the Kilcoole Gunrunning: recollections and documents. (Dublin, 2014)

Kilcoole Heritage Group, Forgotten History: The Kilcoole Gunrunning (Greystones, 2014)


My main research is in political and socio-economic developments in twentieth century Ireland and the wider world. I have a BA in History and English from 2012, from St. Patricks College, Drumcondra. I am currently a PhD student at the Department of History at NUI Maynooth. My thesis which is being supervised by Prof. Terence Dooley, examines the agitation surrounding the land annuities 1926-32. It aims to look at the economic effect of annuities on farmers and on political developments, particularly the positions adopted by the various political parties and how this impacted on the wider Irish political context.

TV review: HBO’s John Adams


Historical dramas often provoke exasperation among historians for what they perceive as gross inaccuracies and simplifications. Both Tudor historian David Starkey and Hilary Mantel, award winning author of the historical fiction series that offers a new perspective on the life of Thomas Cromwell, criticised Showtime’s The Tudors for straying too far from the chronology and realities of the court of Henry VIII. While most historians would concede that tv dramas and films need to deviate somewhat from the recorded timelines for dramatic effect, producers should not patronise or underestimate their audience. People who are driven to watch historical dramas tend to have a wider interest in and knowledge of history and appreciate narratives that are receptive to the complexities and nuances of the past. Good historical drama can provoke a deeper awareness that history is not black and white and can propel viewers to further reading to gain a more complete understanding of the subject matter. Excellent historical drama reminds viewers that history itself is often the result of competing interpretations, deviating enough from stale mainstream versions to explore the political and social forces that confer a mythic quality to certain events and actors.

HBO’s often overlooked 2008 miniseries John Adams achieves this level of sophistication with intelligent writing and superb acting with Paul Giamatti as the eponymous lawyer turned reluctant revolutionary and second president of the young United States and Laura Linney as his wife and chief counsel. The story is refreshingly told through the eyes of a figure central to its history but often overlooked by historians. Running through the series is an implicit awareness that it is not Adams that history has recorded as one of the chief architects of an independent American state and we watch as the son of a Massachusetts farmer has to come to the terms with the fact that, even in his own lifetime, he was being squeezed out of the holy trinity of the revolution by the higher profile figures of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. The drama flies in the face of the hyberbole and excessive romanticism surrounding the War of Independence, depicting the revolution not as a sudden spark (which must be tempting in tv land) but as a slow burn of indignation against the intransigence of the metropole. The opening episode devotes much time to Adams’s successful defence of the soldiers who took part in the Boston massacre. A later scene finds Adams wondering at his unlikely transformation into ambassador to the Court of St. James’s on behalf of the newly formed ‘States United’; as he is presented to George III the viewer can appreciate his inner turmoil as he speaks to his former sovereign in the guise of a foreign diplomat.

John Trumbell's famous depiction of the committee presenting the Declaration of Independence for signature

John Trumbell’s famous depiction of the committee presenting the Declaration of Independence for signature

While the drama takes some liberties with the timeline, the dialogue is largely based on correspondence from the time-the many letters that passed between Adams and his wife Abigail form an important commentary on the course of the revolution and the foundation and beginnings of the new state. Historians have accused the writers of over-exaggerating a rift between Adams and his somewhat wayward son Charles but they cannot claim that the drama over-emphasises the friction between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. While their political disagreements and rivalry is depicted, so too is their understanding of each other and their attempts at reconciliation. This drama is also stripped of the glamour, gloss and sheen that is often an implausible feature of historical dramas. Instead makeup is minimal, clothes are soiled and teeth blacken and disappear with the passage of time.

What the drama does brilliantly is capture the process by which history transforms into myth. An aging Adams despairs of ‘modern history’ and the inaccuracies surrounding the revolution and its leaders, for the better and for the worse. One of the dramas most thought-provoking scenes involves a very elderly Adams being shown the artist Trumbell’s famous painting which depicts the committee’s presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. Adams lambasts the painting as a falsehood; at no point, Adams asserts, during the summer of 1776 were all the celebrated figures presented in the painting, in the same room, at the same time-rather signatures were affixed whenever the delegates happened to be in Philadelphia. Thus John Adams is as much about the process of history as it is about chronicling the life of a farmer’s son, lawyer, revolutionary, diplomat, vice president, president and father of a president.

John Adams: Written by Kirk Ellis, based on the book by David McCullough and directed by Tom Hooper.

Documentary review: One Million Dubliners


Once in a while a historical documentary will achieve the status of instant classic-a documentary that provides as much of an insight into contemporary ideas about history and the present state of the nation as it does into the historical significance of past events. Aoife Kelleher’s One Million Dubliners explores the story and legacy of Dublin’s necropolis, Glasnevin/Prospect Cemetery. Glasnevin is not Ireland’s national cemetery but as the documentary reminds us, it occupies an important place at the heart of the national experience, a conscious memorial and marker to the process of state building and to the cultural invention of the Irish nation. The documentary recounted Glasnevin’s origins from the lobbying of its most famous occupant, Daniel O’Connell for a graveyard for those of every or no religion with the astonishingly detailed records of the 1.5 million people interred since 1832 arising from the Victorian mania for record keeping. It was the story of how the living interact with the dead; of people’s interpretation and remembrances of the lives of figures both documented and undocumented by history. We had a French woman whose interest in the life of Michael Collins was fanned into a long-term devotion with frequent pilgrimages made to his graveside. We were also fortunate to witness a young man’s moving homage to the cultural impact of Luke Kelly. Our more enlightened attitudes to once contentious aspects of Irish history were also discussed with the documented scenes of Glasnevin’s Armistice Day service. We were also exposed to the stories and rituals arising from the passing of ordinary Dubliners and the delicate line to tread in maintaining a heritage site that remains a functioning place of burial and cremation.

Glasnevin/Prospect Cemetery

Glasnevin/Prospect Cemetery

However the most stirring part of the documentary was the masterful way in which Glasnevin Trust maintains and shares the history and heritage of the graveyard with its many and varied visitors. The dedication and devotion of its staff shone through with some sage yet compassionate reflection on the place of death in the Irish psyche. Most poignantly of all, the documentary became a much deserved tribute to the man who did the most to cherish and share the story of graveyard with the Irish public-Glasnevin’s late resident historian and guide, Shane MacThomais. The passion, empathy and dedication MacThomais brought to the history of Glasnevin and to its tours was wonderfully captured-whether he was seamlessly breaking down the complexities of Irish history for foreign visitors or lapsing into his natural storyteller mode, making history come alive for a cohort of rapt schoolchildren. This, above all, is the lasting value and legacy of One Million Dubliners: as a fitting celebration of the role one Dubliner played in the preservation and democratisation of local and national heritage.


One Million Dubliners: An Underground Films production in association with RTÉ, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Shoot for the Moon and Bord Scannán na hÉireann/The Irish Film Board

Enlightened imperialism? The League of Nations Mandates Commission


In the aftermath of the First World War, the League of Nations established a form of ‘enlightened imperialism’ whereby member states were authorised to administer former German and Ottoman imperial possessions. Article 22 of the League Covenant established ‘mandates’ over ‘those colonies and territories, which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the states which formerly governed them, and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world’. The mandate system was not a threat to colonialism but rather served to legitimise it as a (perceived) necessity within the international landscape on the understanding that ‘the well being and development of peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation’.


1. Syria, 2. Lebanon, 3. Palestine, 4.Transjordan, 5. Mesopotamia, 6.British Togoland, 7. French Togoland, 8. British Cameroons, 9.French Cameroun, 10. Ruanda-Urundi, 11. Tanganyika and 12.South West Africa

1. Syria, 2. Lebanon, 3. Palestine, 4.Transjordan, 5. Mesopotamia, 6.British Togoland, 7. French Togoland, 8. British Cameroons, 9.French Cameroun, 10. Ruanda-Urundi, 11. Tanganyika and 12.South West Africa

Britain, France and Belgium were granted mandates over German East Africa, Togo, Cameroon, South-West Africa, Palestine, Lebanon, Transjordan, Mesopotamia and Syria. However the great powers were not given free reign to annex the mandated territories into their own colonial administrations but rather undertook to comply with conditions set by the League. The Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC) met twice yearly in Geneva with its work supported by the League Secretariat. Member states were obliged to submit reports to the Commission to ensure that they complied with the strict terms of their respective mandates. The Commission was populated by distinguished personnel, mostly former colonial governors, appointed by the League Council.  According to Zara Steiner not only could these appointees match colonial administrators in experience but the latter came to hold the PMC in high esteem and did not ignore any interrogation or criticism emanating from Geneva. While the PMC could report to the League Council it was devoid of any coercive function. As such it was powerless to confront states for any omission or distortion of information. Nor could its members conduct on-the-ground official inspections of the various mandated territories. As with the League Assembly, the PMC could only act as a moral force, holding the threat of a public rebuke over offending states.

The League of Nations has been cited by many historians as an important force in establishing norms of state behaviour. Michael Callahan argued that Britain and France did treat the mandates areas as distinct from the rest of their colonial territories. The PMC encouraged British and French measures to limit unrestrained land acquisitions by white settlers and to establish humane labour conditions for the native populations as well as initiatives for the improvement of public health. The mandated territories did not conform to the traditional economics of imperialism. The governor of the British mandate of Tanganyika exploited the international status of the region to ensure that the territory could buy cheaper American products over British merchandise.  In 1933 British military officials even conceded that it was contrary to the mandate system to establish a naval base in Tanganyika or to expect that territory to contribute to the defence of neighbouring Kenya. However the mandated system did not prevent the white populations from acquiring the best land; nor were native inhabitants permitted to play a role in administration.

The League’s mandates system certainly did not hasten the transition to self-rule. The Unied Nations on the other hand became synonymous with the postcolonial era. The UN Trusteeship Council assumed the role of the PMC, overseeing the administration of the 11 former mandated territories of the League: by 1994 all of these territories had either obtained independence or combined with neighbouring independent states.


Further Reading

Michael D. Callahan, ‘“Mandates territories are not colonies”: Britain, France and Africa in the 1930s’ in R.M. Douglas, Michael D. Callahan, and Elizabeth Bishop (eds), Imperialism on trial (Lanham, 2006), pp 1-20.

Susan Pedersen, ‘Back to the League of Nations’ in The American Historical Review, cxii (2007), pp 1091-1117.

Zara Steiner, The lights that failed: European international history 1919-33 (Oxford, 2005).

Between a rough wooing and a love match: The Acts of Union 1707


The Parliamentary Union of England and Scotland, 1707, as painted by Walter Thomas Monnington

The Parliamentary Union of England and Scotland, 1707,
as painted by Walter Thomas Monnington

Two weeks ago, during the climactic build-up to the recent referendum, this historian found herself in Edinburgh confronted with the rich and very deliberate historical markers of a complicated political union. Edinburgh Castle, with a triumphant ‘Yes’ banner unfurled across the rock face from which the very walls of the bastion appear to be carved, had become, for some, a statement of Scottish separateness; the site of an almost impenetrable defence from a much more powerful neighbour. However for others it remained a reminder that Scotland had also played the part of protagonist and eager partner in the union of the two kingdoms.  The official guide book reminds visitors that on the morning of 19 June 1566 one of the single most important events in ‘British’ history occurred in a small room in the royal apartments, with the birth, to Mary Queen of Scots, of the future James VI of Scotland and I of England. In 1617, as part of his golden jubilee celebrations, James made a (by-then) rare visit to Scotland for which the royal apartments had been lavishly refurbished and festooned with the symbols of his expanded kingship. On the window pediments of his birthplace, the Scottish thistle was joined by the English rose and the Irish harp to reflect his inheritance of the kingdoms of England and Ireland from his cousin Elizabeth I.

While the three kingdoms shared a common monarch, full legislative and political union for England and Scotland  did not follow for another hundred years and not for another hundred years after this for the entire British Isles. James’s early attempts to win support for a proclamation uniting the two kingdoms won little favour in Westminster and so he was confined to setting symbolic foundations for a subsequent union by (from 1604 onwards) styling himself as ‘King of Great Britain’ and by approving the creation of a flag which combined the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew.  Subsequent monarchs showed little interested in uniting the kingdoms (although an experiment in a combined parliament arose out of practicality in the Cromwellian period) until the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution (1688). The newly crowned King William III was eager to promote he common adherence to the Protestant religion and antipathy to the Catholic faith shared between the two parliaments. A political union might also prove a safeguard against the Jacobite cause (those who supported the exiled Catholic monarch William’s father- in-law and uncle James II and his heirs). The Scottish Convention Parliament in Edinburgh appointed commissioners to negotiate a union with the English parliament but the apparent indifference and inflexibility of that body stoked anti-English sentiment. The unpredictable Scottish parliament was also increasingly frustrated with unfavourable trade terms and the failure of the English parliament to compensate Scottish investors in the Darien scheme, an unsuccessful venture to establish a new colony in Panama. William and his co-monarch Mary were childless and the death of their nephew, William of Gloucester, the son of their heir apparent Princess Anne, raised the possibility of the Scottish crown passing not to their named Protestant German successor, the Electress of Hanover and her issue, but back to the native Scottish dynasty of exiled Stuarts. Two new bills emerged from Westminster in late 1704 offering the Scots a single trade area and full political union but threatening a ban on Scottish imports unless the Edinburgh parliament accepted the Hanoverian succession. Spurred by these developments, agreement for union was secured between representatives of both the English and Scottish parliaments in just three days in April 1706. To summarise the resulting acts, Scotland gained full access to English domestic and colonial markets, the House of Hanover was poised inherit the throne of a united kingdom from Queen Anne and Scottish MPs would sit in the Westminster parliament. The Acts were finally ratified in spring 1707. Assent to the Acts in Edinburgh was not a straightforward affair and parliament did not quietly vote itself out of existence but rather debated against a backdrop of public disorder and Kirk disapproval. As with the Acts of Union in Ireland a hundred years later there were accusations of parliamentary bribery.  Indeed the debate for union proved more inflammatory than the debate to undo it 300 hundred years later.


Further reading

For a full text of the Scottish Union with England Act 1707: (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/aosp/1707/7/contents)

Steven Ellis & Sarah Barber (ed.), Conquest & union: fashioning a British state 1485-1725

(London, 1995)

Hugh Kearney, The British isles: a history of four nations (Cambridge, 1989).

David L. Smith, A history of the modern British isles 1603-1707: the double crown (Oxford, 1998


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