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How should we remember Waterloo?

Are anniversaries of historic events an occasion for serious assessment or simply a nostalgic indulgence that reinforce current prejudice? 

Geoffrey Heptonstall
10 July 2015
Is history just there to amuse us? Flickr/Elliott Brown. Some rights reserved.

Is history just there to amuse us? Flickr/Elliott Brown. Some rights reserved.

Waterloo? Yes, I remember it well, not the actual battle but the museum. I thought it would prove apocryphal, but there really was on display an English newspaper with the headline Corsican Uprising Defeated. Some things never change. Yet, if we truly remember past things, we remember them because they were so different. Waterloo was perhaps the last great world event before technology could record how things looked. A midshipman sketched Napoleon on deck before he sailed to St Helena. Otherwise it was personal recollections, David’s idealized portraits and Madame Tussaud’s waxwork. That was all that was available. Waterloo signified not only the end of an international war and the restoration of the propertied classes in Europe. It marked the end of human memory as the arbiter of history. Thereafter history was to be written by electricity. Technology would conquer every wilderness and cross every continent.

Endless commemoration

Technology by making everything available and immediate has made nonsense of history. People now often find it difficult to imagine the world as it was. Museums theme exhibits so that the experience is not left to our personal intellect and imagination. It is presented to us as spectacle. It is history as entertainment, a selective recollection spoon fed to us. The past is no longer another country. It is no longer the record of events in times past. It is something immediate and available as a participatory experience, a highly selective nostalgia.

This may account for the habit we have acquired of relentless commemoration. There’s always going to be an anniversary of something. So the act of recollection never rests for long. Some anniversaries are worth celebrating as an occasion for serious assessment and a revival of interest.

Easter 2016 and October 2017 will see centenaries worth our attention. It may be timely then to correct popular myths, as it has been opportune to establish at last the undeniable fact that Napoleon was not small in stature. He did think not of himself as Corsican.

The Easter Rising presents Britain with a problem. Although the rebels surrendered, the subsequent history has been one of concessions to a cause that cannot be defeated militarily. A century on there can be no doubt who the victors are. The inheritors of the Rising are in positions of command throughout Ireland. It will not be easy for Britain to set a counter-intuitive agenda. On the other hand, the myths woven round the October Revolution are likely to be aired once more, especially as this commemoration will be one of triumphalist grins and sneers.

Wars that never happened

There was one fairly recent bicentenary that was not remembered by the British. And that is a telling omission. Nobody thought to mention the War of 1812. No, I don’t mean Napoleon in Moscow. I mean the British invasion of the United States. It is astonishing how few people in Britain, whatever their general level of awareness, know anything of this war. It never happened. Or if it really did happen – and I’m not sure whether to believe you – it can’t have been serious. In fact it was no mere skirmish. The redcoats reached Washington and burned down the White House. The Siege of New Orleans was the USA’s Stalingrad, and it has not been forgotten in American minds. The British came close to regaining their lost colonies. There followed further conflict in years to come. It was not until the Spanish-American War - where Britain was an ally of the USA - that hostility ceased.

This important history has been eradicated from British folk memory, and from serious public discourse. The presumption is that Britain and the United States have been allies, culturally and politically, well ever since Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. The defeat was accepted with a good grace, and a harmonious special relationship soon followed.

The facts clearly offer a different narrative. The dust took a very long time to settle. Lincoln was born in 1809, long after the Revolution of 1776. The elderly Thomas Jefferson was President. Jefferson remained all his life in British eyes a traitor under sentence of death. But, of course, all was forgiven and forgotten when Lincoln made his spectacularly successful visit to London in what year was it, now? Never. It didn’t happen. In actuality Lincoln very nearly declared war because of British support for the Confederacy. [Victoria, incidentally, was all for abolition, unlike her government.]

Actuality is not what is sought in these commemorations. The intention is to make myth out of history. At times we are the small, brave island, at other times the mighty empire. These are not different phases in a long narrative of development: they are contradictory versions of how we are intended to see ourselves. Reason demands that we choose either to be the island that stands alone when the world is in conflict, or that we ruled a good deal of that world until the day before yesterday. The facts are with the latter. But a perverse patriotism prefers to have it both ways in being proud of the civilizing influence of teaching the natives how to make tea, while not forgetting that we are an island apart from the main.

The myth of our lifetimes is that, having transformed enlightened colonial rule into a commonwealth of democracies, we are now the respected, admired partner of the USA in a relationship so close we are almost one. Dream on, Britannia.

The delusive complacency of this myth complements the general air of nostalgia. History is there to amuse us. It is there to assure us of our superiority. We live in better times, enlightened times. Until recently the world was in chaos and history was a chronicle of madness. Now, a few stubborn impediments aside, we have answered all the questions and solved all the problems. For as far as the eye can see – and today it can see into infinity – there is no further conflict between what is possible and what is right. The course is so obvious that it must be followed. All ideological dispute and all moral doubts have clear and evident resolutions. We are at the end of history. What happens now is all that matters. And if it matters now it will matter for ever. Look on our works, ye mighty.

Napoleon had a sense of historical destiny that makes him one of the most interesting figures in history, though not necessarily an admirable one. His relation to history was complex. Although he generated history, he was also its creature. The Revolution released him from subservience to make him master of his fate. Ability had eradicated privilege. Talent was the new coinage. The capable aspirant might conquer the world. The possibilities were open.

The victory at Waterloo reduced the possibilities. Industry was going to need ability. But ability was to be subservient to the counting houses who were in their turn subservient to property and power. Wellington had no regard for democracy, and no sympathy for the dispossessed. He was not defeating a tyrant. He was teaching a vulgar upstart to mind his manners. Only the very rich and very powerful had anything to gain from Waterloo. With the defeat of Napoleon went down the challenge posed by the Romantics to the political and moral order. The clock did not turn back. But bourgeois progress was promoted by a hierarchy of obedience that diminished what it did not destroy of the liberated imagination.

Since 1815 the ‘scum of earth’ [that’s 99% of us] have faced many cavalry charges metaphoric and actual. The Battle of Waterloo was won indeed on the playing fields of Eton. The Duke was genuinely shocked by the carnage. But, by thunder, it was a price worth paying. We are still paying for it.           

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