Letters to the Editor - July 2012
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
Share your thoughts with the readers of History Today.
Email email@example.com, or send to
25 Bedford Avenue
It seems that either Tim Jeal in his book Explorers of the Nile or your reviewer Andrew Lycett – ‘Speke ... was later traduced by Burton’ (Reviews, May 2012) – has misunderstood the events surrounding the explorers’ joint expedition. Richard Burton was severely ill, unable to travel, while John Speke partly explored what is now called Lake Victoria. Unfortunately his slipshod approach to geographical readings, inconsistent and unsystematic route and inability to communicate properly with the locals on whom he relied for information meant that his discovery could not be fully supported by the facts. The question of the source of the Nile was still open, as demonstrated by the fact that the public debate between the two men at the British Association meeting in Bath in 1864 was to be moderated by David Livingstone himself. It was only later that Speke was proved to be correct.
Also, far from Burton being the ‘traducer’, it was Speke who had left the still ailing Burton in Aden with the promise that he would wait for the two of them to be together before announcing the expedition’s discovery, a promise he broke soon after landing in England. (See W.B. Carnochan’s The Sad Story of Burton, Speke and the Nile, or Was John Hanning Speke a Cad?, published by Stanford University Press in 2006.)
As regards Speke’s death on the eve of the debate, although it is almost certain that he did commit suicide as Lycett declared, the inquest at the time gave a verdict of ‘accidental death’ and there remains the slight possibility that Speke’s loaded gun did indeed go off unintentionally while he was climbing over a wall.
High Road to Serfdom
Dr David White (Letters, June 2012) writes that Scots prefer the northern European model of society to the American one, but so do many of us in England and Wales. If we lose Scotland the rest of us will be left at the mercy of Hayekian tyranny, red in tooth and claw, the Road to Serfdom completed.
Ian Bradley (Still Sacred?, June 2012) will find that Shakespeare, in the person of Claudius – whose prayers, incidentally, ‘never to heaven go’ – observed that divinity hedged an embattled Danish king rather than an English throne. There is no compelling reason to believe that Shakespeare subscribed to Claudius’ view of sacred monarchy.
I agree with the thrust of Nigel Jones’ article (A Device for Despots, May 2012) that referendums are frequently, in Attlee’s words, ‘a device for despots and dictators’, but it takes him over the top when he declares, by reference to the Directory’s referendums of 1793-94 achieving 99 and 95 per cent approval of government proposals, that ‘percentage voter approval rates in the 90s have been an infallible hallmark of totalitarian regimes ever since’.
While the example of the 90.8 per cent vote for Algerian independence might lack persuasiveness, the example from 1967 of 90.77 per cent of voters in Australia approving constitutional rights for aborigines appears more robust in disproving Jones’ assertion. Even more powerfully, the vote in 2002 upon the proposal that Gibraltar’s sovereignty be shared with Spain produced a negative declaration from 98.48 per cent of voters. That Latvia in 2011 persuaded 94.3 per cent of those voting to agree to the dissolution of parliament confirms that it is not only ‘Anglo-Saxon’ electorates that can achieve near unanimity.
Interestingly, company law provides a benchmark of 90 per cent approval by shareholders for actions otherwise perceived as oppressive of minority interests. It is odd therefore that a wider electorate is be perceived as having had to be intimidated merely because over 90 per cent of those voting agreed.
‘Nazi propaganda [and] the overactive imaginations of the British Admiralty’ undoubtedly supported the ‘myth of near invincibility’ of Nazi weaponry (Churchill's Magnificent Obsession, March 2012). But there was another element that abetted both the myth and the propaganda, which has a widely variable correlation with technical capabilities. This is the matter of aesthetics: bluntly put, and whether you like it or not, German Nazi and Italian Fascist design – drawing far more than British on early 20th-century Modernism – was often very striking and very well suited to purpose.
Tirpitz and Bismarck, for example, were as elegant as they were menacing and only events proved them less than invincible. Throughout the ages, how major weaponry looks – warships above all until the 20th century – has always been a factor in, at least, its perceived effectiveness. Anyone who forgets that, including those still designing it, is missing the obvious.
Pieter van der Merwe
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Fort Worth Flyers
I greatly enjoyed Richard Cavendish’s piece on the beginnings of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in the First World War (Months Past, April 2012). He may not know, and your readers may be interested to learn, that we here in Fort Worth, Texas have a historic connection to the RFC. Before the US entered the Great War in 1917 the RFC trained at three airfields around the city (though there is some debate among local historians whether those training fields were operated by the RFC or by the Canadian Air Corps). French pilots apparently also trained there. This seems a very long way to come for the French and British to train their pilots. I have always been curious as to why they couldn’t find places closer to home, or at least in their own overseas colonies. Yet Fort Worth appears to have been more than happy to enjoy the economic boost that came from all the foreign airmen based here between 1914 and 1919.
The three fields were called Taliaferro, Barron and Carruthers. None of them were actually inside Fort Worth city limits, but were located in rural areas of Tarrant County. Even so they are still considered part of Fort Worth’s history, specifically the history of Camp Bowie. That was the training camp established on the ‘heights’ just west of the city by the US army in 1917. When America entered the war the US army took over the fields to train American pilots. I don’t know whether Britons continued training there as well.
The commander of the British ‘Aviation Corps’ that used the three fields was a Major Scott. There is a photograph of him and his staff but no biographical background that I am aware of. A local library has a number of original photographs, collected in two fragile scrapbooks, which show the people and their operations that took place on the fields. There is still a memorial service held every year at Fort Worth’s Greenwood Cemetery in honour of the RFC pilots who died during training.
Dr Richard Selcer
Fort Worth, Texas
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology