Letters - September 2010

Editor Paul Lay reads a selection of your correspondence.

Ethical Concerns

What stood out for me from the excellent editorial in the August edition of History Today was the phrase ‘Mere regulation is never enough’. It is appalling that, during the recent expenses scandal, some MPs could only use the excuse that they acted within the rules. Perhaps university courses should include a mandatory course on ethics. 

This trend is of great concern to the study of history. Adam Smith expected that the creators of the new wealth would be restrained in rewarding themselves and that much of the riches generated would be spent on education and culture. Unfortunately, and unlike in Germany and France, his legacy in English-speaking countries was distorted by reaction to the French Revolution.

Now we have the lethal combination of unbridled capitalism and globalisation. Neither academics nor politicians have told the general public what this means or what the consequences are likely to be. Politicians in a democracy, of course, don’t want to admit that they are powerless to control the consequences.

Norman Wood

Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands


Hard Lessons

In June historian Tristram Hunt, the new MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, criticised the coalition government’s academy schools programme as damaging history in schools. He is right. It is clear to educationalists that there is a dangerous curriculum trend to substitute soft vocational subjects for hard academic ones, such as history. This boosts league table results as a vocational subject is worth four GCSEs. While heads claim schools have improved, the reality is that their pupils have studied second-rate courses.

It is easy to see why heads like to do this, but harder to see why historians have failed to act against policies which damage their subject. 

The removal of history from Key Stage 3 courses has been known for years. At Key Stage 4 – GCSE – this is also a growing trend and in academies is used to claim successes for the policy. Yet as research in the journal Forum and the report from the Civitas trust last December showed, the success is at the expense of hard academic subjects. Meanwhile, soft options do not prepare students for A-Levels and as a consequence academic courses at university may suffer. While researchers have been handicapped because academies are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act – unlike comprehensives – the research backs up what Tristram Hunt is saying.

This is not simply a matter for school teachers. If academic subjects like history vanish from the school curriculum, we all suffer. It is remarkable that subject associations seem unable to work together and prefer to defend their own patch – while overall the academic side of state schools is deteriorating. It is time for effective campaigning to defend academic education in English schools.

Trevor Fisher



Past Parallel

Martin Gilbert is to be thanked for his generous attempt to resolve the Middle East conflict (‘A Path to Peace Inspired by the Past’, August 2010), but two aspects deserve further emphasis.

First, not all Arabs are Muslims, nor are all Muslims Arabs. Indeed, a large proportion of Gilbert’s examples of co-operation and harmony among Jews and Arabs are drawn from ancient times and are certainly pre-seventh century.

Second, this is not an ethnic-based conflict, but stems from religious intolerance. No Jewish teaching ever called on its adherents to fight another people on religious grounds. Unlike Islam, Judaism is not a proselytising religion and conversion is not easy.

The present-day problems may be likened to the persecution meted out by both Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation.

Jeffery L. Shaw

Valleraugue, France



Working Together

Martin Gilbert, in his article on Muslim-Jewish relations, states that Jewish settlement in Arabia took place following the Roman conquest of Judea. In fact, there were settled Jewish communities in Arabia after the fall of the southern Jewish Kingdom in 587/586 bc. In particular, the Jews of Yathrib – aka Medina, as from Medinat-an-Nabi (‘The City of the Prophet’) – were mentioned in a Babylonian inscription of 555-539 bc. Indeed, when Muhammad arrived in the city in ad 622, Jews continued to constitute at least half of the local population.

Further, the defeat and enslavement of the Jews of the oasis of Khaibar, some 70 miles north of Medina, in 628 was neither one of Muhammad’s ‘first military victories’ nor the first of his attacks on Jewish communities. The Muslims’ first decisive military victory was in a battle against the Meccans, fought at Badr, an oasis west of Medina. Before Badr, Medina was a place of refuge for a group of persecuted outcasts from Mecca; it was now to become a stronghold for Muhammad in which opposition to Islam was not to be tolerated, with the three local Jewish tribes providing the most formidable opposition. It was about this time that Muhammad changed the direction of Muslim prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca. After Badr, two Jewish tribes – the Quinuga and the Nadir – were successively attacked by the Muslims and were forced to leave Mecca with many going to the mainly Jewish oasis settlement at Khaibar. The Jews of Khaibar then allied themselves with the Meccans to attack Medina but the allies failed to penetrate the city’s defences. However, this led to the elimination of the last free Jews in Medina (the Quraiza tribe) with some 600 adult males being massacred and the women and children enslaved. Muhammad’s truce with the Meccans in 628 allowed him a free hand to attack and defeat the Jews of Khaibar who were abandoned by their Meccan allies.

After Muhammad gained control of Mecca in January 630 and with Arabia heading for unification under Muslim hegemony, Muhammad’s only military expedition before his death in 632 was in late 630 when he received the submission of the Christian King of Alia (Aqaba) and of two Jewish settlements in southern Transjordan. Accordingly, contrary to Martin Gilbert’s statement that North Africa ‘came under Muslim rule with the conquests of Muhammad’, such conquests did not take place until the reigns of his second and third successors as caliphs between 634 and 656.Further, not all non-Muslims faced ‘forcible conversion to Islam’, as the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) and later the Zoroastrians were allowed to practice their own faiths. 

Martin Gilbert is correct in stating that, despite humiliations and vexations, many Jewish communities and individuals prospered under Muslim rule. However, with the exception of a few non-Arab Muslim countries, this all came to an end with the UK’s 1937 partition plan for the Holy Land which was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs. In the following year a pan-Arab conference in Cairo adopted a militant anti-Jewish policy which resulted in Arab opposition to the 1947 UN partition plan and to the restoration of the State of Israel in 1948. ‘Past relations between Muslims and Jews have [indeed] often been harmonious’ but took place in circumstances of Jewish subordination within Arab countries and with no Jewish state in the Holy Land. Perhaps we should look to a reinvogoration of the 1919 statement by Emir Faisal of Mecca (later King of Iraq, 1921-33): ‘We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. We will wish the Jews a hearty welcome home. We are working together for a reformed and revised Near East, and our two movements complement one another. The movement is national and not imperialistic. There is room for us both. Indeed, I think that none of us can be successful without the other.’

Dr Alexander S. Waugh

Banchory, Kincardineshire



The Winner Writes it All

Gerald Ruck (‘Letters’, August 2010) asks why the CSS Virginia is mostly referred to as the Merrimac, the name it bore when it was in the pre-war Federal Navy. It is a case of history being written by the victors. Southerners refer to the Battle of Manassas Junction, but we hear more about the Battle of Bull Run (the name favoured by Northerners). Similarly, we hear little about the Battle of Sharpsburg (Southern name) but more about the Battle of Antietam (Northern name). Civil Wars cast long shadows, as does this one. In my discussions with Americans I refer to this conflict as the War the Americans Cannot Agree What to Call. For some reason this just causes further argument.

Don Adamson

Rainham, Kent


Rhythm is the Reason

Can I suggest two possible answers to Gerald Ruck’s question: why is the CSS Virginia always referred to as the Merrimac?

 First, she was the Merrimack for six years, the Virginia for two months. (‘Merrimack’ is the correct spelling for the ship; the river lacks the k.)

Second and perhaps more important, her opponent was the USS Monitor in the first conflict between two ironclads. Is it really surprising that this iconic battle has been presented as between two identically stressed trisyllables beginning with m?

Martin Jenkins

Woolwich,  London

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