Book Review: “The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company” by John Keay

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This book was recommended to me by a history friend who specializes in eighteenth century English history.  I was looking for an all-encompassing history of the East India Company and this book fits the bill.  Keay gives a very detailed history of the earliest incarnation of the East India Company starting in the Tudor era and continuing into the Stuart reign of kings down to its liquidation in the nineteenth century.  Each ship that sets out in the early years is followed around Africa into the Indian Ocean and into Asia.

The stories told are fascinating.  Keay tells us of the brave men who went on these trips, explored the coastlines, set up factories, and bargained with native chieftains and nabobs from Japan to India to China.  Some of these outposts worked well and survived and some of the men were scandalously murdered.  Many succumbed to fever and disease.  There were pirates and private traders.  Cargoes were stolen or sunk or arrived in port in England with no problems.

The inner workings of the company are covered here with the raising of subscriptions initially and then stock being issued later.  Sometimes the profits were outstanding but many times money was lost.  The East India Company at one point was abolished and then reincarnated, causing conflict in the outlying trade posts around the world.  Eventually the company raised its own army to protect the factories.  The Company became a government unto itself, creating its own trading agreements and fighting wars.

The East India Company has a vast and varied history and this book covers it all.  Some of the writing is a little dry but there are plenty of exciting stories to make up for it.  The personalities of the men involved were quite interesting.  I would recommend this book if you are seeking an overall history of this global corporation.

Book Review: “Tea for the British” by Denys Forrest

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The subtitle of this book is “The Social and Economic History of a Famous Trade”.  I had no idea the history of the tea trade in Britain was so fascinating.  The author, Denys Forrest was a writer and journalist before changing careers and working in the tea industry.  Consequently he was uniquely qualified to write this book.

Forrest has researched the papers of the English East India Company and those of various tea companies in Britain.  He begins with recounting how tea first started to arrive in the country.  Early traders found tea in China where it was grown on bushes and then the leaves were harvested and brought to Europe in chests on ships.

At first tea was believed to have had medicinal purposes so it was found in chemist shops.  When Catherine of Braganza came to England to marry King Charles II, she introduced the drinking of tea for non-medicinal purposes at the Stuart court.  The trade grew and the EEC set up a building in Mincing Lane to receive and auction tea shipments.  The tea was sold in coffee shops and then grocers.  Demand became astronomical.  China limited how much trade could be done in their country so enterprising merchants brought the seeds of tea bushes to India and later Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and began growing it there to meet the demand.  Later tea was grown in Africa and even South America.  The EEC lost its monopoly in the nineteenth century and the trade in tea was opened up afterwards.

Forrest explains the different grades of tea leaves and how the tea came to be sold and consumed and innovations in the industry.  The story of how tea came to be put in teabags is really interesting.  There are lots of statistics in this book like how much tea was auctioned for and how much housewives paid for it in shops and stores, and how much tea was consumed per person in Britain.  There are stories about shops in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Norwich and histories of different vendors.

Forrest really knows his tea!  And he tells us about it with a really light touch and a keen sense of humor.  This book was published in 1973 and sadly that’s where the story ends.  He laments the invention of iced tea and wonders what will happen to the drinking of tea as the consumption in Britain had declined as the book ended.  I enjoyed this book very much.

Book Review: “A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400-1668” by Malyn Newitt

I’ve been doing some research in Portuguese history and their seaborne empire and found this volume. Having just finished Charles R. Boxer’s book on the Portuguese Seaborne Empire, I was a little concerned this book might just be a rehash of Boxer’s. But I discovered there was no need to worry because this one is completely different. While Newitt covers the same topic, this is a more in-depth survey of the era.

Malyn Newitt is Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College, London, the same university where Boxer taught. In this book, he examines how the ideas and institutions of late medieval society, as well as Portugal’s rivalry with Castile, were utilized to expand into Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia and the Atlantic islands allowing the country to become a global commercial powerhouse. He scrutinizes the origins of Portuguese expansion up until 1469, Portuguese expansion from 1469-1500, expansion in the East and the Atlantic from 1500-1515, the Portuguese diaspora and the empire at its height in 1580.

At that point in time, the Portuguese empire faced a huge challenge to its dominance from the heavily armed and better resourced English and Dutch which lead to a steep decline. The empire was resilient and survived in a reduced capacity from 1620 until the end of this survey in 1668. Newitt’s last chapter is an overview of the entire era.

Newitt gives a chronological survey of each of the exploratory voyages made by the Portuguese pioneers. At first these journeys were sponsored by the Portuguese monarchy with any new lands discovered coming under the aegis of the king. Motives for this exploration were trade, scientific discovery and a great desire to spread Christianity through missionaries. In the beginning, the king managed to keep some control over the trade and profits but as the empire grew, an “unofficial” empire came into being.

Reading about this era gives some perspective to our current global economic situation. I enjoyed this account of Portuguese expansion. All areas are covered such as Africa, Brazil, India, Southeast Asia, Japan, China and Sri Lanka. The book includes a glossary, maps and a complete bibliography.

Book Review: “A History of Spain and Portugal” by Stanley G. Payne

Admittedly, my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese history is scanty. I’m in the middle of some serious research on Portugal and knowing the history of the two countries is connected, this book looked like a good bet. The book was printed in two volumes and was published in 1973 by the University of Wisconsin Press. Stanley G. Payne has a long and distinguished career as an historian and is considered a specialist in Spanish fascism. His last position before his retirement was chairman of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As Payne states in the preface, these volumes were written to address the need for a reasonably full and up-to-date comprehensive history of Spain and Portugal which can be used as a textbook for courses in Spanish history or as an interpretive account for other readers. His intention is to give accounts of the political and institutional history, including the church and religion, as well as social and economic history. He does not go into too much detail about literary and art history by design as these subjects are well covered elsewhere.

For each kingdom on the Peninsula, Payne gives succinct details of how the peasants lived, how the nobility came to power, how royalty took over the government, how each kingdom (Leon, Castile, Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, etc.) came into being and was absorbed into what we call Spain today. He explains the economies of each kingdom. There were sheep and cattle in Castile, trade within the Mediterranean and without by the eastern kingdoms, ironworks in the Basque area, etc. He explains how peasants worked the land, some making rent payments to the overlord and some who owned their land. There were slaves who worked the land. He talks about the soldiers who fought the wars. Payne doesn’t talk much about the actual kings and queens and only mentions a few of the most politically important ones by name.

Payne is very precise in describing the religious situation in the Peninsula. There were pagans initially and then Christians, Muslims and Jews. He chronicles the histories of these people such as how they lived in harmony for the most part until the Catholic Majesties decided they wanted religious harmony and went to war. There were forced conversions or many people were expelled. The Catholic Church was powerful but royalty always had the ability to check this power.

Personally I found this book to be masterful. The history of the Iberian Peninsula is fascinating in and of itself. But Payne’s writing and treatment of the subject matter had me totally captivated. He minces no words here. From the history of the ancients to the modern 20th century, this is a great read. To me the best material deals with the social history. I certainly learned a lot of new vocabulary! It’s not necessarily a definitive work but more of a comprehensive overview. Some may find it a bit of slog but if you stay with it, you will certainly find this work rewarding.

Book Review: “Elizabeth De Valois, Queen of Spain, and the Court of Philip II” by Martha Walker Freer

The subtitle of this book is “From Numerous Unpublished Sources in the Archives of France, Italy and Spain” and it comes in two volumes. As I’ve said on this blog before, I enjoy reading old history books. This one was published in 1857 and is a complete revelation. I just happened to find the first volume electronically by doing a search on Google Books for Elizabeth de Valois. The second volume is available for purchase as a reprint from any reliable bookseller.

From the entry on Martha Walker Freer in the Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, Volume 49 written by Elizabeth Lee:

Mrs. Martha Walker Robinson (1822–1888), writer on French history under her maiden name of Freer, daughter of John Booth Freer, M.D., was born at Leicester in 1822. Her first book, ‘Life of Marguerite d’Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, Duchesse d’Alençon, and De Berry, Sister of Francis I,’ appeared in 1854, in two volumes. In 1861 she married the Rev. John Robinson, rector of Widmerpool, near Nottingham, but all her works bear her maiden name. She continued publishing books dealing with French history until 1866. She died on 14 July 1888. Her works are mere compilations, although she claimed to have had access to manuscripts and other unpublished material. Although inferior in style and arrangement to the books of Julia Pardoe [q. v.] on similar subjects, they enjoyed for a time wide popularity. Two of them, ‘Marguerite d’Angoulême’ and ‘Jeanne d’Albret’ (1855), reached second editions. Mrs. Robinson died on 14 July 1888.
Her other works are: 1. ‘Elizabeth de Valois, Queen of Spain and the Court of Philip II,’ 2 vols. 1857. 2. ‘Henry III, King of France and Poland: his Court and Times,’ 3 vols. 1858. 3. ‘History of the Reign of Henry IV, King of France and Navarre,’ part i. 2 vols. 1860; part ii. 2 vols. 1861; part iii. 2 vols. 1863. 4. ‘The Married Life of Anne of Austria and Don Sebastian,’ 2 vols. 1864. 5. ‘The Regency of Anne of Austria,’ 2 vols. 1866.

I had never heard of Freer before this. The work is footnoted and is based on many different sources from different nations. Although this work has some suspect elements of fiction, I found it to be astounding as far as research and retelling of the story of Elizabeth de Valois. She basically recounts the entire life of this Queen of Spain who died too young at the age of 23. There are many anecdotes of important moments in her life such as her baptism which was attended by ambassadors from the court of King Henry VIII of England, her state entry into Toledo and an amusing, near calamitous accident involving her carriage and the long train of her dress. The description of her death and her funeral are very touching.

It seems Freer’s work was written with one main mission in mind. She wanted to dispel the myth of an affair between Queen Elizabeth and her husband’s mentally unstable son Don Carlos. The book goes into great detail about Don Carlos’ life and death. Freer manages to knock down any idea that there was impropriety or affair between these two. There is a great amount of information regarding Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother Queen Catherine de’Medici and she uses many of the letters written by the two women. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was stuck in the middle between her husband and her mother regarding diplomatic maneuvers but for the most part she followed the advice of her husband. The meeting at Bayonne involving the Queen and her mother is meticulously described.

I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. I have purchased the volumes by Freer on the life of King Henri III of France. Looking forward to reading more.

Book Review: “Philip of Spain” by Henry Kamen

Kamen’s seminal biography of King Philip II of Spain was published in 1997 and I remember when I read it then I enjoyed it very much. Since reading Geoffrey Parker’s new biography of Philip, I decided to read this book again. I’m glad I did as it gave me a new perspective.

Kamen’s book is not as detailed as Parker’s. Parker has a lot more information on Philip’s early life and the writing is based more on Philip’s actual words from existing and newly discovered documentation. However, Kamen’s book has a great overview of Philip’s reign. He breaks down Philip’s time in power into several sections by years with chapter titles such as The Formative Years, The Renaissance Prince, Soldier and King, Towards Total War and The Time of Thunder to name a few. For information on the man himself, the two chapters with the most interesting material are titled The World of Philip II and The Statesman. These cover the man himself, his wives and children, his foreign policy and other noteworthy tidbits of information about Philip as a person.

Because I had just read Parker’s biography, it was thought-provoking to note the differences in opinion between the two authors. Kamen mentions throughout this book how he disagrees with Parker on several points, some minor but with several major differences. For example, Kamen does not believe Philip II had anything to do with the murder of Juan Escobedo while Parker goes into great detail in an effort to prove Philip did. It is intriguing to consider the two points of view.

This book is enhanced with maps, a family tree and photo section. It appears in some ways that Kamen is an apologist for Philip but this does not detract from his perspective on the life and reign of this significant and in some ways remarkable king. I highly recommend this book and would suggest if the reader has the time and opportunity to read both this biography and Parker’s. Kamen’s book has definitely withstood the test of time since its publication 21 years ago.

Book Review: “Four Princes” by John Julius Norwich

The subtitle of this book is “Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe”. Whew! How about that for raising expectations? But I have to say, this book delivers.

There is a blurb inside the front cover that says this: “Never before had the world seen four such giants coexisting. Sometimes friends, more often enemies, always rivals, these four men together held Europe in the hollow of their hands.” This pretty much sums up the era and what a time it was. Europe was experiencing great upheaval. There was monumental transformations in matters of religion. The Renaissance began with new discoveries in science, mass printing of books and gorgeous art being produced.

Amidst all this upheaval, there were four princes who ruled Europe, all with monumental egos. This books introduces us to the four men, giving their backgrounds. The author explains their changing alliances along with their bellicose warfare. There were many different meetings between these men which are described here. Treaties were made and broken. Invasions were mounted. Suleiman the Magnificent was at the outskirts of Vienna but drew back twice. Francis I of France stunned Europe by forging ties with the Sultan in an effort to stave off having France taken over by Charles V. Because the author has written about the papacy, he includes a lot of papal history and how it relates to the other rulers. You just can’t make this stuff up.

I would classify this book as ‘popular history’, whatever that means. It is not meant to be an academic work and indeed, I found a few historical mistakes. These are just a few of the most glaring errors. Norwich states that King Francis I’s mother Louise of Savoy attended peace talks in Toledo in July of 1525. This is incorrect. Francis’ sister Marguerite was present and spoke directly to Charles V about the release of Francis from captivity after the devastating French loss at Pavia.

Norwich also states that Cardinal Compeggio had been sent to England in 1518 and that he remained there from that date until the legatine court at Blackfriars in 1529 was convened to discuss the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon. This is not so. Compeggio had to travel from the continent to England for this trial. Norwich also has a footnote regarding Sir Thomas More where he states that Henry had More arrested after he refused to attend the King’s wedding to Anne Boleyn. I have no idea where he got this and it’s almost laughable.

But this does not detract from the overall joy of reading the fascinating history of early modern Europe. The book has a section of beautiful color photos and a limited bibliography. It’s a good starting point for those who are new to the era and a good vacation read for those who know the history.