Caxton, the Printing Press and the Disintegration of Communication

A researcher at the University of Reading has made a startling discovery. Pasted into the spine of an unrelated text Erika Delbecque found a double-sided leaf of paper thought to have been printed on one of William Caxton’s first presses, probably in the 1470s.

One of the beautifully-preserved Caxton pages

The pages are from a book called the Sarum Ordinal, a guide book for priests detailing the feast days of English saints. They are thought to be unique, with no other known copies in the world. Indeed, the only other eight pages from the text believed to have survived are currently housed in the British Library.

Such a seminal find is not only incredibly rare but also illuminating, particularly pertinent in our modern society of instant communication.

William Caxton (1422-1491)

Caxton was a merchant who had spent much of his career in the Low Countries, where he had been exposed to the new printing technologies pioneered and perfected by the German Johannes Gutenberg during the mid-fifteenth century.

In 1476, Caxton brought his own press to Westminster and started printing a range of British and foreign literature. Amongst his early focuses were Chaucer, Malory, Gower and Lydgate. By reading these literary titans, Caxton claimed in his 1477 Book of Curtesye, one improved his social education. The work of Chaucer, he noted, ‘enlumened hast alle our bretayne’.

Caxton demonstrating his printing press to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth

The importance of the establishment and expansion of the printing press and printing houses in Europe during the 15th century cannot be overstated. Volumes and volumes of treatises, religious texts and prose were no longer the preserve of the monarchy, the clergy and the ennobled. The dissemination of the printed word – particularly when published in the vernacular – made a greater contribution to the spread of ideas through societies than any other invention in the late medieval period.

Not only books but pamphlets began to proliferate, allowing radical theories and doctrines uncensored by the authorities to find a path to the less enlightened. It was of little relevance that illiteracy rates remained high; it only took the voice of one who could read to impart upon the masses the myriad terrors and delights of the new printed form.

Extract from the Gutenberg Bible

This, in turn, fostered a greater intermixing of the previously segregated class structures, as the influential realised the power of print over the unprivileged. In many cases, this increased social cohesion. The folk tales of old, many now committed to parchment, were embellished by the great stories of European literature. Whilst for agitators like the Protestant reformers, a platform for their eventual triumph over the forces of tradition had been created.

It is the nature of technological development that in some industries change is gradual, whilst in others it is both explosive and tumultuous. The printing press undoubtedly falls into the latter category and, indeed, the communication of the written word barely changed for the 500 years after its inception.

Books, pamphlets and (from the early 17th century) newspapers remained the primary sources of information for a mass audience into the late 20th century when the next tumultuous change occurred; the invention of instant messaging.

Starting with computers and progressing through mobile phones and the internet, the ability to communicate information to billions of others instantaneously has altered the course of history. Now with Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Snapchat, anyone with an internet connection has access to almost limitless news and knowledge at the touch of a button.

An unmistakable symbol…Twitter has changed the way we communicate and read news

The process of communicating with one another has never been easier and yet, if anything, social cohesion has diminished. People no longer need to interact in the flesh, living their lives as keyboard warriors at the forefront of technical change. Whilst in some instances this has brought people closer together, people who would otherwise never interact, in too many cases the results are negative.

It is surely a fact that a person is less likely to spread hate and abuse in person than they are online? How many men and women would be openly homophobic, sexist, racist or generally unreasonable when face-to-face with their apparent adversaries? How many would publish their views in a book, a pamphlet or a newspaper? The norms of conventional society have simply yet to translate to the world wide web, where vitriol and anger is the order of the day.

Caxton and his fellow pioneers would doubtless be horrified by the gradual diversion away from their beloved presses, whose transformational importance is symbolised in the beauty of the early printed works. The masters of the trade knew the sanctity of their craft.

Perhaps this is why the Reading discovery evokes a poignancy equal to its historic value. We must remember how precious the art of communication really is.

From the ACS in Liberia to Trump in the White House: America’s Engagement with Africa and why it Must Persist

In 1821, the American Colonization Society (ACS) founded a settlement at Cape Mesurado on the West African coast, with the express intention of populating it with free-born black slaves from the USA.

Established in 1816 by a group of politicians and other notable citizens, the ACS was unique in American history in that it drew support from both pro-slavery and abolitionist proponents. Several of the organisation’s founders were Quakers vehemently opposed to slavery, who believed that their black brethren would stand a better chance of prospering within a ‘free’ African society. For many slave owners, meanwhile, an African exodus of many potentially troublesome and agitating blacks could reduce the risk of slave rebellion.

Henry Clay: ACS founder and 1824 Presidential candidate, who held conflicting views on slaves. He would also state: ‘The God of Nature, by the differences of color and physical constitution, has decreed against it’.

Not only was the make-up of the ACS unique, but so was its core aim; directly engaging with Africa. Whilst American plantation owners had indirectly benefited from the Atlantic slave trade for over a century, neither they nor their political representatives – often one and the same – had taken any interest in the African continent itself. 1821 therefore stands as a seminal moment in US-African relations.

In 1822, a Methodist minister named Jehudi Ashmun became the first governor of the new colony which would soon be renamed Liberia. By the middle of the 19th century, more than 13,000 black Americans had emigrated to West Africa with the assistance of the ACS, determined to embrace this new land of liberty and freedom.

1839 map of Liberia…with some familiar names

Liberia’s first non-white governor Joseph Jenkins Roberts – born in Norfolk, Virginia – declared independence in 1847, creating Africa’s first republic. Ironically, given the origin of the majority of its settlers, Liberia drafted a constitution in line with that of the USA.

Liberia’s first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Therefore a project both noble and opportunistic in nature signalled the start of American engagement with Africa. Indeed, the so-called Americo-Liberians would remain in control of the ACS-inspired state until a 1980 military coup led by indigenous Army sergeant Samuel Doe ushered in two decades of bloody repression and civil war, culminating in the barbaric leadership of Charles Taylor.

As with the more gluttonous European colonies in Africa, the influx of outsiders unbalanced a delicate tribal framework that would lead to trouble. At least in the case of Liberia, succour was provided to thousands of black families that would otherwise have been subjected to decades of discrimination and persecution in the land of their birth.

Nevertheless, the adverse affects of early American policy in Africa can be further demonstrated by the recognition granted by the Chestur A Arthur administration to Belgian King Leopold’s ‘philanthropic’ Congo Free State. As history shows, this became one of the most brutal and exploitative states in history, a fact ultimately revealed by another American, George Washington Williams.

The victims of King Leopold’s Congo Free State

The 20th century saw engagement intensify as the geopolitical map of the world became increasingly condensed by the onset of modernity. Cold War intrigues would undermine the American image in Africa, the CIA-directed murder of democratically-elected Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba one of the nadirs of post-WWII US politics. 

In recent decades, however, the US role in Africa has become increasingly constructive and supportive. Development aid has helped drag millions from poverty, created job opportunities aplenty and led to a wholesale improvement of regional infrastructure. Meanwhile, American military expertise and technology have been used to combat extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram which, though they remain undefeated, have been constrained in recent years. American training provided to African Union missions and joint exercises with national militaries have further developed the security apparatus of many states.

A U.S. soldier trains a Chadian soldier in a mock ambush during Flintlock 2015, an American-led military exercise, in Mao

This positive trend may soon end. Though the Obama administration failed to live up to weighty expectations  – prompted in large party by the President’s Kenyan heritage – American financial and technical commitments to African remained undiluted.

Now, President Trump desires to slash the aid budget to Africa. Not only will this jeopardise the lives of the millions already battling impoverishment but it will undermine the President’s core foreign policy goal of combating global terrorism. It is a well proven discourse that poverty, and a lack of opportunity to escape it, drives young men (and some women) into the arms of terrorist groups. Reducing military support for the continent will only further degrade the capability to fight the urelenting extremist groups that wreak chaos and misery.

Al-Shabaab continues to make Somalia a war zone

And what of unpredictable crises such as the Ebola outbreak or the droughts that spread devastating famine? Will these now be considered irrelevant to the American national interest?

As America threatens to withdraw, China is eagerly bolstering its African footprint, securing wide-ranging economic, energy and military deals with desperately poor countries in need of investment and, crucially, strategic partners in their bid to improve the lives of their citizens.

Almost 200 years after the establishment of Liberia, American engagement with Africa is at a critical juncture. Unencumbered by the contentious colonial histories of the European powers, Africa is a continent America should look to exert its influence over for mutual benefits.

Withdrawing development aid and military assistance is not going to achieve this and it is hoped that US legislators will not allow it to happen.

The Trump administration, however, seems to have made clear the importance Africa commands in its horribly narrow worldview. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s refusal to honour a meeting with the Chairperson of the African Union Commission smacks of the arrogance and short-sightedness of the most repressive colonial regimes of a century ago.

Sadly, it looks like Africa must continue to suffer.

May Ignores the Folly of Heath to Call Snap General Election: can Labour respond?

So, Theresa May has called for a snap general election for the UK to be held on the 8th June 2017. The short-notice announcement this morning came somewhat as a surprise given that May has consistently claimed that she would not call an early election and thereby add further chaos to the Brexit process.

May during her announcement outside 10 Downing Street

Logically, however, this particular political u-turn makes sense. Not only is a handsome Conservative Party victory likely given the disarray of the Labour Party but a resounding majority would give May the mandate she needs to continue to push towards a hard Brexit. Additionally, as BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg notes:

Dealing day-to-day with a small majority has given Conservative backbenchers significant power to force the government to back down on a variety of issues.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Opposition leader, has welcomed the announcement and therefore it is likely that Parliament will approve the decision to take the British electorate to the polls once more.

Whilst current projections suggest a Tory landslide, May should be wary of recent history. The last snap election called by a Conservative Prime Minister was in February 1974 when Edward Heath sought a new majority as an affirmation of his policy towards the Miners’ Strike.

Heath, confident of victory, did not bargain on other factors coming into play during the election campaign. A stagnating economy and continuing inflation led to a loss of government credibility, whilst the decision to join the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the European Union, alienated people both within and outside the Conservative Party. Tory stalwart Enoch Powell – he of the ‘rivers of blood’ speech – went as far as to campaign against Heath.

Heath believed that a majority of voters shared his view on the Miners’ Strike

Compounding matters, the Ulster Unionists, traditional Tory supporters, abandoned the party after the Sunningdale Agreement established a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive.

Revelations during the election campaign that the striking mineworkers were receiving far less money than the government and its National Coal Board allies made out condemned Heath to failure. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won by a margin of 4 seats (despite losing the popular vote), forcing the first hung parliament post-WWII.

Harold Wilson returned as PM after a surprise victory

An inability to form a coalition with the Liberals, or to regain the trust of the Ulster Unionists, led to Heath’s resignation and a minority Labour government.

In October 1974 a second snap election of the year was held at the behest of Wilson who managed to secure the majority (albeit narrow) that he needed to govern effectively. From a position of relative strength at the beginning of the year, Heath and the Tories had fallen flat on their face in a self-imposed disintegration. It would take the arrival of the indomitable Margaret Thatcher to reinvigorate the party.

May should take heed, therefore, that victory is far from certain. All sorts of shenanigans take place during election season and with 24-hour media scrutiny, the next scandal is only just around the corner. With an electorate tiring of the political elite and their partisan and selfish ways, the Prime Minister may yet be punished for what could be interpreted as an arrogant and unnecessary move.

Whilst Brexit will dominate the debates and newsfeeds over the coming months, the state of economic recovery, the education system, immigration and the NHS will all be an important part of the maelstrom of discussion. The Tories have weaknesses on all of these issues which even a factionalised Labour Party may be able to exploit.

Certainly do not expect the next two months to be quiet. Heath and Wilson will no doubt be enjoying a wry smile as their successors join battle once again.