The other day I was driving my Mini in the Grampians listening to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall when it got to one of my favourite parts – the luscious put-down of the Emperor Gallienus. I was laughing out loud, and then my mood changed when I heard a passage which I have read and heard before, but which I could not recall. Gibbon referred to ‘a most savage mandate’ Gallienus issued after he had put down a revolt by a man called Ingenuus, who had assumed the purple (claimed the title of Emperor) in the provinces. The mandate was indeed savage, but it had a revoltingly modern air to it.
It is not enough that you exterminate such as have appeared in arms: the chance of battle might have served me as effectually. The male sex of every age must be extirpated; provided that in the execution of the children and old men, you can contrive means to save our reputation. Let everyone die who has dropped an expression, who has entertained a thought against me, against me, the son of Valerian, the father and brother of so many princes. Remember that Ingenuus was made emperor: tear, kill, hew in pieces. I write to you with my own hand, and would inspire you with my own feelings.
All that is revolting, but the modern part is that in bold. And the word ‘extirpate’ immediately brought to mind the mandate that led to the infamous massacre at Glencoe. It occurred about thirteen hundred years after the extirpation of the followers of Ingenuus, and is so movingly described by the other great English composer of history, T B Macaulay.
The tribal conflicts left the Highlands in a savage state. The clan MacDonald had an awful reputation for outlawry. Their blood enemies were the Campbells. (Still now in Australia you might hesitate to ask a MacDonald to break bread with a Campbell.) The new king, King William III, asked the clans to take an oath of loyalty. The Macdonald chief was a day late in turning up and his enemies saw their chance to get even.
The Scot responsible for managing the clans was the Master of Stair. ‘He justly thought it was monstrous that a third part of Scotland should be in a state scarcely less savage than New Guinea…..In his view the clans, as they existed, were the plagues of the kingdom; and of all the clans the worst was that which inhabited Glencoe….In his private correspondence, he applied to them the short and terrible form of words in which the implacable Roman pronounced the doom of Carthage. His project was no less than this, that the whole hill country from sea to sea, and the neighbouring islands, should be wasted with fire and sword, that the Camerons, the Macleans, and all the branches of the race of Macdonald should be rooted out.’ (The word ‘race’ is there used for ‘clan’. The word ‘extirpation’ is built on the Latin word stirps, meaning the stem or block of a tree, and the OED quotes Macaulay in support of its definition ‘to root out, exterminate; to render extinct.’)
The Master of Stair was dire in his directive.
Your troops will destroy the country of Lochaber, Lochiel’s lands, Glengarry’s and Glencoe’s. Your power shall be large enough. I hope the soldiers will not trouble the government with prisoners.
Troops of the Campbells accepted the hospitality of the Macdonalds over twelve days and then, like Macbeth, murdered their hosts. Many escaped, but about thirty-eight were murdered – that is the word – and perhaps many more died of the cold or starvation. The massacre proceeded under an order signed by King William that included these words.
As for Mac Ian of Glencoe and that tribe, if they can be well distinguished from the other Highlanders, it will be proper, for the vindication of public justice, to exterminate that set of thieves.
That was not a lawful order for a king to give in a nation that subscribed to the rule of law –which says that people are ruled by laws not people, and that they are only to be punished for a breach of those laws, and not at the arbitrary whim of the monarch.
Well, it was unlikely that anyone down the line would take that point, even had they wanted to. And it is plain enough that extirpation in this context means extermination. And that apparently is how the Campbells saw their authority and duty – to commit mass murder. It is not to be supposed that they could have reported to the Master of Stair, or their king: ‘We shot and killed a dozen, but the others promised to behave in the future, so we stopped the killing.’ Among other things, they would be leaving witnesses to an act of infamy that no decent person could want to see the light of day; and the vendettas would have made Sicilian fishermen look decidedly docile.
But this was a problem for our author. He was a bigger fan of William of Orange than all the people of Belfast put together. Had his hero given a warrant for ethnic cleansing, if not genocide? (Remember that the historian used the word ‘race.’) Macaulay said that people as high as kings – he might have added me and my tax returns – rarely read a lot of what they sign. That is true enough – but we all have to live with the consequences of so acting.
But Macaulay gets into trouble saying that ‘extirpate’ has more than one meaning – in this context.
It is one of the first duties of every government to extirpate gangs of thieves. This does not mean that every thief ought to be treacherously assassinated in his sleep, or even that every thief ought to be put to death after a fair trial, but that every gang as a gang, ought to be completely broken up, and that whatever severity is indispensably necessary for that end ought to be used.
That’s like kids playing marbles behind the shelter shed and making up the rules as they go. You don’t authorise or order a killing in ambiguous terms. Nor do you make the killing subject to a value judgment – that this killing is ‘indispensably necessary’ to effect ‘extirpation’ – what if the family of a deceased and a prosecutor appointed by a government of a different colour come to a different result, and the executioner finds himself on a murder charge for doing what he reasonably believed to be his lawful duty. (And the history of revolutions is full of instances where the executioners are among the first to die when their government falls.)
(Macaulay comes across this difficulty again when, much later, he discusses the government findings on the massacre. The finding was that the massacre was murder and was not authorised by the King’s warrant. But the report merely censured the real author of the crime, the Master of Stair, and recommended that some officers down to the rank of sergeant be charged with murder. Macaulay says this was dead wrong. (If it matters, I agree.) ‘They had slain nobody whom they had not been positively directed by their commanding officer not to slay. That subordination without which an army is the worst of all rabbles would be at an end if every soldier were to be held answerable for the justice of every order in obedience to which he pulls his trigger….Who then is to decide whether there be an emergency such as makes severity the truest mercy? Who is to determine whether it be or not be necessary to lay a thriving town in ashes, to decimate a large body of mutineers, to shoot a whole gang of banditti?…..And if the general rule be that the responsibility is with the commanding officer, and not with those who obey him, is it possible to find any reason for pronouncing the case of Glencoe an exception to that rule?’ All that seems very right to me, and the government response looks like another case of the Establishment looking after itself.)
Macaulay then makes his case worse by referring to Hastings’ dealings with the Pindarees, and Bentinck and the Thugs. Any reference to different kinds of savagery is only likely to inflame the issue, and the Scots.
Finally, he says that another example of the soft use of ‘extirpate’ is in the coronation oath in Scotland when the king swears ‘to root out heresies.’ Heretics were commonly burnt then, but a heresy is not a person and cannot be put to death. Macaulay says that King William asked what this meant and the Earl of Argyle (the Campbell chief, as it happens) was authorised by the Estates at Edinburgh to say that ‘the words did not imply persecution.’ The most polite thing that you can say about that is that it is plain silly.
A simpler explanation for the liability of the English for the massacre at Glencoe was that this was just a manifestation of the evil that had already plagued England for two centuries in its dealings with Ireland, and which had descended to a new low point under that religious fanatic named Cromwell – their contempt for people they regarded as being of an inferior race.
Well, a painter of history as gorgeous as Macaulay is entitled to the odd blemish. And the people of Glencoe have moved on. Or at least their publican has. I have visited the site on three occasions, and if you visit my second loo, you will find a framed collage of scenes of Glencoe, in the middle of which is a photo of a brass sign on the front door of the pub: ‘NO HAWKERS OR CAMPBELLS.’
Finally, because I regard Macaulay’s account of the massacre as one of the glories of our letters, I just read it again. People like Gibbon, Macaulay and Carlyle don’t write history –they compose it, or paint it, or write an opera about it. For the first time, I think, I read the long footnote in which Macaulay mentioned his only two sources. One was the government Report of 1695. The other was a contemporary pamphlet that helped blow up the cover-up. It was called Gallienus Redivivus. It was published well before Gibbon, but its author was aware of the mandate of Gallienus that I have set out above, and part of which Macaulay quotes. ‘Gallienus ordered the whole province to be laid waste, and wrote to one of his lieutenants in language to which that of the Master of Stair bore but too much resemblance.’ The man who said that there is nothing new under the sun was dead right on this point.