Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Dead King Watch: James the Shit

James II (1633-1701) died on the 16th September, which makes this the 304th anniversary of his death.

It is quite a common view to think that the monarchy has ruled Britain without interruption for thousands of years, presiding over social harmony. Well James II would be one person who might not have seen things that way, and given he was a monarch himself, that probably says something. When he was still a boy, a revolution broke out in England. In 1645 he was ordered to retake Hull from the rebels back for the King - but he failed - he was only twelve at the time. Quite what the monarchists were doing sending him off to lead an army when he was still a child is a little bit puzzling. More puzzling for the young boy came when he was 16, when his dad Charles I had his head chopped off. This was not common practice for Kings - indeed given their power allegedly stemmed from God, it was a fucking incredible thing to happen. Britain became a republic under Oliver Cromwell. The young James and his brother Charles had to flee England for France and then Spain, where they trained as soldiers in the French and Spanish armies, in order to fight the English at some point. So much for patriotism - Prince Harry 'I want to fight for my country' would be doubtless horrified.

Fortunately for James the monarchy was restored in 1660, the result of a counter-revolution. His brother became King, and James, at this time the Duke of York, became Lord High Admiral of the English Fleet. Yet such a job was probably a bit of a bore, especially when your brother is King and has all the power. What to do? He did what Tony Blair thinks any ambitious young man should do with their life - use your head and go and make lots of money. He set up a company, originally called the 'Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa'. Basically what they did was went over to West Africa, rounded up Africans as slaves and then shipped them over to the West Indies. They had an advantage over other companies as well - they had a Royal Charter which allowed them to stop any other slave trading ships and gave them a monopoly of this new slave trade. By the 1680s the Royal African Company as it was now known was transporting about 5000 slaves per year. Many were branded with the letters 'DY', after James, the Duke of York, who made huge profits from the whole barbaric practise. By 1689 it had transported around 90,000-100,000 slaves in total. Perhaps Prince 'Nazi' Harry might have approved of James II after all...

In 1688, finally, after a long wait James got his hands of real power - he became James II - King of England, Scotland and Ireland. However, he was a Catholic and within a year he was ousted by another 'Revolution' - the 'Glorious Revolution' which sadly only put two new (Protestant) monarchs on the throne and did not increase democracy at all. James fought a few battles to try and hold onto power, but he was hardly one to 'lead from the front', as Prince Harry says he wants to do, and he soon had to flee to France again. After the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland in 1690, his speedy exit from the battleground, leaving Irish Catholics alone to fight on, meant he earnt the nickname Seamus a' chaca — "James the excrement".

When he was not killing peasants or profiting from trading Africans branded with his initials, James liked to hunt and 'get to know' women in the biblical sense. Lots of women. As a result he contracted venereal disease quite early on and then had an attack of syphilus after sleeping with Anne, Countess of Southesk. Syphlitic cerebral vascular disease led to a general decline in his health and his eventual death in France. His son tried to lead forces devoted to getting himself on the throne ('Jacobitism') in 1715 and 1745, but these were defeated.



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