Another link I’ve had sitting around for a couple of weeks: Abd el-Kader and the Massacre of Damascus.
Read the whole thing. Yes, it’s long, and we live in an age of attention-deficit disorder, where any blog post longer than a few paragraphs threatens to trigger a tl;dr response. But you need to go through it to grasp the enormity of this man’s life: not just what Abd el-Kader accomplished in his fifteen years fighting the French (notice how many times he wrestled them into stalemates or surrenders or treaties?), but the incredible reversal of his image later on, while he was in France, and when he went to Damascus. It’s an amazing story.
I’m writing a novel set in 1884 London right now, and I’m running a game set in the 1875 American frontier, and I’m juggling a back-brain idea that would take place in a world a lot like our own nineteenth century but with differences, and coincidentally kniedzw is reading a biography of Sir Henry Rawlinson, who’s one of your crazy Victorian soldier-scholar-adventurers, and it really makes me want to know: what was it about the nineteenth century that spawned so many larger-than-life characters?
Some of it’s a matter of wealth and privilege. If you don’t have to work for a living, and you don’t particularly care what offenses you commit against your lessers, you can get away with much grander deeds than somebody constrained by budget and consideration. Some of it’s a colonial effect, as the collision of nations destabilized the world and created zones where individuals could make their own law. I think a portion, especially in the case of men like Rawlinson, was an invincible belief in the gospel of progress: there was nothing that they couldn’t do, and if somebody tried and failed and died, well, it was just a sign that you needed to try again harder.
That doesn’t explain Abd el-Kader to me, though. He probably counted as wealthy and privileged in the context of his own Algerian society, but not in comparison to the French, and part of what made his story awesome was that he did constrain himself not to harm those over whom he had power. He wasn’t a colonial adventurer, either, indoctrinated by the European belief in progress. He was just a leader and military genius with an unshakeable goodness of character that gradually won over even his enemies, who found himself in a position to save thousands of lives. And yet he hits that same button in my head, of people whose deeds loom so large in my head, I have a hard time imagining anyone following a similar path today.
Maybe it’s just the perspective of time. Maybe in a hundred years, people who seem ordinary to me today will have the same sheen of outrageousness. It doesn’t feel like it, though. Western history* has colorful characters at all stages, but it seems like there are more in the nineteenth century; and then the things we do today feel smaller, more hedged about by caution and limitation, less grand. In a hundred years, we’ll remember Bill Gates — but his autobiography won’t be stuffed with anecdotes about how as a boy he tried to summon the devil in an attempt to verify the existence of same**.
Possibly it’s better for society as a whole that we have changed (if indeed we have). But every time I come across another figure like Abd el-Kader, the narrative part of my brain lights up a bit with joy, and I wish current events could do that to me.
*My knowledge of non-Western history is intermittent enough that I don’t want to generalize about it.
**Unlike Charles Babbage.