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Culture: Living History
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Sunday, 15 July 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
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As analysts of society both ancient and modern we tend to forget about memory. Its an easy thing to do- the Bosnian and Kosovan wars of the mid-nineties have been replaced by the crisis in Iraq and that too will fade as surely as they do to be replaced by some other catastrophe. But whereas the memory of events fades quickly here- far from where the event happens- there are places in the world where the Serb occupation of Bosnia or even the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s still in reality condition politics. There are mothers in the Balkans who regret the loss of their sons, wives their husbands, parents their children as surely as do the more recently bereaved of Baghdad and Basra. Its worth remembering how causes endure- and there is plenty of evidence for it historically.

Take for example the American Revolution. The event which gave birth to the modern American republic under Washington and Adams and an event which is confined by history books and by analysts to the decades of the 1770s and 1780s. With the early Republic we are into a new branch of American history where with brief exceptions in the 1810s the basic battlelines are political not military, where the presiding geniuses are cabinet members like Hamilton, Presidents like Jefferson and of course Supreme Court Justices like Marshall.

But it is important to remember that the memory of the revolutionary war was still very deep into American society right up until the mid-19th Century and not neccessarily solely was that legacy republican. Edward Griffin has just published an interesting article over at the Common place website focusing on two sisters, Catherine and Mary Byles who lived in Boston right up until the 1830s when they died. They were one might rightly say elderly spinsters- but they were also more significantly royalists, loyalists to the British crown who wrote to George IV on his coronation in 1820 to deplore the loss of the colonies in which they lived from his crown.

The Byles sisters might strike a modern as harmless eccentrics- which is probably what they were- but they also came in for their due measure of hatred from the population of Boston amongst whom the rebellion was not an entirely distant memory. Take for example this letter received in 1820 by the sisters from an anonymous Bostonian:

Dear old maids,

You who are paupers yet profess the contemptable [sic] kingly opinions of your tyrannical father—you would be more proud to kiss the hand or great toe of the fornicator George the fourth than perform the command of Deity Increase and multiply and replenish the earth—you who think more of family descent than goodness—poor weak simple dried up old virgins who does not despise you and your contemptable [sic] opinions. The writer gives you notice that unless you alter your proud course of conduct within one month your old rotten house shall totter and your first warning will be broken glass.


Shortly after receiving that letter the Byles sisters saw their windows smashed and their property vandalised. The destruction of their house though was the least of their indignities- used by local novelists to research for tomes on the war of Independence- they found their stories turned round to anti-monarchist anecdotes. Both of them became suspicious of strangers and as Griffin narrates began an elaborate little ritual in order to confuse and hopefully fool away the unwary.

The Byles sisters would be in some ways unimportant were it not for the fact that both of them seemed to have placed so much of their identity, indeed rested their identity in their loyalism- these two women lived out their lives as spinsters, poor and ignored in Boston, because they were married to a lost ideal- that of the return of the British monarchy to the United States- always ready to condemn their rebellious countrymen and women, they became the embodiments of loyalism.

The Byles sisters therefore are interesting and important- interesting because they denote what can happen when people wed themselves to a fallen idea- far from the romantic visions of the poets, Mary and Catherine drifted into their dotages sealed in their ways and separate from human society. But they are important too- because had history been different their enthusiasm for the crown could so easily have turned into a political tool. Their eccentric old age, sharpened into support for rebellion. Often that is what we deal with in modern conflicts- and its worth remembering how much the impetus for each new conflict comes from the Byleses surviving from the last conflict.

The hatreds that they created in the people of Boston though are no less interesting- for that indicates that fifty years after the American declaration of Independence- the American public was still deeply offended by those who questioned the verdict. If that's so, it may take Kosovo say until 2040 to settle down into a shape where all members of society are happy with peace- it may take Iraq till 2050 to digest the impact of Saddam Hussein's fall.

That's important to remember- just because the news doesn't broadcast about a conflict, or even because a century has changed don't think that the memory of the conflict has died itself- Remember the Byles sisters!