Historian Linda Colley is the fifth interviewee in Historia’s 2021 HWA Crown Awards series. Her latest book, The Gun, the Ship & the Pen, was shortlisted for the Non-fiction Crown Award. Subtitled Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World, it begins in Corsica in 1755 and moves through every continent, showing how constitutions evolved alongside warfare, facilitating empires, promoting nations, both excluding and liberating the people they governed.
The HWA Non-fiction Crown celebrates the best in historical non-fiction writing. What does being shortlisted mean to you?
I believe strongly that – while historians should write the books that they want to write – it is important that bridge-building take place between academic historians like myself and multiple audiences, not just readers in the academy.
We live at a time when too many powerful figures across the globe choose not to think or talk about what happened in the past. Forgetting can be far too easy and convenient, and historians need to struggle against this. The HWA Non-fiction Crown is part of that struggle, as well as a great cultural enterprise and feast of writing, and I am delighted and honoured to appear on the shortlist!
What’s the premise of The Gun, the Ship and the Pen?
That there have been vital and persistent connections between outbreaks of war and violence on the one hand, and the writing of new political constitutions on the other, and that these connections became more evident from the 18th century. Why? Because, after that point, warfare became ever more intensive, geographically wide-ranging, technologically elaborate and expensive in terms of men and money.
How did all this feed into the making of constitutions? Multiple ways. Rulers began to use constitutions as contracts of sorts, promising their male subjects (and initially it was only males) more rights on condition of their agreeing to pay more in taxation and to accept conscription.
Simultaneously, countries that lost out in war often generated new constitutions subsequently as a means to reinvent and revive themselves. Conversely, countries that won wars might subsequently impose new constitutions on lands that they had defeated (as the Allies did in Germany and Japan, for example, after the Second World War).
At the same time, as well, warfare could and did progressively drain the resources and reach of once great empires, paving the way for the emergence of new, independent states which promptly invested in constitutions as a means to launch themselves upon the world. This was what happened throughout South America after the Portuguese and Spanish empires were worn down by warfare with Napoleon. So, while the storyline of constitutions is often seen as being only to do with the rise of democracy, it is also intimately to do with patterns of large-scale violence.
Why is now the time to address the subject of constitutions?
Two main reasons, one to do with history, the other relating to politics in the present. Since the 1960s, the subject of constitutional history – once very fashionable – has been in decline, and has come to seem arid and sleepy. Yet, imaginatively and widely looked at, the history of constitutions is both vivid and vital. So, one of my wider aims in The Gun, the Ship & the Pen was to help revive the subject and show how it could be reimagined.
There were political imperatives too. At present, the rights and political understanding of men and women in multiple parts of the globe are under threat from multiple sources. Populist and authoritarian regimes are on the rise, for instance. So are digital platforms and media empires controlled by billionaires.
Constitutions, as I make clear in the book, are not by themselves magic bullets. But they can help people gain a better sense of how their governments should work and of what they can do when their governments don’t work. We need to think about these devices more, not least in the UK, which is now one of only three states left on the globe without a written constitution!
What myths do we tell ourselves about constitutions?
There are so many: that they are necessarily always to do with democracy; that, conversely, they are a waste of paper and achieve nothing at all; that we in Britain do not need one; and more….
How do you approach research – and how do you know when you’ve done enough?
Normally, I chase after and ransack umpteen archival sources. Sometimes, as in my 2006 book The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, these searches take me across the globe. But The Gun, the Ship & the Pen investigates an important theme in world history across more than 200 years. So, looking at all the potentially relevant archives was out of the question. Instead, researching this book, which took me ten years, meant immersing myself in the texts of the constitutions themselves and in works of history written by others about the different geographies I wanted to focus on.
When does one know one’s done enough research? In my experience, something clicks and gels in your mind. You suddenly think at some point: “I know this”, “I know the plot”, “I have my story”. But there’s a lot of work and agony on the way to that!
Did your research for The Gun, the Ship and the Pen turn up anything unexpected?
Countless things. The history of political constitutions has so often been looked at only through Western and customary lenses.
Writing The Gun, the Ship & the Pen alerted me however to the sheer range and diversity of these devices in different places. The first constitution effectively to enfranchise women, for instance, was drafted in 1838 at Pitcairn, a tiny island in the South Pacific.
Constitutions did not need to be democratic moreover to have an extraordinary impact. Japan’s constitution of 1889 was pointedly un-democratic. But it still energized generations of intellectuals and nationalists in India, Turkey and China, because it seemed to prove that constitution-making – the stuff of modern politics – could happen successfully in Asia and not just the West.
If there were one thing you hope readers will take away from your book, what would it be?
That constitutions are not just for lawyers and bureaucrats. Nor are they just to do with politics. Certainly, and at their best, they can matter crucially for political life and individual freedoms. But they also matter in so many other ways.
It is no accident, for instance, that the rise of political constitutions coincided with the growing circulation and popularity of novels and newsprint. Constitutions are, after all, vitally to do with language and the written and printed word.
They are themselves forms of literature and creativity; and many of the remarkable individuals involved in their making in the past – Catherine the Great of Russia and Napoleon Bonaparte in France for example – were also eagerly involved in other forms of writing.
What are you planning to write next?
I have a wonderful fellowship this year at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, a centre which allows writers and scholars to focus only on their own work. So, while I have various future projects seriously in mind, I am mainly reading adventurously and talking to other writers. After only recently finishing and publishing a 500 plus page book, I feel emptied out rather. This coming year, I’m going to be busy restocking….
And, just for fun, if you could time travel for a day, what time and place would you go to? And what object would you bring back?
Animals, birds, reptiles, insects and landscapes are part of history, not just past human beings. So, I would choose to go with Charles Darwin on the day that he first made landfall among the extraordinary life-forms on Galapagos. Or I might time-travel very much further and see what mighty dinosaurs looked like for real.
Only I wouldn’t bring one back.
This is the fourth in Historia’s series of interviews with authors of books shortlisted for the 2021 HWA Crown Awards.
The first was with Ellen Alpsten, who was in the running for a Debut Crown Award. Mick Finlay, shortlisted for the Gold Crown, was the second and Stuart Turton, also Gold Crown-shortlisted, was the third.