Review: Liberty: 1784, Robert Conroy, 2014.
Washington’s birthday was coming up. Baen was giving away copies of this book for review. I had been curious about Conroy’s work which I had seen around. However, most of what I had seen was in the very popular vein of alternate World War Twos and American Civil Wars. It was also, to top it off, seemingly from publishers whose product I wasn’t familiar with. (Actually, most of Conroy’s work seems to have been published through Baen. Somehow I conflated him with the much more prolific Peter G. Tsouras.) But, being more interested in alternate America Revolutions than alternate World War Twos, I thought this was a good time to sample Conroy.
Washington’s death is the opening of this book. He’s beheaded at the Tower of London in the Prologue. Conroy doesn’t make you guess where this timeline deviates from ours. His introduction explains that, in this history, the French fleet does not turn back the British fleet in 1781’s Battle of the Capes. General Cornwallis gets his relief. Washington loses the Battle of Yorktown, and the American Revolution seems over. The leaders and officers of the rebellion are imprisoned in Jamaica or, like our hero Will Drake, thrown in a prison hulk to die.
The idea of liberty is not dead though. Out in the west, Fort Washington, near modern day Chicago, is the site of a new locus of rebels. After fortune frees him from imprisonment, Drake, an ex-spy for the American rebels, heads there. So, does Sarah Benton after resisting the attempted sexual extortions of the local sheriff, Braxton. So, does Welshman Owen Wells after deserting the Royal Marines.
And commissioned, by Governor General Charles Cornwallis, to go out west to put an end to this flare up of rebellion, is General Burgoyne, prideful enough to want to redeem his reputation after losing the Battle of Saratoga and smart enough not to repeat his mistakes. With him is our main viewpoint character amongst the British, Burgoyne’s staff officer and distant cousin, Major James Fitzroy.
Along the way we meet several other viewpoint characters, historical and fictional and some for only a chapter, in an all seeing god’s-eye view of things in opposition to the constricted, worm’s-eye view of events we get from alternate history’s main practioneer, Harry Turtledove. Conroy’s keeps things going at a pretty good clip throughout the book. Yes, there are plenty of cases of characters’ paths intersecting, diverging, and reuniting again. But not always in ways you would expect.
Conroy’s alternate history seems plausible in not only some of the weapons and methods the rebels resort to when fighting the British but in an issue seldom talked about in history, academic or alternate: would things really have gone back to normal if the colonials lost their bid for independence? Or would, as they do here, the British have reverted to the same heavy handed policies of taxes and administration that alienated the colonials to begin with? To me, Conroy’s speculation seems well grounded. Of the many historical characters we see, I only know enough about Benjamin Franklin, Benedict Arnold, and General Cornwallis to say they seemed realistic. The British characters come in many shades here from the decent Fitzroy to gentlemanly Burgoyne to villainous Banastre Tarleton (probably most familiar to people through his portrayal as a general killing civilians in the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot and , later in his career, as a politician opposed to abolition in the film Amazing Grace) to the thoroughly evil Braxton who enjoys a campaign of raping, torturing and killing civilian rebels.
And, because Conroy is attempting a serious alternate history instead of one, say, where Queen Victoria was a vampire or a zombie plague struck 16th century London, I’m going to pay him the left-handed compliment of pointing out two areas where I don’t think his historical speculations convinced. 1784 seems far too early for the French Revolution to have broken out and put pressure on the British Crown to wrap the American rebellion up quickly so troops can be sent to reinforce the monarchists of France. And, to a lesser extent, and Conroy gives detailed arguments on this one, I don’t think a constitution under the circumstances of this book would have eliminated slavery.
Still, a worthwhile book in terms of drama and alternate history, and I do look forward to reading more Conroy.
Second Thoughts and Verifications
Just as the Internet Speculative Fiction Database is an indispensable resource for fantasy and science fiction, Uchronia is for the sub-genre, genre, academic exercise of contra-factuals — whatever you want to call it — that we dub “alternate history”. I quickly pulled up lists of Conroy’s and Tsoura’s work complete with thumbnail descriptions of each one.
Now on to my two objections.
Does Conroy have the timing of the French Revolution wrong?
The French blew a lot of money helping the American cause during the Revolutionary War. But the money was already spent, and France was in debt already. Why would losing the Revolution have brought about tax fueled riots in 1784, as Conroy has it, rather than later?
Plus, wasn’t there a volcano that caused famine and that triggered the revolution?
Well, double checking my memory leads me to discover the following.
That volcano, specifically the Laki volcano of Iceland, did go off early enough to cause riots as Conroy depicts — though he doesn’t mention it as a factor or even the word “famine” in connection with the French Revolution. The Climate Change and Geologic Events That Changed History blog states the volcano erupted on June 8, 1783. The eruption lasted until Feb. 7, 1784. The winter of 1784 was extremely hard in Europe, North America, and England though no mention is made of that in this novel.
As to the eruptions effect on the American Revolution, it seems to have not been even the sole climactic event that produced misery for the French in those pre-Bastille Day days. The blog’s author Kevin A. Doherty states:
The meteorological impact of Laki resonated on, contributing significantly to several years of extreme weather in Europe. In France a sequence of extremes included a surplus harvest in 1785 that caused poverty for rural workers, accompanied by droughts, bad winters and summers, including a violent hailstorm in 1788 that destroyed crops. This in turn contributed significantly to the build up of poverty and famine that triggered the French Revolution in 1789. Laki was only a factor in a decade of climatic disruption, as Grímsvötn was erupting from 1783-1785 and a recent study of El Niño patterns also suggests an unusually strong El-Niño effect between 1789-93.
Ok, so climate havoc was already starting in France by 1784, but why no revolution before 1789? Since I have yet to read my copy of Simon Schama’s Citizens, I put my brain in the tender hands of the obsessive, anonymous Wikipedia authors and trusted they would have an illuminating time line of the pre-Revolution days.
Alas, I only got a vague line, which rather bolsters my argument that, financially, nothing would have changed in France with an American defeat in 1781: “France’s inefficient and antiquated financial system could not finance this debt. Faced with a financial crisis, the king called an Assembly of Notables in 1787 for the first time in over a century.”
Going through some websites confirms my hunch that an unsuccessful American Revolution might have weakened, slightly, revolutionary zeal in France. Of course, the causes of the French Revolution are many and heavily debated. It is, after all, following the joke of one of my old history professors, the beginning of history.
So, on this topic, I’m not rethinking my overall objection to the French Revolution occurring five years early in the novel.
Conroy’s depiction of the American constitution of this timeline banning slavery seems a bit hopeful too. Why would the British navy of this timeline stop the importation of slaves into America? The colonies are, after all, back in Crown hands. As the novel notes, in 1784 there was a growing cry among the British public to ban slavery. However, the slave trade in the British Empire was not abolished until 1807. Granted, I can see that a victorious Britain might turn a blind eye to the black slaves they manumitted during the Revolutionary War and allow their re-enslavement. But, without the improbably early interference of the British government in the slave trade, I think that would make little difference. Conroy does have a point, though, that the labor intensive crop of cotton was not so widespread in the American South. The increased efficiencies of the cotton gin — and the subsequent expansion of the crop — were not there yet.
Still, I liked this book, and it makes me want to check out Conroy’s 1920: America’s Great War despite the improbable sounding setup.