The Siege of Jadotville and the liberty offered by historical fiction

A few years ago, I came across a movie on Netflix called the Siege of Jadotville. I had never heard of Jadotville but I figured I would give it a watch since I like historical fiction. I’m glad I did as it ended up being a pretty entertaining movie and fairly informative also. Like many historical fiction works, the movie takes place in the mid 20th century. However, unlike most historical fiction works, the movie has little to do with WWII and, perhaps even more unusual, takes place in Central Africa.

The movie begins with Lumumba’s assassination, a scene that could have benefitted from some better editing, and then makes a hard pivot to a much calmer setting to give audiences some background information on the conflict. It quickly becomes clear the crisis in the Congo has garnered worldwide attention and the international community is determined to contain the violence. Containing the violence, however, is easier said than done as the Congo has become a proxy battleground in the Cold War. Terrified of what might happen if the shadowboxing of the Soviet Union and the United States escalates into a global conflagration, the UN makes the fateful decision to step in. 

At this point in history, the UN was about the same age as a pouty teenager, it had existed for a mere 16 years by the time Congolese civil war broke out, and had little in the way of real power. Nonetheless, advocates are hopeful the UN can help curb the violence and Ireland agrees to send a small contingent of peacekeepers to the DRC. It soon becomes clear, however, these peacekeepers have extremely little power to stop the wanton bloodshed that is engulfing the DRC and must content themselves with defending an isolated military compound in the countryside. Commander Quinlan thinks it unlikely his troops will see serious action in the DRC but errs on the side of caution and orders his men to undertake defensive preparations.

As it turns out, his caution proves prescient. International forces have attacked a rebel-held radio station over a hundred miles away, killing numerous in the process, and the powers that be are looking to retaliate. What better way than to attack the Jadotville compound, a military outpost defended only be peacekeepers armed with light weapons and little combat experience? What should be a romp, however, is complicated by Quinlan’s adept understanding of defensive warfare and the offensive forces suffer some humiliating setbacks in their attempt to siege Jadotville. The battle scenes are pretty gripping–according to the Telegraph, the actors underwent serious combat training to help make the battle sequences more believable–but the most powerful scene in the movie takes place far away from the battlefield.

Dag Hammarskjöld is not a name known to many, even IR students could be forgiven for not knowing him, but this long-ago Secretary-General was determined to make the UN a serious player on the world stage. So determined was he to do this that he put his own life on the line to increase the power and prestige of the UN. During the height of the Congo Crisis, Dag Hammarskjöld took the bold step of traveling to the DRC to help restore peace. Unfortunately, his decision proved to be a fatal mistake, and his plane crashed outside of Ndola.

As someone who has long been interested in the history of the UN, I knew about Dag’s Hammarskjöld’s plane crash before I watched The Siege of Jadotville. Nonetheless, I always figured it was some kind of tragic accident because non-fiction accounts never suggested any type of foul play. The Siege of Jadotville, however, takes a different tack and suggests that Congolese rebels shot down the plane. To some, this may come off as irresponsible. After all, when the movie came out, there was little hard evidence to prove that Dag Hammarskjöld was deliberately shot down, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a great many in Dag Hammarskjöld’s inner circle suspected it.

In any case, I personally don’t think historical fiction needs to only stick to what we know for certain. After all, there is precious little we can know for certain in history–we know that Caesar traveled to Egypt to take Pompeii into custody but we can’t know if his hands shook when he learned Pompeii had been killed or if tears came to his eyes–and good historical fiction, in my opinion, should relate more than what we know for certain. It should also relate what’s plausible, so long as it doesn’t conflict with what we know for certain, and I think the airplane scene does a great job of making audiences think about the circumstances regarding Dag Hammarskjöld’s death. Perhaps because of the renewed interest in the Congolese civil war, Dag Hammarskjöld has attracted more attention of late and investigators recently revealed they had discovered credible proof that Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane was deliberately shot down. If this is not a vindication of the the airplane scene of The Siege of Jadotville, it is hard to know is.

Nonetheless, I completely understand that some people may find the movie interesting for reasons other than a two minute scene. Based upon what I have read about the Siege of Jadotville, something I can safely say I would have never looked into were it not for the movie, I think the movie could have done a better job of communicating Quinlan’s prowess as a military commander, but I think the movie deserves high marks all the same. I recommend it to anyone interested in UN history, Congolese history, or anyone interested in a straightforward battle flick. 

Pocahontas, Whitewashing, and Playing the Long Game

I have not seen the movie Pocahontas since I was a small kid. Truth be told, I don’t remember that much of the movie. I remember that the English looked very Spanish in the movie, what with their glittering armor and their Morion helmets, and I remember that Pocahontas sings something about the color of the wind or something like that. If I remember correctly, there was also a raccoon that was supposed to be pretty important to the story. Were I to rewatch the movie today, I doubt I would enjoy it much.

Truth be told, there are a variety of reasons why. Part of the reason is I’m not that into musicals–the suspension of disbelief is usually too much for me. Part of the reason is I missed out on the chance to see the Matrix in theaters because I had to stay home to watch Pocahontas with my younger brother. As someone who really enjoys film and philosophy, I am still aggrieved that I missed out on the chance to see the first Matrix on the silver screen. But if I am going to be completely honest, what really bothers me about the movie Pocahontas is the lack of respect for the history and the people involved in the story.

I understand, of course, that Pocahontas is intended for a young audience and that young kids aren’t necessarily interested in a historically accurate tale. Nonetheless, I still find it disturbing that Disney took so many creative licenses with the historical facts related to the Jamestown colony and disagree with the idea that historical fiction ought to be sanitized if it’s intended for a young audience. For proof why this is not the case, I would urge readers to pick up Blood on the River.

Blood on the River was required reading in my elementary school and my first introduction to historical fiction. The book is very much intended for a young audience but I suspect if I were to re-read it today, I would still enjoy the book. Told through the eyes of a young orphan forced to join the Virginia Company, the story does a great job of capturing the wonder, confusion, and fear a young boy may have experienced upon arriving in 17th century Jamestown.

Well-known historical figures like Pocahontas and James Smith both make appearances in the novel, but unlike Disney’s Pocahontas, Elise Carbone never tries to suggest the two had any kind of romantic relationship. Moreover, Carbone does not try to elide the fact that Pocahontas was pretty young when she met the English, likely 12 or so, and her decision to stay true to the established facts should be commended.

As almost anyone familiar with the history of Jamestown knows, it has a pretty sordid history. The colonists who founded Jamestown brought little in the way of practical skills, but they did bring plenty of gold-mining equipment, and knew next to nothing of living conditions in the Chesapeake region. Some of the people who were most knowledgeable, the Powhatans for example, did share information and resources on occasion, but the English had a bad habit of attacking Powhatan settlements which kind of put a damper on peaceable cross-cultural interactions. Owing in part to their inability to forge a positive, working relationship with their indigenous neighbors, and their profound ignorance of agriculture, the colonists often went weeks without food. These food shortages were often times severe, so much so that more than half of the colonists died during the Starving Time, and drove many of the Christian settlers to cannibalism.

Genocide and famine don’t exactly make for light reading, but I think Carbone does a good job of alluding to these events in a way that won’t be off-putting for young readers. Moreover, I think the way the protagonist, a real-life historical figure who went by the name of Samuel Collier, deals with these crises make for compelling reading. At one point in the book, the protagonist has to decide whether he will kidnap a baby from his mother to save the child from coming famine or if he will leave the baby with a mother who insists the Jamestown food shortage is no serious matter. The choice that Collier makes sticks with me to this day and gives the book an emotional depth unmatched by the Pocahontas movie.

In all fairness, Disney is in the money-making business, not the telling historical-stories-accurately business. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that Blood on the River was a big success with readers. The book has over 4,000 ratings on Amazon and averages 3.99 stars which is pretty good by most metrics. Moreover, it’s also a top-seller in multiple Amazon categories which is impressive considering the book was released only 12 years ago. I’m sure Pocahontas helped Disney bring in tons of money, but I suspect the movie will fade from the cultural lexicon in the years to come and will hurt Disney’s brand in the long-run. Whitewashed historical fiction just isn’t as popular as it used to be and fans have increasingly high standards when it comes to historical fiction. Owing to Carbone’s respect for history and people involved in the Jamestown colony, I suspect Blood on the River will continue to rack up many positive ratings and will continue to be read by young students all across the country.