What was it like to be there, on the spot, at the very moment when great events took place; when great figures strode onto the world stage; when the wonderful, the terrible, the diverting and the just plain curious happened? Here, in four riveting volumes, we have the story of our world in the words of those who experienced it – from the ancient Egyptian Harkhuf as he undertakes to deliver a dancing pygmy to his pharaoh, to John Updike, over four millennia later,watching the Twin Towers collapse against the clear blue sky of a perfect New York day. Our story begins with hieroglyphics and ends with the BlackBerry.
VOLUME I - THE FIRST REPORTERS
There has always been eyewitness reporting, but it was Herodotus, ‘the father of history’, who turned it into an art form in the 5th century BC. He knew he lived in remarkable times and was determined to record them for posterity. Here the ancient world is revealed in the words of soldiers, servants, kings and inveterate travellers. Sometimes it is the great events, at others the domestic and familiar that are their subjects. Xenophon describes the epic retreat of the Ten Thousand from Persia. An impatient father upbraids his son for ‘reclining among women’ while his older brother is outcommanding ‘far-flung armies’. The wonderfully wry Suetonius observes that the Emperor Claudius, after executing his wife Messalina, was heard at dinner asking why she was not there. This volume paints a panorama of the world from the 3rd millennium BC to the Norman Conquest.
VOLUME II - DISCOVERING NEW WORLDS
For good or ill, mankind has always sought to explore new horizons. This volume is crammed with voyages of discovery and begins with the faith, passion, cruelty and bloodshed of the Crusades. We hear the voices not only of the Crusaders themselves but of Anna Comnena, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor, and Arab combatants and observers, fascinated and repelled by the strange behaviour of the Frankish infidel. We accompany history’s great explorers and conquerers: Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes reach Kiev; Columbus makes land fall in America; the first Mughal emperor Babur crosses the Kabul River en route for India; and adventurer Johann Dietz goes whaling in the Arctic. Spiritual and emotional journeys are no less dramatic – Heloise lives on through the sheer power of her declared love for Peter Abelard, while Martin Luther’s 95 theses, nailed to a Wittenberg door, precipitated a battle for souls that consumed Europe.
VOLUME III EMPIRE AND AFTER
‘And the war came,’ said Abraham Lincoln as Union and Confederate forces in America squared up to each other over the issue of slavery in 1861. This was an age of imperial expansion backed by force – from the Seven Years War in the 18th century to the Boer war at the beginning of the 20th.
It was an age of celebrity too: Louis XIV, the Sun King; the explorer Captain Cook; Queen Victoria, who gave her name to an era; and, of course, the vaunting Napoleon. Sergeant Bourgoyne’s account of the crossing of the Berezina ice with Napoleon’s Grande Armée, during the retreat from Moscow in 1812, must count among the greatest of all eyewitness accounts. This vast canvas embraces industrial revolution, scientific advance, musical genius, social conscience, far-flung travel and the making and breaking of nations.
VOLUME IV - IN OUR TIME
The advent of new technology revolutionised the role of the reporter in the 20th century. It was a time of breakneck social change, punctured by two devastating world wars and a string of violent and seemingly endless struggles for power and supremacy. We see the Congo, exploited for its rubber and ivory, at the beginning, and Rwanda, a genocidal bloodbath, at the end. Jack London gives a vivid account of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Jeffrey English describes the work routine for POWs on the Burma railway.
We have women as witnesses – Florence Farmborough nursing on the Russian front, Theodora Fitzgibbon describing the London Blitz – and women as a force for change – Rosa Parks taking her place at the front of the bus, Rachel Carson sounding the warning bell for the environment.
Thanks to the march of technology, the immediacy of communication – cameras, videos, the internet – the sheer wealth of eyewitness record is now overwhelming. But the best, whether it comes from professionals like John Simpson, Martha Gellhorn and Tom Wolfe, or from the Baghdad Blogger, is still an art form in itself.
Whether they are describing the carnage of the Crusades, the coronations of kings and queens, or the bloodshed that has marked our ‘age of terror’, the chroniclers of these events are as important as the events themselves. For Eyewitness to Histor, a prestigious new Folio Society commission, Robert Fox, historian and journalist, made his choice from a huge range of sources to bring to the reader dramatic events and great turning points as they were seen and reported by those who witnessed them. These are the authentic voices of history – mighty and humble, professional and amateur – recording everything from war and natural catastrophe, to the migration of swallows and the yearnings of the human heart, and ‘telling it how it was’ to future generations.
When The Folio Society set out to create Eyewitness to History, no compendium of first-person reportage had ever been undertaken on such a scale. Here, in one remarkable collection, are the most vivid and fascinating ‘as it happened’ accounts of great moments in history stretching back to the 6th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (c. 24th century BC). The sheer number of extracts and authors is astonishing: Herodotus and Suetonius are joined by Christopher Columbus, Samuel Pepys, Saint-Simon, Scott of the Antarctic and Philip Larkin. Together, in the company of history’s witnesses, we are present on board convict ships to Australia, at the Ford Theatre on the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and seeing, with disbelieving eyes, the first nuclear test at Bikini Atoll.
The scope of Eyewitness to History is truly global, taking on reports from Ancient Persia, Greece and Rome, medieval Japan and Byzantium, colonial Southern Africa and Australia, revolutionary China and modern-day Europe and America. Today, news is instantaneous, and the desire for accounts ‘as they happen’ is insatiable, but as Eyewitness to History reminds us, there have always been reporters whose eloquence and proximity to events have been a gift to posterity.Compiled and edited by esteemed journalist Robert Fox
Robert Fox has worked as a journalist and broadcaster since 1967. He was a BBC correspondent between 1968-87, reporting from the Falklands, the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Italy. He is now defence correspondent for the Evening Standard. He is senior associate fellow at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College, London.
His books include Eyewitness Falklands, Antarctica and The South Atlantic, Camera in Conflict and Liners.