The Gun, the Ship & the Pen by Linda Colley

‘Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World.’

I picked up this book intrigued by the role of constitutions in the modern world. I am most familiar with the Australian Constitution (an Act of the UK Parliament, passed in 1900), am aware of the American Constitution, and studied aspects of the Meiji Constitution (Japan 1889 to 1947), but apart from the Australian Constitution I have never really stopped to consider how and why constitutions are developed. I have a lot to learn.

Ms Colley’s book took me on a voyage around the world between the mid-18th century and the outbreak of World War I. There is no single way of developing a constitution and in this book both monarchs and radicals have played a role. Consider Catherine the Great and her Nakaz, which incorporates ideas of the French enlightenment. And in Tunisia, where the Ahd al-Amān, or Fundamental Pact came into effect in 1856 followed by the short-lived constitution of 1860 (the first constitution in the Arab world).

I learned, too, that constitutions are not (usually) static. I oversimplify. I see the pen (the constitution, even though not all constitutions are written) as a response to the gun (warfare) and the ship (colonial expansion). Ms Colley amplifies my understanding. I read of constitutions that are inclusive, and those that seek to exclude. I learned that in 1838, Pitcairn Island had a constitution which enfranchised all adult women (thanks to Captain Russell Elliott of HMS Fly).

And, shifting my focus from an Anglo-centric view, I read about Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, Napoleon Bonaparte in France, and Simón Bolívar in South America.

I finished this book, determined to read more about some of the constitutions mentioned. There is plenty of detail here for those who want to immerse themselves in a study of the role of constitutions in the modern world and on the factors which impact on their development and change.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith