Saturday, May 28, 2016

Everyone Wants to Be a Wild Man


The April issue of Archaeology Magazine features an artifact, a gold spoon finial from late medieval Europe, crafted into the form of a bearded, club-wielding humanoid of doubtful sanity. The editor identifies his visage as that of the "Wild Man," a common motif in European art and ceremonial from the twelfth century to the fifteenth. Scholar Ronald Hutton notes that the Wild Man evoked earlier pagan deities and at the same time warned Christian Europeans of the chaos that lurked at the edge of their civilization. We might add Robert Berkhofer's observation (in The White Man's Indian [1978]) that the Wild Man heavily influenced Europeans' perception of Native Americans. Early modern Europeans sometimes assumed that Indians, like Wild Men, lived on raw meat or human flesh, and referred to both groups as "woods-dwellers" or "silvani" - in English, "salvages." 

What interested me most about the article was the obvious ambivalence Europeans displayed toward Wild Men. Commoners and elites feared these mythical figures but also emulated them, the latter by including them in military heraldry and by dressing as Wild Men for pageants. The image, like that of Native Americans in later centuries, suggested strength, physical courage, and a carnivalesque suspension of social rules. (We may note that the same elites who dressed as Wild Men in the fourteenth century also dressed as Brazilian Indians in the sixteenth century.) The Wild Man thus served as a precursor to the early-modern trope of the "noble savage," and a bridge between that era and the pre-Christian Europeans whom Tacitus and his Classical contemporaries admired.

Monday, May 09, 2016

The Attack Monkeys of Ningbo


I'm brushing up my knowledge of what Gary Brecher calls “the Teflon Empire” by reading Julia Lovell's clear-eyed, balanced history of the First Opium War, the event that Chinese nationalists consider the founding episode (founding atrocity, if you prefer) of modern Chinese history. Like most military conflicts, this one had few redeeming features. It doesn't even bear a very accurate name. Qing officials did destroy a lot of English opium in 1839, but the British government did not go to war as payback; rather, it wanted to humiliate the decadent government of an allegedly inferior nation. Humiliate China it did: the war proved hopelessly, tragically one sided, with thousands of demoralized Chinese troops crushed in their indefensible forts and drowned in their obsolete junks. British casualties numbered in the low hundreds. Like the Falklands War, the Opium War was (to quote Ricky Gervais) “basically a range war...the equivalent of holding a midget at arm's length...[while] you're just kicking him in the bollocks.”

There's not much levity in Lovell's book, but she does have an eye for colorful details. I particularly enjoyed her account of one of General Prince Yijing's attempts at unconventional warfare: "Before the [Chinese] assault on [British-held] Ningbo, Yijang had made room in the budget to buy nineteen monkeys: the idea was to tie firecrackers to their backs then fling them onto English ships moored nearby.”* None of the general's subordinates, however, would volunteer for monkey-tossing duty, so Yijing's special simian attack force went unused. I regret to say the monkeys' attendant eventually abandoned them to starve. The ministrations of Mars are usually cruel.


* My petite amie suggests that General Yijing had read of the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who ignited enemy buildings with his tail.


Above image: Japanese (not Chinese, but certainly East Asian) macaques frolicking in the snow. Taken by the author, Dec. 2014.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

La Tortue Revient

My blog for H-AMINDIAN has, since my last update here, addressed the subjects of Indian slavery, land allotment, Inuit relations with the Norse and Danes, and the perennially relevant issues of sovereignty and agency. Ethnohistorians Bryan Rindfleisch and Kristalyn Shefveland have enriched the weblog, or rather some of my entries thereon, with their research findings and insights. (And Prof. Shefveland will join us with a guest post this summer.) Here's what the Turtle has been reading:

Norse and Inuit: The longue duree of Scandinavian relations with the Inuit, from the eleventh century CE to the twenty-first.

A Settler-Colonialist Interlude: Links to essays on everyone's favorite new interpretive framework, written by Bryan Rindfleisch and The Tattooed Professor.

Sovereignty in Unlikely Places: When is a land-cession treaty an assertion of indigenous sovereignty?

Mrs. Town Destroyer's Ill-Gotten Fortune: Indian slavery in colonial Virginia, and a surprising detail about the sources of Martha Washington's wealth.

Agency, Culpability, and the Fox Wars: Indian slavery and France's moral culpability for the destruction of the Mesquakies.

*

There's some exciting material coming up in the near future, including my thoughts on the Mohawk prophetess Coohcoochee and a post by Prof. Julie Reed on Cherokee institution-building.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pride, Prejudice, and Presidents

Last month Your Humble Narrator's university had the privilege of hosting Sarah Vowell, NPR essayist and voice of Violet Incredible. Ms. Vowell gave a talk on her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, which I am reading in an audiobooks edition because it's hard to beat Patton Oswald as the voice of Thomas Jefferson.* Before her public appearance, Vowell was kind enough to meet with a dozen history students and faculty and talk about her work, specifically her research techniques (site visits, lots of reading, lots of notecards) and the themes, like family and memory and democratic debate, with which she regularly engages. In response to a question from YHN, Vowell attributed the shortage of women in the history bestseller lists to publishers' marketing of histories to “Republican dads” and focus on “serious,” male topics. She found this amusing, because “there is nothing funnier than a self-important man.” Probably so.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of Vowell's visit (for me, anyway) came at the reception before her talk, when one of my colleagues' sons asked her advice for a school paper on James Buchanan. Vowell had nothing specific to offer about Buchanan, but did share a general suggestion: try to find something about your subject, even if s/he is an obscure politician or president, that makes him/her appealing to you. Recalling her research for Assassination Vacation, Vowell described plowing through James Garfield's dreary memoirs, choc-a-block with mundane details of a legislator's life, and seeing that he only “came alive” when he wrote about the novels he read for pleasure. Thinking of the future president sneaking off to the Library of Congress to read Jane Austen made him appealing to Ms. Vowell, and I daresay to all of us who heard her account. Since Garfield's presidency was cut short by an assassin's bullet, and he spent much of it dying on a sick bed while doctors futilely tried to save him, one can't know much about the twentieth president except by studying his pre-presidential life. It is affecting to think of him reading novels in secret, or “writ[ing] Greek with one hand while writing Latin with the other,”** and to imagine Garfield doing so from the White House, if only he had avoided his encounter with Charles Guiteau.


* Although Fred Armison, as the voice of Lafayette's teen-aged wife, comes close.
** From Joe Queenan's Imperial Caddy (1992), 117.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Presidents' Day (belated): Zachary Taylor



Early in his career, Zachary Taylor was a neighbor of mine, more or less. He commanded Fort Harrison on the Wabash River, and organized its successful defense against the Lakes Indian warriors who attacked it in September 1812. Taylor managed to avoid embarrassing himself in that most embarrassing of early American conflicts, the War of 1812, and stayed in the Army for most of the rest of his life. During the Second Seminole War he distinguished himself at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee* and won from his troops, or perhaps his spouse, the nickname “Old Rough and Ready.” Taylor reached the zenith of his career during the Mexican War, when he took the city of Monterey and defeated a vastly larger Mexican force at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 1847). Taylor benefited, in the latter case, from his adversary’s decision to force-march his army across the desert before the battle, but at the end of the engagement the American general held the ground and won the glory. A year later he accepted the Whig Party’s nomination to the presidency, and a factional division in the rival Democratic Party helped him win the election.

As president, Taylor chiefly distinguished himself by dropping dead less than halfway through his term. Doctors identified the cause of death as digestive illness exacerbated by overeating on Independence Day. Amateur historians speculated in the twentieth century that someone had poisoned Taylor, though a 1991 analysis of his remains found no trace of the likeliest poison, arsenic. More recently Jane McHugh and Philip Mackowiak suggested that Taylor contracted gastroenteritis from an open sewage field near the White House, and that the same illness could have also afflicted William Harrison and James Polk. 

Taylor’s death, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog, probably spared the nation an early outbreak of civil war. In 1849 the president demanded that Congress admit the new territories of California and New Mexico as free states – not because he opposed slavery, but because he believed free-state status would avoid friction with the local white population. He would not brook compromise on this issue, and the Compromise of 1850, which provided for a local-option admission of slavery to New Mexico, would not have passed over his veto. Moreover, Taylor nearly started a shooting war with Texas by sending troops to Santa Fe during a border dispute with the Lone Star State. If fighting had broken out, other Southern states would probably have come to Texas’s aid and gone to war with the U.S. government. When Taylor died, however, his successor approved a Congressional resolution of the dispute that gave both sides some of the disputed land and paid off Texas’s sovereign debts.

Had war between North and South broken out in 1850, it is unlikely that the Union would have been able to raise sufficient troops to overpower the slave states, and likely that a pro-peace candidate would have won the 1852 election and given the secessionists their independence. Instead, Millard Fillmore and the 31st Congress gave the United States ten more years of inter-sectional peace, followed by a bloody war that ended the Slave South. Sometimes the most influential thing a leader can do is eat a fatally large dose of cherries and iced milk.


* Distinguished himself by claiming victory in the battle, even though the Seminoles and their maroon allies actually won.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Hussites Are Back, but Did They Bring Cookies?



The seventeenth century, that chilly, famished, war-wracked saeculum, became for many an age of extinction. The Pequot Indians, the Ming Dynasty, and the Hussite Protestants of Bohemia all succumbed to violence, enslavement, or exile in the 1600s. For human ethnic and religious groups, however, extinction need not remain permanent. The Pequots' descendants made a comeback in the twentieth century, and opened one of the most profitable casinos in the world. Ming loyalists established secret societies that survived, in the case of the Triads, into the modern era. And Czech Protestants, as I learned on a recent trip to Prague, have enjoyed a modest comeback in the past century. During the Thirty Years War the Habsburgs made a mighty effort to crush Protestantism in Bohemia, forcing the adherents of Jan Hus to convert or leave the kingdom. Some rural Protestants preserved their faith in secret, and in the eighteenth century emigrated to Germany, where they became the co-founders of the Moravian Church or United Brethren. Otherwise the Czech homeland remained staunchly and, it seemed, permanently Catholic.



When Czechoslovakia became independent, however, the government decided to shore up their new country's national identity by creating a national church, one independent of the Roman Church hierarchy and evocative of the old Hussite tradition. Their religious project, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, debuted in January 1920. While the Czechoslovak Church never became a serious competitor with Catholicism – or secularism – it now has about 300,000 adherents, and runs an array of schools, senior centers, and children's homes. Like the Roman Church, the CHC recognizes seven sacraments; I assume that, at communion, both the laity and priesthood partake of the wine (since this was the original Hussites' cause celebre). It has an ordained priesthood and episcopate, though the religious head of the church is a patriarch rather than a pope, and women have been accepted as priests since 1947. Church governance follows a hybrid episcopal/presbyterian model, with decision-making power jointly vested in the priesthood (and episcopate) and local councils of lay elders. How well this works in practice I know not, but hybrid institutions always function a little awkwardly. They are no weaker for it.

(Photo of the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, one of the Hussite Church's parishes, in Prague.)


Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Turtle Crawls On

My new blog for H-AMINDIAN, the Turtle Island Examiner, has kept to a regular publishing schedule these past two months. Posts there since my last update include:

Prandial Diplomacy: Negotiation often begins and ends at the dinner table, and its outcome can prove favorable if everyone can actually digest their victuals.

Labors of Sovereignty: Yr. Hbl. Narrator's report on the 2015 American Society for Ethnohistory conference in Las Vegas. The construction of sovereignty was an important theme this year.

The Power of Space, Language, & Communication: Bryan Rindfleisch's report on the 2015 ASE conference. Ethnohistory, he concludes, is a thriving discipline.

Philanthropy as Politics: Why did the deeply-impoverished, post-Removal Cherokees and Choctaws contribute hundreds of dollars to Irish famine relief?

More to come in a couple of months, including my latest post on the Norse and the Inuit in Greenland.

(Photo of ceramic Catawba turtle by the author.)