Friday, December 09, 2016

The Habsburg Genealogical Implosion



Long after the end of its scions’ sovereignty, the Habsburg Dynasty remains famous for the grandeur and elegance of its imperial capitals, Madrid and Vienna in particular, and the tangled genealogy of its monarchs. Inbreeding narrowed the family’s cultural horizons and gave some members congenital physical defects as well. Ferdinand I of Austria, whose most memorable sentence was “I am the emperor and I want dumplings,” suffered from hydrocephaly and severe epilepsy. His parents were double first cousins and probably bequeathed their royal son more than his fair share of recessive genes. The Habsburg palme d’or in royal inbreeding and disability probably belongs to Ferdinand’s ancestor, Carlos II of Spain (1661-1700). Carlos’s maladies included vertigo, seizures, and an overdeveloped jaw that interfered with eating and talking. He probably also suffered from depression, impotence (he died without issue), and a learning disability – certainly he never received much formal education. Like Ferdinand’s, Carlos’s family tree had too few forks; where most people have 32 great-great-great grandparents, King C only had fourteen. His contemporaries thought him not so much inbred as “bewitched,” was the sobriquet they pinned on him when his back was turned.

Before dismissing Carlos as a useless idiot, however, let the reader note that his defects did not prevent him from moral reasoning or from making significant decisions. The last Spanish Habsburg’s most consequential decision was one he took when writing his will, wherein he left his throne to Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV. France’s political rivals, including England, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire, formed an alliance to prevent unification of the French and Spanish crowns. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) ensued. Less opprobriously, Carlos’s mother bequeathed him a passionate hatred of Native American enslavement, and as king he issued two proclamations, in 1676 and 1679, that banned Indian slavery throughout Spanish America. His governors honored the ban primarily in the breach, but Carlos’s instructions did force officials to develop legal fictions and workarounds if they wanted to preserve slavery de facto. Let us give Bewitched Carlos credit for doing as much as any distant monarch could do to emancipate his subjects. (Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America [Houghton-Mifflin, 2016], 137, 145-146.)

Let me apologize, too, for not giving poor Ferdinand the credit he deserves. Despite his disabilities and speech defects, King Ferd could communicate perfectly well in writing, and after his abdication in 1848 he became a competent businessman; his successes in that field put him ahead of several American presidents. His physical disabilities, such as they were, did not prevent him from becoming an active sportsman or living a good long life – Ferdinand held on until the age of 82, something neither of my parents managed. Let us dine on dumplings in his honor.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Quote of the Day


"History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, re-knitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always - eventually - manages to spring back into its old familiar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It's been around a long time.”

- Terry Pratchett, Mort (1987)

In trying times I like to think of History as an abstraction, something that moves of its own accord and on its own timetable, even as the ambitious and the vicious try to bend and shape it. This is not to say that human beings don't make History - just that, as Karl Marx put it, "they do not always make it exactly as they please." 

I think Marx was particularly referring to individuals. Great men, so-called, can leave a mark on a nation for a few decades, but over the longer term ordinary people, in their capacity as consumers and voters and builders and rearers of children, make the history that lasts. 


(Image above: Clio, Muse of History, by Francesco Furini, via Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, October 28, 2016

Voyagers to the East, Part XXIV: Two Iroquois Experiences of France

(For the previous entry in this series, click here. For the index, link here.)

In the 1640s and '50s France's colony in Quebec became a beleaguered and semi-isolated outstation. Iroquois warriors, longtime enemies of the French, gained access to Dutch firearms. They made war on New France and its Indian allies, plundering furs, destroying towns, and taking hundreds of captives. Exports of peltry dropped and Native American travel from Quebec to Europe ceased. 

Normality and security only returned in the 1660s, when Louis XIV royalized New France and sent a regiment to garrison it. In 1666 French troops invaded Iroquoia and forced the Five Nations to sign an armistice. As part of the truce, the Iroquois admitted Jesuit missionaries to their towns, and many Iroquois began visiting the French colony or resettling near it. Apparently, some of these visitors agreed to accompany a French ship across the Atlantic, for in 1668 King Louis hosted a party of Iroquois "gondoliers" at Versailles. These men demonstrated their canoe-handling skills to the court, and by their presence assured the king that his soldiers had pacified his enemies. Doubtless the Iroquois saw their trip differently, as a gesture of amity rather than one of surrender. (Olive Dickason, Myth of the Savage, 212)

Iroquois-French relations soured again in the 1680s, and the next group of Iroquois to travel to France did so under very different circumstances. After several years of skirmishing with the French and their Indian allies, in 1687 the Iroquois sent some of their leaders to Fort Frontenac to negotiate. Governor Jacques-Rene Denonville arrested 51 of the visiting Iroquois chiefs and sent them to France as slaves. Denonville may have seen New France as a potential source of slave labor for France and its plantation colonies; certainly, the English colony of South Carolina was building its economy on the mass enslavement and export of Native Americans. Just as certainly, the deportation of so many Iroquois leaders would impress their kinsmen with French ruthlessness.

So Denonville thought. Certainly the captives were in for rough and ruthless treatment when the French Crown put them to the oar in 1688. Mediterranean galley slaves spent their days in hot, cramped, stinking ships, chained to their benches, "bodies pearled with a bloody sweat" (in Francis Knight's recollection), and succumbing all too quickly to dehydration, illness, hernias, and heart attacks. Some of the enslaved Iroquois probably died during their months at sea. We know, however, that the French Crown abruptly ended their enslavement and sent the survivors home in 1689. The reason was simple: France and England had gone to war, and English-allied Iroquois warriors now threatened France settlements in Quebec. Denonville and his masters wanted the prisoners returned to Quebec for use as diplomatic pawns, redeemable if their return would protect France's outposts. New France certainly did not stop the enslavement of Native Americans, but it (almost) never again exported them from the colony. Governor Denonville's experiment in slave trading became a one-time deal, an experiment that foundered on the rock of New France's vulnerability. (Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 [Anchor Books, 2004], 60; Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France [University of North Carolina Press, 2012], 147-152.)


Image above courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Please Sell Me 200 Guns That Will Blow up in My Face



The early modern period brought few laurels to the American firearms industry. The best guns available in the seventeenth century were Dutch, in the eighteenth century French. Americans fought the Battle of Saratoga with French muskets and won the Battle of Yorktown with French artillery. The most innovative small arm of the Revolutionary War, the Ferguson breech-loading rifle, was a British invention. This of course did not stop Americans from building and experimenting with new kinds of weapons. As Andrew Fagal observes in a recent post on Age of Revolutions, the Atlantic Revolutionary era (ca. 1770-1830) was an age of organized violence, and one in which small or financially stressed nations struggled to maintain effective armed forces. Innovations in firepower could give revolutionary states an inexpensive "force multiplier" that would let them defend their homeland or conquer new territories for less money.

In 1792, Fagal writes, the American Joseph Chambers demonstrated to the U.S. War Department a musket that could fire eight bullets in a row without reloading. Essentially, a gun lock at the front of the barrel ignited the first powder charge, while perforations in the bullets allowed the blowback from each shot to ignite the next. This made Chambers's weapon resemble a shotgun more than a rifle; it is hard to see how one could have aimed it at multiple targets. The gun also had a tendency to burst when fired. Indeed, if one fired the repeater improperly its massive powder charge exploded and (probably) killed the gunman. 

The War Department expressed little interest in the unreliable and potentially suicidal weapon. The newer and more innovative Navy Department, however, during the War of 1812 ordered several hundred of Chambers's repeating muskets and 50 seven-barreled swivel guns. Fagal isn’t sure if the Navy ever used any of Chambers’s weapons, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. More noteworthy is the great interest that other nations showed in the new repeaters: French and Spanish diplomats and British and Dutch officers all either inquired about Chambers’ design, studied captured models, or bought a war-surplus Chambers gun or three for testing. None could effectively copy or debug the weapon, and Euro-Americans all lost interest in it by 1820. But no-one dismissed it as a useless toy developed by a backwoods dreamer, either, even if that's all it proved to be. 

Perhaps this episode helps explain why radical technological change often begins in the military sphere: the stakes are so high, and the benefits of even marginal improvement in efficiency so potentially great, that officials and inventors are much more willing to risk financial loss, humiliation or injury than civilians. 

Image of British Brown Bess musket (ca. 1720-1840) courtesy of Antique Military Rifles and Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Voyagers to the East, Part XXIII

For the previous entry in this series, click here. For the index, link here. 

For much of the seventeenth century, according to Alden Vaughan, few Native American travelers crossed the Atlantic Ocean to England. Such was also the case in France and Spain, two of the other principal colonial powers in the Americas. France had in the sixteenth century received Carijo princes, Guarani archers, Huron chiefs’ sons, and bewildered Miq'maqs, but in the 1600s Indian visitors fell off. Perhaps this overall decline resulted from the changing dynamics of European colonization. Once English and French adventurers had established relatively stable settlements in the Americas, they no longer needed to transport Indians as living promotional displays for colonial projects. Translators they could now train in America, either by bringing Native children to European outposts or placing European children with Indian families. And while Europeans would always want Indian slaves, they could now more profitably employ them on New World plantations, rather than pay to bring them into western Europe’s oversupplied labor market.

Granted, none of these rules held hard and fast. One of the first Indians to visit France in the seventeenth century, a Huron named Savignon, sailed to Honfleur to become a translator. Samuel de Champlain wanted him trained in the French language for the benefit of New France. The visit did not leave Savignon well-disposed toward his patrons. After his return home in 1611 he reportedly told his kinsmen that he had found Europeans’ practice of capital punishment and their maltreatment of beggars appalling. Meanwhile, Champlain had taken a preliminary step toward making such dangerous (for the Indians) oceanic transits unnecessary: he sent a French boy, probably future trader Etienne Brule, to live with a Huron family. Subsequently trade and intermarriage would make formal language training increasingly unnecessary for Quebec’s Indian neighbors. (Harald Prins, "To the Land of the Mistigoches," 187; Denys Delage, Bitter Feast: Amerindians and Europeans in Northeastern North America [UBC Press, 1995], 126.) 

Traders did not constitute the only European interest group in New France, and one of the colony’s more well-connected groups of newcomers, Catholic missionaries, shipped additional Native travelers to France later in the century. In the 1620s the Church sent over Huron Louis Amontacha and Montagnais Pierre-Antoine Pastedechouan, and from 1635 to 1637 the Society of Jesus transported another seven Huron and Iroquois boys and girls for religious training. The Indian students would advertise the success of missionaries' efforts in New France and bolster Church and royal support for the mission. What the converts* thought of Europe is hard to determine, but most probably found it a crowded, hungry land full of sicknesses and strange smells. One girl either hated France or fell homesick, and demanded return passage to Canada. Her father insisted that she sail back to France and finish her education. Another student, Louise, decided to settle permanently with the Hospitalieres Religieuses in Dieppe. Not everyone was as disenchanted with the Old World as Savignon.(Olive Dickason, Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism, 218-20).

(Above image of the Chateau de Dieppe, in Louise's European hometown, courtesy of the French Ministry of Culture and Wikimedia Commons.)


* Given their Christian names, I assume the travelers had at least been baptized.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Pacific America and the Wider World before 1700

Scholars tend to take for granted the profound isolation of the pre-Columbian New World from the Old. After the last migrations across the Bering Strait, circa 1000 BCE, and apart from sporadic contact between the Norse and the Inuit after 1000 CE, the peoples of the Americas lived lives wholly separate from those of the rest of humanity. Or so we usually think. Actually, the corridor that ancestral Native Americans used to colonize the Western Hemisphere never completely closed. Rising sea levels inundated the Bering land bridge, but several groups of migrants (Athabascan, Inuit, Aleut) crossed the strait by boat, and no practical barrier subsequently prohibited other northeastern Asians from traveling to Alaska and points south, or prevented Native Americans from communicating with Siberia.

Archaeologists from Purdue University have now confirmed that cross-Bering communication did occur in the relatively recent past. H. Cory Cooper reports that Inuit of the Thule Culture buried artifacts of bronze, an alloy no New World culture ever produced, on Cape Espenberg, Alaska. The bronze artifacts were buried between 1200 and 1500 CE, but their creators made them much earlier, perhaps a thousand years earlier, in northern China. They passed hand to hand from their place of manufacture to eastern Siberia and America. The Thule Inuit incorporated the Chinese bronze wares into a toolkit that already included beaten-copper points, like fish hooks and needles. They surely recognized that the bronze beads and buckles they had received in trade were exotic, but did not consider metal itself foreign and weird. It is instead modern scholars who should consider these tools usefully strange: they prove that medieval-era Inuit were either trading with Native Siberian travelers or crossing into the Chukchi Peninsula to do so themselves.

An additional conduit that brought both metal wares and people to Pacific America has been known for some time, though I myself discovered it only recently in the notes to Paul Mapp's Elusive West (North Carolina, 2010). During the Tokugawa regime in Japan, when the shogunate prohibited nearly all foreign contact, a large (60-plus) number of coastal cargo ships lost their rudders or masts in storms and blew out to sea. The Kuroshio and North Pacific currents then carried them north or east to regions inhabited by Native Americans, but within the ambit of record-keeping Europeans. These ships had small crews and usually carried cargoes of rice and other foodstuffs, which allowed at least some of their crew members to survive long periods at sea if they could acquire (through rainfall) enough drinking water.

Charles Brooks studied over thirty of these "sea drifters" from the period 1600-1870. Half were rescued at sea by European mariners, but the others washed up on the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, and northwestern North America. Mike Dash, in a 2010 blog post on the storm-tossed Japanese mariners, provides some remarkable stories of Japanese sailors who peregrinated about the Atlantic and Pacific for years before finally returning home. It seems likely, however, that some of the sea drifters crossed the Pacific unrecorded by Europeans, leaving their bodies (live or dead) and the cargo and fittings of their ships in the hands of Aleutians, Tlingits, and other coastal Native American groups. Dash suspects that some of these crossings predate the start of Brooks's study in 1600.

Add to these discoveries the likelihood of contact between South America and Polynesia, evidenced by the westward spread of sweet potatoes, and we can see that there was a nascent "Pacific World" of sorts before the nineteenth century. While we generally consider Indian-European contact to have begun on the eastern coast of North America, it appears that, thanks to Inuit and Japanese and Polynesian mariners, pre-Columbian western North America was less isolated from the wider world than the Atlantic seaboard.

(Above image of Japanese junk via https://thelosttreasurechest.wordpress.com/ship-gallery/japanese-junk/)

Friday, September 09, 2016

Year of the Tie-Breaker



The United States, I am reliably informed, will hold presidential and Congressional elections this year. The strong partisan alignment of the American electorate, the archaic structure of the American Constitution, and the contingencies of judicial mortality and Senatorial retirement have all produced the possibility of a cascading series of stalemates that would resolve themselves in the most partisan fashion possible. This possibility is slight but real; I suggest it more as a nightmare than a prediction. But consider:

The presidential election, as we were all reminded in 2000, is resolved not by popular vote but by the Electoral College. The winning candidate, which will almost certainly be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, needs a majority of EC votes (270). There is, however, a slight chance that the electorate will hand each major-party candidate the same number of Electoral College votes: 269. This will occur, for instance, if Secretary Clinton carries almost all of the states won by John Kerry* in 2004 - CA, CT, DE, DC, HI, IL, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, NH, NJ, NY, OR, PA, RI, VT, WA – plus CO (Democratic-leaning), NM (solidly Democratic since the GOP’s white-supremacist turn), NV (potentially Democratic for the same reason), and VA, but loses Scott Walker’s WI to Trump.

In the event of an Electoral-College tie, Amendment XII provides that the U.S. House of Representatives select the president from the top three EC vote-recipients. Each state's House delegation receives a single vote in this election. While it is impossible to predict the composition of the new House of Representatives, Republicans currently dominate 33 of the 50 state delegations, and I find it unlikely that this will dramatically shift in the 2016 election. The new House of Representatives, in the event of an Electoral College tie, would almost certainly award the presidency to Donald Trump.

Democrats would, however, face an interesting scenario if they won a majority, or even a 50-50 split, in the U.S. Senate. A large number of Republican Senators are defending seats this year, and the GOP only has one likely pickup in that chamber (the seat of retiring NV Senator Harry Reid). Assuming the Democrats only lose the NV seat and pick up at least five Senate seats formerly held by Republicans, they would control the Senate during the organizational votes in early January 2017. (In case of a 50-50 split in the Senate, the Vice-President breaks ties; until 20 January that will be Joe Biden.) Democratic Senators could potentially, in case of an EC tie, elect Tim Kaine as Vice President. I think, however, that Republican Senators would probably refuse to show up for that vote altogether, and the Twelfth Amendment requires a two-thirds quorum (67 Senators) for a vice-presidential election. I am also fairly certain that our news media would blame Democrats for the ensuing vacancy (“Trump deserves his own VP choice!” “Trump/Pence carried 28 states!” etc.), and that enough Dems would break party ranks to make Mike Pence vice-president. I think they would do so even if this effectively handed control of the Senate chamber to the Republicans (50-50 split plus Pence’s vote). Perhaps the GOP would offer them some committee chairs and one or two of the nicer offices in the Senate Office Buildings in exchange for their treachery "reasonableness."

This brings me to a third stalemate: the one that has emerged in the U.S. Supreme Court. Antonin Scalia’s death earlier this year has given progressive Americans the hope of replacing him with a more liberal justice, and beginning to reverse the anti-labor, pro-corporate, authoritarian** agenda that the Court has pursued for over thirty years. The GOP-dominated Senate, however, has refused to allow President Obama to replace him, and a GOP-controlled Senate would almost certainly insist on allowing President Trump to replace Scalia with a like-minded (i.e. male, ultra-conservative, and a member of Opus Dei) jurist as soon as possible. A Democratic-controlled Senate might emulate Mitch McConnell and refuse to allow a vote on a Trump appointee, but a Senate split 50-50 with a Republican VP to break ties would almost certainly approve that appointee, and prohibit filibusters if the Dems tried one (just as the Democrats did with other court appointments in 2013).

Thus, a president chosen by the House of Representatives after a tie in the Electoral College could conceivably break a 4-4 tie between liberal and reactionary justices in the Supreme Court by appointing a justice with the consent of an evenly-split Senate whose president (the VP) would serve as tie-breaker. Isn’t that fun?

Fortunately, my Election Day predictions never come true, so I figured that I might as well come up with a crazy one. But maybe it’s not completely crazy. I don’t think an Electoral College tie is impossible, we’ve seen a 50-50 Senate split within the recent past (2000-01), and the Supreme Court is currently divided. And one of the two principal political parties in the United States is dedicated to the proposition that the federal government should not function unless it is completely in their control, so it easy enough to see them wriggling through any Constitutional rathole, or series of ratholes, that would let them take all three branches at once.



* An otherwise-weak candidate who carried all those states through sheer partisan loyalty – that, and widespread hatred of the incumbent.

** Giving the Devil his due, Scalia was notably anti-authoritarian when it came to upholding the Fourth Amendment.

(Image above via PBS.org)