Friday, October 30, 2020

Let Us Now Praise Famous Megalomaniacs


As someone who is uncomfortable receiving praise, it has always amused me to see how extravagantly modern authoritarian leaders (dictators, captains of industry) expect

their underlings to flatter and applaud them. The dictator’s hunger for lavish panegyrics manifests itself most noticeably in the elaborate titles he (very rarely she) assumes in public. One beauty I recently encountered belonged to Francois Duvalier, chief executive of Haiti from 1957 to 1971: “President for Life, Maximum Chief of the Revolution, Apostle of National Unity, Benefactor of the Poor, Patron of Commerce and Industry, and Electrifier of Souls.” I can’t improve on that, except to suggest that given Duvalier’s murderous reputation, “Electrifier of Souls” may have had an unpleasant double meaning.


Sources: Stewart Bell, Bayou of Pigs: The True Story of an Audacious Plot to Turn a Tropical Island into a Criminal Paradise (2008). See also Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (2012), which argues that Duvalier probably adapted some of his titles from those given to nineteenth-century monarch Henry Christophe, “Uncontestable Leader of the Revolution and Apostle of National Unity” (pp. 323-51, quote 343)

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Great Eel Riot

 "In Amsterdam, the 'Eel Riot' (Palingoproes) occurred [in 1886], when the police tried to put down a revolting dock-district game in which eels were pulled to bits; it resulted in several dozen deaths and hundreds of casualties and arrests." (Norman Stone, Europe Transformed [Harvard UP, 1984], p. 46.) Stone attributes this and other contemporary uprisings to the stresses of the European economic depression in the 1880s. From our perspective in the modern United States, shortly after the "police riot summer" of 2020, we may instead consider why a riot over such minor causes turned so deadly (24 people killed). In the Dutch case, the cops opened fire on the rioters after the latter attacked a police station, and the most gravely wounded had no access to medical care before they died. A comparable incident last summer in Minneapolis, in which riotous protesters - with a far more serious cause than "give us back our eels" - actually set fire to a police station, resulted in no deaths (IIRC) and few to no injuries, because the cops were prudent enough to holster their guns and get out. Modern American police aren't saints, God knows, and too many of them have blood on their hands, but there is something to be said for their relative professional restraint. There is also something to be said for keeping police of all times and places away from lethal weapons.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Caught the Car

An empire in decline rarely admits it. The republic of Venice, whose trading empire once dominated the Mediterranean, sustained a nearly mortal blow in the Candian War (1645-69). During a quarter-century of bitter fighting with the Ottomans, Venice lost her prime colony of Crete, much of her navy, and a good part of the public treasury. Rather than retrench and recover, La Serenissima sought revenge and new conquests. The chance for both came in the 1680s, when most of Central Europe’s fighting men (including George of Hanover, future King of England) defeated a Turkish army outsides of Vienna. In 1684 Venetian leaders opportunistically joined the Christian powers’ war on the wounded Ottoman Empire. Crete was the objective, but it proved a prize out of reach; Venice lacked the ships and men to take it. Instead the republic fought a bloody campaign on the Greek mainland, briefly occupying Athens (where Venetian artillery wrecked the Parthenon) and capturing the principal towns of the Peloponnese. After a few desultory attempts to recapture Greece’s southern peninsula, the Ottomans in 1699 ceded the region to Venice. The republic now had a strategic base to develop and a large new colony to govern.       

Venice soon revealed itself as the proverbial dog who had caught the car. It lacked the resources to defend Morea, and its officials lacked the inclination to govern its people fairly. The republic did encourage western Christian farmers and merchants to settle in the colony, offering them land grants and protected markets for silk and foodstuffs. Morea’s indigenous majority, however, did not prosper under Venetian rule. Many lost their land, fell more deeply into debt, or found themselves pressed by heavy taxes or corvee labor demands. At least one-sixth of the population (as measured by village abandonment) had died or fled during the Venetian conquest, and others, both Muslim and Christian, ran away to Turkish-occupied Greece in the early 1700s. The province’s overlords had to institute sea patrols to prevent their subjects from running away to greater freedom in the Ottoman Empire.

Venetian fortifications at Acrocorinth, Wikimedia Commons
Turkey’s re-conquest, one might say liberation, of Morea came less than two decades after the peace treaty with Venice. Partial credit for the success of Turkish arms goes to Charles XII of Sweden, who after the Battle of Poltava took refuge in Ottoman territory. His overconfident Russian adversary Peter I gave chase, only to find himself surrounded by a Turkish army. In subsequent negotiations the tsar traded his freedom for the surrender of several Russian border fortresses. With the Russians at bay, Ottoman officials could contemplate a rematch with Austria and Venice, and as the weaker of the two powers the republic made a better first choice. In 1714, the same year that George of Hanover became King of Great Britain, Grand Vizier Silahdar Damat Ali Pasa arranged a declaration of war. Morea was the closest and softest target, as Venice had only 3,000 troops in the entire kingdom and few locals wanted to fight for the colonizers. Silahdar brought an army to the Isthmus of Corinth in Jun 1715, reduced the impressive but undermanned citadel of Acrocorinth in a five-day siege, and occupied Morea’s most important strategic town. The remaining fortresses on the peninsula fell to Turkish troops a few months later. 

Not everyone in the reconquered province benefited from the renewal of Ottoman rule: the Grand Vizier rounded up and executed any Muslim apostates who had converted to Christianity. Most Moreans found that the Ottoman “yoke,” so-called, lay more lightly on their shoulders than the Christian Venetian one. The province’s population and economy recovered, and even Christian merchants prospered in subsequent decades, even as their former protectors’ fortunes continued to decline.               

Sources: Alexis Malliaris, “Population Exchange and Integration of Immigrant Communities in the Venetian Morea,” in Siriol Davies and Jack Davis, eds., Between Venice and Istanbul (Amer. School of Classical Studies in Athens, 2007), 97-108; Kenneth Setton, Venice, Austria, and the Turks in the Seventeenth Century (American Philosophical Society, 1991), 400, 426-38; J.M. Wagstaff, “War and Settlement Desertion in the Morea,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (1978): 295-308

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Sauntering Vaguely Downward

Popular historians and non-fiction writers are partial to the concept of sudden social collapse, which they have used to explain the “disappearance” of such past civilizations as Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the Classical-era Mayans, the Ancestral Puebloans, and even the Roman Empire. Many of us like the drama of rapid change, the pathos of social decline, and the ease of finding a moral lesson - beware of war, don’t mistreat the environment, obey your leaders - in a tale of decline and fall. Archaeologist Guy Middleton has recently reminded us that life and death, especially the life and death of an entire human society, are rarely so simple. Elements of a civilization can and do decline over time, but cultures can endure for centuries. Confusing the fall of a single powerful city or the overthrow of a small elite with the death of a whole civilization distorts the lived experience of most of that society’s people, and encourages us to adopt an elitist view of history.

Middleton’s particular specialty is the Mycenaean civilization, which ostensibly fell apart at the end of the Bronze Age. Middleton argues that much of Mycenaean culture (e.g. pottery, religious beliefs) survived the abandonment of its palace complexes in 1200 BCE, and finds little evidence of the kind of violence or resource exhaustion that might have caused a sudden collapse. The Mycenaeans instead abandoned a particular kind of political system, replacing the centralized palaces with smaller and more diffuse settlements, and their old semi-divine kings with the basileis of the early Hellenic era. What ended in 1200 was a polity, not a society. His description reminded me of the fate of the Ancestral Puebloans, whose Pueblo Indian descendants overthrew their priestly elite (ca. 1300 CE), stopped building large stone towns on the elite’s behalf, and moved into smaller but more numerous agricultural towns in the more fertile Rio Grande valley. In each case there was a period of political disruption and social change, but only the old elite and their latter-day sympathizers would see this as devolution.           

Calakmul, Classic-period Mayan city
The Mayans and Easter Islanders provide additional examples of the evolution-not-devolution model of cultural change. Fiction writers and television programs have generated much popular interest in the question “What happened to Mayan civilization?” Middleton's answer is both simple and surprising: it survived in one form or another until the Spanish destroyed the last city-state in 1697. States rose and fell in the Classical period (750-1050 CE), and drought or intra-elite violence led to the abandonment of some urban centers, but the post-Classical Mayans continued to build cities, write books, and engage in maritime trade well into the early modern period. Middleton has little patience for those who charge the Mayans with destroying themselves, and even less for writers like Jared Diamond who castigate the people of Rapa Nui for wrecking their environment and becoming a pack of starving, deracinated wretches. Historical evidence shows that indigenous Easter Islanders instead lived fairly rich and decent lives, maintaining a stable population and a sizable agricultural surplus well into the nineteenth century. The toppling of the island’s distinctive statues, or moai, occurred not in one spasmodic bout of desperate violence, but in a smaller series of conflicts over the course of 200 years. As with the Mayans, the destruction of Rapa Nui’s people came from outside forces, in particular the arrival of Euro-American slavers in the 1860s.   

Middleton’s insight can even be applied to the largest and most dramatic episode of civilizational collapse in historical literature, namely the fall of Rome. There is a good reason that the most famous historian of this process, Edward Gibbon, took 2,700 pages and fourteen years to chronicle “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:” Rome’s so-called collapse took nearly 1300 years from start to finish, a period spanning twenty human lifetimes and exceeding by a millennium the institutional lifespan of the United States. The Eastern Empire, home to the imperial capital and most of the old empire’s wealthy urban centers, did not end until midway through the Renaissance, while in the West a soi-disant Roman Empire held on until Napoleon’s time. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Roman civilization did not so much fall as saunter vaguely downward. Indeed, the Roman language and ecclesiastical bureaucracy (in the form of the Catholic Church) remain with us today. Slow change and cultural persistence make for a less exciting story than the sturm und drang of socio-political collapse, but they more accurately characterize the lives of far more people, rich and poor, famous and obscure, than war and ruination.  

(My thanks to John Barnes for linking to Middleton's fascinating article.)             

Friday, May 08, 2020

Crescent City Burndown

French New Orleans, born a rough riverside outpost in 1718, died on Good Friday seven decades later. The settlement had come under Spanish administration in 1769, and the local paymaster, Vicente Nunez, had in honor of the holiday lit altar candles in his home. While Nunez went off to have dinner, the candles ignited his ceiling, and high winds spread the flames from roof to roof. By late afternoon New Orleans lay in ashes. Eighty percent of the inhabitants’ houses had burned down. The hospital and Ursuline convent survived the fire, but most public buildings did not. It had been a mournful day indeed.

French Quarter, Sept. 2013. Photo by author.
The colonists, free and enslaved, rebuilt the town, which occupied too important a location for abandonment. Where possible they rebuilt in brick and stone, in conformity to a new urban fire code. When feasible they rebuilt in the Spanish Baroque style: buildings now featured distinctive iron-railed balconies and interior courtyards, after the fashion of other contemporary Spanish administrative centers. New Orleans now more resembled Havana or Santiago than Montreal.      

New Orleans’s 1788 fire also initiated the community’s Americanization, or rather its integration into the economy of the United States. The port had suffered from supply problems throughout the 1780s, and the conflagration destroyed nearly all of the warehouses. Governor Esteban Miro ordered flour from Philadelphia, and American territorial governor Arthur St. Clair offered to ship food downriver from the Ohio country. While Spain’s minister plenipotentiary politely declined St. Clair’s offer (he claimed that Spanish merchants had already “glutted up the [provisions] market”), in subsequent years Miro allowed at least some riverine shipping into New Orleans. Spanish regulations barred American farmers from using the Mississippi River, but the Orleannais’s need for cheap food and timber remained too great. By the turn of the century New Orleans retained a French name but was full of Spanish architecture, American goods, and a large African-descended population. It is always easier to think of cities as monocultural, but much of the Crescent City’s unique identify comes instead from its contingent, disaster-ridden history and the blending of cultures that resulted.


Sources: Primary inspiration comes from this short narrative by Cindy Ermus. See also her article “Reduced to Ashes: The Good Friday Fire in Spanish Colonial New Orleans,” Louisiana History 54 (Summer 2013): 292-331; Arthur St. Clair to Diego Gardoqui, 16 July 1788, in W.H. Smith, Arthur St Clair Papers (Clarke and Co., 1882), 2: 59-60 (quote); David Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (Yale UP, 1992), 207; Kevin Barksdale, “The New Orleans Fire of 1788 and the Transformation of Iberian-American Relations in the West,” paper presented at the 77th Meeting of the Southern Historical Association, Baltimore, 30 Oct. 2011.