Monday, March 18, 2019

Huaynaputina's World

Few people outside of South America had heard of Huaynaputina, a volcano in the Bolivian Andes, prior to its eruption. Few knew of its existence afterward. Events do not have to be well-known to disrupt or even end people’s lives. Huaynaputina killed more than its share of human beings. During a two-week period in February and March 1600, the mountain ejected thirty billion pounds of magma, tephra, volcanic ash, and sulfur dioxide. The solid ejecta obliterated nearby towns and promptly killed 1,500 people. The ash and gas shot into the troposphere and dimmed the Sun’s rays over much of the planet for more than a year. The Earth cooled, the winters lengthened and deepened, and crops failed in China and Japan, which could endure a failed harvest or two, and in Russia, which could not.

Thames Frost Fair, ca. 1605
Russia’s peasants already lived on the edge of subsistence, raising barely enough grain during the four-month growing season to feed themselves. (The early Russian state actually raised more money from taxes on the fur trade than  agricultural duties.) One bad harvest could kill them. The 1601 harvest was bad indeed: frost gripped the soil through the spring and into early summer. 1602 brought more cold temperatures and more dead or withered crops. By the time normal harvests returned in 1603, two million Russians, or twenty-five percent of the kingdom’s population, had died. The famine undermined the authority of Russia’s ruling monarch, clearing the way for civil war and the eventual accession of the Romanov Dynasty.

North America also saw colder-than-usual weather in 1601, and New Mexico was visited by hunger, though cold had less to do with this than drought. Low rainfall and the depradations of Juan de Onate’s army started the first of several famines that the Pueblo Indians, who normally grew enough food to trade the surplus with their indigenous neighbors, would endure in the seventeenth century. Those who did not wish to starve had two unpalatable options: they could seek refuge with neighboring Indian groups like the Navajos, or they could beg newly arrived Franciscan priests, whose missions had their own food supplies, to succor them. Many made the latter choice, came under pressure from the missionaries to accept the Spaniards’ faith, and, under duress, consented to convert. By 1607 the Franciscans reported 600 Pueblo converts in the newly conquered province, enough to persuade the Crown to retain New Mexico. The immiseration of the many usually provides some form of opportunity to the few, whether those few wear the habiliments of a Muscovite prince or the cassock of a Spanish missionary.

Sources: K.L. Verosub and J. Lippmann, "Global Impacts of the 1600 Eruption of Peru's Huaynaputina Volcano," Eos 89 (2008), no. 15; Richard Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime (1974); Andrew Knaut, The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 (1995).

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Shabbiest Horse Traders Get to Be "Statesmen"

Rep. James Tallmadge of New York introduced on this day 200 years ago the amendment that would bear his name and precipitate a famous inter-sectional controversy. The U.S. Congress was preparing to admit Missouri to the Union, and Tallmadge proposed a gradual ban on human slavery in the new state. Tallmadge's proposal gained considerable traction in the free northern states, whose white freemen had little love for African-American slaves but even less for wealthy slave owners. Public meetings expressed support for the free-state amendment, and the motion gained a majority vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. Southern whites were, shall we say, much less supportive. Their representatives blocked the amendment in the Senate (where free and slave states enjoyed parity), and Southern political leaders demanded that slavery remain legal in Missouri. The highest-ranking Southern white politician, President Monroe, argued that calamity would ensue if Congress blocked slavery's expansion: older states like Virginia could not rid themselves of "surplus" slave laborers, human property would fall in value, and overcrowding in the East would make slave rebellions more likely.

Ultimately, Northern and Southern Congressmen worked out one of their usual shabby compromises. Slavery would remain legal in Missouri and permissible in the new territory of Arkansas, but outlawed in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase, which in any event remained firmly in the possession of Native Americans. Northern white politicians would later regard the "Missouri Compromise" as a sacred compact of the Union, and its negotiator, Henry Clay, as their "beau ideal of a statesman." Southern whites would cast the Compromise aside as soon as they felt politically powerful enough to do so.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Painting the Mailboxes Green

Cumann na nGaedheal** is the short answer to the question “What became of the Pro-Treaty faction from Michael Collins after Johnathan Rhys Meyers killed Liam Neeson?” It’s not a popular question to ask. We all like tales of war and revolution, but few of us take an interest in these upheavals’ messy aftermath. Personally I find fascinating the clearing of rubble (literal and metaphorical), the mundane but creative tasks of state building, the challenges of legitimizing the new order, and the tragic tendency of successful revolutionaries to turn authoritarian and destroy their legitimacy. Most people, I suspect, have rather less interest in the dreary work of reconstruction and compromise.

1923 campaign poster (
In the case of the Irish Revolution, this work fell to the members of Sinn Fein who supported the 1921 treaty with Britain, the so-called “Treatyites.” Following their brief but bloody civil war with the anti-Treaty faction, these colleagues and successors of Michael Collins organized themselves into Cumann na nGaedheal, the ruling party of the new Irish Free State. CnG’s critics later claimed that the party merely “painted the mailboxes green” and otherwise left the old British administration in place. They exaggerated, though it's certainly true that the new government kept the old British legal structure and left many of the old civil servants in place, and also true that Cumann na nGaedheal seemed deeply interested in the symbolism of sovereignty. Officials of the new regime stamped "Irish Free State" on as many documents and as much exported produce as they could, and organized a delegation to every international meeting and body that would have them. Britain had forced the Treatyites to swallow the indignity of a loyalty oath to the King, and accepting the status of a dominion rather than an independent nation. Cumann na nGaedheal used what one might call "counter-symbolism" to claim that they considered Ireland sovereign, despite their nigh-unacceptable concessions to the Crown.*
More substantively, the party sought to preserve the Free State's independence by digging it out from under wartime debts and keeping the peace. The latter meant demobilizing the civil-war-era army and creating a new, unarmed police force, the Garda, which remains one of CnG's most enduring (and admirable) achievements. The former meant raising taxes and cutting public salaries, neither of which ensured the party's popularity as the 1920s progressed. Debt relief also explains the concession that made William Cosgrave's government more unpopular than any other: accepting as permanent the provisional boundary between the six counties of Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. The Free State had agreed in the much-maligned Treaty to assume a share of Britain's debt payments, to the tune of fifteen or twenty million pounds sterling per year - about 60-80 percent of the Free State government's entire budget. British officials (essentially) offered in 1925 to cancel this crippling debt in return for a boundary favorable to Northern Ireland, and Cosgrave and his partisans agreed. Irish Republicans never forgave them.

One is tempted to see in Cumann na nGaedheal's debt-phobia the small-minded penny-pinching of provincial peasants, but the party's fears instead grew from realism. Well-read statesmen knew that in the previous half-century a number of countries, from Egypt to Mexico, had suffered foreign invasion or lost their independence due to unpaid foreign debts. Keeping the Free State out of hock was in their view essential if the Irish government were to preserve what little independence it enjoyed.

Internationalism informed not just the Treatyites' fiscal conservatism but their political conservatism. In the early 1930s Cumann na nGaedheal officials viewed with great alarm the Republican revolution in Spain, which replaced a Catholic monarchy with a left-leaning, anti-clerical republic. Fear of a similar development in Ireland contributed to the Dail's passage of the 1931 Public Safety Act, which allowed the government to outlaw communist and republican political organizations. Cosgrave and his colleagues had previously viewed the Free State as a compromise between colonial rule and an independent republic, and many if not most saw an Irish Republic as a desirable goal. The Spanish Republic soured many on republicanism, much as the French Revolution turned many English moderates (and more than one member of the American Federalist Party) against democracy. A true republic, CnGers feared, might fall prey to communist agitators and turn on the Church, which the Free State depended on to run its schools and orphanages. Staying within the British Empire and under its monarchy no longer looked like such a bad deal.

When Collins and his colleagues brought the Free State Treaty before the Dail (the Irish Parliament) in 1922, they famously said it would give Ireland "the freedom to achieve freedom." Ten years later Collins's colleagues preferred the status quo to the freedom they had sought. Fear, of debt and violence and evil "Reds," became their preferred means of motivating the electorate and garnering their support. By 1932, however, Irish voters had come back to the view that a new state must be built on aspirations rather than apprehensions. They gave the government to Eamon de Valera's anti-Treatyite party, Fianna Fail, and Cumann na nGaedheal fell into such deep obscurity that I haven't yet figured out how to pronounce its name.**

Sources: Donal Corcoran, The Freedom to Achieve Freedom (Gill & Company, 2013); Richard Killeen, A Short History of the Irish Revolution (Gill Books, 2007); Jason Knirck, Afterimage of the Revolution (Wisconsin, 2014); Ciara Meehan, The Cosgrave Party (Royal Irish Academy, 2010)

* The Free Staters even tried to turn dominion status into a source of independence by suggesting that Ireland, Canada, and the other dominions gang up on Britain, essentially turning the Commonwealth into a collective security agreement against the mother country. It didn't work.

** I think it's "Cuhm an n'yell," but maybe not.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Any Good News in 2018?

Bad news is usually much easier to find than good, if only because good news usually unfolds at a slow pace. Plane crashes, volcanic eruptions, violent protests, and divisive legislative votes have both the brevity and drama best suited to a commercial news publication or broadcast. Yet good news is always there if we know how to look for it. FutureCrunch (h/t my sister Corinna) compiled a list of the 99 best pieces of good news reported during the past year, from which I offer the following sampling:  

Eritrean-Ethiopian Peace Run, Oct. 2018 (
In 2018, the West African nation of Niger reported it has planted 200 million trees since the late 1980s. India constructed 30-40,000 kilometers of roadway made with waste plastic. World wind and solar power production reached 1.0 terawatts, enough to power 300 million homes at U.S. consumption levels. A new cholera vaccine went into use. South Africa reported a 44 percent decline in new HIV cases in the last six years, and Paraguay officially eradicated malaria within its borders. Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace treaty. Canada legalized marijuana, Ireland legalized abortion, and Pakistan legally guaranteed transgender rights. Russia revealed a decline in drinking, though I’ll bet Russians can still drink any other nationality under the table. And NASA announced it will send a helicopter to Mars in 2020, because why not?