Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hedgehogs, Board Games, and Debt

A few items too short to justify a full-length post, but interesting in their own right:

* This article is proof, if proof were needed, that the English are far more sentimental about animals than Americans could ever hope to be. "Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital," indeed! On the other hand, if you ever need a leg cast for a baby hedgehog, you know where to go.

* There are more strange stories associated with World War Two than we will ever know, but this plan to help POWs escape from captivity, by way of Marvin Gardens, is one of the more ingenious Allied ideas I've come across. (Afterthought: isn't "Marxist-themed Monopoly game" an oxymoron?)

* And, finally, as we head through the holiday shopping season, some historical perspective for those who believe consumer debt is a recent problem in America: in the second edition of The Affluent Society, economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted that American consumer debts in the thrifty 'fifties rose by 55 percent (1952-56), and grew another 133 percent - from $42.5 billion to $99.1 billion - between 1956 and 1967. "Our march to higher living standards," Galbraith concluded, "will be paced, as a matter of necessity, by an ever deeper plunge into debt." (Affluent Society, Second Edition [New York, 1969], 158.)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Oklahoma, y'all

Earlier this month I went to Richmond for the Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Association, one of two professional conferences I attend every year*. The Southern is more frequently a venue for good-natured carousing than academic discourse, but I did manage to attend several panels and listen to a few conference papers. Of these, the most interesting concerned the efforts of Oklahoma, which was admitted to the Union 100 years ago this month, to identify itself as a Southern state during the first quarter-century of statehood. In his paper "Becoming West," David Chang observed that Oklahoma's Democratic political leaders initially took great pains to express solidarity with the South - by passing Jim Crow laws, organizing a large chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and inviting race-baiting Senator "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman to the state to speak. Eastern Oklahoma's economy, based (until the 1930s) on cotton and tenant farming, was Southern in character, as were its Native American peoples, mainly displaced southeastern Indians of the "Five Civilized Tribes." The state did not begin to adopt a Western identity until the 1930s, when oil and cattle replaced cotton as its principal products, and when Oklahoma's civic leaders began to hold rodeos and built the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. While Chang didn't say as much in his paper, the shift may also have been due to a change in popular culture: while the early twentieth century was the golden age of Southern nostalgic literature, the 1920s and '30s saw the popularization of the Western film, which glamorized that region and made its identity a more attractive one for Oklahomans to adopt.

* Update, 17 June 2018: In general, I no longer attend the Southern annually, having replaced it with the Ethnohistory Society meeting in the fall.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Achtung! Waschbaeren!

Previously on this blog, I have referred to Alfred Crosby's concept of the Columbian Exchange - the exchange of plants, animals, microorganisms, and humans between the Old World and the New that accompanied and followed Columbus's voyages. As Crosby observed, the transfer of species was almost entirely one-way: Eurasia and Africa contributed far more people, pathogens, and animals to the Americas than the reverse. The only American species to flourish in the Old World were domestic crop plants - maize, potatoes, and cassava in particular - one disease organism, treponema (which causes syphilis), and a few small animals, such as gray squirrels.

To the last group, we may now add one of the most distinctive small American mammals, the raccoon. Introduced to Germany during World War Two, procyon lotor is now flourishing in that nation's woods and cities. This article, while a bit old, tells the story - and features the best headline I've seen since I started this weblog. This article, from May 2007, observes that many Germans have adopted raccoons, or "wash-bears," as pets (one 80-year-old woman had 50 of them in her home), and that they have now spread into France and Belgium and as far east as Chechnya. It now seems only a matter of time before the Nazi raccoon invasion of Britain begins.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

October 4, 1957

"One day in 1957 everybody in the United States was minding his or her own business when suddenly the Russians launched a grapefruit-sized object called Sputnik (literally, ‘Little Sput’) into Earth orbit, from which it began transmitting back the following potentially vital intelligence information (and we quote): ‘Beep.’ This came as a severe shock to Americans, because at that point the best our space scientists had been able to come up with was a walnut-sized object that went: ‘Moo.’”
(Dave Barry Slept Here, pp. 139-140 [1989 edition].)

Friday, September 28, 2007


The June 15th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education included an article on an odd phenomenon known as "Ostalgie" - nostalgia for the symbols and commodities of the defunct Eastern Bloc. In Eastern Europe, Ostalgie generally manifests itself as a demand for replicas of the old, badly-made consumer goods of the Communist era, like Trabant cars in the former East Germany, Tisza sneakers in Hungary, and Kofola Cola in the former Czechoslovakia. It can also take the form of nostalgia for the rhetoric and professed ideals of the old regime, as in Wolfgang Becker's 2003 movie Goodbye Lenin! Eastern European Ostalgie is most likely the product of middle-aged Hungarians' and Germans' nostalgia for the kitsch of their youth - similar to the wave of '70s nostalgia that washed through American movies and TV shows in the 1990s. It may also be an expression of residual nationalism in countries that are otherwise integrating themselves as quickly as possible into the European Union.

I suspect that few Eastern Europeans pine for a return to the actual conditions of Communist rule - secret police, travel restrictions, and food shortages. We were recently reminded of those conditions by an unusual story out of Poland: the emergence of Jan Grzebski, a former railway worker, from a 19-year-long coma on June 2nd, 2007. Grzebski's last memories were of the final year of Communist rule in Poland, and he was anything but nostalgic: "When I went into a coma," he told a Polish TV station, "there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere." Economic conditions had, he said, improved drastically in the intervening two decades - though, like most 65-year-olds, he found at least one thing to complain about in the new Poland (namely, people who complained about how rotten life was).

Ostalgie has taken a somewhat darker form in the former Soviet Union, where many Russians now remember the Soviet era as one of order and strength, and the 1990s as a "time of troubles" filled with strife, poverty, and national humiliation. The Putin regime is encouraging this revisionist view in the new history standards it recently issued to Russian high school teachers, reported in the New York Times last August. The new standards are particularly kind to Joseph Stalin, whom they compare to Peter the Great and Chancellor Bismarck. Under his rule, "victory in one of the greatest wars was won, industrialization of the economy and cultural revolution were carried out successfully...The U.S.S.R. joined the leading countries in the field of science; unemployment was practically defeated." (Andrew Kramer, "Yes, a Lot of People Died, but..." New York Times, 12 Aug. 2007) Sure, there was a certain amount of suffering, but it was in a good cause. Even Stalin's purges had a good effect: the creation of "a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortage...loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline."

A corollary to this longing for the Days of Uncle Joe is the belief that the Soviet Union fell not because of its own internal weaknesses, but because it was "stabbed in the back" by internal enemies - more specifically, meddling liberal reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev. Yegor Gaidar, the former economic minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin (1991-94), observed in a paper given to the American Enterprise Institute last November that "at least 80 percent of Russians" now believe that "the Soviet Union was a dynamically developing world superpower until usurpers initiated disastrous reforms." To this Weimarian view of the fall of Communist Russia, Gaidar opposes his own thesis, which he calls "Grain and Oil." Essentially, Stalin's decision to collectivize agriculture in the late 1920s led to a severe shortfall of grain in the U.S.S.R. by the early 1960s. Soviet Russia could only feed its people by importing grain, and the only Russian commodities anyone would buy in exchange were oil and natural gas. High oil prices in the 1970s allowed the Soviet government to continue feeding its populace, but when Saudi Arabia dropped the floor out of the oil market in 1985, the Politburo could only continue to buy grain by borrowing money from the West. By 1989, private banks were no longer willing to loan money to the Soviets, and Western governments agreed to do so only on condition that the Red Army withdrew from Eastern Europe. Which it did. Sic transit the Russian Communist Empire.

Gaidar’s paper deserves to be read in full: it is elegant, well-illustrated with charts and historical evidence, and even witty. (He summarizes the intellectual quality of Brezhnev-era Soviet leadership with this quote from Politburo minutes: "Mr. Zasiadko has stopped binge drinking. Resolution: nominate Mr. Zasiadko as a minister to Ukraine.") He does tend to gloss over the other weaknesses of the Soviet economy, such as the total stagnation of its industrial sector - by the 1980s, Soviet citizens viewed consumer goods like the Trabants mentioned above as evidence of Eastern Europe's wealth and sophistication. An American historian might also note that the Reagan administration took an active role in undermining the Soviet oil and gas export industry in the 1980s, first by allowing Soviet spies to steal bugged computer software for their gas pipelines that later caused immense explosions, then by pressuring Saudi Arabia to drop oil prices in the mid-'80s. But his essential point, taken in conjunction with Mr. Grzebski's recollections, is sound: repressive governments can only survive as long as there is food in the shops. If there is no bread, all the military glory and shoddy sneakers in the world won't be enough to save your regime. Trite, perhaps, but easy enough for autocrats to forget.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Now Silent, Upon a Peak in Darien

On May 1st I reported on the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, whereby Scotland formally surrendered its independence to England and became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. I implied that English anti-Catholicism and English bribes had much to do with the end of Scotland's sovereignty. However, in a new article in the Guardian, Rory Carroll attributes the end of Scottish independence to the kingdom's disastrous attempt to colonize Panama in the late 1690s. The now-obscure Scottish colony of New Caledonia cost Scotland hundreds of lives and one-fifth of its national wealth, and its collapse both bankrupted and demoralized the Scottish government. According to archaeologist Mark Horton, however, the failure of New Caledonia was not due to Scottish incompetence - the site was well-chosen and the death rate no higher than in 17th-century Virginia - but rather to Spanish military opposition and English indifference. The story reminds us, at any rate, that the margin of survival in Europe's 17th-century colonies was quite thin, and the consequences of failed colonies could be quite severe for the mother country.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Voyagers to the East: An Updated Census

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

After my four-post digression on the South American Indian slave trade, I thought it would be useful to compile a new census of all the Indian travelers to Europe, involuntary or otherwise, that I've discussed in this series. Herewith I present an updated head count, by year, of the "voyagers to the east:"

1493: 17 Tainos brought to Spain by Columbus
1494: 26 Carib and Taino captives shipped to Spain
1495: 350 Tainos and Caribs brought to Spain as slaves
1496: 30 Tainos brought by Columbus to Spain
1500: 200 Indians (probably Taino or Arawak) sold by Vespucci in Cadiz
1501: 50 Micmacs brought to Portugal as slaves by Corte-Real expedition
1501: 3 Brazilian Indians brought by Vespucci to Lisbon
1502: 3 Micmacs (or Inuit) brought to England by Fernandes & Gonsalves
1503: 260-350 Brazilian Indians sold in Seville by Spanish slavers
1505: 1 Brazilian (Carijo) boy brought to France by de Gonneville
1508: 7 Micmacs brought to France by Aubert
1513: 35 Brazilian Indian slaves sold in Spain
1513: 3 Brazilians (Tupinikin) visit King Manoel I in Lisbon
1515: 50-100 Brazilian men and women brought to Spain as slaves
1523: 1 Florida Indian (Francisco de Chicora) brought to Spain
1524: 1 southeastern Algonquian boy brought to France by Verrazzano
1525: 58 Penobscots taken by Gomez to Spain as slaves
1526: 4 Brazilian (Carijo) chiefs' sons enslaved in Spain
1531: 1 Brazilian chief taken to England by Hawkins
1532-49: About 670 Brazilian Indian slaves shipped to Portugal
1535-36: 10 Hurons (Donnaconna et al.) brought to France by Cartier
1550: 50 Tupi-Guarani taken to France and displayed in Lyons
1550-1600: 10-20 Brazilian boys sent to Portugal for education
1560s: 1 Powhatan, Luis Velasco (later Opechancanough), travels to Spain
1567: 2 Inuit taken to Belgian Netherlands
1576-77: 4 Inuit captives taken to England
1584: 2 Carolina Algonquian chiefs travel to England
1586: 2 Carolina Algonquians taken to England (not including repeat traveler Manteo)
1595: 4 men from Trinidad and Guiana sail to England; one boy and four men from Trinidad and Guiana to England (5-9 altogether, depending on how many of the four adults belonged to both groups)
1613: 6 Tupinambas baptized in Paris

The total so far, for the years 1493-1613 AD, is 1,862-2,016 people. Of these:

1,098 - 1,252 came from South America (including Trinidad)
623 came from the Caribbean
and 141 came from North America.

Their destinations were as follows:

To England: 17-21
To France: 75
To Spain: 1,032-1,172
To Portugal: 736-746
Elsewhere (modern Belgium): 2

About 90% of these Indians were brought to Spain or Portugal to be sold as slaves. Many of the remaining travelers were captives, brought to England, France, or Flanders for display as curiosities or training as interpreters. This fits the general pattern of trans-Atlantic migration in the early modern period. At least two-thirds of the migrants from the Old World to the New between 1500 and 1850 were African slaves, and a majority of European colonists also traveled involuntarily, as orphans or criminals bound to service, as the dependent female relatives of male migrants, or as indentured servants destined to serve (for a term) a Euro-American master.

Why did so many of the early Indian migrants travel to Spain or Portugal? Partly, because Spanish and Portuguese mariners controlled the Atlantic throughout the sixteenth century, until the defeat of the Armada and the ensuing Anglo-Spanish War of 1588-1603 ended Spanish naval dominance. Then, too, most of the early Indian travelers to Europe were slaves, and slavery was virtually extinct in Europe outside of the Iberian peninsula by 1500. More on the latter subject in a later post.

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Voyagers to the East, Part XVI

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

As I've noted in the previous two posts in this series, during the first half of the 16th century Portuguese and Spanish sailors transported at least 500, and perhaps more than 1,000 Brazilian Indians to southwestern Europe for sale as slaves. These were not the only native Brazilians to cross the Atlantic, however. In 1549, for example, the city fathers of Rouen employed fifty Tupi-Guarani people in their pageant for King Henry II (see "Voyagers to the East," Part VIII). Moreover, there were a few Indians who voluntarily traveled from Brazil to Europe in the 1500s. In 1501, Amerigo Vespucci brought three Indian volunteers to Lisbon, presumably to display them as curiosities, while in 1505 the French explorer Binot Paulmier de Gonnevile took the son of a Carijo chief to France, where de Gonneville renamed the boy for himself, educated him, and (in 1521) married him to his daughter, Suzanne. Meanwhile, in 1513 three Tupinikin men from the region of Porto Seguro visited King Manoel I of Portugal, who received the Indians while they were attired in feathers and carrying bows. (John Hemming, Red Gold, 11-12.)

During the second half of the 16th century, Jesuit missionaries in Brazil selected a few Indian boys to send to Portugal, where they were baptized and educated. I am uncertain of their numbers - 10-20 is a guess - and their eventual fate, though I think it unlikely that all of them survived to return home. Metropolitan Portuguese interest in evangelizing native Brazilians appears to have declined in the seventeenth century, but the French elite remained fascinated with the region and its inhabitants. In 1613 French missionaries brought six Tupinambas to Paris for baptism, with King Louis XIII and Marie de Medici serving as godparents. Later in that same century, incidentally, Jean Paulmier de Courtonne, a descendant of the Carijo boy Binot de Gonneville and his wife Suzanne, became an abbot in Lisieux, in Normandy. (Hemming, op. cit., 103, 532; Luca Codignola, "The Holy See and the Conversion of the Indians in French and Spanish North America," in Karen Kupperman, ed., America in European Consciousness [Chapel Hill, NC, 1992], p. 217.)

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Steam-Engine Time

Another anniversary: two hundred years ago today, on August 17, 1807, the first commercial steamboat in American history began its maiden voyage. Developed by Robert Fulton and named the North River Steamboat, the 130-foot-long vessel (also known as the Clermont) ascended the Hudson River to Albany in record time, covering 160 miles in just 32 hours. The North River's average speed – five miles per hour – may seem slow to modern readers, but it achieved that velocity against both the current and a strong headwind, proving the feasibility and reliability of steam transportation.

While first tested on the Hudson River, steamboats had a more revolutionary impact when brought to the shallow interior rivers of the United States – the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, and others. Shallow-draft steamboats could navigate rivers as low as 10 feet in depth, could attain speeds as high as 25 m.p.h., and could carry up to 70 tons of cargo. The first steamboat on the western waters traveled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in 1811; by 1820 there were over 400 of them in the greater Mississippi Valley; and by the 1830s they had lowered interior transport costs by 75%, dramatically easing trade and travel between the East and the Midwest and accelerating the economic integration of the United States.

Steam navigation also enlivened the existence of villagers in the Midwest, one of the duller parts of the United States. In Old Times on the Mississippi, Mark Twain recalled the excitement that attended the arrival of a steamboat in his home town:

"The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving. Drays, carts, men, boys, all go hurrying from many quarters to...the wharf. Assembled there, the people fasten their eyes upon the coming boat as upon a wonder they are seeing for the first time. And the boat is rather a handsome sight, too. She is long and sharp and trim and pretty; she has two tall, fancy-topped chimneys…a fanciful pilot-house, all glass and "gingerbread," perched on top of the 'texas' deck behind them; the paddle-boxes are gorgeous with a picture or with gilded rays above the boat's name; the boiler deck, the hurricane deck, and the texas deck are fenced and ornamented with clean white railings; there is a flag gallantly flying from the jack-staff; the furnace doors are open and the fires flaring bravely; the upper decks are black with passengers; the captain stands by the big bell, calm, imposing, the envy of all; great volumes of the blackest smoke are rolling and tumbling out of the chimneys - a husbanded grandeur created with a bit of pitch pine just before arriving at a town; the crew are grouped on the forecastle; the broad stage is run far out over the port bow, and an envied deck-hand stands picturesquely on the end of it with a coil of rope in his hand; the pent steam is screaming through the gauge-cocks; the captain lifts his hand, a bell rings, the wheels stop; then they turn back, churning the water to foam, and the steamer is at rest. Then such a scramble as there is to get aboard, and to get ashore, and to take in freight and to discharge freight, all at one and the same time; and such a yelling and cursing as the mates facilitate it all with! Ten minutes later the steamer is under way again…After ten more minutes the town is dead again, and the town drunkard asleep by the skids."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Voyagers to the East, Part XV

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

Hoping to secure his kingdom's contested claim to Brazil, in 1532 King Joao III of Portugal divided the Brazilian coast into colonial districts, or donatories, which he then granted to fourteen Portuguese magistrates and noblemen. The donatory grants placed the grantees, also known as captains, under a number of legal restrictions. One of these pertained to Indian slaves: the captains could employ Native American slaves on their plantations in Brazil, but could only export 24 to Portugal each year.

I don't know the reason for this restriction – I suspect that Joao was trying to protect the interests of merchants involved in the African slave trade – but whatever the cause, it seems likely that the Brazilian captains followed the Indian slave-export rule. I base this guess upon a simple economic fact: the demand for Indian slave labor on the Brazilian side of the Atlantic far outweighed the European demand. By 1526, Portuguese settlers had learned that coastal Brazil had an ideal climate for sugar cultivation, and sugar cane was as labor-intensive as it was profitable. By 1540 Joao's donatory captains had lined the Brazilian coast with plantations, each manned by hundreds of Native American slaves who (under threat of torture and death) spent their days planting, weeding, cutting, and pressing sugar cane. The cane fields were graveyards for Indian laborers, who died from hunger, exposure, overwork, and imported Old World diseases, like malaria and amoebic dysentery. (John Hemming, Red Gold, 36-39; Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange [Westport, CT, 1972], 39-40, 69).

The combination of intense local demand for slave labor and high indigenous mortality naturally limited the supply of Brazilian Indian slaves for the European market. John Hemming, an expert on Indian-white relations in colonial Brazil, gives no estimate of the number of slaves taken to Portugal during the first period of Brazilian colonization (1534-49), but he does note that one of the most successful donatory captains, Alfonso de Sousa, only sent 48 Indian slaves across the Atlantic during his entire career. (Hemming, op. cit., 538.) If we assume that this was an average per capita figure, then the fourteen captains would have shipped about 670 Indian slaves to Europe by 1550. This is probably a high estimate, because some of the donatory captains never actually claimed their grants.

After 1549, when Brazil became a royal colony, several new developments further curtailed (and probably stopped) the shipment of Brazilian Indian slaves across the Atlantic. First, the demand for slave laborers in Portugal and Spain declined in the second half of the sixteenth century, as Europe finished replacing the population losses it had sustained in the Black Death. (George Huppert, After the Black Death [Bloomington, 1986], 112.) Second, the Brazilian Indian population began to collapse as smallpox, the most consistently lethal of Old World diseases, arrived in the ports and plantations. A 1562 smallpox epidemic killed 30,000 Indians within four months, then attacked and annihilated countless coastal Indian villages. Portuguese and allied Tupi Indian slave raiders were forced to conduct long-range slaving expeditions into the Brazilian highlands, and the captives they brought back to the coast were just as short-lived as their predecessors. By 1576, Portuguese planters in Brazil were beginning to meet their labor demands by importing African slaves – 40,000 by 1600, and hundreds of thousands in the subsequent century. These new bondsmen brought with them additional smallpox outbreaks which decimated both the Brazilian Indian population and the colony's Indian slave trade. (Dauril Alden and Joseph Miller, "Out of Africa: The Slave Trade and the Transmission of Smallpox to Brazil, 1560-1831," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18 (1987), 195-224.) I've not located any accounts of Brazilian Indian slaves traveling to Europe after 1550, though a few Tupi-Guarani Indians did cross the Atlantic voluntarily, of whom more later.

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Voyagers to the East, Part XIV

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

During the first quarter of the sixteenth century, Spain maintained a near-monopoly on the exploration and exploitation of the Americas. In only two regions of the Western Hemisphere did other Western European nations challenge Spain's dominance: Newfoundland, where sailors of nearly every seafaring country came to exploit the cod fisheries, and Brazil. While claimed by Portugal under the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), Brazil remained outside of the effective control of any single European power, and it possessed two commodities Europeans desired: brazilwood (the source of a bright and cheap red dye), and human slaves. The latter were either the prisoners of internecine wars, or captives taken by well-armed European slaving parties. Most were destined to end their lives on plantations in the West Indies or on the Brazilian coast, but a fair number, according to John Hemming's Red Gold (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), wound up in Western Europe. The following is a short summary of the cases Hemming reports, by year:

1503: Four Spanish ships brought gold, brazilwood, and Indian slaves to Seville in this year. There is no indication how many people were on each ship, but 100 seems a likely maximum - the ships were carrying other cargo, so it is doubtful that the crewmen packed in as many slave passengers as did Columbus's men in 1495. Fatalities en route probably ranged from 13% (Vespucci's figure in 1500) to 35% (Columbus's figure), leaving 260-350 survivors to be sold in Seville. This is, of course, only a guess. (Hemming, 531)

1513: The ship Bentoa brought 35 Indian slaves from Brazil to Lisbon, where they were probably sold as household servants or field hands. (Hemming, 10-11)

1515: A German correspondent described a Portuguese ship bringing "young [Indian] men and women" to Lisbon. Apparently, the ship captain had duped these passengers into coming to Europe voluntarily, then sold them into slavery after landing. The correspondent did not record the number of passengers, but 50-100 seems a reasonable range. (Hemming, 11)

1526: Sebastian Cabot, the son of John Cabot, took four chiefs' sons captive while in southern Brazil (Carijo), and sold them in Spain. (ibid)

This gives us a range of 349 - 489 Brazilian Indians sold as slaves in Iberia between 1503 and 1526. These figures are speculative and imprecise, but are based on the solid research in Hemming's book and thus at least convey the order of magnitude of this involuntary migration.

The sale of Brazilian Indian slaves in Portugal increased somewhat after the Portuguese began formally colonizing Brazil in 1534. That is a story for my next entry in this series.

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Voyagers to the East, Part XIII

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

In discussing Christopher Columbus's shipment of 550 Indian slaves to Europe (Voyagers to the East, Part II, 2/21/06), I neglected to mention that his contemporary, Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, also engaged in the Indian slave trade, and from a very early date. In 1499 Vespucci undertook a reconnaissance voyage to the eastern coast of South America on behalf of the Spanish Crown. In a subsequent letter to Lorenzo de Medici (18 July 1500), Vespucci reported on the many wondrous things he and his companions had seen: new species of serpents and songbirds, new stars and constellations (Vespucci was the first modern European to see Alpha Centauri, which is only visible from the Southern Hemisphere), and many different nations of Indians, speaking at least 40 different languages. Some of the Native Americans whom Vespucci encountered were friendly and gave gifts, some the explorers fought. He opined that the lands he explored had to belong to an entirely new continent, owing to the many varieties of land animals he had encountered – an observation that had eluded his predecessor Columbus, even though Columbus had also explored the South American coast.

After thirteen months of voyaging, around May 1500, Vespucci observed that his men were exhausted and short of food, and so he determined to return home. Before doing so, he resolved to bring back one last treasure: 232 human slaves, procured from "certain islands" off the Atlantic coast of North America. Vespucci did not identify these islands, but he and his followers had just sailed 600 miles north of Hispaniola, through "a shoal of islands, more than a thousand in number" that were probably the Bahamas. These may have been the "certain islands" to which Vespucci refers.

In any event, Vespucci reported that he and his companions made the voyage back to Cadiz in 67 days, during which time about thirty of the captives died. The explorers sold the surviving 200 Indians as slaves, but apparently the transaction wasn't very profitable: Vespucci wrote that "After deducting the expense of transportation we gained only about five hundred ducats, which, having to be divided into fifty-five parts, made the share of each very small." (Frederick Ober, Amerigo Vespucci [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1907], pp. 109-124, quote 122.)

It's worth mentioning that one needs to take all of Vespucci's travel accounts with a large grain of salt, as he tended to embellish his stories with exaggerated or entirely fictional details. (For instance, he claimed that he and his men had encountered a tribe of giant female warriors in the South American interior, and that some of the other Indian peoples he encountered showered the explorers with gold and precious gems.) It is quite possible that Vespucci also invented his story of bringing Indian slaves back to Spain. But it seems unlikely that he would have lied about this particular incident. When Vespucci embellished or bent the truth, he usually did so to glorify himself or add color to his story. There was nothing particularly colorful or glorious about slave trading, an enterprise regarding which Ferdinand and Isabela had already expressed their displeasure. On the contrary, Vespucci's report on his slave-trading is quite mundane and bare-boned: he tells us nothing about the slaves except their numbers, how many survived the voyage, and how little money he obtained for them. One might find Vespucci's inability to identify the precise provenance of his Indian prisoners a little suspicious, but then, such vagueness was common in early narratives of exploration, and to be expected given the absence of good maps. Vespucci appears to have had no motive for lying about his enslavement of Native Americans, and so one may assume that he was telling the truth, and that he did indeed destroy the lives of over 200 people in the interest of making his second exploratory voyage a "success."

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation

Today is the 300th anniversary of the effective date of the Act of Union, whereby the English and Scottish Parliaments merged into one national legislature and created the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Under the act Scotland was allowed to retain its court system and its national church (known in the United States as the Presbyterian Church). But Scotland's independence effectively ended with Union, which liquidated the Scottish government and incorporated the country into the English economy as well.

The two kingdoms had shared a sovereign since 1603, when Elizabeth I died childless and James VI of Scotland accepted the English Crown, becoming England's King James I . Eighty-five years later, however, a small group of English Protestant aristocrats and generals, in league with Prince William of Orange, deposed James I's Catholic grandson, James II, in a bloodless coup d'etat. James II's daughter Mary and William of Orange, her husband and cousin, became co-monarchs of England and Scotland, and the English Parliament legalized their rule on the condition that they accepted a Parliamentary bill of rights. Among other provisions, the English Bill of Rights stipulated that no Catholic could ever again be King or Queen of England, and that the Crown would henceforth pass only to James II's Protestant heirs: either Mary's children, William's children by a later marriage, Mary's younger sister Anne, or Anne's children.

However, Mary died childless in 1694, and William did not remarry prior to his death. Anne, who reigned as Queen Anne from 1702 to 1714, made a concerted but unsuccessful effort to produce an heir: she had eighteen pregnancies, of which thirteen ended in miscarriages. None of her five children lived past the age of ten. The author of The Sickly Stuarts makes a convincing argument that Anne probably had lupus, a disease which in pregnant women often leads to late-term miscarriages. In any event, by 1700 (when Anne's only surviving son, pictured above with his mother, died) it was clear there would be no Protestant Stuarts to succeed Anne. It was also clear that her nearest Protestant male relative was, in fact, German: specifically, the Elector of Hanover (future King George I). Determined to keep England Protestant, Parliament passed a law in 1701 settling the English and Scottish Crowns on the House of Hanover after Anne's death. Scotland's Parliament balked at accepting a German King, and England's aristocrats and gentry worried that Scotland might proclaim its loyalty to the Catholic Stuart heir, the soi-disant James III. To head off this possibility, England's Parliament imposed full legislative and economic union on Scotland in 1707, bribing Scotland's MPs into accepting the settlement and granting them 45 seats in the English House of Commons and sixteen in the House of Lords.

The union eventually brought considerable economic benefits to Scotland's gentry and aristocracy, in the form of a free-trade agreement with England and access to England's overseas empire. Many Scotsmen became prominent traders and officials in the American colonies, while others grew rich marketing American staple crops and loaning money to Virginia tobacco planters. Yet there was always a subcurrent of nationalism in Scotland, expressed by Robert Burns in a 1791 poem and, closer to our own time, by one of George Orwell's correspondents, who wrote in 1947 that "Scotland experienced her Yalta in 1707 when English gold achieved what English guns could not do. But we will never accept defeat." (Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters [Boston, 2000 (orig. pub. 1968), 4: 284]) Scottish nationalists finally won a symbolic victory in 1999, when Tony Blair's Labor government rewarded them for their help in the 1997 general election by creating a separate Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. As far as I can tell, though, it wields about as much power as the average American high-school student government. I suspect there are still many Scottish nationalists who would agree with Mark Renton's assessment of Scottish identity.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Printed World

Library Thing, the site that brought us the "Unsuggester," contains a link to a fascinating, if less interactive, book-related Web page: Matthew Gray's Earth Viewed from Books. As most of my readers know, Google is in the midst of a multi-year project to digitize every printed book in the world. As part of that project, the digitizers are generating maps of all the place names mentioned in each volume. Matt Gray, a software engineer and Google employee, has taken this a step further: he has plotted all of these place-name references onto a map of the world. Furthermore, he has prepared several historical maps showing the gradual spread of place-name references from books published between 1800 and 1900, graphically demonstrating the growing Western awareness of North America, India, Japan, and Australasia. He also shows that Patagonia, the Sahara, most of Australia, and most of the former Soviet Union still lie outside of the world's literary consciousness, either because they are lightly populated or because they are too isolated to draw writers' attention. True "globalization" is apparently still years away.

It would be interesting to extend Mr. Gray's historical maps back into the eighteenth, or even the sixteenth century, and to watch as Europeans gradually learned about (and wrote about) the Americas and East Asia. For now, though, he has produced some food for thought - or at least a few intellectual hors d'oeuvres.

Friday, April 20, 2007

You Probably Won't Like...

Amazon's book-recommendation service now has an opposite number: LibraryThing's "UnSuggester," which you can use to find out which books you probably don't want to read. Examples:

If you liked The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami,
you probably won't like Basics of Biblical Greek by William D. Mounce

If you liked Parliament of Whores by P.J. O'Rourke,
you probably won't like A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks

If you liked Knitting Rules! by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee,
you probably won't like V by Thomas Pynchon

If you liked Phenomenology of Mind by Georg Hegel (and who doesn't?),
you probably won't like Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

And so forth. The program is based on the personal libraries of the site's registered members; after you type in the title of a book, it scans the collections of LibraryThing members who own the same book, then calculates which other books those members are least likely to own. Of course, the same program can also determine which books you might actually like to read, but that's not nearly as entertaining.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Enter, To Grow in Wisdom

The March 30th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education contains an article by Fred R. Shapiro, co-editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, on the origins of the most famous quotations from the academic world (e.g. "Publish or perish," "You can always tell a Harvard man..."). One of these quotes caught my fancy, perhaps because I'd never heard it before, but also because it too often reflects reality. Asked why universities were such great repositories of learning and wisdom, A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University (1909-1933), replied "The freshmen bring a little in and the seniors take none out, so it accumulates through the years."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

And in Other War News...

Military historians may long debate which conflict deserves the title "Most Obscure War in History," but a couple of weeks ago Europe submitted a strong contender. On March 1st, 2007, Switzerland invaded Liechtenstein.

To be honest, the invasion was accidental, and the 170 Swiss soldiers involved weren't very well armed - they were carrying unloaded rifles and (of course) Swiss Army knives. Nor did the good people of Liechtenstein seem particularly worried about Switzerland's act of aggression. Markus Amman, an employee of Liechtenstein's ministry of the interior, remarked that "nobody in Liechtenstein had even noticed the soldiers. 'It's not like they stormed over here with attack helicopters or something.'"

Commentators on world politics rarely use the words "war" and "Liechtenstein" in the same sentence, because the tiny nation's military history has been both brief and inglorious. The principality last sent troops into battle in 1866, dispatching an 80-man contingent to Italy to assist the Austrians in the Third War of Italian Unification. However, the expeditionaries saw no fighting and sustained no casualties. "In fact," wrote Bill Bryson, "they came back with 81 men, because they had made a friend on the way." (Neither Here Nor There [New York, 1992], p. 194.) In 1868, Liechtenstein dissolved its army and went about its other business, which currently consists of three enterprises: printing postage stamps, serving as a corporate tax shelter, and manufacturing false teeth.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why I'm Not a Political Forecaster

This weblog passed its one-year anniversary last week, and by way of celebration I thought I would post one of the blog entries I wrote last year but decided, for one reason or another, not to publish. The essay, which I completed in early October, was entitled "Electoral Predictions," and used a simple but persuasive (or so I thought) statistical model to determine the likely outcome of the 2006 U.S. Congressional elections. How accurate was my prediction? Take a look:

It's never wise to make predictions in American politics, and historians are traditionally the worst political prognosticators. Nonetheless, with 5 1/2 weeks to go before the fall Congressional elections, let me briefly observe that history does not appear to be on the Democrats' side.

In the 1930s, Congressional elections sometimes led to quite dramatic swings in the partisan composition of the House of Representatives. There were several elections in which one party picked up 80 or more seats, followed by elections in which the other party recaptured 60 or more seats. These oscillations, however, have become much smaller in recent decades, as redistricting has made more House districts "safe" for either Democrats or Republicans, and as the realignments caused by the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement have reached completion. There have been only a few dramatic midterm elections in the last forty years, and only one in the last twenty: the 1994 "revolution," in which a wave of Democratic retirements in Republican-trending districts helped give the Republican Party control of the House.

The chart above demonstrates just how anomalous the 1994 election was. The X-axis identifies each of the last ten House elections, and the Y axis indicates the net change in House seats from one party to the other. Since 1986, this figure has usually been less than 10 seats, sometimes less than 5. The average change (factoring in 1994) has been 10-11 seats. If this twenty-year trend continues in 2006, the minority party -- the Democrats -- will probably pick up some seats in the House of Representatives. The historical odds, however, indicate that they'll only win 10-11 seats, leaving the Republicans with a 219-216 (or so) majority. It's a thin margin, but enough to keep Dennis Hastert ensconced in the Speaker's office.

The Senate race is more interesting because it's more personal -- and thus harder to predict. I will guess that Democratic challengers will win Republican seats in Pennsylvania, Montana, and Ohio, but Republican Thomas Kean is polling ahead of his Democratic challenger in New Jersey, and name recognition may be enough to get him the seat. The McCaskill-Talent race in Missouri is rated a tossup by Slate Magazine. George Allen is unlikely to lose in Virginia, "macaca" reference or no, because his opponent is weak and inexperienced. Lincoln Chafee has run far enough away from the president to keep his seat in Rhode Island. Tennessee will not vote for a black Democrat, no matter how conservative he is or how much name recognition he enjoys.

So the Democrats will pick up 2-3 seats in the Senate, giving the Republicans a 52-46 majority -- still larger than their majority in the 109th Congress. The other two seats will almost certainly be held by Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Socialist who will caucus with the Democrats, and Joe Lieberman, the newly-independent Connecticut Senator who will probably caucus with the Democrats.

Well, I was right about a few of the Senate races. Otherwise, my predictions were wrong. The Democrats picked up 31 seats in the House of Representatives, and Kean, Talent, and Chafee all lost their races; moreover, George Allen's "macaca" gaffe ("macacalypse," if you prefer) helped the "weak and inexperienced" Jim Webb defeat him, thus giving the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate. Perhaps historians really do make bad "political prognosticators."

There's another way to look at my lousy prediction, though. A Republican economist friend of mine, whom I now owe a pizza (we made a bet about the outcome of the House race), says that I should have used the 1966 House race as my model for the 2006 race. In that year, voters punished an increasingly unpopular president who had mired the nation in an foreign war by "shellacking" the president's party in the midterm elections. (Republicans picked up 47 House seats in 1966.) What's interesting is that my economist friend used a historical model to predict the outcome of the election, and was proven right, whereas I, a historian, used a statistical model to predict the election and was dead wrong. Sometimes it pays to stick with what you know.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Donnaconna's Entourage: Voyagers to the East VI (addendum)

Here is an addendum to my earlier account of Donnaconna, the Huron chief whom Jacques Cartier took back to France in the 1530s: James Axtell reports that in May 1536 Cartier invited Donnaconna, two other chiefs, and two Indian interpreters - Donnaconna's sons Domagaya and Taignoagny - to meet him at the French camp near the town of Stadacona, then abducted all five men. According to Axtell, Canadian Indians (Hurons or Iroquois) had previously given the explorers five boys as "tokens of alliance" and, presumably, for training in the French language, so when Cartier sailed for France later that year he had ten Indians on his ship.

When in 1541 Cartier returned to Quebec to establish a (short-lived) mining colony, he told the Stadaconans that his Indian companions had all married and become "great lords" in Europe, and no longer wished to return home. This may have been partially true, and (as I mentioned in a previous post) the Huron travelers may have enjoyed very good living conditions in France. For diplomatic reasons, however, Cartier declined to mention that nine of the ten travelers (including Donnaconna) had in fact died during the preceding half decade, and so could not be consulted on their future travel plans. (Axtell, The Invasion Within [New York: Oxford University Press, 1985], p. 27.)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Voyagers to the East, Part XII

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

Hoping to recoup his fortunes in the wake of the Roanoke fiasco, Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1590s decided to embark on a new American venture: searching for El Dorado. The Spanish had undertaken two unsuccessful expeditions to find the fabled city (more precisely, man) of gold – one of which is chronicled in this film – but Raleigh, who probably heard of El Dorado from Spaniards captured by English privateers, thought he could succeed where Pizarro and Aguirre had failed.

Raleigh believed that El Dorado could most likely be found on the Orinoco River in present-day Guiana, and in 1594 he sent a ship to explore the Guianan coast and gather intelligence. The vessel returned the following year with its logs, charts, and four Indian passengers, two from Guiana and two from Trinidad. Thomas Hariot set to work teaching the new visitors the English language and interrogating them about Guiana's geography, wildlife, and people. At least one of these translators accompanied Raleigh when he embarked for Guiana later that year.

Raleigh's 1595 Guiana expedition was short but (from our standpoint) consequential. After pausing to defeat the Spanish garrison on Trinidad, the adventurer and his 100 or so companions ascended the Orinoco River into present-day Venezuela, and made an alliance with Topiawari, the cacique (chief) of the Arromaia Indians. To seal the pact, Raleigh left behind two Englishmen to learn the Arromaian language, and took with him to England Topiawari's 19-year-old son, Cayowaroco, and 3-4 other South American Indians (from Guiana and Trinidad), to instruct them in the English language.

Two of the Native Americans from the 1594-95 expeditions, whom Raleigh and his associates renamed John Prevost and Henry, returned to Guiana in 1596 and 1597 with the English navigators Lawrence Keymis and Leonard Berry. These translators helped their captains establish diplomatic relations with other Guianan caciques, and by the early 17th century England had established a commercial presence on the northeast coast of South America. (Source: Alden Vaughan, "Sir Walter Raleigh's Indian Interpreters," pp. 358-365; see also Charles Nicholl, The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.)

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Returning to His Plow

The recent death of Gerald Ford has caused me to reflect on the awkwardness of presidential retirement in the United States. Monarchies, or nations whose chiefs of state serve for life, don't have to consider how they will treat former chief executives. Other republics (like ancient Rome or modern Chile) provided ex-consuls or ex-presidents with lifetime appointment to their senate, thus giving them a place of honor and influence commensurate with their former power. Americans, however, expect their presidents to go home and die quietly after they finish their terms of office.

This is largely the fault of George Washington, who, following the example of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (fl. 5th century BCE), voluntarily relinquished supreme command not once but twice. In 1783 General Washington, then commander-in-chief of a victorious revolutionary army, surrendered his sword to the Continental Congress - then a rather scruffy and fugitive assembly - and retired to his plantation in Virginia. This first retirement so impressed American electors that they unanimously chose Washington to be the first president of the national government, knowing he could be trusted to walk away from power. Moreover, as president Washington refused to serve more than two terms, even though he could have served as many as he wanted (the Constitution did not impose presidential term limits prior to the 22nd Amendment). He thereby established a precedent that only a few of his successors had the nerve to try to break.

Washington retired from the presidency in 1797, went back to Mount Vernon, and died less than three years later. His successors, however, were only rarely able to contrive so fitting an end to their public service. Of 41 past American presidents, 8 died in office (W.H. Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, F.D. Roosevelt, and Kennedy) and 6 lived less than five years after retiring (Washington, Polk, Arthur, Wilson, Coolidge, and L.B. Johnson). The remaining 27 lived for an embarrassingly long time, which most spent writing their very dull memoirs and making money.

Has anyone had a memorable post-presidential career in the United States? Only a few examples come to mind:

* Thomas Jefferson, who helped found the University of Virginia;
* John Quincy Adams, who served in the House of Representatives for 17 years, fought against slavery, and played a major role in the founding of the Smithsonian Institution;
* William Howard Taft, who served as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1921-30), the only position in the federal government co-equal to the presidency;
* Herbert Hoover, who served as a government commissioner in Germany after World War Two and helped set up emergency food programs there;
* Jimmy Carter, who served as an international election monitor, helped (and still helps) raise millions of dollars to fight tropical diseases, and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ford, by contrast, appears to have done approximately nothing in retirement, except make money, go to church, and play golf. In his defense, one can merely say that he was following Washington's example, in his own humble way. And one can also say that Ford's retirement years were not an embarrassment to the nation - unlike those of Franklin Pierce, who after leaving the White House became a supporter of the Confederacy, ran over an old woman with his carriage, and purportedly said "there's nothing left to do but get drunk."