Saturday, May 31, 2008

Voyagers to the East, Part XX

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

The Inuit (once commonly referred to as Eskimos) were among the last Native Americans to settle in North America, and among the first to encounter Europeans. Arctic hunters of the Dorset and Thule cultures arrived in Alaska by 1000 BC, and migrated thence into northern Canada, reaching Greenland by 1100 AD. There the Inuit encountered the first European settlers in the New World: Norse colonists from Iceland, who had begun colonizing Greenland in 986 AD. The subsequent relationship between Norse and Inuit was not a friendly one. The two peoples did trade with one another - Norse artifacts have been found at Inuit sites off Ellesmere Island - but also fought with one another and competed for resources. The Norse eventually lost this contest: the Little Ice Age cut them off from Iceland and Europe, and as the climate cooled the Inuit proved better able to exploit the island's animal resources. Sometime before 1480, the last Norsemen in Greenland died out. (Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1800 [Cambridge, 1986], 45-54; Eric Wahlgren, The Vikings and America [London, 1986], 16-27).

European contact with the Inuit resumed about 50 years later, but Euro-Inuit relations didn't grow any friendlier. This may have had something to do with Europeans' desire to bring Eskimo captives back to Europe as trophies. In 1536, Englishmen tried to kidnap a party of Native American - probably Inuit - hunters off the Labrador coast. In 1567, French mariners brought an Inuit woman and her daughter to the Netherlands, while Martin Frobisher took another four Inuit captives to England in 1576-77. In 1586 English explorer John Davis captured two Inuit and Inuk men in Greenland, but they probably died before Davis returned to Europe.

Early in the next century, King Christian IV of Denmark commissioned an exploratory voyage to Greenland to determine the fate of the Norse settlements there and revive the Norse-Danish claim to the island. In 1605 three Danish ships under the command of Scottish mariner John Cunningham sailed for Greenland. The vessels successfully crossed the Atlantic, and one, the Loven, traded with the Inuit on Greenland's southwest coast before seizing two men and their kayaks. The Inuit captives violently resisted their imprisonment at first but eventually accepted their fate; perhaps they hoped to make a later escape. In Copenhagen the prisoners were paraded before the King and Queen and participated in a kayak race against a 16-oared Danish vessel. (The race ended in a tie.) Their subsequent fate is unknown.

Cunningham's other two vessels, the Trost and Katten, proceeded up the Greenland coast, skirmished with 30 Eskimos, and captured 3, whom the mariners also displayed in Denmark (after the Inuit prisoners made a failed escape attempt). These captives also participated in kayaking displays - the Spanish ambassador to the Danish court gave them a large cash award for their virtuosity - and purchased much "fashionable clothing" for themselves, including swords and plumed hats. (Some Danish observers referred to the re-costumed Inuit as the "Greenland grandees.") A subsequent Danish expedition tried to take all three captives back to Greenland, but at least two died en route.

The Danes believed that Cunningham's Inuit captives were descendants of the lost Norse colony on Greenland, and they continued their efforts to bring Eskimos - their own purported ethnic relatives - to Europe. There were six Danish and Dutch voyages to Greenland between 1607 and 1654, which brought thirty more Inuit back to Denmark and the Netherlands. Some of the travelers may have been children brought to Denmark for education, as authorized by Christian IV in the 1636 charter of the Danish Greenland Company. The most famous of these captives were an Inuit man, two women, and a girl whom David Daniel captured near Godthaab in 1654. Daniel brought the Greenlanders to Bergen, where they were painted by Salomon van Haven, becoming the first Inuit so represented. (Wendell Oswalt, Eskimos and Explorers [2nd. edition, Lincoln, 1999], 41-43.) The painting can be viewed below:

(The caption on the sign reads "In their small leather ships the Greenlanders sail hither and thither on the ocean; from animals and birds they get their clothes. The cold land of Midnight. Bergen, September 28th, 1654." [Oswalt, 75-76.] Original image from

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

So What?

When asked what makes the study of history a "discipline," academic historians usually respond (after finishing their drinks) that their books and articles don't just describe a particular event or time period - they also attempt to determine the enduring significance of that event or period. Bernard Bailyn, who dominated the Harvard History Department for nearly forty years, had a more succinct way of making this point: in his graduate seminars, he would frequently begin his criticism of a paper or article by asking "So what?"

Recently, a student asked Professor Timothy Burke (of Swarthmore) if historians have a stock answer to that question. The short answer to the student's question is "No," which generates much consternation in graduate seminars and considerable angst in late-career professionals. Burke very usefully sat down and thought up a longer answer to the question, a list of answers in fact, which he recently posted here.

Some of these items appear unhelpful on first glance; for instance, number 2 ("the past is not prologue") and number 10 ("the past is unknowable") suggest that history has nothing to teach the present. Actually, though, one of the most important historical monographs of the twentieth century, C. Vann Woodward's Strange Career of Jim Crow, falls squarely into category 2. By demonstrating that racial segregation was not an old practice in America, but the product of (then) fairly recent laws, Woodward could argue that American racial attitudes were not deeply rooted but were created by political and legal decisions that could be reversed. Woodward's argument was debatable, but it proved highly persuasive: the NAACP entered an early version of the book as evidence in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), and Martin Luther King, Jr. called the book "the historical bible" of the civil rights movement." Would that we could all write something as useful.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Professor Enron

Here's an update to a story I posted nearly two years ago: the University of Missouri has finally filled its Kenneth L. Lay chair in economics. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 2, 2008, p. A25), the university awarded the professorship to Joseph Haslag, "a specialist in monetary policy who has taught at Missouri since 2000." The dean of arts and sciences at Missouri says that the delay in filling the chair was occasioned not by the poor reputation of its endower, but by one of the vicissitudes of the academic labor market: four other professors who were offered the position used the offer to "leverage...raises at their home institutions," and then turned down the Missouri job. The article also noted that there are two other Kenneth Lay endowed chairs in economics at the University of Houston, one currently filled and the other soon to be. One can only hope that the professors who hold these chairs aren't hired as specialists in energy policy or corporate ethics.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Your Apocalypse Updated

Alert reader Elena O'Malley writes that Sean Malloy has taken down the Robert Capp photos I discussed in my post of May 10. Apparently, at least a couple of the photos were not of Hiroshima after all; instead, they display the aftermath of the Kanto Earthquake of 1923. One of the most devastating natural disasters of the twentieth century, the Great Kanto Earthquake leveled the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama and killed somewhere between 105,000 and 140,000 people (depending on how one counts the nearly 40,000 people reported as "missing").

I regret that Prof. Malloy and I (among others) were taken in by false evidence, though Malloy deserves credit for correcting the error so quickly. Meanwhile, we might observe that the Kanto Earthquake produced greater property damage, and possibly more human casualties, than the American nuclear attack on Hiroshima 22 years later - proof, if proof were needed, that Nature is still an effective competitor with humanity in the fields of death, destruction, and disaster.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Visualize Your Apocalypse

Earlier this month the Hoover Institution Archives released ten previously obscure photographs of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing of 6 August 1945. Most of the publicly available images of post-blast Hiroshima are either antiseptic pictures of the ruins or photos of the burns suffered by survivors, which, while impressive (or gruesome), don't convey the full extent of the carnage. The new photos, which were found in a cave outside the city by American GI Robert Capp, remedy this omission - to say the least. The pictures are very graphic and not for the easily depressed or faint of heart, but if (like me) you have a morbid fascination with nuclear war they can be seen here.

If you prefer a more esthetically pleasing nuclear holocaust, these photos of the French Licorne H-bomb test of 3 July 1970 might appeal. This was one of the largest French atmospheric nuclear tests, and an observer commented at the time that it was "stupendously beautiful." Which is, I guess, what the French look for in a hydrogen bomb.

And if you prefer to look on the lighter side of nuclear war, you could do worse than check out the (slightly dated) Flash animation The End of the World. You'll need a Flash player for the video, and a tolerance for four-letter words. (Though, if you don't mind the idea of nuclear annihilation, a little profanity probably won't bother you too much either.)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Happy New Year

Today is May Day, and (as all fans of the movie Airplane! know) it is also the Russian New Year. In honor of the occasion, I've posted a photograph of the Siberian city of Tobol'sk, taken in 1912 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. This is not a tinted black-and-white print, but an actual color photograph, though it was created through a cumbersome process. Prokudin-Gorskii used a special camera which took three photos of the same image - one through a red filter, one through a blue filter, and one through a green filter. He then loaded his glass-plate negatives into a projector which superimposed the three images on one another to create a final color picture. The photo above can be found, along with many other color photographs of late Imperial Russia, in the collection "The Empire that Was Russia" on the Library of Congress website. The site also includes a short essay on Prokudin-Gorskii and on the digital process whereby the Library re-assembled his photos.