Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What Cheer!

I've begun reading Susan Moore's 2007 book Pilgrims: New World Settlers and the Call of Home, a study of 600 Puritan colonists who left New England in the mid-seventeenth century and returned to old England. I've come across two anecdotes of personal interest:

1) Many of the returnees were drawn back to England by the lack of economic opportunities in Massachusetts, whose economy stagnated in the 1640s and '50s, creating a shortage of work for those in specialized trades. This included Harvard graduates, who after completing their training for the ministry found a distinct shortage of open posts in the colony. Nearly half of the college's students left for England after graduation, including seven of the nine members of the first graduating class (56, 70). (One of these students, George Downing, fought with Cromwell in the English Civil War, changed sides in 1660, became a baronet, and is now remembered as the namesake of Downing Street in London.) The Puritans and their nineteenth-century descendants were quite smug about establishing the first college in British North America, but apparently they opened it a few decades too soon.

2) To illustrate the "alien and mysterious character" of early Massachusetts, Moore tells the story of John Dane, who while walking from Roxbury to Ipswich (north of Salem) encountered a party of 40-50 Indians (probably Wampanoags). Startled, Dane "stuttered out" the old English greeting "What cheer." The Indians thought this was hilarious. "What cheer! What cheer!" they repeated, until "the woods rang with the noise" (p. 45). I think I may experiment with this greeting myself.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Northeast Passages

It appears that in the race to develop a viable commercial route through the increasingly-ice-free Arctic Ocean, the Northeast Passage - along the northern coast of Siberia and through the Bering Strait - has pulled ahead of the Northwest Passage. Here's a story to that effect from the Associated Press (11 September 2009):

"The merchant ships MV Beluga Fraternity and MV Beluga Foresight arrived this week in Yamburg, Siberia, their owner Beluga Shipping GmbH said Friday. They traveled from Ulsan, South Korea, in late July to Siberia by way of the Northeast Passage, a sea lane that, in years past, was avoided because of its heavy ice floes."

The two 12,000-ton ships were carrying cargo for a Russian power plant and construction parts to Rotterdam, their final destination. They will, once they complete their voyage, become the first Western European commercial ships successfully to navigate the Northeast Passage from East Asia. While it is only ice-free for part of the year now, the Arctic shortcut is potentially a profitable trade route because it is 3,500 miles shorter than the lower-latitude route through the Suez Canal, saving both time and fuel. Explorers who attempted to traverse the Northeast Passage in colder times, like Henry Hudson, would probably feel vindicated. (Either that, or envious of the Russian nuclear icebreakers that Beluga Shipping hired to help their freighters break through drift ice.)

Update: both ships passed Novaya Zemlya on September 16.
Second Update: Beluga Foresight docked in Arkhangel, in northwestern Russia, on 19 September.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Read the Founders!

Apropos of President Obama's forthcoming speech to America's schoolchildren, Tim Rutten writes in the Los Angeles Times that one conservative group "is urging parents to demand that their children be excused from watching the president and be sent instead to the library to read the Founding Fathers." I think this is a fine idea, and as a historian of early national America, I would like to offer the following reading suggestions:

* Benjamin Franklin, "Advice to a Young Friend on Finding a Mistress," a 1745 letter observing that the proper remedy for "the violent natural inclinations" of youth is marriage, but that taking a mistress is an acceptable substitute, as long as she is an older woman.

* Thomas Paine (or, as we call him here in the early 21st century, "Glenn Beck"), "Agrarian Justice." Argues in favor of the creation of a guaranteed income for all, funded by a tax on estates. "It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for."

* Thomas Jefferson, "Notes on the State of Virginia," Chapter 17. The future third president's reflections on the separation of church and state: "It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

No offense to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue intended, but any of these essays would be more edifying and stimulating than an address on the importance of doing well in school.