Monday, August 23, 2010

Beware: Bibulous Boas on Board

In the annals of failed military expeditions, the voyage of Imperial Russia's Baltic Fleet to the Pacific during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) has few peers. As Gavin Wrightman recounts in The Industrial Revolutionaries (New York, 2007), the fleet got off to a uniquely bad start when several of the ships therein mistook English fishing boats in the North Sea for Japanese torpedo boats (no, I'm not making that up) and opened fire, killing two people and wounding six. Russian diplomats agreed to pay reparations to the British government, but the Baltic Fleet's fortunes did not subsequently improve. Both Britain and France refused to supply the ships with fuel (which they had to obtain from German collier vessels en route), one of the ships severed a French submarine telegraph cable in Tangier, a number of crewmen died of heatstroke while loading coal off the African coast, and storms battered one squadron as it rounded the Cape of Good Hope. To lighten the gloomy mood, some of the Russians took shore leave during stops in Africa and "acquired a menagerie of exotic animals including a boa constrictor which apparently developed a taste for vodka" (p. 349). Russian sailors' interest in exotic pets was one they shared with naval officers in the contemporary British Navy, whose shipboard companions included baboons and at least one elephant.

Finally, after seven months of struggle, the Russian fleet reached the Straits of Tsushima, a few days' sailing from Vladivostok. There in the Straits, on 27 May 1905, the exhausted officers and crew ran into a Japanese fleet under Admiral Heihachiro Togo, and suffered one of the most decisive defeats in naval history. Togo enjoyed several advantages over his opponents: his men were rested, his ships had a functional wireless telegraph system, and his fleet included several dozen deadly torpedo boats, which he deployed to good effect. In just 24 hours of fighting the Japanese navy virtually annihilated the Baltic Fleet, sinking or disabling 34 of 48 ships and inflicting over 10,000 casualties on the Russians. Alas, Weightman is silent on the fate of the boa constrictor. I fear the worst.

Friday, August 06, 2010


While Scottish and German brewers fight to see who can produce the most potent beer in the world, a microbrewery in Philadelphia is reviving some of the gentler, but still distinctive, potables of the American past. Yards Brewing Company has launched its series of "Ales of the Revolution" with George Washington's Tavern Porter, a 14-proof brew inspired by one of Washington's own recipes. The Washington Post described the beverage as a mixture of "sharper, coffeelike flavors" and "residual sweetness," the latter flavor resulting from the molasses infused into each barrel.

Beer, of course, has been an important drink since the development of agriculture 11,000 years ago, but in late-colonial British North America it usually took a back seat to harder alcoholic beverages. The Anglophone elite preferred imported heavy wines, like port and Madeira, while farmers and laborers enjoyed hard cider and spiritous liquors, particularly rum distilled from West Indies molasses. David McCullough noted in 1776 that the early Continental Army consumed a prodigious amount of ordinary rum, plus cherry rum and flip (a "mixture of liquor, beer, and sugar" [29-30]), while their commander purchased "cider, brandy, and rum by the gallon" (42). I suspect, though, that if they'd had access to 110-proof beer they would have consumed it by preference, whether or not the bottles were stuffed into the carcasses of squirrels and stoats.

Monday, August 02, 2010

What I Saw of the SHEAR Convention (2010)

This year's meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic attracted 400 people, about 40% of the society's membership – a remarkable achievement, given the economic slump and the meeting's isolated location (Rochester, NY). I did some agreeable socializing at the conference, and attended a baker's dozen of papers, of which some of the highlights follow:

Michael Oberg, in "The Many Worlds of Eleazer Williams" (read by Daniel Richter), briefly recounted the life of Reverend Williams, a grandson of Indian captive Eunice Williams who became an Episcopal missionary to the Oneidas. Of particular interest was Williams' "discovery," in the 1840s, that he was the dauphin – the long-lost son of Louis XVI of France, supposedly spirited away to Canada in infancy to protect him from the Jacobins. Of equal interest was the investigation of Williams' claim by two Philadelphia phrenologists, who concluded that Williams was actually an Indian (despite his white ancestry) and couldn't be the Bourbon heir.

The United States' early relations with East Asia received considerable attention this year. Kim Todt, in "'Merchants Have No Country:' The Early Republic and the Importance of its Dutch Trading Partners," observed that the governor of Dutch Batavia (modern Jakarta) actively promoted American trade with the Dutch East Indies, and that the U.S. Navy was sending frigates there by the 1820s. SHEAR President Rosemarie Zagarri, in her presidential address ("The Significance of the 'Global Turn' for the Early American Republic"), pointed out that the British East India Company welcomed U.S. merchants to India in the 1780s, even before Jay's Treaty allowed them to operate there legally. There were forty American ships in the India trade by 1789, and Jacob Crowinshield of Salem brought the first elephant to the United States shortly thereafter. Dale Norwood noted, in "Fear of a British Planet: American Anxiety about British Hegemony and the First U.S. Mission to China," that Americans took an active interest in the First Opium War, a conflict described in American newspaper editorials, church magazines, even children's magazines. One of the latter featured a fictitious child asking her father if the evil British would kill Americans if they didn't buy British opium.

At the last session of the conference, Rob Harper (in "The Powerful Weakness of the Frontier State: Manipulative Mobilization and the 1786 Clark-Logan Expedition") told a great deal about the Logan expedition of 1786 that I didn't know, mentioning the raid's unpopularity among Kentuckians (who were reluctant to contribute supplies and manpower) and noting that its chief purpose was not revenge but the seizure of Indian hostages who could be traded for white captives. In the same session Robert Owens showed his good sense and taste by mentioning recent scholarship by yours truly in his paper "Vigilante for Peace: James Robertson and the Curious Case of Lame Will."

Finally, I enjoyed the privilege of having breakfast with past SHEAR president Alan Taylor, and learned from him of his forthcoming book, The Civil War of 1812, which ought to prove thought-provoking reading on the eve of that conflict's bicentennial.