Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Happy Leap Year

Given its rare appearance on the calendar, it is unsurprising that February 29th was seldom a day of great moment in American history. However, there are two significant events that occurred on Leap Year during the colonial era, both involving Puritans and Indians. The first (1692) was the formal filing of a legal complaint by Thomas Preston, Joseph Hutchinson, and Thomas and Edward Putnam of Salem Village against three women whom they accused of injuring their daughters and servants by witchcraft. The accused were Sarah Good, a woman "previously suspected of witchcraft by her neighbors," Sarah Osborne, a middle-aged woman involved in a land dispute with the Putnam family, and Tituba, a Native American slave. The three women set the pattern for what would become known as the Salem Witchcraft Trials or the Essex County Witchcraft Crisis, a crisis originating with legal disputes in Salem Village, actual belief in witchcraft, and fears of "devilry" left over from the Indian wars of the 1670s and early '90s. Before they was over, the trials would implicate 185 defendants (mostly women) from 22 towns and result in deaths of 20 people - all so that Salem could become a happening place on Halloween thenceforward. (Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil's Snare [Vintage, 2002], 8, 21-23, quote 23; see also Joseph Conforti, Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America [Johns Hopkins, 2006], 124-127.)

The other noteworthy event which took place on Leap Year in colonial New England was the Deerfield Raid of 1704, wherein a war party of Abenakis, Hurons, and Caughnawagas attacked the Massachusetts town of Deerfield, killing 50 people and taking another 100 captive. The raid led to one of the most famous captivity narratives of the colonial era, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion (1707), written by the most prominent of the ransomed prisoners, Rev. John Williams. It also resulted in the decision by Williams' daughter Eunice to stay in Canada, convert to Catholicism, and marry a Mohawk man. Her grandson, Eleazar, led an equally famous life in the nineteenth century: educated by Congregationalists in New England, he went to Oneida country in 1816, successfully converted a number of Oneidas to Christianity, and became an advocate for voluntary removal of the Oneida nation to a new homeland in Wisconsin. Williams also asserted, later in his life, that he was the lost Dauphin of France, demonstrating that outrageous self-pronouncements were not merely the province of Anglo-Americans in the nineteenth century. (Conforti, 131-32; Karim Tiro, The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution through the Era of Removal [University of Massachusetts Press, 2011], 135-144.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Aztecs and Samurai

In a post from my Voyagers to the East series, I noted that Hernan Cortes brought a dozen Aztec Indians to Spain in 1528 for presentation to Carlos I, and that several members of this cortege, whom Bernal Diaz described as jugglers and acrobats, wound up moving to Rome to adorn the court of Pope Clement VII. Courtesy of Charles Mann's fascinating book 1493, I have since learned that this was not the first party of Nahua to visit Spain: in 1526 Spanish clergy had brought another group of Mexican "jugglers" to Spain, who turned out to be skilled players of the game of ullamaliztli. The Venetian ambassador to Spain reported on the ball players' padded garments and on the immense speed and dexterity with which they propelled the ball to the goal. The purpose of the game puzzled the ambassador, but more puzzling still was the ball itself, made of some sort of "pith" that caused it to jump about. The pith was actually rubber, which Europeans had never seen before, and the ball's behavior was one which the ambassador couldn't describe because there was no precise word in contemporary Italian for "bounce."* (Charles Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created [Knopf, 2011], 240-42.)

Jarring juxtapositions like this one are among the more compelling features of Mann's narrative. Another, more jarring (and fascinating) example of this trope occurs in Mann's discussion of Asian migration to colonial Mexico, which apparently was quite substantial in the 17th century. The 100,000 or so migrants included Japanese emigrants who had been stranded in China or the Philippines when the Tokugawa regime sealed the home islands' borders. A few of these were samurai whom the viceroy allowed to retain their katanas and employed in Mexico's colonial militia. I am fairly certain I made the previous sentence up. (Hastily checks book.) Nope, there it is on page 324. Mann cites a recent article by Edward Slack, who identifies the countries of origin of colonial Mexico's chino population (China, the Philippines, Japan, India), describes their professions, and observes that Asians were the only non-whites in Mexico who were licensed to carry weapons and serve in the colony's militia. (See Edward R. Slack, Jr., "The Chinos in New Spain: A Corrective Lens for a Distorted Image," Journal of World History 20 [Winter 2009], 35-67.) Professor Slack does not offer suggestions for how one might turn this fascinating story into a film plot, but such a movie script (perhaps a mashup of Yojimbo and Treasure of the Sierra Madre) almost writes itself.

* The English word "bounce," per the Oxford English Dictionary, existed but was not used to describe the bouncing of a ball until the seventeenth century.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Niall Ferguson is Still a Rotter

In the second chapter of Civilization According to Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson, the author discusses the "killer app" of Science, and how it explains the expansion of Western civilization relative to the Rest of the World - to the Islamic World, in particular. The most powerful Islamic empire of the early modern period, Ferguson observes, was the Ottoman, which dominated the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe, and whose armies twice laid siege to Christendom's eastern bastion, Vienna. The second of these sieges, however, ended in what turned out to be a "long Ottoman retreat," as the empire was undermined, apparently, by its inability to replicate European science and technology. In the Muslim world, Professor Niall tells us, there was no separation of church and state, and the former had paramount power in matters of the mind; if religious leaders denounced European innovations as blasphemous, the state had no choice but to suppress them. In Western Europe, meanwhile, Europeans benefited from a lack of Church restraint on science, from state support for science in the form of royal scientific societies (an important point, actually), and from the printing press, which allowed scientists widely to disseminate their findings. (Also helpful, though Ferguson doesn't mention it, was a common learned language, namely Latin, which allowed researchers from different nations to communicate.) The result was a "scientific revolution" that made Europe more powerful, in the long run, than the Ottomans and other Islamic states, even though the Ottoman Empire routinely tried to copy Western technology and military science in the 1700s and 1800s.

The biggest problem with this chapter is Ferguson's failure to establish a convincing connection between science and state power, apart from a two-page digression on the scientist Benjamin Robins and his invention of the science of ballistics. Artillery is important, but inferior artillery and underdeveloped technology were not the most important causes of the Ottoman Empire's decline. Our Man Niall actually identifies one of these later in the chapter: inefficient taxation and the consequent inability of the Ottoman regime to pay for a modern army without heavy borrowing, at usurious rates, in Europe (p. 89). Another cause of Ottoman distress was the empire's loss of the northern shore of the Black Sea to Russia (ca. 1768-91), which opened the possibility of a Russian seaborne assault on Constantinople and forced the empire to devote precious resources to home defense. In sum, it was those old culprits, imperial overstretch and financial difficulties, that sickened the Sick Man of Europe.

Along the same lines, the Sexiest Scotsman fails to demonstrate persuasively the relationship between European science and European power. He discusses ballistics and rifled artillery, of course, but neither had much of an impact on European war-making until the mid-nineteenth century. May I suggest that a more important European scientific discovery than ballistics was the discovery of atmospheric pressure and the energy that one could generate by creating a vacuum? (I believe I may.) In the seventeenth century Otto von Guericke discovered that an evacuated sphere could not be pulled apart by two teams of horses, and in 1680 Christian Huygens proposed generating a vacuum in a piston to perform work. Guericke and Huygens' experiments helped lead to the first functional steam engines, which used a partial vacuum, generated by condensing steam, to produce a 5-horsepower "power stroke." Thomas Newcomen, who designed said engine, doesn't seem to have read about Guericke and Huygens' work, but his predecessors, Denis Papin and Thomas Savery, had certainly done so. Some decades later the inventor Nicholas Appert made another important discovery about vacuums, which is that a vacuum combined with high levels of heat helped inhibit organic decay, which Appert applied to the invention of canned food. The steam engine made steam-powered transport possible, and facilitated the mass-production of consumer goods like clothing. Canning made it possible adequately and reliably to feed very large non-rural populations, like city-dwellers and soldiers. Both technologies helped turn Europe into the most urbanized and industrialized part of the world by 1900. This, I would argue, was a more vital component of European power than big guns.

Why doesn't N.D.C.E. Ferguson spend more time discussing the relationship between scientific research and economic (and military) power? I suspect this is because he doesn't actually know that much about science, a pity given the premise of this chapter. Rather than describe the accomplishments of the European Scientific Revolution, Ferguson contents himself with summarizing the 29 "most important scientific breakthroughs" of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries (65-66), discoveries which are apparently important because the author tells us so, not because he explains their impact on Europeans' worldview and approach to the physical world. Much of the rest of the chapter is devoted to Ferguson's summary of Bernard Lewis's book on Islamic scientific backwardness, along with a paean to Ferg's Secret Boyfriend, Frederick II of Prussia, and a somewhat overwrought linkage of modern Israel with seventeenth-century Vienna - Jerusalem, he writes, is "the modern equivalent of Vienna in 1683" - accompanied by dark mutterings about the threat posed to Israel by the sinister lights of Perverted Muslim (Nuclear) Science. It’s worth noting that Ferguson’s curious reference to the 1683 Siege of Vienna is a “dog-whistle” to some conservative European nationalists, who believe that Christendom is once again under siege by the Turks – this time, by Turkish guest workers and by Turkey’s drive to win admission to the EU. Professor Niall, to his credit, tells these European nativists that they have nothing to fear from the Turks, who began "downloading" European secularism in the 1920s. Instead, they need to worry about defending Israel, the Besieged Vienna of the twenty-first century, from the nuclear forces of the devilish Iranians. This effort to create an alliance between old European nationalist conservatives and American neo-conservatives appears to be Ferguson's chief intellectual goal in this chapter. That's the Scientific Method, you see.

Sources: Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (Harper Perennial, 2003); John Darwin, After Tamerlane, 174-75; Alfred Crosby, Children of the Sun, 71-76; Gavin Weightman, The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World, 1776-1914 (Grove Press, 2007), 50-52; Andrew Wheatcroft, The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Struggle for Europe (Basic Books, 2008), 266-267; Tom Standage, An Edible History of Humanity (Walker & Company, 2009),159-163; Niall Ferguson, Civilization, 50-95.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012


The Telegraph and the Times of London report that former French Cabinet minister Yves Jego is planning to build an amusement park commemorating the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte. The proposed park will include a daily re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, a Trafalgar water show, a ski run commemorating the retreat from Moscow (complete with fake bodies in the snow), and a re-creation of the guillotining of Louis XVI. Other attractions* may include an ice-skating rink where park visitors can shatter the ice and drown other tourists with cannon, an Egyptian pavilion where customers may buy pastries shaped like the Sphinx (provided they agree to bite off the noses), , a tunnel-of-love ride where an animatronic Napoleon shares his most romantic sentiments (e.g. "Don't wash; I'm coming home" or "I wish to marry a womb"), a coffee bar named "Damn Coffee, Damn Sugar, Damn Colonies," a regular bar where one may buy Whiff of Grape (TM) alcopop by the shot, and a Saint-Helena-themed hotel where guests are obliged to listen to has-been French politicians boast about their former accomplishments, or (if they visit the adjoining Elba lounge) lament their current isolation, preferably in the form of a palindrome.

Napoleonland is supposed to open in 2017, provided Jego and his associates can raise the 200 million Euros it will ostensibly cost - and provided no-one in Las Vegas beats them to the draw.

* Which I believe I made up.