John Smith, Tisquantum, Slavery, Wampanoag vs Narragansett and Mass Death from Viral Hepatitis: a Backdrop for the first Thanksgiving.

Posted in History and Politics on December 2nd, 2015 by byronkho

John Smith, born in 1580 near Lincolnshire, left home in his sixteenth year to be a mercenary with King Henry IV of France. His first battles were against Spain, assisting with the Dutch struggle for independence from King Philip II; later, he traveled to fight in the Thirteen Years War with the Hapsburgs against the Ottomans. After being knighted by the Prince of Transylvania for valor in battle, he was captured by the Tatars and sold as a slave, finally ending up as a gift to the Greek mistress of an Ottoman nobleman in Constantinople. In 1604, during his 2nd year of captivity, Smith was able to escape through Muscovy into Polish-Lithuania and continuing on through Northern Africa on his way back to England as a free man. Life in the home country did not suit him and he quickly became restless, eventually signing up with the Virginia Company of London on a colonization expedition to the New World following the granting of a charter by King James I of England. While on board, Smith fell afoul of Captain Christopher Newport, leader of the Virginia expedition, and was charged with mutiny and sentenced to die once they made landfall. On April 26, 1607, the expedition landed in Cape Henry (the northeast corner of Virginia Beach) and Newport prepared to execute the mutineers. In a twist ending that was most probably surprising to Newport, the sealed orders from the Virginia Company – to be opened upon arrival – belayed Newport’s orders and made Smith one of the leaders of the new colony, thus saving him from an ignominious end on the gallows.

Over the next few years, their new colony of Jamestown – the first permanent English settlement in America – became populated with additional settlers and Smith spent time mapping out the locality, establishing supply routes, farming the land and constructing viable housing and buildings for a permanent settlement. It was a harsh time, as unfortunate accidents, terrible weather, domestic feuds and starvation were constant worries. Many settlers died of disease and poor nutrition, and the land wasn’t as bountiful as they wished. Plus, they were on the territory of local Indian tribes who very much did not like the presence of foreign settlers on their land. In a desperate search for food during December of 1607, Smith found himself captured along the York River, 12 miles north of Jamestown, by chief Powhatan and his Tsenacommacah tribe. Allegedly, Pocahontas – the chief’s daughter – risked herself to protect Smith from his execution; in the probably apocryphal story that only exists in Smith’s autobiographical writings (a full 17 years later), her efforts allowed him to be released without harm and given safe conduct back to Jamestown.

Pocahontas maybe saving John Smith from Death. He kept this under wraps for more than 17 years – is it true?

That winter, Jamestown burned to the ground via fires inadvertently started by careless settlers. It was a freezing winter – the river froze quickly – and the colonists were forced to reside in the burnt ruins while attempting to rebuild. Though they made it through, their problems were not yet over. While preparing for a return run to England to secure more food and settlers, Captain Newport loaded his ship with worthless fool’s gold and found he could not trade it in England for the supplies necessary. He was forced to find alternate funding and eventually returned, but not before deciding to recoup his losses (and possibly achieving some level of revenge?) by providing Smith with false orders from the Virginia Company. Though it was clearly Newport’s fault, the fake orders claimed that Smith must pay Newport – again – for his efforts with items from the colony’s output. Furthermore, Newport alleged that they were to name Chief Powhatan as an emperor to make him an English client-king. The coronation did not go well: Powhatan refused to kneel as this would place him at a lower position than he was worth, and physical pressure from the English around him forced him to bend enough for Newport to place the crown on his head. Certainly, the records allude to the English belief that Powhatan had submitted to King James, but the Tsenacommacah did not later act as if this were true. In any case, Smith sent angry letters back to Company headquarters regarding Newport. Whether in appeasement or not, Smith was made president of the colony.

Newport crowning Chief Powhatan.

During 1608, Smith was involved in failing negotiations with Powhatan for more food supplies. These were not forthcoming as it was Powhatan’s intention to starve the Jamestown colonists out. Undeterred, Smith anted up by threatening Powhatan with invasion. He got his supplies, but the exchange did not do anything for cross-cultural exchange and even promoted additional tension with Jamestown settlers. The combination of starvation, a harsh work regimen and Indian hostility prompted mutiny and assassination plots from inside and outside the colony. Allegedly, Pocahontas helped save Smith’s life a second time by giving him early warning of an ambush masquerading as an invitation to parley. Smith stayed back and the attack never happened. At the same time, Smith began a series of harsh punishments to disgruntled settlers and instituted a policy of “who works, eats.” These were surprisingly effective in stopping complaints, as productivity actually began going up and food generation improved. However, this didn’t mean that they could rest on their laurels: they still needed trade partners to get rid of the settlement production (tools, beads, other salable products) in return for other sources of food and items that would be of value in England for coin.

As a result, Smith got back on the road to explore the Chesapeake Bay region and find new opportunities for Jamestown. He continued at this work for many years, though he missed out on the start of the Anglo-Powhatan Wars between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan’s tribe. [He also missed out on his alleged savior-exotic girlfriend Pocahontas marrying some other English dude and settling a peace between the Anglos and the Powhatans. Shrug.] Smith’s mapping work continued off and on through 1614, when he settled temporarily in Cape Cod and surrounding areas. After completing his work in the area, he tasked an associate – one Thomas Hunt – with the job of setting up a new colony, finding trading partners and established useful trading routes. Instead, Hunt went rogue. After inviting local representatives of the Wampanoag Confederation in Patuxet, he waited until they were all on board before he and his sailors attempted to force the Indians into their ship’s hold. A one-sided gun battle ensued, ending with a “great slaughter” and a total of 19 captured Indians. Hunt sailed for Europe immediately, making a single stop in Cape Cod to kidnaps seven more Indians. His destination: Malaga.

As a result of Hunt’s raid, the Wampanoags became extremely hostile and stopped the extremely profitable beaver trade (notably, but also all other trade), and occasionally attacking English and French ships and enslaving their crews. This reaction was noted by the colonies and the corporations. John Smith was aghast at the deterioration in relations between the colonies and the Indians via this one foul attack by his treacherous – and handpicked – subordinate, writing that Hunt had acted “most dishonestly, and inhumanely, for their kind usage of me and all our men.” Other noblemen noted that Hunt was much “more savage-like than They [the local tribes, implied to be less 'savages']” and “a worthless fellow of our nation.”

Hunt, meanwhile, found that he had made a terrible decision. While attempting to sell the Indians as slaves at the marketplace in Malaga, Spain, he found that the locals were extremely disapproving of the trade. Local clergy repatriated the Indians almost immediately and ran Hunt and his crew out of town. At the time, the Catholic Church in Spain was vehemently against slavery. Indeed, just a generation before, Pope Paul III stated in a 1537 decree that “Indians themselves indeed are true men.” In that spirit, many of the Indians were taken under the wing of the clergy who had freed them, and provided with education and opportunity.

Of the kidnapped Wampanoags, only Tisquantum – later known as Squanto – was able to make it back to North America. Tiquantum, an Indian word meaning essentially “wrath of the manitou” (aka “wrath of God”), was unlikely to be his given name but it was one that he adopted for his own use somewhere along the way. He was able to persuade the Malagan clergy that he would be of use in England, and he was sent to learn English and reside with John Slany, a shipbuilder in Cornhill, London. Slany was also treasurer of the Newfoundland Company and realized that Squanto’s unique situation made him a good hire as an interpreter and North American resources expert for the company colony in Cupper’s Cove, Newfoundland. In 1610, Squanto was shipped to Cupper’s Cove to begin work with Captain John Mason, the head of that colony.

After a couple of years employment in Newfoundland, Squanto ran into an English captain named Thomas Dermer who had worked with John Smith on the very expedition that had brought Thomas Hunt to Massachusetts. Dermer’s goal was to restart trade with the Massachusetts natives but that was an impossibility unless tensions were decreased. To that effect, Dermer’s employer – the New England Company – decided to hire Squanto to play peacemaker and hopefully reopen dialogues with his old tribe.

It was a sad homecoming for Squanto. Upon reaching Patuxet in May 1619, Squanto found that the village and surroundings was devoid of life: no one lived there, and skeletons littered the countryside for miles around. He had come home to a virtual cemetery, 200 miles long and 40 miles deep. While traversing the area, Squanto ran into a group of Wampanoag Confederacy led by a sachem named Massasoit. With the assistance of one of Massasoit’s other house guests, a French sailor who was the last survivor of a shipwreck at Cape Cod in 1616, Massasoit was able to tell Squanto the grisly story. Apparently, the sailor and his compatriots had been captured by the Wampanoags and in return for the hospitality, passed on to their captors an extremely infectious viral hepatitis that moved quickly, killing off 75% of the population. For this reason, the Wampanoags were not very happy with Europeans in general – a fact that would trouble Squanto later. A saddened Squanto returned with Dermer to Southern Maine, but found that he was homesick and traveled back to Patuxet. Big mistake. He was captured en route and sent back to Massasoit – but this time as a captive, as Massasoit considered him “converted” by the Europeans and not to be trusted.

Massasoit talking turkey with the English settlers.

Massasoit was borne right when Captain Dermer returned and borrowed Squanto for a trading expedition in June of 1620 to the island of Capaock, now Martha’s Vineyard. Dermer had been there before, in 1619, to investigate a very similar case to Squanto’s. A certain Captain Harlow had captured a sachem named Epenow in Capaock in 1611, paraded him around England for a time, and then after confessing that he knew were gold was in the New World, was sent back to the Colonies as both interpreter and guide towards riches. When they arrived and met an Indian welcoming party, Epenow called to his countrymen to save him and leaped from the deck of the ship. Captain Hobson, his escort, wrote – probably in an early case of CYA – that he had to retreat under heavy arrow fire and that Epenow had been killed. Dermer found that this was untrue: Epenow was very much alive, and a very useful man in trading. So Dermer had returned to the island… but not before stopping by the then not-so-important island of Manhattan, where he told the Dutch that they were trespassing on English claims. Did that discussion go anywhere? Hmm. In any case, they had arrived in Capaock not long before Dermer, Squanto and the trading party were attacked by the Capaock Indians. All the men were slain except for Dermer, Squanto and the boatmaster – who saved Dermer from a decapitation. Unfortunately, Dermer was not to survive his grievous wounds, finally giving in to death upon his arrival in Jamestown. In a published Manifesto, the New England Company memorialized Dermer by crediting him for “making peace between the Indians of those parts and the English… of which the colony of New Plymouth afterwards reaped the benefits.”

And then… the Mayflower rolled into town.

In November of 1620, the Pilgrims landed and began exploring the area. The Wampanoags were understandably upset with a new group of European settlers and attacked one of the exploration parties that the Pilgrims sent out. Nobody was injured and this did not deter the Pilgrims for long. After some months living offshore in the Mayflower, they eventually decided that they would settle in Patuxet. The fact that they were building their new home on the bones of an entire Indian community was considered “divine providence” to the Pilgrims: God had killed the native so that they may live there. It was a sign of divine will and favor, and bolstered their belief in their eventual, larger, destiny as owners and colonizers of North America. The Pilgrims named their colony Plymouth, adopting the name given to the village by John Smith during that eventful expedition in 1814.

During this time, the colony had seen little of any Indians after that essentially harmless first raid… but this did not mean that the Wampanoags had given up. Instead, it meant that they were changing tactics.

On March 17, 1621, an Abenaki sachem named Samoset walked into Plymouth colony and introduced himself in broken English. Samoset was originally from Maine and had picked up a few English words from European fishermen that sailed into the harbors there for seasonal fishing. He communicated that he would be coming back with another Indian who could speak better English than he could – and had even been to England. This was not a fishing expedition: the Indians were already aware that the colonists had not done well during the winter and were suffering from starvation and needed assistance. In fact, at least half of the colony was already dead and buried and the rest were pale and suffering obvious malnutrition.

Samoset and the Pilgrims, first meeting.

A few days later, Samoset showed up again with Squanto in tow. After an hour’s discussion, Massasoit and a large Indian contingent suddenly appeared on a nearby hill. Surprised, the colonists withdrew to another hill on which they had built a rudimentary stockade with cannon. After a standoff and impasse, Edward – later Governor – Winslow decided to give himself over as a hostage. The ploy worked: Massasoit’s brother Quadequina escorted Winslow as surety, and Massasoit, Squanto, Samoset and 20 other Indians entered the colony to talk turkey and drink moonshine with the colonists. During these talks, the Wampanoags agreed to help with farming and promised not to drive the settlers out of the colony on the condition that the English help them with their own political problem…

Before the massive viral hepatitis outbreak, relations had already broken down between the Wampanoag Confederation and another nearby tribe, the Narragansett. So when disease began culling the ranks of the Wampanoags, their previously markedly decreased contact with the Narragansett meant that the outbreak was never transmitted to their blood enemies at all – the Narragansett had suffered zero losses, and were thus in a much stronger position than the Wampanoag. Massasoit’s fear was that they could be overwhelmed at any time by the Narragansett and thus saw in the Pilgrims and Squanto a grand possibility: perhaps Squanto could be used to negotiate and set up a strong trading relationship with the Pilgrims. The assumption was that the settlers would be an effective buffer against the Narragansett and possibly even provide their guns to the Wampanoags one day. The Narragansett were also trading partners with other English colonies and Massasoit judged that they would be unwilling to fight the English settlers as it would likely have a fatal effect on their business relationships with the other English colonies. The only problem? Massasoit didn’t trust Squanto, whom he believed had spent too much time among the foreigners and might side with them in a crisis. That’s where Samoset came in: an ally uninterested in local political battles that could speak English, start the negotiations and sense any deception from Squanto.

Squanto, friend of the Pilgrims because all his old friends were dead and his surviving countrymen didn’t trust him and if he didn’t play nice with the Pilgrims, he’d probably be dead himself. Good times.

The months following were exceedingly good for the Pilgrims. Squanto took up residence in the colony – choosing to stay away from Massasoit, who continued to push for control of Squanto – and made himself invaluable, teaching the settlers to catch eels and use fish as fertilizer for the corn fields, increasing yields. With his language skills, Squanto was able to negotiate additional peace treaties with other Indian leaders in the areas and write up trade contracts between Plymouth’s governors and tribal leaders. Squanto became such a commodity for the settlers that the Pilgrims were quick to take up arms and fight for his return after Squanto was kidnapped by anti-British Indians. Massasoit wasn’t stupid. He knew that Squanto was proving very valuable to the settlers, and to ensure that he knew of any attempt by Squanto to decrease Wampanoag or Massasoit’s influence, he posted a man named Hobamok to Playmouth as a de facto monitor. With so many jealous eyes on Squanto, he was aware that he could not survive in that position forever. When the settlers no longer needed him, Massasoit would be quick to nullify his influence and very probably imprison or kill him. To ensure his survival, Squanto began to practice extortion schemes. He started small but soon realized this wasn’t enough: he needed to go big – and big it was.

Squanto’s multi-phase plan was to eventually strip the chiefdom from Massasoit. In order to achieve this, he started by rounding up Wampanoag tribesmen who were amenable to a move and settled them in a new village near Plymouth. He attracted more settlers from among the tribes by threatening them with his influence among the English. “Don’t cooperate,” the implication was, “and I’ll get the English to fire on you with their guns or release ‘another’ batch of the disease agent upon the Wampanoags.” The assertion that the British had biowarfare at their beck and call was an extremely effective threat. At the same time, Squanto went to work on the English, utilizing his influence in establishing trading routes and gaining favorable contracts to push them to using the new village as a trading center, and by the move in business, force the Wampanoag Confederation to make the new village the new capital of the Confederation. This would cut the importance of Massasoit’s village and oust him from his role as chief of the Confederation.

It’s upon this background that the first Thanksgiving happened, though nobody present actually called it Thanksgiving. In the fall of 1621, the 53 surviving English settlers at Plymouth decided to celebrate their first successful harvest with a huge feast to be shared with 90 warriors from the Wampanoag, plus sachem Massasoit. Winslow noted that the celebrations extended for three days, and “amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms.” The Wampanoag came armed and showed off their weapon skills and the Pilgrims shot off their guns into the air; this contest of bravado continued into provision for the feast itself. The Pilgrims displayed their hunting skills by providing enough fowl as could feed the crowd for a week; the Wampanoags hunted deer and wild turkey. Cornmeal made from their jointly produced Indian corn was present in great abundance. They ate.

Oh, happy day.

Meanwhile, Squanto was busy telling the Wampanoag that Massasoit was powerless in protecting them from English invasion, and then scaring the colonists with talk of collusion between the Wampanoag and Narragansett for a mass attack on Plymouth. In the spring of 1622, he had all the pieces of his plot in place. Squanto had arranged to be out of town on a trip with the colonists to the Massachusett Indians in Boston Harbor. While he was gone, one of Squanto’s settlers would act fearful and inform then-Governor Bradford of Plymouth that the Wampanoag-Narragansett alliance was about to attack. The reaction was supposed to be an English pre-emptive attack on the Wampanoags ending with the murder of Massasoit, but instead Bradford called back the delegation with a cannon shot, interrogated Hobamok and sent Hobamok’s wife to Massasoit to scope out the truth of the situation. Squanto returned to find that Bradford had not moved and that both Bradford and Massasoit were aware that he had lied to both of them. Furious, Massasoit demanded that Squanto be turned over for execution and even provided several sweeteners if the Pilgrims did so. Underneath the peace treaty they had all signed, Bradford was obligated to turn Squanto over. However, Bradford was more than aware that Plymouth would only survive with open communication with the Indian tribes. As Squanto was their only capable translator and negotiator, it would be suicidal for them to comply. And so he did not.

Hard times followed. Massasoit cut off all trade and communication with Plymouth and the Pilgrims were forced to fortify in case of military assault. Unluckily, that summer saw an extended drought and the Pilgrims’ crops failed. Unable to purchase supplies from the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims faced a very bad winter. Massasoit quickly became disinterested in asking for Squanto’s death when the Fortune – another boat of European settlers – showed up and founded a new colony nearby; this provided innumerable new stresses and Massasoit found it unwise to expend his energies pursuing a lost and futile cause. It wasn’t any fun and games for Squanto, either. For most of 1622, he was under house arrest again, this time from the settlers, and was only allowed out to begin peace treaty negotiations again alongside Bradford in Cape Cod. While under temporary shelter in Manamoyick Bay from storms, Squanto’s nose began to bleed uncontrollably. Squanto told Bradford this was a sign of impending death and asked Bradford to pray for him so that he could go to the English Heaven. He followed up with a spoken will, leaving his possessions to various friends among the colonists in Plymouth. None of his effects were to go to the Wampanoag. Then, he died.

A cold peace was had until 1675, when harsh laws passed by the colonists angered one of Massasoit’s sons. A brutal and terrible conflict followed in which New England was torn apart by brutal and horrific war. The Indians eventually lost, unable to combat several large-scale epidemics and a brand of total warfare in which the Europeans far surpassed the tribes in willingness to massacre whole villages without mercy for innocents and non-combatants.

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Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, visits Philadelphia and New Orleans, almost gets pressed by an English ship, becomes king of France.

Posted in History and Politics on August 17th, 2015 by byronkho

Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, was a young man of 20 when he was forced to leave France after his father’s execution during the Reign of Terror. In the 21-year self-imposed exile that followed, Louis Philippe moved extensively, going from Switzerland to Scandinavia and Finland before embarking on a trip to the United States. This stateside trip was prompted by the suffering of his two brothers – Antoine Philippe, Duke of Montpensier, and Louis Charles, Count of Beaujolais – who had been imprisoned in a dank and fetid Marseilles dungeon for years. The Directory, the penultimate rulers of France during the French Revolution, had kept the Orleans siblings imprisoned and only consented to release them (after fevered negotation with their mother, the Duchess of Orleans) if they were permanently exiled to the United States, and if Louis Philippe were also to leave the Continent. On September 24, 1796, Louis boarded the “America” – a packet plying a regular route between Hamburg and Philadelphia – and spent a leisurely 27-day voyage to the City of Brotherly Love (after presenting himself to fellow passengers as a Dane, fake Danish passports on hand). Once word of his departure reached the Directory, they consented to release the younger Orleans brothers to the American consul (actually a French citizen) Etienne Cathalan, who both hid the brothers from angry Jacobin mobs baying for royalist blood and later secreted them aboard the “Jupiter” for a grueling 92-day storm-filled voyage to the New World (with a 15,000 franc annuity to boot, worth between 30 and 40,000 dollars in current US currency).

In February of 1797, the brothers were reunited at a certain house between 4th and 5th St on Walnut just adjacent to [now known as Old] St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, at the time George Washington’s church of choice. The need for secrecy gone, the brothers inserted themselves into Philadelphia society with vigor and were present at major political events in what was then the nation’s capital, including George Washington’s farewell address to Congress and the inauguration of President Adams. Their introduction to upper class Philadelphia a success, the brothers then embarked on a long picaresque journey across America. One of their first stops was to the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon, where they planned out a travel route that would take them down through Tennessee into Kentucky, West Virginia and looping back up through Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh and into upstate New York. Buffalo, Lake Erie, Niagara Falls… then down the Susquehanna and on foot to Wilkes-Barre and Philadelphia. On a second trip – after first awaiting their annual remittance to replenish their accounts – they traveled through New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and Massachusetts before deciding on a trip to warmer climes: New Orleans and Havana.

At the time – in December of 1797 – Louisiana still belonged to Spain. It had been ceded to Spain by the French in 1762 and would only be returned to the fold by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800, before being sold off to the United States in 1803 under Thomas Jefferson’s administration. It is perhaps unsurprising that Louis Philippe might have wanted to visit one of the cardinal cities named after his great great-grandfather, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, and former Regent of the Kingdom of France. Initially, it was supposed to be a brief visit followed by a quick departure to Cuba. However, the corvette they had chartered never arrived, and they were forced to stay for five weeks before departing in an American vessel. While touring the estates and manses of the local aristocracy, Louis and his brothers attended a sumptuous banquet at the home of Jean-Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, a local planter and descendant of the treasurer of the French colony at New Orleans – and also the richest person on the continent. Legends of the banquet tell us that the Marignys, so honored to have Louis await their pleasure within their humble abode, had commissioned a hugely expensive set of golden dinnerware which was used once for the dinner and then thrown wholesale into the Mississippi River, unworthy of being used by any other implicitly lesser folk. (The always-spoiled playboy Marigny would later be sent to England for education, but would instead pick up the game of Hazards. After bringing it back to New Orleans, the game sparked rivalries between the American “Kaintocks” and the Creole “Crapauds” – nicknames they gave each other – which would later morph into what we now know as craps.)

Just before leaving Philadelphia on their trip to New Orleans, Louis had learned that the Directory had banished all Bourbons from France. This meant that their entire family had been banished from their homeland; their mother fled to Spain, which was a then-ally of France and as such were also at war with the British government. Thus it was slightly awkward when, onboard the American ship in the Gulf of Mexico, an English frigate decided to stop and board the ship. Under English interpretation of maritime law, they were legally cleared to stop any vessel anywhere on the high seas and press any on board that they considered English nationals, or if the need arose. In this case, Captain Thomas Cochrane of the British ship decided that the American crew would become his crew and so they were pressed; Louis Philippe and his brothers were allowed on to the American ship as mere passengers to Havana, but not before an unfortunately-timed ducking off the side-rope during boarding. Louis would remember this episode, and Captain Cochrane. But first, they were dropped off in Havana on March 31, 1798. After a year’s convalescence in the humid streets of Havana, word reached the Spanish that the princes were there. Unhappily, Spain noted that a revolutionary fervor had gripped the island colony and so the Captain-General of Cuba was ordered to vacate the Princes post haste, fearing insurrection from local Jacobins. From there, they went to Nova Scotia for a brief respite with the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria, before a return to New York and then England in January of 1800. Complicated political gamesmanship ensued, and this former exiled prince became King of France in 1830.

Later in his reign, King Louis-Philippe I would have reason to revisit his almost-hijacking by a British ship in non-British waters. The act was a gross violation of international law, as not only was the American vessel neutral, but the American crew were of several different nationalities. After impressment, some might be forced to fight against their own country. So it was with a certain smugness that King Louis-Philippe I watched the British squirm after an incident in which a French frigate at the blockade of Veracruz decided to board an English ship and press a Mexican pilot. While the British Parliament passed an outraged decree demanding an immediate apology of the government, the French king held back pointing out the hypocrisy that they had themselves carried out on a boat actually carrying the future French monarch. Despite his often contentious relations with England (the Bourbon branch that Louis-Philippe I deposed had fled to exile there), he retained a lifelong friendship with the English captain that carried them to Havana. While Louis Philippe immersed himself in politics, Cochrane became a naval star. As a captain hunting French and Spanish ships, Cochrane earned himself 75,000 pounds sterling or roughly $4.5 million in current USD. Unfortunately, he was caught up in a court-martial of failed tactics by a superior and forced to temporarily retire from the seas. He did not sit back: meanwhile, Cochrane proposed to Prince George (the future King George IV of England) that they should take up “explosion ships” and “sulphur ships” as devices during the Napoleonic Wars. Essentially, these were variations on the ancient fireship: one was a saturation bomb, and the other was chemical warfare using gases that would hopefully choke enemy sailors onboard their ships, leading them to jump ship. Later in his career, he was falsely convicted in a London stock exchange scandal and forced to leave England, whereupon he became a successful foreign mercenary. In 1832, Cochrane was pardoned by the English king, and in 1843, King Louis-Philippe I of France presented Monsieur le Capitaine Cochrane with a set of fully gold inlaid percussion pistols made by Jules Manceaux (France’s leading gunsmith) at the royal workshop at Tulle.

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Musashibo Benkei

Posted in History and Politics on July 17th, 2015 by byronkho

Circa 1155, Musashibo Benkei was born to a temple shrine overseer and the daughter of a blacksmith. That is to say, the legends explain that he was born to such a couple; other legends depict him as the offspring of a demon and ogre. Whatever the case, his self and his fictionalized self became popular in Japanese folklore and romanticized history. By the age of seventeen, Benkei was supposedly a monster of 6′7″ – a size still gigantic for people today, let alone the smaller versions of ourselves that existed in the 12th century.

Benkei trained as a novice in a Buddhist monastery, which meant that he also received military training. His weapon of choice was the naginata, a kind of poleaxe or glaive that were superbly effective at unhorsing mounted riders and forcing combat over a wider area. Because of the naginata’s effective range, Japanese armor began to employ greaves – iron plates sewed inside cloth coverings for the knees and legs – to prevent quick disabling of soldiers in the field.

At some point, Benkei decided to become a wandering holy man following the path of shugendo, a search for mystical powers and occult knowledge via abstinence from the world. His travels eventually took him to Kyoto where he settled himself as the gatekeeper of the Gojo Bridge, one of the passageways over the Kamo River. Surely the passerby could not have been happy, as his method of gatekeeping was to rob and disarm everyone that passed by. Benkei was a decidedly successful highwayman, eventually accumulating 999 swords and a spotless track record… until his reputation caught the eye of Ushiwakamaru, a military strategist descended from the powerful Minamoto samurai family.

After traversing to Kyoto to check out the brigand, Ushiwakamaru – the childhood name of Minamoto Yoshitsune – ended up fighting a duel with Benkei. Unfortunately for Benkei, his intended 1000th victim was a greater fighter. In return for preserving his own life, Benkei pledged his everlasting loyalty to Yoshitsune. For the next few years, Yoshitsune and Benkei traveled Japan fighting in Minamoto familial wars with Yoshitsune’s brother Yoritomo against the powerful Taira clan. As a strategist, Yoshitsune shone and in 1184, helped the Minamoto clan win a famous victory at the Battle of Ichi-no-tani. The Taira clan had setup a base on Hiyodori slope, which would have necessitated an uphill battle for the Minamotos. However, Yoshitsune’s army instead climbed up the back slope and attacked from higher up, their cavalry running downhill and slaughtering the enemy in their camp.

Benkei and Yoshitsune fighting at Gojo Bridge.

The victory at Hiyodori was a turning point for the brothers Minamoto. While vying for power, Yoritomo declared Yoshitsune a traitor and sent both his brother and Benkei running for their lives to northern Japan, where they found respite with the Fujiwara clan. For 2 years, Yoshitsune served as general in the Fujiwara’s fight against Yoritomo, a shrewd appointment made by Fujiwara Hidehira, the clan leader. However, upon Hidehira’s death, his successor Yasuhira – with pressure from Yoritomo – declared Yoshitsune traitor and hounded him to his remaining castle, Koromogawa no tate, at the Koromo River.

This was Benkei’s finest hour. On June 5, 1189, Yasuhira led a force of 500 soldiers towards the keep where Yoshitsune and Benkei were holed up. Yoshitsune sat in an inner room, katana in hand, and prepared for his death by seppuku. Meanwhile, on the bridge to the keep, Benkei prepared to make his last stand, defending his lord unto his last breath. A ferocious fight ensued, an assuredly violent scene that made it into popular Kabuki plays, a Akira Kurosawa film and numerous anime/manga/videogame/card game series in Japan and elsewhere. When the dust cleared, Benkei was allegedly found standing covered in arrow and blade wounds. Around him lay 300 corpses. Curious and fearful, the remaining soldiers poked and prodded him before realizing that Benkei was actually dead, and still standing.

Benkei no Tachi Ojo: the standing death of Benkei.

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On Lagertha of Denmark.

Posted in History and Politics on May 7th, 2014 by byronkho

Lagertha: hereditary Danish shieldmaiden and imbued with the legendary attributes of the female aesir of the Valhallan panoply, possibly Throgerd Holgabrok (herself a noble Valkyrie who “married” successions of Norse kings as mythic protectors of the realm); first wife of raider of the French and English, Ragnar Lodbrok (literally, Ragnar Hairy Breeches… why he kept the name, who knows. Did he not get made fun of on those Viking playgrounds – you know, the ones with the slides and jungle gyms made of human bones?), who may or may not have been the ruler who led a Viking force of 100 ships to besiege and then sack Paris in 845 (setting the tone for later invasions of the rich Norman lands by an invading army of 700 ships and 30,000 angry Norsemen under King Sigfred of Denmark in 885); and eventually (according to Saxo Grammaticus), murderer of Ragnar, usurper of his name and then-on ruler of Norway, who “thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.”

Supposedly, after being instrumental in the defense of Norway from an attack by King Freyr of Sweden, Lagertha allowed Ragnar – grandson of King Siward of Norway and head of the Norwegian forces – to court her by pretending interest, luring him alone to her house and then setting upon him a great bear and hound to kill him or prove himself a worthy man. These animals he killed, but he was thereafter annoyed that this was the price she drew from him. Lagertha repaid this price many years later, coming to his aid during the midst of a desperate battle in Denmark by sending him 120 ships from her forces to win the day. Of course, when he got back home, she might have been pissed that he had divorced her, married the daughter of the next king of Sweden and then had the nerve to ask for her help… it might explain why she drew him to a private chamber, warbled sweet nothings, and then killed Ragnar with a sharp asgeir hidden inside her apron-dress. Love is weird.

On TV, she’s played pretty appropriately by a Ukrainian toughie from Etobicoke who got her first black belt at 13, founded a martial arts school at 18, ran 3 different schools by 21, and then got a 3rd degree black belt in tae kwon do, a 2nd degree black belt in karate and became a licensed bodyguard before moving into acting. I think it’d be pretty rad to be any one of those anonymous Vikings being bashed about and then cleaved in half by a Daneaxe wielded by the real, or TV, Lagertha – skaramandion chopped into rags, pointed seax falling uselessly from my hands, an iron spangenhelm no protection from a low upward sweep delivered by a beautiful, fierce and bloodlusting Valkyrie, screaming vengeance and murder all the while. Or not. Maybe I’ll just watch.

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Supreme Court decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

Posted in History and Politics on April 23rd, 2014 by byronkho

If racism in America is a thing of the past, then of course it makes sense that people should be allowed to remove, change and block any laws that attempt to remedy racism! Who needs Equal Protection under the law when in our enlightened age, racism doesn’t even exist any more? All those silly little laws are just taking up space and cluttering up legal dockets all across the country. Everyone knows that absolutely all of our citizens are completely impartial on the subject of race! There are no such things as hate crimes, discrimination in the workplace, or casual on-the-street prejudicial judgments made with reference to ethnic and racial identity! Barney’s theme song is still number one on the Billboard Top 40, where it’s been since 1992! We will all do the right thing for society and others when asked. Just ask Joseph Raymond McCarthy of Wisconsin!

I’m referring to the Supreme Court’s utterly useless decision (one among many this season) to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action, in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justice Ginsburg), points out that “to know the history of our Nation is to understand its long and lamentable record of stymieing the right of racial minorities to participate in the political process.” She pointed out that the majority constantly changed the ground rules of the political process to first block entry to minorities, and then later to make it more difficult for the minority, “and the minority alone,” to obtain fair voting procedure (literacy and character requirements, poll taxes, special IDs) or integration (Jim Crow laws). Thus the need for affirmative action in higher education, a policy put in place and later protected by the Supreme Court when there were no other race-neutral means by which to capture an adequate level of diversity (note the parallel protection in public school education vis a vis racial integration, in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education).

Rolling affirmative action back would mean placing special burdens on minority classes to achieve results that they were not able to obtain under the political process without Supreme Court protection; this is called “yanking the carpet out from under them.” Reliance on good behavior from the majority, without a legal statute to enforce it? That’s very noble of you, my good sirs. Moving forward, minority students will have no basis for calling for special attention, yet undue attention is given to those applying as athletes, children of alumni and so on; there is an implicit unfairness in such a dual-track system that may even extend to non-minority applicants. Today’s decision is akin to the Supreme Court’s 1883 decision to strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875: the Bradley court decided that discrimination by individuals or private businesses were “ordinary civil injuries,” and that the Equal Protection of the 14th Amendment was only a bar on State actions, not private ones. It took 71 years for the Supreme Court to realize that was a crappy decision… and another 60 years to change their mind (again).

The last word, from Justice Sotomayor: “The political-process doctrine polices the channels of change to ensure that the majority, when it wins, does so without rigging the rules of the game to ensure its success. Today, the Court discards that doctrine without good reason.”

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Poveglia Island.

Posted in History and Politics on April 18th, 2014 by byronkho

Anyone want in with me on a real estate purchase? Poveglia Island, 10 minutes from Venice, currently for sale by the Italian government (price unknown), and host to hundreds of thousands of plague victims, vampires, botched insane asylum experiments and abandoned homeless people.

Modeled off other plague lazarettos, where hundreds of thousands of bubonic plague victims were dumped… ahem, quarantined during the massive and oft-occuring plague outbreaks of the 1400-1700s, Poveglia housed all quarantined foreign visitors coming in by ship to Venice, and then received a large portion of the suspected domestic cases banished to die away from the “normals” during virulent outbreaks. The dead were buried in mass graves filled with up to 2000 corpses per trench, and the “overflow” were burned. Poveglia’s charnel pits are as of yet unexplored but it is definite that the island is littered with human ash and bone: people consider its soil to be 50% human remains at this point. Some of these plague trenches were sometimes reopened to bury fresh corpses, and it was a common sight to find bloated old corpses that would have blood seeping from their mouths and rotted holes in their shrouds over their mouths (decomposition gas would collect at the mouth and bacteria would congregate in that area, thus rotting the cloth at the mouth first). They were considered to be vampires and would be quickly reburied with a brick between their teeth (so they’d starve, naturally… also, had they been feeding on other poor inmates? horrors!); “vampires” have been found in many of these lazaretto burial trenches, and are likely to be found at Poveglia. Millions died in plague outbreaks throughout Italy over the centuries, and Poveglia’s share seems to have been rather large: with over 20 outbreaks of plague, up to 50,000 Venetian deaths in any given outbreak and a good portion of them quarantined to Poveglia, a “few hundred thousand” is a decent guesstimate.

In the 20th century, home to a mental asylum manned by mad scientists and doctors who performed hundreds and maybe thousands of illicit and botched lobotomies, the asylum graveyard being full of the victims of neural experimentation. When that proved to be too much gruesomeness for mainlanders to swallow, they converted the place into a hellish last stop for the “elderly indigent,” poor old people who were dumped there to fend for themselves when they became embarrassing problems for cityfolk. After that atrocity closed in 1968, the Italian government decided people were no longer allowed to visit… but now it’s okay to sell? I want in!

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Sogdian Empire.

Posted in History and Politics on April 17th, 2014 by byronkho

In the Sogdian Empire – an ancient Iranian civilization centered around Samarkand and Bukhara in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and a major trader along the Silk Road – it seems that slavery was a fact of life for residents of the empire. In a marriage contract written around 709 (and found at a site 100 km from Samarkand in 1934):

“And if [Ot-tegin] becomes somebody’s slave… then Cat with her progeny will become free without compensation… And if [Cat] becomes somebody’s slave… then Ot-tegin with his progeny will become free without compensation, so that one will not suffer and pay for the other one.”

Two surprising notes for me: 1) that slavery needed to be mentioned in a marriage contract, and 2) that no-fault divorce clauses were included at all. Slaves were actually rather a large part of the Silk Road; in fact, the silk in its title was merely a very common form of payment for all sorts of goods that traveled the various Silk Roads, including human cargo. Empires along the route were routinely hassled and attacked by the Mongols, the Persians and other Arab empires, and frequently lost manpower to slaving runs. They, in turn, looked upon slavery as a common business outcome, so internal disputes could result in slavery as well. In any case, it happened often enough that the authorities thought it wise to allow remarriage without repercussion should slavery break up a family.

Sogdian law regarding no-fault divorces in general was way ahead of the times. Either party were allowed to defect from the marriage without providing reason and without having to pay any compensation to the other party, and both were required to leave the other with the belongings they both inherited or acquired themselves during the marriage. Belongings that were given to one by the other were required to be returned. If adultery was the cause, then the offended party could require the adulterer to pay them 30 dirhams and send away the concubine; otherwise, they could divorce. This was a great step forward from Babylonian law (just on the other side of Iran from Samarkand) from several centuries earlier that had prescribed being “thrown in the river” for any woman who wanted to divorce.

In general, the Eastern empires (Bactria, Persia, Sogdian, etc.) during this period (the 700s) tended to not include any morality clauses within their marriage contracts, and in this way supported more gender equality. Roman and Greek-influenced marriage contracts, on the other hand, viewed women as another item in family property and required men to support their wives (which would mean that the finances and legal decisionmaking of said wives were not their own). Rome, in particular, often used morality clauses in marriage contracts as a method of silencing political opponents: the punishments usually included confiscation of property, and stripping of citizenship and exile for the more troublesome. No-fault divorces, in such climes, were not much seen or allowed.

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Elites have all the power.

Posted in History and Politics on April 15th, 2014 by byronkho

Princeton profs found out economic elites and big business highly impact US gov policy, and average citizens have basically no influence? YOU DONT SAY.

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens


Oldest surviving written humor: still funny.

Posted in History and Politics on April 8th, 2014 by byronkho

In the 4th century, Hierocles and Philagrios – two Greeks, of whom nothing much is known – published a book called Philogelos or “the Laughter Lover,” the world’s oldest existing collection of jokes. It’s not the first, as Athenaeus and Plautus both reference joke collections that are sadly lost… but one can be glad that an actually funny one survived.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a man complains that the slave he has recently purchased has died. ‘By the gods,’ says the slave’s former owner, ‘when he was with me, he never did any such thing.’”


“Someone needled a well-known wit: ‘I had your wife, without taking a penny.’ Said well-known wit in reply: ‘it’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?’”

Oh, those harridans! One thing we know about this joke: it’s been a leading cause of divorce over the last 17 centuries (it was last seen doddering around in Milton Berle’s routine, like 2000 replaced hips later). Now you can feel bad for the hundreds of thousands of regretful men that accidentally laughed at this one when sitting beside their wives, and found themselves sleeping on those uncomfortable low Greek couches in the atria afterwards.

“An intellectual bought a pair of pants. But he could hardly put them on because they were too tight. So he got rid of the hair around his legs.”

They had hipsters in the 4th century? See, nothing new under the sun.

“A Kymaean is trying to sell a horse. Someone asks him if the horse has thrown its first set of teeth. Says the Kymaean, “two sets of teeth, actually.’ ‘How do you know that?” ‘Well, he threw mine once and my father’s once.”

Har har har. Those stupid Kymaeans! Yes, they had dumb yokel jokes back then too.

“A young man said to his libido-driven wife: ‘What should we do, darling? Eat or have sex?’ And she replied: ‘You can choose. But there’s not a crumb in the house.’”

Oh ho! Sexytime humor! And one more for the late night crowd at the taverna, the ones you save your biggest burns and your raunchiest material for…

“An intellectual during the night ravished his grandmother and for this got a beating from his father. He complained: ‘You’ve been mounting my mother for a long time, without suffering any consequences from me. And now you’re mad that you found me screwing your mother for the first time ever!’”

… mic drops.

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Kim Jong-Un selling kebabs.

Posted in History and Politics on March 20th, 2014 by byronkho

“A Chinese street food vendor is enjoying a boost in trade after customers noticed he looks exactly like North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un… [Says Manchu Tuan, kebab seller:] ‘I am pleased to say that business is really good since word got out about the fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is now selling kebabs here. The only drawback is that business is non-existent when I’m not here. There are simply no sales by my colleague.’” – Huffington Post