Sunday, January 31, 2016

#toqueville #fomo

"Before [the American' stretches an almost boundless continent and it is as though, already afraid of losing his place, he is in such a hurry not to arrive too late." -- Democracy in America

Friday, January 29, 2016

Fact: How A Failed Colony In Panama Led To The Formation of the United Kingdom

Rapacious, profit-seeking, bloody, Europe conquered the world with sail and gun. History is filled with the brutal successes of the European Imperialist project: the Dutch East India Company sewed up the lucrative spice trade of South East Asia; the British East India company began a process of conquest that would end with the entire Indian subcontinent under British control; Napoleon, at the head of the French army, proverbially shot the nose off Egypt's Sphinx; at the height of European Imperialism, most of the globe was claimed by some power or another.

But European supremacy was never inevitable. Indeed, most imperial adventures failed. There was the much-lamented British South Sea Company. Its promising prospectus to colonize the South Seas became one the first big stock market bubbles and nearly brought down the rickety British government. France's Mississippi Company, pushed by the financial Svengali John Law, left many of Paris' rich and famous poor and destitute. But perhaps the most quixotic of them all was the Darien Company of Scotland.

In the late 17th century Scottish entrepreneurs wanted to get into the imperial game for themselves: they would colonize the thin strip of land along what is now the Panama Canal in order to make money by hauling goods from one coast to the other, from Pacific to Atlantic and back again. This would save ships months that would otherwise be spent making the treacherous iceberg-filled passage south along the southern tip of South America. But the scheme was born under a bad sign. The land claimed by the Darien Scheme was not only already populated by Native Americans, it was claimed by another European Power--Spain, was an ally of the newly installed English and Scottish King William III. English commercial interests weren't happy with the scheme either--what did they want with an upstart competitor? This left the Scots adrift on their own. But the Scots doubled down on the plan--estimates are that a quarter to half of all Scottish wealth became tied up in the Darien scheme.

But once the scheme actually got off the ground, it was plagued with problems. The first fleet of settlement--some 1,200 people--sailed across the ocean and dutifully set up a fort and a city, New Edinburgh, right in the Darien isthmus. But the colony's crops of corn and yam failed, and malaria and dysentery steadily ate away at the ranks of settlers. Things got so bad that the only thing the Darien colonists could eat were the giant turtles padding around the coast. Then the settlers became too weak to hunt the giant turtles, and instead they just starved. After 8 months, the colony was abandoned. The ships returned home--with only 300 survivors.

But news of the failure didn't return home quick enough to prevent a new batch of about 1000 settlers, who lingered at New Edinburgh long enough to face Spanish siege, disease, and hunger before they too went home, in defeat and disgrace. Only a few hundred of the original 2500 colonists survived.

The area is mostly uninhabited today.

Because so much of Scottish wealth had been tied up in the scheme, this left many Scots destitute--and is one reason some historians say that in 1707 the Scots joined the English in the Act of Union creating the new political entity of Great Britain.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Fact: Thomas Jefferson's Grandchildren

Founding father Thomas Jefferson was a lot of things: red-haired, bookish, founder of the University of Virginia, revolutionary wunderkind, patron saint of the Democratic Party, architect, and author of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence with it's all-too-often-quoted boilerplate of "all men created equal" and their vaunted "pursuit of Happiness." Thomas Jefferson is pretty complicated. Of course all the American political saints are complicated. Franklin seems more Voltaire than Washington--like some 18th century philosophe stumbled onto the set of a war movie and did his best not to smirk while delivering his lines. Washington stands a strange cipher of virtue: the only thing you can be certain about is that he was an important, powerful man, and knew himself to be as much. Hamilton is equal parts martyr and New York City capitalist. If he'd be alive today he'd be reviled like Rahm Emanuel or envied like an Uber engineer. But despite all that, Jefferson has perhaps the most fraught historical legacy.

This is because of his relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave, the mother of his children, his wife's half sister, a relationship that was for a long time controversial, disputed, denigrated, a relationship which brings to light a lot of the complexities of America's tortured history of racial discrimination. His wife, Martha, died at 33 and made Jefferson promise not to marry again because she could not bear to have another woman raise her children. But Jefferson had also inherited more than a hundred slaves from his father-in-law. Amongst those slaves was Martha's half-sister, Sally Hemings.

Hemings and Jefferson had six children. Four survived. They were 7/8s European, and were freed by Jefferson on reaching adulthood. Three of them went on to pass as white. Jefferson's son Eston Hemings moved to Madison, Wisconsin, changed his named to Eston Jefferson and his children and grandchildren entered the white community, claiming some vague relation to some side of the Jefferson family tree. Madison Hemings, on the other hand, remained black, and his descendants considered themselves black. One set of brothers and sisters branched to live out their lives on either side of America's brutal color line.

For more, check out BackStory's history of Racial Passing in America.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Fact: On Clues

A clue. The minor thing out of place that hints at the truth. The bloody knife. The misplaced handkerchief. The purloined document. The great historian Carlo Ginzburg argued that the job of the humanist and the detective were identical: both looked for clues that could reveal the unknown. Both don't necessarily look at the big details--instead they rifle through the trivial stuff in the background, trying to find a critical clue: a telling cough, an inconvenient allergy to almonds, a whorl of an ear in a renaissance painting, misplaced laughter, a dream about mysterious machinery, massive, but silent.

So what is a clue, anyway? It was originally spelled clew and first referred to a "globular body" (thus the OED.) From there it evolved to mean a ball of thread. This was used in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In this myth Theseus, that Grecian Captain America, stumbled into the confusingly twisty Labyrinth to slay the dreaded Minotaur. Theseus' admirer Adriane gave him a ball of thread--a clue--with which to find his way out of the labyrinth. As Chaucer had it (in the first recorded use of the word in 1385): "By a clewe of twyn as he hath gon The same weye he may returne a-non ffolwynge alwey the thred as he hath come." Or as we would have it, he traced the ball of twine back to where he had come.
Theseus' modern counterpart, fighting his ancient foe.
From there, the clew became a metaphor: the small hint that gets us out of a proverbial labyrinth. In 1605, an M. Drayton gave us this pithy one-liner: "Loosing the clew which led vs safely in, [We] Are lost within this Labyrinth of lust." Which sounds like a pretty fun Labyrinth to be lost in. The OED mentions the uses of other Labyrinths: mazes of life, of governmental departments, of obscurities. Regardless, the original metaphor of a ball of twine and Labyrinth was eventually lost and 'clue' just became a thing which helped us figure out a mystery. Its first use like this was in 1665, when a K Digby gives us this: "Seeking in the movements of the heavenly bodies for a clue to the accidents of life." A worthy place to look for a clue indeed.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Facts: About the History of Coffee

I still can't get my head around the fact that coffee was discovered so late. It was discovered in the Ethiopia sometime in the 14th century (although the exact date is uncertain) and only really hit Europe in the late 16th century. I imagine the generations upon generations of humans who toiled through the dim stupor of life, suffering because they lacked the cup of coffee they couldn't know they needed. Think of what Homer might have written if he'd been able to pound back an espresso shot! Think of the extra plays we might have enjoyed if Shakespeare had enjoyed a French Press. Think of all the extra math Copernicus might have done if he'd been able to order an Americano from his corner cafe!

So why did it take so long to discover coffee? The traditional story is that an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi discovered coffee when he spied his goats acting pleasantly jumpy after eating coffee berries from some mountain bush. Another story says that a Sufi sage saw birds eating coffee and flying with particular vigor.
Site of the first London coffeehouse, honored by a plaque.
The first coffee house in England was opened in 1652 in London at the sign of the Turk's head. Some contemporaries thought that the dish was unchristian, would spur rebellion, and lead to epidemics of male impotence. One writer called it a devil's drink "that witches tipple out of dead men's skulls." Although the impotence and occult qualities of the drink are pretty hard to understand, the rebellion part of the critique was not all that fanciful. At the time Britain was being ruled by a Republican government which had recently decapitated the rightful king. Besides, you couldn't toast the health to the king with a cup of coffee the same way you could with a jug of beer.

But a lot of people loved coffee, giving it all sorts of magical properties. Some used it as a emetic--shoving it down the throat with a whalebone stick to induce vomiting. (It worked!) But most simply drank it, discovering that it made conversation easier, and that you could talk for longer over that "wakeful drink" than over mugs of beer.

The early coffeehouse was a perpetual fair of learning, discussion, selling, buying, arguments, and fun. Robert Hooke, the first demonstrator of the Royal Society, dissected a porpoise in Garraway's Coffeehouse in the 1660s to prove that the animal was a fish. (He was wrong.) Other coffeehouses catered to businessmen. Lloyd's of London, the insurance market, began as Lloyd's coffeehouse. Still others catered to fops and other fashionable young men who'd smoke, gamble, drink coffee and stay out too late.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Fact: Towards a History of Beards

Beards are so popular these days that scientists have proclaimed a moment 'peak beard.' They argue that having a beard is more attractive to women when the majority of men are clean shaven. (In the elegant language of science, beards are a "negative frequency-dependent sexual selection trait.") Because the proportion of bearded gentlemen increases daily, we will soon hit the point when the majority of men are bearded and so having a beard is no longer attractive. Stock up on razors, guys.

This idea of 'peak beardliness' got me thinking about the history of beards. The thing about beards, of course, is that they only exist because we shave them off. But why do we shave off beards more frequently than other facial or bodily hair? What does the beard mean? Is it a symbol of sophistication or barbarism? Why is having a beard so closely related to philosophers?  I remember back in college all of my philosophy major friends sported beards. Me, the lone English major of the lot, went clean shaven.

I'm nowhere close to figuring out answers to these questions. Instead I will offer some scattered facts.

For the ancient Egyptians, kings and queens alike wore a false metal beard called a postiche to connect them to the gods. The hieroglyphic for the divine is a seated man--wearing a false beard.

Egyptian False Beard
The ancient Greeks talked about their 'beardless boys'--to grow some stubble was a right of passage separating the boy and the man. In Homer, touching the beard is a sign of entreaty. Supposedly Alexander was the first clean-shaven monarch: a clean face was more militarily expedient (someone could grab hold of a warrior by his whiskers), and the fashion spread from him. The Latins rarely sported beards: the Grecophile Emperor Hadrian shocked contemporaries by letting his beard grow out in the Greek, philosophical manner.
Emperor Hadrian, the first bearded Emperor
Beards might symbolize the sophistication of the Greeks or of the philosophy major, but they could also be a sign of barbarism. The Lombards who took over Northern Italy in the 6th century were named for their long beards. (Longo bardi = long beards.) And our own cultural image of the pitiless viking would not be complete without a flowing full beard. (Isn't there some storyline in the Marvel comic Thor about why that normally bearded Norse god goes around as clean shaven as an accountant?)

Beardless Thor

Jumping ahead to the 18th century, we continue to see beardiness as a symbol marking the boundaries of a culture. In Peter the Great's time, a big beard was a symbol of Russianess. Peter, in his efforts to push the country to more European lines, instituted a beard tax, going so far as to forcibly shave people who sported a beard in front of him. This did not go over well with the bearded boyars, who paid their taxes, and retained their beards after Peter's death.

Token showing that the owner had paid his beard tax

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Fact: the Bell-Ringing Riot of 1881

England is an island fond of its bells. Since the 17th century groups with names like the College Youths and the London Scholars have clambered up church towers to the bells, not to make music, but to ring a set of particular permutations called 'changes'. Sometimes they'd drink while they were on the job--a 'peal' of 5040 changes could take upwards of three hours to ring, and it was hard, laborious, thirsty work that much deserved a beer.

That the ringing took place in the church tower was often the most religious thing about English bell ringing. Bell ringing societies were more likely to give a peal in honor of someone's birthday or a horse race than to usher in divine service. This all changed in the 1850s when church reformers tried to reconnect the bell tower and the church. The buildings were literally connected after all. They wanted bell ringing to be associated with church functions. And they wanted the bell ringers to quit drinking while they were on the job.

This sometimes did not go over well with the bell ringers, who, like many of us, were fond of their beer.

In 1881, for example, a rector in Devon wanted to stop the bell ringers from ringing throughout the local Revel Week--a weeklong orgy of drunken popular culture. The bell ringers responded by breaking into the bell tower and ringing anyway. They also turned their wrath to the rector, stealing his chickens, throwing stones at his family, and burning down his farm buildings.

History shows us that the West Worlington, Devon, Society of Ringers ain't nothing to fuck with.

Fact gleaned from Ron Johnston's Bell-Ringing, p 233.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Fact: Jobs Are Hard

In 1969, about 80% of newly-minted history PhDs could find a job. In 2011, only half could claim finding 'definite employment' the year after graduation.

Figure 3. New History PhDs Reporting Employment or Postgraduate Study at Time of Degree, 1969 to 2012

From the AHA's 2013 Jobs report.

So I tell people that came to graduate school because I love to teach, and I love to write. But I think another reason is that I love facts. So this year I'm going to try to share my love of facts on this sometimes dormant blog--just one a week, culled (ideally) from the readings I already have to do for coursework.