Jun 30, 2008

Book Review: Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era

Pearson, Michael N.

Publisher: Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998

Pearson is Emeritus Professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, and is the author of a number of influential texts on European expansion and indigenous cultures in and near the Arabian Sea, which he alternately describes in this text as the “Afrasian Sea.” Influenced by the work of such writers as Immanuel Wallerstein and Kirti N. Chaudhuri, Pearson set out in Port Cities and Intruders “to look at the Afrasian Sea and its coasts in its own terms,” sketching a broad outline of early modern life in and along the Afrasian Sea, in particular the peoples of the Swahili coast. Though not as comprehensive as l'histoire totale of Fernand Braudel and the Annalistes, Pearson’s book nonetheless considers the peoples of the Swahili and Malabar coasts as part of a distinct regional economy in which European interlopers such as the Portuguese were merely late entrants in an existing and thriving sea-based economy. Yet, in a way, this is a book that asks more questions than it answers, and Pearson discussed a number of shortcomings in research that has been widely accepted as definitive.

The importance of littoral zones is an important theme that runs through Pearson’s book, and the author emphasized that the also littoral serves to connect the coast with inland regions. Moreover, noted Pearson, lakes and large river systems should also be included in any consideration of a littoral zone, as they serve to extend the zone of coastal commerce and culture. The importance of littoral zones, added Pearson, owes much to the fact that shipment by sea is the most cost-effective method of the transport of goods across distances:
If both land and sea transportation were available, all else being equal the sea would be chosen. Sea navigation at this time had a cost advantage over other forms of transport… it has been calculated that a dhow (lateen-rigged boat) can travel the same distance as a camel caravan in one-third the time; each boat would carry the equivalent of a thousand camel loads, and only one dhow crew member was needed for several cargo tons, as compared with two or more men for each ton in a camel caravan.

1572 map of the Swahili port city of Kilwa by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg from their Civitates orbis terrarum; click for larger image

Finished cloth, noted Pearson, was one of the most important commodities traded along the Swahili coast, and he observed that in “this nonmonetized world, [cloth], along with weights of gold, often served as currency.” Much of the imported cloth came from Gujarati merchants, while ivory and gold were the principal exports in the centuries prior to the rise of the international slave trade. Yet the east African coast, reminded Pearson, represented only a small fraction of the total export trade of western India.

Drawing from the discipline of geography, Pearson described terms for zones that help explain the relationships between port cities and the sea and land that surround them. The author defined umland as “the immediate surrounding area, directly connected to the city, frequently because it provides foodstuffs to the city.” The foreland, as defined by Pearson in this schema, represents regions overseas that are connected to the port city through shipping, trade, and the traffic of passengers, while the hinterland “radiates out from the port city inland and so begins at the end of the umland.” Pearson used these concepts to debunk traditionalists in African history and archaeology, such as Neville Chittick and James Kirkman, who downplayed connections between the peoples of the Swahili coast and peoples of the African interior.

Despite differences in language, as well as geographic barriers on the continent, Pearson argued that the port cities of the Swahili coast shared considerable economic and cultural connections with their African hinterlands. Most importantly, added Pearson, the Swahili need to be seen as “intrinsically African, not foreign,” a notion that today fails to resonate with the practitioners of “corrupt nationalist politics” in places like Kenya. The Swahili port cities, summed up Pearson, differed from Asian commercial entrepôts such as Melaka and Aden - which focused on repackaging, redistribution, and re-export - and instead should be seen as centers of both local and regional trade with significant cultural and trade connections to their hinterlands.

1572 illustration of the Portuguese fort at Sofala by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg from their Civitates orbis terrarum

Pearson argued against Marxist interpretations of trade in the Afrasian Sea as representing “economically advanced foreigners shamefully exploiting naïve Africans,” acknowledging that a number of studies have demonstrated that Gujarati, Arab, and Portuguese traders sometimes recorded astronomical profits in dealings with Swahili traders. Instead, Pearson posited that any analysis of regional trade needs to first consider use and relative values of trade goods. Interior Africans, in largely non-monetized economies, had little use for gold and ivory, both of which were highly prized by regional trading powers, but this did not mean that Africans were somehow swindled or bamboozled by foreign traders:
Overall, the advantage lay with Africa. Most of the products they received were discretionary rather than necessities I their agricultural and hunting lives, except for cloth on the [Zimbabwean] plateau, though even for this there were local substitutes. For the trader, however, a sale or exchange was obviously essential, for this was his raison d’être. Thus Africans could work as much or as little as they wanted.
Not by chance does Pearson save until the end of the book a discussion of the Portuguese presence on the Swahili coast in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Pearson argued that the Portuguese were not an “all-powerful, all-successful people of a quite different genus from what had gone on before,” but instead should be seen as “people who were constrained in a great variety of ways by the milieu I which they operated.” While the author agreed that the Portuguese possessed a “relatively coherent underlying strategy” in commandeering strategic points in the Indian Ocean basin from which to try to control trade, Pearson argued that they were ultimately unsuccessful in trying to “impose a hierarchy de novo in the Indian Ocean,” despite their early financial gains. Pearson attributed the Portuguese failures on the Swahili coast to a variety of factors, including inefficiencies and corruption in the Estado da India, an inability of the Portuguese to understand the “well-integrated trading system” they attempted to take over, the tolls taken from diseases to which the Portuguese lacked immunities, and the fact that Portuguese strategy to control gold production in the Zimbabwean plateau through “military force was both impossible and unnecessary.”

Port Cities and Intruders raises questions about a great deal of existing research into the early modern history of the Swahili coast, and Pearson identified a number of areas in which future research could be directed, such as a comparative examination of the similarities between port cities along the entire Indian Ocean littoral. Undergraduate students might struggle a bit with the more abstract portions of the text, especially if they are unfamiliar with world-system theory, but scholars at all levels and from a wide variety of disciplines will benefit from a reading of this subtly provocative book, which still shakes academic trees a full decade after its release.

Jun 29, 2008

The Reappearance of Yucca filamentosa

We have a rather hefty yucca plant in one of our ornamental gardens that takes up an ever-increasing amount of space. I think that it is the species Yucca filamentosa, and every year it provides us with one or more stalks filled with creamy white blossoms that approach eight feet in height.

Except for last summer, that is.

For reasons unknown to me, the plant did not produce a blossom-bearing stalk last year, and we gazed upon the hardy green leaves all summer, waiting in vain for the flowers that did not appear in sunshine or home lighting. I have read that this barren cycle might be due to the absence of Prodoxidae, better known as "yucca moths." There is a symbiotic relationship between the yucca and these moths, and pollination is best achieved when members of the Prodoxidae family flit about and live their lepidopteran lives.

Thus, all is well with the return of this old friend, a plant that has weathered every subzero winter snap and summer drought in our front yard for nearly 15 years, and another of those seasonal markers of time is here.

Jun 28, 2008

On BS Artists, Old Days, and Diplomacy

Some months ago I was chatting with a couple in their forties at a holiday party, and the subject turned to employment histories. The guy told me that he played three games for the Detroit Red Wings in 1983 before he "blew out" his knee, ending his nascent hockey career.

Intrigued, I pressed for details, as I spent most of the 1980s employed at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, home of the Wings, and I was fascinated to learn more about his observations.

In some ways I grew up at Joe Louis, starting work there in my late teens right after Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1982. I remember when Steve Yzerman was introduced at a press conference that I schmoozed my way into, and how young the barely-18 Yzerman looked. Over the years I bumped elbows with just about every player on the team in that decade, as employees and players went in and out the same doors. It became almost mundane to see an NHL star after a while, just as I lost my surprise at seeing rock stars and prize fighters up close in the building.

Meh - the stories I could tell about my 10-second meetings with such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Robert Plant, and Bono Vox, most of which could be summed up with conversations like this:

Me: "Hey, how's it going?"
Rock star: "Good." (walks away)

Anyways, it was clear to me that my conversation with the ex-Wing had some problems, as he claimed that he played for Brad Park. Unfortunately, Park coached only 45 games in the 1985 season, two years after my acquaintance supposedly destroyed his knee. He was also a bit fuzzy on details, and could only name two other players on the team from that era, one of whom - Petr Klíma - did not defect to the United States until 1985.

His girlfriend seemed quite proud that he and I were hitting it off so well, and I elected to play along with him, rather than expose what was evidently a whopping lie. We continued to converse about the good old days, and how the Red Wings have become an NHL dynasty, and then New Year's Eve turned to New Year's Day, and I forgot about the whole episode.

Until yesterday.

It seems that my fake Wing, who lives many states away, died of a heart attack not long after we spoke. While I hardly knew the guy, I was saddened that such a relatively young person died at an age when most of us are just beginning to ponder our mortality.

And I was especially glad that I did not make it a point to punch holes in the guy's whopper of a story, since he really didn't have much else going for him, judging from his unemployed status and health problems. By just shutting my mouth, perhaps I let a dying man cling to a harmless fantasy for a couple of more weeks, and maybe there is much to be said for the adage of "live and let live."

Besides, it's not like he was claiming that he scored a game-winning goal in the playoffs, and what's more - maybe he really DID play for the Wings, and just got confused over the years, or maybe he was a week away from being called up when his knee blew out while playing for the minor-league Adirondack Red Wings.

Who knows?

And more importantly - though these days I pride myself on factual accuracy and objective truth as a historian, and though I have learned over the years that telling the truth is infinitely easier than telling a lie - it's not as though I have been above telling some whoppers myself, especially as a younger (and more foolish) person.

Maybe it's worse to be hypocrite than a BS artist.

Jun 27, 2008

On Potato Blossoms, the Great Starvation, and DNA

True, the phrase "potato blossoms" does not carry the sorts of festive connotations as do such word combinations as "cherry blossoms" or "apple blossoms," but these flowers nonetheless have a subtle beauty all their own.

I've been planting potatoes in my gardens for a few years now, and this spring I doubled the amount of seed potatoes I usually plant. I suppose this was in part a subconscious reaction in light of grain shortages and skyrocketing food prices, but truth be told, I also had more seed cuttings than I needed, and I could not bear to just throw them out.

So I have a few dozen sturdy, 3-foot plants starting to bloom in late June, which probably means something like 100-150 pounds of potatoes from late August to early October, all for a little over $1.00 in seed potatoes. Of course, there is some labor involved, since it's a good idea to gradually add a few inches of extra dirt every few weeks in case the potato tubers peek through the ground, as well as the occasional weeding that is needed.

I also think my own quasi-Irish heritage plays a role in my fascination with growing my own potatoes, and perhaps the urge to plant these edible tubers is hardwired into the DNA of the descendants of Irish peasants. Anthropologist Seamus Metress describes the period from 1845-51 as the Great Starvation in reference to the negligence and indifference of the British to address the Irish famine from the potato blight.

It is possible, then, that my decision to plant extra potatoes this year had its roots in a segment of the billions of nucleic acids - jumbled together in a fashion only God could fully comprehend - that comprise my being and influence the actions I take. Perhaps the urge to plant edible tubers, though not as strong as the drive to reproduce or the will to live, is instinctual in nature, and I was responding to some chemical reaction that activated after the appearance of a certain external stimulus (news about food shortages).

Or maybe I am just a cheap SOB who couldn't bear to waste 35 cents worth of red and white seed potatoes.

Jun 25, 2008

History Slivers - Gateway to Irak

This is a recurrent feature on the site in which I briefly describe some arcane aspect of history that I came across, but about which I am too busy or lazy to write in greater depth, yet which - sliver-like - I cannot simply ignore.

In my ever-growing library is a 1965 tourism book entitled Gateway to Irak: A Pocket Guide to Irak with Maps and Illustrations that was published by the Dar Al-Hikma Bookshop in Baghdad. I doubt that the bookstore is still in business, what with three major wars in the past three decades, but the guide contains a folding map of Iraq and a city plan of what Baghdad looked like in the innocence of the 1960s.

The following are excerpts describing Baghdad as seen through the eyes of a writer desirous of attracting Western tourists; I suspect that much of the beauty described therein no longer holds.

Left: My copy of the 1965 tourism guide Gateway to Irak: A Pocket Guide to Irak with Maps and Illustrations

Here, then, are the promised excerpts from the book, but I am not sure whether I should laugh or sob at what I read, at least in comparison with modern-day Baghdad. Feel free to offer your analysis of the merits of the 1965 descriptions, or your eulogy on what has been lost since the guide was printed.

Baghdad has always intrigued the imagination of travellers as the city of the Arabian Nights, where Shahrazad spun endless tales of love, magic, and wisdom to the Sultan. Shahrazad, of course, has long since vanished, but not the city nor the magic. A big metropolis today, with a population of nearly one and a quarter million, Baghdad lives on as a city where an ancient past mingles vividly with a modern present, setting off a picture of charmingly striking contrasts and a delightful blend of native traditions and exotic customs...

All cinemas in Baghdad run four shows daily at 10:30 am, 4:15 pm, 7:00 pm, and 9:30 pm. First-class theaters, all of which have numbered seats and are air-conditioned in the summer, present mostly American films in the original...

Cabarets in Baghdad are not many. There are six in all, of which three offer exclusively western music and floor-shows, two offer only oriental songs and dances, and one offers a combination of western and oriental programs. In summer, all cabarets are held outdoors in a cool, breezy setting of green, where one may wine, dine, and dance in the enchanting atmosphere of Baghdad's famous, clear, moonlit, star-studded skies...

The largest bookshop dealing exclusively i Arabic books and publications, and which should be of interest to orientalists and Arabic-speaking scholars, is Al-Muthanna Bookshop at Mutanabbi Street, with a newly-opened branch at Tahir Square.

Jun 24, 2008

Book Review: The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825

Boxer, CR
Publisher: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970

CR Boxer, perhaps the single most important figure in the 20th century historiography of the Portuguese empire, composed The Portuguese Seaborne Empire for J.H. Plumb’s The History of Human Society series. This synthesis, however, might also be considered one of the high points of Boxer’s lifelong fascination with the Portuguese Estado da India, and the text occasionally references material from the author’s impressive private archival collection (relocated after Boxer’s death to The Lilly Library at Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, IN).

Boxer noted that the original motivations for the Portuguese in commencing their voyages of discovery – as outlined by chroniclers such as Gomes Eanes de Zurara - were varied: “(i) crusading zeal against the Muslims; (ii) the desire for Guinea gold; (iii) the quest for Prester John; (iv) the search for Oriental spices.” In addition, Boxer argued, Portuguese monarchs benefited from the fact that Portugal was a united kingdom, having completed their portion of the Reconquista over two centuries before the Castilians evicted the last of the Muslim forces in 1492. Moreover, the 1385 Aviz revolution, acknowledged Boxer, created both an emergent middle class and the utter destruction of most of the old noble competitors.

Portugal enjoyed a number of fortuitous factors that improved the small Iberian nation’s chances of success in its efforts to dominate the Indian Ocean trade network in the sixteenth century, argued Boxer. Chief among these was the fact that the major powers in the region lacked armed ships to protect their maritime interests, and Boxer noted that the Portuguese destruction of the “makeshift Egyptian-Gujarati fleet off Diu” in 1509 eliminated the “only Muslim naval force capable of meeting the Portuguese warships on something approaching equal terms.” Political rivalries in the region, added Boxer, allowed the Portuguese to exploit rivalries to their advantage; notable among these were the rivalries between Mombasa and Malindi in East Africa, between the Zamorin of Calicut and the Raja of Cochin, and between the Sultans of Ternate and Tidore. Finally, remarked Boxer, the attitude of many Asian rulers might be summarized in a quote from Bahadur Shah, the King of Gujarat: “‘Wars by sea are merchants’ affairs, and of no concern to the prestige of kings.’”

Left: Sixteenth-century painting of Bahadur Shah of Gujarat

Boxer viewed the post-1663 Portuguese empire as a study in contrasts, which he described as “stagnation and contraction in the East” and “revival and expansion in the West.” Boxer attributed what he believed to be a decline in the Estado da India to a number of reasons, including the dearth of Portuguese women who would travel to India, the unhealthiness of the Asian and African environments to Europeans, the chronic shortage of soldiers in Portuguese India, the “meteoric rise of Omani sea-power,” the emergence of the Marathan Empire as a land and sea menace, and what he termed the maladministration of justice (a falta de justiça), a frequent complaint in official correspondence from the period. Boxer discounted the idea of a so-called “decadence of Portuguese Asia” – a description sometimes invoked by contemporaries and emphasized by late 19th and early 20th century historians like R.S. Whiteway - as a factor in the alleged Portuguese decline, noting that contemporaries often exaggerated both the 16th-century “golden age” and the 17th century deterioration of the Estado da India. Recent scholarship, exemplified in the book Renascent Empire by Glenn J. Ames, has cast significant doubt on Boxer’s “stagnation” thesis, and it is likely that both halves of the Portuguese empire experienced improvement in the late 17th century.

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, better known as Marquis of Pombal, occupies a lengthy chapter in Boxer’s book, and the author described Pombal as someone who made “a greater impact on Portuguese history than anyone else has ever done.” Boxer detailed Pombal’s efforts to crush what he viewed as a Jesuit menace, and argued that this response reflected Pombal’s view that “the backwardness and underdeveloped state (as we would say nowadays) of Portugal and her colonies were almost entirely due to the diabolical machinations of the Society of Jesus.” Yet despite the repression and severity of the Pombaline dictatorship, Boxer noted that the reign of Pombal was also associated with the abolition of slavery in Portugal from 1761-63, the abolition of racial barriers in the Asian colonies, and the reform of the “antiquated curriculum” of Coimbra University.

Left: Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo,the first Marquis of Pombal

Readers of the text receive detailed summaries from Boxer on the Brazilian fleets and on the Carreira da Índia, or the round trip between Lisbon and Goa. Boxer noted that the Portuguese Crown tried to ameliorate the inadequate wages of ship officers and crew members by allowing the use of caixas de liberdade (“liberty chests”), in which officers and men could bring home certain Asian trade goods wholly or partially duty-free. Another perk for sailors and officers was the gasalbado, a space allotment on the deck of Carreira ships that could be sold to the highest bidder. Boxer argued that there was a hidden benefit that proponents of the caixas de liberdade and gasalbado perquisites claimed would benefit the Crown:
The supporters of the system also argued that by giving the sailors a direct interest in a portion of the ship’s lading they would fight better if the ship was attacked, since they would be defending their own property as well as that of the Crown.
Boxer contested the view promulgated by a number of historians that the Portuguese empire was much less focused on forms of racial hierarchy and racial prejudice than were the English, French, and Dutch. He noted that official documents and private correspondence throughout the 17th and 18th centuries frequently contain terms such as pureza de sangue (“purity of blood”) and raças infectas (“contaminated races”). In addition, Boxer noted the refusal by leaders of religious orders to admit ordained priests of color, as well as the inability of Pombal to enforce his anti-racialist policies with the formation of an indigenous clergy in East Africa. Moreover, Jews and cristãos novos (“New Christians”) in Portugal and in the empire generally fared poorly in this environment, and Boxer noted that cristãos novos – even those between the fourth and seventh generations after forcible conversion – were “officially and legally excluded from all ecclesiastical, military, and administrative posts,” and this ban was extended in 1623 to all university and college positions.

Despite its age and the fact that the book is currently out of print, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire remains an essential component of any respectable library on European expansion, and the text has much to offer students of history and non-specialist scholars. Boxer provided an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, a glossary of terms, and a useful collection of appendices. Moreover, Boxer’s wit and intellectual curiosity shine in this book, and one can only hope that a publishing house will soon recognize that CR Boxer still has much to offer scholars and general readers by republishing this magnificent text.

Jun 23, 2008

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

The biographical approach to history exemplified in 'Life and Times of So and So' is generally admitted to be suspect, owing to the temptation to exaggerate the importance of the 'Life' in relation to the 'Times.'
-- C.R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415-1825, in reference to Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, a likely exception to the historiographical rule he described.

Jun 22, 2008

On the Toledo Mosque, Islam, and Being an Outsider

The Islamic Center of Toledo, home to the golden-domed Toledo mosque(Perrysburg, OH) For years I have passed the golden-domed mosque that is the heart of The Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, which is located near the junction of I-75 and I-475 in Perrysburg. While in the vicinity, I set out to take some pictures of this beautiful building, the dome of which shines like a brilliant star in the evening sun.

Unfortunately, the mosque has signs posted informing would-be visitors that prior permission is needed to set foot on the property. Seeing as how I did not desire either: a) an unpleasant altercation with the property's owners; or b) a visit to the Wood County Jail, I decided to circle around and find a nearby perch that would allow me to photograph the building.

After all: even if I had made the necessary arrangements, I still would have been an outsider, and I'm not sure that closeup images would have been any more superior.

My first stop was next to a field along Roachton Road, a little ways south of the mosque. I trudged through the dampened field, which appeared to be lying fallow, and took a few dozen images, none of which seemed to give me the angles and colors I wanted.

I next took up camp in a factory parking lot across I-75 from the mosque, where I also encountered a mother goose and her chicks; one of these photos is the image that accompanies this post. The mosque's golden dome reflects the late afternoon sun, yet the scene seems a bit surreal, surrounded as the mosque is by thousands of acres of Ohio farmland.

The geese and I soon parted company, none of us really possessing any new insights about Islam, cultural divides, or - for that matter - human-goose relationships. My efforts to recreate the peaceful moment in a digital format served to send the geese scurrying into the water, and they kept a wary eye on me from afar.

Much like, I suppose, did the folks at the Islamic Center as a purple Hyundai circled their property and a lanky, middle-aged man took many dozens of photographs of their house of worship.

Jun 21, 2008

Yet More Tips on Improving Your Blog

Image of Blogger Beta logo courtesy of Blogger and Google This is part of a series of posts on improving the search engine optimization and traffic counts of individual blogs. Previous articles focused on SEO, the importance of keywords, using images to generate site traffic, and producing quality content.

No matter why you blog, chances are that you hope to reach some sort of audience; after all, you might as well keep a written diary if you don't want people to read your work. With this in mind, today we'll take a look at some basic strategies to help you increase traffic and hit your target audience.

1. Write about what no one else is writing about. This is easier said than done. If I write a post about, say, Barack Obama and John McCain, the post with the hyperlinked key words will have about five minutes of shelf life before it gets buried miles deep in the search results (unless, of course, the post gets linked by a major news site, and then I'll get about a day's shelf life). But if I write a post that includes some of Obama's staffers - like campaign research director Devorah Adler or the campaign's budgeting and planning director - or if I appeal to a Spanish audience by hyperlinking campaña de John McCain, the post will be finding its way into a lot of unique searches that will actually drive more traffic my way.

2. Use foreign words in image and post tags. Just because a reader speaks Russian first does not mean my site has nothing to offer. While my personal Russian skills are weak, I write a fair amount on Russian history and politics, and I am sure to tag images that might appeal to a Russian audience seeking images, or for whom English is a strong second language. This blog fares quite well with Russian readers searching for information on Екатерина II Великая, better known to the West as Catherine the Great.

3. Develop regular features that improve reader loyalty. Just like a variety show, a mix of topical features helps keep your site from becoming stale. In addition, develop a unique name for your features, and stay away from run-of-the-mill names like "Word of the Day" or "Quote of the Day," which a million other bloggers are doing. It took me two minutes to find that no one else on the Internet was using the phrase "History Slivers", and now I have a feature that is unlike any other on the Web.

4. Deliberately misspell words. Now, as a language geek, it kills me to find a typographical error in my work, yet I occasionally find that an unintentionally misspelled word actually drives some decent traffic. Remember - many people struggle with spelling, and others are so hyper-caffeinated that they type words incorrectly without knowing it. Just for grins, I'm going to hyperlink Barack Obaa and Barack Obana and see how much traffic comes my way. I'll bet that I get at least 50 hits a day from the placement of these misspelled words in this post.

Jun 20, 2008

Book Review: Vasco da Gama and the Linking of Europe and Asia

Book Review: Vasco da Gama and the Linking of Europe and Asia - Disney, Anthony and Booth, Emily (eds.)Disney, Anthony and Booth, Emily (eds.)

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 504 pages

The 1497-99 journey of Vasco da Gama to India - while eclipsed in the eyes of the American public by its obsession with the first transatlantic voyage of a certain Genovese mariner - nonetheless remains a source of speculation and debate among historians of European expansion. Disney and Booth edited this particular collection of essays and papers presented at a 1997 conference to denote the quincentenary of Gama’s first voyage to India, and the volume contains contributions from some of the most prominent historians in the field of imperial Portugal. Given the vast differences in approaches and subject matter of the authors, there is no unifying theme throughout the book beyond that of the Portuguese seaborne empire, although the editors organized the articles under a useful division of broad subheadings. In addition to articles on Gama, there are also contributions related to the Portuguese seaborne empire extending as far as the twentieth century. While some of the inclusions require prior familiarity with the history of the Estado da India, most of the material is accessible by undergraduates and the learned general public.

In the section named “Plenary Lectures,” Felipe Fernández-Armesto contributed an essay in which he argued that the Indian Ocean was “the world’s most influential ocean,” and that Vasco da Gama’s voyage was far from “the most important in the history of the Indian Ocean.” Fernández-Armesto, however, noted that Gama’s “real importance might be thought to lie outside the Indian Ocean,” especially in shaping European attitudes and by increasing European awareness of global trade. Maurice Kriegel and Sanjay Subrahmanyam examined the Lendas da India ("Legends of India"), the oft-discredited account of Gaspar Correia on Gama. The authors argued that Correia should not be read as a less factual account of the Gama voyage than chroniclers such as João de Barros or Fernão Lopes Castanheda, but rather as a text that “sought nevertheless to observe and report on the other cultures in an ‘ethnographic logic.’” Moreover, noted the authors, as a person who spent many decades in the service of the Crown in India, Correia remained largely isolated from the intellectual turmoil of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and his writings reflect the pre-1500 obsessions of the Portuguese court with Christian and Jewish apocalyptic traditions, astrology, and other mystical philosophies.

Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, in a seventeenth-century woodcutLeft: Seventeenth-century woodcut of Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama

“Trade and Economic Relations” begins with John Everaert’s study of the sixteenth-century entry of Low Country soldiers and merchants into the service of the Estado da India. The author maintained that this influx was of a “more qualitative than quantitative importance,” and that these foreigners both shaped the Estado and provided the Dutch with valuable intelligence about the Indian Ocean trade networks. M.N. Pearson contributed a fascinating study of the Swahili coast of eastern Africa at the time of the da Gama voyage, which he described as a “rich and variegated society” with flourishing trade networks that had “much closer ties with their immediate hinterlands” than with other powers in the Indian Ocean. Roderich Ptak contributed an intriguing essay that examined the Asian trade in camphor, a product that initially did not have a significant European market, and by which the Portuguese puzzlingly failed to profit from camphor’s high demand in East and Southeast Asia. Ptak posited that the Portuguese did not have the manpower to control the various sites of D. aromatica production, that there existed other less expensive varieties of camphor, and that other routes existed for indigenous merchants to bypass Portuguese-dominated routes, such as the Strait of Malacca.

The editors created a section entitled “Religious and Cultural Interactions” that covers a wide range of topics and periods. Dejanirah Silva Couto contributed an essay that examined the lives of Portuguese renegades and their relationships with the Estado da India during the 16th century. Couto argued that Portuguese exiles, rebels, and mercenaries often functioned simultaneously under two cultural milieux, and that this biculturality allowed these renegades to improve their social and economic standing. Maria de Jesus Mártires dos Lopes argued that, despite the large numbers of reported converts by Padroado missionaries in the Goa region, the Novos Convertidos retained many cultural and religious traditions, or “an interpenetration of cultures that even the Inquisition could not eradicate.” A.J.R. Russell-Wood, in “For God, King, and Mammon,” noted that the use of the word “empire” to describe the Estado da India was “more conceptual than physical in nature,” since the ability of the Portuguese to administer their holdings was in large part a function of natural forces such as trade winds and ocean currents.

Left: Sixteenth-century illustration of Vasco da Gama

In the section “Sources, Texts, and Representations,” Maria Alzira Seixo examined Os Lusiads de Luís de Camões and Alvaro Velho’s Roteiro da Primera Viagem de Vasco da Gama, arguing that these more poetic works should be read not for the exact details of discovery, but rather as narratives of adventure. John E. Wills, Jr. offered an intriguing examination on the historiography of the debate surrounding K.M. Pannikar’s traditionalist “Vasco da Gama Epoch” thesis, noting the pedulum shift from Eurocentrism to subaltern approaches, and suggesting that the field is entering a period of balance between the two extremes.

The essay collection ends with “Empire, Politics, and Diplomacy,” a grouping of eight articles with quite an assortment of approaches and perspectives on the political legacy of the Estado da India. Teotonio R. de Souza examined the nature of relations between the Portuguese and the indigenous peoples they met in the lands of the Indian Ocean, arguing that interrelations between the groups were much more complicated than simplistic models of invaders/resistors sometimes posited by historians. George Winius, in “Few Thanks to the King: The Building of Portuguese India,” argued that the ability of the Portuguese to create a “lasting presence on such distant lands seems almost a miracle in light of the bungling leadership supplied from Lisbon.” Winius maintained that only the good fortune of Manuel I to appoint talented administrators - such as Duarte Pacheco Pereira, Francisco de Almeida, and Afonso de Albuquerque – prevented the Estado da India from becoming a disaster. Douglas Wheeler added an essay that examined the legacy of postcolonial Goa, beginning with the 14-year crisis with newly independent India and scrutinizing the effects of the loss of Goa on the Salazar regime. Wheeler argued that Salazar’s “personal obsession with Goa” diverted the aging dictator’s energies away from more pressing domestic and international problems, and the author also called for more research into the Goan diaspora.

The articles in Vasco da Gama and the Linking of Europe and Asia have individual footnotes, and quite a few contain valuable appendices. While there is an element of disjointedness in the assemblage of this diverse collection of works – which might benefit from transitional essays by the editors – one leaves the text with greater awareness of the breadth of historiographical discourse and research possibilities in the history of the Estado da India. More importantly, scholars gain an appreciation of the wide variety of historical debates surrounding the voyages undertaken by the first Count of Vidigueira.

Jun 19, 2008

Rauch Road - Unsafe at Any Speed

(Samaria, MI) I drove on Tuesday evening down the worst stretch of a map-defined road I can recall when I made the mistake of turning onto Monroe County's Rauch Road, once deemed by Toledo Blade readers as "the worst paved road in Monroe County." Just as I headed west on this pothole-filled death trap, I came upon an older woman driving about 20 miles per hour, and I passed what I thought to be one of those stereotypical little old ladies driving at speeds better suited for a parking lot.

Unfortunately, this driver was much better versed than I was on the dangers of this remarkably ruined stretch of highway.

Almost immediately I began hitting bone-jarring chuckholes, some of which appeared to be of depths greater than a foot. Even at speeds of only 25-30 mph, I had difficulty dodging these killer holes, and my old Toyota Corolla groaned as it encountered pothole after pothole, like a CAT6 cable trying to carry broadband suckage from 10 laptops.

Worse yet, it appeared that the county had recently spread a few loads of gravel on Rauch Road to buy some time before making more permanent repairs. This action, though, had two unintended consequences: it made potholes harder to see, since everything around was a dirty gray, and the gravel made sudden stopping much more difficult.

I knew that my decision to travel on Rauch Road was a costly mistake as soon as I turned south onto Secor Road, when the Toyota started ominously shuddering at speeds approaching 45 mph. A trip to my mechanic revealed that the rear struts were utterly destroyed, having seized up and spewing hydraulic strut fluid around. $434 later, the Toyota is running much better, and I suppose I should be grateful that the front struts withstood the beating they took courtesy of the state of complete disrepair that is Rauch Road between Lewis and Secor.

Beware, you citizens of Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan: there lurks in your midst a highway that's the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered road you ever set eyes on (apologies to Tim the Enchanter).

Jun 18, 2008

The Year's First Tiger Lily

I have in my head that the blooming of my tiger lilies is a July phenomenon, but in looking at a previous post about tiger lily season, I realized that the flowers are right on time this year. Perhaps I am influenced by my years spent in Michigan, where the 60-90 mile distance north might mean a week's difference in growing seasons.

I have always enjoyed these flowers, which are not always appreciated by horticulturists. My next-door neighbor refers to them as "ditch lilies," and he grouses about how quickly the tiger lilies can take over a patch of terrain.

In addition to their color and relatively lengthy blooming cycle, I like Lilium lancifolium for the simple reason that this plant is easy to grow and maintain. Their deep roots allow the plants to survive long dry spells, and they are just about impervious to other plant competitors.

I also have some double-blossom varieties that show up about a week after their singular cousins have closed for the summer, and we get about a month of bright orange color in my yard from these plants, hues so vivid that neither digital cameras nor memory cards can adequately store.

Welcome, you tangerine-hued friends.

Jun 17, 2008

History Slivers - Coleman's Fever and Ague Pills

This is a recurrent feature on the site in which I briefly describe some arcane aspect of history that I came across, but about which I am too busy or lazy to write in greater depth, yet which - sliver-like - I cannot simply ignore.

I came across the following front-page advertisement in the 11 July 1838 edition of the Toledo Blade while doing some research. I have transcribed the ad for readers who might like to compare modern-day quackery with that being pushed by pharmaceutical representatives of dubious distinction in the nineteenth century.

The term "fever and ague," by the way, was used to describe the symptoms associated with malaria, a disease that was endemic to Northwest Ohio until the early twentieth century.


Coleman's Fever and Ague Pills

An effectual cure for the Fever and Ague in all its various forms. In many hundreds of certified instances, they have effected an immediate cure, and permanently secured that uniform enjoyment of health, without which, life itself is but a partial blessing. So great indeed has their efficacy invariably and infallibly proved, that it has appeared truly a subject of wonder to those who were unacquainted with the beautiful philosophical principles upon which they act.

They are entirely composed of extracts from rare and powerful plants, the virtues of which, though long known to several Indian tribes, and recently to some eminent pharmaceutical chemists, are altogether unknown to the ignorant pretenders to medical science, and were never before administered in so happily efficacious a combination.

The particular properties of this medicine consist in its power to remove all vitiated secretions of the stomach and bowels, purify the blood, restore the tone of the stomach and liver, quiet the nervous system, restore lost appetite, the spirits, and bring back the natural vivacity of restored health.

These Pills have their great advantages over any other remedy. First, they are a certain cure. Second, they will effect a cure in the short space of twenty-four hours. And thirdly, heading of this article will show that the patient is not liable to a second attack. The heading of this article will show that the proprietors are willing to "take the responsibility." They will now only add to those who are so unfortunate to have that shocking, shaking disease, the Fever and Ague, that they can be cured in twenty-four hours by one box of Coleman's Pills, without endangering their health with Arsenic, Bark, or Quinine.

Manufactured and for sale Wholesale and Retail, by C.H.& J. Coleman no. 220, corner Main and Swan Sts., Buffalo.

For sale at the Drug Store of HOISINGTON & MANNING, corner of Summit & Locust sts., Lower Toledo.

Jun 16, 2008

Rapid Rhetoric: REPLEVIN

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

replevin (rih-PLAY-vihn, rih-PLEH-vihn) n. repossession of goods wrongfully taken, with pledge to return them if defeated in lawsuit on the matter; a writ or action in such a case; a civil action taken to recover personal property said or claimed to be unlawfully taken.

Derived from from Old French term plevir ("to pledge"), replevin is one of the oldest known forms of action in English common law, first appearing in English courts in the thirteenth century. Acts of replevin were geared toward restoring the property itself to the person entitled to possess it, and defendants could not use as an excuse the fact that the property belonged to someone not involved in the lawsuit, as the only issue considered by English courts was rightful possession, not title.

Replevin is sometimes used in disputes between buyers and sellers, as in the case of a seller who brings a replevin action to reclaim merchandise from a buyer who failed to pay for the goods.

I came across this word in learning of a young Ohio woman who was caught shoplifting. Not only did she face a fine and possible jail sentence for the attempted theft of $84 worth of merchandise - which she certainly deserved - but a group of crafty lawyers at a firm known as Palmer, Reifler and Associates is chasing her for an additional $252 in replevin compensation. This is permitted under Ohio Revised Code ORC 2307.61 - Civil action for willful damage or theft:
Three times the value of the property at the time it was willfully damaged or was the subject of a theft offense, irrespective of whether the property is recovered by way of replevin or otherwise, is destroyed or otherwise damaged, is modified or otherwise altered, or is resalable at its full market price. This division does not apply to a check, negotiable order of withdrawal, share draft, or other negotiable instrument that was returned or dishonored for insufficient funds by a financial institution if the check, negotiable order of withdrawal, share draft, or other negotiable instrument was presented by an individual borrower to a check-cashing business licensed pursuant to sections 1315.35 to 1315.44 of the Revised Code for a check-cashing loan transaction.
While I am sympathetic to the plight of someone for whom such laws must seem like double jeopardy - especially in a case where the owner of the goods never actually lost possession, since the would-be thief was caught in the store - I suppose the best advice is pretty simple: don't steal, and you won't be harassed by legal goons like Palmer, Reifler and Associates for replevin judgments.

Jun 14, 2008

Book Review: The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800

Boxer, CR

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965

Charles R. Boxer was easily one of the most influential historians working on the subfield of European expansion, and The Dutch Seaborne Empire remains an important text in the field. Ostensibly a synthesis, this text nonetheless incorporates a great deal of Boxer’s own original research into the Dutch efforts to carve out a commercial empire in Asia and the Americas, and the author effectively sketched out the first two decades of an empire that was born in the midst of the simultaneous Dutch struggle to create a nation. The Dutch Seaborne Empire, despite the fact that the text is currently out of print, contains a wealth of information for scholars interested in the evolution of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and Dutch West India Company (WIC), and should be considered an essential component of any library of books on European expansion. Moreover, given Boxer’s inimitable ability to balance broad views of the empire with micro-historical vignettes of life in the Dutch provinces, readers leave the book with an enhanced perspective on how the Dutch managed to simultaneously govern a nation and a global commercial empire.

Boxer argued that the capture of Antwerp by the Duke of Parma in 1585 worked in the favor of northern Dutch provinces like Zeeland and Holland, as Dutch Calvinists were allowed two years to vacate the city, and consequently there was a migration of wealthy members of the burgher class to Amsterdam. Boxer noted that the population of Amsterdam increased by 75,000 people from 1585 to 1622, over one-third of whom traced their lineage to the southern Netherlands. In addition, argued the author, the efforts by the Spanish (and the Portuguese after the union of the Iberian crowns in 1580) to engage in policies of confiscatory embargo forced the Dutch to look beyond the Baltic and the Mediterranean for commercial opportunities. By 1621, noted Boxer, the Dutch managed to secure “between half and two-thirds of the carrying-trade between Europe and Brazil,” and routes across the Arctic to Russia, from Guinea to Holland, and especially to the East Indies became the source of immense wealth to Amsterdam merchants and ship owners. The Dutch Republic thus emerged from the Eighty Years War dominated by a class of merchant-oligarchs, maintained Boxer, because it was largely through the wealth of the overseas empire that the Spanish could be held at bay and forced to make such favorable concessions to the Dutch in the Treaty of Münster.

Yet the Dutch elite gradually transitioned from a merchant oligarchy to a rentier oligarchy during the 17th century, noted Boxer, and he argued that this “closed oligarchy” bred a tradition of “regent nepotism” that “probably did more harm to the body politic than bribery and corruption” in the young Dutch Republic. Government posts in the Republic became largely the province of the new elites, while posts with the VOC and WIC devolved to a class of people Boxer described as “merchant-adventurers,” or “men who came from the middle and lower ranks of the burgher class, with a sprinkling from the urban patriciate.” Boxer argued that attempts by contemporary Dutch writers to disparage such Company employees should be examined with a critical eye, since “it was not only the dregs of the Dutch nation” who ventured overseas. Moreover, he added, additional factors should be considered in any sweeping judgment that condemns Company employees as an unscrupulous lot:
The VOC, like the Portuguese Crown before it, and like the English and French companies competing with it, paid all but a few of its servants such small wages that they could not possibly live on their pay and allowances. They were thus compelled to resort to more or less dishonest means in order to earn a livelihood.

Drawing of the Dutch imperial center of Batavia (now Jakarta) in the 17th century

Boxer cited a number of contemporary sources who believed that the Dutch rise to a commercial power also owed much to the frugality with which ships from Holland and Zeeland were managed. One source provided by Boxer indicated that Dutch ship captains saved ship owners “‘at least one third of the expenses in men and rations’” as compared with their European counterparts. Such thriftiness in outfitting expeditions, however, may have come at a steep human price; a contemporary writer quoted by Boxer claimed that “the poor quality and quantity of the rations were responsible for the higher mortality on board Dutch ships than in those of their English rivals.”

Despite their historical reputation as practitioners and promoters of a form of proto-capitalism – especially as exemplified in the early 16th century free trade writings of Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius - Boxer noted that the Dutch were just as likely to advocate mare clausum as they might demand mare liberum. Boxer argued that the propensity of the Dutch to adopt a free trade stance was often situational in nature:
The Dutch were not slow to abandon their free trade principles when it suited them, or when they thought they could obtain a profitable monopoly. As [Sir George] Downing observed truly enough on the eve of the second Anglo-Dutch war: ‘It is mare liberum in the British seas but mare clausum on the coast of Africa and in the East Indies.’
The period of gradual decline of the Dutch as an imperial power, argued Boxer, necessarily began with the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), and he maintained that the United Provinces made a number of strategic mistakes during this lengthy conflict. Chief among these miscalculations, according to Boxer, was the Dutch decision to sacrifice “its naval strength to enable it to support the cost of a disproportionately great military effort in Flanders and in the Iberian peninsula.” By 1709, noted Boxer, the Dutch were forced to pay 50 percent more than did the Bank of England on loans to Holland banks, while the national debt of the Dutch Republic grew almost fivefold between 1688 and 1714. As a result, the Dutch began the 18th century under the strain of a mountain of debt, and this financial burden inhibited the ability of the United Provinces from being able to compete with European colonial competitors, especially the British.

Boxer took to task earlier historians, such as W.H. Moreland, who credited the Dutch with the strategy of using the factory-fort system (factorijen) to protect their colonial interests in Asia and Africa. It was the Portuguese feitoria system, noted Boxer, which set the precedent for the European colonial powers who followed in the wake of the Estado da India. Irrespective of the origin of the factorijen, though, the Dutch successfully adapted the feitoria as means by which they could protect merchandise, repair and resupply ships, and to help enforce trade monopolies, like the efforts to create a Moluccan spice monopoly. Yet the Dutch could not duplicate their initial monopolistic successes beyond the Indonesian islands, argued Boxer, because they failed to secure a strong base on the Indian subcontinent on par with Portuguese Goa.

The 18th century has traditionally been characterized by Dutch historians as the “Periwig Period” in contrast with the so-called “Golden Age” of the 17th century. Boxer argued that, despite revisionist efforts by such noteworthy historians as J.C. van Leur, there is much to recommend to these labels. Boxer cited a number of 18th century Dutch writers who noted significant economic decline in the United Provinces, and he noted that the “Dutch periodical press during the second half of the 18th century is full of complaints about the real or alleged decline of the national character and energy as compared with a century earlier.” English author James Boswell, cited by Boxer, offered this grim description of the United Provinces:
In such circumstances this trading nation must be in a very bad way. Most of their principal towns are sadly decayed, and instead of finding every mortal employed you meet with multitudes of poor creatures who are starving in idleness. Utrecht is remarkably ruined. There are whole lanes of wretches who have no other subsistence than potatoes, gin, and stuff which they call tea and coffee.
Despite its relative chronological age, Boxer’s The Dutch Seaborne Empire remains a valuable resource for both graduate scholars and non-specialist historians seeking an overview of the VOC and the first centuries of an independent United Provinces. Boxer assembled the book in a thematic fashion, and included a number of insightful appendices and a select bibliography. Unfortunately, the cross-referenced index seems inadequate, and only individual names and geographic designations are items for which the index is useful. Still, this is a minor complaint against a book of exemplary scholarship and rhetorical brilliance, and The Dutch Seaborne Empire belongs on the bookshelf of every student of modern Europe.

Jun 13, 2008

Goodbye, Tim Russert

There are celebrities and public figures whose deaths cause you to pause because of the ways in which they have touched your life with their work. Then there are people like Tim Russert, who was one of those rare journalists who managed to maintain credibility and trust while simultaneously endearing himself to people on both sides of the political aisle, and who became such a fixture in American politics and journalism that his death today at age 58 leaves me stunned.

I am not a regular, dedicated viewer of Meet the Press, yet even my semi-regular tuning in of the show left me impressed with Russert's vast knowledge and thoughtful insights. I caught Russert more frequently on MSNBC, and I particularly enjoyed watching his election coverage over the years.

The passing of such a worthwhile human being as Tim Russert is like a right cross to the gut to me, and I am more than saddened as I consider the loss to the world of journalism and - more importantly - to the millions of people like me who came to depend on Russert for objective analysis and challenging interviews.

Goodbye, Tim Russert - you will be missed in ways you can never know.

Jun 11, 2008

Canine Hijinks

Pictured on your left is Dutch, a 1-year-old terrier who we are fostering. He is a bit of a rascal, and is still committing the types of high crimes and misdemeanors that rambunctious puppies will do.

This evening I heard a strange scraping noise in the kitchen, followed by a loud bang. Dutch managed to stick his nose up on the edge of the sink and topple over a pot containing the remnants of the lobster-stuffed ravioli in a Bolognese sauce that my wife prepared.

Sauce went everywhere, but the good news is that Dutch - with the help of our other opportunistic canines - was more than happy to clean it up. I simply had to fetch the pot, and then go over the cabinet drawers and floors with some spray cleaner and paper towels, which luckily we found on sale.

Dutch, by the way, has much improved since I last blogged about his canine obsessive-compulsive behavior, and you can learn more about this handsome boy at the Planned Pethood website.

Jun 10, 2008

A White-Knuckle Drive Through a Wicked Storm Cell

I was driving on back roads from Monroe to Toledo yesterday evening when I saw some ominous-looking storm clouds forming, rolling in at a high rate of speed from the southwest. I convinced myself that I could outrun the storm, and thought I had at least a few minutes to spare.

I was wrong.

While traveling south on Strasburg Road near the village of Ida, I came across a scene that was equal parts American Gothic and an M. Night Shamalayan film, as a grim-faced old man riding a combine crawled toward me on the country road. He was standing about 12 feet in the air driving the machine, and from the angle at which I approached him, the distant lightning lit up the sky and created this eerie effect.

At the moment I wished I had a camera to capture the scene, but in retrospect, I think this might have been an omen.

I headed west on Ida Center road into the oncoming storm, and as I reached Lewis Avenue, a thought entered my head: I could drive north a few miles to M-50, then sprint west, and come back behind the storm through Sylvania, OH. I gazed at the approaching wall clouds looming over the newly-sprouted cornfields, and then dismissed what turned out later to have been a much better idea.

The first strong winds began battering my 1995 Hyundai Accent before I reached Secor, and seconds later the rain began to fall so hard that my visibility was reduced to mere feet. I spent what seemed like an eternity crawling south on Secor toward Toledo, dodging fallen limbs and sudden flooding, while experiencing at least a half-dozen lightning strikes that hit so close to me that the light and the explosive noise were almost simultaneous.


My car was hit by winds so powerful - especially as the road cut through open fields - that I occasionally could not control my steering. Yet I feared that if I stopped on the side of the road, or pulled into a driveway, I was likely to be crushed under the weight of a falling tree, since so many oaks and maples swayed at snap-producing angles approaching 45 degrees.

However, I think an even greater menace during my hair-raising hell ride was produced by other motorists, like the idiot in the oversized pickup truck who rode on my bumper from Todd Road to Erie Road. Even when I tried to straddle the shoulder to allow Captain Hurry-Up Pants room to pass, he insisted on tailgating me with his high beams blaring in my rear-view mirror.

The single-fingered salute I offered him, I am sure, was not visible through the driving rain.

Yet through it all, this rusty-but-trusty Hyundai never even sputtered, despite plowing through dozens of deep puddles that washed onto the road, and my respect-inducing brush with the powers of nature ended safely. I vow, however, to never again try to make a mad dash through a storm, and to trust my instincts regarding ways in which to avoid another such deadly meteorological haymaker.

Like parking and waiting it out.

Jun 9, 2008

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

True, we love life, not because we are used to living, but because we are used to loving. There is always some madness in love, but there is also always some reason in madness.
-- Francesco Petrarch

Jun 7, 2008

On Nuts, Bolts, and Being a Packrat

Pictured on your left are a bolt and washer that hold fast the license plate to a used car I just purchased. In the span of a few days, I managed to misplace the original license bolts that came with the car, and as I muttered myself about my seeming presenile forgetfulness, I decided to quit whining and look through one of my toolkits.

Voila! The first bolt that I pulled out - which I think once mounted a fuel filter to the engine compartment of an old Honda I owned - secured the license plate to the nut that was welded inside the trunk lid, and I quickly found another bolt of approximately the same length and thread.

Now, if I had ventured up to the nearest big box hardware store, I would have certainly spent at least three bucks, buying up a variety of bolts or machine screws in the hope that one would line up with the metric nut welded into the trunk lid of the Toyota. Toss in at least a dollar's worth of gas, plus all the other crap that would have caught my eye at the McHardware megastore, plus a quick fast food meal while I was out, and I could have easily peeled off $15-$25 from my thin wallet on such a hypothetical road trip.

Instead, I spent exactly zero dollars, and I get to crow about the benefits of being a selective packrat.

Now, there are only certain items that I cannot bring myself to dispose of, and which tend to occupy space in Le Château Brooks. I have to place books at the top of this list of packrattery, as are any leftover pieces from a repair project, lengths of rope or twine, and stray sections of electrical or speaker wire. Somewhere in this list should also be spare parts (unlabeled) for any car I ever owned, as well as all non-functional gasoline-powered devices, which I most assuredly intend to tear apart and fix some day.


Yet for the moment, I strut around my driveway feeling like the smartest packrat in the city, and I gaze proudly upon the nuts and washers that fulfilled their destiny in a second life as license plate fasteners on my latest hoopty-mobile.

Jun 5, 2008

Quirky Website - DailyLit.com

The Quirky Website of the Week is a semi-regular feature on this site. Feel free to recommend other quirky websites in the Comments section.

Those of you who find it hard to spend time reading books might want to check out the website DailyLit.com, which currently offers over 750 classic and contemporary books available entirely for free or on a Pay-Per-Read basis.

The folks at DailyLit send books in installments via e-mail or RSS feed on a frequency that you determine. No matter what device you use to read your email or RSS feeds - be it a laptop, Blackberry, or iPhone - you can access a wealth of great literature. I signed up to get Ivan Turgenev's 1877 novel Virgin Soil delivered to me by email installments.

Now, if I can just get my filters to let in the good email and weed out the Viagra ads and Cyrillic spam, I'll be all set.

Jun 4, 2008

History Slivers: The Sea Beggars

This is a recurrent feature on the site in which I briefly describe some arcane aspect of history that I came across, but about which I am too busy or lazy to write in greater depth, yet which - sliver-like - I cannot simply ignore.

I came across the group of people known as the "Sea Beggars" in Charles Boxer's 1965 text The Dutch Seaborne Empire, and just from the name I knew that I was going to have to learn more about these militant nautical rebels. Something along the lines of pious pirates, the Sea Beggars were a motley collection of Calvinist Dutch nobles, urban working class workers, and unemployed riff-raff who opposed Spanish rule in the Netherlands during the sixteenth century.

The Sea Beggars owe their name by an attempt to discredit them with the French term ces gueux ("beggars"), and they proudly modified the would-be epithet to Gueux de mer ("Sea Beggars"). While engaging in acts of piracy against Spanish shipping, the Sea Beggars nonetheless believed themselves to be among the unconditional elect, and thus their criminal acts were performed in God's name.

Illustration of the 1566 raid on Amsterdam's Haarlemmerpoort by the Sea Beggars

The Sea Beggars played an important role in the 1572 Dutch revolt against the Spanish, capturing the towns of Brielle and Flushing in that year, as well as setting an example of successful rebellion. In addition, this group of religious privateers also harassed Spanish shipping and ports as far away as Cuba, and they sound like they were tougher than a crew of New York movers.

M.B. Synge's 1909 text The Awakening of Europe contains lyrics from a sea ditty that was sung by the Sea Beggars:

Long live the Beggars! Christians, ye must cry.
Long live the Beggars! pluck up courage then.
Long live the Beggars! if ye would not die.
Long live the Beggars! shout, ye Christian men.

—Beggar's Song (1570)

Jun 3, 2008

On Thanking a Mentor

Yesterday I attended a farewell event for Dr. Carol Bresnahan, a University of Toledo vice-provost who recently accepted a position as provost and executive vice president at The College of New Jersey. It was an awkward moment for me, as I struggled to find the words to thank in a two-minute conversation a person who helped me become a better scholar, and whose excellence in the classroom remains an inspiration to me years later.

How could I possibly capture in a brief exchange the many ways in which this accomplished professor encouraged me to develop my skills and navigate the paths of academia? I could not, and I thus decided to turn to a communication genre that gives me the time and depth to explore this topic: the mighty blog post.

I first met Dr. Bresnahan in one of my early semesters as a returning student, and it is only years later that I can appreciate her talents as an instructor in the course, historical methods. This undergraduate seminar teaches history majors the metaphorical nuts and bolts of history, and sharpens the research and writing skills that are necessary in the field.

I was at a point in my life where I was second-guessing my decision to return back to school, and wondering what the hell I was doing in classrooms with a bunch of people half of my then-mid-thirties age. In a conversation with Dr. Bresnahan that semester, she gave me some much-needed encouragement and advice that kept me going at a low point in my academic confidence.

Over the years I signed up for four additional courses with Dr. Bresnahan in subjects ranging from the Renaissance, the Reformation, European witchcraft, and early modern Florence. Dr. Bresnahan is one of those rare lecturers who approaches the classroom with the preparation and delivery of a stage performer, often constructing lectures with a thoughtful eye toward plot twists and well-crafted intellectual surprises. Even after taking so many courses with her, I found each lecture to be filled with useful insights and up-to-date research.

I also learned from her some useful lessons in classroom diplomacy and the importance of treating every student with respect. I recall a number of classroom discussions in which students uttered statements that might cause any thinking person to become flustered, such as a wild-eyed classmate who once ranted about what he believed to be the evils of Islam after 9/11, or the zealous students who sometimes overstepped the boundaries of decorum in a heated debate. Never once did I see Dr. Bresnahan lose her cool in such uncomfortable moments, and she always displayed that sort of detached confidence that allowed her to redirect a conversation back toward rational, respectful discourse.

I entered graduate school well-prepared for the rigors of the academic big leagues in no small part due to the influence of Dr. Bresnahan. I had racked up a number of academic and journalistic awards in the previous few years, yet one of the most important lessons I learned occurred early in my Master's program, when I deservedly received a less-than-satisfactory grade on an assignment from Dr. Bresnahan. In hindsight, this was her subtle way of pointing out that - despite some initial successes in my career change - I had a long way to go before I could consider myself a polished historian.

Dr. Bresnahan could have easily allowed me to turn in a paper that would have been passable - or even exemplary - work by an average graduate student, but instead she forced me to disdain academic coasting and to continually challenge myself. This, more than any other remembered encounter with Carol Bresnahan, was one of those pivotal life moments that also serves as a reminder that there are larger forces at work in our lives. I am convinced that - for me - Carol Bresnahan is one of those people that God puts in our lives for a specific purpose.

So I thank you, Dr. Bresnahan, for your tireless efforts to promote excellent scholarship and effective classroom teaching. Most of all: thanks to you for recognizing the academic potential in me that I could not see in myself, and for providing the right advice at the right time.

Jun 1, 2008

HUD: Contributing to Neighborhood Blight and Urban Decay Since 1965

I blogged last year about an abandoned house in West Toledo, one of many thousands of homes in this Rust Belt center in which the inhabitants for a variety of reasons simply packed up their possessions and left. In this particular case, the owners could not meet the terms of their HUD mortgage, and the house reverted back to our good friends at the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While the home appears to be structurally sound, the lawn is over waist-high at the beginning of June, and trash is strewn across the property. Unfortunately, as a federal agency HUD operates at its own annoyingly sluggish pace when it comes to liquidating unoccupied properties it owns. Moreover, I suspect that the agency might be trying to wait out the housing market slump to fetch higher prices for its properties.

This house has been vacant at least three years, with over $7,000 in back taxes accruing since 2005. In a relatively blight-free neighborhood, the home is an eyesore, and neighbors can do little but complain to the city for the grass to be cut. Getting a federal agency to take action requires near-Herculean efforts, and most folks simply do not have the time required to pester HUD to move on this property, given their other obligations.

So the house at 4758 Violet sits another year, beginning a slow decline of its own as the vacant home on a busy corner lot brings down the value of the properties around it.