Published on 5 May 2016
After 140 days, the Siege of Kut ends with the biggest surrender of British forces in history. The remaining soldiers are starting their long march into captivity. Meanwhile the Italian front lights up again as Luigi Cadorna plans a new offensive and the Germans give in to diplomatic pressure and stop their unrestricted submarine warfare.
May 6, 2016
Fischer warns against the temptation to think of the Quakers as normal modern people, but he has to warn us precisely because it’s so tempting. Where the Puritans seem like a dystopian caricature of virtue and the Cavaliers like a dystopian caricature of vice, the Quakers just seem ordinary. Yes, they’re kind of a religious cult, but they’re the kind of religious cult any of us might found if we were thrown back to the seventeenth century.
Instead they were founded by a weaver’s son named George Fox. He believed people were basically good and had an Inner Light that connected them directly to God without a need for priesthood, ritual, Bible study, or self-denial; mostly people just needed to listen to their consciences and be nice. Since everyone was equal before God, there was no point in holding up distinctions between lords and commoners: Quakers would just address everybody as “Friend”. And since the Quakers were among the most persecuted sects at the time, they developed an insistence on tolerance and freedom of religion which (unlike the Puritans) they stuck to even when shifting fortunes put them on top. They believed in pacificism, equality of the sexes, racial harmony, and a bunch of other things which seem pretty hippy-ish even today let alone in 1650.
England’s top Quaker in the late 1600s was William Penn. Penn is universally known to Americans as “that guy Pennsylvania is named after” but actually was a larger-than-life 17th century superman. Born to the nobility, Penn distinguished himself early on as a military officer; he was known for beating legendary duelists in single combat and then sparing their lives with sermons about how murder was wrong. He gradually started having mystical visions, quit the military, and converted to Quakerism. Like many Quakers he was arrested for blasphemy; unlike many Quakers, they couldn’t make the conviction stick; in his trial he “conducted his defense so brilliantly that the jurors refused to convict him even when threatened with prison themselves, [and] the case became a landmark in the history of trial by jury.” When the state finally found a pretext on which to throw him in prison, he spent his incarceration composing “one of the noblest defenses of religious liberty ever written”, conducting a successful mail-based courtship with England’s most eligible noblewoman, and somehow gaining the personal friendship and admiration of King Charles II. Upon his release the King liked him so much that he gave him a large chunk of the Eastern United States on a flimsy pretext of repaying a family debt. Penn didn’t want to name his new territory Pennsylvania – he recommended just “Sylvania” – but everybody else overruled him and Pennyslvania it was. The grant wasn’t quite the same as the modern state, but a chunk of land around the Delaware River Valley – what today we would call eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, southern New Jersey, and bits of Maryland – centered on the obviously-named-by-Quakers city of Philadelphia.
Penn decided his new territory would be a Quaker refuge – his exact wording was “a colony of Heaven [for] the children of the Light”. He mandated universal religious toleration, a total ban on military activity, and a government based on checks and balances that would “leave myself and successors no power of doing mischief, that the will of one man may not hinder the good of a whole country”.
His recruits – about 20,000 people in total – were Quakers from the north of England, many of them minor merchants and traders. They disproportionately included the Britons of Norse descent common in that region, who formed a separate stratum and had never really gotten along with the rest of the British population. They were joined by several German sects close enough to Quakers that they felt at home there; these became the ancestors of (among other groups) the Pennsylvania Dutch, Amish, and Mennonites.
Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Albion’s Seed“, Slate Star Codex, 2016-04-27.
May 5, 2016
Virginia had been kind of a wreck ever since most of the original Jamestown settlers had mostly died of disease. Governor William Berkeley, a noble himself, decided the colony could reinvent itself as a destination for refugee nobles, and told them it would do everything possible to help them maintain the position of oppressive supremacy to which they were accustomed. The British nobility was sold. The Cavaliers – the nobles who had fought and lost the English Civil War – fled to Virginia. Historians who cross-checking Virginian immigrant lists against English records find that of Virginians whose opinions on the War were known, 98% were royalists. They were overwhelming Anglican, mostly from agrarian southern England, and all related to each other in the incestuous way of nobility everywhere: “it is difficult to think of any ruling elite that has been more closely interrelated since the Ptolemies”. There were twelve members of Virginia’s royal council; in 1724 “all without exception were related to one another by blood or marriage…as late as 1775, every member of that august body was descended from a councilor who had served in 1660”.
These aristocrats didn’t want to do their own work, so they brought with them tens of thousands of indentured servants; more than 75% of all Virginian immigrants arrived in this position. Some of these people came willingly on a system where their master paid their passage over and they would be free after a certain number of years; others were sent by the courts as punishments; still others were just plain kidnapped. The gender ratio was 4:1 in favor of men, and there were entire English gangs dedicated to kidnapping women and sending them to Virginia, where they fetched a high price. Needless to say, these people came from a very different stratum than their masters or the Puritans.
People who came to Virginia mostly died. They died of malaria, typhoid fever, amoebiasis, and dysentery. Unlike in New England, where Europeans were better adapted to the cold climate than Africans, in Virginia it was Europeans who had the higher disease-related mortality rate. The whites who survived tended to become “sluggish and indolent”, according to the universal report of travellers and chroniclers, although I might be sluggish and indolent too if I had been kidnapped to go work on some rich person’s farm and sluggishness/indolence was an option.
The Virginians tried their best to oppress white people. Really, they did. The depths to which they sank in trying to oppress white people almost boggle the imagination. There was a rule that if a female indentured servant became pregnant, a few extra years were added on to their indenture, supposedly because they would be working less hard during their pregnancy and child-rearing so it wasn’t fair to the master. Virginian aristocrats would rape their own female servants, then add a penalty term on to their indenture for becoming pregnant. That is an impressive level of chutzpah. But despite these efforts, eventually all the white people either died, or became too sluggish to be useful, or worst of all just finished up their indentures and became legally free. The aristocrats started importing black slaves as per the model that had sprung up in the Caribbean, and so the stage was set for the antebellum South we read about in history classes.
Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Albion’s Seed“, Slate Star Codex, 2016-04-27.
May 4, 2016
I hear about these people every Thanksgiving, then never think about them again for the next 364 days. They were a Calvinist sect that dissented against the Church of England and followed their own brand of dour, industrious, fun-hating Christianity. Most of them were from East Anglia, the part of England just northeast of London. They came to America partly because they felt persecuted, but mostly because they thought England was full of sin and they were at risk of absorbing the sin by osmosis if they didn’t get away quick and build something better. They really liked “city on a hill” metaphors.
I knew about the Mayflower, I knew about the black hats and silly shoes, I even knew about the time Squanto threatened to release a bioweapon buried under Plymouth Rock that would bring about the apocalypse. But I didn’t know that the Puritan migration to America was basically a eugenicist’s wet dream.
Much like eg Unitarians today, the Puritans were a religious group that drew disproportionately from the most educated and education-obsessed parts of the English populace. Literacy among immigrants to Massachusetts was twice as high as the English average, and in an age when the vast majority of Europeans were farmers most immigrants to Massachusetts were skilled craftsmen or scholars. And the Puritan “homeland” of East Anglia was a an unusually intellectual place, with strong influences from Dutch and Continental trade; historian Havelock Ellis finds that it “accounts for a much larger proportion of literary, scientific, and intellectual achievement than any other part of England.”
Furthermore, only the best Puritans were allowed to go to Massachusetts; Fischer writes that “it may have been the only English colony that required some of its immigrants to submit letters of recommendation” and that “those who did not fit in were banished to other colonies and sent back to England”. Puritan “headhunters” went back to England to recruit “godly men” and “honest men” who “must not be of the poorer sort”.
Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Albion’s Seed“, Slate Star Codex, 2016-04-27.
May 3, 2016
Published on 2 May 2016
The winter 1916 ends with the invasion of Serbia and Montenegro and unrestricted submarine warfare. And the spring of 1916 starts with the Battle of Verdun at the Western Front and Russian successes in Anatolia. The British are in trouble in Ireland and in Mesopotamia but are still carving up the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Eastern Front drowns in spring thaws while the Russian homefront is in disarray.
Larry Correia just got back from a trip to Europe, where he discovered the joys of Germany’s Autobahn system:
Of all the languages, German was by far the easiest to pick up words and phrases for me. Despite being related to Portuguese and Spanish, French sounds totally eluded me. And Czech is HARD (they have like 46 ways to make conjunctions). But German shares a lot of word roots with English, and the actual structure is pretty straight forward. Plus it is fun to just walk around and make up vaguely German sounding names for things, like a pigeon is Das Poopinbirden.
The next day we drove across all of Germany to the Czech Republic, and I got to experience the autobahn, which my whole life has been this sort of mythical place that has no speed limits, and is filled with drivers that understand slow traffic stays right, and where they never camp in the left lane, and in fact, if you’re blocking the left lane, they’ll come right up on your bumper at 100 miles an hour, honking, and flashing their lights. It was a place devoid of mercy, unforgiving of weakness. So we set out.
Apparently there are two kinds of tourist drivers on the autobahn. Those who are weak, fearful, whose crying pillows smell of lilacs and shame, who stay in the truck lane, or who wander out into the left occasionally, timidly, to be honked at and chased aside by awesome Teutonic Super Drivers…
And the other kind is the American who manages to average 180km an hour across all of Germany in a Volvo diesel station wagon.
It was AMAZING. I felt like a race car driver across an entire country. You know why German cars don’t have cup holders? Because if you stop to drink while driving, YOU WILL DIE. And you should. You need to be on. I’d get a gap, jump out to the left, floor it (because fuel economy is for hippies I’m on the mother f’ing autobahn!), and nobody pulls out in front of me in a minivan to enforce their personal speed limit, people ahead of me going slower (like 100mph) immediately get out of the way, and when some bad ass comes up behind me in a super car, I get out of his way, and then they blast past me like I’m standing still.
It was beautiful.
You wouldn’t think a diesel Volvo would be comfy at 112 miles an hour, but it really is. Yes. I friggin’ love the autobahn. If I lived here I would buy a giant BMW or Audi and drive very fast, all the time. Why can’t we have something like this here? I would like to institute autobahn style rules on I-15 in Utah. Sure, a few thousand people would probably die in the first weekend, but after that it would be awesome.
[Shakespeare] … could experiment so wildly with the language in his later plays. The earliest ones are strictly respectful of English syntax, and obedient with English grammar and vocabulary. The later ones break all the rules. Shakespeare knew he could hold an audience spellbound, whether they could follow his verbiage or not. He earned a freedom no subsequent poet in English till the twentieth century would dare to imitate; whenupon, those who tried, failed.
Yet he is a poet, a disciplined poet, and a thinker, too; and was a man of very broad if chaotic reading, as we are still discovering. His Latin was superb, and what he comprehended from the Roman poets, Ovid especially, was of a higher quality than dribbling academics can imagine. His thefts from Plutarch are always astute, but also from Livy. What he learnt from the ancient comedians, however, was nothing on what he could teach them.
To call him “the Bard” is to subscribe to the common, ignorant view that he was a “noble savage,” an untutored force of nature. The French, in their formality, are mostly responsible for this error of the Enlightenment; it was among the many things Voltaire got wrong, as the insidious depth of the master dramatist undermined his poppet classicism.
Shakespeare meditated deeply on English history, and on history at large. He went beyond presenting it in narrative form. Like a documentary filmmaker, he takes what he needs from the historical record, discards the rest, and changes anything that does not fit his programme. This is also his strategy in the Comedies and the Tragedies, never paying for a plot when he can steal one. For the world is full of plots, and one is like another. The world is full of mud and rock, but the master mason can shape and lay them. The master sculptor permits the stone to speak.
He did not have a theory of history, or a theory of anything else — a mediaeval mind does not think in “theories” — but a profound sense of how the world works, and of the contending spirits animating it. He summons spirits, and strange to say they come.
David Warren, “Four Centuries Later”, Essays in Idleness, 2016-04-23.
May 2, 2016
Published on 2 Apr 2016
When a dispute arose over the control of Hungary, Suleiman saw an opportunity to extend his empire into Europe and gain allies from those who’d asked for his help. Though he took Buda quickly, Vienna had time to fortify against him and pushed his troops back.
Suleiman looked back on those heady days, and wondered how his victories had all turned to ash…
After the Battle of Mohács, Suleiman found himself quickly pulled into the politics of western Europe. The Queen Mother of France asked him to intercede for her in a quarrel with the King of Spain, and the Austrian Hapsburgs had claimed Hungary as their own territory despite his recent victory there. The Hungarians, meanwhile, had elected their own king John Zápolya and refused to acknowledge the Austrians. Suleiman decided to settle the matter by marching with his armies again, and found Zápolya a willing ally. Bad weather slowed his advance and cut his numbers, but he nonetheless took Buda by storm and made an example out of the Austrians they found there. When they got to Vienna, however, they found that the city had been fortified and reinforced by several European nations. Though Suleiman offered a king’s ransom to the first man over the walls of Vienna, his troops just couldn’t push through. The arrival of winter forced him to withdraw the siege, unsuccessful. He pretend to consider it a victory, but he knew that this defeat meant he’d never be able to acquire the European empire he had dreamed about. Besides, he was growing older, and the question of succession weighed heavy on his mind. By tradition, only one of his sons would be allowed to live and inherit the throne, but he couldn’t bear the thought of his beloved Roxelana forced to watch her sons die. Especially considering his most likely heir, Mustafa, wasn’t a son of Roxelana’s at all. The quandary weighed heavy on him.
May 1, 2016
Published on 30 Apr 2016
Check out HistoryBuffs review of Lawrence of Arabia: http://bit.ly/NickOfArabia
Big thank you to Nick from History Buffs for this collaboration. It was really fun!
T.E. Lawrence better known as Lawrence of Arabia is one of the biggest legends of World War 1. His adventures in the Middle East during the Arab Revolt were made into a movie and a bestselling book. But how did Lawrence actually end up in Cairo? And what was his relationship with Faisal?
April 29, 2016
Published on 28 Apr 2016
The secret agreement between France, Britain and Russia that was signed this week 100 years ago was a turning point in the relations to the Arab world. It negated all future promises made by the British and still has consequences 100 years later. The Middle East was becoming more and more important to the British in 1916 and people like T.E. Lawrence are starting to become major players in the background.
April 26, 2016
Published on 25 Apr 2016
It’s Chair of Wisdom time again and this week we talk about the experiments with body armor of World War 1, fortress design and the Belgian Armoured Car Division.
April 25, 2016
April 24, 2016
Published on 23 Apr 2016
Easter 1916 was a turning point for Ireland and its situation between Home Rule and Irish soldiers serving on the fronts of Gallipoli and the Western Front. And even though the Easter Rising, the first armed uprising against the British was unsuccessful, the spark for Irish nationalism ultimately led to the establishment of the Irish Republic.
April 22, 2016
Published on 21 Apr 2016
With the spring in Russia and the Caucasus came the thaws on the Eastern Front and all the way down to Mesopotamia. The soldiers had to adapt to survive let alone fight. The Battle of Verdun still rages on though the French are not moving more airplanes to the area to break the German air superiority.
Last January, Harry Wallop attempted to match Winston Churchill’s daily intake of whisky, Pol Roger champagne, brandy, and sundry other “refreshers”. He found it a challenge beyond his ready ability:
One thing is certain: his fondness for kickstarting the day with what he called “mouthwash” — a weak whisky and soda, which he would take from about 9.30 onwards and keep continually topped up. But the whisky (simple Johnnie Walker, no fancy malt) would only just cover the bottom of the tumbler; the bulk of the drink was soda.
It’s a rather delightful way to start the day, as I discover. Especially, when consumed in bed. Churchill would frequently spend all morning in his dressing gown, under the covers, surrounded by papers and secretaries. He would also happily have meetings while taking a hot bath — a habit I did not attempt to replicate.
Lunch was when the serious drinking began. A whole bottle of champagne was the norm, invariably Pol Roger, a brand Churchill drank from at least 1908. His attachment was cemented in 1944, after meeting Odette Pol-Roger (the grand dame of the champagne house) at the British ambassador’s home in Paris, where the 1928 vintage was served in celebration of the liberation of France. She ensured he was never afterwards short of supplies.
A bottle, however, was for Churchill nearly always a pint-sized one, a fairly common measure until it was phased out by champagne houses in the 1970s. He would often drink it out of a silver tankard, still served this way in some gentlemen’s clubs.
A modern politico drinking like this would already have the horrified attention of his or her M.D., but Sir Winston’s liver may have been the most superhuman part of him:
I then spent the rest of the afternoon (or what was left of it), drinking more whisky and sodas while attempting to write an article — a task I found increasingly difficult. When I returned to it the following day, I discovered it was barely literate with every other word misspelled.
After dressing for dinner (bombs raining down on London was no reason to let standards slip), Churchill would often have a sherry. A glass of Amontillado failed to sharpen my jaded appetite. Worse, I was rather dreading the second pint of champagne over dinner.
I am aware this sounds churlish, but it became progressively joyless to get through all those bubbles. By 9.30pm I was slumped in front of ‘Death in Paradise’, working out if the plot or yet another glass was going to finish me off.
Churchill, by 10pm, would have been moving onto either port or his favourite 90-year-old brandy and at least four hours of hard work.